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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 14:43 GMT
The Kosovo legacy
US soldiers detain ethnic Albanian suspected of belonging to rebel group
US troops are stepping up controls near the border

By Jonathan Eyal

Theoretically, the armed incidents of the past few months - when Albanian fighters were responsible for a rising level of violence in Serbia's Presevo valley, in northern Kosovo, and in north-western Macedonia - are unrelated.

Region where fighting has occurred
Ethnic Albanian rebels want Kosovo status clarified
In practice, however, all these incidents are the product of the same sense of frustration among ethnic Albanians about their nebulous legal status, coupled with their growing fear that, for the third time in a century, the West is about to sacrifice their interests in order to accommodate the Serbs.

Nato's military intervention in Kosovo was and remains contradictory.

The Alliance repeatedly claimed that it was not fighting on behalf of the Albanians, despite the fact that the only beneficiaries of the 1999 operation were the Albanians.

Nato loudly condemned Albanian terrorism but somehow managed to bomb only Yugoslav military targets.

The war was also supposed to protect the multi-ethnic character of Kosovo, but Nato was ultimately unable to prevent the exodus of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs and Roma from the province.

They [ethnic Albanians] guessed correctly Kosovo would be a pure Albanian territory regardless of the West's love for "multi-ethnicity"

Finally, the Alliance remained committed to the maintenance of Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo, although no Western leader ever specified how the province could ever be returned to Belgrade's rule if the majority of its population remained against this idea.

The ethnic Albanians of the province were initially unperturbed by such contradictions.

But they did not reckon with two surprises - a political change in Belgrade, their main enemy, accompanied by one in Washington, hitherto their chief ally.

The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Yugoslavia allowed the West to normalise relations with the country; the return of Kosovo to Yugoslav sovereignty, until recently just a theoretical question, suddenly looked perfectly possible.

George Bush
The change in Washington came as a surprise
And the election of a new US administration, ostensibly committed to a withdrawal of US troops from Kosovo, merely added to the Albanians' sense of unease.

Despite the Western rush to re-establish relations with Belgrade, the idea that Kosovo will be forced to return to Yugoslav control remains far-fetched.

And statements by President Bush's close advisers, suggesting the imminent withdrawal of US troops from the province, should not be taken too seriously either.

This is the political background to the current wave of violence.

But, instead of bending to these pressures, Nato has decided to teach the Albanian guerrillas a lesson - that they cannot achieve border changes through terrorist attacks.

Nato's quandary

Although the moves carry high risks, they also provide new political opportunities.

Vulnerable and poor, Macedonia's independence was contested by many of the country's neighbours.

Yugoslav soldier
The Yugoslav military is co-operating with Nato
The Greeks, who originally refused to recognise the republic, are now among Macedonia's biggest supporters.

And the Bulgarians, who had their own historic disputes with Macedonia, are also offering support.

Just as significantly, the relationship between Yugoslavia and the West have been revamped as a result of this confrontation.

The Yugoslav military is yet again co-operating with Nato, while the government in Belgrade has put forward sensible political proposals for the autonomy of its ethnic Albanians.

In the long run, however, Nato remains in a bind.

Even if Western governments were willing to grant Kosovo its independence, this would require a change in the terms of the UN mandate, something which both the Russians and the Chinese are sure to veto.

Nor can Nato contemplate withdrawal from the region.

So the Alliance is stuck in an unwinnable position, seeking to defend the Albanians' entitlement to govern themselves, but denying them the right to be completely self-governing.

The current crisis is containable. But the reasons for the Albanians' frustrations will remain, and will fuel further violence.

Jonathan Eyal is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London

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08 Mar 01 | Europe
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