bosnia report
New Series No. 5 August - 1998
The Serbian Offensive
by Dragomir Olujic

Protectorate for Kosova
In a statement on 4 August carried by the independent Danas in Belgrade, the long-established Serbian anti-war organization Women in Black appealed to the international community to establish a protectorate over Kosova 'as soon as possible'.

The attempt by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) at the end of July to seize Orahovac, a town of about twenty thousand inhabitants situated twenty kilometres from the Yugoslav-Albanian frontier, ended in failure after four days of heavy fighting. Trying to hide their disappointment at this defeat, the KLA commanders then proclaimed a major offensive aimed at Prishtina. Serbian police and Yugoslav military forces responded by launching a counter-offensive that culminated in the entry of Interior Ministry forces into Malisheve, 'capital' of the territory under armed Albanian control.

During these actions against Albanian rebels a wholly disproportionate violence has clearly been employed relative to the proclaimed goals, resulting in many civilian deaths, the destruction of whole villages and towns, and enormous waves of refugees. Decani, Srbica, Glogovac, Stimlje, Orahovac, Klina and Malisheve, as well as part of Suva Reka, have been wholly plundered, destroyed and ethnically cleansed. Because of the general situation, the daily repression, and the great dearth of basic necessities of life especially food, as well as the long-standing communications blockade, Kosovo's second-largest town Pec is also emptying. Prizren and Djakovica alone are holding out, and are consequently overflowing with refugees. Figures for these vary greatly, depending not only on the constantly changing situation but also on the sources used. The foreign media assume 180-200,000 refugees, Albanian sources speak of 500,000 expelled, while official Serbian figures are non-existent. All that can be said for certain is that the territory encompassed by the military and police operation is - or was - inhabited by one million people, so that this is the maximum number possible.

NATO absent, USA deaf

Yet NATO is farther from military intervention than it was several months ago, and the American government's criticisms of Belgrade have been exceptionally mild, above all because the KLA has become an irritant impossible to control. Diplomats say openly that the West has winked at the Serbian offensive so as to push the KLA to the negotiating table. As a leader in London's Daily Telegraph stated on 5 August: 'Earlier this summer, NATO was said to be preparing to halt Serbian oppression of the province, whose autonomy was forcibly removed in 1989: there was talk of air strikes against tanks and artillery positions, fuel dumps and bridges. Yet, despite the current offensive by Belgrade, employing heavy weapons, nothing has happened. Alliance leaders were evidently seeking to delude Western opinion into thinking that military action would be taken against the Serbian offensive, while having no intention of doing any such thing. [...] After much procrastination, NATO intervened to halt Serbian depredations in Bosnia. It is sickening to see the alliance stand by while the pattern of oppression is repeated in Kosovo.' Once again, for the sake of short-term geopolitical interests, the West is permitting the gross violation of human rights in Kosovo.

The Guardian, in its 5 August report 'NATO stalls as refugee tide grows in Kosovo', quotes sources at the military alliance's Brussels HQ according to which the Pact is far from selecting any kind of military option. 'NATO has a full range of contingency planning, but before they can be triggered, there has to be a political mandate', one NATO official was quoted as saying. All that is planned for now are joint manoeuvres in Albania on 17 August, not as a preparation for intervention in Kosovo but in order to introduce the Albanians to NATO.

Turin's La Stampa draws comparisons between the current blood-letting and the massacres in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. 'The shelling of undefended villages, the plunder and burning are reminiscent of some genocide in Africa, rather than on our continent. Nobody will dare to touch Milosevic so long as NATO's threats are shown to be simply bluff.'

While the Serbian state media euphorically celebrate the police counter-offen- sive, nobody really believes that the 'Kosovo knot' can be unravelled purely through force of arms. The Serbian Interior Ministry forces, respectable though they certainly are, cannot on their own reimpose control over Kosovo. All eyes are consequently turned to political negotiations and international diplomacy. In the situation now created, the new facts have obviously weakened the KLA, objectively strengthened the position of Ibrahim Rugova, and increased the possibility that Belgrade might make significant concessions that would not appear extorted by force of arms. However, if neither side shows sufficient goodwill and flexibility, and the KLA renews and strengthens itself, there will no longer be space for the politicians: the war will be waged in all likelihood across the whole province till one or the other side has been destroyed.

Unclear goals, dubious means

This latest Serbian offensive in Kosovo has raised for the Kosovo Albanians and their politicians complex and sensitive questions of freedom, war and peace, as well as of relations with Belgrade and the international community. In the course of it the old weaknesses and dilemmas of the Albanian movement have been revealed. It has now become clear that the Albanian movement in Kosovo did not set off with clearly defined goals, quite apart from the means to realize them.

After eight years of the policy of passive resistance, and several years of dispute between its advocates and those who called for an active non-violent resistance, Kosovo quite abruptly found itself at war. Although many had warned of the danger of war, few had predicted the speed of its outbreak. So the Kosovo Albanians, denied a transitional period of adaptation, almost overnight shifted from a state of expecting a peaceful solution with the help of the international community to one of seeking a solution by way of arms. Such a shift could not, however, occur without consequences. The mass acceptance of the 'new way' and seemingly rapid adaptation of the Albanian population to a state of war contrasted with the difficulty on the part of the Albanian political leadership - and above all that section of it mesmerized by the idea of talks with Milosevic - in adapting to the new situation. Allowing events to develop spontaneously, the Kosovo political leadership has enabled Milosevic to dictate their course, including blackmailing the Albanian resistance. It abandoned the chance to put itself at the head of the Albanian national movement, or even to exert a degree of guidance over the inevitably uncoordinated armed resistance to the intolerable reigning tyranny. In that way the entire burden was placed on the shoulders of the KLA, which was forced to perform tasks that were simply outside its competence.

It became clear, moreover, as soon as the uprising broke out that the KLA was not qualified to tackle even those problems that fell exclusively within its jurisdiction. Seduced clearly by the exhilaration of revolt into an attempt to defend or even seize territory, it found itself engaged in frontal combat with a professional police and army. But if the two-hundred-year history of guerrilla warfare has taught one lesson it is that a guerrilla force in the state of formation has no chance in such a confrontation.

In addition, within the KLA itself the goals of the struggle have not been clearly defined. Some, to be sure, have located these exclusively within Kosovo. For others, however, they cross frontiers and consist in the liberation and unification of all enslaved Albanian lands. Such an unrealistic approach has allowed the enemies of the legitimate Albanian struggle to create a bogey threatening the stability of other nations and their borders. The public is unaware that differences within the KLA are much greater, and conflicts between political and military groups much more damaging to Albanian unity, than might have been imagined. Politicians and political parties have fared much better in this respect, because they have had the support of the Great Powers, for whom the KLA is both an enigma and an uncertain, destabilizing factor not amenable to control.

In this way, intentionally or not, the right psychological and political climate was formed for the unimpeded acts of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime in Kosovo, as well as for the apathy of the world's capitals and media towards the tragedy that is at this moment being experienced by about five hundred thousand Kosovo Albanians. In reality the Albanians have no potential to threaten others. But they must beware of providing an alibi, by adopting an unrealistic approach even if this is only rhetorical, for such brutal treatment - not only from their enemies, but also from those who have at least a degree of understanding for their aspirations and their legitimate struggle.

Milosevic the problem not the solution

Despite the devastation it has already witnessed in Croatia and Bosnia, Washington stubbornly fails - no matter whether unintentionally or deliberately - to confront the fact that there will be no stable peace in the Balkans as long as Milosevic remains in power. American officials still see him as the man who can stop the war. Richard Holbrooke believed that Milosevic, by signing the Dayton Accord, stopped the war in Bosnia; but the failure of the international community to try Milosevic for the crimes he had committed in Croatia and Bosnia actually sent a clear message to him that he could repeat them with impunity. The man who initiates conflicts cannot be the one to end them.

There will be no lasting peace so long as FRY remains an undemocratic state headed by Milosevic. Even if the Albanians were to accept the autonomy towards which they are being coerced, there would be no guarantee that Milosevic would end his repressive rule in Kosovo, or that he would not at some point again rescind the region's autonomy. The undemocratic government in Belgrade remains a permanent threat to the stability of the region, and the number one priority for American policy should be the indictment of Milosevic by The Hague.

An aggressive retaliation against Milosevic at the present moment seems to have been ruled out, for fear of sending a wrong message to Albanian rebels insisting on a separatist programme. But an equally wrong message is being sent to Milosevic, as well as to other dictators, that in the name of territorial integrity the international community will tolerate their reigns of terror. So far as the Americans are concerned, their unpreparedness to support, even critically, the Kosovo Albanians spells a disaster for the province's civilian population.

Condemning the indecision of the West over intervention in Kosovo, The Daily Telegraph wrote in its 5 August leader: 'In the summer of 1995 the Croatian army, retrained and reorganized by the Americans, rolled back Serbian forces and put paid to Slobodan Milosevic's dream of empire. Peace talks at Dayton, Ohio followed and the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina was preserved. The lesson to be drawn from this exercise was that force alone could curb Belgrade's evil policy of ethnic cleansing. [...] Mr Milosevic is the architect of the hideous suffering visited on former Yugoslavia during this decade. He should be in the dock of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, rather than being allowed to pursue with impunity his vicious ends in Kosovo. [...] Western policy should attempt to weaken him whenever possible, not to enter into a dirty compromise over Kosovo.'

The Macedonian dimension

Washington's fear that an independent Kosovo would greatly destabilize Macedonia, where the Albanian community comprises one third of the population, and wreck the fragile peace in Bosnia, where twenty thousand US soldiers are still present, is understandable. Yet continued atrocities against civilians and material destruction, with the predictable reaction of the KLA, could produce a refugee crisis that would radicalize still more the already radicalized Albanian community in Macedonia. Keeping Kosovo within FRY and Serbia, many Western politicians believe, would safeguard the integrity of neighbouring Macedonia thus preventing a general Balkan war from breaking out. So they think that the Kosovo Albanians should be left to the mercy of the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army, indifferent to the fact that such a policy is both stupid and immoral.

In Macedonia a 'real inter-ethnic conflict' has in any case already broken out. After dozens of 'inter-ethnic conflicts' between Macedonian policemen and citizens of Albanian nationality, shortly before midnight on 18 July Tetovo became the scene of inter-ethnic street-fighting in which the main protagonists were 'ordinary citizens', Macedonians and Albanians, while the police played, so far as we know, the role of 'peacemaker' or 'buffer'.

The conflict arose from a scenario already familiar on the territory of the former Yugoslavia: an unidentified Albanian was accused of 'rape' or 'attempted rape'. Because his wife was not able to identify the 'rapist', a certain Borce Nikolovski, drunk and armed with baseball bat and knife, entered the Arba coffee-house where leading members of the Democratic Party of Albanians habitually gathered and proceeded to attack those present, accompanying his actions with curses and insults. The Albanians responded quickly, with bottles. At the first sign of the fight, according to witnesses, a group of about 200 Macedonians gathered in the vicinity of the coffee-house to provide help 'in case of need', and inevitably a real battle broke out, involving stones. Tenants from the surrounding buildings and a group of non-local Albanians also joined the fight. The Tetovo police broke it up by separating the two sides. The result: several broken windows, numerous physical injuries, five arrests including the unlucky Borce and, naturally, a cooling-off period 'in the presence of the authorities'.

Earned Independence
'The foundation for a successful policy must be the realization that Milosevic is the primary cause of regional instability. Milosevic, by his brutal excesses, has forfeited Serbia's right of sovereignty over Kosovo. The international community should apply the concept of 'earned independence' to Kosovo. Kosovo would become a ward of the international community for five years, during which time it would be self-governing but not independent and would have to demonstrate by responsible behaviour - treatment of the Serb and other minorities, avoiding destabilization of neighbouring states - that it was ready for independence and international recognition.'
James Hooper, director, The Balkan Action Council, Washington DC

The more-or-less happy ending will not be the end of inter-ethnic conflicts in Macedonia. Similar conflicts, albeit of lesser intensity, had occurred in Macedonia prior to this. Two examples may be given as symptomatic, both in Skopje: an attack on Albanian schoolchildren, and the secession of Macedonian drivers from the hitherto successful Vodno taxi company. In the first case a group of Albanian students, whose school was situated in a Macedonian district of Skopje 'on the right bank of the Vardar', were attacked by a group of their Macedonian fellow-students who believed the Albanians were cursing them since they were 'speaking in an incomprehensible language'. In the second case the Macedonian taxi-drivers left the joint company and founded their own ethnically pure one, because they 'did not wish to work in the same company as others', and the new association will not accept non-Macedonians under any circumstances. What is most worrying in these cases is the absence of any kind of organized action - either by the public or by responsible politicians - against such happenings.

Goodbye monasteries, hello Trepca

Do current events in Kosovo herald the end of the Kosovo myth? The Belgrade ethnologist Ivan Colovic attempted to reply to this question at a seminar at Zabljaka last Sunday, and here is a brief, characteristic passage from his intervention. Searching for the real meaning of the conflict in Kosovo, says Colovic, some newspapers have revealed that the true heart of Kosovo lies not in the tales of Serb saints, mediaeval monasteries and graves but in the Trepca mines, with their vast mineral wealth. Nasa Borba quotes Robert Fisk writing in The Independent: 'Goodbye to monasteries and churches, Serb Orthodox graves, mosaics, frescoes and Byzantine temples. Goodbye to the spiritual strength of Kosovo. For here, deep in the mines of Trepca, lies the tangible value of this dangerous province for Slobodan Milosevic, the richest piece of property in the Balkans, the vault of Serbia, whose worth in demonstrated and estimated reserves of lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and gold is a full three billion pounds. Even if the field of Kosovo - the meadow laced with poppies where the Turks defeated mediaeval Serbia - were to be abandoned to the Albanians who comprise 90% of the population of Kosovo, what Serb would ever renounce the Trepca mine?'

The value of Trepca is here revealed, Colovic continues, to have at least one thing in common with the value of the mythical Kosovo: Serbs are dying for it. The story of Trepca is thereby reduced to a variant of the myth of the Kosovo sacrifice. In this variant the Kosovo story becomes one of buried treasure, with its fabulous value and its guardian of dread aspect.

The Kosovo myth is still alive. It is, however, in the general, and especially in the Serbian, interest that it should be terminated. For example, by comprehending the disparities between the myth and the historical facts. This is the opinion defended by Noel Malcolm. He demolishes certain arbitrary, if not wholly mythical, representations of Kosovo, arguing among other things that 'until the last hundred years or so [there was no] "ethnic conflict" between Albanians and Serbs. Slav and Albanian mountain clans had long traditions of cooperation and intermarriage, and, in some cases, legends of common ancestry.' After all, 'the ethnic divisions between Serbs and Albanians were never entirely clear-cut.' The conclusion is that Serbs could build their identity without Kosovo, which they could experience as a spiritual rather than a physical space.

Ivan Colovic's argument carries force. Serb 'map-makers' - from academicians Cosic, Markovic, Macura and Isakovic, through university professor Cavoski, to other 'national workers' of the Kalajic type - have long since 'partitioned' Kosovo: to the Serbs goes Trepca, to the Albanians all the monasteries and other Serb 'spiritual spaces'. Simply put, these 'professional' Serbs have always been ready to exchange their 'cradle of Serbdom' for (what else but) gold ! There exists, however, a different view. Arban Xhaferi, president of the Democratic Party of Albanians in Macedonia, says: 'Looked at geostrategically, I do not believe that Kosovo is so important for Serbia. Kosovo for Serbia is an appendix. Of particular geostrategic importance for Serbia are Montenegro and the Sandzak, as well as the narrow strip between Presevo and Vranja which links it to Macedonia. That corridor allows Serbia to communicate with Greece. I believe that Kosovo is in every respect lost for Serbia. Furthermore, I do not believe in any form of partition for Kosovo. That could not succeed, because the logic of maps drawn up in certain offices stands in contradiction to the logic of life.'

End of the old or beginning of a new Kosovo myth?!

Dragomir Olujic, a Belgrade sociologist and journalist, has been active in Serbian opposition circles since the late sixties and was one of the 'Belgrade Six' targeted by regime hardliners for a show trial in 1984.


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