What Caused the Kosovo War: Looking at the Bigger Picture


SEATTLE — When analyzing the array of different approaches political leaders often use in their quest to successfully garner influence and support, utilizing political strategies that evoke an emotional appeal have proven to be among the most effective in human history, though not in typically in a positive way.

Among the most common of such strategies include populism and nationalism, and though distinctly different, the two are often used interchangeably and serve similar purposes in that they work to accentuate specific issues that create social divisions among certain demographics of the population. While populist leaders generally seek support by appealing to “ordinary” or “working-class” citizens by positioning their interests against those of the “elites,” nationalists do so by promoting the notion that their society is in some way superior to that of others and that establishing political sovereignty and self-reliance is critical.

Of all the instances throughout human history in which this can be observed, analyzing what caused the Kosovo war is perhaps among the most unique, as its causes stemmed from a combination of both of these approaches. That said, in order to understand what caused the Kosovo war and the events leading up to it, it is best to have this initial understanding, in addition to the following background information.

In 1918, Kosovo became a part of the Kingdom of Serbia. Around the beginning of World War II in 1941, the greater part of the region became a part of the neighboring and Italian-controlled country of Albania. Following the war, in 1946, the Kingdom of Serbia became part of a newly created group of nations known as Yugoslavia, formally referred to as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

It consisted of six republics (Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) and two Serbian provinces (Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the south). Similar to the republics, these provinces were allowed autonomy and the right to self-governance which was granted to them in 1974 by the Yugoslav constitution.

In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic began gaining considerable political influence among Serbians in Kosovo by tapping into the interests of Serbian nationalists by advocating anti-Albanian rhetoric, marking what would eventually become a military conflict among Serbs and the Albanian-majority population. Shortly after Milosevic became the president of Serbia in 1989, he took away Kosovo’s provincial autonomy and implemented policy measures designed to inhibit the activity of Albanian ethnic organizations, cause thousands of them to lose their jobs and allow for numerous institutions to become under the complete control of Serbs.

In June 1991, Slovenia decided to formally secede from the federation, triggering what is commonly referred to as the “Ten-Day War.” This military conflict was short-lived and relatively mild in terms of severity. More impressively, Macedonia overwhelmingly approved an independence referendum and managed to avoid all conflict with the Serbs.

Croatia, on the other hand, who declared independence around the same time Slovenia did, had a vastly different experience, specifically because of their substantial Croatian-Serb population who were not willing to accept a newly-formed, independent Croatian state and instead wished to remain a part of Yugoslavia. This war lasted until 1995, and until then widespread ethnic cleansing toward Croats and non-Serbs took place.

However, the bloodiest of these wars indisputably occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when a similar scenario played out after ethnic Serbs, comprising a substantial portion of the population, also refuted the notion of independence for similar reasons. This war also lasted until 1995, during which time an estimated two million people fled the region and 100,000 people were killed, much of which was again motivated by the idea of ethnic cleansing.

On November 21, 1995, with a weakened military due to a long U.S.-led NATO airstrike campaign and a declining level of Serbian support, the Bosnian Serbs were forced to end the wars in both Bosnia and Croatia and agree to a peace proposal brokered by international leaders in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged as an oppositional force to the Serbs. Tensions reached a precipice in 1998 when Serbian reinforcements were sent to the area as a counter response and show of force, marking the beginning of the Kosovo war. Large-scale massacres and ethnic cleansing occurred, and an estimated 800,000 Albanians were forcibly expelled from their homes.

In March 1999, after failed mediation attempts by the U.S. and the international community, NATO started a 78-day airstrike campaign. By June, Serbia succumbed to a peace proposal, at which point an estimated 100,000 Serbs, about half of the Kosovar-Serb population, fled the region in fear of revenge attacks, and 750,000 Albanians were able to return home. Despite this, Kosovo’s independence remains unresolved to this day, since as of February 2017, only 115 countries have given it international recognition.

Tactics such as a heavy disdain for the free press, calling for experienced government officials to be ousted and replaced and the persistent promotion of sentiments that the country is in a state of desperation or despair and needs someone to serve as its savior are all tools that leaders like Milosevic will employ. For that reason, an explanation of what caused the Kosovo war should not be reduced to any single event or individual. It was instead a result of a series of events whose beginning can mostly be attributed to the election of Milosevic.

By becoming educated about what caused the Kosovo war, ordinary people can learn to identify the warning signs of leaders such as these and address the problem before it can fester.

– Hunter McFerrin

Photo: Flickr


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