Kosovo: A hunting ground for nationalism and imperialism

A graveyard for the working class

Sixteen years ago we wrote:

With a collapsing economy, increasing regionalist pressures, and in the background the sensitive issue of border disputes with all its six neighbours, the independence of Yugoslavia is becomingly increasingly untenable. And as the Red Bourgeoisie ponders its options in their luxurious Adriatic villas, the cities of Yugoslavia abound with a floating mass of bootblacks, beggars and cripples selling Tito memorabilia. But behind all this lurks the great imponderable factor which holds the key to the situation of the Yugoslavian working class.
Only by rejecting the false option of the nationalist groups within the ruling class can the Yugoslav working class prepare for a unified response to the crisis. Thus any support for Albanian nationalism, under whatever guise plays into the hands of the various sectors of the ruling class.

"Yugoslavia: The Cracks Appear" in Workers Voice 7 - March 1982

This was written just after the show trials of Kosovan members of the Yugoslav Communist Party for not suppressing a demonstration of Albanian-speakers. The year before they had demanded full republican status for Kosovo within Yugoslavia. It was in fact the first evidence of the break-up of Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito in 1980.

Origins of the Conflict in Kosovo

Yugoslavia was an internationally-created artificial state. It had come into being in 1918 as a sop to Slav nationalism and a reward to the Serbian monarchy for being on the winning side at the end of the First World War. It had always had deep divisions particularly from Croat Catholic nationalists who assassinated King Alexander in 1934. Following the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 a puppet Croat state under the Ustashe of Ante Pavic carried out atrocities against Serbs whilst Serb monarchists (or Chetniks) did the same against Croats. Tito's partisans were the only all-Yugoslav force and received the support, not only of Stalin, but even more decisively of the British who concluded he had the only effective anti-German force. Tito, a Croat, realised after victory that only a decentralised, federal structure would be viable. His federal Stalinism created six republics with two autonomous regions within Serbia, the largest republic. These were Vojvodina, for the Hungarian speaking minority and Kosovo, for the Albanian-speaking minority.

By 1982 the working class everywhere was at a sort of cross-roads. As the crisis in both East and West deepened there were all kinds of manoeuvres amongst the ruling class to try to get the workers onto the nationalist terrain, the better to stop them fighting to defend their living standards. This was the year when we first predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union (see "Theories of State Capitalism" in Revolutionary Perspectives - First Series). It was also one month before the Falklands War permitted Thatcher to play her nationalist card and remain in power to smash the resistance of the British working class. Although we predicted the break-up of Yugoslavia we did not predict the manner in which it would come about. Kosovo was the first place to resist Greater Serb nationalism but it is now the last (along with neighbouring Montenegro) to actually break with Serbia. Our hope that the Yugoslav working class as a whole would put class before nation was not entirely misplaced optimism. In 1989 and 1990 there were mass strikes involving more than 500,000 workers against the Yugoslav state and its economic crisis. The response of the various regional ruling classes was to play the nationalist card and split up the old People's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which Tito had created after 1945. The story of Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and the rump of Yugoslavia we have told elsewhere (see Yugoslavia: Titoism to Barbarism in Internationalist Communist 11). What we have still to explain is why Kosovo, which was the first place in which the local bourgeoisie resisted Greater Serb pretensions still has not been resolved.

The answer is two-fold. Fundamentally the US told the Kosovan leaders that they should be patient and wait until the Bosnian conflict was resolved and then they would get autonomy (which was their original demand). However the Dayton Agreement was only signed by Milosevic because the US "forgot" to include the Kosovo question. In the meantime any hope of solidarity by Serb and Albanian workers in Kosovo to resist the bloody manoeuvres of the local ruling classes has all but vanished. Milosevic, in the process of converting from Stalinist apparatchnik to nationalist demagogue first played the Kosovo card in 1988. He had organised a demonstration in Belgrade under the slogan that "Kosovo belongs to us". This began a process of protests in Kosovo to which Belgrade responded by taking away all the rights and prerogatives the autonomous region had held under Tito in July 1990. The police and bureaucracy were overhauled and all the leading posts given to Serbs. Milosevic went down to Pristina (the capital of Kosovo) to tell the Serb minority (who make up 10% of the population of Kosovo) that "No-one should dare to beat you".In response the Kosovans held a secret referendum in 1991 to declare Kosovo a "republic" (which was recognised immediately by Albania). Ibrahim Rugova of the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo was elected President the following year. Since then Kosovo has effectively had two governments. Rugova continues to try to negotiate with Milosevic for self-government. However the Dayton accords on the one hand and Milosevic's need to avoid being outflanked by even more lunatic Serb nationalists has allowed the Kosovo Liberation Army to emerge. It first began only two months after Dayton and was initially a bit of a joke. However the revolt against the regime of President Sali Berisha in Albania proper last year led to the looting of several military arsenals and many of these weapons now seem to have arrived in Kosovo. Hence the current attempt by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav Army to destroy their base before they become more firmly established. By any rational measure this is a stupid calculation. With 90% of the population Albanian-speaking there can be no question of exemplary genocide (so-called "ethnic cleansing") to then occupy the region with Serbo-Croat speakers. On top of that further military action have already resulted in the renewal of sanctions against Serbia by all the leading powers (except Russia who are hardly in a great position economically to bale out Serbia). However we are not in the realm of reason but living in a nightmare world of a decaying social system. In Milosevic's twisted logic sanctions might be useful to once again (as they did over Bosnia) divert the blame for Serbia's crisis on to a foreign enemy who have frozen Serbian assets and banned any new investment in the country. It will certainly boost the flagging campaign of his party's candidate in the Montenegrin Presidential elections.

Albanians demostrate for peace. But imperialism has no peace to offer
Albanians demostrate for peace. But imperialism has no peace to offer

Imperialist Manoeuvres

Meanwhile the question posed by the bourgeois press is "what is the international community doing"? The answer so far is nothing. This is because there is no such thing as the "international community" but a series of imperialist rivals each looking for its own small advantage in every crisis whilst spouting high-sounding nostrums about "an ethical foreign policy" or "keeping the peace". There has been a NATO force in next door Macedonia for nearly a decade and yet so far only threats of the use of force have been made. The British have hitherto taken the lead in organising a potential bombing force (sending six more Jaguar jets to Italy) but as yet without any clear policy objective. Cook, the Foreign Minister has talked of a UN peacekeeping force but this would only follow an agreement between the Serb and Kosovan leadership. Meanwhile all kinds of manoeuvres including NATO exercises in Albania are going on. There is not even agreement amongst the EU countries. Greece (which did very nicely out of sanctions-busting in Serbia during the Bosnian crisis supports Milosevic (for example, it now has a controlling interest in Srpska Telecom). The last thing that Greece wants is a military action which spreads to Macedonia and Albania itself. This could revive Bulgarian claims (since it lost Macedonia to Serbia in the Second Balkan War of 1913). Germany and Italy both want a speedy settlement in the area. German assets in Croatia have tumbled in value since the crisis began so Kohl has asked Yeltsin to try to end the Serbian attacks. For Italy the main worry is also that the Balkan powder keg once again explodes uncontrollably. With 500 businesses already operating in Albania exploiting the lowest wage rates in Europe the Italians don't want to see a lot of refugees spilling into the country (since this could also lead to additions to the 300,000 Albanian refugees already in Italy). Italy has also tremendous economic and political influence in Montenegro which has just elected an anti-Milosevic President. Prodi's Italy seems to be quietly achieving in the Adriatic what Mussolini loudly failed to do in 1939. Only Russia (and to a certain extent France) is as pro-Milosevic and it is having to toe the US line by trying to persuade Milosevic to do a deal with Rugova to grant Kosovo self-rule within Serbia (a policy which might be too late anyway given the 250 or more deaths that have already occurred). But the Russians are insisting that any military action should be sanctioned by the UN Security Council (where they can, if need be use their veto). In all likelihood the Russian need for Western investment given the depth of the crisis there will probably make the bow to NATO demands. The key power is as usual the USA. Madeleine Albright, normally so blunt in her warnings to America's perceived foes, has limited herself to saying only that "the threat of the use of force does work". So far the US has not pushed too hard possibly because, like other NATO powers, it is counting on Russia to make Milosevic end the attacks. In the meantime it is clear that the US is also arming some Albanians. The discredited former Albanian President Sali Berisha has turned his farm on the border with Kosovo into an armed training camp where according to the Guardian (13.6.98) "the American Embassy's defence attaché" was to be found "standing in combat fatigues". He refused to tell them what he was doing there. In short the US seems to have two policies. One is to work with its erstwhile allies to keep the conflict under control. The other, if that fails is to promote the dismemberment of the Milosevic state. It is a dangerous game which will bring only more death and misery.

The Poison of Nationalism

What the current situation shows is just how easy it is for a capitalism in its most acute phase of crisis to divert the issue from the economic failure of the system to a nationalist struggle for a bigger share of dwindling resources. When the crisis in Yugoslavia first erupted the local bourgeois leaders found that the workers in all the former republics were reluctant to follow nationalist demagoguery. This is why they had to lead so many of the early "ethnic cleansing" attacks themselves. Once however the bodies start piling up it is a lot easier to convince people that the "other side" intends to kill them. Now the nationalist poison is one which pervades the whole political and social arena in places like Yugoslavia. Internationalists have an absolute duty to reveal nationalism for what it is a bourgeois ideology designed to get workers to murder one another to preserve a rotting system. And the nationalism we oppose is not just the obvious racist variety of the likes of Le Pen or Halder in Austria. We have to oppose too the "national liberation" visions of the leftists. They disguise this as "anti-imperialism" but in the era of imperialism all nationalisms are predatory. Defenders of national liberation will argue that Marx, Engels, Lenin supported national liberation. We have two replies to this. The first is that Marx and Engels (and, for most of his life, Lenin) lived at a time when capitalism was still forming itself into nation-states. The founders of scientific socialism supported national movements at that time only if they thought they would lead to a development of capitalism and therefore of the working class. Today, in the era of imperialism there is no such thing as a progressive nationalism. This can be proved by looking at the fate of all the national liberation struggles which "succeeded" in the post-war period. Today all remain under the control of international finance capital and the workers in these states live in greater exploitation and poverty than ever. In this period the only solution for the working class is to destroy all existing nation states. As Marx said 150 years ago "The workers have no country" but they do have "a world to win".