The Kosovo War – 15 Years On

15 years ago today NATO forces began bombarding Serbia with high-tech bombs. For Blair and Clinton the Kosovo War was their ‘humanitarian’ intervention. However, as James B writes, the actuality of that conflict, and the legacy, is anything but.

The cold precision of aerial strikes, where human life and loss are conspicuously absent, were hallmarks of the 1999 war.

The cold precision of aerial strikes, where human life and loss are conspicuously absent, were hallmarks of the 1999 war.

Fifteen years ago Europe was at war. The Kosovo conflict has been eclipsed in the popular consciousness by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which dwarf it in scale and longevity. It pays revisiting, however, for a number of reasons. As a reminder of the brutality of our ruling class. And as a reminder that the humanitarian war, fought to free people from tyranny, is a myth.

On March 24th 1999 NATO, led by the United States, initiated Operation Allied Force against the ex-Yugoslav republic of Serbia. During the 1990s Yugoslavia had split into separate states in a series of brutal conflicts instigated by leaders such as Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, a Stalinist turned nationalist who whipped up racism against minority ethnic groups to cement his position as president. As is so often the case he countered popular discontent by appealing to religious prejudice and xenophobia. Kosovo, in the south of the country, had a majority ethnic Albanian Muslim population and became Milosevic’s main scapegoat.

There is no doubt that the Kosovars Albanians were an oppressed people. Theirs was the poorest province in the country, the suppression of the Albanian language in the media and universities stifled their cultural life and Serbs were preferentially given state jobs. From the late 1980s onwards a non-violent campaign sought to address these injustices, but its failure to challenge Serbian domination led to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the start of an armed struggle against Milosevic’s regime. The Serbian army occupied Kosovo.

Enter the Western ‘Great Powers’ in the form of Labour’s Tony Blair, mid-way through his first term of office and espousing a new ‘ethical foreign policy’, and Democratic president Bill Clinton, facing impeachment for lying about his relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Despite their liberal credentials both leaders had already resorted to military intervention, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, to curb ‘terrorist threats’. Intervention in conflicts like Kosovo, they argued, was a moral imperative for democratic nations.

Both sides raised the stakes throughout 1998. When Serbian forces failed to abide by a United Nations resolution demanding a cease-fire and withdrawal from Kosovo an attack plan was drawn up by NATO commanders. Since many NATO member countries were reluctant to commit to putting troops on the ground the plans centered on a brief air war. At the same time the Rambouillet peace talks convened in France and placed impossible demands on Milosevic, guaranteeing war.

When Milosevic refused the West’s ultimatum the assault began. A combined force of over 1,000 aircraft reigned destruction on a country not much larger than Ireland for what proved to be 78 nights. The intensity of the bombardment grew, from 400 sorties on the first night to 900 on 26th May, and targets rapidly shifted from the military – which could be hidden by means of camouflage – to infrastructure such as factories, bridges and oil refineries. NATO deployed its full range of deadly technologies from cluster bombs to depleted uranium to the ‘carbon fiber’ [sic] bombs used by Stealth bombers, flying their first combat missions, to knock out 70% of the country’s electricity grid. Yet civilian casualties – both Serbs and Kosovars – mounted as the surgical strikes failed to live up to their name.

In the early morning of 23rd April NATO bombers destroyed the headquarters> of RTS, the state television station. 16 people working the night shift were killed. To acknowledge that the station was used by Milosevic to spread his Serb chauvinist propaganda in no way diminishes the heinous nature of this crime. At no time, to this author’s knowledge, has it been suggested that the workers were part of the security apparatus. It is also unthinkable that the Allies did not consider that Milosevic would willingly offer up his fellow citizens – the station was known to be a target – in order to turn the population further against NATO. Yet a subsequent report by the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia agreed with the Allies that the attack was justified on the grounds that the station formed part of Milosevic’s ‘command and control’ network and that the civilian deaths were an unfortunate price to pay for disrupting it.

One event, the ramifications of which would be far more serious today, serves to highlight the US’s pre-eminent position in the world at the time and the casual disregard in which it was able hold other nations. On May 7th 1999 the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was hit by laser-guided bombs, killing three members of staff and injuring 27. The U.S. apologized, claiming an accident, and several years later paid compensation to the families of the victims.

The West’s strategy would prove to fail on two fronts. The failure of the aerial bombardment to bring Milosevic to heel took Blair and his Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to Washington to put the case for an invasion. But more significantly the campaign had enabled Milosevic to force hundreds of thousands of Kosovars to flee their homes. A huge refugee crisis had been created. However on 3rd June, to the relief of Clinton and Blair, Milosevic agreed to a Russian-backed truce and withdrawal from Kosovo. For the people of Kosovo and Serbia the end of formal hostilities did not spell the end of their suffering. Kosovo became formally independent from Serbia in 2008 but relies heavily on a UN agency to manage its government. According to the most recent data the unemployment rate is 47% and income per capita $7,000, making it the worst in Europe on both counts. KFOR, the international peacekeeping force, remains in Kosovo to this day. The conflict zone along the Serbian border is poisoned by radiation from depleted uranium munitions. Serbian membership of the EU is penciled in for 2020, as a belated reward for the market reforms carried out in the post war era and eventual recognition of Kosovo’s new status.

It is worth quoting part of Blair’s speech to the House of Commons on the eve of the war, in which he justified intervention in the high-flown rhetorical style we became familiar with: “We must act: to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship; to save the stability of the Balkan region, where we know chaos can engulf all of Europe.” These are fine words, but we must judge our rulers on their actions, and on the effects of their actions. Socialists opposed this war not because of an attachment to the likes of Milosevic, who refused to accept his allotted position in the New World Order, but for the simple reason that experience has shown – even more so in the years since – that liberation for an oppressed people cannot be brought at the barrel of a gun. Building a stable, equitable nation is not NATO’s expertise or priority. Displaced populations and impoverishment are inevitably the result.

We have also developed a serial mistrust of our rulers’ motivations. The Kosovo war must also be seen as a part of the battle for political influence, and the right to ‘do business’, in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That this process is ongoing is apparent in Ukraine, with the crucial difference that Russia in 2014 is a power to be reckoned with. It seems quite clear that when a country’s politicians offer justification, and its armies mobilize, the ultimate winners will be its corporations. In a particularly brazen example of the intersection of politics, big business and the military an investment firm headed by Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State at the time of the war, entered the bidding for the purchase of the state-owned Kosovan post and telecoms company PTK in 2012. Generals and special envoys have also joined this gravy train.

In October 2000 Milosevic was forced from office, not by NATO bombs but in a popular uprising. Mass strikes and street demonstrations culminated in the televised storming of his presidential palace. Watching those images was an experience rivalled only by footage of the Arab revolutions ten years later. Milosevic took his country to war and ultimately the Serbian people made him pay for it. Our objective must be to call our leaders to account in the same way.

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