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Balkan Report: April 7, 1999

7 April 1999, Volume 3, Number 13

Q: For some nine years after President Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosova's autonomy in 1989, Kosova remained the "powder keg that did not explode." Now a conflict has emerged that could prove to be worse than Bosnia. What happened in Kosova to bring tensions to a boil? A: During the past decade, the Kosovars under shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova followed a policy of non-violence in an effort to get autonomy restored. That policy produced no tangible results. At the start of 1997 and after eight years of Kosovar frustration, the hitherto marginal Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) switched its approach from occasionally shooting up Serbian cafes to making much more frequent, sophisticated, and well-executed attacks against carefully-chosen Serbian targets. One year later, Milosevic launched a crackdown not only on the UCK, but on villages and towns throughout the province. His ostensible goal was to ferret out the guerrillas and to destroy communities that provided shelter or recruits for the UCK. The effect was to terrorize ordinary villagers and discredit Rugova's peaceful policies even further in their eyes. Milosevic's crackdown drove many ordinary Kosovars into the arms of the UCK. The slogan emerged: "We are all UCK."

Q: Did Kosova have a long tradition of autonomy? A: Not really, but that short period certainly made an impact on how the Albanians saw themselves and the world around them. The province has little historical tradition of administrative unity, let alone autonomy. It was divided into different administrative regions under the Ottomans, whose rule ended in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Under the Serbian and then Yugoslav kingdoms, it was subject to centralized rule from Belgrade. Mussolini and Hitler subsequently made it part of an Italian-ruled greater Albania. After World War II, Tito consigned the region to his police chief, Aleksandar Rankovic. He was a Serb who conducted a merciless policy of repression toward the Albanians, even though they were a clear majority in the province.

After Rankovic's fall in 1966, the Albanians increasingly became masters in their house. Most important, the Yugoslav constitution of 1974 gave Kosova an autonomy so far reaching that Kosova's degree of home rule as an Autonomous Region was virtually equivalent to that of any Republic of the Yugoslav federation. That was what Milosevic abolished in 1989.

Q: Don't the Albanians want to set up a greater Albania? Wouldn't that contribute to regional instability? A: Many people in Albania on the one hand, and in Kosova and western Macedonia on the other, talked openly in the heady days right after the fall of communism of setting up a greater Albania. Now, at best, they only pay lip service to the idea as a possibility for the very distant future. The reason for the change is that they have meanwhile had the opportunity to travel and get to know each other. Most have come to the conclusion that their mentalities, problems, and political cultures have diverged too widely after spending most of the twentieth century living in two very different states. As a result, Kosovars often regard Albanian citizens as backward people who lack a modern education or knowledge of the wider world. People in Albania tend to view Kosovars as arrogant braggarts with questionable business ethics. Of course, this rivalry has now been put aside in the outpouring of traditional Albanian hospitality for the refugees.

As to the charge by some Balkan neighbors that a greater Albania would upset regional stability, one should recall that these neighbors have largely achieved their own programs of setting up their own national states. It seems less than fair that they deny the Albanians the same possibility.

Q: Does Russia support the Serbs out of Slavic and Orthodox solidarity? A: Moscow, like St. Petersburg before it, has always based its Balkan policy on calculations of national interest, not on sentimentality or jingoism. Tsarist Russia alternated its support between Belgrade and its rival Sofia as Russian policymakers saw fit at any given moment. In 1948, Stalin expelled Tito from the bloc and sought to isolate Yugoslavia. Since the breakup of the USSR and the weakening of Moscow's international position, Russia has nonetheless continued to act as a great power in the Balkans. Its support for Serbia is a way of showing the West that Moscow remains a factor to be reckoned with.

Q: Did old ethnic hatreds play a key role in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and now in Kosova? A: The wars in Croatia and Bosnia were about land, money, and power. The local people who spread the myth about "ancient hatreds" were generally those who had their eye on that land, money, and power. In reality, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are of the same ethnic stock and speak the same language. There are dialects in Serbo-Croatian, but they are based on geography, not on ethnicity. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims frequently intermarried, and purely ethnic warfare between them was virtually unknown until World War II.

In Kosova, the situation is more complex. The Serbs are largely Orthodox and speak a Slavic language. The Albanians are mostly Muslim, although there is a very influential Roman Catholic minority. Albanian is not immediately related to any neighboring languages. The local Serbs and Albanians nonetheless managed to establish a shared regional lifestyle, so that Serbian colonists arriving from Serbia proper between the two World Wars found both local communities to be foreign.

Under Ottoman rule, the most important divisions were religious and social, not ethnic or linguistic. Ethnic antagonisms between Serbs and Albanians did not truly become violent until after the emergence of nationalist ideologies and movements in the 19th century, particularly during and after the 1870s.

From that time, there were several alternating periods of what would now be called reciprocal ethnic cleansing. The most violent and bloody ones were during and just after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and during and just after the two World Wars. Many of the areas where some of the worst violence in the current fighting took place also witnessed much bloodshed in those previous conflicts.

But the basic problem throughout the Balkans is not some self-propelled ethnic hatred but rather a lack of economic development and democracy. It should not be forgotten that demagogues did not rise to power and destroy the Yugoslavia Tito had created until after a decade of economic stagnation or decline in the 1970s and 1980s.

Q: Who has the strongest historical claim to Kosova? A: The exact origin of each community--and whatever links each might have to the present-day population--is a complex and controversial issue best left to those trained historians who are free from nationalist passion. What is certain is that people speaking Serbo-Croatian and people speaking Albanian have lived in Kosova for centuries.

Most Serbs feel a strong attachment to Kosova as the "cradle of Serbian civilization," but surveys show that relatively few have ever visited the province, even as tourists. The Albanians argue that they have been there at least as long as the Serbs, but they have few monuments that can compare in age and grandeur with the medieval Serbian churches and monasteries. In any event, there is nothing that seems to animate a room full of Serbian and Albanian intellectuals as much as discussing who did what to whose religious buildings in the 11th century.

The basic political point is that such "historical" discussions are generally fruitless. And in the post-1945 worldwide process of decolonization, the key principles have been self-determination and majority rule, not "historic rights."

The Albanians form some 90 percent of Kosova's population. Some of the increase in the course of the century has been due to migration from Albania, but the key factor is that the Kosovars have the highest birthrate in Europe. The Albanians' share of the population has also grown because of a steady outward migration of Serbs. Many Serbs say they left because they were intimidated by local Albanians. The Albanians respond that the main reason the Serbs leave is economic.

Q: Is there a religious element to the conflict? A: The legacy of medieval Serbia plays a strong role in mobilizing Serbian opinion about Kosova. And at various times in their history, the Albanians have fallen back on their Koran schools when Belgrade has denied them an opportunity for Albanian-language education.

But the present conflict cannot be said to be religious in nature. Some 45 years of communism have taken their toll on religious observance in both communities, probably more so on the more urban Serbs. The Kosovar Albanian national movement and the UCK are completely secular. When the Serbs denied the Kosovars their own schools after 1989, the Kosovars formed their own secular institutions and did not rely on the Koran schools.

Q: Where is the UCK now? A: Fighting for its life in the hills. The guerillas lack the heavy weaponry necessary to combat the kind of blitzkrieg that Milosevic has unleashed upon them. Their leaders say they are "overwhelmed." The UCK is looking for new recruits and hopes that Western countries that are reluctant to send in their own ground troops will at least provide arms for the guerrillas.

Q: What about Montenegro? A: Many people in Serbia say that one of Milosevic's main goals in creating the crisis in Kosova was to use it as a pretext for clamping down in Montenegro. Western leaders have warned him repeatedly that he does so at his peril.

Q: Why has Milosevic challenged NATO? A: He may well think he can win a daring gamble in which he hopes to hold out against air strikes until NATO tires of the exercise. The only thing that can truly stop him and the genocide against the Albanians is NATO ground troops, but he is probably counting on the force of Western public opinion to prevent those troops from ever being ordered into Serbia.

He is also probably counting on that same public opinion to forget how quickly Serbian forces collapsed in Croatia and Bosnia in 1995. For years, "experts" had argued that it would take hundreds of thousands of NATO-quality troops to defeat the Serbs. In the end, NATO air strikes and the Croatian and Bosnian armies sent them running. Belgrade's army is of course much stronger than were Knin's or Pale's, but it is not on a level with those of NATO countries, either.

Serbs often add two other factors when discussing Milosevic's behavior. Some Serbs point to the Balkan cultural trait of "inat," or spiteful defiance in the face of all odds. Other Serbs, including Kosova's Orthodox Archbishop Artemije, charge that Milosevic has suicidal tendencies and will bring down all of Serbia with him. Advocates of this theory note that both of Milosevic's parents committed suicide and that his wife has attempted suicide on at least two occasions.

Q: Why does nobody in Serbia stop him? A: The opposition is divided and much of it is opportunistic. Democratic structures and the non-state media are not strong enough to combat the dead weight of communism's 45-year legacy. Milosevic controls most of the media--especially television--and above all the police. There are rumors of opposition within the army, but little hard evidence to substantiate those rumors. Milosevic nonetheless never trusted the army, which is why he built up the fearsome paramilitary police. They have heavy weapons that probably no other police force in the world possesses.

Q: Which country will have the strongest military in the region once this conflict is over? A: Croatia seems to be the best bet. Serbia might still have a bigger army, but its equipment is mostly dated and Soviet-type. Most important, Serbia's military retains a classic communist top-down approach to organization and is rooted in Tito-era strategy and tactics. Croatia, on the other hand, has made conscious efforts under President Franjo Tudjman--himself a former general--and the late Defense Minister Gojko Susak to build a modern army up to NATO specifications in preparation for joining that alliance. Tudjman preferred to give the Yugoslav-era generals a dignified retirement and replace them with emigres and emigrants who had served in Western armies, including the French Foreign Legion.

Q: Are there any good books on Kosova? A: Miranda Vickers' "Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo" and Noel Malcolm's "Kosovo: A Short History" are probably the best recent works available in English.

Clinton Warns Serbs May Lose Kosova. President Bill Clinton said in Washington on March 30 that "if there was ever any doubt about what is at stake [in the Kosova conflict], [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic is certainly erasing it by his actions. They are the culmination of more than a decade of using ethnic and religious hatred as a justification for uprooting and murdering completely innocent, peaceful civilians to pave Mr. Milosevic's path to absolute power�Today he faces the mounting cost of his continued aggression. For a sustained period, we will see that his military will be seriously diminished, key military infrastructure destroyed, the prospect for international support for Serbia's claim to [Kosova] increasingly jeopardized�We must remain steady and determined with the will to see [the campaign of air strikes through," the president added. "We must not allow, if we have the ability to stop it, ethnic cleansing or genocide anywhere we can stop it, particularly at the edge of Europe," he concluded.

RFE/RL Fills Gap in Serbian Media Landscape. "In light of the government's severe intimidation of independent media outlets in Serbia, like Radio B-92 and the Beta News Agency, continued uninterrupted transmissions by international broadcasters such as RFE/RL take on added meaning," RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine said this week. "We will do our part to make sure the people of Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro get the objective news on the current crisis that local independent journalists can no longer provide."

RFE/RL's South Slavic Service currently broadcasts 9.5 hours of original programming per day devoted to the crisis in Yugoslavia, in the Serbian and Albanian languages. The broadcasts are being transmitted into the region from shortwave facilities in Germany and Morocco and from mediumwave facilities in Albania, Bulgaria, and Germany. RFE/RL programming is also being rebroadcast by independent radio stations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, where six affiliates continue to rebroadcast RFE/RL programs. (see schedule at and All RFE/RL broadcasts can also be heard on the Internet using RealAudio technology (

The government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has yet to jam or otherwise impede RFE/RL's broadcasts to Serbia, Montenegro, or Kosovo. Affiliate stations in Montenegro continue to rebroadcast RFE/RL's extended programming to the war-torn region.

News reports also continue to come in to the South Slavic Service from reporters and stringers in Serbia and Montenegro, either by computer link from Belgrade or by both computer and telephone from Podgorica.

Quotations of the Week. "It is war, not genocide, that is driving people out of Kosovo." -- Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, March 31.

"The real goals of those who masterminded, imposed, and are now expanding the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia is to establish NATO's unquestionable diktat in the Balkans. Yugoslavia was a weak spot in these plans. Therefore it had to be hit in order to undermine its military and economic potential. Washington is already working out options of Kosovo's separation from Yugoslavia or dismemberment of the province in practical terms. The implementation of such plans presupposes not only the strengthening of Albanian guerrilla units, but also the commencement of a ground operation." -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, cited by ITAR-TASS, March 31.

"This is a kind of Orwellian scenario of attempting to deprive a people and a culture of the sense of past and the sense of community on which it depends." -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea in Brussels on March 31, commenting on Serbian efforts to systematically destroy Kosovar public and financial records, including birth and marriage certificates as well as property deeds.

"It's a systematic extermination that recalls in a horrible way what was done in the name of Germany at the beginning of World War II, for example in Poland." -- German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, March 31.

"With Prishtina now empty, NATO can just bomb all the city." -- Kosovar refugee in Macedonia, to AP on March 31.

"This is only a temporary solution. You'll soon be home." -- Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko to Kosovar refugees in Tirana's tent city, March 31.

"Milosevic should know now not to create trouble in Montenegro. He already is in enough trouble himself. He does not have the resources or the time to fight on another front. Do not think of trying to open up another front in Montenegro." -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, April 1.

"We are no longer facing an internal Yugoslav crisis. We are facing a crisis that reaches out" across the Balkans. -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, April 2.

"The civilized world cannot sit idly by and accept that evil should triumph." -- The Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey in his Easter sermon.