Ex foes Serbia, Kosovo 15 years after NATO air war on EU path

Pedestrians cross a street in Belgrade on March 10, 2014, near the former federal military headquarters destroyed during the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia. Belgrade voters often turn their backs on the ruling elite, a fact the struggling opposition hopes will boost its chances of winning back control of the capital, a key political battleground in Serbia. From the Ottoman era to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign launched over Serbia's role in the war in Kosovo, Belgrade has survived more than 40 battles.

BELGRADE - When NATO launched its first air campaign on European soil in 1999 to force Serbia to halt crackdown on independence-seeking Kosovo, the European Union was far from minds of both Belgrade and Pristina.

Now, fifteen years later, the former bitter foes have made their first steps on the European path, after reaching historic accord on normalisation of relations last April under a watchful EU mediation.

Although Serbia steadfastly refuses to recognise the independence of its former, majority ethnic-Albanian province, it has normalised ties to a degree allowing it in January to open EU membership talks.

Kosovo also has agreement to enter talks on an EU stabilisation and association deal -- a lesser pact that is first step on a long path towards possible EU membership.

But the 1999 NATO bombing campaign which lasted 78 days still remains etched deep in public memory.

On March 24 of that year, the Atlantic alliance launched its air strikes -- without UN Security Council backing -- after late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic spurned a peace deal to end his forces' repression on ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting for the independence of Kosovo.

Crimea referendum brings back memories

The disputed referendum on March 16 this year in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia has brought back memories both in Kosovo and Serbia.

After years of condemning Kosovo's secession, Moscow cited it as a precedent for its actions in Crimea.

Analyst Miodrag Radojevic of Belgrade-based Institute For Political Studies said the link could be made between 1999 NATO bombings and Crimea referendum, as "both have no legitimate legal foundations".

"But globally, the 1999 bombings were a precedent that has grown into a sort of custom, as we can see nowadays in Crimea," he said.

After the end of the bombings in June 1999, Kosovo was placed under UN administration, with NATO-led peacekeepers providing security on its territory.

In 2008, Pristina unilaterally declared independence which has so far been recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union's 28 member states.

Although Belgrade still rejects Pristina's independence, a "certain level of placability could be seen towards Kosovo's separation," said Radojevic.

Taking part in EU-mediated talks with Pristina "shows that (Belgrade) has de facto recognised the situation on the ground," he added.

But a further normalisation is possible "only if EU opens its doors to both sides, providing a clear European perspective" for the former foes, said Pristina-based political analyst Adrian Qollaku.

"If it was not for the EU and their promising carrot and threatening stick, the two sides would never even try to normalise their relation," said 19-year old student Valon Istrefi.

Nightmares of bombings still persist

Even with their eyes fixed on the EU-bound future, the views of the 1999 bombings will always be different in Serbia and Kosovo.

In Belgrade, the Milosevic-era defence and interior ministry buildings, severely hit by NATO missiles, still stand in ruins in one of the main avenues.

But in Kosovo, also severely hit by the bombings mostly on Serbia's security forces positions, there are no traces left.

At the site once housing the headquarters of Serbian police in central Pristina, modern offices now used as the Kosovo Interior Ministry were built, thanks to the EU funds.

And Kosovo security forces moved into a former Serbian army garrison on the outskirts of Pristina, bombed to the ground and soon built its barracks, decorated with Kosovo's blue-and-yellow flag.

Now 32, ethnic Albanian Qerim Ahmeti was a teenager when NATO missile hit the police headquarters in Pristina in 1999. It was, he said, like "an earthquake and thunder at the same time".

"But we were not afraid and we only prayed to God to live and see Serbia's forces withdrawal from Kosovo," Ahmeti told AFP.

In Belgrade, his Serbian peer Vlatka Reljic still avoids the shortest path to her home in a Belgrade suburb, mistakenly hit in what was later described as a NATO "blunder".

"I don't think I will ever walk along that trail again. It was not my war, and I still have nightmares about the bombardment of my city," she said.

Official Serbian figures say some 2,500 civilians were killed and 12,500 injured during 11 weeks of bombing.

Human Rights Watch put the civilian death toll of the NATO bombing at around 500.