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Issue 31, October 1998

Fighting over Kosova

IN LATE JULY the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), fighting for the independence of Kosova, suffered big losses to a Serb army blitzkrieg. Hundreds of villages across central Kosova were torched and shelled and mass graves reported. Thousands of refugees have fled - over 200,000 people have been displaced in the five-month war.

The main aim of Serb president, Slobodan Milosevic, is to 'ethnically cleanse' as much territory as possible. The gangster elite that rules Serbia is determined to hold on to as much as they can of Kosova, with its 90% Albanian population. Areas of Kosova have some of the greatest natural mineral wealth in Europe.

The enormous suffering of Kosovars does not feature in the priorities of the main world powers. Half-hearted NATO exercises 'to warn Milosevic' are a pathetic sop to world public outrage.

The capitalist powers' conflicting strategic and profit interests in the Balkans leaves little room for common policy. One generally agreed aim is to try and force negotiations between the Albanians and Milosevic and to impose 'self-government' for Kosova within the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav rump (the 'Federal Republic of Yugoslavia'). In effect, it would mean an attempt to restore the autonomous status granted to Kosova under Tito's 1974 constitution.

The US and European powers, however, are extremely hesitant about putting substantial NATO and UN troops on the ground unless it is to police a 'reached agreement', like the Bosnian 1995 Dayton Accord. The Western powers were alarmed by Milosevic's July offensive, fearing it could trigger another Bosnian-type explosion. Their ability to intervene, however, is limited.

US envoys have spent weeks shuttling between the 'moderate' Kosova Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, and the more radical figures that claim to speak for the UCK. The aim is to cobble together a united Kosovar opposition that draws in and contains the UCK, or at least its more 'moderate' wings. However, the great majority of the UCK, like the Kosovars as a whole, want full independence.

The big powers fear that the formation of an independent Kosova would act as a dangerous precedent for other oppressed national groups, fuelling further struggles for the break-up of existing states in Europe and elsewhere. From imperialism's standpoint, this poses the danger of further instability.

  Concretely, an independent Kosova could lead to the collapse of neighbouring Macedonia, which has a large oppressed Albanian minority. This could draw in Greece and Bulgaria, neither of which acknowledges a separate Macedonian state. Turkey, already involved in military skirmishes with Greece, could also be drawn into the maelstrom. Moreover, the US fears that a complete defeat for Milosevic could lead to an unravelling of the fragile Dayton Accord. The conditions for a Dayton-style agreement for Kosova do not exist. As a Times editorial cynically put it: "Peace in the Balkans is still a war away" (30 July 1998).

Milosevic tries to push home the military advantage he has gained. But although the Serb forces have superior firepower, they suffer from low troop morale and desertions. And more and more of the Serbian minority, especially recent settlers, are fleeing Kosova.

The UCK still controls significant parts of the countryside and, although their attempt to take on the Serbian army in head-on military engagements resulted in severe losses, they can absorb defeats and continue a long-term guerrilla war. The UCK has popular support, swelling ranks of thousands, finances from Albanian exiles abroad, and access to arms from its bases in chaotic northern Albania. Paradoxically, the denial of Kosova independence threatens to uncontrollably spread the theatre of conflict and produce the type of nightmare scenario the big powers fear would result from Kosova separation. There have been reports that the Serb army has laid mines on the Kosova/Macedonia border.

The plight of the Kosovars has enormously strengthened Albanian nationalist and ethnic feelings in the region. Many Kosovars raise the idea of a 'Greater Albania' of Kosova, Albania proper and western Macedonia. Albanians are increasingly alienated in the impoverished state of Macedonia, which is dominated by a Slav elite. A violent Macedonian police crackdown on 9 July resulted in 500 people being wounded and three Albanian deaths.

  Milosevic uses nationalism to try and divert Serbs' attention from the dire consequences of a collapsed economy. However, many Serb workers and middle-class people are deeply war weary. In June, the mothers of army conscripts protested at military barracks near Kosova's capital, Pristina, calling for their sons' return home. Two hundred Serb policemen have refused to serve in Kosova. Workers' and peasants' resistance to the Serb military in Kosova, combined with a class appeal to the Serbian masses to resist the war aims and exploitation of their authoritarian ruling elite, could have a huge effect. United mass action by independent working-class organisations could topple Milosevic and his cronies.

Unfortunately, at the present time all of the main Albanian political parties and the dominant currents in the UCK are right-wing nationalists and support a market economy. The leaders of these forces undoubtedly see themselves as the new ruling elite of an independent Kosova. To secure their own territory, sections of the ruling-class-in-waiting are prepared to take part in the partition of Kosova. For the mass of Kosovars all options on the basis of capitalism are a disaster. Even hard-won independence would mean economic exploitation by 'their own' bosses and immediate conflict with neighbouring states.

Socialists support the right of Kosova Albanians to their own independent state but, at the same time, we have to warn that only an independent socialist Kosova can guarantee workers' and peasants' self-government. Peace and prosperity in Kosova, moreover, will obviously never be achieved in isolation. Socialists have to raise the issue of a confederation of socialist Balkan states.

Niall Mulholland

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