Balkans split over Madeleine Albright's wartime legacy
Belgrade, Serbia — A monument in Kosovo, a snake named after her in Serbia. Madeleine Albright was either loved or hated in the Balkans for her pivotal role during the southern European region's wars of the 1990s.
Following the former U.S. secretary of state's death on Wednesday at age 84, how her legacy is viewed from the Balkans mostly depends on whether one was on the receiving or triggering end of the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Albright quickly emerged as the Clinton administration’s chief hawk on the Balkans after she became secretary of state in 1997. She identified herself so strongly with the push for a Western intervention in Kosovo that her critics dubbed the 1998-1999 conflict there “Madeleine’s War.”
She championed the 78-day bombardment of Serb-led Yugoslavia by NATO — which started exactly 23 years ago Thursday — that halted a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanians. Earlier, while serving as U.S ambassador to the United Nations during President Bill Clinton's first term, she urged tough international response against the nearly 4-year Bosnian Serb shelling of Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo.
Albright also worked on bringing to justice all the individuals responsible for war crimes committed in the Balkans, including former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the wartime Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.
For that, Albright was proclaimed a “Serb hater” in Serbia and a hero in Kosovo and Bosnia.
“She will be remembered in Serbia as a ruthless woman, one of the loudest advocates of the bombing of Yugoslavia and the independence of Kosovo,” the pro-government Vecernje Novosti newspaper said Thursday.
Serbian officials remained silent on Albright's death without offering condolences. On Thursday, a few dozen mostly right-wing demonstrators took part in a protest in Belgrade, held almost every year on the anniversary of the start of the NATO bombing. Some displayed banners reading: “Bye, Bye Madeleine.”
In Kosovo, the reaction was quite the opposite.
“It is very difficult to find the perfect combination of politics, diplomacy and history, like in the unique figure of Madam Secretary Madeleine Albright,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said while paying respects in front of the bronze-colored monument to Albright in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
“NATO’s intervention in Kosovo to stop Serbian genocide in spring 1999 definitely has the seal of Madeleine Albright, and we will be forever grateful and thankful to her," Kurti told The Associated Press.
In Bosnia, Albright is well remembered as the American ambassador who in the summer of 1995 presented to the U.N. Security Council the first evidence of mass atrocities committed in the eastern town of Srebrenica in the closing months of the country’s brutal 1992-95 war.
Over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims perished in 10 days of slaughter after the town was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. Their bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves and then later dug up with bulldozers and scattered among other burial sites to hide the evidence. The remains of victims are still being unearthed and identified more than a quarter-century later.
“Because of her own experience, she was a true champion of justice, she could not stomach injustice,” former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said of the Czechoslovakia-born Albright, who as a child was a refugee from Nazi- and then Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. “She understood that (Bosnia) has suffered injustice and was looking for ways to correct that.”
While visiting besieged Sarajevo during the war, she evoked former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech in Berlin, telling a crowd of several hundred: “Ja sam Sarajevka” (“I am a Sarajevan.”)
In her native Czech Republic, Albright’s legacy is honored, especially in light of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s a huge loss,” Alexandr Vondra, a former anti-communist dissident and currently a Czech representative in the European Parliament, said.
“Nobody in the United States did so much for us. Let’s think about it now when NATO protects us against the arrogant expansionism of Russia,” he said.
Albright’s ties to the former Yugoslavia go back to her early childhood.
Soon after her birth on May 15, 1937 in Prague as Maria Jan Korbelova, her parents moved to the then-capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, where her father, Josef Korbel served as a press attaché at the Czechoslovak Embassy.
He was recalled from Belgrade at the end of 1938. In March 1939, soon after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the whole family headed back to Yugoslavia and eventually moved to Britain.
Albright often remembered her days in Belgrade fondly, including when she addressed the Serbs two days after the start of the NATO intervention in the Kosovo conflict 23 years ago.
“As you can see, I remember a little Serbian — albeit with a Czech accent — from my days in Belgrade as a child,” she said in the address, which is posted on State Department’s website. “My father was a Czechoslovak diplomat there before the Second World War. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, my father escaped to Yugoslavia with his wife and baby — me. I will never forget how we were warmly welcomed as friends in need of help.”
“Americans do not hate Serbs,” Albright continued. “Like me, they remember that we were allies against Fascism,” she said. “Like you, Americans want to live in peace with their neighbors and the wider world.”
“That is why we could not sit idly by while security forces were used to commit atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.” Albright said.
The speech was not relayed by Serbia’s state-run media amid the NATO bombing. Instead, the Belgrade Zoo named one of its pythons after her in a sign of protest for her role in the U.S.- led intervention.
Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Karel Janicek in Prague and Florent Bajrami in Pristina, Kosovo, contributed.