Kosova declares (semi-) independence: Yes to full self-determination for Kosova. No to continuation of colonial-ruled state

By Michael Karadjis

This article is the first in a series that will look at different aspects of the issue of Kosova’s declaration of independence, which has produced markedly different reactions among left-wing and socialist movements around the world.

This first is a broad overview of developments and the attitude we believe the left should take. The second article will tackle the general question of the right to national self-determination, and why Kosova’s situation fully accords with this right, long supported by the left. While much more will be said of the role of imperialism and other factors in coming articles – including imperialism’s role precisely in limiting Kosovar self-determination – understanding this aspect is primary to developing an overall position. The role and interests of imperialism and other issues will form another part of the series.

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Kosova (Kosovo)* made its long-postponed declaration of independence on February 17, greeted by massive celebrations involving tens of thousands of people, euphoric that their hundred-year struggle had finally bore fruit. This very real groundswell was revealing of the very deeply grounded nature of the desire for independence among Kosovar Albanians.

Meanwhile, in the Serb-dominated north of Kosova, reactions ranged from protest demonstrations, to attacks on the Serbia-Kosova border posts, indicating their view that where they live remains part of Serbia. Independence may well turn into partition, as Kosova’s secession from Serbia faces its own mirror secession.

So far, only the United States and a handful of west European powers have recognised the new state, though the 56-nation Islamic Conference Organisation also welcomed the move; Serbia, Russia and another group of European countries have condemned it, while most nations are sitting on the fence.

This followed the breakdown of the final round of talks between Serbia and Kosovar Albanian leaders. On December 10, the ``Troika’’ – consisting of the US, the European Union (EU) and Russia, which has presided over the talks – handed their report to the UN Security Council, claiming all possibilities of “compromise” had been exhausted. The red lines of the two sides – Serbia allowing a large degree of autonomy but ruling out independence; Kosova accepting nothing less than some form of independence, however limited – were mutually irreconcilable.

However, while the Kosovar Albanians’ jubilation at the word “independence” is understandable, Kosova is not to be allowed to fully determine its own affairs. Rather, the major imperialist powers will recognise something called “supervised independence”. The colonial-style UN authority ruling Kosova since 1999 will go – and be replaced by an International Civilian Representative appointed by the European Union, with the right to veto any legislation passed by Kosova’s “independent” parliament, and even remove elected officials. A new EU-appointed police and justice mission (EULEX) will hold sway over the local police and legal institutions, and the 16,000 NATO troops that have occupied Kosova since 1999 will remain.

Thus the colonial state will essentially remain, mitigated by considerably stronger powers of the Kosovar parliament vis a vis the occupation forces. The struggle for self-determination will continue, in a new form and probably after a period as the initial euphoria dies down. For Kosovar Albanians, the gamble is whether or not the new set-up, of a relatively greater degree of independence, will facilitate or make more difficult their further struggle for full self-determination.

Right to national self-determination

The Kosovar Albanians were an oppressed people in the old Yugoslavia, and much more so in Serbia following the collapse of the Yugoslav federation in 1989-90. Kosova had a per capita income one quarter that of Serbia; Albanians constituted only one per cent of military officers of the Yugoslav army, while Serbs constituted 70 per cent; Albanians made up 70-80 per cent of political prisoners. They are a national group in a long well-defined territory that deserve the right to national self-determination.

Much mystification surrounds Kosovar independence. It is claimed Kosova is a “mere province” of Serbia that happens to have an Albanian majority, and thus its “secession” is a violation of Serbian “sovereignty”. The alleged difference between Kosova and the other parts of the former Yugoslavia is that the latter were constitutionally fully fledged federal republics, which had the right to independence, whereas Kosova merely had autonomy within the Serbian republic.

It is therefore claimed that independence for a “mere province” could encourage other minority populations to split away from sovereign states. This danger of precedent -- of encouraging other oppressed peoples to fight for their freedom -- is a major reason the imperialist powers have always opposed Kosovar independence, until a few years ago. This is an odd argument, however, coming from some on the left, which has long supported oppressed peoples such as the Kurds in Turkey and the Basques in Spain fighting for the right to self-determination, though such peoples have never constituted formal republics within those countries. As socialists, we reject the idea that oppressed peoples must be forced to live in an allegedly "sovereign" state that has conquered and subjugated them.

The resistance of the Kosovar Albanian majority to Serbian rule began when they were first brutally subjected to that rule in 1913, and has continued to now. There has never been a moment when Kosovar Albanians have accepted the legitimacy of Serbian rule, either under direct Serbian oppression in capitalist Yugoslavia, or the bogus “autonomy” in the first 20 years of the socialist Yugoslav federation after 1945.

However, their struggle achieved a major change in the constitution in 1968-1974, when Kosova, with the full support of Yugoslav leader Broz Tito, achieved the near-republic status of "high-level autonomy", including direct representation in the Yugoslav presidency as an equal to other republics, not via the Serbian republic. It had its own high court, its own central bank, its own territorial defence force, all features of a republic. While Albanians still continually called for full formal republic status, as a recognition of full equality, this high status of near-republic was the ``legal’’ situation, and therefore the claim that it is a mere “province” of Serbia is false. Indeed it is important to understand that even the element of still being formally a “highly autonomous” province of Serbia was entirely connected to and conditional upon it also being a direct part of the Yugoslav federation, so when the Yugoslav federation later collapsed, so did this entire constitutional set-up.

When the rising Serbian bourgeoisie under Slobodan Milosevic took control of the Yugoslav state apparatus in 1988-91 and crushed Kosovar self-rule with tanks, making it a mere ``province’’ of Serbia, this was an illegal move, that destroyed the Yugoslav constitution. When 99 per cent of Kosovars voted for self-determination in a referendum in 1991, this was a legal move given the destruction of Yugoslav federalism. When Serbia and Montenegro created a new state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992 (i.e., leaving out the word ``Socialist’’ which was in the name of the now deceased state), Kosova was not asked its opinion (by contrast, Montenegrins had a referendum in which they voted to join). Therefore its incorporation into this new ``Yugoslavia’’ was illegal. What’s more, this state itself dissolved in 2003, leaving simply no legal basis for Serbian sovereignty.

When a decade of entirely peaceful (“Gandhian”) resistance in the 1990’s failed to achieve any breakthrough, it gave way to an armed insurrection led by the Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998-99 and a brutal Serbian counterinsurgency, leading to murderous air war against Serbia by NATO, afraid the situation would spin out of control and lead to regional instability. Some 10,000 Albanians were killed and 850,000 – half their entire population – were forced out of the country by the Serbian armed forces, while some 2000 Serbs were killed by NATO bombing.

Following the end of this apocalypse, since June 1999 Kosova has been ruled by a United Nations authority (UNMIK) and a NATO-led security force (K-FOR), effectively denying both the independence aspirations of the 90 per cent Albanian majority and Serbia’s goal of maintaining its authority there. UN Resolution 1244, while demanding Serbian troops exit Kosova, decreed that the region remain under the “sovereignty” of Serbia.

The Western aim had been to take control of the process to prevent the Albanian struggle leading to regional instability. The rise of the KLA had been firstly due to the implosion of Albania in 1997, when hundreds of thousands of weapons were looted from armouries, many finding their way across the border into Kosova; and secondly, due to the response of the Serbian state to its appearance. When it appeared, US envoy to the region, Robert Gelbard, declared in Kosova’s capital Pristina in March 1998 that the KLA “is beyond any question a terrorist organisation”. However, by burning and destroying entire villages and driving out their inhabitants as part of a typical US-style counterinsurgency, the Milosevic regime had managed to boost the KLA from a few hundred fighters to a 20,000-strong guerilla army with a presence throughout most of the villages of Kosova.

NATO aimed to get its own forces in to do a better job than Belgrade of controlling the situation and disarming the KLA (which it did in September 1999), and when Belgrade said no, it was made the convenient target of a new NATO doctrine on ``humanitarian intervention’’.

The underlying Western aim was explained by Chris Hedges in the US foreign policy elite's top journal Foreign Affairs in April-May 1999:

``With most ethnic Albanians concentrated in homogenous areas bordering Albania, the drive to extend Albania's borders remains feasible. That drive is not only a wider threat to European stability to also to Albanian moderation. Many KLA commanders tout themselves as a 'liberation army for all Albanians' -- precisely what frightens the NATO alliance most ... The underlying idea behind creating a theoretically temporary, NATO-enforced military protectorate in Kosovo is to buy time – even as it bombs the Serbs – for a three-year transition period in which ethnic Albanians will be allowed to elect a parliament and other governing bodies -- meeting enough of their aspirations, it is hoped, to keep Kosovo from seceding.’’

However, opposition to any form of Serbian rule hardened after the cataclysmic events of 1999. It is impossible to find any Kosovar Albanian against independence.

Meanwhile, the nine following years of legal limbo under UN colonial rule, denying Kosova development credits and investment, has left half the population unemployed, a black hole in Europe that was ripe for social explosion.

Despite claims that independence is a creation of the imperialist powers, it was not until 2006 that, recognising the unsustainability of the situation, the first voices among Western leaders began to accept the inevitability of what had been demanded by the Albanians for a century. Following a year of fruitless negotiations, in early 2007, UN negotiator Marti Ahtisaari released the plan for “supervised independence”, as a “compromise” between the mutually irreconcilable demands for autonomy or independence.

If some kind of independence was now inevitable – unless imperialist powers wanted themselves to wage a counterinsurgency war inside Europe against 2 million Albanians who would surely rise up if independence were denied – then Western powers aimed to “supervise” it in order to limit it as much as possible.

Aside from the EU “supervision”, the other main aspect of the plan – the more progressive aspect – is the wide autonomy for regions where Kosovar Serbs form a majority of the population, with control over their education, health and police systems and the majority of income made in these areas, and will be able to be directly linked to and financed by the Serbian government.

The former municipality of Mitrovica in the north will be divided into two. Serb northern Mitrovica connects the entire region to its north to the Serbian border as the largest Serb bloc, covering some 15 per cent of Kosova. Mitrovica already has its own Serbian university, hospital, school system, currency and police. This northern region contains the massive Trepca mining and metallurgy complex, allegedly worth some US$5 billion . It has been effectively partitioned from the rest of Kosova by NATO troops since they entered in June 1999.

The Kosova Protection Corps – the unarmed civil emergency and reconstruction corps which gathered many former members of the KLA, which fought for the country’s independence in 1997-99 -- will be abolished, and Kosova will be barred from joining any other state (meaning Albania). Strong minority representation has already been enshrined under UNMIK, and a new flag has been designed under EU supervision, with the map of Kosova surrounded by six stars representing six ethnic groups, absent any symbolism or even colours from the Albanian or Serb flags.

While thousands of Kosovar Albanians waved the red and black two-headed eagle flag of neighbouring Albania in their celebrations – the only flag that represents their national consciousness, and the flag that was legally theirs under Tito – now the EU decrees from above that their flag will be blue and white in order to enshrine Kosova as an officially multi-ethnic state.

The US and EU supported the plan, as did the Kosovar Albanian leadership with some reluctance. Serbia rejected it, and was backed by a Russian veto on the UN Security Council, leading to a further year of negotiations which ended in December.

While Russia’s backing of Serbia was matched by an equally strong backing of independence by US authorities, the EU was in a quandary over this situation. The EU has the most to lose from any outcome that leads to Balkan instability; it was easier for Moscow and Washington to play ``hard’’ positions as part of a greater geopolitical game. EU states also have vast strategic and economic reasons to strive for overall agreement with Russia – precisely a scenario the US finds threatening.

The EU was also divided, unwilling to come to a decision that did not have consensus of all its members. Britain tended to play along with Washington, and following the election of Sarkozy, France also moved to this camp. In contrast, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria have remained opposed to Kosovar independence.

The EU preferred a resolution through the UN, requiring enough compromise to get Belgrade’s agreement, as their EU force needs a clear mandate, so in contrast to the US, continually and strongly warned Kosova against unilateral moves. Germany in particular, with strong economic concerns in the Balkans, vast economic relations with Russia, and the centre of the EU which it does not want split, played the moderator role through the process.

With negotiations failing, however, the EU was confronted by a dilemma. The Albanian leadership made clear it would not tolerate the situation forever, and would declare independence unilaterally if no compromise was reached and independence remained blocked in the UNSC. In such a scenario, a continued EU refusal to recognise it would increase the resulting instability, with tensions between Serb and Albanian populations sharpened by such an outcome, but the EU less able to control it.

Therefore, the EU majority moved towards agreeing to recognise independence, but called on Kosovar authorities to delay their declaration for a period so that the process can be “coordinated” with the EU, allowing the new political and security forces time to establish themselves. It is hoped that this way minority Serbs will be more assured of protection and less likely to flee.

Multi-ethnic republic

Kosova premier-elect, former KLA leader Hashim Thaci, has offered the vice-presidency to a Kosovar Serb. Four Serb parties formed a coalition and defied Belgrade by negotiating to enter into a governing coalition with Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK). Popular Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic condemned Belgrade’s blocking of Kosovar Serbs voting at recent elections as a “catastrophe” for the Serbs, and publicly welcomed Thaci’s moves. Serbs already account for 10 per cent of the Kosovar Police Service (KPS), and the Minister of Returns is a Kosovar Serb.

Kosova’s declaration of independence declares Kosova “to be a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic republic, guided by the principles of non-discrimination and equal protection under the law. We shall protect and promote the rights of all communities in Kosovo and create the conditions necessary for their effective participation in political and decision-making processes.” There is no specific mention of the Albanian people.

However, most Kosovar Serbs remain opposed or fearful, given their real experiences of sporadic violence from Albanians since 1999. Following the mass return of the dispossessed Albanians in June 1999, a reverse wave of some 100,000 Serbs – about half their original numbers – fled Kosova. A wave of Albanian revenge killings precipitated this flight, most of whom fled in fear, given the conditions of insecurity in the legal limbo in which Kosova was left. A brief second wave of anti-Serb pogroms erupted in March 2004, when eight Serbs were killed, while 11 Albanian rioters were shot dead by NATO troops.

The current Kosovar Serb population of 130,000 now forms more like 5 per cent rather than the original 10 per cent of Kosova’s population. Their situation varies greatly: from full Serb control in north Kosova (to where Albanians have been unable to return) to the wretched barbed-wire enclosed ghetto in Orahovac and Gorazdevac, with a number of medium-sized concentrations in between, particularly Gracanica, Novo Brdo and Strpce.

There is valid criticism that international forces have been ineffective in enforcing security. NATO provides armed convoys for Serbs traveling through Albanian territory, yet the fact they are needed reveals the situation remains bad. However, it is futile to merely blame this on NATO not policing a foreign occupation more harshly. The real issue is the frustration of the Albanian desire for independence combined with the fact that most Kosovar Serb leaders speak on Belgrade’s behalf in opposing the right of self-determination of their neighbours who outnumber them ten to one, making their people a target for Albanian chauvinists. The nationalism of these Serb leaders is mirrored by that of Kosovar Albanian leaders, who, while strongly condemning attacks on Serbs, have never fully prioritised forging a partnership with Serbs to construct a multi-ethnic Kosova.

However, there have been no major outbreaks of anti-Serb violence since March 2004, and the belief among Albanians that their goal of independence is approaching is perhaps one reason for this decline of ethnic Albanian radicalisation.

The Western powers are officially recognising a united, multi-ethnic Kosova, as enshrined in the Ahtisaari Plan, which they believe will be the least destabilising alternative. Any too-strong ``Albanian’’ colouration will lead to the internal partition along the Ibar river in the north assuming an international character. But a fusion of northern Kosova with Serbia poses the question of the remainder of Kosova having the right to unite with Albania, further posing the question of the Albanian minorities living in a compact region in neighbouring Macedonia, southeast Serbia and Montenegro. Imperialism has long believed this could lead to a “nightmare scenario” of attempted border changes throughout the region, far more destabilising than if Kosovar independence – itself opposed for precisely this reason – assumes an officially multi-ethnic character.

The problem is that the poisoning of ethnic relations and solidarity between Serb and Albanian communities goes back a long way, especially since the destruction of Kosovar autonomy in 1989-90, and the brutal imperialist attack in 1999 greatly accentuated this, opening the political conditions for the Serbian government to commit an ``Al Nakba’’ on the Kosovar Albanians, while in turn the Kosovar Albanian leadership supported NATO bombing of Serbia’s working people. As such, the effort to hold together a ``multi-ethnic’’ state may be frustrated by the results of imperialism’s very actions.

Geostrategic interests?

Much emphasis has been given to the imperialist “supervision” aiming to enforce neo-liberal prescriptions and allow imperialist firms to privatise Kosova’s wealth, but given that every country in eastern Europe, including Serbia, already follows this path, it explains little. Much is also made of geostrategic interests: the US has built an enormous base at Bondsteel in Kosova, situated perfectly to overlook a pipeline for Caspian oil being built by a US-led consortium, running through Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania.

However, there is no reason to believe the pro-imperialist government in Serbia would not allow such a base, if in return the US had opposed Kosovar independence. The US has bases all over the world without needing to set up a state directly under its control. The point is, however, this would have involved either an imperialist or a Serbian long-term counterinsurgency war against the armed independence struggle which would immediately break out again, threatening precisely the stability desired for pipelines and other imperialist concerns. Enforcing an officially multi-ethnic state thus remains the main aim of the occupation.

However, the fact that most Kosovar Serbs are not on board means that Kosova’s unilateral declaration, even while accepting the Ahtisaari Plan, is essentially a statement by the Albanian majority. In the north, Serbs are already refusing to cooperate with the independent Kosova authorities, declaring themselves still part of Serbia, making partition along the Ibar River the most likely outcome.

A partition may appear the ideal “compromise” between autonomy and independence, yet was ruled out by both Serbia and Kosova. Serbia’s advantages would be getting rid of two million Albanians with a high birth rate, while keeping the economic assets of the north, and gaining a small face-saver in the process.

Both the secession of the north to Serbia proper and the right of the rest of Kosova to join Albania and create an ethnic Albanian state can be viewed as the right of both communities to self-determination, blocked by imperialist ``stability’’ concerns. And both should have the right to do this, and not be blocked by imperialism, if they so desire.

However, it is arguably the worst outcome for the Kosovar Serbs: the simple fact is that only 40 per cent of Kosovar Serbs live in their already very secure northern stronghold, so its secession would abandon the majority of Serbs who live in smaller and more vulnerable enclaves surrounded by the Albanian majority throughout the south. All the famous Serbian Orthodox monasteries are also in the south. At least some kind of Serb-Albanian partnership to run an independent state still therefore appears the best overall outcome, if it were possible.

With no consensus in either the UN, the EU or NATO, none of the foreign bodies have a clear mandate to act one way or the other, apart from generally protecting security. One possible way out of the crisis is for the Ahtisaari Plan to be extended into a Bosnia-style set-up, making the Serb- and Albanian-dominated regions two confederal states within an independent Kosova.

Whatever the outcome, socialists should welcome the partial fruition of the century-long struggle of Kosovar Albanians for national self-determination, while also condemning any oppression of the Serb and other minorities by the new state. However, the actual state being formed is not an independent one, and remains a modified colonial-ruled set-up. Kosova has the right to full self-determination -- meaning all UN, EU and NATO occupation forces and governing bodies should exit Kosova and allow the Kosovar peoples, both Albanian and Serb, to determine their own futures.

However, it is possible that minority populations, fearful of the threat of violence by Albanian chauvinists, may call for some UN forces to remain in the unstable conditions of the transition for their protection, given the absolute poisoning of proletarian solidarity that has occurred over the last 20 years. This would be quite understandable as long as such forces were disconnected from running the Kosovars’ state for them. Therefore we must oppose the use of this as a justification by imperialist powers to limit Kosova’s real independence via its colonial “supervisory” bodies, and strongly distinguish between the two.

* Links uses the Albanian spelling ``Kosova’’ rather than the Serbian spelling ``Kosovo’’ to refer to that state. This is in recognition of the right of Kosovar people to freely determine their own name as part of their right of national self-determination, given the overwhelming majority of the population of the country are Albanian.

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