Yes, independence for Kosova!

Submitted by martin on 23 December, 2007 - 8:33 Author: Colin Foster

Kosova, formerly the Albanian-majority province of Yugoslavia, is likely to declare independence in February 2008. The European Union, the USA, and NATO will support independence, despite Russia (a longstanding ally of Serbia) blocking UN approval for independence and declaring that independence will be "outside international law".

That the people of Kosova should have their right to independence respected is good, and a damning condemnation of those on the left who backed Milosevic in the 1990s. Many things about the way independence is happening are bad.

Kosova was, in effect, a colony of Serbia from when it was conquered from the decaying Ottoman Empire in 1912 - in a bloody campaign that moved Leon Trotsky, then a war correspondent in the region, to denounce "Serbian imperialism" - until 1999.

Kosova was occupied by Italian and then by German forces during World War 2, but reconquered by Serbia at the end of the war. It is the one province of the old Yugoslavia for which there is no evidence of the people ever having in their majority wished for, or at least accepted, inclusion in the federal state. Its population is about 90% Albanian.

Despite Tito's Yugoslavia engaging in serious talks with Turkey in the 1950s about "serbianising" Kosova by way of deporting the Albanian-Muslim population en masse to Turkey, Kosova enjoyed a relatively benign era from 1974 to 1989, with great autonomy within the Yugoslav federation.

In 1989, Kosova's autonomy was suppressed by the new Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who had risen to prominence in 1987 on a platform of Serbian chauvinism directed specially against Kosova.

In the 1990s Milosevic's chauvinism led to the break-up of Yugoslavia as Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia successively broke away from Belgrade rule. In Croatia and Bosnia there were bloody wars.

Meanwhile there was a Serbian rule of terror in Kosova. The Albanian population had to improvise a whole structure of underground schools, hospitals, and so on.

In March 1999 the big powers, nervous that Belgrade's heavy-handedness would spark uncontrollable conflict in the whole region, pressed Milosevic for an agreement to restore Kosova's autonomy (the Rambouillet agreement).

Milosevic refused. The NATO powers which had, in the name of stability, condoned Milosevic's oppression for the previous ten years, responded by bombing Serbia from 24 March to 10 June 1999. (A much shorter NATO bombing campaign in September 1995 had forced Serbia into agreeing to negotiations on Bosnia which ended the war there: it seems that NATO hoped for something equally easy over Kosova). In response, Milosevic dramatically stepped up his drive to "secure" Kosova by massacring or driving out the Albanian population.

Serbian forces killed at least 6000 Kosovars; in 1998 and the first half of 1999, over 1.5 million Kosovar Albanians, maybe 90% of the total population, were driven from their homes.

According to Human Rights Watch, the NATO bombing killed about 500 civilians.

Eventually, Milosevic backed down and withdrew Serbian troops from Kosova. Since 1999 the province has been under UN administration, though elements of Kosovar political institutions have been gradually introduced.

On 17 November, the party of Hashim Thaci, former leader of the Kosova Liberation Army, a guerrilla force that fought Milosevic, won Kosova's elections. That has put pressure on the big powers to move rapidly. Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari had submitted a report to the UN in March 2007 recommending independence.

Short of Kosova being ruled by the UN forever, or what would be an extremely bloody attempt by Serbia to restore its rule, there is no alternative to independence. Marxists who support the right of nations to self-determination must regret that independence did not come earlier; and that, coming so late, it comes in such poisoned form.

Oppression does not make nations "good", or guarantee that oppressed nations cannot become oppressors. There are no "good" and "bad" nations. On the contrary, the most justified, the most heroic, of struggles for national self-determination often go together with discrimination against or persecution of minorities within the territory of the oppressed nation. When Turkey won independence in the early 1920s, Turkish forces drove out the whole Greek population of Smyrna (now Izmir), maybe half a million people. After Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960, the Greek majority on the island discriminated against the Turkish minority.

That the Albanian majority in Kosova has treated the Serbian minority - and, even more, the smaller Roma minority - badly since 1999 is therefore no surprise. Between June and October 1999, almost all the 50,000 Serbs then living in Kosova's capital Pristina were forced to leave.

What is particularly poisonous is that, despite Kosova's development being supervised by big powers explicitly committed to safeguarding minority rights, and despite those powers pushing through anti-discrimination legislation which the Minority Rights Group describes as being on paper the best in Europe, the persecution of minorities has only hardened and become more institutionalised since 1999.

According to a Minority Rights Group report, communal segregation is worse in Kosova than anywhere else in Europe. The Serbian and Albanian communities not only have separate education systems - as they did before 1999, of course, the Albanian system being "underground" - they also have separate health systems. That started when the management of a hospital in the Serbian-majority area of Mitrovica stated in 1999 that they would have no Albanians in the hospital, and has escalated since then.

Kosovar Albanian chauvinists carried out "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs and Roma from many areas in 2004.

Without the international supervision, it is of course possible that after June 1999 the Kosovar Albanians would have tried to drive out their Serbian minority in an exact inversion of what Milosevic had done to them. If sparks of democratic scruple, or just fear of reprisals from Belgrade, had restrained them in the heat of that moment, then there is a serious chance that calm reflection and considerations of practicality would have encouraged the development of some modus vivendi in the following years, with no doubt significant disadvantage for the Serbian minority but something less vile than the current segregation.

Arguably, the international supervision has made the discrimination even worse than it would otherwise have been. The Minority Rights Group reports that the UN administration's response to complaints of disadvantage from one community or another has generally been to "throw money at the problem". For the big powers involved, of course, the sums required to swamp Kosova in international aid are small change. So, Serbs can't get treatment at "Albanian" hospitals? Easy answer: build a "Serbian" hospital. In practice, there are no penalties and no risks of backlash for Kosovar Albanians treating Serbs badly - nor even for Serbs treating Albanians badly, as they still do, in the small patches of Kosova where Serbs are still a majority - and there is every incentive for both communities being as militantly "communalist" as possible in order to tilt the international supervisors their way.

However, things are as they are. The Kosovars are likely to get their national self-determination, under tense conditions, and with supervision by and protection from the European Union. The persecution of minorities in Kosova should make us speak up for the rights of those minorities. If the population of Mitrovica, the area of northern Kosova bordering on Serbia where most Kosova Serbs live, raises the demand to secede to Serbia (which it hasn't, as far as I know) it should have the right to do so. But the persecution of minorities cannot make us deny the right to self-determination of the Kosovars any more than that of any other nation.

However, Socialist Worker has denounced Kosovar independence. In SW of 22 December 2007, Alex Callinicos declares: "Kosova is a province of Serbia". Serbian law, and Serbia's "right of conquest", rank higher for him than national rights! He denounces the US and the EU for "rushing to back a regime run by nationalist gangsters whose independence may destabilise a region that was torn apart by war less than a decade ago".

In 1999, the SWP gave 100% backing to Serbia against Kosova, by clamouring to "stop the [NATO] bombing". It made it clear that it did not want the bombing to be stopped - as eventually it was stopped - by Serbia withdrawing its army from Kosova. No, that would amount to success for "imperialism". The bombing must be stopped with Serbian troops still in place and free to continue their "ethnic cleansing". The SWP was vehement even against weaker-stomached NATO-phobes who urged that the "stop the bombing" slogan be coupled with a call for self-determination for the Kosovars.

How the Kosovars could have self-determination with the Serbian troops rampaging across their country, the weaker-stomached never explained. By the Serbian people rising up against Milosevic? But that was not going to happen in the same timescale (weeks and days) in which the Kosovar Albanian population was being "ethnically cleansed", and it happened, in fact, only as a consequence of Serbia's defeat in 1999. (Milosevic fell from power, after waves of popular revolt, in October 2000). In any case, the SWP was having none of such equivocation.

Kosovar self-determination would "destabilise the region", the SWP said, in a plea for bourgeois stability somewhat incongruous from such devout "anti-imperialists". Besides, the Kosovars, or their leadership, were "nationalist gangsters" (as Callinicos still puts it: other nations have national rights, despite unattractive leaderships, but the Kosovars only have "gangsters"); and the Kosovars were so dispersed that self-determination was now impossible.

Milosevic was at fault? Maybe a tad, said the SWP. But we must remember, they insisted again and again, that Milosevic was "not as bad as Hitler". So that's all right, then?

The backstop argument was that anyone who failed to join the SWP's "stop the bombing" movement was "pro-imperialist" or "pro-war". If the SWP's line was for NATO to stop the bombing leaving Serbian troops in possession of Kosova, that might be "anti" NATO's war, but it was certainly "pro" Serbia's genocidal war against the Kosovars. The SWP's line was "anti" NATO imperialism, but "pro" Serbian imperialism (as Trotsky had called it 87 years earlier).

Apart from the pro-Islamist slant (dating from 2002: before that, the Muslim Kosovars and Bosniacs were "nationalist gangsters"), all the elements of the SWP's current "reactionary anti-imperialism" were thoroughly rehearsed in its agitation over Kosova.

The line of the AWL was not "pro-imperialist" or "pro-war", but one of advocating consistent democracy.

"We say that the axial issue is Kosova! The Kosovars have the right to make any alliance they can get, with NATO or with the devil, to save themselves from destruction! But the left does not have to and should not follow them and mimic them.

"The left should not extend political credence and credit to NATO. We cannot do anything other than condemn Milosevic and want his defeat. Such defeat will not lead to the subjugation of the Serbs: Milosevic's victory will lead to the annihilation of the Kosovars. That alone is enough to determine our attitude...

"To say stop bombing now, without demanding Yugoslavian (Serbian) troops out of Kosova, the arming of the Kosovars, and independence for Kosova, is to give up on the Kosovars. If bombing stops will the ethnic cleansing stop? The opposite is likely to be true - it will escalate. We say arm the Kosovars! Nobody should trust NATO politicians, or NATO bombs and troops..." (Workers' Liberty 55).

Today we say the same. The national rights of the Kosovars are paramount. That does not mean that we follow or mimic the politics of the Kosovars' leaders: we denounce their anti-Serb chauvinism. We do not extend political credence and credit to NATO: we look at the eight years of big-power control over Kosova with a hostile eye. But we are absolutely opposed to the efforts by Serbia and its ally Russia to stall Kosova's independence.

Links: Dossier on Kosova in Workers' Liberty 2/3 | Introduction to that dossier.