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Yugoslavia: Analyst Assesses Present Crisis In Light Of The Past

Prague, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following is a question and answer session on the Kosovo crisis with Patrick Moore, who has written on Balkan affairs for RFE/RL for over 20 years.

Q: For some nine years after President Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, Kosovo remained the "powder keg that did not explode." Now a conflict has emerged that could prove to be worse than Bosnia. What happened in Kosovo 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 Kosovo 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 Two, 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 Kosovo an autonomy so far reaching that Kosovo'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 Kosovo 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 of 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 policy makers 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 Kosovo?

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 Two.

In Kosovo, 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 life-style, 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 Kosovo?

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 Kosovo for centuries.

Most Serbs feel a strong attachment to Kosovo 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 church buildings in the 11th century.

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

The Albanians form some 90 percent of Kosovo'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 birth rate 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 Kosovo. 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: 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 Kosovo'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 Kosovo?

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."