Is Libya like Serbia 1999?

The Serbian football trainer Branko Smiljanić said in an interview that Tripoli today reminds of Belgrade in 1999. He went on to say that the similarities lies in the fact that life goes on largely as normal despite the bombing. A number of facebook groups have sprung up, such as the “Support for Muammar al Gaddafi from the people of Serbia” with over 32,000 ‘likes’ as of 21 March. The group also features photos from a protest in favor of Gaddafi in front of the 25 May museum and Tito’s mausoleum. The supporters of Gaddafi thus blend Yugonostalgia and the close Libyan-Yugoslav ties during the socialist period with the more recent past.

So does the 1999/2011 comparison hold? Neil Clark in the Guardian argued that March is a time of lies which lead to the UK involvement in Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, and Libya 2011. His argument that all three interventions are based on (potential) lies is of course simplistic and the assertion that Kosovo and Iraq were “classic imperialist ventures whose real aim was to extend western economic and military hegemony” suggest a simplistic argument based on some supposed “anti-imperial” reflex. I am not sure how and why the “West” has spread its hegemony in Kosovo or Serbia through military intervention. Just like protesters for Gaddafi, it ignores the target of the intervention amidst obsession with supposed imperialism.

So if this is not convincing, what are the similarities and difference? First, Libyan intervention in 2011 has been based on a UN Sec. Council Resolution, whereas in Kosovo such as mandate was elusive due to Russian and Chinese opposition. Intervention in Kosovo followed a conflict which began  to take a violent turn already a year earlier, in March 1998. A key difference between the two intervention is the group protected. Albanians were targeted by the Milosevic regime in 1998/9 as it considered Albanians potential supporters for the KLA and for supporting secession from Serbia. In Libya the opposition is by all indications not interested in seceding from Libya, but overthrowing Gaddafi and establishing a  democracy and a protection of human rights (even if we know very little about the actual composition of the opposition itself).

One argument put forth in 1999 was the ‘moral hazard’ argument: By supporting the KLA, the intervention rewarded the use of force for a secessionist movement. While over the past decade there is little evidence the de facto support for the KLA has emboldened secessionist groups around the world to take up arms, there is a problem associated with supporting the use of force (the main problem has been the lack of support for its non-violent alternatives). In Libya, there is no such moral hazard. It potential democrats are emboldened to overthrow dictators by the intervention, this cannot be considered problematic per se (although military intervention is likely to remain rare and it might encourage rebellion when odds of  success and intervention are both slim). The hazard would have been greater if there had been no intervention, the message would be clear to other dictators: be soft and you end up as Ben Ali and Mubarak, be brutal and you can stay in power.

Both interventions are imperfect in their own way. It is very difficult to predict the outcome and length of the conflict ensuing. Once intervention begins, it is impossible to ascertain whether the alternative of non-intervention would have resulted in fewer victims or less repression. There has been little time for planning for this intervention and besides the  UN Sec. Council resolution which talks about what needs to end (repression of human rights), and a change which reflects the will of the people, but it is unclear how to get there. In Kosovo there was little and poor post-conflict planning, leading for mass violence at the end of the war and anarchy which helped undermine legitimacy of the post-conflict peace building. At this point, the conflict in Libya is not yet a long standing civil war where a serious post-conflict intervention would be justified (and it is explicitly excluded by the resolution). As imperfect as interventions are, the ability of dictators to militarily repression opposition deserves to be curtailed, especially when they are as violent and heavy handed as Gaddafi.


6 Responses to Is Libya like Serbia 1999?

  1. Stefan Popovic says:


    Are you standing for International law principles or you advocate the power principle?
    What is the difference between situations in Palestine, DR Congo and Libya? What is the difference between Libya and Bahrain situation?

  2. Andreas Ernst says:

    The main problem of the Western intervention in Libya – and of Florian Bieber´s comment – is the assumption to know what the rebels want: human rights and democracy. At the same time at least Florian admits that nobody knows them. So how could you possibly know their goals? You don´t. So why support them?

    In Kosovo as in Libya the spin of decision makers to convince the public of the intervention was: we protect people. In Kosovo the main goal of the UCK was national liberation, not human rights. Their priority differed from the goals of the interventionists. This “misunderstanding” shaped the relation between locals and internationals for many years and made, partly, the statebuildung unsuccessful.

    There´s a second point. In Kosovo the gravest human rights violation, massacres and deportations took place after the intervention. What should have been prevented was triggered by the air-war. The western narrative has forgotten this. Let´s hope Libya´s case will not be a stark reminder.

  3. Florian Bieber says:

    Andreas, you are of course right that we don’t know this. However, judging by the events in the region and the little we do know, we can assume that the goal of the rebels is not a new Gaddafi, nor–at least by a significant number–some kind of Islamic state. If not knowing exactly would mean not intervening, this would mean that in case the repression in Bucharest in 1989 had continued without the end of Ceausecu, nobody should have intervened, because it was far from clear what protestors wanted? By the time we exaclty know, there might be nothing left of the opposition to the regime.
    I agree with your second point and the problems that ‘misunderstanding’ caused.
    While it is true that the worst violations took place by the Serbian authorities after the beginning of NATO intervention, this is a statement about timing, not about causality. It is sure that the Serbian forces abandoned their “a village a day keeps NATO away” once NATO was no longer kept away, but it seems clear that in the absence of a peace agreement the violence would have continued. It might have been less at any give time, but much longer in duration. I have my doubts that this would have lead to an overall less violent conflict.
    The main question I have in regard to the criticsm of intervention as it took place in Kosovo in 1999 and we see now in Libya is the alternative. If the alternative is not engaging, I find the consequences more troubling. In my mind the question is more how to engage.

  4. Stefan Popovic says:

    Even if I agree that somebody ought to intervene in Libya (which I do not) there’s a bigger issue there – how do you know that the protesters are majority in Libya? Who did the research on that?

    Who’s going to accountable if eventually appears that “the coalition” supported minorities needs in Libya? Wouldn’t that be major violation of the basic principle of democracy?

  5. Florian Bieber says:

    The NZZ just published a good analysis of the difficulties of the 1999 intervention and what it might mean for Libya:

  6. David says:

    Dear Florian,

    thank you for your nice article. I would like to add one major difference between Kosovo 1999 and Lybia 2011, that is the ethnic component. While Lybia is mainly a political conflict on power-sharing or ideologies, if we assume that the protestors goal is really democracy (may it be dictatorship vs. democracy, or only Gadaffi rule vs. another clan von Bengasi, I really don’t know), in Kosovo NATO faced an identity based ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflicts tend to be more brutal and directed towards civil society (that does not mean, that conflicts on ideology or power may not be as brutal as identity conflicts) and offten the aim is the destruction/deportation/explusion of all members of the conflicting party.

    Therefore a higher legitimacy to intervene stems from ethnic conflict than civil wars – which is also reflected in the fact, that genocide is the most serious possible crime where, regarding international law, there cannot be any amnesty for perpretators (genocide does not include political motivations, a fact which was disscussed in Cambodia, where the court was not able to argue, that Pol Pot and his gang commited genocide against and therefore there crime fell under the statue of limitations).

    Regarding the moral hazard theory I just fear that the protestors in Syria stoot up in te hope to receive military assistance against the regime of Bashar and his generals just as the Lybians. On the motivations of the protestors we can see that the opposition to Mubarak and Ben Ali turn out to really persue democratic aims. The end oft political transformation in Egypt and Tunesia is not decided yet, but at least we can assert that the aims was not only to replace one dictator of one ethnic group etc. with another one. Instead of focussing on military intervention Europe should focuse more on supporting these tw countries with everything they need to demonstration dictators and the society of other regimes in the region, that there are other alternatives to authoritarian rule than islamic rule. This would help to mobilize even more protestors and turn down the argument that the oposition was promoting sharia law and “islamic terrorism”.

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