Kosovo: Background to crisis (March 1999)
Current Crisis in Kosovo
It is difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the present cycle of violence in Kosovo. Claims made by the Serb and Albanian ethnic communities differ widely and reflect their own national myths. It can, however, be established beyond any doubt that both groups have been used as pawns by Kosovo's various rulers. For centuries they have been the losers of one war, always trying to get even in the next.
Major clashes since
the Second World War include: the bloody crushing of the pockets of Albanian
resistance by the units of the Yugoslav Army in 1944-45; the Albanian
unrest of 1968, which resulted in the province being given a degree of
autonomy almost equal to that of Yugoslavia's then six constituent republics;
and further unrest in 1981, one year after the death of Tito. The 1981
movement, demanding a fully-fledged Kosovo Republic, was brutally crushed
by the Federal Yugoslav Army and police, which continued to run the province
under various martial-law provisions.
As the rise to power
of Slobodan Milosevic initiated Yugoslavia's plunge toward disintegration,
the most liberal republics of Slovenia and Croatia showed increasing compassion
for Kosovo Albanians, eventually refusing to participate in federal police
units which kept the province under control. In 1989, by intimidating
and manipulating the provincial assembly, Milosevic managed to abolish
Kosovo's autonomous status. In response to the following unrest, he then
used the thin pretext of a miners' strike to arrest and imprison Azem
Vllasi, the foremost ethnic Albanian moderate politician, and a number
of others. He then replaced them with those loyal to Belgrade, but who
lacked any credibility among the Albanian majority. The Serbian authorities
then dismissed tens of thousands of Albanians from their jobs, taking
particular care to almost completely purge the police. Ethnic Albanians,
who make up almost 90 per cent of the province's 2.1 million inhabitants,
responded by declaring Kosovo a full republic within Yugoslavia and naming
Ibrahim Rugova, a poet, its president.
As the fate of the
former Yugoslavia was becoming obvious, a clandestine Albanian referendum
was held in September 1991 declaring the ``Republic of Kosovo'' fully
independent. Underground parliamentary elections were held in May 1992.
Although the parliament never met in session, Bujar Bukoshi was declared
prime minister, a duty he has been performing from exile in Germany.
The apparent might
of the Yugoslav Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitary units, which kept pounding
the cities in Croatia and later Bosnia with heavy artillery, had a deterring
effect in Kosovo. As head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (Lidhja Demokratike
e Kosoves - LDK), Ibrahim Rugova repeatedly declared the determination
of Kosovo Albanians to achieve independence by peaceful means. This included
passive resistance, the creation of parallel ``Republic of Kosovo'' institutions
and faith in the support of the international community. Busy with fighting
in Bosnia and plagued by growing opposition and a total disintegration
of their domestic economy, rulers in Belgrade apparently tolerated the
parallel Albanian society as it seemed to content itself with running
its own affairs peacefully under the full control of Rugova and the LDK.
The number of armed
incidents involving the two ethnic communities was surprisingly low in
the period 1992-95 and their intensity was limited to short exchanges
of fire or harassment using firearms. Although official Serbian data records
136 attacks on the police in the first 18 months after the declaration
of the ``Republic of Kosovo'', the only major action was an attack on
a vehicle of the Serbian Interior Ministry (Ministarstvo unutrasnjih poslova
- MUP) near Glogovac on 22 May 1993 in which two policemen were killed
and five wounded.
On 22 April 1996 four almost simultaneous attacks took place within less than two hours of each other and in widely separated locations. While one of them, in which three Serb civilians were killed, may have been a revenge attack, the attacks in Stimlje, Pec and Kosovska Mitrovica targeted uniformed MUP personnel; two police officers were killed and another three wounded.
Serbian police blamed
``separatist terrorists'': a usual cover-all phrase. No organisation claimed
responsibility for the attacks at the time, but attacks on the police
continued throughout the summer and autumn of 1996. The existence of a
``Kosovo liberation movement'' was at first just a rumour, but continued
attacks and a similar modus operandi made it clear that an organisation
existed. The initial confusion was caused by rumours claiming that the
attacks were carried out by the armed wing of the National Movement for
the Liberation of Kosovo (Levizje Nacional-clirimtare e Kosoves - LNCK),
a known Albanian emigrant organisation that had been operating out of
Switzerland since 1981. Rumours also suggested that the attacks could
be the work of another organisation called the People's Movement of Kosovo
(Levizje Popullore e Kosoves - LPK), which was formed in 1982 by the unification
of several smaller Albanian Marxist-Leninist factions.
at a steady rate, targeting not only the MUP but also ethnic Albanians
who pledged their loyalty to the Serbian administration. In early 1997,
Albanian language media started receiving faxes in which an organisation
calling itself Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves (Kosovo Liberation Army -
KLA) admitted responsibility for the attacks. After a series of ambushes
and executions of ``loyal Albanians'', Serb authorities arrested 60 Albanians
in late January 1997. Although President Milosevic claimed that ``terrorism
in Kosovo had been cut in its roots'', reality proved him wrong; after
a brief lull the attacks resumed in the late summer of that year.
The most spectacular series of attacks which gave the KLA real credibility took place within four hours of each other on the night of 10-11 September 1997. No less than 10 co-ordinated attacks in locations up to 150 km apart, mostly targeting police barracks and vehicles, proved that there was a well-organised force, which had the knowledge and resources to plan and execute relatively complex attacks in conditions made difficult by generally poor communications. The attacks escalated even further when anti-tank weapons were used for the first time to penetrate the wall of a building in a night attack in the village of Babaloc near Decani on 16 October. However, the event that was to make the KLA a household name was the first public appearance of one of its members on 28 November: a date observed by Albanians in Kosovo, as well as their kin in Albania, as Flag Day - a holiday of great patriotic significance.
KLA Organisation and Strength: An Historic Overview
Since the abolition
of Kosovo's autonomy, the Serbian authorities have been running the province
like a colony, maintaining order by harassment rather than by preventive
action. Even before the killings of loyal Albanians started, their numbers
were insignificant, with the overwhelming majority of the Albanians refusing
to collaborate. Albanian society is extremely closely knit, notorious
for its family and clan loyalties and old-fashioned values of honour and
secrecy. The language is widely different from any other language spoken
in the former Yugoslavia (or anywhere in Europe), which makes infiltration
difficult. As most Albanians were purged from the security apparatus,
the few who remain are automatically branded as traitors and consequently
are of no real value to the Serb-run police. Various Albanian sources
claim between 900,000 and 1.2 million cases of official police harassment
since 1981. Practically every adult male has undergone police treatment,
which just makes polarisation even more extreme.
The principal aim
of Serbian local authorities has always been to prevent large-scale unrest.
As long as the province remained relatively peaceful, Belgrade allowed
local Kosovo Serbs to run their affairs as they saw fit and had no choice
but to tolerate the creation of the Albanian parallel system. The Kosovo
Republic taxes all Albanians five per cent of their income and additional
taxes are imposed for parallel education. Successful businesses pay further
taxes as needed. The Serbian authorities also levy whatever taxes they
can, and levels of corruption are extremely high. Businesses are required
to pay various bribes and ``unobstructed operation'' money. All these
are an enormous burden and leave very little funding potentially available
for any ``Kosovo Republic Armed Forces''.
The bulk of the financing
of the KLA seems to originate from two sources: drug-related operations
and Kosovo Albanian settlers in the West. The former Yugoslavia has always
been on the main European drug-transit route. With the break-up of Yugoslavia
the route has been somewhat modified; West Europe-bound narcotics now
enter Macedonia and Albania and are then distributed towards Western Europe
through Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia. Extremely high levels
of corruption in former Yugoslavia facilitate drugs trade, and routes
across the borders had been well established by trade blockade runners
in 1992-95. Albanians are highly regarded as couriers due to their reliability
and secrecy, but they do not appear to be running the drugs trade themselves.
The second source
of financing is also significant. There are over 500,000 Kosovo Albanians
in the West, mostly in the German-speaking countries of Europe and in
the US. The largest community is in Switzerland - 180,000-strong. The
Luzern-based LPK, led by Ibrahim Kelmendi, was the first organisation
to claim direct connection with the KLA and openly collect funds. However,
it seems that after an initial fundraising success the LPK has not been
able to convince donors of its connection with armed elements. It has
been further damaged by revelations that one of its leaders, Xhavit Hallitaj,
is believed to have been an informer to the Serbian authorities since
the early 1980s. Consequently, there seems to be a willingness on the
part of Kosovo Albanians to contribute to the cause, but proper funding
arrangements have not yet been established. Émigrés in Germany
have approached the circles close to the ``Kosovan prime minister'', Bujar
Bukoshi, with offers for funding, but it is not yet clear in what way
that funding has been organised.
On the other side
of the Atlantic, ethnic Albanians have proved more sceptical, demanding
concrete proof of KLA connections before donating money. All this is limited
to Kosovo Albanians - their kin from Albania having suffered significant
losses in the spring collapse of that country - who have proved incapable
or unwilling to aid the ``Kosovo cause''. Apparently very little money
has been collected in the US.
Very little is known
of the internal organisation of the KLA, particularly of its command structure.
The communiqués issued to the media claim the existence of a general
staff, which is probably a pretentious name for a top co-ordinating body,
which could consist of a mix of soldiers and politicians. It is believed
to be located in Germany, with its members travelling to Kosovo as required.
Serbian security officials concede that there must be some sort of field
command, but it is unlikely to be located in the Drenica region as popular
belief claims. It would make much more sense for it to be safely concealed
in Pristina - a city with a population of 200,000.
Available data indicates
that the KLA operates in groups of three to five fighters, with one or
two in each action being novices taken along to gain combat experience.
Group commanders are believed to remain in Kosovo for up to three actions,
and are then withdrawn to Western Europe. Local helpers who are responsible
for logistics assure secrecy: arms are kept hidden and taken to a pre-arranged
location when needed where they are collected by the hit squad. This pattern
would put the numbers at 120-150 men with some action experience, 40 of
whom can lead a group, with a further 200 in the support structure as
guides, providers of lodging, food suppliers and couriers. Communication
is almost exclusively limited to word-of-mouth, that being considered
the only reliable way.
Most of the 41 press
releases the KLA issued by mid-January 1998 portrayed the group as a highly
professional organisation which stresses its independence from political
leaders. The style and language of the releases are concise and do not
reveal any tell-tale details.
Most analysts discard
theories that the group's leaders originate from the former Yugoslav Army
(JNA). Albanian officers were purged in 1990-91; many were tried and others
have been kept under close surveillance. Theories claiming involvement
of ethnic Albanians who gained wartime experience in the Croatian Army
can also be discarded, since their number was small and limited to the
lower ranks (with the exception of Brigadier Rakhim Ademi, who successfully
commanded a brigade). Although Serbian sources claimed involvement of
officers from the Albanian Army in 1995, that scenario is also quite unlikely.
Another key question in predicting further developments is the growth possibility of the KLA. It certainly would have no problem in attracting recruits, with over 20,000 Albanians reaching military age every year.
presents a major problem: up until 1990 basic rifle training and infantry
drill were provided by the JNA. Since that year, however, Albanian conscripts
have not been required to serve in the JNA. Large basic training camps
cannot be established - either in Kosovo or in Western Europe - forcing
the KLA to limit its size for the time being. Several specialised training
camps had existed in Albania since the post-war rule of Albanian Communist
Party leader Enver Xoxha (who died in 1985), and at least two (in Fushe
Kruje and Bajram Curri) are believed to have remained well into the time
of the Berisha regime; these were reportedly closed down in 1993 under
US pressure. Although the present Nano government has officially acknowledged
Kosovo to be a part of Serbia and stated its commitment to a peaceful
solution, it is possible that unconfirmed reports of a training camp in
Lhibrazd may be true. Even so, that would appear to be more a result of
anarchy than official support by the Albanian Government, and in military
terms the significance of such a camp would be negligible.
Until the spring chaos in Albania, Kosovo Albanians could only count on a limited number of weapons. The reserves of the Kosovo Territorial Defence had been taken away after riots in 1981 and supplies were limited. However, the wide availability of weapons after the conflict started in former Yugoslavia brought a steady trickle to Kosovo, most being sold by the Serbs themselves. Following the February/March 1997 looting of Albanian Army barracks and depots, weapons became even more readily available. The current price for a Kalashnikov is barely US$300, and the most conservative estimates of Albanians' stocks now start at 25,000 hidden AK assault rifles. Also available are anti-tank weapons, rifle and hand grenades and even small-calibre mortars and anti-aircraft guns.
The Serb side makes
up with organisation and support what it lacks in numbers. The Serbian
Interior Ministry (Ministarstvo unutrasnjih poslova, or MUP) maintains
a regular presence in Kosovo of 13,000 policemen armed with paramilitary
equipment, including APCs and armed helicopters. However, it can muster
a much larger force, with some 21,000 Kosovo Serbs officially being part
of police reserves and issued with weapons. An estimated 25,000 regular
and reserve police reinforcements can be transferred from Central Serbia
within 72 hours.
The Yugoslav Army
(Vojska Jugoslavije, or VJ) maintains 6,500 troops in the province, mostly
in border areas and in four large garrisons. Tactical deployment plans
provide for a first-wave reinforcement of a further 10,000 troops from
the Nis, Uzice, and Leskovac Corps (including 4,000 reserves), all of
whom are theoretically available for actions in Kosovo. In practice, the
army has shown a reluctance to interfere in Kosovo, which is seen as a
political and internal question and therefore the responsibility of the
police. This approach may be a display of gratitude of sorts for the fact
that the KLA has so far avoided attacking the army - a clever move on
its part, since it can claim to be fighting not the institutions of the
state per se, but those which are actually responsible for the repression
in Kosovo: the police.
The third, most unpredictable,
element of Serb forces are the paramilitaries and volunteers. Although
most militias that operated in Croatia and Bosnia have been disbanded
or simply faded into obscurity, at least two could be expected to reappear
in Kosovo if their masters decide to act. The best organised militia,
currently dormant but according to latest reports ``warming-up'' for action
in Kosovo, is the Serb Volunteer Guards (Srpska dobrovoljacka garda, or
SVG), better known as the Tigrovi (Tigers) and run by Zeljko ``Arkan''
Raznatovic. Numbering up to 400 fierce cadres with combat experience and
an alleged record of ethnic cleansing, the Tigers could be used for actions
which neither the police nor the army would accept or be associated with.
The only other organisation in Serbia that could readily muster a militia
is Vojislav Seselj's extreme right Serb Radical Party.
The most significant
result of last November's Lausa ambush is psychological: both sides are
now exaggerating the strength of the KLA. Uncertain as what to do and
without clear political guidance, the Serbian Interior Ministry withdrew
most of its forces from possible hot-spots in and around Drenica. The
Serbian authorities decided to move a small commercial ammunition plant
from Srbica (Skenderraj) in central Drenica to a safer location. This
in turn fuelled claims of ``free territory'' that are completely unfounded.
There is no doubt that the MUP has the manpower and resources to maintain
a heavy presence in every part of Kosovo, but its decision to keep a low
profile reflects the lack of clear policy and is indirectly an admission
that Serbian Interior Ministry troops are neither trained nor prepared
to tackle a widespread terrorist or guerrilla opposition, even less so
an intifada-style popular movement.
The reduced police presence has in turn encouraged the local Albanian population in and around Drenica to overestimate their strength and significance. Drenica has an area of approximately 1,200 km2 and a population of some 60,000; 95 per cent are Albanian. The region, which is hilly with sparse woods and poor cover, is accessible by six routes. It is totally unfeasible as a serious guerrilla base: the main road connecting central Kosovo with the Metohija region and Montenegro cuts the region in two, and Serbia would certainly not tolerate any interruption of regular traffic.
northern border of Drenica is Serbia proper, offering no possibility for
strategic retreat. KLA claims therefore have to be viewed more as a ``flag-waving''
operation, boosting Albanian morale and forcing the Serbs to make a move:
a daring but politically smart tactic, for whatever move the Serbs choose,
they cannot win.
If the Serb side
does not act, it actually strengthens the KLA cause: currently by any
definition the KLA is a terrorist organisation, even if for political
reasons everybody but the Serbs is cautiously avoiding the use of the
term. However, if it can lay claim to openly carrying weapons in even
a limited area, the KLA can legitimately claim to be a guerrilla movement
with all the political advantages of such a status. The KLA does not appear
on the official US State Department list of foreign terrorist organisations,
and threat of its inclusion on the list is currently the only US sway
over radical Albanians. After two explosions on Macedonian territory at
the turn of the year, for which the KLA claimed responsibility, a clear
warning was issued by Robert Gelbard, the top US envoy for former Yugoslavia.
This political haggle over the KLA's ``legal status'' could prompt the
Serb side to set up an attack, possibly gruesome and involving civilian
victims, hoping to pin it on the Albanians and thus earn them official
terrorist status. This possibility has to be taken seriously; there is
no moral restraint of any sort and precedents are plentiful all over former
Having lost the wars
in Croatia and Bosnia and with nobody taking the blame or being sacrificed,
the Serbs are still rancorous. Many see Kosovo as the only remaining way
of seeking redress for their past defeats, and the right-wing opposition
- which is very strong but not represented in the government - could see
it as their only chance to topple president Slobodan Milosevic. He, in
turn, may want to use popular unrest to get rid of Milo Dukanovic, the
newly elected president of the second federal republic of Montenegro,
and the only way he could do that is by arousing the mob on the issue
The only consistent
pattern in the whole conflict in former Yugoslavia has been that of the
behaviour of President Milosevic. A notoriously inept strategist but a
master tactician, he has always bullied his opponents until almost passing
the point of no return, but always just until - never overstepping the
thin line. Nothing has changed in his ways, and he is still in full control
of the Serb side - to the degree that anyone can be in control. His record
shows that he can accept even the most bitter defeat if he is left with
a psychological outlet to exploit and present to his people as great victory.
However, to force him to concede such defeat he has to be put under immense
pressure, and if the pressure is really strong and well co-ordinated it
always works - no matter how bad the deal for Milosevic is.
What this inevitable
deal will entail is a matter of realpolitik. It can range from giving
wide autonomy to Kosovo while keeping it officially a part of Serbia,
to making it an semi-autonomous federal territory, to granting it the
status of fully fledged republic within Federal Yugoslavia.
Each of these concepts
has inherent advantages and disadvantages. The extreme Serb stand is that
Kosovo already has enough autonomy and no further concessions can be made.
A more realistic Serb approach (but called for by politically insignificant
figures from the opposition and among Kosovo Serbs) allows for talks but
asks for pre-conditions that are not acceptable to most Albanians. The
extreme Albanian political position is full independence for Kosovo, but
as this is obviously something the international community does not seem
ready to back, the next best solution is, they claim, upgrading Kosovo
to the status of Serbia and Montenegro, thus making it the third republic
in the federation. This idea is fiercely opposed by the Serbs, but should
it ever come into serious consideration it would be as vehemently opposed
by Montenegro, where newly elected President Milo Dukanovic realises the
position of his weakling republic would be jeopardised by expansion of
the two-member federation to include a third element. In that case Dukanovic,
another cunning Balkans aficionado of realpolitik, would lose his exclusive
sway in the federal parliament - and his past record clearly proves him
unwilling to give up any power he holds.
The Serb assault
on the Albanians changed what had been a fairly low-key ``hit-and-run''
guerrilla war into an increasingly brutal struggle for survival. Although
the KLA notched up several successes against the Serb police and military
units sent into the province from March 1998, notably demonstrating that
it could hold towns like Drenica and other smaller villages for days and
weeks at a time, it was no match for the full scale Serb assault which
developed during the summer of 1998.
The KLA also often
found itself on the losing side in the struggle to maintain reliable control
of the border areas with both Albania and Macedonia as the Serb military
laid mines at known transit points for arms smuggled in from Albania and,
on several occasions, even fired into Albanian and Macedonian territory
in their skirmishes with the KLA. By the summer and early autumn the KLA
had the additional problem of trying to protect Albanian civilians caught
up in the murderous Serb sweep, in which civilians and their property
were deliberately targeted.
As autumn waned and
the Serbs resumed control of at least most of the major roads and larger
towns, the Albanian civilian population of Kosovo became the victims of
the latest form of ``ethnic cleansing'' in which small groups of Albanians
would be butchered in order to persuade the thousands of other refugees
hiding in the woods and mountains not to return. KLA efforts to bring
in more arms from Albania and Macedonia were complicated by the NATO powers'
attempts at even-handedness, declaring that they did not wish to cast
into the role of the KLA's ``air force''. The NATO powers' repeated threats
and failure to act in previous Balkan crises and in this one during its
earlier stages put them into an increasingly impossible position, being
at heart unwilling to act but fully realising the political cost to the
alliance if they failed to act.
handling of the Western powers, provoking them just so far as he felt
he could and then retreating just before an expected NATO attack, combined
with his willingness to stretch out several lengthy negotiating rounds
with Holbrooke, eventually achieved a deal which still allows some Serbian
military and police forces in the province - about 6,000 troops plus thousands
more police and unofficial militias. The Milosevic-Holbrooke accord brought
most of the fighting to an end in October.
The Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement also provoked the ire of the Serb minority living in Kosovo, many of whom now regard Milosevic as a traitor because of his cease-fire deal with the KLA. Thus Momcilo Trajkovic, leader of the so-called ``Serb Resistance Movement'' in Kosovo, and the Serb Orthodox Bishop Artemije have called for a referendum on the deal and have themselves threatened violence unless the Kosovo Serbs are also given a say in its execution.