1999 Year in Review - News of the World

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
1999 Year in Review

While bloody wars broke out in Kosovo and Chechnya, the possiblity of peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland grew more palpable.

NATO Rallies for Kosovo

Years of unrest in Yugoslavia's province of Kosovo erupted into war in the spring of 1999. Formerly an autonomous province in Tito's Yugoslavia, Kosovo was stripped of self-rule in 1989 by President Slobodan Milosevic. A Serbian ultra-nationalist, Milosevic began systematically repressing Yugoslavia's non-Serbs, including the 90% of Kosovo's population that is Muslim and ethnic Albanian. As one after another of the Balkan states broke free from Yugoslavia and Serbian hegemony, the secessionist longings of Kosovo, the poorest of the Balkans, were largely discounted by the international community. In 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army, a militant secessionist movement, began attacking Serbian authorities in Kosovo; by March 1998, the Yugoslavian army and Serbian militias had brutally clamped down on the region, massacring civilians as well as KLA guerrillas, and deporting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians. After months of fruitless diplomacy by the West, NATO began Operation Allied Force on March 24, 1999, launching air strikes against Belgrade that continued for 78 consecutive days.

Weeks of daily bombings destroyed significant Serbian military targets, yet Milosevic showed no signs of relenting-in fact, he stepped up efforts to empty the province of its ethnic Albanians. Not only did it seem that NATO's actions exacerbated the violence in Kosovo, but its reluctance to send in ground troops to support the air war struck many as naive and shortsighted-while NATO fought in the air, the annihilation of Kosovars and the region was proceeding on the ground. NATO countries, however, feared that the inevitable casualties of a ground war in a remote corner of the Balkans would dampen the resolve of public opinion. Aided at the end by a strong KLA offensive and Belgrade's apprehension of a future ground war, NATO's hesitation over deploying ground troops ultimately paid off. Milosevic finally agreed to sign a UN-approved peace agreement on June 9.

Since then a five-nation peace-keeping force has occupied the territory, and a staggering 860,000 refugees have begun returning to the ruins of Kosovo. The political status of Kosovo remains uncertain, as does the status of Milosevic, who, after turning his beleaguered country into a pariah state, remains in power while an unpromising lot of fractious opposition leaders fight among themselves.

Although the initial reason for NATO's involvement in Kosovo was the prevention of a wider Balkan war, once the extent of Serbian atrocities became known, NATO's stated purpose became the prevention of a human rights calamity-making Kosovo one of the rare recent conflicts in which humanitarian concerns have superseded realpolitik.

Although the initial reason for NATO's involvement in Kosovo was the prevention of a wider Balkan war, once the extent of Serbian atrocities became known NATO's stated purpose became the prevention of a human rights calamity-making Kosovo one of the rare recent conflicts in which humanitarian concerns have superseded realpolitik.

Russian Roulette

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's increasingly erratic behavior led to his dismissal and appointment of three prime ministers in 1999. After sacking Yevgeny Primakov in May and Sergei Stepashin in August, Yeltsin settled on Vladimir Putin, whom he installed as a strongman to crush the resurgence of guerrilla warfare by Islamic militants in Chechnya. Just three years after the bloody 1994-96 Chechen-Russian war ended in devastation and stalemate, the fighting started again, erupting first in Chechnya's neighbor Dagestan in August. After several terrorist bombings in Moscow and other cities in September that were assumed to have been planted by Islamic militants, Russia again turned its ire on Chechnya, launching air strikes and following with ground troops.

By the end of Nov., Russian troops had surrounded Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and a bout 215%,000 Chechen refugees had fled to neighboring Ingushetia. Russia maintained that a political solution was impossible until Islamic militants in Chechnya had been vanquished. In Dec. the Kremlin issued an ultimatum that all residents of Grozny must evacuate the city by Dec. 10 or else face the military consequences. An estimated 10,000-40,000 civilians were virtually trapped in the city, fearful of fleeing Grozny amid the constant barrage of shelling.

The ultimatum was eventually softened, in part because of the West's strong condemnation of Russia's handling of Chechnya. At its summit in Dec., the EU declared that ``the European Council does not question the right of Russia to preserve its territorial integrity nor its right to fight terrorism. However, the fight against terrorism cannot ... warrant the destruction of cities, nor that they be emptied of their inhabitants, nor that a whole population be considered as terrorists.'' Yet Russians themselves remained overwhelmingly in favor of the assault on Chechnya. Yet Russians themselves remained overwhelmingly in favor of the assault on Chechnya, demonstrated by the strong showing for the pro-government Unity party in December's parliamentary elections.

Kashmiri Shell Game

The disputed region of Kashmir has been at the root of chronic antagonism between Pakistan and India, and their enmity has grown potentially more dangerous now that both have demonstrated nuclear weapon capabilities. Insurgent forces-which Pakistan claims are autonomous Kashmiri "freedom fighters"-made incursions into Indian-controlled Kashmiri territory in May 1999. According to New Delhi, these troops were in fact Pakistani army regulars and Muslim mercenaries, a view shared by most of the world. India fought back with air strikes and ground troops, and by August Pakistan retreated.

The Pakistani military, deeply unhappy with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's handling of the Kashmir crisis as well as other issues, deposed him on Oct. 12, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf took control. The Pakistani public, accustomed to military rule for 25 of the nation's 52-year history, generally viewed the coup as a positive step, and hoped it would bring a badly needed economic upswing.

Nightmare in East Timor

A Portuguese colony for 400 years until abruptly abandoned in 1975, East Timor was seized within a year by Indonesia. The Indonesian occupation led to widespread repression and the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Timorese, earning Indonesia a global reputation for human rights abuses.

In February 1999, former Indonesian president Suharto's successor, B. J. Habibie, unexpectedly announced his willingness to hold a referendum on East Timorese independence, reversing 25 years of Indonesian intransigence. As the referendum on self-rule drew closer, fighting between separatist guerrillas and pro-Indonesian paramilitary forces in East Timor intensified. The U.N.-sponsored referendum had to be rescheduled twice because of violence. On Aug. 30, 1999, 78.5% of the population voted to secede from Indonesia. In the days following the referendum, pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian soldiers retaliated by razing towns, slaughtering civilians, and forcing a third of the population out of the province.

Despite repeated assurances that Indonesia would restore order, Habibie and the powerful head of the military, Gen. Wiranto, were either unwilling or unable to stop the bloodbath. The rampage was primarily carried out by paramilitary forces who had been trained and armed by the military and then allowed to run amok (a word that is in fact derived from Indonesian). The U.N.'s lack of foresight exacerbated the violence: after encouraging the populace to exercise their rights by participating in a free and democratic election, the U.N. failed to make provisions for protecting them from the inevitably brutal aftermath. Only after enormous international pressure did Indonesia finally allow a hastily assembled peacekeeping force into East Timor on Sept. 12.

Led by Australia, the international force followed the precedent set in Kosovo: it intervened in the plight of a backwater region for no larger motive than humanitarian and democratic ideals. Australia in particular had much to lose by going against its Indonesian neighbor. The stance of the 1999 peacekeepers was a far cry from 1976, when the U.S. and other nations stood by while East Timor was invaded by Indonesia, an important Western ally and trading partner.

Making Good on the Good Friday Agreement

Negotiations to implement the 1998 landmark Good Friday Agreement progressed until the crucial moment when the embryonic Northern Irish coalition government was to convene for the first time: July 16, 1999. The sudden impasse was the result of Sinn Fein's insistence that the I.R.A. would only begin giving up its illegal weapons after the formation of the new government, while Unionists demanded disarmament begin first. Subsequent talks on the agreement, which would have ended three decades of direct rule from London, seemed to go nowhere, despite the last-ditch intervention of former Sen. George Mitchell, who helped engineer the Good Friday Agreement.

Finally, at the end of Nov., David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, abandoned the seemingly sacrosanct "no guns, no government" position, and took a difficult leap of faith in agreeing to form a government prior to Sinn Fein's disarmament. If the IRA did not begin the destruction of their weapons by Jan. 31, 2000, however, the Ulster Unionists threatened they would withdraw from the Northern Irish Parliament, shutting down the new government. With this compromise in place, the new government was quickly formed, and on Dec. 2, 1999, the British government formally transferred governing power to the Northern Irish parliament. Whether the new government is to survive is now depends on whether the Republicans keep their end of the bargain.

New Israeli P.M. Renews Middle East Peace Talks

The stalemated Middle East peace talks that faltered under Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu revived with the election of the Labour Party's Ehud Barak, who managed to forge a broad, stable coalition government. At his inauguration (July 6, 1999) Prime Minister Barak announced that "nothing is more important in my view than . . .putting an end to the 100-year conflict in the Middle East." By this he meant not only peace with the Palestinians, but with Syria as well. Barak also promised to end the low-grade war that has barraged Southern Lebanon since 1985, which has been fueled by Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. In Sept. 1998, Israel moved ahead with the 1998 Wye Accord, ceding an additional 7% of territory to the Palestinians.

No thaw with Syria seemed forthcoming until Dec., when Israeli-Syrian talks resumed after a nearly four-year hiatus. From Syria's point of view, normalization of relations between the two countries would largely depend on Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was territory that Israel had captured from Syria during the Middle East war of 1967. From Israel's point of view, relinquishing the Golan Heights, which served as a buffer zone between the two nations, could not occur without a guarantee of Israel's national security.

South America Inherits Asia's Woes

The Asian financial crisis seemed to stabilize by 1999, although recovery will require patience: the World Bank estimated that the four largest economies affected (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines) will yield an average annual growth rate of just 2.8% until 2007. Meanwhile, economic troubles have migrated to South America. In Jan. 1999, Brazil was hit hard, dragging down other Latin American economies with it. But Brazil's President Fernando Cardoso responded quickly with belt-tightening measures that produced short-term misery but presumably long-term stability and growth. Venezuela resorted to a more unorthodox approach, permitting their newly elected left-wing president, Hugo Chavez, to replace the existing democratically elected congress with his own supporters, and to assume near-dictatorial powers in an effort to reform of the ailing economy.

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