May/June 1999

Rescued from the Memory Hole

The Forgotten Background of the Serb/Albanian Conflict

By Jim Naureckas

In times of war, there is always intense pressure 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, giving the public as much information as possible so as to facilitate a democratic debate, the propagandist simplifies the world in order to mobilize the populace behind a common goal.

One of propaganda's most basic simplifications is to divide participants in a conflict into neat categories of victim and villain, with no qualification allowed for either role. In the real world, of course, responsibility cannot always be assigned so neatly. Both sides often have legitimate grievances and plausible claims, and too often genuine atrocities are used to justify a new round of abuses against the other side.

In presenting the background to the Kosovo conflict, U.S. news outlets have focused overwhelmingly on the very real crimes committed by Yugoslavian and Serbian forces against ethnic Albanians. In the process, they have downplayed or ignored the ways that Albanian nationalists have contributed to ethnic tensions in the region. These one-sided accounts have reduced a complex dynamic that calls for careful mediation to a cartoon battle of good vs. evil, with bombing the bad guys as the obvious solution.

In order to eliminate any moral ambiguity from the NATO intervention, media attempts to provide "context" to Kosovo generally start the modern history of the conflict in 1987, when Slobodan Milosevic began using Serb/Albanian tensions for his own political ends. A New York Times backgrounder (4/4/99) by Michael Kaufman basically skips from World War II until "1987, when Slobodan Milosevic, now the Yugoslav president, first began exploiting and inflaming the historical rivalries of Albanians and Serbs." In Kaufman's account, "the conflict was relatively dormant until Mr. Milosevic stirred up hostilities in 1989 by revoking the autonomous status that Kosovo had enjoyed in Serbia."

The revocation of autonomy was a crucial decision, one which greatly destabilized the multi-ethnic Yugoslavian system and contributed to the country's breakup. The loss of autonomy was a grievance that helped pave the way for the rise of an armed separatist movement, in the form of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

But the decision to end Kosovo's autonomous status did not come out of nowhere, or out of a simple Serbian desire to oppress Albanians. To get a more complicated picture of the situation in Kosovo in the '80s, Kaufman would only have had to look up his own paper's coverage from the era.

Origins of "ethnic cleansing"?

New York Times correspondent David Binder filed a report in 1982 (11/28/92): "In violence growing out of the Pristina University riots of March 1981, a score of people have been killed and hundreds injured. There have been almost weekly incidents of rape, arson, pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive Kosovo's remaining indigenous Slavs--Serbs and Montenegrins--out of the province."

Describing an attempt to set fire to a 12-year-old Serbian boy, Binder reported (11/9/82): "Such incidents have prompted many of Kosovo's Slavic inhabitants to flee the province, thereby helping to fulfill a nationalist demand for an ethnically 'pure' Albanian Kosovo. The latest Belgrade estimate is that 20,000 Serbs and Montenegrins have left Kosovo for good since the 1981 riots."

"Ethnically pure," of course, is another way to translate the phrase "ethnically clean"--as in "ethnic cleansing." The first use of this concept to appear in Nexis was in relation to the Albanian nationalists' program for Kosovo: "The nationalists have a two-point platform," the Times' Marvine Howe quotes a Communist (and ethnically Albanian) official in Kosovo (7/12/82), "first to establish what they call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with Albania to form a greater Albania." All of the half-dozen references in Nexis to "ethnically clean" or "ethnic cleansing" over the next seven years attribute the phrase to Albanian nationalists.

The New York Times returned to the Kosovo issue in 1986, when the paper's Henry Kamm (4/28/86) reported that Slavic Yugoslavians "blame ethnic Albanians…for continuing assaults, rape and vandalism. They believe their aim is to drive non-Albanians out of the province." He reported suspicions by Slavs that the autonomous Communist authorities in Kosovo were covering up anti-Slavic crimes, including arson at a nunnery and the brutal mutilation of a Serbian farmer. Kamm quoted a prescient "Western diplomat" who described Kosovo as "Yugoslavia's single greatest problem."

By 1987, the Times was portraying a dire situation in Kosovo. David Binder reported (11/1/87):

Ethnic Albanians in the Government have manipulated public funds and regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs…. 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….

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.

This is the situation--at least as perceived by Serbs--that led to Milosevic's infamous 1987 speech promising protection of Serbs, and later resulted in the revocation of Kosovo's autonomy. Despite being easily available on Nexis, virtually none of this material has found its way into contemporary coverage of Kosovo, in the New York Times or anywhere else.

Consistent skepticism

It may be, of course, that some of the charges levied against Albanian nationalists during the '80s were exaggerated or even fabricated by politically motivated Serbs. Those who are tempted to dismiss these accounts based on this possibility, however, should be careful to apply the same critical standards to media coverage of anti-Albanian atrocities in the '90s. The current coverage of Serbian crimes, if anything, should be viewed with even greater skepticism, since Yugoslavia has now become an official enemy of the U.S., and establishment reporting generally shows a strong bias against such countries. (See Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky.)

And if one suggests that the New York Times had a peculiar anti-Albanian bias in the '80s, one still has to explain why similar reports of proto-ethnic cleansing appeared in the Washington Post (11/29/86) and the Financial Times (7/20/82, 7/22/86).

It would not be responsible journalism, of course, to imply that crimes against ethnic Slavs justify assaults of even greater magnitude against ethnic Albanians. The challenge of reporting on a cycle of violence is to make sure that the wounds nursed by each side are not presented as if they vindicate further violence. The Times' Binder makes an attempt at this in his November 1, 1987 piece:

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.

Of course, it's not always the case that both sides are equally or even partially at fault in an ethnic conflict: The Holocaust was not a response to historic crimes committed by German Jews against German Christians, and the people of East Timor did not provoke an Indonesian invasion by anti-Javanese pogroms. The question of historical responsibility is one that must be answered through careful research and reporting. Overwhelmingly, the U.S. media have failed to do that research, instead relying on a simplified, truncated official history that serves NATO's propaganda purposes more than it serves the citizenry's need for a complete and accurate context.

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