P r e s s I n f o # 44 August 25, 1998
Kosovo/a - Half Truths About How it Began
"The standard media background to the conflict tells us that it all started
in 1989 when Slobodan Milosevic, then President of Serbia, repealed the
autonomous status granted the Kosovo province in the 1974 constitution.
This is wrong and propagated by journalists who have not bothered to study
root causes, attitudes or other complexities. It's a typical example of
KISS reporting - 'Keep It Simple, Stupid.' But the deliberate choice of
this particular political action as 'the cause of all of the trouble'
conveys the image that the Serb side alone is to blame," says Jan Oberg who
has been engaged in this conflict since 1992.
"This is an age-old conflict between two peoples who are much more
different and segregated than any other two peoples or nations in
The basic causes of the conflict were and remain: 1) historically based
inter-ethnic mistrust, b) economic underdevelopment and inequality, and 3)
how to - if at all - integrate the Kosovo province meaningfully in
Serbia/Yugoslavia in terms of politics, culture, education, economics. Or,
alternatively, let it go. These issues cannot be separated from each other.
The economic dimension of this conflict is grossly underestimated in the
media image, in the generalised story. And so is the structural legacy of
old Yugoslavia. Saying that this conflict STARTED in 1989 is to kill both
complexity and history - and you'll understand nothing. And the less you
understand, the easier it is to take sides.
Then as now, Albanians and Serbs simply do not trust each other; contrary
to other republics there are very few inter-ethnic marriages and on both
sides we find, sad to say, people with either total ignorance and racist
attitudes to the others, or both. Most Serbs have never been to Kosovo and
it will be impossible for the regime to mobilise the political opinion and
motivate the young men to fight for the monuments, the monasteries there or
the memories of what happened in 1389 at Kosovo Polje.
The autonomous status, to put it crudely, implied that Kosovo had a de
facto but not a de jure republican status. It became a full constitutive
element of the Yugoslav Federation with direct and equitable representation
in all Party and state bodies. The 1974 Constitution prevented Serbia from
intervening in the internal affairs of the province against the will of
Prishtina. Kosovo's parliamentarians could veto any legislation which
affected them; this implied that the Serb Republic had lost full control of
the affairs in its territory. If the autonomous provinces of Voivodina and
Kosovo decided to stop a decision in the Serb Republican parliament, they
could do so - while, as mentioned, Serbia proper could not do the same.
Kosovo and Voivodina were, in other words, elements in the overall
Federation with the same rights and duties as the six republics, although
the constitution did not give them statehood like the republics.
In short, the autonomous status of these two provinces within Serbia had
two characteristics: a) they were part of the overall politico-structural
'balance of balances' in the ex-Yugoslav federation; when it started to
fragment, Serbia could not live with not having full control of its
republic; b) Serbs came to feel that they were weakened in Tito's
Yugoslavia because 21 % of the Serbs in Serbia were outside Belgrade's
jurisdiction, namely those living in the two autonomous provinces. In
Croatia, Serbs made up 15 % of the people but had no special rights or
autonomy as minority. In Serbia, Albanians made up 8 % and had a generous,
constitutionally guaranteed status - in fact, perhaps the most liberal in
terms of education, culture and democratic participation any minority in
the world enjoyed.
Were the Kosovo-Albanians happy with this? Not at all, and of course they
had THEIR good reasons. One of them was that history unfairly has condemned
the Albanian people to live separately in three states, Albania, Serbia and
Macedonia. In addition, they had not forgotten that throughout the fifties
and sixties, Belgrade - not the least due to Vice President Alexander
Rankovic who controlled the security police (UDBa) and was purged in 1966
- practised a systematic policy of discrimination against the Albanian
minority. One of today's leading Albanian politicians, Adem Demaci, was
imprisoned in 1958 at the age of 22 and spent 27 years there due to a
series of mock trials!
The Albanians felt that the autonomous status was manipulated by Belgrade
and only existed on paper. They were dissatisfied with being defined as a
'nationality' (that could not have a republic but only autonomy within one)
rather than being a 'nation' such as Croats and Serbs. So the 1970s
witnessed a series of demonstrations, clashed with Serb police,
imprisonment, increased tension and hatred. National Liberation Movements
and Marxist-Leninist groups fought, more or less underground, for full
independence and unification with Albania. Violence was the order of the
In summary," says Jan Oberg, "what we see today is another serious wave of
violence in a protracted and very complex conflict, a result of accumulated
frustrations, if not decade-long traumatisation, on both sides. The Kosovo
Albanians will not NOW accept what they never accepted as good enough since
1974 and knew could be taken away from them any time. The aims of the
Albanian leadership was and is to get out of Serbia - while it is split on
whether or not to unify with Albania. The Serbian leadership can not NOW
re-install the autonomy of the 1974 constitution because ex-Yugoslavia was
its logical and legal basis. The autonomous status of Voivodina and Kosovo
was not abolished only (if at all) to clamp down on Kosovo, but to regain
the authority and jurisdiction that Serbia had lost in 1974. I am not aware
of any state that voluntarily has given up exercising authority over its
legally recognised territory.
So, when the media tell us that the whole thing started when that
autonomous status was abolished in 1989 - as if Albanians were happy then -
they are simply ignorant about historical facts. But the deliberate CHOICE
of this starting point automatically cast the Serb side in the role of
devils and the Albanian side as angels. But I must tell you that this type
of KISS journalism is anything but helpful when it comes to helping the
parties finding a solution," says Dr. Oberg.
"You may ask: why do we get such simplified media images in conflicts? I
would answer that they are caused by the fact that we have 'WAR REPORTING'
that focus almost exclusively on behaviour while we lack qualified CONFLICT
JOURNALISM, i.e. media people who understands how to analyse also root
causes, attitudes, cultural norms, and history underlying these complex
conflicts. Journalists who deal with economics usually know something about
the subject, so do journalist working with culture or sports. In the field
of conflicts, media usually send out front reporters or correspondents who
happen to sit in the vicinity. They have no training whatsoever in how to
analyse conflicts as such.
I've seen them drinking coffee outside the Grand Hotel in Prishtina, the
film crews and journalists who are waiting to be brought safely out on 'war
safari' and shoot the great pictures of death and destruction. By that they
cover only one of the consequence of unresolved conflict - never the
conflict itself and 'what it is all about'.
'But it sells, it's what people want, it's our duty to give people the
images of reality - and this is what my editor wants me to do, I hear them
explain.' "This is nonsense. Within a radius of 500 meter from the Grand
Hotel, they can meet Albanians and Serbs of all walks of life who will give
them vastly more interesting information, background and a touch of the
psychological depths we are facing here. They would get a complex picture,
they would get perceptions of history and they would come to see that each
side has some respectable viewpoints and understandable sentiments.
But - to do that you would have to know something before you can ask good
questions and build confidence with power-politicians as well as ordinary
citizens. You must have had time to do your homework. Few have. So, rather
shoot a film and comment on the pictures - THAT requires little prior
knowledge or analysis."
TFF's director continues, "It would be nice if media in general - of course
there are exceptions - had learnt something from the professional mistakes
in the wars since ex-Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991. What we see now is the
same one-sided, tendentious reporting of half-truths and omissions in
favour basically of one side. In Kosovo, as everywhere else, there are two
sides, at least, to a conflict. In the modern age of information and travel
there are only three factors that can explain biased reporting and lack of
comprehensive analyses: a) lack of professionalism, b) lack of creativity
and c) the wish to promote particular political causes. In its accumulated
consequences, media thereby become responsible for (counterproductive)
To a large extent public opinion is created on the basis of what people see
and hear through the media; we can not all travel to war zones and form our
own opinion. Thus media create vitally important images and frames of
interpretation. The cry for "do something" is loud again. Politicians
increasingly act on the basis of virtual reality rather than real reality.
The first can be created in a few hours, the latter requires analysis.
If the image, the vocabulary and the historical background we now find in
the majority of written and electronic media continue as it has begun
around the Kosovo conflict, we can expect political, if not military,
action that will turn the situation on the ground from bad to worse. We
need conflict reporting, not just war reporting - as warfare is just a way
to act out conflicts. Perhaps this is too important to be left in the hand
of the media? 'Free media' must not degenerate into meaning 'freedom to be
as biased and simplifying as you wish," ends Jan Oberg.
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Dr. Jan Oberg
Director, head of the TFF Conflict-Mitigation team
to the Balkans and Georgia
T F F
Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone +46-46-145909 (0900-1100)