Sat, 18 Mar 2000

Hard choices await players in Balkan tragedy

By Jonathan Steele

LONDON: Father Sava Janjic is one of the bravest Serbs left in Kosovo. A soft-spoken figure whose scholarly appearance masks passionately held views, his rare quality is his willingness to acknowledge the crimes done to Albanians by the Milosevic regime.

Yet as he sits in the high-ceilinged refectory of the monastery of Gracanica, he has little to feel cheerful about. A leader of the Serb National Council in Kosovo, he became the articulate voice of those Serbs who felt they should cooperate with the United Nations administration when it arrived in the territory in June.

Now he feels let down and under pressure. KFOR, the international peace force, is failing to protect Serbs enough to give them freedom of movement beyond their prison enclaves, let alone create conditions for those who left Kosovo to want to come home.

In the northern city of Mitrovice which has been effectively partitioned, pro-Milosevic Serbs boast that their success in keeping Albanians out shows a tough line is the only solution. Father Sava senses Slobodan Milosevic's support in Kosovo is growing and that the hard-liners who denounce KFOR as nothing more than an occupation force are gaining strength. The trouble in Mitrovice is not just a battle between Serbs and Albanians but a struggle for the allegiance of Kosovo's Serbs.

Amid his many disappointments Father Sava's regrets the lack of support which he and his boss, Bishop Artemije, Kosovo's senior Orthodox clergyman, have had from opposition politicians in Belgrade.

At a recent meeting, the two clerics asked the anti-Milosevic politicians to sign a joint declaration which would stress two points. First, that it was not an act of treason for Kosovo's Serbs to work with the United Nations.

Second, that "injustices" had been inflicted on Albanians. Although this was deliberately softer than the clergymen's usual formulation "crimes", even this was too much for Belgrade's opposition.

Had it been signed, the statement would have had far-ranging political benefits. Father Sava and Bishop Artemije are convinced that unless more Serbs acknowledge that the atrocities done in their name are the prime cause of the hatred which bedevils Kosovo today, tolerance will take a long time to grow.

It is easy to see that Serbs cannot readily accept that their side bears the greater guilt. What is more depressing is the way this escape from the facts is beginning to creep into western public discourse on Kosovo's shaky peace.

Allan Little's recent BBC TV programme, Moral Combat, was only the latest example of the tendency to say a plague on both houses -- with the danger that the international community will wash its hands and withdraw from Kosovo, as Milosevic is no doubt calculating.

Little produced an excellent discussion of the conflict among western politicians and military strategists over the conduct of the war, but he put it into a surprisingly one-dimensional framework which gave no political context beyond the tendencies claim that from the very beginning the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) aimed at provoking a NATO intervention.

If that was so, how come the KLA's man at Rambouillet did most to anger the Americans and endanger the talks? And what happened to the consensus among all who reported on Kosovo in 1998, including Little, that the KLA was one of the least centralized and disparate guerrilla movements of recent times, with minimal overall leadership and no clear strategy?

The notion of "balance", in which a suffering Albanian family is juxtaposed with a suffering Serb family, culminated in the program's final line that "the oppressed, now liberated, have become the oppressors", which created a false moral and historical equivalence.

Is there really no difference between a state-machine whose security forces use arson, artillery, and cold-blooded murder on a mass scale against people still in their homes, and the hot- blooded revenge-seeking of bereaved people returning to destroyed villages and burning the houses of their Serb neighbors, usually after the Serbs had already left?

Now we have moved to a second post-war stage, where crime in Kosovo is random, opportunistic, urban and largely done by professional criminals who want to make money out of Serb flats rather than by former refugees in the countryside.

It is the inevitable consequence of a law and order vacuum, for which the international community is mainly to blame for failing to provide the police it promised. Take away the police from London or Berlin, and see how quickly the crime rate would soar.

This is not to deny that the current violence against Serbs in Kosovo takes place in a vindictive atmosphere where most Albanians, regrettably, think ethnically.

Moderate Albanian opinion keeps quiet and witnesses to repression do not come forward. Far from restraining them, parents encourage their children to stone Serb buses when they pass through Albanian areas under KFOR escort. The Albanian press does not feel able or willing to report fairly, let alone critically, on what is being done to Serbs.

This is where Father Sava comes back in. Albanians would start to differentiate and not lump all Serbs together as evil-doers if they felt more Serbs were able to accept the truth about what happened in 1998 and 1999, and even show some sense of collective responsibility.

Albanians would also relax if more Serbs did not go on behaving, as those in Mitrovice do, as though the Serbs can still win the war and get KFOR to withdraw.

For western governments the message is clear. The ambiguity of UN resolution 1244 which left Kosovo's final status obscure has become a liability. It gives false encouragement to Serbs and real anxiety to Albanians.

What is needed is a forthright statement by the western powers, and preferably the security council as a whole, that Kosovo will never return to Serb rule. This would help the cowardly opposition in Belgrade to break free of the nationalist cancer.

They could correctly argue that it was Milosevic who lost Kosovo, and then go on to develop a modern political and economic agenda no longer distorted by territorial self-delusion.

For Albanians such a declaration would provide a reason to stop seeing every Serb in Kosovo as a potential fifth columnist. In exchange for an international commitment that Kosovo's return to Serb rule is off the table for ever, the leaders of the various Kosovo Albanian parties should be urged to agree to a formal statement that the territory will remain legally part of Yugoslavia, though under international protection, for three or five more years.

In that period Milosevic might finally leave power or Yugoslavia, with the help of Montenegro, might dissolve -- leaving Kosovo independent by default.

There are hard choices ahead for Serbs, Albanians, and the international community, but to trivialize Kosovo's current troubles as an endless Balkan cycle of violence does no service to anyone.

-- Guardian News Service