The recent roots of the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia lies in the deepening crisis it faced in the 1980s. Throughout the 1980s its economic situation worsened. By 1987 inflation was running at over 100% a year, by mid-1988 the annual rate reached 160%. Workers’ living standards were falling with the result that protests and struggles began to develop. At the same time, like in other Stalinist countries, growing sections of the ruling bureaucratic elite were looking towards capitalism, and turning themselves into capitalists, as a way out. Concretely this meant trying to secure ownership and control over the state’s assets.

Yugoslavia’s break-up

In Yugoslavia the situation was further complicated by the tensions and rival ambitions between the different elites ruling the various parts of the federation. Those bureaucrats wanting to become capitalists did not relish the thought of having to share the spoils with rivals from different republics. They moved to divert in a nationalist direction the developing protests both to prevent being challenged by a united movement and to try to create their own following to use against their rivals.

Tragically, despite many strikes and protests, no workers’ movement developed which was able to counter the growing tendencies both towards capitalist restoration and national divisions.

Without a workers’ movement the growing crisis in Yugoslavia resulted in a growth of national tensions, especially in Kosova. Despite being seen by Serb nationalists as their historic homeland, in modern times Kosova itself has only been part of Serbia since 1913. In the early 1980s demands grew within Kosova that it should be a full republic within the then Yugoslav federation, a call opposed by Serb nationalists and met, in 1981, by repression.

On the opposite side the mounting crisis within Yugoslavia was helping to foster the development of Serb, and other, nationalisms. Milosevic seized upon and exploited this in his rise to power, especially during his April 1987 visit to Kosova, before he became Serbian President in September 1987. Under pressure of a continual anti-Albanian campaign and increasing repression the Kosova assembly voted, in March 1989, to abolish itself and the autonomy the region has enjoyed since 1974. The 1990 Serbian constitution confirmed this new situation.

Resistance in Kosova

Opposition to increasingly brutal Serbian government repression of the Albanian majority’s desires gave rise to the maintenance of the unofficial, "parallel" structures in Kosova. Apart from keeping separate social structures, including the whole education system, the Kosova Albanians also organised the September 1991 referendum which supported Kosova’s independence and the May 1992 independent parliamentary and presidential elections.

The three wars in the former Yugoslavia ( in Slovenia in 1991, in Croatia between 1991 and 1995 and in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995) also enormously increased the ethnic tensions in the region. The Serbian government has encouraged this in Kosova by trying to force Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia to settle there. As the former Yugoslavia broke up aspiring national leaders deliberately used nationalism to prevent workers protests developing towards the overthrow of the bureaucratic elite and the establishment of a real workers’ democracy, the foundation stone of genuine socialism.

Another factor in these developments has been the disastrous legacy of Stalinism, particularly the fact that many of the nationalist leaders were once nominally "socialists" or "communists". Indeed, to this day Milosevic still technically calls himself a "socialist". Now, on top of this, there has been the disastrous impact of capitalist restoration on living standards. Even in Slovenia, widely presented as the most "successful" example of the restoration of capitalism, unemployment is at 14% and its 1997 GDP was still lower than that of 1989.

Milosevic’s cynical use of nationalism to bolster his position and increasing Serbian government oppression of the Kosova Albanians, far from suppressing their demands, has resulted in the current overwhelming support for independence. Now there can be no solution in Kosova which does not allow the majority the right to form their own state.

Genuine socialists, while supporting the right of nations to self-determination and to struggle against oppression, also strive to build the widest possible international unity between the working classes of different nations.

Socialists oppose the condemnation of entire nations as "reactionary", "evil" or "bad". The Serbian people are not the enemy of the Kosova Albanians - their oppressors are the Serbian elite and reactionaries. Peoples have the right to struggle against national oppression but that resistance must be directed at the real oppressors. This is why the tactics of attacking individual Serbs only serves to deepen hostility between the different nationalities. It was tragic that the Kosova Liberation Army’s (UCK) first target was a Serb refugee from Croatia who was killed while sitting in a cafe in April 1996. Actions like this only help Serbian nationalists to rally Serbs as a whole against Albanians and could provoke further ethnic conflicts. The way to defeat repression is to build a mass movement, with the ability to defend itself, and thereby undermine and overthrow the repressive apparatus. This would mean campaigning to involve both Albanians and Serbs in the formation of democratic bodies to fight against both repression by the Serbian authorities and against ethnic conflicts.

Do not trust Imperialism!

The Western powers have been increasingly worried about the impact an uprising in Kosova would have throughout the Balkans. They tried to pursue a balancing act of getting Milosevic to ease off from repression, reinstate some form of autonomy but to prevent an attempt to break away from Yugoslavia. Thus the US envoy to Balkans, Gelbard, said in January "Kosova is an integral part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia".

Later in February Gelbard called the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) a "terrorist organisation", effectively giving Milosevic the green light to proceed with repression. The US’s main idea was to support Milosevic against his ultra-nationalist rival Seselj and "reward" his co-operation in implementing the Dayton Accord in Bosnia. However the past few weeks saw a very rapid escalation in the situation as protests developed in Kosova and as Milosevic sought to divert attention away from Serbia’s own internal crisis.

The twists and turns of Gelbard serve as a warning to the Albanian people in Kosova not to have any trust in the "good offices" of US imperialism. Despite periodically muttering phrases about the right of nations to self-determination the imperialists have always subordinated that right to their own interests. Historically their 1919 Versailles Treaty did not let all Europe’s nationalities decide freely which country they lived in after the collapse of the old Empires.

Today the major imperialist powers are not really concerned about the peoples in Balkans but the region’s stability. Thus US Secretary of State Albright recently stated that "The time to stop the killings is now, before it spreads" (our emphasis). Today they reject Milosevic’s statement that Kosova is an "internal matter", yet the Western powers accepted these same words out of Yelstin’s mouth when 50,000 were killed in Chechnya. However the fighting in and around Chechnya did not immediately threaten the stability of any major areas of Western interest. Clinton is in fact simply following his predecessor Bush’s threat of US military intervention if a conflict in Kosova threatens igniting a wider regional conflict.

Imperialism particularly fears such a wider conflict developing, especially in regard to Macedonia with its large Albanian minority. Their fear is that clashes with Macedonia could lead to its break-up and conflicts over its territory involving Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, and which could draw in Turkey. Already tensions are rising in Macedonia as a result of last September’s jailing for nearly 14 years of the Albanian Mayor of Gostivar following the July 1997 clashes there between police and local Albanians.

Despite previous support for Slovene, Croat and Bosnian independence the imperialist powers today oppose the Kosova call for independence because they fear the consequences of new attempts to redraw borders in the Balkans. Instead they propose that Kosova be given "enhanced status" on par with Serbia and Montenegro, but without the formal right to secede from Yugoslavia. Possibly they may now offer some form of "free zone", but as the experience of "free city" of Danzig showed between the two World Wars, that would offer no more than a temporary respite. Sooner or later the question would be posed of who ultimately controlled any "free zone" and what were the limits to any autonomy..

The imperialists reasoning behind this standpoint actually shows the impossibility of solving the fundamental crisis in the Balkans on a capitalist basis. The London Financial Times explained this when it argued that "The Balkans are too small and too poor to accommodate all the historic dreams of independence and restored greatness harboured by the region’s politicians and nationalities " (4 March 1998). What they cannot see is that, under profit driven capitalism descending into crisis, it is impossible to unify different peoples on an equal basis.

A workers’ and peasants’ Kosova

This is the reason why, since before the First World War, the international workers’ movement argued for the creation of a democratic socialist federation in the Balkans. Today after the experience of what was officially called the "Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" the idea of linking together with other states may not appear immediately attractive to workers, peasants and youth in the Balkans. But the former Yugoslavia, while not capitalist, was not democratic, socialist or really a voluntary federation and is not the example we propose following. We are not asking for the clock to be turned back.

Socialists support the right to self determination and the right of the majority in Kosova to their own independent state. However it is clear that an attempt to really set up an independent Kosova would meet with a ferocious response from the Serbian authorities which would probably ignite a new Balkan war. The very real fear of a new war, which would certainly be accompanied by new "ethnic cleansing", casts a shadow over the whole area. This can be avoided by a workers’ movement taking the lead and showing in practice that it wants to create a workers’ and peasants’ Kosova, with full rights for all minorities within it, which would want to work together with workers, youth and peasants from all the Balkan nations to end ethnic conflict, poverty and exploitation.

On the basis of capitalism an attempt to form an independent Kosova would pose either the question of war or of the new country being, in reality, a protectorate, and later a pawn, of one or more of the imperialist powers.

An independent Kosova of two million people would find it very hard, in today’s world situation, to develop, as would even a "greater Albania" including all the region’s nearly six million Albanians. This is why socialists also advocate the formation of a genuine equal, voluntary, democratic, workers’ and peasants’ confederation of socialist Balkan states which can start to rebuild and develop the region

Now imperialism wants to entice the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) leader and Kosova’s unofficial President, Rugova, into a deal. Imperialism wants to exploit the peoples’ real fears of war to impose a settlement in their own interests. If Rugova does not play ball the imperialists will try to find another leader who will, in the same way that they promoted Mrs Plavsic in the Serb Republic in Bosnia. But only a workers’ and peasants’ movement can safeguard the real interests of the ordinary workers, peasants and youth of Kosova.

Just because it is not in the interests of the Balkan workers, youth and peasants to see another ethnic war break out does not mean that there can be any idea of a common "peace front" with imperialism. The imperialists act in the interests of their power and profits. They want peace in the Balkans to prevent instability spreading throughout the entire region and in order to be able to exploit it. No deal brokered by imperialism will really solve the underlying issues.

Only building an independent democratic mass workers’ movement in the region could unite the different Balkan peoples in common self-defence and in struggle for a better life. Given the legacy of the bitter experiences of the past years this will not be a simple task. But without such a movement there will be neither an end to the conflicts within the Balkans or a real rebuilding and development of the region. The bitter experience of the collapse of the Asian Tigers and the developing world economic crisis is a warning that capitalism will not be able to develop the Balkans or any other region of the world.

Today in Serbia, industrial production is roughly 40% of its 1989 level and workers are owed, on average, two months back wages. The nationalist diversion which Milosevic is using does not offer any solution to the Serbian workers and peasants. In fact it serves both to bolster his rule and allow him to proceed with the privatisation of the economy. An independent movement of Serbian workers, peasants and youth is required to begin a struggle to reverse this situation of economic disaster and rising national tensions.

The Committee for a Workers’ International today defends all oppressed peoples, fights to expose the imperialists real intentions and to help build a workers’ movement internationally around the following demands.

  • End the Serbian authorities’ repression in Kosova.
  • No US , NATO or UN military intervention.
  • Support the right of all peoples to defend themselves from ethnic, national, religious and other oppression, and to the right of self-determination.
  • Defence of the rights of all ethnic, national or religious minorities throughout the Balkans.
  • Build a united workers’ and youth movement to fight oppression, poverty and capitalism. No to the market economy, for a democratically controlled planned economy.
  • Support for the right of the Kosova people to self-determination and to their own independent state. For an independent, democratic workers’ and peasants’ Kosova, with full rights, including language, culture and religion, for all minorities.
  • Down with the Milosevic clique, for a democratic workers’ and peasants’ Serbia. Opposition to sanctions which hit Serb workers, poor peasants and youth.
  • Build a genuine equal, voluntary, democratic, workers’ and peasants’ confederation of socialist Balkan states which can start to rebuild and develop the region on the basis of democratically controlling and planning the economy.
  • For a democratic voluntary Socialist Federation of all Europe.
  • For a conference of workers’ and youth organisations based in the Balkans, Turkey and Cyprus to formulate a common standpoint and joint activity against repression, chauvinism, poverty and for a genuine socialist alternative.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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