Yugoslavia's Bloody History\'Ancient Hatreds' Make Picking Sides Tricky
By Brian Mitchell 3/22/99 0:12 AM

Copyright (c) 1999 Investors Business Daily, All rights reserved.
Investor's Business Daily - National Issue (03/12/99)

PA--The Kosovo countryside is dotted with Serbian churches and monasteries. Many are centuries old. In fact, Serbs often call Kosovo ''Kosmet'' -short for Kosovo and Metohija, or lands belonging to the church. Kosovo is the ancestral homeland of the Serbs, their spiritual center, their Israel.

But as far as the U.S. and NATO are concerned, the Serbs in Kosovo are history. With Ethnic Albanians now making up 90% of the population, here's the only history that NATO seems to care about: Albanians lost control over Kosovo in 1989 and Serbs started cracking down on Albanian separatists in February 1998. Both events are used to blame the fighting in Kosovo on one man-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

''Milosevic has been at the center of every crisis in the former Yugoslavia over the last decade,'' said State Department spokesman James Rubin last December. ''He is not simply part of the problem; Milosevic is the problem.''

It's hardly that simple, many Balkan specialists say. Blaming Milosevic ignores the fact that control over Kosovo has changed hands six times in this century. It also ignores the Nazi-inspired genocide of Serbs by Croats and Muslims in World War II. And it fails to acknowledge a painful lesson the world was supposed to have learned in World War I: Too often, world powers have used the Balkans as their battlefield, even though they had no vital interest in the region.

The U.S. may soon send 4,000 soldiers as part of a NATO force that occupies Kosovo. A number of analysts fear that the architects of Western policy in the Balkans are denying or ignoring the relevance of the region's history.

''Great powers have kept looking there for the opportunity to define themselves,'' said Michael Stenton, who teaches at Cambridge University in England. ''But whenever great powers have gotten involved, (they've) usually managed to make things worse.''

In his book ''To End a War'' (Random House, 1998), U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke covers Yugoslavia's troubled past in just two pages. The pages are not a summary of history but an argument against the belief, common among historians, that ''ancient hatreds'' are the source of conflict in the region.

''Yugoslavia's tragedy was not foreordained,'' he wrote. ''It was the product of bad, even criminal, political leaders who encouraged ethnic confrontation for personal, political, and financial gain.'' To be sure, hatreds and fears have been exploited by leaders on all sides, but other analysts are not so ready to dismiss them.

''Of course they're being manipulated, but that doesn't mean they aren't real and felt very viscerally by very many people,'' said Carl Jacobsen, professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. ''As soon as you mention a bit of history, you're told that history doesn't really matter, it's the manipulation of history that matters,'' Stenton said. ''Try telling that to American Jews.''

The Serbs suffered their own holocaust during World War II, every bit as bloody as the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Many Serbs alive today have family members who were murdered by forces allied with the Nazis. During World War II, the pro-Nazi ''Ustasha'' government of Croatia originated the policy of ''ethnicko ciscenje,'' or ethnic cleansing. Some 700,000 Serbs and 50,000 Jews and Gypsies were killed.

The Ustasha terror appalled even the Nazis. In early 1942, Gestapo agents reported to SS chief Heinrich Himmler that the Ustasha had already ''massacred or sadistically tortured to death'' some 300,000 Serbs. The report said the atrocities were committed ''in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children.''

Europe and the U.S. may have forgotten this history when they granted official recognition to Croatia and Bosnia after the breakup of Yugoslavia. But the Serbs hadn't. ''Once the Serbs were turned into a minority among hostile peoples who murdered them a few years ago, then they began to react,'' said Sir Alfred Sherman, chairman of the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies and adviser to Margaret Thatcher when she was Britain's prime minister.

For refusing to live again under Croat and Muslim rule, the Serbs were branded the aggressors in Bosnia. With U.S. approval, the Croats were allowed to drive some 300,000 from the Krajina region within Croatia, where Serbs had lived for five centuries.

NATO opposes the right of self-determination for Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, but it supports the same right for Kosovo Albanians, again ignoring the history of the region. Both Serbs and Albanians have lived in Kosovo for centuries. They even fought on the same side against the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Afterward, however, most Albanians switched sides and converted to Islam.

Under Turkish rule, Albanians were favored and the Serbs who remained Christians were oppressed. The Serbs did not regain their independence from the Turks until 1878. They didn't recover Kosovo until 1912. By then, the Albanians were probably a majority, Stenton says. The Serbs lost control over Kosovo in both world wars. Each time, the conquering army favored the Albanians over the vanquished Serbs.

''That's the problem,'' Stenton said. ''One side keeps being told the place is really theirs, and then it turns around.''

During World War II, the Nazis recruited Albanians into the infamous SS Skanderbeg Division. Named for a 15th-century Albanian hero, the unit was used to enforce Nazi control over the region. After World War II, the Serbs did not regain control, however. The Communists took over Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito and supported by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

Tito created a federation of national republics on the Soviet model. Kosovo was given a degree of autonomy from the Serbian Republic. Albanian immigration into Kosovo was encouraged, and Serbs driven out during the war were not allowed to return.

In 1974, Tito granted Kosovo more autonomy in exchange for the support of Kosovo's Albanian Communists. The Albanians used their autonomy to push Serbs out of power and out of Kosovo.

''The 1970s were an unpleasant time for the Serbs (in Kosovo),'' Stenton said. ''The schoolbooks were full of not Yugoslav Communist propaganda, but Albanian Communist propaganda.''

Pressure on Serbs in Kosovo increased after Tito died in 1980. In July 1982, The New York Times reported that 57,000 Serbs had left Kosovo on account of harassment by Albanian nationalists, who wanted an ''ethnically clean Albanian republic.''

In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, then president of the Serbian Republic within Yugoslavia, seized upon the harassment of Serbs in Albania to win favor with Serbian voters. At his urging, the Yugoslav government downgraded Kosovo's autonomy to the status it held before 1974. Kosovo Albanians responded with a boycott of elections, setting up their own shadow government. Some later formed the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Some analysts believe that the KLA has ties to the international Albanian criminal network, which is linked to the world heroin trade. The collapse of the Albanian government in 1997 made large caches of arms and ammunition available. NATO's intervention on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims in 1995 gave the KLA hope that NATO might do the same for other people oppressed by the Serbs.

In December 1997, the KLA stepped up its attacks against Serbs. Milosevic responded with a crackdown that defeated the KLA on the battlefield but got the worst of it in the Western media.

Today, NATO is still threatening to bomb the Serbs for not giving Kosovo a vote on autonomy in three years and not letting outside troops occupy the region in the period before the vote takes place. Meanwhile, the KLA enjoys the support of Albanians and Muslims worldwide.

According to Jane's International Defence Review, Serbian troops intercepted a band of 50 guerrillas crossing into Kosovo from Albania in July. The group included one Yemeni and 16 Saudis, ''six of whom bore passports with Macedonian Albanian names,'' the review stated.

There are also unconfirmed reports that German and American mercenaries are training and equipping the KLA. Who is paying them is unknown, but analysts believe their presence must have at least the tacit approval of NATO authorities.

NATO's record in Bosnia does not bode well for Serbs in Kosovo, even if Milosevic allows NATO troops to enter. Under NATO occupation, Bosnian Serbs live as second-class citizens. All but 2% of foreign aid goes to Muslims or Croats. Serb forces have been forced to surrender most weapons, but NATO continues to train and equip Muslim forces.

Tensions flared this week when Carlos Westendorp, the NATO-backed governor of Bosnia, decided that local Serbs would not be allowed control of Brcko, the town linking one half of the Bosnian Serb Republic with the other half. Instead, the Serbs would share Brcko with the Croats and Muslims.

''The Brcko decision was a signal to the Serbs that we're not interested in having a viable Bosnian Serb Republic,'' said Ron Hatchett, former Balkan analyst for the Defense Department, now director of the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

''They just want to make it appear that the Serbs have defaulted on (the Dayton treaty). Then they're going to rewrite the agreement,'' he said.

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