Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000

A Corner of Europe S O U T H E A S T E R N    E U R O P E
The Triple Burden of the Intellectual
The Kosovo conflict re-examined

Židas Daskalovski

In this article I want to talk about the "triple burden" which the Kosovo crisis has pressed upon the intellectual world. This "triple burden" is pressuring intellectuals to take one-dimensional stances on the whole issue, either one is pro-NATO or one is against Slobodan Milošević, either one is pro-KLA or one is pro-Serbian army, either one is pro-bombing or one is pro-Serbia's genocide.

As a few independent thinkers have observed, the Kosovo crisis is most frequently viewed in quite simplistic terms and characterized as the fight between the "good" NATO and the "evil" Serbia, or as the battle for the lives of the Kosovo refugees and against Milošević's genocide. To do justice to a handful of authors, such as Noam Chomsky (The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, Common Courage Press, 1999) Slavoj Žižek ("Against the Double Black Mail" New Left Review, No. 234) or Boris Buden ("Saving Private Havel", The Official ARKZIN statement on the War in Yugoslavia ). I must admit that these oversimplifications have been widely criticized. However, none of the analysts, or none that I am aware of, has so far presented a view on the issue that is completely critical and therefore, intellectual. None of the commentators of the war in Yugoslavia have been able to identify the triple trap in which intellectuals might fall thinking about the issue. To clarify these traps, I present to you another story of " why I am against" or, the "three 'barbarians' and the not so innocent victims."

Burden No.1 - NATO bombings:

The NATO bombing campaign could certainly have not "prevented a humanitarian catastrophe developing in Kosovo". If the Alliance was serious and honest about intervening in Kosovo it would have used ground troops to defeat Milošević. As executed, operation "Allied Force" was deeply flawed. In addition NATO's actions indirectly hampered and destabilized another country, Macedonia. The logic of NATO officials that, "the ethnic cleansing [in Kosova] was already underway so the bombings could not have influenced it and instead, were aimed at stopping it," was flawed for a number of reasons.

First of all, it did not take a genius to figure out what Milošević's reactions would have been in the case of a bombardment of Serbia. Secondly, after the bombing intensified Milošević's forces begun an even more fierce campaign of ethnic cleansing- as a NATO spokesmen stated, "today you don't need much to ethnically cleanse a region, just a band of paramilitaries with a Kalashnikov" [I am paraphrasing]. Meanwhile, the flow of refugees has put a tremendous pressure on the governments of Macedonia and Albania, bringing them to the verge of collapse. Clearly the results of NATO's bombardment of Serbia were disastrous and counterproductive for the majority of Kosovo Albanians.

On 22 March 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons, "We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship." The next day, as the air war began, President Clinton stated: "What we are trying to do is to limit his (Milošević's) ability to win a military victory and engage in ethnic cleansing and slaughter innocent people and to do everything we can to induce him to take this peace agreement."

However, since the life of an American soldier is worth much more then a life of any other human being (and definitely more then the lives of Kosovo Albanians or Yugoslav civilians) the option of sending in ground troops was not considered, or at least was not an option in the initial stages of the conflict [1]. In fact, NATO officials built their case for the intervention in Yugoslavia, by calling the situation in Kosovo "ethnic cleansing," and then "genocide." In March, State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters that NATO did not need to prove that the Serbs were carrying out a policy of genocide because it was clear that crimes against humanity were being committed. On the other hand, if NATO truly believed that mass killings or genocide were occurring, it is morally revolting if they thought such a situation should only be addressed by dropping bombs, rather than by taking whatever action would be necessary to stop the killings.

Only when it became apparent that Milošević would not budge did Washington begin contemplating different strategies. NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia and the "precision bombing" of civilian objectives in particular (bridges, factories, etc,) was a graceless act. However, although the correct intellectual stance should have been against the NATO bombing this does not mean that one could not have supported other means of action as a solution to the problem. Given that NATO's Rambouillet ultimatum to Serbia directly led to a dangerous situation, one possible alternative should have been a more realistic and fairer diplomatic initiativ toward Serbia.

In fact, the so-called "Rambouillet Agreement" was a violation of Articles 51 and 52 of the 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Article 51 entitled "Coercion of a Representative of a State" declares: "The expression of a State's consent to be bound by a treaty which has been procured by the coercion of it representative through acts or threats directed against him shall be without legal effect." Article 52 entitled "Coercion of a State by the Threat or Use of Force" reads: "A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations."

Obviously, the "Rambouillet Agreement" was not intended to be a exercise in impartial negotiations. Only if an evenhanded diplomatic proposal for the resolution of the crisis was offered and declined by Milošević, and provided that Serbia undertook ethnic cleansing, would the international community have had the legal right to intervene militarily. This intervention however, should have been all encompassing and not just restricted to air operations.

No.2 - Serbia's Regime

Serbia was directly involved in the break down of Yugoslavia and the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Additionally, the Serbian regime has halted the democratic development in the country and has confronted the international community. Even today Milošević continues to rule Serbia autocratically. Here however, I will only concentrate on Serbian regime's policies regarding Kosova. Serbia abolished Kosovo's autonomy within the Yugoslavian federation in the spring of 1989. Serbia passed a law on abrogation of the activity of the Assembly of Kosova and its government in the summer of 1990, by which Kosova was deprived of legislative and executive power.

After the abrogation of the government bodies of Kosova, the governmental organs of communes to local communities were abrogated as well. Serbia formed new communes and divided Kosova into new districts. The courts of Kosova were abrogated and Serbian courts have been installed. The prisons have become Serbian institutions as well. Changes have been made in the names of cities, villages, streets, quarters and settlements; all of them have taken Serbian names. Serbia has passed more than 200 new laws that are now valid in Kosova as well. Besides laws, many other acts have been approved that are valid in Kosova only. Serbia has dismissed nearly all Albanians employed in the courts, the police, the schools, the university and the hospitals (infant mortality there is now the highest in Europe).

Furthermore, Priština university, formerly the only Yugoslav university where courses were given in Albanian, has been occupied by the Serbian authorities and courses are now given only in Serbian. The Albanian high schools have also been closed down, while only some primary schools have survived. From 1990 to 1997, on the average one to three Albanians were killed by the police every month. Searches of houses, arrests, torturing and plundering by the police became everyday occurrences [2]. For all these reasons, for the fact that the Serbian regime in Kosova is extremely autocratic and intolerant a proper intellectual response would be to oppose it.

No.3 - Kosova Liberation Army (KLA)

Although it appears that majority of Albanians [3] supported this "national liberation" army, one should not overlook the fact that it was the appearance of KLA that led to a direct armed confrontation with the Serbian regime. Nor should one overlook the fact that KLA employed typical terrorist guerrilla warfare [4] against the Serbian regime. Until the emergence of KLA, Kosova Albanians pretended to be independent, ([Ibrahim] Rugova and the parallel society) and suffered gross human rights violations under the Serbian regime, but, and this is important if not crucial, were not caught in violent conflict.

As one would have expected, the Serbian police brutally responded to the actions of KLA, killing innocent civilians and making the populations of whole villages flee. For the sake of saving civilian lives one should have condemned not endorsed the KLA. True, the Serbian regime never offered Kosova Albanians anything resembling democracy or autonomy, but to support the KLA and the development of a dangerous military conflict seems to me quite inhumane.

One could argue that the position of Kosova Albanians was so delicate so as to resemble the Jews under the Nazi regime. If true, this would then justify armed rebellion as the only possible remedy, however, to compare the situation of the Kosovars under Milošević to the Jews under Hitler is to exaggerate the matter immodestly. It is all too easy to comment now that KLA's project was a worth while undertaking, but, had Serbia's military been more brutal to the civilian population of Kosova then the story would have been very different. Indeed, many Balkan commentators warned that genocidal policies inclusive of mass killings of Kosova Albanians were possible once NATO started their campaign.


This is then the "triple burden" I was talking about; a true intellectual, indeed a genuinely concerned human being, should not have fallen the trap of supporting one of the sides in the conflictual matrix (KLA versus Serbia, Serbia versus NATO). Instead an intellectual would have condemned all three sides of the conflict, NATO, Serbia and the KLA equally. One did not have to take a stand behind any of the sides in this conflict in order to be "right", one should have opposed all three and favored a peaceful approach to the resolution of theios particular conflict. This conclusion is reached because it would have saved human lives and property, not because it would have sustained any particular national program or geopolitical considerations. If preservation of human life is not sacred, of primary interest to intellectuals in particular, and all people in general, then our world is not a worthy place to live in.

Appendix - The Not so Innocent Victims: Kosova Albanians

Watching Kosovo Albanians get on the buses that will take them to some of the numerous refugee camps in Macedonia or Albania, and hearing them chant "NATO, NATO," and show the victory sign, to listen to them speak how NATO air strikes are "good and they should continue" despite their own and their nation's tragedy, was somehow morbid. Although it was fairly obvious that the bombardments have only worsened the situation no Albanian has criticized the military actions of KLA, or the NATO air attacks. In fact, Kosova Albanians have more or less behaved as a one single body- having uniform views (we do not accept Serbian proposals for autonomy, even if we have to live underground-Rugova's period- or we have to fight and get killed in en mass-UCK and post Rambuille period) on the issue of the status of Kosova. The determinacy of the Kosova Albanians to have an independent Kosova at any cost, and the support for KLA from major fractions of the Kosova Albanians definitely puts them in the category of the not so innocent victims.

The Other Not-So-Innocent Victims

As one might remember during the Croatian war that a fraction of the Serbian people laid bouquets of flowers in front of the rolling YNA tanks on their way to Croatia. A bigger fraction of the Serbs has persistently voted for Milošević's party, the Serbian Socialists or for the ultranationalist Šešelj. Moreover, a relatively small section of the Serbian people has participated in the wars fought in Croatia, Bosnia, and now Kosovo, either as regular soldiers, police units, or paramilitaries. By and large, as Buden puts it, "Serbs in Belgrade certainly knew enough about ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, at least, no less then they knew about what happened to Vukovar or later in Sarajevo." Finally as Žižek points out:

In the course of the student demonstrations against the Milošević's Socialist Party falsification of the election results in the Winter of 1996, the Western media who closely followed the events and praised the revived democratic spirit in Serbia, rarely mentioned the fact that one of the regular slogans of the demonstrators against the special police forces was "Instead of kicking us, go to Kosovo and kick out the Albanians!". In today's Serbia, the absolute sine qua non of an authentic political act would thus be to unconditionally reject the ideological topos of the "Albanian threat to Serbia." [5]

Still, this is not to say that I believe in notions such as a collective guilt, this is only to illustrate that some of the policies pursued by Milošević have been directly, or indirectly supported by a significant number of Serbs. This fact is indeed troubling, for besides the "not so innocent citizens" Serbia once had (still has?) a vibrant democratic opposition, a sense of civic society and intellectual potential. One only needs to remember the events in the winter of 1996/7 to acknowledge this.

Židas Daskalovski, 3 March 2000

Archive of Židas Daskalovski's articles on South-eastern Europe


  • 1. This attitude is clearly reflected in the American media. As Žižek writes: "when the three American soldiers were taken prisoners, CNN dedicated the first 10 minutes of the News to their predicament (although everyone knew that NOTHING will happen to them!), and only then reported on the tens of thousands of refugees, burned villages and Pristina turning into a ghost town." See his "Against the Double Black Mail" New Left Review 234. ^
  • 2. See the reports by the Kosovar Human Rights Committee. ^
  • 3. In Albania, Kosova, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, US, Switzerland, and so on. ^
  • 4. At first killing 'loyal' Albanians, then 'ambushing' Serbian police units and finally openly fighting any of the Serbian/Yugoslavian forces stationed in the province, and the Kosovo Serbs. ^
  • 5. Žižek, "Against the Double Blackmail" ^


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