Background on Kosovo – and the management of it*

By Jan Oberg

Manuscript about Kosovo for the World Bank 

26 June 2000


A word about diagnosing conflict

A conflict is a problem that arises out of two or more actors’ incompatible expectations, needs or values. The sine qua non of effective conflict-mitigation (or -transformation) is comprehensive quality analysis of the root causes (diagnosis) of that problem. Without it, interventions to ‘manage’ or help solve somebody else’s conflict and prevent/stop violence will invariable fail – as will surgery on a patient whose disease is unknown to the doctor. You may add that violence is usually not the root cause of a conflict but, rather, a consequence of maltreated, ignored or otherwise non-resolved conflicts.

There is a tendency in Western culture to locate conflict (and violence, but the two are not idenical) in certain actors only. Thus, conflict is often defined as a good guy being attacked or quarelling with an evil guy about one object such as land, rights, resources, etc. Many therefore believe that conflict-resolution is about punishing the designated bad guy, rewarding his counterpart and then things will be fine.

Making “evil” the root cause is much too imprecise to serve as a diagnosis (as it would be to say that a disease is caused by demons in the body). In addition, it begs the philosophical question: What drives humans to do inhuman – evil – things to each other?

This approach is indicative of ‘conflict illiteracy’ – a recipe for failure: Conflicts are not only rooted in individuals (although, of course acted out by and through them) but also in structures in time and space, in circumstances and trends – in the “Karma.” This approach also overlooks that there are never only two parties and that most actors behave as more or less grey, rather than black and white.


The case of Kosovo

So, what’s is the conflict – the problems that lead to the violence – in Kosovo all about?

Having worked there over the 9 years, I would say: it is not predominantly about human rights violations or ethnic cleansing, they are symptoms of deeper lying problems, but – most unfortunately – the only aspects the so-called international community has focussed on hitherto.

As in so many other conflicts there is a history going decades, if not centuries, back in time. There is constitutional matters, general political and specific Yugo-structural features. There is a series of regional dimensions involving neighbouring countries.

And there is economic mal-development. If the GNP of Kosovo is set at 100, Slovenia (1984) had 766, Serbia without Voivodina  and Kosovo 375, Macedonia 249 – and the income gap between the richer and poorer republics and peoples in Tito’s Yugoslavia began to increase rapidly in the 1980s. Structurally more advantaged republics such as Croatia and Slovenia paid considerable parts of their profits to the federal redistribution mechanism, but much of it ended up in corrupted pockets, showplace extravagant public buildings and in land purchases in Macedonia – little left for productive investments in Kosovo.

Depending on the definition, at least 55 per cent of those seeking work were unemployed; illiteracy passed 20 per cent and perhaps as many as 400,000 kids were out of the regular schools; over 40 per cent of the people had no access to tap water, only 28 per cent lived in areas with a sewage system.

Kosovo had the highest birth rate and the highest infant mortality rate in Europe; more than 50 per cent of the citizens were below 20, the average age being 24 years of age. Albanians made up 67 per cent of the population in the province in 1961 (they also lived elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, some sources say 100.000 in Belgrade alone), they appear to have risen to about 90 per cent in the 1990s. 

Population pressure, better economic opportunities elsewhere and harassment caused many to work abroad; Albanian sources maintained in 1992 that around 450.000 Albanians left between 1975 and 1991.

Serbs made up 24 per cent of the province’s population in 1961, down to an estimated 8-9 per cent in the early 1990s. Thus, over time the proportion of Serbs in Kosovo has dropped considerably.

Some Serbs left because they were harassed or their land bought by Albanians while the majority left because of the ever deteriorating economic situation. (Statistics are manifestly unreliable, the last reliable census is from 1981 and the Albanians have refused to participate in any later census).

It has been stated repeatedly that Albanians have been forced out of the region. This is true – and false. Albanians made up 67 pct. of the population in the province in 1961 (they also lived elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, some say100.000 in Belgrade alone), they appear to have risen to about 90 pct. in the 1990s.

Population pressure and better economic opportunities caused many to become immigrant workers; thus, Albanian sources maintained in early 1992 that 250.000 Albanians left between 1975 and 1988 and another 200.000 between 1989 and 1991. (Statistics are manifestly unreliable in the region, the last reliable census is from 1981 and the Albanians have refused to participate in any later census). Many must have left, as the parallel, self-proclaimed Independent Republic of Kosova from 1990 existed predominantly on funds collected among Albanians abroad.

Albanians feel that historic fate has split their nation in three, in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo.

Serbs and Albanians are more different in terms of lifestyle, religion, language, social structure and values than any other pair of larger national groups in ex-Yugoslavia and perceive the other, to quite an extent, as “lower.” Segregation and polarisation was traditionally deeper here than anywhere else.

Naturally, all this was fertile ground for human dissatisfaction, mutual blaming, fear and violence. If dealt with in a conflict-professional manner and in time – let’s say 1992-93 – the Serb-Albanian war since February 1998, NATOs misguided humanism (and missiles) as well as Serb and Albanian ethnic cleansing could, undoubtedly, have been avoided.


The international community – a party to the conflict, too

The international so-called community is not geared to violence-prevention. For ten years, competent journalists, diplomats and connoisseurs predicted troubles after Tito’s death. About Kosovo it may be said that no other conflict region has caused so many early warnings for so long.

The domain assumption, however, seems to be that more highly developed countries intervene for the good of a higher cause to stop somebody’s violent struggle about a lesser, evil cause. In most cases, however, a comprehensive diagnosis in time and space yields the conclusion that the international community was and is part of these conflicts – whether because they have national, strategic, or economic interests, or ‘civilisational’ reasons or in their role as, say, arms traders, infiltrators in politics and security/intelligence or because persistent, aggravating features such as world poverty and income disparities-

It ought not be necessary to remind ourselves that virtually no conflict region is free from a history of foreign interventions, wars, border changes and ‘scrambles’ among leading European nations for power.

In summary, in most cases of modern conflict the distinction between “them egoist war-makers” and “us altruist peace-makers” is nothing but a convenient myth in the hands of powers who have certain interests in those regions. Recognising that simple fact will have an impact on who can be a conflict ”manager”, mediator and peace-maker – and who can not. It also raises the question of who has the moral capital to teach what to whom.

Much of what passes as peace-making in todays world is strongly driven by the “present”-ism of our age: fixation on the present, disregard for the past, electronics over printed media, image(making) over words, surface rather in-depth coverage of events more than trends  – and ever increasing  conglomeration of media power and concomitant marketisation of news. Those trends also makes more for ”quick fixes” and patching up deeper issues than for genuine peace-making.

This also applies to Kosovo.


General conflict causes in Yugoslavia and specifics of the Kosovo conflict

True, there were age-old animosities in Kosovo manifesting themselves from the late 1970s. Journalistic accounts usually state that Yugoslavia’s problems started with Slobodan Milosevic making his famous speech in Kosovo in June 1989. That is plain wrong.

But in reality it is not that easy to put a date on when “it all started” in ex-Yugoslavia. But this much can be said: the outbreak of war in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 is nothing but the accumulated effects of a series of inner economic, social, political and constitutional problems reinforcing each other into an ever less controllable dynamics that ended in the war. The indicators of that breakdown must be placed much earlier.

Tito’s Yugoslavia thrived economically in the 1950s and 1960s with annual GNP growth rates between 5 and 10 pct. It is not unreasonable to say that its economic problems started in the wake of the oil crisis in the early 1970s. Its unique self-management system, a creative mixture of market and planning and an attempt to tie the republics to each other in a system of mutual interdependence increasingly showed signs of disintegration. Elites syphoned off profits and corruption increased. About 15 pct of the country’s income came from migrant workers abroad; with the crisis in Europe – a region that had received millions from Yugoslavs when it needed workers – started to level off.

Yugoslavia’s industrial base was made up of shipbuilding, electronics, textile industry, household goods, car manufacturing and military production, considerable parts of which licence production for European military industry. Yugoslavia was much more integrated in the West – and traded more with that – than with the Eastern bloc and the Third World (while it had an important go-between function coupled with neutrality, self-reliance and non-alignment).

So, when the global economy restructured and production was pushed out to low-wage labour countries in South East Asia, Yugoslavia lost a lot of its industry and its international debt rose while its productive capacity fell – and in came structural adjustment programmes advocated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The remarkable growth and the specific economic structure of the country that served as buffers against nationalism and forced all nationalities to work together in an “ethnic balance of balances” slowly but surely collapsed.

This happened way before Communism broke down in 1989. So when it is stated that Yugoslavia fell apart because – or simultaneous with – the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War, there is another story to be told: the dynamics of global capitalism – whether intended or not – undermined Yugoslavia’s industrial and trade base in a complex interplay with internal, centripedal and disintegrative forces.

These dynamics are of utmost importance for understanding why Yugoslavia fell apart, how people who for decades had lived and worked together could suddenly turn at each others’ throat; it also explains why much of what has been said and written about single causes and mono-causal explanations of the Balkan tragedy is amateurish, banalising and simplifying, if not pure propaganda serving particular interests inside or outside Yugoslavia.

Thus, an economic crisis increasingly interacted and produced a social crisis, leading to a socio-psychological crisis, a constitutional crisis and a breakdown in political structures and legitimacy – paving the way for nationalism, ethnic chauvenism etc – on all sides. The ‘free elections’ imposed by the West in that vacuum only aggravated the situation and the war broke out in 1991. At the time there was only one party that did not use ethnicity in its name and only one that existed in all republics – the rest were basically nationalist and inside one republic.

In the 1974 constitution Kosovo was granted autonomy (as was Voivodina). It gave these two provinces an influence in Serbia’s political affairs that was not matched constitutionally with Belgrade’s influence in Kosovo’s affairs.

However, not legally a republic, the status of these two amounted to something quite similar. Although the remainder of the 197s were relatively calm, various Kosovo-Albanian groups lead by the considerable Albanian intelligentsia, kept on struggling in various ways for complete independence and, for some also for integration with Albania. They felt that Belgrade still manipulated the province’s political life and extracted its mineral resources to its benefit and not that of the province. The tensions build up from 1981 when Tito died, during the 1980s around 7000 Albanians were arrested in Kosovo because of ‘nationalistic’ activity.

With the exception of the short period 1992-93 when Dobrica Cosic was Yugoslavia’s president and Milan Panic prime minister, Belgrade had no other answer to the political agenda of the Albanians but to step up repression. To present this dynamics up to the outbreak of war in February 1998 as Belgrade – or the Serbs or Milosevic –  just being genocidally inclined and Albanians just being innocent objects is, diplomatically speaking, a simplification beyond recognition to a knowledgeable eye.


Kosovo development up to 1999

It is true that many Albanians were thrown out of their jobs, but they also boycotted Serbian institutions as part of the their strategy of nonviolent struggle to set up a parallel society, Albanian Independent Republic of Kosovo, under the leadership of self-proclaimed President Dr. Ibrahim Rugova. It is true that the Albanians at that time used only non-violence and that the Kosovo-Albanians until the late 1997 had no violently repressive technology, but they had much better access to European and American decision-makers and media than any politician in Belgrade.

It is true that the autonomy was heavily reduced by Milosevic (however not abolished, as media usually state) but that did not create the same reaction in Voivodina, the other autonomous province. It is true that Albanians were harrassed and some killed in peace time by the feared Serbian police, but it is also true that Albanians had a strategy of squeezing the ever smaller Serb minority in the province. Fear for the future is an important factor.

Apart from being a moral failure, Milosevic and the opposition were convinced that sheer power and repression would be enough, that the secessionist movement would somehow lose. They had nothing to offer throughout the 1990s. This is remarkable – as it should not have been so difficult to offer the Kosovo-Albanians a better future there than in Albania or Macedonia, particularly in terms of economic development.

Belgrade’s policy was a moral failure but also an intellectual failure: while insisting that this was an ‘internal’ affair it did nothing credible to move towards a solution – again with the exception of 1992-93 but then the Milan Panic-led government which fought against Milosevic got absolutely no support from the West.

It waited and let its potentially best partner on the Albanian side, moderate Dr. Rugova who had been elected by the Albanians in the province, be successively undermined by hardline nationalist Albanians and, finally, the UCK – the Kosovo Albanian Liberation Army, KLA – appeared with the help of the German BND intelligence service and CIA.

KLA/UCK  had, since 1993, developed an underground army which surfaced in late 1997 and turned tension into open war with Serbia in February 1998 and militarised the whole region – and, remarkably, in the process was strongly supported as a friend, if not an ally, of the United States, of the European Union countries and of NATO.


Questions that seek answers

Events during NATO’s 1999 bombings are known, but are they also well understood? For stance, why did the West not take a single political initiative to help solve the Kosovo problem in the early 1990s? Why was it not integrated into the Dayton process or dealt with immediately after? What could have happened if the OSCE had not suspended Yugoslavia’s membership in 1991, leading to Belgrade asking the three then excellent OSCE missions in Kosovo, Voivodina and Sandjak to leave?

Why was it a Kosovo-Albanian strategy to consistently refuse to participate in the elections in the rest of Yugoslavia when, with their sheer number, they could most likely have lead to the fall of Milosevic? Why did the West pay only lip service to Dr. Rugova who today is the only Albanian leader who has come to power through elections, has followed the constitution of the self-proclaimed state and has, as far as we know, no blood on his hands?

Why did parties in the international community turn a blind eye to the build-up in Albania (full of international missions) of UCK and to its training and successive incursion into Yugsolavia and why did neither Yugoslavia nor the international community seal off that border?

Why was the excellent United Nations mission in Macedonia the victim of a diplomatic complex game involving even Taiwan that lead to its termination at a most crucial moment?

Why was the United Nations marginalized in the case of Kosovo, an ideal place for what the UN is best at? Why did NATO leaders – also leaders of the OSCE, national governments and grant-makers to NGOs – decide to bomb Kosovo and thereby force all humanitarian organisations, conflict-mitigating NGOs and the OSCE out of the region so, predictably, there would be no ears and eyes on the ground when NATO bombed and Serbs regular and irregular forces committed atrocities?

After two months of NATO-peacekeeping, the ethnic cleansing of the Serb and other minorities in Kosovo was almost 100 pct. – something that was not the case at any time while Belgrade ruled. How come that the West judged that 40.000 Belgrade troops were far too many in the province, while NATO with about a similar number of troops has not been able to protect the minorities?

Many questions, indeed, remain – not only about the root causes and their interplay in the Kosovo province, in present and former Yugoslavia, in the Balkan region as a whole. They interact with larger European dynamics and those of U.S. foreign policy, globalisation and a changing world order after the end of the Cold War. Historians of various kinds may, as time goes by, provide us with the bits and pieces of this – quite enigmatic – jiggsaw puzzle called Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

Be this as it may, a more important question can hardly wait for such historical clarification to appear, namely: If peace and co-existence is the dominant motive of the international community’s conflict-management policies, how come that everywhere it has been involved there is now more ethnically clean new units than before: Croatia, the two-three Bosnias and Kosovo?

Furthermore, is the type of action and policies Western governments in general and NATO devastating bombing raids and thorough destruction of Yugoslavia and the future of 11 million innocent people of more than 20 nationalities living there, a reasonable price for what looks like a permanently violence-based, ethnically cleansed and divided Kosovo under international control for decades?

Or, should we not replace the international diplomatic rhetoric about preventive diplomacy, conflict analysis, conflict-management, peacekeeping, violence-prevent, peace-buildin, trust-building, peace education, tolerance, democracy, civil society, forgiveness, truth and reconciliation with a honest, conceptually clarifying discussion?

Should we not reform old Cold War institutions and create some new ones, and thus show each other across the world that we have learnt the lesson from this the most violent, warlike and genocidal century? Should we not help promote peace with peaceful means and only use violence as the last resort – as all UN member states have committed themselves to do?

Kosovo is yet another proof that putting a lid on violence is desirable, but is not the same as mitigating, solving or transforming the underlying conflict or problem of incompatibilities.

I believe we shall not prevent conflicts but help each other learn how to minimise and prevent violence. We can learn how – and ten years of local and international conflict mismanagement is a compelling reason to try to do better in the future.


* A few sentences and paragraphs here have been re-constructed where the original version’s software had made the text unreadable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: