By Dragan Plavsic
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Balkans: The Spoils of War

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
Dragan Plavsic looks at the bloody parallels between the Balkans and Iraq.
Issue 296

Six years ago, in March 1999, Tony Blair launched his very first war when Britain and the US bombed Serbia for 78 days. Those of us who then argued – to the scorn of supporters of the war – that bombing Serbia would set a precedent for deadly interventions elsewhere could scarcely have imagined how swiftly and devastatingly this prediction would come true, in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan and now, most devastatingly of all, in Iraq.

But a precedent was set not just because Serbia’s eventual defeat and Kosovo’s occupation by US-British troops gave Blair the confidence to wage other still bloodier wars. Nor was it set just because the bombing of Serbia was also Blair’s first illegal war waged, as Iraq later was, without the prior legal sanction of the UN Security Council.

Above all, it set a precedent because the bombing of Serbia, like the assault on Iraq, was a manifestly manufactured conflict, concocted by Washington to assist it to achieve strategic economic and political goals. In each case Blair chose to follow Washington’s lead not, as he so often claimed, because of the inherent merits of the stated case for war, but because failure to do so would have diminished Britain’s capacity to strut upon the world stage and share in the spoils of war.

Of course, these wider strategic goals never formed part of the public case for war. Instead they were secreted behind a smoke screen composed of the most extravagant moral principles. Just as Blair later strenuously assured us that the war on Iraq had to be fought to rid the world of WMDs, so in 1999 he tirelessly assured the world that the bombing of Serbia had to be undertaken for impeccably humanitarian reasons – to protect the Kosovan Albanians from Serb oppression.

But there were altogether deeper and darker motives at work. In Serbia the aim was to crush a destabilising threat to Nato’s US-led expansion eastwards towards Russia and, by extension, to US designs on the rich oil resources of Central Asia. In Iraq, of course, the aim was to remove an obstacle to US control of Middle East oil and its neo-conservative agenda for the region.

The parallels and precedents do not, however, stop there. They continue when we turn to the aftermath of war. Take the over-inflated fanfare surrounding Iraq’s first elections in January, much applauded by some as presaging a return to ‘normality’. When Kosovo’s first post-war elections were held in 2001, Nato’s then Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, also acclaimed them as ‘a remarkable step towards normality’. But after four elections in six years (two local, two parliamentary), there is still nothing remotely normal about Kosovo.

There are three basic reasons why this is so. First is the truly absurd fact – absurd for an era once thought to be irreversibly post-colonial – that Kosovo today is a colony of the victors of 1999, above all the US. Then Britain and the US moved swiftly to subcontract day to day government of the province to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) by securing a UN resolution that granted Unmik’s chief, the ludicrously titled Special Representative, the most autocratic colonial-style powers. All major economic and political decisions are made by the Special Representative, whose power ultimately rests on 18,000 multinational troops and Washington’s overriding assent, symbolised by the brooding presence of its very own military base in central Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel. George Orwell once wrote that elections in colonies allow those who really wield supreme power to don the ‘mask of democracy’. In Kosovo they have also donned sky blue UN helmets. For those who advocate substituting the UN for the US in Iraq, Kosovo is living proof of what this would mean in practice.

The second reason Kosovo is still far from remotely normal is the catastrophic state of its inter-ethnic relations. In 1999, typical of the pompous rhetoric of the time, we were told that Nato’s occupation of Kosovo signalled the dawning of a new age of ethnic tolerance. Instead we have witnessed new waves of bloody ethnic violence, the most dramatic of which erupted in March last year. Then over 50,000 Albanians took part in 33 major riots that were often orchestrated by nationalists determined to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the province of troublesome minority populations.

As an International Crisis Group report entitled Collapse in Kosovo put it, ‘The two day rampage of partly coordinated arson, looting, shooting, and stone, petrol bomb and grenade throwing… left 19 dead, nearly 900 injured (more than 20 gravely), over 700 Serb, Ashkali and Roma homes, up to ten public buildings and 30 Serbian churches and two monasteries damaged and destroyed and some 4,500 Kosovo Serbs displaced.’ Some might be tempted to write these events off as characteristically Balkan, but they would be wrong to do so. They are directly relevant to Iraq. As the Financial Times contemplated last May, ‘The danger [in Iraq] is a bloody Balkan-style break-up as Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia fight for disputed territory and resources.’

Finally, Kosovo is in dire economic straits. It is the only territory in Europe which has had negative growth every year since 2002. Only 20 percent of GDP is accounted for by domestic economic activity, the remainder by foreign assistance and remittances from the diaspora. Unemployment stands at 50 to 60 percent, with youth unemployment at 70 percent.

After six years of sham elections, UN colonial-style government, foreign occupation, multi-ethnic violence and economic misery, Kosovo today is on the verge of collapse. The bombing of Serbia set several precedents for the war on Iraq. Let us hope that the Iraqi resistance can now set a few precedents for the way forward in Kosovo.

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