Serbian politicians and media continue the anti-NATO narratives over 1999 Kosovo War intervention

A pilot of a U.S. Air Force B-52 scans the horizon for aircraft as he flies on a combat penetration mission toward a target in Kosovo on May 26, 1999. Photo by US Department of Defence, Public Domain.

This story by Ridona Berisha was originally published by Sbunker as part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.

While reporting on the anniversary of the end of the NATO intervention during the Kosovo War, like in previous years, politicians and some Serbian media distorted information to accuse NATO of “aggression” on the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in 1999.

As that conflict intensified and reports of human rights abuses emerged, NATO became increasingly concerned about the situation in Kosovo. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis had failed, and NATO decided to intervene militarily to protect the civilian population and halt the humanitarian crisis.

The bombing campaign remains a subject of controversy. Critics argue that NATO's intervention violated international law and sovereignty, while supporters maintain that it was necessary to prevent further humanitarian suffering and instability in the Balkans.

So, after Slobodan Milošević‘s refusal to stop the repression and campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and the exhaustion of all diplomatic means to resolve the Kosovo issue peacefully, on March 24, 1999, NATO launched an aerial bombing campaign on Yugoslav military targets, which international law defined as a humanitarian intervention, which continued until June 10.

On the 24th anniversary of the bombings, the Serbian media published several news reports and interpretations that fed the narrative that it was an “aggression” against an independent state. Thus, the number of civilian casualties has been manipulated. For instance, Kosovo Online, a portal run by members of the Serbian community in Kosovo, reported that the Ministry of Defense of Serbia announced that “2,500 civilians were killed, among them 89 children and 1,031 members of the army and police.”

These figures of civilian casualties are much higher than those confirmed by international and domestic human rights organizations. In many cases, Serbian officials and opinion makers inflate the numbers or mix the totals of civilian and military casualties, as well as add the local Albanian people killed by Serbian military or paramilitary forces as victims of NATO bombing, too.

Moreover, the former Serbian officials who used to hold high political or military positions under the autocratic rule of Milošević, have been given a platform by the Serbian media to speak negatively against NATO.

A diplomat and former minister of foreign affairs of the SFR Yugoslavia, Vladislav Jovanović, said that the consequences of the 1999 intervention are permanent and “the aggression is continuing, but with other means.”

Meanwhile, the former commander of the Prishtina Corps of the Yugoslav Army, Colonel General Vladimir Lazarević, in his statement about NATO's intervention, compared the current potential of the Serbian army with the time of NATO's intervention. “The Serbian army in 2023 is much better equipped than it was then, especially when it comes to anti-aircraft systems and aviation,” he said.

It’s important to remember that Lazarević was convicted of war crimes in Kosovo, for aiding and abetting the deportation and violent transfer of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo. For this, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia sentenced him to 14 years in prison. Quoting such recent statements shows that convicted war criminals continue to appear regularly in Serbian media, and are presented as authoritative sources.

Other Serbian officials have given fake information, using photos from other countries to accuse NATO. The former diplomat who currently heads the opposition People's Party, Vuk Jeremić, has posted a photo on Twitter claiming it was taken during the NATO bombing campaign, when, based on internet research, it appears that the photo was taken in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003. Jovanović has urged that NATO never be forgiven NATO for the bombings, as he also linked the developments of that time with the current Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.


Screenshot of tweet by Serbian politician Vuk Jeremić with a photo from bombing of Baghdad in 2003 used falsely to illustrate NATO intervention in Serbia in 1999.

“The latest form in which we are asked for our consent is the so-called “French-German plan.” Its acceptance would mean the legitimization of the 1999 aggression, as well as our voluntary and permanent renunciation of Kosovo.” Jeremić wrote in the accompanying Twitter thread.

Data from international organizations renounce the claims of the Serbs

Reliable international organizations have collected data related to the consequences of the bombings that contradict the claims from Serbia.

According to Human Rights Watch, the confirmed number of deaths is significantly lower than those presented to the Serbian public. Their report states:

“Casualty reports vary, but converge in estimating a death toll of at least 1,200 to 5,000 civilians […] After all, this is more than double the civilian death toll of around 500 that Human Rights Watch was able to verify.”

And Natasa Kandić from the Humanitarian Law Center, a Serbian organization that painstakingly documented all the casualties of the conflict reiterated that, according to the data collected, “756 people have been killed by the bombings.”

The list of the victims of NATO, by name and surname, has been completed, there's nothing more for the state to do. From March 24, 1999 I personally managed the data collection. A total of 756 people have been killed by the bombings. We could not find the data on the death of Dmitra Dukić (1908) from Valjevo. Her neighbours built a monument to her, but the municipality lacked data about them.

Exhaustion of diplomatic means

Despite the claims of the Serbian officials and opinion makers, Western diplomats who know the developments around the Balkans since the 90s have explained the reasons that led to the bombings of the former SFR Yugoslavia. The U.S. ambassador in Belgrade, Christopher R. Hill, for example, said that during his career he has learned that sometimes diplomacy fails, and “when it does, the results can be tragic.” He went on to express condolences to the families of those who died as a result of the NATO air campaign.

I offer my personal condolences to the families of those who lost their lives during the wars of the 1990s. I know that the Serbian people will never forget that terrible time, nor should they.

U.S. professor Edward Joseph reacted to Hill's post, saying that these types of consolations influence the increase in the victimization of Serbs and Russians.  According to Joseph, since the highpoint of 2010 when the Serbian Parliament tacitly recognized the genocide committed in Srebrenica, “Serbia has moved backwards on dealing with past … as its democracy has moved backwards.”

Meanwhile, Donjeta Miftari, adviser to the Kosovo president, Vjosa Osmani, has criticized Hill for deciding “to rewrite history in his attempts to bring Serbia into the fold.” According to her, NATO's intervention did not come as a result of a “failure of diplomacy” and Serbia really should not forget it, “precisely because it happened in response to actions of a brutal and genocidal regime.”

The Rambouillet Conference, the turning point

The bombing of Serbia was preceded by a long diplomatic process in an attempt to stop Serbia's aggression by peaceful means, which culminated in the Paris negotiations.

From February 6 to 23, 1999,  the Rambouillet Conference was held in France, and after Milošević's refusal to sign the proposed peace agreement, the bombing campaign that lasted 78 days began. After the start of the NATO bombings, Serbian forces carried out the biggest massacres in Kosovo, such as IzbicaRezalle, etc. Finally, Serbia was forced to retreat from Kosovo on June 9, 1999 after the Kumanovo Agreement, in which Serbia accepted capitulation, allowing NATO-led international peacekeeping force Kosovo Force or KFOR to enter Kosovo two days later.

Despite the victimization narratives exhibited in Serbia, the government recognizes the role and importance of NATO in regional security, especially in the protection of the Serbian community in Kosovo, considering the fact that KFOR is the main guarantor of their security.

Girl and KFOR soldiers in Kosovo.

“A young girl is amused to find U.S. Army soldiers lined up against the walls of her house in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Feb 21, 2000,” during a weapons search operation conducted by KFOR and UN police. Photo by US Department of Defense, Public Domain.

Moreover, Serbia cooperates with the West in the military sphere, as well. Thus, Kosovo’s northern neighbor joined the Partnership for Peace Program (PfP) in December 2006. As a participant in the Partnership for Peace, Serbia commits to cooperation and joint activities with NATO, which take place within the “Defense Reform Group” of NATO, as well as through the Planning and Review Process (PARP),” which aims to promote reforms of the defense structure and to support the achievement of higher international operations,” as quoted in a European parliament document.

However, 24 years after the accusations regarding the bombing campaign, KFOR, even in the perception of the citizens of Kosovo, continues to be the most reliable military force, which is not contested by the local Albanians, nor by the local Serbs.

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