The Kosovo-Serbia Conflict And Foreign Intervention

The disputed independence of Kosovo from Serbia, formerly Yugoslavia, has been the root of current tensions regarding the increase of Croatian troops in Kosovo. NATO has attempted to assuage Serbian concerns regarding this increased military presence. While the conflict exists between Kosovo and Serbia, numerous international institutions, including NATO, the United Nations and the Contact Group, are all involved in Kosovo’s decades-long struggle for independence. 

The Kosovo Conflict is rooted in the ethnic and religious upheaval the Kosovo area has dealt with since Ottoman occupation in the 12th century. While political tensions ran high following Yugoslavia’s absorption of Kosovo in 1946, tensions became even more prominent in the late 20th century when Yugoslavian troops suppressed separatist riots in the Kosovo province in 1981. When the Yugoslav president, President Slobodan Milošević, stripped the rights of autonomy granted to Kosovo by the 1974 constitution, it was the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1996 that signalled the beginning of open, armed conflict between Kosovo and the Serbian police. Violence escalated throughout 1997 and 1998, including the sacking of more than 100,000 ethnic Albanian workers in 1990, continued instability from Slovenia and Croatia, and Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. From March to September of 1998, ethnic Albanians launched an armed rebellion. The atrocious war crimes committed by the various branches of Serbian police, forcing many of Kosovo’s residents to flee, sparked an international response. In September of 1998, NATO gave then-President Milošević an ultimatum in an attempt to stem the violence. In March of 1999, peace talks failed, resulting in NATO’s 78-day long airstrike against Yugoslavia. 

President Milošević’s withdrawal of troops from Kosovo in conjunction with the arrival of the United Nations’ sponsored Kosovo Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) set the seemingly stable foundations for current tensions. While violence began to escalate once again between 2004 and 2006, Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and the subsequent Serbian denial of such is most relevant to current tensions. The year 2009 saw NATO launch a multi-ethnic Kosovo Security Force, the subject in question.

The KFOR was established in 1999 by the UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Today, 28 different countries provide the 3,600 troops which are stationed in Kosovo. The development of a “democratic [and] multi-ethnic” Kosovo is a top priority, according to NATO. The purpose of KFOR is “to maintain a safe and secure environment, freedom of movement for all citizens in Kosovo and to facilitate the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans.” However, while intended to implement and maintain peace, KFOR’s presence has not been entirely effective in stemming violence. The violence experienced between 2004 and 2006, including 19 people being killed in March of 2004, was not prevented by KFOR’s presence. The political instability that continues to plague Kosovo and Serbia is largely to blame, making the peaceful resolution of the conflict increasingly important. 

Tensions continue to escalate as disagreement over independence remains. The failure of peace talks and the setting of impossible red lines have allowed this conflict to continue on since 1998 – arguably even earlier. While KFOR is meant to maintain peace, by increasing the number of armed forces, NATO risks provoking continued armed escalation. As more troops are stationed in Kosovo, the likelihood of returning to the violence of the late 1990s dangerously increases.

Furthermore, KFOR is composed of various countries, forming a decisively militant international response to the Kosovo conflict. The emotional distance that international troops would have to the deeply intimate roots of the issues, such as the ethnic and religious differences tied to historical antagonisms, may contribute to the ineffective (and even potentially counterproductive) effect of the KFOR forces. An example of foreign influence being detrimental to the conflict is found in the latter half of 2009. After nine years of the United Nations’ supervision and effective rule, a new constitution was drawn up which transferred power to the ethnic Albanian Kosovo citizens. While seemingly a step forward towards resolution by allowing Kosovo to gain its own leadership, the action provoked the Kosovo Serbs into creating their own rival assembly. The two parties, both holding political weight, would go on to even more directly oppose one another. By such long-term, direct, and powerful foreign intervention into the political structure of Kosovo, the power vacuum created prompted further divisive actions of the Kosovo Serbs. 

The deep history of Kosovo’s conflict, dating back arguably from the 12th century with the Ottoman Empire, entrenches the current issue in a multitude of complicating factors. Containing both differences in ethnicity and religion, the issue of nationality is a pressurized, multi-pronged issue. While the failed peace talks of 1999, resulting in the NATO airstrikes, do present a troubling prediction for future peace talks, it is inarguable that continuing to increase military presence is neither the best nor even a sustainable method to approach the Kosovo conflict. The continuation of peace talks and de-escalation of armed conflict must be prioritized moving forward.

While it is impossible to act in a complete vacuum, especially considering the increasing connectivity due to technological advancements, much of the core issues are intimately specific to the history of Kosovo and Serbia. As their ethnic and religious identities are opposing, the intertwinement between them of such a past must be respected and addressed. To give a framework of historical context, the Ottoman Turks had conquered the previously Serbian and religiously significant Balkan Area in 1389. After centuries of rule, the population slowly became Albanian and the religious majority became Muslim. The Serbian control that was regained in 1912 after the Balkan Wars, was a sharp difference from previous leadership. The upset of World War II, with Kosovo becoming part of the Italian-controlled greater Albania in 1941 followed quickly by the absorption of Kosovo into the Yugoslav federation in 1946, only increased the political instability of the region. With a majority of Muslim, Albanian citizens and centuries of independent rule from Serbia, Kosovo naturally appears to be an independent state. However, the significance of religion to Serbia, exemplified by the seat of the Serbian Orthodox church being housed in Kosovo, presents an intimate connection between the Kosovo land and Serbia. This unique history must be well understood if current peace talks should succeed.

As such, heavy intervention of foreign powers may not facilitate results. Originally, the peace talks were internationally brokered, being facilitated by NATO and the United Nations. While it is important for foreign powers, especially powerful countries like Western Europe and the United States, to be conscious of the actions of Serbia and Kosovo, attempting to govern the decisions may not be necessarily effective. It is imperative that Kosovo and Serbia are able to communicate without the looming presence of either the West or Russia. Therefore, ideally, Kosovo and Serbia should continue to host peace talks independent of international intervention. By communicating directly, much of the tensions regarding Westernization that may be sparked when in contact with the United Nations or NATO, may be omitted and the current conflict can be simplified to the core elements of ethnicity and religion. 

Furthermore, foreign intervention in the form of increasing troops is extremely detrimental to a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo conflict. If de-escalation of armed conflict is to occur, there must be a substantial decrease of arms. Exemplified by the 1981 events of Yugoslavic troops suppressing the separatist movement, armed intervention can easily fail to install stability. It instead may breed further resentment and widen existing divides, such as it did for the divide between Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs. Instead of sending more troops, foreign powers should incentivize peace non-militarily such as through economic sanctions, ideally from both the western powers and eastern powers. By focusing foreign intervention on economic concerns, the political issue of western powers complicating the Kosovo conflict may be sidestepped. According to Santander Trade, Kosovo is heavily reliant on trade, with 85.5% of its GDP being represented by this market. Similarly, Serbia also relies on trade, with the majority of exports and imports going to and from both Germany and Russia, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC). With increasingly interconnected economies and trade composing powerful elements of both individual nations’ wealth, foreign economic sanctions are still effective in incentivizing both powers, Kosovo and Serbia, to pursue peace and stability in order to trade.

The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is deeply rooted, requiring intimate knowledge of history as well as economic incentivization of foreign powers to aid in achieving a resolution. The addition of troops, regardless of whether the troops are sourced internationally or from Kosovo or Serbia, will not facilitate peace. The history of armed, foreign intervention in the conflict clearly shows the tendency of increasing arms to provoke more violence. Instead, foreign powers should remain politically distant while imposing peace-promoting, economic sanctions to pressure the two powers into direct discourse and eventual resolution.


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