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.

The new ruling elites in the post-Yugoslav states, sometimes with roots in the old Communist nomenklaturas, have prospered mightily during the wars of Yugoslav succession, accumulating wealth and power in the old-fashioned way — by robbery. In these countries, where no legitimate money was available to buy the formerly public or state property, the prescription by the United States, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to “marketize and above all privatize” guaranteed the diminution of the middle class and the rise of a gangster economy. This new class thrives on ethnic confron ta tion and relentlessly fosters ethnic chauvinism, preventing any transition to stability and democracy. Its leaders remain in power by insisting on the presence of external and internal threats. This is made easier by their control of the electronic media, and reinforced by a public opinion that wallows in self-pity and has been poisoned by a decade of nationalist propaganda.

And yet, right up until the current war, the West, and above all the U.S., treated these corrupt and dangerous regimes as legitimate governments and indispensable guarantors of the ramshackle peace agreements negotiated essentially by the Americans — and this may happen yet again at the conclusion of the Kosovar conflict. The Dayton Peace Accord, based on the U.S. belief that the governing thugs in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo would remain the only political partners available, has only strengthened these regimes and made a stable peace impossible. Even before 1995, Washington modernized Tudjman’s army and police, making possible what was until the past month the single biggest case of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars of secession, in which 200,000 Croatian Serbs were driven into exile. Tudjmanlegions remain a constant threat to democracy in Croatia.

Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic has used his control over the vast aid sent into Bosnia to tighten his stranglehold on the government and inject specifically Islamic programs into the army. This makes the development of a secular multiethnic, democratic Bosnia all but impossible.

The worst predator in the area, Milosevic, was strengthened the most. To bolster his status as a lesser evil, this “force for stability” took Vojislav Seselj’s semi-fascist Radical Party into his government as a junior partner, and with its help abolished university autonomy and all but destroyed the independent press — before the current war began.

As for Kosovo, the agreement Milosevic reached with U.S. emissary Richard Holbrooke last fall provided for a mere 2,000 unarmed “observers,” who in fact functioned as 2,000 hostages. The agreement left at least 15,000 heavily armed Serbian police and troops in Kosovo, as well as an armed and encouraged Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Despite renewed Serbian aggression, the KLA was, until the current war, prospering mightily at the expense of other political forces in the Albanian community — taking over entire towns, occupying the abandoned Serbian police bunkers and pushing aside the local Rugova leadership, often by brute force.

The more sensible Western policy would have been to offer help to the democratic forces throughout the region — most immediately, the principal Serbian oppositionists, even if they were themselves nationalistic. In the long term, the smaller, “hard” — non-nationalist — opposition must be supported throughout the region. The “hard” democrats tend to be independent trade unionists, non-governmental organization activists, students and democratic leftists with populist overtones. They have been less attractive to U.S. policymakers than English-speaking, well-dressed, deodorant-using liberals who are devoted uncritically to privatization and the free market, but who can’t attract substantial electoral support.

To date, however, the democratic option has been consistently dismissed by the U.S. as utopian fantasy. The hard-headed choice was Milosevic. Now, we see the wages of such crackpot pragmatism.

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. A version of this article appears in the current issue of Dissent.

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