Kosovo and the bombing of Yugoslavia - A new crime of imperialism

A detailed analysis of the causes and perspectives for the conflict in the Balkans from a socialist internationalist point of view. This article deals with the real reasons for imperialist intervention, the role of imperialism in the berak-up of Yugoslavia, the danger of an all-out war in the Balkans and it advances the slogan of the Socialist Federation of the Balkans as the only solution.

As we write, for the second night running, air raid sirens pierce the night in Belgrade and Pristina as NATO resumes its bombing in what it described as "substantive and severe" attacks. Belgrade claimed ten civilians had been killed and a further 60 injured in the initial attack. Independent observers have confirmed that civilian targets had been hit in Montenegro, despite the fact that that republic disagrees with the policy of Milosevic. So much for the much-vaunted "smart bombs" which hit only military targets!

The argument of NATO and its defenders is that this is a strictly humanitarian mission designed to aid and protect the oppressed Albanian population in Kosovo. Such touching altruism! NATO seeks to bring peace and harmony to the Balkans by showering its people with high explosives. It dispenses its humanitarian message with Tomahawk and Cruise missiles launched from far-off ships, and American bombers, bravely seconded by British Harriers and German Tornadoes, which drop their greetings to the Yugoslavs from a great height. But the recipients of this message from the world's peacemakers do not seem to be wholly convinced of its humanitarian intent.

True, the people we are talking about are Serbs and therefore do not qualify for much humanitarian concern, from NATO's point of view. The bombing, you see, was to help the Kosovars and save them from Serb aggression. This argument has been used by Tony Blair to justify the indecent haste with which he associated Britain with America's latest military escapade. But by now we are too used to seeing Tony Blair jump to Washington's beck and call for any explanation to be required.

Not just Labour's right wing have rushed to defend the NATO action, but so-called Lefts, and even some self-styled Marxists have done the same. All in the name of defending the Kosovars, halting Serb aggression, opposing the dictator Milosevic and, of course, upholding the right of self-determination. Unfortunately, none of this can withstand the slightest scrutiny.

Since when did the imperialist alliance which is NATO fight wars to defend oppressed nations, oppose dictatorships and uphold the right of nations to self-determination? The very idea is laughable. If NATO forces are in the Balkans it is to defend the interests of imperialism, and nothing else. We have already explained the root causes of the crisis in the Balkans--not now, but seven years ago, at the very start of the conflict. Then too, let us remember, there were those who defended the break-up of Yugoslavia on the grounds of self-determination for Croatia and Slovenia. We advise those people to repeat now what they said then. For our part, we said that the destruction of Yugoslavia was a criminal act which would be against the interests of all the peoples. And today the results speak for themselves. The nightmare of ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the division of the living body of Yugoslavia between rival gangs of murderous chauvinists, each more reactionary than the last--can this be justified in the slightest on the grounds of so-called "self-determination"?

The right of self-determination

Lenin stood for the right of self-determination as a democratic right. But he never considered it to be an absolute right, independent of time and space. On the contrary. He said it was subordinate to the general interests of the proletariat and the world revolution. In what way does the slaughter and ethnic cleansing of the last seven years advance the cause of the working class and international socialism? The dismemberment of Yugoslavia has not one single atom of progressive content. By setting one people at the throats of another, by awakening all the old demons of national hatred, it has set back the cause of socialism and brought down nothing but calamities on the heads of the working people of all the contending states. To invoke the name of Lenin to justify such a crime is mockery and a scandal.

Much is being made of the plight of the Albanians in Kosovo. What decent person would not be moved and horrified by the sight of thousands of frightened and distraught civilians fleeing from their homes, burning villages and murdered men, women and children. On the part of working people, such sympathy is sincere and well-meaning. In the hands of the imperialists and their propaganda machine, the sufferings of the masses is just a means of playing on the emotions and mobilising public opinion behind the "necessity for firm action"--i.e., for the slaughter of other men, women and children, the creation of new refugees and the burning of towns and cities, all in the name of peace and humanitarianism.

In 1914, "poor little Belgium's" right to self-determination was invoked to justify the war aims of British and French imperialism. Of course, Marxists opposed the brutal German occupation of Belgium by German imperialism. But they opposed it with class policies, not playing with nationalism. Similarly, the oppression of the Bosnian Moslems was presented as a justification for the imperialist intervention in Bosnia. It is true that the Bosnian Moslems were the main victims of that conflict (though not the only ones). But, in the first place, the nightmare in Bosnia was the direct result of the criminal dismemberment of Yugoslavia in which German imperialism played a fatal role. Secondly, in the shifting, treacherous sands of national conflicts, an oppressed nationality can be transformed into an oppressor nation quite quickly. What has the American intervention in Bosnia solved? The Dayton Agreement led to an arbitrary division of Bosnia which is obviously untenable. None of the warring parties is satisfied. Meanwhile, the Americans have quietly been arming the Croats and Moslems. The government of Sarajevo have become puppets of the Americans, dependent on the good will of Washington for aid and arms. Now the conflict in Kosovo threatens to undermine the fragile Dayton accord, preparing a new phase of mutual slaughter among people who previously lived together in pace and harmony.

The impulse for the destruction of Yugoslavia (apart from the disgusting and criminal role played by the ex-Stalinist leaders turned Serb, Croat and Slovene chauvinists) was provided by German imperialism. After the unification of Germany, it rediscovered the old policy of the Drang nach Osten--the thrust to the East--attempting to get back its old colonies and spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, including Slovenia and Croatia. That was bad enough. Now the sight of German planes bombing Yugoslavia for the first time since the Second World War will have infuriated the Serbs who suffered dreadful atrocities at the hands of Hitler's SS and their Croatian fascist agents, and have very long memories. This adds insult to injury and will inflame the situation still more.

German intervention

It is ironic that the first German military intervention since 1945 should take place under a Social Democratic government, with a Green foreign minister. But then Tony Blair is also the head of a Labour government, and shows the greatest enthusiasm for every military adventure launched by Washington. The right wing of Social Democracy were always the most faithful servants of Capital at home and the most servile lackeys of imperialism (especially US imperialism) abroad. No matter that his pal Clinton has just kicked him in the teeth over the issue of bananas. Washington has merely to whistle, and its pet poodle comes running in the hope that at the end of the day, it will receive a small tit-bit, or at least a pat on the head. However, despite all the noise, Britain's participation is pathetic, as befits its real position in the world. Six planes (all but one of which returned from the first mission without having dropped a single bomb).

The most pathetic spectacle is presented by the left reformists. They bleat about the need for peace and negotiations, and, as always, invoke the United Nations. But the United Nations is only a forum for airing secondary differences between the imperialist powers. It can never solve any question where the fundamental interests of the major powers are concerned. That is why the Americans resort to NATO, completely ignoring the United Nations, whenever it sees the need for military action. Russia has given notice that it will raise the matter in the Security Council. Yeltsin, feeling the ground tremble under his feet, is compelled to protest. But it is s a futile gesture designed to placate his domestic critics. The Americans and their agents will veto the move. All history shows that serious issues between nations are ultimately settled by force. One may lament the fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. The Americans are using the most persuasive arguments against Belgrade, delivered in the noses of missiles. That is a fact. When the Russians fail to get any result in the Security Council, they will be compelled to provide the Serbs with similarly weighty arguments--if they are not doing so already. This will have far-reaching consequences, about which the (dis-) United Nations can do precisely nothing.

The pacifist declarations of American imperialism are not entirely insincere. Undoubtedly, they would prefer to stay out of Yugoslavia--that is to say, they would prefer to let others do the fighting for them. But this is a vain wish. Although it would very much like its European "allies" to bear most of the brunt of the Yugoslav action (which is why it has pushed Germany into participating), Washington knows that it will have to provide most of the firepower. Through its actions in using massive air power against Yugoslavia, US imperialism is attempting to terrorise its enemies into submission. But all history shows that air power on its own it is never sufficient to win a war. With long-distance missiles it is possible to destroy airport and army barracks. However, the problem of Kosovo is of an entirely different magnitude. Here it is not a question of fixed targets, but small mobile units. Such targets cannot be destroyed by such means. If NATO is serious in its claims to defend the Kosovars against the Serb army, it would have to commit a large number of ground troops to the region. But such thoughts are very far from the minds of the imperialists.

The Americans are well aware that ground troops cannot be deployed in Kosovo. This is classical guerrilla country. Moreover the Yugoslav army, fighting what it considers to be a defensive war, would not be easily defeated. In the Second World War, Hitler never succeeded in defeating the Yugoslavs who held down hundreds of thousands of German troops. Hence they resort to the tactic of ferocious aerial bombardment. They imagine that they can teach Milosevic a lesson--not because he is a dictator (The Croatian boss Tudjman is no less of a dictator, and has engaged in vicious ethnic cleansing of both Serbs and Bosnian Moslems, but there is no question of bombarding him). The reason for the attack against Milosevic is because he will not do as he is told and threatens to undermine the stability of the Balkans, to the detriment of the interests of imperialism.


All the parties in the Kosovo dispute have played a pernicious role. The present crisis has its origins--as we have already explained--in the arbitrary dissolution of Kosovo's autonomy by Slobodan Milosevic ten years ago. This upset the system of careful checks and balances established by Tito in order to prevent one Republic from getting control of Yugoslavia. This opened the way for the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The incompatible pretensions of Greater Serb nationalism, Greater Croat nationalism etc. automatically led to war with the most catastrophic results. Later the militants of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army, impatient at the lack of results obtained by the moderate nationalist tendency of Rugova, began a campaign of individual terror which we predicted at the time would bring the most catastrophic results. The present conflagration completely confirms our negative attitude towards petty bourgeois nationalism and its concomitant tactics of individual terrorism and guerillaism. Now the KLA leaders, having led their people into a bloody impasse from which no solution is possible, has turned its gaze to Washington for salvation. They also have become the tools of US imperialism in its long-term conflict with Serbia. How long this relation lasts is another matter. The USA has no interest in an independent Kosovo. At a given moment they will betray the Kosovars, as they always betray small nations who place their trust in imperialism. The history of the Balkans is full of such examples.

The USA, Britain and the rest are utterly indifferent to the fate of the Kosovars, just as they were indifferent to the fate of the Bosnians. Their real concern is that the conflict in Kosovo will spread to neighbouring Macedonia, and spark off a war involving not only Serbia but also Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. That is something they wish to prevent at all costs. Under the pretext of protecting the Albanian population of Kosovo, they are attempting to impose their will upon Belgrade. But they will not succeed.

Belgrade was prepared for these attacks well in advance and dispersed its forces so that most of the targets will have been empty. While severe damage has undoubtedly been done to military installations, this will in no way impede the ability of the Serb forces in Kosovo to inflict serious damage on the Albanians. Already reports are coming in which indicate that the Yugoslav army has stepped up its offensive in Kosovo. Moreover the air attacks have inevitably led to the expulsion of western journalists and "observers", which makes the Kosovars more vulnerable to attacks than before. The argument that the air strikes are intended to defend the Kosovars is exposed as a hollow pretence. The fate of these people is of no concern to the West except as a cheap propaganda to whip up feeling against the Serbs. The bombing of Serbia has produce a wave of anger in the population which makes further atrocities against the Kosovars more likely not less.

US imperialism in its intervention in the Balkans has displayed colossal stupidity. Clinton and his advisers are vulgar upstarts and parvenus with only the most superficial understanding of politics which they view in the narrowest and most provincial sense--that is, how to grab the fruits of office and hang onto them. At such a level they even display a certain flair, or at least tenacity. But on the broad arena of world politics they are completely out of their depth. This is shown by their blundering over the Kosovo issue. They show no understanding of history, the Balkans, or war in general. They have sown the wind and must now reap a whirlwind. The more intelligent strategists of capital have come out against military involvement in Kosovo. Denis Healey has warned that "air strikes will not affect the fighting in Kosovo. They will strengthen Milosevic". This is undoubtedly true. Milosevic is a tyrant who oppresses not only the Kosovars but his own people. However, the task of overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic is the task of the Yugoslav working class and nobody else.

The idea that the imperialists can play some kind of progressive role in Kosovo is an abomination and a lie. It was the height of stupidity on the part of the Kosovo Liberation Army to imagine that they could gain independence with the help of Washington. In reality, US imperialism regards the Kosovars, just as they regard all other small nations, as so much small change to be used in their diplomatic dealings. In the end they will betray the Kosovars, because they cannot allow Kosovo to be independent any more than Belgrade. They fear that an independent Kosovo would link with Albania, and that this in turn would lead to the break-up of Macedonia. This is the nightmare scenario for imperialism, as we have pointed out from the outset. Not by accident, the USA has had troops based in Macedonia from the beginning, as a guarantee against Serb ambitions. They were supposed to withdraw last year. Now they have found an excuse to massively step up their presence in this fragile and unstable Republic. By this means Washington hopes to shore up Macedonia, fearing that its disintegration would provoke a disastrous Balkans war, in which Greece and Turkey--two NATO members would be on opposing sides.


Paradoxically, the actions of the imperialists, aimed mainly to prevent the break-up of Macedonia and prevent a wider conflict, may in the end be responsible for the opposite result. The bombing raids can spread devastation and terror, but cannot end the conflict in Kosovo, but only make it worse. Already the Yugoslav army has stepped up its campaign against the KLA. There are reports of Serb chauvinists attacking Kosovars, burning villages, summary executions and the customary barbarism associated with "ethnic cleansing". The result has been a mass exodus of refugees. Many of them are massing on the borders of Macedonia. If they enter, it will destabilise a state where there is a sizeable Albanian minority. If, as has been hinted, they are forcibly kept out with the assistance of NATO troops, this will anger the Albanians and also lead to destabilisation. Already there have been anti-NATO riots in Macedonia and Bosnia. As the conflict drags out, this will spread.

The bombings have already been shown to be useless and counter-productive. Not only have the Serbs stepped up their attacks on the Kosovars, but they have also shelled Albania. This is clearly an attempt to widen the conflict and provoke the Albanians into war--something the imperialists dread. This would be the road to an all-out war in the Balkans, with all sorts of unpleasant implications. Not for the first time, the conflict on the Balkans has far wider repercussions. When in 1906, Austria declared the annexation of Bosnia, Russia felt humiliated. Out of this conflict arose the First World War. Now once again the imperialists have treated Russians with contempt. Primakov was forced to turn around in mid-air and cancel his trip to Washington. Yeltsin has been compelled to criticised the Americans. Probably the Russians will be compelled to arm the Serbs. More seriously, the aggression against Serbia has caused a massive backslash in Russia. There have been violent demonstrations outside the American Embassy in Moscow and St Petersburg, and even reports of young Russians volunteering to fight in Yugoslavia. The army generals must be seething at this latest humiliation. In the context of the general economic collapse, this can even lead to the overthrow of Yeltsin and the reversal of market "reform," as Denis Healey has warned.

Even at this early stage there are cracks opening up between the NATO "allies". The use of Italy as a base for US military operations against Yugoslavia has caused protests in Italy. D'Alema has already started to complain. The Greek government, which has already had enough problems over its role in the kidnapping of Ocalan, is even more unhappy. Greece has long had a de facto alliance with Serbia over the Balkans crisis and always tends to take its side. As the conflict drags on, with ever larger civilian casualties, opposition will grow. Even in Britain and the USA there is no public enthusiasm for the War. Sooner or later, NATO aircraft will be brought down by the Serbs. As soon as reports of casualties start coming in, the mood of opposition will grow. The inevitable civilian casualties will provoke revulsion. Public opinion. which was lukewarm at the outset, will turn against the war. The result will be increased instability in one country after another.

After the second wave of bombing, The New York Times called the NATO action "a leap in the dark". That is undoubtedly correct. Ultimately, the bombing campaign will fail. How long can the Americans continue to bomb? Days? Weeks? But the bombing of Iraq has gone on for years, without bringing the desired result. The only way to defeat Milosevic would be by committing ground troops. The presence of a sizeable NATO force in Macedonia in such an explosive situation poses the danger that they can be sucked into a military confrontation, with fateful results. Clinton has no wish to be involved in a war on the ground, but he has blundered into a minefield with no clear plan or perspective. He is "tobogganing to disaster with his eyes closed." America cannot realise its objectives by bombing alone. But if it is compelled to withdraw without at least some face-saving formula, it would be a humiliating blow to American prestige on a world scale. Even if some compromise is patched up under pressure from Russia, it would solve nothing. After a short time, hostilities would break out again. The possibility of some kind of negotiated settlement is even more distant than before the NATO involvement. Embitterment and fanaticism has become more intense on both sides. The conflict will inevitably worsen and become more extended.

New World Disorder

The barbarous bombing campaign against Yugoslavia is the latest manifestation of a new period of convulsions on a world scale. Ten years ago they spoke of a New Word Order. Now we see the reality of a New World Disorder. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States has emerged as the sole word super power. Never in the history of the world has so much military and economic might been concentrated in the hands of a single power. Before the Second World War Trotsky predicted that the United States would emerge victorious from the War, but would have dynamite built into its foundations. Now America has displaced Britain as the world gendarme. But whereas Britain succeeded in enriching itself as a result of its world domination, America's world role in the period of capitalist decay saps its wealth and threatens it with internal convulsions. If the USA is compelled to commit ground troops in Yugoslavia, it would find itself trapped for years, as in Vietnam. Such a development would have explosive consequences, not least in the USA itself.

Kosovo is not Rwanda. It is part of Europe. One can fly there from Italy in one hour. European tourists used to go to Yugoslavia on holiday. Now the former Yugoslavia lies in ruins, its people reduced to a bloody pulp. This is a most graphic manifestation of the impossibility of resolving the national problem on the basis of capitalism. This poses a deadly threat to the whole of Europe. One hundred years ago, Kropotkin said that "war is the normal condition of Europe". This was true. Only for the exceptional period of capitalist upswing of 1948-74 did the threat of war seem to recede into the distant past. Now the waves of the world crisis are pounding the shores of Europe. The nightmares of the past--war, national hatred, genocide, concentration camps--have put in their appearance, not in Central Africa, but in the midst of a civilised European people. This is a sombre warning to the European proletariat of what can happen if the working class does not put an end to the monstrous rule of Capital.

The veneer of civilisation is far thinner than most people suppose. Marx predicted that there are only two alternatives before humanity: socialism or barbarism. On the path of nationalism only the second alternative is possible. Only by fighting capitalism and imperialism, for the socialist transformation of society, can this horror be averted. Those who depart from a class point of view on the national question inevitably fall into a reactionary position. During the first Balkan Wars before 1914, Lenin and Trotsky did not support any of the warring parties, although at least in the first stages, one could argue that a certain progressive content was present in the form of the struggle of the Slav peoples against Turkish rule. The position of the Marxists was to fight for the Democratic Federation of the Balkans, as the only way out for the peoples of the Balkans. Now this revolutionary and internationalist policy retains its full force--with one important amendment. Today the only way of solving the problems of the Balkans is The Socialist Federation of the Balkans, as an important part of the struggle for the Socialist United States of Europe and ultimately, a Socialist World Federation.