x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Freedom fighters look to Kosovo's example, but should they?

Kosovo may be a small place but its recent toxic history of nationalism and separatism could have big implications for other countries undergoing civil strife.

Family and neighbours mourn a Kosovar separatist killed by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic in 1990. Georges Merillion / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Family and neighbours mourn a Kosovar separatist killed by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic in 1990. Georges Merillion / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Earlier this year, a small band of Syrian activists involved in the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad alighted in Pristina, the capital of war-ravaged Kosovo. It was late April and the Syrian opposition was gradually attracting influential advocates from around the world. So why did its representatives undertake, at this critical hour, an expedition to a breakaway Balkan state whose sovereignty is not even acknowledged by much of the world?

The Russians immediately adduced an answer: Kosovo was "training Syrian militants", Moscow's representative to the UN charged. But the more persuasive response came from the Syrians themselves. To them Kosovo was not so much a training site as a place of pilgrimage. As one of the Syrians explained, Kosovo "gives us hope that we can rise above the differences and make the transition to democracy in Syria something viable".

It is not easy to recognise this now, but the Syrian opposition has begun life in a less hostile international atmosphere than that endured in the 1990s by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Designated a terrorist organisation by most western governments almost from the time of its birth, the KLA succeeded not only in convincing them to accord it legitimacy; it even incited Nato to stage an unprecedented war of intervention on its behalf, leading to Kosovo's de facto independence from Yugoslavia. The world's most powerful military alliance repudiating the United Nations and risking the indignation of Russia to serve as the air force of an unknown group of guerrillas subsisting on grass: could there be a more commanding template of triumph than this for the insurrectionists across West Asia?

Yet, despite its unrivalled success, the story of the KLA remains a mystery to most people. Disbanded in 1999, it has become the subject of countless conspiracy theories. In his timely new book, The Kosova Liberation Army: Underground War to Balkan Insurgency, 1948-2001, Oxford historian James Pettifer tries to fill this void by piecing together the complex history of the organisation, locating its conceptual origins in Kosovo's underground resistance movements of the 1940s and tracing its evolution into a sophisticated insurgent group through the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Kosovo is the Jerusalem of the Balkans, a forlorn piece of landlocked territory that stirs fanatical passions among its claimants. In the Serbian imagination, Kosovo is the crucible in which the Serbian nation was forged. Some of the grandest churches and monasteries erected by King Stefan Dusan lay in Kosovo. It was on Kosovo's soil that the Serbs' most humiliating defeat was enacted, when, in 1389, Ottoman Sultan Murad I's troops vanquished Prince Lazar's army. The Serbs' sense of themselves was shaped most of all by the memory of Lazar's death on Kosovo's battlefield - his yearning to "die in battle than to live in shame".

After more than four centuries of Ottoman rule, the Serbs finally wrested Kosovo from their exhausted overlords in 1912. They rapidly repopulated it with Serbs, incorporated it into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918 and marginalised the ethnic Albanians who had proliferated under Ottoman rule. But Serbian rule lasted only until 1941, when Italian-controlled Albania took possession of Kosovo.

Facing persecution, the Serbs either fled or joined the resistance movement against the Axis powers, which was divided between Draza Mihajlovic's Chetniks (who sought to revive the Royalist past) and Josip Broz Tito's multi-confessional Partisans (who were fighting for a communist future). Ethnic Albanians became infected with the idea of nationalism, and the prospect of securing an irredentist Greater Albania prompted many to join pro-Nazi militias. Allied with Himmler's SS Skanderbeg, the Albanian nationalist Balli Kombëtar's Kosovo contingent terrorised the Serbs in Kosovo and Montenegro. The nationalist sentiment was so rabid that even the communists among ethnic Albanians endorsed a union with Albania. Tito attempted to placate them with promises of a Yugoslav federation.

But here was Tito's predicament: with Serbia fractured between competing factions, relinquishing Kosovo would mean forfeiting Serbia - and without it Tito could not conceivably build a new socialist Yugoslavia. The ethnic Albanian anxiety was not entirely misplaced: when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established post-war, Kosovo ended up as a province of Serbia, not a constituent republic of the new state. Severely repressive measures were put in place to crush any signs of rebelliousness. Still, it took 30,000 men nearly six months to suppress an armed rebellion launched against Partisan authority by ethnic Albanians from Drenica. More than 100,000 people, mainly Nazi collaborators, were executed across Yugoslavia over the next year as Tito consolidated his authority. But the embers of resistance continued to smoulder.

Some Kosovo Albanians remain aggrieved to this day by what they regard as the indifference of Enver Hoxha, leader of the postwar People's Republic of Albania, to the ordeal of Albanians in Yugoslavia. But Pettifer unearths evidence to demonstrate that Hoxha was actively engaged in promoting an underground resistance movement in Kosovo.

No sooner had Tito defied Stalin in 1948 than Hoxha began discussing plans with the Soviet dictator to raise an armed force to topple him. A convoluted scheme was hatched. Disaffected Albanians were recruited and trained before being denounced as traitorous Titoists seeking to overthrow Hoxha's government. Their treachery dramatically exposed in the communist press, they were despatched to Yugoslavia to claim asylum and penetrate Tito's inner circles. But Tito was no fool. The Albanian spies were captured, tried, and awarded long spells in Yugoslav prisons.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia was Yugoslavia's principal international ally and America its primary foreign foe. But in the 1950s, the reverse was true. Tito's split from Stalin drew America closer to Yugoslavia and insulated Belgrade from criticism in the West, while Kosovo was the focal point for Moscow's attempt to unravel Yugoslavia. Pettifer makes much of Hoxha's enterprise; but it isn't clear if his efforts abetted the Kosovo Albanians' resistance in any meaningful sense or served merely to bolster his own reputation in Stalin's mind as Moscow's most dependable ally.

Tito eventually had a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, but his Yugoslavia had by then embarked on a defiantly independent course.

In the heart of a continent that had just escaped extinction in a war inspired by doctrines of ethnic purity, post-war Yugoslavia stood as an improbable federation of 20 million people speaking five official languages and practising three different faiths.

Tito's refusal to permit Yugoslavia's collapse into country-sized ethnic ghettoes meant that it was all one nation, belonging in equal measure to all its inhabitants irrespective of faith, language or ethnic complexion.

The chief threat to Yugoslavia was the absence of democracy, which made Tito's presence imperative to its survival. But even he could not extinguish the separatist sentiment in Kosovo. In 1974, Tito unveiled a new constitution that conferred greater autonomy on Kosovo and ushered in a period of genuine prosperity in the region. But visiting Kosovo five years later, in 1979, Tito admitted the scale of the problem he faced there. "Kosovo must truly be the concern of all our peoples of the entire Yugoslav union," he said in one of his last public appearances before his death in 1980.

Less than a year after that, student protests erupted in Pristina. Centred initially on gripes about poor administration at the university, they rapidly acquired a secessionist tint and spread as far as southern Kosovo. Thousands of protesters, many of them brandishing pro-Albanian banners, took to the streets.

As part of its savage crackdown, Belgrade mobilised 30,000 federal troops to bring order. But force, as James Baldwin wrote, often reveals weaknesses not strength, and "this revelation invests the victim with patience"; and ultimately, Baldwin warned, it is "fatal to create too many victims". Now, as the self-identifying victims among the ethnic Albanian minority multiplied and took to victimising the Serbs in their midst, a far more toxic force began crystallising in Serbia that would comprehensively destroy Yugoslavia: a self-pitying majority.

As early as 1985, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts had constituted a committee to consider Serbia's future within the post-Tito Yugoslavia. According to my rough calculation, the collective age of its 16 members at the time exceeded 900 years, but wisdom eluded them. Their 1986 memorandum was little more than a pathetic litany of apparent Serbian misfortunes.

After mewling over a host of historical atrocities endured by the Serbs - "forced assimilation, conversion to a different religion, cultural genocide, ideological indoctrination, denigration and compulsion to renounce Serbian traditions because of imposed guilt complex" - the authors cast their whimpering attention on the "economic dominance of Slovenia and Croatia" within Yugoslavia. But the calamitous rage of the wounded ego emerged with chilling clarity as the authors puffed their aggrieved chests in the direction of republics hosting Serb minorities. "If solutions are not found [for their] national status", the report warned menacingly, "the consequences might well be disastrous ... for the whole of Yugoslavia".

No one felt more energised by the prospects for self-advancement this manifesto offered than Slobodan Milosevic, a provincial opportunist undeservedly promoted through the ranks by Ivan Stambolic, the Serbian state president. Sent to Kosovo on April 20, 1987, to pacify the local Serbs complaining against harassment, Milosevic only exacerbated the tensions. At first he spoke Tito's language, telling the Serbs that "exclusive nationalism … can never be progressive." But in reality he was there to recruit them into his plot. He returned four days later, with the stage set for angry Serb protests engineered by his henchmen. As the police wielded its batons against stone-pelting Serb "protesters", Milosevic mouthed his fateful line: "No one should dare to beat you again." The crowd burst into chants of "Slobo! Slobo!" He was their new Lazar, and they - immersed in self-pity and vengeful chauvinism - were his warriors.

Tito had enervated the power of Serbia - the largest republic in Yugoslavia - by granting significant autonomy to two of its largest provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina. Milosevic's mobs now demanded emergency powers to assimilate these provinces. As Raif Dizdarevic, the Muslim president of Yugoslavia from Bosnia, reasoned with the fanatical crowd, the melange outside the federal parliament captured, for the last time, Tito's extraordinary national project: a common citizenship that transcended the divisive boundaries of religion, language and race. Soon, the Tito-imposed taboo on ethnic nationalism dissolved into the wars of the 1990s.

As Serbians butchered Bosniaks and Croatians slaughtered Serbs, Kosovo remained peaceful. There was relatively little interference from Milosevic as the ethnic Albanian population formed a parallel "government" in the province. The emphasis on non-violence by its president, the writer Ibrahim Rugova, earned him the title "Gandhi of the Balkans".

Founded formally in 1993, the KLA cast itself as the militaristic alternative to Rugova's pacifist position. His "government" survived mainly on donations from expatriate Albanians, but his failure to have Kosovo included in the Dayton Agreement, which forced an end to the violence in Yugoslavia, damaged his popularity. Funds now began flowing towards the KLA.

Milosevic's expansionist wars for a Greater Serbia ended in a pulverising defeat of the Serbs. By 1995 Yugoslavia ceased to exist, but the truncated rump, a union of Serbia and Montenegro, established itself as its successor state. The KLA now had wealthy supporters abroad, a diminished ideological opponent at home, and an atrophied enemy in Serbia. But it lacked legitimacy. It still had to overcome its international designation as a terrorist organisation and procure the weapons necessary to wage war. The collapse of the Albanian government in 1997 opened the sluice gates of arms smuggling.

The KLA launched a series of spectacular attacks in 1998. Pettifer describes the minutiae of the KLA's operations, but it's clear that it could not possibly have won against a full-fledged army. Its success depended on a calculated campaign of provoking Serbia into retaliatory action. Milosevic required little provocation, but the KLA's offensive was innovatively calibrated to push him as far as possible, and then use the imagery of his reprisals to win the world's approval as a legitimate opposition force.

Madeleine Albright, then the US Secretary of State, saw through this. "Often indiscriminate in their attacks", she wrote in her assessment of the KLA, "they seemed intent on provoking a massive Serb response so that international intervention would be inevitable". In its pursuit of "liberating" ethnic Albanians, the KLA was dependent for its success on their partial annihilation. The massacre at Racak, in which masked Serbian militias killed more than 40 ethnic Albanians, brought Nato into the conflict. Albanian-run supermarkets overseas transformed into effective media centres, feeding regular updates to news networks and journalists. Even ethnic Albanian refugees, Pettifer writes, "showed a surprising … knowledge of how to deal with the western media and provide the kind of stories that would help the Albanian cause." The KLA ended up writing something of a playbook on waging a media war. This is what the Syrians came to learn.

Pettifer spends a lot of time trying to establish the ideological credentials of some of the KLA's more bohemian figures. The writer Adem Demaci - "in some senses the intellectual father of the Kosovo Liberation Army" - had apparently concluded that Tito was a "renegade from Marxism". It's odd, then, that he should've responded to Tito's ideological bankruptcy by resolving to "adopt Albania as an intellectual" fatherland. Or take Hasan Ramadani, a disciple of Demaci who was killed in 1994 by the Serbian police. According to Pettifer, Ramadani "had seen a vision of socialist social justice and freedom in Yugoslavia dashed by the politics of Tito and the return of capitalism." How did he react to this onslaught of capitalism and Tito's betrayal of socialist principles? "He circulated handwritten copies of Demaci's programme for a Revolutionary League for the Unification of the Albanians".

If capitalism is the problem, how does a unification programme undergirded by ethnic chauvinism qualify as a solution? Pettifer's account has no place for such questions. Even to ponder them, in his thinking, is to display "an almost total absence of understanding of the forces that drove young men and women into the KLA in the first place. Unemployed, poor and with no social position, the young Kosovan … workers needed not only an army but a social revolution to liberate them". Well, there are many parts of the world with appallingly high rates of unemployment. How many of them are building secessionist armies? And is there any quarter of public opinion, with the exception of the extreme right, that regards ethnic purity an engine of "social revolution"?

Pettifer bowdlerises zealously: anything that may challenge the official KLA version of events is omitted. Thus he talks about the suppression of the 1981 student revolts in Pristina, but neglects to discuss the sweeping constitutional reforms of 1974 that gave Kosovo its own parliament. The social benefits brought about by Tito are dismissed as "mediocre"; but in the case of Albania, even the admittedly "very high human cost" of Soviet-supervised change cannot prevent Pettifer from acclaiming its "substantial progress".

Pettifer's desperation to defend the ethnic Albanian version of events pushes him to ascribe hidden motives to reporters who refused to confine themselves to the role of the KLA's stenographers. The late Tom Walker is described as a journalist "of pro-Serb inclination". In reality, none other than Milosevic expelled Walker from Yugoslavia.

The sullying of individual reputations paves the way for breath-catching justifications for the KLA's atrocities against the Serbs and other minorities: "The officials and collaborators of the Milosevic system in Kosova certainly did not need encouragement by the KLA or anyone else to leave, as they knew they had no future in a democratic Kosova; the same was true of the section of the Roma who had scavenged actively in the houses and properties of displaced Albanians while they were refugees. As the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung think tank pointed out in its analysis of the KLA and its demobilisation: 'It is disputed whether there was a coordinated strategy of "purging" Kosova by the KLA leadership'. Wars have winners and losers and the Albanians were now the winners and the Serbian and Roma minorities the losers."

This is chilling. Pettifer not only deals with the question of Serb displacement in a sentence - he explains it away by saying "vae victis". His message about the Roma, stripped of the clumsy language, is even starker: they had it coming - and they deserved it. And his attempt to exculpate the KLA leadership leads him to dredge up a line from a think tank which merely states that the accusations against the KLA are "disputed" - certainly not an acquittal, and definitely not a reason to forego investigations into the KLA's conduct before, during, and after the war.

"If the Kosovo war was a war of conspiracies," Pettifer writes, "it is appropriate to describe the machinations of the Serb-sympathisers within Nato, the EU and the international community as a conspiracy against Kosovo's independence". Even if we assume that powerful "Serb-sympathisers" exist, we have to concede that they weren't powerful enough to stop Nato's intervention on the KLA's behalf. For Pettifer's accusation to stand, we must overlook Nato's 6,000 air missions that dropped over 20,000 bombs on Serbia.

Pettifer cannot bring himself to employ, even superficially, similar standards in judging the Serbian and ethnic Albanian parties to the conflict. The crippling devastation suffered by the Serbs cannot convince Pettifer that they probably do not receive special treatment from the alliance that blitzed them. But an ethnic Albanian combatant such as Ramush Haradinaj being summoned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague to face war crime charges is sufficient proof for him to conclude that the "ICTY has been used to try to maintain Belgrade hegemony in the region".

In the real world, the crimes committed by ethnic Albanian combatants have never attracted the scrutiny they merit. When the Swiss diplomat Carla Del Ponte claimed in a book published in 2008, a year after she stepped down as a prosecutor at the ICTY, that nearly 400 Kosovo Serbs were abducted after the war by ethnic Albanians for organ harvesting, it was simply suppressed by the Swiss government. When Human Rights Watch reviewed her accusations and called them "serious and credible", there was barely any noise.

Two years later, an exhaustive Council of Europe report said that the KLA was involved in the trading of human organs: Serbs were taken across the border into Albania and executed before their kidneys were extracted and sold on the black market. These are serious allegations, but they are probably never going to be investigated thoroughly. This is because Kosovo, in the imaginations of those who supported the Nato mission, is not simply the good war: it is the sacred deed that expiates the sin of inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda. Investigating the KLA's actions in earnest would complicate the complimentary fiction of a preux intervention in a battle of good versus evil.

The thrust of Pettifer's book is that the KLA is the modern-day manifestation of a nationalist sentiment with a long pedigree. That sentiment was not born in reaction to the events of 1987, but existed long before then. Even the Yugoslav constitution of 1974, with its many concessions to Kosovo, could not contain it.

It is, in other words, an autonomous product - an assertion of identity so immiscibly chauvinistic that it can only be realised in an "ethnically pure" homeland. Which raises the question: would any of the sponsors of Kosovo's independence acquiesce to such an eventuality in their own territories? Would the United States allow New Mexico to merge with Mexico? Would France ever entertain the idea of granting a separate state to its Muslim minorities who feel "oppressed" by the secular majority? If these ideas seem farfetched, what about the breakaway states seeking recognition of their sovereignty in present-day Europe: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria? The principle of self-determination creates oppressive majorities among oppressed minorities. This explains why the KLA, even as it claimed to be fighting for the rights of an oppressed minority, could not abide the determination of an even smaller ethnic Albanian minority to cooperate with Serbia: it executed them for being "collaborationists".

Today, Kosovo is the dominion of KLA veterans. The showy accoutrements of state power have replaced the vestments of resistance. Corruption is rife. Non-ethnic Albanians have no place in Kosovo. The very creed that was invoked to legitimise Kosovo's secession from Serbia - bluntly put, "majoritarian states for oppressed minorities" - will be called upon by the Serb minority in Kosovo's north to demand further partitions along ethnic lines. Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated "political entity" in Bosnia, will clamour for independence in accordance with the Kosovo precedent. And what would justify denying the Serbs what has been handed to the ethnic Albanians: a "greater" homeland? These are urgent questions that will not wait very long for answers. Pettifer's glozing account cannot obscure the fact that an independent Kosovo is a template for disaster.

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Foreign Policy and the Los Angeles Times.