The Army of Liberation
by Sam Vaknin 12 June 2000
[There is a growing tendency among foreign observers] to identify the criminal with the honest, the vandal with the civilized, the mafiosi with the nation. - Former Albanian President Sali Berisha.
They were terrorists in 1998 and now, because of politics, they're freedom fighters. - Jerry Seper, "KLA Finances War with Heroin Sales," - An anonymous "top drug official" referring to a 1998 US State Department report, quoted in the Washington Times, 3 May 1999.
The Albanian villages are much better, much richer than the Serbian ones. The Serbs, even the rich ones, don't build fine houses in villages where there are Albanians. If a Serb has a two-story house he refrains from painting it so that it shan't look better than the Albanian houses. - Leon Trotsky, war correspondent for Pravda, reporting from the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913.
When spring comes, we will manure the plains of Kosovo with the bones of Serbs, for we, Albanians, have suffered too much to forget. - Isa Boletini, leaving the Ambassadors' Conference in London, 1913.
Instead of using their authority and impartiality to restrain terrorist gangs of Albanian extremists, we face the situation in which the terrorism is taking place under their auspices, and even being financed by United Nations means. - Slobodan Miloševic, March 2000.
Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation. - French historian Ernest Renan.
We spent the 1990s worrying about a Greater Serbia. That's finished. We are going to spend time well into the next century worrying about a Greater Albania. - Christopher Hill, Ambassador to Macedonia, 1999.
There is no excuse for that, even if the Serbs in Kosovo are very angry. I accept responsibility. One of the most important tasks of a democracy is to protect its minorities. - Slobodan Milošević to Ambassador Christopher Hill upon being told about atrocities in Kosovo.
I am like a candle. I am melting away slowly, but I light the way for others. - Adem Demaçi, political representative of the KLA.
The founding fathers of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA, or UÇK from the Albania Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës) were Ibrahim Rugova, the pacifist president of the self-proclaimed "Republic of Kosovo," established in 1991, and Slobodan Milošević, his belligerent Yugoslav counterpart. The abysmal failure of the former's Gandhiesque policies of sheltering his people from the recrudescently violent actions of the latter revived the fledging KLA outfit.
Contrary to typically shallow information in the media, the KLA is known to have operated in Kosovo as early as an attack on policemen in Glogovac in May 1993. Its epiphany, in the form of magnificently uniformed fighters, occurred only on 28 November, 1997, at the funeral of a teacher killed by Serb zealousness, but it existed long before - perhaps as early as the 1982 People's Movement of Kosovo.
The historical and cultural roots of the conflict in Kosovo have been described elsewhere (The Bad Blood of Kosovo). Reading that article is essential, as this one assumes prior acquaintance with it.
Kosovo is a land of great mineral wealth and commensurate agricultural poverty and has always languished with decrepit infrastructure and irrelevant industry. Kosovo's mineral riches were looted by Yugoslavia for decades, and both Macedonia and Kosovo were the poor relatives in the Yugoslav Federation. In the Kosovo of 1979, more than 31 percent of all those over 10 years of age were illiterate and its per capita income was 30 percent below the national average.
Infant mortality was six times that in Slovenia. Kosovo was an African enclave in a country aspiring to be part of Europe. Caught in the pernicious spiral of declining commodity prices, Kosovo relied on transfers from Yugoslavia and from abroad for more than 90 percent of its income.
Inevitably, unemployment tripled from 19 percent in 1971 to 57 percent in 1989.
As a result, the Federal government had to quell a three month-long series of paralyzing riots in 1981. Riots were nothing new to Kosovo: the demonstrations of 1968 were arguably worse and led to constitutional changes granting autonomy to Kosovo in 1974. But this time, the authorities reacted with tanks in scenes reminiscent of China's Tiananmen Square eight years later.
The hotbed of hotheads was, as usual, the University in Priština. Students there were more concerned with pedestrian issues such the quality of their food and the lack of facilities than with any eternal revolutionary or national truths. These mundane protests were hijacked by comrades with higher class consciousness and loftier motives of self-determination. Such hijacking, though, would have petered out had the cesspool of rage and indignation not been so long festering..
Serb insensitivity, backed by indiscriminate brutality, led to escalation. Calls for the restoration of the 1974 constitution (under which Kosovo was granted political, financial, legal and cultural autonomy and institutions) - merged into a sonorous agenda of "Greater Albania" and a "Kosovo Republic." The Kosovar crowd was not above beatings, looting and burning. The hate was strong.
Yugoslavia's ruling party, the League of Communists, was in the throes of its own transformation. With Tito's demise and the implosion of the Soviet Bloc, the Communists lacked both compass and leader, as Tito had purged his natural successors in the 1960s and 1970s. The party was not sure whether to turn to Gorbachev's East or to America's West.
The Communists panicked and embarked on a rampage of imprisonment, unjust dismissals of Albanians (mainly of teachers, journalists, policemen and judges) and the occasional torture or murder. Serb intellectuals regarded this as no more than the rectification of Tito's anti-Serb policies. Serbia was, after all, the only Republic within the Federation to have been dismembered into autonomous regions (Kosovo and Vojvodina). "Getting back at Tito" was thus a strong motive, commensurate with Serb "the world is against us" paranoia and siege mentality.
Milošević, visibly ill at ease, surfed this tide of religion-tinged nationalism straight into Kosovo, the historical heartland of Serb-ism.
Oppression breeds resistance, and Serb oppression served only to streamline the stochastic Albanian nationalist movement into a compartmentalized, though factious, underground organization with roots wherever Albanians resided: Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Canada and Australia. The ideology was an improbable mix of Enver Hoxha-inspired Stalinism Maoism and Albanian chauvinism.
This was, the reader should recall, before Albania opened up to reveal its decrepitude and desolation to its Kosovar visitors. All delusions of an Albania-backed armed rebellion evaporated in the languor of Albania proper. Thus, the nationalists' activities were more innocuous than their concocted doctrines. They defaced government buildings, shattered gravestones in Serb cemeteries and overturned heroic monuments. The distribution of subversive, and fairly bromide, "literature" was rarely accompanied by acts of terror, either in Kosovo or in Europe.
Nationalism is a refuge from uncertainty. As the old Yugoslavia was crumbling, each of its constituents developed its own brand of escapism, replete with opportunistic nationalist leaders, mostly fictional "history," a newly discovered language and a pledge to reconstitute a lost empire at its apex. Thus, Kosovar nationalism was qualitatively the kin and kith of the Serb or Croat species.
Paradoxically, though rather predictably, they fed on each other. Milošević was as much a creation of Kosovar nationalism as the KLA's leader, Hashim Thaçi, was the outcome of Milošević's policies. The KLA's Stalinist-Maoist inspiration emulated the paranoid and omphaloskeptic regime in Albania, but it owed its existence to Belgrade's intransigence.
The love-hate relationship between the Kosovars and the Albanians is explored elsewhere (The Myth of Greater Albania: Part I-III). The Serbs, in other words, were as terrified of Kosovar irredentism as the Kosovars were of Serb domination. Their ever more pressing and menacing appeals to Belgrade gave the regime the pretext it needed to intervene and Milošević the context he sought in which to flourish.
In February 1989, armed with a new constitution which abolished Kosovo's autonomy (and, a year later, its stunned government), Milošević quelled a miners' hunger strike and proceeded to institute measures of discrimination against the Albanians in the province.
Discrimination was nothing new in Kosovo. The Albanians themselves initiated such anti-Serb measures in 1974, following their newly gained constitutional autonomy. In 1989, the tide turned and thousands of Albanians who refused to sign new-fangled "loyalty vows" were summarily sacked and lost their pension rights, the most sacred possession of Homo socialismus.
Albanian media outlets were shuttered and schools vacated when teacher after teacher refused to abide by the Serb curriculum. After a while, The Serbs re-opened primary schools and re-hired Albanian teachers, allowing them to teach in Albanian, but secondary schools and universities remained closed.
These acts of persecution did not meet with universal disapproval. Greece, for instance, regarded the Albanians as natural allies of the Turks and, bonded by common enmity, of the Macedonians and Bulgarians. Itself comprised of lands claimed by Albania, Greece favoured a harsh and final resolution of the Albanian question.
There can be little doubt that Macedonia - feeling besieged by its Albanian minority - regarded Milošević as the perfect antidote. Later, Macedonia actively assisted Yugoslavia in breaking the embargo imposed on it by the Western powers. Milošević was not, therefore, a pariah, as retroactive history would have it. Rather, he was the only obstacle to a "Greater Albania."
Within less than a year, in 1990, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) was able to claim a membership of 700,000 members. Hashim "Snake" Thaçi, Sulejman "Sultan" Selimi and other leaders of the KLA were then 20 years of age. Years of Swiss education notwithstanding, they witnessed first hand Kosovo's tumultuous transformation into the engine of disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation. It was a valuable lesson in the dialectic of history, which they later applied brilliantly.
The leader of the LDK, the forever silk-scarfed and mellifluous Dr Ibrahim Rugova, compared himself openly and blushlessly to Václav Havel and the Kosovar struggle to the Velvet Revolution. This turgid and risible analogy deteriorated further as the Kosovar velvet was stained by the blood of innocents. Dr Rugova was an unfazed dreamer in a land of harsh nightmares: the Sorbonne was never a good preparatory school for the academy of Balkan reality.
Rugova's ideals were good and noble: Gandhi-like passive resistance, market economics, constructive (though uncompromising and limited to the authorities) dialogue with the enemy. They might still prevail, and during the early 1990s he was all the rage and the darling of the West. But he failed to translate his convictions into tangible achievements. His biggest failure might have been his inability to ally himself with a "Great Power," as did the Croats, the Slovenes and the Bosnians.
This became painfully evident with the signature of the Dayton Accord in 1995, which almost completely ignored Kosovo and the Kosovars. True, the West conditioned the total removal of sanctions against Yugoslavia on humane treatment of its Albanian citizens and encouraged the Albanians, though circumspectly, to stand for their rights. But there was no explicit support even for the re-instatement of Kosovo's 1974 status, let alone for the Albanians' dreams of statehood.
In the absence of such support - financial and diplomatic - Kosovo remained an internal Yugoslav problem, a renegade province, a colony of terror and drug trafficking. The Kosovars felt betrayed, as they felt after the Congress of Berlin and the Balkan Wars. Perhaps securing such a sponsor was a lost cause to start with, although the KLA succeeded where Rugova failed, but Rugova misled his people into sanguineous devastation by declaring the "Kosovo Republic" before the time was right.
His choice of pacifism may have been dictated by the sobering sights from the killing fields of Bosnia, which proved his pragmatism. But his decision to declare a "Republic" was premature, self-aggrandizing and in vacuo. The emergence of a political alternative - tough, realistic, methodical and structured - was not only a question of time but a welcome development. There is no desolation like the one inflicted by sincere idealists.
In 1991, Rugova set about organizing a Republic from a shabby office building opposite the Cafe Mimoza. His government constructed makeshift schools and hospitals and parallel networks of services staffed by the Serb-dispossessed, capitalizing on a sweeping wave of volunteerism. Albania recognized this nascent state immediately and international negotiators, such as Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, conferred with its self-important figurehead as early as September 1992.
Successive American administrations funneled money into the province and warnings against "ethnic cleansing" were flung at Yugoslavia as early as 1993. Internally, Serb extremists in both Belgrade and Priština prevented Serb moderates, like then Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panić, from re-opening the schools of Kosovo and reducing the massive, Northern Ireland-like Serb military presence there.
An agreement to abolish the parallel Albanian education system and re-open all the educational facilities in Kosovo signed in 1997 by both Rugova and Milošević was thus frustrated. Kosovo fractured along ethnic lines with complete segregation of the Serbs and the Albanians. To avoid contact with the Serbs was an unwritten rule, breached only by prominent intellectuals.
The "Kosovo Republic" never advocated ethnic cleansing or even outright independence - there were powerful voices in favour of a federal solution within Yugoslavia - but not far from re-inventing an inverted version of apartheid. It faced the ubiquitous problem of all the other republics of former Yugoslavia: not one of them was ethnically "pure." To achieve a tolerable level of homogeneity, they had to resort to force. Rugova advocated the measured application of the insidious powers of discrimination and segregation. But, once the theme was set, variations were bound to arise.
Though dominant for some years, Rugova and the LDK did not monopolize the Kosovar political landscape. In 1998, boycotted by all other political parties, Rugova was re-elected as president, and the disenchanted and disillusioned suddenly found they had plenty of choice. Some joined the KLA, many more joined Rexhep Qosja's United Democratic Movement (LBD).
The political scene in Kosovo in the 1980s and early 1990s was vibrant and kaleidoscopic. Adem Demaçi, who later became the Marxist ideologue of the KLA established the Parliamentary Party of Kosovo (PPK) before he handed it over to Bajram Kosumi, a dissident and another venerable political prisoner.
Demaçi, the reader will recall, was a long time political prisoner and the founder of the "Revolutionary Movement for the Merger of Albanians" in 1964. Meanwhile, The Parliamentary Party of Kosovo was co-founded by Veton Surroi, the English-speaking, US-educated, son of a Yugoslav diplomat and editor of Koha Ditore, the Albanian language daily. The Albanians are not a devout lot, but even Islam had its political manifestations in Kosovo.
Meanwhile, the 1981 demonstrations gave rise to the Popular Movement for Kosovo (LPK) which, apparently, led to the formation of the KLA, probably in 1993, possibly in Priština. Whatever the circumstances, the KLA congregated in Decani, the region surrounding Priština. In 1995, two years after the Glogovac attack, it tackled a Serb border patrol (April) and a Serb police station (August), using light weapons and a crude bomb.
The Serbs were not impressed, but they were provoked into an escalating series of ever more hideous massacres of Albanian villagers, and a turning point in the brewing conflict might have been the Serb slaughter of the Jashari clan in Prekaz. Machiavellian analysts ascribe to the KLA a devilish plot to provoke the Serbs into the ethnic cleansing that finally introduced the West to tortured Kosovo.
The author of this article, aware of the Balkan's lack of propensity for long-term planning and predilection for self-defeating vengeance, believes that, to the KLA, it was all a serendipitous turn of events. Whatever the case may be, the KLA became sufficiently self-assured and popular to advertise itself on the BBC as responsible for some of the clashes, a rite of passage common to all self-respecting freedom fighters.
The KLA's selection of targets is very telling. At first, it concentrated its fiery intentions only on military and law and order personnel. Its reluctance to affect civilians was meritorious. A subtle shift occurred when the Serbs began to re-populate Kosovo with Serbs displaced from the Krajina region. Alarmed by the intent (if not by the execution: only 10,000 Serbs or so were settled in Kosovo) the KLA reacted with a major drive to arm itself and by attacking Serb settlements in Klina, Decani and Đakovica, as well as a refugee camp in Baboloc.
The KLA attacks were militarily sophisticated and coordinated. Serb policemen were ambushed on the road between Glogovac and Srbica, but the Serb counter-offensive resulted in dozens of Albanian civilian victims in the "Drenica Massacre," including women and children, The KLA tried to defend villages aligned along the Peć-Đakovica line and thus disrupt the communications and logistics of Serb Military Police and Special MUP (Ministry of Interior) units. The main arena of fighting was a recurrent one: in the 1920s, Albanian guerrillas based in the hills attacked the Serbs in Drenica.
What finally transformed the KLA from a wannabe IRA into the fighting force that it became was the disintegration of Albania. History is the annals of irony. The break-up of the KLA's role model led to the resurgence of its intellectual progeny. The KLA absorbed thousands of weapons from the looted armouries of the Albanian military and police. Angry mobs attacked these ordinance bases following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes that robbed one third of the population of all their savings.
The arms ended up in the trigger-happy hands of drug lords, mafiosi, pimps, smugglers and freedom fighters from Tetovo in Macedonia to Durres in Albania and from Priština in Kosovo to the Sandžak in Serbia. The KLA was so ill equipped to cope with this fortuitous cornucopia that it began to trade weapons, a gainful avocation it afterward found hard to dislodge.
The convulsive dissolution of Albania led to changes in high places. Sali Berisha was deposed and replaced by Rexhep Mejdani, who had an even more sympathetic ear to separatist demands. Berisha himself later allowed the KLA to use his property, around Tropoja, as staging grounds and supported the cause (though not the "Marxist-Leninist" KLA or its self-appointed government) unequivocally.
At a certain stage, he even accused Fatos Nano, his rival and the Prime Minister of Albania, of being an enemy of the Albanian people for not displaying the same unmitigated loyalty to the idea of an independent Kosovo, under Rugova and Bujar Bukoshi, Rugova's money man (and Prime Minister in exile). The KLA was able to expand its presence in Albania, mainly in its training and operations centres near Kukes, Ljabinot (near Tirana) and Bajram Curi.
Albania had a growing say in the affairs of the KLA as it recomposed itself - it was instrumental in summoning the KLA to the talks at Rambouillet to try and head off the 1999 conflict, for instance.
This armed revelry coupled with the rising fortunes of separatism, led Robert Gelbard, the senior US envoy to the Balkan to label the KLA - "a terrorist organization." The Serbs took this to mean a license to kill, which they exercised dutifully in Drenica. Promptly, the USA changed course and the indomitable Madeleine Albright switched parties, saying: "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with in Bosnia."
This stern consistency was followed by a tightening of the embargo against Yugoslavia and by a threat of unilateral action. For the first time in history, the Kosovars finally had a sponsor - and what a sponsor! The mightiest of all. As for Milošević, he felt nauseatingly betrayed. Not only was he not rewarded for his role as the Dayton peacemaker - he was faced with new sanctions, an ultimatum and a direct threat on the very perpetuation of his regime.
The KLA mushroomed not because it attacked Serbs - the attacks were, in fact, very sporadic and had minuscule effects. It ballooned because it delivered where Rugova did not even promise. It delivered an alliance with the United States against the hated Serbs. It delivered weapons. It delivered hope and a plan. It delivered vengeance, the self-expression of the downtrodden. It was joined by the near and the far and, by its own reckoning, its ranks swelled to 50,000 warriors. More objective experts put the figure of active fighters at a quarter this number.
Still, it is an impressive figure in a population of 1.7 million. During the war, it was joined by 400 overweight suburbanites from North America, Albanian volunteers within an "Atlantic Brigade." It also absorbed Albanians with rich military experience from Serbia and Croatia as well as foreign mercenaries and possibly "Afghanis" (the devout Muslim veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Bosnia).
The influx of volunteers put pressure on the leadership, both organizational and financially. The KLA, an entrepreneurial start up of an insurgency, had matured into a national brand of guerrilla fighters. It revamped itself, creating directorates, offices and officers, codes and procedures, a radio station and a news agency, an electronic communications interception unit, a word-of-mouth messenger service and a general military staff, headed from February 1999 by "Sultan" Selimi and divided into seven operational zones.
In short, it reacted to changing fortunes by creating a bureaucracy. Concurrently, it armed itself to its teeth with more sophisticated weapons than ever before, though it was still short of medical supplies, ammunition and communications equipment.
The KLA had shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launchers, such as the German "Armburst," mortars, recoilless rifles, anti-aircraft machine-guns and automatic assault rifles. Some of the weapons were even bought from Serb army officers or imported through Hungary.
All this required a financial phase transition. That the KLA benefited, directly and knowingly, from money tainted by drug trafficking and the smuggling of both goods and people across borders. Of this there can be in little doubt. But I find the proposition that the KLA itself has traded in drugs unlikely. The long-established Albanian clans which control the "Balkan Route" - the same clans that faced down the fearsome Turkish gangs on their own turf - would never have let an upstart such as the KLA take over any of their territory and its incumbent profits.
However, the KLA might have traded weapons. It might have dabbled in smuggling. It might have received donations from drug lords. In this, it was no different from all major modern guerrilla movements. But it did not peddle drugs - not because of moral scruples, but because of the lethal competition it would have encountered.
That the KLA had to resort to such condemnable methods of financing is not surprising. Rugova refused to share with it the funds abroad managed by Bujar Bukoshi on behalf of the "Kosovar People." It had no other means of income and, in contrast to Rugova, could act only clandestinely and surreptitiously. The West was no great help either - contrary to the myth spun by the Serbs.
Another source of income was the three percent "War Tax" levied on 500,000 Kosovar Albanians and their businesses in the diaspora, although most of it ended up under Bukoshi's and Rugova's control. Officially collected by the People's Movement of Kosovo, the ultimate use of the proceeds was the sustenance of the shadow republic. The KLA made use of the voluntary and not so voluntary donations to the Swiss-based fund "Homeland Calls" (or "Motherland is Calling").
The United State, pragmatic superpower that it is, began to divert its attention from the bumbling and hapless Rugova to the emerging KLA. The likes of Gelbard, and his senior, Richard Holbrooke, held talks with its youthful political director, Hashim Thaçi. Suave, togged up and earnest, Thaçi was just what the doctor ordered. To discern that a showdown in Kosovo was near required no prophetic powers. The KLA might come in handy to espy the land and divert the Serb forces should the need arise.
"The Clinton administration has diligently put everything in place for intervention," wrote Gary Dempsey of the Cato Institute in 1998." In fact," he continued,
by mid-July US-NATO planners had completed contingency plans for intervention, including air strikes and the deployment of ground troops. All that was missing was a sufficiently brutal or tragic event to trigger the process. As a senior Defence Department official told reporters on 15 July, "If some levels of atrocities were reached that would be intolerable, that would probably be a trigger."
Dempsey published another article, "The Plight of the Kosovars" in the Middle East Times in August 1998, in which he delineated the future shape of the Kosovo conflict in reasonably accurate detail. The article was written in April 1998, by which time the outline of things to come was evidently plain.
All along, the KLA prepared itself to be a provisional government in waiting. It occupied regions of Kosovo, established roadblocks, administration and welfare offices. Its members operated nocturnally. The Serb reaction became ever harsher until, finally, it threatened not only to wipe the KLA out of existence but also to depopulate the parts of the province controlled by the guerrillas.
In September 1998, NATO threatened air strikes against Serbia, following reports of a massacre of women and children in the village of Gornje Obrinje. This led to the October 20 1998 agreement with Belgrade, which postulated a reduction in the levels of Yugoslav troops in the province.
The KLA was all but ignored in these events. Rugova was not. He was often consulted by the American negotiators and treated like a head of state. The message was deafeningly clear: the KLA was a pawn on the chessboard of war. It had no place where the civilized and the responsible tread. It had no raison d'etre in peacetime. It reacted by hitting a number of "Serb collaborators," mostly of Gorani extract, Muslim Slavs who speak an Albanian dialect. One of the disposed was Enver Maloku, Rugova's close associate.
On 15 January, 1999, in the village of Raçak, someone murdered scores of people and dumped them by the roadside. The KLA blamed the Serbs. The Serbs blamed the KLA and William Walker, the head of the OSCE observer team. Media reports were inconclusive. While everyone was fighting over the smouldering bodies, NATO was preparing to attack and Walker withdrew his observer team from Kosovo into an increasingly reluctant and enraged Macedonia.
Faced with sovereignty-infringing and regime-destabilizing demands at Rambouillet, the Serbs declined NATO demands. Under pressure and after days of consultations, the Albanian delegation accepted the dictated draft agreement hesitatingly. In the absence of the predicted Serb capitulation, "Operation Allied Forces" commenced.
Rambouillet was a turning point for the KLA. Evidently on the verge of war, the United States reverted to its preferences of yore. The KLA, a more useful ally on the field of battle, took over from the LDK as the US favourite. At the behest of the United States, KLA representatives not only were present, but headed the Kosovar negotiating team.
Thaçi took some convincing and shuttling between Rambouillet, Switzerland and Kosovo - but, finally, in March, he accepted the terms of the agreement with a somber Rugova in tow. These public acts of statesmanship - negotiating, bargaining and, finally, accepting graciously - cemented the role and image of the KLA as not only a military outfit, but also as a political organization with the talent and wherewithal to lead the Kosovars.
Rugova's position was never more negligible and marginal.
The KLA will transform in many directions, not just a military guard. One part will become part of the police, one part will become civil administration, one part will become the Army of Kosovo, as a defence force.
Finally, a part will form a political party.
KLA military commander Agim Çeku.
The Western media hit a nadir of bias and unprofessional sycophancy during the Kosovo crisis. It, therefore, remains unclear who pulled whose strings. The KLA was seen to be more adept at spin doctoring than hubris-infested NATO. It started the war as an outcast and ended it as an ally of NATO on the ground and the real government of a future Kosovo. It capitalized ingeniously on Rugova's mysterious disappearance and then on his, even less comprehensible, refusal to visit the refugee camps and to return to liberated Kosovo.
It also interfaced marvelously with the youthful prime ministers of Albania, Pandeli Majko, and Macedonia, Ljubco Georgievski. This new-found camaraderie ended in a summit with the latter, organized by Arben Xhaferi, an influential Albanian coalition partner in Macedonia (and, many say, Thaçi's business partner in Kosovo). Georgievski, who did more for Macedonia's regional integration and amicable relationships with its neighbours than all the previous governments of Macedonia combined, did not hesitate to shake the hand of the political leader of an organization still decried by his own Interior Ministry as "terrorist." It was a gamble - bold and, in hindsight, farsighted - but still, a gamble. Rugova himself was not accorded such an honour when he finally passed through Macedonia, on his way to his demolished homeland.
During the war, the KLA absorbed new recruits from Macedonia (many Macedonian Albanians died in battle in the fields of Kosovo), from Germany, Switzerland, the US, Australia and some Muslim countries. In other words, it was internationalized. It was equipped, though only niggardly, by the West, and it coped with the double task of diplomacy (Thaçi's famous televised discussions with Madeleine Albright, for instance) and political organization.
It was engaged in field guerrilla warfare and reconnaissance without the proper training for either. Add to this tactical military co-ordination and the need to integrate a second, Rugova- and Berisha-sponsored Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo (FARK), and the KLA seems to have been taxed to its breaking point. Cracks began to appear and it has been downhill ever since. Never before was such enormous political capital wasted so thoroughly in so short a time by so few.
One must not forget that victory was not assured until the last moment. The West's reluctance to commit ground troops to the escalating conflict - as Serb forces were committing mass expulsions cum sporadic massacres of the indigenous population - was considered by many KLA fighters to have been a violation of a Bësa (the sacred Albanian vow) given to them by NATO. Opinions regarding the grand strategy for conducting the war differed strongly. The agreement with Milošević that ended the war did not mention any transition period at the end of which the Kosovars would decide their fate in a referendum. It felt like betrayal. At the beginning, there was strong, grassroots resistance to disarmament. Many Kosovars felt that the advantage obtained should be pressed to the point of independence or, at least, a transition period.
Then, when the dust settled, the spoils of war served to widen the rifts. Internecine fighting erupted and is still afoot. The occasional murder served to delineate the territories of each commander and faction within the strained KLA. Everything was and is subject to fluid arrangements of power and profit sharing - from soft drink licenses, through cigarette smuggling and weapons dealing, down to the allocation of funds, some of them still from dubious sources. The situation was further compounded by the invasion of criminal elements from Albania proper. The Kosovar crime clans were effected by the war (though their activities never really ceased) and into the vacuum gushed Albanian organized and ruthless crime.
But, contrary to media-fostered popular images, crime was but one thread in the emerging tapestry of the new Kosovo.
Other, no less critical issues were and are demilitarization and self-government.
Albanians and Serbs have more in common than they care to admit. Scattered among various political entities, both nations came up with grandiose game plans:- Milošević's "Greater Serbia" and the KLA's "Greater Albania." The idea, in both cases, was to create an ethnically homogeneous state by shifting existing borders, incorporating hitherto excluded parts of the nation and excluding hitherto included minorities. Whereas Milošević had at his disposal the might of the Yugoslav army, or so he thought, the Albanians had only impoverished and decomposing Albania to back them. Still, the emotional bond that formed, fostered by a common vision and shared hope, is intact. Albanian flags fly over Albanian municipalities in Kosovo and in Macedonia.
The possession of weapons and self-government have always been emblematic of the anticipated statehood of Kosovo. Being disarmed and deprived of self-governance was, to the Albanians, a humiliating and enraging experience, evocative of earlier Serb-inflicted injuries. Moreover, it was indicative of the perplexed muddle in which the West is still mired. Officially, Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia, but it is also occupied by foreign forces and has its own customs, currency, bank licensing, entry visas and other insignia of sovereignty - shortly, even an internet domain, KO.
This quandary is a typically anodyne European compromise which is bound to ferment into atrabilious discourse and worse. The Kosovars - understandably - will never accept Serb sovereignty or even Serb propinquity willingly. Ignoring the inevitable, tergiversating and equivocating have too often characterized the policies of the Great Powers - the kind of behaviour that turned the Balkans into the morass that it is today.
It is, therefore, inconceivable that the KLA has disbanded and disarmed or transformed itself into the ill-conceived and ill-defined "Kosovo Protection Corps," headed by former KLA commander and decorated Croatian Lieutenant General Agim Çeku and charged with fire fighting, rescue missions and the like. Thousands of KLA members found jobs (or scholarships, or seed money) through the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But, in all likelihood, the KLA still maintains clandestine arms depots (intermittently raided by KFOR), strewn throughout Kosovo and beyond.
Its chain of command, organizational structure, directorates, operational and assembly zones and general staff are all viable. I have no doubt - though little proof - that it still trains and prepares for war: it would be mad not to in this state of utter mayhem. The emergence of the "Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac" (all towns beyond Kosovo's borders, in Serbia, but with an Albanian majority) is a harbinger. Its soldiers even wear badges in the red, black and yellow KLA colours.
The enemies are numerous: the Serbs (should Kosovo ever be returned to them), NATO and KFOR (should they be charged with the task of Kosovo's reintegration with Serbia), perhaps more moderate Albanians with lesser national zeal or Serb-collaborators (like Zemail Mustafi, the Albanian vice president of the Bujanovac branch of President Slobodan Milošević's ruling Socialist Party, who was assassinated three months ago). Moreover, the very borders of Kosovo are in dispute. The territory known to its inhabitants as "Eastern Kosovo" now comprises 70,000 Albanians, captives in a hostile Serbia. Yet "Eastern Kosovo" was never part of the administrative province of Kosovo.
The war is far from over
In the meantime, life is gradually returning to normal in Kosovo itself. Former KLA fighters engage in all manner of odd jobs, from shoveling snow in winter to burning bushes in summer. Even the impossible Joint Administrative Council (Serbs, Albanians and peacekeepers) with its 19 departments, convenes from time to time. The periodic resignation of the overweening Bernard Kouchner aside, things are going well. A bank has been established, another one is on its way. Electricity is being gradually restored, as are medical services and Internet connections. Downtown Priština is being reconstructed by Albanians from Switzerland.
Such normalization can prove lethal to an organization like the KLA, founded on strife and crisis as it is. If it does not transform itself into a political organization in a convincing manner, it might lose its members to the more alluring pastures of statecraft. The local and general elections so laboriously (and expensively) organized in Kosovo are the KLA's first real chance at transformation.
It failed at its initial effort to establish a government with Qosja's Democratic Union Movement, an umbrella organization of parties in opposition to Rugova with Hashim Thaçi as its Prime Minister. Overruled by UNMIK (United Nations Mission In Kosovo), opposed by Berisha's Democratic Party, recognized only by Albania and the main Albanian party in Macedonia and bereft of finances, it was unable to imbue its structure with content and provide the public goods a government is all about.
The KLA was so starved for cash that it was unable even to pay the salaries of its own personnel. Many criminals caught in the act claimed to be KLA members in dire financial straits. Ineptitude and insolvency led to a dramatic resurgence in the popularity of the hitherto discarded Rugova. The KLA then failed to infiltrate existing structures of governance erected by the West (like the Executive Council) or to duplicate them. Thaçi's quest to become deputy-Kouchner was brusquely rebuffed. The ballot box seems now to be the KLA's only exit strategy. The risk is that electoral loss will lead to alienation and thuggery if not to outright criminality. It is a fine balancing act between the virtuous ideals of democracy and the harsh constraints of realpolitik.
At this stage and with elections looming, Hashim Thaçi sounds conciliatory tones. He is talking about a common (Albanian and Serb) resolution of the division of Mitrovica and the problem of missing persons. But even he knows that multi-ethnicity is dead and that the best that can be hoped for is tolerant co-existence. His words are, therefore, intended to curry favour with the West out of the misguided and naive belief that the key to Kosovo's future lies there rather than in the will of the Kosovar people. Western aid is habit-forming, creates dependence and the KLA consumed a lot of it.
Politically, then, the KLA has not yet pupated. Recently, it has embarked on a spate of coalition-forming, initially with Bardhyl Mahmuti of the Democratic Progressive Party of Kosovo (PPDK), the former KLA representative in Western Europe. It seeks to marry its dwindling funds and seat at the West's banquet with the reputation and clout of the PPDK's local dignitaries.
This coveted and negotiable access to Western structures of government bears some elaboration. Kosovar parties and individuals present at the Rambouillet talks were entitled, according to the Rambouillet Agreement and UN General Resolution 1244, to serve, together with UNMIK delegates, in a Kosovo Transitional Council (KTC).
Thus, when KTC was formed in the wake of Operation Allied Force, it was made of Rugova's LDK, Thaçi's KLA, and Rexhep Qosja's United Democratic Movement. There was also a token Serb and two independents, the aforementioned Veton Surroi and Blerim Shala, Editor-in-Chief of the Priština weekly Zeri.
Many newly-formed political parties, such as Mahmuti's, were left out of the KTC and the Executive Council, which is composed of one representative from each of the four largest Kosovar political parties plus four representatives from UNMIK. This, a seat at the cherished table, seems to be the KLA's only tangible asset, but it came at a dear price.
The Executive Council virtually paralysed Thaçi's self-proclaimed and self-appointed government, absorbing many of its ministers and officials with lucrative offers of salaries and budgets. Thaçi himself had to give up a part of the plethora of his self-bestowed titles. This move again proves Thaçi's simplistic perception that to win elections in Kosovo one needs to be seen as a friend of the West.
I have no doubt that this photo-opportunity brand of politics will backfire. The KLA's popularity among the potential electorate is at a nadir and it is being accused of venality, incompetence and outright crime. A lasting transformation of such an image cannot be attained by terpsichorean supineness.
To regain its position, the KLA must regenerate itself and revert to its grassroots. It must dedicate equal time to diplomacy and to politics. It must identify its true constituency, and it is by no means UNMIK. Above all, it must hone its skills of collaboration and compromise. Politics, as opposed to warfare, is never a zero sum game. The operative principle is "live and let live" rather than "shoot first or die." A mental transformation is required, an adjustment of codes of conduct and principles of thought. Should the KLA find in itself the flexibility and intellectual resources - rare commodities in ideological movements - needed to achieve this transition, it might still compose the first government of an independent Kosovo.
If it remains intransigent and peevish, it is likely to end up barely a bloody footnote in history.
This article is part of the Union of Death
DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.
This archived article originally appeared in Central Europe Review. Click here to be directed to the original issue.