Kosovo:A Dangerous Flashpoint

Kalpana Chittaranjan,Researcher,IDSA


The Balkans have witnessed substantial problems when, over the centuries, attempts have been made to draw the geographic boundaries of states (which are political entities) so that they coincide with those of nations (which are communities of people). This process is an ongoing problem. The forces that divide the Serbs, Croats and Muslims are differing histories, religions, economic and territorial aspirations as well as recent brutal conflicts.

Yugoslavia: Past and Present

To have an understanding of why there is turmoil in Kosovo today, it is essential to go back to Yugoslavia's early and immediate past. The present day Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) declared itself into being on April 27, 1992, and consists of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. These two republics are carved out of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) which had also included the republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. The beginning of the Yugoslav statehood is pegged at 1169 when Stefan Nemanja declared himself the Grand Zupan of Raska. While his eldest son (also known as Stefan) was recognised as the first King, his youngest son, Sava, became Archbishop, in 1219, of the first Serbian autocephalous Church that was based at Zica. Under the influence of Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") culture, the Kingdom gradually grew, in terms of both wealth and political prestige and the Serbian realm reached its furthest territorial extent, i.e., from the Danube in the north to the Peloponnese in the south, during the reign of Stefan Dusan the Great who ruled from 1331 to 1355. Following Dusan's death, the medieval Serbian Empire began to disintegrate, especially in its efforts at resisting the attempts of the Turkish Ottoman Empire from extending its territory into Europe. The Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo Polje on June 28, 1389. As later events have proved, Kosovo has a deep historical significance for Serbia because the 1389 battle which is also known as Kosovo's Field of Blackbirds, although ending in a Turkish victory and a Serbian collapse, has long been the rallying point for Serbian nationalism. When the last Serbian stronghold of Smederovo was captured in 1459, the Turk victory was complete. As for Montenegro, which was then known as Zeta, it was an integral part of the Serb state having the same cultural traditions which were derived from Eastern Orthodox Christianity. However, the Montenegran region was saved from Ottoman conquest because of its mountainous region. After the First Serbian Uprising (1804-13) and Second Serbian Uprising (1815-17), Serbia succeeded, under the leadership of Prince Mihail Obrenovic, in removing the last Ottoman garrisons. By the time the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were fought, Serbia had expanded into Macedonia and the Ottoman Empire, had, by this time, lost most of its European possessions.1

Kosovo Loses Autonomy

Kosovo, which lies in south-west Serbia, alongwith Vojvodina, were Autonomous Provinces of the SFRY. The province is peopled by two million ethnic Albanians, who constitute 90 per cent of the population. With the rise of Serb nationalism from the mid-1980s, tensions were exacerbated in the region. With the election of Slobadan Milosevic as President of the Serbian State Presidency in May 1989 (he was re-elected in direct elections in November), the nationalist mood of the Serbs grew. The Yugoslav Constitution of 1974 which granted the ethnic Albanians some national rights under the federal state, most notably the achievement of the status of an Autonomous Province and participation in Communist Yugoslavia as a federal unit was now perceived to be against Serbian interests and the new leadership sought to reduce the autonomy of both Kosovo and Vojvodina. The 1990 Serbian Constitution removed whatever vestiges remained of autonomy from the two provinces. July 2, 1990, saw a republic-wide referendum on this Constitution, which was largely boycotted by the Albanians, which resulted in a majority of Serbs approving the new Constitution. The Constitution was formally promulgated on September 28, 1990, from when Kosovo was known as Kosovo and Metohija. In response to the referendum, 114 of the 180 Deputies in the Kosovo Assembly met and declared Kosovo independent of Serbia and itself a constituent republic of the SFRY. The Serbian authorities dissolved the Provincial Assembly and government on July 5, 1990. To protest this move, the Kosovo Presidency resigned and Serbia introduced a special administration. By September of the same year, about 15, 000 Albanian officials had been dismissed and measures limiting the number of Alabnians in the education system had been implemented.2 Ever since Kosovo lost its autonomous status, it has been fighting for independence.

Recent Events (Up to June-end 1998)

In recent times, the crisis in Kosovo deteriorated since special Serbian police units launched an offensive on February 28, 1998, against suspected Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)3 strongholds in the central Drenica area, which is near Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo. The first week of March 1998 saw fierce fighting taking place between police and ethnic Albanians at Drenica, which claimed about 27 lives. To protest against this, several thousand Albanians demonstrated at Pristina, on March 9. At the same time, Ministers from six major countries (the Contact Group on the Balkans, which was originally formed to tackle the civil war in Bosnia and included the USA, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany) met at London to discuss the possibility of an international response to the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated she would urge these countries to adopt a tough package of economic and diplomatic measures to press Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic to halt repression and open talks on autonomy for the Kosovans. Earlier, while talking to visiting Turkish Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem, Milosevic rejected moves to internationalise the Kosovo crisis, arguing that the matter was internal.4

The Contact Group met on March 25 at Bonn to discuss putting more pressure on Milosevic to seek a peaceful solution in Kosovo after a new bout of violence in the Serbian province erupted again, the day before, between Serbian police and Kosovo Albanians, after an ambush of a police patrol by separatist guerrillas which killed one policeman and wounded another. Unofficial Serbian sources claimed that earlier, four Albanians, believed to be members of the KLA, had been killed in the fighting around the village of Dubrava near the Yugoslav-Albanian border. While the Albanians staunchly refused for two weeks to join talks without foreign mediation, they appeared to yield to foreign pressure to consider entering talks—foreign governments supported the idea of discussions as a way to resolve the crisis.5 Meanwhile, after chairing the six-nation Contact Group meeting at Bonn, Albright told a news conference that the Group had "sustained the minimum degree of pressure needed"6 when the USA and Russia reached a compromise by giving Yugoslavia four weeks to end the bloodshed in Kosovo or face sanctions.

The UN Security Council entered the picture when, on March 31, it imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, to place pressure on Milosevic to make concessions to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, including talks leading to substantial autonomy for the province. While China abstained from the resolution saying that it would not facilitate negotiations, Russia agreed to accept it only after other Council members agreed to delete a reference to the situation in the province constituting a threat to "international peace and security in the region."7 The resolution required that all states "for the purpose of fostering peace and stability in Kosovo" prevent the sale or supply to Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, of arms and related materials. It called for action to "prevent arming and training for terrorist activities" in Kosovo (which was a reference to armed separatists and groups that receive weapons and money from sympathisers abroad). The resolution called upon the authorities in Belgrade and the leadership of the Kosovo Albanian community to enter urgently into a meaningful dialogue without preconditions, and finally, it expressed support for "an enhanced status for Kosovo which would include a substantially greater degree of autonomy and meaningful self-administration."8 Though the US Ambassador to the UN said that the "resolution sends an unambiguous signal to the Yugoslav government in Belgrade that the world will not tolerate violence and ethnic cleansing"9 in the Balkans, it was generally believed that the embargo is largely symbolic, since both the Yugoslav government and the Albanian extremists are already well armed. The Serbian Parliament meeting at Belgrade on April 7, voted to hold a referendum on April 23, to decide on whether foreigners should mediate on talks on Kosovo. For the referendum to be considered valid, at least 51 per cent of the population needed to go to the polls. When results for the referendum were finally announced, the Serbian electorate had voted overwhelmingly, with a massive 97 per cent "no" to international mediation in the Kosovo conflict.10

During the Parliament meet, the highest-ranked Serbian official to visit Kosovo, after at least 80 people were killed since the police crackdown on Albanian civilians and militants were killed in March, was rebuffed. Albanian officials refused to meet the official, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, at Pristina, because of preconditions that they would not talk to Serbian officials without the presence of foreign mediators and that the Serbian special forces had to be withdrawn from the region. Thus, while the Serbs consider the Kosovo crisis to be an internal matter, which does not need any foreign mediation or intervention to resolve the issue, the ethnic Albanians hold the view that they would talk to Serbian officials only in the presence of foreign mediators. After the refusal of Albanian negotiators to meet him, Milutinovic said, "Such an irresponsible stand speaks for itself." He went on to add that delay and rejection of talks would mean that tensions would continue.11 Most speakers during the Parliamentary debate repudiated international mediation as "blackmail against Serbia" and spoke in terms reminiscient of the Serbian nationalists on the eve of bloody wars in Croatia and Bosnia. An example of their bitterness is found in the statement of Stevo Dragisic, a Deputy of the ultra-nationist Radical Party, "The United States has always...supported our enemies, and now it wants to destroy the Serbs....If we accept (US) mediation, we would be signing our capitulation."12

On the fourth day (April 13), of daily half-hour gatherings called for by Kosovo's main political party, the Kosovo Democratic League (LDK) and 13 other groups, to strengthen moves for independence, a Serbian police officer was injured during an attack on Vranjevac in Pristina when three hand-grenades were hurled at a police station.13

While senior officials met at Rome on April 28 (where it was decided that Yugoslav overseas assets would be frozen),14 the KLA declaring itself at war with Serbia, called for foreign mediation and demanded a place at the negotiating table. In a statement issued to Albanian language newspapers, the KLA general staff said, "We call on liberation forces to join us in a war against the enemy."15 The rebel group, with a core of about several hundred fighters, had begun stepping up attacks on government targets and Albanian "collaborators" in 1997. The group also attacked Kosovan leader Rugova's non-violent policies saying "cowards of defeatism should leave."16 Meanwhile, in two days of blistering firefights between Serb police and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo's border village of Ponosevac, the Serbs succeeded in seizing the village. While a Romany civilian was killed, five Serbian policemen and three Romany civilians were reported wounded in the fighting.17 Addressing a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, US President Bill Clinton warned Yugoslavia that Western allies are ready to "substantially turn the pressure" if necessary, to stop the Kosovo crisis as, "We don't want another Bosnia."18

US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, the main architect of the 1995 Bosnian peace accords, who, through his shuttle diplomacy and forceful personality was widely credited with helping end the war in Bosnia, warned on May 10 that "the United States can be seen by everyone here today as surely engaged in the efforts to deal with this extraordinarily dangerous situation."19 Holbrooke, who was accompanied by the US Under-Secretary of State Robert Gelbard, was speaking after meeting the Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano. He had earlier met the Kosovan leader Rugova and the Yugoslav President Milosevic. "All three of the leaders agreed on one thing, the situation is dangerous. After that agreement, of course, there is no agreement on what to do next,"Holbrooke told reporters.20

Where a role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is concerned, speaking at a Western European Union (WEU) meeting where Foreign and Defence Ministers of 28 countries—10 full members and 18 observers or associates—had gathered on the Greek island of Rhodes, British Defence Secretary George Robertson said, "The general view is that NATO has the military capability, is doing the assessment exercises at the moment and that it will bring the Americans with it and an interface with the Russians."21 He also said that the WEU defence grouping had a role to play in the crisis that would very likely be limited to training of border police in neighbouring Albania. The Ministers at the Rhodes meeting concluded that options for NATO would include creating a no-flight zone, placing observers in Kosovo and creating a military border patrol on Albania's frontier with Kosovo.22

On May 11, Holbrooke, shuttling between ethnic Albanian separatist leaders in southern Serbia and the government in Belgrade, admitted that he had made little progress in getting the two sides to start direct talks on stopping the Kosovo conflict. After meeting with Rugova in Pristina, Holbrooke said, "We are trying to get a process going. All other details are being discussed and, I might add, without much progress."23 Holbrooke later flew to Belgrade for his third round of talks with Milosevic since May 9. In what Holbrooke described as a "procedural breakthrough," an important first step was taken when Rugova met with Milosevic in Belgrade on May 14, the first time the two sides had taken such a step towards peace in Serbia's disputed province. Earlier, the Kosovo Albanians had boycotted 13 previous efforts to start negotiations. Though Rugova had dropped his demand that foreign mediators play a direct role in the talks, he made it clear that the US would remain closely involved. Rugova described the atmosphere that prevailed in Belgrade's ceremonial White Palace as one of "tolerance and understanding" while Milosevic issued a statement saying, "This meeting could be considered as the start toward a peaceful solution of the Kosovo crisis."24 Veton Suroi, a member of Rugova's negotiating team said the talks were "an optimistic first step" but that serious and deep differences remained. The two leaders were again due for a meeting in Pristina on May 22.25 When the talks did take place in Pristina, the two sides agreed to meet again the next week and to maintain permanent contact. Holbrooke viewed the talks as "an important step forward in the (peace) process They are the first technical talks between the two sides ever. We can take hope from them."26

However, due to an outbreak of violence by Serb forces on villages in Kosovo when about a dozen people were killed in renewed ethnic clashes, which at that period was the worst outbreak of violence since early March, the process towards what was looking like a workable peace broke down. Rugova, as the self-declared republic's President, went on a five-day trip to the USA as leader of a three-member team,27 to garner international support and recognition for Kosovo's fight for independence. After meeting with US President Clinton on May 29, Rugova was assured by the former's spokesman, Mike McCurry, that the US was consulting its European partners and that "an appropriate, swift and firm response" would be given to Serbia's assaults on the province.28 In a development related to Kosovo, the US Agency for International Development said that it was increasing its assistance to the province by $6 million. The total aid of $13.5 million would go to non-governmental agencies for providing mostly emergency and humanitarian needs.29 During the trip, Rugova also had a half-hour meeting with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, during which he asked the latter to despatch a human rights mission to Kosovo and urged measures to prevent the escalation of violence, such as making the province an international protectorate.30

On June 1, Serb forces sealed-off the western part of Kosovo after thousands of ethnic Albanians fled a new offensive and Rugova appealed to the world to intervene so as to halt the violence in the province and to step up its support for the Albanian population. On his return from the USA, Rugova spoke of his fear that the "dangerous situation on the ground in Kosovo" would end in a massacre.31

In a fresh offensive, while the villages of Shaptej, Gramocel and Babaloc were targetted by Serb heavy artillery, fierce fighting also took place in the Decani area, about 70km west of Pristina. In escalating clashes between government forces and the KLA in the first week of June, more than 10, 000 Kosovo Albanian refugees fled to North Albania. In a bid to "de-escalate the present crisis, to end military action and help refugees return," German Foreign Ministry official, Wolfgang Ischinger, met with Rugova in Pristina and top government officials in Belgrade.32

Expressing alarm at what they said were signs of a new wave of "ethnic cleansing", a joint statement issued by European Union (EU) Foreign Ministers after a meeting in Luxembourg said, "The Council has today adopted a common position for a ban on new investments in Serbia." The EU also decided to freeze Yugoslav government assets in member states. The statement went on to add that evidence of military attacks on civilians showed that Belgrade was "engaged in a campaign of violence that goes far beyond what could legitimately be described as a targeted anti-terrorist operation."33 The EU was also "determined to play its part in stopping the flow of money and weapons to the KLA."

It was early on in the conflict that it became clear that key defence and security institutions like NATO and the WEU had no clear military plans should talks fail despite years of warning that the ethnically-split Yugoslav province of Kosovo is a potential flashpoint. Successive WEU meetings in Rhodes and Paris and discussions within NATO and between the West and Russia brought about disputes to the fore. Russia tried wherever possible, to pursue its own diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis and avert NATO intervention mainly because the Serbs are fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs. Where the West and Russia were concerned, it was about the legality of using force against Serbia without a United Nations resolution. While Russia was in favour of a UN resolution before using force, the West felt that NATO could get involved directly, if the situation warranted it. That opportunity came when NATO officially announced that air exercises codenamed "Operation Determined Falcon" would be held over Albania and Macedonia, which would include fighters, reconnaissance planes, airborne early warning systems, air refuelling tankers and helicopters to demonstrate the organisation's "capacity to rapidly stage a show of strength" aimed at halting a military crackdown in neighbouring Kosovo. The flights would mark the first time in NATO history that it would be trying to influence a country's behaviour by flexing its muscles in neighbouring countries.34 Operation Determined Falcon was carried out, as announced by NATO the previous day, on June 15, over Albania and Macedonia. The aircraft had taken off from military bases in NATO countries and after flying to the exercise area, returned to their bases.35 Meanwhile, in talks with Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, in the middle of June, the Yugoslav President Milosevic promised free access for international monitors and aid groups to western Kosovo and no repressive actions to be carried out against civilians. He, however, ruled out the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army guarding the border with Albania.36 Reacting to the offer, Fehmi Agani, head of the four-member Kosovo Albanian team named to negotiate with the Serbs, turned it down, saying, "What was announced in Moscow is not new, because the problem is not whether there will be any talks with the Albanians but the conditions in which talks should be held....Two important conditions set by the international community....have not been fulfilled. And meaningful talks depend on them."37

Russia urged patience in giving diplomacy a chance by sending two Deputy Foreign Ministers to the Balkans on June 21, to try and resolve the crisis. One of them, Nikolai Afanasyevsky, left for Pristina and was also slated to visit Belgrade for talks with Yugoslav leaders, while the other was Alexander Avdeyev, who visited Albania and Macedonia to brief leaders on the talks that Milosevic had had with Yeltsin the previous week. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, meanwhile, told a news conference that the international community had to act rapidly to find a peaceful settlement to the Kosovo conflict because "time is running out. We do not have much time."38 He later said that NATO was ready to play its role. "Our military authorities are now looking at a wide range of options. And no option—I repeat, no option—is being ruled out."39

Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy was again sent to Belgrade, on June 22, to personally carry the message of NATO's threat of military action in an effort to persuade Milosevic to stop attacks on the Kosovo ethnic Albanians. In a stopover at Macedonia, on his way to Belgrade, Holbrooke said, "We have to prevent the events in Kosovo from escalating into a general war. That goal will not be easy to achieve."40

June 29 witnessed thousands of Serbian special policemen and troops, backed by artillery, heavy armour and tanks launching a series of attacks against separatist rebel positions. Western diplomats were of the view that these attacks ended the latest effort to negotiate a ceasefire and held the view that fighting would spread to new areas, including the provincial capital, Pristina. Heavy blue-armoured personnel carriers unleashed volleys at trenches and checkpoints held by the lightly-armed KLA, near the mining town of Belacevac, 10 km west of Pristina. The Serb gunners also attacked Lapushnik, where rebels had barricaded the main road leading from Pristina to Pec.

Meanwhile, Holbrooke, who had spent four days the previous week trying to broker a ceasefire, called Kijevo "the most dangerous place in Europe," warning that a Serbian effort to push into the town and free it from rebel encirclement could lead to a general war. "The Serbians believe this is the final offensive," said a Western military observer. "But this is the third attempt since March by the Serbian security forces to wipe out the rebels. Each attempt has only brought an escalation of the fighting. So will this one," he went on to add.41 The decision by Belgrade to make a push against rebel positions followed efforts by the US to broker a ceasefire agreement and halt the fighting that erupted in Kosovo in March. Neither Belgrade nor the KLA which controlled about 40 per cent of the province, was willing to make concessions.


It is clear from the situation that prevails in Kosovo that it is a potential flashpoint that could engulf the entire Balkan region and from there, a much wider area. Loss of Serbian life in Kosovo, where two million people live (as has been mentioned), 90 per cent of whom are ethnic Albanians, could bring about a punitive action by Yugoslav forces, an intensification of guerrilla warfare and possibly even terrorism by the Albanians.42 Once the situation ignites, violence in Kosovo could grow into prolonged fighting which could be as devastating as that which shattered neighbouring Bosnia.43

For peace to return to Kosovo, some conditions are necessary. It is essential for the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to realise that it will be difficult for them to achieve independence, given that the KLA is composed of rebel Albanian fighters, who are outgunned and outnumbered by superior Serb firepower. Therefore, it will be more pragmatic for the outfit to agree to talks with the Serbians on autonomy for the province of Kosovo. It is also essential for Yugoslavia to understand that the KLA have intimate knowledge of the rugged local terrain, enjoy popular support and are unwavering in their will to prevail besides having the power and capacity to strike suddenly. Thus, if they do not want to get into a long-drawn civil war with the Kosovo Albanians which could result in a Bosnia-like situation, the Yugoslav authorities must withdraw their armed forces from Kosovo, be willing to accept international mediation for talks with Rugova as well as representatives of the KLA and grant autonomy to the province. As early as 1853, the Archbishop of Skopje, in despair, had written about Kosovo that "these districts may be regarded as being in a state of permanent revolution and anarchy."44 Today, the province which is teetering on disaster, cannot afford a permanent revolution or anarchy. Instead, urgent solutions for peace are the need of the hour to prevent a potential man-made catastrophe.



1. For a chronological history of Yugoslavia, see Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States—1997 (London: Europa, 1997), pp. 840-844. For a historical account of Yugoslavia from "early history" to "the dissolution of the SFRY: 1987-92" see David Norris, "History," in Ibid., pp. 845-848. The recent books that provide an excellent insight into why bombs and bloodletting are once more scarring Kosovo's landscape are, Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (London: Macmillan, 1998) and Miranda Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo (London: Hurst & Co., 1998).

2. Eastern Europe, Ibid., pp. 874-875.

3. Financial Times, April 29, 1998. The KLA is funded and organised by radical exiles among the Alabanian diaspora in Switzerland and Germany. It started out as poorly organised and equipped but in recent times, besides a sharp increase in membership, the outfit has become better organised.

4. China Daily, March 10, 1998.

5. The Statesman, March 26, 1998.

6. The Statesman, March 28, 1998.

7. The Statesman, April 2, 1998.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. The Asian Age, April 25, 1998.

11. Khaleej Times, April 9, 1998.

12. Ibid.

13. Khaleej Times, April 15, 1998.

14. Khajeej Times, May 1, 1998.

15. Financial Times, April 30, 1998.

16. Ibid.

17. The Asian Age, May 6, 1998.

18. Khaleej Times, May 8, 1998.

19. The Hindu, May 12, 1998.

20. Ibid.

21. Khajeej Times, May 13, 1998.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Khaleej Times, May 24, 1998.

25. The other two members included the shadow government's Prime Minister Bujar Bukoshi and Kosovo negotiator and spokesman Veton Surroi. As has been mentioned, the Kosovo shadow government was formed after underground elections in 1992. It oversees its own school and health system and collects taxes.

26. Khaleej Times, May 31, 1998.

27. Ibid.

28. Financial Times, June 3, 1998.

29. Ibid.

30. Khaleej Times, June 7, 1998.

31. Ibid.

32. Khaleej Times, June 7, 1998.

33. Khaleej Times, June 9, 1998.

34. The Hindu, June 15, 1998.

35. The Hindu, June 16, 1998.

36. The Telegraph, June 18, 1998.

37. Ibid.

38. Khajeej Times, June 23, 1998.

39. Ibid.

40. Financial Times, June 24, 1998.

41. International Herald Tribune, June 30, 1998.

42. For an insight of how a Kosovo conflict could engulf the entire Balkan region including, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the major powers, see Michael T. Kaufman, "Is Kosovo the First Fault Line of a Clash of Civilisations?," International Herald Tribune, July 6, 1998.

43. For a comprehensive account of the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, see Eastern Europe, n. 1, pp. 92-97; 208-210. Also, see Hans A. Binnendijk, Patrick L. Clawson, eds., 1997 Strategic Assessment: Flashpoints and Force Structure, (Washington DC: NDU/INSS, 1997), pp. 145-152. For NATO's role in Bosnia and Herzegovina, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "NATO: Where is it Headed?," Strategic Analysis, vol. XXI, no. 9, December 1997, pp. 1294-1297.

44. Quoted in Tony Barber's, "More Bloodletting in the Balkans," Financial Times, May 16, 1998.