The Kosovo Question: Some Radical Perspectives

Andrej Grubacic (The Multi-Ethnic Dream of Kosovo Znet June 11, 2004) provides an interesting perspective on the apparently intractable question of Kosovo. What is his perspective and how should we evaluate it?


Andrej offers a self-avowedly “utopian program of transformation” based on grassroots movements agitating around common social issues that foster cross-ethnic “organic solidarity” as a counter to inter-ethnic conflict, leading to a “participatory society” from below as the ultimate answer to “the separation of Albanian and non-Albanian populations”. In this way, Andrej argues, ethno-nationalism will retreat in Kosovo and we will, at last, be able to transcend the bloody and divisive logic of “new ethnic border lines”.


This sweeping vision is indeed a captivating ideal to which every radical should aspire, and be inspired by, as the ultimate answer to the social question in the Balkans, as elsewhere. But it is nevertheless the case that ideals, however captivating, too often fail to guide us adequately or sufficiently when, as radicals, we are faced with the pressing need to provide concrete answers to concrete questions, such as those raised by the national question in Kosovo. This is arguably the central weakness of Andrej’s perspective.


The national question in Kosovo, like all national questions, is a pre-eminently political question. Of course, it is inextricably intertwined with deeper economic and social issues which need to be addressed and ultimately resolved. But the most concrete, the most immediate and the most pressing expression of any national question is invariably to be found on the level of politics, and so it is also on this level that we have to provide answers.


It is precisely here that Andrej’s “utopian” perspective proves unsatisfactory; indeed, it would be more accurate to say that, by socialising the national question, his perspective represents an avoidance of politics and thus an avoidance of the national question in its proper sense. To offer a captivating social ideal as the answer to a pressing political problem is akin to drivers whose eyes are so intently fixed on the horizon that they cannot adequately negotiate the immediate obstacles that lie in their path.


It is these immediate obstacles that a radical politics has to negotiate when it comes to the question of Kosovo. There are not a few that need negotiating. Should we oppose or support Kosovo’s right to self-determination, the right to form an independent state in its current borders? Should we oppose or support the UN regime that the US bequeathed the province after its 1999 war against Serbia? Should we oppose or support Serbia’s refusal to give up its claim to sovereignty over Kosovo? And should we oppose or support the territorial partition of Kosovo with Serbia? These are the concrete, immediate and pressing questions to which we, as radicals, should be able to provide concrete, coherent and reasoned answers. Andrej’s perspective is ultimately unsatisfactory because he fails to do so.


There are two other perspectives radicals have offered on Kosovo which are also worth examining.



The Balkan Federation Idea


The first is one often proposed by much of what Andrej himself calls the “old left” in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Serbia: the idea of a Balkan socialist federation, an idea with a long, progressive political heritage rooted in the nineteenth century. This idea holds that the only way of transcending ethnic conflict is to do away with the squabbling petty statelets of the region that have perennially used nationalism to further their ends and whose mutual animosities have so often been exploited by the imperial powers to impose their own ‘solutions’ in the area. A Balkan federation, the argument goes, would unify the region and serve as a protective bulwark against both imperial intervention and inter-ethnic conflict.


Like Andrej’s perspective, this too is a captivating ideal to which every radical should aspire, and be inspired by, as the ultimate answer to the national question in the Balkans. But it is also unsatisfactory because, while it is certainly an attempt to address the national question on the level of politics, it provides an abstract answer rather than a concrete one to the central political issue that needs addressing: the right of Kosovo to self-determination, to its own independent state.


Instead, this perspective is too often presented in the form of at best a tacit avoidance of that central issue – a Balkan federation is the best answer to the Kosovo question – or at worst in the form of an explicit rejection of it – no to another statelet in the Balkans, yes to a Balkan federation. Such an overriding emphasis on the idea of a Balkan federation at a time when the dominant political trend is still in the direction of independent statehood is unlikely to have the kind of daily political purchase on individuals and movements radicals should seek.


Yet, in other ways, the Balkan federation idea certainly has the potential to offer answers to the other pressing political questions that come up – no to UN colonial rule in Kosovo, no to Serbia’s claims to Kosovo, no to partition. Nevertheless, all these answers are in the end fatally vitiated by the failure to answer concretely and directly the one central question that currently dominates any political discussion of the Kosovo question: the right to self-determination.


Chomsky and Partition


The other answer to the Kosovo question that has emerged from a radical source is that of territorial partition, to which Noam Chomsky, in an interview last year with Radio Television Serbia, has given his support (On the Nato Bombing of Yugoslavia RTS Online, April 25, 2006, published in Serbia’s leading newspaper Politika 7 and 8 May 2006). Chomsky stated:


“My feeling has been for a long time that the only realistic solution is one that in fact was offered by the President of Serbia I think back round 1993 [Chomsky is referring to the proposal of former Serbian President of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic], namely some kind of partition, with the Serbian, by now very few Serbs left, but what were the Serbian areas being part of Serbia and the rest be what they called “independent” which means it’ll join Albania.”


While Chomsky’s view certainly has the virtue of providing a concrete answer on the level of politics, it is nevertheless highly questionable whether it represents an adequately radical solution to the Kosovo question. There are two main reasons why this is so.


Firstly, Chomsky proposes by partition precisely what Andrej opposes – the drawing of yet another set of ethnic border lines in the Balkans. The consequences of doing so are not difficult to envisage. Even if partition were limited to Serbia gaining the three northern districts of Kosovo where Serbs are clearly in a majority, such partition, and the rancorous negotiations it is bound to entail, are certain to inflame still further the already inflammatory state of Albanian-Serb relations. Not only could this lead to yet another war over new ethnic border lines, and to yet another round of ethnic cleansing of Albanians from majority Serb districts and vice-versa, but it would also, as a consequence, leave the remaining Serbs elsewhere in Kosovo even more vulnerable. In short, partition is likely to lead to immeasurably worsened ethnic relations and even to war.


Secondly, and no less importantly, the inter-ethnic strife between Albanians and Serbs that is likely to intensify in the course of the partition process would very likely derail the most positive and significant political development in Kosovo since the 1999 war – the recent emergence of a Kosovan anti-colonial movement.


The Kosovan Anti-Colonial Movement


On 10 February this year, a 3,000 strong mass demonstration in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, demanding immediate independence from Serbia and an end to UN rule of the province, was dispersed by UN and Kosovan police using tear gas and rubber bullets. Two demonstrators were shot dead and 82 received hospital treatment. That evening, the premises of the Movement for Self-Determination (MSD), which organised the demonstration, were raided, and its leader, 31 year old Albin Kurti, was arrested. A further demonstration on 3 March demanded Kurti’s immediate release but, at the time of writing, he continues to languish in prison.


MSD’s opposition to UN rule marks nothing less than the birth of a Kosovan anti-colonial movement. Its activists, regularly arrested and harassed by the authorities, condemn the UN for being an “absolute ruler” whose “colonial occupation”, based on “force not justice”, prides itself “on being here to build democracy [but] is itself completely undemocratic”. They lambast the UN for not even ending Kosovo’s drastic electricity shortages seven years after the 1999 war. Moreover, UN rule has been conspicuously unable with its privatising neo-liberal programmes to alleviate Kosovo’s desperate levels of poverty, or to resolve Albanian-Serb hostilities with its notoriously top-down approach to this critical issue.


At the same time, despite its uncompromising demand for independence from Belgrade, MSD is not serbophobic. In 2004, its leader, Albin Kurti, opposed the mass Albanian attacks on Serb civilians and churches, leading one newspaper to condemn him for being “anti-Albanian”. Kurti rightly understood that such attacks were a bloody diversion from the struggle for decolonisation he wanted to wage.


MSD has also led opposition to the new Kosovo Peace Plan, the immediate cause of the Pristina demonstration, which the UN’s envoy, Marti Ahtisaari, announced in February. Proposing that Kosovo should have the right to join the UN and its own flag and anthem, he stopped short of calling for independence. Instead, he offered rule by an EU governor, supported by an EU-led police force and Nato troops. Unmik becomes Eumik, Kosovo remains a colony, and nothing changes. The refusal to call for independence was motivated by one overriding geopolitical fear – that an alienated Serbia might turn to Putin’s Russia, which would then secure a foothold in the Balkans.




MSD’s appearance therefore marks a shift in Kosovan politics from a destructive focus on Albanian-Serb hostilities to a focus on the struggle against the autocratic neo-colonial power the UN currently wields over Kosovo. It is not difficult to see that partition, and all it would entail, would derail this movement because it would bring back the focus on Albanian-Serb hostilities that MSD has been assiduously shifting in an anti-colonial direction.


Some Concrete Radical Perspectives


It is therefore important that radicals today support Kosovo’s right to self-determination, to an independent state within its current borders. This is neither a distant dream nor an abstract solution; on the contrary, it is politically concrete, but it is also radical not least because the demand for Kosovan independence today is assuming an anti-colonial character as the struggle to free Kosovo from autocratic UN or EU rule begins to gather steam.


As for Serbia’s claims to Kosovo, it is critical that the Serbian radical left fulfils its internationalist duty by opposing these nationalist claims. This can best be done if coupled with support for Kosovo’s right to self-determination, the right to determine its own future free of UN or EU colonial rule.


It is through such concrete political acts of internationalism by Serbs who support Kosovan Albanian national rights that agitation around social issues of common interest which Andrej points to, such as opposition to neo-liberal privatisation, can fruitfully begin. In this way too, it is possible to begin to build the kind of basic political trust between Serbs and Albanians that will make the idea of a Balkan federation a more feasible topic for mutual discussion.


One thing is certain, however: it is only by first giving concrete political support to Kosovo’s right of self-determination that left radicals in Serbia in particular will be able to cross the bridge that leads to genuine solidarity between Albanians and Serbs on the wider economic, political, and social issues they have in common. If they fail to do so today, then the national question will be used against them to derail any common initiatives they may try to undertake.





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