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Why did we bomb Belgrade? MICHAEL MCCGWIRE In principle, the question was answered by our political leaders in the days following the start of NATO’s air campaign against Serbia, In practice, the answers raised new questions as to why these intelligent men were saying such things. Using similar words in various formulations, George Robertson and Robin Cook explained (repeatedly) that the political objective was to avert a humani- tarian disaster in Kosovo and/or to prevent a crisis from becoming a cata~ strophe. This was to be achieved by strategic and precision bombing of military targets (initially in Serbia) in order to reduce the capability of Serb forces to: continue with their violence; repress the Kosovar Albanians; order ethnic cleansing. There was an obvious disjunction between the stated military objective of degrading Serbia's military capability (a slow process) and the immediate political objective of halting the forced expulsions and associated killings in Kosovo. Indeed, bombing Belgrade seemed likely to inflame the situation, and made sense only if one believed that this demonstration of NATO resolve would cause Slobodan Milosevic to halt the process himself. That did not happen. We were then told—despite events in Bosnia and Croatia—that no one could have foreseen that Milosevic could have been so wicked. The continued bombing was justified by describing what was happen- ing in Kosovo (which was terrible enough) using exaggerated and emotive lan- guage, including talk of genocide which, in common parlance, clearly did not apply. Meanwhile, our leaders continued to demonize Milosevic. In the past, demonizing has been used to justify offensive military action that in other circumstances might be questionable. Abdul Nasser (whom Britain likened to Hitler) at the time of the Suez crisis is one such example; Muammar Qadhafi as ruler of Libya is another. So what exactly was afoot? Was this a punishment beating in the Balkans, where NATO, dissatisfied over UN ineffectiveness, was taking the law into its own hands? Or was there something more to the whole affair? This article is divided into two parts. The first is descriptive, reviewing the situation through to the end of 1998 and then summarizing events during the first six months of 1999. The second part revisits the evidence, following up Intemational Affais 76, « (2000) 1-23 Michael MecGwire various anomalies to construct a story that is more plausible (and in many ways more laudable) than what we were told at the time. What happened? Disintegration ‘Yugoslavia was one of the states most severely affected by the foreign debt crisis in the 1980s, but its special role in NATO strategy had ensured continuing access to Western credits. However, the winding down of the Cold War removed this leverage and exposed Yugoslavia to the full rigours of IMF conditionality. At the same time, Yugoslavia lost its niche position in the Cold War global economy and found itself in competition with the newly inde- pendent states of central Europe for Western trade and favours. The resultant economic austerity and budgetary conflict was hugely divisive and placed heavy strains on the complex political and socio-economic structure of the federal state, accentuating nationalistic tendencies which, for different reasons, were on the rise in Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia. These strains and the economic attractions of independence for Croatia and Slovenia led inexorably to the disintegration of the federal state. Yugoslavia was a federation of the Southern Slav peoples, and its political structure combined aspects of a union between sovereign territories with established borders, and a union between sovereign peoples, whose members could be living anywhere within the Federation, The right to secede was unclear and contested. The West (particularly the United States) took the view that the former republics were states-in-waiting and treated claims on their territory as international aggression. For Serbia and Croatia, which had significant minorities living outside their borders, such claims involved legitimate disputes about how to divide up a failed state. This applied particularly to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which comprised three national communi- ties. None had an overall majority, and the Serb minority strongly opposed the move to declare independence from the Federation. In other words, the West was oversimplifying when it identified Serb aggression as the root cause of the Bosnian conflict; even the label ‘multi-ethnic civil war’ missed the full complexity of what followed the failure of the Yugoslav state, about which the West had ample warning, And, whatever the merits of individual cases, there was little to choose between the different factions and their leaders. Each was adept at manipulating the aid process and the media, and made whatever gains that opportunity allowed, the level of bru- tality being largely determined by relative capabilities and the situation on the ground. Territories and their people were both the pieces and the board for this ruthless game. Although all sides were guilty of atrocities, up to July 199s (and including events at Srebrenica), the Bosnian Serbs had committed the over- whelming majority. However, in August 1995, the US-supported Croatian army, on the direct authority of the Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, drove Why did we bomb Belgrade? Serb forces from the Krajina and ‘cleansed’ the area of its 200,000 inhabitants. This was by far the largest expulsion up to that point, and was achieved in four days. The Croats started by shelling villages and towns to create panic and a disorganized mass exit; this was followed up by assault troops looting shops and dwellings, and then by the brutal paramilitaries. The Croatian modus operandi ‘was so effective that the Serbs adopted the same approach when they occupied Kosovo in March 1999. By the time of the assault on the Krajina, the war had tumed against the Bosnian Serbs and NATO was able to bomb with impunity. In 1993, Milosevic had been unsuccessfal in pressurizing them to accept UN-brokered peace pro- posals; the Bosnian Serbs had felt there was a better deal to be had by continuing the war. In 1995, they finally accepted that it was time to negotiate, and Milosevic once again acted as the influential intermediary between his fellow Serbs and the West, leading ultimately to the Dayton Accord. Kosovo By all accounts, Milosevic isa callous, ruthless, politically adept, power-hugging man. He can be socially engaging, but must never be trusted. The West has, alternated between vilifying him and finding him indispensable. He did not create the Kosovo problem, but he did exploit it. ‘The Albanians had resisted incorporation into Yugoslavia in 1918 and again in 1944. There was an inherent conflict between their long-established wish to unite Kosovo with Albania, and the emotional attachment by Serbs throughout Yugoslavia to Kosovo and its holy places. By 1961, Albanians already comprised 67 per cent of Kosovo's population and the Serbs only 24 per cent; in r99r, the ethnic imbalance would be 90:10. In 1974 the federal constitution had been amended to make Kosovo an autonomous province of the Serbian republic. This went a long way towards satisfying the aspirations of the Albanian majority, but there were still those who pressed for fall republican status for Kosovo and ultimate union in a Greater Albania. Following Tito’s death, there were widespread student-led riots and a period of federally imposed martial law. Meanwhile, there was growing polit- ical protest among the 200,000 Serbs about their subordinate status and the Albanians’ oppressive discrimination. Milosevic seized on this issue as a means of gaining the leadership of the Serbian Communist Party in 1987, which allowed him to appeal to a much wider constituency in Serbia, including anti-communists and right-wing nation- alists. By the time of the ‘million-man’ celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Milosevic had been elected President of the Serb Republic. More significant, in the multi-party elections held in December 1990 (the first in half a century), Milosevic’s newly formed Serbian Socialist Party won the support of 65 per cent of those voting (47 per cent of the full electorate). New laws disadvantaging the Albanians were introduced in 1989 and a con