Interview with Čedomir Prlinčević
Jared Israel: Why did so many Albanians leave Kosovo a few days after NATO began bombing? Was the Yugoslav Army attacking them?
Čedomir Prlinčević: No, not attacking them. In some areas the Army did relocate people, but not out of Kosovo. The idea was to move them further into Serbia. You must understand, the Army was presented with a most difficult situation. A major clash was expected between NATO and Yugoslav troops. This kind of NATO ground attack was a special threat in the area [of Kosovo] bordering Albania.
Under those circumstances, with the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] attacking inside Kosovo and from Albania and with NATO poised to invade and about to start bombing from airplanes, how could the Yugoslav Army hope to protect that border population?
You should understand, the Army had had an experience like this in Vukovar. That was in 1991. Civilians were trapped in a battlefield between the Army and the Croatian Ustaše [neo-fascist] secessionists. To avoid making the same mistake again, the Army wanted to empty a space 40 kilometers deep so people wouldn't be trapped between the Army, NATO and the KLA.
At the same time there was a big increase in the number of KLA terrorists illegally crossing the Albanian border into Kosovo. In that situation there were bound to be some unhappy events. It was a most difficult situation, you see.
Israel: Was this at the beginning of the bombing?
Prlinčević: Yes, and earlier too. During this period, the Yugoslav government tried to organize local Albanian Crisis Centers to distribute humanitarian aid, and also a Headquarters to work with the Yugoslav Army, organizing ethnic Albanians who lived in the danger zone to move deeper into Serbia, away from potential fighting. But those ethnic Albanians who did cooperate with the Army became a target for the KLA. Many were assassinated.
Israel: Were these Crisis Centers located all over Kosovo or just near the Albanian border?
Prlinčević: Mostly near the border. The Crisis Centers distributed humanitarian help from all over Serbia. For example there was food and building materials to repair homes from the North, from Vojvodina. People sent blankets, food, clothing, everything.
Ordinary Western citizens misunderstand Albanian culture
Israel: Getting back to the Albanian exodus during the bombing, here's the question: if the Yugoslav Army didn't throw the Albanians out, why did so many leave? It's true we don't know the exact number. The Western media has given all sorts of figures, from 150,000 to over a million, which is slightly ridiculous - but certainly many thousands did leave. Why? To escape the bombs?
Prlinčević: Not exactly.
Israel: Not exactly?
Prlinčević: No. The reason they left and went out of Serbia, to Albania or Macedonia, is rooted in the cultural history of Albanian people living in Kosovo. Because of their mindset, which I think people in the West thoroughly misunderstand, the KLA had a big impact when it attacked and executed Albanians who cooperated with the government.
Israel: I would have thought such attacks would turn them against the KLA.
Prlinčević: No, no. They led the ethnic Albanian population to stop cooperating with the Yugoslav government and start cooperating with the KLA.
Israel: Doesn't a guerilla movement need to treat ordinary people decently to get support?
Prlinčević: Yes, but the KLA was never what you mean by a guerilla movement. It was a foreign-organized group of terrorists delivering a message. The so-called 'International Community,' that is, NATO, had trumpeted that they had plans for the Albanians, that they would give them independence and a Greater Albania, make them a major power in southern Europe. So there was this intense propaganda from the West for ten years and at the same time the crisis in the Albanian community was quite pronounced. Even before the bombing, some Albanian representatives asked the Yugoslav government to allow their people to form convoys and go toward Macedonia, basically to save themselves from this crisis.
Israel: What crisis? The fighting between the Yugoslav Army and the KLA?
Prlinčević: Not exactly, although this fighting did have a big effect. So did the bombing, which started a bit later; it had a critical psychological effect. But this was related to the KLA. You see the KLA was trying to fulfill their own overall goals. To achieve these goals, which involved proving to the West they could deliver, they told the ethnic Albanians to leave. And this was not a polite request. It was an order. Do you see? At the same time the KLA, their special units, and then a bit later NATO bombers, were attacking traffic on important roads that led to inner Serbia.
Israel: And this influenced the Albanians?
Prlinčević: Yes. It dissuaded them from going further into Serbia and it also told them: Yugoslavia can't help you. Meanwhile the United States was training their KLA proxies in Albania including in how to wage this sort of psychological warfare, to deliver the message that Albanians should temporarily vacate Serbia.
Israel: So you're saying that this culture, this Kosovo Albanian culture, had a strong tendency to respond to carrots and sticks?
Prlinčević: That's it. Now you're beginning to understand.
Israel: And the U.S. was telling Albanians, "We'll help you secede; we'll make you a star. But if you reject our help we'll kill you." Is that it?
Prlinčević: Your question is complex. I'll have to give a long answer.
Prlinčević: Historically, the Kosovo Albanians were never involved in frontal battles. Instead, they had groups of warriors called kachatzi, small bands of fighters that used hit and run tactics. But they never kept large scale weapons to use in frontline war. Part of the purpose of the Western training was to get the KLA to surpass small group combat and become an army able to carry out NATO's commands throughout Kosovo. NATO's foot soldiers.
To this end, one KLA group left Kosovo and went to Albania where they were trained by the Americans, and by the way, they became the core of what is now called the Kosovo Protection Corps. They marched back into Kosovo with NATO in June 1999 and seized government offices and facilities and drove out hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma ['Gypsies'], Jews, pro-Yugoslav Albanians and others.
Israel: You're saying that after NATO took over Kosovo these KLA types were under orders to drive out those people?
Prlinčević: Yes. We can see the results of the action of exactly those forces today. NATO planned the expulsion of 350,000 people. Without NATO's approval and instructions, these KLA, whom NATO had trained and brought back to Kosovo, would never have attempted this mass expulsion. Impossible. NATO was eliminating a potentially rebellious population.
And remember, they didn't expel only non-Albanians. Perhaps the most important group was Albanians who in any official capacity had helped the Yugoslav government. They had to go. NATO wanted the ethnic Albanians who stayed in Kosovo to be without a Yugoslav alternative.
Israel: So this first wave of Albanians who marched across the border with the KFOR [i.e., NATO in Kosovo] troops - they were hardcore KLA? Not simply gangsters?
Prlinčević: Well some were KLA gangsters and others were ordinary gangsters from Albania. They carried out and allowed others to carry out all kinds of crimes. Some wanted revenge; some wanted to steal; some wanted to do this; some wanted to do that, to achieve whatever political goals. And no one was interrupting the others. They were doing it altogether in concert and not interfering with each other.
Israel: They were all KLA? There were no mysterious elements here? KFOR claims mysterious elements carried out (and still carry out) these crimes.
Prlinčević: KFOR knows exactly who organized the expulsions, but of course, as it became clear to ethnic Albanians that KFOR would tolerate criminal actions carried out by the KLA, KLA crime became a mass phenomenon. Whoever was doing criminal stuff would use the KLA label. If someone would steal some Serb's car, he would say: "I'm KLA." It got to be a joke among Albanians to call themselves 'KLA', to cover up. If someone wanted to rob someone else's house, they would say - "We're KLA."
Israel: Because they knew that KFOR wouldn't touch them if they were KLA?
Prlinčević: Yes, they became untouchable.
Israel: Getting back to the period up to the bombing: You were saying that in this area along the border two things were going on: The army was trying to get those people out of the potential fire zone plus they were organizing local Albanians for self-defense. But at the same time a section of Albanians had been organized by the other side, by the KLA. So they were having a contest for the hearts of the ethnic Albanians?
Prlinčević: Yes. At first the Yugoslav government felt confident that they'd succeed in getting the Albanian population to organize to defend itself from the KLA. The attempt to do this started during the Rambouillet talks, in the winter of 1999, before the bombing.
Israel: My impression is that the KLA had a weak base during this period. Is that true?
Prlinčević: Yes, but remember there was a continuous influx of their people from Albania. So they had weak popular support but they were getting reinforcements from Albania, trying to turn the tide.
Israel: Which is why there were constant border clashes with Yugoslav troops fighting these intruders.
Israel: So the KLA's solid base was in northern Albania?
Prlinčević: At that time, yes. But the Yugoslav Government program of self defense failed in the border area and then gradually throughout Kosovo people switched to the KLA side.
Israel: During the bombing was the KLA used as spotters for NATO air attacks?
Prlinčević: Yes. Definitely.
Israel: Was the bombing used to drive Albanians out of Kosovo?
Prlinčević: Not mainly on its own, but yes, insofar as it reinforced the KLA's attempt to destabilize the area. Mr. Walker was the one who was organizing the KLA. Mr. Walker of the Verification Mission that came into Kosovo, under the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] umbrella, in the fall of 1998.
You see, this is a complex thing and I wanted to give a long answer. Even this international corps of monitors, this Verification Mission, they were also involved in organizing the KLA. Before the bombing started we had this forced diplomacy. The European Community and the U.S. insisted that their forces come into Kosovo as peace monitors. At the head of these peace Verifiers was Mr. Walker.
The Verifiers organized the KLA. That's why terrorist attacks by the KLA increased after they arrived. During that period there was no major shift of population, whether Albanian or Serbian, though this international monitor group was laying the basis for migration. They needed migration to create the impression of a crisis for international public opinion.
Israel: How did they lay the basis for migration?
Prlinčević: They did it by having the KLA kill some Albanians who were cooperating with the government.
Israel: The Verifiers, the OSCE Monitors, did all this?
Prlinčević: Yes, they organized the KLA into a more cohesive force so it could influence events. And they prepared for the bombing. The Yugoslav government caught some Albanians and some Serbs who were positioning bombing markers. Those are radio devices that emit signals to identify targets. We were confused when the OSCE monitors left Kosovo. It should have been obvious why they left. Their job was done.
Israel: OK, I'm confused right now. I'm not sure about our focus. Are we talking about the Verifiers being responsible for positioning bombing markers?
Prlinčević: Yes! That is one thing they organized. I say this in full responsibility. Yes, OSCE monitors prepared the NATO attack. The KLA is only a proxy for what NATO wanted to achieve in this geographical area. All the current political turmoil points to NATO, whether in Kosovo or Montenegro or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Israel: Explain what you mean, please.
Prlinčević: I mean, Kosovo is just one of the points of destabilization of Yugoslavia. It is manipulated from the US and Europe. And this is not just what I think. It is obvious.
Israel: I apologize for these picky questions. People are starved for clarification on these points. Nobody has made things clear.
Prlinčević: I'm grateful for the questions. And again: I am answering with full consciousness of my responsibility to be accurate.
Israel: I understand. You're an historian of Kosovo.
Prlinčević: Yes, I am, and I want people to know the truth about what happened here. So getting back to the period before the bombing: the OSCE was taking steps to produce a migration of Albanians towards Macedonia and Albania. The idea was to break down the physical barrier of the border existing between Yugoslavia on the one hand and Macedonia and Albania on the other. The OSCE wanted to create for the international community the impression of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel: Even before the bombing?
Prlinčević: Yes. The OSCE was actually organizing the complete scenario for the crisis in Kosovo. Once again, they were trying to push the ethnic Albanian population to Albania and Macedonia to present the impression of a humanitarian nightmare. We were surprised that right before the bombing significant numbers of Albanians began moving toward the border. We were surprised. But of course, it was planned.
Israel: But there were no bombs yet.
Prlinčević: At that time the KLA had a big influx of reinforcements from Albania. They attacked road crossings and so on with the intention of producing total chaos and the collapse of the situation in Kosovo. This was intended to make a point to all Albanians.
Israel: But in terms of the population movement, why were the ethnic Albanians leaving? I wish you could just give me some idea.
Prlinčević: That is exactly why I started answering your question by talking about the culture of the Albanian people. Because they have a strong clan structure and as part of that tradition, if the leader of the village says, "Let's vote for this candidate!" they tend to vote for this candidate, and if the leaders say, "Let's all go!" - they go
Israel: But why would the clan leaders say, "Let's all go!"?
Prlinčević: First of all, a large part of the ethnic Albanians wanted to return to the situation that existed a hundred years ago, under the Ottoman Empire, and again during World War II, when Kosovo was under Nazi- Albanian control. Most of the Albanian population had been won to this goal by the secessionist movement.
Promises from the USA
Prlinčević: When I speak of secession you might think of the Basques in Spain or the Irish in Northern Ireland, but this is very different. In Kosovo, a foreign Superpower supported the secessionists for well over a decade. Because of this support, the Albanians were psychologically prepared to achieve - no, not to achieve, to be given - secession. As a gift. The secessionist leaders, starting with Ibrahim Rugova, had promised them, "Do this, do that and the US will intervene and we will get Kosovo." They had been promising this for years. "Sacrifice your children by boycotting the schools; sacrifice your health by boycotting the hospitals; use your suffering to show foreign public opinion how we suffer under the Serbs, and the U.S. will come to our rescue."
By March 1999 this political theater had been going on ten years. "The US will set us free." And of course, many Albanians believed that during World War II the German Nazis had set Albanians free.
The Yugoslav constitution of 1974 didn't help. It weakened the central government and thus encouraged those in Kosovo who wanted to return to the W.W. II regime when Albanian nationalists ruled Kosovo under the German Nazis and terrorized Serbs, Roma ['Gypsies'] and Jews. After 1974 the abuses against Serbs and Roma increased. This was openly manifested during the ethnic Albanian riots in 1981.
These were race riots, with Serbs as the targets, both the Serbian clergy and ordinary Serbian citizens. After that the Americans entered the picture and magnified the secessionists' political strength ten times over.
U.S. Openly Encouraged Secessionists in 1990
Prlinčević: For example, when US Ambassador Warren Zimmerman arrived in Yugoslavia in 1990 [before the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars of secession] one of his first acts was to go to Kosovo and open an Exhibition of architectural works from Chicago. He used this exhibition to boost the Albanian secessionists.
Prlinčević: He didn't invite anyone from the Federal Yugoslav Government or the Serbian Government. But he did invite Ibrahim Rugova [the main secessionist leader at that time] and the like.
By snubbing the Federal Government, which represented multiethnic society, and snubbing those Albanian leaders who opposed secession, Zimmerman's action had a profound psychological effect
Israel: I can imagine. Everyone notices who doesn't get invited to a party.
Prlinčević: Yes, and especially in this period, when there was much ultra-nationalist agitation in Kosovo, to break Kosovo away from Serbia and to take parts of Macedonia and Bulgaria and link it all up with Albania. And these were the leaders whom Zimmerman invited. How could Albanians argue against secession when Rugova could say, "See? We have the support of the most powerful nation on earth!"
Israel: People often present Mr. Rugova as the good guy, by way of contrast to the KLA.
Prlinčević: They have the same goal: secession. The difference is over methods. Rugova always wears a scarf to illustrate the entrapment, or whatever, of Albanians in Yugoslavia. He says he'll take it off when Kosovo secedes from Serbia.
The United States, for its own geopolitical reasons, deliberately encouraged the secessionist tendency among Albanians, used them against the Yugoslav government in order to destabilize the Balkans.
The fact is that Serbs and Albanians had been living together with some degree of tolerance for centuries, whenever there was peace. The United States disrupted this status quo.
Serbs and Albanians Worked Together During the Bombing, Until...
Israel: In Priština, during the bombardment, was there any effort to have unity between the Albanians, the Serbs and other minorities?
Prlinčević: We, as loyal citizens of Yugoslavia, whether Serbs or Albanians, tried to cooperate and live together, to help each other.
Israel: But what about the majority of the people in Priština? Did the majority try to help each other?
Prlinčević: Yes. It was the town of intellectuals. We all had flats next to each other. The children went to the same schools. We lived in the same apartment buildings.
Israel: So the secessionists weren't strong there?
Prlinčević: Not at first, but then later even in Priština the Albanians were sucked into the secessionist camp. This could happen because of certain cultural traits, deeply rooted in their history. During the bombing, suddenly they started leaving. And when we asked them, "Why are you doing this?" they replied, "We have to!"
Israel: Whom are you talking about?
Prlinčević: Professors, managers at stores, retired people, even retired Yugoslav Army officers who were ethnic Albanian.
"Sorry, I have to go..."
Prlinčević: I'll give you an example. My Albanian neighbor was a Professor. He seemed very much integrated into Yugoslav life. Our children played together; we were friends, you see. And then, without warning he packed up and started to leave his flat, to leave Kosovo. So I said: "Why are you leaving, neighbor?" He said: "Sorry. I have to." And I said, "Why? We're safe here. Nobody's bothering you. The housing complex hasn't been bombed. We're all working together." And he said, "I was ordered to leave." He gave me the keys so I could watch his flat. Ironically, after NATO took over he returned and then I was forced out by the KLA gangsters. I gave him my key, so he could watch my flat.
Israel: But who ordered him to leave?
Prlinčević: The leader of his clan.
Prlinčević: To prove obedience to the KLA. This was the KLA's national plan. All loyal Albanians were to leave during the bombing and go to Albania or Macedonia to show the world how terrible the Serbs were; this exodus was staged; it was a performance, Hollywood in Kosovo. What is Hollywood without actors? A large number of Albanians had to perform, had to actually leave Kosovo. This was not so different from what they had been doing for ten years, you see, pretending they had been locked out of the schools when actually it was an organized boycott, and so on.
Moreover, once they were in the refugee camps, the Albanians would be under the direct leadership of the KLA, which could intensively indoctrinate them, which it did.
Israel: But why would his clan leader agree to this crazy plan?
Prlinčević: You think it was crazy? This gets us to the heart of the matter. Between the attacks from the KLA on Albanians who cooperated with the Yugoslav government and the continuous bombing by NATO, especially of Albanians who disobeyed the KLA, the KLA had gotten their message across to the clan leaders. So now the clan leaders ordered their people to pack up and leave.
Israel: You know, during the bombing, NATO said the Albanians were fleeing atrocities. We Western opponents of NATO said they were fleeing the NATO bombing. But you're saying we were both wrong, that the Albanians weren't fleeing the Serbs or the bombing.
Prlinčević: Let's just say the bombing isn't a sufficient explanation. If they were just fleeing bombs, why did they have to go to Albania and Macedonia? Why not to inner Serbia? And what about people like my friend, who just packed up, seemingly for no reason, and left? The rest of us, Serbs, Jews, Roma, we were in Priština too. Why didn't we leave? Did we value our lives less than they valued theirs? No, it wasn't the bombs. They were afraid to disobey their clan leaders.
But the bombing did play an important role. The KLA served as spotters; they could direct NATO attacks against hostile Albanians, and this confirmed for the clan leaders that the KLA had serious power.
It was psychological warfare, intended to reinforce the psychological crisis among Albanians, a crisis rooted in fear.
The KLA and NATO were telling Albanians: NATO supports the KLA. After NATO takes over, the KLA will be in charge and if you don't leave now you will be in big trouble later. There will be no safe refuge.
That's what I meant when I said you need to know something about Albanian culture in order to understand why Albanians left.
You have to know about blood feud.
Blood feud and the Canon of Leke
Prlinčević: One book has a great hold over Kosovo Albanians. It's called the Canon of Lekë Dukagjini. It's a 15th century text that spells out codes of behavior. It goes into great detail on how to carry out blood feuds, when and whom it is proper to kill. It lays out the proper methods to use when killing, rules and regulations, and so on.
And this Canon is alive among Albanians today, especially since the fall of communism. This is an intensely tradition-oriented culture. Blood feud is a constant threat for Albanians. Thousands of people in Albania and Kosovo cannot leave their houses because they are being hunted; even a child in the cradle might be marked for death as part of a feud. It is for this reason that Kosovo Albanian houses are often built surrounded by high walls and with gun slits instead of windows.
By methodically killing those who refused to support them, the KLA was striking a deep fear among Albanians: the refusal of one clan member to obey could lead to revenge against his entire clan. And now the KLA had NATO bombers to enforce blood feud.
What took me by surprise was how much this affected Albanians, even intellectuals. It's amazing. Here is a Professor in Priština, very sophisticated, but when the order comes from his clan leader, who is perhaps a farmer 100 miles away, the Professor immediately packs up and leaves for Albania without even considering saying no.
Israel: We didn't understand the KLA. We thought their terror tactics were counter-productive.
Prlinčević: Well, they knew their own people, their fears, their traditions. They knew that if they could prove they were deadly, the clan leaders would fall in line.
Now they live in a society dominated by gangsters. None of this would have happened were it not for years of effort by the United States.
[End of interview]