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Rescued from the Memory Hole: Background of Serb/Albanian Conflict
March 31, 1999
There is always intense
pressure in wartime for media outlets to serve as
propagandists rather than journalists. While the role of the journalist is to present the world in all its complexity, so that people can make up their own minds, the propagandist simplifies the world in order to mobilize the public behind a common goal.
One basic simplification is to interpret a conflict in terms of villains and victims, with no qualification allowed for either role. Conflicts in the real world rarely fall into such simple categories: Particularly in ethnic conflicts, both sides usually have legitimate grievances that are often used to justify a new round of abuses against the other side.
In presenting the background to the Kosovo conflict, U.S. news outlets usually begin with Serbia's revocation of the Kosovo Albanians' autonomy in 1989. This was a crucial decision, one of the major reasons for the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army. It also destabilized the Yugoslavian system and contributed to the country's breakup.
Yet media accounts have rarely explained why Serbia lifted Kosovo's autonomy. The attached article, from the New York Times in 1987, gives important background to this decision. Although the article is easily found in the Nexis database, little to none of this information has found its way into contemporary coverage of Kosovo, in the Times or anywhere else.
If one read a similar
history of Kosovo written today, one would likely
dismiss it as pro-Serb propaganda. Yet this was written 12 years ago, when
Kosovo was an obscure corner of the world, and the New York Times would not
seem to have any particular interest in defending Serbs or attacking
It should be kept in
mind that some of the charges in this article may be
exaggerated or politically motivated. Of course, the same is true of atrocity reports that are being carried in the New York Times and other papers today. In Yugoslavia, Rising Ethnic Strife Brings Fears of Worse Civil Conflict
Portions of southern Yugoslavia have reached such a state of ethnic friction that Yugoslavs have begun to talk of the horrifying possibility of ''civil war'' in a land that lost one-tenth of its population, or 1.7 million people, in World War II.
The current hostilities
pit separatist-minded ethnic Albanians against the
various Slavic populations of Yugoslavia and occur at all levels of society, from the highest officials to the humblest peasants.
A young Army conscript of ethnic Albanian origin shot up his barracks, killing four sleeping Slavic bunkmates and wounding six others.
The army says it has uncovered hundreds of subversive ethnic Albanian cells in its ranks. Some arsenals have been raided.
Ethnic Albanians in the
Government have manipulated public funds and
regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs. And politicians have
exchanged vicious insults.
Slavic Orthodox churches
have been attacked, and flags have been torn down.
Wells have been poisoned and crops burned. Slavic boys have been knifed, and some young ethnic Albanians have been told by their elders to rape Serbian girls.
Ethnic Albanians comprise
the fastest growing nationality in Yugoslavia and
are expected soon to become its third largest, after the Serbs and Croats.
The goal of the radical nationalists among them, one said in an interview, is an ''ethnic Albania that includes western Macedonia, southern Montenegro, part of southern Serbia, Kosovo and Albania itself.'' That includes large chunks of the republics that make up the southern half of Yugoslavia.
Other ethnic Albanian
separatists admit to a vision of a greater Albania
governed from Pristina in southern Yugoslavia rather than Tirana, the capital of neighboring Albania.
There is no evidence
that the hard-line Communist Government in Tirana is
giving them material assistance.
The principal battleground is the region called Kosovo, a high plateau ringed by mountains that is somewhat smaller than New Jersey. Ethnic Albanians there make up 85 percent of the population of 1.7 million. The rest are Serbians and Montenegrins.
Worst Strife in Years
As Slavs flee the protracted violence, Kosovo is becoming what ethnic Albanian nationalists have been demanding for years, and especially strongly since the bloody rioting by ethnic Albanians in Pristina in 1981 - an ''ethnically pure'' Albanian region, a ''Republic of Kosovo' ' in all but name.
The violence, a journalist in Kosovo said, is escalating to ''the worst in the last seven years.''
Many Yugoslavs blame
the troubles on the ethnic Albanians, but the matter is more complex in
a country with as many nationalities and religions as
Yugoslavia's and involves economic development, law, politics, families and
flags. As recently as 20 years ago, the Slavic majority treated ethnic
Albanians as inferiors to be employed as hewers of wood and carriers of
heating coal. The ethnic Albanians, who now number 2 million, were officially deemed a minority, not a constituent nationality, as they are today.
Were the ethnic tensions restricted to Kosovo, Yugoslavia's problems with its Albanian nationals might be more manageable. But some Yugoslavs and some ethnic Albanians believe the struggle has spread far beyond Kosovo. Macedonia, a republic to the south with a population of 1.8 million, has a restive ethnic Albanian minority of 350,000.
''We've already lost
western Macedonia to the Albanians,'' said a member of
the Yugoslav party presidium, explaining that the ethnic minority had driven the Slavic Macedonians out of the region.
Attacks on Slavs
Last summer, the authorities in Kosovo said they documented 40 ethnic Albanian attacks on Slavs in two months. In the last two years, 320 ethnic Albanians have been sentenced for political crimes, nearly half of them characterized as severe.
In one incident, Fadil Hoxha, once the leading politician of ethnic Albanian origin in Yugoslavia, joked at an official dinner in Prizren last year that Serbian women should be used to satisfy potential ethnic Albanian rapists. After his quip was reported this October, Serbian women in Kosovo protested and Mr. Hoxha was dismissed from the Communist Party.
As a precaution, the central authorities dispatched 380 riot police officers to the Kosovo region for the first time in four years.
Officials in Belgrade
view the ethnic Albanian challenge as imperiling the
foundations of the multinational experiment called federal Yugoslavia, which consists of six republics and two provinces.
'Lebanonizing' of Yugoslavia
have spoken of the ''Lebanonizing'' of their country
and have compared its troubles to the strife in Northern Ireland.
Borislav Jovic, a member
of the Serbian party's presidency, spoke in an
interview of the prospect of ''two Albanias, one north and one south, like
divided Germany or Korea,'' and of ''practically the breakup of Yugoslavia.'' He added: ''Time is working against us.''
The federal Secretary
for National Defense, Fleet Adm. Branko Mamula, told the army's party organization
in September of efforts by ethnic Albanians to subvert the armed forces.
''Between 1981 and 1987 a total of 216 illegal
organizations with 1,435 members of Albanian nationality were discovered in
the Yugoslav People's Army,'' he said. Admiral Mamula said ethnic Albanian
subversives had been preparing for ''killing officers and soldiers, poisoning food and water, sabotage, breaking into weapons arsenals and stealing arms and ammunition, desertion and causing flagrant nationalist incidents in army units.''
Concerns Over Military
Coming three weeks after
the ethnic Albanian draftee, Aziz Kelmendi, had
slaughtered his Slavic comrades in the barracks at Paracin, the speech struck fear in thousands of families whose sons were about to start their mandatory year of military service.
Because the Albanians
have had a relatively high birth rate, one-quarter of
the army's 200,000 conscripts this year are ethnic Albanians. Admiral Mamula suggested that 3,792 were potential human timebombs.
He said the army had ''not been provided with details relevant for assessing their behavior.'' But a number of Belgrade politicians said they doubted the Yugoslav armed forces would be used to intervene in Kosovo as they were to quell violent rioting in 1981 in Pristina. They reason that the army leadership is extremely reluctant to become involved in what is, in the first place, a political issue.
Ethnic Albanians already control almost every phase of life in the autonomous province of Kosovo, including the police, judiciary, civil service, schools and factories. Non-Albanian visitors almost immediately feel the independence - and suspicion - of the ethnic Albanian authorities.
Region's Slavs Lack Strength
While 200,000 Serbs and
Montenegrins still live in the province, they are
scattered and lack cohesion. In the last seven years, 20,000 of them have fled the province, often leaving behind farmsteads and houses, for the safety of the Slavic north.
Until September, the
majority of the Serbian Communist Party leadership
pursued a policy of seeking compromise with the Kosovo party hierarchy under its ethnic Albanian leader, Azem Vlasi.
But during a 30-hour
session of the Serbian central committee in late
September, the Serbian party secretary, Slobodan Milosevic, deposed Dragisa
Pavlovic, as head of Belgrade's party organization, the country's largest. Mr. Milosevic accused Mr. Pavlovic of being an appeaser who was soft on Albanian radicals. Mr. Milosevic had courted the Serbian backlash vote with speeches in Kosovo itself calling for ''the policy of the hard hand.''
''We will go up against
anti-Socialist forces, even if they call us
Stalinists,'' Mr. Milosevic declared recently. That a Yugoslav politician
would invite someone to call him a Stalinist even four decades after Tito's
epochal break with Stalin, is a measure of the state into which Serbian
politics have fallen. For the moment, Mr. Milosevic and his supporters appear to be staking their careers on a strategy of confrontation with the Kosovo ethnic Albanians.
Other Yugoslav politicians have expressed alarm. ''There is no doubt Kosovo is a problem of the whole country, a powder keg on which we all sit,'' said Milan Kucan, head of the Slovenian Communist Party.
Remzi Koljgeci, of the
Kosovo party leadership, said in an interview in
Pristina that ''relations are cold'' between the ethnic Albanians and Serbs of the province, that there were too many ''people without hope.''
But many of those interviewed
agreed it was also a rare opportunity for
Yugoslavia to take radical political and economic steps, as Tito did when he broke with the Soviet bloc in 1948.
Efforts are under way
to strengthen central authority through amendments to
the constitution. The League of Communists is planning an extraordinary party congress before March to address the country's grave problems.
The hope is that something
will be done then to exert the rule of law in
Kosovo while drawing ethnic Albanians back into Yugoslavia's mainstream.
Copyright 1987 The New
York Times Company