Impasse in Kosovo

This was not supposed to be happening any more. In late March in the gym in the school in Gracanica, a Serbian enclave in Kosovo, Serbs whose houses had just been set fire to or otherwise damaged by ethnic Albanians sat around listlessly on the mattresses and beds provided for them by relief organizations while a group of angry men outside quarreled about what to do next. A woman told me how ethnic Albanian schoolchildren, screaming abuse, had charged into her house and smashed her furniture, and then set the house on fire. The scene seemed depressingly familiar.

On March 18 and 19 Kosovo exploded in the worst outbreak of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs since 1999. First a young Serb was shot; then Albanians charged that three Albanian boys were chased into a river by local Serbs and drowned.* Thousands of Albanians demonstrated in protest. Very quickly groups of them began to systematically attack vulnerable Serbs and Roma (Gypsies). They set fire to their houses, and to their schools and health centers, obviously wanting to make sure that the Serbs who went to them would never come back. Orthodox churches were destroyed, too, including some precious medieval ones.

At first the UN, which has the final say in running Kosovo, was slow to react, as were the troops from the NATO-led Kosovo force (KFOR); but within a few days NATO flew in reinforcements and brought the situation back under control. By the time the violence subsided nineteen people were dead, eleven Albanians and eight Serbs. Nine hundred fifty-four were injured; thirty-six Orthodox churches and monasteries and other important sites were set on fire or otherwise damaged. By March 24 the UN was reporting that some 4,366 people had been forced to flee. About 360 of them were Albanians and a similar number were Roma. The rest were Serbs.

On the afternoon of March 24 Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who is based in Brussels, held a press conference in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. I don’t think I have ever seen a sophisticated politician expressing his anger quite so openly. What had happened, he said, was “appalling,” “intolerable.” Kosovo’s Albanian leaders, he said, had better not look to the “international community” for money to rebuild what had been destroyed; they would have to pay for it themselves.

It is not hard to understand why Mr. Solana is so bitter. He was speaking exactly five years to the day after he, as the then secretary-general of NATO, gave the order to NATO forces to begin bombing Yugoslavia—because of Serbia’s brutal treatment of Kosovo’s Albanians.


Although Mr. Solana said that violence would not pay, the experience of the Balkans has been quite the opposite. Indeed, in Kosovo during the late 1990s, it was the passive resistance of Kosovo Albanians to Serbian rule that failed to produce results; and it was this failure that enabled Albanian hard-liners to persuade their countrymen that recourse to violence would work. And they…

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