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 battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded yet.” Despite strong efforts by Milosevic’s staff to get the diplomatic corps to attend the speech (I was then serving my fourth month as US ambassador to Yugoslavia), only one Western diplomat made the trip—the Turkish ambassador, who had a special reason since his ancestors had won the battle. My other NATO colleagues and I decided not to be props in Milosevic’s nationalist theater. It was the first concerted Western censure of his policies in Kosovo.

When I began to see Milosevic regularly in 1990 (he had blamed me for the diplomatic boycott of his speech and refused to meet me the year before), he set forth a policy toward Kosovo which made no compromise with humanitarian concerns. It had four elements, and these have not changed to this day. First, Kosovo has always been Serbian—not entirely true, since it was under the Ottoman Empire for half a millennium. Second, the Albanians have had more rights in Kosovo than any other minority in Europe—a demonstrably ridiculous assertion after 1989. Third, the Albanians are guilty of all manner of crimes and sins. They are, he said, Islamic fundamentalists and a “narco-Mafia” who commit genocide and “mental murder” against Serbs—a tendentious assessment of blame in a situation of cyclical ethnic violence over three centuries between Kosovo’s two ethnic groups. Fourth, Albanians want to take Kosovo out of Serbia—probably true, though also a self-fulfilling prophecy since Milosevic has offered them no inducements to remain in Serbia.

Milosevic’s caricatures, distortions, and outright lies left no place in Kosovo’s life or politics for its majority population. During our first meeting I asked him what his strategy was for winning Albanian support. He seemed surprised by the question and had no answer to it. In later meetings I urged him to meet and talk to the moderate Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova; Rugova already had grudgingly agreed to a meeting. Milosevic refused, dismissing the spokesman for two million nominal citizens of Serbia as a nobody. For an entire decade Milosevic showed no interest in cooperation with Rugova—until last month, when he had the Albanian in his power under house arrest and could use him in an effort to divide NATO.


A Slovenian politician explained to me Milosevic’s extraordinary hostility and aggressiveness toward the Albanians: “He’s made a Faustian pact with the devil over Kosovo. Now he’s stuck with it. He can’t make even a minor concession or he’ll lose the nationalist support that brought him to power.”

Under Milosevic Kosovo took on all the attributes of a colony. It was ruled by arrogant Serbs, assisted by servile Albanian Uncle Toms (“honest Albanians” in the Serbian term). An intensive Serbianization campaign was imposed. Albanian politicians, doctors, professors, and schoolteachers were fired. Serbian became mandatory, the only accepted language. Schools adopted a Serbian nationalist curriculum.

Rugova was forced to respond. A convinced Gandhian, he ruled out a policy of violent resistance, a position he was able to sustain for nearly a decade. He and his supporters decided that, as long as Albanians were being marginalized anyway, they would boycott all of Kosovo’s Serbophile institutions. They improvised their own political structures, schools, and even hospitals. The Albanian strategy was to meet Serbian oppression, not by violence, but by a withdrawal from Serbia that would be both passive and aggressive and would be accompanied by a claim of independence.

Unlike Bosnia, where multiethnic life continued right through the war there, Kosovo—already riven by centuries of ethnic conflict and rivalry between Slavs and non-Slavs—was newly divided as never before into two distinct and hostile cultures.


Milosevic had an entire decade to deal with this explosive situation. He squandered it. He made no effort to work out a modus vivendi with the Albanians. The restive young men I had seen tramping the streets of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, without work or hope, began after ten years of patience to take things into their own hands. In colonial situations, when moderate efforts fail, national liberation movements are often the result. The rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1998 reflected a growing rejection of Rugova’s peaceful resistance. In the eyes of Kosovo’s new guerrillas, Rugova had failed to secure any concessions from Milosevic and should now step aside to allow a more militant approach.

Milosevic immediately recognized the menace in the KLA’s challenge. No longer was he dealing with Gandhiesque intellectuals, however determined they may have been. Now he faced armed militants who were resolved to seize independence rather than wait for it, and whose tactics included the assassination of Serbian police. For the first time Milosevic was threatened with the total loss of Kosovo. It was at this point, I believe, that the Serbian leader decided on the strategy that produced the current war in Kosovo. He saw the KLA as a mortal threat. He could live with Rugova’s noncooperation but not with the KLA’s armed confrontation. Rugova had made the Albanians invisible to Serbs. The KLA was all too visible. Milosevic had to destroy it.

To him that meant also destroying the significant element of the Albanian population which supported and protected the KLA. The mass murder of Albanians by Serbian police in the village of Racak in January was an example of this approach. But Milosevic must also have known—in light of the contempt and hostility he had displayed toward the Albanians for over a decade and the oppression he had visited on them—that even such a mass elimination program would not be enough. He knew that the KLA was the product of the conditions to which he had subjected Kosovo since 1989. Since he had no intention of lightening those conditions, new guerrillas would spring up to take the place of those his army and police had destroyed.

This dilemma suggested a decisive—a final—solution to Milosevic. Not only would he cut off the hydra’s heads; he would destroy the beast altogether. If he had failed to repopulate Kosovo with Serbs, he could depopulate it of Albanians. So he determined to get rid of the entire Albanian population of Kosovo. The primary method would be forcible expulsion. This would require the cleansing of cities as well as villages—a phenomenon not seen in Bosnia. Targeted murders would be employed as a useful corollary to expulsion. KLA members, their supporters, and their fellow villagers would be slaughtered wholesale, and individual Albanians would be shot to encourage their neighbors to move toward the border. Milosevic’s scheme amounted to a forcible displacement of people, as large as or larger than any since World War II.


The scope of Milosevic’s design would cause most dictators to quail. There is evidence that it was too ambitious for some officers in his army and secret police, organizations infamous for their expertise in ethnic cleansing. Milosevic purged them both at high levels in the autumn of 1998. Even in its unprecedented brutality, his stroke in Kosovo was true to his traditional form. The authoritarian and ruthless personality that made him capable of such barbarity against the Albanians was already apparent during his early years as Serbia’s leader. In his totalitarian control of Serbia—its government, politics, business, and media—he had shown that he would tolerate no challenge to his authority.

A dictator is authoritarian by definition; but Milosevic is also uncommonly ruthless. From my first meetings with him, I noticed an insensitivity toward suffering and a coldness toward individual humans. He had a tendency to treat people as pawns on a political chessboard, candidates for control and manipulation. For such a man, the use of force to rid Kosovo of its entire Albanian population would have presented no moral dilemma.


Milosevic began to lay the groundwork for his purging of Kosovo’s Albanians as early as the late 1980s, when he adopted anti-Albanian Serbian nationalism as his path to power. The “mental murder” for which he blamed the Albanians, but of which he himself was guilty, became real murder when he was challenged by the KLA last year. Intelligence reports and refugee interviews confirm what common sense already indicated—that Milosevic’s final solution for Kosovo was not caused by NATO’s bombing. It was being meticulously prepared for weeks and probably months in advance.

NATO’s bombing campaign undoubtedly accelerated the implementation of Milosevic’s expulsion strategy. NATO shamefully had no contingency plan to deter it. After weeks of bombing, with increased targeting in Kosovo itself, it appears that NATO has prevented the completion of Milosevic’s cleansing campaign. The Serbian leader can no longer count on a Kosovo emptied of Albanians.

Directly or indirectly, Milosevic is responsible for all four Balkan wars in this decade. But his criminality is clearer in Kosovo than in his previous wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. In the earlier wars he had carefully masked his role. In this one he is the commander-in-chief, guilty of any war crimes committed by his army, police, and paramilitaries, and guilty above all of the giant war crime of turning the members of an entire ethnic group into refugees. The international war crimes tribunal will sully its reputation if it does not indict him.

The Kosovo war will be even more difficult to settle than the previous three. Serbs and Albanians have little in common—they differ in religion and race (in comparison, all three Bosnian peoples are Slavs). They have never lived comfortably together; in contrast to Bosnia, there are few mixed marriages in Kosovo. Moreover, the war is being fought on Serbian soil and over an issue on which Milosevic has defined his entire career. His background and his character rule out the kind of compromises dragged from him in the earlier wars. An independent Kosovo would destroy Milosevic, yet the colonial Kosovo he insists on is unacceptable to NATO. Between these polar outcomes, how can Milosevic be dealt with?

The plan presented by Western negotiators at Rambouillet, France, in February of this year was a pragmatic attempt to apply to Kosovo the multiethnic principle of the Dayton accord on Bosnia. It offered sovereignty to Serbia and autonomy to the Albanians, with the presence of NATO troops to enforce the settlement. Rambouillet was not a particularly good deal for the Albanians. It denied them independence and kept them under the nominal control of a man they had every reason to distrust. They accepted it only under American pressure. A reasonable Serbian leader could probably, with some show of reluctance, have accepted the Rambouillet proposal. But Milosevic rejected the plan, objecting mainly to the NATO force, although he had accepted a similar force in Bosnia against the will of the Bosnian Serbs.

Milosevic has said that he would accept “the widest possible autonomy for Kosovo” and he is trying to use the luckless Rugova, now released to the West, as his cat’s paw. He is capable of the most blatant mendacity in an effort to convince credulous Western visitors of his sincerity. Currently, in order to emphasize his declared support for autonomy, he is depicting himself as an apostle of multiethnic cooperation, a description which will come as a surprise to the Albanians, Hungarians, Muslims, and Croats who are living under his oppressive rule in Serbia. He told UPI several weeks ago, during his cleansing of Kosovo, that 100,000 Albanians (an increase from the 80,000 he boasted about to me ten years before) live happy and untroubled in Belgrade since “ethnically mixed states is the trend in the new global village.”

Whatever Milosevic may say, those familiar with his background know that genuine power-sharing is almost certainly beyond the capacities of this compulsive authoritarian. Ever since he usurped the Serbian leadership, the only autonomy he has been able to tolerate is his own. If he agrees to an Albanian role in the governing of Kosovo, an effective military force, directly tied to NATO’s command, will be necessary to prevent his predictable reneging.

Rambouillet would be difficult to resurrect even if there had been no war, but the war will make it that much more difficult. The very savagery of Milosevic’s effort may well have sabotaged any hope for a workable multiethnic solution. A Rambouillet outcome is still the most desirable. It remains possible on paper, but its plausibility is suspect. After the weeks of war there is real doubt that Serbs and Albanians can ever again live together peacefully, or that many Albanian refugees would return to a Kosovo unpurged of all Serbian authority.

The other intermediate approach likely to emerge as a negotiating proposal is the partition of Kosovo between Serbia and the Albanians. Partition has major defects. Its emphasis on ethnic separation could be seen as confirming ethnic cleansing and rewarding the zealots of racial intolerance. The precedent of partition could undermine the fragile multiethnic experiment in Bosnia. It could also encourage the Albanians of Kosovo, Albania, and western Macedonia to seek to form a larger Albania, with dangerous consequences for the integrity of the weak Macedonian state and the stability of the Balkans themselves.

But partition, at least in principle, might just be the only option that Serbs and Kosovo Albanians could agree on, assuming that the maximum demands of both sides are unattainable. There would be deep disagreement, however, over where to draw the border. At the end of the endgame, Milosevic might be attracted to partition; he would insist on Serbian territory containing a significant number of Serbian Orthodox holy places and considerable mineral wealth—concessions which, of course, the Albanians would strongly resist. To maintain his hold on power, he could argue at home that he had won for Serbia clear authority over at least a part of Kosovo, free of Albanians and foreign troops. And he could remind his Serbian nationalist critics that partition was once their idea and that he had accomplished Serbia’s eternal mission of having Kosovo to itself, albeit on a much smaller territory.

For the Albanians, partition might hold some interest, provided the West insisted—as it should—that they got most of the territory. After what has just happened to them, most Albanians might feel safer in a Serb-free environment. They would be trading a dubious autonomy in their traditional Kosovo for de facto independence on less land.

The success or failure of NATO’s military campaign will determine whether a better solution than partition can be found. After weeks of hunkering into Marshal Tito’s prescribed stance for Yugoslav guerrilla fighters—the “hedgehog”—Milosevic has now moved into a negotiating posture. He is a brilliant negotiator; he can twist and turn like the old man of the sea. His aims are to get the bombing stopped and to win international recognition of effective Serbian hegemony in Kosovo.

His tactics will include trying to use the Russians—now back under the Western tent—the United Nations, and Rugova to weaken NATO’s cohesion. On past form he will take—without commitment—positive partial actions (like troop withdrawals) or will hint at forthcoming positive moves, and then expect to be paid for them. He will make real commitments only grudgingly, and will seek to ensure that they are easy for him to break.His career is spattered with broken promises: he promised at Dayton to turn over the indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic; he promised last October to withdraw Serbian forces from Kosovo. Yet there are politicians in Europe and even in the US Congress who seem willing to trust him.

To blunt Milosevic’s diplomatic offensive, NATO must significantly and visibly change the military balance in its favor. Most important, Serbia’s military capabilities in Kosovo itself must be destroyed or mortally weakened. NATO’s strategy of avoiding risk to its pilots by not concentrating on Kosovo, and instead targeting Belgrade and other Serbian cities, has been recklessly counterproductive. On the one hand, it has given Serbian forces in Kosovo a free hand for much too long. On the other, it has resulted in civilian casualties among Serbs and even Chinese, thus assisting Milosevic’s propaganda and tightening his hold on the Serbian people. NATO’s failure to use low-flying planes and helicopters over Kosovo, together with its public ruling out of ground forces, has sent a signal of timidity to Milosevic.

If the allies are ever to succeed at the negotiating table, they will first have to succeed militarily in Kosovo. The worst outcome would be for the West to be diverted by premature negotiations into weakening the objectives for which it committed itself in the first place—withdrawal of Serbian forces, return of refugees, autonomy for the Albanians, and an international force with a clear line to NATO’s command structure.

NATO needs to be prepared for the possibility that Milosevic will never accept all of its conditions. Since his authoritarian, ruthless, and duplicitous character will not change, and since he has defined his career by his intransigence over Kosovo, NATO may have to defeat him before it can persuade him (or his successor). The wrath of the Serbian people is currently directed against NATO, not Milosevic. That could change if Milosevic began unmistakably to lose.

For Milosevic defeat could mean self-destruction; both of his parents committed suicide. For NATO, the failure to enable Albanians to return home to run their own lives would be a disaster for the people of the Balkans—a disaster such as even they have not known in this grim decade.

May 12, 1999

This Issue

June 10, 1999