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Yugoslavia: Assessing The Effects Of NATO's Air Strikes Three Years On

  • Jolyon Naegele

It's been three years since the start of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign to eject Serb security forces from Kosovo. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele looks back on the causes and goals of the campaign and what has been accomplished since then.

Prague, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 24 March 1999, NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia in a bid to force an end to Serb suppression of Kosovo's Albanian majority and to enable a NATO-led occupation of the province that would restore law and order and enable free elections to be held.

NATO's secretary-general at the time, Javier Solana, announced he gave the order for air strikes after all efforts at finding a political solution had failed "due to the intransigence of the Yugoslav government." He said the air strikes would be "directed toward disrupting the violence and attacks being committed by the Serb army and the special police forces" in Kosovo.

"NATO is not waging war against Yugoslavia. We have no quarrel with the people of Yugoslavia, a people who for too long have been isolated in Europe because of the policies of their government. Our objective is to prevent more human suffering, more repression, more violence against the civilian population of Kosovo," Solana said.

However, Yugoslavia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vladislav Jovanovic, declared that Belgrade would remain defiant.

"Yugoslavia was requested to...accept one impossible condition, which is to surrender its sovereignty to foreign military units and to accept losing a part of its sovereign territory...after three years. No state which has self respect, no sovereign state, would be ready to accept such a degrading condition for capitulation," Jovanovic said.

NATO claimed it destroyed some 40 targets in the first night of bombing. The next day, the alliance's supreme commander for Europe, General Wesley Clark, declared in Brussels that the attacks would continue until Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to an international peace plan for Kosovo.

"We aim to put his military and security forces at risk. We're going to systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately -- unless President Milosevic complies with the demands of the international community -- we're going to destroy these forces and their facilities and support," Clark said. "The operation will be just as long and difficult as President Milosevic requires it to be."

It was the 15 January 1999 massacre by Serb forces of 45 Albanian inhabitants of the Kosovo village of Racak that so incensed the international community and paved the way to launching the air strikes.

Racak resident Faik Limani lost three grown sons in the massacre, leaving him with seven fatherless grandchildren. After the air strikes ended, Limani praised the bravery of William Walker, the Kosovo mission chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Walker laid the blame squarely on Belgrade on a visit to Racak the day after the massacre.

"If Walker had not come here and had not seen the bodies, it would have been just another forgotten massacre," Limani said. "The world would have known nothing of what had happened here, and NATO would not have intervened. NATO saved us. Without NATO, we would have all been exterminated. The lives of my three sons are the price we have paid for freedom. After all, only freedom is worth what we went through."

The air strikes also unleashed a massive wave of violence by the Serb forces in Kosovo directed at the province's ethnic Albanian inhabitants -- 800,000 of whom fled under duress to neighboring Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and beyond.

A young Kosovar Albanian woman from Mitrovica, Shpresa Pllana, recounted during the air strikes how, after police knocked down the door to her home and forced her family to leave at gunpoint, the family walked some 100 kilometers to the Albanian border. She told RFE/RL the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo came as no surprise.

"I knew from very early on that Milosevic had said repeatedly, 'I will clean out Kosovo,'" Pllana said.

Serb massacres of Kosovar Albanian civilians increased in intensity. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin accused Milosevic of ordering a state policy of genocide against the Kosovar Albanians.

"We have very clear indicators that genocide is unfolding in Kosovo. We are looking at a mixture of confirmed and unconfirmed reports at this time. But we don't see any need to await confirmation of genocide," Rubin said. "Clearly, there are crimes against humanity occurring in Kosovo, and our response to this criminal activity by Milosevic's forces is taking place right now."

On 27 May 1999, Milosevic received a blow from an unexpected direction. The chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Louise Arbour, announced that she had indicted Milosevic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, and three other senior Belgrade leaders for war crimes committed since the beginning of 1999 in Kosovo.

But it was a devastating NATO strike on a concentration of Serb troops and artillery on Mount Pastrik near the Albanian border in late May that finally forced Milosevic to capitulate to NATO's demands. NATO estimated the number of Serb military casualties in that strike in the hundreds.

Despite intense mediation by Russian envoys, Milosevic prevaricated for a week. Finally, on 10 June 1999, Solana was able to announce an end to the hostilities.

"I can announce that today, Milosevic has complied with the five conditions the international community had placed. And therefore, a few minutes ago, I instructed General Clark to suspend NATO's air operations against Yugoslavia. I have taken this decision following a consultation with the North Atlantic Council, and also after confirmation from General Clark that the full withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces from Kosovo has begun," Solana said.

Once the air strikes ended, the UN Security Council enacted Resolution 1244, authorizing the NATO-led security presence in Kosovo, KFOR, and the UN administration of the province, known as UNMIK.

As the Serbs began a phased withdrawal according to a timetable agreed on with NATO, Russian troops and NATO forces entered the province.

Kosovo was where Milosevic had first played the nationalist card in the late 1980s. In May 1987, he told a crowd of local Serbs who were protesting at having been beaten by local Albanian police that "no one will ever beat you again."

But 12 years later, after Milosevic had capitulated to NATO, and the Yugoslav Army and Serb Interior Ministry forces had withdrawn from the province, the majority of the province's approximately 200,000 Serbs fled in panic as 800,000 exiled Albanians returned en masse. The Serbs fled out of fear of retribution by Kosovar Albanians for a decade of martial law and 16 months of violent suppression of the province's Albanian majority by the Belgrade regime.

A new Albanian nationalist spirit, free of fear of Serb repression, occurred in Kosovo almost overnight.

"Gjakova greets the UCK,

"Pristina greets the UCK,

"Gjilan greets the UCK,

"All Drenica is talking about the UCK,

"UCK from hill to hill,

"The UCK is shedding blood."

The refrain of this war-time Albanian pop song, titled "The UCK Greets Kosovo" and sung by Bekim Ibrahimi and the group Korabi, could be heard on sidewalks and in marketplaces across Kosovo, an audible warning to all Serbs that what they had called the cradle of Serb civilization for generations was Serb land no more.

Serbian nationalist songs, ubiquitous from the late 1980s onward in Kosovo, could only be heard in what became isolated Serb enclaves in the center and north of the province and in refugee settlements in Serbia proper.

"Who says, who is lying, that Serbia is small?

"It's not small, it's big.

"It fought three wars!"

But Serbia was, in fact, smaller, its sovereignty over Kosovo replaced by a UN administration and a NATO-led military occupation. But Western hopes that Milosevic's capitulation would result in his downfall proved premature. Milosevic insisted his capitulation was actually a Serb victory and that Serbia would never surrender Kosovo.

"Open questions regarding the possible independence of Kosovo in the time before the aggression have been sealed with the Belgrade agreement. The territorial integrity of our country can never be questioned again," Milosevic said.

Just hours after the last Serb soldier left Kosovo, KFOR secured a signed pledge from the insurgent UCK to demilitarize over a 90-day period. The UCK was eventually dissolved. Many of its rank-and-file members and commanders joined the Kosovo Protection Force, a nascent civil defense force.

Meanwhile, Milosevic faced a growing wave of demonstrations across Serbia by displaced Kosovo Serbs, frustrated army reservists and their families. But the protests failed to grow sufficiently to threaten Milosevic's position until the autumn of 2000, when Milosevic unintentionally engineered his own downfall by calling early elections, changing the election law to his benefit and then trying to falsify the results.

The Serbian government last June finally transferred Milosevic to The Hague, where he is currently standing trial for war crimes. The other four Serb leaders who were indicted with him remain at large, including Milan Milutinovic, who is still president of Serbia.

An initial post-conflict wave of murders -- 400 in the first six months after NATO's arrival, with one-third of the victims Serb, one-third Albanian and the rest mainly Roma -- ensured that lawlessness remained the biggest threat to the province's stability. Political murders and terrorist attacks on civilian targets were prevalent in 2000 and into 2001 but are now increasingly rare.

The perpetrators are believed largely to have been former UCK fighters frustrated and disenfranchised by the postwar system. UCK veterans also played a pivotal role in two subsequent armed rebellions -- in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley and in northwestern Macedonia. Both conflicts were low in intensity and ended relatively amicably through mediation by U.S. and European Union special envoys.

Threats of two other conflicts being touched off by UCK veterans -- in northwestern Greece and along Montenegro's border with Albania -- have failed to materialize.

KFOR peacekeepers continue to find and confiscate hidden arms, but KFOR and UN police have been unable so far to deal effectively with Serb nationalists who insist on maintaining complete separation from their Albanian neighbors in the divided city of Mitrovica and elsewhere.

As a result, while Albanians have accepted UN-issued license plates, the Serbs have refused and continue to drive with Serbian license plates on their cars. The plates thus reveal the ethnic identity of the occupants and tend to keep Serbs and Albanians from driving through each other's communities. This is in marked contrast to Bosnia, where the international community succeeded in enforcing a unified license plate system that has meant freedom of movement for Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).

Reconstruction began in Kosovo within days after the air strikes ended in a bid to create new housing for some 300,000 people whose homes were destroyed in the fighting. Reconstruction took much longer to get under way in Yugoslavia, largely because it took 16 months from the time the fighting ended until Milosevic was toppled from power, enabling Yugoslavia to become eligible for international assistance.

Meanwhile, local elections in October 2000 and parliamentary elections last November resulted in a victory for moderation, with Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo taking the lion's share of the vote and leaving Hashim Thaci and his Democratic Party of Kosovo in a distant second place. Although the Serbs boycotted the local elections, they participated in the parliamentary elections and have now been offered a seat in the recently formed Kosovo government.

Kosovar Albanian politicians are as eager as ever to declare independence for the province. But the new UN chief administrator, Michael Steiner -- like his two predecessors -- is adamant that that step is still a long way off and will only be possible once the political scene has matured. And that will not be for several years, at least.

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