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.

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.


But then, the West has never placed much premium on democracy in its Yugoslav policies, and it plainly has shunned the options of aiding the democratic opposition, and of helping remove Milosevic and Tudjman, his opposite number in Croatia. Only those options could provide a chance for decent, stable and democratic settlement in the area. But the U.S. has always preferred stability to democracy, even if, as in Milosevic’s case, it is false stability. The U.S. chose to gamble on Milosevic and, when that failed, gambled further that he was bluffing and would back down after a few air strikes.

The assaults on the Kosovo Albanians have greatly increased following the NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia. This dramatically poses two urgent questions: First, what are the limits of air power? And second, if the purpose of the air attacks was to prevent the massive killing and exiling of Albanians, what do NATO and the U.S. do now?

It is essential to remember, when there are repeated calls to stop the bombing and resume diplomacy, that during the last diplomatic talks Serbian repression in Kosovo actually increased; the universities were gutted of their autonomy, and the independent press was all but eliminated with savage fines. Milosevic has shown that he can negotiate forever, while continuing his nationalist aggression. It was the failure of the last round of negotiations under such circumstances that brought the West to the policy of bombing.

So what now? Does the Clinton administration back down, permitting a genocidal massacre to continue to unfold? Or do the U.S. and NATO get into a ground war as the only way to provide a measure of protection for the Albanian civilians in Kosovo? And if they do wage a ground war against the Yugoslav army and its auxiliaries — a costly and therefore domestically unpopular ground war — how do they avoid becoming de facto allies of the KLA and its nationalist hard men?

The KLA’s stated aim is, at minimum, the complete independence of Kosovo — something that the West Europeans, the U.S. and most especially the countries on Kosovo’s borders see as hugely destabilizing for the entire Balkan region. An independent Kosovo is a nightmare for neighboring Macedonia, with its own Albanian minority of between 30 and 35 percent. Then there is the 10 percent Albanian minority in Montenegro. As for Albania proper, it may be in a shambles, with a lower living standard than the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia enjoy, but it is nonetheless home to more than half the entire Albanian population of some 6 million. That alone makes it attractive to romantic ethnic nationalists, and ethnic nationalism never has a strong affinity for political realism. Albanian unity, or the dream of Great Albania, is a nightmare not only for neighboring states, but also for all who worry about stability in the Balkans.

What follow from all this are four policy conclusions. Beginning with the long-range goals: First, Washington must finally accept that Milosevic’s ham-fisted regime remains the single greatest destabilizing factor in the region, and must concomitantly shift its commitment to the democratic opposition in Yugoslavia.

Second, given the proclivities of both the KLA and the Serbian forces, no peace settlement in Kosovo is possible without the presence of ground troops to enforce it. These should be NATO forces, but should also include Russian troops as a way to try to heal the breach between NATO and Russia.

Third, no real negotiations are possible, however, without a complete cease-fire by the Serb armed forces in Kosovo and their withdrawal from the province. The refugees must be allowed immediate return. If the Serb leaders have any sense at all, they will realize that only NATO troops can, after all this carnage, provide protection for the Serbian minority and disarm the KLA. And the KLA needs to be substantially disarmed — not least, to permit some kind of normal political life for those Kosovo Albanians who are not necessarily members of the KLA. Absent that, the men with guns will rule.

And fourth — here I come to the hardest part — should those who want to see a just peace in former Yugoslavia call for an immediate stop to the NATO air attacks? My answer — and it is doubly hard, since I have relatives, friends and comrades with whom I have worked for decades still living there — is that the bombing should be stopped only by a Serbian agreement to a cease-fire in Kosovo, and by the withdrawal of their armed forces. NATO ground forces may well be required to secure these goals and to create (or re-create) a safe haven for Kosovar Albanians in Kosovo. Otherwise, the massive killing and the exiling of Kosovo’s majority population will only continue. (And to those who argue that the U.S. did not intervene in Rwanda and Burundi to stop the genocidal massacres there, my response is: It should have — and it still has the opportunity to stop such massacres in Kosovo.)


Kosovo today presents us with no easy or palatable options. But should NATO stop the bombing without first having secured a cease-fire and a Serbian withdrawal, Milosevic wins — and we will witness one of the most massive and brutal ethnic cleansings since World War II.

Bogdan Denitch is director of the Institute for Transitions to Democracy, a human-rights organization operating in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia since 1990, and author of Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia and numerous other works.

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