In Depth

Why did the Kosovo War start?

The Balkan state remains in turmoil two decades after Nato intervention

It is 20 years since Nato made the decision to intervene in the Kosovo War - a conflict that officially spanned little more than a year but that has had a lasting legacy. 

 The partially recognised Balkan state still feels the impact of the ethnic discrimination that fuelled the war, with 45% of the population today living below the official poverty line, and 17% classed as extremely poor, according to the World Bank.

The war has left other visible scars, too. In January, 55 members of the European Parliament wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticising the UN’s failure to help Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minority communities still experiencing the long-term effects of lead poisoning suffered at UN-run refugee camps in Kosovo.

The letter calls for individual victim compensation, and for action to redress the inequalities in access to healthcare and education facing ethnic minorities since the supposed resolution of the conflict in June 1999.

How did the conflict begin?

Tensions between the ethnic Serbians, the majority of them Orthodox Christian, and their majority-Muslim ethnic Albanian neighbours to the south had simmered for centuries, exacerbated by frequently shifting geographical and political boundaries during the 20th century.

After the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the majority-Albanian border region of Kosovo was absorbed into the Christian Serb-Croat Kingdom of Serbia.

Following the Second World War, Serbia became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, along with the modern-day states of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

Technically a province of Serbia - a majority Christian and ethnically Slavic nation - Kosovo was given autonomous status, allowing its ethnic Albanian Muslim majority, known as Kosovars, a degree of self-rule.

In the 1980s, tensions began to rise between the opposing powers within Serbia, as Kosovars pushed for increased independence while a rising tide of Serbian nationalism led others to call for the restive province to be placed under stricter central control.

In 1989, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic began the process of abolishing Kosovo’s autonomy. Kosovan leader Ibrahim Rugova responded with a policy of nonviolent protest intended to draw international attention to the region’s plight. When this failed to work, Rugova’s more radical opponents gained ground, arguing that peaceful means would not achieve their demands.

In 1996, the guerilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) - viewed as freedom fighters by most Kosovars but considered terrorists by the Serbian state - began open military operations against Serbian authorities. By 1998, counterterror police and Yugoslav armed forces were struggling to reassert control over what had essentially turned into an armed uprising.

The Kosovo War began in earnest in March 1998, after a clash between Serbian police and KLA militants in the Likosane area of Kosovo resulted in the deaths of 16 Kosovar fighters and four Serb policemen.

Why did outside forces intervene?

Following the massacre of a group of 60 Kosovars, including 18 women and ten children, the Contact Group - composed of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia - demanded a withdrawal of Yugoslav and Serbian forces from Kosovo, the return of refugees, and unlimited access for international monitors.

In a famous address, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that “this crisis is not an internal affair of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”.

Milosevic, who had become president of Yugoslavia, agreed to most of the West’s demands but failed to carry them out during an agreed ceasefire brokered by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The KLA regrouped and rearmed during the ceasefire, renewing operations, including attacks on Serbian civilians in Kosovo.

In response to these attacks, the Yugoslav and Serbian forces launched a campaign of what the UN Security Council would later describe as “ethnic cleansing”.

Hundreds of ethnic Albanians were executed without trial by Yugoslav and Serbian forces, who also destroyed thousands of homes and mosques in the region. Around 800,000 Kosovars fled as refugees to Albania, Macedonia and beyond. 

When Yugoslavia refused to allow an international peacekeeping force into the region in March 1999, Nato commanders opted to make a “humanitarian intervention” to restore peace and end the persecution of civilians.

What happened after the Nato intervention?

On 24 March 1999, Nato began air strikes against Serbian military targets, before eventually bombarding the capital, Belgrade, causing serious damage to Serbian state infrastructure.

Milosevic surprised the West when he suddenly accepted their demands to end the conflict on 3 June 1999, after 11 weeks of bombing, and allowed Nato peacekeepers into Kosovo. Experts credit his capitulation to a combination of factors, including Nato’s strategic attacks on Belgrade and fear of potential US ground offensives, according to PBS’s Frontline.

On 9 June 1999, the Yugoslav government and the Nato-led peacekeeping force signed the Kumanovo Agreement, officially bringing the Kosovo War to an end. Under the terms of the agreement, Yugoslavia withdrew its troops from Kosovo, with the peacekeepers taking over.

Following the peace accord, Kosovo came under UN administration and peacekeeping forces were deployed. Most remaining ethnic Serbs left the province, while around 1.5 million internally and externally displaced Kosovars returned home. 

Where does Kosovo stand today?

In February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Several EU powers and the US recognised Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia did not. The EU states of Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain have also refused to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation.

Left with an unresolved status, Nato peacekeepers remain in place to guarantee security.

Kosovo is now 93% ethnic Albanian, but the state is taking steps to develop into a sovereign, multi-ethnic, democratic country.

Nevertheless, tensions still simmer with the Serb minority, and with Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minority groups. According to Human Rights Watch, Kosovo police registered 15 cases of inter-ethnic violence between January and August 2017. 

Within the same eight months, the Association of Journalists of Kosovo registered nine cases of threats and violence against journalists, raising concerns about freedom of the press.

Special courts established to prosecute war crimes during the conflict have also faltered as a result of lack of political support, insufficient staffing and resources, and weak witness support systems. 

Despite these setbacks, Kosovo continues to seek full integration into the international community, including membership of the EU, UN and Nato.  

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