The Demons of Kosovo

The Demons of Kosovo

Mini Teaser: The competing claims of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo have been hopelessly tangled in the webs of history and myth.

by Author(s): Warren Zimmerman

Milosevic's crackdown on the Albanians produced a surprising
reaction from the victims. Ibrahim Rugova, the deceptively dreamy
poet who has been the Kosovo Albanians' political leader throughout
the 1990s, decided on a tactic of peaceful resistance. The decision
was consistent with Rugova's character--he is a follower of
Gandhi--but it was also politically astute. After Milosevic's
assault, the Albanians received nothing beyond rhetorical support
from the republics of the dissolving Yugoslav state. The Slovenes,
their principal advocates, used the Kosovo issue to blacken
Milosevic, but they had neither the means nor the will to provide
material assistance. Moreover, the Yugoslav army and the Serbian
police enjoyed a virtual monopoly of power in Kosovo; armed
resistance would have been ruthlessly suppressed. The United
States--Rugova's strongest supporter in the West--took the position
that, though Milosevic's actions were beyond the pale of
civilization, Kosovo should nevertheless remain a part of Yugoslavia.

Flexible on tactics, Rugova clung with tenacity to principle.
Following Milosevic's arrogant refusal even to discuss Kosovo's
autonomy, Rugova declared its independence. He has created a shadow
state (the Republic of "Kosova" in the Albanian-language spelling) of
which he was re-elected president in March in an uncontested vote.
While no foreign state, not even Albania, has recognized "Kosova",
its spectral existence gives Albanians something to hope and strive

During the past nine years the word that best describes Kosovo is
division. The Albanians have been purged from all governmental
institutions, and have made no effort to re-join them. They adamantly
refuse to take part in Serbian elections or to recognize any other
form of Serbian authority over Kosovo. As a result, the province is
represented in the Serbian assembly in Belgrade by deputies elected
by mere handfuls of people whose primary interest is in subduing the
Albanian majority. Even Arkan, the notorious racist murderer of
Croats and Bosnian Muslims, won a seat. Albanians have been expelled,
or have withdrawn, from all other organizations that might bring them
into contact with Serbs--administrative offices, schools, the
university, hospitals, and medical clinics--and have set up their own
parallel structures, even including a mechanism for collecting taxes.
Albanian willingness to compromise on selected non-political
issues--like returning their children to schools--has foundered on
Serbian intransigence.

Milosevic's refusal to cede even an inch has now produced its
inevitable consequence--Rugova's non-violent approach is being
challenged within his own community. An insurgent group calling
itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began earlier this year to
bomb police stations, and to kill Serbian policemen, senior
officials, and Albanian collaborators. Though the attacks were
targeted rather than indiscriminate (making the KLA less classically
terrorist than Hamas or even the IRA), and though they have not so
far been launched in Serbia proper, they represent a clear deepening
of the Kosovo crisis. Rugova and other moderates have hesitated,
either out of fear or calculation, to condemn the KLA. Their ominous
silence adds legitimacy and strength to the insurgents.

Milosevic has reacted by sending special police units to destroy
the villages considered rebel strongholds; among the dead,
apparently, have been a KLA leader and many noncombatants, mostly
women and children. These extreme Serbian tactics have significantly
swelled the numbers of guerrilla fighters. The KLA is being
reinforced by Albanians returning from jobs in Western Europe and
locally by young Albanian men who have known nothing but Serbian
oppression and feel that they have nothing to lose. Weapons are
pouring across the mountainous border between Kosovo and Albania. The
escalation of the crisis conveys two warnings--that the moderate
Albanian leadership may be giving way to violent groups emboldened by
the creation of martyrs, and that Milosevic is prepared to use
lethal force to keep the Albanians down.

Worse Than Bosnia?

It is misleading to equate the Kosovo and the Bosnian conflicts.
There are, of course, similarities in their inherently violent
character, in Milosevic's culpability for initiating conflict in
both places, and in the involvement of the United States and the
international community. Bosnia and Kosovo also share an important
temporal connection. As long as the Bosnian war was raging, both
Milosevic and Rugova saw an interest in keeping things relatively
quiet in Kosovo. Milosevic wanted to avoid war on a second front.
Rugova knew that the Serbs had most of the firepower, and feared that
a confrontation in Kosovo might fail to engage Western concern
against the broader canvas of Bosnia. The Bosnian war, while it
lasted, was thus a vaccination against conflict in Kosovo. With its
end, the vaccination has worn off.

These similarities, however, pale before the significant and
troubling differences between Bosnia and Kosovo. Enmities in Kosovo
run even deeper than in Bosnia. Bosnia suffered a civil war with
major outside aggression by Serbia; Kosovo is an example of almost
classic colonial oppression. While the Serbs in Bosnia constituted
about a third of the republic's population before the war, in Kosovo
Milosevic has launched his aggression against 90 percent, and on
behalf of only 10 percent, of the local population. In Bosnia,
particularly in the later stages of the war, the Serbs faced tough
Muslim and Croatian adversaries. In Kosovo Milosevic has
strengthened his already massive force advantage with the creation of
military-configured special police units. All Bosnians are Slavs,
with a common language. Serbs and Albanians are separate ethnic
groups and speak unrelated languages (Serbian is closer to Polish
than it is to Albanian). And unlike Bosnia, there is no recent
tradition of multi-ethnic tolerance in Kosovo; Serbs and Albanians
have been at each other's throats for this entire century.

Inconceivable though it may seem, Kosovo is also a more complex
problem than Bosnia. The Serbs do have a serious claim to
sovereignty, though they have tarnished it shamefully by their
actions; they had no such claim in Bosnia. For the reasons described
earlier, Kosovo has a strong hold on the mentality of most Serbs, not
just that of extreme nationalists. The historical, religious, and
cultural resonance of Kosovo has no parallel in Bosnia for the
Serbian psyche. Serbs have left Kosovo in droves since World War II
for economic reasons; most Serbs who don't live there have never
visited. No matter--the pull of the past remains strong.

In Bosnia the Serbian war effort ended in disunity; Milosevic
enraged the Bosnian Serb leaders by compromising at Dayton. No such
rift is yet apparent over Kosovo; in fact, in April Milosevic won a
97 percent referendum vote in Serbia against foreign mediation over
Kosovo. Most Serbs manifest no opposition to, or guilt for,
Milosevic's crimes in Kosovo. Indeed, they seem to think in
ludicrous racial stereotypes. A poll conducted in January 1998 for
the Open Society Institute, financier George Soros' outstanding human
rights organization, to measure what Serbs think of themselves and
others produced discouraging results. Serbs, the poll found, see
themselves as industrious, intelligent, caring, sincere, honest,
clean, unselfish, peace-loving, friendly to other peoples, proud, and
hospitable. They see Albanians, on the other hand, as evil, lazy,
stupid, insincere, uncultured, dirty, selfish, warlike, and
Serb-hating. The Albanians were given more negatives than any other
group, including the Serbs' recent enemies, the Croats and Bosnian

The Bosnian war, bloody as it was, was contained within Bosnia's
frontiers. There is little hope of that in Kosovo, if it sinks into
major conflict. Kosovo borders on the independent countries of
Albania and Macedonia. The outbreak of war could hardly leave the
Albanian government indifferent, although its military weakness might
limit its involvement to stepping up arms transfers to the Kosovo
Albanians. Democratic but fragile Macedonia has a large Albanian
minority, perhaps as much as 30 percent of the population. War in
Kosovo, together with the flight of refugees into Macedonia, could
radicalize that minority and shake the stability of the government in
Skopje. Greece, which has a paranoid fear of a Macedonian "threat" to
its northern territory, and Bulgaria, which considers Macedonians
really to be Bulgarians, could be energized; and so could Turkey, the
largest Muslim country in the Balkans and home to a significant
Albanian minority. This is admittedly a worst-case domino scenario,
but the occurrence of even parts of it would be destabilizing for the
entire region. Kosovo's spill-over potential should make it at least
as legitimate an object of American concern as Bosnia has been.

It might be possible to mitigate this spill-over effect by placing
NATO or UN troops in Macedonia and Albania, along Kosovo's
international borders. The small UN force in Macedonia, which
currently monitors Macedonia's borders with Serbia and Albania, could
be augmented and partially re-deployed; Albania has declared its
readiness to accept an international force on its side of the Kosovo
line. Such troops, particularly if they were from NATO, might have
some deterrent effect on the outbreak of major fighting in Kosovo.
But they couldn't impair Serbia's ability to reinforce its military
and police presence across its non-international border with Kosovo.

Nor, for both legal and moral reasons, could an international force
stop refugees from fleeing into Macedonia or Albania from Kosovo if
hostilities broke out. In fact, an international force on Kosovo's
borders might inhibit the Kosovo Albanians more than the Serbs, and
could thus be exploited by Milosevic to his own advantage. It is
thus hard to escape the conclusion that a successful containment
strategy will not be possible without dealing with the military
problem in Kosovo itself.

Essay Types: Essay