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Kosovo: Background to crisis (March 1999)

Recent Background to
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.

Attacks continued 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.

However, training 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 Serbs

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.

Furthermore, the 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 Yugoslavia.

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 of Kosovo.

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.

Milosevic's careful 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.

Jane's Sentinel

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