Kosovo is not Albania. Numerous commentators have warned that today's conflict in Albania could spread tomorrow to Kosovo, the troubled ethnic-Albanian populated land in the south of what remains of Yugoslavia. Yes, the battle in Albania dangerously increases the chance of intensified conflict in Kosovo. But no, the conflict in Albania will not "spread" to Kosovo.
The analogy of a fire spreading out of control, from the hinterlands of Albania across the border into Kosovo, dangerously misdiagnoses the connection between the two lands and prescribes the wrong course of cures.
The troubles in Albania and Kosovo differ tremendously. First, the protagonists are not the same. Albania's struggle pits Albanian against Albanian. Kosovo's struggle sets Kosovar Albanians against Serbs. Not only are the pairs of protagonists different, but each actor stands in distinction. Albanians in Albania are not interchangeable with Kosovar Albanians.
Although they do share relatives across the borders and a real and imagined history, their lives have been defined most recently by distinct struggles. Albanians are struggling to form a democratic state in the wake of a Stalinist leader and in the midst of a nonfunctioning economy; Kosovar Albanians are contending for autonomy after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the rise of Serbian state-sanctioned violence.
Second, the protagonists are not likely to cross lines. An ironclad, heavily militarized border keeps them physically apart, and their own self-interest divides as well. Kosovar Albanians' hope that a democratic Albania would become a megaphone for the interests of their struggle has been crushed by the reality of the new Albanian state, a land too consumed with its own problems to offer much of a hand to kinfolk elsewhere. Although they would surely attempt to aid Kosovo's Albanians should a war erupt there, Albanians have little interest in seeing that happen - at least not now. So too, while watching the battles in Albania with great consternation, and with sympathies leaning heavily toward the north and the preservation of a democratic state, Kosovar Albanians have not neatly taken sides.
Different reasons for battle
Third, the nature of the problems have little in common. Ask Albanians the reason for the conflagration in Albania and hear a confused mix of responses: anarchy and mob rule following economic collapse; an attack on President Sali Berisha; an attack on democracy by the socialists; a struggle for democracy by the people; renewal of the struggle of south versus north. Ask Kosovar Albanians the reason for their impending conflict and hear a unified response: years of Serbian oppression against Kosovar Albanians. Kosovar Albanians would fight a battle laced with the rhetoric of liberation; the liberatory nature of the bloodshed in Albania remains fuzzy.
The notion that each Albanian conflict must be about uniting Albanians in a great Albanian state is simply wrong. No one seriously contends that today's conflict in Albania concerns the making of Greater Albania. On the contrary, it's about maintaining or seizing power over today's Albania. Similarly, although many Kosovar Albanians would accept unity with Albania as a solution to their crisis, at least an equal number seek autonomous statehood, and a small but growing minority would consider other autonomous arrangements. In any event, for all Kosovar Albanians, the immediate and primary goal is liberation from Serbia, not connection with Albania.
The melting candle analogy
A better analogy than the spreading firestorm would be leaving a candle near the fireplace. Left near the fire, a candle melts. The remnants of calm in Kosovo have already begun to dissolve.
The intensified militarization of Kosovo, legitimized by the conflict in Albania, may be the factor that pushes the candle too close to the fire. Tensions in Kosovo have mounted as Yugoslav (Serbian and Montenegrin) troops have driven into Kosovar Albanian villages, reinforcing the already heavily militarized Serbian-Albanian border. Ibrahim Rugova, the Gandhi-quoting Kosovar Albanian leader that has long preached a strategy of passive resistance, appears to be losing his grip on an increasingly restless population that demands more militant action. At the same time, problems in Kosovo come in handy for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. He can scapegoat Albanians and divert attention from his own political problems in Belgrade.
Over the past three months, violence in Kosovo has escalated. A mysterious new entity known as the Kosova Liberation Army has purportedly claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on the Serbian rector of Kosovo University and for subsequent assassinations of Kosovar Albanians rumored to be collaborators with the Belgrade regime. Many Kosovar Albanians believe that Milosevic has manufactured the Liberation Army in order to spark conflict. But most Serbs and a number of Kosovar Albanians agree that an armed resistance could be gathering strength. The Albanian crisis creates an atmosphere in which guns become legitimized as the currency of dispute. As history has shown, armed conflict is always easier for those surrounded by armed conflict.
The firestorm in Albania could indeed dissolve any hope for reconciliation in Kosovo. But a meltdown in Kosovo would create a different crisis, of a different nature. Those interested in obtaining and preserving peace in the south Balkans should come to terms with the fact that Kosovo is not Albania. The two areas need their own sets of negotiations, teams of regional and international peace-monitors, influxes of financial and institution-building support, and temporary measures to stem violence. And they need them now.
* Julie Mertus, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, is author of a forthcoming book on Kosovo titled "National Truths" (University of California Press).