Western Firmness Needed to Head off Chaos in Kosovo

By Lippman, Peter | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Western Firmness Needed to Head off Chaos in Kosovo


Lippman, Peter, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Western Firmness Needed to Head Off Chaos in Kosovo

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Ibrahim Rugova, president of the parallel government of Kosovo, met in May to discuss solutions to the conflict in Kosovo. This was the first such meeting since Milosevic, then president of Serbia, stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989. The seeming breakthrough quickly broke down, however, as Serbian troops increased the level of violence against Albanian civilians in Kosovo. In the wake of the destruction of the western Kosovo town of Decani, where at least 50 people were killed and over 65,000 made refugees, Albanian representatives refused to participate in further negotiations.

After 1989, the position of the predominantly Albanian population of the autonomous province of Kosovo quickly deteriorated. In developments familiar to observers of Palestine, Albanians were expelled from their public schools and hospitals. Albanian political and enforcement structures were dissolved. Directors and workers were fired from their jobs, and repression and deprivation quickly replaced the previous order.

The Albanians responded to what essentially had become a Serbian occupation of their province by establishing parallel educational and medical systems and a shadow government. This government's strategy for the following eight years was to advocate a passive form of nonviolent resistance. President Rugova achieved broad popularity and support for his policies. However, in the face of increasing hunger and brutality, especially in the countryside, frustration led to a sporadic armed response in the last couple of years.

Between passive nonviolent resistance and guerrilla actions, the Albanians had no middle strategy until the fall of 1997, when students began to lead the first protest demonstrations in seven years. Meanwhile, both the international press and the Yugoslav government began to sensationalize the existence of a "Kosovo Liberation Army," described as "funded by drug dealers" and supplied over the Albanian border. What probably began as groupings of villagers determined to defend their homesteads was mythologized into an army.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), lacking a unified command or policy, became the focus of a Yugoslav government propaganda campaign that equated Albanians with terrorists. The late-February massacre in the Drenica region, where police armed with mortars, armored vehicles and helicopters surrounded over 20 villages and wiped out whole extended families, marked the beginning of a heightened level of the conflict. Since then the Serbian attacks have spread throughout Kosovo, with particular ferocity in the western area, along the border with Albania.

When I visited Kosovo in March, soon after the beginning of the Drenica atrocities, I learned that sentiment for a nonviolent solution was in fact widespread. The dramatic response in the countryside was balanced by a desire in the cities to avoid war. The fighting attracted journalists, while articles about the nonviolent tendency did not sell newspapers. However, the peaceful demonstrations against the school closures were transformed into demonstrations against the occupation and the violence, and have continued almost daily.

But if the existence of the Kosovo Liberation Army was once questionable, Milosevic's atrocities have provided the best possible recruitment propaganda. In Drenica, the Serbian police used schoolchildren as a shield to advance across a fighting ground. In Prizren they forced demonstrators to eat parts of their protest signs. There have been several incidents where bystanders were shot and then photographed after weapons were placed near their bodies. …

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