The Kosovo/NATO Conflict
by Michael Albert and Stephen
Z magazine, May 1999
1. What are the roots of the Kosovo conflict?
Ethnic Serbs and Albanians give extended
historical arguments going back as far as 1389 or 1912 or World
War II. The basic issue is that the Kosovo province of Serbia
(called Kosova in Albanian) has a large majority-as much as 90
percent-of ethnic Albanians with a roughly 10 percent Serbian
minority. The Kosovo Albanians, however, are only about 16 percent
of Serbia's total population. The Kosovo Albanians claim to be
an oppressed minority within Serbia and want self-determination.
The Kosovo Serbs claim to be an oppressed minority within Kosovo,
and want protection from the Albanians. For Serbs, Kosovo, particularly
in the north, is the site of many historical events and locales,
their Jerusalem and Alamo rolled into one.
Yugoslavia consisted of six republics
(Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina)
and in 1974 Tito gave autonomous status to two provinces of Serbia,
Kosovo and Vojvodina. Kosovo autonomy allowed its ethnic Albanians
to develop their own institutions, but angered Serbian nationalists.
The Yugoslav League of Communists (LCY) under Tito and after his
death in 1980 suppressed nationalist ideology and political dissent.
In 1987, however, Slobodan Milosevic used
anger over Kosovo to take control of the Serbian branch of the
LCY. The previous leaders, Milosevic charged, had appeased the
Albanians and failed to defend Serb interests. In 1989, Milosevic
revoked Kosovo's autonomy, encouraging forcible Serb repression
of the Albanian majority ever since. Most Albanian Kosovars now
want complete independence.
2. What is the KLA?
The Albanian Kosovars fought Serb control
in 1989 by non-violent resistance: they elected their own leaders,
refused to cooperate with the Serb authorities, and established
their own counter-institutions. Their "president" was
Ibrahim Rugova, a follower of Gandhi, who urged his people to
reject violence while working toward independence. Serbian repression
in Kosovo since 1989 didn't attract much concern from Washington.
In 1995, when the United States sponsored talks in Dayton, Ohio
to end the fighting in Bosnia, Milosevic was feted as the key
to peace and Rugova was excluded from the conference. Thereafter
repression increased in Kosovo and Rugova had little to show for
his non-violent approach.
In 1996, an obscure organization appeared
on the scene, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, or UCK in Albanian),
committed to armed struggle. They undertook some ineffectual attacks
on police stations and sometimes Serb civilians, including Serbian
refugees from the Yugoslav wars whom many Albanians viewed as
colonizers intended to shift the demographic balance. In early
1998, Serbian special police assaulted three villages, killing
more than 80 people, at least 17 after they had been detained
or surrendered. This attack drove thousands of Albanians into
the KLA and, though still called terrorists by the Serbian authorities,
they became a serious guerrilla army with mass support. Over the
next months the KLA took control of roughly 40 percent of Kosovo's
territory. By late summer, however, Serbian forces retook most
of the territory, their major tactic being to crush civilian support
for the rebels by systematically destroyed towns and villages
and forcing thousands of people to flee.
It is difficult to tell the KLA attitude
toward Serb civilians. Human rights groups have accused them of
human rights violations, including compelling Serb villagers to
leave their homes, with some killings, though not approaching
the scale of atrocities committed by Serbian forces. The KLA claims
not to target civilians, while acknowledging that fighters in
the field commit abuses.
3. Why does everyone talk about the conflict
Massive refugee flows have the potential
to destabilize many surrounding countries where there is a delicate
ethnic balance. In Macedonia, for example, commentators fear that
Albanian immigration would provoke the Albanian minority to secede
or would even make it a majority, which the Macedonian majority
is determined to prevent. Having hundreds of thousands of Albanians
living in refugee camps brings visions of the Palestinians; with
all the instability their plight has caused the Middle East.
In addition, Albania has warned that it
will not sit idly by if its compatriots across the border are
slaughtered, and Serbia has made incursions into Albania to prevent
the flow of weapons and recruits to the KLA. Finally, Turkey and
Greece, long-time enemies, and Bulgaria as well might get involved.
(Of course, it is a little odd for NATO to launch a war in order
to prevent two NATO members-Turkey and Greece-from going at each
4. Is the U.S. motivated by humanitarianism
in the Balkans?
No. If the U.S. was motivated to wage
war and drop bombs in this instance by humanitarian concerns,
that would mean that concern for the plight of oppressed minorities
and populations ranked very high in U.S. policy-making calculations.
We would then expect that in any case where large populations
are suffering horrible repression Washington would try to intervene
to stop the repression.
Now consider the reverse claim that U.S.
foreign policy is never motivated by concern for the well being
of local constituencies but will only opportunistically use related
rhetoric for rationalization purposes when possible. If this were
true, in contrast, we would expect that the U.S. would intervene
in the affairs of other countries only to serve domestic elites
in the U.S. or to aid local elites in other countries on behalf
of U.S. elites, or to influence or enhance policies undertaken
by other countries thought to benefit U.S. government and elite
interests-but with the human costs to victims playing virtually
no role in the calculations.
Now look at the evidence.
* Before World War II, for example, the
United States could have admitted many Jews fleeing from Hitler's
Europe; it did not.
* During World War II, the United States
could have bombed the death camp at Auschwitz, slowing down the
Nazi killing machine; it did not.
* When hundreds of thousands of people
were slaughtered in Indonesia in 1965, the U.S. government who
even provided lists of Communists to exterminate cheered the killers
* When the Pakistani army began slaughtering
and raping hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in 1971, sending
millions into exile, U.S. policy was to (in Kissinger's words)
"tilt in favor of Pakistan. "
* When Indonesia invaded East Timor, leading
to the deaths of one-third of the population, it received weapons
and diplomatic support from Washington. In early April, White
House press secretary Joe Lockhart was asked whether the United
States supported independence for East Timor. "Not that I
am aware of," he replied.
* When the Khmer Rouge was responsible
for monstrous killings in Cambodia, the United States encouraged
China to aid the Khmer Rouge and provided covert aid of its own.
* When the government of Guatemala killed
200,000 people in the 1980s, it was with United States aid and
* When upwards of half a million people,
mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic minority, were exterminated
in Rwanda in 1994, the Clinton administration demanded that a
UN force already on the scene be reduced and obstructed efforts
to save lives, even failing to apply diplomatic pressure against
Investigation of all these cases and many
more-the Turkish treatment of Kurds in Turkey, for example-reveals
a consistent pattern which has nothing to do with concerns for
repressed populations and everything to do with calculations of
U.S. elite and geo-political interests. In every case policy would
have been roughly opposite to what took place, if there had been
humanitarian concerns. There weren't, and there aren't.
5. So why is NATO bombing in the Balkans?
Just as killings by the (U.S.-trained)
junta in Haiti did not concern U.S. policymakers until large numbers
of refugees started fleeing to the United States, so too human
rights abuses in Kosovo did not concern U.S. policymakers as long
as they didn't threaten regional stability. But as the fighting
in Kosovo escalated, with large numbers of displaced Albanian
refugees, U.S. officials decided they needed to curb the problem-not
to aid locally affected people, but to prevent losses to U.S.
interests due to the conflict spreading into other parts of Europe.
In February and March at Rambouillet in
France, the United States and its European allies invited the
Albanian Kosovars and the Milosevic government to sign an agreement
that provided for the withdrawal of Serbian security forces from
Kosovo, the disarming of the KLA, autonomy for Kosovo, a NATO
peacekeeping force, and follow-up final-status negotiations after
three years. Milosevic said he was unwilling to accept foreign
troops on his territory. NATO said it would bomb him if the Albanians
signed and he didn't. The Albanians reluctantly accepted the Rambouillet
agreement and Milosevic refused.
Now the primary NATO goal became maintaining
its credibility. The Clinton administration had invested heavily
in expanding NATO, to make it a primary instrument of U.S. policy
not only in Europe, but also beyond. There is an elementary point
of big power politics that no one denies: threats need to be carried
out if the credibility of future threats is to be maintained.
Likewise, threats carried out but not yielding total victory need
to be escalated until the adversary is crushed.
So why make the initial threat to bomb?
There is a predisposition in Washington to favor military solutions.
A diplomatic approach would have strengthened the UN and international
law and made Russia a player, all of which would interfere with
U.S. freedom of action. Bombing, on the other hand, leads with
the U.S. strong suit. It provides a rationale for U.S. domestic
military spending and an international arms bazaar. It tells the
world that the U.S. response to problems with other nations is
to bomb them. "What good is this marvelous military force,"
Albright asked Gen. Colin Powell a few years back, "if we
can never use it?"
6. What effects do the bombings have?
In preparation for the bombing, relief
workers (who might have continued to mitigate the suffering) and
international observers (who might have continued to discourage
the most blatant atrocities) were pulled out of Kosovo. The NATO
bombing then provoked a horrific outburst of ethnic cleansing
by Serbian forces as hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars
were driven from their homes. Because all reporters and international
observers had left Kosovo, we do not know the human toll of Serb
actions, but it surely exceeds the toll for the previous year,
during which some 2,000 ethnic Albanian civilians had been killed
and about 250,000 ethnic Albanians had become refugees, most of
them within Kosovo.
Even without the bombing, a Serbian offensive
was likely imminent, but it is hard to believe it would have been
as ferocious as what has occurred. The bombing incensed many even
in Serbia's democratic movement, so one can only imagine how it
must have affected Serb security forces in Kosovo. Unable to retaliate
against NATO missiles and warplanes, they could be expected to
lash out at those most vulnerable, ethnic Albanian civilians.
Of course, none of this mitigates the responsibility for the atrocities
on the part of those who carried them out. But if someone is holding
a person hostage and you recklessly charge forward, leading to
the death of the hostage, you also bear some responsibility. Many
U.S. officials have acknowledged that they thought the bombing
might well lead to a paroxysm of violence from Milosevic and that
air power, the NATO tool of choice, could do nothing to stop that
violence in the short run.
Bombing, of course, has had other implications
as well. Within Yugoslavia the population has rallied to Milosevic.
The democratic opposition now appears to be either dismantled,
jailed, or, most chillingly, supporting him. As Zoran Djindjic,
the leader of Serbia's Democratic Party and an organizer of pro-democracy
demonstrations in 1996-1997 put it, the "bombs have marginalized
any dissenters here." Washington, he said bitterly, has spent
more on one day's bombs than it ever spent helping the democracy
movement in Yugoslavia. Montenegro, the smaller of the two Yugoslav
republics, had previously passed a resolution questioning Milosevic's
Kosovo policy, but the bombing has quieted its opposition as well.
These results were predictable. And the level of hostility and
tension in the whole region has climbed dramatically, making negotiations
and a lasting peace, eventually obviously required, that much
And then there is the horrible loss of
life and means of sustaining life that mounts with each new raid
of Belgrade and Yugoslavia as a whole. Bombing has it's own deadly
logic. What begins as "surgical" attacks inevitably
expands. "We have to drop the bridges and turn out the lights-there
should be no more outdoor rock concerts in downtown Belgrade,"
Sen. John McCain told Newsweek. "Twelve days of surgical
bombing was never going to turn Serbia around," wrote New
York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. "Let's see what 12
weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance."
7. But even if badly motivated, won't
the bombings at least restrain Milosevic?
Restrain him from what? Yes, even an ill-motivated
action can sometimes have a desirable effect and therefore deserve
support, but in this case the bombing is not only ill motivated,
it has worsened the plight of the Albanian Kosovars, vastly increasing
the flow of refugees and, due to the scale, created a catastrophe
of the first order. It has diminished the internal opposition
to Milosevic, and, if reports are accurate, perhaps destroyed
it. It has undermined the UN, turned NATO into an offensive, interventionary
institution, played havoc with international law, and further
projected the U.S. as a country eager and willing to punish any
deviations it discerns from its will with bombs, thus acting as
a threat against countries throughout the world. And finally,
there is the devastation of Yugoslavia itself, the immediate expansion
of deaths and casualties, and the future expansion due to the
wrecking of a country's infrastructure.
8. Can the U.S. really be that evil? Isn't
this just left cynicism and a knee-jerk rejection of all U.S.
Sometimes when a person or group holds
roughly the same position repeatedly in different contexts it
indicates that the person or group is gravitating to it reflexively
or has lost touch with reason and is bending reality to fit his
or her prejudices. And yes, there are likely critics of the bombing
who have adopted a stance based not on evidence and sound reasoning,
but on a pre-determined mindset, with facts bent to fit.
But, the facts of U.S. international relations,
and of the limited options available in this case are really not
in dispute. And the judgment drawn by critics of U.S. policy are
not leaps from those facts or distortions of those facts or subjective
impositions on those facts, but rather very simple deductions
from the facts, which, were the culprit any other nation, would
be obvious to all.
9. Why are there conflicting viewpoints
among leftists and progressives, some favoring bombing, some opposing
There has been an avalanche of media commentary
emphasizing the immense and grotesque crimes in the Balkans for
nearly a decade. It is natural that some people, including many
on the left, have become very impassioned about wishing to see
those crimes curbed. This desire, perfectly reasonable on the
face of it, has left some folks blind to the reality that just
saying that a policy helps people doesn't mean that, in fact,
the policy does help those people. The desire not to ignore the
plight of the Kosovars is worthy. But to advocate policies that
end up hurting the Kosovars, Yugoslavia as a whole, international
law, the UN, and by the threat-effect all who might oppose U.S.
pursuits, on grounds that at least it is doing something, is unworthy.
10. Why do many leftists inside Serbia
deny that the Serbs have committed atrocities?
There are many factors at work, no doubt.
Ethnic conflicts frequently find leftists on opposite sides, swept
up in the myths and distortions of their own ethnic group. (Think
of the Palestine-Israeli or the Turkish-Greek conflicts.) Having
bombs drop in your neighborhood and nation, which destroy the
daily functioning of your society, has, we know from history,
a tremendously galvanizing and homogenizing effect on people's
views. More, there is likely also honest confusion. Facts available
outside Yugoslavia may not be available inside, or at least may
not be comprehensible there.
In matters such as this, testimony from
people on the scene, from whatever persuasion, must be understood
in context. Single events can be elaborated into whole theses,
a common trick of the mass media, but in chaotic situations there
are single events demonstrative of pretty much any kind of behavior
one might wish to find. What matters most is not single examples
or events, but widespread patterns of behavior and broad policies
and their broad implications.
11. Why are many right-wingers against
Some right-wingers reflexively oppose
anything Clinton does ("a draft-dodger can't lead us into
war," etc.) But there are two other sources of right-wing
opposition. One is that elites can differ in their views as to
what best serves U.S. elite interests. If it doesn't work as planned,
which is certainly likely, this operation may leave NATO and the
U.S. in a worse place than at its outset. Therefore, for those
who doubt the bombing's capacity to lead to stable results that
legitimate NATO, reduce risk of spreading conflict, etc., there
is reason to oppose the policy.
Moreover, to some right-wingers, multi-lateralism-even
if it's NATO rather than the UN-s suspect because it reduces to
some extent U.S. freedom of action. If the situation in Kosovo
causes a crisis in southeastern Europe, let the Europeans deal
with it. The right wing opposes peacekeeping operations ("the
United States needs to husband its resources for great exertions,
not dissipate them in a thousand stagnant fens" [Charles
Krauthammer]). And where left/progressive critics of the bombing
argue that it will not achieve-and will in fact exacerbate-any
humanitarian objectives, the right wing is as concerned about
the suffering in Kosovo as it is about the suffering in America's
12. What is the role of law in this crisis?
Where is the UN in all this?
The Charter of the United Nations-which
is a treaty signed ~ by the United States and thus is part of
the "Supreme law of the land"-prohibits the use or threat
of force against other nations except in self-defense to an armed
attack or if authorized by the UN Security Council. When the United
States can bring along the Security Council it is delighted to
do so (for example, during the 1991 war against Iraq), even if
it takes blatant bribery to pressure other states to assent. But
where such consensus is impossible, Washington has been happy
to ignore the Security Council, claiming that it has authorization
from previous Council resolutions, even though most other countries
see no such authorization (the U.S.-British bombing of Iraq in
December 1998, for example) or else advancing ludicrous claims
that it is acting in self-defense (as in its recent missile strikes
on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant).
Regional organizations like NATO do not
have the right to act on their own. Article 53 of the UN Charter
states that "no enforcement action shall be taken under regional
arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization
of the Security Council." So in the case of Kosovo, the U.S.
and NATO, confronting a problem, turned not to the UN but to the
Pentagon. The UN is not entirely under U.S. auspices and could,
conceivably, act independently and in a humanitarian manner that
would conflict with U.S. interests and require changes in U.S.
13. Why does it matter that Yugoslavia
is a sovereign nation and that this is an internal conflict rather
than between nations?
Borders exist. And the reason to be concerned
about their violation even with good motivations much less by
a unilateral and illegal force, is because respect for borders
is one of the few impediments to the mighty doing whatever they
please with the weak. To establish the precedent that national
sovereignty is inconsequential is to remove perhaps the major
impediment to one nation sending troops, bombers, or missiles
into another. Once that is done, there remains only debate over
what is warranted, and in the world as we know it such debate
is dominated by the most powerful states and their massive media
machines, most particularly the U.S. (Military intervention, Richard
Falk has reminded us, is like the Mississippi River: it only flows
from North to South.) Thus, to deny the validity of national sovereignty
is to effectively give the U.S. carte blanche to intervene when
and where it decides-which is, of course, from the U.S. perspective,
a delightful by-product of the current events.
14. What is the right way to deal with
crises like this and what rights are national minorities entitled
Should Japan bomb Washington out of solidarity
with blacks subjected to horrible conditions and violence in our
inner cities? Would that improve or worsen the plight of blacks,
have ancillary affects that were positive or negative from the
point of view of justice and self-determination? The major means
of impacting relations ought to be diplomacy, international opinion,
and domestic movements. In some instances (as in the case of apartheid
in South Africa) these may be rightly augmented with economic
sanctions that are supported by the internal opposition. In other
instances, however, sanctions can amount to a deadly and immoral
weapon, having as their chief consequence huge and criminal casualties
among civilians, as in Iraq in recent years. Yes, one can certainly
imagine situations where a powerful state or community can and
will devastate a minority ethnic group if there is not some form
of more powerful intervention-but this does not mean bombing by
interested parties not seeking true peace and which will only
aggravate crimes and divisions.
Most world problems, including most humanitarian
crises, don't call for military solutions, but non-pacifists believe
that there are some situations where force is the only option.
If that force is wielded by the United States, however, it will
be used to further U.S. elite interests rather than any humanitarian
objective. Other countries, too, look out for their own elite
interests, so the way to minimize the influence of the elite-serving
agendas of individual governments is to put a humanitarian military
force under democratic international control. International control
must mean the UN General Assembly, not the Security Council which
is set up in the most undemocratic way imaginable, with five countries
(the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China) having
Even the General Assembly does not represent
real democracy. There's no relation of votes to population, many
members states are themselves undemocratic, and even those that
are formally democratic are dominated by wealthy elites. True
democratic control of a humanitarian force must await global social
change, but in the meantime the General Assembly provides the
Thus, in extreme cases, what is needed
to prevent human travail is a true peace-keeping force, under
the auspices of the General Assembly of the UN, prepared to stand
between combatants and, if necessary, to defend itself and those
being abused, to create conditions for negotiations.
What rights are national minorities entitled
to? As a basic position, we must support self-determination as
a fundamental democratic right. But what if a minority wants to
secede, but within their territory live other minorities? Such
situations have no simple solution, especially if the minority
does not live in contiguous territory. What if a minority wishes
to leave a country and take with it the bulk of the country's
resources or assets, leaving a majority behind bereft of the means
to sustain them?
A proper policy regarding national minorities
requires a flexible mechanism of international law and adjudication,
respected by the peoples and nations of the world, with binding
powers that all abide, and with priority attention to ensuring
that the powerful do not subjugate or otherwise delimit the options
of the weak within or between countries. We are far from having
any such mechanism, but U.S. flouting of international law moves
us in precisely the wrong direction.
15. What should we demand for the Balkans?
* An end to the bombing. Pursue diplomacy,
not rejecting out of hand every diplomatic overture (such as the
Russian call for talks or Milosevic's offer of a cease-fire).
An international peacekeeping force overseen by the UN General
Assembly to stand between the combatants.
* An international system, under the auspices
of the General Assembly, to adjudicate and make decisions about
the use of peace-keeping forces.
* An insistence that other atrocities,
often perpetrated or abetted or ignored by Washington because
they serve U.S. interests, receive the same media visibility and
humanitarian attention as the atrocities in Kosovo.
Consult the Z Magazine web site, ZNet,
at http://www. zmag. org
International War Crimes