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The Balkans region has a penchant for producing more history than it can consume. ~ Winston Churchill

Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation. ~ Ernest Renan

Today is the five years-anniversary of the late Slobodan Milošević's historic extradition to the Hague. With final status negotiations for Kosovo moving into the final phase, this is a good occasion to consider the fascinating history of one of the most notorious powder kegs in the world, from which we have surely not heard the last.

I am no expert in this field and cannot guarantee that I have got every factual detail right. As to analysis and interpretation, this is such a contested stretch of history that any informed reader might find something to dispute, perhaps passionately, although as far as I know I have no special axe to grind.

Previously posted in two parts at European Tribune and my blog.

Part I: 1189-1989.


Kosovo mapThe Serbian province -- and UN protectorate -- informally known as 'Kosovo' is a fertile, mountain-ringed area of 10.887 km². It subdivides into the valleys of Kosovo proper and Metohija (Greek for 'monastic land'): indeed, its full name, as Serbs often like to point out, is 'Kosovo and Metohija'. Here, 'Kosovo' will refer to the entire area unless otherwise noted.

The ancient history of the region is fairly obscure. Suffice it to say that, conquered by Alexander the Great 300 years B.C.E., it became part of the Roman province of Dardania in the 4th century A.D. and thus belonged to the Byzantine empire when the Serbs arrived in the Balkans about two centuries later. Fast forward to...

Patriarchate of Pec1189 In this year, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa passed through on his way to the Third Crusade. Stefan Nemanjić, ruler of the small Serbian principality of Rascia, met with him and signed a trade agreement. Barbarossa drowned underway to Jerusalem, but Nemanjić used the mayhem of the time to carve out a kingdom. One of his sons was crowned; another founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and secured it autocephalous status. As proven today by some 1,300 monasteries and churches, Kosovo was the cultural, political, and economic heartland of this advanced medieval state.

The Kingdom of Serbia flourished between the demise of the Byzantines, from whom it emerged, and the rise of the Ottomans, to whom it fell prey. This Golden Age spanned less than two centuries, culminating with Tzar Stefan Dušan the Powerful, who doubled his empire until it stretched from the Danube to the Peloponnes and encompassed present-day Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, northern Greece, and Bulgaria. When Dušan died en route to seizing Constantinople in 1355, it dissolved into squabbling fiefdoms.

By then, the Ottoman Sultanate had embarked on a formidable campaign of conquest. In 1371 it vanquished a Christian army in modern Bulgaria, wiping out the chief contenders for the Serbian throne. Militarily, this spat was far more important than the one to follow in 1389; the same can be said of the final Serbian loss on the Danube in 1459. In terms of mythic significance, however, it is the other way around: "In all of European history," notes Tim Judah in The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, "it is impossible to find any comparison with the effect of Kosovo on the Serbian national psyche." (30). By way of attempts, the Battle of Kosovo has been likened to Hastings, Bastogne, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Fall of Troy -- combined.

1389 Murad IOn St. Vitus Day, June 28, 1389, at a desolate plain near Priština, a scrambled Christian alliance of Serbs and Bosnians faced its foe. Its commander was a minor Serb nobleman, a certain Prince Lazar; his Ottoman counterpart being the Sultan, Murad I. Neither man survived the day. And though the Turks gained the most in relative terms, the battle itself was apparently a tie which mostly pleased the blackbirds feasting on the tens of thousands of slain. This gave the region its name: Kosovo Polje means 'the Field of Blackbirds'.

But legend has painted the draw as a Serbian disaster, and elevated the defeat, in turn, to a moral triumph. As was Ottoman practice, the Sultan had offered Prince Lazar a choice between vassalage and war. Après la lutte -- likely in order to boost morale as well as the interests of Lazar's heir -- the Serbian Church cast the decision to fight as an affirmation of moral purity over worldly gain. According to this hagiography, God made Lazar choose between victory and temporal power, or death and an eternal Kingdom of Heaven. "And the emperor chose the empire of heaven above the empire of the earth," one poem, "The Downfall of the Serbian Empire," declares.

Lovingly embellished over the centuries, this story evolved into a veritable Passion. For example, a 16th century interpolation involves a Last Supper, as well as a Judas figure represented by Vuk Branković, one of Lazar's favorite knights, who supposedly withdrew at a critical stage in the battle. Taken to extremes, the myth suggests that St. Lazar's "martyrdom" absolved the Serbs of the sins by which their state had perished, making them in effect a "new Israel." So, in the fullness of time, they shall be restored even their earthly kingdom.

In the present, however, Serbia was duly conquered by 1459 and would remain so for centuries. Killing or expelling most of the nobility, the Ottomans imposed shari'a laws reducing Christians to second-class citizenry. This included a poll tax (jizya), legal discrimination, and worst of all, devshirme: the dreaded "blood tribute" of perhaps a thousand male children per annum, to be converted to Islam and enrolled in the imperial apparatus. While these were better terms than those offered Muslims by Christian rulers of the age -- notably in Spain upon the Reconquista -- that obviously did little to console the Serbs. The most hardcore fled to the mountains of Montenegro, the only semi-independent Balkan state. There the monks would carry forth the martyr cult of Kosovo Polje, while by the flickering bonfires, village bards sang of Prince Lazar.

Dance of Kosovo AlbaniansIn the meantime, another ethnic group was moving down from the highlands. The people now known as Albanians began settling in the lowlands. These were fiercely clannish pastoralists of disputed ancestry, who are thought (though all such questions are controversial) to have been a minority in the Serbian Kingdom. Having neither a Church of their own nor the memory of statehood, the proto-Albanians proved more susceptible than Serbs to conversion and its rewards. An estimated two-thirds took up Islam. And from their ranks sprang the new feudal lords of Kosovo; a mainstay of Serb resentment ever since.

1689 The demographic shift came to a head after the failed second siege of Vienna. When the Turks repelled an Austrian invasion in 1689, Serb peasants, who had risen to support it, fled the harsh retaliations. In 1690 the Archbishop of Peć, whose monastery the Ottomans had destroyed, led 30,000-40,000 families across the Danube to the Austrian Military Frontier, the area now called Vojvodina.

This "Great Migration" -- another paradoxically celebrated event, which in the Serbian national consciousness evokes the Exodus -- moved the center of Serb culture to the Belgrade region, where it has since remained. This rendered Kosovo underpopulated, causing a Turk-sponsored influx of Muslims from present-day Albania. Along with not necessarily voluntary mass conversions among remaining Serbs, many of whom came in time to adopt Albanian customs and even language, this produced an ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo that has also endured to this day. Such, at any rate, is the simple version of a complex tale. Fast forward two centuries...

1889 By now the tide of power was turning on the Balkans. With the declining Ottoman Sultanate on the verge of bankruptcy, Serbia had resurfaced as a principality after a revolutionary war (1804-14) and under the auspices of the Turks' most vehement enemy, Russia. At the 1878 Berlin Conference it had won recognition as a sovereign state, as did Montenegro. The Serbian Kingdom was back on the map; and its gaze became fixed on its historical heartland.

A 19th century representation of the epic poem 'The Maiden of Kossovo'.

In Belgrade a nascent bourgeoise had discovered the epic cycles of Kosovo Polje, which had drifted north from Montenegro and were published in national-romantic fashion. (They attracted international admiration: Alexander Pushkin and Jacob Grimm cherished the poems, and Goethe, who taught himself Serbo-Croatian in order to read them, compared them to The Illiad.) As with nation-building in general, a literate high culture was constructed from folk traditions in a manner glorifying a distant past. What is unique here is the status assigned the fictionalized events of a non-decisive battle half a millennium back. In a rousing opening address to the nation-wide, months-long celebration of the 500th anniversary of this slaughter, Serbia's minister of foreign affairs intoned:

An inexhaustible source of national pride was discovered on Kosovo. More important than language and stronger than the Church, this pride unites all Serbs in a single nation.... The glory of the Kosovo heroes shone like a radiant star in that dark night of almost 500 years.... There was never a war for freedom -- and when was there no war? -- in which the spirit of Kosovo heroes did not participate. The new history of Serbia begins with Kosovo -- a history of valiant efforts, long suffering, endless wars, and unquenchable glory....

On St. Vitus' day, June 28 1889, 30,000 pilgrims paid homage to St. Lazar's bones in Hungary.

In due course, the national myth was pressed into service for a Greater Serbia. Set in motion by ambitious politicians and sustained by a wave of yearning for the Golden Age, an irredentist project gained momentum: the "historic mission" of "liberating Old Serbia." Thus, in the chaotic First Balkan War of 1912, Serbian troops advanced on Kosovo, whose defense the retreating Turks had left to the Albanian aristocracy. After centuries of tense but seldom violent co-habitation, Serbs and Albanians clashed for the first time in large-scale battle. Here is how one typical young enlistee responded to his southward deployment:

The single sound of that word "Kosovo" caused an indescribable excitement. This one word pointed to the black past 5 centuries. In it exists the whole of our sad past the tragedy of Prince Lazar and the entire Serbian people... The spirits of Lazar, Milos, and all of the Kosovo martyrs gaze on us. We felt strong and proud, for we are the generation which will realize the centuries-old dream of the whole nation: that we with the sword will regain the freedom that was lost with the sword.

That year the Serbian army, trailed by thousands of peasant settlers and wreaking much havoc, conquered Kosovo proper in the face of stiff Albanian resistance. The next year the international community recognized the area as Serbian, with Montenegro getting sovereignty over Metohija.

Famously, however, on June 28 1914 another young Serb nationalist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke in Sarajevo. Gavrilo Princip was outraged that Bosnia remained a Habsburg province, and especially, that the prince had picked St. Vitus Day to oversee military manoeuvres on the Serbian border. He was also inspired by a mythical incident in the Battle of Kosovo, wherein a Serb nobleman, Miloš Obilić, infiltrated the enemy in the guise of a deserter and plunged a poisoned dagger into the Sultan. In any case, his wrath lit the fuse of World War I; an unprecedented carnage which would cost Serbia an incredible sixty percent of its fighting-age male population.

In Kosovo proper, a fierce guerrilla war ensued between Serbs and Albanians, before Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian invaders crushed the Serbian army there and forced what is -- characteristically -- known as the "Great Serbian retreat" across Kosovo and over the Albanian mountains to a refuge on the island of Korfu. Constantly harried by insurgents, this hapless winter march claimed as many as 100,000 Serbian lives. (It is remembered in Serbia as the nation's "Albanian Golgotha.") However, by 1918, as the Dual Monarchy lost out to the French, the Serbian army inflicted a terrible revenge replete with massacres and ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile Serbia received accolades in the West. In June 1918, for example, the United States recognized St. Vitus Day as a day of special commemoration.  

The retreat of the Serbian army in 1915.

The colonization continued after Serbia joined the pan-Slavic monarchy later to be named Yugoslavia. Throughout the interwar period, the Belgrade government deported Albanians from Kosovo proper and resettled half the arable land, spawning a big Serb majority by the late 1920s. (More on this project and its ideology can be found in an official memorandum from 1937 called The expulsion of the Albanians.) But during World War II the tide turned again, with most of Kosovo incorporated into an Italian-controlled "Greater Albania." Nearly 100,000 Serbs were expelled, and up to 10,000 killed, by Albanian militias allied to the fascists.

It was hoped that the country's post-war reincarnation as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) under the partisan leader Josip Broz Tito would end this inter-ethnic bloodfeud. And after a final uprooting of the Albanian resistance, killing up to 48,000 in six months, it did for a while. The province of Kosovo enjoyed decades of relative tranquility wherein nationalism of every kind was suppressed with extreme prejudice by the equal-opportunity dictator and his secret police.

During this respite, a demographic bomb went off. Rural Albanians, plagued by poverty and low education levels, had the highest birth rate in Europe, making the Kosovar Albanian population virtually explode. By 1961, Albanians accounted for 67%, Serbs for 27%, and others for 6%. This new situation on the ground, combined with frustration at the underdevelopment that propelled it, led Kosovo Albanians to riot for independence in the 1968 student revolts.

The pragmatic Tito responded by revamping the consitution in 1974, granting Kosovo (as well as the Vojvoidina province with its big Hungarian minority) effective self-government. Besides vast financial transfers from the center, Kosovo gained a seat on the federal presidency; a legislature; a supreme court; a university; a central bank; a police force; and a quota system ensuring Albanian dominance of all these institutions. But much as this displeased the Serbs, it also thwarted a growing Albanian demand for full Republic status, which carried the theoretical right to secede. A year after Tito's death in 1980 -- at which point 77% of the population were ethnic Albanians -- near-revolutionary riots flared up anew. This time they were quelled with tanks.

Meanwhile there were now persistent claims of harassment and discrimination of non-Albanians. The complaints had considerable merit, as the thousands of Serbs fleeing Kosovo every year would readily confirm. It is equally true, however, that they were wildly exaggerated by Serb nationalists. In 1986, Serbian Orthodox bishops spoke of genocide in progress, as did 216 prominent Serbian intellectuals who decried "the physical, political, legal and cultural genocide" against the Serbs.

Milosevic 1987Then, a much-reported turning point occurred. In April 1987, the deputy president of the Serbian communist party, Slobodan Milošević, arrived at Kosovo Polje -- by now a suburb of Priština -- to mediate the simmering conflict. As he met with local Serbs, a crowd of nationalist Serbs outside the building began pelting stones at the (predominantly Albanian) police, who struck back with batons. As Milošević ventured outside to see what was happening, an elderly man approached him begging for help against "separatist police beating women and children." The former retreated to a second-floor balcony and declared, while gesturing toward the Field of Blackbirds: "Noone shall be allowed to beat you again!" The crowd responded with chants of "Slobo, Slobo."

This incident, which rebel leaders have proudly confessed to instigating -- possibly in collusion with Milošević, who had met with some of them four days beforehand -- was televised in all four corners of Serbia. It served as a firebrand for nationalist emotion. Transformed overnight from grey apparatchik to national hero, Milošević proceeded to wrest control of the communist party from Ivan Stambolić, his friend and benefactor for a quarter century. Stambolić, who in 2000 was assassinated on the eve of the Presidential election by eight Serbian secret police officers loyal to Milošević, has said he had seen that day at Kosovo Polje as the end of Yugoslavia.

While that may be an overstatement, certainly two basic taboos of that federation had been flaunted: on mass rallies and ethnic identity politics, respectively. Milošević, supported by hard-liners from Kosovo, followed up with more than sixty so-called "meetings of truth" on the the Kosovo question across the length and width of Serbia. These mass rallies he deftly used to overthrow the provincial leaderships of Kosovo and Vojvoidina. At a November 1988 meeting in Belgrade, under the parole of "Brotherhood and Unity," he thundered to a million listeners:

This is not the time for sorrow; it is time for struggle. This awareness captured Serbia last summer and this awareness has turned into a material force that will stop the terror in Kosovo and unite Serbia.... People will even consent to live in poverty but they will not consent to live without freedom.... We tell them that we enter every battle with the aim of winning it.

In grand demagogic style, he envisioned a new:

...battle for Kosovo [which]... we shall win despite the fact that Serbia's enemies outside the country are plotting against it, along with those in the country. (Quoted in Sabrina Petra Ramet: Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia 1962-1991, 2nd ed., 229-230.)

Part II: 1989-1999.


1989 On St. Vitus Day, June 28 1989 -- the 600th anniversary of the mythologized battle -- Slobodan Milošević returned to Kosovo Polje as president-elect of the Serbian Republic. Also back for the occasion was Prince Lazar, whose holy remains had toured the Orthodox monasteries of Yugoslavia for two years, rousing Serbian nationalism. As many as a million pilgrims convened at the plains, waving "Slobo's" picture alongside that of his illustrious predecessor.

However, Milošević's actual address on that day has been misrepresented on a scale almost comparable to the events which it commemorated. Though it did, ominously enough, suggest that armed struggle "should not be excluded yet," it was hardly a "stirringly virulent nationalist speech" (The Economist, June 05, 1999, US edition) that "whipped a million Serbs into a nationalist frenzy" (Time International, July 9, 2001). On the contrary, it touted the peaceful coexistence of ethnic groups within common borders. Why the shift in rhetoric?

This declaration provides a clue: "Serbia of today is united and equal to other republics." Milošević, in other words, had already achieved one of his key objectives and was seeking to consolidate his position at the helm of an undivided Yugoslavia.

There are rival accounts of how this came to be. The following is that of the the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia:

9. [...] In early 1989, the Serbian Assembly proposed amendments to the Constitution of Serbia which would strip Kosovo of most of its autonomous powers, including control of the police, educational and economic policy, and choice of official language, as well as its veto powers over further changes to the Constitution of Serbia. Kosovo Albanians demonstrated in large numbers against the proposed changes. Beginning in February 1989, a strike by Kosovo Albanian miners further increased tensions.

10. Due to the political unrest, on 3 March 1989, the SFRY Presidency declared that the situation in the province had deteriorated and had become a threat to the constitution, integrity, and sovereignty of the country. The government then imposed "special measures" which assigned responsibility for public security to the federal government instead of the government of Serbia.

11. On 23 March 1989, the Assembly of Kosovo met in Pristina and, with the majority of Kosovo Albanian delegates abstaining, voted to accept the proposed amendments to the constitution. Although lacking the required two-thirds majority in the Assembly, the President of the Assembly nonetheless declared that the amendments had passed. On 28 March 1989, the Assembly of Serbia voted to approve the constitutional changes effectively revoking the autonomy granted in the 1974 constitution.


This version of what happened on March 23 1989 was, it must be emphasized, vigorously disputed by witnesses for Milošević at The Hague. What is clear is that Kosovo's autonomy was downgraded to pre-1974 levels at Milošević' behest. The Serbian Parliament followed up by passing a number of discriminatory laws, including one that barred Albanians from selling real estate without permission from Serbian authorities.

In July 1990 a majority of Albanian delegates in the Assembly of Kosovo responded by unofficially declaring Kosovo an "equal and independent" republic of SFRY, complete with a shadow government. Greg Campbell, in his book The Road to Kosovo, sums up what happened next:

In response, Milosevic suspended Kosovo's parliament and its government, fired Albanians holding influential political posts and purged them from the police force, shut down Albanian-language media, closed all Albanian educational institutions, and banned Albanians from being treated in state-run medical establishments.... [This] had its desired effect: large numbers of Albanians fled Kosovo. The Serb-dominated police force fueled the migration through brutality, violence, and torture aimed at the Albanian majority. But the Serbian crackdown didn't quell the [Albanians'] desires for autonomy; it simply upped their demands: now, instead of wanting just intra-Yugoslavian freedom, they were demanding full independence as a new nation. (152-3).

By September 1990, a US National Intelligence Estimate warned that "the Yugoslav experiment has failed, that the country will break up" and that "this is likely to be accomplished by ethnic violence and unrest which could lead to civil war." Yet like most close observers, it predicted that the first region engulfed by war would be Kosovo itself. Instead the Kosovo conflict set off a chain reaction through Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia that not before 1998 completed the circle and blew up the detonator.

The Serbian crackdown in Kosovo induced Slovenians to vote overwhelmingly for independence in a December 1990 plebiscite. As this left Serbia too dominant for their liking, it moved Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia to secede as well. The ensuing war in Bosnia left at least 100,000 dead and created 3 million refugees. The international community could do little to halt the carnage, and did even less.

How did the powder keg of Kosovo avoid war in the early 1990s? One factor is that, despite voting overwhelmingly for independence in an unofficial referendum of September 1991, Albanians lacked the military and political muscle to force secession, while Belgrade was kept in check by the outside world, notably the US. According to a former US ambassador to Croatia, the Bush sr. administration was more concerned about potential war in Kosovo and its destabilizing effects than about Bosnia. In its "Christmas Threat" of late 1992 -- since reiterated by President Clinton -- it threatened military action if Milošević were to deploy in Kosovo.

Another factor is the pacifism of the late Ibrahim Rugova; a silk-scarfed, Sorbonne-educated academic who in May 1992 was voted President of the "Republic of Kosova" in clandestine elections. Rugova and his party, the Democratic League of Kosova (DLK), favored passive resistance, establishing an underground state of diaspora-financed parallel institutions to which Serbian police saw fit to turn a blind eye. The strategy of the DLK was quietly to await Western support for independence. However, the US and the EU were by now preoccupied with Bosnia. Thus, when the 1995 Dayton Accords recognized Serbia and Montenegro as the new Yugoslavia and the sanctions were lifted, this was not made conditional even upon restored autonomy for the troubled province.

While understandable given the urgency of ending the Bosnian bloodbath, the neglect of the Kosovo question left ethnic Albanians -- now on their own with the Serbs and Montenegrins -- worse off than in the old SFRY. In result, many DLK adherents gave up on the non-violent approach and switched to the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA): a clan-based rag-tag militia which by 1993 had evolved from emigré separatist groups in Western Europe, comprising refugees from the 1980 crackdown. Faithful to the 19th century nationalist ideal of a polity coextensive with the ethnicity, it revived the old pipedream of uniting the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania itself in a Greater Albania. This grandiose irredentist project, harking back to the League of Prizren of 1878, was the long-term ambition. The KLA's immediate end was independence.

As to the means it was prepared to use, indisputably part of its funding derived from organized crime, possibly including participation in the infamous Balkan Route of heroin to Western Europe. There have also been reports of ties with jihadi groups. Most likely, both accusations contain elements of truth -- the former perhaps more than the latter -- but have been exaggerated in pro-Serb propaganda. The KLA was not the armed wing of Albanian organized crime, nor did its agenda and leadership have much to do with political Islam.

KLA fighters

In early 1996 the KLA launched a low-intensity insurgency, ambushing security forces and assailing "collaborators." Its existence was long only rumored, but by early 1997 it began to claim responsibility.

Stocking up on cheap Kalashnikovs from the looted armories of Albania, then in a state of anarchy after the collapse of nation-wide pyramid financing schemes, the KLA escalated operations throughout the year. On the night to September 11 it performed a series of ten coordinated attacks as much as 150 km apart. On November 28 -- a date commemorated as a national day among Kosovo Albanians -- a KLA member appeared in public as such for the very first time.

At this point the guerrilla began to target civilian Serbs. The master strategy was a kind of martial judo familiar from terrorist campaigns: turning the enemy's strength against him. Pinprick operations aimed to provoke disproportionate reprisals which would rally Kosovo Albanians around its cause and, with any luck, elicit Western intervention. Perhaps aware of this risk in the light of Clinton's threats, and having experience with provocation tactics himself, Milošević shied away from deploying the army.

He eventually changed his mind. On some accounts, this happened when on February 23 1998, US special envoy Robert Gelbard imprudently, if not inaccurately, called the KLA "without any question a terrorist group" which the US condemned "very strongly." Within a week, Serbian special forces backed by helicopter gunships and armoured personnel carriers performed a brutal crackdown in the western Drenica region, flattening entire towns that served as strongholds for leading KLA (and mafia) clans. To go by Kosovo Albanian sources, this involved summary executions, even outright massacres. Albanian media reported a hundred thousand attending the funerals.

The sweep continued into March, notably at the village of Prekaz in central Kosovo, where fifty-three members of the Jeshari clan allegedly were slaughtered. The KLA made the most of this, posting photos of the corpses on the Internet as soon as available. A massive uprising followed, swelling the ranks of the KLA. Meanwhile, up to 400,000 Kosovo Albanians were forced to flee their homes, some at gunpoint and many over the mountains to Albania.

This humanitarian disaster led to the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions and an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, threatening "additional measures" if it failed to withdraw. To underline the point, 85 NATO aircraft overflew Albania and Macedonia; the US Sixth Fleet, put on battle alert, cruised into the Adriatic in a show of force. Finally, in late September the Clinton administration opened the door for air strikes; in October, NATO authorized such in the case of non-compliance with "the repeated political and humanitarian demands of the UN Security Council in regards to Kosovo."

Belgrade had no choice but to fold. In the so-called Holbrooke-Milošević agreement of October 12, it agreed to restore Kosovo's autonomy and pull out the army and police in return for a lifting of the UN sanctions. A multinational corps of 750 civilian monitors, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), moved in to supervise the implementation.

By all accounts, the some 130 strong US contribution to this Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) was heavily spy-infested. (There are unverified allegations that the KVM head, US diplomat William Walker -- an old Latin America hand with stints in El Salvador and Honduras -- was himself CIA.) According to the Sunday Times, the Americans operated on "completely different terms" than the Europeans, providing advice and combat manuals to the KLA.

The latter for its part was neither party to nor content with the ceasefire. It surged forth into the power vacuum, seizing half the province and extending a makeshift administrative structure as it went along. As reported in the BBC2 documentary Moral Combat, Walker confidentially told NATO's governing body that the guerrilla was now "the main initiator of the violence," apparently engaging in "a deliberate campaign of provocation."

On January 15 1999, another massacre occurred in the town of Racak, a KLA stronghold in southern Kosovo, where some 45 Albanians were murdered in cold blood after attacks on Serbian police. Or so, at any rate, William Walker assured a press conference, describing in gory detail the aftermath of an "unspeakable atrocity" and a "crime against humanity." The charge would be central to the case against Milošević in The Hague, where Walker testified for the prosecution about the heaps of dead bodies he had seen on that day.

Bodies at Racak.

Yet doubts immediately arose about this incident. There are indications that it was a hoax staged by the KLA to trigger NATO intervention. Frustratingly, there are also persuasive counter-arguments. In a sense it hardly even matters, inasmuch as neither side was morally above what it stood accused of by the other side. What is clear is that, if it was indeed a KLA hoax, it succeeded.

News of the Racak incident broke within hours of a National Security Council meeting in which US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had for nearly a year favored putting military pressure on Milošević, argued in vain for "decisive steps." Albright later called Racak "a galvanizing incident," meaning that it galvanized will to contemplate the use of force.

She was right, both in terms of the Clinton administration and international opinion. For the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher, for instance, "Racak became the turning point": "If people are being massacred, you cannot mutter about having no [UN Security Council] mandate. You must act." Within two weeks, NATO announced its readiness to intervene, France and Britain vowed to send in ground troops if needed, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stateed that Bosnia had proven "the need to use force, when all other means have failed."

Finally, the so-called Contact Group of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia and the US summoned the parties, on pains of NATO airstrikes, to the Château de Rambouillet outside Paris. Talks began on February 6 amidst intermittent clashes, torched villages, and a Serbian presence some six times heavier than allowed by the ceasefire. What transpired at Rambouillet has been, it is fair to say, misrepresented widely in US and European media to this day.

It was announced that, merely by taking part, the parties implicitly accepted 26 principles which the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had stated on January 30. These non-negotiable principles were culled from the January 27 version of an 'Interim Agreement' drafted by the US envoy, Holbrooke's deputy Christopher Hill.

This framework mandated an immediate truce and disarmament followed by restored self-government for Kosovo within the FRY. Upon free elections supervised by the OSCE, the province would enjoy its own parliament, president, judicial system and police; the cultural rights of all ethnic groups would be respected; all political prisoners would be released; and a final settlement would be reached after three years. A new version of the agreement, presented to the parties upon arrival, specified that the latter would occur through a "mechanism" determined by an "international meeting" on the basis of "the will of the people" and various "opinions" and "efforts." Albright gave the parties one week to endorse this fait accompli and hash out the details, otherwise "appropriate conclusions" would be drawn. In case of Yugoslav refusal, that meant air strikes; in case of Albanian ditto, abandonment to the Serbs.

According to French journalist Paul-Marie De La Gorce writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, the Yugoslavian delegation accepted the proposal. However, the KLA did not: preferring status quo to "mere" autonomy, it demanded a clause guaranteeing eventual independence. This situation -- Serbian acceptance cum Albanian refusal -- was the opposite of what the US State Department had expected. Albright arrived on February 20 to persuade the KLA's delegation leader, Hasim Thaci, to sign.

In a letter to Thaci dated 22nd February, she provided an interpretation of the aforementioned "mechanism":

This letter concerns the formulation (attached) proposed for Chapter 8, Article 1 (3) of the interim Framework Agreement. We will regard this proposal, or any other formulation, of that Article that may be agreed at Rambouillet, as confirming a right for the people of Kosovo to hold a referendum on the final status of Kosovo after three years.

Quoted in Tim Judah: Kosovo, p. 215.


The next day, negotiations were adjourned, the KLA delegation heading off to Macedonia to consult with its leaders; the US sent down Senator Bob Dole to continue the lobbying. In addition to Albright's concession, three novel elements were now introduced to further sugar the pill: elections would be held ASAP; the disarmament would not extend to "private weapons"; and last but not least, NATO forces would ensure Yugoslavian compliance.

On March 15, talks resumed in Paris and the KLA announced its readiness to sign the deal unilaterally.

And unilateral the signing would be, for the deal had evolved into something completely unacceptable to Belgrade. It is unclear whether Milošević knew of Albright's letter; if so, that alone explains his refusal to sign. Having arguably lost three wars in the former Yugoslavia, he could ill afford to lose Kosovo, which he had personally touted as the Serb nation's ancestral home and the embodiment of its historical martyrdom. Neither his government nor the equally nationalist opposition, nor indeed the disaffected Serbian populace, would condone secession.

The other novelties were also inedible to Belgrade. The revised 'Interrim Agreement for Peace and Self-Government in Kosovo' required Serbian security forces to withdraw to at least 5 km from the border. A NATO force with no upward cap or oversight by the the UN Security Council would move in and assume full control, including over the airspace. As if this were not enough, Appendix B on the 'Status of Multi-National Military Implementation Force' effectively authorizes NATO occupation of the entire Former Republic of Yugoslavia:

NATO personnel shall be immune from any form of arrest, investigation, or detention by the authorities in the FRY... [and] enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training, and operations.... The authorities in the FRY shall facilitate, on a priority basis and with all appropriate means, all movement of personnel, vehicles, vessels, aircraft, equipment, or supplies, through or in the airspace, ports, airports, or roads used.

There is an under-appreciated irony in the Czech-born Albright informing reporters that "Munich is my mindset" while trying to coerce a sovereign state into accepting loss of territory on terms such as these. The pro-Serbian side of the continuing debate (or shouting match) argues that said terms both explain and justify Milošević's rejection of the Rambouillet Accord. Pro-NATO pundits counter that they were lifted from the Dayton Accords, wherein Croatia agreed to the equivalent, and that they were anyway negotiable had the Serbs engaged in negotiation, which they did not.

The latter claim is flatly denied by De La Gorce. According to him, Belgrade's prime representative at Rambouillet -- the President of Serbia, Milan Milutinović -- suggested an "international presence" in Kosovo independent of NATO and comprising forces from Russia, Greece, and Western Europe.

Some commentators go as far as to suggest that the US deliberately provoked Belgrade's rejection to clear the way for war. A more plausible analysis is that it gambled and lost. Faced with the likelihood that no possible agreement would be acceptable to both the parties, its strategy was to secure a KLA signature with all necessary concessions and then make Milošević an offer he could not refuse. Such inequitable use of stick and carrot proved a grave miscalculation on March 18, as the KLA delegates signed while their Yugoslav counterparts refused.

Later that day, Clinton declared that "the treshold had been crossed" in regard to triggering NATO intervention. On the following day, "winter live fire exercises" commenced in Kosovo, prompting evacuation of KVM personnel; again according to the Sunday Times, CIA elements handed over advanced communications equipment to the KLA before leaving.

A major diplomatic crisis ensued. Russia had informally condoned the threat against Yugoslavia but stressed that it could never tolerate its actual implementation. China, preoccupied with sovereignty, was also opposed. Thus, though it cited several UN Security Council resolutions, the first war in NATO's history lacked an explicit UNSC authorization. Within NATO, Greece and Italy objected.

But the resistance was brushed aside, in part, no doubt, owing to another miscalculation: the US and NATO believed that a brief, token bombing campaign would compel Milošević to sign. This belief also helps account for Clinton's cavalier vow, in his March 24 address to the nation, that no ground troops would be deployed.

Moreover, the strategic error sheds light on the absence of planning characterizing Operation Allied Force from its beginning later on that day. A recent PhD dissertation by Captain Dag Henriksen at the Norwegian Air Force Academy documents that the NATO targeting cell at the air operations center CAOC Vicenza was asked to find arbitrary targets for a campaign of 2-3 days with no guidance as to strategic objectives. The personnel found the situation so amateurish that they assumed a political deal had already been struck with Milošević. When by a week later nothing had changed, the targeters decided to improvise a strategy of their own.

NATO map of Kosovo

Based upon interviews with most central actors of Allied Force including the SACEUR, General Wesley Clark, Henriksen also brings out another, and quite remarkable, reason for the neglect of NATO strategy: unbeknown to its allies, the US unilaterally ran a bombing campaign of its own, hitting targets without NATO control. Consequently these targets were sometimes hit twice.  European chiefs of staff reacted with fury to discovering this.

To the extent that key allies were kept out of the dark, it happened in a "Black Committee" comprising the US, the UK, and France. The democratic institutions of NATO were creatively bypassed to evade political control with the escalation of target categories as the campaign stagnated.

As other analysts have shown, there was conflict even between Clark and his principal US subordinate, Lt Gen Michael Short of the US Air Force. Clark ordered Short to target air defenses and military units in Kosovo while the latter wanted, as he put it, to "strike at the head of the snake" -- Belgrade. Despite threatening to resign, he got permission for shock and awe tactics only by the end of May, by which time sorties had multiplied from 400 to 900 a day and there was still no resolution in sight, much to Washington's despair. The target list was expanded to include infrastructure like bridges (more than half of those over the Danube were hit); oil refineries and power plants (causing nation-wide power blackouts); government facilities; factories owned by allies of Milošević; the state broadcasting service RTS (at the cost of 16-17 civilian lives); and infamously, the Chinese embassy.

Bombed bridge at Novi-Sad

Meanwhile, things had been taking a dramatic turn on the ground. True to form, and far from any idea of surrender, the cynical Milošević had taken the opportunity to launch the most extensive campaign of forced deportation since World War II, resulting in hundreds of thousands fleeing to Macedonia and Albania within the end of March. This ethnic cleansing was precisely the kind of atrocity the air strikes were supposed to prevent: a true humanitarian disaster on an epic scale. Adding insult to injury, Belgrade was able to argue that the refugees were running from NATO bombs.

Nor did the air strikes weaken Milošević's popular standing, as naïvely anticipated. On the contrary, the Serbs rallied around him against the superior foreign enemy in what the propanganda could paint as a 20th century Kosovo Battle. To punctuate the symbolism, units of the Yugoslav army exercized on the myth-imbued plains as they trained to confront the NATO ground invasion that could not be excluded -- especially not after British PM Tony Blair began to publically advocate it in April. Washington shut him up, but the option was now on the table and increasingly pushed by others, including Clark.

What ultimately swayed Milošević was probably less the strategic bombing than this prospect of ground troops, combined with the unwelcome news that Russia would stay passive in such a scenario.

By the end of April, NATO woke up to the necessity of dealing with Russia, so far humiliated and left to impotent rage as a fellow orthodox nation was attacked (Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov turned his Washington-bound plane around in mid-flight at the war's beginning). By May, Russia and Germany had opened a secret back channel wherein a Swedish financier, Peter Castenfelt, was smuggled into Belgrade. He communicated to Milošević that not only President Yeltsin but the Russian security establishment would hang him out to dry if he failed to exit. This had the virtue of being true: Yeltsin, moved by the urgency of ending a war that sent his approval ratings nose-diving, had somehow bought off the military, which otherwise might have rebelled. All this according to the aforementioned BBC2 documentary, Moral Combat.

On May 31, Belgrade announced its consent to the Rambouillet Accord. The Serbian Parliament gave it the nod three days later, Milošević reportedly voting in favor. A withdrawal agreement was finalized on May 9, followed on May 10 by pullout; ratification of the Accord by the UNSC; preparations for the ongoing KFOR peacekeeping mission; and suspension of Operation Allied Force 11 weeks after it began.

NATO had launched a total of 38,004 combat sorties, of which 10,484 were strikes against targets in the FRY (Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro), and 18,439 were aerial tanker and airlift sorties. The Alliance's first war properly so-called was also the first in history without a single combat fatality for the victor. As to civilians, Human Rights Watch confirms that at least 500 Yugoslav such were killed in 90 separate incidents over 78 days of bombing, a number considerably smaller than Yugoslav public estimates of up to 5,000 civilian casualties.

On the other hand, the 2000 report noted that:

U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, and Gen. Wesley Clark, have testified before Congress and stated publicly that there were only twenty to thirty incidents of "collateral damage" in the entire war. The number of incidents Human Rights Watch has been able to authenticate is three to four times this number. The seemingly cavalier U.S. statements regarding the civilian toll suggest a resistance to acknowledging the actual civilian effects and an indifference to evaluating their causes.

The report also found that NATO on several occasions broke international humanitarian law, and criticized the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas. Another controversial issue has been the use of DU-tipped munitions, whose detrimental health effects, according to some authorities, are seen in the cancer statistics today.

But what of the campaign's overarching strategic goals for Kosovo -- were these achieved? That is hard to say, not least because these were so ill-defined in the first place. Asked by Captain Dag Henriksen to which extent the operational planning focused on what Kosovo would look like when the strongest military alliance in history had prevailed, then deputy SACEUR General Rupert Smith replied: "Oh, it wasn't in focus at all."

Such myopia, especially on the political level, had consequences. Upon the end of hostilities in June, Kosovo Albanian refugees started to return; but at the same time, Serbs fled or were chased out by Albanians in equally large numbers. By July 20, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 150,000 Serbs were flooding into Serbia, which already harbored half a million refugees from the other ex-Yugoslavian wars. The total number of refugees from Kosovo rose to some 230,000, most of them Serbs. Of these, over 200,000 remain Internally Displaced Persons in what is Europe's biggest refugee problem. A hundred thousand Serbs stayed put among approximately 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, among whom little love was lost on Serbs.

This minority now dwell in KFOR-guarded enclaves, with limited freedom of movement and high unemployment even by the standards of a dysfunctional UN protectorate where only the black economy flowers. The Serbian apartheid state has effectively been inverted. More than 4,000 Serbs worked at the public electricity service in 1999; today around 30 do so, out of 8,000 employees. Meanwhile, barbed wire and armed KFOR troops protect those medieval monasteries that remain recognizably intact.

Independence is, however, finally in the offing, mostly because the Western powers acknowledge once again that the majority would never settle for less. Serbia, impoverished and demoralized, is unable to do more than strut and fret at the impending loss of its "historical heartland."

For now. Anyone doubting that ancient history lives in the Balkans should bear in mind quite a recent incident. On May 24, 1999, Slobodan Milosevic had become the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes in the midst of a war, the charges including murder and deportation in Kosovo. A little more than two years later, he was himself deported to the cell at the Hague that would be his final home.

The date chosen for his extradition just happened to be St. Vitus Day, June 28.

Originally posted to Sirocco on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 06:33 PM PDT.

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