May 24, 2001

Presevo – A False Victory

Just as the disastrous consequences of imperial politics in the Balkans seem to finally reach the brink of full destruction, the situation shifts ever so slightly and the danger of meltdown slips away. Disaster seems to have been averted, while the voices of criticism and concern usually retreat before the "success" of the policies they had considered doomed to failure.

Yet as one experience after another has proven beyond reasonable doubt – and quite a few unreasonable ones as well – in the Balkans, nothing is exactly as it appears; not the people, not the events, and certainly not the outcomes.


Last week, the self-proclaimed "Liberation Army" of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac in southern Serbia proved their mettle in combat for the first time. One of its "units" ventured into a Serb village just outside of the zone where the UCPMB enjoyed NATO’s protection. Within a day, they were surrounded, assaulted and forced to surrender by the Yugoslav Army. The battle sounded a death knell for the "Army" of bandits that has terrorized the Serb countryside for over a year.

NATO has helped create the "UCPMB" as an instrument of pressure against Belgrade. Though ineffective against Milosevic’s government, the "Army" managed to distract and unbalance the new regime somewhat. Apparently, that was not enough for its patrons. As it outlived its usefulness, this KLA clone had to be put out of its misery. So on Monday, the bandits signed an agreement to disband and demilitarize. One commander that refused to surrender was allegedly arrested Tuesday.

By the time this column is posted, Yugoslav troops should have begun their return into Sector B, the last remnant of the Ground Safety Zone that harbored the bandits. The "UCPMB" will be history.

Nothing in the peninsula comes this easy, though. If, as documents show, the UCPMB was supported by NATO, then all it took was for NATO to pull the plug. But why? Could it be because the Serbs did not rise to the bait, and avoided a rerun of Racak? Or is it perhaps that the goal behind the Presevo rebellion was to "draw international attention" to the Albanian question, as the UCPMB claims? It might sound cynical, but maybe ending the Presevo rebellion was NATO’s quid pro quo to the Serbs, a favor for Belgrade in return for Serbia and Yugoslavia standing idly by as UN/NATO’s governor of Kosovo gave the occupied province a quasi-independence "Constitution" last week.

Of course, the UCPMB "surrender" could be as real as that of the original KLA, which went on to become militia for Kosovo’s organized crime. As usual, only time will tell.


As UCPMB "soldiers" turn themselves and their weapons to their former allies, NATO’s occupation force in Kosovo, their colleagues south of the border have no intention of going down without a fight. Besieged and shelled daily by the increasingly nervous Macedonian military, the "National Liberation Army" shows no signs of giving up.

In a disturbing twist of events, NATO announced Tuesday that it intercepted phone calls between the "NLA" and its mother organization in Kosovo, claiming that 1,000 KLA veterans were on the march to join the war in Macedonia. NATO also showed no signs of preparing to stop them.

Yet none of this should come as a surprise to those who have been paying attention.

The "NLA" claims it is fighting for Albanian "rights" in Macedonia – Albanian as official language, Albanians as a constituent people, quotas for Albanians in civil service and other government jobs, especially the police. Albanian political parties share this goal of virtual apartheid – and are supported by the United States in their demands. As a consequence of intense pressure from the US, EU and NATO, the Macedonians have agreed to include these parties in the unity government. Far from taking the wind out of the rebellion, this move seems to have bolstered it. Rather than legitimize the politicians at the expense of terrorists, the unity government legitimized the demands of both.

That is why the "NLA" is still entrenched in villages along Macedonia’s northern border, and why pressure grows on Skopje to give in to Albanian demands. Meanwhile, Macedonia’s soldiers fighting the "NLA" have to look over their shoulders for possible betrayal by their civilian leaders – a situation bound to quickly exhaust any army. With each passing day, Macedonia’s position deteriorates further. The longer it waits to strike at the "NLA," the angrier its loyal citizens – and the bolder its separatists – will be.


Yet how should Skopje act? The only other victim of Albanian separatism, Serbia, offers little or no hope. After a decade of half-hearted fighting and easy "compromises" with NATO, the Milosevic regime collapsed – only to be succeeded by a government that seems to have little integrity and even less regard for national interest.

It would be a deadly mistake for Macedonia to practice the same kind of "restraint" Serbia showed in Presevo. Far from being a "victory for Serb moderation," the Presevo rebellion more likely induced Belgrade to give up Kosovo and move Yugoslavia closer to NATO, only two years after the Alliance’s bombs nearly destroyed the country.

Far from its electoral promises of dignity and sovereignty, the new government has meekly accepted American blackmail. It did nothing as NATO’s Reichskommisar rejected every Serb amendment to the proposed "constitution" of Kosovo. It is preparing to pass a law sacrificing Yugoslavia’s judicial sovereignty to a NATO court, in hope of possibly receiving millions of dollars in loans at loan-shark interest rates – only to be used for paying back creditors among NATO nations.

Belgrade also ordered an end to Kosovo Serbs’ tax protests, called after the occupation authorities decided to establish checkpoints and charge duties on goods coming from the rest of Yugoslavia. Apparently, Belgrade is hoping the UN will heed "recommendations" to remove the customs posts, and maybe form a joint tax service. Apparently, the UN’s pillaging of Kosovo Serbs is quite all right, as long as Belgrade gets a share.

The final straw has to be the recent initiative by Nebojsa Covic, deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Presevo situation, to partition Kosovo into ethnic entities. According to Covic’s recent statements, this would satisfy both the "Serb historical and Albanian ethnic claims" to the province. What it does accomplish, right here and now, is to relinquish Yugoslavia’s legal right to its territory in favor of recognizing the principle of ethnic separatism. Truly brilliant, coming from a Minister who called his own troops "dogs of war" and falsely accused them of looting and war crimes. Could someone please find a sex scandal in his past?


As it becomes increasingly obvious, even the demise of "UCPMB" cannot offset the enormity of the crisis plaguing the central Balkans, specifically Macedonia and Serbia. NATO is still occupying Kosovo – if nothing, that province is virtually independent now more than ever – while Belgrade’s new government is squandering its political capital on pandering to foreign powers. Meanwhile, the cornered Macedonians are down to praying for deliverance from the closing jaws of KLA and NATO. For all its soi-disant "spirit of cooperation" with Skopje and Belgrade, NATO’s leaders, past and present, are still unrepentant about their role in the 1999 Kosovo War, from which all the current problems in the region directly derive.

The picture is none the rosier elsewhere. However many elections Croatian "moderates" may win, their country will still be Serb-free and they will not lift a finger to change that. Bosnia’s three-headed President can visit Belgrade as many times as he wishes, but that will not make Bosnia more of a country, or make the Bosnian Muslim hatred of Serbs any less palpable.

Over the years, the Balkans has shown incredible ability to hover at the very brink of Armageddon, only to bounce back into chronic disaster. There is every indication this trend will continue.

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 appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG’s Blueprint for Destruction

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


Libertarians in general abhor the use of force except in legitimate self-defense. Yet even this simple principle has seen its reductio ad absurdum in the Balkans wars. Far from harboring a naïve illusion that violence can be eliminated altogether, this column has sought to eliminate the innate hypocrisy of Empire that fuels the very conflict it claims to be preventing: that the "good groups" have the monopoly on violence, and the "bad" groups have the monopoly on guilt.

Western policy in the Balkans – over the past decade, but also throughout the peninsula’s modern history – has been characterized by misunderstanding and willful ignorance. Never has any imperial intervention in the Balkans even pretended to understand the internal dynamics of the peninsula’s ethnic identities and the conflicts they have spawned. Instead of staying out, or at the very least trying to identify the real problems, most outsiders have tried imposing their own realities and their own "solutions." The more ambitious the solution, the more spectacular was its eventual failure. Yugoslavia, as a quasi-utopian community of often competing peoples, is a perfect case in the point.


Misguided policies can subdue the flames for a while, and might even make it appear as if the fires of ethnic conflict have been doused. Until the root causes are examined and resolved, however, those fires will keep returning, with increasingly disastrous consequences.

That the road to hell is paved with good intentions is a poorly understood truism, though at least widely known. That the road to peace is barricaded by wishful thinking is a truism many have yet to grasp.

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