The issue of Kosovo War still is, after 15 years, highly controversial. Just debating it, we could fill tens of seminars, symposia, edited collection of books, monographs and journal articles. In the end we could hardly find an explication shared by everyone. Every side is claiming justice, feeling that he/she had been vitcim of injustice. I can see innocent civilians suffering on every side, taken hostage by their political elite, in a circle of need for consensus and legitimacy on one hand, and with an escalation of violence on the other.Let’s try to get a different angle.
In Yugoslavia, in the 1980s, the political elites were suffering a lack of consensus. In a mediterranean society like the Yugoslav one (or the Italian one), the political elite had a role of modernization of the society and the country. Yugoslavs got material welfare in exchange of their individual freedom. After 40 years of un-interrupted rule of one party, during a deep economic and social crisis, the political elites tried to get new legitimacy not educating the people from the above, because not being able anymore to provide well paid jobs or cheap prices, they played another card. That card is the opposite from what is usually expected by a modernizing elite in a backward society: they did not raise the bar, they just lowered the bar. It could be called demagogy or populism. They tried (like Milosevic, Grillo in Italy etc.) to cut the distance between the common people and the political elites. Considering that governing a society in the modern sense is quite complex, it is dangerous to satisfy the primitive desires of the the man from the street.
This game of lowering the bar (not just in Serbia, of course), prepared the ground for this unpleasant situation: violence and war was a political option. The ego of a single nation was considered much more important than the ways to satisfy it. To satisfy the ego of the man from the street, to adopt demagogy, it means that the educating political and intellectual elite have to give up its own role in bringing a society from a traditional culture to a modern society. Usually this happens because the elite, after many years of ruling, is not anymore credible, because corrupted, because it transformed private interests in public ones, mocking the values of a liberal democracy.
Some societies already experienced the process of modernization, others much less. Without a deep change in the material and spiritual culture, that society is somehow under-developed (like in Italy today, if we keep in mind the corruption etc.), if we have in mind a certain model, like the liberal democracy.
Coming back to Yugoslavia, it is hard to deny that Kosovo Serbs, in the 1980s, did suffer forms of discriminations. We should ask why. Did Rankovic’s management affected this evolution? As I stated above and in other places, Milosevic exploited the dissatisfaction of Kosovo Serbs. It brought, with demagogy, Yugoslavia on the brink of war. The other leaders, in Slovenia or Croatia, played his game in an escalation. Milosevic had to prove in front of the Serbian electorate that he was not joking when it was time to defend the Serbs in Croatia or Bosnia. Tudjman and the Bosnian leaders had to prove to their electorate that they were defending themselves against the Serb aggression. This is called a vicious circle.
During the Wars in Croatia and Bosnia we had about 100.000 deaths, massacres, war crimes, refugees, internal displaced persons. This horror lasted 5 long years, apparently without a solution. The West for years did nothing, it just let it happens. Europe was divided, as it is still today. US had something else to do. In the end, in 1995, the Clinton administration decided, before the next presidential elections, to do something in Bosnia. The public opinion put under pressure the governments in the West, the refugees flux were putting under stress politicians. The main generator, because of its size and power, of the crisis, was seen in the Belgrade government. So in Dayton a deal was found, and Milosevic and the others became the godfathers of the pace, still lasting today.
But then, after a few years, the unresolved problem of Kosovo, put under the carpet at Dayton, emerged once again. In 1997 Albania was in a state of anarchy, weapons reached Kosovo. I just mention here the mission called Alba. Anarchy in Albania did not help the situation in Kosovo, as did not help the policies of Milosevic and his allies in Belgrade. The escalation of terroristic action by KLA, in order to free Pristina from Belgrade in 1998, were sanctioned by police and military actions of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At this stage, it is clear that innocent victims died on both sides. The fact is that Belgrade security forces, as in Bosnia at the beginning of the war, were much well prepared and organized. War crimes and a new flux of refugees was already rising (before NATO bombing), with a humanitarian crisis behing the corner, with hundred of thousands of displaced people, pushing also to the border of Macedonia.
The torrent of extremism and hatred was unleashed well before NATO bombing. It started at the end of the 1980s in the media. After the sad experience of what happend just few years before in Croatia and Bosnia, the US, with the same president, wanted to put and end to the crisis, to stop other massacres, flux of refugees in Macedonia, Albania, Italy, etc. After all, a crisis in Macedonia was quite possible, with a domino effect in Greece and Turkey. Since the diplomatic solutions were not producing an agreement, the US administration thought that it was necessary to show readyness to engage and punish Serbia, after the experience in Bosnia. In 1995 NATO already bombed Bosnian Serbs, and that lead to Dayton. Then, as in 1995, the Democrats had to think about the next presidential elections. They could not be involved in another Balkan crisis, after the success of Dayton, during the electoral campaign. It could have been a weak point. It is less credible that NATO bombing was aimed at covering the Lewinsky scandal.
NATO did not respect the international law, that’s true, but it is quite clear that in the international game, the power is what really matters. International law is not really binding, it is more a suggestion, unless there is someone with a gun forcing you to obey. Moreover, if we look at the international law, I guess that Belgrade violeted it when decided to support the war in Bosnia, and that’s why it was sanctioned by the UN embargo.
The easiest way was a war from the air, otherwise the Western public opinion could be offended at seeing NATO soldiers dying in Kosovo. Milosevic knew that for him it was not a problem, because Serbs knew that they were fighting for Kosovo, for their land. KLA knew it as well, they knew that with the help of NATO they could, one day, free themselves from Belgrade and the oppression. Kosovo Albanians, after Dayton, probably decided that the peaceful line of Rugova was not convenient. It may be possible that Milosevic did not expect that NATO was really ready to engage, because many countries in Europe were against the war, Italy included. It may be possible that NATO commanders did not expect Serbia to resist that long, after all the depleted uranium bombing over their heads.
In the big game of world powers, Milosevic’s Serbia was a kind of rebel, adopting the rethoric of anti-imperialism of the oppressed free small nations, fighting against the superpower. The Albanians were perceived as victims of an aggressor, that already committed war crimes in Bosnia, while the very same KLA was previously considered a terrorist organization by the same USA (we can call it relativism). Serbia in the 1990s acted as a regional great power without being it (because a real super power have immunity for its crimes). It already happened 100 years ago.
The US/NATO engaged not propery a war in the traditional meaning, it was more a punishing police actions toward a rebel. A rebel that since 1991 was contributing to destabilize the region of the Balkans (causing trobule in the West). We had casualties and innocent victims among Serbs and Albanians.
It was not just a matter of Albright, or Lewinsky. It is not just for the pleasure to wage a war in the 50th anniversary of NATO. I am not sure that it was waged primarily or just for the human rights of an oppressed people (this does not mean that it was not).
Which people was more oppressed? The Albanians under Milosevic in Kosovo? The Serbs (FRY) under 78 days of NATO bombing? What had to be done? Let it happen like in Croatia and Bosnia few years before?
If someone, in the 1980s, did not embrace populism, if among the Yugoslavs the civil society was more developed, if the democratic values were more rooted, if…if…may be the West did not have to intervene in its backyard in order to stop a carnage on the verge of the XXI century. That’s not a matter of Serbian victimism: when Milosevic embraced populism in 1987, he was a top leader of the communist apparat, Tudjman was still just a dissident (and a former partisan, of course). Indeed Milosevic is a cristal clear example of bureaucratic careerism (he was put in power thanks to Ivan Stambolic in 1986, then Sloba purged Ivica in 1987).
We could say that what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1980s-1990s, is a clear example of a rotten experiment of modernization. At the time it was politically convenient to be a demagogue, because it was easier than give up the monopoly of the power in a more pluralistic and democratic way. At a different magnitude, this happend in Italy at the beginning of the 1990s, after the “Clean hands” (Mani pulite), when an entire party system (the so called first Republic) was erased with the judiciary system. After the erosion of the ideologies, it was quite modern to be in favour of regionalism, like in the case of the Notherrn League of Umberto Bossi, or with the soft TV populism of Berlusconi later on.
Today, even the spokesperson of MIlosevic, Dacic, is taking distance from his past, admitting that it was a mistake. The same is true of Vucic, that from Greater Serbia is now conducting his country toward the EU. Why this U turn? Because it is politically convenient, because of external pressures maybe, but also because of a slow change in the mentality of the nation, of the people. From Dacic to Thaci they are talking about growth, finance, uneployment, and not about waging wars and redraw the borders. The political elite in Serbia is again trying to be a modernizing factor in the society.
Nationalism was and still is seen as a factor of modernity, as a catalyst of more social justice and freedom. Still, in this post-modern globalized world, it is showing its own limits. I wonder if it is still a sustainable and convenient strategy and policy.
The world is still under a constant challenge, we can see it everyday. Just take the example of the conflict in Ukraine. Ukraine is very similar to what was Croatia in 1991. Zagreb, like Kiev, accused of being fascist, with a rebel minority helped by a bigger and stronger neighbour, supported abroad by conservative traditionalists and extreme leftists (Umberto Bossi, at the time head of the independentist Northern League, populist, conservative, together with Armando Cossutta, extreme left, in 1999 both supported Milosevic). That’s why Putin is so often compared to Milosevic. The political elite usually is the expression of the society, so, in the end, in the transition toward modernity, the elite should help the society educating it, offering more welfare and personal freedom, creating a tolerant society against the minorities. A weak civil society can’t produce strong liberal political elites. To give the delicate instrument of democracy to weak civil societies could conduct to unwanted results, as happened in Yugoslavia in 1990.
This is a matter of mentality, culture, faith. The change, good or bad, toward modernity is currently ongoing. It is up to every person or society to decide on which side to stay. Of course there are many ways of embracing and adapting to modernity, and there is also a grey area in the middle. Waging the Kosovo War, the West killed innocent civilians, destroyed buildings and factories, violated the international law. The same did well before Serbia in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. On a smaller scale so did KLA. If we consider those actions as crimes, as illegitmate, at the same level, we will never make sense of it (who is the liberator, who is the villain?). The main way to discriminate and create a hierarchy is to understand which war was in favour of modernity and which one was not. If war is not a necessary evil, why are we talking about nazi-fascism as the evil and the democracies and partisans as the liberators? Of course, nobody want a war, but before saying no, we should at least ask why – for which kind of values and society – we fight. As far as there will not be a single thought in all the human kind, also the Kosovo war will be have its supportes and its critics.