Kosovo Conflict Escalates

With communal violence escalating in Serbia’s Kosovo province, the international community pressured Yugoslavia to halt its military operations there in favor of an international peacekeeping force. When Belgrade refused, NATO initiated a bombing campaign to force Yugoslavia to accept its demands.

Summary of Event

In a region where memories are long and injuries are slow to be forgiven, the roots of the conflict in Kosovo that prompted military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization;Kosovo intervention (NATO) in March of 1999 stretch back centuries to the watershed year of 1389, when the armies of the ancient Serbian empire were defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. That defeat in the heartland of the Serbian empire opened Kosovo’s door to settlement by the Albanians living to the south, and by the time the Ottoman Empire met its defeat in World War I, Kosovo was already heavily Albanian-speaking and Muslim. In the interim, the nineteenth century had witnessed both a rebirth of Serbian nationalism and the birth of pan-Albanian nationalism in a southern Kosovo city, Prizren. Kosovo War (1998-1999)
Racial and ethnic conflict;Kosovo
[kw]Kosovo Conflict Escalates (Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999)
[kw]Conflict Escalates, Kosovo (Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999)
[kw]Escalates, Kosovo Conflict (Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999)
Kosovo War (1998-1999)
Racial and ethnic conflict;Kosovo
[g]Europe;Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999: Kosovo Conflict Escalates[09940]
[g]Serbia and Montenegro;Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999: Kosovo Conflict Escalates[09940]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999: Kosovo Conflict Escalates[09940]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 28, 1998-June 9, 1999: Kosovo Conflict Escalates[09940]
Milošević, Slobodan
Rugova, Ibrahim
Haradinaj, Ramush

For most of the twentieth century, these rival nationalisms resulted in a low-intensity conflict in Kosovo between the province’s Serbian minority and its growing(to 90 percent by 1990) Albanian-Muslim majority. There were moments of truce—for example, when Tito, creator and first ruler of the independent communist state of Yugoslavia, gave the province a measure of local autonomy—but there were also moments that significantly worsened relations between the two communities, most notably during World War II, when the occupying German forces created a bogus Kosovo Albanian republic and Kosovo Albanians exercised often brutal control over Kosovo’s Serbs. It was not until the late 1980’s, however, that matters began to spiral out of control.

In 1989, with communism collapsing in the Soviet Union and Central Europe, Slobodan Milošević in rapid order assumed power in Belgrade, revoked Kosovo’s right to local autonomy, and—in an effort to legitimate his regime—celebrated the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo by promising his fellow Serbs that Kosovo would forever remain Serbian. A year later, Kosovo Albanians created a “separatist” government in exile in Albania under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, and Albanian separatist groups in Kosovo began targeting Kosovo Serbs and the Yugoslav security forces in Kosovo. The conflict escalated further in 1993, when, amid the civil wars elsewhere in Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged to begin a guerrilla warfare campaign for an independent Kosovo.

The settlement of the civil wars elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia negotiated in November of 1995 at Dayton, Ohio, Dayton Accords (1995) had two effects on the conflict in Kosovo. For Milošević, who had been forced to accept the independence of four of Yugoslavia’s six former union republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia), the loss of Kosovo was untenable. Consequently, Belgrade intensified its efforts to crush the rebellion in Kosovo. For the KLA, NATO’s intervention to secure Bosnia’s independence was an inspiration. It thus began to escalate its attacks on Yugoslav forces in Kosovo in an apparent effort to provoke Belgrade into so overreacting that NATO would intercede on its behalf as well. Indeed, by 1997 the KLA was involved in a persistent state of war against Belgrade’s control of Kosovo, frequently committing terrorist acts against not just Serbian targets but also the moderate Kosovo Albanians who condemned its violent tactics.

In February, 1998, the KLA’s strategy began to work. Announcing a major offensive against the “terrorist gangs” operating in Kosovo, Belgrade stepped up its efforts to crack down on the rebels and cut into their logistical support network in Kosovo’s Albanian community. The operation resulted almost immediately in the exodus of tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians and stirred rumors of widespread massacres in Kosovo, many of which were given credibility because of the notorious “ethnic cleansing” operations that Serbs conducted in Bosnia. Subsequent evidence indicated that these rumors vastly exaggerated reality, but they were not entirely without foundation. At the time, however, Belgrade’s offensive produced a flurry of diplomatic activity.

An ethnic Albanian spray paints a Serbian home in Zegra, Kosovo, in June, 1999.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

A year later, Milošević found himself facing an ultimatum. Either he had to terminate Yugoslavia’s security operations in Kosovo, restore autonomy to the province, and permit the deployment of an international peacekeeping force on Yugoslav territory, or he had to face the consequences. Wrapping himself in the mantle of Yugoslavia’s sovereign jurisdiction over its internal affairs, Milošević refused and, on March 20, 1999, escalated Belgrade’s military activity against the Kosovo rebels. Four days later, NATO launched its military operation; for seventy-eight days, NATO engaged in an aerial bombing campaign directed against Yugoslav targets inside and outside Kosovo. On June 9, 1999, Belgrade acceded to the international community’s earlier demands. Shortly thereafter, peacekeeping forces began arriving in Kosovo, and reconstruction and democratization efforts began there under the auspices of the United Nations.


The importance of NATO’s intervention was still being debated years later, as was the issue of what to do with Kosovo. Richard Holbrooke, Holbrooke, Richard President Bill Clinton’s envoy to the Balkans, argued that NATO’s action was a success because it both prevented genocide from occurring in Kosovo and weakened Milošević’s grip on power, contributing to his downfall. It was a clear military success in the sense that the bombing campaign forced Milošević to agree to the deployment of an international presence at a minimum cost of NATO lives and civilian casualties. The value of NATO’s action in advancing human rights and creating the conditions for a lasting peace in Kosovo, however, is a murkier topic.

Ethnic Albanian Kosovar children and their mothers stay at a refugee camp in Albania in 1999.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

The announced justification for NATO’s prophylactic intervention was threefold: to halt any further commitment of the war crimes allegedly occurring in Kosovo, to minimize casualties, and to stem the destabilizing flow of refugees into neighboring states. In fact, NATO’s operation produced exactly the opposite results. Within forty-eight hours of the initiation of NATO’s bombing campaign, hundreds of thousands of additional Albanian refugees had flooded across Kosovo’s borders into makeshift refugee camps in neighboring areas. Refugees;Albanians Meanwhile, inside Kosovo, Serbian forces took out their frustration on the Albanian civilians still there, who were left undefended throughout the seventy-eight days because NATO had excluded at the outset the deployment of ground forces during the war. When the war ended and the Albanian refugees returned from exile, the absence of NATO ground troops opened the door to Albanian-committed acts of revenge against members of Kosovo’s vulnerable Serbian population, who—along with Kosovo’s detested Romany community—were forced to take flight to wherever they could find shelter in other parts of Serbia or in Montenegro.

The flight of the Serbian refugees, Refugees;Serbians in turn, enormously complicated the task of peace building in postwar Kosovo. In authorizing its oversight operations there, the United Nations explicitly recognized the province as a part of Serbia—a stipulation that Kosovo’s independence-minded Albanian community rejected. Kosovo Albanians similarly opposed the return of Kosovo Serbs because they feared that the Serbs’ repatriation would strengthen Belgrade’s claim to the province. Thus, when NATO sought to protect Kosovo Serbs and abet their return, its forces were targeted by extremists in the Albanian community even as that community as a whole showed increasing inclination to elect former KLA leaders and other hard-line Albanian politicians to head Kosovo’s provincial government. Not surprisingly, caught between Belgrade’s refusal to permit Kosovo’s independence and the unwillingness of Kosovo’s postwar leaders to accept anything less, a peaceful diplomatic solution to the Kosovo issue persistently eluded U.N. negotiators. Kosovo War (1998-1999)
Racial and ethnic conflict;Kosovo

Further Reading

  • Bieber, Florian, and Zidas Daskalovskim, eds. Understanding the War in Kosovo. London: Frank Cass, 2003. Collection of scholarly essays offers a careful study of the origins and evolution of the ethnic conflict in Kosovo and NATO’s efforts to end the violence there.
  • Chandler, David. From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Pluto Press, 2006. Presents a comprehensive analysis of third-party intervention in the name of human rights, with an extensive discussion of the precedent set by NATO’s action in Kosovo.
  • Knudsen, Tonny Brems, and Carsten Bagge Lausten, eds. Kosovo Between War and Peace: Nationalism, Peacebuilding, and International Trusteeship. New York: Routledge, 2006. Collection of insightful essays addresses the peacemaking and peace-building tasks that the international community assumed in intervening in Kosovo.
  • Ramet, Sabrina P. Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Outstanding work for understanding the context and consequences of the U.N. decision to deploy a peacekeeping force in war-torn Yugoslavia and the NATO military activity that finally brought the protagonists to the peace conference in Dayton.
  • Williams, Garland H. Engineering Peace: The Military Role in Postwar Reconstruction. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2005. Excellent analysis of U.S. efforts to create a lasting peace in Kosovo. Places events in a comparative context.

Death of Tito

Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces

Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia

Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik

Serbs Face Charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia

Dayton Negotiations Produce Bosnian Peace Accord

Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre