Treaties and Dreams

Kosovo Armistice, a Decade Later

On June 10, 1999, the military-technical agreement (MTA) between NATO and the Yugoslav Army went into effect, along with UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Between them, they provided a somewhat graceful ending to NATO’s first war. Conceived as a three-day demonstration of force, predicated on a disgraceful ultimatum, justified by an onslaught of vicious propaganda, the assault on then-Yugoslavia nearly tore the alliance apart on its 50th birthday. Just four years later, the invasion of Iraq saw it tossed aside in favor of a "coalition of the willing."

NATO never honored its obligations from the MTA or UNSCR 1244. Kosovo was turned over to the KLA, whose campaign of murder, pillage, and arson drove out hundreds of thousands of non-Albanians from the province. Over the next 10 years, Serb religious and cultural heritage has been systematically destroyed, and most of the surviving Serbs have been driven out or killed. Meanwhile, the UN and NATO authorities gradually created institutions of statehood and eventually sponsored a declaration of "independence" by the KLA regime.

Armistice, Not Surrender

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, one would be tempted to conclude that the treaty signed by NATO and Yugoslav officers in a tent near Kumanovo on June 9 was an unconditional surrender. Or, as Alliance spokesman Jamie Shea put it at a June 7 press conference, a "complete acceptance of our non-negotiable conditions." Yet it was nothing of the kind.

The MTA was an armistice, painstakingly negotiated over five days. The government in Belgrade accepted the proposal put forth by NATO emissary Martti Ahtisaari (accompanied by Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin) on June 3. Yet Yugoslav and NATO officers negotiated till June 9 before settling on a text. During that week, NATO continued to bomb – as evidenced by the briefing given by Luftwaffe Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz at the aforementioned press conference.

On the anniversary of the armistice, the Belgrade daily Politika published an interview with one of the participants in the talks, Maj. Gen. Obrad Stevanovic of the Serbian police. Stevanovic said that the final text of the agreement only mentioned NATO in the context of its obligation to halt the bombing, and that KFOR was supposed to be a UN force. Likewise, there was no mention of the Rambouillet ultimatum.

In the end, none of that mattered much. Once NATO and the KLA came into possession of Kosovo, the MTA and 1244 were dead letters. Stevanovic maintains that none of the officers involved could have known NATO would not honor the deal, or that KFOR would fail to protect the civilians from the KLA. Yet that is precisely what happened.

A Strange Coincidence

With the benefit of hindsight, NATO turning over Kosovo to the KLA may seem like an obvious and foregone conclusion. After all, did the Alliance not just launch an illegal war of aggression on behalf of this terrorist organization hastily re-branded as "freedom fighters"? At the time, however, things seemed less clear-cut.

The war had not gone well for the Alliance. There were too many "mistakes," too much "collateral damage," and too little proof for tall tales of massacred Albanian civilians. That didn’t stop the media from repeating them ad nauseam, but every day that Belgrade held out, the Alliance got weaker. On the other hand, the Yeltsin regime sold Belgrade down the river in early June, most likely at Washington’s insistence. The proposal offered to Milosevic on June 3 was sufficiently watered down that he could accept it and claim a diplomatic victory.

Granted, that meant nothing once NATO got actual possession of the territory and the KLA could do as it pleased. Neither Milosevic nor the Russians were in any position to challenge that, however. Milosevic was ousted in a black-op "popular revolution" in 2000 and replaced with a client regime. Yeltsin was pressured to resign at the end of 1999, with his betrayal of Belgrade probably playing at least a partial role.

In the tragedy of Kosovo that ensued, few noticed that the war officially ended on a very symbolic date. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but there aren’t many of those when it comes to the Balkans. Namely, June 10 was the date on which the first Albanian national movement was established in distant 1878, a crucial year in Balkans history.

1878 and the Congress of Berlin

By the mid-15th century, all of the Balkans had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The tide of Ottoman conquest, once seemingly unstoppable, began to recede after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. The 18th century was marked by fierce wars with Austria and Russia, pushing the Turks back. Starting in 1804, uprisings by the Serbs and the Greeks further weakened the Ottoman hold over the Balkans.

As part of an administrative reform in 1864, the Ottoman Empire broke up its old provinces into smaller units called vilayets. In one of those provinces, Herzegovina, the excesses of Ottoman taxation provoked a rebellion in 1875. Using the distraction, Bulgarians rose up in the spring of 1876 but were cruelly suppressed. At this point, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Despite Russian military aid, they were soon forced on the defensive. In April 1877, Russia entered the war; by March 1878, the Ottomans were defeated, and Russian forces were within reach of Istanbul.

With Austria-Hungary and Britain alarmed at the extent of Russian gains in the proposed Treaty of San Stefano, Germany’s chancellor Bismarck called the Congress of Berlin. Intended to be a reprise of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which had created four decades of peace in post-Napoleonic Europe, the Berlin affair merely sowed the seeds of future Balkans conflicts and ultimately the Great War.

For example, the San Stefano treaty outlined a sizable, independent Bulgarian state. At the Congress of Berlin, only a third of the outlined territory was recognized as Bulgaria; another third was set apart as "East Rumelia," and the rest (Macedonia) was restored to Ottoman rule. Though East Rumelia was peacefully integrated into Bulgaria in 1885, the issue of Macedonia proved a major bone of contention between Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, marring the victory over the Ottomans in 1912 and resulting in Bulgaria joining the Central Powers in 1915 (and the Axis in World War II).

The Congress of Berlin is also where Austria-Hungary received a mandate to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, which put Vienna on a collision course with Belgrade and resulted in the Sarajevo assassination of 1914.

The League of Prizren

On June 10, 1878, Albanian religious and tribal leaders founded the League of Prizren, demanding greater recognition of Albanians within the Ottoman Empire and the consolidation of four vilayets – Shkoder, Kosovo, Ioannina, and Monastir (see a rough map here) – into an Albanian province. Though ultimately unsuccessful and disbanded after just three years, the League marked the beginning of an Albanian national movement. Just as Bulgarians saw the borders set out in Berlin as a grave injustice and considered the San Stefano borders their birthright, the Albanians claimed the four provinces as "ethnic Albanian lands" and have fought to acquire them ever since.

The independent Albania that was established in 1912 included the province of Shkoder and a part of Ioannina. Kosovo became a part of Serbia, and the vilayet of Monastir – i.e., Macedonia – was divided between Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. The part that went to Serbia is today the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Following the Nazi-led invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, parts of Kosovo and today’s Macedonia were given to Italian-occupied Albania. Upon Italy’s surrender in 1943, Albanian leaders formed the "Second League of Prizren" and sought Nazi patronage in establishing an "ethnic Albania."

Living the Dream

It is unclear whether Imperial leaders and generals knew the symbolism of June 10 when they chose that date for the Kumanovo agreement to go into force. It is, however, clear that NATO’s occupation resulted in the establishment of the "independent state of Kosovo" in February 2008, as well as the 2001 insurrections in Macedonia and southern Serbia. Thus the "Albanian lands" claimed by the League of Prizren have been put under de facto Albanian control – thanks to the American Empire.

The latest example came just two weeks ago, on May 31, when the prime ministers of Albania and Kosovo ceremoniously opened a tunnel on the Pristina-Durres highway (built with Turkish funding). The Albanian prime minister, Sali Berisha, was quoted as saying:

"Today, one of the Albanians’ most beautiful dreams has become reality. This is a tunnel of the unification of the nation. Today we decided that there are no obstacles, that there is nothing that can divide us, not only spiritually, but also physically." (Emphasis added.)

However, the one constant in this "beautiful dream" since 1878 has been that it could only be realized with the help of outside powers, and by force. From the Ottoman Empire to the Axis, all the sponsors of Albanian aspirations ultimately failed, and their victory proved ephemeral.

In 1999, the American Empire was the “indispensable nation,” and it looked as if its power would last forever. That is by no means a certainty any longer. The question now is whether history repeats itself or merely rhymes.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.