24 January 2008 – For historians it is may still be too early to assess the Kosovo war, but German’s former foreign minister and a retired diplomat provide a valuable insight into Berlin’s role in the 20th century’s last war.Diplomacy on the Edge: Containment of Ethnic Conflict and the Minorities Working Group of the Conferences on Yugoslavia, by Geert-Hinrich Ahrens (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2007, 672 pages.)
Die rot-grünen Jahren: Deutsche Aussenpolitik-vom Kosovo bis zum 11. September, by Joschka Fischer, (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, pp. 444.)
Most of Ahrens’s nearly 700-page account of international diplomacy in the Balkans takes place in the early and mid-1990s. Ahrens, a veteran German negotiator, led some of the earliest European efforts to bring together Kosovar Albanians and the Belgrade leadership.
Ahrens’s small mediation teams were able to make sporadic progress improving the situation on the ground in Kosovo – in human rights, education, and healthcare – and defusing tensions that could then easily have, and later did, spiral out of control.
Even though neither the Serbs nor the Kosovar Albanians budged from their maximalist positions on Kosovo’s status, Ahrens shows that there was room for negotiation and compromise between moderate factions of both camps. At the very least, “containment” of the potential conflict was possible.
With considerable bitterness Ahrens underscores the thin political support from both the American and major European capitals, which, he argues, caused the international community to miss real chances to make progress. He says Kosovo was, at best, treated as a “side show”, and after the 1995 Dayton conference, Kosovo disappeared completely from the international agenda.
As a result, in early 1996, the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia working group on Kosovo, which Ahrens had led, was scrapped for lack of funds. Shortly afterwards, the first Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) attacks began.
Red-Green and Kosova
Armed hostilities in Kosovo had already begun when the autumn 1998 elections in Germany ousted Helmut Kohl’s conservative government. The Serbs had responded to KLA guerrilla activity with military offensives that targeted the civilian population. Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees were fleeing their homes, many of whom were homeless as winter approached. The incoming Social Democrat-Green coalition had the Kosovo crisis thrust upon it even before the administration entered office.
The Fischer memoirs cover the first three years of the red-green coalition, from autumn 1998 to September 11, 2001, a formative period for German foreign policy during which the novice leadership struggled with crises of major proportions. At least one-third of the book is about Kosovo (the section aptly titled “The Red-Green Nightmare”), and offers a fascinating look into the decision-making of the German leadership.
Ironically, in foreign affairs, the red-green years delivered anything but the “continuity” the German Greens and Social Democrats had promised beforehand. In fact, it was in Berlin’s Balkans policies that the contradictions between humanitarianism, Germany’s historical limitations, and alliance responsibilities would sweep away the Cold War coordinates of German foreign policy.
Fischer responds explicitly to critics, many within his own party, who opposed the military campaign against Serbia. He repeatedly underscores that the purpose of the NATO-led military intervention was humanitarian: to “prevent another Bosnia”, as he puts it. “Milosevic,” concluded Fischer after visiting Belgrade in early 1999, “obviously wanted to break the Albanian resistance using military might, special police, terror, and expulsion.” After having waited much too long to stop genocide in Bosnia, the West had no other choice.
Fischer contends that Germany and its Western allies did everything in their power to bring Milosevic to accept a political solution. At the Rambouillet negotiations in early 1999, the Serbs wasted their last chance to hold on to Kosovo.
Fischer rejects the charge that negotiators had “held the bar too high” for Serbia, making it impossible for them to sign, and thus triggering NATO’s military intervention. Annex B of the draft agreement, which would have given NATO full occupation powers in Yugoslavia, played no role at all in the Rambouillet negotiations, he asserts. It reflected NATO’s maximalist negotiating position and would have been addressed after the signing of the agreement’s political section, which never happened.
Another bone of contention was the January 1999 massacre by Serbian security forces in the village of Racak in Kosovo, which helped tip the scales in favour of intervention. According to Fischer, the report of Finnish medical specialists affirmed that the dead were overwhelmingly civilians who were shot at close range, not KLA fighters. Moreover, this was not an isolated incident, underlines Fischer, but part of a pattern, the purpose of which was to deprive the KLA of support by driving out the ethnic Albanians.
As for “Operation Horseshoe,” an alleged Serbian plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo, Fischer says he was told of the plan’s existence by the Bulgarian foreign minister on April 1, 1999. Its authenticity was subsequently confirmed by German intelligence services.
The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in spring 1999, argues Fischer, was obviously planned in advance, well before the beginning of NATO bombing. The exodus was triggered by the Serb offensive, which commenced four days before the first NATO bombs fell. In other words, atrocities were not “imminent,” they were ongoing.
Fischer has harsh words for the European left that protested against the bombing campaign but never lifted a finger for the Kosovar Albanians during their eight-year campaign of passive resistance. “The fate of the Kosovar Albanians did not seem to interest the radical left in Europe at all,” he says.
Equally fascinating is Fischer’s blow-by-blow description of the emergence of the “Fischer Plan” (which he claims he had no role in naming). The peace plan set aside the Rambouillet conditions, and brought the UN and Russia back into the game, paving the way to end the war, which came none too soon for an ever shakier red-green coalition.
Memoirs, by their very nature, are one-sided, self-serving, and self-promoting. Fischer’s account will probably not convince anyone who did not already believe that the 1999 intervention in Kosovo was justified. But the historical record is now richer with these two publications, even if they are not the last word.
Paul Hockenos is an American, Berlin-based writer and author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford, 2008).