The Kosovo War, 25 Years Later: Things Fall Apart

by Doug Muir on January 15, 2024

Part 3 of a series on the Kosovo War.  Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

So, Adem Jashari. Very short version: he was a guerrilla leader / local strong man.  He lived in a region of Kosovo that was already challenging for the Serb authorities — rural, rugged terrain, and 100% ethnic Albanian. And in March 1998, the Serbs decided to make an example of him. They came into his village with hundreds of troops, surrounded his house, and just shot everyone in sight. They ended up killing about 60 people: Jasheri, almost his entire extended family, some of his guerrilla comrades, and some unlucky souls who just happened to be there.

This was intended as a show of force. It backfired spectacularly. Kosovar Albanian society was socially conservative and extremely family-oriented, so the idea of wiping out an entire extended family was utterly horrific. Also, say what you like about Jasheri, he and his group went out heroically — surrounded, guns blazing, fighting to the last. So Jasheri became an instant martyr, and his death became the incident that flipped Kosovar Albanian society from unhappy and restive to full-blown rebellion. The Serbs didn’t realize it at the time, but they’d tossed a lit match right into a pool of gasoline.

(I’ll pause here to note that officially the government in Belgrade was still “Yugoslavia”. Formally, Yugoslavia wasn’t dissolved until 2003. However, in reality Yugoslavia had disappeared years ago; from 1989 onwards, state authority in Kosovo was entirely Serbian. So, saying “the Serbs” is simply more accurate, even if it’s not formally correct.)

From the death of Adem Jasheri to to the beginning of the NATO bombing was almost exactly one year, from March 1998 to March 1999. And during this year, the Serbs suddenly found themselves confronting a full-blast guerrilla war in Kosovo, firmly supported by the majority ethnic Albanian population. Occasional shots fired at Serb policemen escalated into guerrilla squads coming after police stations with machine guns and mortars. Bomb attacks became commonplace. Symbols of Serbian authority — courthouses, government offices — became targets. Ordinary Serb civilians no longer dared mingle with Albanians, and withdrew into their separate villages and neighborhoods.

The Milosevic regime responded with more oppression and more violence. More Albanians were fired from their jobs. A state of emergency was declared.  The army moved in.  The police were reinforced with the “anti-terrorist unit”, which was already notorious for its brutality. Curfews were announced and aggressively enforced, though only against Albanians. Where previously troublemakers might get a beating or lose their job, now they simply disappeared.

Mass killings and massacres now began to appear: Ljubenic, Gornje Obrinje, the Panda Cafe shooting, the village of Racak. (The 25th anniversary of the Racak massacre was last week.  Outside of Kosovo, it passed unnoticed.) Most of these were on a  relatively small scale compared to Bosnia — five people here, a dozen over there, about forty in Racak — but the trend was steadily towards more and larger scale violence. 

By the spring of 1999, large areas of Kosovo were “no-go” regions, where Serbs could not venture without large parties of armed men.  Rural areas in particular became free-fire zones between the Serb military and the KLA.  Over 100,000 Albanians fled their homes, some into the towns, others over the borders to Albania and Macedonia.

It’s during this period that the rest of the world began to pay attention. Kosovo in 1998 was all too reminiscent of Bosnia several years earlier. It was entirely reasonable to assume that before long, the Serbs would escalate to ethnic cleansing (as they had almost everywhere else — the Serb parastates in Croatia, the Republika Srpska in Bosnia) and to large-scale massacres (as they had in Bosnia). So, the West began to put pressure on Milosevic to back off and to negotiate a deal with the Albanians.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t something Milosevic could really do.  You may recall that he’d originally come to power on a wave of Serb nationalism driven by the “oppression” of Serbs in Kosovo. Serb dominance in Kosovo was his signature achievement. Realistically, there was no long-term solution in Kosovo without relaxing the oppression and admitting the Albanians back into partnership in government. However, since the Albanians outnumbered the Serbs around six to one, it was very hard to see how this could be implemented without effectively conceding control to the Albanians — and this, no Serb government could accept.

Also, while some sort of moderated power-sharing with protections for the Serb minority might have been possible years ago, by 1999 it was probably no longer realistic. The Albanians, enraged by years of plunder and oppression, were in no mood for peaceful coexistence. The Serbs of Kosovo, looking around, could easily guess their fate under a vengeful Albanian government. Neither side could imagine trusting the other.

Furthermore, official Serb policy for years had been that Kosovo under Serb rule was /better/ — more prosperous, more peaceful. Most Albanians were happy, ran the official line. Only a few separatists (who were also gangsters and drug dealers, and possibly jihadis as well) were causing the problems.

Of course this was nonsense and everyone knew it. Nevertheless, after years of demonizing the KLA as bloody-handed murderers, it was almost impossible for the Serbs to recognize and negotiate with them. For a rough analogy, consider how long it took the UK government to reluctantly acknowledge that it needed to sit down and talk to the Provisional IRA. It took nearly 20 years — and the IRA and the British government were much less far apart than the KLA and Milosevic.

In sum, the Milosevic government was extremely reluctant to even acknowledge or talk to the KLA, and also had little ability and less desire to make any sort of meaningful concessions to the ethnic Albanians. So on the international stage, they took a stand of pure sovereignty, insisting that whatever happened in Kosovo was a purely internal “Yugoslav” affair. If the Belgrade government had to take strong measures against gangsters and terrorists, that was no business of any other state.

(The Serbs did still recognize Ibrahim Rugova as an Albanian leader they could talk to. Unfortunately by this point, Rugova was almost powerless.  He was still trying to promote nonviolent resistance, and not many Albanians were listening any more. And even Rugova insisted on a transition to majority rule, meaning Albanian rule, which was unacceptable to Belgrade.)

— I’ll pause here and note that I’m simplifying a very complicated story. There were cross-currents on both sides; the KLA weren’t angels; there was internal Serb resistance against Milosevic; “the West” was hardly a monolith. But this narrative is already thousands of words long, and it isn’t done yet — there’ll be one more post.

* * *

That said, I have to add a very melancholy coda.

Last week in Serbia, an opposition figure was kidnapped — allegedly by the Secret Service — and beaten so brutally that he was partially paralyzed.  His crime?  He went to Kosovo, he visited the graves of Albanians killed in 1998-99 — including the grave of Adem Jasheri — he expressed regret for Serbian crimes, and he laid flowers. 

After the beating, he was arrested.  He’s still under indictment for “inciting ethnic hatred”.

(Why write a series of posts about stuff that happened 25 years ago?  Why indeed.)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Jugoslavija 01.15.24 at 8:13 pm

Hindsight is 20/20 and Adem Jashari was a terrorist. The Yugoslav state reacted as any Country would. Jashari refused to release woman and children and started firing at the JNA army. Multiple opportunities were given for him to surrender, and ongoing negotiations were taking place. You sorely falsify the true events by portraying the Serbs shooting indiscriminately which is patently false.

Regardless, US envoy Holbrook was shot sitting side by side with KLA terrorists far before Jashari was killed. It was already decided that Kosovo would be torn apart from Yugoslavia allowing for US Base Camp Bondsteel to be built.

Times are changing and US interventionism is coming to an end with defeats in Afghanistan, Syria and now Ukraine. US economy is heading towards a crash that will make the depression looks like a tea party.

2

Stephen 01.15.24 at 9:31 pm

Somewhat tangential, but the NI conflict influenced people outside the US more than the OP may appreciate:

“For a rough analogy, consider how long it took the UK government to reluctantly acknowledge that it needed to sit down and talk to the Provisional IRA. It took nearly 20 years”.

The last NI nationalist violence began in 1969. UK Governmental attempts to talk to PIRA/Sinn Fein began in 1972, and continued thereafter. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Oatley#

The problem was rather that PIRA/SF, while they remained confident of American/Soviet support, were unwilling to have meaningful talks with the UK government.

Not so much a rough analogy as a crude and entirely misleading one.

3

Doug M. 01.16.24 at 7:30 am

@1, I’m not a fan of Adem Jasheri. He was a violent thug and there’s evidence that he did in fact compel his immediate family to stay in the compound and die.

But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both did investigations of the Prekaz Massacre and wrote reports on it. Both agreed that the Serbs intended to kill everyone in the compound — including women and children — and did so.

This would be absolutely consistent with the behavior of armed Serb authorities throughout the crisis, btw. So it’s not exactly surprising.

As to Kosovo being “torn away”, the Serbs threw Kosovo away with both hands. You can blame the US and “the West”, but the “the West” didn’t force Serbia to impose a decade of brutal, oppressive rule on the Albanians. Belgrade had a decade to figure out Kosovo; for a decade it consistently doubled down on oppression and force. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind; or, if you like, fuck around and find out.

I’ve lived in Belgrade and I’ve lived in Pristina. The Serbs despise the Albanians, and at the same time are trapped in a fantasy where nothing was their fault and they’re always the victims. The Kosovar Albanian position is simpler: they hate the Serbs, and with good reason.

@2, on one hand you make a fair point; I made a sweeping generalization. On the other hand, it took three years for the UK to allow secret talks, not acknowledged by either side, that led to nothing. Then it took another four years to have secret talks that led to a temporary, short-lived cease-fire. And then it took another decade beyond that to have serious talks that actually led to a settlement. So I think the general point stands: it’s very hard for any government to bring itself to negotiate with violent separatists.

Doug M.

4

Stephen 01.17.24 at 8:52 pm

Doug M.@3

“it’s very hard for any government to bring itself to negotiate with violent separatists.”

President Lincoln would have agreed with you.

Actually, why should any government negotiate with violent separatists if there was any reasonable alternative to violence? I’m not saying there was any such in Kosovo: in Ulster, there certainly was.

5

J-D 01.18.24 at 2:30 am

So I think the general point stands: it’s very hard for any government to bring itself to negotiate with violent separatists.

Indeed; but most of the explanation for the manifestation of violent separatism is the unjustifiable unwillingness of governments to give any consideration to separatism.

6

Stephen 01.18.24 at 11:49 am

J-D @ 5:

“most of the explanation for the manifestation of violent separatism is the unjustifiable unwillingness of governments to give any consideration to separatism”.

Again, this is is a hopeless overgeneralisation. Or are you saying that Lincoln’s unwillingness to agree to Confederate separatism was unreasonable?

7

Muir Douglas 01.18.24 at 4:57 pm

“President Lincoln would have agreed with you.”

Actually… not? Lincoln was willing to offer the South pretty much anything /but/ separatism.

As late as March 1865, he was saying “Union and abolition, but stop the war and you can write your own peace terms otherwise”.

“Actually, why should any government negotiate with violent separatists if there was any reasonable alternative to violence? ”

I can’t make sense of that?

Doug M.

8

Doug Muir 01.18.24 at 5:01 pm

“most of the explanation for the manifestation of violent separatism is the unjustifiable unwillingness of governments to give any consideration to separatism”

Part of what’s maddening about Kosovo is that it was so stupid and unnecessary. There were possible peaceful alternatives right up to 1998.

I do think the Prekaz Massacre (where Jasheri, his family, and everyone standing nearby were killed) was a turning point. After that, peace without some outside intervention was no longer a realistic option. But even as late as early 1999, some kind of peacekeeping force could have been set up, and both Serbs and Albanians could have ended up in a much better place.

Doug M.

9

LFC 01.27.24 at 10:22 pm

Jugoslavija @1 refers to U.S. “defeats” in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine. The Ukrainians have not been defeated; there is something of a stalemate as of now. In Syria, the U.S.’s main effort was directed vs. ISIS, not the Assad regime and its allies. Recall, e.g., the deconfliction arrangements to prevent Russian and U.S. air forces from coming into contact; the U.S. made no effort to stop the Russians from bombing hospitals, villages, towns, etc. in Syria. That leaves Afghanistan, which can be deemed a defeat for the U.S. and its NATO/ISAF allies. So the commenter @1 is correct on only one out of the three instances.

10

Peter T 01.28.24 at 2:27 am

re LFC @9

Correction to the correction. For a significant part of the Syrian Civil War US efforts were directed to the overthrow of the Assad regime. These included, on occasion, direct military action to the benefit of ISIS.

11

J-D 01.28.24 at 5:31 am

Again, this is is a hopeless overgeneralisation.

I wrote ‘most’. I can go into more detail about my position if anybody’s actually interested.

12

Peter T 01.28.24 at 10:54 am

“Union and abolition”. Abolition as a condition is not ‘pretty much anything but separatism”, when the Confederacy’s whole reason for rebellion was slavery.

13

LFC 01.28.24 at 1:26 pm

Peter T @10
I’m aware that the U.S. did give some help to the (iirc) Free Syrian Army and (probably) some other groups that were both anti-Assad and anti-ISIS. And no doubt there was some occasional US mil. action that benefited ISIS (even if not esp. intended to do so). But I think it’s fair to say that overthrowing the Assad regime or backing its opponents wasn’t the main focus of U.S. policy; would you agree with that? I also recall some tension between the CIA on one hand, which was more interested in backing anti-Assad forces, and State Dept on the other. The CIA effort was eventually ended, again as I recall. Can’t do the Wiki dive right now.

14

Peter T 01.29.24 at 3:07 am

LFC

The FSA coalition fairly quickly morphed into ISIS-lite, with a lot of leakage of arms and fighters across – yet continued to get substantial US supplies. Some of the actions around Deir-ez-Zor, where 100,000 civilians were being defended from ISIS, were directly to ISIS benefit, although the defence managed to contain the effects (thankfully) until the regime was able to lift the siege.

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