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Impasse in Kosovo

This was not supposed to be happening any more. In late March in the gym in the school in Gracanica, a Serbian enclave in Kosovo, Serbs whose houses had just been set fire to or otherwise damaged by ethnic Albanians sat around listlessly on the mattresses and beds provided for them by relief organizations while a group of angry men outside quarreled about what to do next. A woman told me how ethnic Albanian schoolchildren, screaming abuse, had charged into her house and smashed her furniture, and then set the house on fire. The scene seemed depressingly familiar.

On March 18 and 19 Kosovo exploded in the worst outbreak of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs since 1999. First a young Serb was shot; then Albanians charged that three Albanian boys were chased into a river by local Serbs and drowned.* Thousands of Albanians demonstrated in protest. Very quickly groups of them began to systematically attack vulnerable Serbs and Roma (Gypsies). They set fire to their houses, and to their schools and health centers, obviously wanting to make sure that the Serbs who went to them would never come back. Orthodox churches were destroyed, too, including some precious medieval ones.

At first the UN, which has the final say in running Kosovo, was slow to react, as were the troops from the NATO-led Kosovo force (KFOR); but within a few days NATO flew in reinforcements and brought the situation back under control. By the time the violence subsided nineteen people were dead, eleven Albanians and eight Serbs. Nine hundred fifty-four were injured; thirty-six Orthodox churches and monasteries and other important sites were set on fire or otherwise damaged. By March 24 the UN was reporting that some 4,366 people had been forced to flee. About 360 of them were Albanians and a similar number were Roma. The rest were Serbs.

On the afternoon of March 24 Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who is based in Brussels, held a press conference in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. I don’t think I have ever seen a sophisticated politician expressing his anger quite so openly. What had happened, he said, was “appalling,” “intolerable.” Kosovo’s Albanian leaders, he said, had better not look to the “international community” for money to rebuild what had been destroyed; they would have to pay for it themselves.

It is not hard to understand why Mr. Solana is so bitter. He was speaking exactly five years to the day after he, as the then secretary-general of NATO, gave the order to NATO forces to begin bombing Yugoslavia—because of Serbia’s brutal treatment of Kosovo’s Albanians.


Although Mr. Solana said that violence would not pay, the experience of the Balkans has been quite the opposite. Indeed, in Kosovo during the late 1990s, it was the passive resistance of Kosovo Albanians to Serbian rule that failed to produce results; and it was this failure that enabled Albanian hard-liners to persuade their countrymen that recourse to violence would work. And they were right.

Kosovo, although a region with immense historical and emotional significance for Serbs, has long had an ethnic Albanian majority. In Tito’s Yugoslavia, Kosovo was an “autonomous province” of Serbia. This meant that, although it had considerable autonomy, especially after constitutional changes in 1974, it did not have the then theoretical right to self-determination, which was later exercised by Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, however, and especially after they witnessed the horrors of war in other parts of the old country, ethnic Albanians, who were perhaps 90 percent of Kosovo’s some two million people, followed a strategy of peaceful resistance, led by Ibrahim Rugova, a mild-mannered professor of Albanian literature at the university in Pristina.

Above all, the Kosovo Albanians wanted independence. But after the end of the Bosnian war in 1995 the strategy of peaceful resistance was seen to have failed and formerly marginal groups of hard-liners decided to launch and support a guerrilla war. They created the Kosovo Liberation Army. Their campaign began in earnest in 1998, though the leaders of the KLA, which had backing both locally and from Kosovo Albanians living abroad, never really believed they could expel the Serbs from Kosovo by force of their arms alone. They wanted to provoke the Serbs into overreacting to their attacks and thus bring in NATO to finish the job for them. In this sense they were the most successful guerrillas in history because they succeeded in getting someone else to win their war for them.

The war was won by means of the seventy-eight-day NATO bombing campaign, under the command of General Wesley Clark, which began on March 24, 1999, and ended with Resolution 1244 in the UN Security Council two and a half months later. According to the Resolution, a UN Interim Administration Mission, UNMIK, would run Kosovo and prepare it, “pending a final settlement,” for “substantial autonomy and self government,” but it also recognized the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. (That state was formally abolished and replaced in February of last year by the “state union” of Serbia and Montenegro.)

Resolution 1244 was an artful construct because it gave something to everyone. It did not foreclose any options for Kosovo or Serbia, and, above all, it bought time. Essentially, though, its purpose was to end the bombing campaign and not to provide an ultimate solution for the future of Kosovo. The usefulness of that resolution now seems about to expire. Indeed, what the recent violence suggests is that while many Kosovo Albanians were at first delighted with the expulsion of the Serbian authorities in June 1999 and were happy to wait for independence, some of the same hard-line groups that organized the KLA are showing their muscle again. They are clearly thinking of going back to war.

With the end of Serbian rule, Kosovo changed beyond recognition. Serbs either fled or were forced out by vengeful Albanians. Initially, KFOR was unwilling, and perhaps unable, to do anything about this. According to the Serbian authorities more than 230,000 people fled from Kosovo after the arrival of UNMIK, of which almost all were Serbs except for some 30,000 Roma. As some Serbs bitterly point out, NATO went to war declaring that the displacement of 250,000 Albanians was a “humanitarian emergency”; but NATO has not been willing to say the same about the expulsion of a similar number of Serbs.

Of course the Serbian figures are questionable. Despite my best efforts over several years I have never managed to get anyone to explain to me how a total of 200,000 Serbs could have fled, with perhaps 100,000 remaining, when, until 1998, no Serb ever claimed there were more than 200,000 Serbs in the province. In fact, all figures are unreliable in Kosovo. The number of ethnic Albanians varies between 1.5 and 2.2 million and the number of remaining Serbs between 80,000 and 120,000.

Today the Serbs live in different parts of Kosovo. After June 1999 the Serbian population was winnowed out. There are now virtually no Serbs in any of the major cities except for those who live in the northern part of the city of Mitrovica, which is separated from the southern, Albanian part by the Ibar River. When you cross the Ibar from south to north you feel as if you are crossing from one country to another. The south is full of people, the language is Albanian and so are all the street signs and newspapers in the kiosks. The currency is the euro and cars have UN-issued Kosovo license plates. Fifty yards away in north Mitrovica, everything is Serbian, many of the cars have Serbian license plates, and people use Serbian dinars. Although technically in Kosovo, this district seems just like any other part of Serbia, and indeed it abuts the borders of Serbia proper and people frequently come from and go to Serbia.

Even odder are the Serbian enclaves south of the Ibar River, which are completely surrounded by Albanians. Kosovo Polje used to be a mainly Serbian suburb of Pristina. After the recent violence, the remaining Serbs moved a mile or two away, into an enclave which is made up of several villages, including Gracanica, the site of a beautiful medieval Serbian Orthodox church. Here again, you feel as if you are back in Serbia. Teachers and doctors and other civil servants are paid by Belgrade and by UNMIK. Serbian flags are flying and everybody uses Serbian mobile phone networks, not the Kosovo Albanian one, which uses Monaco’s international dialing code in order to avoid using the Serbian one. If a Kosovo Serb telephones an Albanian who may be just down the street, the two are, in effect, making an international call. This says a lot about relations in Kosovo.

Still, during the last year especially, Serbs and Albanians were calling one another on their phones much more than before. Duska Anastasijevic, who works for a think tank called the European Stability Initiative, told me that recently there had been more trade between the enclaves and Kosovo Albanians than at any time since June 1999, and more and more Serbs had been gingerly venturing out of the enclaves without KFOR protection to places in Kosovo they would never have gone to before for fear of their lives. Duska’s colleague Verena Knaus told me that for the first time since the war, Serbs, feeling a little more confident, had actually been investing in buildings, something you would not do if you thought you had no future here. Now that nascent trust has been broken. In the village of Preoce near Gracanica I met Nebojsa Devic, an unemployed twenty-one-year-old. He told me that he had some Albanian friends and over the last year or so he had even ventured into Pristina with them, something which would have been too dangerous a couple of years ago. But now he did not want to see those friends again. “As soon as you turn around,” he said, “they stab you in the back.” I had the impression that this was a very common feeling among Serbs. Devic told me that he and his Serbian friends in the enclaves all wanted to leave Kosovo.

Before the violence some progress had also been made within the terms of UN Resolution 1244 in creating institutions for Kosovo. It now has an elected assembly, a president—Ibrahim Rugova—and a government, which includes, at least nominally, some Kosovo Serbs. In the assembly, thanks to the way the constitution was written, Kosovo’s Serbs are overrepresented in proportion to their numbers. But despite some success in creating institutions such as ministries, customs, and other government agencies, there has been less progress in making the actual “Provisional Institutions of Self-Government,” as they are formally called, actually work. There is hardly any cooperation between Albanians and Serbs in matters of local government. In reality, UNMIK makes the important decisions involving such matters as the police and the protection of Serbs.

  1. *

    On April 28 Neeraj Singh, UNMIK’s police spokesman, cast doubt on these claims, saying that a criminal investigation had stalled for lack of evidence and noted that the story of a surviving child was “logically at odds in several respects with other evidence.”

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