THE SPECTATOR Magazine (Great Britain)|
3 April 1999
WHAT THE KLA REALLY IS
Just being against Milosevic does not make people decent, warns Mark Almond.
'Know thy enemy' is the best advice for any general. Nato's military leaders have been extensively briefed about the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic over the last eight years, but if the Serbs are our enemies, should we embrace the Serbs' foes on the ground in Kosovo as our natural allies?
Little has been published about the shadowy Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which is now widely seen as Nato's natural ally. Yet US senators and retired generals have queued up to urge President Clinton to arm them and on Tuesday Robin Cook demonstrated his support by staging a press conference with a KLA representative.
Anyone familiar with the murky history of the KLA and its methods should have serious qualms about putting weapons into its hands. Ordinary Albanians in Kosovo may be suffering a terrible wave of reprisals from the Serb forces since the start of Nato's bombing campaign, but this was exactly what the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army hoped for.
Before the current crisis exploded, one of the KLA's leaders admitted that its strategy was to provoke the Serbs into reprisals and then gather support among ordinary Albanians and from the West. These are classic partisan tactics. Tito used them during the war against the Germans after 1941. The KLA guerillas were well aware that the Serbs were likely to react brutally to attacks on their policemen. That's what they wanted. Now they have got all the brutality they could ask for.
The media love to glamorise guerrillas. Now the Nato establishment is reinforcing the radical chic. Because swaggering Serb policemen are embodiments of gormless viciousness, it is naive to conclude that being against Milosevic automatically makes someone decent.
Public appearances of the KLA regularly conform to the requirements of terrorist style. Like the IRA or ETA at their 'military' funerals, KLA fighters wear reversed black balaclava helmets with eye-slits cut into them. On the first anniversary of the fighting in Kosovo a few weeks ago, CNN broadcast slips of the 'revolutionary opera' staged by the KLA to mark the event. Madame Mao would have been proud. The Internet sites sympathetic to the KLA link with, for instance, those of the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso. Not since the Sandinistas appeared in Nicarague have the armchair partisans in North America or Islington had such heroes out of central casting.
President Clinton and his civilian advisers belong to the Sixties generation which idolised the Vietcong and utterly failed to foresee that their victory would lead to the exodus of the Boat People. Richard Miles, the US ambassador to Belgrade, told student demonstrators in Pristina in September 1997 about his experiences outside the Pentagon in the 1960s. Shouldn't the Vietnam vets at Shape have their doubts about supporting the Vietcong of the Balkans?
Contrary to its current propaganda, the KLA was not set up in response to intensified Serb repression in Kosovo over the last few months. In fact, it was established as far back as 1982. After Tito's death in 1980, his great regional rival, Albania's obdurate Stalinist Enver Hoxha, saw an opportunity to cause problems for his Yugoslav neighbour by taking advantage of Kosovo's large Albanian majority. It was on Tirana's initiative that the KLA came into being. It soon came a cropper at the hands of the Yugoslav secret police.
The survivors fled abroad. Some took refuge in Hoxha's Albania. Others became refugees in Germany and Switzerland. There they bided their time. Operating under various Marxist-Leninist party names, the emigres seemed as completely out of the political picture as Lenin's quarelling emigres in Zurich in 1914, especially when communist Albania collapsed in 1992.
The implosion of post-communist Albania in 1997 threw a lifeline to the shadowy KLA. Overnight, weapons flooded out of arsenals and a route back to Kosovo was opened up. It also revealed the nexus between the KLA's Maoist-style liberation ideology and the Albanian mafia. In January this year, the outgoing Albanian interior minister, Perikli Teta, admitted that 'smugglers and mafia have ruled this country for the last 16 months'. He added that the Albanian ex-communists came back to power 'through the barrel of a gun'.
Far from reducing corruption or the smuggling of people and drugs across the Adriatic, the comeback of the Albanian ex-communists has made matters worse. I have seen the nightly exodus of hundreds of illegal immigrants heading for Italy in speedboats from the mafia-run port of Vlore on the Adriatic coast. The evidence is that the KLA takes its cut from the 1500 US dollars that many of these people pay to get to Italy. Both the Italian and HM Customs warn that heroin and other drugs are brought into Europe by couriers posing as refugees.
Italy has suffered from an exponential growth of an Albanian mafia as its homegrown variety has been cut back byu the so-called 'clean hands' investigations. The Albanian gangs - whether Kosovar or from Albania proper - have amazed the Italian 'cosa nostra' by their brutality. Italian opposition to the use of Aviano and other bases by Nato aircraft is not therefore just a kneejerk response to the unreconstructed communists.
Millions of Italians read every day in their newspapers about the activities of Albanian mafia gangs. Every night television shows grisly scenes of murder and pimping. A post-modern schizophrenia fills the airwaves: first the reports of Serb atrocities and Allied air-strikes to save Kosovo, then the local news about Kosovar gang strikes against Italian pensioners. Italians may be forgiven for linking the two phenomena and asking why they should fight for the KLA's cause when its foot-soldiers and enforcers seem to be more active in Milan than in Pristina.
Now on Italy's Adriatic coast her armed forces are involved in two contradictory operations. Anti-aircraft missiles are being set in place to repel Serbian counter-attacks, and at sea the Italian navy is trying to thwart the invasion of illegal immigrants organised by the Albanian mafia. So far the seaborne threat is the only one to have materialised and the Italians are being swamped.
In this country, the Kosovar refugees are organised by the KLA. Most of them seem to be fit young men - very different from the women and children from Bosnia a few years ago. The risk must be that some of them are acting as the advance guard for the drugs couriers and money-launderers of the KLA instead of taking the speedboat back to Albania to fight in the mountains against the Serbs. Already in Germany and Switzerland as well as Italy the police complain of their uphill struggle against the tight-knit Albanian-speaking gangs.
While these gangs get better organised in Western Europe, Nato is expected to back the KLA's demand for its own statelet in the Balkans. Since all the moderate Albanian leaders have been marginalised by the fighting, or even murdered by the Serbs, there is no hope that an independent Kosovo will emerge multi-party and tolerant from the ruins.
The KLA despised the moderate non-violent Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova. Their cruel ridiculing of him as a naive Gandhi of the Balkans has been confirmed by events. The West did nothing to back his peaceful separatism and the Serbs may well have murdered him by now in order to create a clear killing field between their extremism and the KLA.
In response to the upsurge of fighting, no doubt many ordinary Albanians in Kosovo have joined the ranks of the KLA. They are not racketeers or pimps but, just as the bulk of Tito's partisans were not serious communists in 1944, what matters is who will be in charge when the fighting stops. Then the peasants will go home to try to patch up their lives, while the hard-core activists will stay in charge of a new perverse political hybrid - the Maoist-mafia statelet. It will be the first of its kind, but the Kurdish PKK, for one, will be hoping it isn't the last.
President Clinton was negligent in neglecting the Kosovo issue at the Dayton Conference in 1995. He was frivolous in launching an air war which could only turn a bad situation in Kosovo into a nightmare for ordinary Albanians there. But he will be criminal if he follows the siren voices urging him to arm the KLA.
(The author is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford)