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World - Europe

news analysis:
A look back at the international headlines of 1999

Ethnic Albanian refugees cross the Kosovo border into Albania  

December 14, 1999
Web posted at: 9:14 a.m. EST (1414 GMT)

Rob Golden
Senior International News Editor

An international news editor looks at changes around the world from one moment to the next. And from that perspective, 1999 was certainly full of developments. The political landscape and in some cases even the geographical landscape looks much different now than it did at the beginning of the year.

While some conflicts heated up, others abated. And some even appeared to be settled. But there's one thing almost all of these events had in common: they are yet to be fully resolved.




In 1999 Kosovo inherited the seeds of war from the year before. NATO had already authorized air strikes against Serb targets in an effort to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw troops from Kosovo and allow the return of refugees.

As 1999 began, more ethnic Albanians were fleeing their homes and many were the victims of atrocities. But at the same time the ethnic Albanian military force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, was gaining in numbers and strength. Yugoslav officials pointed to the KLA's quest for independence and the killings of Serb policemen in Kosovo as a reason for their crackdown in the region.

After failing to get Milosevic's agreement for a NATO peacekeeping mission, air strikes began in March. The attacks pounded Serb military installations, oil depots, factories, airports and bridges. Belgrade and other major cities became daily targets. But the NATO attacks also accelerated the Serbs' crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Villages were burned, mass murders were committed and hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were deported to neighboring Albania and Macedonia.

Three months of NATO bombardment and refugee suffering ended in June when NATO and Yugoslavia signed an agreement requiring the withdrawal of security forces from Kosovo and the disarming of the KLA. The agreement also established KFOR -- the international police force in Kosovo.

But the end of the war was by no means the end of the troubles. KFOR was able to make only modest attempts at disarming the KLA. And it was now the ethnic Serb civilians in Kosovo who were threatened. Thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo after the war ended as ethnic Albanians sought reprisals. Most of those who remain now live in small enclaves, fearing for their lives.

The international community is finding it an extraordinary challenge to provide peace, security and an administration in Kosovo. Still, the territory is part of Yugoslavia, but with de facto partition. And no one is content with the status quo.


In Colombia, 1999 began with great promise. Government troops had voluntarily evacuated a rebel-dominated region the size of Switzerland and peace talks between President Andres Pastrana and the rebels were set to begin in early January.

Pastrana came into office in 1998 pledging to resolve the country's protracted civil war. Tens of thousands of Colombians have died since the 1964 formation of the main Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The peace talks in January between Pastrana and FARC signaled a significant step toward ending decades of violence. But the event was tinged with disappointment too, when the rebel leader failed to show up and a deputy was sent in his place.

In July, talks broke down over the issue of placing international monitors in areas controlled by rebel forces.

But in the streets of Colombia the desire for peace was gaining momentum. In October more than 5 million people (out of a total population of 40 million) held marches demanding an end to the civil war. The peace talks resumed, only to be marred by more violence.

As the year ended, Pastrana called on the rebels to adhere to a holiday cease-fire. The rebels said they would not lay down their arms as long as the Colombian government continues to extradite drug traffickers to the U.S. That demand reflects the tangled and complex nature of achieving peace in Colombia, where a strong rebel force protects (and gains money from) drug traffickers. In 1999, neither the fight for peace nor the fight against drugs has been won.


As 1999 drew to a close, a settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict was back on track. After months of impasse, the Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans finally agreed to the terms of disarmament. That led to a quick succession of historic landmarks: The British parliament relinquished its direct administration over Northern Ireland, the Irish government formally dropped its constitutional claim to the province, and for the first time self-rule was being exercised by an assembly with representatives from all political parties.

The opposing sides give credit to George Mitchell for success in the talks. The former U.S. senator facilitated the Good Friday accord in April 1998 which mapped out the road to peace. It was Mitchell again who helped resolve the latest deadlock over disarmament. He proved to be a mediator both sides could trust in a conflict dominated by wariness.

But mistrust still exists. The Northern Ireland assembly that has taken over running the affairs of the province includes members of the Irish Republican Army political wing, Sinn Fein, as well as representatives from the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party. The Democratic Unionists have vowed they will never sit in the same room as Sinn Fein.

Despite the monumental achievements, there is a realization of how fragile those gains might be. All militias are to disarm by May 2000 but some unionists say they will boycott the peace deal if the IRA doesn't begin to turn in its weapons by the end of January. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair predicted that extremists from both sides would try to shatter the peace. Indeed, that's a pattern the Northern Ireland conflict has seen for decades.



Even as a peace agreement was being signed at the end of August, there was doubt it would resolve much of troubles facing the Democratic Republic of Congo. The peace deal called for a cease-fire in the fighting that had begun the year before between rebels and government troops.

The rebels themselves are comprised of opposing factions with their only common bond being the desire to overthrow President Laurent Kabila. Added to the complicated mix is the military support from Uganda and Rwanda for the rebels, with Kabila receiving aid from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The rebels and the government accuse each other of violating the cease-fire agreement. But those claims have been hard to verify. A monitoring team from the United Nations was supposed to insure that neither side advances from its positions. But that team has been unable to travel outside the capital, Kinshasa.

Congo is blessed with a bounty of minerals and other natural resources but cursed by decades of corruption, economic mismanagement and war when the country was known as Zaire.

As 1999 came to an end, the specter of armed conflict in Congo had not. Soldiers from five neighboring countries were still staking their positions, rebels and militias were still heavily armed, and Congo's foreign minister vowed his country would not begin the next century under rebel occupation.


In May, India detected an incursion by hundreds of militants across the Line of Control, which separates Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The military operation seemed to take many Indian officials off-guard, and to them represented a breach of trust.

Only three months earlier Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee held an historic meeting in Lahore with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The two leaders declared they would intensify efforts in resolving the Kashmir question.

Two full-scale wars have been fought over Kashmir, one in 1948, the other in 1965. Those wars formed the status of present-day territorial control: neither side satisfied with its share; both sides determined not to give up any more land.

India responded to the May incursion with an intensive military operation from the ground and air. Two Indian fighter jets and a helicopter were lost in battle. Both sides claimed to have killed hundreds of fighters. Neither side was characterizing the conflict as a war, but it sure looked like one.

Throughout the battle, Pakistan denied that its own army troops had crossed over the Line of Control. Pakistani officials claimed they had no control over the Islamic fighters who were waging the campaign. To the contrary, India claimed it had proof that regular Pakistani Army troops were a large part of the force. After eight weeks of fighting, Sharif called on the infiltrators to withdraw, and they did.

As winter set in, Kashmir remained relatively calm; the territory controlled by India and Pakistan was the same as it had been at the start of the year. But the big loss in 1999 was the level of trust each side had for the other. Especially now, with a new military-led government in Pakistan, both sides might find trust to be the hardest thing to recapture.


The start of 1999 marked the beginning of historic change in Indonesia. In January, President B.J. Habibie, without consulting parliament, proposed a referendum that could allow East Timor to become independent.

Independence is what the people of East Timor had been fighting for since 1975 when Indonesian troops invaded the territory. It had previously been a Portuguese colony. Under the leadership of President Suharto, expressions of separatism and independence were harshly suppressed.

Habibie had been vice president and a trusted aide to Suharto. When anti-government demonstrations in 1998 forced Suharto to resign after 32 years of authoritarian rule, Habibie was appointed as his successor.

Habibie not only allowed the fate of East Timor to be considered in a democratic way, he also called for elections, held in June, which was the freest and fairest vote in 44 years. Opposition parties made strong gains in parliament.

The referendum in East Timor was held at the end of August and the people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. But the vote sparked a harsh crackdown by Indonesian militants opposed to the separatist movement. Tens of thousands of East Timorese were forced to flee their homes. Many were killed. An international peacekeeping force led by Australia eventually brought security and calm to most of the territory.

In October the Indonesian parliament gave its formal endorsement for the creation of an independent East Timor. But at the same time, on the eve of presidential elections, parliament failed to endorse Habibie's tenure. The consequences were truly dramatic: Habibie withdrew himself as a presidential candidate and a day later the country had a new leader -- Abdurrahman Wahid.

President Wahid, partially blind and weakened by a stroke, had been a respected religious leader. Together with Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the long-time opposition leader and daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, President Wahid is seen as a leader who favors conciliation over confrontation.

But the new leadership is being put to the test with a situation that could further change the face the Indonesia. Inspired by the successful independence drive in East Timor, the separatist movements in the province of Aceh are gaining momentum. Wahid has refused to declare martial law and he has even suggested holding a referendum for Aceh's 4.5 million people to decide what kind of government they would like. But the rebels are demanding nothing short of independence. And with several other restive groups and provinces throughout the country, keeping Indonesia unified could be Wahid's biggest challenge.


The year began with a stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Dissatisfied with the level of commitment from Yasser Arafat, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared Israel would discontinue the phased withdrawals from the West Bank that were agreed to in the 1998 Wye River accord. Furthermore, Netanyahu's government was brought down by hard-liners in his coalition who opposed the peace deal. There was little impetus for the caretaker Netanyahu government to move the peace process forward.

But a deadline was looming. May 4 was the date that the interim autonomy agreements were to be completely executed. Frustrated with the likelihood of an unfulfilled deadline, the Palestinians threatened to unilaterally declare an independent state. In the end, the decision was taken to postpone the declaration.

Palestinians and Israelis were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the May 17 elections. More than ever before, the Israeli elections of 1999 represented a referendum on the peace process. And the outcome was clear: by electing Labor Party leader Ehud Barak as prime minister with a strong margin, the Israeli population indicated its desire to forge ahead with the peace process.

In September Barak and Arafat met in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh and struck a deal that revised the Wye River accord. Days later Israel released nearly 200 Palestinian prisoners and handed over another 7 per cent of West Bank territory.

Another 5 per cent of West Bank land was scheduled to be handed over in November. But that was held up when both sides could not agree on exactly which areas would be included.

As the year ended, the two sides began a milestone -- the start of permanent status talks. Their goal is to have a framework agreement by February 2000 on the thorniest of issues: Palestinian statehood, return of refugees, Jewish settlements and the status of Jerusalem.

December also marked the re-start of talks between Israel and Syria which had been stalled for more than three years. The conflict between these two countries, which are still technically at war, is less complex than the Palestinian issues. But until now, the pursuit of an Israeli-Syrian deal has proved to be far more elusive.

It was a year of relatively little violence and the resumption of dialogue. But what lies ahead are the toughest talks, so difficult and seemingly insurmountable that they've been ignored up until now.

Russian soldiers patrolled in Chechnya  


In August, Islamic militants led by Chechen guerrillas launched a rebellion in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan. Russian warplanes responded, hitting positions not only in Dagestan, but in neighboring Chechnya too.

It was the first significant military operation in the Caucasus region since the 1994-1996 Chechen fight for independence. That conflict ended with a destroyed infrastructure and the Chechen rebels failing to achieve their goal.

A few weeks after this summer's military campaign began, a series of bomb blasts destroyed apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. Nearly 300 people died. Russian authorities immediately pointed the blame at Chechen militants but offered no compelling evidence to support the allegation.

Meanwhile, thousands of Russian troops were positioned along the Chechen border. Newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared there was no plan for a wide-scale assault on Chechnya. But as time went on, the conflict widened.

As Russian planes continued daily bombardments of Grozny and other Chechen cities, thousands of refugees fled into the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. By late November Russian troops had secured Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes. But as Russian forces began to close in on Grozny, they were met with stiff resistance.

Despite pleas from the United States and other countries to stop the fighting, and the threat of suspending IMF loans, President Boris Yeltsin vowed to press ahead with the operation. And Russian military leaders were predicting they would seize control of Grozny before the end of the year. In 1994 Russian leaders boasted they would take control of Chechnya in two weeks. Whether the military campaign this time around is protracted or ends soon, the problems in Chechnya appear far from being resolved.

Rob Golden has been an international news editor with CNN since 1984, gathering information, obtaining video and assigning stories to correspondents in every part of the world.

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