Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of parts of Kosova was stepped up again early this month, in the west of the country. The epicentre of the latest drive appears to be Decan, a town of some 60,000 Kosovars and an estimated 500 Serbs. The Serb assault has followed a now-familiar pattern, first seen in Bosnia, with significant variations.
The area was militarized with the influx of troops and equipment over a period of several weeks following the initial military operations in March. After a period of tense calm, the Serbs started moving through the area village by village. Each village is first surrounded, then bombarded with heavy artillery, and finally invaded by troops and armour whose aim appears to be to cause maximum terror and damage. Once one village is so razed, rendered uninhabitable so that its people are unlikely to return, the Serbs move on to the next one.
One significant recent development is the use of air power by the Serbs, which was minimal in Bosnia, partly because of the UN’s no-fly zone and partly because of the Serb desire to portray the war as an internal Bosnian affair. In Kosova, where neither restriction applies, helicopter gunships patrol major roads and are reported to have taken part in raids on villages. A Serb bomber crashed last month outside Prishtina, the Kosova capital, reportedly shot down by the Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA), although Serbs claimed it was due to a mechanical failure.
Official figures concerning the early June operations suggest that about 50 people were killed in one week. Thousands more were driven out of their homes into surrounding villages or, in the case of women and children, into other parts of Kosova or even Albania, as refugees. The real death figures are certainly much higher, although observers believe that the Serbs are deliberately pursuing a relatively low-casualty approach in order to minimize international condemnation. Their purpose, the argument goes, is served as much by Kosovar emigration as by their deaths.
Another recent development was the Serb police crackdown on June 6 on the daily rallies by Kosovars in Prishtina, the 57th consecutive day of demonstrations. Although Serbs control the city, they have ignored these demonstrations, apparently reluctant to cause conflict in the streets of the capital and under the eyes of the world’s media. In recent weeks, however, the mood of the demonstrations has changed, with support for president Ibrahim Rugova’s pacifist approach fading in favour of the military option represented by the KLA. Slogans in support of the KLA have become common during marches, even though they are organized by Rugova supporters.
The Serb crackdown on the demonstration may also have been connected to the Kosovar decision to suspend talks indefinitely with Milosevic’s representatives. Talks, on Milosevic’s terms began last month and were scheduled to continue on a weekly basis, every Friday. However, following the Serbs’ latest escalation of military operations, the Kosovar team withdrew from the talks scheduled for June 5. The Serbs have condemned this as increasing tension and making a peaceful solution less likely.
It is notable also that the western media and governments have finally realized the true extent and nature of Serb operations. The latest Serb attacks have been reported in detail and explicitly condemned as ethnic cleansing comparable to the Serbs’ atrocities in Bosnia. Previous Serb operations were reported in far more restrained terms. Western governments have also gone on the offensive against the Serbs, at least in rhetoric. British prime minister Tony Blair has spoken strongly about the need for military action to prevent the ‘butchery’ and has reportedly tried to co-ordinate action with the EU, Washington, Moscow and the UN. How far this change in the official tone has influenced the media’s coverage, and how far it stems from it, remains to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that effective western action against the Serbs remains limited. The economic sanctions - primarily a ban on foreign investment in Yugoslavia - which were lifted last month after Milosevic agreed to talks with Rugova (albeit only on his own terms) were re-imposed on June 8. Though there is much talk of NATO intervention, there is little likelihood of effective action being taken. As in Bosnia, the long-term strategy may be to give Milosevic time to complete his work in order to make him more amenable to accepting a settlement at some stage in the future. The fact that this will be entirely as Kosovars’ expense is not a major concern to the west.
The west’s short-term response to the escalating crisis is likely to be restricted to measures designed to ensure the conflict does not spread to neighbouring countries, particularly Albania and Macedonia. These measures will actually do more than just leave the Kosovars to their fate; they are also likely to prevent other Albanians from helping them, thus making their situation inside Kosova even worse.
The limits of western support have already been noted in Prishtina: despite their vocal condemnations of Milosevic, western governments’ main concern seems to be to persuade Rugova to resume his negotiations with him in order to try to reach a settlement, despite the Serbs’ ongoing ethnic-cleansing operations. As in Bosnia, their preferred strategy for stopping Milosevic’s excesses seems to be for the Kosovars to give him what he wants.
What Milosevic wants, of course, is for the Muslims of Kosova to disappear leaving their land empty for Serb occupation, settlement and permanent control. Even he knows that will not happen. Failing that, his fall back options could be either to persuade the Kosovars to accept Serb overlordship once more, or to empty and secure a part of Kosova, leaving the rest to the Kosovars. It is notable that the recent operations have been largely concentrated in the west of the country, near the towns of Peje (Serbian: Pec) and Decan (Decani), which have particular importance in the Serbs’ nationalist mythology.
The problem is that what Milosevic wants, probably even he does not knows. It is doubtful whether he really has a strategy; it often appears that he simply takes decisions on the hoof, responding to immediate pressures and short-term concerns. This makes it particularly difficult to analyse his actions and respond accordingly.
What is clear is that he is not a rational and pragmatic politician. Rather, he is driven by egocentricism verging on megalomania, which makes him a particularly dangerous animal. As a nationalist, he has repeatedly made grandiose claims and promises which he has proved singularly unsuccessful in living up to. In the process, however, he has done incalculable damage, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and now in Kosova.
The latest developments in Montenegro, where a political opponent favouring separation from Serbia - the last two states of the former Yugoslavia to remain in confederation - recently won the presidential elections, put him under further pressure. Montenegrins are likely to choose for secession in a referendum expected soon. For Milosevic, they will be only the latest in a long line of former allies to abandon him. Again, it is a common pattern for allies and supporters of megalomaniac and power-hungry leaders to gradually fall away as their excesses and failures accumulate. Instead of reacting in a measured, rational way to these setbacks, Milosevic is likely once more to double his stakes and gamble again. In the short term, the biggest cost will be paid by Kosova’s Muslims.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1998