The Third Balkan War:

Why Serbia?

Why Kosovo?

Why Now?

Why By These Means?


Eugene A. Hammel

Departments of Anthropology and Demography

University of California, Berkeley




As the US-led NATO attack on the rump Yugoslavia continues, thoughtful Americans are led to ask what were the elements of US-NATO policy that led to it. There is no lack of opinion on the subject, for example:



Domestic critics of US-NATO policy fall into several groups:



I distance myself from all but the last of the sets of critics so as to clarify the issues and reject the above interpretations to consider two others that are more plausible but not mutually exclusive:



The first of these ideas has much to recommend it. I am personally convinced that Milosevic is the dictator of a now rogue state, that he is about to extinguish the last vestiges of a brave democratic opposition, and is a threat to his neighbors and to Europe. He vaulted from his previous position as a second-rate apparachik in Communist Yugoslavia precisely by appealing to vicious nationalist sentiments. He has moved to steadily more fascist positions in order to outdistance those other nationalists in Serbia and Bosnia who have proposed or implemented even more drastic policies. It is he who stripped the Kosovo Albanians of privileges they had enjoyed under the Communist regime, in order to play to Serbian nationalist interests. It is he who fomented, supported, then abandoned Serbian uprisings (right or wrong) in the Croatian Krajina and in Bosnia.


It is essential, however, to keep two principles in mind. The first is that Milosevic and his regime are not identical with the Serbian people, who are politically diverse and have a history of, if not "democratic", at least raucously dissident politics. The second is that there indeed exist deep historical reasons for the discontent of the Serbian people, entirely apart from the issue of whether they have acted on those discontents wisely and humanely. In considering these, we need to remember that the peoples of the Balkans, like those of the Middle East, have been set against one another for centuries by the politics of surrounding and occupying empires. They have not been the masters of their fate and thus seldom the captains of their souls. We need to remember that almost everyone in the Balkans is or is descended from refugees, and often at rather shallow time depth. We need to remember that every ethnic group in the Balkans has a legitimate grievance against some other ethnic group or groups, not to mention against surrounding powers. None of this is to excuse inhumanity but only to understand it.




I make this account as brief as I can without trivializing it. My intent is to present several central points.



Some of Serbian history relating to Kosovo is on account of the current conflict reasonably familiar to Americans. A major Serbian empire that might have become the heir to Byzantium was shattered by the Ottoman advance into Europe, defeated at Kosovo in 1389, and ceased to exist as a remnant state by 1459. Later developments are not as familiar. When the Austrians and others repulsed the Turks at Vienna in 1683, their forces drove as far south as Kosovo, where in 1690 they incited a revolt of the Serbs against the Turks. That revolt failed, and an exodus of 50,000-80,000 families, thus as many as 200,000 persons fled north to Austrian territory. A similar, Austrian-inspired revolt, failure, and exodus occurred in the 1780s. These and similar refugee groups formed the core of later, often dissident Serbian populations outside of Serbia, under strong Austrian cultural influences including pressures to convert from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. Albanian populations moved into the vacuum of Kosovo in increasing numbers.


Although by objective standards of the time (and contrary to the views of romanticist Serbian historians), the Serbian (and other non-Muslim) peoples subject to the Ottomans fared reasonably well until the empire began to crumble under the weight of corruption and decay of central control in the 18th and into the 19th centuries. Peasants in Bosnia, Serbia, and Albania, as elsewhere, began to revolt, especially under the cruelties of uncontrolled peripheral landlords and renegade Janissaries (an elite Ottoman military corps). In Serbia the revolts of 1804 and 1815 under the leadership of wealthy peasant-traders led to the establishment of a principality eventually independent of the Turks by 1830. The Serbs of Bosnia were active in the Bosnian insurrection of 1875. The Serbs of the Austrian-controlled Croatian Military Border were incorporated into a Croatia under Hungarian jurisdiction in 1881. In 1878 Austria occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina and annexed it outright in 1908, also occupying the Sandzak, the territory north of Kosovo and between Montenegro and Serbia. All through these years Serbian consciousness of ethnic identity across the range of its diaspora grew, to some extent guided by German romanticist philosophy. The Albanians rebelled against the Turks in 1910-1912. In 1912, the Serbs, Greeks, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians formed the Balkan League and drove the remaining Ottomans from all but a corner of Thrace in the First Balkan War. The Serbs, seeking an outlet to the sea, were blocked by Greece, which seized Thrace. The Serbs and Montenegrins took much of the territory of northern Albania with similar intent, but they were not to retain it. Italian and Austrian pressure, seeking to restrain Russian influence in the Balkans by containing the Serbs (an old 18th century game), insisted on an independent Albania. Their influence in Albania was to prove deadly. What Serbia retained was a large portion of Macedonia, much of it at Bulgarian expense, and a sense of frustrated national ambition.


Serbian anger at Austrian power politics was deep. Bosnian Serbs resented the Austrian occupation, and a Serbian terrorist society, the Black Hand, in conjunction with the Bosnian Serb terrorist group, Young Bosnia, assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Although Serbia was conciliatory, the Austrians declared war. The Serbs, attacked by Austria and its Bulgarian and Albanian allies, retreated across Albania to Corfu with heavy losses, especially at the hands of the Albanians, regrouped in Egypt, and in 1918 led the remarkable assault from Salonika that broke the back of the Central Powers in southeastern Europe. Increasingly, during this period, the Albanian population of the region of Kosovo continued to grow. Its immigration had been encouraged by the Turks, then by the Central Powers, and it had and has the highest natural growth rate in Europe.


Serbian victory, combined with Allied determination to surround the German states with Slavic buffers, led to the creation of a Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Slovenes and Croats, former members of the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire, were now to be controlled from Belgrade. The Serbian monarch rapidly consolidated his power, establishing a dictatorship. In 1931 he was assassinated in Marseilles by Italian-supported Croatian fascists and a Macedonian terrorist group working for Bulgarian interests. (It is important to realize that "fascism" in its original meanings, especially the forms influenced by the Italian version, were national solidarity movements in rebellion against imperial domination and gross inequalities of class.) The enmity between Croatia and Serbia was engendered largely in the period between 1919 and 1941, as Serbian dominance of the Yugoslav state, itself imperialistic, became the focus of increasing and justifiable resentment. In 1941 Serb-led Yugoslavia, now more defiant than conciliatory, refused to bow to Nazi demands for security in the Balkans. After the quick defeat of the Serb-led armies (again with the assistance of the Bulgarian and Albanian allies of the Axis), Germany encouraged Albanian migration into Kosovo as a way to further contain the Serbs.


The communist-inspired but peasant-led revolution in Yugoslavia in World War II, with participation by Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and others, had two major enemies. The first was the Axis powers and their allies, including local allies such as Albania. The second were the royalist Serb nationalists, whose objective was the restoration of the Serbian monarchy and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav state. As elsewhere in Europe, peoples who had been subjugated by one empire had turned to another for help and liberation. Thus the fascist-nationalist Croatian Ustashe established a quisling Independent State of Croatia, which included Bosnia. Germany had assiduously cultivated Balkan Muslims, just as it had the Muslims of the Near East, as an anti-British tactic. Some Bosnian Muslims and some Albanian Muslims were eager allies of the Axis. These alliances in World War II explain much of the current enmity between Serbs on the one hand, and Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, and Croats on the other.


Communist Yugoslavia was a federation of ethnic republics, each centered on what was construed from political history to be a nation, i.e. ethnic group. Bosnia-Hercegovina was something of an exception to this pattern of a core ethnic group; it had no single core ethnic group but three in balanced opposition -- Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Tito's policy was one of explicit balancing of ethnic influences, for example through the kind of rotation of positions usually seen in international organizations, or what would in modern America be called, "affirmative action." Only Slovenia was relatively homogeneous; the other republics, after centures of imperial tumult, were not. Two "autonomous provinces" contained large populations that had no republic of their own within Yugoslavia. The Voyvodina, between Hungary and Serbia, contained had many Hungarians, and Kosovo had many Albanians. These minorities had special cultural and political privileges. Serbs living outside of Serbia, however, did not. The intent of this deliberate omission was to limit the ability of the Serbs across the constitutent republics to reconsolidate the political hegemony they had constructed in the prewar Yugoslavia. The Tito regime refused to allow Serbian refugees from wartime Kosovo to return to their homes. The population of Kosmet by the end of World War II was, according to some sources, about 50 percent and according to others as much as 75 percent Albanian. Tito's manipulation of the ethnic landscape to protect the hegemony of the League of Communists escalated with the 1974 Constitution, which gave further cultural guarantees to the Albanians in Kosovo, for example, to conduct education in Albanian. Serbian accounts speak of a reign of terror by Albanians against Serbs in Kosovo, leading to the departure of even more Serbs. These machinations and eventswere deeply resented by the Serbs and were the core of an infamous memorandum emanating from within the Serbian Academy of Sciences in the late 1980s that outlined a blueprint for a Greater Serbian expansion that would recoup the control lost after the defeat of the prewar Yugoslavia. At the same time, and in the face of these explicit attempts to contain Serbian expansionism, the apparatus of the state and especially of the internal (secret) police and the military was increasingly dominated by Serbs and Montenegrins. Croatia and Slovenia chafed increasingly under what came to be regarded as just another foreign empire. Communist Yugoslavia came to be seen by them as a replacement for the dictatorship of Alexander. The continuance of the federation became increasingly unlikely in the late 1980s.


As the postwar Yugoslav state crumbled, politicians seeking support had no better recourse to mobilization than through ethnocentric appeals. Playing the race card was the only game in town. In each republic, the most successful politician was the one who appealed most centrally to the core nation of that republic, or within minority ethnic enclaves such as the Krajina to that ethnic group. In Bosnia the republic split because there were three core groups. In the others, a single politician eventually emerged, notably Tudjman in Croatia and Milosevic in Serbia. Because all of the republics but Serbia and Montenegro seceded from Yugoslavia, Milosevic was left as the President of Serbia and of Yugoslavia. It is noteworthy that Milosevic's appeal to Serbian nationalism and his ascent to power was based explicitly on his revocation (1987) of the special cultural privileges to Albanians in Kosovo that had been granted by the 1974 constitution. The increasing repression of the Albanians in Kosovo led to riots, to a movement toward self-determination that was at first conciliatory but which was increasingly swept aside by more violent factions. The Kosovo Liberation Army attacked Serbian police, engaged in terrorism, and mutual escalation has now led to the entry of NATO.


This digression has been intended to prepare the ground for an exploration of why the United States and NATO have taken the actions that they have. We should not lose sight of the central historical thread. Ethnic heterogeneity had been exploited for centuries by imperial masters, so that coresident ethnic groups became identifiable rivals. This exploitation was especially evident under the Habsburgs, for example in the predominantly Serbian portions of Croatia and in Bosnia. As the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires crumbled, their subject peoples acquired an increasing sense of ethnic identification across former borders. As they achieved statehood based on the principles of the jus sanguinis (the law of blood) rather than the jus solis (the law of place), ethnic rivalry turned into state rivalry. When these states were incorporated into the Serb-led monarchy after 1918, ethnicity became a deadly divisive force within the state. From 1945 to the 1980s those forces were contained by Communist repression, and the nationalist and expansionist aspirations of (at least some) Serbs were similarly contained. When this last of the recent empires collapsed, ethnic groups again became states. Elements in both Croatia and Serbia continue to have expansionist aspirations. Some Croats claim some or most of Bosnia to be historically theirs (as manifested in the Independent State of Croatia in World War II). Elements in Serbia, bereft of its Macedonian territory by the continuance of the Titoist republic of Macedonia as a new international entity, and now much diminished by Albanian growth and Titoist repression in Kosovo, have not lost their ambitions of 1910-14.


Why Serbia?


The attack by the United States and NATO on Serbia, an ally that was instrumental in defeating the Central Powers in World War I and in enabling the Normandy invasion by tying down German forces (18 Axis divisions in the Balkans), just as the Russians did, demands explanation. There are two possible, one geopolitical and strategic, the other moralistic. I will dispose of the latter first. Milosevic's regime has been responsible directly or indirectly for the largest humanitarian disasters seen in Europe since World War II. However, they pale by comparison with others in the world to which we have turned a blind eye. The United States has done little to mediate in the postcolonial warfare in Africa. It has ignored Turkish attacks on Kurds and although it has exerted pressue on Israel for recognition of the Palestinians, has done so only diplomatically. Its intervention in Bosnia was modest. Its actions against repression in China are mostly talk. Where it has taken unilateral action with some propaganda about the inhumanities of a regime (as in Iraq), its underlying motives were clearly material and political. The Albanian humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, at least until accelerated by NATO intervention, was quite modest in comparison to these others. Of course, when judged by media coverage, the opposite interpretation may prevail, especially when the victims look just like Americans (or the Europeans that they are). I suggest that humanitarian impulses certainly serve as justifications in a campaign of propaganda, they are doubtless very genuine, but they can hardly be the essential reason for intervention in this instance, given US inaction in earlier crises of greater magnitude. Put most strongly, they are a figleaf.


The second reason is more compelling, given the frustration of Serbian expansion and its need for an outlet to the sea. The Yugoslav military forces before the breakup of that state in the late 1980s were, arguably, the fourth largest in Europe. Even now, Serbia has an army (not counting its internal police force) of 180,000 men, 1200 tanks, 1200 armored infantry vehicles, 3700 artillery pieces, anti-aircraft and mortars, 20 surface-to-surface missiles, an air force of 15,000 persons, 400 fighters, 340 helicopters, a navy of 6000 men, and so on. (See Table 1). This force is larger than that of any other country in the Balkans, except Turkey. (I do not have current information on Romania and Hungary.) It is probably capable of annihilating the forces of any directly neighboring country. With the Bosnian Serbs it has over 300,000 men under arms. If Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats, Croatian, and Albanians were to achieve a complete and opposing consolidation they would have only slightly more. Serbia is restrained from attack on Croatia or Hungary by the virtual certainty that Austria, Italy, Germany and then the rest of western Europe would counterattack (Hungary is now a member of NATO). It is restrained from striking too deeply into Bulgaria for fear of Turkish retaliation. It is unlikely to attack Greece. However, there is nothing to restrain it from recovering Serbian title to areas of Macedonia once held by Serbia before Tito declared Macedonia to be a separate entity. One would expect only ethnic enthusiasm in much of Greece at the disappearance of a state that had the temerity to adopt as its name that of a former Greek empire. There is nothing to restrain it from attacking Albania (which possibility was offered to Tito by Stalin but declined), except the unwelcome prospect of having to govern it. The most plausible fear is that a Serbian strike into Macedonia would trigger resurgence of old conflicts between Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia, and that the already delicate balance between Turkey and Greece would be upset.


While I am less hawkish on the utility of NATO intervention than I once was, I will grant for the sake of argument that Serbia has territorial designs on Macedonia or Albania, or that Milosevic must seek further adventures to maintain his position, that he is an unpredictable loose cannon, and that he must be stopped. Indeed I do believe that the elimination of Milosevic would be beneficial to all, not the least to the Serbian people, if he could be replaced by someone more moderate.


Why Kosovo?


Given this acceptance, why has the US decided to implement it on the basis of events in Kosovo? Within Serbia, Kosovo is Milosevic's strength, not weakness. Unlike breakaway areas that were outside Serbia, and and at some point outside Yugoslavia, Kosovo is indisputably a province of Serbia. Serbia has every right under international law to put down an armed insurrection on its own territory and prevent secession, and secession is itself illegal under international law. Why does the US support illegal secession, which is the eventual inevitable outcome of the Rambouillet accords? Milosevic was able to abandon the Croatian Serbs to their fate (and did not intervene when they were expelled by the Croatian Army -- nor did NATO), because the Krajina territory had no special symbolic significance for Serbs in Serbia. Similarly, he was able to abandon the Bosnian Serbs, for the same reason. But Kosovo is holy ground. Was this NATO's last shot at Milosevic before he could cause presumably irreperable damage somewhere else?


Why Now?


This question is closely related to the last. The US avoided action when the Yugoslav National Army swept into Croatia and Slovenia on the plausible grounds that that Army was preserving the coherence of a recognized state. It continued to avoid action after international recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, and indeed Bosnia, when Serbian forces in Yugoslavia were clearly supplying Serb insurgents in Bosnia. While it did supply some air cover to Croatian forces recovering Eastern Slavonia, these were pinpricks. Is this our last chance at Milosevic, is it now or never?


Why by These Means?


Given a desire to eliminate Milosevic as soon as possible, several possibilities come to mind. The first is assassination. It is quick, clean, and cheap. It does not ordinarily harm innocent bystanders. It is, of course, immoral but I think no more immoral than bombing civilians who have had little control over the course of events in a police state, or even drafted soldiers who are just following orders. The US has tried it before, against Khadafy and against Hussein.


Another possibility is to incite the population to overthrow its leader (even if he was elected). This is a difficult task when the leader has control of the media and the police. It is astonishing that no media blitz was unleashed on Serbia by NATO. Surely the US has the satellite technology to beam down TV coverage of the Albanian refugee crisis, about which the Serbian populace has no knowledge at all. Only now (at this writing, 18 days after the NATO bombing began) has the US decided drop propaganda leaflets. These must be picked up on the street in the view of all, unlike radio or TV transmissions that can be seen and heard free from the prying eyes of the police and their informants. Instead of propaganda, the US tactic in the past few years has been economic blockade, increasing the suffering of the population in the hope that they would rebel (as in Iraq). No moves were taken (as they were in Iraq) to ensure delivery of humanitarian supplies to Serbia. The US has now substituted bombs for blockade. The bombing has solidified support for Milosevic as the guardian of Serbia.


Another possibility is to finance the opposition. Perhaps the US has done this; certainly current newspaper coverage in Serbia claims that the political opposition has been financed by the CIA. Unfortunately, the US military attacks have legitimized a complete crackdown on the Serbian democratic opposition. Independent TV (B92) has been closed down. The critical new magazine Vreme has obviously been taken over by government hacks. Recent coverage in the state-run main newspaper, Borba, signals a cleanup of the opposition.


The utility of the air campaign can only be initial. Unless it forces Milosevic to give in so as to preserve his armed forces for another day, Kosovo will have to be taken by ground troops. Given the size and capacity of the Serbian forces, a NATO force of at least 400,000 would be required against the eventuality that Milosevic might defend Kosovo at all costs. Fielding and supplying an army of that size would be very difficult. The Albanian ports at Durës and Vlorë are primitive. There are few good roads into Kosovo, one by a long detour through Macedonia via Ohrid. Entry via the Bay of Kotor would require invasion of Montenegro and ascent over a serpentine road to Podgorica, which could easily be interdicted. The natural route is from Thessaloniki through Gevgelija into Macedonia, but even though Greece is a member of NATO its internal political situation would make such cooperation difficult. An alternative would be to enter from Turkey via Bulgaria, but if Bulgaria agreed to such transit, its price might be too high -- the award of those portions of Macedonia it considers rightfully its own (in some sense, all of it). All other plausible routes lead not to Kosovo but to Belgrade, so that in the end what would be required to eject the Serb forces from Kosovo would be the conquest of Serbia. Fielding those forces would be logistically simpler but politically unattractive; the easiest route is through Croatia and across the plains of Srem to the threshold of Belgrade. The United States does not need an indebtedness to Franjo Tudjman.


Granting for the moment the utility of an air campaign, it is not at all clear that the longer term issues were thought through. The Pentagon warned the White House that an air campaign could not be guaranteed to be definitive. Nothing we have learned about air power since the saturation bombing of Germany in World War II would suggest any other conclusion. The White House was also warned that an air campaign would accelerate and intensify the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo that was already under way.


Similarly it is not clear that the Administration has thought about the costs of success. If Albanians remain in Kosovo under Serbian jurisdiction, it will require an international police force to guarantee their safety, and for years to come. If the Kosovo Albanians elect in three years, per the Rambouillet agreement, to exercise their option to secede, their independence may destabilize the Albanian minorities in Macedonia and Epirus. If all of the Albanians in the region decide to join Albania, the US attack on Kosovo will have achieved a major reorganization of the Balkans without even thinking about it. It will also have placed the US squarely on the historical side of Austria, Germany, and Italy.


The US is also playing directly into the villain role in Serbian mythology. If Serbia loses Kosovo, Serb victimology will proclaim that their heartland has been lost twice, once to the evil Turks, and again to the evil Americans. Epic poetry on this theme is doubtless even now being composed. Milosevic will become the second Lazar, the Serbian prince who, on the eve of battle in 1389, declared that it was better to die than to become a slave. If Serbia keeps Kosovo, and NATO withdraws out of temerity or political pressure if casualties are taken, Milosevic will become with Karageorgevich and Obrenovich (leaders of the revolutions of 1804 and 1815) one of the greatest heroes of Serbian history. This is a no-lose game for Milosevic.


What is the likely end game? Kosovo as it was a few months ago was ungovernable from Belgrade. Milosevic would well rid of it or at least of its Albanian population. His tactic has been to drive out the Albanians, so that he can replace them with Serbs. He has refugee Serbs in plentiful supply, driven from the Croatian Krajina, and to some extent from Bosnia. Even if he cannot drive out all the Albanians, he can clear northern Kosovo, providing a continous Serbian area across the Sandzak to the Macedonian border. Indeed, this may be the deal he will try to strike. He will not fight a pitched battle for Kosovo but will guard his forces for another day. He will retain a large piece of Kosovo for Serbia, and be a hero. He will be forced to give up another portion, filled with Albanians, by the evil forces of NATO, and he will be a hero again. NATO, having blundered in the opening and stumbled in the midgame, will have check, but no mate. Milosevic and his army will still be on the board.




What conclusions are we to draw? Given the strongest assumptions about the need to eliminate Milosevic on grounds of regional security, the means employed, the timing, and the place are all off the mark. Are we driven to believe the alternative theories listed earlier? If the Clinton Administration knows something that it has not told us, about why Kosovo is of such central importance, about why military attack was the only option, about why it had to be there and now, it should tell us. If it knows why a campaign to inform the Serbs about the villany of their own government could not have been instituted, it should tell us.


Otherwise we can only conclude, against our will and inclination, and in the presence of empathy with both the Albanian and Serbian peoples and distaste for the racist imperialism of Milosevic's government, that our own government is either stupid or arrogant.