Executive Summary: The Lessons of Milosevic's Fall

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Executive Summary: The Lessons of Milosevic's Fall

October 27, 2000 3 min read Download Report
Kim Holmes
Former Executive Vice President
Kim R. Holmes was the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.

Many people can take credit for the fall of Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic: Vojislav Kostunica for uniting the Serbian opposition, the Serbian people for rising up against Milosevic, George Bush for starting the policy of containment and sanctions against Milosevic in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton for expanding that policy and standing up to Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo, and NATO for holding firm against the Serbian leader despite his many attempts to divide the alliance.

But there is a danger that U.S. policymakers may draw the wrong lessons in the middle of all this self-congratulation. The policy of containment against Yugoslavia has been vindicated, but it would be wrong to conclude that Milosevic's fall vindicates everything the United States and NATO did with respect to the Balkans. Indeed, it may be that mistakes made by NATO and the Clinton Administration unwittingly prolonged Milosevic's stay in power. And it may be that the intervention by NATO in Kosovo was unnecessary and thus has lessened the prospects for peace and democracy in that war-torn region.


When fighting broke out in Kosovo in 1998, it represented the failure of the containment policy that had brought Milosevic to heel in Bosnia. The Dayton Accords were supposed not only to bring peace to Bosnia, but also to prevent the spread of violence elsewhere in the Balkans, including Kosovo. But the Dayton Accords did not prevent the spreading of war in the Balkans; instead, they provided Milosevic with a respite during which he could prepare for a showdown over Kosovo.

The Kosovo Intervention: Making Matters Worse
Kostunica's victory puts the United States and NATO in a very uncomfortable position in Kosovo. So long as the Albanian Kosovars had Milosevic as their enemy, they could hope that NATO forces inside Kosovo would someday support them in their bid for complete independence. Now that Serbia has an ostensibly democratic leader, those hopes have been dashed.

Dayton Revisited
Kostunica's victory will do little to solve the basic problem with the Dayton Accords: the contradiction between the two opposing goals of democratization and multi-ethnicity. The essential problem is that NATO is enforcing a constitutional order on Bosnia that many of its ethnic communities reject. Since the unified Bosnian state lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens, it can be maintained only by outside force. Thus, NATO, and through it the United States, will function not merely as a peacekeeper--something that most Bosnians now welcome. It may also be perceived eventually as a foreign occupying force denying them their
democratic choice of self-rule.


The most important reason for the fall of Slobodan Milosevic can be found in internal Serbian politics, not in the impact of the Kosovo intervention. The key reasons that Kostunica won the election were the economic crisis, which was exacerbated by international sanctions, and the fact that Serbia's democratic opposition became unified behind a common candidate.

If anything, the Kosovo intervention made it more difficult for the opposition to bring Milosevic down. Kostunica and the democratic opposition vehemently opposed the NATO intervention in Kosovo. This created complications for the United States and NATO. Because of the political fallout from the Kosovo intervention, the democratic opposition in Serbia was isolated from the West at a time when they could have used its financial and political backing.

On balance, NATO's Kosovo intervention did more to keep Milosevic in power than to remove him. Kostunica won the Yugoslavian presidential election in spite of the Kosovo intervention, not because of it. If the sanctions on Yugoslavia had not been lifted in 1995 as a result of the Dayton Accords, disillusionment with Milosevic might have peaked earlier.


Reviewing the history of the Balkans over the past decade, certain lessons can be drawn for U.S. policymakers. For example, sanctions can work when they are universally applied by a broader coalition and other circumstances are favorable. Moreover, in resolving regional disputes, U.S. policy must be sharply focused and absolutely consistent; special care must be taken to avoid expedient short-term initiatives or compromises that undermine the long-term strategy. In addition, policymakers should ensure that the political settlement is consistent with democratic principles. Finally, the United States should make greater efforts to build democratic opposition movements in civil conflicts, giving America options other than direct intervention.


The worst mistake made by U.S. policymakers in the Balkans was to let misguided humanitarian impulses cloud their judgment of the political complexities of the Balkans. This led them to hastily make Milosevic a partner in peace in Bosnia. It made them miscalculate his intentions at the peace conference in Rambouillet. And it led U.S. policymakers to create an artificial, non-democratic state in Bosnia that can be sustained only by the application of outside military force.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Kim Holmes

Former Executive Vice President