The Independence of Kosovo

Russia has repeatedly made it very clear that it will not recognize nor accept an independent Kosovo but rather uphold Serbia’s historic claim to the province.

Recall how World War I broke out after a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian archduke in 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, Russia came to the defense of its ally. The alliance system kicked in; Germany and the Ottoman Empire joined the Austro-Hungarian, while France and Britain joined Russia. That system is long gone, but the relationship between Russia and Serbia, deeply rooted in ethnic and religious ties, should not be taken lightly.

Recall how Bill Clinton’s big war was “Operation Allied Force,” conducted by a somewhat reluctant NATO at U.S. insistence in 1999. Building upon NATO’s “Operation Deliberate Force” targeting Serbian fighters in Bosnia four years earlier, it resulted in the aerial bombing of a European capital (Belgrade) for the first time since 1945. Human Rights Watch concluded in 2000 that between 488 and 527 Yugoslav civilians were killed as a result of the bombing, which forced Belgrade to obey Washington and withdraw its troops from the heart of the Serbian homeland.

That heart, of course, is Kosovo. Since the seventh century, when the Serbs pressing eastward from Dalmatia established themselves in the old Roman province of Upper Moesia, Kosovo has been the spiritual core of the Serbian nation. The Serbs have shared it with others, notably Albanians, and the Serbian gene-pool is itself complex and changing over time. But Serbian identity was shaped by the Battle of Kosovo Polje (The Field of Blackbirds) against the Ottoman Turks in 1389, in which both Serbian King Lazar and the Ottoman sultan Murad were killed. Modern historians differ about whether this was a draw or heroic defeat of the Serbs; nationalist mythology depicts it as the latter.

During over four centuries of Muslim Turkish rule the Serbs preserved their Orthodox religious identity, maintaining the Gracanica Monastery and at least half a dozen other religious centers which have survived from the fourteenth century to the present day—threatened though they have been in recent years by desecration, vandalization and destruction.

On Sept. 13, 1999, the Church of Saints Cosma and Damian, built in 1327, was obliterated by a bomb blast. The initials of the Kosovo Liberation Army were painted at the site. By that time some 20 Serbian religious sites had been blown up, including the Dormition of Mother of God parish church, built in 1315. Another 40 others had been attacked or looted. All of this took place after Serbia’s capitulation to Washington in June 1999, and the arrival of the NATO-led “peacekeeping force” (Kosovo Force; KFOR) presiding over NATO’s new protectorate. KFOR, currently 16,000 strong in a province of two million, has provided some protection for Serbian holy sites; in June 1999 French troops prevented the rape and murder of nuns and a priest at Devic Monastery after the fifteenth century structure had been desecrated and looted by KLA militants. But NATO basically empowered and legitimated forces that proceeded to destroy or desecrate over 70 churches or monasteries by October 1999 (21 in the U.S. zone of responsibility). Meanwhile more than 200,000 Serbs fled the province. During the summer of 1999, 40,000 Serbs fled Pristina.

The destruction continued; 35 sites were attacked in 2004. Last March Decani Monastery (founded in 1327) came under mortar attack. Such incidents are seen by Serbs as not only as assaults on their culture and history but efforts to erase that history.

Some Albanians claim that they were the original inhabitants of Kosovo, a land four-fifths the size of Connecticut. They claim descent from the ancient Illyrians who inhabited the area from about the fourteenth century BCE. It appears as likely they migrated from what is now Albania during the Ottoman period, coming to outnumber the Serbs. One hundred years ago, however, migration into the region brought the Serb population up to the level of the ethnic Albanian: 50/50. Thereafter the greater Albanian birthrate reduced the Serb population to a mere 10% of the total. Following the ethnic cleansing of the last decade, the figure’s down to maybe 4%.

Kosovo was the poorest region in Tito’s Yugoslavia, but it enjoyed the status of an autonomous province and was treated as a de facto republic in accordance with Tito’s philosophy that “Weak Serbia equals strong Yugoslavia.” Following Tito’s death in 1980, there were large demonstrations demanding full republic status. When ethnic Serbs were targeted, the little-known politician Slobodan Milosevic postured as defender of Kosovo’s Serbs. As president of Serbia, he (foolishly) withdrew Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, provoking Albanian protests and the formation of the KLA in 1995. The KLA targeted police, army and civil officials, taking control of about one-quarter of the province.

Belgrade hesitated for several years before taking firm action against the KLA. After the rebels failed to seize the town of Orahovac in the summer of 1998, it launched an offensive, regaining control of almost all the province. At this point Washington became actively involved. President Clinton had sent a special envoy, Robert Gelbard, to the region in February 1998. At that time he stated that the KLA was, “without any questions, a terrorist group” in Washington’s view. Indeed the State Department had concluded it was a heroin-financed terrorist group with some ties to al-Qaeda (Washington Times, May 4, 1999). A few months later, however, Gelbard was meeting with KLA leaders; the organization was soon removed from Washington’s terror list. Later that year another U.S. special envoy to Kosovo, Richard Holbrooke, was photographed with KLA leaders, further encouraging their violent secessionist movement.

Yugoslavia (“land of the southern Slavs) had been a peaceful, nonaligned nation with cordial relations with both the Soviet bloc and the West for decades. But from 1991 the federation began to fall apart. First Slovenia declared independence. The U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, was unhappy with the move thinking (correctly) that it would lead to regional destabilization. But reunited, powerful Germany encouraged the breakup. Croatia and Macedonia followed suite, then Bosnia-Herzegovina descended into civil war. Washington recognized Bosnian independence in 1994. Accusing Serbian forces of atrocities, NATO bombed Bosnia in August and September 1995, paving the way for the Dayton Agreement in November and the deployment of NATO forces in Bosnia. Now Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, accustomed to making demands and being obeyed, demanded that Milosevic cease his offensive against the KLA. He did.

Following a ceasefire in October 1998, by agreement with Milosevic, peace monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) arrived in Kosovo. But the ceasefire broke down with a few months. Washington then demanded that Milosevic withdraw his troops from Kosovo. That is to say, it demanded that a sovereign state remove its troops from one of its provinces where a group the U.S. had earlier termed “terrorist” was waging a war for secession.

Washington summoned the “Contact Group” (including the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia) as well as Belgrade and Albanian secessionist representatives to Rambouillet, France in February and March 1999. The “Rambouillet Accords” were signed by all parties—except forYugoslavia and Russia. The agreement specified that Kosovo would obtain autonomy but remain part of Serbia. That was the one concession to Belgrade, and an initial cause for the KLA representatives to balk. But the separatists were won over, no doubt realizing that they would gain independence in time. (They just declared that, with Washington’s approval, February 17.)

The Accords dictated that Belgrade accept a NATO force with liberty to act throughout the territory of Yugoslavia. It was a demand no sovereign state could accept. A top French official accused the U.S. of behaving like a hyper-puissance (“hyper-power”); NATO itself was divided and disturbed by U.S. demands. (The Spaniards, Italians and Greeks in particular were troubled about the NATO bombing of Belgrade.) Washington was calling for an organization founded to defend western Europe from Soviet attack to intervene in a friendly, non-threatening country, to force it to accept further dismemberment. From March 24 to June 10 NATO air forces, including the German Luftwaffe deployed for the first time since 1945, bombed Yugoslavia.

I didn’t think at the time that Clinton’s actions resulted from some geo-strategic designs on Kosovo. (There’s not that much there, other than lots of coal.) But had he done nothing, and the violence continued, he would have been criticized for failing to use American power (“to prevent genocide”) and left the door open for other interested parties (Germany) to take unilateral action. He had to rally NATO to send a message to the world that the U.S. remained the leader and policeman of the western camp. Ongoing chaos in the Balkans would have suggested that the U.S. was sloughing off the responsibilities of power. Strong action would signal allies, as well as the Russian Federation, that the U.S. facing an increasingly united and competitive Europe could continue to deploy NATO in pursuit of its own aims. (Similarly the use of NATO in Afghanistan after 9-11 has served to bind the alliance around a U.S.-dictated agenda, while the public in member states increasingly questions the value and logic of the mission.)

We associate the Bush administration and its neocons with the systematic dissemination of disinformation designed to justify war. But the Clinton administration used the same tactic as it prepared to bomb Yugoslavia. There were horror stories about “ethnic cleansing,” and Yugoslav government forces’ attacks on innocent Kosovar Albanians. Defense Secretary William Cohen, echoed Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and former Sen. Bob Dole accused Belgrade of “genocide.” “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… They may have been murdered,” warned Cohen. “There are indications genocide is unfolding in Kosovo,” declared State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin.

But German reports told a different story. Four German court opinions from October 1998 to March 1999; two Foreign Office intelligence reports in January 1999; and one report from the Foreign Office to the Administrative Court in Mainz in March 1999 all challenged such accusations. According to the Opinion of the Upper Administrative Court at Munster (March 11, 1999), “Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have neither been nor are now exposed to regional or countrywide group persecution in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”

After the glorious victory of NATO over Yugoslavia, it was discovered that as few as 2,108 people were actually killed in the province during 1998-9 before the bombardment began. Quite likely more Serbs have been killed by Albanians than vice versa since 1998. The “genocide” charge (reminiscent of the rhetoric of those urging U.S. intervention in Darfur) had been exaggerated, if not contrived; the depiction of Milosevic as a “new Hitler” (reminiscent of the hysterical characterization of Saddam Hussein) equally overblown.
Washington got what it wanted, almost. It destroyed the Yugoslav state, hauled

Milosevic to a kangaroo court at the Hague (where after enhancing his reputation among Serbs by a spirited defense, he died of a heart attack), and planted NATO in what had once been proudly nonaligned European territory. But in the closing days of NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in June 1999 Russia dispatched troops based in Bosnia to Kosovo’s capital of Pristina, where they took control of the airport. It was a clear statement that Russia would not concede total control of the former Yugoslavia to NATO. It shocked Madeleine Albright, and disturbed Gen. Wesley Clark enough to order an airborne assault on the Russians. But the British general heading the NATO force at the time, Michael Jackson, told Clark: “Sir, I’m not starting World War Three for you.”

Thus the Russians were included in the post-bombing “peace-keeping” mission in Kosovo and have since been regarded as the protectors of the remaining Serbs in the Serbian province. Their opposition to Kosovo’s independence might be perceived as a slight irritation in Washington among those eager to establish a new client-state and drag it into NATO. But this move comes on the heels of U.S. meddling in Georgia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, the relentless eastward expansion of NATO, and moves to locate missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russian government is in effect saying: “Look, you intervene at will in Latin America, forming and toppling governments as you will, arguing it’s necessary for your ‘national security.’ We who have been invaded many times from the west have legitimate reasons to support our friends in the Balkans, including the Serbs whom you’ve maligned and mistreated disgracefully. Do you really think you can just wrench away a province from a Slavic country friendly to us, through brutal military force, and expect us to take it lying down?”
I have the feeling that Washington blew it here—and that there will be some blowback. It is all very nice for a people comprising 90% of the inhabitants of a land to form their own state after decades of aspiration and (under Milosevic) undeniable national oppression. But look at this video on youtube: Watch the young Albanian try to rip down the cross from a burning Serbian church in March 2004. Look at this one of the gutted interior of the Manastir Devic monastery, built up in 1434 and torched in March 2004. Or this, showing an ancient Serbian cemetery desecrated in April 2005.

One can find equally ugly images of Serbian actions no doubt, and both Kosovar-Albanian nationalism and Serbian nationalism retain the potential for further destruction. But the leadership in Pristina hoisted into power by U.S. action looks especially unsavory and apt to produce disaster.

The leadership of the newly declared nation of Kosovo is rooted in the KLA; Hashim Thaçi, the new Prime Minister, was a member of its inner circle. The Government of Serbia alleges that he met with Osama bin Laden in Tirana in 1995.

He has been accused of connections with the Albanian, Czech and Macedonian mafia, and of membership in the Drenica Group, controlling 10-15% per cent of criminal activities in Kosovo including arms smuggling, car theft, prostitution and illegal trafficking in oil and cigarettes.

Yugoslav courts in 1997 and 1998 found him guilty of terrorism charges, including attacks on Serbian policemen, but he was a Kosovar Albanian representative at the Rambouillet talks. With the disbanding of the KLA in 1999 he became head of largest party in Kosovo, the Democratic Party. Meanwhile former KLA members have become involved in ethnic Albanian insurgencies elsewhere in the Presevo Valley in Serbia and in Macedonia. (The Albanian population in Macedonia is now about 25% of the total.) An “Albanian National Liberation Army of Macedonia” waged war on Macedonian security forces until the Ohrid Agreement was signed in August 2001, meeting some of its demands. Another armed group headed by Avdil Jakupi (“Commander Cakalla”) was formed in 2003, while another, led by Agim Krasniqi, held a village outside Skopje for six months in 2004.

Those dreaming of a “Greater Albania” (optimally to include Albania, Kosovo and other parts of Serbia, and parts of Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece), taking heart at Kosovar independence, may redouble their efforts throughout the region. There are potential religious dimensions to Albanian nationalism; while the Albanians (like Bosnians) are overwhelmingly secular Muslims, the product of generations of atheistic education in Albania and Yugoslavia, they are indeed Muslims. So there are now, aside from Turkey, two Muslim European countries: Albania and Kosovo. (Bosnia-Hezegovina’s Muslim population is under 50%). The Saudis, Kuwaitis and others have been pouring money into mosque construction in Albania and Kosovo, encouraging fundamentalist forms of Islam. The Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo has repaired 190 damaged mosques in Kosovo and the Saudis have built mosques there. (One, for a time, was actually named the Bin Laden Mosque.)

Whether intended to do so or not, these efforts to spread Salafi-style Islam dovetail with al-Qaeda’s efforts to exploit instability in the Balkans. The organization was active in Bosnia during the war in the early ’90s, and surely endorses the idea of “Greater Albania” and a jihad to realize it. What better vehicle for the propagation of its ideology than an ethnic-based web of insurgencies coordinated from Kosovo?

That’s one blowback possibility traceable to NATO’s 1999 war and events in Kosovo in its aftermath. Another is the emboldening of the Albanian regime in Tirana. Serbia has indicated that it will now beef up security in the Serb-majority areas of what it continues to consider its province. Some might see this as an effort to divide Kosovo. Albanian Foreign Minister Besnik Mustafaj declared in March 2006, “If Kosovo is divided, we can no longer guarantee its borders with Albania, or the border of the Albanian part of Macedonia.” In other words, Albania might take military action to do some regional re-dividing itself, backed up, perhaps, by Turkey.

Meanwhile Vladimir Putin, shrewd and careful, considers how to use this blow to pan-Slavic pride to revive Russian influence in the Balkans. His Foreign Ministry declares that Kosovo’s claim to independence threatens “the foundations of a world order that has developed over decades.” That is true of course. Even before Bush and his neocons came to power Washington was playing with those foundations, gleefully undermining them, flushed with post-Cold War triumphantalism. Time and again there has been blowback.

NATO, as military historian Andrew J. Bacevich has recently written, is in its twilight. Secretary of Defense Gates complains about European lack of zeal in pursuing the enemy in Afghanistan. This of course reflects European public opinion that now sees Afghanistan as a fruitless counterinsurgency mission imposed on Europe by Washington on the heels of other questionable missions resulting from U.S. policy.

The U.S., deeply bogged down in Southwest Asia, has left the Europeans holding the ball in Bosnia; Germany contributes 800 of the 3000 European Union Force (EUFOR) peacekeeping troops. The 16,000-strong KFOR in Kosovo includes 2,567 Italians, 2,374 Germans and 2,269 French troops (but only 1,456 U.S.) Having invaded Iraq, the U.S. urged NATO countries to send troops, and Britain continues to oblige with some 4,500. Others with sizeable commitments (such as Spain, with 1,300; the Netherlands, with 1345; and Italy, with 3,300), have all withdrawn from Iraq.

In Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) consists of 28,600 troops trying to stabilize a country the size of Texas with a population of 30 million. The U.S. supplies 15,000 troops; the UK, 7,800; Germany, 3,210; Italy, 2,880; Canada, 2,500; the Netherlands, 1,650; France, 1,515; Poland, 1,100. ISAF military fatalities have increased every year since 2003 (57) to 2007 (232) as the Taliban has revived.

Public opinion in Canada and Germany has turned decisively against the Afghan deployments. Last year a poll conducted by the German magazine Focus found that 63% of Germans believe the current deployment in northern Afghanistan does not serve German interests and 84 percent of Germans oppose sending combat troops to the south as requested by the U.S. In a Canadian poll last May, 55% of respondents favored a pullout from Afghanistan, while 67% agreed that the presence of Canadian troops there makes Canada more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

U.S. allies weary of efforts to drag them into U.S. wars. U.S. imperialism confronts something of a crisis as its partners rethink where their real interests lie. The GDP of the EU now exceeds the U.S. figure. The euro is much stronger than the dollar. People everywhere hate the U.S. government, which they associate with war-promoting lies and general savagery. Bush is out of political capital, domestically and internationally, as Kosovo announces its independence, made possible by U.S. lies and bloody intervention, “threatening,” as the Russians put it, “the foundations of a world order.”

Everything dies eventually. Hitler’s “New Order in Europe,” Japan’s “New Order in East Asia,” George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” proclaimed as he launched the first Gulf War in 1990. The present world order is profoundly unfair and deserves to be threatened, by the right people, with a better alternative. But the assault on Yugoslavia in 1999 brought nothing positive; rather, more intolerance and suffering, more ethnic cleansing. A new regime emerges, applauded by its American sponsors and most of the EU (but rejected by Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Bulgaria). It is wrapped in smoke, in a legacy of smoldering churches. Smells like the cremation of a world order.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:






Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: