Serbs Riot After Kosovo Declares Independence

William L. Nash
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, February 22, 2008; 2:00 PM

Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow William L. Nash, a former U.S. Army and U.N. commander in Bosnia and Kosovo, was online Friday, Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the implications of Kosovo's declaration of independence, and Serbians' violent reaction to the recognition of Kosovo by the West.

The transcript follows.


William L. Nash: Great to be back with you. I look forward to our discussion.


Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Sir -- glad to see your are keeping involved in Balkan issues. I am back in Sarajevo, having been one of your JAGs during IFOR days. In many ways, the politics here are unchanged from those days. The divisive rhetoric is unabated here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, both from the Republika Srpska and the Bosniac politicians. The latest attempts by Serbian politicians to manipulate the people by preaching hate and intolerance -- while quietly throwing in the "nonviolence" afterthought -- seems similar to what was going on in the early '90s. Luckily this country mostly has been disarmed. My real question -- do you really think that the EU will be willing to take any steps other than dialog if it becomes necessary? I don't see the U.S committing to more involvement -- less seems to be the trend.

William L. Nash: Great to hear from an IFOR veteran. I think the EU will step up to the plate on Kosovo. Obviously they have a difference of opinion with a number of members. I think you'll see a good partnership between EU and NATO on Kosovo.


Moscow: Given Serbia's stated inflexibility on Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia, and Russia's strong support for Serbia's stand, how long do you see NATO troops remaining in the breakaway province? Thank you.

William L. Nash: You ask a hard question. I think at the present time, NATO is fully committed to remaining as the security force. The issue of course is to find a political formula so that soldiers don't have to be the long-term solution. A positive dialogue between the United States and Russia will be vital for finding a solution to this problem.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Nash, does the Serbia-Kosovo dispute really go all the way back to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo? And if so, is there any way of peacefully ensuring Kosovo's independence, given how much the Serbs tie their national identity to their victory against the Ottomans more than 600 years ago?

William L. Nash: For the record, the Serbs lost the battle in 1389 (and it's important to know that some Albanians fought on the Serb side). As in any confrontation, history plays a role; Kosovo is certainly important to the Serbian nation. The current politics involve finding a formula to share today's power and wealth, which is the source of the ongoing confrontation.


Lawrence, Kan.: Hello. I was wondering what this current situation means for American travelers in the region. We were planning a trip to Belgrade in May or June -- should Americans steer clear for the time being, or is the anger directed at symbols of the U.S., rather than individuals? Thank you.

William L. Nash: I think that by June things will have calmed down, but you may want to buy refundable tickets!


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you see any reason to hope that the violent attacks against Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches in Kosovo will stop now?

William L. Nash: Thanks for this question. I believe that it's absolutely of vital importance that Kosovar leaders demonstrate without any ambiguity their commitment to protecting Serbian monasteries and other important Serb sites throughout Kosovo. Moreover, they must continue to reach out to Serb citizens of Kosovo -- not just to protect their rights but to include them in programs for improved opportunities.


Toronto: Do you see the violence regarding Kosovo's independence as a flare-up, or the beginning of another period of conflict between Serbs and Kosovars -- and Serbs and the U.S.?

William L. Nash: Another hard question. The problem that concerns me the most is that isolated acts of provocation spin out of control. That could happen not only in Kosovo or on its borders but also in Bosnia or elsewhere in the Balkans. If there's an escalation in retaliation and there's not strong action by security forces, be they national or NATO forces, things could get out of hand. But I don't think that the militaries in the region or NATO would be involved in direct confrontations or another war.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Hi Gen. Nash! I had the pleasure of meeting you shortly after my arrival in Tuzla to take over the OHR office when you were about to hand over the reins to Monty Meigs. I remember well the pride you expressed in being able to get the U.S. and Russian militaries working together on a common project in northeast Bosnia. Now that we read the latest reports about Russia hinting about the use of force in Kosovo, which would mean war with NATO troops, I'm wondering whether you could address the implications of Kosovo for future relations with Russia. Do you think they will try to get some of the lesser NATO countries to blink first under intimidation?

William L. Nash: Working with the Russians in Bosnia was a personal and professional pleasure. From the U.S. side it was seen as a great strategic plus to have the two militaries working together as one. Relations obviously have not been maintained at that high level. I am concerned that our two countries have lost the ability to talk to each other in a cooperative way. I don't fear a military confrontation, but I am concerned that we're not finding a way to cooperate on peace and security in the Balkans, in Iran and in other locations around the world where our interests coincide.


Arlington, Va.: After reading these disturbing accounts, I admit, I know precious little about this region and the reasons behind the conflict. I was only a teenager during the Balkans war in the '90s, and I barely remember when Yugoslavia was in existence. I'd really like to educate myself. Could you recommend any books that would provide a background and history of the region?

William L. Nash: As you would expect there are many good books. Four that I've really enjoyed: Susan Woodward's "Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Disillusion After the Cold War," Misha Glenny's "The Balkans: Nationalism, War and Great Powers, 1804-1999," "Kosovo: A Short History," by Noel Malcolm, and if you want to go back in time and read a really good book older than the other three, try "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," by Rebecca West.


Falls Church, Va.: Will Kosovo be an Islamic state?

William L. Nash: No. Don't forget, Mother Teresa was Albanian. Not all Kosovars are Muslim. I expect Kosovo to remain a secular state.


Chicago: What is it about the Balkan culture that keeps these ancient grievances so fresh in everyone's minds? 1389?! Half of historic Prussia is now in Poland; most of the ancient Greek world is now part of Turkey, Italy or a host of other places. Realities change given time. What is it about the Balkans -- and Serbia in particular -- that keeps people who don't even live in Kosovo anymore from going absolutely insane if a border changes a few hundred miles? Thanks.

William L. Nash: I can't really answer your question. I do know that Slobodan Milosevic used the issue of Serbian nationalism to inflame his population and further his pursuit of political power and economic wealth -- this all in the context of 600 years of history that maintained ethnic identity over state unity. We're probably witnessing the last consequences of Milosevic's turbulent rule, but it will be a number of years, perhaps decades before a new formula for power and wealth is worked out.


New York: Do you find it a pretty egregious double-standard for Uncle Sam and the EU to flout international "law" -- violating Serbian sovereignty without even the fig-leaf of a United Nations endorsement of its Kosovo occupation -- and then complain to those same bodies about the Serbs "failure" to protect their respective embassies? Why should anyone suppose that "democratic" action can occur there amid the ominous presence of an occupying army and a massive land-grab called Camp Bondsteel?

William L. Nash: I think you overstate the case with respect to Camp Bondsteel. All the NATO nations that went into Kosovo as a result of a United Nations Security Council resolution in 1999 required space and facilities for their base camps. The United States decided not to disturb any urban areas and instead took over some rural/farmland. I think your question about double-standards is legitimate. My personal view is that what was missing from the international arrangements regarding the independence of Kosovo was due consideration for compensation to both Serbia and the Serb citizens who have been affected.


Boca Raton, Fla.: I had one other question if you have time. Some people on the far left are making a big to-do about Camp Bondsteel, the U.S. base in Kosovo. They see it as part of a larger U.S. strategy of either maintaining military bases on the periphery of Russia or exploiting the area's resources. Could you explain the rationale for the base? Do you see it having any larger strategic role to play except to support KFOR?

William L. Nash: Because you asked I'll say a few more words about Camp Bondsteel. If you remember from Bosnia days, we had a large number of small facilities throughout the zone of operations. U.S. Army-Europe made a decision in 1999 to achieve economies of scale by building one large facility in Kosovo for force protection, soldier welfare and consolidated support operations. I don't think this is part of a larger grand strategy, because while the location is useful for operations in the American sector of Kosovo, it has little utility in the projection of power elsewhere.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm having a hard time understanding how our embassy security personnel let the situation get so far out of hand. There may be some diplomatic value to asking the local authorities to handle protests, but a mob breaking through the gate and burning things is an attack on sovereign U.S. territory. I'm shocked that the embassy marines didn't just start shooting people, or at least utilizing tear gas and rubber-bullet-type riot tactics. Can you explain what the U.S. personnel overseeing this situation were thinking when they decided to just stand back and let the attacks happen?

William L. Nash: Thank goodness the Marines didn't start shooting. The idea in all of this is to calm the situation, not exacerbate it. The Serbian government is obligated to protect the embassy, while the Marines protect the American citizens, offices and documents. The Marines did their job; Serbian authorities were lax.


Anonymous: Please educate me on this. Is this a continuance of ethnic clashes for this area? I thought the breakup of Yugoslavia into three nations resolved the major ethnic issues? Is our government really in tune with the impact of a heavy-handed rule in managing/controlling these issues? Not that the historic friction wasn't known, but the heavy-handed communist rule controlled the civil strife for the most part ... yet these issues seems to be catching us off guard.

William L. Nash: Yugoslavia, with the declaration of independence by Kosovo, now has broken up into seven countries -- Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. All of those countries have a number of minorities. Slovenia has managed their issues quite well, Macedonia has made progress and it's too soon to tell how things will turn out in Kosovo. With respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina strong tensions remain between Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs. Unfortunately, ethnicity and religion are still contentious throughout the region.


William L. Nash: Thanks to all of you for writing in -- sorry we didn't have time for more. I would just conclude by saying it's important for the NATO-EU partnership in Kosovo to work toward maintaining calm so that over time political solutions can be found to these confrontations. I think it's also important for the United States and Russia to set up a positive dialogue in order to provide a framework for future progress. One area that requires more emphasis is equal-opportunity economic development throughout the region, especially Serbia and Kosovo.


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