The lethal engine of ethnic cleansing
They are looking for a compromise which will give the Albanians of Kosovo substantial autonomy while preserving enough links with Belgrade to satisfy the Serbs. Behind it lies the notion that anything more radical, particularly the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, would lead to wider instability in the southern Balkans as well as the expulsion of the 200,000 Serbs remaining in Kosovo. The fate of Kosovo would, it is argued, affect neighbouring Macedonia, where Albanians form around a third of the population. It might prompt the Bosnian Serbs in their rump entity called Republika Srpska to demand integration with Serbia, which could in turn lead to the collapse of the fragile Bosnian state.
Behind the regional considerations, there is a feeling that the West must take a stand against any further erosion of the ideal of multi-culturalism. If western European states are slowly accepting that their societies have become multi-ethnic – most recently symbolised by Germany’s willingness to give citizenship to its large Turkish minority – shouldn’t the same values be promoted everywhere in Europe? [Events since 1999 have shown that the western powers, particularly the USA, were far more concerned about their own political objectives than the long-term needs of the peoples in the former Yugoslavia].
For laudable reasons people are unwilling to tolerate the new fault-line dividing Europe 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It separates north from south, rather than west from east, and unlike the Iron Curtain it does not prevent free movement nor does it cross the continent’s entire width. The new barrier runs from Trieste on the Adriatic to the plains of Hungary, and the Europeans who live to its south have in the last decade of this century witnessed bloodshed and horror on a scale which the communist states behind the Iron Curtain never matched. [Even by 1999 it had become very clear that the ‘bloodshed and horror’ had been on nothing like the scale this paragraph suggests. The ‘estimated 300,000’ deaths referred to in the next paragraph is an absolutely absurd figure – pure propaganda which should have been challenged at the time. The real deaths figure may never be known, but is much more likely to be closer to 20,000 on all sides in all the conflicts.]
The line seems to divide those countries which have been able to accept peaceful co-existence between ethnic groups from those which have not. In Bosnia, notoriously, an estimated 300,000 people died in the name of the argument that there can be no political stability without ethnic homogeneity. Purveyed by nationalist politicians, buttressed by one-sided propaganda on state-run television, and based on a selective recollection of history, it became a lethal engine which turned neighbours against each other and caused the brutal relocation of populations known as ethnic cleansing. [In Bosnia it was religious, not ethnic, divisions which turned neighbours against each other. Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims are ethnically the same. In Kosovo, problems between Serbs and Albanians resulted from the brutal oppression of the Serb minority by the Albanian majority which started almost immediately after the death of Tito. The major acts of ethnic cleansing were the eviction of 400,000 Serbs from Krijina, where they and their ancestors had lived for some 400 years and the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Serbs from Kosovo at the end of the Kosovo war.]
Similar transfers have happened elsewhere in Europe. The first years after Hitler’s defeat saw a mass relocation of people in Central Europe, as hundreds of thousands of Germans who had lived there for centuries were forced to leave Poland and Czechoslovakia (1).
For the next 45 years the concept of communal peace in Europe remained largely intact. When it snapped, people were relieved that it was mainly on the geographical outer edges – in Northern Ireland and the Basque country. But when Yugoslavia started to fall apart, the shock reverberated round Europe. Yugoslavia seemed such an ethnic success story until 1991. [Yugoslavia’s multiculturalism was a genuine success until 1990 when the USA deliberately sabotaged the Yugoslav economy by making all future aid conditional on the holding of democratic elections in all 6 Yugoslav republics. The economy stalled almost immediately and – as was entirely predictable – nationalism flourished].
To explain it, people turned to stereotypes about the Balkans’ special factors, using phrases like ‘ancient hatreds were bound to break out again’ or ‘they were killing each other for centuries until communism put a lid on it’. Even some Western liberal analysts have recently begun to argue that mono-ethnic states may be the best solution for the Balkans(2). While the rest of Europe moves towards some form of integration, the states south of the fault-line may need to divide for a long time before they can think of eventually coming together.
Two of Yugoslavia’s six former republics are indeed mono-ethnic, or at least 90 per cent so. Slovenia always was; Croatia has become so after the expulsion of its once-large Serb communities at the point of President Tudjman’s guns. Bosnia also suggests that mono-ethnicity is the only way forward. Three years after the Dayton agreement, which paid lip service to unity and put some of the building blocks of a unified state into place, Bosnia is still split into Serb, Croat and Bosniac (largely Muslim) subdivisions. There is little political momentum towards bringing them together, whatever the Dayton constitution says on paper. [The great mistake was the illegal recognition of Slovenia and, slightly later, recognition of Croatia and Bosnia forced through by Germany. None of these republics met any of the basic requirements set down for the recognition of new states in international law. Many problems flowed from this error.]
The Bosnian case is hotly contested. Some Western analysts, most notably the International Crisis Group(3), argue that the West has caused the problem in post-Dayton Bosnia by imposing a winner-takes-all voting system. If it had chosen a proportional representation system with multiple transferable votes, it could have discouraged people from voting ethnically. It also points out that many Bosnians would go back to their old homes across the new ethnic boundaries if the international forces in Bosnia gave them better protection. [In pre-Dayton, pre-war Bosnia the west betrayed the Bosnian Serbs by recognising the result of the independence referendum held in Bosnia despite the fact that the vote to hold a referendum had been held at 3am with only Bosnian Muslim representatives invited to take part.]
The strongest evidence that multiculturalism can work in the Balkans comes from the other three republics of former Yugoslavia. Experience there runs counter to the arguments that mono-ethnic states are inevitable or that they have a better chance of producing stability. Montenegro is largely Serb, though with an Albanian minority of some 15 per cent, thanks largely to the influx of refugees from Kosovo. Yet Montenegro’s current tension is not between Serbs and Albanians but among the Serbs themselves. Two former Communist officials who now lead rival parties are in a bitter struggle and in the wings stands Slobodan Milosevic, a man whose worst enemies describe him as a highly skilled opportunist more than a nationalist. He is pitting two Montenegrins against each other, largely for fear that the more reformist of the two may lead the republic to secession. The issue has nothing to do with ethnicity. It is largely concerned with economics. [The USA poured millions of dollars into bribing the Montenegrans to split from Serbia, but – once that goal was achieved – soon lost interest in little Montengro. The chaos that ensued was an inevitable consequence].
In Macedonia recent elections produced a government which also challenges the Balkan stereotypes. Although most people voted ethnically for ‘one of us’, the politicians who won power last autumn are showing great tolerance and skill. On the ethnic Macedonian side victory went to an electoral alliance, headed by VMRO, previously known as a radical nationalist party. Although it could have put together a majority government of Macedonian MPs, it decided to invite the more radical of Macedonia’s two Albanian parties into coalition. It has also begun to concede some of the Albanians’ demands for greater use of the Albanian language and symbols. There is plenty of cunning about it, since VMRO wants to keep the two Albanian parties apart rather than inviting both of them into government. But in its first weeks of power the government has significantly reduced ethnic tensions. [More than 20 years on, the situation remains volatile. Nothing has been resolved.]
What then of Serbia, the largest of the former Yugoslav republics? Even without Kosovo, it is the most multi-ethnic Balkan state. Its various ethnic groups enjoy a harmony comparable to that of most of western Europe. Discrimination and prejudice, sometimes; violence and persecution, hardly ever. [Serbia was never the communist dictatorship that western propaganda suggested it was. Milosovic was a democratically elected leader who wanted to westernise the Serbian economy. He was an ardent multiculturalist. Despite everything, in 2022 Serbia remains home to more than 20 different ethnic groups.]
The exception in Serbia is the once-autonomous province of Kosovo. Looked at as a case of failed ethnic tolerance, it appears to be a classic Balkan tragedy. But Kosovo should more accurately be seen as a case of colonialism, a concept with which Europeans north of Yugoslavia are easily familiar. For centuries until 1912 it was run neither by Serbs nor Albanians. It was part of the Ottoman empire of the Turks. Serbs argue with passionate conviction that Kosovo is ancient Serbian land, full of religious monuments sacred to Serbs, but of themselves they do not confer contemporary rights. [The colonisation that has taken place in Kosovo is an Albanian, not Serbian, colonisation – a ‘Greater Albania’ project. Tito greatly helped this through his divide-and-rule policy. He encouraged the growth of the Albanian majority by passing laws to stop Kosovo Serbs who had been fighting the Germans from returning to their homes at the end of WW2; by frequently opening Kosovo’s borders to admit more Albanians; and by doing little or nothing to control the efforts of Kosovo Albanians to make life impossible for the Serbian minority.]
The more relevant historical issue is who lived in the territory when Serbian rule was re-imposed in 1912. According to the most recent history of Kosovo, Austrian statistics put the area’s Serb population at 25 per cent in 1903, while Ottoman figures of 1912 put it at 21 per cent(4). The Serbs would have had a higher proportion, had it not been for the forced expulsion of Albanians from the Morava valley in southern Serbia in 1877-78. The Albanian refugees fled into Kosovo. Thousands of Serbs then voluntarily emigrated from Kosovo. [These statistics are highly dubious. Others paint a very different picture. Most Serb emigres were far from happy to go – they went because their lives had become impossible].
When the Yugoslav state was formed in 1918 as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (it also included Montenegro), it was a voluntary arrangement among Slavs. But Kosovo with its Albanian population, ethnically different and speaking a totally distinct language, had already come under Serbian rule six years earlier as the result of military invasion as the Ottoman empire declined. Serbs called this a restoration. Albanians still describe it as an occupation. The exact words do not matter. The main point is that it was not union by consent.
Tension between Serbs and Albanians has always been high in Kosovo since 1912. The Yugoslav government encouraged Serbs to settle in Kosovo, while in the war the Italian Fascist invaders drove tens of thousands of them out. After the war Tito restored Serb control though, being a realist, he eventually came to recognise the weight of Albanian population and their claims to self-government. In 1974 he gave Kosovo wide-ranging autonomy, including its own self-defence units and police as well as a local parliament. It was the revocation of that autonomy in 1989 by Milosevic which reversed the tide of history, led to the eventual need to use force to maintain an unpopular policy, and over the past 12 months has forfeited Serbia’s remaining claims to govern. [Tito was much more of an opportunist than a realist. The revocation of autonomy was a desperate attempt by Milosevic to regain some control in Kosovo so that Kosovo Serbs were not in constant fear of their lives.]
Under international pressure Milosevic came forward recently with a plan to restore Kosovo’s ‘self-governance’. His proposal is an extraordinary attempt to create complicated vetoes on majority rule, what the British tried with their ‘blocking mechanisms’ in the various constitutions for Rhodesia. Although Albanians form 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population, the proposal defines seven nationalities in Kosovo. They are the Turks, the Muslims (mainly Bosniacs), the Gorancies (Muslim Slavs originally from the Prizren area), the Roma, the Egyptians (another Roma group centred on Pec), the Serbs, and the Albanians. Each community would have veto rights. [Population figures have been greatly misreported. More than 200,000 Kosovo Serbs left the province at the end of the war in 1999, but it’s reckoned that 200,000 Serbs still remain. Simple maths shows that Serbs probably made up more than 20% of Kosovo’s population before the war started.]
To make it more bizarre, Milosevic’s draft proposes an ethnic measure which did not even exist in apartheid South Africa. No policeman would be allowed to arrest someone of another nationality. If this plan is aimed at enhancing ethnic harmony, one wonders why it is not introduced in Belgrade and the rest of Serbia. [The reference to South Africa is gratuitous. This provision simply recognised that there were likely to be fewer flash points if the two ethnic groups policed their own people.]
Protecting minority rights if Kosovo becomes independent is of course a serious issue. Some Serb analysts have wondered whether partition is feasible. There are suggestions that Milosevic may play this card at the Paris peace talks. Geographically, it is impossible with the Serbs’ present position. Most live in towns rather than villages and are scattered around the territory. In any case, with only 10 per cent of the population, they would end up with a tiny part of the territory. Many thousands of Serbs are already moving because of Milosevic’s war and the heightened sense of hatred and fear that it has caused. If they can, they leave Kosovo altogether. What holds them back is the difficulty of finding work or land in central Serbia. [The reference to ‘Milosevic’s war’ is grossly misleading. It was the 1998 invasion of Kosovo from Albania by a KLA army, armed and trained by the US, UK, Germany and France, that started the Kosovo war. The KLA aim was to seize the whole of Kosovo by force and at one stage they did indeed hold 60% of the territory. Then the Serbs turned the tide of fighting and the international community swiftly intervened to prevent them driving the KLA out altogether.]
If, under Albanian rule, the last Serbs emigrated it would not necessarily be proof that bi-ethnic states are doomed in the Balkans. It would show the power of the media to manipulate. Serbian TV and the main newspapers have created an overwhelming image of terrorism and Muslim primitivism, as well as using the example of post-communist Albania to say that Albanians cannot run an efficient state. [Kosovo, since the withdrawal of Serbian security forces, has become a lawless fiefdom of highly organised criminal gangs whose power is derived from the proceeds of drug smugglers, gun runners, people traffickers and pimps of the worst imaginable kind. At one time more than 50% of heroin entering and distributed in the UK was controlled by Albanian/Kosovan gangs. The rise in people trafficking rose dramatically after June 1999 as a direct result of the war ending and the ability of Kosovo Albanians to operate freely.]
To discourage the exodus, the international community should insist on strong guarantees for Kosovo’s Serbs and other minorities, with full rights of redress against arbitrary police or government actions. For a transitional period there may have to be certain special rights of self-government at local level in villages or suburbs where non-Albanians are a majority. But the basic paradigm should not be that Kosovo is a typical ‘Balkan’ issue. It is colonialism in the heart of Europe. While political independence is never a sufficient condition for prosperity or democracy, it is an essential part. [History surely shows that the worst thing that can happen to any sovereign state is for the international community to intervene in their affairs. Without the ignorant, selfish involvement of the western powers, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia might well have survived as a multicultural entity and be far better placed than it is today.]
Sources: (1) Mark Mazower, Dark Continent, Allen Lane, 1998;
(2) Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books, January 14, 1999;
(3) International Crisis Group, Changing the Logic of Bosnian Politics;
(4) Noel Malcolm, A Short History of Kosovo (Macmillan).
Full background on the Kosovo crisis can be accessed at the Guardian’s web site at: wwwialist.