by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
The growing war in Kosova reached a new level of intensity, and a new low of cynicism and hypocrisy, last week. NATO, which had vowed to prevent a repeat of Bosnia's genocide, gave Serbia a green light to unleash a major offensive against Albanian civilians and independence fighters.
Six months ago, after a decade of brutal repression, widespread torture, and massive human rights violations by Serb authorities, small bands of Albanian guerillas, known as the Kosova Liberation Army(KLA) begin fighting to liberate the province from brutal Serb control.
Savage massacres and reprisals by Serb security forces caused the tiny rebellion to spread rapidly. But neither the US nor Europe would accept independence for Kosova, though 92% of its people are ethnic Albanians who clearly want freedom from Serb oppression.
According to the UN, Serb ethnic cleansing has turned 107,000 Albanians into refugees within Kosova over the past six months; another 38,000 have fled to neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Thus, 12.5% of Kosova's total population is now homeless. Sources in Albania put the total refugee figure at 250,000 and growing. That was as of two weeks ago.
On July 5, a day after America celebrated its war of independence from Britain, a State Department spokesman announced, with unconscious irony, that the US would not accept independence for Kosova `won by force of arms.' Don't threaten `stability' - ie the status quo - Europe and the US warned Albanians. They also cautioned Serbia not to use force against the Albanian population, and warned air attacks would be the response to renewed Serb ethnic cleansing.
But over the three ensuing weeks, the KLA made substantial gains, wresting control of 40% of the region from Serb security forces. Kosovars, outraged by Serb murder, rape and looting, flocked to join the guerillas. The KLA obtained funds from the worldwide Albanian diaspora, and light weapons from neighboring Albanian and Macedonia(where Albanains make up 33-40% of the population). Croatia also provided some arms and allowed Albanian veterans of Croatia's war of liberation from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia to go to Kosova.
NATO grew alarmed the KLA might actually succeed in liberating Kosova. If this happened, Macedonia's Albanians could seek to join them. Greece and Bulgaria might then go to war over disintegrating Macedonia, a sharp bone of contention between the two old foes since 1912. The US keeps a battalion of `peacekeeeping' troops stationed in Macedonia to guard its borders.
However, this week, Bulgaria's head of state, President Peter Stoyanov, personally assured me his nation, which has strong historic claims to Macedonia, had no irredentist territorial ambitions there - even if it broke up.
No matter. Having first threatened Serbia with bombing, Washington made a 180 degree turn, and decided the KLA was a bigger threat. The US and Europe declared they would never accept an independent Kosova - in effect, becoming publicly declared allies of Serbia, goal was precisely the same. Cementing the new alliance, Washington called off NATO's hunt for Serb war criminals in Bosnia.
The KLA had to be forced to accept a return to phony `autonomy' within Serbia - in other words, give up the liberation struggle and surrender to the tender mercies of Serb rule. The plan was to have the scholarly, ineffectual Albanian `leader' of Kosova, Ibrahim Rugova, run a nominally autonomous government that would take orders from Washington and Belgrade. Washington threatened to attack KLA supply lines and choke off the flow of money from the Albanian Diaspora by putting the KLA on its list of `terrorists.'
As before in Bosnia, the victims had become villains.
Serbia's communist ruler, Slobodan Milosevic, the man Washington once branded a `war criminal,' was encouraged by Washington to `take the KLA down a peg,' as an American diplomat nicely put it. Milosevic had been restraining his forces, fearing air attacks by NATO.
Serb forces immediately embarked on a ferocious scorched earth campaign, employing artillery, tank cannon, and 20mm guns to destroy Albanian villages, farms, and domestic animals across central and southwestern Kosova. Village and after village went up in flames. Thousands of terrified former residents cowered in fields and hills.
Guerillas of the Albanian Kosova Liberation Army were driven out of their strongholds around Malisevo and Orahovac, suffering serious casualties, and forced back into rough terrain. Serb mechanized forces reopened major roads linking the Kosova capital, Prishtina, with Pec and the southwest region along the Albanian
Once again, the wily Milosevic outfoxed Washington. Instead of giving the KLA a `bloody nose' and forcing it to the negotiating table, as Washington hoped, Milosevic's men drove 80,000 more Albanian civilians from their homes last week, and unleashed a full-scale offensive by the Serbian Army against the KLA. In other words, precisely the ethnic cleansing and brutal repression seen in Bosnia that NATO vowed it would never permit to recur in Kosova.
The Kosova Liberation Army also committed serious blunders. Its amateur leaders mistook previous Serb military inaction for retreat. The KLA dug in around villages and set up blocking positions along roads. Instead of fighting a war of movement and attrition, lightly-armed KLA units battled Serb armor and heavy artillery. When the Serb Army was unleashed, the KLA was routed.
Guerillas have no business fighting set-piece battles. The KLA lacks sufficient anti-tank, ant-aircraft weapons, radios, and supplies. The Albanian guerillas are brave, but have poor, inexperienced leadership and, as always with Albanians, bad communications, bitter personal rivalries, and total lack of coordination or cooperation, either political or military.
The KLA should only be waging a hit and run war designed to disrupt Serb road, rail, and electronic communications. The Albanian Diaspora has ample money to hire veteran professional soldiers - like ex-members of Britain's elite Special Air Service. Even a handful of such skilled warriors would be able to severely punish the Serbs, and make their continued military occupation of Kosova prohibitively expensive and painful. Luckily for the Serbs, Albanians are too headstrong to take such good advice, preferring to throw away their lives in hopeless battles, rather than fight intelligently.
Meanwhile, the neo-communist regime that now runs Albania is actually sabotaging sabotage the KLA's efforts in Kosova, thanks to some heavy bribes from Italy and the US. The Communist Party, part of Italy's governing coalition, is financing Albanian's resurgent Stalinists, and is bent on helping old communist Milosevic. Europe has shamefully put Albania's pre-1992 Stalinist leaders - at best collaborators, at worst criminals - back into power in the name of Balkan `stability,' and commercial self-interest.
All this Balkan double-dealing points to more war, increased ethnic cleansing, and ongoing misery for the suffering people of Kosova. As in Bosnia, the west could have snuffed out this ugly war six months ago by decisive political and military action. Instead, the Clinton Administration's constant changes of policy, Europe's double-dealing, and Milosevic's relentless aggression, have turned Kosova into another quagmire. As in Chechnya, the US is again trying to deny freedom to a small, savagely oppressed people for the sake of the cozy status quo.
The US and Europe are badly mistaken to believe they can bully Albanians into accepting continued Serb misrule. Albanians are backward and poor, but they are also a stubborn warrior people, accustomed to battling against impossible odds, and afraid of no one. They will fight on.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]