Politics & Policy

Kristallnacht in Kosovo

The burning of churches raises questions about independence.

A pogrom started in Europe this week, with one U.N. official being quoted as saying, “Kristallnacht is under way in Kosovo.” Serbs are being murdered and their 800-year-old churches are aflame. Much of the Christian heritage in Kosovo and Metohija is on fire and could be lost forever. By these deeds too many of Kosovo’s Albanians have shown that their rhetoric about “democracy” and “multiethnicity” is false, and demonstrates also that the international community’s acceptance of them has been naïve.

How did this week’s events begin? Just as in the 1930s, a rumor became a fact and prearranged plans were put into action. Members of the victimized community (in this case, Serbian children) were accused of chasing four Albanian children into a river and causing the death of three of them. Hours later, the U.N. Mission–which is what passes for authority in Kosovo–issued a statement that the accusation against the Serbs was false, adding that the surviving Albanian child had told the U.N. that no Serbs had been involved in the drownings. Nevertheless, anti-Serb violence did not abate. And today Kosovo burns still.

Beginning in the ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, a horde of armed Albanians crossed into the Serbian half of the city and breached a Polish peacekeepers’ line. Half a dozen people of both ethnic groups were killed.

Hours later, busloads of Albanians were transported to areas where Serbs are concentrated–in some cases, clashing with international peacekeepers on the way. In some places, entire Serbian villages have been razed. The U.N., ever courageous, evacuated its missions from at least three cities in Kosovo. In two of them, Serbian Orthodox churches were set aflame. And it only got worse during that first night, and then again the next day.

Monasteries and churches dating back to the 12th century are burning; 14 have been completely destroyed so far. Their cultural significance is irreplaceable. Photographs and memories are now all that remain. But instead of protecting them, the U.N. fled.

The wave of violence has been too coordinated to be a spontaneous, popular reaction to rumors. “It was planned in advance,” said Derek Chappell, the U.N.’s Kosovo mission spokesman. All that was needed was a pretext. It is clear that some in the Kosovo Albanian leadership believe that by cleansing all remaining Serbs from the area (having already achieved the cleansing of two-thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs after its “liberation” in 1999) and destroying Serbian cultural sites, they can present the international community with a fait accompli. But ethnic purity cannot be allowed to be the foundation for either democracy or independence.

Upon hearing the news of the pogrom and the burning of churches in Kosovo, a small crowd of Belgraders surrounded the city’s mosque in retaliation. Windows were broken, and a fire was started. (They did the same in Serbia’s second largest city, Nis.) In contrast to the scene in Kosovo, the Serbian government dispatched several hundred police to try and control the crowd; joining them was a Serbian Orthodox bishop who tried to talk the crowd down. They did not succeed entirely. The Serbian mob was as despicable as its Albanian counterpart, but it was far smaller (numbering in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands; and there were a few isolated incidents, not a systematic campaign of destruction), and it had to fight government authorities and disregard the pleadings of a bishop to commit its deeds. And 78 of the rioters have been arrested. In Kosovo, where are the Albanian politicians standing in front of the Serbian holy sites? Who was guarding the Serbian churches and villages? Why are they in flames? There are 18,000 foreign troops in Kosovo. Why are they not doing more?

The Kosovo Albanian leadership, while insisting they are capable of governing an independent state, also claim that they were unable to control their constituents and stop the pogrom. So, while the leader of the most influential political party in Kosovo, Hasim Thaci, travels abroad preaching the virtues of multiethnicity and a civic-based identity, all five Serbian holy sites in his hometown of Prizren were burned. Meanwhile, his political party (and the other Kosovo Albanian parties) issued statements blaming the conflagration on the Serbs.

This does not mean that individual Albanian leaders and ordinary Albanians have not acted honorably. Thaci did not want this to happen, and his hastily arranged return to Kosovo may well calm the situation. As a former KLA man, he might be able to reign-in some of the pogrom’s leaders. The Kosovo Albanian prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, and Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA terrorist commander and the leader of one of their political parties, have been commended by local officials and Serbian Orthodox Church figures for their assistance. But on the other hand, these same men have been promising for six years to rebuild Serbian churches and homes, and to investigate the approximately 3,000 ethnically murders and kidnappings, that have taken place since June 1999. Their words did not translate into actions. Where have they been for the past five years? Their inaction certainly contributed to the perception by Albanian extremists that they could get away with murder and with arson. And they have. How many arrests will we see this time? Will an Albanian judge convict one of his own for a crime against a Serb? It hadn’t happened before Kristallnacht in Kosovo. Can it happen now?

Post-June 1999, Kosovo’s Serbs were willing to reject the lessons of history and wanted to work with, even to trust, their Albanian neighbors. They believed Kosovo’s Albanian politicians who promised that religious freedom and multiethnicity would be made permanent–that the values of the West would take root in Kosovo.

At the same time, Kosovo’s Serbs have for years been warning of the real nature of Albanian nationalism, and the U.N. and the West have assumed they were exaggerating. But as the diocese of Kosovo’s statement this week makes clear, “What has happened today and is happening this evening in Kosovo and Metohija represents a horrible defeat for the entire U.N. mission which has been deceiving the world for the past five years with their alleged successes when in fact they were enabling militarization.”

Murder upon murder, kidnapping upon kidnapping, arson upon arson, and now finally this pogrom, have led the Serbs to the realization that they are at the mercy of barbarians. This is ethnic aggression of the worst sort “in the heart of Europe” (as Madeleine Albright famously called Kosovo before she bombed Serbia). Today, we see the true face of the “multiethnicity” of which all spoke so highly. And all this is happening under U.N. and NATO administration. Imagine how bad it could get if Kosovo becomes independent.

Senator Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), after having met Bishop Artemije of Kosovo several weeks ago in Washington, wrote a letter to President Bush in which he concluded, “We should not consider advancing the cause of independence of a people whose first act when liberated was to ethnically cleanse a quarter of a million of their fellow citizens and destroy over a hundred of their holy sites.” This week’s dismal events have proved him all too right. Perhaps this pogrom will force the Bush Administration to take seriously the warnings of Belgrade, and help stop the rivers of Kosovo from flowing red with blood. .

Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic is the managing editor of The National Interest and a senior fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.


The Latest