Revolutionary socialists in the Balkans face a difficult period ahead. The region has long been at the centre of imperial rivalry between the US and European Union (EU) on one side and Russia on the other. Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence marks a new stage in the ratcheting up of tensions.
Following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the US initiated a strategy to encircle Russia and block its future revival. Its other aim was to secure oil and natural gas supply routes from central Asia. In order to do this, the US had to show that it alone could restore and guarantee order in the Balkans, where civil war was raging.
The US intervened militarily in Bosnia in 1995, then bombed Serbia over the Kosovo issue in 1999. Now it has recognised Kosovo’s independence, blatantly disregarding promises made in a United Nations (UN) resolution at the end of the 1999 war.
Lately, however, Russia has been asserting itself in the Balkans, a region where it feels it has reasonable prospects of influence – because of religion and history, but above all because of the resentment US intervention has bred among Serbs.
Russia has been using its considerable energy resources to secure greater influence. It has a deal to build an oil pipeline with Bulgaria and Greece and it has just bought Serbia’s state oil industry.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence needs to be seen in this context. It was orchestrated by the US and the leading EU powers – Britain, France and Germany – to counter Russia’s moves in the region.
But the declaration was also about shoring up the government in Kosovo itself. In 1999 the US subcontracted the province’s government to the UN, whose administration has provoked resentment and discontent among Kosovan Albanians. After almost nine years of UN rule Kosovo has the lowest income per head in Europe.
This has led to the birth of a more radical nationalist protest movement called Vetevendosje! (Albanian for “self-determination”). It attacked the “neo-colonial” character of UN rule and was brutally repressed. Last year two protesters were shot dead at a mass demonstration called by Vetevendosje! and its leader was imprisoned without charge for months. The US has described the group as “enemies of the future of Kosovo”.
Moreover, the US and EU have not given up control in Kosovo – they have merely replaced UN colonial rule with EU colonial rule. Ultimate power will still reside in the EU’s International Civilian Representative, which has the authority “to annul decisions or laws adopted by Kosovo authorities and sanction or remove public officials”. As Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, has observed, “Kosovo will not be independent in any sense.”
Serbia leans on Russia for diplomatic support to block a UN seat for Kosovo, but also on countries such as Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania. Its real aim is the Cyprus-style partition of Kosovo, with three Serb majority provinces in the north returning to direct Serbian rule.
US support for Kosovo and Russia’s backing for Serbia serve only to entrench Serbs and Albanians in their nationalist positions, as they feel emboldened to seek advantage over one another with backing from the “great powers”.
In this context, it is the duty of Serbian socialists to challenge Serb nationalism and to argue that Serbian workers gain nothing from the state’s claim to Kosovo. This allows us to challenge our own ruling class and that of Russia with clarity, while helping us build bridges with Kosovan Albanians.
But this does not mean we believe that an independent Kosovo, whether real or symbolic, can solve the problem of Serb-Albanian relations. Attempts to carve out ethnically pure states have led inevitably to war and ethnic cleansing. In a region as diverse as the Balkans there can be no nationalist solutions.
Instead we must build solidarity networks that link grassroots social and anti-imperialist protests across the Balkans to challenge all forms of oppression, and argue for genuine self-determination in a socialist federation of the Balkans.
Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a Serbian socialist based in Belgrade.