Few people knew the name of Slobodan Milosevic in 1987, except those his native Serbia – which was, at that point, a part of the greater state of Yugoslavia. A member of the Yugoslav Communist Party, he was grey man from grey times.
But by the late 1980s things were changing. Josip Broz Tito, who had ruled Yugoslavia with an iron hand, had died in 1980. As a multi-ethnic federation of republics, Yugoslavia slowly started to show the strains of tensions, and slowly a million mutinies slowly unfolded.
Part of these tensions had to do with the Serbs. As the most populous people in the state of Yugoslavia, they felt under-represented. More than anything else, Serbia resented the constitutional autonomy of the republics of Kosovo and Vojvodina.
Kosovo was a particularly touchy matter. The name of the province comes from a place called “Kosovo Polje”, or “The Field of Blackbirds”. It was at this place that, legend has it (historical accounts are a little patchy) that the cream of the Serbian army was wiped out by the Ottoman Turks in 1389.
Although the battle led to massive deaths on both sides, the Turks had more armies, and the battle at Kosovo Polje was the last battle Serbians fought before becoming part of the Ottoman empire. Over the centuries, the area had become a focus of Serbian emotions – an historical hurt, even though Serbians had largely migrated out of the area.
By 1987 most of the population in the area, about 80 per cent, was of Albanian origin – coincidentally they were also Muslim (though, reportedly, not particularly religious), just as the Turks had been before them. Milosevic was sent to deal with an issue involving the treatment of some Serbs by local Kosovar (Albanian) police.
Instead of resolving the issue, Milosevic decided to play up the ethnic difference, as well as to refer to the sense of historic hurt. Instead of calming down the crowd of Serbs living in Kosovo, or instituting some form of justice, he declared, “No one will ever dare beat you again!”
That phrase, and the reckless confrontationalism, drove Milosevic to power as the President of the republic of Serbia by 1989. Milosevic used his position to further a politics of majoritarianism, one of whose first acts was to abolish the autonomy that Kosovo had enjoyed, creating deep tensions. The unbridled majoritarianism led to similar reactions in other republics, and by 1991, Yugoslavia had been ripped apart into separate republics. In the case of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina this would lead to the Yugoslav Wars that lasted from 1991 to 2001.
In all of this time, Milosevic was uninterested in Kosovo, per se, but he used the sense of historical hurt and majoritarian hysteria to rally people around him so that he could emerge as an unrivalled master of all he surveyed, with power centralised in his hands.
But the centralisation of power and the chauvinism of the Serbs led to the marginalisation of the Kosovar Albanians in Kosovo. In 1991, they took up arms as a “Kosovo Liberation Army”, and started operations by attacking the state authorities. Although they had little in the way of arms, they were effective as an irritant, and the Serbian forces decided to use the full might of the army against them. The KLA might have been a mosquito to the Serbian Army, but as the old Bhutanese saying goes, “When a mosquito lands on your crotch, you realise that violence is not the answer to all your problems.”
Milosevic, who had used violence to centralise power, and deprive the Kosovars of their autonomy, continued to use it, in effect forcing Serbia to slam its fist in its own crotch, time and again. Already guilty of massive crimes in the wars against Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia’s campaign in Kosovo in 1998-99 finally pushed the international community, and the United States, into war against Serbia.
At the end of it, Kosovo won independence (led by the KLA, very much an organisation that could be classified as terrorists, even by those that hated Milosevic). Milosevic was indicted for war crimes in 1999, lost power in 2000, and was arrested in 2001. He died as a prisoner in The Hague, in 2006, before his trial was over.
Today, as the majoritarian rhetoric about Kashmir rises again, numerous politicians in India rally to tell students at NIT that, “No one will ever dare beat you again,” while declaring the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir must be stripped away, it is hard not to see the parallels with Serbia and its disastrous policies vis-à-vis Kosovo.
Instead of emphasising self-rule and justice, Milosevic emphasised ideas of historic hurt, majoritarian bullying, and centralisation of power, all while playing up differences of religion and race. It was a toxic mix that distracted the population from the failures of a government unable to provide security, prosperity, or even rule of law.
India is doing very much the same with the Kashmir Valley today. We won the military conflict long ago. In the last few years, the casualties due to militant violence have been so low that the number of deaths due to traffic accidents is ten times larger.
The Pakistani “war of a thousand cuts” is over. It failed. What we are fighting right now is the mosquito of public opinion, and by denying self-rule, by stealing power from the state and centralising, by using heavy-handed approaches to security, we are smashing our fist in our own crotch, time and again.
We are killing civilians, and the hope of peace, thus making sure that the cycle of murders continues. Instead of a system of rule of law, we are demanding selective justice based on ethnicity or religion, rather than justice for all, regardless of what their faith or ethnicity may be.
This must come to an end. Milosevic destroyed Serbia by using the politics of majority victimisation. And he lost Kosovo. If we do not rein in our own purveyors of ethnic hatred, we risk the same happening to India, and Kashmir. – Daily O
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