Last month’s much-vaunted demonstration of NATO air power had no effect whatsoever on Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosova. Eighty-five aircraft, representing 13 of NATO’s 16 members (the exceptions being Iceland and Luxembourg, which have no air forces, and Canada, which has no aircraft based in Europe) spent two hours flying over Albanian and Macedonian regions adjacent to the Kosovar border on June 15, in what was intended to be a demonstration of the west’s determination and willingness to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosova. Less than a week later, on June 19, refugee agencies in northern Albania reported that the flow of refugees crossing the border from Kosova had dried up, suggesting that the Serbs had finally managed to seal the border. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Kosovar women and children were left trapped in the mountains inside Kosova, unable either to cross the border or to return to their homes. Serb troops and paramilitary units, meanwhile, are continuing their murderous operations inside Kosova, unhindered by any western policy. There are daily reports of new towns and villages coming under attack.
It is clear, therefore, that western policies are having no restraining effect on the Serbs’ operations inside Kosova. However, by emphasizing the need to prevent the conflict from spreading, they are effectively preventing Albanians in neighbouring countries from helping them.
Meanwhile, after years of ignoring the Kosova problem, and refusing to recognise or otherwise deal with Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova, the west has suddenly discovered him. Rugova returned to Prishtina on June 18, after London and Paris, where he met British prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac. Late in May, he had been welcomed in Washington and New York, where he met Bill Clinton and UN secretary general Kofi Annan. Speaking at a press conference in Prishtina on June 19, Rugova called these visits ‘important moments in Kosova history,’ and said that he expected NATO and the UN to act to prevent the Serbs from continuing their massacres in Kosova.
However, a more realistic assessment of the west’s involvement suggests that their priority, as usual, is to have the issue resolved with minimum fuss, rather than to ensure a just solution. To this end, they are trying to insist that Rugova talk to Milosevic on the latter’s terms and accept them, in order to prevent the problem spreading to other countries. Their ideal solution would be for Rugova to give Milosevic everything he wants to save them having to do anything for the Kosovars.
Why are they willing to deal with Rugova now? The reason usually offered is that they wish to stop the massacres in Kosova. However, if this was the case, they would be doing far more. The real reason is that they fear the consequences if armed Kosovars, the Kosova Liberation Army, transform their defence of the country’s civilian population into a full-scale fight for independence. Every day that the KLA alone stands up to the Serbs’ military strength, more and more Kosovars switch their support from Rugova’s pacifist approach to the KLA. This development is of far greater concern to the west than Milosevic’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kosova.
Rugova and other Kosovar politicians are also showing concern at the KLA’s growing popularity at their expense. In Tirana on June 16, the government in exile expressed approval for the idea of setting up village-based self-defence committees. At his June 19 press conference, Rugova emphasized the need for KLA operations to be part of the Kosovars’ political campaign rather than independent of it. Both are clearly concerned that their campaigns may be overtaken by events if they are unable to control the newly emergent militant tendency.
For the time being the KLA are the only defense Kosovars have against the Serbs’ murderous intentions. The KLA’s growth from spontaneous local defense groups has been impressive; on June 20, even the Serbs admitted that parts of Kosova are no-go areas for them. But their potential against Serbia’s hardened war machine remains limited.
Rugova and other Kosovar leaders are aware that they remain a weak and ad hoc group. They are probably also aware - they certainly should be - that the west is unlikely to prevent the Serbs doing whatever they want. Meanwhile, Kosova’s women and children continue to die.
Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1998