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Carl Thomson: How myths and half-truths led to one of post-war Europe’s bloodiest conflicts

Carl Thomson Carl Thomson is a commentator on Russian and East European affairs and was the Conservative candidate for Glasgow East at the 2005 General Election.

It was ten years ago last month that NATO launched a massive 81 day bombing campaign against the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, causing the deaths of more than 480 civilians and the displacement of some 800,000 refugees from the Serbian province of Kosovo.  This was only the second time NATO had engaged in military operations in its then fifty year history.  It was the first time the alliance had used force against a sovereign state without approval from the United Nations, and remains the largest military operation undertaken in Europe since the end of the Second World War. 

The bombing campaign was carried out ostensibly to protect the Albanian population in Kosovo from what was deemed to be acts of genocide at the hands of the Yugoslav military, and to bring about the removal of all Serbian police and paramilitary forces from the region.  A more detailed analysis of NATO's war aims at the time, however, suggests that concerns about genocide and human rights were only a partial factor in the decision to go to war.  Amongst the demands presented to Yugoslavia at the commencement of the bombing were the establishment of a market economy, the imposition of democracy in Serbia, self-government for the Kosovo Albanians, and the integration of Yugoslavia into the "mainstream" of Europe.

There can be no argument that Kosovo in late 1998 and early 1999 was a very dangerous place, and that many Kosovo Albanians suffered greatly as a result of attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army and reprisals by the Yugoslav security forces.  One of the bloodiest single episodes took place in January 1999, when 45 Albanians were killed following clashes in the village of Reçak.  The Reçak incident formed the main pretext for NATO military involvement in Kosovo.  The Yugoslav government asserted that the casualties were members of the KLA who had been killed in a shootout with state security forces.  NATO, the EU and the OSCE disagreed, characterising the killings as the deliberate massacre of civilians by Serbian forces.

Many Albanians certainly lost loved ones as Kosovo descended into a state of low-level war in the late 1990s, as did many Serbs.  Kosovo’s Albanians may well have been the victims of repression, and they had a legitimate claim to autonomy and self-determination equal to that enjoyed by the two remaining constituent countries of the federal Yugoslavia.  Serbian tactics against the KLA would have undoubtedly been heavy handed. 

But at the same time, it is clear that allegations of genocide against the Albanians on a par with the holocaust, as was claimed by Bill Clinton at the onset of the bombing, were based on exaggerated half-truths fuelled by KLA propaganda designed to draw the Western powers into what was essentially a civil war between Serbs and Albanians.  Several lurid, eye-witness accounts of systematic massacres and atrocities committed by Serb forces were later found to be overstated or even false. 

The Finnish pathologist who conducted the forensic examination on the bodies of the Reçak victims later testified that she had been pressured by her country's foreign ministry to modify her report into the killings so as to bolster the case for war, and that she was harassed and insulted by the head of the OSCE’s verification mission when she refused to write the report in a way that would have portrayed the Serbs in a more negative light.  Just a few days into the NATO campaign, US officials were forced to concede that the number of Albanian refugees fleeing Serb persecution was 90% lower than had been claimed at the start of the war, and that Kosovo Albanians were not being dumped in mass graves they had been forced to dig before being executed, as was alleged by the KLA.

Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since June 1999, but occupation by NATO has failed to prevent more than 250,000 Kosovo Serbs and Roma Gypsies fleeing or being forced out of the province.  A spate of anti-Serb violence in March 2004 saw 8 Serbs killed and 1,000 injured.  36 orthodox churches and historic monasteries in Kosovo were destroyed, and some 730 homes belonging to Kosovo Serbs were burnt to the ground.  Over the course of 48 hours, 4,100 minority families were left displaced, more than the number of refugees who returned to Kosovo over the whole of the previous year. 

Today, the few Serbs that remain in Kosovo live confined to small enclaves surrounded by Albanian territory.  When Kosovo declared independence in March last year, an act of dubious legality that has been recognised by only 56 out of 192 sovereign countries, the Kosovo Serbs argued that they also had a moral case for self-determination and should be allowed to unite with Serbia, the rump Yugoslavia having finally been dismantled by Montenegro's declaration of independence in 2006.  Needless to say, their plea was rejected, just as similar demands by minority populations in Georgia and Moldova that they too had the right to determine their own fate and develop closer ties with Russia have been ignored by the international community. 

The recognition of Kosovo's independence, in direct violation of the previously held view by the Western powers that the integrity of existing territorial borders was sacrosanct, inevitably led to a thawing of various “frozen conflicts” across the territory of the former Soviet Union.  It prompted Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to try and reign in the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, igniting the brief war between Russia and Georgia last August.  It threatened to unleash a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh in the South Caucasus, and it left China fearing a resurgence of unrest in Tibet and a change in the West’s position regarding the status of Taiwan, explaining in part the heavy handed treatment of democracy protesters during the Beijing Olympics.

The most tragic consequence of NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia is that it contributed directly to an even bigger catastrophe four years later, that being the war in Iraq.  Over 140 British soldiers and thousands of American troops have lost their lives in Iraq.  According to the most widely cited estimates, the number of violent civilian deaths as a result of the war is now anywhere between 100,000 and 600,000.  The Iraq war came about, in no small part, because the rapturous reception given to Tony Blair by Kosovo's Albanians convinced him of the moral righteousness of liberal interventionism, regardless of the UK’s obligations under international law. 

NATO’s superior air power and the fact that Yugoslavia was subdued without a single allied casualty convinced Washington that regime change could be a relatively bloodless affair.  The impotence of the United Nations in preventing the bombing of Yugoslavia, regardless of objections from two permanent members of the Security Council, undermined that organisation’s effectiveness and credibility.  By tearing up the long-established rules regarding territorial integrity and non-intervention in the affairs of other sovereign states, the West may have been able to use the precedent of Kosovo as justification for the invasion of Iraq, but last August’s events in the Caucasus demonstrate that such blatant disregard for international law has left the world a much more dangerous place.

I have no illusions about the nature of the campaign waged by Yugoslav forces against the KLA in the 1990s.  Nor do I doubt that some sort of outside pressure may have been required to prevent the escalation of hostilities between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.  I readily concede that most Western politicians who supported NATO’s bombardment did so with the best of intentions.

 But much has been written about the road paved with good intentions.  The wide ranging repercussions of NATO’s disregard for international law and the dreadful consequences for Serbian civilians, both in Serbia and inside Kosovo itself, should not be forgotten.  Serbia has been vilified for her role in launching all four Balkan wars of the 1990s.  Much of this condemnation is deserved; some of it is not.  We should remember that the Serbs were victims too.  They also suffered greatly, and they deserve to be remembered.


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