Kosovo: Some Concrete Steps to a Balkan Federation


Andrej’s interesting rejoinder makes two basic points. First, he presents an essentially dystopian view of modern Balkan history in which the European nation-state model eroded a pre-existing “polycultural” Balkans made up of multiple, pre-national identities. Second, he rejects Kosovo’s right to self-determination in favour of a new polycultural, post-national Balkans organised as a federation.


Andrej’s views on both points strike me as troublingly abstract. Historically, by failing to take adequate account of concrete contexts; and politically, by failing to take adequate account of the need for concrete proposals for the way forward today.


Capitalism, the Nation-State and the Balkans


Andrej is of course right to say that the European nation-state model eroded a polycultural Balkans. But the concrete question we have to answer is this: what was the essential significance of this process in the Balkans at the time?


To arrive at an answer, we must first go beyond what I feel is the limiting geographico-historical perspective Andrej presents of a clash between the European nation-state and Balkan polyculturalism, not least because the nation-state eroded polyculturalism more or less everywhere across the globe. Instead, it is better to see this process in broader historical terms as principally a clash between capitalism, based around competitive economies with a dynamic tendency to expand beyond localities, for which nationalism and the nation-state were typical and normal, and pre-capitalist societies, based around static, non-competitive local economies, for which pre-national, polycultural identities were typical and normal. The impact and spread of the nation-state model was not an autonomous process; it was ultimately rooted in the global impact and spread of capitalism.


In the Balkans, as in many other regions that developed later, typically capitalist political norms, such as nationalism and the nation-state, were taken up before capitalism had developed beyond a rudimentary stage. In this sense, the Balkans began to run before it could walk, but it could do so because others had already done some walking, throwing up the political forms it could then pick up and run with. However, the running it did with the nation-state idea was never a simple matter of either external imposition or internal mimicry; on the contrary, it reflected deeply felt needs, rooted in the societies of the time.


This is why I think it is also limiting to take Andrej’s view that the erosion of Balkan polyculturalism by the European nation-state was essentially pernicious. Instead, it is better to view this process as a contradictory one – essentially progressive but also pernicious. The good and the bad in this process were as inseparable as night is from day, but this is no reason to decry the dawning of a new historical day.


At the time, the greater part of the Balkans languished in desperate poverty and backwardness under the oppressive tyranny of an Ottoman state feudalism incapable of adjusting to, and competing with, an increasingly capitalist world. In this concrete context, one absent from Andrej’s historical survey, the myriad of Balkan polycultural identities he looks back to fondly was above all a reflection of this feudal, pre-capitalist world. As such, it was an obstacle to the liberation of the Balkan peoples from the Ottoman Empire. Divided by numerous, self-enclosed, petty local and regional affiliations, it is no historical accident that for some 400 years of Ottoman rule no mass movement emerged in the Balkans to threaten the Empire’s existence.


By eroding these polycultural identities with their limited local appeal, and forging a national consciousness with a far wider non-local appeal, nationalism gave birth to a mass political force with the power to launch potentially successful liberation struggles against the Ottoman Empire. In doing so, it ushered in a new actor onto the stage of Balkan politics – the peasant masses with their social and political hopes for a better world. For the first time in Balkan history, then, the idea that the Balkans could be transformed by the Balkan peoples themselves, and not by one or other imperial power, was born. This momentous historical development could never have been possible in a pre-modern, polycultural Balkans. The Serbian Revolution of 1804 did not break out in 1504; the Greek Revolution of 1821 did not break out in 1521.


At the same time, however, the nation-state idea also brought with it a host of new problems to the Balkans. It set nation against nation in a region peopled by a multiplicity of small nations, a problem much exacerbated by its intermixed national demography. Thus, whilst nationalism drove the struggle for liberation repeatedly forward, it also repeatedly hindered it by raising national obstacles to real Balkan unity, the very unity that could have settled the fate of the Ottomans quickly and effectively. When unity was achieved, it was short-lived. There is no better example of this than the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 when the Balkan states joined forces to expel the Ottomans from Europe, only to then attack one another immediately afterwards. Instead of such unity, and as compensation for the individual lack of power disunity entailed, Balkan states competed with one another to gain Great Power sponsorship for their national goals. The result was that the Great Powers often exploited these divisions to impose ‘solutions’ that suited their own geopolitical needs and not the interests of the Balkan states, let alone those of the Balkan peoples.


Nevertheless, despite these contradictions, it would be wrong to deny that the national liberation struggle in the Balkans was an essentially progressive historical development. In this specific context, Andrej’s abstract emphasis on the pernicious character of the nation-state, over and above the liberating essence of its concrete historical impact, blocks a properly rounded appreciation of this important phase of Balkan history.


Nation-States and the Balkan Federation Idea


It was precisely the nation-state idea, with all its contradictions, that gave rise to the Balkan federation idea as the surest path to achieving liberation from the Ottomans and overcoming the divisive problems nationalism threw up. This explains why the two ideas were born more or less simultaneously at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, the very idea of Balkan federation Andrej supports so fervently could only have been born in the very age of Balkan nationalism he decries no less fervently. In any event, the arguments of the Balkan federation ideologues were faultless. If nations worked together in the region, then Balkan unity could be forged, negating at a stroke the need to rely on external, treacherously self-serving imperial forces to achieve national liberation.


Some Balkan federation ideologues also understood one further point: that unity could only be forged by satisfying just national demands so as to assuage their sting; denying, ignoring or wishing them away, in urgent pursuit of a post-national ideal, would only fortify that sting. There was no easy short-cut to a post-national Balkans; the path to a Balkan federation necessarily involved negotiating the treacherous terrain of divisive national feeling that lay beneath their feet. Radical left advocates of Balkan federation later explained why this was so, pointing to the genetic relationship between capitalism and nationalism, which destined them to live and die together. This led to the conclusion that the Balkan ruling classes were congenitally incapable of overcoming their national differences and would be unable to forge a sustainable federation. Instead, the struggle for a Balkan federation would have to be pursued by the working class capitalism had also created, as an integral part of its struggle for a post-capitalist, socialist Balkans. In the meantime, while capitalism existed, nationalism would be an unavoidable fact of daily political life which radicals had to address on two different levels, as and when appropriate; by respecting the right of nations to self-determination as a stepping-stone to their true goal, a Balkan federation.


Let me give just one apposite example of this way of thinking. In 1913, as Austria-Hungary and Italy sought to establish an independent Albanian state as a barrier to Serbia’s access to the Adriatic Sea, Serbian socialists decided, as one of their number later wrote, to “unconditionally respect Albania’s independence and work towards its inclusion as an independent member of a federation of Balkan republics.” With great courage, the Serbian socialists opposed Serbia’s brutal occupation of northern Albania and recognised then what the Serbian radical left needs to recognise now: that only a concrete policy of friendship towards the Albanians – in short, respect for their right to self-determination – can build the trust needed to forge a Balkan federation. But they also recognised one further, very significant point: that only a concrete policy of friendship, by closing the ethnic breach between Serbs and Albanians, could block the imperial powers from intervening in, and directing, Balkan affairs to the ultimate detriment of the Balkan peoples as a whole.


Overall, therefore, Andrej’s perspective is limiting on two levels. Historically, when he looks too far back to a pre-modern, polycultural Balkans, and underplays the fact that this Balkans was, at the time, an obstacle to progress, which nationalism overcame, despite the problems associated with it. And politically, when he looks too far forward to a new post-national, polycultural Balkans, and underplays the fact that, while capitalism exists, nationalism will be an unavoidable feature of daily politics which the Serbian radical left must find concrete ways of addressing and opposing. In short, what is missing here is an adequate appreciation of historical and political context.


Imperialism and Nationalism in Kosovo


Andrej’s analysis of the US’s plans for Kosovo is one I broadly accept. The US, as well as the EU, clearly wish to see a fully independent Kosovo in the Balkans, when it is geopolitically convenient. Until then, they will back the Ahtisaari Plan which envisages that, at least for the short term, Kosovo will have what is euphemistically called ‘supervised independence’. Of course, this is a contradiction in terms; if independence is supervised, it is not independence, so for the time being Kosovo will remain what it has been since 1999 – a colony of Euro-American imperialism, hitherto under the aegis of the UN and, under the Ahtisaari Plan, of the EU largely. The US could opt, unilaterally, to give formal recognition to Kosovo – in other words, to take the Holbrooke option Andrej discusses – though, if they do so, it is likely to be recognition, to begin with, of the ‘supervised independence’ proposed by Ahtisaari. The EU is more wary of unilateral recognition because it is more uneasy about antagonising Russia and because of the outright opposition to Kosovan independence of some of its members, notably Spain and Greece.


It is however by no means clear that the US wants Serbia excluded from Europe, as Andrej suggests. Rather it sees the Kosovo question as a useful bargaining tool to limit Serbia’s room for manoeuvre, and to give it time under pressure to weigh up the option of hanging on to some portion of Kosovo with Russian help against the option of losing, or delaying for the foreseeable future, the chance of joining the EU and NATO, which the Serbian ruling class seeks.


The other, critical, imperial factor in all this is therefore Russia, which opposes Kosovan independence and supports Serbia. This factor ought not to be downplayed as Andrej tends to do; Russia is now more assertive under Putin, as recent events in Estonia again demonstrate. It has threatened to veto the Ahtisaari Plan in the UN Security Council, just as the US has threatened unilateral recognition of Kosovo. China may well follow Russia’s lead here.


The Kosovo question has therefore become the geopolitical focus of a competitive imperial game between the US, the EU and Russia. The US backs the Kosovan Albanians, whose loyalty it wishes to retain; Russia backs the Serbs, whose loyalty it wishes to gain; while the EU has been obliged to adopt a less forthright version of the US position. What does all this suggest? That what will ultimately emerge in Kosovo is not set in stone. There are three likely possibilities. The first is eventual outright independence for Kosovo as a whole, after a short period of so-called ‘supervised independence’, favoured by the US and the EU. This might well be combined with formal recognition of a ‘supervised’ Kosovo in the short term. The second is partition of the northern Serb majority districts of Kosovo combined with eventual outright independence for the rest of the province, the most realistic option for Serbia and Russia. The third is a more prolonged period of ‘supervised independence’ while an infernal game of cat and mouse between the imperial powers is pursued as to what ultimately emerges.


The Ahtisaari Plan is therefore not just an attempt to find a compromise between Serbia and the Kosovan Albanians; it is also an attempt to find a compromise between the imperial powers themselves with a reasonable chance of obtaining UN Security Council approval. On the one hand, Ahtisaari proposed that Kosovo should have some of the trappings of independence now, ultimately leading, as he later indicated, to full independence. But on the other hand, he also proposed that substantial autonomy be given to the Serb majority northern districts of Kosovo, with a not inconsiderable role for Serbia there. Some in the West, despite all their protestations to the contrary, may come to regard such far-ranging autonomy as initial de facto partition, and a stepping-stone to eventual de jure partition, which might be worth cultivating behind the scenes to minimise Serbian and Russian fears, as and when Kosovo becomes independent.


One thing, however, is certain: that the Kosovan Albanians will be expected to wait upon the grace and favour of the imperial powers for their fate to be decided – in true time-honoured fashion. In this context, the Serbian radical left has an opportunity to argue that Serbia should adopt a Balkan policy of concrete friendship towards the Albanians based on Kosovo’s right to self-determination. Its purpose would be to affirm the capacity of the Balkan peoples to resolve their own problems, without external ‘assistance’, and without being the dangerous, self-defeating focus of inter-imperial competition. Such a position would have to based on a number of concretely reasoned political arguments.


Foremost among them is, in my view, the eminently sensible argument that a concrete policy of friendship incorporating Kosovo’s right to self-determination is the only one that can today close the ethnic breach between Serbs and Albanians through which the US, as well as the other imperial powers, have entered into, and attempted to determine, Balkan affairs. The devastating US-led war against Serbia in 1999, and the subsequent consolidation of US power in Kosovo, with the establishment of its military base at Camp Bondsteel, was a classic act of imperial opportunism; but it was an opportunity that presented itself because of the policy of oppression the Serbian ruling class pursued against the Kosovan Albanians, who threw themselves into Washington’s arms for protection. The 1999 war is a dramatic example of why a concrete policy of friendship is as much in the interests of the Serbs as it is in the interests of the Kosovan Albanians.


Such a policy of concrete friendship also allows the Serbian radical left to draw a clear line in the sand between it and Serbia’s past and present policies on Kosovo. These policies have been an albatross around the neck of the Serbian body politic, which the Serbian ruling class has used time and again to divert economic and political struggles against it into nationalist enmity against the Kosovan Albanians. Milosevic rose to power by pursuing a policy of oppression towards the Kosovan Albanians with disastrous results, leading to the consolidation of imperial power in the Balkans. His successors are pursuing a policy of opposition to the Kosovan Albanians, which will do nothing to assuage Albanian-Serb hostilities and reduce imperial power in the region. On the contrary, its consequences will be exactly the opposite.


The reliance Kosovan Albanians place on the US has been rooted in this fear of, and threat, from Serbia. But if Serbia were to adopt a radical change of policy that genuinely respected Kosovo’s right to self-determination, thereby removing the threat it poses, the chains of that reliance would be loosened. It would give greater political space, hitherto limited by fear of Serbia, to those Albanians who wish Kosovo to be ruled by them and not for them; it would open up room for those Albanians who are more open to the Serbs; it would reduce anti-Serb Albanian nationalist feeling; it would make life easier for the Kosovan Serbs; and it would raise questions about the need for Camp Bondsteel. Andrej states that Albanian, as well as Serbian, nationalism needs to be opposed. I agree. A concrete policy of friendship by Serbia towards the Kosovan Albanians would do more than any other presently available step to take the wind out of Albanian nationalist sails.


In my judgment, the idea of a Balkan federation alone cannot achieve all this. The degree of bitterness that has entered into Serb-Albanian relations in recent years can only be broken today by a decisive and concrete demonstration of friendship. The national question in Kosovo is the burning political issue of the day. It cannot be adequately addressed either by grassroots socio-economic struggle that avoids politics, or by the presently intangible prospect of a common, federal life together, no matter how desirable. A neighbour whose house is on fire needs immediate help. Would I succeed in fostering neighbourliness if I offered to help next week?


Andrej makes two other points about Kosovan self-determination. The first is that it could lead to as much bloodshed as partition and very likely to the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovan Serbs. But this is true only if Serbia does not adopt a policy of concrete friendship towards the Kosovan Albanians. Milosevic used the Kosovan Serbs as the advance guard of his policy of oppression against the Albanians, just as he did, for example, with the Krajina Serbs against the Croats, with tragic results; they were brutally ethnically cleansed by Croatia in 1995. His successors are using the Kosovan Serbs in a similar way with their policy of opposition to independence. Inevitably, this use of the Kosovan Serbs as an anti-Albanian weapon is one source of heightened Albanian-Serb tensions – the other being the 1999 war and UNMIK’s colonial divide and rule strategy. A radical change of Serbian policy to one of friendship with the Albanians, entailing an abrupt end to using the Kosovan Serbs as a weapon against them, would do much to avert the tragic scenario Andrej outlines. This would be as much in the interests of the Kosovan Serbs as it is in the interests of their Albanian neighbours.


This leads to Andrej’s second point that support for Kosovo’s right to self-determination necessarily entails supporting the right to self-determination of the Kosovan Serbs too – in other words, the partition of Kosovo. But it does not; we can avoid this problem if we employ reasoned criteria to distinguish our use of the right to self-determination from its abuse by our opponents.


For the Balkan radical left today, support for the right to self-determination can only have political value when based on an overriding opposition to partition – the logic of carving out new ‘ethnically clean’ borders in pursuit of some Greater National State, whether Serbian, Croatian or Albanian. Where this partitionist, greater nationalist logic masquerades as the right to self-determination, it should be firmly rejected. The right to self-determination therefore retains its political value for the Balkan radical left only in those situations where it can be used as part of a policy of friendship with other nations, sharply demarcating it from its abuse as part of a policy of enmity against other nations in pursuit of national aggrandisement. This is the critical dividing line between the use and abuse of the right to self-determination in the Balkans today.


In concrete terms, what does this mean? It means opposing the partition of Bosnia between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, of Macedonia between Albanians and Macedonians, and of Kosovo between Albanians and Serbs. These are all areas with well-established borders which greater nationalists at one time or another have advocated re-drawing in their favour. This logic applies to Serbia too. Some Albanian nationalists advocate the partition of the two majority Albanian municipalities of Bujanovac and Presevo in South Serbia on the border with Kosovo. This should be opposed no less firmly.


Kosovo and The Movement For Self-Determination (MSD)


Andrej also offers a number of criticisms of MSD (Levizja Vetevendosje! in Albanian). MSD is, of course, a nationalist movement, but its significance in the context of recent Kosovan politics is that it is a nationalist movement with an anti-colonial character. This is a new development and it is one we should welcome and support. Here, Andrej and I appear to agree, as he states that he “completely support[s]” their struggle against autocratic neo-colonial power. Logically, we do so despite MSD’s nationalism precisely because, in these concrete political circumstances, this is its decisive significance, one that distinguishes it from other Kosovan Albanian nationalists.


It follows that this is a development the Serbian radical left should find concrete ways of encouraging, not least by opposing the imprisonment of its leader, Albin Kurti, and other activists, and the bloody and brutal suppression of its demonstrations as happened on 10 February this year. But the most decisively concrete way of encouraging this development is for Serbia to adopt a policy of friendship towards the Kosovan Albanians, which is why we should argue for it; at a stroke, this would remove any further justification for continued neo-colonial rule in Kosovo and it would send a message to the imperial powers that their divisive competitive games in the Balkans in favour of this or that national group should end. The threat MSD potentially poses to these competing interests helps explain why the US Head of Office in Kosovo, Tina Kaidanow, recently attacked MSD for being “enemies of the future of Kosovo.”


Andrej is also sceptical about my view that MSD is not serbophobic, presenting some, self-admittedly anecdotal, evidence to support his scepticism. He also says he cannot find any evidence that MSD favours “the idea of co-habitation”. It would be surprising indeed if MSD did not contain serbophobes. But the presently dominant  character of the movement and its leadership cannot be characterised as narrowly nationalist. Let me provide some concrete evidence for this view from MSD’s publications and other sources.

On the right of Kosovan Serbs ethnically cleansed in 1999: “Levizja Vetevendosje! Is not anti-Serb. Serbs who have been displaced have every right to return to their homes in Kosova where they lived before.” On segregated autonomy for the Kosovan Serbs: “This is not a multi-ethnic solution: it is an ethnic solution which will result in the Bosnianisation of Kosova”. And again: “This will simply reinforce the creation of an autonomous Serbian territorial entity, and end any pretence at recreating multi-ethnicity throughout Kosova”.


What MSD has done in Kosovo is to target its propaganda not at the Kosovan Serbs themselves, but at the Serbian state and UNMIK. This has been a much needed corrective. As MSD’s and Kurti’s leading collaborator, Adem Demaci, complained in an interview with a Serbian daily two years ago: “The masses are blinded; they believe that the Serbs are to blame, not Belgrade and UNMIK.” At the now infamous 10 February demonstration, Demaci was the main speaker and, as Serbian newspapers reported, stated that MSD’s opposition to the Ahtisaari Plan was not anti-Serb, but inspired by opposition to the use of the Kosovan Serbs by Serbia to dominate Kosovo.


Demaci is Kosovo’s most prominent dissident, a man who spent some 28 years in Yugoslav prisons but remains conspicuously open to co-operation with Serbia. In 1993 – when Milosevic still held Serbia and Kosovo in his brutal grip – he proposed a confederation between Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, which he dubbed Balkania. He later became the political representative of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), with Kurti as his assistant. They both resigned at the time of the Rambouillet negotiations, fearing that Kosovo’s interests would be sold out. And although they supported the 1999 war, their feelings about it were distinctly mixed. As one colleague reported, who was with them when war began on 24 March 1999: “Suddenly we realised that this issue was being dealt with at such a high level that we were helpless.” That helplessness was born of a recognition that the fate of Kosovo now rested not with the Kosovan Albanians but with NATO and the imperial powers. MSD was born of this recognition; its guiding principle is that the future of Kosovo should be decided by Kosovars and by them alone.


This critical scepticism towards foreign powers runs through much of Demaci’s thinking. In 2000, he told another Serbian newspaper:


“[The international community] have certain interests in Serbia and Kosovo, but believe me, they do not care a lot about us. I think that the decisive thing is how we and the Serbs will sort this out. If we agree to accept each other, to guarantee freedom to each other, to help each other, understand each other and develop true human relations, the international community will gain and accept such a solution. As long as we rely for a while on this and then for a while on that [foreign power] and look back to old alliances with powers that care only about their own interests, that will not be good.”


In that same interview he made another relevant point:


“In 1993, I proposed Balkania, as a confederation of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. The goal of all those proposals was to prevent bloodshed. However, now blood has been spilt, big wounds were opened and what little trust used to exist has been destroyed. New trust can be built only if these peoples accept each other as free and independent, and on that basis all other agreements can be made. We depend on each other. We are next door neighbours and must find an agreement based on these new principles.”


I do not quote all this in order to argue that we should support MSD uncritically; far from it. There is much to criticise in MSD, not least its willingness to tolerate NATO’s continued presence in Kosovo to train a Kosovan army and its decision to open offices in Macedonia, suggesting a potentially partitionist agenda there. MSD is hardly a perfectly formed radical, anti-capitalist, internationalist movement. Nevertheless, I do quote all this in order to show that MSD today contains some of the best and most open minds in Kosovo, who have been working coherently and concretely towards shifting the focus of political life there in a potentially valuable direction. They should not be dismissed out of hand, even for their KLA past.


However, as I outlined in my first reply to Andrej, the tangible fear nevertheless exists that MSD may be derailed in its anti-colonial endeavours, and slide into the ditch of mainstream anti-Serb nationalist agitation, especially if a partitionist solution were to refocus Kosovan politics on Albanian-Serb hostilities. This doubly reinforces the view that the Serbian radical left should oppose partition in favour of a concrete policy of friendship based on Kosovo’s right to self-determination. This policy will allow the best and most open minds in Kosovo to grow and thrive.


Towards a Balkan Federation


The argument presented here in favour of Kosovo’s right to self-determination is not, in one important sense, an argument about an independent Kosovo. Such a Kosovo is no more than a means to an end, and that end is a Balkan federation. Instead, this argument is really about what can be done now to build mutual trust between Albanians and Serbs; without it, any discussion of a Balkan federation will be viewed as idle dreaming.


A concrete policy of friendship between nations in the Balkans can build that trust – and serve as the region’s only true defence against imperial manipulation, intervention and control. By advocating such a policy, the Serbian radical left will also be able to open up some political space in which to work with like-minded Albanians on common issues, most notably the anti-capitalist struggle and the question of foreign military bases.


Andrej is right that we need an imaginative vision of the future in the Balkans. But we also need to be imaginatively concrete about how to get there from here. As someone once said, we need to keep our heads in the clouds, but our feet on the ground. Whether I achieve that here is of course for others to judge, but my purpose has been, at the very least, to begin to address, as concretely as I can, what we all recognise is a deeply complex problem for the Serbian radical left.


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