The Kosovo-Serbia war


The aim of this conceptual sheet will be to outline the background on the Serbo – Albanian conflict and the events leading to 1999 NATO military intervention in Kosovo, following on with an assessment of the international response and the reasons for the intervention, concluding with a round up of the current situation in Kosovo.


Background : Serb v Albanian : whose territory?

Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia covering 4,400 square miles, bordering Montenegro, Albania and FYROM is home to a conflict between Serbs and Albanians, both claiming historic right to the territory.

According to the Serb reading of the situation, it is the ‘cradle’ of their civilisation, both in cultural and religious contexts. In addition, it is the site of the Serb defeat at the hands of the Turks/Ottoman empire in 1389 and thus constitutes a symbol of national tragedy.

In the Albanian view, Kosovo has belonged to their ethnic grouping since the 6th century. They believed themselves to be relatively untouched ethnically by the invasions in the following centuries, and though driven from the region during the arrival of the Slavic peoples, they returned during the 12th century whilst the Serbs were leaving.


Twentieth century politics : the dispute remains

The capacity of both groups to co-exist peacefully across the centuries was not realised. 

In 1981, less than a year after the death of Tito, the ethnic Albanians of the Kosovo region (90% of the 2 million person population) once again demanded the status of an independent republic, a demand which was violently repressed. In 1990, Serbia, with Slobodan Milosevic as president, suspended the government and parliament in Kosovo, including the Albanian political institutions later that year, where 150,000 albanophones were fired from their jobs in public administration and state enterprises. In 1990, the stated Yugoslav aim was to repopulate Kosovo with Serbs. To combat this, the Kosovo Democratic League (KDL) was established by the Albanians and in 1998, the military group, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) came into being.


Serbian repression : the conflict escalates

In 1998, following seven years of conflict and disintegration in Yugoslavia, Serbian repression took on a more intensive and military dimension, particularly with respect to the Drenica massacres in February 1998. The ensuing ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations near the Albanian border resulted in the displacement of 250,000 people. It was mid-1998 before the international community accepted the responsibility to act on a destructive conflict brewing in close proximity to their deployed troops in the region.


The international response : diplomacy or weaponry?

A concrete international response to the growing violence in Kosovo was very cautious and gradual. However, as early as December 1992, George Bush Snr had issued ‘Christmas warning’, stating that ‘in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the US will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbians and in Kosovo and in Serbia proper’. It was not until 1995 that Kosovo was taken up as an issue by the UN General Assembly. It was not until 1998 that Kosovo came back on the international agenda at large. Slobodan Milosevic had been a partner in the negotiations concerning Bosnia. 1998, considered ‘a year of diplomacy’ favoured the European approach to the problem. The UN Security Council issued resolution 1199 demanding an immediate ceasefire. While the US wanted more sanctions, asserting that ‘Bosnia should not and will not be repeated’, the Europeans were against punitive measures against Yugoslavia and wished to pursue the diplomatic route. Nevertheless, cracks in European unity were apparent again, as Britain sided with the US in considering the use of force. Neither side was prepared however, to use ground troops. The diplomatic route appeared to be making progress when an agreement was reached between Milosevic and US negotiator Richard Holbrooke in August 1998 and 2000 unarmed OSCE monitors were deployed to Kosovo. This agreement, along with the Rambouillet Agreement (1999), the terms of which included KLA disarmament and the withdrawal of Serbian troops from the region, failed, which culminated in the decision to bomb strategic targets in the region, beginning on March 24 1999 and lasting for 78 days.


International involvement – what assessment?

The NATO intervention in Kosovo needs analysis in several domains.

Firstly, the rift in transatlantic relations in addressing the problem were evident. The different approaches adopted by the EU and the US were a source of tension, the US preferring to look for the bottom line approach, which, taking all intelligence into account including the advice of neighbouring leaders that Milosevic would not respond to diplomatic bargaining, was in this case, military intervention.

Furthermore, the capacity of the Europeans to resolve a conflict on their own doorstep and to agree amongst themselves was absent, the CFSP once again failing to meet even modest expectations. France advocated a UN Security Council resolution, while Britain sided with the US approach, a stance which was replicated in the lead up to the war in Iraq in 2003.

The nature of the conflict itself is also worth considering, in that although the US and UK were willing to consider the use of force as early as April 1998, no party was willing to use ground troops. Thus the nature of the intervention was such that NATO troops were to be kept safe by engaging from a safe distance in the skies.

The ultimate reasons for the engagement were approximately three : humanitarian concern, regional stability and NATO credibility.

The response to the escalating violence against the Albanians was undoubtedly a concern for parties on both sides of the Atlantic; yet why was this conflict singled out while the response to the Rwandan genocide had been considerably more silent? Some authors suggest that a sense of guilt after such inaction was present among the US administration in particular. However, regional stability did play a considerably stronger role. The risk of the conflict spreading to the neighbouring Balkan states and potentially Greece and Turkey, as NATO allies, featured in US discourse when considering military action.

Finally, the question of NATO credibility and relevancy was considerable. With NATO searching for a post – Cold War role, it was suggested that it risked irrelevancy if it failed to respond to the crisis. In addition, failing to make good on its threats would have called its credibility into question, one Serb diplomat joking that their gradualist approach would not inspire NATO to act, in that ‘a village a day keeps NATO away’.


The Aftermath

The UNMIK (UN Mission in Kosovo) came into being in June 1999 when Security Council Resolution 1244 authorized the Secretary-General to establish an interim civilian administration in Kosovo, led by the UN, gradually preparing the civilians in the region for greater autonomy.  The first municipal elections were held in October 2000 and institutions and infrastructure such as courts, schools, hospitals and health clinics, tax collection systems, railways, roads, radio and television, the postal system re-established.  On a negative side, existing hostilities between Serbs and Albanians have not been resolved and the Serbs now find themselves as the marginalised community. In March 2004, this was illustrated with a  brief outburst of anti-Serb violence in the area. The two greatest problems that remain are the economy (unemployment at 55%) and security. Kosovo's ethnic Albanians want independence while Serbia is against. In Soren Jessen-Petersen’s (Kosovo’s UN proconsul) view, this decision is to be taken by the UN and western governments. The political status of the region, currently a protectorate of the international community (where the EU, US and NATO all have established their presence on the ground politically and militarily) and still technically part of Serbia and Montenegro, is be defined later this year.  



‘Young and Wanted : Kosovo’s Prime Minister’, in The Economist, December 29th 2004

Independent International Commission on Kosovo, ‘L’Indépendance conditionnelle : pourquoi?’ in Critique Internationale, n°16, juillet 2002, pp93-115

DiPrizio, Robert, Armed Humanitarians : US interventions from Northern Iraq to Kosovo, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore/London, 2002)

Skrpec, Dagmar, ‘European and American Reactions to Kosovo : The Policy Divide Revisited in the Iraq War’, in SAIS Review, vol. XXIII, n°2(Summer-Fall 2003), pp93-111




     Combat zones and population movements (1998)


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NATO Targets in Yugoslavia (1999)



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