Ethnic cleansing, continued: the fate of Serbs in Kosovo
National Review, Sept 12, 2005
by Jason Lee Steorts
YOU see a lot of barbed wire here. Orahovac used to have more than 3,000 Serbs, but only 500 are left, and the barbed wire, which runs the length of the single street on which they live, helps protect them from their Albanian neighbors. Beyond the street is a no man's land whose only inhabitants are the thick weeds that grow through untended cobblestone and the charred skeletons of burnt-out homes. As we reach the edge of the ghetto, our guides tell us through translators that they must stop talking. It is not safe to speak Serbian in the Albanian part of town.
I am in Orahovac (or, as the Albanians call it, Rahovec) with the New Atlantic Initiative, at the invitation of the Serbian presidency. The car in which we arrived bears Hungarian diplomatic plates; our handlers made sure of that, as Serbian license plates could have provoked an attack. The U.N. guards who escort us stand nearby, armed with machine guns.
Dejan Baljosevic, a local Serb leader, has told us about the conditions in which he and his neighbors live. They cannot leave the ghetto without an armed escort, so work is out of the question. Aid organizations bring them food. Their children cannot go to school; classes are held in homes. The only hospital in Orahovac is run by Albanians and will not treat Serbs. The cemetery is on the wrong side of town too, so they bury their dead behind their church. "We call this an imitation of life," Baljosevic says. "Everything comes down to improvisation."
We cross the line into Albanian territory are reminded what life looks like: bustling streets, crowded shops, and a sparkling new, Saudi-financed mosque, scaffolding still clinging to its shiny copper dome. My thoughts return to the Serbian Orthodox church in the ghetto behind us. It is lucky. Hanging on its walls are blackened icons salvaged from the smoldering ruins of other churches after they were torched by Albanian mobs.
The contrast between the mosque and the church gives visual expression to the last six years of Kosovo's history. Since the end of the NATO bombing in 1999, over 200,000 Serbs have been driven from Kosovo, and roughly 3,000 killed. Of those who left, only 12,500 have returned. Most found their homes either torched--as in Orahovac's no man's land--or occupied by Albanians. Not one of the Serbs we have met in Kosovo feels safe, and almost all say they will leave Kosovo if it becomes independent--the likely outcome of negotiations that are expected to begin later this year.
No description of Serb misery should obscure memory of the ethnic Albanians' tremendous suffering under Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Nor should Albanian violence toward Serbs change the settled conclusion that Serbia, as a political entity, irretrievably forfeited its right to govern Kosovo when it sought to drive the Albanians en masse from their homes. But that forfeiture does not proscribe the possibility of allowing Serbia to retain sovereignty over Kosovo's Albanians, who are not entitled to a state of their own any more than Iraqi Kurds are entitled to a Kurdistan in virtue of their suffering under Saddam and his Baathists.
Furthermore, individual Serbs should not be asked to bow under the weight of a corporate guilt for what Milosevic and his supporters did. Our horror at those acts and our reasons for stopping them lead also to the conclusion that the expulsion of 200,000 Serbs from Kosovo is a great wrong, and that the Serbs who remain must be protected along with their Albanian neighbors. That imperative is superordinate to the morally indeterminate question of sovereignty. Consider, now, a few realities of today's Kosovo.
First, NATO and the U.N. have failed to provide security. This became catastrophically apparent in March 2004, when thousands of Albanians rioted after it was falsely reported that three Albanian teenagers who drowned in a river had been chased there by Serbs. When the rioting stopped, the mobs had set fire to more than 800 Serb houses and over 30 Orthodox churches. This happened under the watchful eyes of 17,000 NATO troops who did little more than evacuate the Serbs and watch their property burn. One Italian solider told us that his rules of engagement still prevent him from firing his weapon.
Second, there is scant reason to think life would get better for the Serbs in an independent Kosovo. Those who say the Albanians' aim is not a state without Serbs but statehood simpliciter may be right, but precise intentions matter little when acts of harassment make life in Kosovo intolerable for Serbs. We ask a U.N. municipal administrator whether Albanians have been less than cooperative in facilitating the return of displaced Serbs. His answer is unequivocal: "Oh yeah, for sure. They don't want the Serbs."
That conclusion is supported by the tendency of the mobs to target sites of religious and cultural significance, and to make no distinction between Serbs who may have helped execute Milosevic's decrees and those who could not possibly have done so. Bishop Teodosije, abbot of the monastery of Visoki Decani, tells us of five old women who lived in a church as its caretakers. They were attacked, and the church was destroyed, in the 2004 rioting. Teodosije says, "I always ask myself: What kind of danger were those five elderly women posing? It is hatred."
Third, Albanians not visibly involved in the pervasive mistreatment of Serbs appear indifferent to it. We ask Nusret Abazira, assistant imam of Orahovac's new mosque, why every Serb we meet feels unsafe. "Perhaps those Serbs don't have clean hands," he replies. This is not the first time we have heard that answer; the idea that only a guilty Serb would have anything to fear is ubiquitous. Although Albanian politicians would never make so bald a statement, neither do they show a serious will to confront the problem. Lufti Haziri, a minister in the provisional Kosovo government, says, "There are not tense relations among citizens. There are tense relations among political parties and between Belgrade and Pristina [Kosovo's provincial capital]." Either he is being dishonest or he hasn't been spending much time "among citizens."
Fourth, the provisional Kosovo government is highly dysfunctional. "If Kosovo is given independence," says the U.N. administrator, "it will be nasty. Their political system is not based in democracy. It is based in clan loyalty." Albanian politics in Kosovo is frequently violent and hugely influenced by organized crime. The economy is a shambles; much of it--more than 50 percent, by some estimates--is informal, and real unemployment may run as high as 30 percent. No significant progress has been made on the privatization of state industries. As for the Kosovo police service, the U.N. administrator summarizes the upper bound of its competence with a smile: "It is good for giving traffic signals."
This is the morass in which we will find ourselves mediating negotiations on Kosovo's final status. What should we hope for?
Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, repeated to us his proposal that Kosovo be given "more than autonomy, less than independence." The idea is for Kosovo to have the substantive self-government it desires while Serbia retains de jure sovereignty over the region, resulting in a Kosovo that is barren of Serb institutions and, for most purposes, self-determining. Kosovo's government would have its own parliament; collect its own taxes; use, if it so desired, a separate currency; and be allowed a special status within Serbian embassies, with limited authority to conduct its own foreign relations. Many powers would be devolved to municipalities as a way of protecting minorities. A continuing NATO presence would have a monopoly on the provision of security.
If Tadic's proposal were workable, there would be much to recommend it. It would give displaced Serbs a reason to return. It would allow Kosovo to piggyback on Serbia's EU accession bid. It would avoid the risk of touching off new claims to statehood: If Kosovo Albanians are entitled to their own state, why not Macedonian Albanians? Why not the Republika Srpska--the Serbian component of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which enjoys a higher degree of independence than Kosovo ever did? International lawyers will explain, with fine academic subtlety, why the precedent of an independent Kosovo does not apply to these cases, but they are unlikely to persuade the nationalists and irredentists who sprout so abundantly from Balkan soil.
More generally, to excise Kosovo from Serbia despite the violence of the past six years would make a mockery of the West's claim that talks on Kosovo's final status would follow only upon improvements in the rule of law, freedom of movement, and the protection of minorities. The message will be that ethnic cleansing pays, so long as you don't do it first.
But Tadic's proposal is probably not workable. Albanians constitute 90 percent of Kosovo's population, and almost to a man they demand independence. If their national aspiration is blocked now, on the cusp of fulfillment, it will be felt as a kind of coitus interruptus. A violent backlash will almost surely follow. That will put NATO in the awkward position of shooting at the very people it bombed Belgrade to defend.
Even if an initial burst of violence could be suppressed, it is difficult to see how Tadic's proposal could be sustainable. Having come within a hair's breadth of independence through the Kosovo Liberation Army's violent tactics, the Albanians are not likely to be good pacifists now. With time, NATO's patience and purse strings will be strained, and upon the alliance's exit from Kosovo, Serbia will be left with a violent insurgency and no institutional or military presence with which to defeat it. Radical solutions will begin to look reasonable, and that is about when a new Milosevic can be expected to appear.
Few people on either side of the Atlantic will want to run that risk. Instead, we will unfetter Kosovo and turn our eyes as its story comes to a dramatically perfect conclusion. At the heart of that story is Milosevic, who rose to power on a wave of nationalism that surged first in Kosovo, who capped his career by driving Kosovo's Albanians toward Tirana--and who will now see that his final, ironic legacy is the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Serbs.
"If the truth is not told, there will be no Serbs here," one man tells us. Half right--but far, far too late.
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