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The conflict in the Serbian province of Kosovo is the final act of the tragic Yugoslav drama - and exposes the danger of yet more outside intervention, argues Linda Ryan

Kosovo: the final act

The Serbian police offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in Drenica in March resulted in the death of scores of ethnic Albanians and led to intense Western pressure on Belgrade to cease its repressive actions and negotiate a political agreement with the ethnic Albanian leadership in Kosovo. However, the lesson of the past decade is that Western diplomatic and political meddling is more likely to exacerbate than resolve local conflicts.

Armed attacks by the KLA on Serbian police, ethnic Albanian 'collaborators' and Serbian civilians provided the immediate backdrop to the police crackdown in March. However, the latest events need to be seen in the overall context of the dissolution of Yugoslavia over the past decade and the internationalisation of the region's conflicts since 1989. The polarisation of the Serb and ethnic Albanian communities in Kosovo has been a slow, drawn-out process (see p34), but one that gathered momentum following the unravelling of the former communist system in Yugoslavia and the escalating involvement of outside powers.

Following several years of strife between the republics that made up the Yugoslav federation, the end of the communist regime in Yugoslavia came in 1990 with the collapse of the federal Communist Party. Two republics, Slovenia and Croatia, soon declared their right to national independence. On 2 July 1990, the same day that the Slovene Assembly issued its declaration of sovereignty, ethnic Albanian delegates to the provincial Kosovo Assembly adopted a declaration proclaiming Kosovo a republic, having equal status with Serbia and other republics and including the right to secede from the federation. The declaration expressed the growing self-assertion of the ethnic Albanian population, in response to the rise of nationalism elsewhere in the Yugoslav federation, the repression meted out by the Serbian authorities, and the increasing involvement of the USA in the Kosovo dispute.

By this time Western policy towards Yugoslavia was changing in response to the winding down of the Cold War. For 40 years Yugoslavia had had a special relationship with the USA, including special access to Western credits in exchange for Yugoslav neutrality, which made the country's territorial integrity a matter of strategic concern to the West. However, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union and the progress of arms reduction talks between the two Cold War blocs made Yugoslavia's role in Nato policy largely redundant. Yugoslavia was becoming less of a security concern for the USA, and its special category status in the US state department was revoked in early 1989.

The changes in the international order brought about by the end of the Cold War, particularly the reunification of Germany, also had an impact. In an attempt to demonstrate their authority in the unstable post-Cold War world, the Western powers adopted a more interventionist foreign policy. Western governments' new foreign policy has since been pursued under the banners of a moral mission to save the world, using the rhetoric of political correctness (protecting ethnic minorities, human rights, environmentalism etc) to justify what is, in reality, a display of great power diplomacy. In the process, the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, on which the postwar international order was founded, has gone out the window. In the New World Order the Western powers, and the USA in particular, have given themselves the right to reorder the world as they see fit, whether in Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa.

It was in this context that Warren Zimmerman, the new US ambassador to Yugoslavia, arrived in April 1989, with a brief to pay attention to human rights issues. Zimmerman came straight from a post as US ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) where the USA was pushing 'Basket Three' issues (human rights), which were fast becoming a surrogate for the loss of anti-communism as a cohering theme in US policy. The repression of Albanian civil rights in Kosovo quickly became the focus of US policy in Yugoslavia. Together with members of the US Congress and its Helsinki Committee, Zimmerman castigated the government of Serbia for its violation of human rights in Kosovo. He was so outspoken that Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, refused to meet him for nine months after he arrived in Belgrade. Congressional outrage over human rights abuses, led by Senator Robert Dole, resulted in several US fact-finding missions in mid-1990 and, by November 1990, in an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act offered by Senator Don Nickles that threatened the withdrawal of US economic assistance if improvements in Kosovo did not occur within six months (by 5 May 1991).

By the end of the 1980s the issues of democracy, human rights and territorial jurisdiction had become inextricably intertwined. The US intervention in Kosovo, which emphasised the issue of human rights and presented the problem there as one wholly of Serbia's making, gave encouragement not only to the secessionists among the Kosovo Albanians but also to Slovene and Croat nationalists, reinforcing their anti-Serb outbursts. They also had the effect of strengthening Milosevic's claim to be the protector of Serbian national interests, in Kosovo and elsewhere, and helping him to be elected as president of Serbia by popular referendum in December 1989. Thus at the same time as US policy still formally favoured the continuing integrity of Yugoslavia, Washington's actions served to hasten the end of the country.

Almost a decade later, the international position on Kosovo continues to reject the ethnic Albanian goal of independence but demands of Serbia the restoration of significant autonomy for the province. The Western powers argue that they have always insisted on the inviolability of the various republics' borders, and that on this basis Kosovo does not qualify for independence. However, professing support for the integrity of borders is rendered meaningless by the destructive effect of outside intervention in Kosovo. It recalls the way in which various powers expressed verbal support for the integrity of Yugoslavia while they undermined it.

The very fact of outside involvement is succour for those seeking international sponsorship for their independence claims. The struggle to create new states out of the former Yugoslav federation was essentially a struggle to get international recognition. Germany's sponsorship of Croatia's independence in 1991 and America's backing of Bosnian independence in 1992 were key moments in the descent into civil war in Yugoslavia. Once that war began, the struggle for international backing became even more important than the fight on the ground. The potentially destructive dynamic unleashed by the post-communist rise of nationalism in Yugoslavia was made deadly by the interference of foreign powers.

Today the primary motive of outside intervention in Kosovo is a desire to impose Western diktat. The Western powers are telling Serbia that it WILL grant Kosovo autonomy, or else face the 'severest consequences': a euphemism for bombing in the words of the US secretary of state, Madelaine Albright. This can only antagonise the Serbs and encourage the Kosovo Albanians to press for more. As long as outsiders are dictating to the locals, the likely result is more polarisation.

One of the lessons that should have been learned from more than three years of war in Bosnia is that foreign meddling invariably reduces the possibility of compromise. Western involvement in Bosnia led to dashed peace deals, broken ceasefires, intensified fighting and a rising body count. Since 1989 intervention by outside powers in Kosovo has scuppered the possibility of a local solution by encouraging ethnic Albanian secessionists and feeding Serbian nationalism. It is worth pointing out that the only reason why the Kosovo Albanians can be so brazen in their claim for independence, compared with the Hungarians in Slovakia or Transylvania for example, is because it has become acceptable internationally. It is part of the post-Yugoslav agenda, thanks to the disintegrative dynamic unleashed by Western intervention.

It is ironic that the most conducive circumstances for the preservation of the very substantial autonomy enjoyed by the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo in the 1970s-1980s would have been the continuation of a united, federal Yugoslavia. Even now, however, there is still a chance of a compromise solution. But that can come only if those who have to live with the result are allowed to decide their own future free from outside interference. The terms of a solution in Kosovo are not the business of outsiders.

Serb police on patrol in Pristina

How Kosovo became a powder keg

Yugoslavia was founded in 1943, under the leadership of Marshal Tito's communists, with six republics: Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In September 1945 two autonomous provinces of Serbia - Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the south - were constituted. In 1974 the status of Kosovo and Vojvodina was enhanced under a new constitution, defining their pos-ition as federal units within Yugoslavia, rather than just in relation to Serbia. The special status of these two provinces was opposed by many Serbs, and their reintegration into Serbia became a major focus for Serbian nationalists in the late 1980s.

From the 1960s onwards there was a gradual strengthening of nationalism in the republics which laid the seeds for the eventual destruction of Yugoslavia. In 1968 significant concessions were granted to Kosovo by the federal authorities. These rights, which gave Kosovo de facto autonomous republic status, were later enshrined in the new Yugoslav constitution of 1974. The equality of all languages, the right to be taught in the mother tongue and the right to their own educational institutions (including a university) were guaranteed. Ethnic Albanians made up the leadership of the local League of Communists and the provincial administration, including the police force, was predominantly Albanian. The demand for separation by Kosovo Albanians acquired political momentum during the period when the province enjoyed its most enhanced status in the federation (1968-1989).

Within a year of Tito's death there was a nationalist uprising in Pristina, in March-April 1981, demanding that Kosovo be made formally a republic. This was brutally repressed after a state of emergency was declared. Following the 1981 events the communist authorities introduced a policy of 'differen-tiation', which involved the purging of any party member or official who did not denounce the campaign for a republic. Between 1981 and 1990, according to Amnesty International, more than 7000 ethnic Albanians were arrested and imprisoned in Kosovo for nationalist activities.

In 1985 a group of Serbian intellectuals at the Serbian Academy of Sciences prepared a document known as the Memorandum. The document alleged that Serbia had been weakened greatly by the granting of autonomy to Vojvodina and Kosovo. The Memorandum paved the way for the emergence of Milosevic, who became leader of the Serbian League of Communists in 1986. In 1987 he denounced his former mentor, Ivan Stambolic, for having allowed Kosovo to remain self-governing.

That same year, in response to claims that the small Serbian popu-lation of Kosovo was being terrorised by the Albanian population, Milosevic whipped up Serbian popular indig-nation and promised to protect the local Serbs. In February 1989 an Albanian general strike was suppressed by Serbian police backed by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), with the loss of 24 lives. In March 1989 Azem Vlasi and other Albanian leaders were arrested and charged with 'counter-revolutionary activities'. In 1990, as fears of secessionist movements mounted throughout Yugoslavia, Serbia assumed direct control of the Kosovo police force, causing the resignation of every ethnic Albanian member of the provincial government. The new Serbian constitution of 1990 removed the last vestiges of autonomy from Kosovo. On 5 July 1990 the Serbian authorities dissolved the provincial assembly and the government. The Kosovo presidency resigned in protest and Serbia introduced a special administration. By September 1990, 15 000 ethnic Albanian officials had been dismissed.

On 7 September 1990 members of the former Kosovo assembly declared the assembly to have been reconvened and, six days later, proclaimed a basic law of the 'Republic of Kosovo'. As the Kosovo assembly in exile, based in Zagreb, it organised a referendum on independence from Serbia in September 1991. This registered overwhelming support among ethnic Albanians for Kosovo becoming a sovereign republic. Ethnic Albanian elections to the shadow assembly, declared illegal by the Serbian authorities, were held in the province in May 1992. Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) secured the most seats and Rugova was elected president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo.

Throughout the 1990s the Kosovo Albanians pursued a policy of passive resistance, refusing to participate in the life of the Serbian state, not only abstaining from elections but also running their own parallel administration, health and education systems. They have rejected the goal of greater autonomy within Serbia and have continued to run their own affairs in a manner tantamount to a de facto secession. The escalation of the KLA's campaign over the past year is symptomatic of growing conflicts within the Albanian leadership over what course to pursue in the struggle for independence. The militants have raised the stakes by resorting to violence in an attempt to internationalise the conflict and provoke Western intervention to impose a settlement.

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998



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