Kosovo: The Beginning of the End

Bogdan Denitch

Kosovo is where the final disintegration of Yugoslavia began. It is there that the Titoist settlement of the national question in Yugoslavia broke down irreparably in 1990. The immediate issue was the decision of Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia, the largest federal unit of Yugoslavia, to abolish the wide autonomy enjoyed by the province of Kosovo under the Constitution of 1974.

Kosovo is Yugoslavia's West Bank, with Serb nationalism confronting the reality of a huge Albanian majority, by now over 85 percent. Serbian claims to Kosovo, much like Israeli claims to the West Bank, are based on a mixture of strategic considerations, historical assertions, and mystical religious themes. Ultimately the Serbs believe that the special historical suffering of their people -- namely, five hundred years of "slavery" under the Turks (aided by Muslim Albanians) and huge population losses in the two world wars -- gives their claims greater weight than those of the present inhabitants of Kosovo.

For the Albanians, too, Kosovo is tragic ground. It was there, in the late nineteenth century, that modern Albanian nationalism was born. The Balkan wars of 1912 against the Turks were wars of liberation for the Serbs but wars of brutal conquest to the Kosovo and Macedonian Albanians. The Albanians bitterly resisted integration into Yugoslavia and were subjugated by military force after both world wars. The international community treated them much as it did the Kurds, and only slightly more than half of the Albanians ended up living in an independent Albania. Nevertheless, Tito's communism produced enormous progress in literacy and development for Kosovo. After its first two decades it also produced wide political and cultural autonomy, which in effect made Kosovo a second Albanian state. Although the least developed part of Yugoslavia, it was far more prosperous and modern than Albania itself.

The bigotry that most Serbs feel toward the Albanians makes coexistence with mutual respect and tolerance in one state unlikely. These Serbs proudly claim that they themselves are civilized and European and that their Muslim enemies are not. This view is held not only by supporters of the Milosevic regime, but also by many in the democratic opposition. Even Vesna Pesic's Civic Alliance, the urban middle-class party most favored by do-good foundations and Western embassies, departs from its otherwise fine record of fighting for human rights and democracy by insisting that Kosovo must stay within both Yugoslavia and Serbia. This is unacceptable to even the most moderate Kosovo Albanians.

Ever since Tito's death in 1980, the Kosovo Albanians have been agitating to gain the status of a republic, like the other federal units, rather than the near-republic status within Serbia they had been granted by the Constitution of 1974. At first, they wanted to stay in Yugoslavia but to be as independent of Belgrade as Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia were. The Kosovar agitation was met by increasingly chauvinist Serbian propaganda in the state-controlled media -- abetted by most of Serbia's intellectual establishment (both communist and anticommunist) -- and with repression, culminating in the abolition of the province's autonomy in June of 1990.

With this act, Milosevic accomplished three things, all of which proved disastrous for the future of Yugoslavia and even for the Serbs. By purging Kosovo's established pro-Yugoslav leaders, he assured their replacement by Ibrahim Rugova, who was committed to an independent Kosovo. For almost a decade Rugova has led a remarkable massive nonviolent struggle -- in one of the most undeveloped parts of the Balkans -- establishing a parallel underground "state," with its own schools, medical centers and political institutions. Second, Milosevic entered into an alliance with Serb nationalists, and directly encouraged the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to demand self-government for their ethnic enclaves within those republics. Third, this in turn provoked the growth of Croatian nationalism, leading to the election of the right-wing ultranationalist Tudjman regime in Croatia.

The growing chaos convinced the leaders of Yugoslavia's most developed republic, Slovenia, to secede unilaterally in 1991. The Yugoslav army only half-heartedly tried to prevent this. In the event, Slovenia's declaration of independence was rapidly followed by those of Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. This left the present rump Yugoslavia, composed of the Republic of Serbia with the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, now stripped of their autonomy by Belgrade, and the Republic of Montenegro.

However, while poor and underdeveloped Macedonia was permitted to secede peacefully, Croat and Bosnian independence led to a bitter war with the local Serb militias, which were reinforced by what remained of the Yugoslav army. The Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia did not want to become minorities in the new national states. One of the more successful multi-ethnic states in recent European history thus ended in ethnic carnage.

Although the numbers are bitterly disputed, it seems that only about fifty people, mostly young Serb conscripts, were killed in the Slovenian "war" of independence. Something like twelve thousand people, mostly civilians, were killed in the Croatian war, while the Bosnian wars cost at least one hundred thousand lives. Two and a half to three million people became refugees, ethnically cleansed to create "pure" Croatian and Bosnian entities.

Rump Yugoslavia remained multi-ethnic with one third of the population consisting of Albanians, Hungarians, Muslim-Bosniaks, and Croats. The low-intensity war in Kosovo in 1998 produced relatively few casualties -- two to three thousand at most -- but many refugees, perhaps a quarter million.

The successor states that emerged, with the possible exception of Slovenia, are poorer and less independent than authoritarian Tito's Yugoslavia had been. Individual citizens are also much poorer and less secure. The middle class has been economically destroyed and replaced by a new gangster elite. And people of all classes are less secure because of the terrible crimes that have been committed in the names of their various ethnic communities.

Peace Versus the New Elites

The new ruling elites in the post-Yugoslav states, sometimes with roots in the old communist nomenklaturas, have prospered mightily during the wars of Yugoslav succession, accumulating wealth and power in the old fashioned way -- by robbery. Even the economic sanctions helped, because they provided vast opportunities for smuggling, which became a patriotic act. In these countries, where no legitimate money was available to buy the formerly public or state property, the prescription by the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and World Bank to "marketize and above all privatize" guaranteed a gangster economy.

The new politicians, generals, and volunteer militia heads have devastated the land, committing atrocities that spur huge population transfers. This new class born out of the intra-ethnic wars of Yugoslav succession thrives on ethnic confrontation and relentlessly fosters ethnic chauvinism, preventing any transition to stability and democracy.

After all, any responsible democratic government in Croatia, Bosnia, and above all in Serbia, will have to engage in the equivalent of denazification: the ousting and punishing of the butchers in the present political elites. The trouble is that those who need to be removed from public life and deprived of their ill-gotten property are the elected leaders of government. They remain in power by insisting on the presence of external and internal threats. This is made easier by their control of the most powerful electronic media, reinforced by a public opinion wallowing in self-pity and poisoned by a decade of nationalist propaganda.

Alas, the West and above all the United States continue to treat these corrupt regimes as legitimate governments and indispensable guarantors of the ramshackle peace agreements negotiated essentially by the Americans. The United States was the architect of the Dayton agreement, which ended a terrible war in Bosnia with a miserable peace. It was Washington that built up the Croatian armed forces before 1995, making possible the single biggest case of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars of secession, in which nearly two hundred thousand Croatian Serbs were driven into an exile which still bedevils democratic politics in Croatia. The United States also advised the Bosnian government to reject repeated peace agreements negotiated by the Europeans, thereby prolonging the carnage by at least two years. Sadly, the political lesson drawn from this was that no agreement could be made without the Americans. While British, French, Italian, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Spanish soldiers lost their lives in Bosnia, the United States only provided air support. Until Dayton, that is, when it became clear that without American ground troops there would be no peace agreement.

The United States, it seems, wants to be a superpower without deploying the appropriate resources. Through its on-again, off-again threats to use force -- especially during the Ramboulliet negotiations on Kosovo earlier this year -- Washington has destroyed its credibility.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in Kosovo. The 1995 Dayton settlement contained provisions on the region, which provided for two thousand armed "observers," in a no way a substitute for a robust deployment of troops. In fact, they have functioned as two thousand hostages. The agreement left at least fifteen thousand heavily armed Serbian police and troops and Kosovo as well as an armed and encouraged Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

In this winter's Ramboulliet peace negotiations (whose final resolution is still uncertain as Dissent goes to press), the United States has maintained the same pattern of empty threats. The initial peace proposal itself was not bad: it would have granted Kosovo wide, internationally guaranteed autonomy, but not independence. This autonomy would be enforced, during a three-year truce, by twenty-eight thousand NATO troops, and the Serbian regime's presence would be reduced to 1,500 border patrollers.

But the United States and NATO negotiated only with the KLA and with the Milosevic regime -- neither of which has strong credentials to speak for most citizens on the ground in Kosovo. And to make matters worse, NATO has played its hand awkwardly. It is not clear, for example, what Madeleine Albright's threats to bomb Serbia are meant to achieve: if massive enough to do real damage, there would be unacceptable civilian casualties; if more modest, they would be no more effective than the air strikes against the regime in Iraq.

In the meantime, despite renewed Serbian aggression, the KLA is not only surviving but prospering mightily at the expense of other political forces in the Albanian community. It is taking over whole villages and towns in Kosovo, occupying the abandoned Serbian police bunkers and pushing aside the local Rugova leadership, often by brute force.

Toward a Democratic Settlement

The basic mistake made by the United States and Western Europe was their assumption that the governing thugs in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo would remain the only political partners available. This has strengthened these regimes and made stable peace impossible. Washington modernized Tudjman's army and police, which remain a constant threat to democracy in Croatia. Bosnia's Izetbegovic has used his control over the vast aid sent into Bosnia to tighten his stranglehold on a government and army where religion is being introduced. This makes the development of a multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic Bosnia all but impossible.

The worst predator in the area, Milosevic, has been strengthened the most. A shallow Machiavellianism led the United States and Europe to imagine that he could be a force for stability in the region; this is a game he understands all too well. To make sure he remains the lesser evil he has taken Vojislav Seselj's semi-fascist Radical Party as a junior partner in his government. The paralyzing message is, "If I fall, the alternative is Seselj!" He has resumed his crackdown on an already weak democratic opposition. With the enthusiastic support of the Radicals he has abolished university autonomy, dismissed opposition faculty in massive numbers and passed a repressive law that has all but destroyed the independent media.

The west needs to advance a short-range policy that gives Kosovo the status of a self-governing entity within a looser Yugoslavia. Kosovo must be independent of Serbia and Belgrade, whether it is called a republic or not. Such a settlement must have iron-clad international guarantees and firm guarantees of minority and democratic rights. Kosovo cannot become a squalid repressive bantustan dominated by hard men with guns. This means that those Albanian forces -- like the former communist leader Mahmut Bakali -- who are pushing for such a solution should be strengthened. But a democratic Kosovo cannot long exist in an authoritarian Yugoslavia controlled by Milosevic and Seselj -- so help must often be given to the principal Serbian oppositionists of today, even if they are not inspriring and are themselves too nationalistic. In the long term, the smaller, "hard" -- non-nationalist -- opposition has to be supported. The "hard" democrats tend to be independent trade unionists, nongovernmental organization activists, students and democratic leftists with populist overtones. They have been less attractive to U.S. policy makers than English-speaking, well-dressed, deodorant-using liberals who are devoted uncritically to privatization and the free market. Of course they have one problem -- they can't attract any substantial electoral support.

Serbia, and even Croatia and Bosnia, will either be democratized radically by democratic populist forces or plunged further into nationalist chaos. Given the growing economic despair, there will be no comfortable "centrist" liberal solution. That much is certain.

Bogdan Denitch is director of the Institute for Transitions to Democracy and is the Democratic Socialists of America's representative to the Socialist International.

Copyright 1999 by the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, Inc. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all HTML codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact inquiries@dissentmagazine.org or write to Dissent, 310 Riverside Drive, suite 2008, New York, NY 10025.

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