This was published as an op-ed in the Star Ledger (beginning April 1999)

Two non-related developments in 1997-98 were the critical catalysts for the current crisis in Kosovo. The election of Milo Djukanovic as President of Montenegro and the success of his party in parliamentary elections, presented a powerful domestic opponent to Slobodan Milosevic. Djukanovic has consistently opposed Milosevic’s efforts to transform the powerless position he currently occupies, Federal President of Yugoslavia, into a powerful executive office from which he could dominate Serbian and Yugoslav politics for years to come. 

The second development was the collapse of the Albanian State due to a financial pyramid scandal in 1997. This led to the wide circulation and availability of cheap weapons that filtered in to Kosovo. Small groups of Albanians, long fed up with the abuses and repression imposed by Serbian security forces since 1988 and disenchanted with lack of results achieved by the nonviolent strategy of the major Albanian political parties, formed a guerrilla force calling itself the KLA. The KLA began attacking security forces that tried entering the vicinity of their villages and surrounding areas. The ‘liberation’ of these small areas led to a massive counter-insurgency operation by Serbian security forces that devastated entire villages and began a cycle of destruction and death culminating in the present Kosovo crisis. 

The above two developments offer the key to understanding the thinking of President Milosevic in the Kosovo crisis. Milosevic is fueling and manipulating the Kosovo crisis in order to outmaneuver the reformist president and government of Montenegro. In addition, the crisis allows him to further weaken his domestic political opponents in Serbia and close down the remaining independent media outlets in Serbia.  NATO air attacks, made necessary by the lack of restraint shown by security forces in dealing with non-combatant Albanians civilians, is indirectly helping Milosevic in achieving his primary and sole political objective - HIS PERSONAL POLITICAL SURVIVAL. Milosevic declared a state of war soon after the NATO air campaign began and is secretly preparing for a final confrontation with Montenegro’s President Djukanovic who has already declared he will order his security forces to oppose any attempted takeover by Federal Yugoslav authorities in Montenegro. 

There is no alternative to a sustained NATO bombing campaign. Milosevic is prepared to destroy the property and lives of the Albanian population in Kosovo since this is the principle means by which he can consolidate domestic political power.  The Albanians in Kosovo are simply pawns for Milosevic’s desperate gamble to increase his domestic political power. Failing to intervene militarily would only allow Milosevic to drag out the conflict while continuing to manipulate Serbian and Yugoslav public opinion in order to sideline his political opponents. In the emotion charged atmosphere of Serbian nationalist politics, being tough on Albanian ‘terrorism’ is viewed as vital for keeping control of Kosovo - the cradle of Serbian national identity. Such sentiments are not helped by State control of the media which does not reveal the full extent of the carnage being wreaked upon Albanian civilians and villages who have been caught up in the fighting.

The exigencies of the current crisis provide a powerful smokescreen of public support by which Milosevic can make his move to consolidate domestic political power. Once Milosevic has been able to fully manipulate the Kosovo crisis and removed his opponents for ‘disloyalty’ and ‘treason’, he will be ready to sign a slightly revised Rambouillet agreement. Reformist politicians in both Serbia and Montenegro are unable to effectively respond to charges of ‘disloyalty’ if they do not support Milosevic’s policies on Kosovo. Milosevic is likely to emerge from the crisis with increased political power. This will be bad news for reformist forces who are desperate to make a break with the failed policies that Milosevic has introduced, and indeed remove him entirely from the political arena. NATO intervention will ensure that the carnage in Kosovo will end with some form of armed peacekeeping mission. This will enable the Kosovo Albanians to feel more secure about their future. Nevertheless, Milosevic will cast a troubling shadow for the future. He aims to still be in power in three years time, the period specified in the Rambouillet agreement, to deal with a new cast of Western political leaders when the status of Kosovo is reopened for discussion. He may yet again be in a position to stoke a new crisis in Kosovo if it helps him consolidate his political control in what remains of Yugoslavia. 

Michael Salla, PhD
Assistant Professor
School of International Service
American University