Kosovo Diary

Sam Miller

Yugoslavia is tearing itself apart. Many of the country’s Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Hungarians and Gypsies realise that its continued existence is in doubt. They agree about little else. A week in Belgrade, where the ruling League of Communists decided to disembowel itself, and a week in Kosovo, where the Police shot dead 30 ethnic Albanians, convinced me that Yugoslavia is indeed on the verge of disintegration.

It’s a sad story – because once upon a time Yugoslavia seemed to have so much going for it. There was Tito, who stood up to Stalin and gave the West a Communist they could like, long before they were gulled by Ceausescu. And it was Tito again who opposed the Soviet adventures in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. He introduced self-management to the factories and was duly and generously loved by most of his people. Yugoslav friends of mine who wept when he died now care nothing for Tito’s Communism, however. He’s been gone for ten years and his dream is fading. Rampant nationalism among the country’s minorities is replacing it.

Belgrade is uglier than it ought to be. The Danube does not so much flow through it as cut it off from the outside world. There is next to nothing left of three hundred and fifty years of Turkish rule. And a weighty smog hangs over this city of lumpen Communist architecture. Belgrade doubles as the federal capital and as the capital of the largest republic, Serbia. This is the fiefdom of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic – about whom one should not joke. In a tourist shop, I found a full-face brass bas-relief of the man hanging up for sale. Waggishly, I enquired about its price and its popularity among tourists. A shop assistant, who’d previously found it very funny when I asked her to try on a woman’s cardigan I wanted as a present, turned into a humourless, aggressive ogre. It was all I could do to get out of the shop with the cardigan.

In Serbia, Milosevic is genuinely popular. Elsewhere in the country, he is feared. In Serbia, he has come to symbolise the re-emergent Serbian nation, a nation misunderstood and mistreated over the centuries by the Turks, by the European powers, by its neighbours in Yugoslavia. History lives in Serbia. Last year saw the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje when Ottoman Turks routed the knights of the Kingdom of Serbia. As many as one million Serbs travelled to the supposedly autonomous Albanian-majority province of Kosovo to mourn the passing of the Serbian Golden Age. Road-side vendors sold hand-painted portaits of Serbia’s Medieval leaders and, of course, of Milosevic.

The status of the province of Kosovo is the most sensitive issue of all for Serbian nationalists, and it is made worse by the alacrity with which foreigners and fellow Yugoslavs take up the cause of the Albanians. At the end of the Second World War there were almost as many Serbs as Albanians in Kosovo – but a low Serbian birth rate and heavy migration to Serbia proper now means that the province is nearly 90 per cent Albanian. Every Kosovo Serb has a story of the things done by Albanians to drive the Serbian community out of the province – Orthodox nuns raped, a broken bottle stuck up the anus of a Serbian nationalist. It’s easy for visitors to Kosovo to see other reasons why the Serbs might leave. It is the poorest region of Yugoslavia. Rich Albanians who’ve worked abroad, in Germany or Switzerland, are willing to buy land at inflated prices. Pristina, the provincial capital, is filthy; the streets, the pavements swimming in mud, the polluted air stinging the back of your throat. A city full of hovels and superfluous space-age prestige developments. A huge shark’s fin of a sports hall dominates the city centre. The design had originally won second prize in a competition to build a new stadium for Baghdad. The only losers were the people of Pristina, who wasted a lot of money and who use it to only a tenth of its capacity.

I arrived in Pristina the evening after a screaming crowd of thirty thousand Albanians gathered outside the headquarters of the provincial government to demand the freeing of political prisoners, multi-party elections and the resignation of the local Communist leaders – who they describe as Serbian puppets. The Albanians of Kosovo are an aggrieved people. They do not hide their anger, or their desire – anathema to a Serbian nationalist – that Kosovo should become the seventh republic of Yugoslavia. I heard little talk of secession; still less of a desire to unite with their brethren across the border in Albania. They are Muslims, but I could not detect the slightest whiff of fundamentalism. There were serious disturbances in 1968, 1981 and last year. This time round, the situation is much more dangerous. After last year’s rioting – when 24 Albanians were killed – Milosevic and the Serbian leadership overthrew the provincial government, put the former Communist Party boss on trial for sedition and began a campaign to repopulate Kosovo. The stakes had suddenly multiplied.

This January, what felt like an uprising began in the towns and villages of Kosovo. The day always started with demonstrations and stone-throwing, then the Police would respond with tear-gas, rubber bullets and, ultimately, live ammunition. On the first day of the killings, I drove with an interpreter through a pea-souper to the town of Orahovac near the Albanian border. It was eight in the evening and Orahovac was a ghost town, with just one sign of life – a mad dog yapping at the car and wrestling with its wing-mirrors. At the hospital, a doctor described how three young Albanian men with bullet wounds had been brought in. They had died before her eyes. Others are dead, she said, but their families won’t bring them in. They fear police interrogation. We went to the police station, barricaded from the rest of the town by jeeps and armoured personnel-carriers. The police were frightened, huddled in groups in one large room, talking rapidly and nervously, trying to smile at a foreign journalist. They would tell me nothing. Up the hill – on the way out of Orahovac – I found a billiard room, with four young Albanian boys. They said six, ten, fifteen people had been killed. The police had shot – for no reason, they said – at a passing bus. They stuck their heads out of the door – to check if we’d been followed – and then they added another ten to the death toll. They accused my interpreter of being a Serb, she denied it, but they didn’t believe her – quite rightly, in fact. It was time to leave.

After six days the Army was sent in. Federal leaders were sent to Kosovo on a peace mission and this particular wave of unrest began to ebb. But there will be more. Military containment alone cannot work. One result of last month’s disturbances is a strengthened non-Communist political leadership of the Albanian community. But even in the few days I was there I saw the political initiative pass from the more moderate of these leaders into the hands of those less willing to condemn violence. Meanwhile, the Serbian community in Kosovo, which demanded arms to defend themselves from attacks by Albanians that never transpired, is better-organised and no less unwilling to compromise.

In the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question. When Tito died, so did the office of President of the Republic. He bequeathed to his country a collective presidency – constructed so as to discourage careerism and unify the nationalities. The effect has been much the opposite, and has denied the country firm government in times of crisis. The post of head of state, known in Yugojargon as President of the Presidency, rotates annually among the republics and provinces. Only this year has a prime minister emerged whose name is likely to be recognised outside Yugoslavia – Ante Markovic. His greatest success – and it’s a considerable one – has been to slash the rate of inflation. As I left Heathrow airport for Belgrade I bought an inch-thick wad of 5000-dinar notes for £4.28. Each 5000-dinar note is half a new dinar. More important, though, is the fact that I could buy dinars at all. On 1 January, Yugoslavia became the first Communist country to make its currency freely convertible. Thanks to these measures, Markovic is popular throughout the country, and if Yugoslavia is to remain intact a good deal may depend on him. But the problem of unity goes far beyond the issue of the status of Kosovo.

One of the sparks for the latest disturbances in Kosovo was the decision of the League of Communists of Slovenia to walk out of an emergency Communist Party congress. The Slovenian delegation had been outvoted on a number of measures critical of the old-style Communist leadership of Serbia. The Albanians welcomed the Slovenian walk-out as a nub to Serbia. But its significance is greater than that. Slovenia is the most northerly and the richest of the republics. Slovenes do not consider themselves to be Balkan. They were never conquered by the Turks, distrust the Jerbian leadership and see their future – with or without the rest of Yugoslavia – as within in enlarged European Community. The talk of secession is serious. The republic of Croatia s more cautious, but its leaders have also come to abhor Milosevic and are likely to come down on the side of Slovenia. And so the country born in December 1918 as ‘the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ may go the way of all empires. Created from bits of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian dominions, Yugoslavia bears a marked resemblance to that other crumbling empire of modern times, the Soviet Union: but Moscow has at least one advantage over Belgrade. The Communist Party in Yugoslavia is, to all intents and purposes, dead. In the Soviet Union it is only dying. Doubtless in the largest republic in both countries it will retain some electoral strength – but more as a conservative nationalist party than as a Marxist-Leninist one. In recent years, Communism in Yugoslavia has ceased to play the one role for which it was still suited – the holding together of this fissiparous country. Communism under Tito did play a unifying role and no pan-Yugoslav ideology has emerged to replace it. The relative ethnic homogeneity of countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria permits a new sense of national identity at a time when unity is needed, an identity aided by the near-universal sense of relief at the casting off of old shackles. East Germany can and will be subsumed into its Western neighbour. But Yugoslavia has no way out.

The tragedy and irony of this sorry Balkan tale is that the seismic changes in Eastern Europe are encouraging what might be called the Balkanisation of Yugoslavia. There are two very good reasons for this. First, the imitative introduction of multi-party democracy in Yugoslavia is already nourishing some individuals whose newly-formed parties and programmes are profoundly anti-democratic. In Serbia, people are appearing on the political scene who make Slobodan Milosevic look like a mild-mannered liberal. Vuk Draskovic, a dead-ringer for Rasputin, talks of Greater Serbia – in which he includes not only Kosovo but the republics of Macedonia and Montenegro, and even a few chunks of Bosnia and Croatia. He claims that more than forty thousand people have joined his Serbian Renaissance Party in less than a month. No wonder the people are nervous about democracy in Yugoslavia. In the good old days the Communists always got in. Next time it might be Vuk Draskovic.

The second reason why events in Eastern Europe and elsewhere over the last year may prove less than beneficial to the continued existence of Yugoslavia is that the aggrieved of Yugoslavia have become captivated by the spectacle of people power. You can get what you want, they now believe, by going out on the streets. Young Albanians in Kosovo told me that they, too, were ready to die like the people in – and the place-names were recited like a revolutionary mantra – Timisoara, Tiananmen, Palestine and South Africa.

A Yugoslav friend told me the following story. She applied for and got a job in Tanzania. She was nervous. But her friends told her: ‘They’ll love you there. People in the Third World love Yugoslavs because we were founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.’ When she got there no one gave a damn; they were much more interested in the British. Such is the fate of Yugoslavia, which can now claim very little geo-strategic importance. When Communism collapses elsewhere in Eastern Europe it is a feather in the cap of the West. But we have little interest in the collapse of Communism in Yugoslavia, for Yugoslavia was the trophy of a previous battle – the one against Stalin. The West would feel embarrassed if Czechoslovakia or Poland went to the wall, since, ideologically, so much has been invested in their conversion to capitalism. The Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes and the rest will be left to fend for themselves.