Word From Kosovo: This Isn't Bosnia, 'It's More Dangerous'
PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA — As clashes escalate between government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in Serbia's Kosovo Province, the United States and European powers are scrambling to avert what they say could be a replay of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But Kosovo could produce a conflict far deadlier than the strife that claimed some 200,000 lives in neighboring Bosnia and added the term "ethnic cleansing" to the lexicon of modern warfare, experts say.
A conflict in Kosovo could spill across international borders and suck in archrivals Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, shattering the stability of Europe.
"Kosovo is not Bosnia in a whole bunch of ways," says Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council staffer who worked on the Clinton administration's Bosnia policy. "It's more dangerous."
The crises do share two common elements. The first is that they are the result of nationalistic policies that Slobodan Milosevic has employed to maintain his grip on power - first as president of Serbia and now as president of the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro.
Secondly, although both crises were predictable, the international community failed to take timely action to halt them and then took largely ineffective steps as they quarreled among themselves.
On Wednesday, the Contact Group - the US, Italy, Britain, Russia, France, and Germany - agreed to freeze Yugoslav assets abroad in a bid to pressure Milosevic to rein in his security forces in Kosovo and negotiate a resolution. But the group did not immediately impose a ban on foreign investment, a reflection of deep differences on how to address the crisis.
Mr. Milosevic ignited the 1992-95 war in Bosnia by sponsoring Bosnian Serb conquests in a bid to create a "Greater Serbia." The plan, which eventually triggered a US-led military intervention, relied on the large Serb population in Bosnia to seize land, expel non-Serbs, and run a proxy Serb state.
The Bosnian Serbs were helped by having the same language, culture, history, and ethnic roots as Bosnia's Croats and Muslims, which gave the Serbs insights for plotting military and political strategies.
But Milosevic enjoys no such advantages in Kosovo. The emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is the product of almost 10 years of repressive rule by Milosevic. He has tried to boosting his popularity among Serbs by appealing to their reverence for Kosovo, the seat of their empire in medieval times and Orthodox Christian Church.
But Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians, most of whom are Muslim, outnumber Serbs 9 to 1. This effectively makes the Serb police and troops from other parts of Serbia an occupation force encircled by a hostile ethnic group.
This could mean a "more vicious, destructive conflict than Bosnia," warns Aleksandar Vasovic, a military expert at B-92, Serbia's main independent radio station. "I don't think anybody will care about collateral damage on either side.
"France had more French in Algeria in the 1950s [during a guerrilla war by Algerians seeking independence] than Serbia has Serbs in Kosovo."
"Kosovo is going to be like Algeria or Vietnam," Mr. Vasovic says. "The Serbs are going to be isolated in military compounds or in cities and outposts. The KLA will control the rest."
The Serbs have the advantage of firepower, with the Yugoslav army and Serbian police armed with jet fighters, heavy artillery, and tanks. But some experts question the Serbs' morale. Milosevic has neglected the army, much of whose hardware is in disrepair. The police, meanwhile, have been given modern arms, high pay, and privileges, including permission to enrich themselves through corruption.
Their KLA opponents are lightly armed. But the massacre of ethnic Albanian women and children in the Drenica region by Serb police in February and March has brought the rebels an outpouring of support and cash for weapons from Albanian communities in Europe and the US.
By contrast, Bosnia's Muslims had little outside aid for much of the war. They were poorly armed and unprepared to take on the Bosnian Serbs.
Experts say the KLA may also garner strength from Albanian society, based on extended families, which values obedience and discipline. Albanians live by a centuries-old tribal code known as Lexe Dukagjini, which has preserved the powerful institution of bessa, or personal honor.
"Bessa is the highest moral value," explains Sadri Fetiu, head of the Institute of Albanology at Pristina University in the provincial capital. "If you break your bessa, you should die from shame."
The tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians who marched in protests over the Drenica massacres gave their bessa to sacrifice their lives for independence. Reportedly, KLA recruits do the same.
The greatest difference between Kosovo and Bosnia, however, is the potential for the conflict to spill into neighboring states. The unrest in Kosovo has fueled enormous sympathy among kin in Albania and Macedonia and reawakened dreams of Albanian reunification. Should a conflict in Kosovo spill into Albania and Macedonia, many experts worry that Greece, an Orthodox Christian state and ally of Serbia, could come in on the Serb side. Turkey, a Muslim state with a large Albanian population, could enter on the side of the Albanians.