Milošević Murders Again
by Stephen Schwartz
Something the press calls a "war" is going on in Kosova, a southern province of Serbia. Between late February and March 9, the conflict took at least 50 lives and perhaps as many as 80, with dozens missing. Most of the dead were ethnic Albanians, as are 90 percent of the province's people. The Serbian media -- state controlled, but parroted nonetheless by the press around the world -- described the campaign as a necessary move by the government against a shadowy terrorist group, the Kosova Liberation Army or UÇK (pronounced oo-che-ka).
It remains unclear, however, who the attackers were and whether the UÇK was actually involved; nor was the action, in the Drenica district of Kosova, really much like war. It was worse than one-sided: by all honest accounts, it was a pogrom, an orgy of killing, intended to induce submission by the Albanians and to thrill the Serbs by once more venting their frustrations, never mind if innocent people should happen to get hurt.
By March 9, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had prevailed on the Contact Group, comprising the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy, to agree on measures conveying Western concern about the violence to Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. Milošević is running this adventure even more directly than he ran the assaults on Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1991-92.
Albright seems to have proceeded with extraordinary caution. For all her angry speechifying, she sought to temper sanctions with diplomacy. In the end, the Contact Group agreed to little more than a weapons embargo against Belgrade (which has a major arms industry of its own) and a partial freeze on Serbian assets abroad. This approach seems intended primarily to keep Milošević on board as a supporter of the Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia.
Such half-measures will not satisfy those Albanians who expect the United States to save them. Their touching hope that America will come to their rescue owes less to any confidence in Bill Clinton -- or even Bob Dole, who has done yeoman's work for Albanian rights in Kosova -- than it does to the principles of Martin Luther King. Indeed, most Kosovar Albanians remain committed to nonviolence in their quest for greater autonomy within a rump: Yugoslavia.
Although their leadership under Ibrahim Rugova calls itself a national government and claims to want an independent Kosova, its actions are moderate in the extreme. Leaders even invest efforts in winning over Serbs -- and have some success, amazing as that may seem. Among the Serb minority in Kosova, voices are raised for a peaceful solution, while across the border in Albania proper, recent demonstrations in Tirana, the capital, protesting the Kosova atrocities, have included placards and leaflets appealing for support from the Serb nation. Desperate as they are, most Kosovar Albanians simply don't see either armed resistance or independence as a realistic option.
For the last nine years, the Albanians of Kosova have lived in conditions worse than anything suffered by blacks in apartheid South Africa. In the face of extreme provocation, they have shown extraordinary forbearance. Ever since Milošević abolished the province's autonomy in 1989, the Albanian majority has gone without regular health or education services. All Albanian infants born in Kosova have been delivered in private homes; all schooling up through university has taken place in quasi-clandestine circumstances.
Against this backdrop, tensions have grown in the past two years. At least 50 people were killed by one side or the other in scattered incidents in Kosova, and Balkan observers repeatedly expressed alarm about the activities in the region of the Serb extremist Arkan (Željko Ražnatović), one of the worst terrorists of the Bosnian war and a favorite henchman of Milošević. Then in late 1997, beefy Serb cops descended, clubs in hand, on a peaceful march of Albanian students in Prishtina demanding restoration of their university. Anyone who watched Belgrade TV could see that the crisis was intensifying. The Serbian media were filled with not-very-subtle tales of the Albanian mafia and alleged Albanian mistreatment of Serbs in Kosova.
In January, an armed attack on a Serb police station and the killing of a Serb official on a highway followed a raid on the Kosovar Albanian village of Lower Prekaz. At first, the Serbian press reported that the attack on the police station had been carried out by "unidentified persons," and Serb authorities denied that any intercommunal fighting had taken place. Rather, they said, two Albanian factions had engaged in a gun battle. According to the Serbian opposition weekly Vreme, however, the violence began on January 22 when Serb police tried to enter Lower Prekaz for the first time since 1992. They set up a forward post in a factory yard, then sneaked into the village early in the morning. The gambit failed when they were met with gunfire from the family compound of Adem Jashari, a well-known local leader. The Serbs professed shock that their enemies were armed with mortars. Two women from the Jashari family were hurt, and the body of a factory worker was found later.
That the Jasharis had mortars in their possession was not unpredictable, however, and hardly pointed to involvement with the UÇK, as the Serbian authorities later claimed. Albanian culture validates possession of firearms to an extent unknown even in Serbia. Many families and villages in Kosova have made long-standing preparations for defense. And in neighboring Albania, arms proliferated after the collapse of the government in Tirana in 1997; some of them undoubtedly found their way across the border.
In the wake of the January 22 incident, the Serbs imposed a de facto military curfew on Drenica. The funerals of the two dead men -- the Serb official killed on the road, mourned by 10,000 Serbs and Montenegrins, and the Albanian factory worker from Lower Prekaz, attended by 20,000 Albanians -- heightened tensions.
Thus, the subsequent clashes, in early March, including the destruction of Lower Prekaz, hardly came out of nowhere. Several important facts have gone unreported in the Western press. Although at least two units of the Yugoslav army participated in the Kosova operation there are indications that the army command is reluctant to get involved. The March attack on "Albanian terrorists" was carried out mainly by heavily armed police and blackshirted paramilitaries, and Arkan was reportedly among the leaders. In addition, Serb refugees from Croatia who had resettled in Kosova were armed and sent into the streets.
Most of the Albanians killed in the recent massacre had little or nothing to do with the UÇK, despite the Serbs' claim that the demolition of the Jashari compound had eliminated the core of the terrorist group. Jashari himself, although active in armed resistance, may have had the UÇK label pinned on him in the same way the Bolshevik label was pinned on all Polish and Jewish resisters by the Nazis in World War II Poland. Indeed, many Kosovar Albanians believe that the UÇK (which seems to have survived the Drenica events unscathed) was created by the Serbs as a pretext for repression. As the days go by, this suspicion seems less Balkan and more plausible.
Two major questions remain: How great is the danger of a regional conflagration, and what is driving Milošević?
The threat to the countries that border on Kosova, such as Albania and Macedonia, and to the next tier of countries, such as Greece and Turkey, is very serious. The Macedonian government, dominated by Slav nationalists but confronting its own 40 percent Albanian minority, is playing a classic Balkan game with Milošević. Feigning generosity, the Macedonians recently offered to set up a "humanitarian corridor" through their territory to allow Albanians to flee Kosova for Albania. Albanians everywhere angrily rejected this scheme as a population transfer more accurately called ethnic cleansing.
The Albanians of Macedonia are more prosperous than the Kosovars, with, among other strategic assets, many more cell phones and Range Rovers, and they cannot be expected to sit on their hands if pogroms continue. Milošević has reportedly asked Skopje for the right of hot pursuit of alleged Albanian terrorists into Macedonia.
If the fighting spills into Macedonia, the potential for Greek and Turkish involvement is considerable, since Athens remains unreconciled to the existence of an independent Macedonia, while Turkey has pledged to defend it. Albania itself is different. Emotional rallies have been held in its cities, and the outside world has difficulty imagining that Tirana would fail to defend the Kosovars; yet the sad truth is that the Albanians inside Albania have done little to aid or protect their brethren outside their borders.
Another concern is that with the political situation in Albania unsettled and so many firearms present, the effects on Albania of any Kosova fighting are unpredictable. During the Serb assault on Lower Prekaz, Tirana put the troops on its border with Kosova on high alert but sent no reinforcements.
Albania's leaders have problems of their own. In February, the northern city of Shkoder was rocked by rioting that the politicians blamed on Serbian intrigues. But discontent inside Albania would seem to have a good deal in common with the rumblings among the Serbs of Belgrade and the Croats of Zagreb and hardly requires any byzantine explanation.
As for Milošević's motives, it is important to notice how high the stakes are. Indeed, the Kosova drama is a lot like a suicide waltz: On the one hand, the Kosovar Albanians would very quickly attain mass martyrdom if they took up the gun. On the other hand, if Kosova were to erupt, Milošević himself could be done for.
Milošević has made himself indispensable to Clinton and NATO by becoming a pillar of the Dayton agreement: He has thrown his Socialist Party of Serbia (formerly the Communist party) behind Biljana Plavšić, the pro-Dayton president of the Bosnian Serb Republic. But the same Serbian Socialist apparatus that supports Plavšić has played a key role in maintaining the terror in Kosova.
In his propaganda, Milošević dwells on Serbia's "right to settle its own internal affairs in Kosovo," along with the familiar claims to Serbian sovereignty over a region that has been without a Slavic majority for 400 years.
But Milošević's keenest need is to distract his own restive populace from its economic woes, of which Western sanctions are a secondary cause. Although their homeland escaped the direct ravages of the Croatian and Bosnian wars, the impoverished Serbs of rump Yugoslavia have seen their standard of living devastated by post-Communist economic chaos and the rise of the Serbian mafia.
Above all, the Serb in the street feels growing anger at the hopeless poverty of pensioners, whose income has never recovered from the breakup of the old Yugoslavia. The apparently impossible task of sorting out who owns what as the country emerges from nearly half a century of communism has, among other things, robbed millions of ex-Yugoslavs of the hard-currency savings they held before 1990.
Croatian supremo Franjo Tuđman faces a similar challenge. The weekend before the Kosova clash, some 80,000 Croats turned out to chant "Franjo-Saddam" and wrestle with police in Zagreb over grievances that differ remarkably little from those voiced by Belgraders. And economic difficulties, exacerbated by the absence of effective privatization and labor laws, are the topic of the hour in both the Bosnian entities.
Madeleine Albright was right to express indignation over the Kosova massacres. Above all, the United States should be outraged at Milošević for undertaking such aggression just a week after Washington announced that millions in aid would be granted his allies in the Bosnian Serb Republic. Unfortunately, Milošević remains the man of the hour in the Balkans, in full control of events in Kosova and apparently determined to use any means at hand to make his war-weary people unite once again behind him.
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Kosovo receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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