Serbia and Kosovo: the Balkan powder-keg could flare up again – Part Two

The manoeuvres of the various big powers in the region are leading to calls for “independence” for Kosovo, which in actual fact hide the naked material interests of the imperialists. The Serbian ruling elite however is now threatening to raise the stakes, potentially throwing the whole region into turmoil once more. The only solution can be offered by a working class struggling across the national borders for a Socialist Federation of the Balkans.

The atmosphere on the streets of Belgrade has changed significantly over the last few months. After blending into the general attitude of depoliticisation and apathy, at the beginning of the drawn-out negotiations, the media frenzy and the backing of Russia, have brought Kosovo back into the spotlight. There is a general feeling of uneasiness and rumours of a war are circulating.

The tough stance the Serbian government has taken on Kosovo has been a surprise for many. It was naïve to think these post-Milosevic politicians in suits would behave any differently when it comes to "national interests". After all, when they were the "democratic opposition", most of them never criticized Milosevic for his national policy in the former republics. Their "opposition" was to his reluctance to privatise the economy as fast as the imperialists would have liked.

The Serbian ruling class is tired of having "behaved properly" for seven years straight and still being pushed and kicked around by imperialism. Since the big powers decided not to keep intact the former Yugoslavia in Tito's borders as a geo-political entity, the Serbian ruling class lost its historical role and became an obstacle in the region. Its current status of humiliated state to be chopped and bitten by everyone is in stark opposition to its objective potential and ambitions.

As if the loss of Macedonia, Krajina in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990's was not enough, Belgrade has been rewarded for overthrowing Milosevic and opening up its economy with the loss of Montenegro and now Kosovo is demanded as well. The Serbian ruling class is fulfilling all its international "duties" and the only thing it wants in return is a chance to gain back at least a piece of its former role in the area. As the largest state in the region with great militaristic traditions, Belgrade sees itself as the natural local client. Like the oldest child being ignored by the parents occupied by many newborns, Belgrade is now ready to throw a fit and Russia is happy to provide space for it.

Russian influence

The failure of seemingly never-ending talks over the final status of Kosovo is blamed on the inability of Belgrade and Pristina to reach an agreement. This is of course nonsense. Belgrade would not be in a position to negotiate over anything if it was not for Russia, and the Kosovo ruling class would not exist in the face of the Serbian military if it were not for the United States and its troops on the ground.

A drawn out negotiation process was set up as a stage behind which the big powers would have enough time to settle this issue among themselves. Since September 11, it has become quite hard for the imperialists to act as a unified "international community". The United States are now pushing for independence at any price. The EU follows the American line, as it would like to use independent Kosovo as a pretext for taking more initiative in its common foreign and security policy. However, it has difficulties with members such as Spain, Romania and Slovakia - all of which have minorities in their territories - and Greece which has its own interests in the region. Russia on the other side is fiercely opposed to Kosovo's independence.

Just a few months ago both the Western and Serbian press were pretty much convinced that Putin's stand on Kosovo was just another bargaining chip and that compromise would be reached at a certain point. This is not the case now. The Russians have clearly gone beyond the mere bargaining, which was the modus operandi of Yeltsin in the 1990's.

Moscow is in a similar situation like Serbia in many respects. Since the fall of the "iron curtain", despite Russia's integration into the "international community", the US basically kept its cold war policy of military expansion and encircling of Russia. The spread of NATO eastwards is something Russia cannot tolerate any longer. The entry of Georgia and the Ukraine and the setting up of the missile defence system in Eastern Europe would be one step too close as far as Moscow is concerned. Russia must speak out now or forever remain silent.

Moreover, Moscow has already proved once before that it takes the Kosovo issue very seriously. Some might remember the Pristina airport takeover incident in the summer of 1999. Parallel with the peace agreement between Belgrade and NATO in 1999, Milosevic made a deal with the Russians behind closed doors. Russian troops stormed the airport behind the retreating Serbian forces and prevented the NATO commander Michael Jackson from entering the premises. This was a serious incident at the time with shots exchanged between the NATO and Russian troops. Moscow was demanding its own control sector in Kosovo. Yeltsin finally backed off and agreed to put the Russian contingent under NATO control. This move infuriated the Russian generals and Milosevic.

The whole area of the southern Balkans has become a centre of geopolitical interest in the face of the rising importance of oil and gas supplies. Russia's comeback on the international scene has been based on its energy policy and now it is trying hard to prevent the construction of the Nabucco pipeline by Washington and Europe. This ambitious joint venture of Royal Dutch Shell, Bechtel and General Electric, would bypass Russia and provide an alternative supply stream for the EU market from the Middle East and the Caspian through Turkey and Southern Europe, moving exclusively through NATO member states.

An independent Kosovo and the gigantic US military base Bond Steel built on its territory are seen as a part of this scheme by many. Russia has answered with the plans for a South Stream pipeline which would go around the Ukraine and Belarus and reach Hungary by going under the Black Sea and coming ashore in Bulgaria leading through Serbia and Croatia. So far Russian Lukoil has invested over 1.5 billion euros in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia. At the recent South-eastern Europe Energy summit held in Zagreb this summer, Putin was quite open about the intention of buying up Serbian and Croatian state oil monopolies.

Back in May, Serbian pro-western media and the Democratic Party raised much dust over the statement made by the Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic in parliament responding to the accusation that the Radicals are trying to turn Serbia into a Russian province. Nikolic answered that he would much rather see Serbia as a Russian province than as a European colony. This was interpreted as an attack on the sovereignty of a country by dark forces of the past trying to stop Serbia's modernization process. A few months later, the leader of the Democratic Party and Serbian president, Boris Tadic, had this to say to the Czech press over the consequences of the potential break up of Kosovo:

"In case the EU countries support the independence of Kosovo, we will have great problems with European integration. The final consequence will be Serbia as an isolated country or the scenario under which we will have much better relations with other countries in the world".

Leon Kojen, a member of the Serbian negotiating team, stated recently that as long as the West has a feeling that the path of Euro-Atlantic integration is a done deal for Serbia, they will consider independent Kosovo as a the optimal solution. The Serbian Foreign Ministry is threatening to sever diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes independence of the province. Recent meetings of Serbian top officials with representatives of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom are a clear indication that the course taken till now can easily change and the last and probably the juiciest parts of Serbian privatisation might be offered to Russia. How far will Belgrade take this present flirting with Moscow remains to be seen?

The EU is obviously taking the signals seriously. A few days ago it promised one billion euros of non-refundable pre-accession assistance to Serbia over the next five years as well as seemingly faster prospects of signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement which would open the door for yet more EU funding.

The Serbian ruling class is split on this issue. One part is quite open towards Russia while the other is playing hardball over Kosovo; together they are trying to play geo-political poker once again in the best traditions of Milosevic. This approach is already giving results. The problem is that if you gamble, constant bluffing will force you to go all in at a certain point. Just ask the former Milosevic government about that.

"Independent Kosovo"

It is becoming apparent that Kosovo will play the role of Cyprus for the region in the future. The negotiations are at a dead end, with the imperialist powers unable to reach a compromise and Belgrade ready to stick to its claims over the territory no matter what. Independence will probably be proclaimed by Pristina followed by bilateral recognition from Washington and the majority of the EU but without a Security Council resolution and continuing opposition of Moscow and its allies.

An independent Kosovo will become a constant source of instability and a scapegoat for whipping up Serbian nationalism when needed. However, let us be clear about what we refer to when we use the term "independent Kosovo". A fully sovereign and independent territory is on nobody's agenda, not even the ruling clique in Pristina.

What the current "Ahtisaari plan" is offering to the people of Kosovo is a "supervised independence" with foreign control embodied in the position of International Civilian Representative, who would also act as the EU's special representative, with political powers similar to those practiced by the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reality, this is a protectorate status with limited political sovereignty and the presence of foreign troops on the ground. We are facing yet another imperialist satellite state in the region ‑ a tiny former Yugoslav province, stuck with the 360,000 square metre American army base on its ground.

Furthermore, Kosovo will also fall short of escaping the grip of Serbia. In an attempt to persuade Belgrade, the Ahtisaari plan decentralizes Kosovo fully, offering Serbia backdoor influence through the Serbian minority in the north of the province where Pristina has no effective authority. Even if this were not the case, impoverished Kosovo remains de facto dependent on the economic might of Belgrade. Encircled by seven times larger Serbia as its main infrastructural communication westwards, Kosovo is an easy target. Some 70 percent of Kosovo's goods come from Serbia and it is heavily dependent for its electricity supply. Belgrade is already making it clear that it will impose economic sanctions and make life as complicated as possible for the province if it dares to declare independence.

As if life were not already hard enough for the local population! Approximately 37 percent of Kosovars live in poverty, with 15 percent reported in extreme poverty. Unemployment stands at some 40-50 percent. GDP per capita is the lowest in Europe at around 1200 euros. The budget depends heavily on international assistance (34%) and remittances of Albanians working abroad (20%). The foreign trade deficit is running rampant with exports standing at 78 million euros against 1.3 billion euros in imports in 2006. Electricity blackouts are a common occurrence in Pristina. Industrial production has not been renewed and people have seen little benefit form over 3 billion euros that have entered the province as foreign aid since 1999. Accusations of corruption are widespread in Kosovo's media against the UN run mission and its foreign contractors doing business in the province. According to a UN bulletin from October 2006, only 30 percent of Kosovars have faith in the present UN administration. At the same time, the local political elite is an archetype of the mafia ruling class produced by the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The poorest party leader at the recent elections reported a personal wealth of 250,000 euros; the richest candidate's wealth is estimated to be 420 million.

No wonder that more than half of the citizens of Kosovo decided not to bother to go out and vote at the recent elections in November. The turnout dropped from 80 percent in the first elections after the war to only 43 percent today. All of the candidates ran on the same platform of independence from Serbia with, former Kosovo Liberation Army CIA sponsored leader, Hashim "The Snake" Tachi, collecting a majority of the votes. These hypocrites are running a nationalist hyped campaign against Belgrade, while they simultaneously consciously push Kosovo in the direction of a semi-colony of world imperialism.

Kosovars are becoming aware of the trap these politicians are pushing them into. Independence on a capitalist basis offers no concrete prospect for the raising of living standards in this underdeveloped territory, nor does it offer a real end to the influence of the Serbian bourgeoisie as we have seen. Because of this halfway solution, they are forced to pay the high price of becoming imperialist puppets dependent on the good will and inner dealings of the big powers.

The social situation inside Kosovo is unbearable, while the political parties' programmes do not correspond to the demands of the masses. Widespread dissatisfaction has pushed the activist organization called "Self determination" (VETEVENDOSJE!) to the front of the struggle. Lead by the former student leader Albin Kurti, this group demands unconditional independence and refusal of negotiations with Serbia on the one hand and retains a strong anti-imperialist rhetoric on the other, with a mix of anti-corruption and social demands as well.

The true nature of the foreign administration was revealed in February of this year when the UN forces killed two demonstrators at a protest organized by Kurti who was soon arrested. At his court hearing speech, Kurti correctly pointed out that the Ahtisaari plan will only bring renewed conflicts and large scale crime to Kosovo. Unfortunately, what Kurti does not realize is that independent Kosovo inside the capitalist Balkans remains a pipe dream with or without the presence of international forces.

The Call for "Self Determination"

Appeals for "self determination" in the case of Kosovo must be put into the present historical context. Self-determination is not an abstract demand outside space and time, but must be considered according to its concrete contribution to the advancement of the class struggle on the ground. The break-up of Tito's Yugoslavia is inherently connected with the re-introduction of capitalist social relations in the region and the strengthening of the pro-capitalist political forces in each republic.

As the case of Serbia illustrates, it has crippled the working class, which has still not recovered form this historical defeat. There is no reason why it should prove to be any different in the case of Kosovo. Left on its own, isolated on all sides, with a shattered economy and the imperialist boot on its soil, the chances for the development of a successful social movement in the short-term are slim. A declaration of independence would simply offer the local ruling class more breathing space to continue the privatisation and looting, and strengthen the position of imperialism in the region.

Marxists inside Serbia must first and foremost voraciously raise their voice against the domestic bourgeoisie that preys on this southern territory. However, at the same time we have the responsibility not to help nurture the illusions, spread by imperialism and its goons in Prisitina, that an independent Kosovo will bring freedom to the Albanian masses. Any Marxist pushing to the front Kosovo's right for self-determination at the moment when the masses themselves are finally starting to realize the native ruling class is not able to deliver this promise is missing the point to say the least.

Kosovo's independence will not only fail to solve the Albanian national question but it is making the more general issue of national conflict in the Balkans much more complicated. Should Marxists start defending the right for self-determination for Kosovo Serbs the morning after the independence of Kosovo is recognized? What about Republika Srpska and Bosnia?

The Kosovo status negotiations have awaken the biggest crises in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the end of the war in 1995. The Bosnian Serb leadership also blows into the horn of "the right of self-determination" whenever they feel their autonomy is being undercut by the centralization tendency enforced by the EU inside the country. The potential reunification of Republika Srpska with Serbia, on which Belgrade is insisting as the minimum compensation for the loss of Kosovo, would pull Croatia right back into the whirlwind and leave the Bosnian Muslims strung out in the middle again. An independent Kosovo also puts the status of the Albanian speaking population in Macedonia into question. Then there is the Albanian minority in Presevo Valley in the South of Serbia which already witnessed the uprising in 2001 as an echo of the Kosovo war and the crisis in Macedonia. The list goes on and on...

The situation we are facing is not a new one. As we have explained already, in many respects, the region is back to the year 1913. Fortunately, the Balkans has a rich socialist tradition on which we can lean on. We have the privilege of learning from how the socialists tackled these same issues almost 100 years ago. The resolution drafted by the first Balkan Social Democratic Conference held in Belgrade in January 1910 had this to say:

"Under the enforced guardianship and the preponderating influence of European diplomacy, the instrument of the political expansion of European capitalism, territorial and national relations have been created in the historical past of south-east Europe, and especially on the Balkan peninsula which hinder modern economic and cultural development of the peoples, and are most sharply opposed to their interests and their needs. From this contradiction arise all those crises, perturbations and events which serve as pretexts for European diplomacy and its monarchist-reactionary agents in the Balkans, to uphold their policy of interference, guardianship, conquest and reaction...All the progressive forces of the nation must strive to liberate themselves from the particularism and insularity...the borders that frequently divide up either peoples of the same language, same nationality and culture or regions that are economically and politically interdependent...Recognizing the necessity and legitimacy of the aspirations of the nations of southeastern Europe, the First Balkans Social Democratic Conference takes the position that these can be realized only by combining their economic forces into one whole, abolishing artificially drawn borders and enabling them to live together in full reciprocity and in united defense against common danger." [My emphasis]

This platform was later crystallized in the idea of a Balkan Socialist Federation as the only possible answer to the ethnic diversity and economic backwardness of the region. Today, this slogan is applicable more than ever before. To those who claim it is too abstract or idealistic we can only point out to the experiences in the last 15 years, brought about by the insistence on the right of self-determination on a capitalist basis. The biggest idealist is the one who believes the national question in the Balkans could be resolved by going further down this path.

The realness and concreteness of our alternative depends primarily on one factor - that is the return of the regional working classes into the political arena. Looking at the situation on the ground in Serbia and Kosovo it becomes clear that an attempt by the Serbian working class to fill the political vacuum inside the country by building its own independent political organization, with an internationalist position on Kosovo, would necessarily find an echo inside the province. In the situation of isolation and hopelessness this type of extended open hand would be wholeheartedly accepted. The same applies for al former Yugoslav republics.

As we stated in Part One, the recent movement in Slovenia shows us the way forward. The media in the region, who are usually fast as lightning to publish any petty incident or statement from the neighbouring countries that might contribute to chauvinist inflammation, chose to ignore it. In a manifestation of working class strength, 70,000 trade unionists and students poured onto the streets of Ljubljana, among them a number of workers and youth of different nationalities from the former republics, all gathered under one colour ion defence of their social demands.

Once we see similar scenes on the streets of Belgrade, Pristina, Skoplje, Zagreb or Sarajevo we will look back at the present difficult times with a smile on our face because we will know the class struggle in the Balkans will be back on the agenda. We are certain that from then on it will not waste any time as it has a lot of unsettled bills to sort out.


See also: