April 26, 2001

Between Death and Taxes

It is an often-cited maxim in the United States that no one can escape death and taxes. In Kosovo, especially if one is a Serb, things are somewhat more direct. There is no question of escape: both death and taxes have a way of finding you.

Death is a constant companion of Kosovo Serbs – as well as Roma, Turks, and even Albanians who are reluctant to follow orders from KLA thugs. Two years after NATO’s attack and a little less since the Alliance put Kosovo under its military occupation, force remains the universal language in the province.


NATO’s occupation force, KFOR, does not seem immune to it either. In the past three weeks, KFOR has suffered several casualties, through "accidents" and at the hand of "unknown" assailants. First a British Puma helicopter went down in the mountains, killing one. Emmanuel Goldstein pointed out that details were sufficiently murky to deserve a thorough examination. Yet KFOR and the British military were quick to dismiss any hostile action, and offered no explanation as to the causes of the crash.

Soon thereafter, a British patrol car hit a landmine near the village of Krivenik, in southern Kosovo. Another soldier was killed. It was the road the British took on a regular basis, and the mine was planted right in the middle of it. Krivenik, by the way, is a site of a major KLA base of operations for Macedonia. It was there that several Albanians and an AP producer were killed in late March, by yet unidentified mortar shells. It is also the place where a US-Polish patrol came under fire two weeks ago. Also, setting explosives in the path of oncoming cars is a documented technique of the KLA, used against the Serb police in Presevo valley, and recently in the bombing of Serb refugee buses near Podujevo. Despite all these marvelous coincidences, the British military again casually dismissed the incident. They did, however, stop calling for stronger action against the KLA infiltrating into Macedonia…

Another firefight on April 11 resulted in the death of a Russian soldier, when his patrol came too close to a KLA position inside inner Serbia. Though KFOR command made the perfunctory threat of retaliation, the perpetrators were, surprisingly, never identified. Despite Russian protests, nothing happened.

Just this Tuesday, Albanians shot down a NATO reconnaissance drone. NATO acknowledged the loss, but denied any hostile action…


Though KFOR is doing its best to dismiss, deny and spin these incidents, it is not far-fetched to suppose the KLA was trying to silence its elements that refused to toe the US line of absolute non-interference with the Albanians. So far, it seems to have worked.

Just in case Belgrade was getting ideas after the deployment of Yugoslav troops into more of the Ground Safety Zone – until recently, a haven where the KLA could operate with impunity – a car loaded with explosives blew up a Yugoslav government building in downtown Pristina. The bomb killed one (Aleksandar Petrovic) and injured four people. KFOR initially reported only half the death toll, reluctantly admitted the victims were Serbs, expressed the perfunctory outrage, and then – nothing. President Kostunica’s protests over the attack fell on deaf ears at the UN. The deplorable phrase "revenge attacks" was resurrected in agency reports, called up to rationalize any terrorist acts of the KLA.


Last week, UNMIK – Kosovo’s civilian occupation authority – decided to set up customs checkpoints on the border of Kosovo with the rest of Serbia. Not NATO-occupied Kosovo and Albania, mind you, or even Macedonia. NATO had actually pressured the Macedonian government to appease its branch of the KLA, so its supply routes through Macedonia would remain open. Faced with dwindling profits of the local drug and slave trade, and "needing" money to finance the occupation, UNMIK decided to start charging "excise and sales tax" on the border with Serbia.

This tax act is aimed at raising the prices of goods in northern Kosovo, the only part of the occupied province where Serbs still live in relative freedom. Naturally, it is supplied from inner Serbia, rather than through the UN/Albanian-dominated authorities. The checkpoints are also supposed to set a precedent for a permanent Kosovo customs service towards Serbia, emphasizing the separation of the occupied province from the state to which it rightfully belongs. Nonsense, say UNMIK officials – but offer no explanation. Why should they? They "need" the money – is that not reason enough?

Need has never been a good excuse for, literally, highway robbery. For whoever heard of collecting sales taxes at the border? That alone ought to have been suspicious, even without of cruel irony of taxing the people NATO is occupying in order to finance the occupation. It was an open assault on the "last vestiges of [Serb] sovereignty, their history, and their dignity," as Justin Raimondo so aptly put it Monday.


The cornered, isolated Serbs of Kosovska Mitrovica, Zvecan and Leposavic rallied to block the odious tax checkpoints. Being civilized, they did let KFOR’s food and water supplies through. KFOR, however, had little respect for civility.

Following the maxim that disobedience and resistance must be crushed, French KFOR troops overran the protesters. They used teargas and stun grenades, killing a 62-year-old grandmother and maiming a middle-aged man who were in the crowd. Then they moved in on them with armored vehicles.

Humanitarianism in action, and on behalf of "freedom of movement," no less. Is it even worth mentioning that KFOR is not nearly as decisive when Albanians keep Serbs under siege inside barbed-wire-protected ghettos throughout the province? Perhaps because they have no desire to find themselves in ghettos, Serbs from northern Kosovo shifted – but not lifted – their blockade.

UNMIK’s response was as crass as KFOR’s: "We are in charge of administering this place and we will not take any demands from anyone," U.N. spokesman Michael Keats said

Time and again, KFOR’s armor has assaulted the protesters. Two more men were crippled by stun grenades, and countless others were gassed. Yet they show no sign of giving up. It takes surprisingly little stubbornness to reveal NATO’s inherent tendency to blame its victims. A French officer said, and news agencies dutifully reported, that Serbs were injured by grenades they threw themselves. He did not finish the sentence, which should have been something like "back at the French soldiers who launched them from tanks." Then again, they are "in charge of the place," and hence immune to such questions.


President Kostunica, of course, protested. So did others – Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic, as well as Minister of Police Zoran Zivkovic, both uncharacteristically critical of NATO this time. But Kostunica has other things to worry about. Montenegro’s regime still plots to secede, thus rendering his office meaningless, while in Serbia, his arch-nemesis Zoran Djindjic is busily destroying the union by passing unconstitutional laws.

Djindjic notably neglected to protest the new tax on Kosovo Serbs. Since Kosovo is part of his state (Serbia), he should be expected to deal with it, as opposed to vacuous trips to Hungary, Germany, or the US. But Djindjic does not care for Kosovo. He wants power and money. The taxation bill his government recently passed imposes horrific tax rates on all the citizens in order to net income to the state, which would subsequently then "help the needy." Another law targets "the rich" who made their money during Milosevic’s presidency, with taxes of up to 90 percent. If it sounds like Communism, that’s because it is.

To Kosovo Serbs, such power politics are rightfully disgusting. Members of all political parties, from Kostunica’s DSS and Milosevic’s Socialists to the Radicals, stand together against UNMIK’s tax terrorism. In fact, leaders of the Kosovo Serbs had met the night the taxes were proclaimed and agreed on the course of action. It may be worth noting that Djindjic’s Democratic Party has few adherents in Kosovo.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana’s Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


Since Djindjic’s Serbia is already drowning in taxes, its credibility in protesting UNMIK’s robbery in Kosovo is somewhat questionable. That might be the reason behind UNMIK’s timing. But there are other considerations as well.

NATO has always been bothered by Mitrovica Serbs’ stubborn refusal to be ethnically cleansed. The only part of Kosovo not ruled by the KLA is that tiny sliver in the north, where Serbs refused to submit to UN/NATO-ordered "multiethnic peace." Mitrovica serves as a symbol that things can be different from what UNMIK and KFOR are doing in the rest of their Reichskomisariat: that Serbs do not have to live in ghettos, that the KLA does not have to run rampant, and that it does not take much to stop it, either. Armed only with sticks and determination, Mitrovica Serbs stopped the heavily armed KLA from taking over, while all the KFOR’s tanks and all the KFOR’s men somehow could not prevent the ethnic cleansing, murders and abductions of 250,000 non-Albanians. Obviously, Mitrovica is a giant embarrassment.

Over the past two years, though, KFOR and UNMIK have tried to eliminate the influence of Mitrovica Serbs in a variety of ways: by installing a "confidence (i.e. Serb-free) zone" on their side of the river, and building a bridge for Albanians who wanted to cross; by withholding humanitarian aid and police protection; by backing down when confronted with an armed KLA mob last spring; by accusing the Serb men guarding the bridges of being Milosevic’s police agents; even by ignoring their representatives and trying to work with Bishop Artemije and the Serbs from Gracanica, an enclave completely surrounded and thus at the mercy of the KLA. None of these measures were completely successful.

Imposing customs is just another act of pressure, then, aimed at crippling the resistance to UNMIK and KFOR’s absolute power over Serbs – as they have none over the KLA, as evidenced by all those "tragic incidents" described earlier. UNMIK’s vicious determination goes so far, it actually flew tax collectors past the blockade last week. UNMIK’s head, former Danish defense minister Hans Haekkerup, has since refused to remove the customs checkpoints.


UNMIK’s intentions also have to be regarded in the light of another development. Its spokesman recently announced that the document regulating elections and administration in the province will soon be completed. It is being drafted by an Albanian-dominated committee, which insists on calling it a "provisional Constitution." Well, why not? The document is probably a copy of the Constitution the State Department and its satellite organizations have already written; it’s locked in a vault somewhere, waiting for the right moment, and that just might be now.

Faced with threats from all sides – physical, legislative and financial – it is no wonder that the Serbs are determined to stand firm. Their lives are at stake. They appear willing to fight for their lives and liberties even if no one else – especially the Serbian government – is. Those who remain in Kosovo have seen what UNMIK and NATO have done and heard what they’ve said; they know they can’t trust either. Yielding on this issue would mean eventual destruction and exodus from the last free piece of Kosovo. NATO may be too cowardly to fight back when attacked; these Serbs are not.

Though even in Kosovo death and taxes march hand in hand, they – and everything else – are far more sinister in the fabled land of NATO’s glorious success.

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