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Kosovo and the “humanitarian war” in 1999

“Let me reiterate: NATO is not waging war against Yugoslavia.” These words were used by Javier Solana, who served as Secretary-General of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) between 1995 and 1999, in a press statement on the 24th of March of 1999.

From the 24th of March to the 10th of June 1999, NATO led Operation Allied Force against Yugoslavia, officially called a humanitarian intervention in favour of the suppressed Albanians. The air raids were depicted not as an attack, but as a defence of human rights. In this article, the author analyses, why it actually was a war on various levels, unlike the statement by Solana. He claims that a closer look at the motives hidden in the subtext is necessary to understand the Kosovo war and the destruction it caused not only for the infrastructure of the country, but also for the population – Serbs, Albanians and ethnic minorities.

From Conflict to War

Let’s start with a look back at the roots of the Kosovo conflict. Political struggles and sometimes armed fights had been going on over decades between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the region. While nationalism arose throughout the Balkans, Albanians – comprising around 80 percent of the population in the 1980s – claimed for independence. Ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians grew stronger in the 1980s with the result that Belgrade suspended Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989.
With the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1990, Pristina declared independence, yet was ignored not only by Belgrade, but also by the West. Whilst war broke out in Slovenia and later in Croatia and Bosnia, tensions in Kosovo grew and grew, overseen by a Western Community, which was already diplomatically and later also militarily involved in the Yugoslav Wars. In 1996, a time when Kosovo was divided into an official government controlled by Serbia and an informal one ruled by ethnic Albanians, the situation became sour and the so-called freedom fighters of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) committed their first assassinations.

Internationalizing the conflict

In 1998, a civil war broke out, with KLA attacking Yugoslav officials such as policemen or post men and loyal Albanians who were vilified as traitors. Terrorist attacks and brutal police counter strikes, often executed with excessive violence, led to a humanitarian crisis with about 300.000 internally displaced persons in the summer of 1998. Therefore, NATO got involved and forced Yugoslavia to accept a UN-backed mandate of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Whilst the presence of the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) soothed Yugoslav military forces, the KLA increased their attacks and escalated the situation, deliberately provoking Serbian responses.
In February 1999, the so-called Balkan Contact Group (USA, Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy) called for peace negotiations in Rambouillet near Paris. After Yugoslavia rejected the demands of stationing NATO-troops in its country, Western politicians blamed Belgrade for the consequences and carried out air raids. The Western public, believing Yugoslavia had been unwilling to compromise, came to know the truth about Annex B and its Article 8 of the Rambouillet Agreement (see infobox, page 33) which would have allowed for a NATO occupation of the whole country only six weeks later.
In addition to this, the main motive for carrying out the airstrikes, the prevention of a humanitarian crisis, eventually turned out to be built on sand: According to the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency), unlike in the summer of 1998, there was no longer a humanitarian crisis in March 1999, because of the implementation of the OSCE mission KVM and the tempering effect the internationalization of the conflict had on Belgrade. So why did NATO attack Yugoslavia instead of proceeding with a diplomatic path?

The transformation of NATO from defence to out-of-area

Unlike officially stated by NATO, the war over Kosovo was, as James Kurth puts it, just “ostensibly the first truly humanitarian war, fought not for national interests as traditionally defined but for the furtherance of human rights alone.” However, the truth is that the air raids were executed out of a conglomerate of different intentions of competing states within NATO. The humanitarian aspect served to legitimize the attack, but played only the tiniest role as a motive. One can find auxiliary economic, geostrategic, geopolitical, and military intentions of NATO as a whole, as well as national interests of the main actors of that organization, which is characterized by internally diverging and differing interests.

One can find auxiliary economic, geostrategic, geopolitical, and military intentions of NATO as a whole, as well as national interests of the main actors of that organization.

During the air war, for example, there were serious differences of opinion between the individual EU states and the USA in questions of targeting, collateral damage, as well as diplomatic initiative. Further, the EU wanted to replace the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission with a European person, but the USA refused with the argument that the EU was not yet able to lead a mission like the one in Kosovo. Last but not least, different authors highlight that it was an essential target of the Americans to keep the European “defence identity” dependent on them, and to prevent the potential development of the EU into a superpower.

Kosovo as a birthday gift

The most important reason for NATO to go to war was its possibility to transform itself into an Alliance willing and able to intervene on a global scale instead of remaining restricted as a defence pact. In order to pursue the geopolitical interests of its main members, the USA, Great Britain, France and Germany, NATO needed to officially transform itself into an out-of-area-alliance and create the possibility of deploying troops out of area. For both of these options, Yugoslavia was the right test case at the right time.
For further geostrategic tasks in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, Northern Africa or the Middle East, the Transatlantic Pact acquired to establish a military base in the heart of the Balkans. Interestingly, this happened on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in April 1999. Therefore, the denouncement of the Kosovo conflict was about to become a birthday gift, whether by diplomatic or military means. What else could illustrate NATO’s self-perception as global peace-maker better than a solved conflict or truly justified “defence of human rights by any means”?

Factories were privatized even against the workers’ will

During the beginning of negotiations, on February 8th 1999, negotiating at Rambouillet for the EU, Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: “80 percent of our demands will just be pushed through […] and the result will be a dictation. But one thing I guarantee: Either the Kosovo conflict will be resolved before the end of April formally, or NATO will bomb.” Similarly, General Wesley K. Clark, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1997 to 2000 and responsible for carrying out the airstrikes, put it as follows: “This conflict about Kosovo became a test of NATO’s role in post-cold war Europe. NATO itself was at risk of irrelevance or simply falling apart following a defeat.“

Economic reasons behind the NATO-transformation and its impact on Kosovo

The transformation of NATO mainly happened due to economic reasons – the struggle for resources and maintaining the policy of open markets all over the world. Even though Serbia and especially Kosovo are both not of the highest economic interest for Western countries, they can be compared to other places where NATO or its member states were going to war, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria. After the end of the war in June 1999, UN-Administration (UNMIK – United Nations Mission in Kosovo) was sanctioned onto Kosovo. According to Dita Dobranja, its Trust Agency, AKM, immediately began to privatize what had been publicly-owned properties, the so-called Socially Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which in Kosovo represented about 90 percent of the industrial and mining sector, 50 percent of the commercial retail space and about 20 percent of the agriculture.
The strategy to transform SOEs into private companies was not about helping the Albanians in Kosovo at all: Sometimes factories were privatized even against the workers’ will. Dobranja, who has an MA in International Economics from American University in Washington DC, has analyzed the whole privatization process. According to her research, between 2002 and 2012 at least 40.000 workers have lost their jobs due to privatization.
Still, the revenues for Kosovo’s government were not satisfying. According to Dobranja this was due to two reasons, “either the overvaluation of the SOEs prior to the privatization process, or the underpricing of the SOEs when undergoing the privatization process.” Option two is more convincing. Furthermore, there is also the plausibility of a devaluation strategy applied on the whole privatization process. For example, while the metal workers’ union priced the construction conglomerate Ramiz Sadiku of Pristina at over 300 million euros, AKM sold it to the British company Alferon (with German Thyssen-Krupp as shareholder) for 33 million euros. Similarly, the steel tube factory in Ferizaj, estimated at 25 million euro by the Supreme Court in Pristina, was sold by AKM (then governed by Joachim Rücker from Germany) for 3.6 million euro. Michael Schäfer, director in the Foreign Office of Germany, explained the business practices of Joachim Rücker by stating that it was time for investments to finally yield political and economic returns. On September 1, 2006, Rücker was promoted to UNMIK chief.

US diplomats and military played a special role in the privatization process. Numerous officials returned after the end of their mandates to Kosovo, especially in the coal and telecommunication industries. The report mentions these not as isolated cases, but as symptoms of a thorough process in the economy of Kosovo. Dobranja’s research bottom line on the privatization topic in Kosovo is quite disillusioning: “Even through the lens which considers the specific circumstances in Kosovo during this privatization process, the process can be considered not a complete failure, at best.”

War promotes privatization, and privatization promotes war

The policy of privatization and market-opening was already written in the Rambouillet Treaty. Article I calls for a “free market economy,” Article II for the privatization of all state assets. In this context, the high number of economic targets damaged by bombs in the air war (around 380 industrial facilities in both Serbia and Kosovo) is seen in a new light – particularly so, because foreign and private companies were hardly affected by the bombing as written by Hannes Hofbauer. Privatization is about continuing the war with political means through NATO, the EU, and the IMF. In Kosovo, for instance, Commerzbank (of Germany) and Raiffeisenbank (of Austria) took over almost the whole banking system, thus controlling the financial activities in the province.
The driving force behind this is neoliberal globalization, which leads to, and is promoted by war. Globalized capital causes situations of crisis everywhere in the world, and these “crises” must then be solved militarily by “crisis reaction forces”. Those forces defend the interests of the big corporations of the NATO countries everywhere in the world. The conclusion of Austrian professor for political science Claudia von Werlhof is explains this well:
“The logic of the war is to create new growth. Whenever our system hits a barrier, it is ready to use war to break through this barrier. Thus, war is a condition for new growth, which means that it is the continuation with different means not only of politics but also of the economy.”


Following this previous analysis, it becomes clear that there are still many obstacles in the way to a brighter and more peaceful future in Kosovo and Serbia. It is not only a matter of recognition, but probably even more of unresolved economic problems. While some of them have roots in the Yugoslav period, others were created with the privatization policy of the UN in the aftermath of NATO’s air raids of 1999. In order to restore peace, all of the conflict parties – Belgrade, Pristina and Washington/Brussels will have to refrain from holding on to their maximum aims. While for Serbia and Kosovo this means sharing governance, for the EU it is to offer substantial economic prospects for both sides. Turning away from privatizing property for single wealth and returning towards a policy of corporate good for public welfare would be a significant first step for Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina. As Berlin demonstrates – the water supply there had been partially privatized in 1999 and retaken by the city government in 2013 – re-nationalization is possible even nowadays.

This article is based on the author’s book “Krieg um Kosovo. Geschichte, Hintergründe, Folgen”, Innsbruck 2016

Article 8 of Annex B of the Rambouillet-Agreement: „NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training, and operations.“
This article of the Rambouillet-Agreement later gave way to strong criticism. Wolfgang Petritsch, chief diplomat for the European Union, is defending the article until today by pointing out that the free movement of troops is a standard procedure in any UN-peacemaking-treaty. This position ignores the difference between UN-troops including Russian or Chinese troops and the Western alliance led by the USA (and their interests) alone, as well as the fact that the free movement of NATO-troops had not been limited by Kosovo only, but extended over the whole of Yugoslavia, which would have allowed the occupation of the whole country. In fact, at the end of the war, Yugoslavia agreed to NATO-troops, limited to the area of Kosovo. Several experts have fended off article 8 by pointing out that no other nation would have accepted this condition. Source: Rambouillet Accords: Interim Agreement for Peace and Self-Governance in Kosovo, Appendix B: Status of Multi-National Military Implementation Force (peacemaker.un.org)