Kosovo: Decade of Crisis
By Vjeran Pavlakovic

The crisis in Kosovo is not new to the Balkans, but the nature of media and information in this country has brought attention to this region only recently in the United States. The NATO military actions against Yugoslavia have caused considerable damage to the infrastructure and have left many civilians dead, but the escalation of the conflict can be traced back to the policies of Belgrade since the late 1980s and the failure of the United States, along with the European Community, to adequately respond to those policies. This was made apparent during the Yugoslav War (1991-1995), when the international community was slow to respond to the atrocities being committed primarily by Serb forces, resulting in the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of communities and the displacing of over four million people.

Common excuses for this war were that they were due to ethnic hatreds (also attributed to the Kosovo conflict) and that recognition of Croatia and Slovenia by the European Union accelerated the war. These excuses merely serve to portray the war as inevitable and place the blame on external forces (such as Germany’s insistence on recognition). A more plausible reason for the war was that Yugoslavia’s deteriorating economic system in the late 1980s led to the rise of nationalist politicians who blamed the problems on other republics and ethnic groups. While Croatia and Slovenia wanted a more democratic political system, economic reform based on the western capitalist model, and less control from Belgrade (they had proposed a "confederal" system), the political strong man in Serbia, Slobodan Miloševic, was determined to follow a centralist policy that would increase the power of Serbs in Yugoslavia, who felt they had been weakened by Tito’s 1974 Constitution. The events in the 1990s revealed that Miloševic’s solutions to crises did not involve negotiation or concessions, but rather reliance on the military, special police forces, and propaganda that incited hatred and fear of other ethnic groups.

Miloševic rose to power based on his promises to Serbs in Kosovo, who claimed the Albanians were waging a war of genocide against them. The population of Serbs in Kosovo had been declining steadily during the twentieth century, despite efforts by Belgrade to colonize Kosovo (during the interwar period and after World War II) with Serbs from other regions of Yugoslavia. The decline was in part due to Serbs leaving for economic reasons (Kosovo was the poorest region in Yugoslavia with the highest population density) and the high birth rate of the Albanians (the highest in Europe). Serbian media, however, painted a picture of Albanians terrorizing Serbs into leaving, depicting every crime against a Serb as being ethincally motivated, and claiming that the Albanians were systematically raping Serbian women (even though a 1990s study, conducted by Belgrade lawyers, found that in the 1980s cases of rape in Kosovo (.96 per 100,000 men) were less than that of Serbia proper (2.43 per 100,000 men) and 71% of rapes occurred between members of the same ethnic group).

Miloševic then changed the Yugoslav consitution in 1989, effectively stripping Kosovo of its autonomy and enacting numerous laws which violated the rights of Albanians, the most immediate result being the firing of over 100,000 Albanians from government, medical, educational, and security jobs. Albanians were subject to arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture (which occasionally resulted in the death of subjects in police captivity), abolishment of Albanian language instruction in the school system, random searches of houses for alleged weapon stockpiling, persecution of intellectuals and journalists, and living conditions which amounted to a state of martial law. The strongest political movement during the early 1990s was Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), which advocated a non-violent approach to solving the problems in Kosovo. It is amazing that the Albanians in Kosovo had endured the repressive conditions for as long as they had, and then saw their efforts go to waste as the authorities in Belgrade refused to seriously negotiate, instead increasing the military presence in the province. The fact that Serbia will not grant Kosovo full autonomy while at the same time demanding the autonomy of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia (which was the Serbian justification for the wars in those two countries) reveals the Serbian attitude towards the Albanian population. The political crisis in Albania in 1996 led to the looting of military stockpiles, flooding Kosovo with cheap weaponry and giving strength to guerrilla movements that believed negotiations with Belgrade were leading nowhere. The Albanians in Kosovo had also watched the developments in Bosnia carefully, but were ignored during the Dayton peace making process.

The failure of the US administration in guaranteeing Albanian rights in the Dayton Accords was a big mistake, because it not only gave Miloševic a green light to continue his discriminatory policies but also portrayed Miloševic as a peace maker rather than a cause of the war in the former Yugoslavia. The actions of the Serbian government in Kosovo during 1998 made it clear that Miloševic was responding to this crisis as he had in the previous war, which was the use of military force on primarily civilian targets. The US government also did not give enough support to anti-Miloševic political forces which had staged massive demonstrations against him in 1997 and almost removed him from power. Extensive financial support (which would amount to a fraction of what is being spent for the current military campaign) could have strengthened liberal democratic forces in Serbia that have further weakened by the state of war.

Some misconceptions about the Kosovo crisis:

  1. NATO bombing is the cause of the refugee problem: While NATO bombs certainly triggered the exodus of some refugees, there is overwhelming evidence that Serb forces are carrying out tactics well honed in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts. Regular army forces coordinated with detachments of paramilitary units systematically emptied entire communities of non-Serbs during the previous war, using fear, beatings, rapes, and murder to change the demographic composition of certain areas. There is overwhelming evidence that this was a deliberate and carefully planned strategy, organized from Belgrade, with the goal of capturing territory by attacking civilian rather than military targets. It would not be ludicrous to conclude that many of the units involved in previous conflicts would use the same tactics as before in Kosovo, especially since the poor economic conditions in Bosnia and Serbia make serving in military units profitable. There is also the fact that Serbian military actions in the summer of 1998 resulted in the displacement of 241,000 Albanians in Kosovo, according to statement by the UN High Commisioner on Refugees on 8 September 1998. A statement last week in the New York Times from the UNHCR also confirmed that the majority of the 800,000+ displaced persons had fled because of Serbian military tactics.
  2. Serb civilians are the only victims: It is true that many innocent people have been killed by NATO’s bombing campaign. However, the number of sorties being flown by NATO is miniscule compared to previous conflicts (the number of sorties flown during the first thirty days, about 4,000 combat missions, is close to the number flown in ONE DAY during the Gulf War), and NATO has taken extreme measures to minimize civilian casualties. This is a drastic difference compared to Serbian military tactics throughout the Yugoslav war, during which hospitals, libraries, homes, and religious structures were deliberately targeted. The Serbian population also condoned, by reelecting Miloševiæ and supporting the previous war, the siege of Sarajevo which lasted more than one thousand days. Serbian snipers specifically shot at civilians (including large numbers of children and the elderly) who were desperately attempting to get food and water, and the city was under constant bombardment by heavy artillery, conveniently given to the Bosnian Serbs by the Yugoslav Army. The Serbian population also does not seem to show any remorse for the thousands of Albanians who have become displaced, as if the activities of Serbian military forces (operating in Kosovo long before any NATO intervention) did not exist.
  3. Not enough time was given for negotiation: NATO and the European Community had tried since early 1998 to find a negotiated settlement for Kosovo, but the disdain for a peaceful solution by Belgrade was evident when Miloševic himself did not participate in the Rambouillet talks and in fact steadily increased the number of forces in Kosovo (which were already in violation of the peace agreement that had been reached at the end of 1998) during the negotiation process, months before NATO bombing. The tactics of using overwhelming military force (heavy artillery, tanks, well armed special forces) against civilians during the time of negotiations made it difficult for the Albanians to accept any agreement from Miloševic while their people were being brutally attacked. In addition to displacing civilians, Serb tactics include the burning of villages, looting, and destruction of property which can not be justified as part of anti-terrorist tactics.

The position of NATO is currently a difficult one, since it was apparent that Miloševic would continue his militany policy in Kosovo regardless of negotiation results. By starting the bombing campaign, it will be difficult either to strike a deal with Miloševic (who has been demonized by the media) or to wage a ground assault (which does not have the support of the American public nor Congress) necessary to push the Serbian forces out of Kosovo and allow the refugees to return. Unfortunately, the bombing campaign seemed the only option when inactivity would merely replay the Bosnia scenario as long as the authorities in Belgrade pursue a military solution to every problem in the former Yugoslavia.

Vjeran Pavlakovic is a M.A. candidate in the REECAS program, JSIS, specializing in the former Yugoslavia and Balkans. He is also a frequent contributor to the REECAS Newsletter.