Why Kosovo?

Anatomy of a needless war
July 15, 1999

Nato leaders have hailed their war against Yugoslavia as a moral crusade in which they defended innocent Kosovo Alban-ians from genocide and ethnic cleansing perpe-trated by Yugoslav President Milosevic. Such pronouncements make good propaganda but distort reality. The war was rooted in long standing tensions between Serbs and Albanians. These tensions exploded into war due to the interven-tions of western countries, who consequently have a responsibil-ity for the tragedy in Yugoslavia.

The history of the Balkans calls into question Nato's characterization of Albanians as innocent victims. Albanians and Serbs have repeatedly driven each other out of Kosovo, and engaged in ethnic cleansing and violent retaliation. When NATO intervened in Kosovo, it was choosing sides in a long standing, brutal, ethnic dispute.

Yugoslavia's economy grew rapidly after World War II. Education, prosperity, and urbanization eased ethnic tensions. These favourable developments were checked in the 1980s and reversed in the 1990s when the economy collapsed.

Economic growth had been financed with foreign borrowing, and the high interest rates of the 1980s led to a debt crisis. Yugoslavia was "restructured" by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As a result, many factories in southern Yugoslavia--including Kosovo--were shut down. National income fell by two-thirds. Unem-ployment soared. The federal government ended transfer payments from rich regions like Slovenia to poor ones like Kosovo. Economic insecurity led to a resurgence of ethno-nationalism. One way western nations have contributed to the present tragedy is through the economic policies prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank.

American policies contributed in a more direct way to destabilizing Kosovo. In 1989, the autonomy of Kosovo was revoked by the Milosevic government, and this is attributed by Nato spokes-men to anti-Albanian prejudice. However, pressure from the IMF to impose economic restructuing and recentralize monetary control was the key factor in Serbia's decision to revoke the province's autonomy.

The pretext for Nato's air war was Yugoslavia's refusal to sign the Rambouillet accord aimed at ending fighting between Yugoslav security forces and the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army. While both sides were brutal, the Serbs were not commit-ting genocide nor was there widespread ethnic cleansing, contrary to Nato claims. The Rambouillet agreement did not simply restore Kosovo's autonomy--as claimed by western lead-ers--but laid out the route to Kosovo's independence and also authorized Nato occupation of the whole of Yugoslavia--not just Kosovo. In a background briefing, a senior U.S. offic-ial told the press, "We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that's what they are going to get."

The great irony of this tragedy is that, while the Rambouillet agreement was viewed as unacceptable by the Serbs, the current peace agreement would likely have been acceptable to Belgrade from the start.

While Nato spokesmen blame the refugee crisis on President Milosevic, the bombing campaign was a contributing factor. The Serbs saw the bombing as an intervention on behalf of Albanian separatists, and many Serbs took their revenge on the Albanians. While this cannot be condoned, it was predicted in advance, so western powers bear some responsibility for it. Furthermore, many people fled Nato bombs as well as Serb paramil-itaries.

The hollowness of Nato's analysis is revealed by the present actions of Albanians. They are treating the Serbs as badly as the Serbs were treating them. What is needed is an end to communal violence. Western policy, which aims to solve the problem by prosecuting war criminals, will exacerbate tensions. These trials are not seen as dispassionate inquiries; instead, their justice will be in the interest of the victor. People like Milosevic, who were demonized by the west, will be charged. Other Balkan leaders on the American side will be immune, as will western leaders who played a role in precipitating the crisis and, indeed, who should be indicted for an air war against Yugoslav civilians.

Yugoslavia needs a process of reconciliation along the lines of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland or South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which individuals acknowledge responsibility for atrocities and are then forgiven. Confession and forgiveness are a better way to resolve ethnic conflicts than are judgement and punishment. Instead of lecturing the world on human rights, the west could ask forgiveness, too.

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