Is Crimea another Kosovo?

March 27, 2014

James Robertson recounts the history of Kosovo, before and after the breakup of the ex-Yugoslavia, and assesses the accuracy of Russia's comparisons to Crimea.

THE EVENTS in Crimea over the past few weeks, culminating in the territory--a peninsula on the Black Sea off southern Ukraine--being annexed to Russia following a referendum in favor of secession from Ukraine, have provided a platform for some of the most base displays of hypocrisy from all sides.

Barack Obama's criticism of Russian "interference" in Ukraine cannot but seem like empty rhetoric in the wake of far more brutal U.S. "interferences" in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, to name but a few. And upon hearing Secretary of State John Kerry's accusation that Russia was behaving "in a 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext," many of us had to double-check that we weren't watching a piece of satire on The Daily Show.

Meanwhile, Russia's feigned concern for respecting self-determination is undermined by its violent history in Chechnya and its continuous "anti-terror" campaigns designed to weaken other pro-separatist movements in the Caucuses. As for Vladimir Putin, he has few qualifications for assessing the democratic legitimacy of a vote--after his own re-election in 2012 stirred well-founded allegations of widespread voter fraud, Putin used riot police against tens of thousands of protesters.

Russian troops in Crimea
Russian troops in Crimea

Even the new government in Kiev is playing the game, insisting that Crimea's referendum was a violation of the laws of the Ukrainian constitution. This conveniently forgets that its own assumption of power following ex-President Viktor Yanukovych's downfall was equally illegal, according to the letter of that document.

So there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. The crisis in Crimea has confirmed the depths of contempt that the current political class has toward ordinary people--in the U.S., in Russia and elsewhere.

HOWEVER, ONE of the talking points shared by both Russian and U.S. leaders in addressing the Crimea referendum to secede from Ukraine was the example of Kosovo, whose unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 remains a contested issue.

It was Putin who raised the "Kosovo precedent" in a phone call with Obama, as justification for Russia's intervention in Crimea. To Putin's mind, if the U.S. could go to war over Kosovo during the 1999 NATO war in the Balkans, and then support independence from Serbia a decade later, Russia was equally entitled to do the same in Crimea.

The paradox there is that Russia was an ally of Serbia--the main power left as the former Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s--and therefore one of the most vocal opponents of Kosovan independence, before, during and after the U.S.-led war.

In response to Putin's sudden conversion to the cause of Kosovo independence, those seeking to defend the legacy of U.S.-led "humanitarian intervention" have attacked the comparison as baseless. For example, Louis Sell, a former U.S. diplomat to Eastern Europe, argued that Putin's analogy "doesn't hold water," ignoring, as it does, the history of persecution of the Albanian majority in Kosovo by the Serbian state.

In Sell's telling, NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and subsequent U.S. support for independence in 2008 was justified on "humanitarian grounds," a basis that is apparently lacking in Crimea.

Both the Russian and U.S. attempts to draw or debunk comparisons between Crimea and Kosovo are aimed at justifying or delegitimizing the Crimea referendum under the framework of international law.

Unsurprisingly, however, no one on either side is actually concerned with allowing international law to dictate their state's foreign policy. International law, especially as it concerns imperialist powers like the U.S. and Russia, is seen as an obstacle to be negotiated, or a credo to be manipulated or evoked retroactively to defend "facts on the ground."

The reality is that law is not so much a framework for the governance of political struggles--it is a condensation of those struggles. International law, in particular, is shaped, reframed and reinterpreted according to the political conflicts and foreign policy necessities of the strongest powers.

If we are to undertake a comparison between Crimea and Kosovo, we need to do so outside of narrow confines of the debate between pro-U.S. and pro-Russia advocates. We need to look at the political differences between these two cases.

The key difference concerning the recent referendum in Crimea and Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 concerns the roots and scope of the local political struggles that provided the backdrop for the respective imperialist interventions and ultimately for secession.

KOSOVO HAS long been a touchstone for Serbian nationalists because it was the center of a medieval Serbian monarchy and the site of two epic battles in the 14th and 15th centuries. Under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for the succeeding four centuries, it became home to a Muslim, Albanian-speaking majority.

Kosovo was first incorporated into the modern Serbian state during the Balkan wars of 1912-13. The redivision of the Balkans following the First World War and the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, commonly referred to as "the first Yugoslavia," brought the population of Kosovo under direct rule by Belgrade, the kingdom's capital.

During the interwar period, the state relied heavily on a repressive gendarmerie and military presence to pacify the population of the southern province. In an effort to promote agricultural development, Slavic families from poverty-stricken regions of the kingdom were resettled to Kosovo, and Albanians forcibly removed from their traditional lands.

The discontent bred by such policies toward Kosovo Albanians erupted during the Second World War and led several Albanian brigades to collaborate with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany against both the Serbian nationalist and Yugoslav communist forces.

Following the partisan victory in Yugoslavia, Kosovo once again found itself within Serbian borders. The new regime, headed by Josip Broz Tito, the Stalinist leader who managed to keep Yugoslavia balanced between Russia and the U.S. during the Cold War, moved some way toward protecting the national rights of Albanians. But despite Kosovo's autonomous status granted by Tito, many of the problems of the interwar years continued into the "socialist" period.

Thus, in 1968, huge protests by Kosovo students accused the Yugoslav state of adopting a colonial attitude toward the province and called for greater national rights. The protests were met by a wave of repression, and many of the leaders of the Albanian national movement ended up in prison. But the state nonetheless granted many of the demands for greater local self-determination. Kosovan autonomy was further entrenched under the notoriously complex constitution of 1974, which envisioned greater decentralization for all of the Yugoslav republics, with Tito holding the balance of power in Belgrade.

This devolution of powers came under attack following Tito's death in 1980, with the emergence of Yugoslavia's economic crisis. By the late 1980s, the U.S.-led International Monetary Fund was promoting a program of recentralization to better facilitate the repayment of Yugoslavia's $20 billion debt.

To realize the project of recentralization, international powers turned to the up-and-coming member of the Serbian political establishment, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic's experience on the board of Beobanka, one of the largest banks in Yugoslavia, put him in close contact with Western economists and schooled him in the neoliberal orthodoxies that by now informed IMF policies.

A combination of foreign support, historical luck and ruthless careerism propelled Milosevic to the heights of political power in Serbia by the late 1980s. With Tito's "communism" discredited economically, Milosevic turned to Serbian nationalism to legitimize his rule.

An important component of this project was his manipulation of the "Kosovo question." Milosevic promised to "right the wrongs" allegedly perpetrated against Serbs in Kosovo. The Serbian nationalist revival successfully rechanneled a rising tide of class struggle and hostility toward the bureaucratic elites.

Milosevic's regime, with its Serbian nationalist agenda, destabilized the delicate balance between the different nationalities in Yugoslavia. Very quickly, the federation started to break apart. In 1991-92, Slovenia, Croatia and finally Bosnia, openly encouraged by Germany and other Western European powers, declared independence.

This led to terrible civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia between local paramilitary groups, newly formed national armies and the Yugoslav National Army, still answerable to the Serb-dominated federal government in Belgrade. Bosnia, in particular, was the site of a horrific three-cornered civil war involving Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims. It wasn't until 1995, with the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords, that the civil war in Bosnia was brought to an end, when Milosevic, under pressure from Washington, compelled Serbian nationalists in Bosnia to back down.

FORCED TO retreat elsewhere, Milosevic became even more determined over Kosovo.

During the 1980s, the Albanian national movement had continued to grow and radicalize. In 1989, amendments to the constitution stripped Kosovo of much of its autonomy, including control of the police and judiciary. In response, Albanian civil society launched a series of protests and boycotted local elections--thousands of workers in the Trepca mining complex began a hunger strike.

Albanians also began to organize parallel state structures, including schools and health clinics that offered services in the Albanian language. This "parallel society" became an important survival mechanism during the 1990s as the situation in Kosovo deteriorated.

Kosovo's first declaration of independence actually took place in July 1990, but it failed to receive any international backing.

As war raged elsewhere in the Balkans, the leadership of the national movement in Kosovo managed to convince the population to remain peaceful. Ibrahim Rugova, the nominal president of the self-declared republic and leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), one of the key political organizations in the independence movement, evoked Gandhi and called for nonviolent resistance.

Rugova's strategy for achieving Kosovan statehood was founded on the belief that Western forces would intervene on behalf of the Albanian movement. The Dayton Accords were a watershed moment in the Kosovo conflict--precisely because the West explicitly refused to intercede on Kosovo's behalf, essentially giving Serbia's regime the green light to continue its attacks.

While the Western powers--in particular, Germany and the U.S.--had been enthusiastic about backing the independence of Slovenia, Croatia and, to a lesser degree, Bosnia, with the aim of furthering their own imperialist ambitions in the Balkans, few in the West were keen to see the breakup of Yugoslavia go further than that. After all, centralization had been the priority for the stronger Western powers in the late 1980s--and recognizing the independence of Kosovo might encourage Albanian national movements in Macedonia and Montenegro, leading to wider regional conflicts that might complicate efforts at NATO expansion.

Thus, following Dayton, Rugova and the LDK's strategy of non-confrontation and reliance on the West came under criticism from two key sectors of the Albanian national movement. One section argued that independence could not be achieved without a direct, armed confrontation with Serbian forces. In 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) began a guerrilla war against Serbian police and military, as well as against Albanians believed to have collaborated with the Serbian state.

The other section was a burgeoning student movement. During 1997-98 the Student Union at the University of Prishtine organized a series of protest marches against Serbian rule. Tens of thousands of students and their supporters came out despite the threat of a militarized riot police.

The protests were significant in that they revealed the emergence of an independent student leadership critical of the LDK's strategy of laying low and relying on foreign support. Reportedly during this period, the screensavers on computers in the Student Union's headquarters displayed the following joke: "How do we know that Elvis is dead? Because he joined the LDK."

In response to the UCK's insurgency, the Serbian military escalated its repression, increasingly targeting entire villages. As the civilian death toll rose, young Albanian men looking to fight back joined the UCK. By March 1998, Serbia was in an open state of war with the southern province.

The war produced a refugee crisis--over 800,000 displaced Albanians ended up in camps in nearby Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. These camps, often established in areas with large Albanian minorities--in particular, Tetovo in Macedonia--raised the possibility of the war spilling over into the wider region.

In an effort to contain the conflict, neutralize Milosevic and exploit the situation to expand its authority in the Balkans, the U.S. and NATO carried out air strikes against Serbian targets in the spring of 1999, from March 24 through June 3. The targets included military and civilian structures and claimed the lives of around 500 Serbian civilians. On June 2, Milosevic agreed to a withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo and its occupation by NATO-led peacekeepers.

But for more than a decade before the NATO intervention, Kosovo had been in a state of open social conflict, pitting the repressive Serbian state against an Albanian national movement looking to win autonomy and independence through strikes, mass protests and armed insurgency. Indeed, it was only because of this political conflict that NATO forces were given an opening through which to intervene militarily.

This legacy of protest, rebellion and insurrection is noticeably absent in Crimea. The very first military confrontations date from the end of February, a week after Ukraine's former President Yanukovych fled Kiev--when Crimea's provincial parliament was taken over by armed forces answering to Sergey Aksyonov, who became prime minister.

BUT WHAT was the relationship between the Western imperialist intervention against Serbia and Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence almost a decade later?

The period between the end of the war in June 1999 and the declaration of independence in February 2008 was marked by the tensions of neocolonial rule.

Under the watchful eyes of the UN Mission for Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), the two organizations responsible for running the new Western protectorate, Kosovo remained in a political, diplomatic and economic limbo.

Lack of agreement among Western powers over whether to back Kosovo's independence led to various complicated blueprints and years of fruitless negotiations between representatives of the local population, Kosovo's international rulers and the Serbian government, since Kosovo was still formally a part of Serbia. The tendency for Western powers to use Kosovo's status as a bargaining chip with Serbia bred distrust among Albanians who again saw their collective fate being determined by a different foreign power.

The failure of UNMIK to rebuild civilian infrastructure after the war further alienated the population. When I traveled to the country in the winter of 2006, much of the population relied on generators for at least part of the day, owing to electricity shortages. Roads that didn't service Western military or international transportation connections were left in disrepair. The presence of thousands of Western troops had provided the basis for a thriving and illegal sex industry, and the country remained in a state of economic collapse, reliant on Western investment and credit.

Of course, the construction projects that were completed in a timely fashion reveal a great deal about the vision that Western powers had for Kosovo. The most egregious example is the U.S. military base Camp Bondsteel, the largest such base in the Balkans and built within a year following the peace.

That such a project was fast-tracked while ordinary people went without electricity and other basic services shows what UNMIK deemed a priority when it came to "protecting" Kosovo.

Only against the background of the Serbian state terror of the 1990s could such neocolonial policies be tolerated by a population experienced at mobilizing against foreign rule. The widespread local support for what amounted to a Western occupation of Kosovo needs to be understood as a response to the decade of mistreatment at the hands of Serbian bureaucratic and military institutions.

The nationalist movement in Serbia and the Belgrade regime's utter disregard for the national rights of Albanians set the stage for Western imperialism to be welcomed in Kosovo, whatever the imperialist motives of the U.S. and Europe. Serbian chauvinism and Western imperialism buttressed one another, opening the Balkans up to further divisions and undermining the development of a genuine anti-imperialist movement.

HOWEVER, SUPPORT for UN and NATO rule in Kosovo didn't go unchallenged. In 2004, fears and frustration with the failure of UNMIK's rule led to a revival of grassroots independence activism, in the form of the anti-colonial movement Vetëvendosje! (Self-determination!).

Organized by several leaders of the 1990s student movement, Vetëvendosje! became a powerful factor in the political dynamics of Western rule in Kosovo. The movement organized thousands of students and young people into a campaign to pressure UNMIK to end its negotiations with the Serbian state and allow the population in Kosovo to decide its own fate.

Within a few years, the repressive side of UN "protection" was revealed for all to see. In February 2007, tens of thousands of protesters came out to a Vetëvendosje! rally. UN forces reacted violently, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd and killing two young activists. Afterward, the UN police suspected of the shootings were quietly transferred out of Kosovo, and the leadership of Vetëvendosje! was arrested.

Scenes such as these testified to the growing dissatisfaction with UNMIK rule and revealed the beginning of a political crisis for the protectorate. From below, tens of thousands of Albanians began to exert pressure on their local political elites to withdraw from negotiations with the Serbian state and unilaterally declare independence.

Thus, this political activism became an independent factor in determining Kosovo's political status, offering the population a vehicle to express their demands, outside the priorities of either the Serbian state or the Western occupying powers.

Western governments weren't finished with Kosovo yet, though--they set out to coopt the independence movement. When the Kosovo Assembly, bowing to mass pressure from below, finally proclaimed independence in February 2008, the structures of the new state had been purged of most of their anti-colonial, emancipatory possibilities.

NATO and EU forces were able to remain in the independent Kosovo, and the new territory remained so economically and militarily reliant on its Western backers as to be a safe haven for Western imperialism. Camp Bondsteel remained an important base of operations for U.S. forces in the region.

Writing four years after the declaration of independence, the Prishtina-based Marxist Agon Hamza surveyed the lack of progress:

Four years have passed since the country has declared independence, yet in the Republic of Kosovo, the state of things remains pretty much the same as before February 17, 2008...

Kosovo still remains the poorest country in the region. The economy is an object of all sorts of neoliberal experimental interventions. According to the best available figures, the unemployment rate in the country lies between 43-45 percent, while poverty has increased during the last couple of years. Consequently, real political freedom in the country is highly limited.

There is but one political paradigm by which the country is ruled: stability. Stability at any cost, that is. As a result of neo-imperial intervention, which materializes itself mainly through EU missions, NATO, the International Civilian Office and, of course, World Bank and IMF offices, as well as with the brutally direct and arrogant intervention at every level by the U.S. embassy, blackmailing reports of the (domestic and foreign) non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies for international development (with who else but USAID as the most influential agency), etc., the space for political intervention has been diminished. The sovereign will of the people is completely marginalized.

THE CONDITIONS under which independence was declared, the reality of EU, UN and NATO military rule, and the use of Kosovo as a stepping-stone in their expansion into Eastern Europe significantly compromised the emancipatory possibilities for the republic. To the extent that the political system in Kosovo rests on the scaffolding of Western military, economic and political institutions, the country's sovereignty and the sovereignty of the entire Balkan region will continue to be undermined.

But just as obviously, it would be mistaken to draw the conclusion that Kosovo's independence was solely a product of Western imperialist intervention.

The process of independence was complex and caused awkward questions for Western and pro-Western states with large ethnic minorities--in this regard, it is revealing that Israel has still refused to recognize Kosovo's independence. While independence served the interests of some Western forces, or at least didn't harm them, another critical factor in this outcome was the two decades of political struggle on the part of Albanian civil society in Kosovo.

There is simply no comparable political struggle in Crimea, where pro-Russian sentiment has been largely passive or, at most, channeled into electoral politics.

It could be argued that NATO and UN intervention were as consequential in securing the possibility of Kosovo's independence as Russia's intervention was in Crimea.

Certainly, Western intervention and the occupation of Kosovo shaped the conditions under which independence was realized and therefore also contributed to the restricted character of that independence, imposing real limitations on Kosovo's sovereignty. But these factors were not the definitive catalysts for the declaration of independence--which is the case with Crimea after Russia's military takeover.

That Russian intervention was the central factor in Crimea doesn't mean we should ignore the other factors at play--not least the nationalist policies of the new government in Kiev after Yanukovych's ouster, which seemed almost deliberately formulated to alienate and provoke the Russian-speaking minority in the south and east of Ukraine and drive them into Putin's arms.

There may even be a significant level of resentment among ethnic Russians in Crimea about the transfer of the territory to Ukraine. Certainly, a large part of the population in Crimea voted willingly for independence from Ukraine and annexation to the Russian Federation.

But the situation remains very different from Kosovo. The referendum on secession was not the direct result of a decades-long struggle for independence. Ultimately, it was a successful attempt to retroactively legitimize Russia's military intervention on the peninsula in response to the political crisis in Kiev. Russian separatist sentiment was mobilized after the fact, for the political convenience of the Russian state.

IT DOESN'T take much examination to uncover the hypocrisy of Putin's lectures about the rights of national minorities in Ukraine given the violence he has unleashed within Russia's imperial periphery. But the double standards and selective concern is obvious even within Crimea itself. The idea of the territory's annexation to Russia is viewed with deepest hostility by other national minorities--most notably, the Crimean Tatars.

It was, after all, the Russian-dominated Soviet state, during the reign of Joseph Stalin, that conducted a policy of ethnic cleansing against the Tatars during the Second World War. Under orders from Moscow, the entire Crimean Tatar population was deported to Central Asia and parts of Russia, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the traumatic break-up of the national community. It wasn't until 1967 that the Soviet state allowed the Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland, then a part of Soviet Ukraine.

Understandably, therefore, Crimean Tatars were vocal in their opposition to Russia's recent intervention in Crimea--they boycotted the referendum vote on secession.

In response, pro-Russian groups undertook a campaign of intimidation, marking Tatar homes with an ominous "X" in a repeat of the 1944 deportations. Since the vote, hundreds of Tatars have fled to western Ukraine to escape incorporation into Russia.

What awaits Crimean Tatars as "citizens" of the Russian Federation is unknown. On the one hand, the post-USSR Russian state has a very bloody tradition of imposing its will on recalcitrant populations in its periphery--like Chechnya, for example. On the other, clientalist arrangements may be established with local Tatar leaders to buy their loyalty.

Whatever the outcome, though, it's clear that the Russian absorption of Crimea differs significantly from NATO's occupation of Kosovo and the subsequent declaration of independence.

Where Russia retroactively mobilized separatist forces and organized a speedy referendum on independence to legitimize its military intervention, NATO and UN forces were faced with serious political challenges from a national movement in Kosovo with roots and a history of struggle going back decades.

This is not to say that socialists should align ourselves with one imperialist intervention and oppose another; western intervention in Kosovo and Russian intervention in Crimea were guided first and foremost by the strategic goals of rival imperial states. It is our job to unmask the "humanitarian" auspices of imperialism, whether they come from the Russian government or the governments of the United States or European Union.

But understanding the specific political dynamics in these separate cases is central for analyzing the strategies of the respective imperial powers--and for understanding how socialists can at once extend solidarity to struggles for democracy and national liberation, and effectively oppose the politics of imperialism, both at home and abroad.

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