Bosnia bore seeds of the crisis in Kosovo

Analysis: Both sides -- NATO and Serbia -- misapplied what they learned, making today's escalating calamity almost inevitable.

War In Yugoslavia

April 04, 1999|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN STAFF

On a pleasant May morning six years ago, Mother Teodora, 72, welcomed her visitor to the Gracanica monastery in the middle of Kosovo. A hundred miles away in Bosnia a war was raging. But at this medieval shrine of Serbian Orthodox Christianity, pastoral tranquillity reigned.

She wiped the dirt of an onion field from her hands to pour a shot of homemade plum brandy. Then she spoke of the Albanians who decades earlier had taken root in her Serbian heartland and now made up 90 percent of the population.

"Illiterate, stupid," Mother Teodora said with scorn. "They provoke at any possible moment.

"They do not understand the significance of Kosovo to us. This whole territory can be leveled, hills and all, but we will never give up Kosovo."

Her words are notable today for their air of inevitability. Even if a shot had never been fired in neighboring Bosnia, policies were already in motion in Belgrade and Washington that made an armed conflict in Kosovo a near certainty.

With Albanian birthrates threatening to eventually make Serbs a minority throughout Yugoslavia, President Slobodan Milosevic was bent on a campaign of forcible expulsion. And with Presidents Bush and Clinton having pledged to protect the Kosovar Albanians from harm, U.S. opposition to Milosevic was guaranteed.

But it took the lessons that both sides learned in Bosnia, and then misapplied, to accelerate this standoff into its current spiraling chaos. And if the huge exodus of Albanian refugees continues, Kosovo will be even more difficult to mend than postwar Bosnia, which, for all its difficulties and divisions, came with built-in remedies that Kosovo lacks.

Census takers have known for years what frightened Milosevic most about Kosovo. Since the latter decades of Marshal Tito's Communist regime, Kosovo outbred the rest of Yugoslavia, and ethnic Albanians were the reason. Not only were Kosovo's 1.8 million Albanians 90 percent of the provincial population, but they were also nearly a fifth of Serbia's. Had Kosovo's 900,000 ethnic Albanian voters not boycotted the 1992 elections, after saying they no longer wished to be a part of Yugoslavia or its politics, they could have unseated Milosevic before he tormented them further.

Last summer, Yugoslav Minister of Family Affairs Rada Trajkovic warned of the ethnic Albanian "demographic bomb." Albanian women, she said, were "childbearing machines" who couldn't keep track of their children's names.

The Milosevic solution to this problem was anything but sophisticated, having been brutally field-tested in Croatia and Bosnia from early 1991 to late 1995. In those breakaway nations, his Serbian subalterns Milan Martic and Radovan Karadzic used the Yugoslav army and their own militias to wipe resident populations of Croats and Muslims from large sections of the map.

NATO's counterstrike

NATO leaders threatened retaliation from the beginning but didn't deliver an appreciable counterstrike until August 1995, when they bombed a few ammunition dumps and anti-aircraft sites. By then the war had turned against the Serbs on both fronts anyway, and more than 2 million people had been driven from their homes -- 300,000 in Sarajevo alone -- while another 100,000 were buried.

Even at that, NATO was responding ostensibly to a death-toll fluctuation -- the killing of 38 Sarajevans by a single mortar shell in August 1995. Only another such blip in the violence -- a shell that killed 68 Sarajevans in February 1994 -- had pushed the alliance so close to action before.

Milosevic took note of this obvious loophole: Killing civilians and burning their villages would go mostly unopposed as long as the daily death toll didn't become excessive.

For the most part, his Kosovo policy worked within these limits until the NATO airstrikes beginning 11 days ago persuaded him to abandon restraint altogether.

Witness the evidence during the past few years:

Last summer's Serbian offensive in Kosovo forced 100,000 people from their homes. Since then, a series of small massacres -- small by the Bosnian standards of Srebrenica -- took the lives of 36 Albanians, then 45, then 24. And for all the accelerated exodus of the past few days, estimates were that, at one time or another, as many a 460,000 Kosovar Albanians had been forced from their homes by previous fighting.

The difference was that those outgoing tides often receded as far as the next hill or forest, only to seep back at the first return of calm.

Milosevic's assumption that he could keep getting away with this gradual campaign of "ethnic cleansing" proved to be a miscalculation. That's because NATO had drawn its own, opposite conclusion from the lessons of Bosnia.

Opposite conclusions

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