The NATO air strikes in Serbia’s memory politics

The building of the Ministry of Defense in Belgrade, Serbia was damaged during the NATO bombing. © Bestalex/Wikimedia Commons

On the evening of 24 March 1999, the first NATO air strikes hit targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with German troops taking an active combat role for the first time since the end of the Second World War. The question of the legitimacy of this “humanitarian intervention” in the Kosovo War polarised debate, not only in Germany, and created sharp divisions between supporters and opponents of military action. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of capitals from Washington to Madrid to demand an end to the air strikes. Viewed in the context of the current discussions in the European Union member states about Serbia’s possible accession to the EU and NATO, the bombing now seems to be a mere footnote in history. It’s a different story in Serbia, where nearly two decades on, a Day of Remembrance is held every year on 24 March, with a programme of commemorative events focusing on Serbian “victims of NATO aggression and Albanian UÇK terrorists”. There is silence on the issue of Serbia’s own role as a perpetrator in the Kosovo War, and no mention of the Kosovar Albanian victims. For with Aleksandar Vučić’s election as Prime Minister in 2014, not only has a key figure from the Milošević era returned to the political stage; so too have its language and mnemonic practices.

The war in Kosovo and NATO intervention 

NATO’s launch of ‘Operation Allied Force’ – without a Security Council mandate – in spring 1999 came after a decade of war and violence in Yugoslavia, in which Kosovo played a central role. Since the 1980s, the claim that Kosovo – a province inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians – was the “cradle of the Serbian people” provided the perfect breeding ground for resurgent nationalism in Serbia, paving the way for ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia and for systematic violence and repression against the Kosovar Albanian population. At first, under Ibrahim Rugova’s leadership, the Kosovar Albanians responded with peaceful resistance, but from the mid 1990s onwards, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) increasingly mobilised in an armed “liberation struggle” against the Serbian leadership. By autumn 1998, half a million Kosovar Albanians were fleeing from war. Following the failure of the international community’s diplomatic negotiations, NATO began air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, initially as a short-term intervention whose purpose was to rally the people of Serbia against President Slobodan Milošević and force the Serbian troops out of Kosovo. But instead, the operation escalated into a 78-day air war. What’s more, instead of agreeing to a ceasefire, Milošević mobilised all the military forces at his disposal. His “war of defence” led to the largest humanitarian disaster seen in Europe in the late 20th century: Serbian troops and paramilitaries expelled hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanian civilians; thousands were murdered. Even the end of the military operation on 10 June 1999 and the appointment of a UN interim administration in Kosovo failed to stop the violence: instead, Serbians in Kosovo were targeted in a campaign of vengeance, resulting in a new wave of displacement. NATO troops are still deployed in Kosovo today, where their mission is to deter renewed ethnic hostilities in the region. Kosovo’s declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 is still not recognised by Serbia.

“David and Goliath”: a Serbian narrative of memory

The state of war declared by the Milošević government on 25 March 1999 was a watershed moment: with the start of the NATO bombing campaign, the theatre of the Yugoslav wars shifted to Serbian territory.  Milošević was quick to exploit this state of affairs for his own purposes. The stylised “TARGET” became a powerful symbol of Serbian “resistance” against “NATO aggression”.  For Serbia, the story of David and Goliath – symbolising tiny Serbia against mighty NATO – became the dominant narrative during the bombing and afterwards, changing only when Milošević was overthrown. In the years that followed, the NATO air strikes gradually faded from public consciousness, overshadowed by the prospect of closer ties with the EU, and official commemorative practices consisted of little more than wreath-laying at local memorial sites. However, the 16th anniversary in 2015 marked a resurgence of public remembrance: at a commemorative event held against the backdrop of the floodlit ruins of the bombed-out General Staff building in Belgrade, the sound of sirens and video clips of the air strikes evoked vivid memories among the members of the public who were present or watching on TV. Alexander Vučić – once Milošević’s Minister of Information, now back on the political stage following his 2014 election as Prime Minister – underscored Serbia’s new-found/resurgent strength: “For 78 days, Serbia showed the world how stubborn it can be – and how courageous.” Once again, the narrative of Serbia’s “heroic defence” against the West was at the forefront of official remembrance. “You killed us, you were killing our children, but you didn’t kill Serbia because no one can kill Serbia,” Vučić declared at the commemorative event a year later in 2016. Again, only the Serbian victims were remembered. “Serbia will maybe forgive, but will never forget” was Vučić’s message, shared on social media under hashtag #24mart.

The political legacy

The annual Day of Remembrance of the NATO bombing is a manifestation of a rhetorical and performative practice of commemoration which in many ways harks back to, but is distinct from, the Milošević era. The reversion to nationalist and patriotic narratives of victimisation under Vučić is accompanied by political pragmatism, which is focused not only on a future in the European Union but also on maintaining solid relations with Russia. The importance of this political strategy was highlighted by Vučić in his memorial speech in 2016: Serbia, he said, has “strong friends in the East and serious partners in the West”. The stage-managed commemoration of the NATO bombing plays a key role here, for it nurtures the public’s national and patriotic sentiment (or resentment) while serving pragmatic interest-led politics. But it is not only traditional victimisation narratives that are enjoying a political resurgence; so too are the powerful counterforces. Vučić’s victory in the presidential elections last April was followed by mass protests against what Graz University’s Balkan expert Florian Bieber – referring to the restrictions on media freedom and weak opposition – calls an “increasingly authoritarian system”. Written on the protesters’ placards were the words: “Gotov je” (“He’s finished!”) – a nod to the Otpor! movement’s protest campaign which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000.


Elisa Satjukow is a researcher in the Department of History of East and Southeast Europe at Leipzig University.