Unsurprisingly, it’s Kosovo where Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, is remembered with particular gratitude: today there’s an official day of mourning for her there. Why? Because without Albright, there might well not be an independent Kosovo. It was she who unequivocally backed the bombing of Serbia that brought an end to the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and ultimately led to Kosovo breaking away from what was left of Yugoslavia. Left to himself, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have done it. Albright had both a knowledge of the region – she spoke perfect Serbian, a product of her time in Belgrade as a child – and a visceral antipathy to Slobodan Milosevic. And she had no fear.
But having acknowledged her courage in addressing the last, formidable element of the breakup of Yugoslavia in Kosovo – showing far greater moral clarity than her predecessors did in Bosnia – it must also be acknowledged that she got one thing wrong. She backed the wrong horse on the Albanian side. And the consequences of that error were devastating.
She could have thrown her backing, and that of the US government, behind the man who had represented Kosovo throughout the Milosevic years, the nice, chain-smoking academic, Ibrahim Rugova. He campaigned for independence by peaceful means throughout the difficult years under Milosevic when Kosovo wasn’t on the international radar. This earned him comparisons with Gandhi from visiting journalists and Swedish peace groups, but failed to yield results. Instead, she decided to run with the alternative, the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and its then youthful leader, Hashim Thaci. Indeed, after the Serbs left Kosovo and were replaced by Nato forces, Rugova had to leave Kosovo for fear of his life: he took refuge in the Vatican.
The upshot of all this was that when it came to the creation of the first Albanian provisional government, effective power was with the PDK, the political wing of the KLA. This report from 1999 gives a snapshot of her role in failing to side with the pacifists.
So what? It’s a long time ago. But it matters. In the six months during which the former KLA held sway in Kosovo, immediately after the Serbian withdrawal, many Kosovo Serbs and dissident Albanians were killed or driven from their homes, their property taken by thugs connected with the KLA. The culture of gangsterism which plagued Kosovo for the next 20 years was established by the time Rugova returned – he was president, rather than head of government – and has never really been exorcised. It may not be true, as Rugova once suggested to me, that Kosovo could have been a nice little state, a kind of Balkan Switzerland, but it could have been far better than it turned out, given decent leadership at the top at the start. And for that, I’m afraid, Madeleine Albright was in some measure responsible.
Hashim Thaci, incidentally, is now in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes, and crimes against humanity.