In late February the Balkan mini-nation of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, sparking protests by Serbs in Kosovo, Serbia and Australia.
The vast majority of Kosovo’s population are ethnic Albanians, and for most, it was decision that reflected their heartfelt longing to be free from Serbian domination. In the former Yugoslavia Kosovo had been a province of Serbia, one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia, though in the 1970s it gained some autonomy in its affairs.
Nevertheless, the majority Albanians rightly felt oppressed by Serbian control.
The US, the European Union and most of America’s allies are backing the province’s independence, and most Serbs see this as an insult to Serbia’s sovereignty. The issue acts as a lightning rod for Serbian nationalism.
On top of the issue of national self-determination is the role of the bigger imperial powers. The US has embarked on fashioning a new empire and Russia is aggressively re-asserting its “interests” in countries previously in its orbit. The Balkans have yet again become an arena of conflict for imperialism.
Kevin Rudd was one of the first to support the establishment of a new state of Kosovo, reflecting his policy of supporting American power.
The current crisis began in the early 1990s, as the old Yugoslavia was shaken by economic crisis and working class revolt.
The demagogue Milosevic, former President of Serbia, attempted to divert the class struggle inside Serbia into nationalism, aimed at shoring up the rule of the Serbian section of the Yugoslav ruling class. His rallying cry was “Kosovo is Serbian”-even harked back to the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to claim a historical right to Kosovo.
Milosevic raised this as Croat and Serb workers battered down the doors of Federal Parliament in Belgrade in protest at factory closures and rising poverty.
The Stalinist leaders of the other Yugoslav republics did the same, whipping up nationalism and presiding over years of war and “ethnic cleansing”.
With the final fracturing of the old Yugoslavia, the rulers of the fragments have been acutely aware of their small status as nation-states. The big powers-Britain, France and Germany (as the EU), the US and Russia-have all jockeyed for position in the Balkans to further their own interests.
The situation is similar to Trotsky’s description of the Balkans prior to the First World War, where “a regular melee of petty states” were “condemned to helplessness in relation to the Great Powers of Europe and their continual intrigues and machinations.”
It was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo, by a Serbian nationalist that led immediately to the First World War. Austria invaded Serbia, Russia declared war on Austria to support its ally, Serbia, and the other great powers joined in.
The US went to war with Serbia in 1999 and emerged as the key power in Kosovo. It created a new military base-Camp Bondsteel at Ferizaj/Urosevac-to project its power into Eastern Europe.
In response, Russia has backed Serbia, in order to limit the EU-US push into nations on its periphery.
Socialists argue that Kosovo does have a right to independence, but this doesn’t mean that we think that this declaration of independence will advance the cause of peace or working class unity.
Kosovo is so reliant on the EU and US that the new state is largely controlled by the interests of the EU and the US. The EU will appoint a civilian administrator with veto powers over laws passed by Kosovo’s Parliament and remove elected officials.
Independence will not solve the problems of 60 per cent unemployment and chronic underdevelopment.
Leading figures in Kosovo’s government have previously been involved in the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosovo.
Serbia’s nationalist response to the US interfering in “its province” will only push Kosovar Albanians further into the arms of the US.
The danger of new conflict is real.
Radical Serbs face a terribly difficult task. In a climate that sees extreme nationalist militias agitating on the streets, they need to argue for Kosovo’s right to independence, despite US meddling. The only way to undercut big power meddling is for every Balkan nationality to feel that is doesn’t need a big power backer.
It can also undermine the appeal of Russian “protection” in Serbia itself.
There are independence advocates in Kosovo who attacked the “neo-colonial” nature of UN rule before independence. Vetevendosje (“self-determination”) rejected the idea that Serbian people were the problem. The US has described the group as “enemies of the future of Kosovo”, and some of its leaders have been jailed.
These are ideas that can, potentially, help build unity between Serbs and Kosovars and point the way towards an alternative Yugoslavia in which the needs of ordinary people come first.
by Tom Orsag