Issue 224 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Our leaders and media have once again been whipping up support for bombing raids in the Balkans--this time ostensibly to save the people of Kosovo from the Serbian army. With massacres being shown on our televisions almost daily and up to a quarter of a million Kosovan refugees starving on hillsides, it was argued that doing something must be better than doing nothing. But the truth is that the something being demanded is not better than nothing. It is worse.
What would happen if there were air strikes? Even a few raids would result in many civilian casualties, of both Serb and Albanian Kosovans, and the deaths of reluctant young Serbian conscripts. The idea of bloodless strikes using so called 'smart' bombs and cruise missiles was well and truly exposed during the bombing raids of Iraq during the Gulf War. All commentators agree that limited air strikes would not remove Serbian forces from Kosovo. So the attacks would have to be much more sustained, leading to massive destruction, huge numbers of casualties, and the threat of all out war with Yugoslavia--disaster on an unimaginable scale.
But let's imagine that air strikes were somehow quickly 'successful'. What would that mean for Albanian Kosovans? According to the military and political objectives spelt out by the US and its Nato allies, the refugees would be able to return to a devastated land still dominated by the very Serbian forces that terrorised them into flight in the first place.
The truth is that it does matter who is in charge of the proposed raids and what their motives are. Nato is the military alliance of western imperialism led by the US. Among its revered members is Turkey, whose oppression of Kurds is every bit as horrific as that of Serbia towards ethnic Albanians. Nato is not driven by humanitarianism, if it was, its planes would long ago have bombed Turkish military bases to free the Kurds in south cast Turkey.
So what does drive Nato policy in Kosovo? Certainly not sympathy with the long Kosovan battle for independence. Of the 2 million Kosovans 90 percent are ethnic Albanians, who speak a different language to Serbs, have a separate culture and are mainly of a different religion. In 1974 Kosovo's limited autonomy within former Yugoslavia was extended to match that of other republics--with the crucial exception that Kosovo was denied the constitutional right to secede. In the early 1980s mass demonstrations by ethnic Albanians calling for Kosovo to be made a full republic were violently crushed. In 1989 Serbian President Milosevic removed Kosovo's autonomy altogether, reducing it to an administrative region of Serbia, and immediately suppressed the Albanian language and cultural institutions.
In 1990 Serbia dissolved Kosovo's government. The next year, following a secret referendum, ethnic Albanian leaders proclaimed an independent 'Republic of Kosova' and set up a parallel state. This was declared illegal by Serbia and suppressed. Every day Serb police harassed, imprisoned and tortured ethnic Albanians.
With all peaceful and democratic routes closed to them or met by violence, Kosovans turned to the armed struggle, organised from 1996 in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Despite a pathetic lack of arms, its mass popular support and persistent attacks on Serb forces meant the KLA was a real threat to Milosevic's government of Yugoslavia (which now comprises Serbia, including Kosovo, and Montenegro). By February this year the KLA controlled significant areas of Kosovo.
In all these years the Nato allies have consistently ignored the plight and resistance of Kosovans. The 1995 Dayton Agreement that carved up the former Yugoslavia and signalled the end of the worst fighting in Bosnia explicitly excluded Kosovo. When desperate ethnic Albanians were forced to take up arms to defend themselves in Kosovo, Nato leaders condemned the KLA as evil terrorists and in effect gave the green light to Milosevic's counterinsurgency operations.
So long as Milosevic was containing the Kosovan struggle, none of the Nato leaders cared. When Milosevic sent in troops earlier this year to crush the KLA, Nato did nothing. They were happy to see the KLA weakened. Massacres did not suddenly begin this summer. On 5 March, for example, 54 ethnic Albanians were butchered in the village of Donji Prekaz near Srbica.
All this was ignored by Nato because it feared that success for the Kosovan independence movement could spark similar demands by Albanians in neighbouring Macedonia, which could lead to Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia becoming embroiled in wars about territory over which all have claims. Nato allies only responded when the scale of the atrocities became so great that refugees started pouring out of the country, threatening to create a very unstable situation. That fear of instability in the region is the key to Nato's policy.
The western rulers need Milosevic. They need him to sustain the carve up of the Balkans drawn up at Dayton, which sealed the triumph of hardline nationalism. Alongside Milosevic and his extreme nationalist deputy in Serbia, the ultra-nationalist Franjo Tudjman remains in power in Croatia. Recent elections in the Croat and Serb parts of Bosnia have brought extreme nationalists to power. Any serious weakening of Milosevic by western bombs could open the door for renewed nationalist land grabbing by such leaders and throw the whole region back into chaos.
If western leaders were truly concerned about the Kosovans they would have used the billions of dollars spent on military intervention on the displaced Kosovans; they would have opened their doors to the refugees who reached their borders; and they would have supported Kosovan independence. They have done none of these things.
Instead, they play increasingly dangerous war games. The US and its allies are eager to prove that they are the world's policemen. But their military needs can conflict with their political needs, which demand that the national boundaries they have drawn up around the world remain intact.
Tony Blair and Robin Cook tell us that their warmongering has produced a deal which will benefit everyone in the Balkans. The truth is exactly the opposite.
In Yugoslavia, the effect of the threats has allowed Milosevic to clamp down on all opposition. Two independent radio stations and three newspapers that were critical of his government have been closed down. The threat of attack by US imperialism has bolstered nationalism. As a result, the left inside the country is more isolated. Eighteen months ago mass demonstrations against Milosevic almost toppled him. Since then there have been many signs of opposition, including by workers. A day after the air strikes were called off, a demonstration against Milosevic in Belgrade attracted only a handful of people.
In Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians can either stay in their makeshift shelters on freezing hillsides or go back to burned out villages and place their faith in 2,000 unarmed monitors who are supposed to guarantee their safety against heavily armed Serb police and soldiers.
There is no guarantee that the disaster of Nato military attacks will still not take place. In the meantime, the chief effect of the deal brokered under the threat of such attacks has been to weaken the two forces most likely to improve life for people in the region--the Yugoslav working class and the Kosovan independence movement.
In the London borough of Haringey alone there are currently over 100 unaccompanied young Kosovans, along with an even greater number of over 18 year olds, who have arrived in Britain fleeing from their shattered, villages. Local and national government view this as a crisis, creating pressure on services and budgets. But there is a simple solution. Britain would be prepared to send planes to Kosovo in the event that Nato agrees airstrikes. A fraction of the cost of such intervention could provide housing and support for the refugees seeking asylum in this country.
The crisis in Haringey council has led to letters in the local press complaining at money being spent on accommodating Kosovan refugees. There is an acute housing crisis in the borough as a result of cutbacks. The refugees are not allowed to work or apply for benefits. They have been housed in cramped conditions, including a local mosque which is becoming increasingly overcrowded.
The unaccompanied young adults find particular problems. With no access to money-they are given food vouchers for necessities--many have to walk miles to get to their allocated school.
Government proposals on asylum and immigration are outlined in a recent white paper. Jack Straw proposes to set up asylum seekers' hostels. In Europe there have been many attacks on these hostels as the press whips up anti-immigrant sentiment.