PRIZREN, Kosovo -- Being a monk is never easy. But Brother Benedict, a friendly 29-year-old with the ever-present beard that characterizes Orthodox Christian clerics, cheerfully welcomed three foreign visitors to his humble abode.
The original Monastery of the Holy Archangels was destroyed in the 16th Century by the invading Turks. Four centuries later the Orthodox Church constructed a small church, residence, and workshop among the ancient ruins. Two years ago a mob of 600 descended from Prizren, just 1.5 miles away, burning down the buildings and destroying anything that remained. Earlier they wrecked churches, the presiding bishop's residence, a seminary, and private Serbian homes in town.
Although the monastery was nominally guarded by German soldiers serving in the international Kosovo Force (KFOR), most of them packed up when the crowd began crossing the shallow creek separating the monastery from the road. They took the monks along but left the buildings and contents unprotected; a few remaining soldiers played tourists, photographing the monastery's destruction. This shocking behavior was the norm on a day of violence around Kosovo. Complained Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch: "In too many cases, NATO peacekeepers locked the gates to their bases, and watched as Serb homes burned."
Since then the Church has built a small two-story building on the site of the workshop, where Brother Benedict and five other monks worship, eat, and sleep. The site is now surrounded by barbed wire, though Brother Benedict has little confidence in his supposed protectors. After the monastery's destruction the German commander downplayed a mob attack on one of his units as it guarded a German TV crew. After the monks publicized the incident, their "protectors" left them isolated for two weeks. Even now the KFOR soldiers refuse to escort the monks to buy food in Prizren, suggesting instead that they turn to the Kosovo Police Service -- which includes many former Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas. Instead, the monks drive substantially further to the nearest Serbian community for supplies.
Unfortunately, any Serb who travels outside of few remaining enclaves does so at his own risk. At the quasi-border dividing Serbia from Kosovo (which nominally remains part of Serbia), drivers routinely replace their Serbian license plates with ones marked Kosovo to disguise their identities. To do otherwise would risk not only their cars but their lives.
Even foreigners are at risk. Some British tourists recently were roughed up and their car was destroyed because the vehicle had been rented in Belgrade. Had they been Serbian their lives probably would have been forfeited. More than 900 Serbs have been murdered since the allies took control and ethnic killings continue in the territory. But you will look long and hard to find an ethnic Albanian jailed for committing the crimes.
HIGHLIGHTING THE PLIGHT OF THE MONKS at the monastery, as well as other Christians in Kosovo, is a delegation led by Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) of Raska and Prizren, which is visiting the U.S. this week at the invitation of the Religious Freedom Coalition. The visitors are hoping to slow the apparent administration rush to grant independence to Kosovo.
Kosovo is an unpleasant bit of unfinished business that the West would prefer to forget. A fair and sensible resolution is well nigh impossible, especially since the behavior of Washington and NATO has been truly disgraceful. Far from creating a tolerant democracy, the allies have presided over one of the largest episodes of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And if the U.S. continues on its present course, virtually everyone expects the ethnic majority to complete the job in just a few more years, if that long.
Like most of the Balkans, the problem of Kosovo goes back centuries. Serbian identity is rooted in both Kosovo's military history, particularly the 1389 defeat by the Turks in the Battle of the Blackbirds, and spiritual significance, represented by ancient churches and monasteries.
Over the years history was unkind to the Balkans, torn by conflict as the Ottoman Empire declined and in both World Wars, and then mostly dominated by communist regimes until the end of the Cold War. During the 1980s the territory (in Yugoslavia) enjoyed substantial self-rule and resulted in ethnic Albanian mistreatment of Serbs (behavior covered in the New York Times, among other publications). Roughly two decades ago Slobodan Milosevic launched his grab for power with a speech in Kosovo that played upon Serb nationalism. Then it was Albanians who suffered, leading to an increasingly bitter guerrilla war and NATO military intervention in March 1999.
The 78-day air war never made sense. Over the years most European states had mirrored Yugoslavia in fighting to suppress secessionist movements.
Although the conflict was ugly, it was nothing compared to the simultaneous humanitarian disaster in Sierra Leone, which killed a quarter of a million people but was ignored in the U.S. and Europe. Moreover, it was NATO intervention that sparked the worst Serbian crackdown and the mass Albanian exodus.
In any case, Western officials, starting with American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, developed policy in a dream world. They thought that a couple days of bombing would bring Belgrade to heel, completely missing the nationalism that animated most Serbs, even democrats and human rights advocates. Worst, the allies believed that they would be able to concoct a multi-ethnic Kosovo in which Albanians and Serbs would join hands singing Kumbaya around communal campfires. In fact, having used their American-supplied air force to eject the Serb military units, the victorious ethnic Albanians saw no need to compromise.
After the war -- under the occupation of the West -- the Albanian community kicked out a quarter million Serbs, Roma, Jews, and non-Albanian Muslims. Over the next five years isolated Serbs were killed, beaten, and kidnapped. Even Serbian enclaves were vulnerable to drive-by shootings.
Although Serbs disappeared from much of Kosovo -- roughly 40,000 in the capital of Pristina turned into about 120 mostly terrified elderly residents today -- around 100,000 remain, with many concentrated in the north, around the town of Mitrovica. In March 2004 a series of coordinated riots and assaults broke out, killing 19 people, injuring about 1,000 more, displacing 4,000 Serbs, destroying 36 churches and monasteries, torching numerous homes and farms, and despoiling cemeteries. (All told, about 150 churches, monasteries, and seminaries have been destroyed since 1999. "They destroy them, we rebuild them," commented one determined Church member.) With good reason many Serbs called the March violence Kristallnacht, after the infamous Nazi assault on Jews the presaged the eventual attempt to exterminate the entire people.
Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denber observed that "This was the biggest security test for NATO and the United Nations in Kosovo since 1999, when minorities were forced from their homes as the international community looked on. But they failed the test." The events two years ago resulted in much hand wringing, but little else. No one was prosecuted and jailed for their crimes. Today many Serb refugees remain in small camps, unemployed and living in containers turned into homes.
The Albanian political leadership includes guerrilla leaders almost certainly guilty of atrocities. No one denies the explosion of organized crime, including sex trafficking, in Kosovo, which has been called the "black hole" of Europe. Radical Islam, too, may be on the rise -- more than 200 mosques have been built since 1999, and some unashamedly fly the Saudi Arabian flag. "Sex, crime, terrorism, it's all there," opines one U.S. diplomat stationed in Belgrade.
AS A POLITICAL ENTITY, KOSOVO is less ready for independence today, based on its commitment to a multi-ethnic republic with human rights guarantees, than when it was "liberated" in 1999. Warns Joseph Griebowski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, "the present record of rule of law, protection of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and the return/resettlement of internally displaced people by the Provisional Authority of Kosovo -- all of which are indispensable for democratic governance -- have been gravely unsatisfactory."
So what to do? Final (or future) status negotiations have begun under the tutelage of UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, and it is obvious that officials in the West would like to take credit for their "success" in Kosovo, run a victory lap, and go home. The U.S. and Europeans have been pressuring the Serbs to voluntarily yield Kosovo and collect EU membership as their reward. Tod Lindberg of Policy Review reflects the conventional wisdom when he argues that "Serbia needs to decide whether its future is Western integration or instead a return to dead-end nationalist politics." Some Europeans have spoken of finding a win/win, or at least win/no lose, solution.
However, it doesn't exist. Roughly two million ethnic Albanians now live in Kosovo -- it's hard to know how many for sure, since the local authorities have no incentive to prevent a large in-migration, further strengthening their hold over the land. Understandably, none of them want to live under Serbia.
But Serbs, no less than Americans and Europeans, want to amputate historic lands from their country. On his visit last week Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica indicated that independence was not an option, instead offering "the greatest possible autonomy." Belgrade may not be able to prevent the allies from dismembering a sovereign nation, but it will not acquiesce in the act.
Moreover, no sane Serb (or Roma) in Kosovo wants to live under Albanian rule. Indeed, the Serbs who now dominate Mitrovica, north of the Irba River and close to the rest of Serbia, probably would forcibly resist Albanian rule. Even the Crisis Group, which remains dedicated to the mythical ideal of a multi-ethnic Kosovo, admits that the allies would have to make integration happen, somehow (the group suggests -- and I am not making this up, to quote humorist Dave Berry -- a PR campaign.)
Allied officials continue to talk in grand terms. Last year Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told Congress that "Failure to secure a multi-ethnic Kosovo would be a failure" of years of effort. Yet the likely result of full independence is clear. A top U.S. official told me on my visit that he figures not a Serb will remain within five or ten years after independence, or even the status quo. That is, granting Kosovo independence means completing the process of ethnic cleansing that started seven years ago. Worse, since the West has been in charge, granting independence means ratifying the very process that the allies went to war to prevent.
IN ORDER TO GET AROUND this rather embarrassing dilemma, Western governments are talking about conditional independence, that is, independence only after ethnic Albanians meet certain standards. Perhaps proponents of this perspective are so naive as to verge on the delusional; more likely, they are cynically maneuvering to get out of Kosovo with a minimum of public embarrassment.
After all, if things are, as claimed by Kosovo's allied occupiers, better today than in 1999 or 2004, it is mostly because so many Serbs and other minorities have fled. The easy ethnic cleansing already has been done. There is less opportunity and reason to target minorities.
However, despite all the right public promises from Albanian officials, there is little reason to believe popular attitudes have changed. Bishop Artemije sadly observed simply: "Crimes happened not just seven years ago but are happening now as we speak." One resident of a refugee camp who fled deadly mobs two years ago told me that "we see people living in our homes and sleeping in our beds talking about how good democracy is."
And if seven years of tutelage by the allies under military occupation isn't enough to teach the majority Albanian community good human rights manners, how will a few verbal promises and some corresponding paper threats do the job? Nor will any conditions be enforced. The idea that the allies would get tough and block independence, or even return the territory to Belgrade, if the standards were not met is a fantasy. The West has done little to protect the Serbian community over the last seven years; to the contrary, the allies have allowed the Albanians to ethnically cleanse most of the land. Today the heroic humanitarian crusaders of 1999 simply want to finish the occupation, withdraw their 17,000 troops, and move on.
At the same time, conditional independence, by leaving the issue formally open while effectively dispossessing the Serbs, is likely to radicalize both parties. Ethnic Albanians have been growing impatient. The group Self-Determination! has been leading non-violent protests against UN targets (for which some demonstrators actually went to jail, in contrast to those who murdered Serbs). More ominously, there have been attacks on allied vehicles, and resentment at more years of apparent indecision could spark more serious assaults on KFOR and UN personnel. Leading Kosovar political figure Adam Demaci has threatened the allies with "violence of such dimensions that 17 March 2004 will be forgotten."
As for Serbia, detaching Kosovo is likely to bring down the Kostunica government. Waiting in the wings is the Serbian Radical Party, a populist-nationalist movement headed by Vojislav Seselj, now awaiting trial for war crimes at The Hague. The U.S. will not even allow diplomatic personnel to meet with Radical members of parliament, terming the party "undemocratic." Yet some polls show it with 40-plus percent support, putting it within easy reach of dominating a new coalition government.
What a pretty picture this all would be. Ethnic Albanians step up attacks on Serbs and begin targeting allied forces in Kosovo. Serbs in Mitrovica fortify their enclave and look north to Belgrade for support. Hard-core, anti-Western nationalists take power in Serbia. Then what?
Like so many conflicts, it was a lot easier to get into Kosovo than it will be to get out. But there's still time to draw back from the brink. The West should insist on a genuine negotiation in which a variety of options are freely considered. An allied diktat, especially one mandating independence, will not be fair. Nor will it bring the regional stability that everyone desires. Only the residents of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia can find a lasting solution.
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