The Kosovo War, 25 years later

by Doug Muir on January 6, 2024

We’re just a few weeks away from the 25th anniversary of the Kosovo War, which started in March 1999. So, I’d like to do a retrospective on the war’s causes.

This is a long story! It’s going to take at least three posts, and they won’t be short. I think it’s interesting, but it may not be to everyone’s taste, so the rest is below the cut.



To understand Kosovo, you have to start with Bosnia.

When Yugoslavia collapsed, six countries took its place. One of the successor states was Bosnia, where a three-cornered war erupted between ethnic Serbs (supported by Bosnia’s neighbor Serbia), ethnic Croats (supported by Bosnias’s neighbor Croatia), and Bosniaks.

Over three years of war, 1992-1995, about 80,000 people had died in Bosnia, most of them civilians. The Bosnian war had also seen the protracted siege of Sarajevo, a peaceful small European city that had hosted the Winter Olympics just a few years earlier, with gruesome scenes of destruction and suffering beamed directly into European media. And then of course the conflict had also included mass ethnic cleansing by all sides; the institution of “detainment” camps that were unpleasantly reminiscent of the concentration camps of WWII; and several horrific massacres, most notably at Srebrenica. From a prewar population of just 4.2 million or so, about 600,000 Bosnians were refugees; of these, about half were spread across Europe, with another 10% or so going to the United States and Canada. At the time, these were the largest refugee flows Europe had seen since the 1940s.

Of course Bosnia was not the only conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The early 1990s had a brief shooting war as Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia; the creation of two breakaway Serb “republics” on the territory of Croatia; the near complete destruction of the city of Vukovar; and massive damage to the coastal town of Dubrovnik, a cultural landmark that had also been a popular vacation destination for many Europeans. However, by early 1995 Bosnia had been the main center of violence in the former Yugoslavia for some time. And it was Bosnia that focused Europe’s attention, with non-stop coverage by European print and broadcast media, and a great deal of public attention and indignation.

Rightly or wrongly, the government of Serbia — at that time, dominated by populist strongman Slobodan Milosevic — was widely perceived as the main driver of the conflict. Certainly Milosevic’s government was supporting the breakaway Serb regions in Croatia, and also supporting and subsidizing the Bosnian Serbs in their efforts to seize as much as possible of Bosnia. There are lengthy “whose fault” arguments on these points which I won’t reprise here.  My own take is, all sides were morally sketchy, all sides committed atrocities, but the Serbs were the worst if only because they had more guns and more resources.

The key point is that by early 1995, the Bosnian war was entering its fourth year, and most European governments were under heavy pressure from public opinion to do something about it. The US government felt less pressure from public opinion, but the Clinton administration had come to realize that two years of attempted diplomacy had accomplished exactly nothing.

At that point — mid 1995 — the Bosnian Serbs were, very broadly speaking, winning the war. Although they were only about 35 to 40 percent of the population, they had managed to seize and control over half of Bosnia’s land area. They had failed to take Sarajevo, but they had control of most of Bosnia’s agriculture and industry. They were the most numerous single group; they had been disproportionately dominant in the army and police before the war; and they were strongly supported by Serbia, which gave them arms, supplies, and financial and logistical support.  Their “Republika Srpska” breakaway state was de facto independent from what remained of the Bosnian government.  So the Bosnian Serbs had no compelling reason to stop fighting.  And by the summer of 1995 they were threatening some of the “safe areas” that had been set up for Bosniak refugees. Given their track record, there was a reasonable fear that this could lead to another round of ethnic cleansing and massacres.

So NATO decided to intervene. In August 1995, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force, a series of air strikes against the Bosnian Serb military. Operation Deliberate Force has been mostly forgotten, but it was this — not the Kosovo conflict a few years later — that was the first intervention by NATO in the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, as far as I know it was the first significant use of offensive force by NATO anywhere, ever.

Operation Deliberate Force was a pretty complete success.  (This may be why it has gone completely down the memory hole.)  The Bosnian Serbs couldn’t continue their offensive against opponents backed by NATO airpower. Indeed, it soon became clear that they would be forced back and would lose ground. So they appealed to Milosevic for more assistance. But Milosevic had no interest in spending more money and effort to support the Bosnian Serbs in an impossible fight against NATO. After all, they had already achieved their major war goals: they had seized half of Bosnia, driven out all of the non-Serb populations, secured all the border with Serbia, and set up an effectively independent government. Capturing Sarajevo would be nice but was hardly necessary; the “Republika Srpska”, the ethnic Serb state within Bosnia, was already a going concern. So, Milosevic refused any further help.

Meanwhile, there were two additional factors in play: Croatia and the Bosnian Croats. In August 1995 the Croatian army launched the extremely successful Operation Storm, wiping the breakaway “Republic of Serb Krajina” off the map in less than a week. Operation Storm had been prepared long in advance, with tacit technical and logistical support from several NATO members, including Britain, the USA, and France. Nevertheless, the Croatian army achieved complete strategic and tactical surprise. The Serb parastate collapsed and over 100,000 ethnic Serb refugees fled into Serbian Bosnia and Serbia itself.

Then just a few weeks later, in September, the Bosnian Croats inside Bosnia launched Operation Mistral. While much smaller than Operation Storm (the Bosnian Croats were much fewer in number and less well equipped than the Croatian army), Operation Mistral was also a modest success, and the Bosnian Croats seized several towns that had been held by the Bosnian Serbs. From a Serb POV, this raised the possibility of Bosnian Croat and Bosniak ground troops moving forward with the direct support of NATO airpower — or, even more alarming, the possibility of direct intervention by the newly invigorated Croatian army on the ground in Bosnia.

The Bosnian Serbs had some modest air defenses: they did manage to shoot down one or two NATO planes. But they really had nothing that could counter the multiple threat of NATO bombing, Croat/Bosniak attacks under NATO air cover, and the possibility of intervention by the Croatian army. So, almost overnight, the Serbs went from pushing forward and winning the war to falling backwards and losing the war. Also, they now had the alarming fate of the “Republic of Serb Krajina” in front of them: their brother ethnic Serb parastate had been wiped right out of existence in a week. Their only option now was to beg for help from Milosevic in Belgrade — and, if he refused, to quickly negotiate a deal before they lost even more ground.

So when Milosevic did indeed refuse to help, that forced the Bosnian Serbs to accept a cease-fire and, ultimately, a negotiated peace. The bombing started in August 1995; it ended less than a month later, in September, with a cease-fire. By December 1995 a peace treaty had been signed, the famous Dayton Accords. The Accords have been heavily criticized, then and since — but they ended the war in Bosnia, full stop.

So Operation Deliberate Force was a success by any reasonable standard. Unfortunately, the nature of that success was misunderstood. American and European political and military leaders saw that after three and a half years of bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, and massacre, a firm stand and three weeks of bombing had solved the problem, or anyway had at least ended the war and stopped the killing. This gave everyone the idea that problems in the former Yugoslavia could be solved by a quick bombing campaign. When confronted with the power of NATO, the Bosnian Serbs had quickly backed down. So, if confronted with similar overwhelming force in Kosovo, Milosevic and Serbia would probably back down in much the same way.

There were two problems with this analysis. The first problem was that while Milosevic didn’t care that much about Bosnia, he cared very much about Kosovo. In Bosnia, it was a question of whether ethnic Serbs would control 52% or 49% of the country, and whether they would have complete de facto independence or whether they might have to give insincere lip service to a very weak Bosnian central government. From Milosevic’s POV, these issues were pretty secondary — almost trivial, really. He had most of what he wanted in Bosnia: a large ethnically cleansed pure-Serbian buffer state along his western border, de facto mostly independent, beholden to him and his government and effectively controlled by Belgrade. The precise details of that state’s borders and authority were minor and negotiable.

But Kosovo, on the other hand, was existential. Kosovo was, in the opinion of every Serb, a province of Serbia.  The fact that Kosovo was mostly populated by ethnic Albanians who didn’t want to be part of Serbia was completely irrelevant.  Serb rule over Kosovo was a core interest to multiple actors — the Serbian public generally, Milosevic’s party and supporters particularly, and Milosevic himself. Milosevic could let his Bosnian Serb clients give up some scraps of land in Bosnia and accept the nominal sovereignty of a toothless Bosnian government. That was really no big deal. But losing Kosovo?  Kosovo, an integral part of Serbia?  That, he could not afford and would not accept.

The second problem was that Europe’s leadership forgot that Operation Deliberate Force was just one part of a three-pronged strategy. It happened alongside Operation Mistral (offensive by Bosnian Croats, boots on the ground inside Bosnia) and Operation Storm (highly successful offensive by Croatian army, threatened massive invasion by ground forces). In Kosovo, one of those prongs (threat of invasion) would be completely absent, while another (local combatants in theater) would be much weaker. So while in 1995 in Bosnia the Serbs had folded quickly in the face of a brief air campaign, in 1999 in Kosovo things would be rather different.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1

LFC 01.06.24 at 8:39 pm

Have not yet read the whole post closely, but it’s already clear (to me, at any rate) that this is a very useful retrospective.

2

Ray V 01.06.24 at 10:52 pm

My understanding of the conflict is very shaped by people I knew, though I read about it at the time. So this was a Serbian—American professor, and a lot of refugees, some who had family killed in the genocidal Serb action. (Some of these people were the children of mixed marriages. Sarejevo was an ethnically mixed city. The ethnic differences were not very significant to the people living there.)

All were much more critical of the Serbian actions than the actions of others, given that they involved genocidal rhetoric, intentional killing of civilians, a campaign of rape in the ethnic cleansing campaign, and concentration camps. (The Serbs killed the father of one of the people I met. He was starved and tortured, and survived the release of the prisoners but only for a very short time because his condition was so bad.)

At least what they told me was that Milosevic used anti-Muslim rhetoric inside Serbia to increase his own hold on the country, and urge Serbs inside Bosnia to begin killing and expelling Muslims, and this was the cause of the ethnic hostility. Islamophobia was a major aspect of his political tactic.

However, these refugees did not ‘blame the Serbs’ and were very adamant about this. They blamed ethnic nationalism, which is why they strongly resisted the idea of blaming any ethnic group. To them, obsession with the moral rightness of various ethnicities was a main cause of the violence. European and American Islamophobia has helped create the climate of ethnic violence against the Muslim bosniaks.

Yes, I did know that all sides were very violent and brutal but I haven’t yet encountered this ‘all sides were equally bad’ narrative. Is there something we can read that would explain your view about this? I find it surprising, but I don’t have a full view of everything from such a long time ago, and it is possible what I knew a long time ago was one-sided.

3

Mike Masinter 01.07.24 at 1:31 am

Perhaps successive posts will address the history and subsequent mythologizing of the Serbian defeat by the Ottoman Empire and ethnic Kosovars at the battle of Kosovo / Blackbirds in 1389, but the mythology surrounding that conflict is difficult to understand outside of the Balkans. When I took a seminar taught by Jan Triska in 1968 when Tito still ruled Yugoslavia, one of my classmates who focused more on the southern Balkans than I did noted that although Serbs and Croats were ethnically indistinguishable save for the religious divide between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the divide between Serbs and Kosovars ran much deeper, reflecting the shifting boundaries between Muslims and Christians and ethnic differences than paralleled religious identity, and were Yugoslavia to collapse as a state, would inevitably lead to war. He was right, although it took decades to confirm his foresight.

To be sure wars have many causes, and much more than just Islam v. Christianity was in play in the conflict between Serbian and Kosovo, but for most of us in the west save perhaps for those in Northern Ireland, it’s hard to recognize just how deeply religious animosity, especially when coupled with ethnic differences, can survive even in periods of the peace that prevailed under Tito; the best analogy I can think of is pre-vaccine childhood Chicken Pox that resurfaces fifty years or more later as Shingles, or, closer to home, childhood sunburn that returns as melanoma. But there’s no reason to think that the relative calm that has prevailed since the U.S. / NATO intervened will last longer than the relative calm that settled in after the Battle of Kosovo — religious animosity seemingly has no expiration date.

4

Peter T 01.07.24 at 11:28 am

I followed the war as an intelligence analyst, and am surprised at the ‘all sided narrative’. It was very clear from the detailed reporting that the majority of the offences – and certainly those committed as policy – were committed by the Serbs – and to a lesser but significant extent by the Croats. The Bosniaks had their bad actors but were not in the same league.

5

nastywoman 01.07.24 at 1:12 pm

@
‘Yes, I did know that all sides were very violent and brutal but I haven’t yet encountered this ‘all sides were equally bad’ narrative. Is there something we can read that would explain your view about this? I find it surprising, but I don’t have a full view of everything from such a long time ago, and it is possible what I knew a long time ago was one-sided.

‘All sides were equally wrong’ was/is always
WRONG’
As wrong as in the case of WW2 (where it was just too obvious that the Nazis and Hitlers were the Agressors and ‘Monsters’ to such a degree – that any Bothsideism got rejected universally)

BUT NOW – we live in ‘the times of trump’ – where there seems to be
ALWAYS –
‘very fine people on both sides’
and that ‘sink’ mainly gets propagated by just ONE SIDE.
The side of the Right-Wing Racists Science Deniers and Liars –
who somehow have even managed
(mainly in the US and in Russia) to redefine even the utmost obvious Fighters against Fascism and Hate – into ‘Haters and Fascists’.

How – ‘trump’!
into

6

steven t johnson 01.07.24 at 3:37 pm

Not at all clear how a Bosnian Croat is more Bosnian than a Bosnian Serb, except the Croat uses Roman/Latin alphabet (and is supposedly Roman Catholic) while the Serb uses Cyrillic letters (and is supposedly Orthodox.) But the Bosnian Bosnians are…Muslims who use the Roman/Latin alphabet because they are pro-Western? And who don’t have religious opinions in public, whatever may go on in government offices? At first glance it would seem that these have the simplest claim to be Bosnian, definitely not being Croat or Serb but the Muslims weren’t a majority in Bosnia. Linguistically it’s very confusing as the language is pretty much the same for all of them, though years of efforts to cultivate differences are probably taking effect, similar to Urdu/Hindi?

Clearly though the role of NATO in planning ethnic cleansing in Operation Storm should be an issue in a retrospective, or so it seems to me.

7

Doug Muir 01.07.24 at 6:08 pm

“Yes, I did know that all sides were very violent and brutal but I haven’t yet encountered this ‘all sides were equally bad’ narrative.”

Hm, apparently I didn’t write that very clearly.

Okay, so: the Bosnian Serbs absolutely committed the great majority of crimes and atrocities. Maybe 90 percent? Something like that. The Croats were a distant second, and the Bosniaks barely got on the board.

But that’s not because the Croats or Bosniaks were kinder, more ethical, or more diligent about following the rules of war. It’s because (1) the Serbs were more numerous, better armed, better financed, and better supplied; and (2) for most of the war, the Serbs were advancing not retreating.

When the other two groups had a chance, they committed atrocities with just as much enthusiasm as the Serbs. Google the Stupni Do massacre, the Ahmi?i massacre, the massacres at Uzdol, Trusina, Skelani, Travics… I could go on.

I mean, think about it: all three groups were coming out of the same Yugoslav / Communist tradition. The regular military leaders had been in the same army together. All three were under authoritarian leadership, all were motivated by ethno-nationalism. Once the war was under way for a while, all were heavily motivated by fear of ethnic cleansing and murder and rage at atrocities by the other side. Culturally they were very, very similar; you literally had guys who had gone to elementary and high school together murdering each other. It would be mildly surprising if one group was significantly better or worse than the others in terms of /willingness/ to commit atrocities.

Doug M.

8

Doug Muir 01.07.24 at 6:19 pm

“there’s no reason to think that the relative calm that has prevailed since the U.S. / NATO intervened will last longer than the relative calm that settled in after the Battle of Kosovo — religious animosity seemingly has no expiration date.”

Here we disagree. I don’t think that religion played a major role in the conflict, other than as a cultural marker for the different groups. I’ll write more about this later, but a popular joke at the time was that this was a war between people who never went to church on Sunday and people who never went to mosque on Friday. There were and are Muslim Serbs; there were and are Catholic Albanians; there was even a small community of Protestants in Croatia; and of course, the vast majority on all sides were simply not very religious. It made no difference at all. In every case, ethnic identity trumped religion.

As to the durability of animosity… right now all the countries of the region are moving towards the EU. There’s lingering resentment in Serbia, but otherwise nobody has any interest in starting any trouble. Whether that will be true 20 or 50 or 100 years from now, who knows?

Doug M.

9

Doug Muir 01.07.24 at 6:25 pm

“Not at all clear how a Bosnian Croat is more Bosnian than a Bosnian Serb,”

Was anyone actually claiming this?

“But the Bosnian Bosnians are…Muslims who use the Roman/Latin alphabet because they are pro-Western?”

What? No. The Bosniaks use the Latin alphabet because it was imposed on them during the occupation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary, 1878-1918.

“Clearly though the role of NATO in planning ethnic cleansing in Operation Storm should be an issue in a retrospective, or so it seems to me.”

I mentioned it. But I’m writing about Kosovo, not Croatia, and this series of posts is already going long.

Doug M.

10

John Q 01.07.24 at 8:37 pm

One crucial misjudgement, in my view, was the failure to seek support, or at least acquiescence from Putin, going through NATO rather than a UN resolution. It might not have worked, but the unilateral action paved the way for worse to come in both Iraq and Ukraine.

https://crookedtimber.org/2022/07/22/the-kosovo-precedent/

11

Doug Muir 01.07.24 at 9:14 pm

“One crucial misjudgement, in my view, was the failure to seek support, or at least acquiescence from Putin, going through NATO rather than a UN resolution”

— this would have been complicated by the fact that in March 1999 Russia’s leader was Boris Yeltsin, not Vladimir Putin. (Probably we’ve all got in the habit of using “Putin” for “Russia” lately.)

Also, by March 1999 there had been three UN resolutions on Kosovo: 1160, 1199, and 1203. The Serbs had, well, resolutely ignored all three.

So it was pretty clear by March that the Serbs would ignore any UN resolution that didn’t involve military force, while the Russians would veto any resolution that did.

Acquiescence from Moscow was never on the table. Yeltsin’s government was corrupt, weak, unpopular, and facing elections. Meanwhile the Serb cause was widely popular across Russia, with most Russian media and the newly powerful Orthodox Church pushing the “brave little Serbia, our Orthodox brothers” line. So it would have been politically impossible for Yeltsin to throw Serbia under the bus even if he’d wanted to.

(In a comment above I said that religion wasn’t a driving factor in the conflict. In all seriousness, the Serbs being Orthodox may have been more important to the Russians than it was to the Serbs.)

Also, it’s not like the US and its allies went straight to bombing. There were a bunch of attempts at diplomatic resolution first, culminating in Rambouillet. We’ll get to that.

Doug M.

12

Scott P. 01.08.24 at 4:50 am

Something that hasn’t appeared in your analysis yet is “Rwanda.” In 1995, the Rwandan genocide was fresh in people’s minds and there was a broad sense that the world community, and the UN in particular, had failed there and there was a desire not to repeat that failure in Bosnia or, later, in Kosovo.

13

steven t johnson 01.08.24 at 3:34 pm

That the Cyrillic or Arabic alphabets didn’t make a comeback after 1918 was the part that confused me.

The reference to the Communist background seems to forget that all the successor regimes were anti-Communist. In Croatia, that was why their independence was Ustase-influence. Once when it was useful in the fight against Communism, Yugoslavia was hailed as a market socialism, complete with extensive migrant labor in Germany. To my eyes, it seems that market socialism fostered differential development of some areas, particularly Croatia. Serb populations as I recall were more rural, lower income—leading to overrepresentation in the armed forces? The notion the Serbs were the top dogs needs maybe a little refining? In terms of foreign support including central banks was this true?

The reason NATO’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Croatia matters to the discussion re Kosovo is that it speaks to the plausibility of any reconstruction that assigns Western humanitarianism legitimacy as a genuine motive at all, much less at face value.

14

Peter Erwin 01.09.24 at 12:51 pm

Mike Masinter @ 3:
… the Serbian defeat by the Ottoman Empire and ethnic Kosovars at the battle of Kosovo / Blackbirds in 1389

It makes little or no sense to talk about “ethnic Kosovars” in 1389; at that point, most of the people living in what’s now Kosovo were probably Orthodox Slavs. There were in fact Albanians involved in that battle, but they were on the Serbian side.

(Ironically, when the Ottomans invaded Bulgaria and crushed a Crusader army at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, part of their army was Serbian, since one of the outcomes of the Battle of Kosovo was the surviving Serb nobles becoming vassals of the Ottomans.)

15

EWI 01.10.24 at 1:51 pm

Doug M @ #8

‘I don’t think that religion played a major role in the conflict, other than as a cultural marker for the different groups.’

Same as for NI (and for the rest of Ireland before 1922).

16

EWI 01.10.24 at 1:54 pm

STJ @ #13

‘ The reason NATO’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Croatia matters to the discussion re Kosovo is that it speaks to the plausibility of any reconstruction that assigns Western humanitarianism legitimacy as a genuine motive at all, much less at face value.’

This. The long-running strenuous efforts by NATO (and its fraternal ‘western’ orgs) to keep various Kosovan war criminals out of prison have been instructive.

17

EWI 01.10.24 at 2:02 pm

Scott P @ #12

‘ Something that hasn’t appeared in your analysis yet is “Rwanda.” In 1995, the Rwandan genocide was fresh in people’s minds and there was a broad sense that the world community, and the UN in particular, had failed there and there was a desire not to repeat that failure in Bosnia or, later, in Kosovo.’

I would frame it differently – that Rwanda was an episode that weighed most pertinently on the US (and Clinton in particular).

18

MisterMr 01.10.24 at 3:06 pm

@steven t johnson 13
“Serb populations as I recall were more rural, lower income—leading to overrepresentation in the armed forces? The notion the Serbs were the top dogs needs maybe a little refining?”

My understanding is that Croatia and Slovenia were substantially richer/more industriually developed than Serbia, and this increased after the fall of communism.
On the other hand, Serbia was dominant politically, and due to the high level of redistribuition during communist times was also a net gainer of the system.

When communism fell many Croats and Slovenes wanted more devolution, that would have meant less money going to the poorer Serbia, whereas the Serbian wanted to keep things more centralised, and thus mantain the implicit transfer.

This dispute then became more and more reinforced with ethnicist ideologies, and ultimately was what caused the start of the various wars, though once the war started I assume the early economic probles were forgotten and the various ethnicist ideologies became paramount.

19

Doug Muir 01.10.24 at 3:45 pm

“The reference to the Communist background seems to forget that all the successor regimes were anti-Communist.”

Merry laughter. No.

There were, to varying degrees, official rejections and critiques of Communism among the various Yugoslav successor states. But in almost all cases, the machinery of Communist rule continued to function without a break. So, Tudjman was a reactionary Catholic who had been a dissident under Communism — but once in power, he ran the same bureaucracy, including the secret police (UDBA). The UDBA top leadership was reorganized for loyalty to Tudjman, but otherwise they kept on doing the same stuff, from wiretaps to disinformation, as under Yugoslavia.

This was most obvious in Serbia — Milosevic had been an utterly loyal Party member until 1987, when he realized the untapped power of populist nationalism. Perhaps more to the point, almost all the people around him were former high level Party officials too. You look at people like Radmilo Bogdanovic and Miodrag Jokic — these were guys who had awards for being good loyal Communists. And they transitioned seamlessly to being good Serb nationalists and loyal servants of Milosevic.

1990s Yugoslavia was led by much the same people as late 1980s Yugoslavia, often in the same jobs and doing the same things. The only difference was they sorted themselves along ethnic lines and stopped calling themselves Communists. In some cases, they rebranded themselves as Anti-Communists! And started talking about free markets, or wearing tailored suits, or attending church!

But it was all kayfabe. It was mostly the same people, doing mostly the same stuff.

Doug M.

20

Doug Muir 01.10.24 at 4:34 pm

“To my eyes, it seems that market socialism fostered differential development of some areas, particularly Croatia. Serb populations as I recall were more rural, lower income—leading to overrepresentation in the armed forces? The notion the Serbs were the top dogs needs maybe a little refining? In terms of foreign support including central banks was this true?”

Okay so, that’s kind of backwards. The different regions of Yugoslavia were at vastly different stages of development from the beginning. Croatia and (especially) Slovenia were much richer; they’d been parts of Austria-Hungary, and not the poorest parts either. Serbia was much poorer, Macedonia and Montenegro were poorer still. Royalist Yugoslavia (1918-1941) did nothing to fix this, and the differential experience of WWII — Croatia a loyal Nazi puppet state, Serbia under brutal occupation — made things worse.

After 1945, Communist Yugoslavia made crude and clumsy efforts to correct this, with mixed success. Ironically, they ended up with the worst of both worlds: their efforts weren’t enough to really correct the historic imbalances, but they were enough to arouse intense resentment in Croatia and Slovenia, who saw their tax revenues going to subsidize Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Doug M.

21

Doug Muir 01.10.24 at 4:51 pm

‘”The reason NATO’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Croatia matters to the discussion re Kosovo is that it speaks to the plausibility of any reconstruction that assigns Western humanitarianism legitimacy as a genuine motive at all, much less at face value.”

— You’re missing a couple of pieces here. One, the ethnic Serbs in their breakaway republics had already cleansed all of the non-Serbs out of their territories; over 100,000 people, mostly Croats, had to flee in 1991-2. The ethnic cleansing got pretty brutal, and was accompanied by the usual threats, beatings, killings, and of course wholesale looting and confiscation.

And two, while there was absolutely a wave of refugees out of the breakaway republics, the actual ethnic cleansing was — by Balkan standards — relatively modest. Not a lot of people died, and about half of the Serb population ended up staying there or coming back.

TBC, Croatia’s fairly explicit aim was to reduce the Serb population in these regions to a “manageable” level. Not great! OTOH, the Croats could argue with a straight face that the Serbs attacked first, had ethnically cleansed all non-Serbs, were supported at all times by a stronger and more populous Serbia, and so were a non-negotiable security risk.

Also, I’ll note that 27 years later the Serbs in Croatia are entirely peaceful; they have reserved seats in Parliament, and their main political party is part of the governing coalition and holds a couple of Ministerial seats. One consequence of this is that Croatia has — very, very slowly and gradually — allowed more refugees (or their children) to return, as things settle down and it becomes clear that the Serbs are no longer a security risk. The ethnic numbers will never return to where they were in 1989, but there are a lot more Serbs in Croatia today than there were even 10 years ago.

Doug M.

22

Doug Muir 01.10.24 at 4:58 pm

“This. The long-running strenuous efforts by NATO (and its fraternal ‘western’ orgs) to keep various Kosovan war criminals out of prison have been instructive.”

Former KLA commander Hasim Thaci and several other Albanians are sitting in prison cells in the Hague right now. A bunch of others (Lahi Brahimaj, Bala Haradin, Salih Mustafa…) already got convicted.

Not really seeing “strenuous” efforts to keep those guys out of jail.

Doug M.

23

Peter Erwin 01.10.24 at 8:17 pm

Doug Muir @ 7:

But that’s not because the Croats or Bosniaks were kinder, more ethical, or more diligent about following the rules of war….

When the other two groups had a chance, they committed atrocities with just as much enthusiasm as the Serbs….

I mean, think about it: all three groups were coming out of the same Yugoslav / Communist tradition. The regular military leaders had been in the same army together. All three were under authoritarian leadership, all were motivated by ethno-nationalism. Once the war was under way for a while, all were heavily motivated by fear of ethnic cleansing and murder and rage at atrocities by the other side.

I’m not sure that’s really correct. Partly I’m a little uneasy at how it seems to be gesturing at something like “it doesn’t really matter so much who actually committed the crimes, because they were all equally bad people”. (Normal criminal justice doesn’t really accept a defense of “I’m sure the other guy would have committed the crime if he’d had the chance, so he’s just as guilty as me.”)

Also, I’ve been reading David Bruce MacDonald’s Balkan Holocausts? Serbian and Croatian victim centred propaganda and the war in Yugoslavia, which does an impressive job going over the various forms of competing (and noxious) Serbian and Croatian nationalist rhetoric in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and how this played out in the 1990s. With respect to the Bosnian Muslims, both Croatian and Serb nationalists argued for a mixture of “Oh, the Muslims are really just confused versions of our ethnicity (and so they’re not a real ethnicity of their own, and their lands are really part of our lands)”, “The Muslims are traditional traitors against Catholic or Orthodox Christendom”, and “They’re planning to outbreed us, rape our women, and launch an holy war to re-establish Turkish rule and exterminate us!”

But he argues that the Bosnian Muslims were not, as you suggest, identical to the Croats and Serbs; instead, they were far more committed to the idea of Bosnia-Hercegovina as an ethnically and religious mixed society, and much less motivated by exclusionary/eliminationist nationalism:

Serbian and Croatian nationalists advanced startlingly similar ideas and images in their understanding of the Bosnian Moslems. Both claimed Bosnian Moslems as their ethnic kin, while similarly claiming the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina as historically part of their respective countries. At the same time, negative myths were used to attack the Moslems as an expansionist and dangerous religious group – with different cultural practices and sexual mores. … Both sides portrayed the Moslems as the vanguard of a dangerous Islamic conspiracy, resorting to crude stereotypes and rabid orientalist discourse to assert their false claims. These similarities are best explained by the fact that both Serbs and Croats had similar objectives – to legitimate the force necessary to create autonomous regions of their own, even when this included ethnic cleansing against the Moslem population.

While there were assertions of Moslem nationalism by the Bosnian government, these were certainly mild, and largely in reaction to the atrocities Moslems were forced to endure…. The Moslem population at large, even by the end of the conflict, still favoured a multiconfessional society.

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