April 7, 1999

Kosovo’s Moscow Fallout

By Robert Parry

For centuries, the Balkans have been synonymous with political instability. They have been the tiny nations that rest on the geopolitical fissures separating East and West.

Now, with Serbia's brutal assault on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and NATO's retaliatory bombing, those fault lines are under new stress. Balkan turmoil is sending shock waves as far away as Moscow and Washington.

Because of Yugoslavia’s strategic position, the potential consequences of the Kosovo conflict go beyond the immediate human tragedy in Kosovo, beyond the Serb atrocities and beyond the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians driven from their homes.

Just as a Serb assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 touched off World War I, the conflict in Kosovo could be the domino that starts a cascade of other political troubles. One of the dominoes already teetering is Boris Yeltsin's government. With it could fall the U.S.-Russian détente that has marked the post-Cold War era.

Adding to the danger in Moscow is a restless Russian military chafing under the humiliation of watching NATO expand to the borders of the old Soviet Union. With the central government in disarray, the once-proud Russian army is facing payless paydays and is left with rusting, second-class equipment.

U.S. officials with access to intelligence data describe the majority of Russian generals as deeply dissatisfied and pressing for leadership changes in Moscow. One concern is the potential for a military coup, though senior Clinton administration officials see that as a remote possibility.

Still, Washington policymakers fear that the Balkan violence could feed the forces of Russian nationalism and further weaken Yeltsin's shaky grip on power. Even without Kosovo, the ailing Yeltsin was in serious political trouble.

Millions of Russians blame him and his U.S.-prescribed economic policies for the poverty pushing the nation into Third World status.

There are also expanding investigations of Yeltsin's business allies -- the so-called "gang of seven" -- and how they enriched themselves through rigged "privatization" schemes and other shady practices. The abuses include alleged payoffs to Yeltsin and his family.

Cracks in Yeltsin's stonewall have been opening since March when Yeltsin tried to fire Yuri I. Skuratov, Russia’s chief prosecutor. A pro-Yeltsin television station aired a videotape showing Skuratov cavorting with two naked women. But the dismissal was blocked when the upper house of the Russian parliament, normally a Yeltsin rubber stamp, overturned the president’s decision.

Then, on April 1, Skuratov announced a criminal case against “well known” political figures. The prosecutor withheld the names. But Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party chief, said Skuratov was targeting members of Yeltsin's inner circle who have stashed some $40 billion in Swiss bank accounts.

U.S. sources indicated, too, that Skuratov's investigation could implicate Yeltsin's own family, particularly Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, in corrupt deals with underworld characters.

The day after Skuratov’s announcement, Yeltsin again tried to dismiss the prosecutor. The president cited new evidence that a businessman under criminal investigation had paid for the women caught on the videotape with Skuratov. Yeltsin's critics, however, denounced the latest move as another clumsy cover-up.

Yeltsin also distanced himself from Boris Berezovsky, a tycoon with close ties to Yeltsin's family. Yeltsin ousted Berezovsky from a political post at the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russian authorities then embarrassed Berezovsky further by barring his private jet from reentering Russia.

On April 6, the prosecutor general’s office charged Berezovsky with graft and corruption involving millions of dollars and the nation's largest airline, Aeroflot, where Yeltsin’s son-in-law was a senior executive.

Yeltsin can expect more trouble from Russia's lower house, dominated by anti-Yeltsin forces. The parliament has scheduled debate on a motion to impeach Yeltsin, starting on April 15. [NYT, April 3, 1999]

The crisis in Kosovo compounds Yeltsin's political problems. His policy of accommodation with the United States has made him appear to be a Western stooge as NATO jets and missiles pound Yugoslavia, a traditional Russian ally.

Yeltsin has responded with verbal criticism of President Clinton but has taken only symbolic steps to demonstrate Russian disapproval. Anti-Yeltsin politicians have demanded a tougher reaction, including the dispatch of Russian warships to the Mediterranean.

The worsening political situation in Russia is fast becoming the nuclear backdrop to the human crisis in Kosovo. In neither place does the Clinton administration confront easy choices.

With Russia, President Clinton must gauge whether NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia -- and the possible commitment of ground troops in Kosovo -- will worsen instability in the Kremlin. U.S. officials are counting on Russia’s desperate need for foreign economic aid to keep the Kremlin in line.

With Yugoslavia, Clinton must calculate if a sophisticated bombing campaign can inflict sufficient pain on the Serb-dominated government of Slobodan Milosevic to force his army and police to halt their atrocities against Albanian Kosovars. The initial phase of the bombing appears only to have whipped Serbian forces into a greater fury.

Many military experts doubt that air power alone will work. Some leading Republicans, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Richard Lugar of Indiana, have urged Clinton to escalate with the introduction of ground troops. NATO is considering deployment of ground forces if the bombing can drive the Serb army out of parts of Kosovo and if those areas can be turned into NATO-protected zones for ethnic Albanians.

Other senators have suggested covert CIA support for the Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA], which has been fighting the Serb army but has been mauled during the recent Serb offensive. Besides its inept performance on the battlefield, the KLA has other negatives. Over the past year, senior U.S. officials have bluntly criticized the KLA for its "terrorist" tactics and its criminal associations.

U.S. intelligence sources told me that elements of the KLA are implicated in heroin smuggling from the Middle East to Europe. One source said covert assistance to the KLA would again put the CIA in collaboration with a corrupt guerrilla band. "It would be the same drug-trafficking problem that Ollie North got into with the contras," the source said.

Ironically, U.S. officials who long disputed the accuracy of reports implicating the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras in cocaine trafficking during the 1980s tacitly accepted that historical reality in discussing the KLA. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who favors CIA support for the KLA, cited the contra precedent in sidestepping the question of KLA links to drug trafficking.

"I don't think we have to do a background check [on the KLA] any more than we did on the contras," McConnell said. "I have no doubt there may be some bad actors [among the KLA], but the point is who else is on the ground willing to fight the ethnic cleansing." [NYT, April 4, 1999]

A more fundamental dilemma in Kosovo is how to disentangle ethnic rivalries that date back to the Middle Ages. Because the Balkans marked the eastern frontier of Christian Europe and the western reaches of the Turkish empire, the region has long been rife with ethnic and religious rivalries.

Kosovo was the birthplace of Serb civilization, the site of many ancient Serb churches and historic buildings. Kosovo was where the Serbs made a valiant stand against an invading Turkish army in 1389 at Kosovo Polje. The Turks carried the day and slaughtered an estimated 77,000 Serbs.

In the early 20th Century, various rulers sought to pull the Balkans together under unified Yugoslavian leadership. But violence, including the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, often succeeded in blocking these initiatives.

World War II deepened the ethnic hatreds. After the Axis powers conquered the region in 1941, a brutal fascist party called the Ustasa ruled Croatia in northern Yugoslavia and exterminated ethnic Serbs as well as Jews.

The Ustasa methods of execution were so grotesque that even German SS officers reportedly were aghast. Yet, while the Ustasa brutality sought to impose Croat ethnic purity, Serbs fought in the Resistance under the leadership of a Croat communist, Josep Broz Tito.

After the Axis powers were defeated, Tito displayed extraordinary political skills in cobbling the divided region and its ethnic rivals into a multiethnic Yugoslavia. But Kosovo, with its dominant Albanian majority, demanded greater freedom. To appease the ethnic Albanians, Tito granted broad autonomy to Kosovo in 1968.

With Tito's death in 1980 and the collapse of Eastern European communism in the late 1980s, the ethnic strains began pulling Yugoslavia apart again. In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic rose to power after a dramatic speech at the ancient battlefield in Kosovo. He cleverly exploited the glorious defeat to rally his Serb supporters to his nationalistic cause. In 1989, Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and ousted local Albanian leaders.

But the old Yugoslavia was disintegrating. In 1992, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence, a move recognized by the European community. Meanwhile, the ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina -- Croats, Muslims and Serbs -- turned on each other in a civil war that introduced the phrase "ethnic cleansing" into the world's vocabulary.

The European community and the United States reacted slowly, failing to avert the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Belatedly, the Clinton administration pressed for and -- after a brief period of NATO air strikes -- achieved a negotiated settlement at Dayton, Ohio. The deal divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into three parts. NATO also deployed peace-keepers to prevent a renewal of fighting.

While that civil war raged to the north, political tensions mounted in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians -- whose numbers had grown to 90 percent of the population -- were protesting again. In 1998, the KLA raised the political stakes by targeting Serb policemen for assassination. Serbs complained, too, that the KLA employed terror tactics to force the Serb minority out of Kosovo.

Militarily, however, the KLA accomplished little, other than to bring down the wrath of the Serb forces on Kosovo. The Serb army struck with a full-scale offensive, routing the lightly armed KLA and then terrorizing the civilian population. The Serb forces also cut a swath of destruction across Kosovo, burning villages, slaughtering livestock and killing civilians.

Initially, U.S. officials voiced ambivalence toward the Serb position on Kosovo. U.S. special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, visited Belgrade and called the KLA "without question a terrorist group." One American diplomat told correspondent Don North that Washington had given Milosevic a green light to "take the KLA down a peg." [See iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1998.] But Washington was stunned by the ferocity of the Serb offensive.

In late 1998, under threats of NATO air strikes, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire. But the KLA regrouped in early 1999 and began regaining lost territory. That prompted another fierce reaction from the Serb military.

Following a new round of Serb atrocities including a massacre of ethnic Albanians at Racak on Jan. 15, the Western allies pressured the two sides to meet in Paris. The goal was to negotiate a settlement that would grant Kosovo autonomy and provide for NATO peace-keepers.

But many Serbs saw the NATO-negotiated solution, an autonomous Kosovo, as simply an interim step toward Kosovo's secession from what was left of Yugoslavia. That also would mean the loss of historic sites considered sacred in Serb culture as well as the possible persecution of the remaining Serbs in Kosovo. Once NATO troops were stationed as peace-keepers in Kosovo, the Serbs believed they would have little leverage to block a secession movement.

So, Milosevic rejected NATO troops and resumed military operations. President Clinton and other NATO leaders ordered limited bombing attacks with the goal of pressuring Milosevic to accept the settlement.

Instead, the Serbs escalated their attacks across Kosovo, forcing hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to flee. Many poured across international borders. Others apparently were trapped inside Kosovo.

The human tragedy that the bombing would continue until Milosevic agreed to permit the prompted more NATO air attacks and a warning from Clinton return of the refugees -- and to accept NATO peace-keepers inside Kosovo.

The rumblings along the Balkan fault lines had begun to reach the White House and the Kremlin.

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