Timothy Garton Ash: Will history credit the bombing of Kosovo with the liberation of Serbia?

'The answer is more complicated than all these confident voices in London and Washington presume'
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The Independent Online

As Bill Clinton and Slobodan Milosevic begin to reflect on what they will put in their memoirs, an important question hangs over both their records: Did the Kosovo war cause the Serbian revolution?

As Bill Clinton and Slobodan Milosevic begin to reflect on what they will put in their memoirs, an important question hangs over both their records: Did the Kosovo war cause the Serbian revolution?

According to Robert Kagan and William Kristol, writing in the Washington Post, it is now "irrefutable" - no less - that "US intervention in Kosovo, as well as our earlier intervention in Bosnia and the continued presence of US peacekeeping forces were essential factors in the defeat of Milosevic." Hugo Young, in The Guardian, says the installation of President Vojislav Kostunica in Belgrade gave the Kosovo war "its final justification".

He holds the "simple truth" to be "self-evident" that without the war Milosevic "would almost certainly still be in power in Belgrade". And the main credit must go to Tony Blair "the moral, if not the military, leader of what saved Kosovo, and has now led to the despatch of the tyrant". Thus, in time-honoured fashion, do Americans and British compete in self-congratulation.

I spent some time pursuing this question in Serbia itself, during and immediately after the revolution. The answer is a little more complicated than these confident voices from Washington and London presume.

For a start, nearly 16 months elapsed between the end of the Kosovo war and the fall of Milosevic. This matters. General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina lost the Falklands war in June 1982 and was deposed in July. We can definitely say that the lost war was a cause of his fall. Here was the "Galtieri Effect" that some in the West hoped to see in Serbia immediately after the Kosovo war. At the other extreme, we have President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. If Saddam were to fall next year, it would be hard for even the most fervent supporter of the 1991 Gulf War to claim the war a cause of his ouster. [Harold Wilson once famously commented that] A week in politics is a long time - 10 is an eternity.

The Milosevic case is somewhere in between. Some argued to me in Belgrade that the Nato bombing actually delayed the change, since Milosevic was able to exploit a siege mentality and persuade people to "rally round the flag". Were it not for the war, they suggested, the domestic coalition of forces that finally overthrew him might have coalesced sooner. For a politician who was always an opportunist, concerned only with his own survival in power, 16 months was a good stretch to have won. If he had not this July made the disastrous miscalculation of calling a direct election for president, which he proceeded to lose, he might still be in power.

Yet I found the balance of opinion tilted heavily in the other direction, supporting the view that the war was a catalyst of the revolution. To Serbian revolutionaries and analysts I posed a simple, neutral question: "When did the revolution begin?" Professor Zarko Korac, a leader of the democratic opposition, replied, almost through clenched teeth, "well, I wouldn't like to say this, but ... the end of the bombing". I was struck by the number of people who said the same. This was the more impressive since nearly all had been critics of the war.

The end, they suggested, was the psychological moment when humiliated Serbs concluded "enough is enough". True, Milosevic had lost many times before, in other parts of former Yugoslavia - but never a war that had directly affected the majority of Serbs. The Orwellian state propaganda which claimed the effective loss of Kosovo as a triumph for Serbia was one insult too many. Moreover, the war resulted in worse economic hardship for most Serbs. More power cuts. More shortages of oil, sugar, milk. Still lower and more sporadic wages for anyone paid by the state.

I spoke to the Kolubara miners, whose strike was a vital step to revolution. Again, I did not ask directly "what impact did the war have?", I simply asked "what caused your action?". Very high on their list was the fact that their average wages had sunk from a low 150 German marks (£46) a month before the war to a pitiful DM70 after it. The cut was explained, they said, as a contribution to "postwar reconstruction". State popaganda justified every new hardship that way. But it didn't wash with them.

Veran Matic, head of the independent B92 radio station, closed during the Kosovo war said Milosevic"fought the election not against us [ie the opposition] but against Nato". Yet that was a mistake, for at some deeper level people thought "well, he lost against Nato, didn"t he?" All this remains speculative, of course. We cannot prove the direct causal connection. We can never know what would have happened if Nato had not gone to war over Kosovo. But the testimony I heard in Belgrade persuades me that Nato's action was a contributing, secondary cause of the fall of Milosevic. Not a primary cause - those lie inside the country itself - but a significant catalyst. With benefit of hindsight, this strengthens the case for the Kosovo war.

Yet in a larger perspective, American or British self-congratulation is still wildly out of place. For the question remains: why did it take us so long to act? Why did we not already respond decisively when Milosevics forces started besieging the Croatian town of Vukovar in the autumn of 1991? Today's cry of "all's well that ends well" is scant consolation for the widowed and fatherless of Srebrenica.

In their evocation of American success, Kagan and Kristol smoothly elide the United States' "earlier intervention in Bosnia" with the impact of the Kosovo war. The truth is that the Clinton administration's key partner in the 1995 Dayton Agreement on Bosnia was Slobodan Milosevic. The United States signally failed to support the opponents of Milosevic, who already in 1996 and 1997 had tried to make a peaceful revolution on the streets of Belgrade.

One reason for that failure was that Washington felt it depended on Milosevic's continued cooperation to "make Dayton work" in Bosnia. And the United States' first diplomatic partner in that deeply flawed strategy was, yes, Britain.

So against the ultimately positive impact of 10 weeks of war we must weigh the negative impact of 10 of appeasement. History's message to the vainglorious reads: very well, claim your share of the credit - so long as you also take your share of the blame.