Kosovo - Destruction, killing and displaced populations

Nov/Dec 1998

Since the break-up of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of the war between Serbia and Croatia in June 1991, the territory of the former Yugoslav federation has been a permanent battlefield. This Serbian-Croatian war was followed by the war in Bosnia, which started in April 1992 with the siege of Sarajevo and led eventually to the Dayton Agreement of November 1995. Then a two-year respite which came to an end with a new outbreak of bloody warfare last February in Kosovo.

This war conducted by the Serbian state forces against its southern province - or, to be more accurate, against the Albanian population of this province - shows many similarities with what went on in Bosnia. It involves bombing, burning and looting, with the aim of causing large-scale displacement of the province's population - in other words, what the nationalists in former Yugoslavia cynically call "ethnic cleansing" operations.

In Kosovo, however, this policy has wider implications. The Balkans' history together with the territorial carve-ups carried out by the imperialist powers in the past, in accordance with their interests and the balance of power, left the Albanian population split between three main territorial entities separated by national borders - Albania itself and the Kosovo region, both with an overwhelming Albanian majority, and Macedonia, with an sizeable Albanian minority.

In other words, when the Serbian nationalists attack Kosovo, this cannot fail to have repercussions in Albania (and in Macedonia). Such conflicts, although originating within the boundaries of what used to be Yugoslavia, could easily spread beyond these boundaries on a such a scale so as to directly concern the other Balkan states - Albania itself, but also Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, etc.

The Serbian nationalists nevertheless consider what might happen in Kosovo as an internal Serbian affair, since Kosovo is a province which is part of the state of Serbia. The national oppression imposed there by the Serbian government on the Albanian Kosovans who, far from being a minority, constitute 90% of the population, is, as far as they are concerned, a matter solely for the Belgrade dictatorship.

Serbian nationalism and Kosovo

Given the logic of the nationalists' policy, the war in Kosovo was just as predictable, if not actually planned, as the next step after the war in Bosnia - just as the war in Bosnia had been the next logical step after the war between Serbia and Croatia.

Kosovo is at the heart of the nationalist's "greater Serbian" demagogy. Because it was the place where the medieval Serbian state was defeated, leading to the country's conquest by the Turks in 1389, Kosovo has become a sort of myth in Serbia's national and religious history for all nationalists - whether they be politicians, clerics or intellectuals. For them, Kosovo "belongs" to them - that is to "Greater Serbia" - despite the fact that it has since been settled mainly by descendants of the neighbouring Albanians, with their distinct language and Muslim culture. For the Serbian nationalists, this population of Albanian origin is "undesirable".

As soon as the Serbian state succeeded in shaking off the yoke of the old Turkish empire around the middle of the 19th century, its leaders nurtured plans to wrest the Kosovo region as well from Turkish control and to "serbianise" it in the name of Serbia's "historical rights", with a view to spreading their territory as far as the Adriatic Sea if possible.

The criminal manoeuvres of the imperialist leaders can be seen in the way in which they decided on the fate of the Albanian population living in the Balkans, particularly following the First World War, in 1918. On the one hand they created a small "independent" state of Albania under their protection - a promise they had made in 1913. On the other hand, they allocated the neighbouring region of Kosovo, which was already at that time largely populated with Albanians, to a "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians" which they had just created and placed under the control of the Serbian monarchy (and this also included a large Albanian minority in Macedonia, which at that time was called Southern Serbia).

The Serbian royalists, the officers and Orthodox priests, were able to boast that they had "recovered" the territory of Kosovo which had been lost for more than 500 years. But this meant deliberately creating a powder keg. And already the Serbian monarchy had to send troops to subdue the Albanian population which did not want to submit to its domination. But it then used Kosovo to defuse social revolt by offering poor Serbs land to colonise, in the guise of agrarian reform.

It was therefore quite natural, so to speak, for Milosevic to use a demagogic language focused on the issue of Kosovo during his rise to power in Serbia in 1986-1987.

In Tito's time, Kosovo had not remained a haven of peace. For some twenty years, its Albanian population had had to suffer from the repressive and discriminatory policy conducted by the head of the Serbian police, Rankovic. Kosovo was shaken by demonstrations in 1969. Subsequently, however, its situation improved in terms of national rights, in the areas of language and education, in particular. A revision of the constitution in 1974 modified the status of Kosovo - as well as of Vojvodina, a region in northern Serbia where a large Hungarian minority lives - by granting them a large degree of autonomy, including rights of representation within the federal presidential institution.

From this point on, for more than ten years, the problems raised in Kosovo were economic and social problems much more than national ones. The riots of students and the unemployed in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, in March and April 1981 had social roots. One nationalist demand did surface in the middle of those put forward by the demonstrators - that Kosovo should be granted the status of a republic in its own right - but this remained a secondary issue. The fact was, that within a framework of economic inequality between the republics, Kosovo had remained the poorest province and it was severely affected by the general crisis which hit a heavily indebted Yugoslav economy. But then there were strikes in nearly all the Yugoslav republics throughout the eighties.

In this context of rising social tensions, the brutal repression of the Pristina riots was approved by the leaders of all the republics.

It was at this time, from around 1986 onward, that these regional leaders turned to all-out nationalist demagogy - and necessarily conflicting demagogy, given the population patterns in the Balkans. At this time too, Milosevic, a Communist Party apparatchik, began to rise within the apparatus by exploiting the anti-Albanian theme "Kosovo belongs to us" (mixing in with it equally demagogic denunciations against the "corrupt" and "privileged", in general). The frenetic exaltation of Serbian nationalism over Kosovo, duly fuelled by a host of well-known intellectuals, culminated in Milosevic's decision in 1989 to do away with all autonomy for the two "autonomous provinces" - i.e. Kosovo and Vojvodina. In Kosovo in particular, national oppression in terms of language and cultural rights was stepped up, ethnic discrimination in terms of housing and employment was introduced and the province was subjected to permanent military-political control.

Thus the Serbian leader, who was to pose in 1991 as a defender of Serbian minorities disseminated in the secessionist republics, liquidated the national rights previously enjoyed by other minorities living in Serbia - like the Albanians, Hungarians in Vojvodina, Croats, Gypsies, etc. In doing so, he met with only a few protests from the Slovenian leaders, who, having no national minority to oppress in their ethnically homogeneous republic, allowed themselves the luxury of criticising the methods used by others...

Subsequently, whenever Milosevic felt he was losing ground politically, he used the issue of Kosovo and anti-Albanian hostility - if not outright racism - to reinforce his position in Serbia.

The rise of the Albanian nationalist resistance

Resistance within the Albanian population of Kosovo, however, has constantly manifested itself, even if it was not very apparent during the war in Bosnia. Kosovo's Albanian nationalists like Ibrahim Rugova, an intellectual highly thought of in the West, and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), adopted a policy of non-violent resistance and the seeking of dialogue with the Belgrade authorities. This resulted in the boycotting of the elections and censuses, the refusal to pay local taxes, the establishment of a parallel clandestine education system, because teaching in Albanian was forbidden, and then the proclamation in 1991 of a Republic of Kosovo, with its underground president (Rugova) and parliament. Rugova and the LDK placed their hopes in the Western powers and counted on their pressure on Milosevic to obtain concessions in favour of the Albanian population of Kosovo.

They received little reward for this. The policy of seeking dialogue with Milosevic gave no results and its failure was exposed by the Dayton Agreement of November 1995. The agreement was limited to a "settlement" for Bosnia and said nothing about Kosovo. From that point on, it was clear to everyone that Rugova and his friends could not hope for any support from the West, and that, in short, they could now count on practically no one but themselves.

Thus the Dayton Agreement, by openly demonstrating that the "reasonable" policy of peaceful resistance led to nothing, contributed to the emergence of an armed struggle, represented, according to press reports, by the Kosovo Liberation Army, the UCK. From the end of 1996 onward, this army manifested itself - in armed incidents between civilians of the local Serbian minority and Albanians, in attacks on the Serbian authorities in Kosovo and against those Albanians seen as collaborators of the Serbian government. It was successful in recruiting fighters among the ranks of impatient and disillusioned youth.

Protracted political crisis in Serbia

This development coincided with the emergence of an open political crisis in Serbia. During the winter of 1996-1997, Milosevic found himself in difficulty, due, in particular, to student protests in Belgrade and a series of street demonstrations called by a coalition of opposition parties ("Zajedno") in Belgrade. But this winter of protest led to nothing on the political level. The "Zajedno" coalition was far too heterogeneous and, above all, it disintegrated because of the rivalries between its leaders. The latter seem to have failed to present a consistent policy - being sometimes on Milosevic's side and at other times, against him; proclaiming sometimes their support for the ultra-nationalists of the Serbian republic of Bosnia such as Karadzic while presenting themselves as democrats in search of western friendship at other times.

In short, Milosevic managed to hold onto power. Although he seemed to be slightly shaken when some religious and especially military leaders distanced themselves from him somewhat, he nevertheless remained the strong man in Belgrade. And it cannot be said that Western leaders have ever really abandoned him up to now, no doubt because they cannot see anyone credible enough to replace him.

The political situation in Serbia, however, has its own logic. Already, in the course of this crisis, the royalist writer Vuk Draskovic - probably the regime's best-known opponent - mentioned the possibility of Milosevic attempting a diversion by fomenting troubles in Kosovo with a view to preparing a war there. At the same time, Serbian officials were accusing the opposition of seeking to destabilise Serbia through the terrorist attacks which took place in Kosovo at the end of 1996.

The situation was then further complicated for Milosevic when the leaders of Montenegro embarked on a course of virtual political dissidence. It should be remembered that since April 1992, Serbia constitutes, with the small republic of Montenegro, a "Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" (FRY) or "little Yugoslavia". Given the constraints created by the democratic façade of the regime, elections in Serbia, Montenegro and the Federal Republic give frequent cause for rival ambitions. In the elections which took place in October 1997 and May 1998, in Montenegro, Milosevic's own men were beaten by local leaders who had distanced themselves from Belgrade.

This was a slap in the face for the Belgrade dictator - one which placed him in difficulty - particularly on the issue of "Greater Serbia" (bringing together all Serbs within the same state) which had been the springboard for his rise to power. Already, having rallied to the Western policy which resulted in the Dayton Accords, to the point of abandoning Karadzic and giving Krajina back to the Croat leaders, he had been seen by the Serbian nationalists as a traitor. With the fiction of maintaining a mini- Yugoslavia now undermined by the potential defection of Montenegro, "Greater Serbia" was shrinking fast. The situation had become ripe for all kinds of "extremist" overbidding.

In any event, in the Serbian elections at the end of 1997, it was the leader of the semi-fascist far-right, a militia leader who was himself responsible for crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, Vojislav Seselj, who emerged as the victor. The new Serbian government, sworn in last March, for the first time included members of Seselj's "Serbian Radical Party" - Seselj himself and one of his allies hold two of the five posts of Deputy Prime Minister. Out of 35 ministers in all, 15 are members of Seselj's party.

The start of attacks by Serbian police forces in Kosovo at the end of February must obviously be seen in this context. In competition with someone like Seselj who had boasted of solving the Kosovo question "in five days" if he came to power, Milosevic opted once and for all to take the lead himself to avoid being outflanked.

The complicity of the imperialist leaders

The whole Western policy reinforces Milosevic's feeling of impunity. They oversaw and protect the division of Bosnia between the different nationalist clans; they allow militia leaders whom they themselves have condemned for "crimes against humanity" to run free, and in relation to Kosovo, they limit themselves to a few symbolic gestures and gesticulations by the NATO military, like the flight over Albania and Macedonia by 80 NATO aircraft last June, "observers" in the field (to count the dead, maybe?), or even NATO resolutions.

Whether taken together or separately, the imperialist leaders do not in any case have any political solution to offer to the population of Kosovo. Would the independence of Kosovo, the official aim of the nationalists, be a solution? In addition to the fact that this would create an unviable micro-state - something of no more concern to the imperialist leaders than their first colonial crimes in the past - such a state would mean a radical change in the borders of Serbia that they drew themselves. This would have international consequences extending beyond the former Yugoslavia, involving the Albanian state, possibly a new state formed by the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and, behind these, Turkey and Greece, which are both allies within NATO but nevertheless rivals in the Balkans.

In any case, Western leaders have shown that they feel the need to rely on as strong and stable a power as possible in this region. They need a power which is capable of imposing, if need be by terror, a minimum degree of order, if only to ensure that Western companies can draw profits from the region or that the debt of the former Yugoslavia is duly serviced and eventually repaid (bodies such as the IMF keep issuing reminders that this question is still to be dealt with!). Imperialist domination requires strong local men who are capable of implementing its wishes. And each imperialist power taken separately needs people prepared to defend its specific interests. As regards Serbia, Milosevic apparently still remains the only option available to the West, at least for the time being, while Serbia's army is the strongest in the region. With the Dayton agreement, Milosevic has become the West's official negotiating partner, however much of an embarrassment he may sometimes be (at least for some diplomats) or however close to the status of "criminal against humanity" he is sometimes placed.

The Albanians in Kosovo and their national feelings, are obviously of no consequence in the face of the West's "strategic reasons" - which apparently demand that Milosevic be left a free hand to deal with his "internal problems" without any outside interference in an area which is so highly sensitive for his power.

The fact that Milosevic hides behind an "internal Serbian problem" to kill and destroy in Kosovo, invoking the need to eradicate Albanian "terrorism", suits Western diplomacy. As does the attitude adopted by the Russians, who, lining up with Milosevic's point of view, are opposed to most of the sanctions, not to mention military intervention. For instance the threat of a Russian veto allows some of the lesser imperialist powers to make their own hypocritical support for such an intervention dependent on a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.

Toward another territorial division?

Milosevic was given the go-ahead from the Western leaders to subdue the UCK by force. Even now, the UN condemns equally the repression practised by the Serbian state and "Albanian terrorism".

As early as February or March, diplomats were in fact unhappy with the emergence of Albanian armed resistance in Kosovo. This resistance nevertheless grew considerably stronger in the course of the spring, reaching the point where Rugova seemed about to be outflanked in his role as a possible recognised Albanian negotiator. It was therefore amid conniving silence that Milosevic launched a large-scale military offensive in the border zones of Albania in July, using the methods of "ethnic cleansing" to drive the population out towards Albania. He did not even have any reason to conceal the direct intervention of his regular army, as he was dealing with a "purely internal" problem.

The whole scenario is a sinister reminder of what happened in Bosnia. In Kosovo too, a plan to divide the province is apparently being considered. Of course, in the past, plans of this kind had been hatched in Serbia, including one on the eve of the last war, which provided for the total eradication of any Albanian presence in Kosovo. Today, considerable effort has been made to prepare the public for it in Serbia. The authorities have agreed to the publication of various projects which envisage a division of the province, obviously an unequal one, between Serbs and Albanians, with cross-migrations of populations. Conferences have been held on this theme, over the past few years, with the participation of Serbia's highest political and scientific authorities. Likewise books have been published along the same lines, while intellectuals from the Academy of Science and Art have striven to bring this idea up to date. Roughly speaking, one third of the territory would be given to the Albanians (90% of the population) compared to two thirds for the Serbian 9-10%.

Already, for an election held in December 1992, the programme of Seselj's "Serbian Radical Party" took up the old idea of expelling Albanians from Kosovo, at least in part, and in particular the idea of "de-Albanisation" of the border regions. Coming from him, this is no surprise. But the point is that now Seselj shares power with Milosevic.

Milosevic and his army could, therefore, be "simply" using force to prepare the way for a possible "peace", overseen by the imperialist leaders, along the same lines as the Dayton Agreement over Bosnia - that is, another partition plan.

Obviously, it is not easy to empty Kosovo of its Albanian population! But then it did not seem conceivable, at the beginning of the nineties, that the different nationalist cliques would succeed in dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina along ethnic lines, given the tight intertwining of populations inherited from history - something which is characteristic of the entire Balkans region, down to the level of the smallest districts or even families, particularly in Sarajevo. However, by fire and by sword, the nationalists "corrected" history in their own way - the Serbian, Croatian and "Muslim" zones of Bosnia are now largely homogeneous from an ethnic point of view.

As far as the nationalist warlords were concerned, the problem with the plans for partition made for Bosnia was that they still left small minorities in each of the future ethnic-based mini-states. Their "amendments" to this aspect of the partition plans led to the fighting and above all the massacres of 1994- 1995, such as that experienced by the "Muslim" population of the town of Srebenica, an enclave within a zone handed over to the Serbs. Today, Srebenica has a 100% Serbian population.

In the case of Srebenica, the horror took place directly under the noses of the UN representatives, but the same things occurred in many places, for example in Krajina, from which the Croat army, when it was able to, brutally expelled its Serbian inhabitants. And it was under the aegis and with the military help of the Americans that the whole Croat offensive of 1995 enabled a "re- balancing" between Croat and Serbian forces, which enabled the Serbian conquests to be reduced from 70% of the territory to 49%, which was more acceptable.

The final military operations of 1995 in Bosnia therefore seem to have had the sole objective of "finalising", under Washington's supervision, a division of the spoils, on which a global agreement had been reached beforehand. The cost for the populations concerned in terms of massacres, desperate exoduses and forced transfers does not enter into such calculations.

Today, the "state entities" which make up Bosnia are ethnically "homogeneous". But there are now hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees, living either abroad or in Bosnia, who are prevented from returning to their homes, even for a quick visit, because they are located in an area controlled by the leaders of an "ethnic group" other than their own - even if everyone speaks the same language, often has the same culture, and is theoretically citizen of the same Bosnian state.

Now, it is in Kosovo that the Serbian nationalists have undertaken to "correct" history, as far as possible. They have the agreement of the imperialist leaders, who are content to wait and see. Already by last June, 65,000 Albanians had been moved by force. This number was estimated at 150,000 at the beginning of August, taking into account the people who had fled to Montenegro and Albania after the Serbian "victories" in the western zone of the country. At the end of August, the number had risen to 230,000... more than 10% of the total Albanian population of Kosovo. On September 17, the estimate issued by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was over 300,000, including some 50,000 refugees in the mountains, with winter approaching...

However, this horror may continue for a long time without "international opinion" being moved, before any kind of "settlement" is reached. With this war, Milosevic is perhaps playing his last card. And the leaders of the major powers, even if they pretend to be somewhat annoyed at times, have other concerns. In any case, the American leaders can quite easily come to terms with the large-scale repression in Kosovo, as they did and are still doing in so many other places across the world, even if this means appearing later, if necessary, when and if they judge the time to be right, as the sole masters of the game.

Obviously, the continuation of this situation, with, in particular, the massive increase in the number of refugees in neighbouring countries, can only sharpen the existing internal tensions in these countries. In Albania proper, for instance, it can only exacerbate nationalism and fuel increasing extremism among politicians and military leaders eager to conquer or reconquer power (like Sali Berisha, whose stronghold in northern Albania has apparently become one of the rear bases of the UCK), or who are keen to hold onto it. In this situation there is a risk of uncontrollable consequences. The imperialist leaders are obviously aware of this, but the American leaders in particular will certainly not take the other risk, that of sending their own troops to the scene, so long as they can contain and circumscribe the fire - or so long as they believe they can.

Neither nationalism, nor imperialism

In any case, if there is one thing that can be predicted, it is the fact that no political solution can come from the imperialist leaders, whoever they are, any more than from the Serbian nationalist leaders and their projects - at least, no valid solution for the populations concerned. Indeed all these so-called "solutions" involve oppression or deportation for the populations, or both.

The Democratic League of Kosovo, meanwhile, demands independence for the province, at least in the long term. Spokesmen for the armed organisation UCK, for their part, have declared on several occasions that their aim went further, i.e. to bring together all Albanian people within the same state.

It is indeed possible that, in the situation of despair in which they find themselves, many Albanians in Kosovo see a kind of solution in the creation of an independent Kosovo, or in its integration into Albania. No doubt they may hope this will provide them at least with a change in their position on the question of national rights - in the first case, by not having to put up with open and brutal discrimination in favour of Serbian inhabitants, and in the second case by being treated on equal terms with the population as a whole.

Nevertheless, this equality would only be at best within the limits of deprivation, and even probably an increased deprivation if Kosovo was left to its own devices. And in the case of Kosovo's integration into Albania, the situation of shortages and crisis there, would certainly not be conducive to improving things in Kosovo. The roots of the sad fate of the Kosovo population - underdevelopment, poverty, lack of jobs - would not be eradicated, far from it, and their consequences would only get worse.

The perspective offered by the Albanian nationalist tendencies is in reality a dead end. This is even true in the area of freedoms, for, in the case of both an "independent" Kosovo or a slightly enlarged Albania, the popular masses would be prey to the domination of small-time leaders as selfish and predatory as those that can be seen at work at the head of the mono-ethnic national ghettos, for example in Bosnia, which are little more than prisons for their populations.

Having said that, as proletarian revolutionaries, our solidarity is with the Albanian people of Kosovo against the oppression of the Serbian state. It is up to the peoples themselves to choose the framework within which they wish to live. The barbaric character of this world is exemplified by the fact that killing populations, deporting or confining them to forced residence, for the sake of carving out fiefdoms, is common practice and virtually accepted as normal.

However, while proletarian revolutionaries deny the oppressing Serbian state the right to decide the fate of populations, they must at the same time show that the right of peoples to self- determination is, in the last analysis, deprived of any content by the fact that the world is dominated by imperialism. One should simply recall here an irony of history. The only period when the Albanians were united while Kosovo was free from the oppression of the Serbian state was during the Second World War - but this was the result of Italy's seizure of Albania and the price to pay for it was the submission of all Albanians to Mussolini's fascist regime!

It is not therefore a case of finding the best "formula" in the way the states are organised, which would enable the Albanians to impose, with the tolerance of the major or minor powers concerned, their right not to suffer national oppression. The varied and contradictory formulae advanced by the Albanian nationalist groups of Kosovo or Albania are no doubt based on the aspirations of the Albanian population not to suffer the attacks of the Serbian army, but they do not necessarily reflect their choice as to the way in which this must be carried out.

In reality, in this region of the Balkans, with its intermingled populations, and its states which are pawns in the rivalries between the major powers, only the proletarian revolution can give any content to this elementary democratic demand of the right of peoples to self-determination. Only the revival of the revolutionary workers' movement in this region of Europe which has a rich tradition, can open up a perspective for the labouring classes.

A party of the working class in the Balkans would put forward the common, class interests of the proletariat beyond national divisions. It would not go along with any nationalist blackmail. It would denounce the nationalists, at the same time as forcefully denouncing all forms of national oppression.

For a very long time, the peoples of the region have not been left any political choice other than between different types of nationalisms, imposed by propaganda or violence. As a result the very idea of a possible fraternal coexistence between populations seems to have been forgotten. It is in the common struggle of the labouring classes of all origins for social emancipation that it will be possible to forge the basis for such a fraternal coexistence.

And in the area of national rights, the proletariat of the Balkans must revive the "old" ideas of the workers' movement for a Socialist Confederation of the Balkan Peoples. These ideas are old only in that they were formulated nearly a century ago. But given the fate imposed on the Balkan populations, at the end of the 20th century, these ideas have, on the contrary, a vital political relevance for today.

7 November 1998