That the Kosovo War left a lot of loose ends is an understatement.
This year marks 25 years since the beginning of the conflict, and the ramifications of the war are still impacting some of today’s international skirmishes. These include the current situation in Serbia and Kosovo, where shots were fired as recently as December 2022, according to Celeste Beesley, an assistant professor of political science at BYU.
Tyler Pack, University of Utah political science traveling professor, called the legacy of the war “very present” in the region.
“There’s a lot of mistrust,” Pack said. “The war’s legacy flares up when political actors use it to make a point.”
Beesley said the war and its aftermath have been impactful for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, in particular.
The war’s legacy flares up when political actors use it to make a point. — Tyler Pack
“Putin has cited this war as justification for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, in 2014, more so than 2022,” Beesley said. “Since NATO and the U.S. could use force to help Kosovo gain independence, he argues that it is also permissible and precedented for Russia to help Crimea and the Donbas to separate from Ukraine.”
So what happened from February 1998 to June 1999 in Serbia and its then autonomous province of Kosovo? And what do the events mean for today?
Here are the answers to common questions about the Kosovo War.
Where did the war happen?
By early 1998, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia included just the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. This situation followed a decade that saw former Yugoslav republics Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia leave Yugoslavia and become sovereign nations.
Kosovo was a province in the southwest of Serbia. Kosovo was based on administrative lines drawn during the Yugoslav era and is majority ethnic Albanian, Beesley said.
Kosovo is located in the center of the Balkan region of southeast Europe.
What were causes of the war?
Amid repression by the Yugoslav government, ethnic Albanians comprising a majority of Kosovo’s population sought the independence of the province. Serbia opposed this push for independence.
Beesley said that Serbia’s response was similar to its actions in prior conflicts in former Yugoslavia of the 1990s in that it opposed the breakaway of republics into new states.
Like in Bosnia and Croatia, Serbia sought to protect the Serbian minority in Kosovo with military action, Beesley said. In addition, Serbia saw Kosovo as part of Serbia due to historic Serb ties to Kosovo, according to The Associated Press.
“The dispute over Kosovo is centuries-old. Serbia cherishes the region as the heart of its statehood and religion. Numerous medieval Serb Orthodox Christian monasteries are in Kosovo,” per AP.
Who fought in the war?
The Kosovo War was fought by the Kosovo rebel group the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro.)
The war also included a NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces. NATO’s campaign in Kosovo and Serbia in early 1999 preceded the June withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, according to PBS.
What was the U.S. role in Kosovo?
President Bill Clinton’s administration was key in calling for and planning a NATO response to Yugoslavia’s actions in Kosovo. PBS reported that President George H.W. Bush had warned that Serbian aggression in Kosovo would be met with military response in 1992, as well.
Some believe that the Clinton administration escalated U.S. involvement in Kosovo as a way to distract from calls for Clinton’s impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, according to Pack. He noted that he hasn’t seen credible reports of this being true.
Beesley said U.S. and NATO action happened against the backdrop of genocides such as the ones in Bosnia and Rwanda of the 1990s.
Still, the NATO bombing campaign faced criticism, in part because it moved forward without international consensus, Beesley said. But the carrying out of war crimes by the Yugoslav forces against ethnic Albanians arguably fit the requirement for an international response to the conflict, she said.
“For the West, the decision to intervene in Kosovo was a function of U.S. power at the time,” Beesley said. “This was during the ‘unipolar’ moment when the U.S. had no competitors in terms of geopolitical power and influence, following the collapse of the USSR and prior to the rise of other countries that now exert significant geopolitical interest.”
What happened after the war?
More than 10,000 people died in the conflict and around 1 million were left homeless, according to The Associated Press.
In the years after the conflict, Kosovo became an independent country now recognized by about half of the nations in the United Nations, Beesley said. Ethnic Albanians are the majority in Kosovo. Many are Muslim, she added.
“Kosovo reminds me that after the civil war you have to live with people you’ve been fighting against. — Tyler Pack
Serbs in Kosovo feel less secure and have maintained close ties to the government of Serbia, though some percentage of Kosovo Serbs left for Serbia after Yugoslav forces withdrew at the war’s end, Beesley said.
What does all of this have to do with Russia and Ukraine?
Since the beginning of World War I, Serbia has been a Russian client state. Russia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state due to these ties.
Beesley said that U.S. involvement in Kosovo has long been one of Putin’s justifications for Russian moves dealing with Ukraine. If NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was, debatably, illegal in regards to international law, Putin says Russia can do the same.
“This may be part of why Putin claimed that Ukraine was carrying out a genocide against Russian-speakers in Ukraine in his speech last year just days before the full scale invasion,” Beesley said. “Russia has long (since the beginning of the Cold War, at least) said that the U.S. does what it wants in the international system in spite of international law, so Russia can do the same.”
The Associated Press reports that Western leaders reject Putin’s reasoning, arguing that NATO’s 1999 intervention was “triggered by mass killings and other war crimes committed by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanians.”
Pack said one misconception about the Kosovo War is that Russia was a “puppet master,” even if Russia-Serbia ties are close.
“You don’t want to discount the role, but Russia isn’t controlling what Serbia does,” he said.
What is next in Kosovo-Serbia relations?
Pack said Kosovo and Serbia both seek EU membership. While tension remains, that goal demands both nations reach some agreements.
“Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo but realizes they need to get along in order to become a member,” Pack said. “They’ve normalized trade and there’s been a bit more cooperation.”
Still, the legacy of the Kosovo War means small issues can bubble up into something bigger between Serbs and Albanians, Pack said.
“Kosovo reminds me that after the civil war you have to live with people you’ve been fighting against,” he said.