Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
As B52 bombers and cruise missiles launched by Nato bombed former Yugoslavia, mainland Europe was at war again--the terrible cost of which in human life and devastation is likely to be high. Nato justifies its attacks as retaliation for Serb military intervention in Kosovo. Months of peace talks in France have broken down and the western leaders argue that their only option to prevent further attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the Yugoslav troops of president Slobodan Milosevic is to launch air strikes. But the offensive will do little to stop the misery which is taking place in Kosovo. Indeed, it is likely to cause much greater bloodshed and the possibility of all out war in the region, dragging in a number of different powers. People feel that they want to do something to help the Kosovan refugees and the victims of war. However, supporting this intervention by the west will do nothing to help the people who are now suffering.
Arguments justifying intervention have a familiar ring: the west is standing up to a bullying dictator and the only means of stopping him is to use force. Yet, as in the case of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the western powers who now back Nato have previously backed Milosevic, using him for their own ends in the region, and have done little to protect those they claim to support.
Kosovo, a region in the south of former Yugoslavia, is composed largely of ethnic Albanians and has long suffered oppression under the Serb regime. The main organisation fighting Serbia, the Kosovo liberation Army (KLA), is described as 'terrorist' by Milosevic, whose army is now trying to wipe it out--a task which he recently boasted could be done in a week. There is much outcry in the western media about violations of rights and displacement of peoples and refugees. Yet the western powers have been no friends of the Kosovan people. The west is still against independence for Kosovo. It does not want to upset other powers in the region, for example Greece, which is friendly to the Serbs. So as one commentator recently put it, 'Nato does not want to let the Kosovo liberation Army mobilise for an all out push for independence under cover of alliance missiles and warplanes so soon after international mediators persuaded the Albanians to sign up to an interim autonomy deal that would keep them inside Yugoslavia for at least the next three years... The international community's official mantra remains that an independent Kosovo could endanger regional stability by acting as a magnet for ethnic Albanians in neighbouring states, even unstable Albania itself.' (Financial Times 'Jaw Jaw Becomes War War', 24 March 1999).
This was, after all, the rationale behind the Dayton peace accords in 1995, which expressly left Kosovo out of the agreement. Dayton tells us quite a lot about what is happening now. A peace was enforced by Nato and the US on the basis of the bombing of Serb troops backed up by an offensive, in particular by the Croatian army, which forced 120,000 Bosnian Serbs out of the Krajina province. This was ethnic cleansing by Croatia with US and western backing. There was no outcry, no calls for intervention. Milosevic was allowed a substantial role in policing the Dayton agreement. Up until the present the western leaders have needed Milosevic to maintain this carve up and prevent further chaos in the region.
Milosevic's deputy in Serbia is an extreme nationalist; Franjo Tudjman the ultra-nationalist remains in power in Croatia; elections last year in the Croat and Serb sections of Bosnia have brought extreme nationalists to power. These people are keen on even more land grabbing on a nationalist basis and further ethnic cleansing.
The sight of refugees may bring the war home to television viewers in Britain, but the record of the western powers in providing help for these refugees has also been atrocious. Countries such as Britain refuse to let most refugees in, and those who are admitted have to live in terrible circumstances, are refused any cash benefits and are now threatened with dispersal to far flung parts of Britain. None of these people will be helped by air strikes against Milosevic.
As usual, the west's targets are highly selective. Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was kidnapped by Turkey and is now facing trial for his life. The Kurds are subject to constant oppression from the Turkish state and army and have seen their homeland divided between three powers, but far from intervening on their behalf, the west supports Nato member Turkey and the British government has even closed down the Kurdish television station at Turkey's behest. The west has betrayed similar double standards by refusing to act against Israel's violation of United Nations resolutions. Nato's intervention now is more about establishing its rule and the dominance of the US in post Cold War Europe. All the main capitalist powers, crucially including Germany, have been pulled into the operation and are using it to assert their hegemony. In the process they are playing a dangerous game, since Russia is clearly deeply disaffected over the development. The powers are saying they want to avoid ground troops being pulled into the conflict but it may be impossible.
There is no simple military solution in the Balkans. The region is a patchwork of states and nationalities which have historically been used by various European powers for their own ends.
The only possibility of dealing with many of the problems in the Balkans is to begin to turn towards arguments based on class, not nation. However, the actions of the leaders in the region and in wider Europe have helped to increase the nationalism.
This is absolutely obvious in Serbia itself. Among the mass of the population Milosevic is highly unpopular. There has been growing opposition to conscription in Serbia, since most young people do not want to go and fight in Kosovo.
Parents of conscripts are asking why Milosevic's son Marko--the playboy owner of a Belgrade night club--has not been sent to fight. The hostility to Milosevic is mirrored by a bitter internal crisis within the Serbian ruling class. Bombing the ordinary Serbian population will only help to rebuild Milosevic's dwindling support and will make most Serbs feel that there is no alternative but to back their leader.
Milosevic played the national card to prevent the development of strikes and class struggle a decade ago which could have pointed in a very different direction from the nationalism and bloodshed we have seen in the Balkans ever since. His popularity was based on fostering those divisions. It is a tragedy that the west is prepared to act in a way which can only blur the real class divisions which exist in Serbia and which can only underline the nationalist agenda.
Kosovo has a long history as a disputed territory between the Serbs and Albanians. Throughout the Middle Ages there were constant battles and the majority of the Balkans were under the Turkish control of the Ottoman Empire.
By the 19th century various powers around Europe were casting their eyes towards Turkey's possessions in the Balkans. In 1876 Serbia and Montenegro went to war with the Ottomans. This sparked a national revolt in Bulgaria. Seizing the chance, Russia, Romania and Greece joined in. The resulting peace treaty, in which Serbia gained independence and Kosovo remained under Ottoman rule, turned out in favour of Russia. Britain, Germany and Austria, unhappy with this result, imposed a treaty on Moscow outlining the borders and carving up 'spheres of influence' between the three European powers. Leon Trotsky summed up the results of this process: 'The states that today occupy the Balkan peninsula were manufactured by European diplomacy ... all the measures were taken to convert the national diversity of the Balkans into a regular mêlée of petty states.' The intervention by the Great Powers prevented the unification of the Slavic peoples in the Balkans into a national state and also halted any significant industrialisation.
The carve up eventually led to the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. Serbia, together with Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece, joined together to drive the Turks out of their remaining possessions in Europe. For the now minority Serbs in Kosovo, the arrival of the Serbian army was seen as a liberation. But for the Kosovan Albanians it was nothing short of occupation coupled with massacres and expulsions. In 1918 a unified state of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia was formed. The Serbian army of what was now Yugoslavia returned to Kosovo.
In 1941 Yugoslavia was conquered and partitioned between Germany, Italy and Hungary. Kosovo became part of an Italian controlled greater Albania. The carve up included a separate Croat state which, under the Ustashe fascists, engaged in the mass slaughter of Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia. This reinforced the idea that many Serbs would only be secure in their own greater Serbian state. Much of this bitterness was channelled into the Yugoslav Partisans, led by Tito, fighting against Germany and the Croat Ustashe. He offered a future for Yugoslavs of all backgrounds and promised the Kosovan Albanians the right to unite with Albania after the war. After the war Tito set up a Stalinist republic in Yugoslavia, comprising of six states, but it became clear that the promise to the Kosovan Albanians would not be upheld. The Yugoslav authorities were faced with Albanian uprisings in Kosovo and kept the province on a tight leash until 1974 when Kosovo was granted autonomy but not independence.
The Albanians in Kosovo demanded the status of a full republic for the province, to opposition from the minority Serbs. Slobodan Milosevic, head of the Serbian Communist Party, was able to manipulate these grievances. By 1987 prolonged economic and political crisis in Yugoslavia resulted in a wave of strikes. The anger was successfully deflected by Milosevic. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were scapegoated, and when he rose to power in 1989 Kosovo was stripped of its autonomy.
Kosovan Albanians, led by Ibrahim Rugova, declared independence and continued to run a parallel state. They held elections to an assembly, ignored the draft to the Serbian army and set up their own administration. Frustration within the Kosovan Albanian majority has led to an increased number of Albanians being prepared to take up arms against Serbian hold over the province. The Kosovo Liberation Army emerged in 1996 and has gained strength and popularity over the last two years as criticism of Rugova has mounted.
Recent western interventions give the lie to the assertion that they are there to help the ordinary peoples of the region. Their most spectacular failure of recent years has been Iraq. The Gulf War waged in 1991 following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait resulted in the destruction of the Iraqi economy and the killing of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis.
Following the war there were uprisings against the Iraqi regime but the west did little to help, making sure the uprisings were crushed. In the south of Iraq an uprising was led by Shia Muslim fundamentalists. The area was under the control of the US army, yet Iraqi troops used napalm and gas to defeat the rebellion.
In the north the Kurds rebelled. Shortly after the Gulf War they had captured 95 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan. They had also removed Saddam Hussein's army--just as the west had told them to do. Yet when their political representatives flew to the US they were told by the state department, 'Political meetings with Kurdish opposition leaders would not contribute to the US goals in the region.' Those goals were soon apparent. The US army stood by while Iraqi troops moved against the Kurds. The US was more concerned that the moves towards democracy in Iraq and independence for the Kurds would be hostile to its interests and would spill over into neighbouring countries such as Turkey.
In the eight years since then the west, under the guise of the UN, has imposed sanctions on Iraq which have, according to most independent agencies and UN researchers, managed to kill between 1.2 and 1.5 million people. It is estimated that some 6,000 to 7,000 children die each month as a result of the sanctions, and because of malnutrition about 30 percent of children under five suffer either physical or mental defects. The Iraqi economy is in tatters with its infrastructure cornpletely ruined.
Nor has the bombing stopped. At the end of 1998 both US and British forces bombed Iraq. Throughout January and February this year there were almost daily bombings on Iraq by Britain and the US. The region is now much more volatile than it was before the west went in. The latest bombing raids saw mass demonstrations in the occupied terrories of Palestine as well as in Jordan and Egypt. The question of automony for the Kurds is still far from resolved and threatens to increase tensions in Iraq, as well as Iran, Syria and Turkey, following the kidnapping and trial of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The western alliance is now divided--France, Russia and China were deeply angered and have been vocal in their opposition to Blair and Clinton's strategy--not quite the objective the west set itself when it went in with all guns blazing eight years ago.
The disaster in Iraq is not an isolated incident. In August last year the US sent 80 cruise missiles into Sudan. It proved to be an absolute failure. The attack was directed against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. It was claimed that the factory was used to manufacture nerve gas, but the only proof of this was given by the CIA. There has been no evidence to support its claim--meanwhile, dozens of people were killed in the raids. The factory was destroyed.
Somalia is another example--at the end of 1992 the country had descended into virtual civil war with competing warlords vying for control. The response of the US was to send 15,000 troops into the country supported by another 13,000 on a fleet off the coast. Their claimed intention at the time was to provide humanitarian aid, but it didn't take long for the killing to start.
The US troops, supported by others from the UN, launched numerous attacks against one of the warlords--Mohammed Aidid with air strikes and helicopter raids. Local people turned against the US troops when their real intentions became apparent. In September 1993 US and Pakistani troops opened fire against demonstrators and killed over 100. When the US troops finally withdrew in March 1994 over 10,000 Somalis had been killed, and reports of rape, murder and torture by the so caned 'peacekeepers' are still coming to light. After they left, the country once again descended into a bloody civil war.
The history of western intervention, then, is one of abject failure. It is the ordinary people who bear the brunt of each invasion or bombing. There is every likelihood that the latest bombing campaign against the Serbs will have a similar outcome.
'The bombing is illegal. It is contrary to the charter of the United Nations and an act of aggression. it will make the situation worse for the people in the area, since the monitors have been withdrawn because Nato is going to bomb. The Serbs have no intention of allowing their country to be occupied by a Nato force in order to enforce the agreement. I have no time for Milosevic, but he agreed to the whole settlement other than the presence of Nato troops.
This is a deliberate policy of turning the Balkans into a colony of the European Union, policed by Nato under American control. A lot of Conservative MPs who have had military experience said you can't solve the problem by bombing--you have to send an invasion force in. The Serb army is very strong--they beat the Germans and frightened Joe Stalin off from attacking them in 1948. The prime minister said that 100,000 troops would be the minimum needed in order to occupy Yugoslavia, and I don't think this is going to work. What you need to do is to put it back in the hands of the UN.
There is a debate in the House tomorrow, so there will be speeches made against the war which may get some coverage. My phone has been hot all night with people ringing up asking, 'What can we do? Can we have a meeting or a demonstration?' I think there will be a lot of opposition, and if people are killed, then this will arouse something rather like the anti-Vietnam War movement in America. People do not want this war. It will make things worse and not better, and this will become apparent as the days go by.'
In Newcastle action is building up for the demonstration against low pay on 10 April. Local Unison members set up a 12 foot banner in the city centre against low pay one weekend and invited local people to sign it. It was filled up in less than half an hour with loads of people queuing up. This gives a sense of the feeling over Labour's new minimum wage which is introduced on 1 April. It is set at only £3.60 an hour for those over 21 and at £3 for those over 18, which means it falls far short of what people need to make ends meet. It is an indication of how poorly paid many workers are that some 2 million will benefit from this, but even then at £3.60 it will only give a gross wage of £144 for a 40 hour week--and that's before stoppages. If Labour had instead gone with the TUC recommended minimum of £4.79 this would have benefited some 5 million workers (although even then you are looking at less than £200 a week before stoppages).
For many workers in Newcastle the demonstration could not he more timely. In the Eldon Square shopping centre workers at The Disney Store were told by management not to talk to anyone about how much they earned. At one toy shop staff had gone seven years without a pay rise, and at one local cafe staff were being paid an appalling £2 per hour. It is no wonder that when local trade unionists have gone out to build the demonstration they have met with such a good response. The local Unison city centre branch and the civic centre branch have had meetings in all their sections throughout the council urging their members to go. A TGWU steward at Gregg's bakery has got promises to attend from 50 union members, and ISTC members at Spartan Redheugh are making a banner especially for the day. In Newcastle University the walls are covered with publicity with stalls in the student union virtually every day.
Just down the road in Sunderland a working group has been set up by the local trades council which has done a mail shot to all its members and has regularly been out in the city centre on Saturdays with union banners and a megaphone. The local Unison branch is producing hundreds of red flags with the slogan 'Low pay-no way' on them.
In Bradford a low paid Asian textile worker who works for Initial Garment manufacturing, which is owned by the low pay employer Rentokil, phoned up her regional GMB union official demanding that she and her workmates are subsidised for the cost of the transport. In a few days ten tickets were sold and they hope to make this a coachful by the time of the demonstration. This is also helped by the local GPMU branch which has arranged to have print workers in the town centre on Easter Saturday before the demonstration leafleting local shoppers, where they will be joined by local Unison members. They have also sent a leaflet to every GPMU member in Bradford under the age of 25 urging them to go on the demonstration.
Meanwhile, 30 people from Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham have booked seats on a coach so far and Birmingham City Council Unison has booked 100 seats on a train. The local GPMU branch has pledged to subsidise transport costs. The local Unison branch is also planning a publicity stunt in the city centre on 1 April when the minimum wage comes in. As one local activist said, 'We have set up stalls in the city centre at lunchtimes as well as on Saturdays because you meet hundreds of low paid local workers in their lunch break--we now have hundreds of names and addresses of people who have expressed an interest in going to Newcastle.' And it's not only trade unionists who will be there on 10 April. The Sheffield Pensioners Group has already booked 20 seats on the local coach, and in Mansfield the local head of the tenants association has managed to fill a coach with local residents.
This is set to be the biggest demonstration against the Blair government since it was elected two years ago. The immediate concern is clearly pay--why, after 18 years of the Tories, are the fat cats still taking in the millions when the majority of workers have to struggle to make ends meet? And why are millions of workers still forced to live on poverty pay even after a minimum wage is introduced? It is for these reasons that thousands of workers will be coming from all over the country onto the streets of Newcastle. It is a sign of how angry people are with the Labour government that they have decided to do something about it. It also shows the potential for building mass opposition to the right wing policies of New Labour.