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Cover story

Albanian Kosovar actions of ’80s go unreported

The following is a major portion of an article published in the May/June issue of Extra!, the magazine published by FAIR, a national media watch group. The author is the magazine’s editor.


In presenting the background to the Kosovo conflict, U.S. news outlets have focused overwhelmingly on the very real crimes committed by Yugoslavian and Serbian forces against ethnic Albanians. In the process, they have downplayed or ignored the ways that Albanian nationalists have contributed to ethnic tensions in the region. These one-sided accounts have reduced a complex dynamic that calls for careful mediation to a cartoon battle of good v. evil, with bombing the bad guys as the obvious solution.

In order to eliminate any moral ambiguity from the NATO intervention, media attempts to provide “context” to Kosovo generally start the modern history of the conflict in 1987, when Slobodan Milosevic began using Serb/Albanian tensions for his own political ends. A New York Times backgrounder (March 4) by Michael Kaufman basically skips from World War II to “1987, when Slobodan Milosevic, now the Yugoslav president, first began exploiting and inflaming the historical rivalries of Albanians and Serbs.” In Kaufman’s account, “the conflict was relatively dormant until Mr. Milosevic stirred up hostilities in 1989 by revoking the autonomous status that Kosovo enjoyed in Serbia.”

The revocation of autonomy was a crucial decision, one that greatly destabilized the multiethnic Yugoslavian system and contributed to the country’s breakup. The loss of autonomy was a grievance that helped pave the way for the rise of an armed separatist movement in the form of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

But the decision to end Kosovo’s autonomous status did not come out of nowhere or out of a simple Serbian desire to oppress Albanians. To get a more complicated picture of the situation in Kosovo in the ’80s, Kaufman would only have had to look up his own paper’s coverage from the era.

Origins of ‘ethnic cleansing’?

New York Times correspondent David Binder filed a report in 1982 (Nov. 28, 1982): “In violence growing out of the Pristina University riots of March 1981, a score of people have been killed and hundreds injured. There have been almost weekly incidents of rape, arson, pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive Kosovo’s remaining indigenous Slavs -- Serbs and Montenegrins -- out of the province.”

Describing an attempt to set fire to a 12-year-old Serbian boy, Binder reported (Nov. 9, 1982): “Such incidents have prompted many of Kosovo’s Slavic inhabitants to flee the province, thereby helping to fulfill a nationalist demand for an ethnically ‘pure’ Albanian Kosovo. The latest Belgrade estimate is that 20,000 Serbs and Montenegrins have left Kosovo for good since the 1981 riots.”

“Ethnically pure,” of course, is another way to translate the phrase “ethnically clean” -- as in “ethnic cleansing.” The first use of this concept to appear in Nexis was in relation to the Albanian nationalists’ program for Kosovo: “The nationalists have a two-point platform,” the Times’ Marvine Howe quotes a communist (and ethnically Albanian) official in Kosovo (July 12, 1982), “first to establish what they call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with Albania to form a greater Albania.” All of the half-dozen references in Nexis to “ethnically clean” or “ethnic cleansing” over the next seven years attribute the phrase to Albanian nationalists.

The New York Times returned to the Kosovo issue in 1986 when the paper’s Henry Kamm (April 28, 1986) reported that Slavic Yugoslavians “blame ethnic Albanians ... for continuing assaults, rape and vandalism. They believe their aim is to drive non-Albanians out of the province.” He reported suspicions by Slavs that the autonomous communist authorities in Kosovo were covering up anti-Slavic crimes, including arson at a nunnery and the brutal mutilation of a Serbian farmer. Kamm quoted a prescient “Western diplomat” who described Kosovo as “Yugoslavia’s single greatest problem.”

By 1987, the Times was portraying a dire situation in Kosovo. David Binder reported (Nov. 11, 1987):

Ethnic Albanians in the government have manipulated public funds and regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs. ... Slavic Orthodox churches have been attacked and flags have been torn down. Wells have been poisoned and crops burned. Slavic boys have been knifed, and some young ethnic Albanians have been told by their elders to rape Serbian girls. ... As Slavs flee the protracted violence, Kosovo is becoming what ethnic Albanian nationalists have been demanding for years and especially strongly since the bloody rioting by ethnic Albanians in Pristina in 1981 -- an “ethnically pure” Albanian region, a “Republic of Kosovo” in all but name.

This is the situation -- at least as perceived by Serbs -- that led to Milosevic’s infamous 1987 speech promising protection of Serbs, and later resulted in the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy. Despite being easily available on Nexis, virtually none of this material has found its way into contemporary coverage of Kosovo, in The New York Times or anywhere else.

Consistent skepticism

It may be, of course, that some of the charges levied against Albanian nationalists during the ’80s were exaggerated or even fabricated by politically motivated Serbs. Those who are tempted to dismiss these accounts based on this possibility, however, should be careful to apply the same critical standards to media coverage of anti-Albanian atrocities in the ’90s. The current coverage of Serbian crimes, if anything, should be viewed with even greater skepticism, since Yugoslavia has now become an official enemy of the United States, and establishment reporting generally shows a strong bias against such countries. (See Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky.)

And if one suggests that The New York Times had a peculiar anti-Albanian bias in the ’80s, one still has to explain why similar reports of proto-ethnic cleansing appeared in The Washington Post (Nov. 29, 1986) and the Financial Times (July 20, 1982, and July 22, 1986).

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999