Twenty years ago NATO intervened in the Kosovo war. Bill Clinton, US president at the time of the conflict, has now returned to the country that probably wouldn’t exist without him – and he was celebrated like a pop star.
The midday sun beats down on the square in front of the parliament building in Pristina. The leaders of Europe’s youngest state are sweating in their dark suits and blazers. Everyone who has a say in Kosovo is here – ministers, diplomats, the president and the prime minister, ambassadors and foreign guests. A camera drone hovers above the crowd, taking photos from the air. The next day the images circulate on Twitter. As always happens when Kosovo celebrates a holiday, they give rise to controversy. To Albanians, these pictures are an expression of the freedom they have gained. To Serbs, they are a provocation.
The aerial photos show a round podium adorned with flowers and surrounded by chairs arranged to create a pattern when seen from above. It is the emblem of NATO – a compass rose with four points set against a navy blue background. On the boulevard, the crowd has put up an oversized flag so big it could easily cover a truck. It shows the stars and stripes of the USA next to the Albanian double-headed eagle. The big protector and the small protectorate – very close together.
A medal for the former president
Kosovo is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its liberation and the end of the war, both made possible by Western allies – the US, which intervened in the conflict, and NATO, which led the air strikes. The German Air Force and the British Royal Air Force also participated in the fighting. In Belgrade, the 12th of June is considered a day of tragedy when Kosovo was wrested away from the Serbs. For the predominantly Albanian state of Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence in 2008, the 12th of June is like a birthday. Back then, in 1999, the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) entered Kosovo and was welcomed by cheering crowds. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovo-Albanians, who had fled to other countries before the war, returned to their homes. Clinton has been revered as a hero in Kosovo ever since, and the US has been the subject of a lot of hype.
“Thank you USA, you are my best friend. You are the peace keeper, you are the legend.”
— The refrain of a popular song in Kosovo
There is probably no other state in the world whose population is as US-friendly as the Kosovo-Albanians. Considering the hostility of other countries, particularly Muslim countries, towards the US, this is indeed remarkable. The refrain of a popular song in Kosovo goes like this: “Thank you USA, you are my best friend. You are the peacekeeper, you are the legend.”
Not surprisingly then, Bill Clinton received a red carpet welcome at the airport. Soldiers unveiled a statue in honour of Madeleine Albright. Both were presented with Order of Freedom medals. Later on, Clinton stood waving next to a statue of himself, which had been dedicated to him back in 2009. It stands next to an apartment building whose facade dons a smiling portrait of the man, on one of Pristina’s main arteries, Bill Clinton Boulevard. Further into town, it crosses George W. Bush Boulevard, named after the president who recognised Kosovo’s independence in 2008. If you travel through Kosovo and Albania, you’ll frequently come across replicas of the Statue of Liberty.
Kosovo is eleven years old now. The children who were infants during the war are grown up. On 12 June, even this generation cheers along with the rest, even though Kosovo is one of the poorest countries in Europe and is marked by high unemployment, emigration and corruption. “Thank you, Mr President!” and “USA! USA! USA!” they chant to Bill Clinton, who stands at the podium smiling. If diplomacy were like football, Kosovo would be a home game for Clinton. No matter what he does, the crowd loves him. “Kosovo is small but sometimes the very small can stand for something bigger,” says Clinton, his voice cracking. Madeleine Albright’s speech explains what Kosovo represented to the US back then – justice, respect for human rights and the end of barbarism. “An ethnic group was going to be expelled from their homes in the vicinity of NATO,” says Albright. They simply were not going to sit there and watch that happen, adds the former secretary of state.
Like a time machine
During these hot days of summer, Pristina can be sort of like a time machine. There the US still has the status of a global peacekeeping power, a role it is moving away from under Trump. It’s the image of a country that acts as a global police officer willing to spend a lot of money on the military in order to intervene with military force in conflicts under the flag of democracy and human rights. A country that has dispatched its soldiers to distant countries and accepts losses to help the “innocent”, as Clinton puts it. Yet this – ideologically distorted – image that Clinton draws of the US in Pristina is fading. Since Trump took office, the slogan “America First” has guided US foreign policy. No US president before him has ever questioned the transatlantic alliance as much as he does. The fact that Trump called NATO obsolete and outdated worries many governments in the military alliance’s member countries. In Kosovo, some people justifiably ask themselves what will happen if Trump wakes up one morning and decides to withdraw American KFOR soldiers from Kosovo, like the troops in Syria and Afghanistan.
“Mr President, we are doing the right thing,”
— Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a telephone conversation with Clinton in the middle of the night over the NATO bombing that was conducted without a UN mandate.
There is no mention of any of this during the ceremony in Pristina. Nor does anyone talk about NATO’s air strikes having violated international law – for one thing, because they were not supported by a UN mandate. And because 500 civilians died, although the bombs were only supposed to hit military targets. Kosovo was a turning point in the history of the alliance. For the first time, NATO waged war against a country. “I am proud of what we did,” says Albright in her speech.
Where is the EU?
Back then the US argued that the intervention was based on a coolly calculated cost-benefit analysis: Do we intervene in a conflict by force to possibly prevent more violence from occurring? In the late 1990s, the public still vividly recalled what had happened in Bosnian Srebrenica. In Kosovo, the Albanian population was systematically repressed, and later massacred and expelled. The aim was to avoid another genocide at all costs. Albright recalls Clinton calling her in the middle of the night. “Mr President, we are doing the right thing,” she told him. Now, in 2019, the two of them stroll down the boulevard in Pristina holding hands, surrounded by cheering crowds. Everybody wants to catch a glimpse of the two people to whom they say they owe their lives. A taxi driver says, “If the two of them called me, I would go to war for them.”
When you watch Clinton and Albright strolling along the boulevard, you can’t help noticing that someone is missing. The European Union is noticeably underrepresented in the ceremonies. The question is whether the crowd would have cheered just as much if Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, delivered a speech in Pristina. Or Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for Enlargement Policy, for that matter. Kosovo-Albanians are increasingly disappointed in both of them. For one, because the long-promised visa liberalisation scheme has yet to be realised. What is more, five EU member states – Greece, Slovakia, Cyprus, Spain and Romania – still do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. The dialogue in Brussels has failed and no agreement has been reached after six years. French president Macron and German chancellor Merkel are trying to revive the negotiations. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a solution. A solution – that is to say recognition of Kosovo by Serbia – is needed if both countries want to join the European Union one day. Serbia wants to reach a compromise. Pristina feels increasingly abandoned. This is illustrated by how tense the mood has become between the prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, and Brussels. Haradinaj imposed punitive tariffs on goods from Serbia months ago. Washington and Brussels want Kosovo to lift the tax. But Haradinaj continues to stand firm. It is the first time that a head of government in Kosovo is going head-to-head with the country’s most important allies. As a result, Haradinaj was denied a US visa in January 2019. Now, in June, the ice age seems to have ended. At least while Haradinaj is standing at the podium in Pristina showering the US delegation with words of praise.
The America that Kosovars cheer on this 12th of June no longer exists. A recent report by the European Stability Initiative (ESI, a Berlin-based think tank) talks about a turning point in Washington. Trump’s security advisor, Republican John Bolton, has never been a supporter of Kosovo’s independence, even though the US was one of its architects. Instead, Bolton said he was open to a territorial exchange between Serbia and Kosovo, meaning redrawing borders along ethnic lines. The solution is controversial in the EU, but it has gained acceptance in the White House. Belgrade hails this willingness to compromise. Serbia’s foreign minister, Ivica Dačić, spoke of a “historic success”. Previously, said Dačić, the West hadn’t even wanted to talk about such ideas.
Trump has voiced his position on Kosovo only once. At Christmas 2018 he sent two letters to Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, inviting the presidents of both countries to Washington to finally sign a historic accord. Any solution would suit him, said Trump. Even the controversial land swap, which would allow Belgrade to gain control over the northern part of Kosovo, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Serbs. In return, Pristina would be compensated with municipalities mainly populated by ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia. Washington is insisting on quick results in the Kosovo conflict, while the member states of the European Union, especially Germany, consider border shifts in the Balkans taboo. Kosovo’s most important allies – the EU and the US – are no longer acting in concert to resolve the conflict. Yet Kosovo used to be their prestige project. The small country has received billions in aid and enormous human resources. Back then, the West won the war militarily. Today it lacks a political strategy for how to proceed.
Original in German. First published on 20 June 2019 on woz.ch. Translation into English by Barbara Maya.