Issue 258 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

The Balkans

The return of empire

UN colonial style governorship has failed to solve the region's problems explains Dragan Plavsic

Unmik's role--a colonial autocracy
Unmik's role--a colonial autocracy

'Remember Kosovo!' has been New Labour's nervous battle cry during the bombing of Afghanistan. In late October the Guardian obligingly opened its pages to Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, who sought to refresh memories with triumphs past: 'Some argued that we were wrong to take military action in Kosovo and Serbia... Yet today Milosevic is standing trial... and there is a democratic government in Belgrade.' You might do well to ask whose memory needed refreshing.

Milosevic's downfall was not brought about by Nato bombs. The truth is that Milosevic was felled by a mass revolution in which the Serbian working class played the decisive role, with the striking miners of the huge Kolubara mining complex at their head. The storming of the federal parliament in Belgrade on 5 October last year was the culmination of a revolution from below which testified to the irresistible power of the working class to effect political change--without the bloodshed and ruinous destruction wrought by Nato's 78-day bombardment of Yugoslavia. It is, of course, no accident that New Labour, so anxious to write the working class out of its political programme at home, should be no less anxious to write the Serbian working class out of the true history of Milosevic's overthrow. But if New Labour may have suffered a convenient loss of memory, Serbian workers have not.

On the anniversary of the Serbian Revolution two months ago, a massive strike wave shook the Serbian government, with the Kolubara miners again in the lead. Workers throughout Serbia struck demanding payment of wage arrears and the lifting of a public sector pay freeze. Thousands of workers also took to the streets of Belgrade calling for the withdrawal of a new Labour Bill that threatened mass public sector redundancies. Under pressure from the IMF, the Serbian government is determined to privatise 7,000 firms by 2005, but it is faced by a resurgent working class that has not forgotten the devastating power it wielded to overthrow Milosevic. The revolutionary process that began last year is by no means over. As for Kosovo itself, it is no exaggeration to say that the province has become a byword for ethnic intolerance, criminality and colonial arrogance. In short, it is not a happy model for Afghanistan. When Nato troops arrived in Kosovo in 1999, Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, proudly declared they would 'protect all people in Kosovo, whatever their ethnic identity'. But Nato troops did nothing to prevent the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Serbs and Roma, most of whom remain too fearful to return. A journalist who visited a Roma camp in neighbouring Macedonia last year was told, 'It's not safe there...people from the camp who have been to Kosovo tell us that Romanies have been mistreated there, that they cannot leave their homes and that Nato has to guard them.'

Many Serbs are also fearful of returning, and for good reason. Take the case of Agim Ceku, the Albanian Chief of Staff of the Kosovo Protection Corps (into which the Kosovo Liberation Army was dissolved). Shortly after his appointment by Bernard Kouchner, then head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik), the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague revealed that it was investigating Ceku for war crimes committed against Serbs when he was a brigadier general in the Croatian army. According to Jane's Defence Weekly, Ceku was 'one of the key planners' behind the military campaign that ethnically cleansed 250,000 Serbs from the Krajina in August 1995. The trafficking of drugs and women is also rife in Kosovo. The Guardian's Maggie O'Kane wrote in March last year that Kosovo had become a 'smugglers' paradise' supplying up to 40 percent of the heroin sold in Europe and North America. In part, this is a legacy of the KLA's participation in drug smuggling in order to finance its war against Milosevic. Reuters news agency also reported last year that 'international officials say the trafficking of women and prostitution greatly increased in Kosovo after the 1999 war, partly due to the influx of foreign bureaucrats, project contractors and soldiers helping to rebuild the province.'

But above all else it is Unmik's imperial role in Kosovo that deserves closest scrutiny. Unmik (and its military wing, Kfor) governs Kosovo like a colonial autocracy of old--it has the final say on all matters of political and military consequence. In the words of one high ranking UN official in Bosnia, where a 'protectorate' has existed since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, 'We dictate what will be done!' Although local elections were held in Kosovo last year, the reality is that meaningful power has remained securely within Unmik's grip. Unmik municipal administrators can overrule local councils, suspend any law and, if UN regulations are breached, dismiss elected councillors. Even the election of a 120-member provincial assembly last month will not affect Unmik's authoritarian powers. As one Albanian official, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented, 'They listen to us, they'll hear our views, but there's no way that we can actually participate in formulating policy... This colonial approach is not what we expected.'

A sober assessment of Kosovo today reveals that none of the region's problems have been solved by UN colonial-style governorship. Yet governorship of this kind remains the model, whatever its democratic shortcomings. In an extraordinary article about Afghanistan in the Independent in October, Philip Hensher advised, 'Stuff the Taliban; stuff an internal solution. I have a still more radical suggestion, which sounds bizarre but is entirely consonant with the tone of the prime minister's speeches: a viceroy.'

Imperialism abhors 'internal solutions' because they destroy its raison d'Étre. This is why Blair and Straw have sought to claim the credit for Milosevic's downfall--and why they have sought to write the Serbian Revolution out of history. They may well dismiss the seditious idea that the victims of imperialism can rise up and change the course of history. But for socialists, it is the self emancipation of the oppressed that remains the only true road to freedom.


Kosovo has become a byword for ethnic intolerance and criminality


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