Global Independent Analytics
Radostina Schivatcheva
Radostina Schivatcheva

Location: Bulgaria

Specialization: Sustainable development, International relations, Comparative European politics, European integration, Eastern European politics and EU-Russia relations

‘No to NATO’ protest in Serbia marks the dark anniversary of the 1999 bombing

A large-scale anti-NATO rally just took place in Belgrade, Serbia on the 27th of March. The rally was held under the slogan: "For a free and sovereign Serbia!"

The rally took place 3 days after the 24th of March - the memorial anniversary of the beginning of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. The 15,000-20,000 protesters demanded from the authorities a referendum regarding any further cooperation with the EU and NATO.  Participants carried banners reading: ‘Resist the occupation’ and ‘Serbia is not a NATO colony’, while many waved the national flag. The protest has been an expression of anger and defiance, but also of mourning and sadness.

‘We will not sell our souls to NATO’

The popular discontent was caused by the ratification of the Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Serbia and NATO about cooperation in the field of logistic support. The agreement allows NATO’s troops free and unhindered movement over the entire Serbian territory. The protesters are indignant at the government’s course of rapprochement with NATO, fearing that: “the Republic of Serbia will become political and military colony of the most powerful member state of NATO, the United States, giving up our sovereignty in the field of security and foreign policy”.

The people attending the protest made simple demands: “We insist on holding a peaceful referendum in which the will of the people will become clear – that we want a free country, which is ruled by free people, not by the generals of NATO and foreign ambassadors!” Momcilo Vidovic, a representative of the Independent Union of Policemen unequivocally insisted: “Serbia must remain neutral outside NATO”.

This large anti-NATO protest in Belgrade was not covered by any of the major TV and news agencies of Serbian, Balkan and global media. The previous very large anti-NATO protest, which took place in late February, also faced media blackout. This has caused public outrage. On Sunday the protesters threw rocks at the building of the Serbian Radio and Television while shouting: “Come out, sell-out souls!” and “We will not sell our souls to NATO.” Milica Djurdjevic, of the organization Zavetnik even described the media black-out as “NATO’s media occupation”.

In spite of the official media’s silence, nobody has forgotten NATO’s bombs with depleted uranium, the bombing of civilian targets, including the Serbian television, and the numerous civilian victims.

The dirty ‘little’ war of 1999

The bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO forces began on March 24th and ended on June 10th, 1999. Both military and civilian targets came under attack. The NATO operation was justified as a humanitarian intervention, but it was carried out without a UN mandate, so it is often characterized as illegal and as a military aggression.

According to Yugoslavia’s authorities, the total number of civilian deaths amounted to over 1,700, including nearly 400 children; further 10,000 people were seriously injured. UN reported 821 people as missing, most of them Serbs. ‘Operation Allied Force’ has continued to claim lives even after its ending, due to the depleted uranium used in the ammunition.

During the 78 day operation, NATO aircraft flew 37,000 sorties, in which 23,000 bombs (including cluster bombs) and missiles were dropped. Munitions containing radioactive depleted uranium were widely used. The list of civilian buildings hit by the "smart" NATO missiles is long. Amongst the most horrendous atrocities claiming numerous lives, are the bombings of a school and a kindergarten in the city of Novi Sad, a medical center in Aleksinac, the ski resort Zlatibor and the passenger train 393 that was en route from Niche to Athens. One of the bombings hit a bus of the company Nish Ekspres on a bridge near Prishtina, killing 23 people; then when medical personnel arrived at the scene of the carnage, they were bombed too.

Justice and cynicism

Who was supposed to have objected to the killing of innocent civilians?

International law forbids direct attacks on civilian targets and requires that all feasible precautions be made in order to prevent civilian deaths. On April 29th, 1999, Yugoslavia filed a complaint at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague. The letter of Yugoslavia’s lawyer read: “I have the honour to bring to the attention of the Court the latest bombing of the central area of the town of Surdulica on 27 April 1999 at noon resulting in the loss of lives of civilians, most of whom were children and women”. The legal mechanisms allowed ICJ to avoid taking any punitive actions at the perpetrators of this documented crime, brushing off Yugoslavia’s claim on a jurisdictional technicality. The ICJ majority vote determined that NATO’s bombing was an instance of “humanitarian intervention" and thus did not violate Article 9 of the Genocide Convention. Prominent legal scholars have criticized this decision by stating: “Yugoslavia was at least entitled to deliberation on the merits of its claim that the bombing was illegal.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also criticised the deliberate selection of civilian targets by NATO forces. Such reports have been rejected by NATO as ‘baseless and ill-founded’. Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, had told the United Nations Security Council that her investigation into NATO actions found no basis for charging NATO or its leaders with war crimes.

Those who may have expected that the United Nations (UN) would serve as a beacon of justice have also been mistaken. A draft UN resolution, condemning the actions of NATO as an aggression, collected only three votes ‘in favour’ - Russia, Namibia and China - at the UN Security Council voting.

Seventeen years later, the conclusion that could be drawn is: justice for the Serbian civilians killed in 1999 will take a very long time coming via the international institutions.

Cynicism as the norm in the inter-state relations

Serbia’s neighbours have done everything to try and forget the war of 1999, and some even attempt to wage an edifying finger at Belgrade.

Only two days before the memorial anniversary of NATO’s bombing, Croatia’s foreign minister Miro Kovac attempted to crudely grasp the ‘higher moral ground’ in the Serbo-Croatian relations. Kovac stated that the “Croatian government would be firm, but fair in its relations with Serbia”. Kovac’s didactic tone rang smug and falsetto-false, as he intoned that Croatia supports Serbia's European path, but that “membership negotiations would require certain changes in Serbian society. And that is not easy as these reforms must be very painful”. Kovac did not offer condolences, sympathy or any form of acknowledgement of the tragedy.

Shamefully, neither did any other of Serbia’s Balkan neighbours. In 1999, the right-wing Bulgarian government of Ivan Kostov opened Bulgarian air space for NATO’s airplanes. The Bulgarian civil society’s protests against this decision were ignored. Now, on the 24th of March the Bulgarian politicians have also been shamefully silent, apparently lacking words of sympathy, empathy and apology. If there is something redemptive in this despicable silence, it is that compassion and empathy are not lacking among ordinary citizens.

Only collective resistance can oppose NATO’s ‘collective security.'

This is the slogan chanted by many of the protesters in Belgrade. While the ‘dead souls’ of Balkan politics grotesquely parade their complacent opinions, in Serbia the lessons of the war, which took place 17 years ago, have not been forgotten. The message in Belgrade was clear: ‘No to War, No to NATO’. One very important lesson is yet to be learned: only ‘collective resistance’ can oppose the coercion to join the ‘collective security’ of the Alliance. Today, in spite of the truly heroic efforts of Serbia to stop the further militarization of the Balkans, she simply cannot do it alone. Any success of the anti-NATO movement of the small Balkan states must be a common shared effort for it to be successful, involving collaboration, mobilization, coordination and good neighbourly will.  Solidarity must transcend national borders.

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