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The Roots of War by Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon

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Daalder is Former National Security Council Director of European Affairs and co-author of the forthcoming book Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo.
(read his interview)


The immediate cause of the conflict in Kosovo was Slobodan Milosevic, and his oppression of the ethnic Albanians there for the preceding decade. Oppression ultimately gave rise to violent opposition to Serb rule in the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and then to the spiral of violence that ensued in 1998 and 1999. But the antecedents of the war over Kosovo go back many centuries.

The most famous historical event of the millennium in Kosovo was probably the 1389 Battle of the Blackbirds, near Kosovo's present-day capital of Pristina. There, Serb forces attempted to fend off the invading Turks, with ethnic Albanians probably fighting on both sides of the battle. A subsequent battle in Kosovo in 1448 between the Ottoman Turks and the Hungarians, together with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, sealed the fate of the region. The Ottoman Empire would soon dominate, and in fact controlled Kosovo into the 20th century. Looking back on these momentous events, 19th and 20th century Serbian nationalists mythologized the 1389 battle and the role of Kosovo in their nation's history more generally. In the process, they portrayed the primarily Muslim Albanians essentially as sympathizers with the Turkish invaders. The complex interaction of Serbs, Albanians, and Turks over the ensuing centuries would provide grist for all parties' competing historical perceptions, myths, fears, and vendettas.

Kosovo's population became increasingly ethnic Albanian during the period of Ottoman rule. A decisive turning point, politically and demographically, was the large Serbian exodus out of the region (and ultimately into Hungary) in the late 17th century. It was caused by Ottoman armies pressing north, ultimately to their defeat at Vienna against the Habsburg Dynasty during the Ottoman-Habsburg War of 1683-1699. That war spelled the beginning of the end for Ottoman rule in the Balkans, though as noted it would survive in Kosovo for another two centuries.

In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was forced to withdraw from the Balkans, shortly before its complete collapse. Serbia, itself having regained de facto independence in the early 1800s and formal state status in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, then reasserted control over Kosovo in 1912. That was the same year in which an independent Albanian state was created for the first time--with many of the key moves on the road to independence occurring in Kosovo, conferring on the territory historical importance for the Albanian people comparable to what it holds for the Serbs. Serbia lost control of Kosovo again during World War I. After the war both Serbia and Kosovo were included as part of the new country of Yugoslavia.

Over the last century, Serbs drove large numbers of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo at various times in what proved antecedents to Slobodan Milosevic's 1999 campaign to effectively cleanse the province of them. Nonetheless, ethnic Albanians remained the majority population throughout the century, and in recent decades became dominant numerically. Serbs and Montenegrins constituted slightly less than 30 percent of the population in the early years of Tito's rule, which lasted from 1945 until his death in 1980, gradually declining to less than half that percentage in recent times due to Serb departures and high Albanian birth rates. Whatever the recent population proportions, Kosovo is a land to which both Serbs and Albanians have important and longstanding claims.

In short, both Serbs and ethnic Albanians have important claims and ties to Kosovo. Yet it is the heartland or "Jerusalem" of neither people. As such, claims by extremists on both sides that they have exclusive rights to the land are false, as are claims that the peoples are so different from each other as to be innately incapable of coexistence. In our view, the fact that Kosovo's Albanians are now effectively in charge in the province--and that they ultimately deserve their independence--has nothing to do with original claims to the land. It has, instead, everything to do with Slobodan Milosevic's--and his fellow Serbs'--treatment of the Kosovar Albanians in recent times.

As for the immediate causes of war, problems became serious shortly after the death of Tito in 1980--even before the rise of Milosevic, who came to power in Serbia in 1987 after exploiting the Kosovo issue and pledging to defend Serbs there against the increasingly restive large ethnic Albanian majority. As early as 1981, a year after the death of Tito, a student uprising in Pristina gave rise to province-wide demonstrations against Yugoslav authorities and perhaps dozens or even hundreds of deaths of ethnic Albanians. To Serbs, the uprising was surprising in that Kosovo had been granted greater autonomy and rights, including Albanian-language schools, under the 1974 revision of the Yugoslav constitution; to Albanians, these new rights only made them hunger for more, and the deteriorating economic conditions in the province together with their second-class economic status there exacerbated the political tension. Other tragic, if generally isolated, incidents through the 1980s further divided Serbs from Albanians.

As part of his effort to consolidate power as president of Serbia (a position he held until becoming president of Yugoslavia in 1997), Serb President Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989, thus denying the Serb province its special status within the Yugoslav Federation that it had enjoyed since the adoption of a new constitution in 1974. The Albanian response to Milosevic's brazen action combined both the non-violent opposition and establishment of parallel state structures championed by Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). In the following years, Rugova would be elected and re-elected as Kosovo's "president" in independently held elections among the Kosovar Albanian population.

The strategy pursued by Rugova and the LDK was founded on the hope and expectation that in demonstrating its ability to run the territory in all but name, the West would come to accept and, ultimately, recognize Kosovo's right to be independent in the same way four other Yugoslav republics had in the early 1990s. Support for separation from Yugoslavia was essentially universal; according to a 1995 survey, 43 percent of all Kosovar Albanians wanted to join Albania and the remaining 57 percent desired outright independence, with 0 percent favoring any other solution (including the status of independent republic within Yugoslavia). That hope and expectation proved to be misplaced. Kosovo never stood at the center of U.S. and European Balkan policy and, so long as wide-scale violence had not occurred, it would never be at the center of that policy. When push came to shove, the West chose to consider independence only for Yugoslavia's republics, not for autonomous provinces within those republics.

The United States and its European allies recognized that the Kosovo region represented a potentially dangerous powder keg in the midst of a highly volatile region. With Albanians living in at least four different countries (Albania, Greece, Macedonia, and Yugoslavia), anything that stoked Albanian nationalism could prove to be highly destabilizing for Kosovo's neighbors, not least Macedonia whose population consists of a potentially volatile mix of Slavs and Albanians, who comprise a substantial minority in the country. Widespread violence in Kosovo was therefore to be avoided at almost any cost. This explains why the Bush Administration, which otherwise had a hands-off policy toward Yugoslavia's breakup, decided in late 1992 to respond to indications that Serbia might be contemplating a violent crackdown against the increasingly independent Albanian population in Kosovo by issuing a stern warning that such action would lead to U.S. military action. This so-called Christmas warning was reiterated by the Clinton administration within a month of taking office in 1993.

On the whole, however, Kosovo occupied a distinctly secondary place in U.S. and western policy toward the region. Indeed, unlike Bosnia, Croatia, and the other former Yugoslav republics, Kosovo was regarded as an integral part of Serbia rather than as a constituent part of the federation that broke up in the early 1990s. Thus, whereas the republics were regarded as new states that emerged from Yugoslavia's dissolution and thus enjoyed sovereign rights, this status did not apply to the autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojdvodina) even though these had enjoyed many of the same prerogatives the republics had, including their own constitution, government, judiciary, central bank, and a seat alongside the republics in Yugoslav's federal presidency. As a result, the issue for the western policy in Kosovo was not self-determination or national rights, but how to protect minority and human rights in a territory where the majority population is oppressed by the minority.

Almost from the beginning, therefore, U.S. and European policy toward Kosovo was limited to increasing pressure on Belgrade to improve the human rights situation in the territory and establish conditions for greater autonomy and self-government. These demands were raised as matter of course in all diplomatic dealings with the Belgrade government, and even after sanctions on Serbia were lifted following the conclusion of a Bosnian peace agreement, an "outer wall" of sanctions remained in place partly to encourage the Serb government to comply with them. However, Kosovo would not occupy a central place in the concerns of U.S. and other diplomats dealing with the Balkans, as became apparent during the negotiations on a Bosnian peace agreement in Dayton in 1995. There, the focus of international effort was on ending the violence in Bosnia rather than preventing its occurrence in Kosovo. Not only were the issues to be resolved in Dayton highly complex and negotiations very intense, the fact that Milosevic's cooperation was critical to success weakened the negotiators' ability to exact the concessions that would have been necessary for progress on the Kosovo issue.

Although the failure to address Kosovo in Dayton was understandable, the lack of international attention to (or even interest for) the issue dealt a major setback to Rugova's strategy of non-violence. It became increasingly clear in the second half of the 1990s that the Serbs would not change their repressive policy toward the territory and that the international community would do little to effect a change in Serb policy, let alone endorse the Kosovars' demand for independence. For many ethnic Albanians, one conclusion was inescapable: only violence begets international attention. A once-shadowy group--the Kosovo Liberation Army--soon took advantage of this realization and started to engage in sporadic violence, harassing and even killing Serb policemen and other authority figures. Its levels of violence were fairly modest; the KLA claimed to have killed ten Serbs in the two-year period up to early 1998. Nonetheless, the situation was deteriorating.

In March 1998, Serb security forces stoked the fires by massacring 85 people in a clear attempt to stem the KLA's growing importance in Kosovo. At that point, the violence in Kosovo had reached a critical threshold that demanded sustained international attention. Unless stopped by a third party, the ethnic Albanian population and Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian nationalists were headed directly for war. The only remaining questions were two: did the western world care enough about Kosovo to be true to its 1992 Christmas warning, and would it find an integrated strategy involving both diplomacy and the threat of force that would succeed in getting the local parties off their collision course? The respective answers to these questions were, clearly, yes and no.

The rest of this book explains how these and other questions were raised, and answered, during the critical eighteen-month period from early 1998 through mid-1999 when Kosovo was a top concern of western policymakers. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the pre-war period, up to and including the Rambouillet negotiations of early 1999. Chapters 4 and 5, respectively entitled "losing the war" and "winning the war," trace the 78-day war and identify its key elements and milestones. Chapter 6 addresses three key policy questions: did NATO win the war?, was the war inevitable?, and why did Milosevic ultimately capitulate? Finally, Chapter 7 draws several lessons for future policy towards coercive diplomacy and humanitarian intervention.

Excerpted from Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo, by Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon. To be published June, 2000 by the Brookings Institution Press. Reprinted with permission


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