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The Clinton Administration Did Not Fix the Balkans

At the anniversary celebration of NATO's bombing campaign, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright were guests of honor. But tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are on the rise again.

Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright at the twentieth anniversary celebration in Pristina. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

Kosovo reached peak euphoria last week when Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright descended on the capital Prishtina. The ceremony marked the anniversary of the 1999 NATO bombing that ended Serbia’s political crackdown on Albanians in the former province, and led to the eventual declaration of Kosovar independence in 2008. Brandishing American flags and clamoring for front-row access to the former American president, Kosovo Albanians eagerly welcomed the man whose face is recognizable even for those born years after the war.

Clinton and Albright both have statues and streets dedicated to them in the Kosovo capital—Albright’s statue was unveiled Wednesday last week. “I think the whole world today, with all this turmoil, can look to Kosovo as an example of a democracy and a commitment to prove, grow, and live in peace with one’s neighbors,” Clinton said while being awarded the Order of Freedom by Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci.

But Clinton’s words rang hollow in a week marked by an incident at the United Nations between Kosovar and Serbian representatives. Serbia’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, accosted Kosovar diplomat Vlora Citaku after the session on June 10 and accused her of being unable to “decolonize her country.”

In a viral video quickly shared on social media, the boisterous Dacic can be seen referring to members of the Security Council as colonizers, alluding to the U.S., the United Kingdom and France, who supported the bombing and whose sometimes heavy-handed political influence continues to play an important role in modern-day Kosovo.

It’s only the latest example of increased tension between foes who remain divided over interpretations of the bombing that the Clinton administration claims as its greatest victory. In Serbia, the anniversary was marked by a gloomy ceremony led by far-left Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vulin, who called it “the darkest hour in Serbian history.”

Twenty years ago, in a feat of unity unparalleled since World War II, key members of NATO led by the U.S. launched a 78-day aerial bombing campaign in what remained of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which had been embroiled in ethnic conflict and seen many of its former republics break away since the beginning of the 1990s. Critics of the bombing still insist NATO inserted itself in a local conflict, without U.N. Security Council approval, siding with the Kosovo Albanians.

But for Kosovo Albanians, who had faced political repression from Serbia throughout most of the 1990s and had virtually no allies throughout the twentieth century, this was the start of the American infatuation. In the leadup to the anniversary this June, archive footage of Kosovar refugees running up to NATO tanks, screaming “Thank you, USA” at the top of their lungs to foreign journalists, singing songs dedicated to Clinton and the country that had brought them peace, aired across all TV channels. In the 1990s, the U.S. presidentfacing the relentless barrage of the press at home, as a result of the Lewinsky scandal and heightened partisan bickeringhad become a symbol of the new age to come, when Kosovar Albanians would finally get the rights they had long yearned for.

Yet postwar reconstruction came slowly to Kosovo. Initially functioning as a U.N. protectorate, the country’s development and democratization lagged. Kosovo remains incapable of overcoming its political problems with Serbia, which insists Kosovo is legally part of its country to this day. Serbia never recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The Serbian minority in Kosovo also faces challenges toward full integration with the Albanian majority, hampered by inter-ethnic flare-ups, such as the March 2004 clashes that saw Serbian and Albanian civilian casualties and a significant part of the Serbian population leave the country.

From the end of the 1990s to 2019, Kosovo has gone from the little country that could to the most unsolvable of Balkan problems. The European Union launched a political dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo in 2011 with the hope of ironing out the issues between the two, one by one. These talks are clinically dead, not a single meeting held since last year.

The U.S. in the past three administrations has taken a backseat role in main European foreign policy issues, but remains the key single state contributor in terms of financial support and soldiers in the ongoing NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. But with the EU-U.S. relationship fraying in recent years, attention to Kosovo is scarcer than ever, and policies the current administration does encourage are often incendiary.

“Under the Obama administration, there was already a laissez-faire approach to the European Union, but there was a basic understanding that the U.S. would support the EU message,” says Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. “With the Trump administration that basic premise has been challenged.”

The breakdown of the “transatlantic relationship” under Trump has been much remarked on. But “it’s in places like Kosovo where you can really see it,” Bieber says. Supporting continued Kosovo independence and territorial integrity “didn’t even require a huge commitment from the U.S. It meant sticking to the script, occasionally putting their fists down, and being more outspoken than the EU ever dared to be, and that took the process quite far. You could see how far this took the process in the past just by comparing how badly things have gone since.”

In the past year, ideas such as redrawing the border between Kosovo and Serbia along ethnic lines—ideas that seemed unthinkable in a region where such thinking has led to brutal wars in living memory—have taken hold of the public imagination, spurred by U.S. officials like National Security Advisor John Bolton. The EU, faced with internal turmoil due to Brexit and the rise of populist factions, has become less involved and less vocal in the Kosovo and Serbia issue.

Behind closed doors, diplomats and think-tank analysts call it “Kosovo fatigue.” Kosovo fatigue seems to have reached the U.S. as well. “The way to inspire American involvement,” Bieber says, is to “find the ear of a less-than-credible politician close to Trump.”

Unmediated by the traditional Western powers, tensions between Kosovo and Serbia continue to escalate. Serbian tabloids, who toe the government line and drown out dissenting press in the country, seem to be announcing a new war with Kosovo every other day. Kosovo, meanwhile, has imposed an 100 percent tax—effectively a ban—on Serbian goods.

“I don’t believe that constructive dialogue can be held in such a hostile public environment. You have this daily poisonous climate,” says Srđjan Cvijić, an analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute.

The latest Freedom House report downgraded Serbia to “partly free” due to “election irregularities, legal harassment and smear campaigns against independent journalists.” “There is a strong presumption in the international community that you need strong leaders to make things happen,” explains Cvijić. “The discrepancy between the supposed willingness to come to a lasting agreement with Kosovo, and on the other hand, this horrible propaganda in the pro-government media. I couldn’t reconcile the two facts.”

On the eve of the NATO bombing campaign’s anniversary, Cvijić was reflecting on a recently released Russian-Serbian action movie, The Balkan Line, depicting in fictionalized form the events leading up to the withdrawal of the Serbian army from Kosovo on the last days of the NATO campaign in June 1999. In the movie, most of the Albanians are the bad guys while Russians and Serbs fight together to defend a strategic airport position—taking significant liberties with real events.

“I was surprised with how many young people went to see the movie,” Cvijić told me. “The fact that some people are too young to remember or were not born until after the conflict makes them more nationalist, because they don’t know what took us there, why we were bombed, they just listen to the current government reports of a heroic resistance.”

The same can increasingly be said for younger generations of Albanians in Kosovo, many of whom barely recall sharing a daily living space with Kosovo Serbs, as was common in Yugoslavia. Twenty years on, despite the show of jubilation put on for the anniversary, it’s far from clear that the Clinton administration managed to bring lasting resolution to one of the Balkans’ most persistent conflicts. What is clear, though, is that there is a lot less hope that things will get better.