The Serb assault on the Muslims of Kosova was renewed late last month, with operations in the Decani and Djakovica regions southwest of the capital Prishtina, close to the border with Albania. Between 30 and 50 Kosovars were reported killed between April 22 and April 25. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more have fled their homes, either into other parts of Kosova or across the border into Albania.
As usual, there were conflicting reports of the circumstances. The Serbs reported fighting with armed groups’ and Kosovar paramilitaries’ and terrorists’, while Kosova sources spoke of attacks on villages and killings of civilians. Previous examples of such accounts, notably those following the Serb operations in northern Kosova in February and March, suggest that Kosovar accounts are more reliable.
As usual, the Serb operations seem also to be timed with political considerations in mind. The first operations took place on April 22, the day before Serbs went to the polls in a staged referendum designed to legitimise the Serb operations. Asked whether Serbia should permit foreign mediation in Kosova, as demanded by Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova, they voted overwhelmingly for settling the matter internally’. This Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is presenting as a mandate for his strategy. The vote, organized through Milosevic’s communist party infrastructure rather than the Serbian state, was boycotted by Kosovars.
In broader terms, the style and timing of the Serb operations can be seen in the context of international concern over events in Kosova. One feature of the latest Serb propaganda was that it specifically targeted neighbouring Albania for blame and pressure. The operations, Serbs said, involved fighting armed groups of Kosovars returning to Kosova after undergoing military training in Albania. This has been denied in both Prishtina and the Albanian capital Tirana.
However, Serbia is demanding that the international community put pressure on Albania to stop supporting ‘terrorism’ in Kosova and warning that it will not permit ‘the existing situation’ to continue. These warnings have been accompanied by a massive Serbian troop build up on the Albanian border. The Albanian government is clearly feeling this pressure; it has repeatedly denied any involvement and promised to seal its borders to Kosovar infiltrators.
The fear of the Kosova conflict being internationalised is one of the west’s main excuses for not getting involved. The Serbs know this and are playing on it. Again the timing is obvious: the six-member Contact Group which co- ordinates western policy on Balkan affairs is due to meet in Rome on April 29 (after our press time). By raising the spectre of war with Albania at this time, the Serbs hope to scare the west into giving them a free hand inside Kosova.
On the face of it, this would seem a risky strategy. If western words are taken at face value, the Serbs’ actions should ensure intervention. However, Milosevic knows from long experience, dating back to the Bosnian war, that in these circumstances the Contact Group is more likely to give under pressure than rise to the provocation. Already the west has backtracked on its initially strong position over Kosova.
The April 29 meeting is ostensibly to review progress since the Group’s last meeting on March 25. This imposed an arms embargo on Serbia and threatened economic sanctions if no meaningful progress towards unconditional talks with Kosovars was made within a month. However, even these tough sounding conditions were a step-down. On March 9, the Group had imposed a 10-day deadline for progress which the Serbs had ignored.
Any firmer action at the April 29 meeting is unlikely. While the US has been making aggressive noises, it is confident that the European countries, particularly Russia, will oppose tough action and so let Washington off the hook. Instead, behind-the-scenes pressure is likely to grow on Prishtina to accept bi-lateral talks on Milosevic’s terms, which mean acknowledging Serbian sovereignty over Kosova.
Whether Rugova would succumb to such pressure remains to be seen. The 15-man advisory committee he has appointed to prepare for talks with Belgrade includes Kosovars of a wide range of opinions, including some who favour accepting Serbian conditions and negotiating for autonomy within Serbia as the best Kosovars can hope for the short term.
With Milosevic in a position of strength and the west not inclined to help, Rugova knows that his options are limited. The real debate may be about the terms of a settlement within the Yugoslav context. Rugova’s terms for talks have two key elements: that they should be in the presence of an internationally-appointed mediator rather than bi-lateral, and that they should be with representatives of the Federal Yugoslav Republic rather than of Serbia. His Kosova Democratic Party has been holding daily rallies in Prishtina since April 10 demanding these conditions be met, regularly attended by tens of thousands of people.
These demands reflect a crucial consideration in Kosovar thinking. If Prishtina is to step down from its demand of total independence, which seems unachievable, it would prefer to attain full state status within the Federal Yugoslav Republic, alongside Serbia and Montenegro. This requires talks at a federal level. The Serbs demand that Kosova accept Serbian sovereignty, in which case the best it can hope for is autonomous status within Serbia; for this, federal involvement is not required.
The distinction is important; as a federal unit, Kosova would have the theoretical right to secede, which it would aspire to exercising some time in the future. As an autonomous region of Serbia -- the status Kosova held prior to its autonomy being cancelled by Milosevic in 1989 -- there would be no right of secession and always the possibility of autonomy being withdrawn.
Despite Serbia’s military build-up in Kosova -- the northern areas which were the scene of Serb operations in March have since been fortified -- Rugova’s government has been focussing on the possibility of talks. Even more than Bosnia in 1991, it is militarily unprepared for a fight. It is even less able to make contingency preparations now that the Serbs have moved in militarily.
Like Aliya Izzetbegovic then, Rugova has gambled that reason and good sense will head Milosevic off. Certain circumstances -- such as the absence of a substantial local Serb population to support Milosevic, and western pressure on Milosevic not to start something they cannot ignore -- suggest that his chances may be slightly better. But Rugova must be aware that Serb nationalism remains an unpredictable, brutal and ruthless force with the potential to do immeasurable damage should Milosevic choose.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1998