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Kosovo and Beyond

I’ll tell you the truth,” says the Kosovar newspaper editor. “They really don’t know.” We are sitting in Tetovo, Macedonia, in the Café Arbi, where the exiled intellectuals of Pristina meet the world. “They” in this comment are not the intellectuals but the KLA commanders still in Kosovo, to whom the editor, Baton Haxhiu, talks daily by satellite phone. Besieged on their hilltops, they can see a burning village here, a Serb patrol there, a tank at a crossroads—but they have no overall picture. Yet a large proportion of NATO’s bombing targets in Kosovo come from this same source: from the KLA commanders, via satellite phone. So “they” is also NATO.

Many of us fondly imagine that NATO, with its almost godlike technology, its satellite cameras that can see an ant at ten thousand miles, its secret special forces reportedly deployed inside Kosovo, must really know what it’s doing. Then it bombs the Chinese embassy. Of course, we can piece together, from thousands of separate stories, a picture of the terror which has probably driven more than a million Kosovars from their homes since the bombing started. But we don’t know what is happening on the ground right now. We don’t know the combat readiness, fuel and ammunition supplies, communications, and morale of the Serb forces.

Similarly, we have numerous excellent reports from Belgrade. I talk by phone and e-mail to friends and acquaintances there. We know what they are saying. But we don’t know what is really happening inside the Milosevic regime: between the military, the police, the business kleptocracy, Milosevic and his wife. And even they don’t know what is going to happen next.

War, like love, changes everything. The beginning of wisdom is to realize that, behind those confident pronouncements of our generals, prime ministers, and presidents, nobody knows. Still, there are a few things that can be said after two months of this war: about its causes, its course, and even its consequences.


The long-term origins lie in a struggle that dates back at least one hundred and twenty years, to the time of the Congress of Berlin and the League of Prizren, a struggle between Serbs and Albanians for control of this European Palestine. This is probably its last, decisive battle. Now, as then, outside powers will decide who wins.

The medium-term origins lie in a decade of appeasement, by the West, of an evil post-communist politician who has exploited Serbian nationalism to bring power and riches to himself and his family. The 1990s, as they end, remind us of Auden’s “low, dishonest decade,” the 1930s. Milosevic is not Hitler, but the basic pattern of appeasement is comparable: the longer you wait, the higher the price. Hitler should have been stopped when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936; Milosevic, at the siege of Vukovar in 1991.

There are many candidates for the part of Neville Chamberlain in this story. One is certainly William Jefferson Clinton. As Mark Danner has argued in these pages, fierce rhetoric has been accompanied by feeble deeds.1 In the Balkans, Clinton has inverted Theodore Roosevelt:he speaks loudly and carries a small stick.

As a European, I prefer to dwell on the beam in our own eye rather than the mote in our transatlantic brother’s. After all, this is a conflict in Europe. The Kosovo war supports an argument I have made throughout the decade: that the leaders of Western Europe set the wrong priorities at the end of the cold war. Instead of seizing the chances and recognizing the dangers that arose from the end of communism in half of Europe, they concentrated on perfecting the integration of the western half. We put Maastricht before Sarajevo. Now we are paying the price.

The immediate origins of the war lie in a major miscalculation by the leaders of the West. They took too literally Clausewitz’s famous saying that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Misled by the Bosnian precedent, they thought they could bomb Milosevic into accepting a version of the Rambouillet deal for Kosovo. Some of them expected that, in response to bombing, he would take tough military and police action against the KLA and the civilians supporting it. None expected the scale, speed, and brutality of what Milosevic did.

Of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event. The only people I know who actually forecast what happened are politicians from former Yugoslavia. Last September I remarked to President Milan Kucan of Slovenia, “But surely Milosevic can’t ‘ethnically cleanse’ 1.8 million people?” He looked at me quizzically and replied: “You don’t know Milosevic.” Early last year, President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia called for a “corridor” to take large numbers of Kosovar Albanian refugees through his country to Albania. Now, in Skopje, I asked him why he had seen this coming. The shrewd old man looked at me and shrugged, as if to say, “Wasn’t it obvious?”

Well, it was not obvious to us who live in a more normal world. But what we can fairly hold against NATO is that it did not plan for this contingency. After all, that’s what a political-military alliance is meant to do: plan for contingencies, even remote ones. Since then, the action has patently gone wrong.

I more than accept the end. I believe it had become imperative to threaten force so as to get a new dispensation for Kosovo. When the threat failed, the use of force in and over Kosovo was fully justified. But the means chosen have compromised the end. To conduct the campaign entirely from the air, and that mainly at 15,000 feet; to conduct it increasingly by bombing civilian infrastructure in Serbia proper—bridges, roads, railways, factories, the TV station—rather than destroying Serb forces on the ground in Kosovo: this has been wrong.

Why have we chosen the means of an aerial war against Serbia proper? First, because we were not prepared for any other sort of war, and hardly even for this one. Second, because it turns out that with all our godlike technology we can’t find Serb tanks hiding in garages, let alone paramilitaries who stop over in a different Albanian house every night: so Milosevic has been winning in Kosovo itself. Third, because the United States has not been prepared to risk a single casualty in this conflict. Clinton’s emotional comment on the three captured US soldiers—“We look after our own people”—unintentionally says it all. So the bombers fly at 15,000 feet and, inevitably, the bombs sometimes hit the very civilians they are meant to be saving.


The list of disastrous consequences is long. First and foremost, most of the Albanians who live in Kosovo have been kicked out of their homes; many have lost everything; women have been raped, men killed. It is wrong to call this a “holocaust.” But it is, together with Bosnia, the most terrible single event to have happened in Europe for fifty years. It is wholly comparable with Hitler’s and Stalin’s forced deportations of entire ethnic groups—Poles, Estonians, Crimean Tartars—and with the postwar expulsions of Germans from Eastern Europe.

Blerim Shala, a member of the Kosovar delegation at Rambouillet, tells me about his own perilous trek from Kosovo to Macedonia: emphasizing how the ordinary Serb soldiers shared their hunks of bread with the Albanians, and even promised to protect them from marauding paramilitaries. Then he starts explaining the topography of deportation, as whole cities were being transported to different frontiers. “Pristina went to Macedonia,” he says. “Prizren went to Albania.” Incredible sentences. As if one were to say, “Washington went to Mexico” or “Paris went to Spain.”

Milosevic had already driven something like 300,000 Kosovars from their homes last year. Clearly the current operation, apparently called Operation Horseshoe, had been planned in advance. The additional Serb forces were put in place even as Serbian representatives ostensibly negotiated in Rambouillet and Paris. But elementary logic indicates that we cannot know what would have happened if we had not started bombing. What we do know is that the Serb action escalated dramatically as soon as the air campaign began.

Standing in front of his tent (sixteen people sleeping in a space the size of an average living room) at the Stenkovec2 refugee camp in Macedonia, Jusuf Mustafa, a once-prosperous building contractor, told me how they had gone out onto the balcony of their house to applaud the first NATO bombs. Within fifteen minutes, the Serbs had started throwing grenades into their neighborhood. A few days later, his family was driven out at gunpoint. His story stands for many. This is not to say that we were wrong to bomb. It is to say that we were wrong to rely exclusively on bombing and that we now have a direct responsibility for getting these people back to their homes.

With the mass expulsion, Milosevic almost certainly intended—I say “almost certainly,” for who knows what really goes through that poisoned mind?—to spread havoc by destabilizing the neighboring countries. NATO fights with bombs; he uses civilians. He has very nearly succeeded. Albania, already in a state of near anarchy, has been swamped by close to half a million dispossessed compatriots. Montenegro, a tiny country of some 625,000 people, is now host to more than 60,000 Kosovar expellees and struggles bravely to keep its half-independence from Serbia. And I saw at first hand what the war has done to Macedonia.

This small, poor country of just two million people has been shaken to its foundations. Its economy is in shock, since 20 percent of its exports went to Serbia, and more depended on trade routes through Serbia. Meanwhile, it has—slowly, reluctantly, often with low-level police brutality—taken in more than 230,000 expellees. It’s as if the United States had taken in thirty million Mexicans in two months.

Albanians already made up roughly a quarter of Macedonia’s population. Suddenly they are more than a third. Throughout the 1990s, the country has been plagued by ethnic tensions between the Albanians and the Slav Macedonian majority. In the mainly Albanian city of Tetovo, where many of the expellees are living with local families, I found an explosive situation. An acquaintance told me that Slav Macedonians have even received anonymous threatening phone calls: “Get out of here, it’s our city now, and NATO is behind us.” Then, back in Skopje, a Kosovar refugee explained that she was leaving because she had received threatening phone calls from Macedonians.

The political leaders of the Macedonian Albanians have so far displayed great restraint. “Milosevic’s aim is to destabilize Macedonia,” Arben Xhaferi of the Albanian Democratic Party told me, “so my priority is to not allow him to succeed.” And President Gligorov explained how his country is struggling to remain what is effectively the only functioning multiethnic state in former Yugoslavia. He emphasized that there is no significant history of ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians, unlike that between Serbs and Albanians. “If our forefathers were able to live together,” he said, “why shouldn’t we be able to?” But already there have been several nasty confrontations between Macedonian police and Albanian expellees. One big incident—perhaps an attempted breakout from a camp, met by police shooting—and the tensions between Albanians and Macedonians could explode. So the reality behind that anodyne phrase “regional stability” is another Balkan country on the verge of collapse.

  1. 1

    See, most recently, “Endgame in Kosovo,” The New York Review, May 6, 1999, pp. 8-11.

  2. 2

    In the Serbian Soup,” The New York Review, April 24, 1997; “Cry, the Dismembered Country,” The New York Review, January 14, 1999.

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