The Suspended Castle: Kosovo’s Unsustainable Independence Claim

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, a 1996 film-pamphlet combination by Laura Silber and Alan Little that blamed Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs for everything that happened in the former Yugoslavia, posited that the dismemberment of Yugoslavia started, and would end, in Kosovo.

Until a month ago, that seemed accurate. Kosovo was occupied by NATO, virtually separate from Serbia and heading towards an election that would legitimize Albanian aspirations for statehood. Serbs west of the Drina river had been either expelled and murdered, or pacified under NATO occupation in a hodgepodge called Bosnia. Montenegro, the last remaining republic of the old Communist Yugoslavia that stayed in its ill-fated successor federation, was preparing to break away on a foundation of American money and NATO media support. Serbia, under Milosevic, would have finally been surrounded and isolated in a way its arch-enemy at the beginning of the century, Austria-Hungary, would have bitterly envied.

The electoral victory and subsequent takeover of power by Vojislav Kostunica and the opposition coalition derailed these developments temporarily, as established pretexts for secession, siege and isolation disappeared virtually overnight. Kosovo now resembles a structure from a Bosnian folk tale, a "suspended castle, not on earth nor in the heavens." But it would have been foolish to believe the architects of Western policy in the Balkans would simply walk away from a project they have so carefully pursued for over a decade.


The elections were organized to give the Albanians the badly needed legitimacy in any dealings with Belgrade. Their most important effect was not the victory of Ibrahim Rugova’s LDK over Hasim Thaci’s terrorist-turned-politician KLA – for both parties advocate an independent Albanian Kosovo, and disagree only as to the means of achieving this goal – but the legitimization of Albanian control over the occupied province.

It cannot be a coincidence that the so-called "Independent International Commission on Kosovo" issued its pro-independence findings days before the poll, as mentioned in the previous column. Nor is it accidental that the major English-speaking media not only supported the poll, but also cautiously hinted at the inevitability of Albanians’ independence.

Sure enough, within a day from the poll results Ibrahim Rugova demanded recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Shortly thereafter, a leak from the US Department of State indicated that Washington was preparing to make this recognition. This can hardly be a surprising development, given that it came on the heels of Richard Holbrooke’s meetings with both Rugova and Thaci on October 24, at what Reuters called the "US embassy in Pristina."

Holbrooke, since 1994 the Clinton administration’s Balkans point-man, had legitimized the KLA in 1998 in a famous meeting on the floor of a central Kosovo hut. And who is better suited to make behind-the-scenes deals with US clients than Holbrooke? He is, after all, the man who in 1995 advised Croatia’s leadership which cities in Bosnia their army should ethnically cleanse of Serbs, while his boss Warren Christopher officially denied US support for that offensive (Holbrooke’s To End a War, Chapter XI, p. 160 and 166). Holbrooke is now the American ambassador in the UN, pegged to become Secretary of State in case Al Gore wins the presidency. Perhaps one of President Gore’s first "accomplishments" would be the recognition of the "Republic of Kosova" and its admission to the UN under Holbrooke’s guidance? After all, Gore was one of the most aggressive interventionists in the Clinton administration.


Albanians’ claim to Kosovo rests on several dubious precepts: their current control of Kosovo, their superior numbers, alleged oppression at the hands of Serbs and historical presence on the land.


While possession is nine-tenths of the law, Albanians seem to have possession of Kosovo only when it is under foreign military occupation – be it under the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Nazi Germany or NATO. Only in one other instance did the Albanians control Kosovo without a foreign military presence – under Yugoslav Communism, between 1968 and 1989. Even so, their effective control of Kosovo produced chilling effects on the province’s ethnic makeup.


Certainly, the phrase "ethnic Albanians are 90% of Kosovo’s population" has been repeated enough in the mainstream Western media to create an impression that this fact alone legitimizes secession. Albanians may have become 95% of the population in Kosovo, but that percentage was far smaller before the great wars of the 20th century took their toll on the Serbs. The picture becomes clearer when one considers the extraordinarily high birth rate of Kosovo Albanians – far higher than in the much poorer Albania – and repeated attacks on non-Albanian communities, especially Serbs, during the past 100 years. Every conflict that involved Kosovo saw mass persecution of non-Albanians and a sharp reduction in their share of population.

Dusan Batakovic’s Kosovo Chronicles, an exhaustive study of the province’s history published in 1992 (before the armed conflict, but three years into Rugova’s rebellion), provides numerous insights into the Communist management of Kosovo and Tito’s handling of the atrocities against non-Albanians committed in World War Two. It is worth mentioning that in its introduction, Milan St. Protic – now the DOS mayor of Belgrade – termed the Kosovo Chronicles "one of those important steps in the direction of modern, non-ideological view of our past and present".

During the 15 months of NATO’s occupation, most non-Albanians were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo. A thousand people have been killed, about 50,000 houses torched. All of this is well documented. Albanian claims of oppression often come up short in that category.


It is an article of faith among Kosovo Albanians that they were "oppressed" under the "Belgrade regime." Their autonomy was revoked, they say, and they were victims of genocide in 1999. But Kosovo was not the only Serbian province to see its quasi-statehood revoked in 1989. Vojvodina has had the same status as Kosovo in the past decade, and it never spawned a Hungarian separatist movement, let alone a parallel society, or a NATO intervention. The size of Vojvodina’s Hungarian population, much smaller than that of the Albanians, matters little. Historically, they have been far less hostile to the Serbs. Ironically, the leading advocate of Vojvodina’s autonomy today is Nenad Canak, a Serb power-monger, not the Vojvodina Hungarians’ political leader Andrasz Agoszton.

The claim of "genocide" through which Belgrade "forfeited" its right to rule - as Albanian advocates in the American government are so fond of saying – has been debunked by the infamous ICTY, of all institutions. In August 2000, it announced that the forensic investigators are going home after digging up about 2800 bodies. Apart from the fact that it was very difficult to tell who was a civilian when the KLA had men and women of all ages in its paramilitary ranks, ICTY teams could not come up with conclusive evidence that these 2800 were in fact Albanians, or that they have been victims of massacres. This is a far, far cry from the allegations of 100,000 massacred men, made by US Defense Secretary William Cohen during the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, when its leaders were "motivated to believe the worst." Yet Washington, Brussels and Pristina stubbornly cling to the fiction of "genocide" – because without it, their entire reasoning would crumble like a sandcastle under a tidal wave.


Stubborn refusal of the Albanians to be a part of any common state with the Serbs is another claim often used to justify separation. But if one was to go on commitment to the cause alone, then many other peoples – Ulster Catholics, Basques, Bosnian Serbs, Karabagh Armenians or Kurds – would have a much better claim. No one is backing their independence just yet.


Finally, the "moderate" Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova has become fond of a blue flag inscribed "Dardania" – a name he claims proves the ancient Albanian ownership of Kosovo. But a definition of Dardania in the Greek Mythology Link, a Brown University web lexicon, mentions: "Aeneas, son of Anchises represents the dynasty of Dardania, the region north of Troy." Ancient Troy, for the geographically challenged, is located south of the Dardanelles strait in Asia Minor. In Turkey.


One more thing Rugova can try claiming is the legitimacy of his party’s position based on this "democratic" election. But no international document specifies that democracy is the sole source of legitimacy, or that non-democratic governments are somehow illegitimate.

Nevertheless, "democracy" in form of elections has become the modern equivalent of medieval Papal blessing – only the ballot-box anointed may sit on the throne of power, as recognized by the West. Dubious democrats allied with the United States are ironically often excused from this requirement, while any lengths to which the enemies of the West go always fall short of stringent "democratic" standards Western countries themselves would never be able to satisfy.

A democratic government did not legitimize the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war, while their Muslim adversaries enjoyed international recognition despite the total lack of democracy (or any sort of legal order) in their governmental structures. Just before NATO attacked Yugoslavia, its governor of Bosnia sacked the democratically elected (under international supervision) President of the Serb Republic, because of his political opinions. The following year, the new governor eliminated a possible presidential contender by having him indicted and arrested for war crimes. This was done regardless of the fact that this man had served as one of the three presidents of Bosnia after the Dayton agreement, which specifically prohibited war crimes suspects (not the convicted criminals, mind you, but suspects) from doing so.


Obviously, none of the Albanians’ claims is good enough to justify their demand for independence. On the other hand, Washington never heeded a legal claim when it had the force of arms to oppose it. The argument of force, rather than force of arguments, may be the arbiter of Kosovo’s destiny this time, with a predictable outcome.

From a Realpolitik standpoint, Kosovo’s independence would be both inevitable – as nothing but a stronger military might can stop it - and counterproductive, as it would antagonize the hub of the Balkans and lock the region into constant conflict. Current decision-makers, however, ignore real-political analysis in favor of a more ephemeral ideology of "end of history" – an eerie dialectic that sees capitalist democracy as the inevitably triumphant force in the world that will rule forever. A truly messianic vision, indeed. But historical experience teaches otherwise.

Sooner or later, the castle must either come back to the ground, or fly into the heavens.

And while imperial military might and Albanian obstinacy are not to be scorned, it would be well to remember that the Serbs waited for 523 years before regaining Kosovo the first time. Why anyone would think they would accept another loss of Kosovo as final remains an unfathomable mystery.

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Nebojsa Malich 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, Malich 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

The Suspended Castle: Kosovo’s Unsustainable Independence Claim

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


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