Kosovar Conundrum 

All options are bad — but the worst is leaving Albanians to the mercy of Milosevic

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Sometimes, the media-conveyed stereotypes are right. Kosovo is a tragedy, many times over. It is now the site of horrible ethnic "cleansing," in which huge numbers of the majority Albanian population of Kosovo are being driven into exile into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The scenario is already familiar from the Yugoslav wars of succession of 1991 to 1995, in which the ethnic maps of Bosnia and Croatia were redrawn with great brutality. This was a process initially carried out by the Serbs, under the leadership of their president, Slobodan Milosevic, in attacks on Croatia and Bosnia that employed both the Yugoslav army and the murderous volunteer militias. Milosevic was soon lustily joined by the Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman, who carried out large forced movements of "undesired" populations when his own turn came. The Bosnian Muslims — the weakest of the Yugoslav groups — committed the fewest such crimes.

By the time the 1995 Dayton peace agreement was rammed through — only following massive air strikes against the Serb forces in Bosnia — there were a quarter-million dead and 3.5 million refugees. Ethnic cleansing, we must understand, was not — and is not — a side effect of the Yugoslav wars. It was — and is — their primary purpose.

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Despite the provisions of the Dayton agreement that provide for their return, most refugees have not been able to go back. Most probably never will. Ethnic cleansing creates the "new facts on the ground" that treaties cannot easily overturn.

Today, ethnic cleansing is being massively applied in Kosovo. This action is being carried out by the combined efforts of the Serbian army, police and the death squads of the "Tigers," a volunteer militia already notorious for its war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. Men are separated from their families and shot or sent off to camps; houses are systematically looted, villages burned. At the border, just before they flee Kosovo, refugees are robbed once more, and their passports, identification papers and automobile license plates taken from them. This makes any future return more difficult. (The Serbs have learned this from the Croats, who make it impossible for Serbian refugees from Croatia even to begin the torturous process of returning without proper papers.)

In the meantime, a massive manhunt against Kosovo Albanian civic leaders, journalists, lawyers, doctors, human-rights workers and politicians is providing a grisly daily list of victims. These include one of the major Albanian peace negotiators and the head of a local clinic. Those who could have gone underground. The dead include my personal friends.

The gamble that Milosevic would back down after the first NATO air strikes has plainly failed. Instead, he has solidified his support among the Serbs, already badly infected with a national chauvinism that thrives on arcane conspiracy theories that explain how the whole world — but most especially the Vatican, the Soros Foundation, the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons and Islamic fundamentalism — plots against plucky little Serbia. Their allies, in this fantasy world, are North Korea, Iraq, Libya, Byelorussia and, of course, Russia itself.

It has not helped the Serbian situation that Milosevic’s democratic opposition has been badly divided, or that some oppositionists have not been so innocent of nationalism themselves. Even less helpfully, the U.S. and the West have always given scandalously little assistance or encouragement to that demo-cratic opposition — preferring, on balance, to deal with Milosevic, who, his bloodstained hands aside, was seen as a sensible chap who would be a force for stability in the region. We should remember the endless parade of Western European and U.S. officials trooping through Belgrade, cajoling and pleading with good old Slobo, over many a glass of whiskey, to just be sensible. Perversely, the U.S. and the West Europeans thus helped convince this Balkan tinpot that he was a central factor for peace and stability in the region. They also further demoralized an already vulnerable opposition.

A similar dynamic is apparent in our policy toward Kosovo. Through a historical accident, the Kosovo Albanians accepted the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova after their autonomy was abolished by Belgrade. Rugova was a unique phenomenon in the Balkans, heading up a massive, disciplined nonviolent resistance to Serbian rule for almost a decade — in a region where every house had firearms and where blood feuds had persisted for centuries. Rugova did not manage to move the Serbian regime, however, nor did he manage to get real support from the West. He was not even invited to the Dayton peace negotiations. The lesson was learned by the younger Albanians: If you want attention, take up arms. Independence, and even autonomy, is bought with blood, not through nonviolence or negotiations — at least in a Yugoslavia run by Milosevic.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that has arisen in the Kosovo Albanian community as a result of this process has no visible dem-ocratic credentials, and I would not gamble on their leaders’ tolerance toward the Serbian minority if they win this war. They will want to settle some outstanding accounts.

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