Once more Kosovo

Almost five years since the fighting ceased and NATO troops were sent in to pacify the region, conflict between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians has flared up once again. This renewed conflict confirms everything we have said about Kosovo and the wider problems affecting the whole of the Balkans. The fundamental problems have not been resolved. They have been simmering below the surface.

Kosovo is once more in the headlines. Almost five years since the fighting ceased and NATO troops [later to become "UN troops"] were sent in to pacify the region, conflict between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians has flared up once again.

The violent clashes were sparked off by two events. In the village of Caglavica, near Pristina, a Serbian youth was allegedly wounded in a drive-by shooting. Then in a separate incident three Albanian boys drowned in the River Ibar. This is the river that divides the town of Mitrovica with the Kosovar Albanians living to its south and the Serbian minority of Kosovo living to its north. According to the Albanians the children were being chased by Serbians when they drowned.


These two events led to an explosion of anger on both sides of the ethnic divide. Armed gangs on both sides started firing at each other. Serbian enclaves were attacked in other parts of Kosovo. Beyond Kosovo, in Belgrade a mosque was burnt out. The same thing happened in Nis.

The death toll so far in these clashes in Kosovo has reached 31 people, and apparently 500 have been injured. The UN has responded by increasing its forces in Kosovo, hoping to stem the rising tide of ethnic conflict. But in spite of increased UN troops, last night ethnic Albanians were still fighting their Serb neighbours in Lipljan, in eastern Kosovo Thus the violence seems set to continue.

This renewed conflict confirms everything we have said about Kosovo and the wider problems affecting the whole of the Balkans. Although there have been more than five years of so-called peace, the fundamental problems have not been resolved. They have been simmering below the surface. The fact that UN troops could not leave confirms this.

Ninety per cent of Kosovo's population is made up of ethnic Albanians. At the end of the conflict in 1999 many ethnic Serbs were pushed out of Kosovo, but not all of them left. About 100,000 remained behind, but they have been living in enclaves, the biggest of which is in the north of the province.

The UN has been saying that things were getting better, but this ignored the real process that was developing. After Milosevic was forced to pull his troops out of Kosovo the Kosovar Albanians were hoping for formal independence. But this was something the imperialists were not prepared to concede. Thus Kosovo has been in a kind of limbo – not part of Yugoslavia in practice, but part of it in theory. In reality it had become a UN (or NATO) protectorate.

The Kosovar nationalists, in particular the KLA, collaborated with NATO in pushing out Milosevic's troops, but we explained that they would have a bitter lesson in the trustworthiness of the imperialists. The latter used the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as pawns in their plans to weaken Milosevic. Once they had they used them for this purpose they were prepared to discard them like an old useless rag. Now the Kosovar Albanians feel betrayed by NATO and the UN. Over the past few months the Kosovar Albanians were becoming more and more fearful that they would be forced back into Serbia proper.

This was always implicit in the situation. Imperialism cannot tolerate the idea of an independent Kosovo. The reason for this is that this would further destabilise the region. For the ethnic Albanians to achieve independence from Serbia would encourage the ethnic Albanians in neighbouring Macedonia to move in the same direction. The logic would be to move towards a "Greater Albania", bringing together Albania proper, together with Kosovo and the northwestern strip of Macedonia dominated by ethnic Albanians.

This would mean spreading the conflict to Macedonia, where there is also an Albanian-speaking minority. There is also a Serbian minority in the north of Macedonia. In such a scenario Serbia would not stand idly by, and Greece also has made it clear over the years that it would not tolerate such a situation. Turkey also has indicated that it would "help" Bulgaria, which claims Macedonia as its own. From a small spark a general conflagration could ensue involving Serbia, Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Turkey and Bulgaria. Turkey and Greece would be on opposite sides. But Greece and Turkey are supposed to be "allies" as they are both part of NATO. Thus an important flank of NATO could be weakened.

In Serbia we have the presidential elections coming up this Spring and the Kosovo question is being used to try and whip up national chauvinism. The Serbs in Kosovo have become the oppressed minority, living in enclaves under constant threat of being attacked. This has given the ultra-nationalist Radical Party in Serbia something to get its teeth into. Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the party seems set to become Serbia's new president in elections due to be held this spring. And none of the other parties is prepared to be seen as "betraying" the Serbs in Kosovo. They all proclaim that one day Kosovo will return to Serbia. They are all cynically using this question for their own electoral ends.

In Belgrade, Serbia's new conservative-nationalist prime minister, Kostunica, has called for the "cantonisation" of Kosovo, which would mean the de facto partition of Kosovo, and at some stage the northern Serbian enclave of Kosovo could be annexed to Serbia proper. The Kosovar Albanians, obviously do not look too kindly on this possible scenario.

While in Serbia the nationalists have been beating the drums, in Kosovo the Albanian political leaders over the last eight months have been developing an increasingly angry anti-UN rhetoric. In fact in the recent clashes the UN "peacekeepers" have come under attack from Albanian youth. Albanian rioters have been seen attacking Finnish peacekeepers who were protecting Serbian enclaves, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at the troops. This is ironic if we remember how the NATO troops were supposed to be the "saviours" of the Albanians who had come to "protect" them five years ago. There are reports that some of the UN troops have been injured.

Thus we see how even the presence of 17,000 UN "peacekeepers" can at best maintain a semblance of peace, so long as there is no conflict! Once conflict erupts in a serious way they prove to be totally useless. Reports describe the UN troops as being "bewildered". As today's The Independent in Britain says, "Whoever was behind that agenda has certainly succeeded in nullifying the UN's attempts to build bridges between Serbs and Albanians over the past four years." This is referring to the organised simultaneous attacks on Serbian enclaves in Kosovo.

Thus the nationalists on both sides have been stoking the fires of ethnic hatred. The US imperialists, but also the European Union, must be worried at what is happening. They have enough on their plate with the conflict in Israel/Palestine and the situation in Iraq.

That explains why they have hurriedly sent in extra troops. The British alone have provided a further 750. This may serve to hold the situation a little longer, but it cannot resolve the underlying contradictions. As The Independent said, "A few hundred extra Nato peace-keepers may put the lid back on Kosovo's cauldron for the next few weeks or months, but without twin-track progress both on Kosovo's economy and on its final status, what we are seeing now is no more than a holding operation."

The question of the "status" of Kosovo is inextricably linked the economic situation facing the area. The population of Kosovo is overwhelmingly made up of youth. But unemployment stands at the staggering level of 70%. There are large numbers of unemployed youth on both sides of the ethnic divide. In fact the same article in The Independent states that, "Much of the tension of recent days would have dissipated if people had jobs…"

This confirms what we have always said; at bottom the national question is one of bread. If people had decent jobs and wages, decent housing, decent education and all the other things that make for a civilised existence national conflicts would gradually disappear over time. Instead as one official in Pristina (the capital of Kosovo) recently explained, "No one in UNMIK [UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo] is even thinking about the economy. They don't even have any economic experts here."

Instead what we have is the international monitors making sure that ethnic parity in local government bodies is guaranteed. This means they are applying the concept of guaranteed quotas in handing out the few jobs that there are. What this means is that both Serbs and Albanians will feel resentful because they feel the jobs are being taken by the "others". In effect it means the UN is simply sharing out the poverty equally between the two communities.

Thus the social conditions in Kosovo provide an explosive mix. Huge levels of unemployment together with the memory of the killing that took place on both sides just five years ago means that anything can spark off ethnic conflict. What we have here is many powder kegs ready to go off, and one could spark off the others. So long as the economic situation does not change then ethnic conflicts will continue to erupt in the region.

Imperialism, whether under the NATO or the UN umbrellas, cannot solve the problem. They are part of the cause. Let us not forget that one (although not the only one) of the factors that led to the break up of the former Yugoslav Federation was the interference of imperialist powers such as Germany (but not only) in the internal affairs of the country. The other factor was the serious economic impasse facing the old regime. The bureaucracy could not develop the means of production any longer. This led to nationalist tensions being fomented by the regional bureaucrats in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and so on. This led to the final collapse of Yugoslavia. What we are witnessing in these days in Kosovo is a consequence of the break-up of the old federation.

However, in spite of all its failings and lack of genuine workers' democracy, it was during the best period of the Yugoslav Federation under Tito that the national question receded into the background. In spite of all the terrible ethnic conflict and killing of the period of the Second World War, on the basis of the nationalised and planned economy of the period of the 1950s through to the mid 1970s the economy was able to develop at quite a fast pace. This was the basis that allowed for the different peoples of the Federation to live peacefully together. Housing, decent healthcare and education were at least available to all. Most people had jobs. Of course, there were also the seeds of the future economic crisis that were embodied in the bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy.

What we had with the old Yugoslav Federation was a glimpse of what could be. On the basis of economic development the national question had been partially resolved. The problem was the lack of workers' control and workers' democracy in the system. The decisions were not taken by the workers but by the bureaucrats. This meant the inevitable downfall of the system.

Today we have the national question back with all its virulence. What the Serbs, not only in Kosovo but also in Serbia itself, the Kosovar Albanians, the Croats and so on, urgently need is a solution to the economic disaster they are facing. On the basis of capitalism they can only expect more of the same, unemployment, bad housing, privatisation of education, privatisation of healthcare and so on. In these conditions poor worker will be pitted against poor worker. Brothers and sisters will be pushed into conflict by the nationalists on all sides.

What is needed is a political force capable of uniting the workers of the whole of the former Yugoslav Federation in a common struggle against capitalism. This would also have to spread further to the workers of Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albania, Turkey…Left in the hands of the bourgeois the peoples of these countries can only expect more ethnic conflict and wars. The situation can temporarily calm down, but the embers keep burning beneath the surface.

It is the working class of all these countries that can offer a way out. It is the task of genuine Socialists, genuine Communists – the Marxists – in all these countries to work for the building of a current within the labour movement that can bring back the traditions of united class struggle of all these people. That is the only way of making sure that conflicts like the one taking place now do not flare up into something worse and engulf the whole region.