During the cold war the geopolitical map of the Balkans was relatively simple. Bulgaria and Romania were in the Soviet orbit, Albania was isolated and allied only with the People’s Republic of China, while Greece leaned westward, first as part of NATO and later when it joined the European Economic Community. Tito’s Yugoslavia, occupying the greatest section of the Balkan Peninsula, was officially non-aligned.

The U.S. interpreted Tito’s stance as being staunchly anti-Soviet. Yugoslavia accepted Western overtures, while at the same time maintaining its distance from NATO and the western democracies. Officially, U.S. policy remained to develop friendly relations with Yugoslavia, despite its Communist ideology, in order to prop up an anti-Soviet regime bordering on three Warsaw Pact states.

After Tito’s death in 1980, the U.S. largely ignored the rising tensions that were tearing the Yugoslav Federation apart. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia consisted of six republics (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) and two autonomous provinces within Serbia (Kosovo and Vojvodina). The dominant ethnic groups in the republics were considered to be the Slavic “nations” of Yugoslavia; other non-Slavic ethnic groups—e.g., Albanians, Turks, Hungarians—had the status of “nationalities” or “national minorities.”

Already in 1981, the first serious challenge to Yugoslav stability was the outbreak of mass demonstrations in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia where the Albanian majority demanded that Kosovo become a constituent republic of Yugoslavia. Fearing an upsurge in Albanian nationalism, the central authorities used violence to suppress the demonstrations. The Reagan administration, intent upon prevailing over the Soviets, continued to support the central government in Belgrade despite its apparent human rights violations in Kosovo.

During the 1980s, Yugoslavia experienced a serious economic crisis, with rising inflation, increasing budget deficits, and a significant rise in foreign debt. Increased pressures from the IMF intensified the problems. The specter of Albanian nationalism and economic decline provided ideal conditions for Slobodan Milosevic to rise in the Communist hierarchy of Serbia. In 1987, Milosevic rallied the Serbian people by using nationalist rhetoric, evoking the threat to Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.

Milosevic used mass demonstrations as a tool for gaining power on the local level. Such demonstrations brought down governments in the Republic of Montenegro and then in the Serbian Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, both in 1988. In 1989, he rescinded Kosovo’s autonomous status and enacted direct Serbian rule in that province. The Croats, Slovenes, and Bosnian Muslims feared that Milosevic would seek to take over the entire country. In 1989 the Slovene parliament approved amendments to the republican constitution that provided for the right of Slovenia to secede from Yugoslavia. Serbia reacted harshly by imposing economic sanctions on Slovenia.

The rise of ethnic nationalism in Serbia sparked the revival of nationalist sentiments in Croatia, and in 1990 the Croats elected the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union to power, headed by Franjo Tudjman. Given these sharp nationalist internal divisions, and the West’s reluctance to support the integrity of the unified Yugoslav state, Yugoslavia’s disintegration was now inevitable.

The Reagan and Bush administrations failed to respond to the rise of ethnic nationalism in the Balkans. As late as 1991, on the eve of Croatian and Slovene declarations of independence, Secretary of State James Baker reiterated U.S. support for the territorial integrity of a unified Yugoslavia. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the American government’s preoccupations with the Persian Gulf, the Bush administration entrusted the West European powers to deal with the turmoil in Yugoslavia.

Western powers appeared to be ill-prepared for the outbreak of hostilities when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence on June 25, 1991. The Europeans, following Germany’s lead, pushed for early recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. This action, rather than preventing further bloodshed, resulted in the intensification of the war in Croatia. The Serbian population in Croatia, which the 1981 Yugoslav census estimated at 11.6% of the population, declared its independence from Croatia and set up the Republic of Serbian Krajina. Former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance helped to broker a cease-fire in Croatia, to be monitored by the UN. In the meantime, Bosnia-Herzegovina was inching closer and closer to the brink of civil war.

The winners of the 1990 elections in Bosnia were the three ethnic parties—the Serbian Democratic Party, the Croatian Democratic Union, and the Muslim-dominated Party for Democratic Action. The Serbs boycotted a referendum on Bosnian secession from Yugoslavia, and in early 1992, only several months after the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, the U.S. and the members of the European Union recognized the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo.

Once again, early recognition precipitated ethnic conflict. The three sides had been on the verge of an agreement to divide Bosnia into three cantons, one for each of the ethnic groups. President Alija Izatbegovic of Bosnia, however, rejected this plan in his hope of preserving his power in a multi-ethnic Bosnia. As in Croatia, the Serbian minority sought to secede from Bosnia and link up with Serbia. Already in his presidential campaign in 1992, Clinton declared his support for the Muslims in Bosnia. He advocated lifting the arms embargo (which the United Nations had imposed in 1991 on all sides in the Yugoslav conflicts) in order to arm the Muslims, who had the least access to Yugoslav heavy military equipment.

After Clinton took office, however, the war became much more complicated; the Serbs declared an independent Serb Republic in eastern and northwestern Bosnia, and the Croats declared an independent state in Herzegovina. The war now involved all three ethnic groups, and atrocities and civilian casualties mounted on all sides. Upon taking office, Clinton did not follow through on his promise to lift the arms embargo and from the outset continued the Bush administration’s policy of refusing direct intervention. The Europeans took the lead in trying to negotiate a settlement. Their efforts included the Vance-Owen peace plan that would have divided Bosnia into ten, rather than three, cantons.

With Sarajevo under siege and news reports of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing spreading, U.S. and European policymakers realized the need for more active intervention. As in Croatia, the western powers and the U.S. turned to the United Nations, which authorized humanitarian assistance for Sarajevo, and set up safe havens to protect the Bosnian Muslim population. However, the Security Council, under U.S. pressure, refused to expand the peacekeepers’ mandate and numbers sufficiently to provide real safety. In 1995 two of the safe havens were overrun by Bosnian Serbs; the most notorious was the safe haven of Srebrenica, where the Serbs massacred thousands of Muslims. The Dutch contingent stationed at Srebrenica was only lightly armed and incapable of stopping the Serb onslaught or carrying out its mission to protect the civilian population. The UN’s failure in maintaining the safe havens was used to justify the Clinton administration’s decision to circumvent the UN and European security organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in favor of NATO.

The Clinton administration blamed the Serbs and Milosevic for the wars in the former Yugoslavia and allied itself with the Croatian and Bosnian governments. The administration exerted pressure on Tudjman and Izatbegovic to halt the brutal Croat-Muslim conflict. American efforts resulted in the establishment of a Croat-Muslim Federation. American support for the Federation strengthened perceptions among the Serbs that the U.S. was pursuing an anti-Serbian policy and increased their resolve to continue the armed struggle.

Meanwhile, NATO became more actively involved through its enforcement of a no-fly zone in Bosnia. In 1995, with U.S. assistance, the Croatian military mounted a decisive military campaign against the Serbs of the Krajina region. Approximately 200,000 Serbs fled from the area around Knin and western Slavonia. This defeat had significant implications for the Bosnian war, since having retaken Krajina, the Croats were in a position to attack the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia from the north, and under combined Muslim-Croat pressure, the Bosnian Serbs began losing territory. In reaction to a Bosnian Serb rocket attack that killed scores of civilians in a Sarajevo marketplace, NATO carried out its threat to bomb the Bosnian Serbs. Faced with military defeats on the ground and NATO bombing from above, the Bosnian Serbs were brought to the negotiating table at Dayton in November 1995.

The U.S. desire to intervene in Bosnia was motivated by political pressure caused by increased public alarm at the evolving humanitarian disaster. Throughout the period, Serbian claims were largely ignored, and Serb atrocities were widely condemned, while Muslim and Croat killings and ethnic cleansing were often minimized or overlooked. The Dayton Accords did not differ significantly from the original European plan to divide Bosnia into three cantons. A more even-handed approach would have taken into account legitimate concerns of all of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups and could have prevented the violent disintegration of the country.

NATO’s involvement in the Bosnian war represented the alliance’s first-ever offensive action. Perhaps even more significantly, this action was taken outside of NATO’s area of operations and did not directly serve to protect a NATO country from an aggressor. This signaled an undeclared shift in NATO’s mission in a post-Soviet Europe, which NATO chief Javier Solana officially outlined in 1999, as NATO prepared its 50th-year celebration and its second offensive action in its history—the bombing of Yugoslavia. Such a strategic policy implies that NATO alone—not the UN, OSCE, or EU—could secure the peace of Europe.

During the Bosnian war, the Western powers imposed economic sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with the aim of weakening the Milosevic regime and punishing Serbia for its support of the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs. Yet, the U.S. was negotiating directly with Milosevic to reach a solution to the Bosnian war and authorized Milosevic to negotiate on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs at Dayton. In return for his cooperation, the U.S. lifted the economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and relied on Milosevic as a guarantor of the Dayton peace agreement. But the sanctions had resulted in a dramatic worsening of living standards for all citizens of Yugoslavia, regardless of ethnicity. Sanctions helped criminal and anti-democratic elements prosper and certainly did not create a positive backdrop for ethnic reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians.

In the early 1990s, the Kosovo Albanians set up a shadow government under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, who promoted nonviolent means for attaining eventual independence. Having made little progress toward these goals, the Albanians became increasingly frustrated. Tension in Kosovo rose dramatically when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged in 1997 with its declared aim of achieving the Kosovo Albanians’ political aspirations for independence through armed struggle. Violence broke out in early 1998, initially between Serbian police units and the KLA forces. According to unofficial reports, by October 1998 approximately 2,000 Albanians and Serbs had been killed and some 200,000 people, mainly Albanians, had been displaced.

In the summer of 1998, the U.S. and European Union reimposed sanctions on Yugoslavia and threatened to bomb Serbian positions if the violence persisted. Once again, they blamed the Serbs for the deteriorating situation and singled out Milosevic as the main culprit. In October 1998, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke negotiated a cease-fire and a Serbian pullback from Kosovo. The truce was to be guaranteed by up to 2000 unarmed monitors under the auspices of the OSCE. In the vacuum of the Serbian military withdraw, the KLA took over many of their positions. During the first few months, the OSCE monitors successfully managed to contain violence between the KLA and Serbian paramilitary forces. However, by January there were some serious skirmishes, leading to some calls for sending in greater numbers of OSCE monitors.

In February, the U.S. brought both sides to the negotiating table at Rambouillet, France, and worked hard to impose a settlement on the two reluctant sides. The U.S.-orchestrated plan sidelined both the United Nations and the OSCE and placed NATO in a new role outside both its traditional strategic mandate and territory of operation. Under the terms of the agreement, a NATO-led international force was to be given access to operate in all of Yugoslavia, not only in Kosovo. It also included a provision for a referendum to be held in Kosovo after three years to determine the province’s future political status. After much arm twisting, the Albanians signed the agreement. The Serbs were presented with an ultimatum: sign an agreement that would have brought about the end of Serbian control over Kosovo, or be bombed. When the Serbs refused to sign, NATO followed through on its threats to bomb Yugoslavia. On March 24, 1999, President Clinton declared that he had ordered the bombing in order to save the Kosovo Albanians from Serbian aggression and to prevent the Kosovo conflict from spreading to Macedonia. Such a development could have potentially resulted in a wider regional war involving two NATO countries—Greece and Turkey.

The bombing campaign lasted 79 days. It devastated the Yugoslav economy, destroyed bridges, factories, oil refineries, government buildings, the environment, and Yugoslav military equipment. It also accelerated—rather than prevented—ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo and caused unnecessary civilian deaths and destruction in Serbia and Montenegro. The casualty figures are staggering; unofficial reports suggest that some 850,000 Albanians fled or were expelled from Kosovo, perhaps as many as 10,000 Albanian civilians were killed, and thousands of Yugoslav soldiers and civilians lost their lives.

In June, through the efforts of Finnish and Russian intermediaries, Milosevic finally agreed to withdraw the Yugoslav army and Serbian police units from Kosovo. The agreement provided for 50,000 international troops under UN mandate with “significant” NATO participation (operating not solely under NATO control as in Rambouillet) to occupy Kosovo and guarantee a safe return of Albanian refugees. Unlike Rambouillet, the terms for peace did not include a referendum to determine the future of Kosovo, but instead guaranteed that Kosovo would have broad autonomy within Yugoslavia.

In the days following the agreement, the balance of power between NATO and the UN for ultimate authority over the peacekeeping forces became a point of contention. Russia, China, and Yugoslavia, among others, insisted that the UN should take command; the U.S. remained adamant that NATO be at the core. Ultimately NATO assumed command of the multinational force under a mandate from the UN Security Council.

Overall, the U.S. chose to intervene in the Balkans more out of frustration with Milosevic rather than after careful planning. However, the Clinton administration’s initial disregard for the UN Security Council, despite unequivocal requirements in the UN Charter specifying that only the Council can authorize the use of force against a sovereign state, serves as a dangerous precedent. The choice of a military alliance such as NATO, rather than a political/diplomatic one, as the instrument to both legitimize and implement the U.S.-led air war encourages military solutions to future conflicts while threatening the primacy of the UN in peace and security issues.

While the Dayton and Kosovo agreements have stopped the fighting, they have not included frameworks for ethnic reconciliation or multiethnic societies. At the end of the twentieth century, the challenges in the Balkans remain daunting. Tensions remain high in both Albania and Macedonia. Nationalism continues to fester in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Montenegro has threatened to secede from Yugoslavia, and the Muslims of the Sandzak feel threatened in Serbia. Policy should be directed toward finding a regional solution to these problems. The Western powers need to take an unequivocal stand against nationalist leaders and movements on all sides and provide real incentives for the peoples of the Balkans to embark on the path of reconciliation and civil societies.

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