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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kosovo Mandela

The English ethnologist Edith Durham prophetically warned in 1909 that the Albanian problem would inevitably come to haunt European politics. And, indeed, we can see the beginning of it today as majority Albanians in Kosovo province struggle against their minority Serbian overlords.

At the beginning of the century, as the Ottoman Turks were being pushed out of the Balkan Peninsula, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria staked claims on the various parts of the territory, and the great powers of the day jostled for positions by advancing their own solutions.

"The claims of the Greek, Bulgar and Serb in the Balkan Peninsula are well known; so are the desires of Austria, Russia and Italy," Durham wrote. "But it has been the fashion to ignore the rights and claims of the oldest inhabitants of the land, the Albanians, and every plan for the reconstruction that has done so has failed."

When Albania emerged as a national state in 1912, it embraced within its borders only about 60 percent of the people who speak the Albanian language and who consider themselves descendants of the ancient Illyrians. The remaining 40 percent live to this day on the other side of the border -- mainly in Kosovo and neighboring Macedonia.

The current turmoil in Kosovo is, I suspect, a foretaste of things to come. But Kosovo does not have to become the source of major conflagration if the international community, including the United States, addresses the problem in new and creative ways.

What is required are diplomatic skills, tact and pressure to recast the intractable problem -- which is now viewed as an either/or issue by both sides -- into a win-win proposition.

One obvious way is a confederal arrangement. This already has been suggested by a distinguished Albanian figure, Adem Demaci, known as Kosovo's Nelson Mandela because he spent 28 years in Yugoslav jails for "nationalist agitation" and related crimes. In 1993, Demaci was honored for his activities by the European Parliament.

A few months before the current turmoil, Demaci advanced the idea of a confederation comprised of three equal entities - Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. In this way, Kosovo would regain its home rule, while the Serbs would feel they had retained their ancestral lands where they are now a tiny minority.

The chief obstacle to any settlement is Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. He first built his nationalist power base by attacking Kosovo Albanians and liquidating, in 1989, Kosovo's political and cultural autonomy within Serbia. The Albanians responded with passive resistance, including the boycott of all government-controlled institutions. They held underground elections, proclaimed their own Republic of Kosovo, and elected writer Ibrahim Rugova as its president. Rugova's objective is Kosovo's immediate independence.

But the absence of any progress coupled with years of brutal police repression has radicalized Kosovo's Albanians, and caused the emergence of the militant Kosovo Liberation Organization. Last year, an increasing number of Kosovo intellectuals began turning against Rugova's passivity. Demaci emerged as their leader.

Rugova's single-minded ethnic nationalism, Demaci argues, leads nowhere and has benefited only Milosevic's dictatorship. In fact, by refusing to vote against Milosevic in national elections the Albanians have helped him remain in power.

Demaci advocates a more aggressive resistance that would put more pressure on Milosevic's government to restore the Albanians' political and cultural rights. While Demaci would like to see independence as well, he argues that the international community does not favor any border changes or a secession.

Demaci's approach may find a wider acceptance among Serb public opinion. It would also strengthen the hand of outside mediators. It is one thing for an outsider to favor a nationalist politician bent on dismembering a country, quite another to support a democrat seeking to restore full political and cultural rights for his people. In the past, the prospect of Kosovo secession had provided Milosevic with an issue to whip up nationalist sentiments to afever pitch.

The Kosovo Albanians are conscious of their weakness. The recent protest demonstrations were -- for all the Serb brutality against them -- peaceful. Their slogans were written in English for the benefit of television cameras and the outside world. Albania itself, just over the border, can give little help. It is weak and not prepared for war.

The initial response by Western politicians and commentators has been to express moral outrage over the brutal killings of the Albanians by the Serbs and to place responsibility squarely on Milosevic's shoulders. The European Union has imposed an arms embargo and a moratorium on export credits against the Yugoslav Federal Republic.

But U.S. policy-makers as well as their European counterparts should consider Demaci's ideas before raising false hopes among the Kosovo Albanians. Demaci opens new possibilities for creative diplomacy. We should keep in mind that the "rights and claims" involved in the Kosovo issue have no resemblance to those involved in Bosnia. Nor did Bosnia produce a man like Demaci who combined genuine nationalist credentials with flexibility of mind and readiness to compromise.

Dusko Doder, author of "The Yugoslavs," writes frequently about Eastern Europe. He contributed this comment to Newsday.