The Shadow of the Black Hand over Kosovo
(For a conference of the Institute of International Studies, UCB, 20 April 1999)
E. A. Hammel
Departments of Anthropology and Demography
University of California, Berkeley
15 April 1999
The tortuous politics of the current conflict in Kosovo remind us of similar events in it and the broader region in the first 20 years of the century. It is not clear that the decision makers in the US and NATO sensed this historical doppelgaenger, but if they did, it is clear they have not shared that knowledge with their publics, covering it with the figleaf of humanitarian concern. It is inconceivable that European diplomats could exhibit the same ignorance, but stranger things have happened. Let me give a brief historical review stressing the roots of Serbian-Albanian conflict, Serbian national aspirations, the frustrating of Serbian national ambitions by outside or superordinate powers, and the threat of Serbian military strength:
- The depopulation of Serbian Kosovo and replacement by Albanians began as a consequence of the defeat there in 1389, the flight of Serbs after a failed Austrian-incited rebellion in 1690-91, the encouragement of Albanian settlement by Germany in World Wars I and II, the weakening of Serb influence in the region under Tito, when Serb refugees were not permitted to return to it, when Albanians were given broad autonomy, and many Serbs were driven out by intimidation.
- Serbian nationalism and the desire for unification across existing state boundaries goes back to the end of the 18th century. It was fueled by German romanticism, the influence of Serbs resident in Austria, and by the liberation of Serbia from the Ottomans between 1804 and 1912. This liberation movement, with the formation of secret and terrorist societies like the Black Hand (a.k.a. Unity or Death) and Young Bosnia, led to the assassination of the Serbian king and queen by Army officers in 1903, and coupled with resentment at Austrian interventions, to that of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914.
- The Serbian desire for a window on the sea and consequent expansionism emerged from its increasing commercialization of agriculture in the 1840s. By 1912 Serbia had seized most of Macedonia and had the Greeks as ally and the Bulgarians as foe. It had taken large portions of northern Albania and its coast, gaining a window on the Adriatic, but was denied those territories by Italy and Austria to diminish Russian influence in the Balkans.
- The alliance between Albania and Italy-Germany in World War I and II, the casualties inflicted by Albania on Serb troops retreating to Corfu in World War I, the incorporation of Kosovo in Greater Albania by the Germans in 1943, and the general cultivation of Muslims by Germany in both wars are a constant theme in Serb historical consciousness.
- The creation of a Yugoslav state in 1919 dominated by Serbia and increasing Serb hegemony achieved the Greater Serbia that had been long desired. It incurred the resentment of other groups (especially the Croats), and led to the assassination of King Alexander in 1934 by Macedonian/Bulgarian and Croatian-fascist terrorists.
- The suppression of Serb influence and interests under Tito, including the granting of special cultural and political privileges to Albanians in Kosovo (and other minorities elsewhere), rankled in the Serbian mind. This consciousness of the role of Communist suppression of Serbian interests had a strong influence on Serbian actions in the breakup of the SFRY. These actions include the encouragement and support of dissident Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, the denial of privileges to Albanians in Kosovo by Milosevic, and Serb-conducted or supported activities of ethnic cleansing to remove non-Serbs from territories desired by Serbia.
- The KLA (Kosova Liberation Army) emerged as moderate influences under Rugova in Kosovo were undermined by the continuing Serb oppression of the Albanians. The KLA appear to be well armed and not just lightly armed. They have been supplied through Albania, perhaps by Croatia, and financed from various sources, not excluding, it is said, Albanian involvement in the Balkan drug trade. It is claimed that the CIA is laundering drug money in Albania and Kosovo, as it did in Central America. But of course, someone was sure to claim that.
- The great size and sophistication of the military machine of the SFRY is seldom mentioned. It was originally constructed to protect Yugoslavia from Russia, and much of it was inherited by Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. The combined Serb, Montenegrin and Bosnian Serb forces amount to almost 300,000, larger than any competing single force in the Balkans other than Turkey (see Table 1 for a partial list).
From all of this one may suggest that the military might of Serbia, combined with its history of expansionism, its intransigence, and its resentment of foreign intervention, constitute a threat to the stability of the region. Let us review the US-led NATO action.
- USNATO first threatened to use force against the Serbs in Kosovo if they did not accept the Rambouillet accords, then did so.
- The justification for diplomatic and military pressure against Serbia was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
- There was some hope among politicians (not the military) that the Serbs could be deterred by air power.
- There was some hope among politicians that the USNATO attack would weaken Milosevic and that after that, the situation would calm down and peace would flow automatically.
Numerous criticisms have been raised, including:
- The attack is illegal under international law because Kosovo is an integral part of an existing state. Parenthetically, secession by a constituent unit is illegal under international law (as it was in the US in 1860, for nice down home example). The independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia was deemed to be the result of the collapse of a state, not of secession from it. It is not clear to me how to regard the breakup of Bosnia. The indpendence of smaller groups or units, such as the Krajina Serbs, or the Albanians in Kosovo, would be the result of a secession.
- The attack was undertaken principally to avoid loss of NATO prestige, threats having been made.
- Using NATO as an enforcer is an excuse to maintain it as a quasi-legitimate entity and to circumvent the UN, which would not have approved the military actions.
- NATO has assumed the anti-Russian role of Austria in the Balkans by its actions.
- The Rambouillet arrangements, now made public, included provisions to station NATO troops at will on Serbian territory outside, as well as within Kosovo. At will, Serbia would be sucsceptible to foreign occupation. This provision strongly resembles the Nazi demands rejected by Serb-led Yugoslavia that led to Axis entry into the Balkans in World War II. No-fly zones are peanuts compared to these provisions.
- No strong attempts were made to inform the Serbian population of the oppression of the Albanians in Kosovo and to override Milosevic's control of the media. I see no technical reason why satellite-beamed TV technology could not have been used. The use of propaganda leaflets, as on Day 18, is ridiculous, since they must be collected under the eye of the police or their informants.
- Media coverage (as in Bosnia) has stressed the atrocities committed by but not upon Serbs, and perhaps not proportionately. Media coverage has not included commentary on the terrorist role of the KLA and its provocations of guaranteed brutal reprisal.
- The Serbian opposition has been silenced by the attacks, and Milosevic has been strengthened, not weakened. TV B92 is down. Vreme is publishing standard government propaganda. A principal journalist who recently went over to the opposition has been murdered by thugs of the regime. Do we believe that these dissidents would have been politically ineffective even if supported?
- Means alternative to massive force were not undertaken. These might include a coup by the Serb army, reportedly rejected by Secretary Albright, perhaps on the grounds that the army would not provide an acceptable alternative. They might include assassination attempts, such as those undertaken against Hussein and Khadafy, but succession would still remain an issue. They might include a financing of the democratic opposition in Serbia (CIA involvement in this is already claimed by the pro-Milosevic forces). Perhaps the most useful alternative would have been to buy out the Milosevic regime, bribing it to change its policies and rescuing it from sanctions previously imposed. That would probably have cost less than the air campaign in dollars and infinitely less in political disadvantage.
- The humanitarian reasons for intervention ring hollow, given the failure of the US or NATO to take decisive action in other crises such as Rwanda to save the Tutsis, Turkey to save the Kurds, the abandonment of humanitarian goals for political ones in Somalia, and not least the Croat expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina, to which the US turned Nelson's eye.
- The idea that ground troops would not be necessary is ridiculous to any military analyst, and the difficulty of inserting enough ground forces across Albania or of obtaining Greek and Macedonian consent to do so over alternative routes was not initially considered. Neither have these issues been publicly discussed.
- NATO intervention has accelerated any humanitarian catastrophe that was under way already.
No one thought through the consequences of failure or success.
- If Milosevic wins, NATO will be a joke, and Milosevic will become the second Karadjordje, the Serb who initiated the liberation of his country from the Turks in 1804.
- If Milosevic loses, he will become the second Lazar, the prince who said in 1389 that it was better to die than become a slave. Serbia will have lost Kosovo thrice, once to the evil Turks, once to the Germans and Albanians in 1943, and once to the ugly Americans. In Serb victimology, Milosevic will be a saint.
- If Milosevic loses in Kosovo (and perhaps even if he wins), USNATO will have destabilized the Balkans willy nilly.
- Albanians in Macedonia, Epirus, and Greek Macedonia may demand the autonomy desired or enjoyed by Kosovo Albanians. Unification of all these groups, with or without Albania, may not be likely but is possible. Italian-Austrian-German establishment of a friendly Albanian bloc will have been achieved again, in an inadvertent redrawing of the Balkans. Is it really in the interests of the US to encourage ethnically homogeneous states?
- Destabilization of Macedonia may encourage Bulgaria to retake eastern Macedonia, with the connivance of or conflict with the Serbs, who may seek to retake the rest of Macedonia. Greece would be unlikely to object to the Serbian action as long as it did not impinge on Greek Macedonia. Serious instability and conflict in this area might surface, as it might lead to resurgence of the always latent enmity between Greece and Turkey, and NATO itself could be at risk. Russia would not be averse to this outcome. Strong nationalist popular sentiment in Greece may destabilize the current cautiously pro-NATO regime.
- If Milosevic is obliged to use a major portion of his military forces in Kosovo, and perhaps lose a part of them, the Bosnian Federation, and principally the Muslims therein, would be in a position to retake territory in Bosnia, which they are very likely to attempt. Even if the Muslims and Croats in the Federation squabbled, which they are very likely to do, the Bosnian Serbs could lose portions of the Republika Srpska. Refugees therefrom would, with the Krajina Serbs, further immiserate Serbia and strengthen nationalist feeling.
- Since the Croats have already retaken eastern Slavonia, they might not risk further advances. On the other hand, they might seek to expand into Srem, since there is no natural boundary until Zemun. Ultimately, Croatian hardliners might seek to gain territory in Bosnia they regard as historically theirs by allying themselves more firmly with Croats in Hercegovina. If they could do this at Serb expense by temporary alliance with the Muslims, they would surely do so.
- If the scramble for the Balkans gets out of control, and if USNATO gets involved in a major conflict, not only Croatia but also Hungary (a NATO member) could be rewarded. Hungary could regain parts of the Vojvodina which have a large Hungarian population, just as Kosovo had a large Albanian one. This seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened in the long run.
- The most frightening outcome is that a scramble for the Balkans would destabilize Russian domestic politics and strengthen the nationalist hardliners there. The Yeltsin government's support for Milosevic is mostly talk, but its own hold on power is insecure.
If we are unwilling to accept humanitarian interest as a sufficient cause of NATO action (rather than an excuse), we must ask why that is the only issue that has been presented by the Clinton administration. If they know something else, why aren't they putting it on the table?
- Do the US, NATO, and Western European governments consider Serbia to be such a threat under Milosevic or any likely successor that they must destroy his military machine? Do these allies think that Serbia under Milosevic has or is likely to obtain through its Serbia-Primakov-Iraqi connections, the means to produce weapons of mass destruction?
- Did the US press for action now out of some conviction that Milosevic had to be brought to heel, and this was the last chance, carrying a plausible justification, that we were likely to have?
- Why Serbia -- is it a threat?
- Why Kosovo -- is it worth it and do we want it>
- Why now -- was this the last chance?
- Why by these means -- why bomb now?
There are no obvious answers in administration rhetoric to most of these questions, yet they shouls have been in the minds of analysts and policy makers. Were they in those minds, and if they were, why have those factors not been discussed? Can the American public not be trusted with its own fate? Or is incompetence of the administration the issue?
The Clinton administration and its allies appear as the novice who has advanced a pawn in the opening, is confused in the midgame, and has no idea of where the pieces will be in the endgame. Various plausible conspiracy theories about American domestic politics and the psychology of leading actors have been advanced, some even plausible. They pale, I think, before the alternatives of historical ignorance, simple stupidity, and political arrogance.