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Impasse in Kosovo

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia discourages visits to Kosovo. Before I returned there this summer with my colleagues from the Open Society Institute, the government had for three years turned down my requests for a visa. Many others seeking to go there have met the same rejection, whether they were trying to look into claims by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians that they have been mistreated by the Belgrade government or simply were asking permission to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance. A monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was expelled several years ago. Though the United States Information Agency succeeded in establishing a small office in Kosovo on June 5, 1996, no other foreign government or intergovernmental agency is represented in Kosovo.

The Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of Kosovo’s population of more than two million, are subject to Serbian martial law, Serbian courts, and Serbian police. They have been demanding independence. Although the signers of the 1995 Dayton Accords agreed to resolve peacefully the status of Kosovo, no negotiations over the territory’s political future have taken place between the government of President Slobodan Milosevic and the Albanian leadership. Instead of negotiating, the Serbs have maintained their military control.

Kosovo’s Albanians have made no progress at all toward independence. When I last visited Kosovo in 1994, virtually all of them were committed to nonviolence: their strategy, they said, was to peacefully resist their subjugation by Belgrade and the brutality of the Serbian police, and to create their own parallel schools and other institutions. That nonviolent strategy no longer has near-universal support in Kosovo. In the past year, there has been more violence there than in Northern Ireland. Young men who are presumed to be members of an Albanian underground movement calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army are attacking, and in some cases killing, Serbian police. A Kosovo human rights group, which contains no Serb members (though it claims it would welcome them), says the number of Albanians who have been killed by the police, or beaten or otherwise mistreated while in custody, is increasing at a comparable rate. The group presented evidence of fourteen police killings in 1996. It found that another twenty people had been killed during the first half of 1997, and it has collected information on many cases of arbitrary searches and detention, beatings, and torture.

Ibrahim Rugova, a literary critic with a gentle manner, was named “president” of Kosovo in 1992 after unofficial elections in which 90 percent of Albanians voted, and which were boycotted by Serbs. He now faces challenges to his leadership, particularly for his policy of nonviolence. (His leading rival, Adem Demaci, who spent twenty-eight years in Yugoslav prisons and whom some see as Kosovo’s Mandela, also favors nonviolence.) But during our visit, we were often told that Rugova’s strategy of peaceful resistance had failed.

While Kosovo’s Albanians are becoming more drawn to violence, they have also been getting more news about their situation. They can now read an Albanian-language weekly magazine, Koha (Time), which began publishing a couple of years ago, and a new daily, started this spring, Koha Ditore (Time Daily), which now has a circulation of 23,000. Both are edited and published by Veton Surroi, a brilliant young Albanian journalist and political analyst and one of the more dedicated advocates of nonviolence. His honest and accurate reports on the failure of the US government to take a position on Kosovo’s future are helping to destroy the illusion cherished by the Kosovo Albanians that Washington supports Kosovo’s independence. The US says it has been trying to promote a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo conflict, but apart from explicitly opposing independence, the Clinton administration has expressed no clear idea of what the territory’s future should be.

Washington’s position is crucial. No one in Kosovo believes that the Yugoslav government will grant Kosovo independence on its own or, for that matter, restore the autonomy the territory previously enjoyed until 1989, when that autonomy was unilaterally annulled by Milosevic and the Serbian parliament. This set off the chain of events that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is now a union of Serbia—which has incorporated Kosovo and Vojvodina, the previously autonomous province on the Hungarian border—with the republic of Montenegro. On its own, the government will do nothing to change the present status of Kosovo. Addressing a rally of Serbs on June 24, in Pristina, the territory’s capital, Milosevic declared that Serbia would not give up a centimeter of Kosovo. A nonviolent campaign for Kosovo’s independence can succeed only if it is supported by strong and sustained international pressure.

One mechanism for exerting such pressure is the “outer wall of sanctions” provided by the December 1995 Dayton Accords. These sanctions continue to exclude the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from such international bodies as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. An even more severe penalty for a country whose economy went into a steep decline after it was condemned internationally for its support of the war in Bosnia is that the sanctions also prevent Yugoslavia—until it meets the conditions set forth at Dayton—from getting help from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. These conditions include a peaceful resolution of Kosovo’s status and cooperation with the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, as well as respect for freedom of the press.

Of these, only press freedom has improved marginally in Yugoslavia, as the publication of Veton Surroi’s two papers in Kosovo suggests. Moreover, an independent radio network now links stations in the cities controlled by the political opposition to Belgrade’s outspoken and irreverent Radio B-92. Milosevic tried to shut down the network in July, but backed down under international pressure. He has maintained his near-total control of television and uses it unrelentingly to promote himself as the heroic national leader.

The Yugoslav government has flatly refused to turn over to the UN War Crimes Tribunal the indicted war criminals under its control, including the regular military officers charged with executing more than two hundred hospital patients in the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991. To judge from the defiant views put to me on this subject by Foreign Minister Milan Milutinovic, there is no prospect that Yugoslavians indicted for crimes will be sent to The Hague anytime soon unless they are seized by NATO forces, as happened to the two Serbs in northwestern Bosnia in July, one of whom was killed.

The European signers of the Dayton Accords are far less resolute than the US about maintaining the outer wall of sanctions, and Kosovo’s Albanians are aware that any hope for sustaining them depends on Washington. Moreover, they recall President Bush’s ultimatum of December 1992, reiterated by President Clinton, warning Milosevic against using violence in Kosovo and threatening that, in reprisal, “the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.” Since no power other than the United States has taken a serious interest in Kosovo, and since Washington does not support Kosovo’s independence, more and more Albanians have been saying they see no hope for anything but a violent struggle.

Among Kosovo’s Albanians doubts about the wisdom of nonviolence have become more intense because part of their strategy has been to refuse to take part in the economic life of the Yugoslav state, and this has cost them heavily. During the year and a half following the withdrawal of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, Serb officials and Serb-owned businesses dismissed thousands of Albanians from their jobs and virtually every Albanian who was not fired resigned in protest.

In Kosovo there are still no Albanian teachers or students in state-run classes at state schools, and there are no Albanian judges, prosecutors, or clerks in the courts (though, of course, there are Albanian defendants and Albanian prisoners). There are very few Albanian doctors, nurses, orderlies, or patients at state hospitals. The university in Pristina has only Serb students. Albanians attend their own schools, which meet mostly in private houses or apartments and which they pay for themselves. Instruction in these schools is exclusively in the Albanian language, just as classes in the state schools attended by Serbs are only in their language. Albanians depend for medical care on clinics run by charitable organizations supported by foreign donors. They have organized their own separate Albanian University, which awards diplomas, but these are not recognized by the Yugoslav government. With few exceptions, the same separation prevails in businesses and other nongovernmental agencies.

A visit to an art gallery in Pristina illustrated the extent of Albanian-Serb distrust. The Dodona Gallery is the only one in Pristina (and, perhaps, anywhere in Kosovo) that exhibits the work of Albanian artists. The work of Serb artists is to be found in a few galleries owned by the government. The people who run the Dodona gallery arranged a show of works by Albanian artists in Belgrade, although they were criticized by some Albanians for doing so in what is seen as enemy territory. When one of our group asked the gallery’s manager whether she could exhibit in Pristina the work of a group of five painters of whom one was a Serb, she said that this would not be possible. She had taken a big risk, she said, in arranging a showing of Albanian artists in Belgrade; bringing the work of Serb artists and Albanian artists together in Kosovo would be going too far.

The “parallel” Albanian schools and clinics, and the entire “parallel” economy, are largely financed by the remittances of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who have migrated in search of work to Western Europe or, far less frequently, to the United States. Much of this support will dry up if European governments, especially Germany and Switzerland, succeed in their current plans to expel these migrants, many of whom lack legal status in the countries where they have found jobs. Even if they manage to remain, the money they send will not be enough to make up for the severe shortages that make life so harsh for Albanians.

Many of the parallel schools lack basic supplies, including desks, blackboards, and textbooks. Classes meet in severely overcrowded rooms and basements. The consequences of Yugoslavia’s isolation from the rest of the world and its failure to keep up with international educational standards are made worse for Albanians because they are even more isolated in Kosovo. The situation is particularly hard on Albanian girls, who emerged only a generation ago from family compounds in which they were literally walled up, and who now are finding that there are hardly any schools they can go to after the elementary grades.

In September 1996 it seemed that something might be done for the education of Albanian children when the Serbian government and the unrecognized Rugova government in Kosovo agreed to allow Albanian schoolchildren to attend classes in state school buildings—the first agreement on any issue negotiated between them. The few school buildings now being used by Albanians are divided equally between Serb and Albanian classes—for example, by separating the two groups of students from each other in shifts—even though Albanians generally outnumber Serbs nearly ten to one, and the disproportion in the school-age population is even greater. The 1996 agreement provided that some Albanian high school students would also be able to use public school buildings; yet the committee charged with carrying out the agreement has met infrequently and it accomplished little during the entire last school year.

In Kosovo I asked whether Albanians had any hope that the political opponents of Milosevic who have now taken over municipal governments in Serbia’s larger cities would be more ready than he would to negotiate a solution to the territory’s status. But Albanians in Kosovo see little difference in the positions on Kosovo taken by the various Serb factions. In fact, for a Serb leader now to call for independence for Kosovo, or even a return to the autonomy that prevailed before 1989, would be to commit political suicide.

There are several reasons for this, including, most obviously, unwillingness either to abandon the two hundred thousand Serbs who still live in Kosovo, or to give up the ancient Serb heartland in which the most important Serb cultural and historical sites are located. For some Serbs, Kosovo has the same significance that Jerusalem has for diaspora Jews. The Serbs we talked to, moreover, had other reasons for opposing the amputation of a territory they consider to be part of Serbia. Milosevic’s plans for a greater Serbia were defeated in 1995 when Croatia recaptured the territories Serbia gained in the 1991 war. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs were expelled from places where their families had lived for many generations, and large numbers are still living in harsh conditions as refugees. Meanwhile the territory carved out of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, is in an increasingly precarious position. Still dominated by the corrupt, hard-line group around Radovan Karadzic, its population is dwindling and it is threatened by the growing military strength of the Bosnian state.

In this situation, it would be foolhardy for a Serb politician to advocate independence or renewed autonomy for Kosovo, and not only because there would be a heavy cost in support from Serbs. There would also be no compensating benefit in support from Albanians. While Kosovo’s Albanians are eligible to vote in elections in Serbia, they boycott them. If they were willing to take part in Serb elections, they could account for about 15 percent of the vote, and could easily determine the outcome of many races. Yet they refuse to vote not only because they see no difference in attitudes toward Kosovo among Serb politicians and parties but because, in their view, voting would contradict their commitment to independence.

Arguments over Kosovo thus seem circular and hopeless. Serb political leaders say nothing about independence or autonomy because they can expect no support from Albanians to make up for the losses they would suffer among Serbs. Albanians refuse to vote because they find no Serb politician who offers them anything. A few Albanian intellectuals we talked to had earlier suggested that the Albanian leaders reconsider their policy of refusing to vote, or at least discuss it. That suggestion was immediately denounced and one of the intellectuals who made it quickly withdrew it. Meanwhile, the Kosovo Liberation Army is apparently growing.

On the Serb side, the most pragmatic political leader to emerge—and the one who might somehow find a way to address the Kosovo issue—is Zoran Djindjic, now the mayor of Belgrade and the head of the Democratic Party. Because of his youth, quick intelligence, and political adaptability, Djindjic has been described as the Bill Clinton or Tony Blair of Serbia. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from a German university, and though his English is limited, he speaks fluent German. In September 1996, he was given a suspended sentence of four months for denouncing Milosevic as corrupt. Djindjic was one of the unlikely trio who led more than eighty days of street demonstrations in Belgrade last winter protesting Milosevic’s fraudulent declaration that his party had won the municipal elections in Belgrade and other cities. Milosevic finally had to back down and let the elected politicians take office.

The up-to-date Djindjic, a trim, handsome politician who marched in the street demonstrations in a casual leather jacket, has now set himself apart from the second member of the trio, Vuk Draskovic, a tall, bearded, romantic and nationalist demagogue, though Djindjic still maintains ties to the third, Vesna Pesic, who has long been a courageous campaigner for human rights and an opponent of Serbian involvement in local wars. Their alliance—known as Zajedno (Together)—has collapsed as a national coalition, though local counterparts continue to exist in several cities. When I was in Belgrade in June, Pesic and Draskovic were no longer on speaking terms and relations between Djindjic and Draskovic were approaching that point. Draskovic now seems to have reached an understanding with Milosevic, and he has announced that he will take part in Serbian elections scheduled for September 21. Most of the opposition parties are boycotting them because a new electoral law pushed through by Milosevic dilutes the urban vote and the opposition will be barred from using television.

When I met with Djindjic, he was vague about specific Albanian claims, but he seemed moderate and reasonable, saying that new solutions were needed—quite unlike the opposition Serb politicians I talked to a few years ago who were trying to outdo Milosevic in nationalist rhetoric. A central question is whether, when he makes a bid for higher office, he might find a way to persuade Albanians to forego their boycott of Serbian elections in exchange for a pledge of serious negotiations over Kosovo’s future.

If such negotiations were to take place, the outlines of a settlement are not difficult to imagine. A few Albanian leaders are talking about Kosovo becoming independent of Serbia but also remaining within the Yugoslav federation as a republic. In one version of this plan, the Federated Republic of Yugoslavia would rename itself Balkania, thus recognizing that the Albanians are not Slavs. Kosovo would have the same status as Serbia and Montenegro, and the new federation would be governed, as was the case in Yugoslavia after the death of Tito in 1980, by a collective presidency consisting of the presidents of the three republics. Advocates of such a solution hope to mitigate the dominance of Serbia, which would have a population of eight million, compared to Kosovo’s two million and Montenegro’s 600,000.

If this plan, or some variation of it, could be carried out, the Kosovars could achieve their dream of escape from subjugation by the Serbs; and, at the same time, the federation could guarantee both the rights of the Serbs in Kosovo and the preservation of the Serb cultural and historic sites. Such a plan would also prevent union between Kosovo, Albania and, perhaps, Western Macedonia (where Albanians also predominate and where ethnic tensions have been rising) in a Greater Albania which would become a regional power and a possible threat to Serbia.

Though such a solution seems attractive, I found little interest in Kosovo or Belgrade in advocating it or any other reasonable solution to the current impasse. The longer the present situation continues, the more the Albanians who have been excluded from making use of state services—or who have excluded themselves—will suffer. The prospect becomes greater that Albanian violence against Serb police or police violence against Albanian civilians will increase and touch off a conflict that would quickly escalate.

One of the consequences of the turmoil in neighboring Albania earlier this year is that most Albanian men have seized weapons belonging to the armed forces and the country is bristling with guns. Though the border between Albania and Kosovo is guarded by Yugoslav forces, much smuggling takes place, and one can readily imagine that Kosovars bent on violence will find a way to bring weapons across it. The edginess of Serb forces over this prospect was evident at the beginning of August when they opened fire, reportedly without warning, on a group of young men in their own village on the border. Two brothers were killed and a third young man was wounded. Three days later, several young men with an automatic weapon attacked a police car, severely wounding two Serb police officers and also injuring a third. Two other such attacks took place the same day.

If such violence continues to grow, and if the political leaders who are committed to nonviolence lose more ground, the darkest predictions about war in Kosovo could come true. Indeed, when we think of the violence in the rest of former Yugoslavia, and the impunity enjoyed by the leading war criminals there, it seems almost miraculous that the strategy of nonviolence has prevailed for so long among the Albanians. That strategy may not last much longer and, while it still prevails, the US and other nations should do what they can to reward it by insisting that mistreatment of the Albanians be stopped and that their claims and grievances be seriously addressed in negotiations about the future status of Kosovo.

August 28, 1997

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