Kosovo as the West Bank, Macedonia as Israel

Peacekeeper Kosovo
Bridging an Ethnic Divide A French peacekeeper patrols the bridge that divides Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, in December 2001. Albanians and Serbs still tend to stay on their respective sides (Photo: AFP).

It was a surrealistic experience. A small group of Israeli academics, journalists, and security experts, protected by a heavily armed cordon of United Nations police, traversed the bridge over the Ibar River in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. At first, the commanding officer, fearing for our safety, was reluctant to allow us to cross the bridge and meet with Serbian leaders in their headquarters on the northern side of the town. In recent weeks, the Serbian enclave of Mitrovica has become a flash point of ethnic violence in Kosovo. Controlled by armed gangs known as the “bridgewatchers,” it has become a no-go area for the Albanians.

Regarded by the Serbian minority in Kosovo as being biased in favor of the Albanian majority, the U.N. peacekeeping forces were themselves the target of attacks just a few weeks earlier. As we crossed the bridge, it was the U.N. soldiers who seemed the most fearful for their safety, not the members of the Israeli delegation, who had no qualms whatsoever. As we arrived at the headquarters of the symbolically named Serbian “Return” Party, we were greeted by a NATO tank. Whom exactly it was protecting—the Israeli group, the U.N. peacekeepers, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) peace monitors accompanying us, or the Serb politicians—remained unclear.

Our delegation was visiting Kosovo and Macedonia as part of a fact-finding tour, sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, to learn from the experience of the peacekeeping forces in this southern part of the Balkans. Would there be lessons that we could glean and take back home that could help move our own troubled region back in the direction of peace? What were the problems encountered by the peacekeepers in Kosovo that would have to be understood if a similar arrangement were to be proposed for the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of a renewed peace agreement in the future?

During our visit, we met with leading politicians from both the Albanian and Serbian communities in each country. We heard how new governmental structures were being forged to create greater political harmony between the ethnic communities ravaged by years of civil war and hatred, and of efforts to ensure that once the international forces leave, the region will not return to another round of savage violence and bloodshed.

We also heard from representatives of the international peacekeeping forces and international monitors, the U.N., NATO, and OSCE, a massive and complex multinational presence signaling the commitment of the international community to restoring order and rebuilding civil institutions in this troubled region.

International peacekeepers were sent to Kosovo three-and-a-half years ago following the ethnic bloodshed and the horrors inflicted upon the Kosovo Albanians at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian forces. When the million Albanian Kosovar refugees returned to their devastated villages, they exacted revenge, expelling most of the Serbian population.

A NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), consisting of 40,000 troops from more than 30 nations was quickly dispatched to Kosovo to halt the violence and restore order. The U.N. declared Kosovo an international protectorate and created the United Nations Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to run the  country and establish an interim  civilian administration.

The European Union was made responsible for rebuilding the economy and infrastructure of the country, while the OSCE was entrusted with creating new civil and democratic institutions and monitoring new elections. As we were told on numerous occasions, UNMIK is the government of Kosovo, and Michael Steiner, the U.N. special representative, is its proconsul.

The international community left the final status of Kosovo open to discussion at some point in the future. Formally, Kosovo remains part of the Serbian state. Yet for all intents and purposes the international community is laying the groundwork for the creation of the new state of Kosovo.

While considerable progress has been made in creating a democratic, multiethnic society, much work still remains to be done. The tensions and mutual suspicions and mistrust between the two peoples have not disappeared. They were below the surface in every meeting we had, just waiting to burst out again if the international forces depart the area before the time is ripe.

UNMIK has laid out a number of benchmarks of good governance that Kosovo must achieve before discussions on final status can even begin. One of the major problems is the return of all Serbian refugees to their homes. Not surprisingly, the exact number of refugees differs depending on whom one speaks to. In any case, only a handful of Serbs have so far returned to their homes. This suits the Albanians, who would prefer them to remain in their new temporary homes in the Serbian homeland to the north.

This area of the southern Balkans was once part of the former federal state of  Yugoslavia, a single political entity held together by the strong control of Marshal Tito, a Croat, for almost 40 years. Comparisons with the situation in Israel and the West Bank-Gaza cannot be dismissed: Both are areas without sovereignty desiring independence and talks over final status; areas whose civilian infrastructure has been all but destroyed; areas that require international assistance to create the necessary “standards” before political status can be attained; areas with refugees who desire the “right of return” to their former homes.

There should be no reason why the sort of interim protectorate arrangement in operation in Kosovo should not be put into effect in the West Bank and Gaza if and when it is accepted that the resolution of this conflict will only be through the creation of a separate, viable, and independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

During the past nine years, the Palestinian Authority has been unsuccessful in its attempt to create the basic infrastructure of governance. And what was created has all but been destroyed in the past six months. Since no Israeli government, even a leftist one, would believe in the ability of the Palestinian Author-ity to create this infrastructure, the imposition of a powerful international force would be an important stage in the regaining of trust.

For Israel, it would mean there was a force on the ground to prevent the recurrence of violence and terrorism, ensuring the security without which no political change can take place. For the Palestinians, it would mean a protection force against the might of the Israeli army and an end to Israeli intervention and control of the area (which did not happen under the Oslo Accords). For the international community, it would mean that the basic institutions of statehood would be in place before it gave its acceptance to the formal establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The aim of the international community in the Balkans is the creation of democratic institutions and multiethnic societies in which the rights of minority groups are respected. Our experience crossing the bridge in Mitrovica shows that achievement of this goal is still far off. Albanians and Serbs in Mitrovica simply do not cross to the other side. If they did, their lives would be in danger. The parallels with Israelis and Palestinians in East and West Jerusalem immediately spring to mind.

If Kosovo is like the West Bank and Gaza, its neighbor to the south, Macedonia, bears similarities to Israel. Macedonia has been an independent state since 1991, following the breakup of  Yugoslavia. While Albanians are a majority in Kosovo, they make up only around 20 percent of the population in Macedonia (as Palestinian-Israelis do here). Although Albanian political parties have been part of the government in Macedonia for the past 10 years, the Albanian community suffers from economic discrimination and is totally underrepresented in all the institutions of the state—army, police, judiciary, civil service, and higher education.

Clashes between the rebel Albanian National Liberation (NLA) and the Macedonian army in the summer of 2001 threatened to get out of control. Determined to prevent yet another Balkan bloodbath, the international community was quick to intervene and negotiate a cease-fire. Through the efforts of Javier Solana, the European Union’s de facto foreign minister, and George Robertson, NATO’s secretary-general, the parties signed the Ohrid Agreement in August 2001. This pact called for constitutional reforms aimed at meeting the demands of the Albanian community, including the use of Albanian as a second official language, the decentralization of power, and the integration of Albanians into the army and police force, as well as much-needed and long overdue economic reform.

A NATO force was sent to Macedonia to oversee the disarmament and dissolution of the NLA, implementing “Operation Essential Harvest” in an attempt to collect the thousands of weapons in the hands of the guerrilla and militia organiza- tions. The NATO force has remained in the country to protect the OSCE international monitors, who were sent to Macedonia to set up a new multiethnic police force, supervise new elections, and ensure that the provisions of the Ohrid Agreement were being implemented. But the NATO contingent is due to leave Macedonia in a few months (unless their mandate is yet again extended) and it is by no means certain that the present calm will continue once they depart.

For both the Macedonians and Albanians in Macedonia, the final status of Kosovo is a critical issue, just as the final status of the West Bank is a critical issue for the future of Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel. They all accept that an independent state of Kosovo will finally be established. It is important for the Macedonian majority that their own Albanian minority will want to be loyal citizens of a multiethnic Macedonian state, rather than seeking union with Kosovo across the border. It is thus in their own interest to ensure equal representation in government and a fair share of economic resources, so that the Albanian minority will not seek to destabilize the state.

The presence of the international peacekeeping forces has done much to quell the violence that marked the Balkans during the 1990s and move the region toward political reconstruction and reconciliation. For both Kosovo and Macedonia—and Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia—there is a big incentive for them to get their houses in order. The European Union has announced its  latest round of enlargement—10 new countries to join the E.U. in January 2004. One of these countries, Slovenia, a former Yugoslavian province that did not experience the ethnic violence of its neighbors, has worked hard to create a stable government and has experienced significant economic development. The Balkan states want to follow the Slovenian example.

Kosovo, Macedonia, and the Balkans are not Israel and Palestine, but they bear many similarities. The intervention of international peacekeeping forces and the creation of a trusteeship “state in transition” that must meet certain standards before it is accepted into the international community is a model that has not yet been tried in our own war-battered region. Perhaps it is the way forward.

David Newman and Joel Peters teach in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University. Newman is editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. Peters is director of the Center for the Study of European Politics and Society.