When I arrived in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in December, one of the first things I noticed was the fresh fruit—including large quantities of imported clementine oranges—on display in the windows of several grocery stores. I had just left Belgrade, where the food shops were empty or had only a few cans on the shelves, and the restaurants were deserted except for a handful of foreigners and politicians entertaining their cronies. In Pristina, the restaurants were fairly crowded with local ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population. Because of the gas shortage Belgrade’s streets are nearly empty, except for police cars and luxury cars said to belong to gangsters with political connections who have got rich through smuggling. Traffic was light in Pristina too, but there was more of it than in Belgrade. Yet the international sanctions that President Slobodan Milosevic’s government blames for Serbia’s severe shortages also apply to Kosovo, whose autonomy was revoked by Milosevic in 1990, and which is now ruled directly, and with a heavy hand, from Belgrade.
What makes the contrast between Kosovo and Serbia so remarkable is that, at least superficially, it is a reverse of the situation that had prevailed before the breakup of Yugoslavia. According to World Bank figures for 1990—the last year for which reliable data are available—per capita income in Kosovo amounted to only $662, making it by far the poorest region in Europe, even more depressed than neighboring Albania. On the other hand, per capita income in Serbia was $2,238, three-and-a-half times as great. (In Slovenia, the wealthiest republic of Yugoslavia, per capita income was $5,918, close to ten times that in Kosovo.) It is not that Kosovo has become better off since 1990; in fact, the standard of living has declined, although apparently not as much as in Belgrade. More important, though the people suffer severe political repression because of their resistance to Serbian domination, they seem to be coping with their difficult circumstances better than most of the Serbs.
Of Kosovo’s population of about two million people, only 200,000 are Serbs. The Milosevic government wants to increase their number by resettling in Kosovo some of the half million or so Serbs who were displaced from Croatia when it declared its independence in 1991, but this effort has been largely unsuccessful. Serbia controls Kosovo, thanks to 60,000 police and soldiers, most of them, I was told, brought in for tours of duty from Serbia and Montenegro, rather than recruited from among local Serbs. But the thought of living among so many Albanians who resent being dominated by Serbia has deterred all but a few Serbs from moving there. Kosovo’s symbolic significance to Serbs is often compared to that of Jerusalem to Jews; but so far there is no sign of anything like a Zionist movement to return there.
In Rebecca West’s classic account of her travels in Yugoslavia before World …