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The Balkans:
"Our worry is that we're not going to be able to get [the Clinton administration] to focus on us anymore."

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 18, 1998; Page A23

SARAJEVO, Bosnia – A huge Air Force jet dispatched by the White House to carry official observers to last weekend's Bosnian elections arrived with scores of empty seats. Every member of a planned congressional delegation had withdrawn from the trip at the last minute.

The reason, the members of congress explained, was their need to stick around and monitor the unfolding crisis over independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. Although a small coterie of senior Clinton administration officials spent several days in Bosnia, the absence of any lawmakers left some local officials shaking their heads over Washington's preoccupation with the Lewinsky affair.

Throughout the Balkans, ethnic, economic or political conflicts are either at a boil or dangerously close to it. In the Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are fighting for independence, a humanitarian crisis looms as winter nears with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the violence lacking adequate food or shelter.

In Albania, the government came dangerously close to being toppled in a purported coup attempt last weekend, and the threat of renewed bloodshed between pro- and anti-government forces is high. And in Bosnia, tough international decisions lie ahead about how hard and how quickly to push against a wall of resistance by ethnic nationalists to the creation of a single government.

Without sustained U.S. attention and leadership over the next six months, officials in the region say, each of these crises could spill over borders and plunge the area into further violence, forcing a more costly U.S. intervention later.

"Our worry is that we're not going to be able to get [the Clinton administration] to focus on us anymore," said one senior Western policymaker in Bosnia. "I'm worried about donor fatigue, compassion fatigue and political fatigue [in the Balkans]. If they are preoccupied [in Washington], it will be harder to get consensus" among the many countries with competing policies and agendas in the region, including Russia, France and Italy as well as the United States.

In Kosovo, the immediate roadblocks to a credible Western military threat of intervention are the refusal of Russia to accept an authorizing U.N. Security Council resolution and the refusal of some European nations to approve the use of NATO military force without a resolution.

But some officials in the province privately express alarm at what they call a lack of attentiveness in Washington.

Alush Gashi, an adviser to the senior elected leader of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, said that even before the crisis, he wondered "if Washington has a policy" for resolving the crisis. He noted that Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. diplomat working on the crisis, has additional responsibilities as the ambassador to Macedonia. "It's not a part-time job," Gashi said, and the United States needs to exert much more energy if the fighting is to be stopped.

In Bosnia, which formerly preoccupied the West in this region, many European powers have shifted their gaze elsewhere now that it is no longer in the headlines, a local diplomat said. "To reengage the Europeans would take more engagement by the Americans" at the political level, he said.

Another official added that given the ingrained reluctance of ethnic leaders to compromise without outside pressure, "we need a steady stream of visitors" from Washington and allied capitals, "telling people that this is important, that they are not going to go away."

But anxiety about Washington's domestic preoccupations is evident here in repeated statements by officials on all sides of the Bosnian conflict that the administration may have to work much harder in coming months at persuading Congress that the U.S. military presence will have to be maintained for years to come.

"Nothing could be dumber than pulling out of this prematurely," said Robert Barry, chairman of the Bosnian mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "It would bring renewed ethnic conflict and waste a lot of money on both the civilian and military side."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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