How Yugoslav Communists Tried to Solve Kosovo Problem
The Role of Slobodan Milosevic
Chronicles, April 1995, pp.14-17
by Dr. Alex N. Dragnich
Dr. Alex N. Dragnich is an educator, diplomat, and historian. He was professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, Cultural Attache and Public Affairs Officer in the American Embassy in Belgrade and Chester Nimitz Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He has written widely on Yugoslav history and politics. His most recent book is “Serbs and Croats: The Struggle in Yugoslavia.”
The fate of Kosovo, Serbia’s troubled province has in recent years received a good deal of attention in the world press, usually in connection with the actions of Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic. A somewhat obscure communist until he became head of the Serbian Communist Party in 1986, Milosevic went to Kosovo in April 1987 to assess personally the charges of the persecution of Serbs by the Kosovo Albanians, at which time he uttered the words heard round the world — “No one will ever beat you again.” Athough spoken in a limited contest, these words were frequently interpreted in the West as signifying the ascent of rampant Serbian nationalism.
The cradle of the Serbian nation and the site of its historic Christian monuments, Kosovo at the time of its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1389 was ethnically almost entirely Serbian. At the time of its liberation in the Balkan wars of 1912, however, Kosovo’s population was nearly 40 percent Albanian. By the end of World War II, it was close to 30 percent, by 1987 it was between 75 and 80, and at present, it is around 90 percent.
With the inauguration of communist rule at the end of World War II, Kosovo was made an autonomous province within the Republic of Serbia and was governed by the Kosovo Communist Party, part and parcel of the Yugoslav Communist Party. Although Milosevic must have had at least a general awareness of what had transpired in Kosovo during the years of Dictator Tito’s rule as well as after his death in 1980, it is not clear what prompted him to go to Kosovo. Be that as it may, the critical question is: Why did Milosevic, a disciplined communist who was nurtured in Tito’s party, and who followed other Serbian communists in being a ruthless critic of Serbian nationalism, decide to change Communist Party policy with respect to Kosovo? This question cannot be answered without first reviewing that policy and its consequences in Kosovo. And we should note that two years elapsed between his visit and his action to change the constitutional status of Kosovo.
When word got out that Milosevic was coming to Kosovo over 15,000 resident Serbs came out to meet him, but only some 300 preselected ones could be accommodated because of the size of the building where the meeting was to be held. Many more were determined to get in but were forced back: some were beaten by the police, which resulted in considerable commotion. At one point, Milosevic asked what the disturbance was about, and when informed, he ordered that more people be let in. And when told about beatings, he delivered his now well-known words.
The meeting lasted 13 hours and 78 people spoke. The vast majority, apart from decrying their persecution by the Albanians, openly attacked the communist regime. Reports on the meeting were printed in the party press in Belgrade. A few sentences will suffice to give a taste of the proceedings:
Serbian man: “I know why Germany was divided after the war, but why was Serbia divided?”
Serbian man: ” … Heads will roll because it is impossible to endure and to permit the beating of our children and women.”
Serbian man: “Serbs want to live together with the Albanians … but here counterrevolution is being financed by the federation.”
Serbian woman: “Either there will be some order in Kosovo, or by God we will take up arms again if need be.”
Serbian woman: “Since the establishment of Pristina University there has been a process of ethnic separation of Kosovo and the process of cultural purity.”
Serbian man: “How is it that Yugoslavia protests one-language signs in Austria but agrees to them in Kosovo?”
[All signs in the province being in – Albanian only! Albanian is not a Slav language and more than 90% of ex-Yugoslavia’s population cannot understand a word of it. ].
Serbian man: “How is it that according to the 1974 constitution Serbo-Croatian is also an official language in Kosovo, while in the constitution of the province it is not obligatory?”
Another man asked about the erection of a monument to the Albanian Prizren League, which he characterized as a fascist organization that sought to tear Yugoslavia apart. He also asked why the program of the Albanian nationalist group, Balli Combetar, was being carried out in Kosovo. Others condemned Serbian communists in Kosovo who “served with the Albanians” in putting their personal interests ahead of the national insterest. The complaints that Milosevic heard were more personal and specific than what he may have heard while sitting in Belgrade, but they certainly could not have come as a surprise. He must have been aware of past efforts by other Yugoslav leaders to deal with the Kosovo problem.
During his struggle to seize power during World War II, the communist leader of the guerrilla movement, Josip Broz Tito, promised the Kosovo Albanians much in return for their assistance. The Albanians insist that he promised them the right of self-determination, including the right to be annexed to Albania, but Tito and his comrades denied that claim. In any case, in 1946 he made the Kosovo-Metohija area (now simply Kosovo) an autonomous province within the Republic of Serbia. That autonomy was considerably augmented in 1963, 1969, and especially in 1974. Tito and his communist comrades proceeded on the assumption, erroneous as it turned out, that if given broad autonomy — perhaps more extensive than that granted to a minority in any other European state — the Kosovo Albanians would be loyal citizens of Yugoslavia.
Following the adoption of Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution, the Kosovo Albanians became, in effect, a law unto themselves. It is as if part of an American state, say New York City, gained such power that it could ignore New York state authorities, which could not intervene to stop the city from violating the state’s laws and constitution or change any laws affecting the city without its consent.
Why, it might be asked, did the Serbs object to such power for Kosovo? For the same reason that a comparable situation would not be acceptable to the state of New York. More precisely, the Kosovo Albanians abused their enlarged autonomy to force the Serbian minority to leave Kosovo. Their attempt at “ethnic cleansing” was initially made easier by Tito’s explicit order forbidding the return of Serbs who had fled the area during World War II to escape Albanian and Bulgarian persecution. Moreover, Tito, who had promised the Kosovo Albanians much in the hope that they would help him seize power, wittingly or unwittingly encouraged large-scale immigration from Albania as a way of changing the ethnic composition of Kosovo.
The Kosovo Albanian persecution of Serbs included the desecration of historic Orthodox Christian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries; the burning of barns and haystacks; the theft or mutilation of cattle and other livestock; the destruction of Serbian houses; pressure to force Serbs into selling their properties; as well as rape and other physical assaults.
Prior to Tito’s death in 1960, there was no public mention of these actions. There were unpublicized protests, locally as well as to high Communist Party circles, which were to no avail. Even the official protest to Tito by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1969 brought only a statement declaring that he had ordered governmental authorities to apply the law. Following the demonstrations in 1981 by the Kosovo Albanians, demanding the status of a separate republic — which they had in all but name — and even the right to be annexed to Albania, the problem reached high party authorities more than once. And this was several years before Milosevic came on the scene.
For example, the Bar Association of Serbia, in letters to the presidents of the Serbian and Yugoslav parliaments on July 1, 1985, called attention to the violation of the constitution and the laws in Kosovo. [Texts of letters and replies and speeches referred herein can be found in the autobiography of Veljko Guberina, onetime president of the Serbian Bar Association.) The letter to the president of the Serbian parliament, Dusan Ckrebic, demanded answers to nine specific questions, including: “How many families who were forced to sell their properties under duress have returned to their land?” “What has happened to the lost court papers and was anyone held responsible?” The letter concluded with the statement that “only one nullification of an agreement made under duress to purchase property and the return of that family to their land would contribute more than all the appeals and assurances concerning the settlement of the situation in Kosovo.”
Ckrebic answered on July 29, claiming that a lot was being done but admitting that it was not enough. He added that “of special concern was the failure to achieve constitutional principles concerning the equality of nations and nationalities” whose consequences have led to Serbs leaving Kosovo, which he said was “the most difficult problem.” He also said that the activities of Albanian irredentists and other enemies in Kosovo cannot be neutralized by governmental agencies alone. It is necessary, he argued, “to create a broad front of working people and citizens, belonging to all nations and nationalities against irredentist forces.”
The letter to Miodrag Trifunovic, president of the Federal Council of the parliament of Yugoslavia, complained that serious crimes were being treated as misdemeanors in Kosovo, that not one sale of property under duress had been nullified, and that the emigration of Serbs and Montenegrins continued. Trifunovic’s answer on July 18 cited specific acts of parliament was asking the Constitutional Court to concern itself with these matters. He added that parliament would look into the execution of decisions by the Federal Council concerning the emigration of Serbs under pressure.
On July 6, 1985, a letter on behalf of the League of Republic and Province bar associations was sent to the president of the Federal Council of the Yugoslav parliament. Letters of similar content were sent to all other federal bodies. The letters spoke of violations of constitutional and legal rights, specifically of non-Albanian citizens. Failure to nullify real estate sales that had been made under duress, the damaging of cultural-historical monuments and cemeteries, and policies that forced Serbs, Turks, Gypsies, and others to leave Kosovo.
The president of the Serbian Bar Association, Veljko Guberina, said in speeches in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia in 1988 that the violations of the rights of Serbs in Kosovo reminded him of the “dark days of the occupation when fascism ruled over the expanse of our country,” In one speech he concluded, “Emigration continues and oppression has increased, as if the enemies of this country desired to demonstrate that they are afraid of no one and that they are stronger than the regular governmental authorities, or to show publicly that those authorities are with them.” The lawless seemed to be protected by “persons in the presidency of the Communist Party.”
Guberina quoted from remarks by onetime minister of defense and close ally of Tito, General Nikola Ljubicic, to a joint meeting of the presidency of Serbia and the Party Central Committee of Serbia (September 5, 1988): “Some things which are happening are so drastic that I simply ask myself how can we tolerate that in a legal state.” Ljubicic then proceeded to tell (with the name of place and family) of an Albanian who moved into a Serbian house and moved the old lady out. When the son went to settle the matter, he found her sitting on a stump outside. He had to resort to legal action over a period of two to three years, and he won. But when an officer came to carry out the court order, the Albanian said that he had a machine gun and warned: “Whoever approaches will be mowed down!” The militiaman had to return with his task unaccomplished. “What kind of state are we?” asked Ljubicic.
In another speech, Guberina said that Serbia’s crippled constitution does not permit Serbia to exercise its governmental authority on the territory of the provinces, and those federal bodies which have that authority are quiet, while open enemies of Yugoslavia escalate their evil deeds. It is clear, he said, that “the Serbian people has again found itself in a situation, as in 1941, to be or not to be!”
Concern about developments in Kosovo was also on the agenda of the Yugoslav Communist Party leadership, at a time when all Yugoslav ethnic groups were represented and before Slobolan Milosevic became the principal actor. In June 1987, for example, the Central Committee and the Presidency of the Party (officially the League of Yugoslav Communists) took the position that “the most difficult part of the problem of Kosovo and the whole of Yugoslav society is to be found in that the policy of the [League] is not being implemented.” Moreover, “the pressure on the Serb and Montenegrins must be stopped with all the means of our socialist self-management system.” (Belgrade newspaper Politika, June 11, 1987.)
A month earlier, at an “ideological” plenum of the Central Committee, one member, Dusan Dragosavac, asserted: “If we cannot quickly overcome genocide . . . then I see as the only way out of an urgent convoking of an extraordinary Congress of the League of Yugoslav Communists and the calling of free elections with multiple candidates, so that men can come to the top who can bring an end to genocide.” (Communist Party organ Borba, May 23, 1987.)
Some Yugoslav newspapers openly used the term “genocide” as early as May 1987, along with expressions of surprise that six years after the 1981 Kosovo Albanian demonstrations there still had not been a single resignation in Kosovo or at the top in Yugoslavia that might suggest a feeling of responsibility. Instead, the authorities “continue with the same announcements in which they avoid naming criminals.”
It was clear that the situation, instead of improving was becoming worse. In the summer of 1987, a scandal — some referred to it as “administrative genocide” came to light when Serbian Orthodox Church authorities in Pec discovered at the local cadastral office that many of their churches had legally disappeared. Someone had simply listed them as mosques. The ancient Serbian Patriarchate at Pec was listed as an ordinary “religious object.” One church had been transformed into a cemetery. The pearl of medieval Serbian culture, the monastery Gracanica, was listed as general public property. The equally well-known 650-year-old Decani monastery was listed as an ‘ordinary building.” In some areas, Serbian Orthodox churches had become pasture lands, in others, property of the state forestry enterprise. As might be expected, these actions against Serbian history and culture evoked bitterness among the Serbs, particularly when no individual culprits were named.
Ironically, the Kosovo Serbs could not appeal to the minority rights provisions of Tito’s 1974 constitution. By definition, all ethnic groups that had their own republics were classified as nations, while others were categorized as nationalities, meaning minorities. Hence, Albanians, Hungarians, and other minorities could call upon the minority rights provisions of the constitution, but those provisions could not be invoked to protect the rights of Serbs, Croats, and others who might be living in republics other than their own.
In the spring of 1989, two years after his 1987 visit to Kosovo, Slobodan Milosević tackled the Kosovo problem. He did so by engineering an amendment to the Serbian constitution, limiting Kosovo’s autonomy. The police, the courts, and defense came under direct Serbian control. Though in all other spheres local autonomy was not curtailed, the Kosovo Albanians insisted nevertheless that “their autonomy” had been taken away, and they promptly refused to participate in any governmental activities. They refused to operate schools or health facilities and established their own schools and clinics in private homes. And they went on strike in government-operated economic enterprises. Their refusal to cooperate in any way led the Serbian government to establish a strong police and military presence. This, in turn, enabled the Kosovo Albanians to push their claim that they were forced to live under dictatorial rule. This was also the position taken by foreign supporters of the Albanians, such as United States Senator Robert Dole. The result has been a stalemate, one example of which was the issuing of diplomas stamped “Republic of Kosova” or the “Independent Republic of Kosova,” which Serbian authorities refused to recognize.
Some of Milosević’s critics have accused him of Greater Serbian nationalism, and cite the so-called Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences as his political platform, arguing that Kosovo was merely a pretext. They seem to have overlooked the fact — if they ever knew it — that Milosević, along with other Serbian communists, criticized the memorandum. This is not the place for a detailed examination of the document, but a few things need to be said about it. In the first place, it was a draft of an internal academy document. Second, its main authors, Antonije Isaković and Dobrica Cosić, had such a solid party past that they could not be put in the camp of counterrevolutionaries or enemies of Yugoslavia. Third, the authors asserted that Yugoslavia could not come out of the critical crisis in which it found itself without fundamental changes in the economic and political system.
The memorandum analyzed the many shortcomings of the economic system, (e.g., ruinous competition among and between the republics, unprofitable enterprises, waste and general inefficiency). It also pointed to the unworkability and paralysis of the political system, which required unanimity among the republics on virtually all questions. The authors saw that under the system Tito bequeathed to his heirs, Serbia had fallen behind in many ways. They also realized that the 1974 constitution effectively denied Serbia the power to do anything about the advantages that had been conferred on other republics. It was obvious to them that the two most advanced republics, Slovenia and Croatia, would not agree to any changes that would adversely affect them. Consequently, the authors argued in favor of democratization of the political system. It was understandable, therefore, that Milosević’s critics could, after the fact, point to things in the memorandum that seemed to have guided him, ignoring the fact that he had joined the party press in condemning the memorandum.
Milosevic’s critics in Slovenia and Croatia avowed that his assertion of control in Kosovo signaled that Serbia was out to dominate Yugoslavia. His critics in the West have attempted to explain the secessions of Slovenia and Croatia on the grounds that they did not want to live in a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. This constitutes a grave failure to understand Tito-ist Yugoslavia, because at no time prior to the secessions could it be said that Yugoslavia was Serb-dominated. In fact, the most that can be said is that the Slovenes and Croats feared that at some time in the future Yugoslavia might be dominated by Serbs.
While many Slovenes and Croats saw Milosevic’s assertion of control as an internal Serbian matter, their communist leaders, fully aware that Serbia would seek the redress of other grievances, viewed it as the beginning of a process that would be detrimental to the achievements of their republics. Therefore, proceeding on the well-known principle that the best defense is a good offense, they charged that Serbia’s action in Kosovo was proof that Serbia wanted to control Yugoslavia. They did not even want to hear Serb arguments in defense of their action in Kosovo. For example, when a group of Serbs living in Slovenia attempted a peaceful demonstration, Slovene authorities used force to disband it.
While the international community’s concern about Kosovo is understandable, failure to grasp the essence of the issues can lead to disastrous policies. The media have not helped. Commentators often speak of historical animosities. Historical perspective requires a reminder: prior to the Ottoman conquest of Kosovo, relations between Serbs and Albanians were good. That was when most of the Albanians were Christians. It was only after they became Turkish surrogates, and especially when large numbers of them accepted Islam, that hostilities developed. This was mainly in the 18th century, but large-scale persecutions of Serbs came in the 19th century. These persecutions are well documented in the reports of British, French, and Russian consuls who were stationed in the Kosovo area. After Kosovo was liberated by the Serbs in the Balkan wars (1912), Serbian policy was clearly stated: there would be no retribution against Kosovo Albanians for past actions. And the most that can be said about the policies of interwar Yugoslavia is that Kosovo was treated with benign neglect, which was more detrimental to its Serb inhabitants than to the Albanian ones.
It seems to me that Milosevic was transformed not by a desire to establish or solidify a dictatorship — even if that could have been motivated by the compelling nature of events. As pointed out above, he was slow in taking up the cause of the Kosovo Serbs. Although he presumably recognised the seriousness of their plight after his visit to Kosovo in April 1987, he waited a full two years before taking concrete steps to change the situation. One thing is absolutely clear: prior to his action, Yugoslav communist authorities had utterly failed to solve the Kosovo problem.
Some communists, in their blazing hatred for Milosević, have proclaimed in shrill tones that, as an extreme nationalist, he is the main threat to peace and security in the Balkans. An apt response might be to say of nationalists what Aldous Huxley once said of propagandists: “A propagandist canalizes an already existing stream, in a land where there is no water he digs in vain.” One does not have to be a defender of Milosevic to observe that he does not function in a vacuum.
When in 1981 I asked Milovan Djilas, onetime Tito comrade and at that time Yugoslavia’s best-known dissident, what the solution was to the Kosovo question, he said: “There is no solution.” Just a few months prior to our conversation the Kosovo Albanians had staged demonstrations demanding the status of a republic and even the right to be annexed to Albania. From that year until Milosevic took action in 1989, the government of Yugoslavia (not that of Serbia!) had tried unsuccessfully to deal with the Kosovo problem.
Since Milosević’s action, the attitude of the two sides can best be summarized in one sentence: the Serbian government has said that it is willing to discuss any and all questions with the Kosovo Albanians except secession, while the latter has said that it wants to discuss nothing short of secession. This would suggest an unqualified deadlock. However, two possible solutions have been advanced. One is a partition of Kosovo, letting one part join Albania. The Serbs would want to retain as many of their historic religious monuments as possible, as well as the mining complex of Trepca. By and large, this solution would not be acceptable to most Serbs, who look upon Kosovo as a holy place. But some Serbian intellectuals, including a former president of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic, support the idea. Albanian hard-liners would accept such an outcome only if they could get most of the territory. The one aspect of this proposal that would have some appeal in Serbia is an agreement that all Albanians on the Serbian side of the boundary line would have to leave. The principal reason why this would be popular with many Serbs is that the large number of Albanians who have settled in Serbia proper, well beyond Kosovo, are seen as a critical future problem, especially given the Albanians’ extraordinary high birthrate. Moving them as part of a settlement would be far easier now than later.
The second suggestion is for the Kosovo Albanians to accept autonomy without the attributes of statehood. The Serbs have indicated that is what they wanted all along. To the Albanian hard-liners, this would constitute capitulation. Recently, however, there has been some movement in this direction among the more moderate elements. At least two former Kosovo Albanian leaders have spoken out in favor of participating in elections and working in other ways toward viable arrangements that would let Kosovo Albanians manage their own affairs while remaining loyal citizens of the country in which they live. The second alternative seems to hold the best prospect for a peaceful resolution of this critical problem.