From Washington to Brussels to Pristina, officials from NATO countries this week practically stumbled over themselves in a rush to spin their views on what has happened in the year since the alliance began the bombing that drove Serb forces from Kosovo.

 

In what many saw as a pre-emptive public relations strike ahead of Friday's anniversary, the rapid-fire statements offered a common theme: The 78 days of air strikes and the peacekeeping operation that followed have at last delivered a workable peace, despite a long list of problems that continue to plague the troubled province. 

"A year ago, NATO launched its air power to end the repression in Kosovo, and succeeded," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said in a 37-page report. "In the blizzard of words that has followed, it is easy to overlook that simple fact: Serb forces are out, KFOR is in and the refugees are home." 

U.S. officials seemed even more resolute in their defense of NATO's role. 

"The situation is far, far better than it was last summer," State Department spokesman James Rubin said in his daily briefing on Wednesday. "Murder rates are down. The situation is much calmer. The humanitarian needs have been largely met." 

True enough, say others who see a less triumphant reality in Kosovo today. Serb forces have indeed been driven out. More than 95 percent of the estimated 800,000 Kosovar Albanians expelled by the forces of Yusoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have also returned, emphatically defeating his policy of ethnic cleansing. 

"That status quo of Serb abuse has been broken," according to Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who has closely monitored the situation in Kosovo and visited the region numerous times. Abrahams also cited the West's ability to "really stand up to this kind of repressive behavior" from the Serbs as another major success of the NATO operation. 

But Abrahams and others also argue the problems facing Kosovo today — from reprisal killings to reverse ethnic cleansing to the utter lack of any meaningful civilian authority — may soon overwhelm any NATO-implemented gains. 

"Robertson talks about the return of 800,000 refugees, but he didn't mention the 250,000 Serbs that have fled their homes in Kosovo," said Abrahams. While the mostly voluntary flight of Serbs from Kosovo cannot be compared to the Serbia's state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign against the province's ethnic Albanians, the analyst argued, many in the West have ignored the issue. 

NATO officials admit there is a problem, but are short on solutions. "I'm very unsatisfied with the security situation for minorities," Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, commander of the German contingent in Kosovo, was quoted as saying, referring to the fate of Serbs, gypsies and others who have stayed behind. "There remains a risk for them which is unacceptable, as they have no freedom of movement." 

Danger for NATO Troops 

Still others see a far greater danger for NATO troops themselves, and predict the alliance will inevitably be drawn into clashes with Serb forces, Albanian separatists or both. 

"We are much closer to having a major collision between peacekeepers and the local Serbs and Albanians. It wouldn't surprise me if the NATO peacekeeping forces suffer significant casualties in the coming months," said Joseph Collins, an analyst with the International Security Foundation in Washington, D.C. 

Collins worries that Albanians will step up attacks against Serb forces across the Kosovo border, in an effort to drag the alliance into another conflict. The Serbs, meanwhile, are believed to be increasing their material and armed support to those who stayed behind. 

NATO officials publicly discount the possibility of widespread fighting. But an official with a NATO country this week conceded clashes between NATO and Serb or Albanian forces was a distinct possibility. 

"There are many people out there saying 'It's just a matter of time,' which I don't necessarily agree with," said the Washington-based official, who has visited the region in the last several months. "I do not believe a clash is inevitable. But do I worry it is a real possibility? Of course. It's our worst-case scenario right now." 

Problems Building Peace 

U.S. officials privately blame European nations for not doing enough to build the peace in Kosovo. The agreement that brought an end to the bombing calls for Western Europe to cover much of the financial and material cost of reconstruction in Kosovo. 

"You've got the head of the U.N. operation in Kosovo (Bernard Kouchner) going around Europe rattling his tin cup, and let me tell you, he's not getting much" complained one official. "I think that there was great support for waging a war in Kosovo, but much less support for defending the peace." 

"This has become a terrible pattern in these types of operations," said Collins, alluding to peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia that have maintained an unsteady peace between Bosnian Muslin and Bosnian Serb communities. "The military operation is carried out with great professionalism, but the civilian functions ... lag terribly behind." 

NATO officials, who publicly acknowledged they expected a fair bit of criticism in media reports on the anniversary, said they weren't hiding from these and similar problems. 

"It is of course much too early to claim complete success in Kosovo, but it is equally wrong to conclude that we have failed," Robertson's report said. The report, entitled Kosovo: One Year On, went on to say that "No one can be satisfied with the situation in Kosovo today, but it's wrong to say that nothing is going right." 

Goodwill and Patience Strained 

The West's patience has also showed signs of strain in recent weeks, particularly with the unresolved standoff between Serbs and Albanians in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica. The two sides remain separated by a heavily patrolled bridge, and NATO has struggled to implement plans for a "safety zone" that would protect both groups. 

Almost without exception, NATO officials still blame Milosevic for the current situation in Kosovo. But in a subtle shift in attitude, they have more recently stepped up calls for the Kosovar Albanians to take a more responsible role in keeping the peace. 

The Albanians "must now demonstrate that they too are committed to a democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo," said Robertson's report. "They have been given a unique opportunity to build a future in peace, or risk losing the goodwill and backing of the international community." 

That goodwill will certainly be tested in October, when NATO hopes local elections will help ease the power struggle between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. Serb and NATO negotiators agreed to avoid substantive discussions about the region's political future during peace talks last year, and that uncertainty has been exploited by both sides in the conflict. 

"That key issue of Kosovo's status remains unresolved," said Abrahams. "Is it and will it be part of Yugoslavia? Is it independent? This is something that simply wasn't addressed. And right now, no one seems to have the answer."