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Kosova: Serbia’s Cradle – Whose Graveyard?

Nick Davies

NATO’S WAR in the Balkans, and the desperate plight of the Kosovar Albanians, present socialists in Britain with three basic duties: to oppose the war, to support the struggle of the Kosovar Albanians for self-determination, and to fight for the rights of refugees.

Taking the last of these first, the main enemy is most definitely at home: New Labour’s asylum bill condemns any refugee lucky enough to get this far to exclusion from the benefit system, dispersal away from family and support, or imprisonment. In the irony-free zone that is New Labour, there is no contradiction between claiming to be fighting a "humanitarian" war on behalf of refugees when they are safely in Macedonia, and criminalising them when they turn up here. It would appear obvious and elementary to demand that the new asylum bill be scrapped, and that all borders be opened to refugees. Socialists should try to give practical aid to the Kosovar refugees, wherever they are.

At first sight, the line-up of pro-war and anti-war parties appears to transcend political divisions of left and right. Thus, most Labour MPs, including, notably, Ken Livingstone, together with a sorry array of left-wing or liberal intellectuals and journalists (Francis Wheen, Mary Kaldor and Polly Toynbee, for instance) line up with Paddy Ashdown and William Hague, against Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, Alan Clark, and Norman Stone. Is this war therefore "post-ideological"? Not quite. The way the two sides line up shows, on the one hand, the extent to which Blair and Clinton have been able to peddle the myth that the war is a humanitarian crusade on behalf of the Kosovars, and on the other, the extent of pro-Serb feeling in both the British ruling class and the left. Socialists who oppose the bombings and who support the right of the Kosovars to self-determination have to steer a course between the Scylla of the "something must be done" brigade, and the Charybdis of the anti-war Serb nationalists and their tail-enders on the left.

NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia as a humanitarian crusade is a great example of the old adage: if you want to tell a lie, tell it big, and tell it often, and eventually enough people will believe it. The bombings have nothing to do with the welfare of the Kosovars, and everything to do with imposing NATO’s dominance on the southern Balkans. The airstrikes have failed to save the life or the home of a single Kosovar Albanian. NATO brags about its "smart" bombs, which cannot tell the difference between a tank and a tractor. NATO wants stability in the region. It did not see its interests best served by any further changes in international borders. Therefore, it has set its face against independence for Kosova. In return for his co-operation at the Dayton Agreement, which underwrote the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina and established the polite fiction of an independent and unified state, Milosevic was told that Kosova was his to keep. "A man we can do business with, a man who recognises the realities of life in former Yugoslavia" was the description of Milosevic by none other than Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy. "No more than terrorists" was how Madeleine Albright chose to describe the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). But it gets worse than that. The Milosevic regime has been indulged throughout the decade by the western powers, and in particular by Britain. Remember the grim farce of the UN "safe areas" in Eastern Bosnia; how Douglas Hurd argued that lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims would create an "equal killing field" (as opposed to an unequal one!); how Hurd’s successor Malcolm Rifkind obstructed the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague from obtaining the evidence that could implicate Milosevic in complicity in genocide; and how Hurd and his equally odious sidekick Pauline Neville-Jones got themselves seats on the board at NatWest Markets where they used their contacts to make a packet out of the privatisation of Yugoslavian state enterprises?

However, the insurrection in Kosova, itself provoked by a state of virtual martial law there, and the Serbian crackdown in response to it, threatened to spill over into Albania, and into Macedonia, which has a 20% Albanian minority, and thus blow the New World Order apart at the seams. Hence the UN troops’ arrival in Macedonia; hence the Rambouillet Agreement which gave the Kosovar Albanians only autonomy within Yugoslavia, not independence, and which would have disarmed the KLA. It was only Milosevic’s predictable refusal to allow this arrangement to be policed by NATO troops that scuppered the deal. As a result, Milosevic has undergone the same alchemic transformation from reliable rough diamond to the New Hitler as did Saddam Hussein, and, as with Iraq, Serb civilians are to be the scapegoats, demonised by the Western media before being bombed. New Labour’s attempts to dress the NATO blitzkrieg up as a political crusade on a par with the Spanish Civil War would be hilarious if they were not so cynical. Blair clearly fancies himself as Churchill to Clinton’s Roosevelt. Apparently regarding the war as an extension of the election campaign, he has made Alastair Campbell a NATO spin doctor, presumably to intimidate any journalist with enough integrity to go "off-message". The loathsome George Robertson is emerging as a sinister Dr Strangelove character, frequently lapsing into fluent Pentagonese, and having his picture taken in a Harrier cockpit. You’ll believe a slug can fly!

Beneath the swagger, Blair and Clinton are getting worried. The decision to go for airstrikes was a one-option gamble, because the obvious Plan B, a ground invasion, carries political risks, and NATO members such as Greece and Italy, where there have been huge anti-war demonstrations, would not support it. However, NATO’s hopes of a quick and decisive victory have evaporated. What is at stake is NATO’s credibility, as NATO has itself admitted. It has to win. NATO’s credibility is not worth the bones of one dead Albanian or one dead Serb, let alone the thousands of dead, and the incalculable and mounting ecological damage, which will be the cost of a NATO victory.

But in opposing the war, it is necessary to say why we are opposing it. There are already vocal opponents of the war within the ruling class either on the grounds that it is against international law (which it is) or purely on grounds of military strategy. On the other hand, there is also within the ruling class a strong pro-Serb sentiment, dating back to the last century. The right-wing maverick MP Alan Clark has asked why British forces are being used against a Christian (sic) country which poses no threat to British interests. Demonstrations in Britain against the war are heavily peopled by right-wing Serbian nationalists. More important in building a socialist opposition to the war is the behaviour of the left, where strongly pro-Serb sentiment is to be found. Some of this is due to a belief held in some quarters that Serbia is in some way socialist (!) or an executor to the former (deformed) workers’ state of Yugoslavia, although given the rate of privatisation of Serbian state enterprises over the past ten years, and the ruling apparatus’s embrace of the free market, this view is frankly untenable. Some take the view that they will support whoever NATO is attacking. Now this is not a bad rule of thumb, in general. In this case it is inadequate, in itself, as a means of mobilising opposition to the war, as it leaves out of account the main victims, the Kosovar Albanians. The Committee for Peace in the Balkans, set up by Tony Benn and Diane Abbott in 1995, includes the strongly pro-Serbian Labour MP Bob Wareing, and the pro-Serbian Thatcherite Sir Alfred Sherman. Needless to say, the Committee for Peace in the Balkans has little to say about the Kosovar Albanians. Interviewed by BBC radio, Benn alleged that the KLA was "supported by Germany", and in the Commons praised Robin Cook for his "balance" when Cook opined that the blame for the massacre of Albanian civilians at Racak "lay with both sides". The Committee is therefore objectively, and probably subjectively too, pro-Serbian. It is therefore essential that socialists in Britain combine their unconditional opposition to the bombing of Serbia with support for the Kosovar Albanians’ right to self-determination. Previously, the majority of Kosovars were content with the extensive autonomy granted by Tito in the 1974 constitution, especially when compared to the waking nightmare of Enver Hoxha’s "socialist" Albania across the border. The stripping of that autonomy from them, and the vicious repression meted out by the Serbian state apparatus and unofficial paramilitary thugs, means that self-determination is now expressed in a demand for outright independence.

If socialists are to oppose the war on the basis of support for Kosova self-determination, we must recognise one important problem: that currently, most Kosovar Albanians, be they the leaders or the led, in exile or newly driven out, support the NATO bombings. Socialists whose banners proclaim opposition to the bombings have met with hostility from Albanians on anti-war demonstrations. It is easy to see why this is so; their communities are being wiped off the map, they are desperate and they need a friend. In fact, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), led by Ibrahim Rugova, was always in favour of Western intervention. Last year, Holbrooke was busy trying to cobble together an Albanian negotiating team, headed by Rugova, for talks with Serbia, with the apparent aim of splitting or isolating the KLA. The KLA, while its star was in the ascendant, was openly sceptical about these negotiations, and about Western involvement. However, it came under enormous pressure from the USA to sign the Rambouillet Agreement, and, caught in a pincer movement between the USA and the Serbs, it changed its tune, although not without opposition in its ranks. We have to make the point, as forcefully as we can, while expressing unconditional support for Kosovar self-determination, that the Kosovar Albanians are being used. NATO is a false friend which will betray them. Its aid or support will always carry a price. The Kosovars should ask the multi-ethnic communities in Bosnia-Hercegovina, or the Iraqi Kurds, how they rate Western "protection".

In defending the right of the Kosovar Albanians to self-determination we should say that they should have the means to fight for it. At present, the KLA is manifestly inferior to the Yugoslav army in terms of equipment and organisation, although not in terms of morale. Most of its arms come from the Albanian barracks looted in the uprising of 1997, and from Kosovar communities in the West, principally in Germany and Switzerland. We know from Bosnia that UN arms embargoes are a means to protect the well-armed oppressor from its poorly armed victims. We know, from the remarks of Madeleine Albright, and from the deliberations at Rambouillet, that the West would not give the Kosovars the right to defend themselves.

The question of self-determination should be approached in a different way from in the other Yugoslav wars. Bosnia-Hercegovina, with its three large communities, was like three-legged stool. Without any one of these communities, it could not survive. That is why it would not have been correct to support the right of self-determination for the Bosnian Serbs or Croats. Such a right could only have been exercised by the killing or expulsion of one or both of the other two communities, as was proved to be the case. The defence of Bosnia-Hercegovina was how the need for the defence of the remaining multi-ethnic areas in Yugoslavia could most concretely be realised. Going further back to the Croatian wars, in the Krajina and Slavonia, it was misconceived to view these as simply a struggle for Croatian self-determination: a struggle for independence from a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. Both the Serbian and Croatian ruling bureaucracies were engaged in a project which was both separatist as regards Yugoslavia as a whole, and centralising as regards their own republics and their "own" ethnic groups: hence the oppression of the Serbs inside Croatia, the Serbian attempt to occupy the mixed Serb, Croat and Hungarian region of Eastern Slavonia, and the deal struck between Milosevic and Tudjman to divide Bosnia-Hercegovina between them. While Croatia, like any other republic, had the right to leave the federation, any demand for Croatian self-determination would have had to be heavily qualified. Probably only in Slovenia could the demand for self-determination be a straightforward one, there being no Serbian or Croatian community of any size. Kosova is 90% Albanian, and has had a substantial Albanian majority for many years. We should not be detained by the army of Serbian academics and journalists who make a good living out of "proving" that Serbs are being bred out or driven out (in fact, there are numerous reports of intimidation by the police of Serbs who are prepared to protect their Albanian neighbours), or by the grotesque and incredible notion that the existence of a 600-year-old battlefield and some rather fine monasteries can override the rights of 2 million Albanians. Socialists must therefore, unconditionally support the right of the Kosova Albanians to separate from Serbia if they want to.

Of course, we should not advocate separation, as a general principle, but we should defend the right to separate, particularly, as in this case, when the survival of a people depends on it. However, it raises other questions. What of our wider perspective? Should independence be the only aim? What would be the future for an "independent" Kosova, already impoverished, now battered by war, paying protection money to the West? The break-up of Yugoslavia has been a tragedy for most of its people, including the Serbs. The united working class of the former Yugoslavia is an obvious casualty. The list of beneficiaries is almost too obvious to mention: the ex-Stalinists who discovered nationalism, war profiteers, gangsters, and the international arms trade. As well as the dead and displaced, there are those with new nationalities or ethnicities not chosen by them, but imposed on them by expediency and fear. Factories find that their source of raw materials is in another country, their markets in a third. Former workmates are dead or dispersed. In this situation, the only project that is worthwhile, the only hope, is for an eventual, voluntary Balkan socialist federation, which could unite Serbia with Kosova and Albania itself. That may appear to be a distant project right now, as Montenegro’s attempts to stay neutral suggest that the Yugoslavian supernova will be exploding for some time yet; however, the "ethical" foreign policy of a Labour government will not bring it any nearer.