Any visitor to the Balkans knows that to sit down for coffee or throat-rasping raki with a person from any ethnicity in the region is to risk a not so quick, uninterruptible, vitriolic five-hundred-year history lesson so skewed that it doesn’t deserve the name of history . . . real history just about ceased to exist within Albanian and Serbian discourse. It has largely been replaced by monologues of myth and prejudice. It is now a weapon of survival.
So wrote Matthew McAllester in Beyond the Mountains of the Damned, a recounting of the late-1990s bloodshed in Kosovo. While Balkan history has lately lost its vogue in Washington, this is a good time for some brushing up. And since the conventional wisdom is so relentlessly romantic about the valiant Kosovars struggling against Serb oppression, I'll present here a side of the story that is rarely heard.
Seven years ago, an American-led NATO campaign drove Serbia out of Kosovo, which has since enjoyed semi-autonomy. Now the United Nations wants to broker an agreement over Kosovo's status. Independence for the majority-Albanian province seems to be the preferred position of most European governments and of the Bush Administration, though U.S. officials insist that no decision has been made.
The administration's tilt was evident last June, when Agim Ceku, who carries the title of Kosovar prime minister and who seeks to gain full independence from Serbia, made a quiet visit to Washington—so quiet that it was almost entirely unreported at the time. Ceku met with Condoleezza Rice, joining the growing list of thugs and crooks welcomed to town by the secretary of state.
Who is Ceku? As a brigadier general in the Croatian Army, he commanded Croat forces in the 1993 Medak offensive, in which the “Croatian Army perpetrated abuses against Serbian civilians and conducted a ‘scorched earth’ policy,” according to Human Rights Watch. In August 1995, Ceku was the organizational force behind “Operation Storm.” In the course of that campaign, which the New York Times described as “the largest single ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the war,” more than 100,000 Serbs were driven from the Krajina region of Croatia.
Ceku, who is a Kosovar Albanian, took command of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1999. He is widely credited with transforming it into a guerrilla group, and for drawing NATO into direct conflict with Serbia. After the war, the KLA morphed into the Kosovo Protection Force, still commanded by Ceku. This is a sort of first-responder outfit but any future army for an independent Kosovo would clearly be drawn from the ranks of the KPC. A leaked UN report, written in 2000 but not released (probably because it was too embarrassing) found that members of the Corps were involved in murder, torture, illegal detention, and extortion of local businesses.
The late writer Michael Kelly said at the time that former KLA leaders had formed a “criminal mobocracy” and “joined forces with former Serb paramilitary gangsters to establish themselves in drug peddling and prostitution.” Meanwhile, Kelly wrote, an “ongoing campaign to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of all but Kosovar Albanians” had forced more than 100,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians to flee the province; about 400 Serbs have been murdered, and many of those who remain live under constant, heavy guard.
Periodic violence has erupted in the succeeding years. Two years ago, anti-Serb riots across Kosovo—which occurred despite the presence of NATO and UN forces on the ground—left 19 Serbs dead and hundreds injured and displaced.
In recent years, Ceku has made public statements to the international community about guaranteeing the rights of Kosovar minorities, but many suspect that he remains a hard-nosed, thuggish Balkan commander whose constituent base remains dangerously nationalistic. Two months after meeting with Rice, Ceku paid a jailhouse visit to Selim Krasniqi , a KLA general who had just been convicted by an international tribunal of war crimes committed in 1998. “Kosovo,” Ceku remarked afterwards, “needs more men like Krasniqi.”
Ceku's visit and the Bush Administration's general pro-Kosovo tilt reinforces what Balkanists have maintained since the early 1990s, namely that the United States is not an evenhanded player. Instead, it has sought to shine a bright light on Serb atrocities—of which there have been many and which should be condemned—while applying different standards to Bosnian, Croat, and Kosovar Albanian thuggery. The White House subscribes to the same theories of history that can be heard in those Balkan cafes—theories that remain largely ungrounded in reality.