Blackbird Bye Bye

How the Kosovo Crisis Helps Milosevic and Clinton

The NATO air strikes have been of no help to the Kosovo villagers whose slaughter began before the first planes took off to bomb the suburbs of Belgrade— instead of the tanks and troops that had been massed to attack them. Not until the villages began to burn, thousands were dead, and a half-million people were fleeing did NATO strike the troop deployments— a pathetic response to Europe's worst civilian massacre since World War II. The air strikes, however, do play into the hands of spin doctors for both Clinton and Milosevic.

For Clinton, waging war, like everything else in his administration, is seen as part of an ongoing political campaign. Tarnished by the recent scandals, the president claimed the moral high road in the Balkans, telling guests at one fundraiser, "We are trying to set a model for the world, and we're not perfect, but we're trying."

An air war suits Clinton's agenda because with U.S. superiority, it is generally— despite last week's downing of the Stealth fighter by a Soviet-made missile— "virtual warfare" in which the U.S. can project power to achieve basically psychological goals. If it doesn't work, Clinton can always declare another no-fly zone, claim victory, and go to more fundraisers. Deployment of ground troops would mean casualties, which Clinton wants to avoid both because it will ruin his legacy and because it will cause problems for Gore. If an air war is run right, it's pretty much casualty-free. In fact, the air strikes have helped Milosevic get the job done faster in Kosovo, creating the conditions for partitioning the province— the richer half for Serbia; what's left for the secessionist-minded Albanians.

The air war also serves Milosevic's purposes. Propaganda, not Tito's army, is the heartbeat of Milosevic's ultranationalist appeal. Since he took power, he has projected himself as the savior of the Serbs. Crushing an independent press, Milosevic used state television to build his program. When in the early '90s the Serbs, battling the Croats, destroyed the ancient city of Vukovar, a Serb general was shown on TV standing in the street, screaming, "Leveled but free!" Now Milosevic is dispatching Serbian warlords to help lead the Kosovo massacre— chief among them the notorious gangster known as Arkan, a war criminal responsible for ghastly atrocities against civilians in Bosnia who has been resurrected by Milosevic's propaganda machine as a Rambo figure. Last weekend, Arkan was again at work amid the burning villages and fleeing civilians in Kosovo, declaring, according to the London Times, "I'm back in business."

A Kosovo Primer
Closeup on the Powder Keg

President Clinton's decision to lead NATO into bombing Yugoslavia last week left people badly confused as to what is happening. Here's a basic primer to help understand the region.

Where and what is Kosovo? It is a part of Serbia, which itself is the major state in what remains of Yugoslavia. Kosovo is slightly smaller than Connecticut, and is located in the southern part of Yugoslavia, north of Albania.

Who are the Kosovars? About 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are of Albanian origin. They speak Albanian and are mostly Muslim.

Why is the area considered so dangerous? The First World War started in the Balkans. Since 1989, the intra-ethnic bloodshed has been so intense that it gave rise to the term ethnic cleansing. The fear is that this could spill over into other countries in the region, such as Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, even Turkey.

Could Kosovo start a Third World War? Unlikely. The present relatively prosperous continent is increasingly united politically and economically, and militarily tied into NATO— very different from the volatile Europe that existed before World Wars I and II. Possible exception: Russia, which is in political and economic turmoil.

Who's in charge? Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav dictator who took power in 1987, seven years after Tito died, was a Communist party official who had built a power base playing to the Serbs' longing for regained national grandeur through a campaign of ethnic cleansing. In July 1998, the U.S. Senate branded him a war criminal.

Is this a civil war? No. It is a struggle for self-determination.

Who are the combatants? On the Kosovar side, the largest group, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), seeks independence through guerrilla war and eventual alignment with Albania. It numbers nearly 15,000. A second group, the Democratic League of Kosovo, seeks self-government within Yugoslavia and eventual independence through nonviolent protest. Arrayed against them are Milosevic's police and army units— more than 20,000 heavily armed troops backed by artillery and tanks.

Why are the Serbs so determined to hold Kosovo? Kosovo is key to the Serbs' mythic past, somewhat similar to the way Jews, Christians, and Muslims view Jerusalem. It was in 1389 in the Battle of Blackbird Field (Kosovo means "blackbird") that the Serbs were vanquished by the Turks, who then ruled over them for the next 500 years. The Serbs undoubtedly are also eyeing some of Kosovo's richer metal mines.

What's Kosovo's economy like? The people are mostly small farmers or are engaged in forestry and mining.

How do I get beyond mainstream U.S. coverage of the crisis? Banned by Milosevic, independent Yugoslav Radio B92 is up and running at, and also broadcasts in English over shortwave at 1476 khz from 10:15 to 11 p.m. Vienna time (which is 3:15 to 4 p.m. in New York). Most dependable source: BBC World Service hourly reports (91.5 FM in New York). Check out Yugoslav Web site at and Kosova Crisis Center ( CNN at has more links.

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