West’s attempt to impose ‘solution’ risks provoking new conflict

Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders ended a year of talks on the future of Kosovo, in mid-March, without reaching agreement on the ‘settlement plan’ drafted bys special UN envoy, Martti Ahtisaari. The former Finnish president said there was no chance of reaching a compromise. Ethnic Albanian leaders were broadly in favour of plans, which gave Kosovo the trappings of a sovereign state, without complete independence. Serbian leaders were strongly opposed. Kosovo (called Kosova by ethnic Albanians) is currently under UN administration (Unmik), installed after Nato’s bombing campaign, in 1999, which forced Serbia to withdraw its forces from its southern ‘province’.

The Ahtisaari plan called for a form of ‘self-rule’ for Kosovo (it does not mention the word ‘independence’). Kosovo would be given a flag, anthem, constitution, government, parliament and citizenship. It would be able to negotiate international agreements and join international organisations. But this status would be ‘supervised’ and ‘checked’ by an ‘International Civilian Representative’, backed up by an ‘International Military Presence’.

The Ahtissaari plan also claimed it would guarantee the rights of the remaining Serb minority in Kosovo, including ‘special protection zones’. Serbian areas would control their own affairs in health and education, with some funds from the Serbian government in Belgrade.

“It’s a complicted, messy compromise, sure to leave everyone unhappy…” wrote Timothy Garton Ash, a commentator on the Balkans (Guardian, London 15 February 2007).

Serbs reacted furiously to Ahtisasri’s settlement proposals. Serbian President Boris Tadic called the plan “unacceptable” and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said it violated international law.

Most ethnic Albanian leaders gave broad backing to the Ahtisaari document. But many ethnic Albanians are angry. An “independence now” demonstration in Pristina, in February, capital of Kovoso, saw clashes with Kosovo and UN police that left two people dead and 80 injured. One of the protesters arrested, Albin Kurti, was sentenced to two months detention before trial. Under Western-imposed ‘penal charges’ Kurti could get years imprisonment. Tens of thousands reportedly took part in 10 February demonstration called by the ‘Movement for Self Determination’, and there are clear signs this movement is growing. The two main Kosovo Albanian parties, the LPK and LDP broadly support the Western plans, but the LPV is vocally demanding real independence finding support. This also reflects deep dissatisfaction with the disastrous social situation and the role of the main parties.

Reportedly, even the question of the settlement Kosovo Albanian flag and anthem are controversial, as many Kosova-Albanians see these and other symbols are imposed on them and they do not reflect their history or self-determination aims. Ethnic Albanians commentators point out the International Civilian Representative would have final say on political, economic and security issues under the settlement – a far cry from genuine self-determination.

“Messy compromise”

Timothy Garton Ash goes on to say the “messy” compromise is “the best one can hope for in the circumstances.” This may be so under capitalism, a system of profit-making, exploitation, discrimination and injustice, which is incapable of resolving the deep national, ethnic and religious divisions in the Balkans. But socialists reject the Ahtisaari proposals. They are not made in the interests of working people, either ethnic Albanians or Serbs, but in the interests of Western imperialist powers and big business. The plans do not meet the aspirations of Kosovo’s Albanians for self-determination or guarantee the rights of the Serb minority. They will only increase and complicate divisions on the ground. Minorities will be forced to leave their homes and new flashpoints and disputes will be created. For example, many Albanian nationalists resent that Serbs living in Kosovo would get control over pockets that include Albanian villages and Orthodox Churches and the Serb minority would hold veto rights over most legislation.

Further cantonisation and ethnic division of the Western Balkans is the ‘practical’ solution of imperialism. Capitalist restoration in the former Yugoslavia meant the bloody break-up of the country into ‘ethno-nationalist’ states. Only in a democratic, socialist society, where people’s needs come first, would it be possible for ethnic Albanians and Serbs to live peacefully together. A planned economy, under workers’ democratic control and management, would see the region’s wealth used for the benefit of all working people.

Socialists support the right of Kosovo to decide its future, free of all imperialist interference. We call for a socialist Kosovo, and a socialist Serbia, as part of a voluntary socialist federation of the Balkans. This would guarantee the rights of all minorities and maximum autonomy for the Serb minority in Kosovo.

In the former Yugoslav Federation, during the years of economic and social development, living standards rose due to the planned economy. 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. Desperate to find a way out, former Stalinist leaders, backed by competing imperialist powers, incited nationalist tensions in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, and so on. By war and plunder, these gangster-capitalist forces carved out territory to rule over.

The Western powers claimed they went to war in 1999 against the Serbian regime of right wing nationalist, Slobodan Milosevic, to stop his repression of Albanians, who make up 90% of the 1.8 million population of Kosovo. Milosevic abolished autonomy in Kosovo in 1989 and increased repression. Tensions exploded into war and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in 1999. But the Western powers’ actions were never motivated by humanitarian concerns or the interests of people in Kosovo. They acted primarily to stop the Kosovo conflict becoming a general conflagration and to gain an important geo-political strategic advantage. 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.

“Impose a solution from above”

Since 1999, Western powers ran Kosovo like an old-fashioned ‘protectorate’, in a high-handed and undemocratic manner. After the failed March talks, in Vienna, Ahtisaari announced he will take his plan to the UN Security Council. In truth, the UN did not expect any breakthrough in the talks and decided to take decisions ‘on behalf’ of the people of Kosovo and Serbia. A “decision” will be made by the six-nation Contact Group on Kosovo and by the Security Council. “You have to impose a solution from above,” Ahtisaari arrogantly declared.

However, Kosovo’s future could be an issue of deadlock between the US Britain and Germany, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other side. Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, is in the Contact Group, and warned that any decision on Kosovo’s future must get the approval of the Serbs, as well as the Kosovo Albanians. Both, China and Russia, which are UN Security Council members with a veto, oppose creating even a “virtual” new country. Russia threatens to recognize breakaway provinces in Georgia, led by pro-Western President Saakashvili, if the West recognizes Kosovo’s rupture from Serbia. President Putin’s opposition to Kosovo breaking away is part of his aim to increase Russian power and influence globally.

On 20 March, Vitaly Churkin, Russian Ambassador to the UN, said the UN should reject Ahtisaari’s conclusion and turn to someone else to negotiate Kosovo’s future. This provoked the ire of Richard Holbrooke, the former US ambassador to the UN who oversaw the Dayton Peace Agreement, which formally ended the war in Bosnia, in 1995. Holbrooke warned the Russian proposal would provoke new violence.

The US and Britain hope Russia will back down and in June the EU and G8 will agree on the Ahtisaari plan. So far, Churkin refused to state if Russia would use its veto against Ahtisaari’s plan. Russia may attempt to get maximum advantage over Kosovo, before making a deal and ditching Serbian nationalists.

But if Russia, which has important ethnic, religious and strategic ties to Serbia, does not give way, ethnic Albanian leaders threaten a declaration of independence. This would probably be recognised by the US, Germany and Britain, who would put pressure on the EU to do the same.

But the EU is divided on the way forward. Spain, Cyprus and Greece, a neighbouring Balkans country, do not want to impose a deal. To sweeten the Ahtisaari package, the EU is edging towards resuming talks with Belgrade on future EU membership.

The big powers’ meddling could trigger violent conflict in Kosovo. The divided city of Mitrovica is a potential flashpoint. In March 2004, fighting broke out in the city and spread across Kosovo.

The US and Britain calculate most ethnic Albanians will accept the deal, since it gives them enhanced ‘self-rule’ albeit with ‘international supervision’. But ethnic Albanians want to control their own affairs and vent anger at occupying Western powers. “UN out!” shouted several thousand during a protest against the UN, in Pristina, in early March. Increasingly, many ethnic Albanians regard the Kosovo ‘Provisional Self Government’ and institutions as unaccountable, corrupt tools of the UN. The Western powers insisted an unelected five-member negotiating body decided Kosovo’s reaction to Ahtisaari’s solution.

Serbia nationalists are loath to ‘lose’ Kosovo, an area included as part of Serbia for most of the last century and which they regard as central to its history and identity. Although working people in Serbia are weary of wars and are more concerned about getting jobs and a decent living, Serb nationalist parties want to keep the Kosovo issue burning, to divert workers’ discontent. After inconclusive January elections, rival politicians try to lay claim as best defenders of Kosovo, which they say is sovereign Serbian territory that will not be surrendered. They accuse the UN of acting illegally.

De-facto partition

Many Serbs in Kosovo are weighing whether to move, if the Ahtisaari plans are imposed. It is possible Serbia will hold on to the northern part of Kosovo where many Serbs are congregated, splitting Kosovo and not recognizing the new arrangements on the ground. This could lead to renewed conflict, as armed ethnic Albanians try to retain Kosovo’s current boundaries. It is not lost on Kosovo Albanians that the northern part of Kosovo is rich with natural resources.

Furthermore, most Serbs live in vulnerable enclaves south of the River Ibar. “Kosovo’s second war of independence may be only months away,” wrote Simon Tisdall in the Guardian (London, 16 March 2007).

Many commentators believe de-facto partition already exists, along the Rive Ibar, which physically divides northern Mitrovica and its mainly Serb hinterland from the rest of Kosovo. Local car plates are Serbian in northern Mitrovica, the currency is the Serbian dinar, and teaching and hospital staff are paid by Belgrade. “This [Serb] northern bit will secede,” predicts Oliver Ivanovic, a ‘moderate Serb politician in Mitrovica. Serb paramilitaries and ‘hard-liners’ reportedly run the northern half of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, which essentially functions as part of Serbia. Ethnic Albanian nationalists fear the Serb-run far north municipalities could band together to form an equivalent to the Bosnian Serb entity, Republiksa Srpska. Yet this would not ‘neatly’ resolve matters. Around 40,000 Serbs live in the northern part of Kosovo, but 80,000 Serbs live in enclaves south of the River Ibar. Anticipating trouble, NATO recently sent 600 German troops to reinforce its 16,000 peacekeepers.

Even if the Ahtisaari plans are imposed relatively peacefully, ethnic divisions do not allow the quick exit for Western forces some big powers hope for. The EU and US will still “play the role of arbiter in the divided and economically backward region for years,” (International Herald Tribune, 9 March 2007). Nato makes up most of K-For’s 16,000 troops and intends to keep that strength for the time being. The EU is due to send hundreds of police personnel to replace the UN force.

The only way out of this mess of ethnic divisions and endemic poverty is for the working class of Kosovo, ethnic Albanian and Serb, to unite for better living standards and democratic rights. Any form of self rule for Kosovo under capitalism will not transform living standards for the majority, let alone long-term peace and stability. Kosovo is one of the poorest parts of Europe, with half its population living below the poverty line. Yet the country holds vast largest coal reserves and rich deposits of gold, silver, lead, zinc, and petroleum. Under capitalism, this wealth will be exploited for imperialism and big business.

Through mass class struggles, independent trade unions and a new party that represents working class interests will be built, giving an alternative to the local right wing parties, the bosses and imperialism.

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