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After Kosovo

War, imperialism and the left

Since June 1999, when Nato forced Slobodan Milosevic to pull his forces out of Kosovo after an 11 week bombing campaign, the hollowness of the imperialist claim to be waging ‘humanitarian’ war in the Balkans is plain for all to see. The bombing campaign killed over 2,000 civilians in Serbia and Kosovo, and in the years to come there are likely to be tens of thousands more unnecessary deaths directly resulting from Nato’s assault, just as after other imperialist attacks such as the 1991 Gulf War. The Nato powers have made it clear that they intend to strangle Yugoslavia economically until Slobodan Milosevic is removed and a more tractable imperialist puppet installed in his place.

The bombing destroyed much of the industrial and social infrastructure of Yugoslavia and created horrendous ecological damage. The situation is no better in Kosovo – many Kosovan Albanians are left without food, housing, electricity, oil, gas or clean water. While the Yugoslav army has been forced to withdraw, it has been replaced by a new occupying power, Nato – supported by the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA), which, while ostensibly being ‘demilitarised’, seems intent on forming the rudiments of a state apparatus.

A comprehensive report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, released on 5 December 1999, is scathing about Nato attempts to impose ‘peace’ in Kosovo: ‘The capacity to investigate violations and enforce the law has been sorely lacking. Impunity has reigned instead of justice.’

The imperialist allies have thus far rejected talk of juridical recognition of Kosovan independence because they fear that any attempt to redraw borders would set off a chain reaction that could spin out of control throughout the region.

Returning Kosovan Albanian refugees have been exacting revenge for repression carried out by Serbian police and paramilitaries. Although the KLA itself has denied responsibility for these attacks, it is clear that local units are deeply involved. Tens of thousands of Kosovan Serbs, Roma (gypsies) and Montenegrins have been forced to flee their homes. Events such as the widely publicised case of 14 Serbian farmers murdered in the village of Gracko and the killing of elderly Serbs have led the Nato powers to issue official expressions of regret, but they regard this sort of thing as inevitable. The imperialists have little concern for the Serb population in Kosovo beyond how their forced exodus is likely to affect the stability of the region. Talk of forming a ‘multi-ethnic’ state in Kosovo is already sliding into discussion of Bosnian-style ‘cantons’ to contain the few remaining pockets occupied by the Serb minority.

The hypocritical moralising and supposed humanitarian concerns of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and other imperialist leaders are patently a cover for their real interests in the region. In the year before the attack on Serbia, there were about 2,000 deaths in Kosovo – not a figure which would normally greatly concern imperialist rulers. An intelligent observer might note that the 40,000 or so Kurds killed by Turkey and millions more displaced have hardly been commented on – perhaps something to do with Turkey’s strategic value to the imperialist powers of the Nato club. In contrast there is an increasing pattern of attacks against ‘rogue’ states that fail to obey the imperialist overlords – Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998, and Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.

The imperialist media and establishment do occasionally address such discrepancies with a bit of retrospective hand-wringing. The British parliament’s International Development Committee, in a critical report on the Labour government’s so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’, has pointed to ‘A “worrying discrepancy” between the resources deployed in Kosovo and the neglect of less strategic parts of the world, notably Rwanda.’ (Guardian, 5 August 1999).

The ‘strategic’ location of these conflicts is exactly the point. The Balkans is a potentially explosive area of Europe, where the various imperialist powers are anxious to establish ‘Western’ (i.e., not Russian) influence while, at the same time, manoeuvring for position against each other.

Tensions in the imperialist club

The Balkans has traditionally been a site of imperialist rivalry and the recent conflict is no exception, despite the facade of unity within Nato. Once the bombing ended, various divisions were reported in the media, the most dramatic being the dispute within the Nato command structure when British general Mike Jackson refused to carry out an order from his nominal superior, US General Wesley Clark, to clear the Russians from Pristina airport. Jackson told Clark that he wasn’t going to ‘start the third world war for you’ (Guardian, 20 August 1999).

Germany has historically regarded the Balkans as its natural ‘sphere of influence’, but the US is anxious to remain in control of major political developments in Europe. The incapacity of the EU to undertake major military initiatives independently has allowed the US to have its own way to date and it is perhaps significant that there is now increasing talk of an independent military force within the EU. Throughout the bombing campaign there were tensions between France and the two most gung-ho members of the alliance, Britain and the US. France only ‘reluctantly agreed in mid-April to air strikes on Belgrade’s two main TV towers’, fearful of the projected numbers of civilian casualties (Internation-al Herald Tribune, 22 September 1999).

The Nato countries closest to the Balkans were even less enthusiastic about the use of massive military force without any kind of diplomatic cover from the United Nations – Italy and Greece in particular, where popular opposition was a significant factor. Even the French initially wanted to get UN authorisation but the US refused and insisted on the ‘principle’ of Nato acting independently.

Fundamentally it is a matter of indifference to Marxists which political cover is used for such military adventures, but this blatant disregard for the UN illustrates not only cracks in the imperialist facade of unity, but a new readiness for the major powers to undertake such interventions without regard for the niceties of ‘international law’.

The continental European powers are naturally also more concerned than Britain and the US about the consequences of Russian anger at the treatment of its traditional ally in the Balkans. Potential dissent from Russia and China was a major reason why the UN was regarded as too unreliable an instrument for this attack. Both the parvenu Russian bourgeoisie and the bureaucratic rulers of the Chinese deformed workers’ state are aware that the precedent of Nato intervening against sovereign states to impose ‘justice’ for one or another ethnic minority is one that may very soon be used within their own borders, where national minorities and national conflicts abound, Chechnya being just one example. Russia is particularly aware that the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the Balkans in the service of ‘peace’ and stability is also undertaken with an eye towards the oil and gas fields in the former Soviet republics of the Caspian Basin, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Although it helped to broker the ‘peace’ deal, Russia is deeply uncomfortable with the strategic position that the Western powers gained by occupying Kosovo. Hence the hasty deployment of Russian troops from Bosnia to Pristina airport after the bombing campaign ended. Throughout the conflict the Russian government was involved in an elaborate balancing act between the pressures of pan-Slavic loyalty (support at home) and dependence on the Western imperialists, and was anxious to force Milosevic to a settlement before the two became completely irreconcilable.

Taking Sides

Slobodan Milosevic leads an unstable bonapartist, capitalist-restorationist regime and is a vicious enemy of the working class, but one thing is clear – the US-led coalition of imperialist powers represented a qualitatively greater danger to the world’s working people. It is in the interest of the international working class if a ‘rogue’ state under attack from imperialism manages to successfully resist, because it thereby puts a stumbling bloc, however small, in the way of imperialist control of resources, markets and territory. Milosevic is no anti-imperialist – his aspiration has been to carve out a role as an important regional partner for imperialism and perhaps one day gain entry to the European Union and even to Nato. But his refusal to sign the Rambouillet agreement which would have effectively ceded sovereignty to Nato (see below) must be recognised as simply a defence of Yugoslav independence.

Therefore, during the course of the attacks on Yugoslavia the International Bolshevik Tendency opposed imperialist aggression and intervened in anti-war demonstrations around the world, calling not only for an end to the bombing but for the defence of Yugoslavia.

In considering the issue of military support and defence against imperialist aggression, revolutionaries are not interested in the ‘anti-imperialist’ posturing of neo-colonial despots like Milosevic, who in the past was happy to act as an imperialist client, and given half the chance would again take up this role. Our attitude depends on the concrete relationship of forces at the time and the fact that the sovereignty of the dependent country is threatened. Hence we gave no support to the mullahs in Iran in 1979, despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Khomeini leadership. We called for the defeat of both sides in the 1982 Falkland/Malvinas war because the sovereignty of Argentina was not under threat and Galtieri’s invasion of a few small islands hundreds of miles from Argentina which had been occupied by British settlers for over a century could in no way be construed as a defence of Argentine self-determination. In contrast, we took a side in the 1991 Gulf War because we support the right of Iraq, whatever the politics of its current regime, to defend itself against imperialist invasion, economic embargo and bombings (which continue to this day). For similar reasons we defended the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 against Nato’s attack. And again in this recent conflict, the sovereignty of Yugoslavia was at stake and, despite the nature of its regime and the repressive policies it has carried out, we defended Yugoslavia against the imperialists.

For a socialist federation of the Balkans!

Defence against imperialism was the primary question during this war but that does not imply we ignore all other aspects of the situation in the Balkans – a region well known for intercommunal violence. In the conflicts of the early 1990s, unlike much of the international left, which rallied to the support of only the Bosnian Muslims as the ‘most oppressed’ in the region, we called for the defence of all communities against attack from any quarter and for the formation of multi-ethnic workers’ militias to carry out this defence.

In Kosovo prior to Nato’s recent intervention, the predominance of Albanians in the population and the clear majority support for independence meant that it was possible and necessary to support the exercise of self-determination as a tactical approach to defusing national conflicts. Growing support for the separatist KLA during 1998 and early 1999 was evidence of a widespread desire for a separate state. In the conflict between the Yugoslav army and the KLA it was the duty of revolutionaries to take a side with the KLA in the struggle against the oppression of the Kosovar Albanians.

In a statement dated 30 March, shortly after the outbreak of war, we noted, however, that this position was conditioned by other factors:

‘While we offer no political support to the bourgeois-nationalist KLA, we nonetheless side with them militarily in their struggle for freedom from their Serb oppressors. If, in the course of the present conflict, the KLA should become subordinated to, or begin to operate essentially as an auxiliary of, the Nato aggressors, our attitude would change to one of favoring the victory of the Yugoslav army over both the imperialists and their auxilliaries.’
(reprinted in 1917, No. 21)

During the first weeks of the Nato campaign, the imperialists retained some distance from the KLA and refused to supply them with anti-tank weapons or other essential material. This is one reason they were so easily driven out of their base areas by the Yugoslav army. However, the relationship between the KLA and the Nato butchers changed decisively in the course of the conflict. For us, the issue was concrete – whether (or rather, when) the KLA became subordinated to the imperialists.

In our statement dated 26 April, ‘KLA Becomes Nato’s Proxy’, we documented this process and concluded:

‘The KLA is today exactly that: a proxy for Nato. This relationship is a product of the crushing military setbacks suffered by the KLA on the one hand, and the failure of Nato’s air strikes to deliver a quick and painless victory on the other.

‘Military defense of Yugoslavia against imperialist attack does not negate the right of Kosovo’s Albanians to resist Serb oppression, nor, on the level of principle, their right to separate from Serbia. The Kosovo Albanians are entitled to determine their own future, like every other people. But the right to self-determination cannot be exercised through Nato occupation. In subordinating itself to Nato, the KLA, which currently constitutes the only visible leadership of Kosovo’s Albanian population, has been essentially transformed into an instrument of imperialist policy. The KLA still talks about achieving “independence,” but it is in fact supporting Nato’s drive to turn Kosovo into an imperialist protectorate on the Bosnian model. ‘We have therefore dropped the call for “Independence for Kosovo” as an immediate, agitational, demand because in the present context it can only serve as a cover for the schemes of the imperialists.’
(1917, No. 21)

As the war continued, this co-operation became even more explicit, and further documentation in the press after the bombing ending confirms our assessment of events. The International Herald Tribune of 21 September reports that in the second half of May:

‘US and European special forces at a secret operations center in the border town of Kukes were discussing how to turn the Kosovo Liberation Army into a light-infantry force that would be “at the enemy’s rear blowing up bridges,” said a U.S. official involved in the planning. “Let’s just say there was a growing appreciation for what the KLA could do for us,” he said.

‘In fact, the CIA and Nato had been working with the rebels since late April. By then, the CIA in Tirana and 24 US Army Special Forces troops in Kukes and Durres were helping the disjointed, ill-equipped rebels to pass on useful information about Serbian positions.'

During the course of the war, however, both sides had retained a certain coyness about their collaboration:

‘Hashim Thaci, the KLA’s 31-year-old political leader, does not deny that western governments may be arming the KLA. “We are getting weapons from our democratic western friends,” he says. Asked if that means from governments, he smiles: “Perhaps. History will reveal all”.’
(Guardian, 31 May 1999)

‘History will reveal all.’ Indeed. With the end of the bombing and the deployment of Nato ‘peacekeepers’, the stage was set for yet another turn in relations between the KLA and the imperialists. The ‘peacekeepers’ are attempting to prevent the KLA emerging as an independent force by drafting KLA fighters as a domestic police force – naturally under Nato control. The first 173 Kosovan police recruits who graduated in October were trained by former KLA men and all but 14 are ethnic Albanians (Associated Press, 16 October 1999).

As the Nato occupation continues, many of the Albanian fighters will (belatedly) realise that the imperialists’ plans for the region do not quite coincide with their own. There can be no genuine self-determination for the people of Kosovo until all Nato and Russian troops have been withdrawn. It is the task of every internationalist to call for the immediate withdrawal of these troops from Kosovo. While we recognise the right of Kosovo to independence, we simultaneously uphold the democratic rights of the Serb and Roma minorities within Kosovo and would defend them against pogroms by Albanians.

Yugoslav defencism: the acid test

War, as Clausewitz remarked, is the continuation of politics by other means. It also shows politics in sharp relief. The various programmatic failings of the British and international left are illuminated by their responses to this war. Most of the left in the imperialist countries adopted at best a social-pacifist ‘anti-war’ position, and refused to defend Yugoslavia or to take a revolutionary defeatist position toward their own bourgeoisie.

Our small organisation always seeks to build principled blocs to strengthen the forces against imperialist war. In this conflict the defence of Yugoslavia against the Nato bombing was a crucial political dividing line. Our comrades in Germany and New Zealand were able to build blocs with others on the basis of Yugoslav defencism, while elsewhere the IBT participated independently in demon-strations against the bombing with slogans and propaganda calling for the defence of Yugoslavia.

We also donated money to a campaign run by the Italian syndicalist group COBAS to raise funds for workers in Serbian factories attacked by the Nato bombs. This campaign was first drawn to our attention by the Spartacist League, who to their credit took a position of Serb defencism. However, this was accompanied by a rather peculiar change of line on the KLA which they seem unable to explain or justify.

In October 1998, when Nato was threatening strikes on Yugoslavia, the SL’s American flagship section outlined a roughly correct position on the KLA and self-determination – defending them against the Serb oppressors up to the point when they became subordinated to the imperial-ists. Then, suddenly, in early February, over a month and a half before the Nato assault, the SL announced that any support to the struggle of the Kosovan Albanians against their Serb oppressors could only be a cover for imperialism. But they provided no hint as to why they had changed their position. Nothing fundamental had changed in the relations of either Milosevic’s regime or the KLA to the imperialists.

Despite their obvious inconsistencies, the SL seemed to think they had scored points when we changed our position in the early weeks of the war. In contrast to their impressionism, however, we clearly explained and documented the basis for our line change, i.e., the KLA’s changed relationship with Nato. The SL’s flip-flop on the KLA, and their inability to explain it, illustrates very well the fundamental problem with the SL, an organisation that was once revolutionary, but is today profoundly politically degenerated with a capricious and hyper-centralised leadership which frequently imposes abrupt line changes, without explanation, on their supporters.

Various anarchists and libertarian communists intervened in the London demonstrations around slogans such as ‘No war but the class war’. They took an abstentionist position, refusing to make a distinction between any of the sides involved in the conflict, including the KLA. The Anarchist Communist Federation argued that

‘An internationalist approach must oppose all sides, call for the desertion of all troops against the war, and for the revolutionary overthrow of the Milosevic regime’
(‘Kicked in the Balkans Again’, Organise #51).

It is curious that while calling for the overthrow of Milosevic, these comrades somehow neglected to call for overthrowing Blair. This social-chauvinistic impulse implies indifference to the suffering inflicted on millions of people in the Balkans by Blair & Co.’s ‘humanitarian’ assault. The anarchists’ propaganda is lacking any strategy to actually bring about the overthrow of regimes on either side. The duty of British revolutionaries is clear – to seek the defeat of the British military and its allies in its sordid neo-colonial adventures and to defend those states whose sovereignty it threatens – not to make an equation between the oppressors and their victims.

SWP’s timid pacifism

Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was the largest group to pursue the policy of social-pacifism, mostly restricting themselves to calls of ‘Stop the War!’ While occasionally mentioning ‘im-perialism’ in connection with Nato’s assault, for the most part they tailored their slogans to what they thought necessary to build a ‘mass movement’. They condemned the imperialist attacks, and also criticised the Milosevic regime and the KLA, but ducked the critical question of the need to call for military defence of Yugoslavia against Nato. An examination of their monthly journal Socialist Review over the period of the war illustrates how clearly they capitulated to social-pacifist sentiment (see article page 12).

In their search for a mass anti-war movement the SWP joined forces with the Communist Party of Britain and a small group of Labour MPs in the Committee for Peace in the Balkans, which organised the major London demonstrations around the slogan ‘Stop the Bombing’. To maintain the bloc the SWP lavished praise on the Labour left with observations such as:

‘Labour is rarely unanimously united behind war. Keir Hardie had doubts about the First World War and Tony Benn has opposed the Falklands War, the Gulf War, and this war. There are brave individuals in Labour’s ranks who stand out against the tide of jingoism. But they never convince the majority of Labour MPs or the party leadership.’
(Stop the War pamphlet, April 1999)

Kragujevac car factory destroyed by imperialist bombs

They do not mention that Benn was busy complaining that the Nato attack lacked the support of the United Nations, nor the fact that some of their bloc partners advocated a UN ‘solution’ as a supposedly more humane and pro-gressive alternative. In a shocking revelation, the SWP pamphlet informs us that the UN ‘has never stopped the world being a dangerous place’, and claims that ‘for more than 50 years it did make the Great Powers pretend to keep to the rule that they would not invade another country merely because they dislike what a government was doing’. We might suggest that this ‘pretence’ has worn rather thin at times – the US attacks on Panama and Grenada in the 1980s being two examples that spring to mind.

There was also a Stalinist wing to this bloc which implied (or at times claimed outright) that the former Yugoslav deformed workers’ state was worthy of defence because it remained a ‘socialist society’, and responded to the imperialists’ anti-Serb propaganda by denying the reality of the atrocities inflicted on the ethnic Albanian community in Kosovo. The Yugoslav government’s call for a UN brokered solution was therefore a factor in allowing this bloc to remain cohesive – along with the extreme care taken by the SWP to please all parties by not saying very much at all.

The United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec – publishers of Socialist Outlook in Britain), while claiming to oppose the Nato intervention, also took the view that it was the wrong set of imperialists getting involved. Hubert Sandor, a senior member of its leading section, the French Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), wrote in May:

‘In the current disastrous situation, a massive and immediate international presence on the ground is the only way of ensuring the return of the Kosovars and their protection. In the conditions of war, this massive and immediate international presence on the ground must be military. The UN or the OSCE (but not Nato, which is politically disqualified) must give an explicit mandate to troops (from a range of countries including Russia) based in Kosova or on its borders to intervene, if necessary by force of arms (and there will be no need of cruise missiles or heavy bombers), to liquidate any violation of the agreements that end the war.’
(translated in Workers Power, July/August 1999)

The same position was elaborated in a letter co-signed by prominent USec supporters and an assortment of other radicals and left-liberals which appeared in the New Statesman of 10 May (see page 13). This chemically pure social-imperialist proposal presumes that somehow the French bourgeoisie and its European allies are capable of acting in a historically progressive fashion. This same premise led the various sections of the Second International to support their own imperialist rulers during World War I. To rely on any set of imperialists is to guarantee the defeat of the workers and oppressed of the region, and illustrates how ill-suited this politically bankrupt organisation is to pose as any kind of revolutionary working-class leadership.

Internationalism versus capitulation

Many on the left came under the influence of the imperialist propaganda machine, which presented this conflict as a crusade to rescue the Kosovans. In Britain, a bloc of organisations calling themselves ‘internationalists’ was formed, which included the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Socialist Democracy, Socialist Outlook, Socialist Party, Socialist Perspectives, Workers Action, Workers Fight and Workers Power. This bloc was formed around three slogans: ‘Stop the bombing, Nato out of the Balkans’; ‘Stop the ethnic cleansing, self-determination for Kosova’; and ‘Open the borders’. In practice, its propaganda made Kosovan independence the central question, taking little notice of differences on what they considered subsidiary points – such as whether to defend Yugoslavia against Britain and its Nato allies or merely echo the pacifists’ bleating about opposing war.

These so-called ‘internationalists’ were indifferent to the issue of the KLA’s relationship to the imperialists. Even after it was clear that the KLA had become a military adjunct to Nato’s aggression against the Serbs, they continued to give blanket military support to the KLA, thereby ending up in an effective military bloc with the imperialist aggressors. This was highlighted in London when Kosovan Albanians organised counter-demonstrations to the anti-war protests that explicitly supported the Nato intervention, thus posing a very concrete choice for the left – whether or not to oppose imperialist aggression. For our comrades it was obvious – no revolutionary could support, or participate in, demonstrations that backed Nato’s attacks. Others such as Workers Power, in a caricature of centrism, attended both types of demonstrations.

The Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) were more consistent. They eagerly participated in the Kosovan demonstrations, regardless of the ‘We Love Nato’ signs. Sean Matgamna, the central leader of the AWL, wrote that ‘nobody should have confidence in Nato to solve the problem’, but ‘If Nato troop landings put a stop to the Serb’s genocidal drive against the Kosovars we will be glad of it.’ (‘Air strikes in Kosova: how should socialists respond’, AWL web site)

In the article ‘Kosova, imperialism and democracy’ (Workers Liberty no. 53) they attempted to give this capitulation to Nato a leftist spin by arguing that Serbia was engaged in ‘imperialism’ through its actions in Kosovo, albeit of a primitive sort – thus absolving themselves of any need to defend the Serbs against Nato aggression, on the spurious grounds that it was now an inter-imperialist conflict. They claimed in a polemic against the SWP distributed at the annual ‘Marxism’ conference in London that:

Socialist Worker turned itself into a one-sided propaganda machine against Nato and so – effectively, through silence – for a Serb victory. A Serb victory would have been the worst possible ending, for it would have led to unrestrained ethnic cleansing by Milosevic.’

In fact, Socialist Worker was too politically cowardly to call for a Serb victory over Nato – but at least the SWP did not set up its tent in Nato’s camp alongside the KLA and the AWL. In fact, after initial involvement with the ‘internationalist’ bloc, the AWL declined to participate further because their bloc partners were squeamish about being so baldly pro-imperialist.

The CPGB criticised the pro-imperialist stance of the AWL, but still could not bring themselves to bloc with Serbia against the imperialist aggression, maintaining that they were two equally reactionary forces. In early August, we debated the CPGB on this question, and their lack of understanding of the nature of imperialism and the difference between military and political blocs astounded us. The distinction between imperialist states and those that are not (such as Serbia or Iraq) seemed to completely escape them – they could only claim that the existence of the ‘imperialist era’ made the differences irrelevant.

In their report of this debate, the CPGB wrote:

‘The IBT appeared to understand that military defeat often provides the best conditions for revolution. Yet it dismissed this as unimportant compared to the dogmatic necessity of backing Serbia’
(Weekly Worker, 19 August 1999).

We certainly do not ‘understand’ that the defeat of a weak bourgeois semi-colonial regime by Nato culminating in an imperialist occupation would lead to a revolutionary outcome. In this war, a victory for the Serbian state against imperialism, the greatest oppressor in the region, would have laid a far better foundation for the workers and oppressed of the Balkans to begin asserting their own demands. A defeat for the imperialists would also have tended to push forward the class struggle in Britain and the rest of the Nato countries.

The CPGB’s claim that any military bloc was in fact also a political bloc apparently did not present any obstacles to supporting the KLA – a force they also admitted was ‘reactionary’. They argued that ‘even if the Kosovars’ struggle did happen to coincide to some degree with imperialist actions, that would not prevent us supporting its democratic content’ (Weekly Worker, 6 May 1999).

The ‘democratic content’ of the KLA’s role as Nato’s auxiliaries in the assault on the Serbs was precisely zero. In supporting the KLA, these muddleheads were in effect supporting the imperialists’ ‘humanitarian’ aggression.

Having it both ways

The leadership of Workers Power took perhaps the most cynical, or downright daft, approach with a claim to side with the Yugoslav military against Nato in Serbia and Montenegro but not in Kosovo, the centre of the conflict! In Kosovo they called for military support to the KLA and ‘immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Serb forces and irregular paramilitary formations from Kosova and the disarming of Serb civilian militia’ (War in the Balkans pamphlet, April 1999) – which essentially amounted to calling for a Nato victory.

They attempted to rationalise this with references to the ‘dual character’ of the war:

‘The Balkans are being torn apart by two wars. The first, waged by Nato with laser-guided missiles from over 700 fighter planes, is designed to bomb Serbia into submission. The second is being mercilessly fought by Serbian army and militia against the Kosovar Albanians with the aim of driving them from their homeland; in a word, genocide.’

This tidy separation has nothing to do with real life – many of Nato’s attacks were aimed at the Serb army on Kosovan territory, i.e., where Workers Power refused to take a side. So, despite all their denials, the policy of military support to the KLA after it had signed on as a Nato auxiliary amounted to a bloc with the very imperialist military forces they claimed to oppose in the ‘other’ war!

Workers Power’s descriptions of ‘genocide’, echoing the imperialist press, simply served to justify this. It is quite true that in their campaign against the KLA base areas, prior to the Nato bombing, the Serbs forced many Albanians from their homes and killed considerable numbers of them. While this was of course completely indefensible, the fact is that it was the ethnicity of the victims – not the murder rate – that has changed since Milosevic’s troops were replaced by Nato’s. Contrary to Blair, Clinton and the imperialist propaganda machine, the killings cannot be described as ‘genocide’ against Kosovo’s Albanian population, as Western investigators on the ground in Kosovo are now beginning to admit.

Workers Power said that before they would withdraw support to the KLA there would have to be both a ‘successful Nato occupation of Kosova’ and ‘the UCK subordinating themselves to this reactionary goal and to the imperialist forces carrying it out’ (LRCI International Secretariat statement, 16 May 1999). Earlier they had admitted that subordination already existed – ‘The KLA should break its political subordination to Nato’ (War in the Balkans) – obviously not sufficient subordination for Workers Power to adopt the (unpopular) position of Serbian defencism.

While claiming not to support the KLA’s ‘adventurist attempt to draw Nato into Kosovo’, Workers Power simultaneously claims that the KLA has ‘the right to take any military advantage they can from the Nato bombing campaign’ (International Secretariat statement). For Workers Power this apparently includes the ‘right’ to call in Nato air strikes against Yugoslav forces in order to maximise its ‘military advantage’.

Workers Power demanded that arms be supplied to the KLA. In fact, Nato did supply the KLA with weaponry far more extensively than was revealed at the time (in order of course for the KLA to assist in attacking Yugoslav troops). Workers Power’s bizarre complaint is that Nato failed to supply the KLA with enough arms for it to be independent:

‘Despite the reactionary pro-imperialist policy of the Thaci leadership and despite the UCK’s recent co-operation in Kosova with the British SAS, they are neither simply nor primarily “the ground troops of imperialism”... It is too risky for the Western ruling classes to arm this liberation movement in a way that would give it any operational independence of Nato. Therefore Nato has not given them any substantial number of arms, surface to air missiles, anti-tank weapons etc. Nor has it given them serious tactical assistance – e.g. in the UCK’s attempt to force a corridor into Kosova to rescue the encircled refugees in Djacovica.’

This amounts to a complaint that Nato did not bomb the Yugoslav army enough! Workers Power claim that ‘despite any military-logistical help they are receiving from Nato the UCK forces remain independent of the ultimate war aims of Nato, i.e., they have their own aims, independence and driving out of the Serbian army and police force’ (ibid.). But the KLA’s war aims are completely irrelevant, the issue is their actual activity, which was to sign on as spear carriers for Nato.

Any true ‘internationalist’ begins from a perspective of opposition to imperialism, particularly that of their ‘own’ state. Instead, Workers Power explicitly argue ‘The starting point for any progressive outcome must be the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the mass murder squads of Serbian paramilitaries, Interior Ministry troops and regular Yugoslav army forces from Kosova.’ (ibid.)

As usual the Workers Power leadership approached the conflict from the wrong direction. They echoed the imperialist propaganda about Serb ‘murder squads’ and focused on bourgeois democratic questions such as self-determination. They ignored the fact that for Marxists the exercise of self-determination is not applicable in situations where it merely provides a cover for imperialist aggression, and in such cases this issue must be subordinated to the overall requirements of the class struggle. Of course, this is familiar material from these centrists, who argued a decade ago that ‘self-determination’ (i.e., capitalist restoration) in various Soviet republics such as the Baltic states, took precedence over the defence of collectivised property.

The vicious circle of nationalism

Britain, the US and, to varying degrees, their Nato allies are relatively pleased with the outcome in Kosovo. They have asserted their ‘humanitarian’ right to intervene in any part of the globe in order to arrange things as they wish. For workers and the oppressed, however, the imperialist victory over Yugoslavia is an unmitigated disaster. The economic and ecological destruction wreaked in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, the effects of which are also felt in neighbouring countries, combined with the continuing cycles of ethnic violence and reprisals, lay the basis for more bloody conflicts in the future. The imperialist garrison in Kosovo appears likely to remain for years, which clearly poses a threat to any nearby state that doesn’t toe the Nato line.

Within the imperialist countries, the workers’ movement has also been dealt a serious blow. Unfortunately Nato casualties were very light, and as a result, popular opposition was fairly marginal in most Nato countries (with the exception of at least Italy and Greece where it took on a mass character). In Britain, as in the rest of Western Europe and North America, protest demonstrations did not gain serious support beyond the organised left and the Serb community.

This war was led not by the usual right-wing ‘hawks’, but by the US Democrats, the British Labour Party, German Social-Democrats, French Socialists etc., playing the ‘humanitarian’ card. Consequently most of the labour bureaucracy and the reformist left has taken the side of the imperialist aggressors.

Many self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations have taken a similar approach, while trying to put a left spin on it. On the complex national questions posed in the Balkans it is not unexpected that many on the left have followed their usual practice of tending to seek simplistic solutions and/or elevate national self-determination as a principle above all else. But widespread support for Nato’s aggression against Yugoslavia has also revealed the political rottenness of much of the ostensibly revolutionary left on a question that should be ABC for Marxists, the nature and role of imperialism.

The development of a serious revolutionary current within the mass workers movement must begin from the basic understanding that our interests are counterposed to those of our ‘own’ rulers. Revolutionaries always welcome defeat for British capitalism in any military conflict, and particularly when it is engaging in a predatory, neo-colonialist act of aggression like the recent campaign against Yugoslavia. The sordid victory in Kosovo gave the imperialists the confidence to intervene in other global ‘trouble-spots’ (East Timor for example) and no doubt they will continue to play a reactionary role in the Balkans.

Nothing there is settled – nationalist conflicts will inevitably flare up again and the imperialists will doubtless be drawn further into the quagmire. To resolve these bitter conflicts in a historically progressive fashion requires the creation within the international workers’ movement of a new, revolutionary political leadership. Such a leadership must prove itself capable of displacing the pro-imperialist labour bureaucracy and breaking the death grip of nationalism and social-patriotism, thus leading a renewed upsurge of the class struggle and uniting workers across national and communal lines in the struggle for the socialist future.

The first casualty

War and the media

In order to carry out the attack on Yugoslavia, the imperialists had to prepare public opinion at home. The British press were more than ready to provide ideological backing. Even ‘liberal’ papers such as the Guardian focused their attention disproportionally on Albanian victims of the conflict while their leader columns praised Tony Blair’s uncompromising stance. It is one of the great ironies of this war that the Belgrade television station was bombed because it was producing ‘propaganda’.

While the claims of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Albanian victims in Kosovo have now been proved wildly exaggerated, many of the atrocities against the Kosovan Albanians reported in the British media seem to be accurate. However, the skilful manipulation of public opinion is often achieved in what is left out.

Journalist John Pilger, who in decades of a controversial reporting career claims never to have seen anything like the propaganda machine which swung into action in support of this undeclared war, was one of a handful of isolated voices in the British press debunking the various imperialist lies and reporting facts that others seemed not to see as newsworthy. He was one of the few to refute Nato claims that they aimed only at the Serbian military machine:

‘The media impression of a series of Nato “blunders” is false. Anyone scrutinising the unpublished list of targets hit by Nato is left in little doubt that a deliberate terror campaign is being waged against the civilian population of Yugoslavia.

‘Eighteen hospitals and clinics and at least 200 nurseries, schools, colleges and students’ dormitories have been destroyed or damaged, together with housing estates, hotels, libraries, youth centres, theatres, museums, churches and 14th-century monasteries on the World Heritage list. Farms have been bombed, their crops set on fire. As Friday’s bombing of the Kosovo town of Korisa shows, there is no discrimination between Serbs and those being “saved”. Every day, three times more civilians are killed by Nato than the daily estimate of deaths of Kosovans in the months prior to the bombing.’
Guardian, 18 May 1999

The capitalist press depicted Blair, Clinton et al as knights on white chargers, rushing to the aid of the Kosovan Albanians. The reality is a little different:

‘There is plenty of evidence that the bombing was pre-ordained. On 12 August 1998, the US Senate Republican Policy Committee commented: “Planning for a US-led Nato intervention in Kosovo is now largely in place. The only missing element seems to be an event – with suitably vivid media coverage – that could make the intervention politically saleable... That Clinton is waiting for a ‘trigger’ in Kosovo is increasingly obvious.”

‘On 25 March, the day after the bombing began, the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, described Nato’s aim as “clear-cut”. It was, he said, “to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovan Albanians”.

‘A UN report contradicted this, putting the balance of violence between Serb and Albanian paramilitaries at roughly equal. Moreover, Clinton was warned by the CIA that bombing was likely to spark mass ethnic cleansing.’
Pilger, New Statesman, 17 May 1999

The imperialist version of events has it that the Serbs had un-reasonably refused to sign the Rambouillet agreement supposed to create ‘peace’ in the region. In fact this was little more than the artificially created ‘trigger’ Nato had been looking for:

‘Take chapter seven of the Rambouillet accords. Headed “Status of Multinational Military Implementation Force”, it says a Nato force occupying Kosovo must have complete and unaccountable political power, “immune from all legal process, whether civil, administrative or criminal, [and] under all circumstances and at all times, immune from [all laws] governing any criminal or disciplinary offences which may be committed by Nato personnel in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia... Nato personnel shall enjoy . . . with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including associated airspace and territorial waters.”

‘Propaganda is not overlooked. The government of Yugoslavia “shall, upon simple request, grant all telecommunications services, including broadcast services, needed for [the occupation], as determined by Nato. This shall be free of cost.”

‘And the ideological basis for the occupation is left in no doubt. “Nato is granted the use of airports, roads, rail and ports without payment of fees, duties, tolls or charge. The economy shall function in accordance with free market principles.”

‘No government anywhere could accept this. It was a deliberate provocation. On 19 March the Kosovo Liberation Army, which Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook had earlier dismissed as terrorists, signed the “accords”. The Serbs, of course, refused. And it was not just Milosevic. The elected Yugoslav parliament, reported the New York Times correspondent in Belgrade, “rejected Nato troops in Kosovo [but] supported the idea of a United Nations force to monitor a political settlement there”. What amounted to a viable alternative to bombing was ignored in Washington and Brussels. Five days later, Nato attacked. The Serbs had been nicely stitched up.’

In the New Statesman of 6 September 1999, Pilger accurately describes the reporting of the war as designed specifically to give the illusion of information without providing the real story of what is going on: ‘a moving belt of unconnected, unexplained, trivialised, sanitised and obligatory heart-rending events: “products” for consumers in the media’s digitalised supermarket’.

Including, at least in the case of Nato’s predatory war on Yugoslavia, the bulk of Britain’s ostensibly revolutionary left.