Slobodan Milosevic’s decision to ex-pel the entire Albanian population of Kosovo was so audacious and so ruthless that it caught the West by surprise. Yet it was not an uncharacteristic act for the president of Yugoslavia. In Bosnia Milosevic and his then partner, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, had made the creation of refugees a primary objective of their war policy, not just a consequence. In Kosovo Milosevic raised the principle he had helped to invent to a new and more ghastly level.
Milosevic’s character and career reveal a man who has never been deterred by the effect of his actions on human beings. From the time he seized the Serbian leadership in 1987, he has shown no scruples in his determination to establish Serbia’s supremacy in Kosovo and to destroy any Albanian challenge to it. In March 1989 he abolished the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of Kosovo’s political institutions in order to eliminate all Albanian political influence and to make Kosovo effectively a colony of Serbia.
Milosevic’s assault on the liberties of his Albanian subjects in 1989 marked the first stage in the breakup of Yugoslavia. The leaders of Slovenia, Yugoslavia’s most Western-oriented and prosperous republic, watched with horror as the Serbs cracked down on the Albanians and provoked sharp criticism by Europeans. The Slovenes decided that, because of Kosovo, Milosevic had doomed Yugoslavia’s chances of joining European institutions, particularly the European Community, which didn’t welcome countries with poor human rights records. So the Slovenes, followed by the Croats (for somewhat different reasons), began to think seriously about secession. Less than three years after Milosevic began to move against the Albanians, Slovenia and Croatia were independent states and Yugoslavia was destroyed.
Having purged Kosovo’s political institutions of Albanian control, Milosevic made a triumphal procession to the province on June 28, 1989, to celebrate the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. He drew a crowd of a million people, probably twenty-five times the number of soldiers in the tiny feudal armies of 1389, to the Field of the Blackbirds, the site of the battle. The one-million figure is significant for two reasons. It reflected the enormous appeal for Serbs of their political, religious, and cultural homeland, their “Jerusalem.” The large number of visitors also contrasted markedly with the much smaller number of Serbs (about 200,000) who actually lived in Kosovo. Throughout the 1990s Milosevic has tried to attract or blackmail Serbs to move to Kosovo to overcome the nine-to-one Albanian majority. But few Serbs, not even Serbian refugees from Croatia, have shown much interest.
Milosevic’s speech at his million-man event defined his subsequent approach to the Albanians. He simply ignored the Albanian majority in Kosovo, whose ancestors had preceded the Serbs there by a thousand years, and spoke only to Serbs. The speech was a diatribe against those who would block Serbia’s national aspirations. It was also bellicose: “Six centuries [after the battle], again we are in …