November 30, 2000
Bandits on the Border
It’s not easy being Vojislav Kostunica1 these days. Your Number Two is plotting your demise; the other partner in your federation is threatening secession; militant American interventionists are calling on you to give in on that demand, and grant Kosovo independence as well; your people are hungry, cold and angrier by the day; your nemesis, though admitting defeat, is heckling you from the ranks of opposition; your country’s worst enemy is determined to boost her political rating by meeting you at a major conference; and on top of all that, you have to deal with bandits invading your southern border.
A lesser man would have gone insane. Kostunica has somehow still managed to keep his cool. How long can this situation last is anyone’s guess. This conundrum is the new government’s first big test, and the next three weeks will show the shape of things to come in the Balkans heartland.
It is hard for Kostunica to decide which problem facing his government is the most pressing one. Like the mythical Hydra’s heads, each one that he cuts off only spawns more. Until October 5, the issue was mainly replacing Milosevic. Now he has to deal with Zoran Djindjic’s ambitions, Montenegrin separatism, Milosevic again, and the resurgent Albanian terrorism.
If he doesn’t stop Zoran Djindjic from winning the Serbian presidency in the December election, Kostunica will lose his job and his country after Djindjic arranges for Montenegro’s secession. There are indications of a pact between the two factions of the new government, which would protect Kostunica’s position and keep Djindjic reined in. How likely is Djindjic is to respect that pact once in power is another matter.
Then there are the increasingly loud and obnoxious demands for independence made by Milo Djukanovic’s regime in Montenegro. This regime has already created a de facto separate state, and now seeks to have it recognized on the sole basis of that fait accompli. Their actions over the past two months have made it abundantly clear that Milosevic never had anything to do with Montenegro’s drive for independence. Djukanovic’s recent moves also indicate he has the strong backing of Washington to successfully implement his secession plans. The Clinton administration may have publicly stated its opposition to Montenegro’s secession. But allotting $89 million in "aid" to Montenegro while giving Serbia with 95% of the Yugoslav population only $109 million indicates this position is an outright lie. It wouldn’t be the first time.
After a month of seclusion, Slobodan Milosevic is back in politics as well. He is a shadow of his former self, with a large chunk of his party gone and his political platform in tatters. His wife is still the most hated persona in Serbia. Nonetheless, Milosevic is ruthlessly exploiting Djindjic’s power drive to present the ruling coalition as paid Western agents and his Socialists as the only independent force in Serbia. It is ironic that he may be right on some counts – that Djindjic really would sell Serbia for 30 pieces of silver and that the Albanian revolt, NATO attacks and Djukanovic’s separatism really had nothing to do with him – but because of his record as ruler of Serbia, few will be inclined to listen on December 23.
Just as Kostunica was dealing with Milo Djukanovic’s last act of open treason (really, how many of these does each politician get before he is arrested?), news came of a large-scale attack of Albanian militants in the Presevo valley. Situated on the eastern administrative border of Kosovo, this area has a large Albanian population and has been marked on more detailed maps of Greater Albania as "Kosova Lindore" – eastern "Kosova." Incidentally, a good part of this area lies in the three-mile-wide demilitarized zone NATO imposed on the Yugoslav army in the June 1999 Kumanovo treaty. Under the treaty, only lightly armed Yugoslav police are allowed in the zone, while NATO is supposed to control the border of occupied Kosovo and stop the incursion of any militants or gunrunners. The fact that there are between 400 and 600 armed Albanians holding the DMZ area around the town of Konculj [Kon’chull] testifies to NATO’s efficiency and dedication to duty. This is no homegrown militia, either, but a militant formation known for almost a year under the moniker UCPMB – Ushtria Clirimtare Presheve, Medveja e Bujanovec ([Preshevo-Medvegya-Buyanovats] Liberation Army). Its insignia, uniforms, procedures and tactics mirror those of the "disbanded" KLA (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves). This "army" has been controlling the village of Dobrosin [Dobroshin] for over a year, under the watchful eye of American KFOR troops. To create an impression they were doing something, these troops recently started arresting the UCPMB militants crossing in and out of Kosovo. How effective that practice has been is obvious.
Why did the Albanian militants attack now, when they could have done so in 1999, with NATO backing them up? The logic behind the surprise raid/invasion of this border strip is seemingly incomprehensible. But there may be method in the madness after all.
With NATO feeling less hostile towards the Serbs, Milosevic out of power and everyone seemingly so infatuated with Kostunica, the KLA leaders must be feeling frustrated. Additionally, Rugova’s victory in the local elections robbed them of their power base and reduced their political influence. In the face of these setbacks, they decided to do what they do best – fight. So this attack could just be a show of force aimed at restoring the KLA's flagging support among the Albanians.
Or, as some analysts have pointed out, this could be an attempt to involve NATO in another war against Serbia. This scheme is incredibly harebrained, since NATO doesn’t have enough will or weapons for such an adventure right now and the PR situation is not favorable at all. More likely, the KLA is trying to show NATO that it is serious about wanting independence for Kosovo, and would not hesitate to embarrass or even openly oppose the Alliance in order to achieve that goal.
For conspiracy theorists, this is obviously a part of a greater American plot to separate Kosovo from Serbia by showing that the Albanians refuse to be pacified.
Either way, there are hundreds of bandits on the border of free Serbia and occupied Kosovo, and they don’t seem willing to leave unless someone makes them. For the time being, Kostunica is successfully restraining his troops and putting an egg on NATO’s face for allowing this situation to happen in the first place. NATO’s critics can now rightfully say what they’ve been saying all along: that the Alliance never had any intentions of honoring its agreements, opposing the Albanians in any way, or protecting Serbia’s sovereignty. After all, they did just fight a very dirty and brutal war against the Serbs only a year and some months ago.
There isn’t much any of the actors involved can do right now. NATO will have to do something in order to at least repair its image. It is unlikely that the occupation garrison in Kosovo will actually disarm or in any way confront the UCPMB militants. Instead of doing so – as the Kumanovo treaty dictates it should – KFOR has instead "brokered a cease-fire" and threatened to move into the DMZ. This way, all KFOR has to do is arrange a cease-fire every time the militants take another town, and soon enough "Kosova Lindore" will join the rest of Kosovo under NATO occupation.
Of course, Yugoslav troops could take action and wipe out the UCPBM off the face of the earth. They would have every right to do so, since they cannot be held to the letter of the Kumanovo treaty if NATO has failed to honor its end of the bargain. Using force would be bad from a PR standpoint, though, and Kostunica will probably give every other solution a try before actually ordering in the tanks.
Regardless of how this situation is ultimately resolved, the most profound effect of the Albanian bandits’ incursion could be a better understanding of last year’s war over Kosovo. Several reports have mentioned the similarity between this weekend’s attack on Serbian police and the 1998’s assault by the KLA on Serbian police and military personnel in Kosovo. Of course, those reports continue to say that Yugoslav response to these attacks was the "ethnic cleansing" that ensued. But what caused the attacks?
What do the first major offensive by the KLA and the first major attack by the PMBLA have in common? Slobodan Milosevic and his "oppression" of Albanians can no longer be invoked as an excuse. Neither can violations of human rights by the new government, which has released many former KLA members and has appointed numerous human rights activists to powerful positions. Nothing else seems plausible.
Well, not quite. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes used to say, once you eliminate the impossible, anything else – however improbable – must be the truth. It could be that the solution has been staring everyone in the face all along, but that everyone has been too busy accusing the Serbs of racism, fascism, genocide and dictatorship to see it.
Could the causes behind Presevo Albanians’ and Kosovo Albanians’ attacks on Serbia be one and the same: hatred of Serbs and the desire to have a separate, ethnically cleansed statelet in the Balkans? Is this desire for independence not what their leaders have reiterated over the past year and a half? Have not the Kosovo Albanians expelled just about every other ethnicity from the territories in Kosovo they control? Have they not repeatedly killed and assaulted non-Albanians over the past year and a half?
Could it be that there really is a plan to create a Greater Albania, which had nothing to do with Slobodan Milosevic or the human rights policy of Belgrade, and everything to do with the hatred and racism of those militant Albanians unwilling to live together with anyone else?
Because when you eliminate the impossible, that is what remains.
1) Note to Balkan Express readers: Though in last week’s installment I objected to the butchering of Serbian and other Balkans names through improper spelling, in order to avoid confusion I have decided to retain the old forms for the time being.
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