The political conflict in Kosovo is no more an expression of ancient ethnic and religious hatreds than the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Noel Malcolm traces the history of the Albanian and Serbian presence in Kosovo and makes the case for Albanian self-governmentby Noel Malcolm / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and it will end in Kosovo.” One can hear this saying repeated almost anywhere in the former Yugoslavia; it is one of the few things on which all parties to the conflicts of the 1990s seem to agree.
It was in Kosovo, in 1987, that a little known communist apparatchik called Slobodan Milosevic discovered what a powerful weapon Serbian nationalism could be. It was through his exploitation of the Kosovo issue that Milosevic was able to take over the party machine in Serbia, extend his power to other parts of the federal Yugoslav system and, in the process, set off a Croatian and Slovenian counter-reaction that led, by 1991, to the break-up of the Yugoslav state. And it is in Kosovo today, with its 90 per cent majority of ethnic Albanians living under the quasi-apartheid system of Serbian rule (imposed by Milosevic when he stripped the province of its autonomous status), that the greatest unresolved problem of modern Balkan politics is to be found.
No one knows how the story will end in Kosovo. Possible final destinations include autonomy, partition and independence, and the means of arriving at them range from peaceful negotiation or international imposition to civil disobedience, violent intifada and full-scale war. It is arguably the area with the worst human rights abuses in Europe, and certainly the place where, if war does break out, the killing and destruction will be more intense than anything hitherto witnessed in the region.
In the west, the popular view of the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia was always that these were “ethnic conflicts,” created by the bubbling up of obscure but virulent ethnic hatreds among the local populations. This approach was essentially false: it ignored the primary role of politicians (above all, the Serbian nationalist-communist Milosevic) in creating conflict at the political level, and indeed it ignored the fact that the wars themselves were launched not by ordinary civilians but by armed forces directed from above. As a characterisation of the history of those regions, talk about “ancient ethnic hatreds” was in any case grossly misleading: there had never been ethnic wars in the “ancient” history of Bosnia or Croatia, and the only conflicts with a partly ethnic character were modern ones, produced under special geopolitical conditions (above all, the second world war). Some elements of prejudice, linked in some cases to religious…