Kosovo: Ethnic violence re-erupts

Ethnic tensions boiled over again in Kosovo mid-March, leading to the worst levels of violence since the UN/Nato imposed control of the country in 1999.

According to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, three days of ferocious violence in Kosovo (called Kosova by ethnic Albanians) left 28 dead and 600 wounded, while 3,226 Serbs and other non-Albanians – mostly Roma – were forced from their homes. Of that number, around a thousand are seeking refuge in KFor (Nato force in Kosovo) bases in Kosovo, while others have fled to Serbia or to larger Serbian enclaves within Kosovo. Likewise, it was reported that ethnic Albanians were expelled by armed gangs from Serb areas in the north of Kosovo.

As well as this, both Serb and ethnic Albanian communities are increasingly clashing with UN/Nato forces on the ground. Armed assailants and UN police forces exchanged gunfire in a northern Kosovo village, on 23 March, killing two officers and one of the gunmen.

Brigadier General Anders Braennstroem, the Nato commander in central Kosovo, issued a stern warning to ethnic Albanian leaders: if leaders failed to provide names of “those behind” last week’s rioting, peacekeepers would “cease their co-operation”.

Nato has now given its commanders the power to enforce curfews across the country.

The crisis in Kosovo could not have come at a worse time for US imperialism, the UN, or the EU. They previously held up the Balkans as a “model” for Afghanistan and Iraq to follow. But the recent upsurge in violence in Kosovo shows that imperialism is incapable of bringing peace, stability and economic growth to any part of the world.

“Three days of riots that started in the divided northern town of Mitrovica…were a disaster for Nato and for the UN administration…” wrote Ian Traynor in the Guardian (London, 24 March 2004).

The conflict was triggered when a Serbian youth from the village of Caglavica, near the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, was allegedly injured in a drive-by shooting. Later, three Albanian boys drowned in the River Ibar, which divides the northern town of Mitrovica into an Albanian South and Serbian North. Albanians accused Serbs of chasing the children to their deaths.

The incidents quickly provoked rioting between Albanians and Serbs in the town, including shootings. Elsewhere, Serbian enclaves were attacked and effectively wiped out. Houses built for returning Serbian refugees and 41 Orthodox churches and monasteries were torched.

In the Serbian capital, Belgrade, large and angry protests took place in response to events in Kosovo. Crowds of youths burnt down the city’s only mosque and another mosque was destroyed in Nis.

Politicians and the media stirred up nationalist passions. “Slaughter of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija – SERBIA ARISE!” read the headline on the tabloid newspaper, ‘Kurir’. TV screens went blank in response to the Serbian government’s call for three minutes silence in memory of Serbs killed in Kosovo.

Unable to control events on the ground, Nato rushed an extra 1,000 troops to Kosovo, out of a projected new addition of 2,000, to bolster the existing force of 17,500. However, many Serbs complain bitterly that the Nato/UN forces stood back while they were burnt from their homes.

“How is it possible thousands of KFOR soldiers cannot protect [the] Serbian minority? The Serbs were disarmed by KFOR and now they cannot protect their lives,” one man told a news correspondent in Belgrade on 19 March.

When Javier Solana, the head of the EU visited Kosovo on 24 March, he was met with jeers by Serb refugees.

According to the International Herald Tribune (25 March 2004), one man shouted: “’This is your Western politics!’… “A woman with a child cried: ‘See what they’ve done! It happened under your protection!’”

Serbs have not forgotten that it was Solana, as Nato chief, who ordered the bombing of Serbia five years ago. When Solana, accompanied by the UN mission chief in Kosovo, Harri Holkeri, and the EU’s external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, attempted to enter an apartment to speak to displaced Serbs they were met by an angry crowd and forced to flee.

Claims by Nato/UN that fleeing Serbs will be returned to their homes are met with general scepticism. Serbs fear that they will never be able to return, and that the “ethnic map” of Kosovo is changed forever. Only a minority of Serbs remain behind in enclaves in southern and central Kosovo. Once again, the so-called civilised “international community” has overseen “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo.

The last decade has seen a dramatic shift of peoples in the area. After Nato/UN took over Kosovo, 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees returned to their homes, while 200,000 Serbs were driven from theirs.

In today’s fragile and volatile situation, only the smallest incident could trigger flights of many Kosovo Serbs to Serbia.

Direct control of Kosovo by the former Yugoslavia ended in June 1999, with the withdrawal of Serbian armed forces after many days of Nato aerial attacks on Serbian positions in Kosovo and on the Serb capital, Belgrade. The Western powers, led by the Clinton White House administration, claimed they went to war against the Serbian regime of right wing nationalist Slobodan Milosevic in order to stop his repression of Albanians, who make up 90% of the 1.8 million population of Kosovo. Milosevic was undoubtedly a pro-capitalist reactionary, who discriminated against Albanian Kosovans in order to bolster his rule. But the Western powers’ actions were never motivated by humanitarian concerns or the interests of working people in Kosovo. They acted primarily to stop the Kosovo conflict becoming a general conflagration in the region. The installation of Nato/UN troops in the former Yugoslavia was also, of course, an important geo-political strategic advantage for the US and other Western powers.

Once the Serb army was removed from Kosovo, the Nato troops mainly stood by when large numbers of Serb civilians fled or were expelled by reactionary Albanian paramilitaries. About 100,000 Serbs remained behind in Kosovo, living in enclaves, the largest of which is in the north.

West fails to end ethnic divisions

Since 1999, the West has proved incapable of solving the ethnic and national issues in Kosovo. The country remains in a constitutional limbo, not part of Yugoslavia in practice but formally so. Under three successive UNMIK administrations, Kosovo has been run as a colonial-style “protectorate”. The “distant and arrogant” stance of UNMIK is seen by the recent remarks of the present UN administrator, Harri Holkeri, on 18 March, when he accused Kosovars of “forgetting” that the ‘international community’ liberated them.

The majority of Albanians want independence but the West has refused this course, because they fear it would trigger attempts to create a “Greater Albania” throughout the region. Albanian nationalists in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo would attempt to link up their territories. This, in turn, would provoke new movements by other nationalities, leading to new conflicts. Serbia would act to “defend” the Serbs in Macedonia and Greece would act to “save” Macedonia. Turkey could get involved, as could Bulgaria, which also lays claim to Macedonia. Thus, a larger conflict can emerge from a crisis in any area of the Balkans, potentially pitching Nato members Greece and Turkey against one another.

The Western powers have good reason to be terrified of a new ‘Balkanisation’ of the region – the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s led to the deaths of over 200,000 people, the creation of millions of refugees and the widespread destruction of property and industry. This sort of widespread conflict does not lend itself to the main business of capitalist powers – making profit for big business.

Five years after the UN/Nato took control of Kosovo, the prestige and authority of the “international community” is hugely damaged by recent events. The UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) claimed the violence was the work of a “few extremists”. While it seems clear that there were organised attacks against Serbs, the large number of Albanians and thousands of Serbs who have taken part in riots and fighting shows it was more than just a handful.

“Within hours, the Mitovica flashpoint was transformed into widespread attacks against Serb enclaves, and armed responses. Serbian religious and cultural sites were set on fire, and there were violent confrontations with personnel form the United Nations mission UNMIK and even KFOR troops,” commented Veton Surroi, from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR, 19 March 2004).

The euphoria of Albanians that greeted the removal of Serb army forces from Kosovo in 1999 has long evaporated. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) acted as ground troops for Nato during the war against Milosevic but the majority of Albanians are now bitter about the results of that collaboration. The wish of Albanians for independence has been continually blocked by the Western powers, which have not even devolved significant local powers. Bajram Rexhepi is the nominal prime minister of a UN appointed “multi-ethnic government”. But, as the Economist (London, 20 March 2004) points out: “The last word on governance in Kosovo rests with the UN administration…progress has been extremely slow”.

All the multi-ethnic administration has achieved is to increase tensions, by making official the ethnic divisions in society. This includes “ensuring ethnic parity in local government bodies”, which entails job quotas on the basis of ethnic background. In a situation of general poverty and unemployment, these policies only breed resentment and conflict.

Kosovo Albanian politicians have become increasingly critical of the UN over the last few months and, in a new departure, Albanian youths clashed with UN forces on the ground during the recent fighting.


A resolution of the fate of Kosovo is as far away as ever. As presidential elections loom in Serbia, the nationalist rhetoric of the politicians over the fate of Kosovo has become more vociferous. The Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, recently called for the “cantonisation” of Kosovo. This, in reality, is a call for the partition of Kosovo, with the northern Serb part hived off to Serbia.

Ethnic Albanian leaders refuse to countenance the dismemberment of Kosovo. However, some commentators believe attitudes can change, as “ethnic cleansing” seeks to “create facts on the ground”.

“Despite the mouthings of outrage in Belgrade, the Serbian elite is not so dismayed to see Kosovo Serbs driven out of their villages. It thinks this will reinforce the case for partition. Albanians too may ultimately back a partition that maximises their territory and entrenches an independent Kosovo. With a few exceptions, they want Kosovo ethnically pure,” wrote Ian Traynor (Guardian, London 24 March).

Although Kostunica has not given details of his cantonisation proposals, they are thought to reflect those of Dusan Batakovic, a Serb historian and diplomat, who suggests for the creation of five Serb cantons in Kosovo, mostly in the rural areas of the country. Serbs would therefore hold around 30% of the territory of Kosovo. During his inaugural speech as Serb prime minister, last month, Kostunica called for “territorial autonomy, partition of Kosovo into entities, or cantonisation”. The Belgrade government already funds “parallel structures” for Serbs in Kosovo, running health care facilities, schooling, courts and police structures.

Supporters of the Kostunica plan cite the precedent set in Bosnia, in 1995, when, following a bloody three-way civil war, the Western imposed Dayton Accords divided the country into two entities, one for Bosnian Serbs and one for Croats and Muslims.

However, the EU rejects calls for autonomy in Kosovo today. Britain, France and Germany insist that Kosovo remain part of the Serbia and Montenegro Federation.

This is not because they stand for a “secure and multi-ethnic Kosovo”, as claimed by EU ministers on 22 March. The Western powers have no qualms about “nation building” on the basis of ethnic, religious and national divisions. After all, they divided Bosnia, formally establishing ethnic divisions, deciding this was the ‘best way’ to rule the statelet.

In the case of Kosovo, however, the EU opposes Kostunica’s contonisation demand because they fear it would lead to partition and a worsening of the situation. They believe Serb ‘autonomy’ would be a spur for the Serb minority in Kosovo to link up with Serbia, to create an enlarged Serbia, on the way to a ‘Greater Serbia’. The reaction of ethnic Albanians, and other ethnic groups in the Balkans, to this development, would spark wider conflicts. A Kosovo partition could trigger a chain reaction, encouraging separatist movements by Croats and Serbs in Bosnia, for example, undoing a decade of Nato/UN plans in the region. It would mark, “in short, a messy disaster for nation building projects everywhere,” (Guardian, London 24 March).

The swing back towards a more hard-line nationalism in Serbia follows the deep disappointment in the period of post-Milosevic governments. The reactionary, authoritarian Milosevic was forced from power by a mass movement of workers and youth in 2000. But the US-influenced political parties that came to power introduced neo-liberal policies that only worsened the living conditions of most working people. Many Serbs resent what they see as the government’s handing over of Serbia’s independence and “sovereignty” to US imperialist interests, plus neo-liberal policies, while their living standards have not improved.

The Serb government wants new trade agreements with the EU and a new “partnership” with Nato. In turn, however, the EU and Nato demand greater co-operation over the arrest of war criminals and, significantly, the need for more “market reforms”. They press Serbia for co-operation in capturing Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander and indicted war criminal, thought to be hiding in Serbia.

The expected victory of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party in the forthcoming presidential elections is, in part, an indication of the deep disillusionment of Serbian people with the last few years of pro-Western, neo-liberal governments. Unfortunately, a genuine socialist party with mass support does not yet exist in Serbia, and so the ultra-nationalists are likely to be the main beneficiaries of discontentment, along with continuing wide-scale indifference to elections.

Likewise, in Kosovo, the economic situation for Albanians and Serbs has not improved with five years of UN/Nato rule. Unemployment stands at 70% in a society with a young population. One official in Pristina recently complained: “No one in UNMIK is even thinking about the economy. They don’t even have any economic experts here.” (The Independent, London, 19 March 2004)

“Re-conquest” versus “Independence”

These desperate conditions are exploited by bigots and reactionaries on both sides of the ethnic divide. On one side, Serbian politicians call for a war of “re-conquest” of Kosovo. They refer to Kosovo as “the cradle of the Serbian state” and demand the eventual incorporation again of Kosovo into Serbia, promising limited “autonomy” for Albanians. The Albanians, of course, will never accept this. They demand complete independence.

Milosevic rose to power on the “Kosovo issue” when he accused his predecessors of having failed to defend the region’s minority Serbs. In 1989, he staged a one million strong demonstration near Prisina to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. This provocative event acted as a trigger to the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

On the other side, many Albanian leaders call for “revenge” for the “ethnic cleansing” they suffered at the hands of the Serb army in 1999, when many thousands of Albanians were driven out of Kosovo into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia. Throwing oil onto the flames, the President of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, called for the “formal and rapid recognition of Kosovo’s independence” (International Herald Tribune, 25 March 2004).

Kosovo shows that imperialism is unable to bring long-term peace, security and rising living standards to any place in the world. Ironically, the recent ethnic fighting in Kosovo came on the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Rambouillet Agreement in Paris, through which Albanian nationalist leaders entered an alliance with the Western powers. Having decided that Milosevic must go, the Western powers insisted on terms, including the right of Nato forces to enter Serbian territory, which they knew Belgrade would find extremely difficult to accede to. The failure of Milosevic to accept Rambouillet was the trigger for over ninety days of air bombardments on Serbs. Five years later, it is clear to the majority of Albanians that they can have no illusions in the West bringing them national liberation.

Capitalism today is unable to develop the productive forces or to raise the living standards of the majority of people. Unable to improve the lives of working people, capitalism is equally unable to make any meaningful resolution of the national question anywhere. In fact, in this period, the tendency is for the national question to become even more intractable, complex and explosive.

During the 1990s, there were widespread illusions that the capitalist powers could oversee the end of crisis in “hot spots” like the Balkans, the Middle East and Northern Ireland. But this has all turned to ashes. The “peace process” in the Middle East has collapsed. The assassination of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Yassin, in March, by Israeli forces, means the conflict in the region threatens to spread and to intensify.

In Northern Ireland society is more polarised than ever before along sectarian and geographical lines. The British, Irish and US governments sponsored a ‘peace deal’ on the basis of forming institutions that cemented sectarian divisions. The local governing Assembly remains suspended and more hard-line unionist and nationalist parties dominate the political landscape. The much vaunted economic “peace dividend” failed to materialise. One third of children are born into poverty and the North has one of the greatest levels of inequalities between rich and poor in Europe. Given this situation in a part of northern Europe, in a nominally “rich” capitalist country, how can capitalism and Western-imposed regimes ever resolve the national problems and improve living standards in the impoverished and multi-ethnic Balkans?

All the Western powers can realistically hope for in Kosovo is to keep a lid on the ethnic tensions – which is no long term solution, at all. They will have no choice but to keep troops in the region for a long time. This is a huge drain on resources and stretches the already overstretched armies of imperialist powers, like the US and Britain.

Yet, as the recent few days of upsurge in conflict in Kosovo shows, even many thousands of UN troops are largely impotent in the face of widespread ethnic violence. As the Balkans editor of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, Marcus Tanner, commented: “A few hundred extra Nato peace-keepers may put the lid back on Kosovo’s cauldron for the next few weeks or months, but without twin track progress both on Kosovo’s economy and on its final status, what we are seeing now is now more than a holding operation.” (The Independent, London, 19 March).

Working class alternative

The only force capable of showing a way out in the Kosovo and the Balkans is the working class. This means building independent class organisations across the region that cut across ethnic and national divisions. To prevent ethnic pogroms requires the creation of workers’ self defence forces, under democratic control.

Socialists support the right of self determination for Kosovo, including independence. We also call for full rights for all minorities, including Serbs. But this can only succeed on the basis of a struggle for socialism, for a socialist Kosovo and a socialist Serbia, as part of a wider socialist confederation of the region.

This does not signal a return to the former Stalinist regime in Yugoslavia. It is true that on the basis of the planned economy under Tito, in the post-WWII period, living standards rose across Yugoslavia and national and ethnic divisions were pushed into the background for some time. People had access to decent healthcare, housing, jobs and education (although Kosovo was the poorest region in the former federation). Ultimately, however, bureaucratic mismanagement under Stalinism led to the stagnation and collapse of the economy. The regime could not develop the productive forces any longer. Desperate to find a way out, former Stalinist leaders incited nationalist tensions in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, and so on. By war and plunder, these new gangster-capitalist forces carved out territory to rule over. But it was not just a matter of domestic parties causing the break-up of the old Federation. Outside imperialist powers, like Germany, meddled in the region, backing different warring sides, as suited their imperialist interests.

Nevertheless, the experience of the former Yugoslav Federation, during the years of economic and social development, indicates that it is possible for the peoples of the Balkans to live in peace. To achieve this, workers’ control and management of a planned economy is required. A genuine, voluntary, socialist federation – the opposite of Stalinist state coercion and repression – would allow full rights for nations and minorities.

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March 2004