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Interview: Robin Remington

April 1999
by John Tarleton

COLUMBIA, Missouri—Robin Remington is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri who first visited Yugoslavia when she was a graduate student in 1967. She is fluent in Serbo-Croatian and has traveled widely in all parts of what once may have been the world's most unique multi- ethnic state.

Robin Remington She most recently visited Yugoslavia in January, where she lectured at the University of Belgrade and to a group of journalists at the Montenegrin Foreign Policy Academy in Podgorica. For Remington, who has two grown goddaughters and countless friends in Yugoslavia, it was a melancholy, whirlwind visit.

Ethnic violence was intensifying in the disputed region of Kosovo while diplomatic relations between the Clinton Administration and Serbian President Slobodan Milosivic were worsening. She made sure to say all her good-byes. Yugoslavia, which was formed after World War I from the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which reconstituted itself after fighting off Hitler in World War II, was, at century's end, on the verge of complete disintegration. Remington could feel the chilling down draft that always comes just before lightning crackles and a storm breaks. Now 61, she wasn't sure when, if ever, she would be able to return. War was in the air.

Memories of Yugoslavia

JT: Robin, you've been going to Yugoslavia since 1967. Can you tell me about the personal attraction that has drawn you back to Yugoslavia over and over again and that has given you so much concern about the war that's going on.

RR: What I valued about the Yugoslavs of all nationalities was that they came from their very difficult history and that by far the majority of them were committed to living and building together. I found the people to be passionate, hard-headed both in Serbia and Croatia. Less hard-headed and passionate in Slovenia. Sort of slower moving but very thoughtful in Bosnia. A bit fiery in Montenegro.

The thing is you become entangled. I have friends in all parts of Yugoslavia. I suffer for all parts of Yugoslavia. And if I could have thought of any way so as not to become so deeply involved as I am in this tragic last 10 years, without being a creep or a coward, probably I would've taken it.

There's a wonderful saying by Tennyson: "Experience is an arc/that fades before me as I move/And I'm apart of all that I've met." I am apart of the peoples of Yugoslavia. I am not apart of any one people. I feel the suffering of those who are forced to kill. I feel wrongs are committed on all sides. And I grieve for all of those wrongs. But the only way to begin to move in the other direction is to start talking again.

JT: Can you explain a little bit why Yugoslavia has gone to hell in the past decade after 45 years of apparent stability after World War II.

RR: There are a number of reasons why that happened. And one was that there was Tito who had been the godfather of Yugoslavia and the George Washington of his country as far as many Yugoslavs were concerned. He was there when the Second Yugoslavia was born. And he lived until 1980. And during that time you had other political factors coming into play. But, the overall description of that system was one of charismatic authority without any really clear line of succession.

Before he (Tito) died, he spent the last six years of his life trying to establish a political system that would make it possible for Yugoslavia to survive without him. And he established a quota system that was probably the most complicated quota system in the world.

You had everybody rotating from every position roughly on one or two year schedules. So there was no way that successor politicians could really have name recognition and build a constituency. So that was a flaw in the former political system in that it works great while you have the guy at the top. But once that person goes, you don't really have a pattern of how to pass the generation of leadership on.

The Anatomy of a Conflict

JT: How did all the hatred burst to life? Why has that happened? Why is it happening?

RR: This is related to the nature of the system that was created. You have to understand that the Constitution of 1974 had built into it two very deep flaws.

One flaw was that it established expectation by making the provinces equal to the republics in terms of representation on the state presidency. And, by provinces having de facto autonomy and control within their own juridical territory. While at the same time, they were also legally apart of the Serbian state. And they also said that, "the territorial integrity of no republic can be changed without its consent". So you've created a very strong desire on the side of the Albanian Kosovars to have their own republic. But, that would have torn the historical heart out of Serbia. So, the Constitution actually supported Serbia in this regard.

JT: O.K....

RR: There's another element in this that's very important. All jobs that you think of in terms of appointments for running government, they were tied to a national, ethnic or republic key. What that meant was Yugoslavs who considered themselves first and foremost Yugoslavs had no access to positions other than in their national ethnic identities. So the institutional mechanism that was supposed to be preserving Yugoslavia worked against the affinity for Yugoslav identity.

How the US Became Involved

JT: This war has been going on for 8 or 9 years now. And it seems so monstrous and petty. And the question is, how did we get involved? How did the US end up in Kosovo?

RR: Well, you're a little bit ahead of the story. First of all, this war has not been going on for 9 or 10 years. There were a series of wars of secession in Yugoslavia that began in 1991. And the first tow republics to pull up stakes and run for the border, so to speak, were Slovenia and Croatia.

That began in June of 1991. The Yugoslav government at the time thought this was a dispute over customs posts. And, it was attempting to escort customs officials back to their positions in Slovenia when the Slovene's Territorial Defense Force decided that they were being invaded and fought.

At that point the European Community came into monitor the whole show. And, at that point we had President George Bush and he said that Yugoslavia should stay together. That position held until the spring of 1992 at which time the US. wanted recognition of Bosnia and Herzigovina. And it cut a deal with the European Community people, who wanted recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, that all three would be recognized on April 6th and 7th of 1992.

I was in Yugoslavia in 1991 when the Serbian-Croatian Crisis happened. At that time I talked to a former Yugoslav ambassador to the UN, a very knowledgeable who was the director of my institute in Belgrade, the Institute for International Politics and Economics. His name was Dr. Leo Mates. Dr. Mates told me, "Slovenia is the Prelude. Croatia is Act I. Bosnia and Herzigovina is Act II. And Kosovo will be the Final Act in the death of Yugoslavia."

He's died since then. But I remember what he said many times. (Pause).... Now, would you like to know how we actually got involved in Kosovo?

JT: Sure.

George Bush's Pen Pal

RR: We got involved in Kosovo because in 1992, before he left office, President bush, in his legacy to incoming President Clinton, wrote what they call the Christmas Letter to Slobodan Milosivic. And it said if there is any ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, we will get involved unilaterally, if necessary. Full stop.

Now when President Clinton came in, several times during his administration he repeated this Bush warning. So when you came up to 1998, there was movement terrorism by the Kosovar Liberation Army (and) state terrorism by the Serbian paramilitaries and police who were responding to that. It became imperative to do something.

And that something at first on Clinton's side was to multilateralize the issue and basically say that, "No, if we're involved in Kosovo, it has to be through NATO." So, we got involved through the legacy of Presidential commitments. And we got involved through the felt need to increase what was perceived as the credibility of NATO as the "stabilizer for all seasons". There were quite a lot of quotes from Madelaine Albright and others in the Clinton Administration about this.

"NATO Bombing Has Made the Situation Much Worse"

JT: Has the NATO bombing in Kosovo exacerbated the problem? Or, was Milosivic already set on cleansing the population before the bombing began on March 24th?

RR: NATO bombing has made the situation much worse. The question of what Milosivic was intent on doing is a two-part question.

From 1991-1997 you had Ibrahim Rugova who was the head of the Democratic League of Kosovo. This was a Gandhian, non-violent movement that wanted first autonomy and later began talking of independence. It was tolerated by the Serbs though they considered it to be illegal. They certainly didn't make it easier for them to have a separate school system, a separate health system, a separate government. But they didn't take formal military action to eliminate that condition.

However, in 1996 and 1997 you had a meltdown in Albania and a virtual civil war in which arms and men began flowing across from Albania to Kosovo. Now also in 1997 you had an indigenous generation of ethnic Albanians who were increasingly frustrated that Rugova didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

The international community wasn't interested in having an international conference while they had the opportunity to have one, when both sides had the space in terms of a genuine negotiation. The basic conclusion of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) was that unless we have a violent uprising, there will never be an international conference on Kosovo.

So in February 1998 - and this is the role of the American media and how powerful it inadvertently is - one group of Kosovo Liberation Army supporters took Chris Hedges of the New York Times to their mountain headquarters and announced, "we control 40% of the countryside and this war is moving to a new stage."

In my judgment, this is what triggered the choreography of first state repression against movement terrorism and then, in terms of the overreaction of the response, I would say state terrorism vs. movement terrorism. But, the secondary goal in terms of the KLA in its timing was clearly to eliminate Rugova as a serious contender on the moderate spectrum of Albanian Kosovar alternatives, because his second election was going to be that March.

Why Serbs Are Willing to Die for Kosovo

JT: Can you explain why Kosovo is so important to the Serbs when roughly 10% of the population of Kosovo is Serbian.

RR: Kosovo was where the battle was fought in 1389 in which Serbia went under the Turks for almost 500 years. And there is a myth about that battle that Prince Lazar prayed to God, and God told him that, "you can win this battle if you want to. But if you win this battle, you will have only the Earthly Kingdom. But if you fight this battle and lose, you will have the Heavenly Kingdom. And so they all marched out and fought the next day. And they lost.

And one is not to say that this myth is exactly true. But, it's one that is apart of the fabric of Serbian identity. That you fight even when you know you are going to lose because that sacrifice is apart of your identity as a nation.

This area was particularly important because it was also in Pec in Kosovo where in 1343 that you had the founding of the Serbian Orthodox Church. And, it is Pec where the Serbian Patriarchate has been built. So, there are many sacred Serbian monuments in Kosovo.

Thirdly, up until after World War II, Serbs were in fact a slight majority in Kosovo, even though the Albanian population had been going up. But, in World War II Kosovo was occupied by the Albanians and the Serbs were expelled. Tito did not allow them to go back in part because he thought Kosovo and Albania might become a seventh republic of Yugoslavia and in part because he wanted to balance Serbia somewhat more so that Serbia would not be so threatening to the non-Serbs as it had been in the First Yugoslavia.

JT: Given the long Serbian history of fighting against foreign powers....

RR: At unequal odds.

JT: At unequal odds. Are you surprised that they are digging in and resisting?

RR: Not at all. I don't think anyone who paid any attention to how the Serbs behaved in 1389, to how the Serbs behaved in 1914 and how the Serbs behaved when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 would have expected them to do anything else.

Misjudging Milosivic

JT: Every day we hear more stories in the American media about how more planes and more reservists are being called up and how this war could last a year or longer. Do you think American leaders miscalculated when they launched this thing, that they didn't understand what they were getting into?

RR: I think they badly miscalculated. They were not looking at the sweep of Serbian history. They were looking at what they considered to be their experience with Slobodan Milosivic during the Dayton negotiations of 1995. And they had convinced themselves that he always backed down at the last moment.

They had convinced themselves that first he allowed Serbs to be pushed out of Krijina in Croatia. Then, at Dayton he allowed eastern Slovenia to be placed under international rule and eventually turned over to the Croats. He tried several times during the Bosnian War to convince the Bosnian Serbs to accept various international plans.

So even though they held him responsible for everything that was going on in these places, they convinced themselves that when push came to shove, he would always back off at the last minute. But, they didn't take into account that A.) his rise to power began in Kosovo and B.) that it's not only Slobodan Milosivic who has these feelings about Kosovo.

Then, you have the normal fact that when somebody begins bombing your county; even if you consider the guy who's been running it incompetent, repressive, a sleaze, whatever you may think of him, that's not the issue. Belgrade was the focal point of the single largest opposition movement in Serbia. And we're bombing the hell out of it.

Bombing the Yugoslavian Peace Movement

JT: What do you think the condition of the peace movement in Yugoslavia is since the campaign began?

RR: I'm in touch with friends in Belgrade. And there is a peace movement. But now that peace movement is directed towards trying to save their country. And it's certainly not directed towards thinking that what the United States and our NATO allies are doing is a peaceful gesture to convince them to change their minds.

There's quite a lot of evidence, at least in terms of the folks that I talk to, that if the stories that come from Kosovo are true in terms of the extent of the brutality of Serbian forces in Kosovo, that people are genuinely appalled and feel sorry for everyone who is suffering. But, they don't believe those stories because they don't believe anything that they're being told by what they consider now to be absolutely tainted Western propaganda.

And, they do get it. Because, they have Sky. They get CNN. They're connected by the Internet all around the world. These are no longer a primitive people who can be told just one thing by their government and believe it because they hear it from their government. But now they think if they are hearing lies from their own government, that the lies coming from the NATO aggressors are, from their point of view, considerably more dangerous to their lives.

JT: We're hearing a lot about the plight of Kosovar refugees. That's the emphasis in the Western media right now. Are there other things about the situation in Yugoslavia that the media may be overlooking and that we're not hearing about.

RR: You don't hear very much about the plight of Kosovar Serb refugees. Even though they are not in as large numbers as the Kosovar Albanian refugees, it's my understanding that there are Kosovar Serb refugees in Serbia, Kosovar Serb refugees in Montenegro and there are even some Albanian refugees in Serbia and Montenegro who are on the moderate end of the spectrum and don't feel safe from the KLA.

Chessboard of Realpolitik

JT: And with all the destruction and misfortune in Kosovo right now, the refrain is "we've got to do something". So far, that's been bombing. Can you envision another policy, another direction that we could go that would be of some assistance to the people in Kosovo and Yugoslavia?

RR: Well, right now we're not interested in helping the people in Yugoslavia. We're interested in bombing them. And the best thing we could do to assist them would be to stop bombing them and start talking, again.

In terms of Kosovo, I think humanitarian efforts are very important. But from my perspective, I think it's a travesty that the members of NATO who are doing this bombing are not accepting large numbers of Albanian refugees into their own countries but are trying to keep them in the "neighboring countries" so that they can force them to go home as some sort of political pressure point that NATO would then control in the Balkans. It would appear that there's some interest in creating a Kosovo that is somewhat equivalent to the non-existing Palestine in the Middle East. Instead of resettling refugees and allowing them some sort of safety within which to reconstruct their lives, you try to keep them in the area as a pressure point for political purposes later.

The Russians

JT: The Russians have been unhappy about the NATO campaign. How is all this going to affect US-Russian relations. And will the militarists in Russia have a stronger position in the coming years?

RR: It depends on how long we keep doing this. Already the Duma in Russian and the Yugoslavian legislature have voted for Yugoslavia to join Russia and Belorus in a federation. There's a pretty long step between the two parliamentary votes and whether or not that will ever happen.

JT: Take out the crystal ball for a moment. Any prediction on where this will be 6 or 12 months from now? Do you think the US government will continue deepening the war even though it's going poorly so far?

RR: I think for the US government to not deepen the war, there has to be a much more massive outcry against it on the part of ordinary people who aren't getting some very straight scoop about what the facts are.

I think if we continue with this bombing and if we eventually create a civil war in Montenegro, and possibly a civil war in Serbia itself and completely, not partially, destabilize Macedonia, turn Albania into a NATO protectorate, which is what we're in the process of doing, and continue to treat Bosnia as if it were a NATO protectorate although that was not the agreement at the time of the Dayton Plan, we will in a self-fulfilling prophecy have created all the conditions that we started bombing (in order to avoid) to avoid.

I'm hoping that won't happen. But it's certainly one possible outcome if we keep this bombing up. And it's the likely outcome. The next stage is that this will then spread into a Balkan War and in the same fashion as World War I that Balkan War will ultimately spread into a World War that will involve Post-Soviet Russia. Those are the worst-case scenarios. They are not necessary.

The American Obsession with Violence

JT: Any thoughts on why the United States can't seem to go more than a few months without bombing some far away country?

RR: During the Cold War we developed a kind of sickness. And the Russians developed it too. And that was the idea that military power could be translated into influence and authority. We used the Cold War and they did too; much in the same way in the unstable periods in our history, we used the Salem witches to purge ourselves of our insecurities.

JT: If you could whisper in Bill Clinton's ear, like Madelaine Albright, what would you tell him?

RR: I would tell him that I can imagine that he's suffering a great deal because he thinks what he is doing is right. And on some other level he knows that what he is doing is wrong. And, that it's not going to help the credibility of NATO for him to keep doing it. It will only destroy NATO. And in the long run, it will destroy the credibility of the United States along with that of NATO, if he doesn't stop.


This interview was edited for brevity and clarity


Radio B92, Belgrade
Pacifica Radio: Kosovo in Focus
Mid-Missouri Peaceworks

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