Eight Years After NATO’s “Humanitarian War”


eventy-eight days of aerial bombing, resulting
in 1,500-5,700 civilian casualties; a decade of international sanctions;
20 percent unemployment; a $12.2 billion debt—eight years after
NATO’s “humanitarian war,” Kosovo remains the key
factor in the long division of Serbia. 

A short distance from the busy shopping district of downtown Belgrade,
the carcasses of the military and police headquarters remain as
NATO’s legacy—gaping holes where offices used to be, vacant,
blown-out windows, crumbling bricks and debris. Residents wait for
buses and chat with friends in front of the once-majestic facades,
each one occupying a whole city block. Although the Serb government
claims to have no money to repair the buildings—still containing
unexploded ordinance—they serve a more abstract, powerful purpose
in their current state. Rather than instill contriteness for their
role in the Yugoslav wars, the buildings remind Serbs of a foreign
war of aggression, the first time a European city has been bombed
since World War II. Though NATO’s Balkan adventures (and their
dubious justification) have been all but forgotten in the West,
Serbs are not so fortunate. 

When the subject of Kosovo comes up in conversation, even the most
even-tempered Serb will have an abrupt change in body language.
Considerations for the Albanian population’s grievances are
cloaked in the rhetoric of wounded pride. No one has recognized
the violence committed against Serbs, they say, certainly not in
The Hague tribunals, not during the NATO “intervention,”
or after a series of ethnically-motivated Albanian attacks in Kosovo
in March 2004. Although an estimated 63 percent of Serbs have never
visited the province—mirroring the number of Kosovars who have
been to Serbia—the prospect of losing the province has less
to do with land and everything to do with vindication. 

Since the March-June 1999 bombings, ostensibly Clinton’s only
recourse to quell a Serbian “policy of ethnic cleansing,”
the demographics of Kosovo have changed. Following a mass exodus
of 120,000 Serbs from the province, the Albanian population now
outnumbers that of the Serbs by 9 to 1. UN Interim Mission in Kosovo
(UNMIK) troops, in tandem with the NATO police force KFOR, maintain
a virtual occupation. Serbia and its Kosovo statelet operate as
two separate entities—with separate tax systems and jurisdiction
over schools, hospitals, and the like. Belgrade rules from an arm’s-length.
Kosovo’s two million inhabitants had no chance to vote in last
October’s referendum concerning the new constitution of Serbia,
which defines Kosovo in the preamble as an “integral part”
of Serbia with “fundamental autonomy.” The Western press
slammed the document for being “undemocratic,” but not
the exclusion of 20 percent of the country’s eligible voters. 

After a period of diplomatic dormancy, the breakaway province is
back in the headlines, following the long-awaited status report
by UN Special Envoy Maarti Ahtisaari. The proposal, announced in
early February, never mentions the word “independence.”
But by granting Kosovo the right to “negotiate and conclude
international agreements,” to seek membership in the UN and
the World Trade Organization, to have a national flag that “reflect[s]
the multi-ethnic character of Kosovo” and its own holidays—even
its own army—statehood is basically implied. The proposal would
shift ultimate authority from NATO to an International Civilian
Representative (representing Brussels), “appointed by an International
Steering Group comprised of key international stakeholders”
during an undetermined length of transition.

The Ahtisaari plan mirrors the 1995 Dayton Accords, proposing an
ethnically-divided “two-state solution,” which satisfies
the international community, but not the people of the region. Skirting
the issue of statehood, while paying lip service to Serbian cultural
and religious rights, the proposal is regarded by all parties as
the first step towards Kosovo’s independence. Though the official
line is that they will respect Serbian sovereignty, Western politicos
don’t deny that eventual statehood is desireable, even inevitable.

The Kosovar Albanians have indicated as much in street demonstrations
where two Albanians were killed and several wounded by UN police
on February 10, as well as in statements made to the


by Ylber Hasa, a member of Kosovo’s negotiating team
in Vienna: “[The] package includes serious compromises in favor
of the Serbs…so if anybody tries to buy time, I don’t think
anyone will win. We’ll just lose the possibility of a political
solution,” the paper reported on February 20. “If you
want to see a new Balkan war, that is the perfect scenario.” 

Not surprisingly, the Serbian government is treating the negotiation
process with caustic contempt. During talks in Vienna in February,
Serb and Albanian leadership hit a predictable stalemate. Given
the low odds of an amicable compromise, the future of the province,
based on the Ahtisaari proposal, will be decided by the UN Security
Council. Although a Russian veto is seen as a possible option to
counteract Western support for the plan, Serbs are not hedging their
bets on an outside savior. It’s as if Kosovo, a historic battleground
in Serbia’s age-old struggle against the Turks, is already
lost. Negotiating a partition state, gaining a better deal for the
remaining Kosovar Serbs, and a fair financial settlement is seen
by some Serb politicians as the only way to get out of the breakup
with dignity. 

While the U.S. tried to bomb Serbia into submission, the European
approach is more coy. Seduced by promises of improved trade relations,
thousands of jobs and billions of euros of economic development,
Eurocrats are hoping the Serbs won’t notice as they slip a
blindfold over Kosovo. Serbia’s pre-accession negotiations
have stagnated in recent months over what Brussels considers unwillingness
to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal: namely, to
extradite Ratko Mladic, the commanding general of the Bosnian Serb
Army during the Srebrenica massacre. But this quest for “justice”
seems to have taken a back seat to Serbian cooperation regarding
Kosovo. Although the EU’s official line is that Mladic is still
a condition for resuming talks, the “Kosovo question”
has taken center stage. 

The European Union’s Kosovo strategy is tied into Serbia’s
entry into the fold, the only way it can guarantee control over
the mercurial Balkan country. Not to be outdone by the U.S., the
EU is using a “kinder, gentler” ruse to wrest control
of Kosovo. The province has its own process, separate from that
of Serbia, for joining the Union. Under the Ahtisaari plan, EU troops
will control the province, only their second deployment after Bosnia.
Although EU officials insist that the status of Kosovo has nothing
to do with renewing accession negotiations with Serbia, it is more
or less understood to be a fair exchange: give up Kosovo and we’ll
recognize you as an equal partner in Europe, eventually. 

U.S. and EU talking heads publicly express support for each other’s
diplomatic efforts, Kosovo is at the center of a power struggle over
who will eventually control the region: NATO or the EU? It may be
two sides of the same tarnished coin, but to Vladimir Unkovski-Korica,
a Serbian law and history specialist, the EU’s “50-year
credibility is at stake. They’re telling us, ‘the solution
for Kosovo is a European solution,’” comments Unkovski-Korica.
“The only carrot they can offer Serbian people is eventual entry
into the EU.” 

However, Maja Bobic, deputy secretary of the European Movement in
Serbia, an NGO dedicated to promoting EU integration, denies that
the issues of Kosovo and the EU are connected. She says the Serbian
government must do more to fulfill its obligations, not just to
the EU, but to the Serbian people. “All the (EU-required) reforms
we need to conduct are necessary anyway. It’s better to do
this with the nice goal of joining the EU family,” says Bobic.
It’s more productive to concentrate on the EU negotiations,
she says, rather than view everything through the prism of Kosovo’s
status. “Serbia doesn’t have very many choices now. It
has to show a willingness to participate and be involved,”
says Bobic. “There’s narrow space for negotiation.”
To paraphrase a U.S. despot, it’s a “you’re either
with us or without us” situation. 

After the accession of fellow Balkan states Romania and Bulgaria
to the EU this year, the noose is tightening around the Balkan peninsula.
But even without tying the knot, the Balkan states will hang. Before
gaining Union status, imposed neo-liberal trade reforms have opened
up new markets in the former Eastern bloc, allowing companies to
tap Eastern Europe’s most plentiful resource: a cheap yet eager
and educated labor pool. Needless to say, freedom of movement is
much more limited for citizens of these countries. 

Widely seen as a “ghetto within the Balkan ghetto,” Serbians
cannot travel abroad—even to neighboring EU countries—without
a visa, a costly and time-consuming process. The new, improved Serbian
constitution promises the lofty goals of gender equality, recognition
of human rights, and a “European” standard of living,
but the country is plagued by gender-based violence, unequal representation
of women and minorities in government, and an average monthly salary
of $300—less in the rural regions. 

Bobic admits that privatization and rising unemployment—even
Serbia’s first reported case of poverty-related starvation—are
nasty side effects of the transition to capitalism. “In a globalized
world companies are coming and taking over anyway. It will happen
whether we’re in the EU or not,” Bobic says. 


rom a historical point of
view, the current “Kosovo crisis” is a continuation of
resistance to foreign invasion. Smack in the middle of the crossroads
between rival empires, Serbia has hosted a never-ending series of
power struggles, from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Bulgarians
and Mongols to the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans. The centuries
of brutal occupation endured by the Serbs lit a spark of rage that
ignited both World Wars and played out viciously during its brief
glory as the dominant state in Tito’s Yugoslavia. 

These days “Yugo-nostalgic” Serbians claim that the country’s
tenuous existence as a “third way” between Stalinism and
McCarthyism during the Cold War was the only time the state knew
independence. But this was only in relative terms. Unkovski-Korica
is writing his PhD thesis on what he describes as “the hoax
of a self-sufficiency” during Tito’s 30-year reign. Just
as is common practice today, he says, the one-party communist government
relied on nationalism—whether the threat lay inside or outside
of the border—as a cheap tool to remain in power. 

“At first, nationalism was a temporary attempt to exit the
crisis imposed by the world market,” posits Unkovski-Korica.
“One can argue that Yugoslavia could have done better, but
it’s a system based on competition. There are winners and losers
in the world market and, let’s face it, we lost.” 

right-wing Radical Party’s much-publicized (and criticized) majority
gain in January’s elections was based on a similar scare tactic
wherein the “Other,” in this case, was the international
community and Serbian “traitors” who would sell out Serbia
via Kosovo. But closer examination of the Radical Party’s “All
Serbia, One Party” platform shows that they were just as willing
to exploit the population for the sake of joining the EU. 

U.S. foreign policy operates on the same principle of manipulation.
With local populations occupied by ethnic tensions, it’s easier
to invade, even to be perceived as the “good guys.” It’s
a model that has resulted in disaster in Iraq, but has worked in
most of the Balkans. 

Unkovski-Korica notes the parallel roles Kosovo and Israel play
in areas of geo-strategic interest. “The [Americans] don’t
want it to be entirely independent or self-sufficient, but in a
general state of dependency. I don’t think they want to solve
the issue. If they gave Kosovo away, they wouldn’t be able
to keep tensions up in the region.” 

As pipelines from the Caspian Sea crisscross the Balkans on their
way to lucrative European and U.S. markets, controlling even small
areas can mean big bucks for the oil dons. The Burgas-Vlore project,
which will shuttle Caspian oil from Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast
through Macedonia to Albania’s Adriatic sea port, is one of
several pipelines slated for construction through the region in
the next few years. There’s fierce competition for the U.S.-registered
Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil (AMBO) consortium—which has
direct ties to Halliburton—to start digging before Russia’s
Gazprom or France’s Total can do so. As Centre for Global Research
founder Michel Chossudovky commented in the


18, 2001), the AMBO deal is sweetened by the inclusion of a transportation
and communications corridor linking the underdeveloped East with
the rest of Europe. From all sides, political rhetoric concerning
human rights and economic development lies under a slick veneer
of oil greed. 

The modus operandi of destabalization and obfuscation has served
both European and U.S. interests, making the impoverished region
ripe for foreign corporate buy-outs and the NGO industry. Since
the NATO takeover in June 1999, Western NGOs—most notably,
USAID—have force-fed Kosovo into virtual dependency. In an
area with 50 percent unemployment and an annual per capita income
of $1,300, foreign aid is the primary basis for the economy. In
Ahtisaari’s vision Kosovo would be a weak, decentralized state
owned by foreign corporations and run by international “peacekeepers”—a
replication of present-day Bosnia.  

Kosovo is already well on its way. Under the auspices of the UN-controlled
Kosovo Trust Agency (Serbia has its own privatization board), the
province’s coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal
service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste
management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across
the Balkans, “publicly-owned enterprises” are auctioned
for a fraction of their value on the private market with little
or no compensation for taxpayers. 

Interpress News Service (February 20) reports that the sale of 300
public firms since 2003 has garnered the impoverished province only
$344.5 million. According to the Serbian daily


it was a “mono-ethnic privatization” based on undervalued
prices favoring ethnic Albanians. Anticipating the worst, Serbia
is seeking to regain $30 billion in “lost investment”
should Kosovo gain statehood, IPS reports. The Ahtisaari proposal
accounts for a mere $250 million worth of moveable property to return
to Belgrade’s control. 

In Serbia dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After
U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s
ouster in 2000, the United States has emerged as the largest single
source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy
in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of “committed
investments” represented in no small part by the $580 million
privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250
million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola
bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million.
The list goes on. 


ord on the streets of Belgrade
is that joining the EU is inevitable—if not entirely enviable.
Polls conducted by the European Movement in Serbia and Freedom House
show that around 70 percent of Serbians are in favor of joining
the EU, but as Ratibor Trivuvac, organizer of the University of
Belgrade’s Education Union, points out, the main attraction
is to leave Serbia, not for the benefits it will bring the country.
When asked specific questions concerning workers’ rights to
equal pay or even to make homemade rakija (plum brandy), he said
that the majority showed a preference for more socialist policies. 

“The government wants to be part of the EU, but they’re
not pro-West. The young people want the EU, but they’re not
into the free market,” says Trivuvac. “It’s a false
dichotomy, a reaction against nationalism. Ideals are being replaced
with free market ideas, pushed by the media and repeated by people
who are confused.” 

The political assumption is that Serbians want to join the EU, but
Bobic admits that even the main stakeholders—in Parliament,
the business world, and the media—don’t fully understand
the implications. Euroskepticism runs high among a world-weary older
generation; Serbian youth are inclined towards a mixture of apathy
and cynicism. 

Yet for the 80 percent of young Serbians who have never left the
country, the EU represents a chance to work for a living wage and
to escape what’s come to be seen as the Serbian destiny of
occupation and isolation. As depicted in Emir Kosturica’s film


, the Serbian characters prefer to live in a manufactured
subterranean environment making weapons for a fictional war, rather
than be exposed to a cruel and misunderstanding outside world. But
it hasn’t always been this way. “This used to be a wonderful
country,” Mirica Popovitch tells me, almost beseechingly, as
she walks her dogs through the Bohemian section of Belgrade. “Now,
I don’t know where it’s going. We don’t have many
visitors these days, not even from places that used to be part of
this country.” 

During Tito’s dictatorship, Yugoslavians were the only members
of the communist bloc with the ability to move freely. Popovitch,
a swim instructor, remembers traveling to Rome and Greece as a teenager
with her parents. Now, even to participate in international events,
Popovitch must go through the visa ordeal or wait for the competitions
to take place in Serbia. 

It’s an irony of globalization when young people are faced
with an isolation their parents barely noticed under communism.
“What’s the best thing if we join the EU?” asks Sanja,
a teenager checking her cellphone outside a McDonald’s in downtown
Belgrade. She’s the model of capitalist perfection. “It
will be easier to get to other countries. I want to work somewhere
else after my studies, there’s no point here,” she says
in flawless English. “It’s not like it will happen tomorrow.
But it would be good if more bands can come.” 

Others have a more skeptical, yet just as apathetic view. Vladimir
Miloicic is a history student at the University of Belgrade, focusing
on Serbian history in the 20th century. Incidentally, he feels the
same way about the European Union as he does about the International
Criminal Tribunal. “It’s out of my power to influence
so I don’t care about it. No one my age is truly interested—it’s
a non-topic,” he says. “No one ever managed to unite Europe.
The big question is, will the EU survive? I don’t see why we
need to rush into it. But I don’t think the politicians will
let us decide. Sooner or later, we will be in the EU.” 

Stepping outside her NGOspokesperson role for a moment, Bobic tells
of a running joke in Serbia: when the entire Balkans have joined
the EU, it will be dissolved. As if somehow “Balkanization”
is a contagious disease, not the result of external forces. Yet,
however flawed, the process of EU integration can be seen as a barometer
of cooperation between the divided Yugoslav states and their neighbors. 

NGOs use trade agreements such as CEFTA (between Central European
and Balkan countries) to promote regional dialogue, anti-EU organizers
across the continent believe that a common struggle for sovereign
rights will unite Europeans. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s
not a nationalist agenda, but an expectation of empowerment shared
by primarily working-class people across the Union. “If the EU
is a rallying point, it’s not the right one,” says UnkovskiKorica.
“As an alternative to the U.S., it’s like saying, ‘Another
form of imperialism is possible.’ But fundamentally, it’s
the same. I don’t want to fight for a better EU; I want to fight
for a better Europe.” 

Power is based on control, whether communist, socialist, or capitalist,
Unkovski-Korica says. But if Tito’s “third way” was
a myth, he and Trivuvac see the opportunities opening up for another
“third way,” embodied in a pan-Balkan alliance spanning
from the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece,
and Romania. Unification based on the specific needs of the post-communist
region, claims Trivuvac, will bring people results that have eluded
them in the last 17 years of transition to capitalism.  

Trivuvac’s enthusiasm would sound like any other anarcho-syndicalist
“pipedream” if it were not for his recent success organizing
a six-day sit-in of the philosophy faculty at the University of
Belgrade, after which the Administration accepted student demands
to halve university tuition, with continuing decreases. On their
own volition, Trivuvac says, students who had never heard of anarchist
principles adopted an “extremely radical” manifesto, collectively
composed in a student assembly. Although Triviuvac complains that
Serbians are far behind their Greek counterparts in resisting university
privatization, he says the experience woke many up from their apathy
or aversion to political involvement—an example he believes
could spread to other sectors of society. 

Given the tradition of worker-oriented policies in the former Yugoslavia,
the level of union organizing is fairly low, Trivuvac says. Whether
due to corruption, indifference, or simply exhaustion, strikes haven’t
been successful in Serbia for some time. But signs of a sea change
are beginning to make waves in Serbian society. Taking a cue from
the worker take backs in Argentina, the Jagodina beer factory has
been operated by workers since last year, unbeknownst to most beer
drinkers. Jugoremedija, a pharmaceutical plant that worker shareholders
rescued from privatization in 2003, is a further example of successful
resistance to factory closures and corporate takeovers. 

“The problem is really between markets and democracy,”
says Trivuvac. “We as Serbs really have to start to develop
alternatives across the region. If we can show that fighting each
other is not solving the issue, but about fighting the common enemy.” 

The big “if” is whether or not this generation of Serbs
will recognize how the patterns of nationalism, corruption, and
warfare have allowed each successive empire to divide and conquer
the region. Kosovo, NATO, and the European Union are modern-day
examples of a continuing foreign occupation, which many Serbs believe
they are powerless to resist. In a country rocked by violence and
poverty, middle-class idealism is quite strong. But the desire for
self-determination is an integral part of the capitalist-democracy
daydream. By forming alliances with historic rivals— Albanians,
Bulgarians, Greeks and Romanians—the occupiers can be beaten
at their own game. Not only Serbia, but the entire region, will
finally come into its own.


Hugus is an activist and a freelance writer.