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News

Background to the Tragedy in Kosovo
NATO Bombings Show Difficulties in Changing a Country's Internal Policies, Expert Says

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted April 14, 1999


Photo: Map

As demonstrators rallied in downtown Berkeley to protest NATO bombings of Yugoslavia, a visiting political scientist argued in more scholarly terms against the Clinton Administration's course of action in Eastern Europe.

Speaking April 8 at the Townsend Center on "Kosovo: Background to a Tragedy," Ellen Comisso, a professor of political science from UC San Diego, discussed the political, economic and historical dynamics of the Balkans. She offered her opinion on why the NATO bombing of the Yugoslav republics, spearheaded by the United States, is at best, misguided.

Comisso is coeditor, with Laura Tyson, dean of the Haas School of Business, of the 1986 book, "Power, Purpose and Collective Choice: Economic Strategy in Socialist States." A specialist in comparative politics and political economy, particularly in Europe, she also wrote "Worker's Control Under Plan and Market: Implications on Yugoslav Self-Management."

Social Dynamics of Kosovo

Two decades ago, as a graduate student doing dissertation research, Comisso traveled the length of Yugoslavia, observing social dynamics that provide context to the current crisis.

"Kosovo was really different from every other place I'd been to in Yugoslavia," she recalled. "It was by far the poorest region I had seen."

Even in the '70s, "ethnic tensions were much more palpable in Kosovo than elsewhere in Yugoslavia," she said. "No one had anything and each group figured that was because the other group took it away."

The trend over time, she said, was that Albanians remained in the region, while Serbs left for the most part for better opportunities in Serbia and other republics. By the late '90s, Kosovo was 90 percent Albanian, and the Serb minority felt victimized.

When Slobodan Milosevic emerged in the late '80s, Comisso said, he capitalized on this resentment to unleash Serbian nationalism and threaten all of Yugoslavia. He also launched an effort to "re-Serbianize" Kosovo not by expulsion of Albanians, but by attempting to lure Serbs back to Kosovo. It didn't work.

Even by firing Albanian state employees and replacing them with Serbs, and then imposing a kind of colonial rule, the demographic proportions remained essentially the same, said Comisso.

Potential for violence escalated in 1997, when the Albanian government, led by "a self-proclaimed 'democrat' supported by the U.S.," collapsed and an arsenal of a half-million arms was distributed, Comisso said. Many weapons made their way into the hands of the newly-formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which Comisso said is composed of extreme nationalist intellectuals and the "most primitive elements in the villages."

U.S. Strategic Dilemmas

The United States was mistaken in including KLA forces "as a legitimate part of the Albanian delegation" in negotiations, Comisso said. "It made the extreme wings on both sides" arbiters.

In her lecture, cosponsored by the centers for German and European Studies and Slavic and Eastern European Studies, Comisso reiterated a number of arguments for the NATO bombings articulated by President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

A key reason was to get rid of Milosevic, Comisso said, but the strategy backfired. "Slobodan Milosevic has never been so popular in Serbia as now," she said. "The biggest danger to Milosevic is normalcy, and that is precisely what the bombing ended."

She added: "This bombing shows how difficult it is to change any country's internal policies by making war on it."

Administration officials have also argued that the bombings are necessary to preserve the stability of surrounding states. But, Comisso noted, destroying bridges on the Danube has caused economic disruption for Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. And the burden of accepting thousands of refugees has been a serious problem in Macedonia and Albania.

For the American public, perhaps the strongest rationale for NATO action is preventing a humanitarian tragedy. Comisso noted that the bombings have, in fact, "changed the strategy on the ground," she said. "There have been more expulsions and violence" since the bombing started.

In response to a question referring to Serbian "genocide" against ethnic Albanians, Comisso indicated that despite extensive violence, organized Serbian repression falls short of what we normally consider genocide. "Putting people in crowded trains to leave is different from sending them in trains to concentration camps," she said.

"American policy doesn't want to recognize degrees of good and evil. We want to paint it in black and white," said Comisso. "When you don't recognize gradations, you're going to make political mistakes."

Comisso believes a diplomatic solution is the best hope, and Russian assistance might be critical to that effort. But by circumventing the United Nations, launching an offensive NATO operation and rebuffing earlier Russian offers to help, the U.S. may have alarmed Russian military planners and caused Russian political leaders to harden their stance.

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April 14 - 20 (Volume 27, Number 30)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
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