By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Srdjan Ilic, AP/Wide World
Kosovo is where the final disintegration of Yugoslavia began. It is there that the Titoist settlement of the national question in Yugoslavia broke down irreparably in 1990. The precipitating cause was the decision of Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia, the largest federal unit of Yugoslavia, to abolish the wide autonomy enjoyed by the province of Kosovo under the Constitution of 1974.
Kosovo is Yugoslavia’s West Bank, where Serb nation al ism confronted the reality of a huge Albanian majority — more than 85 percent before the ethnic cleansing was unleashed. Serbian claims to Kosovo, much like Israeli claims to the West Bank, are based on a mixture of strategic considerations, historical assertions and mystical religious themes. Ultimately, the Serbs believe that the special historical suffering of their people — 500 years of "slavery" under the Turks (aided by Muslim Albanians) and huge population losses in the two world wars — gives their claims greater weight than those of the present inhabitants of Kosovo.
For the Albanians, too, Kosovo has been tragic ground. The Balkan wars of 1912 against the Turks were wars of liberation for the Serbs, but wars of brutal conquest to the Kosovo and Macedonian Albanians. The Albanians bitterly resisted integration into Yugoslavia and were subjugated by military force after both world wars. The international community treated them much as it did the Kurds, and only slightly more than half the Albanians ended up living in an independent Albania. Nevertheless, Tito’s communism produced enormous progress in literacy and development for Kosovo. After two decades it also produced wide political and cultural autonomy, which, in effect, made Kosovo a second Albanian state. Although the least developed part of Yugoslavia, it was far more prosperous and modern than Albania itself.
The bigotry that most Serbs feel toward the Albanians made coexistence in one state highly unlikely, even before this spring’s murderous offensive. These Serbs proudly claim that they themselves are civilized Europeans and that their Muslim enemies are not. This view is held not only by supporters of the Milosevic regime, but also by many in the Serbian democratic opposition. Even the Civic Alliance, the middle-class party most favored by do-good foundations and Western embassies, departs from its otherwise fine record of fighting for human rights and democracy by insisting that Kosovo must stay within both Yugoslavia and Serbia.
Ever since Tito’s death in 1980, the Kosovo Albanians agitated to gain the status of a republic, like the other federal units, rather than the near-republic status within Serbia they had been granted by the Constitution of 1974. At first, they wanted to stay in Yugoslavia but to be as independent of Belgrade as Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia were. The Kosovar agitation was met by increasingly chauvinist Serbian propaganda in the state-controlled media — abetted by most of Serbia’s intellectual establishment (both communist and anticommunist) — and by repression, culminating in the abolition of the province’s autonomy in June 1990.
With this act, Milosevic accomplished three things, all of which proved disastrous for the future of Yugoslavia, and even for the Serbs. By purging Kosovo’s established pro-Yugoslav leaders, he assured their replacement by Ibrahim Rugova, who was committed to an independent Kosovo. For almost a decade Rugova led a remarkable, massive nonviolent struggle — in one of the most undeveloped parts of the Balkans — establishing a parallel underground "state" with its own schools, medical centers and political institutions. Second, Milosevic entered into an alliance with Serb nationalists, and directly encouraged the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to demand self-government for their ethnic enclaves within those republics. Third, this in turn provoked the growth of Croatian nationalism, leading to the election of right-wing ultranationalist Franjo Tudjman in Croatia.
The growing chaos convinced the leaders of Yugoslavia’s most developed republic, Slovenia, to secede unilaterally in 1991, which the Yugoslav army only half-heartedly tried to prevent. Slovenia’s declaration of independence was rapidly followed by those of Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia. This left the present rump Yugoslavia, composed of the Republic of Serbia — with the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, now stripped of their autonomy by Belgrade — and the Republic of Montenegro.
However, while underdeveloped Macedonia was permitted to secede peacefully, Croat and Bosnian independence led to a bitter war with the local Serb militias, which were reinforced by what remained of the Yugoslav army. The Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia did not want to become minorities in the new national states. Tito’s Yugoslavia, one of the more successful multiethnic states in recent European history, thus ended in ethnic carnage.
Although the numbers are bitterly disputed, it seems that only about 50 people, mostly young Serb conscripts, were killed in the Slovenian "war" of independence. Something like 12,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the Croatian war, while the Bosnian wars cost at least 100,000 lives. Between 2.5 million and 3 million people became refugees, ethnically cleansed to create "pure" Croatian and Bosnian entities. Rump Yugoslavia remained multiethnic, with one-third of the population consisting of Albanians, Hungarians, Gypsies, Muslim-Bosniaks and Croats. The low-intensity war in Kosovo in 1998 produced relatively few casualties — 3,000 at most — but many refugees, perhaps a quarter million. That was before this spring’s cleansing.
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