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Kosovo Survives!

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President Slobodan Milosevic’s government blames for Serbia’s severe shortages also apply to Kosovo, whose autonomy was revoked by Milosevic in 1990, and which is now ruled directly, and with a heavy hand, from Belgrade.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 War II, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Kosovo is referred to as “Old Serbia.” It was the birthplace of the medieval kingdom of Serbia and of the Serbian Orthodox Church; and the battle of Kosovo Field—literally the “Field of the Black Birds”—fought a few miles away from present-day Pristina, is the defining event in Serb history: the Serbs lost, and for the next five centuries were subjected to Ottoman rule. The most important Serbian cultural and religious shrines are also in Kosovo, including the magnificent Serbo-Byzantine church called Gracanica, which was completed in 1321. Along with some thirty other religious buildings, Gracanica recalls the golden age of Serb history, the era of the Nemanjic dynasty, which, before its defeat by the Ottomans, presided over the most powerful empire in the Balkans.

The Albanians also claim ancient ties to the territory, and some say they descend from the Illyrians who lived there in pre-Roman times. But in the version of history favored by Milosevic and his followers, the preponderance of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo today continues the ancient persecution of the Serbs by Muslims. Alex Dragnich, a Serbian-American who is a retired political science professor from Vanderbilt University, expresses a familiar Serbian view:

In World War II, as Kosovo became part of greater Albania, made possible by Fascist Italy, persecution of Serbs once more became the order of the day. At the end of the war Croat Communist dictator Tito, who in effect had promised Kosovo Albanians the right to be annexed to Albania, reneged on his promise, but made of it an autonomous province in the territorially reduced republic of Serbia.

Serbs who had fled during the war to escape Albanian and Bulgarian persecution were officially prevented from returning.

For the next several decades, the Kosovo Albanian leaders (part and parcel of the Yugoslav Communist Party), engaged in ethnic cleansing of Serbs and their institutions on a grand scale (desecration of Serbian orthodox churches and cemeteries, arson and theft of Serbian properties, rape and other physical violence), forcing thousands of Serbs to flee.1

There is much to quarrel with in this summary of recent history, starting with the relatively trivial matter of Tito’s ethnic origins. Though his father was a Croat, Tito’s mother was Slovene (those of mixed parentage are sometimes referred to as Yugoslavs), and labeling him a Croat serves to emphasize his supposed hostility toward the interests of Serbs.

Far more pernicious is Dragnich’s distorted assertion that the Kosovo Albanians engaged in “ethnic cleansing…on a grand scale against the Serbs.” It is true that during the 1980s Albanian nationalists were responsible for a number of violent assaults on Serbs, and for the destruction of some Serb property; but to label this “ethnic cleansing” is a gross exaggeration. Those words have come to stand for the forced expulsion of civilians from their homes at gunpoint and their mass internment in detention camps under unspeakable conditions. The term also recalls the rapes, the torture, the massacres, and the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian communities by Serbs, and to a lesser extent by Croats and in some cases by Muslims, in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

Unquestionably, some Serbs left Kosovo because of the Albanians’ attacks, but there is no comparison with the scale of what is happening in Bosnia. Much more important for many other Serbs was the desire to move from an extremely poor rural province to cities such as Belgrade. Recently thousands of young Albanians, in order to avoid being drafted into the Serbian Army, have left Kosovo for Western Europe, where their status is uncertain and they risk being expelled.

Dragnich’s essay also distorts the decades after World War II by treating it as a single period, during which Albanians drove Serbs out of Kosovo. In fact, for the first two decades after the war, until the downfall in 1966 of Tito’s vice-president, Alexander Rankovic, a Serb who was also head of Yugoslavia’s secret police, Albanians in Kosovo were subjected to state terror. Many were arrested and brutally treated for not accepting the authority of the Communist regime and for trying to maintain their Albanian ethnic identity. Nevertheless, they increased their proportion of the local population as more and more Serbs departed, while their own birth rate remained among the highest in Europe. After 1966, Tito’s government changed its direction and adopted a policy of proportional representation for Yugoslavs of all ethnic groups in government positions, and repression of the Albanians eased considerably. During this period, too, several amendments to the Yugoslav constitution enhanced Kosovo’s autonomy.

In 1974, Yugoslavia adopted its third postwar federal constitution and designated both Kosovo and Vojvodina, the territory bordering Hungary, as provinces with virtually the same autonomous powers as the country’s six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Unlike the republics, however, the constitution did not grant Kosovo and Vojvodina the right to secede from the Yugoslav federation, and it specified that they were still part of Serbia, thus providing Milosevic, more than a decade and a half later, with a legal justification for revoking their autonomy.

If one could pick a single date to mark the point when Yugoslavia began to fall apart, it might be June 28, 1987—St. Vitus’s Day and the 598th anniversary of Tsar Lazar’s defeat at the battle of Kosovo. Speaking to Serbs who had assembled on the Field of Blackbirds, Slobodan Milosevic denounced Albanian crimes against Serbs and declared: “Never again will anyone beat you.” The enthusiastic response to this speech encouraged Milosevic to take other opportunities to speak directly to the Serbian masses—most notably, to a crowd of about a million that gathered in Kosovo in 1989 on its 600th anniversary—and to whip up nationalist passions. In effect he tried to equate contemporary Albanians—most of them Muslims, though of distinctly secular inclinations2—with the Muslim Turks who had ruled over the Serbs for centuries. A few weeks after the open-air speech in 1987 that launched his campaign, Milosevic, riding the nationalist wave, forced Ivan Stambolic, his former mentor in the Serbian League of Communists, out of the Party leadership. This was another milestone on his way to absolute power and the establishment of Greater Serbia. His campaign won the support of many Serbs, but it also persuaded many Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo that their future lay in national independence.

Milosevic’s demand that Kosovo’s autonomy be revoked led to strikes and demonstrations in Kosovo, which were followed by political trials, special security measures, more riots, mass arrests, and the deaths of several dissidents. In March 1989 the Serbian government imposed martial law on Kosovo. In June 1990, Serbia’s legislature revoked Kosovo’s autonomy; and the Kosovo Assembly responded in July by declaring Kosovo an independent republic within the Yugoslav federation. In September Serbia adopted a new constitution placing all government activities in Vojvodina under the direct control of Belgrade and abolishing all the locally controlled institutions in Kosovo, including the provincial assembly, the courts, and the police. Belgrade granted itself three of the eight seats in the collective presidency which had governed Yugoslavia since the death of Tito in 1980, another act that caused the other republics in the federation to seek independence.

For Kosovo’s Albanians the dissolution of the assembly and the loss of political autonomy were by no means the most severe consequences of Milosevic’s campaign against them. By the end of 1991, virtually every Albanian doctor, teacher, university professor, judge, and court employee had either been dismissed from state employment or had resigned in sympathy with those who lost their jobs—some 73,000 persons were put out of work. In consequence, Albanian students no longer attend Pristina University; the high schools are closed; elementary school teachers are no longer paid by the state; and Albanians refuse to make use of local hospitals. Moreover, tens of thousands of Albanians have been dismissed from their posts in public and private commercial enterprises.

Ostensibly, these people were not fired simply because they were ethnic Albanians. Teachers, for example, were discharged for refusing to teach a new curriculum that had a strong Serbian nationalist slant. According to an August 1993 report by the Belgradebased Humanitarian Law Fund, thirtyfour Albanian teachers were dismissed from a school for the deaf in Prizren, even though the curriculum they were using had been designed in Belgrade. Doctors were fired for declining to write all prescriptions and medical reports in the Cyrillic script used by Serbians. Judges were fired because the local courts were dissolved. Commercial employees were fired for taking part in general strikes. The dismissals of Albanians and the resignations in sympathy have purged most of Kosovo’s Albanians from the official economy.

The response of the Albanian Kosovars to the dismissals and resignations of their teachers and doctors helps to explain why international economic sanctions do not seem to be taking as great a toll in Kosovo as they do in Belgrade. To replace the schools from which Albanian teachers were fired, Kosovars have organized classes in private homes. The Association of Albanian Teachers and officials of the suspended Pedagogical Administration of Kosovo claim that 274,280 pupils attended primary school classes and 63,340 attended secondary school classes during the 1992–1993 school year, figures that are comparable to the attendance at Albanian language schools before the dismissals.

The Humanitarian Law Fund reports that the police have frequently raided these schools and that the principal of one of the eleven “underground” secondary schools in Pristina has been arrested four times. On one occasion he was severely beaten on the soles of his feet with a truncheon. In another case reported by the Fund, the electric company cut off the power supply to a school and the owner of the house was fined 5,800 German marks (the currency in which serious transactions take place) for “using private electricity for school business.” In spite of such harassment, the schools continue; a visitor can see children gathering in groups in front of the houses where their classes are held.

The Albanian Kosovars have not been able to organize their own hospitals and cannot have surgical operations within the province. Still, as far as I could tell from conversations I had with people in Pristina and from a visit to a clinic there, many people who do not need to be hospitalized are getting adequate medical treatment. The clinic I went to is run by a local Catholic organization that calls itself “Mother Teresa” (though it has no official connection with the Calcutta charity that was founded by Mother Teresa, who was herself of Albanian origin). It is located in a modest threestory house owned by a family—father, mother, and seven children—who moved into two rooms and turned over the rest to the clinic. Albanian craftsmen donated their labor to convert the building to a clinic, which uses every inch of the available space, with rooms partitioned by curtains, to provide care for about five hundred patients a day. When I was there, about thirty patients were being treated and more than another hundred were waiting their turn, many of them lined up on the sidewalk in front of the house. The doctors, mostly women, were all Albanians and each was assisted by at least one intern or medical student who was being trained.

In addition to the impressive community spirit and organization they are creating, the Albanians need cash to sustain the alternative economy. Very few international relief organizations are active in Kosovo, though their work—such as an immunization program conducted by a New York group, Doctors of the World—is crucial to maintaining public health. Much of the money to keep the economy going—including providing food in the shops and gasoline for cars—is sent to Kosovo from Albanian Kosovars living in Western Europe and in the United States. I have heard that some Kosovars in Europe have felt they were under considerable pressure to contribute. Though the wages paid to teachers in the underground schools are minuscule, they are, thanks to the remittances from abroad, greater than those now paid to the Serb teachers who continue to teach Serb children in the official schools. Sympathetic Albanians in Macedonia have also been sending food supplies.

All the Albanians to whom I spoke in Kosovo—political party leaders, journalists, doctors, relief workers, former members of the university faculty, and human rights workers—told me that they wanted Kosovo to be independent. Though I repeatedly asked whether reestablishing the autonomy provided by Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution might be the solution, no one wanted to discuss this even as a temporary measure. The breakup of the Yugoslav federation, I was told, had made autonomy irrelevant.

Being completely committed to independence, the Albanian Kosovars refuse to vote in Serbian elections. This distresses some political opponents of Milosevic in Belgrade, because they believe Albanian votes would help them. A particularly bizarre consequence of the Albanians’ refusal to take part in the elections is that, until recently, Kosovo was represented in the Serbian legislature by Zeljko Raznjatovic, better known by his nom de guerre of “Arkan,” a thug wanted by Interpol for bank robbery and other crimes committed in several countries. Arkan’s exploits as a paramilitary leader in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia have earned him a place on everyone’s list of those who should stand trial before the United Nations War Crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was convened in November at The Hague. Arkan’s headquarters are in the once grand but now decrepit hotel in Pristina, which, when I was there, was plastered with posters promoting his candidacy for the national elections of December 19. Some of them show him in an electric blue suit, others in various military uniforms. With only Serb Kosovars voting, Arkan was favored to win, but he was defeated by Milosevic’s well-organized party. It was a choice that did not seem to make much difference to the Albanian Kosovars I talked to.

Albanians have a reputation for being combative—and, indeed, for extended blood feuds between clans. At least for the time being, however, most of them recognize that a policy of armed struggle could be suicidal; and they are explicitly committed to a strategy of nonviolence, a position they have maintained despite severe provocations and little protection. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for the former Yugoslavia, Poland’s Tadeusz Mazowiecki, has been barred from setting up an office in Belgrade from which he could follow developments in Kosovo. Monitors in Kosovo from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) were expelled last July, and Amnesty International has not been allowed to send a mission. All the human rights groups that have been there to conduct their own investigations3 report that the Serbian police have been arresting Albanian Kosovars and treating them brutally. There is always the danger that such abuses will set off a violent response, or that Albanians eager for a confrontation will resort to terrorism. Thus far, however, it appears that the spirit of co-operation that they showed in organizing their underground schools is also sustaining their strategy of nonviolence.

Though refusing to take part in the Serbian elections, Albanian Kosovars organized their own elections for the president of Kosovo and their own parliament on May 24, 1992. These were boycotted by the local Serb population and denounced as illegal by the Serbian authorities, but police threats against those taking part failed to stop 90 percent of the Kosovo Albanians from voting. Their only presidential candidate was Ibrahim Rugova, a mild-mannered literary critic who had attracted attention three years earlier when he organized a petition signed by intellectuals opposing the revocation of autonomy. Moreover, his political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) won 96 of the 143 seats in the Kosovo Parliament; and the other leading parties, including the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, the Parliamentary Party, and the Peasants Party, have formed a united front with the LDK. (The Parliamentary Party, led by the articulate young intellectual Veton Surroi, a strong advocate of civil liberties, is considered by Kosovo’s youth and by many members of the intelligentsia to have an important voice; with thirteen seats, it forms the second largest block in the Parliament.) The Albanian language press was shut down by the Serb authorities before the election, but the political parties circulated their views by word of mouth. The result was a major step in what one of the more knowledgeable specialists on the region has called the “covert democratization” of Kosovo, a process that has included the emergence of women in prominent positions in what had been a patriarchal society.4

Since the elections, the authorities have not permitted the Kosovo Parliament to meet. Rugova’s office is in a small building that houses the Writers Union and the local PEN Club. Yet there is little doubt that he is regarded by Albanian Kosovars as their president, and his strong support for the strategy of nonviolence is one of the main reasons it is widely accepted.

Despite its antagonism to Rugova, the Milosevic government has had to recognize his existence, at least to the extent of permitting him to travel internationally. (He was in Western Europe while I was in Pristina.) In 1992 Milan Panic, the Serbian-American businessman who briefly served as prime minister of what remains of Yugoslavia—Serbia (incorporating Vojvodina vodina and Kosovo) and Montenegro—conducted negotiations with Rugova in London, and subsequent talks between their representatives temporarily eased the dispute over the Kosovo schools. However, when Milosevic defeated Panic in the Serbian presidential elections in December 1992—an election in which Albanians might have made a difference if they had come out in large numbers to vote for Panic—the prospect of reducing tensions came to an end.

The Albanian Kosovars to whom I spoke seemed confident that they would ultimately prevail by nonviolent means in their campaign for independence. How they can do so remains unclear. They assured me that the rights of Serbs and other non-Albanians, principally Turks and gypsies, would be respected in an independent Kosovo, though intense nationalist sentiment among Albanians is a source of concern and it seems likely that most Serbs would leave. A possible compromise would be the partition of Kosovo, by which the Albanians there would give up the region on the Serb border where the Serb proportion of the population is highest. The difficulty is that most of the great Serb cultural monuments are in territory that is overwhelmingly inhabited by Albanians. Veton Surroi has therefore suggested that the Serb monuments themselves be given special extra-territorial status and that access to them be guaranteed. Yet another issue would be control of the lead mines and other mineral resources of Kosovo, for this could be important for the economy of an independent state.

Many observers of the former Yugoslavia had expected that war would break out first in Kosovo instead of in Croatia or Bosnia. But if war does come to Kosovo, it is difficult to imagine how it could be contained. Albania itself and also Macedonia, where Albanians make up anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of the population (the numbers are hotly disputed), would probably become involved. The nightmare of a general Balkan war would come closer. Yet in spiteof such forebodings, the visitor can leave Kosovo with some hope. It does not seem impossible that leaders who have done so well in organizing the Albanian community against repression and in persuading its citizens to accept a strategy of nonviolence might find a way to fulfill the aspiration; of the Kosovars without a bloodbath.

  1. 1

    Alex N. Dragnich, “Kosovo to see ethnic cleansing again?” Nashville Banner, March 10, 1993.

  2. 2

    While most. Balkan Christians resisted the encroachment of Islam, many Albanians were converted to the foreign faith during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their conversion to Islam is attributed to the Albanians’ relative religious indifference and their desire for the social and economic advantages which could be gained by being Moslem in the Ottoman empire. Some of these advantages were the right to bear arms, to pay lower taxes, the possibilities of upward social and economic mobility and the tolerance of certain customary practices which the Catholic church proscribed such as polygyny, the levirate, blood brotherhood and trial marriages.” From an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Janet Reineck, The Past as Refuge: Gender, Migration and Ideology Among the Kosova Albanians, University of California, Los Angeles, 1986, p. 25.

  3. 3

    These include local groups based in Pristina, the Humanitarian Law Fund from Belgrade, the International Helsinki Federation, and the Helsinki Watch division of Human Rights Watch. Unlike Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch frequently sends missions without informing governments. Intergovernmental bodies such as the UN and the CSCE always inform governments of their missions.

  4. 4

    A term used by Janet Reineck, author of the doctoral dissertation cited in footnote 2.

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