The meaning of Kosovo's independence

Lee Sustar looks at the history of the conflict over Kosovo and the role played by Western imperialism.

KOSOVO'S DECLARATION of independence from Serbia marks the latest--but not the last--imperialist power play in the Balkans.

The Kosvovar Albanians' legitimate struggle for self-determination has been turned into a tool of great power politics--and that fits a pattern that has led to much bloodshed in the region in the past.

Kosovo's independence comes nine years after a U.S.-led NATO war on Serbia, then the dominant force in the former Yugoslavia, over Serbia's crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority in its southern province.

Since then, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations and patrolled by NATO troops, creating a quasi-state under Western tutelage. Only small numbers of Serbs remain in Kosovo today, and they are under threat from the Albanian majority.

Kosovo was the heartland of a Serb kingdom in the Middle Ages, but it has been populated by an Albanian majority for at least 300 years. By the time of the 1999 NATO war, some 90 percent of Kosovo's population of 2 million was Albanian.

What else to read

The Fall of Yugoslavia by Misha Glenny tells the story of the latest Balkans crisis and the decade of war that followed. For another account that draws on eyewitness testimony from the wars, read Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, by Laura Silber and Allan Little.

The best source for a history of Kosovo itself is Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo, by Miranda Vickers. Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History also does a good job of telling the history.

For the definitive book on the Balkans to the present day, read Misha Glenny's The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers.

Since the creation of Yugoslavia following the Second World War, Kosovar Albanians experienced the worst poverty and underdevelopment in the country, and faced discrimination in education, jobs and housing.

Yugoslavia's constitutional reforms in 1974 led to somewhat greater autonomy for Kosovo. But these were rolled back after 1989, when former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, a Serb, used the issue of Kosovo to revive Serbian nationalism. Milosevic chose to begin the campaign on the anniversary of a historic battle between the medieval Serbs and the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which eventually put much of present-day Serbia under Ottoman rule.

Nationalist historians on both the Kosovar Albanian and Serb sides advance opposing claims about which group originally was the majority population. In reality, both lived side by side for centuries, and Albanians and Serbs alike initially resisted the Ottomans.

Nevertheless, Kosovo became an all-important symbol for Serb nationalism in the 19th century when Serbians stepped up their struggle against Ottoman rule--and, later, domination by the Austro-Hungarian empire.

For Milosevic, Serbian nationalism and a call to "return" to Kosovo were a convenient substitute for the discredited politics of Stalinism that ruled Yugoslavia until the upheavals of 1989 across Eastern Europe.

The nationalist turn by Milosevic was matched by leaders of other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia's federal structure of "republics"--Franjo Tudjman, who became president of Croatia, and Milan Kucan, who became head of Slovenia. Both declared independence from Yugoslavia and seceded after brief military conflicts with the Serb-dominated remnant of Yugoslavia. Macedonia broke away as well.

This nationalist dynamic led to a horrific three-cornered civil war in the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, which was divided between Serbs, Croats and Muslims. From 1992 to 1995, tens of thousands were killed and at least 2 million displaced.

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THE BOSNIAN war and other Balkans violence were presented in the mainstream media as the continuation of ancient "ethic hatreds." In fact, the fingerprints of the big European countries and the U.S. were all over the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

At first, the West reacted to the tensions in Yugoslavia by giving Milosevic a green light to hold the country together under Serbian domination. But when the country broke up anyway, the newly reunified Germany broke ranks to recognize Croatia, which had been a puppet state under the Nazi occupation in the Second World War.

This accelerated the crisis--leading to, among other things, a declaration of independence by the Serbian minority in Croatia itself in the Krajina region. "Ethnic cleansing"--the forced displacement of people because of their nationality, language or religion--entered the world's vocabulary.

By 1994, the slaughter in Bosnia threatened to spin out of control. Two regional NATO allies considered intervening--on opposite sides, as Greece supported the Serbs and Turkey backed the Bosnian Muslims.

Eventually, Bill Clinton pressured France and Britain to abandon their own pro-Serb tilt, and intervene to contain Milosevic and keep the conflict from spreading. This took the form of brokering an alliance between Bosnian Croats and Muslims against the Serbs, complete with arranging for guns and money from Iran as well as Arab and Muslim countries.

It was Clinton's chief operative in the region, Peter Galbraith, who organized the war according to Washington's objectives. As U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Galbraith worked with "retired" U.S. military officers to build up Croatia's armed forces to counter Serbia, even though Croatian President Tudjman was every bit the authoritarian nationalist that Milosevic was.

On August 4, 1995, the Croatian army swept into the Serb territory of Krajina in Operation Storm. "It was the first stage in what would become, during the next few days, the biggest single forcible displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War," wrote journalists Laura Silber and Allan Little. Ultimately, some 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee from Krajina, where they had lived for centuries.

The end to the war came after U.S. warplanes blasted Serbian targets in Bosnia. By this point, Milosevic saw the forces arrayed against him and pulled the plug on the Bosnian Serbs, agreeing to a peace deal at a U.S. air force base outside Dayton, Ohio. Soon afterward, 60,000 NATO troops poured into Bosnia as "peacekeepers"--that is, enforcers for a UN commissioner who wielded the real political power in a Bosnia that remained ethnically partitioned.

Milosevic was weakened, but held on as boss of Yugoslavia--by then reduced to Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia.

A nonviolent civil rights movement among Albanians had been met by brutal crackdowns. Increasingly, young Kosovar Albanians turned to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a group that originally embraced left-wing Maoist politics, but had evolved into a nationalist force accused of trafficking in drugs.

By 1998, the KLA had stepped up military attacks on Serb targets. Milosevic retaliated with another wave of arrests and repression. Again, the Balkans appeared on the brink of a wider war, with Turkey and Greece supporting opposite sides.

Faced with a conflict that could get out of control, the Clinton administration set about organizing a Kosovo war on its terms. It accused Milosevic of plotting a genocide against Albanians, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stepped in to broker a "compromise" at the French town of Rambouillet.

It was an offer that Milosevic had to refuse--the deal would have allowed NATO troops unrestricted movement across Yugoslavia. Milosevic had offered a new autonomy deal for Kosovo; Albright had responded by demanding that Yugoslavia accept a virtual invasion.

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WHEN MILOSEVIC refused, NATO began three months of bombing against Yugoslavia, striking civilian targets and killing an estimated 2,000 Serbs.

But the war worsened the plight of the 850,000 Kosovar Albanians, who had already fled their homes in response to Serb repression. Some 10,000 Albanians were killed by Serbian forces in that period.

NATO's air war was complemented on the ground by the KLA, which inflicted blows against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav military. Milosevic capitulated--again, in order to survive.

After finally being forced from office years later, Milosevic was eventually captured by NATO forces and put in prison in the Hague for war crimes, but he died before the trial was completed.

As in Bosnia, NATO troops and a UN commissioner have been the real political power in Kosovo, where former KLA leader Hashim Thaci is now prime minister. However, there is less independence than meets the eye following Kosovo's declaration.

The European Union will still have a major role under what a UN negotiator calls "supervised independence," and NATO troops will remain indefinitely. Tellingly, a new nationalist Kosovar Albanian group, known as Self-Determination, formed in protest of the UN's colonial-style administration--and two of its members have been killed by UN police and its leader imprisoned. Camp Bondsteel, which was the largest new U.S. military base since the Vietnam War until the invasion of Iraq, will remain in Kosovo.

Effectively, the U.S. and its allies are attempting to manipulate for their own ends the struggle for self-determination by Kosovar Albanians--just as the U.S. has done with the Kurds in Iraq.

The U.S. is facing some resistance, with Russia--Serbia's traditional backer--opposing Kosovo's independence, along with other states challenged by other nationalist movements, such as Spain and China.

But these imperial maneuvers don't mean that Kosovo's independence isn't a legitimate political objective. As a group of Serbian socialists put it recently, Serbian "nationalist claims to Kosovo play a crucial role in 'legitimizing' the Serbian ruling class. And the threat from Serbia lies at the root of Kosovan Albanian support for the U.S., which has plans for a Balkan oil pipeline...

"Nationalism and imperialism are dangerously entangled in Kosovo. This is why Serbian revolutionary socialists have to be both anti-nationalist and anti-imperialist...

"We believe that Serbian revolutionary socialists should respect Kosovo's right to self-determination. By doing so, we draw a clear line between us and our ruling class. We argue that by extending an internationalist hand of friendship to the Kosovan Albanians, there is a way of solving our problems without becoming the pawns of imperialism, East and West."