NATO's War Against Yugoslavia

Nato's war against Yugoslavia
undercurrent #7

Officially, Nato's war against Yugoslavia was "a battle for the values of civilisation"(Blair). Yet the proclaimed concern with the humanitarian situation in Kosovo is nothing but war propaganda. Nato states back regimes worse than Milosevic's and the purported sympathy for the refugees gives way to hostility as soon as they enter Western countries. More fundamentally, the statesmen allegedly worried about the Kosovo Albanians administer a form of society which with necessity causes immense human suffering (and whose only possible legitimisation lies therefore in the lack of any better alternative). In order to understand the war in the Balkans, we need to examine the driving force behind Nato intervention.

Far from being simply dragged into the conflict, Nato wanted war and instigated it. The so-called negotiations in Rambouillet were obviously intended to spark off war. Yugoslavia was presented with a treaty it could not sign: it demanded free access to the whole of its territory for Nato troops and would have thus meant the end of territorial integrity and sovereignty. The point is not that we care about the sovereignty of states, but simply that this treaty was obviously meant to be rejected by the Serb side as it was a clear provocation. The Western powers were not unanimously anti-Serbian before the war. While Germany revived its anti-Serbian policies from the Nazi period in the early 90's, promoted secession on ethnic-nationalist grounds and consequently (though not overtly) supported the nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the US main concern was to avoid the Greater Albania the KLA was aiming for, since that would de-stabilise the region even further[1]. Until December 1998 the US tried to prevent the arms supply to the KLA, and labelled it a terrorist organisation, giving Milosevic the go-ahead to militarily suppress Kosovar-Albanian separatism. However, this policy was abandoned when the US suddenly turned against Milosevic, a shift confirmed at Rambouillet, thus making war inevitable.

But why was Nato so keen on war? A common interpretation of wars waged by capitalist powers is to point out "economic interests" in the region concerned. Yet this is not the case with Kosovo. The war against Serbia differs from the Gulf war 1991, in that there is no oil and nothing comparable to it. The Rambouillet treaty in fact demanded that "the economy of Kosovo shall function in accordance with free market principles", but it seems unlikely that this was the objective behind the bombing. Although Yugoslavia still has a high level of nationalised industry (possibly an indication of working class resistance to privatisation projects), it no longer seems necessary to initiate bombing campaigns in order to open up markets. The last decades witnessed a failure of all attempts at state protectionism, from the Eastern bloc to Latin America. Furthermore, what has Western capital to gain in Serbia, let alone Kosovo, by far the poorest part of former Yugoslavia? There is no shortage of cheap and obedient labour around the globe. If this was the primary problem of capital, it would queue up in Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Yet investment in the former Eastern bloc is low and highly selective. Most parts of Eastern Europe are very unlikely to become centres of investment; in fact, it looks as if the bulk of the population is simply redundant from the standpoint of capital. The carve-up of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s followed this trend in so far as those regions most likely to be integrated into European capitalism -Slovenia and Croatia- broke away from the Yugoslav state, leaving behind the less competitive regions[2].

A similar interpretation of the general rationale behind the wars of the major powers was put forward in the "No war but the class war! Discussion Bulletin" from London. The purpose of the war from this perspective is "...to open up these regimes' economies to the free market. This is not so much done by overthrowing the government but by decimating and demoralising the working class and wiping out the rebelliousness that caused the problem for capital in the first place"[3]. This claim, however, is rather problematic. On the first hand, while the pro-market restructuring in the 1980's faced severe resistance from a working class defending its living conditions (see article in this undercurrent), we have not come across any major signs of proletarian "rebelliousness" in Serbia in the years following the civil war - there was a pro-western, pro-democratic liberal opposition to Milosevic, but this can hardly be termed "proletarian". Of course, the fact that we have not come across anything does not mean that there was nothing like that going on. But the only recent signs of resistance mentioned in the 'No war but the class war'-Bulletin are desertions by Serb soldiers, which although by far the most promising moments of this war, cannot be used retrospectively to explain the emergence of the war in the first place[4]. Secondly, as argued above, the underlying assumption that capital has any significant stake in the region seems at least doubtful.

The theatre of imperialism

Far from following any "economic logic" in the narrow sense, the role of the West in former Yugoslavia is that of the world police monitoring the permanent crisis in this part of the capitalist periphery. Its rationale is not, as was the case with old-style imperialism, to dominate countries politically and militarily in order to exploit them, but to prevent chaos and instability, to safeguard the capitalist centres against the massive influx of refugees. Another dimension of the war was the clear strategy of the West to diminish Russia's sphere of influence in Europe, by edging it out of any post-war settlement, something that Russia seems unwilling to accept, as the recent minor confrontations between Russia's and Nato's ground forces suggest.

Yet whilst this is something of a common interest, Yugoslavia has furthermore become the battle-field for strategic rivalries amongst the powerful capitalist states. Ever since the collapse of the cold war order, the whole system of world politics is in transition, the direction of which seems uncertain. US hegemony has been questioned by the emergence of a strong European bloc. Reunified Germany in particular clearly aspired to gain more autonomy in its foreign policy. For example, it escalated the Balkan conflict when it independently recognised Croatia and Slovenia in 1991, thus signalling that any ethnic-nationalist secession will be welcomed by the new powerful German state (see, again, ...in this undercurrent).

The massive US involvement in the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia served the purpose of underscoring US hegemony and ensuring that, in the future, the US will maintain its influence in Europe. The priority is not so much to assert a certain policy, but to stay in Europe in the first place. The main vehicle for this is Nato. The war provided Nato, deprived of its former enemy (the USSR), with a new rationale, just in time for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Nato in April. It is no exaggeration to say that the war was actually fought over Nato's future: during the Rambouillet negotiations, the Yugoslav side was willing to accept an international UN force in Kosovo, while the West insisted on Nato presence. (And since now Kosovo is ruled by a UN mission consisting of Nato forces, both sides can claim to have won). Furthermore, it was an excellent opportunity for Germany to finally fully re-militarise its foreign policy and thus gain the status of a completely sovereign nation state. Britain, the most hawkish among the Nato states during this war, could gain international profile, and is now symbolically "rewarded" with getting Pristina, the capital of Kosovo according to the plans for the military occupation. During the war, British papers questioned the US capability of being the world power due to its reluctance to deploy ground troops, while the US annoyed Britain with delaying the movement into Kosovo until the arrival of US troops - to ensure their share of the "glory of liberation". This way, the "humanitarian war" became the theatre for international rivalries -although it happened in Serbia and Kosovo, it was not exclusively about Serbia and Kosovo.

Communism or Barbarism

Kosovo will be a Nato protectorate under the formal organisation of the UN. Whether it will, in the long run, remain with Serbia, i.e. in Yugoslavia, become independent or join Albania is a matter of speculation and neither option will improve the situation of the people living there. The preoccupation with these formal-legal questions displaces the simple truth that whatever the political framework, the economic prospects for the region are grim and mass unemployment inevitable; and as long as capital exists, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited, i.e. being redundant.

This fate is one Kosovar-Albanians share with most people in Serbia - already now, an estimated 40 per cent are unemployed in Serbia, and an opening up to the Western market will simply speed up the process of slashing jobs in inefficient industries and services. In the end, those with crap jobs will be the lucky ones, and this real absurdity underscores the fact that capital deserves nothing less than complete abolition. The current talk about a "Marshall plan" for the region that invokes notions of the relative prosperity in Western Europe after World War II merely seeks to veil the bleak future of the population of Kosovo. It appeals to the equally common-sensical and non-sensical idea that with a bit of good-will, hard labour and sufficient money, one can establish flourishing capitalist production anywhere and any time - an idea shared by considerable parts of the anti-war-movement that demanded economic aid (read: capitalist development) for the Balkans.

Eastern state capitalism has imploded, and all Western-style free market capitalism has brought about is an exacerbation of the living conditions which nurtured ethnic barbarism. Although, in contrast to the bulk of the impoverished population, the elites in the Balkans certainly benefit from nationalism, it is misleading to deduce from this that nationalism was a mere "tool" used by them as a means of manipulation, a view that invokes a false image of the Yugoslav population as passive and malleable. In fact, nationalism was only the last resort for many; in a world of abstractions, the eternity of "ethnic" identity, of blood, seems to promise security and survival. The less the market provides living prospects, the more desperate the ideological need to seek refuge in the good nation state that 'truly serves its people'. That the Yugoslav state has nothing much to offer to its inmates except poverty and repression, appears not as the nature of peripheral states per se, but as a malignancy stemming from the "wrong ethnic" basis of that state. Just as the new Palestinian quasi-state has brought about the replacement of Israeli police by Palestinian police, a future Albanian authority in Kosovo - possibly to be provided by the KLA - would differ from the Yugoslav one only in its uniforms and victims (Serbs are already leaving Kosovo in their thousands). The practices of the KLA, aspiring to run the ruins of Eastern state capitalism, anticipate the essence of the state they plan to establish. The KLA began its career with attacks on Serb refugees in Krajina, and then on Serb police and civilians in Kosovo[5]. Yet the violence of the state-to-be is also directed against its future subjects: during the mass exodus of Kosovar Albanians in the last of couple months, the KLA intercepted the refugees' convoys and recruited men for its heroic "liberation struggle" -with force, if necessary. Freedom for Kosovo is precisely the opposite of freedom for those living in Kosovo. For in reality, "National liberation consists of the liberation of the guerrilla chairman and its national police from the chains of powerlessness"[6].

Contrary to the rhetoric of Western civilisation vs. barbarism, capitalism and ethnic slaughter go hand in hand. Ethnic cleansing is just another form of the generalised competition in capitalism, marking the transition from decaying capitalism to a society of gangs and rackets. Genuine communism - not the caricature the Eastern bloc was, but a society beyond wage-labour, state, and the market - is at the same more necessary and less likely than ever.

"The irrationality of the existing society changes all partial 'rationality' into irrationality and turns rulers and ruled alike into prisoners of circumstances beyond their control. Obviously, the war...makes 'no sense' even to the capitalist, for it cannot serve as an instrumentality for arresting the historic decline of private-enterprise capitalism. It only attests to the fact that capitalism has become a purely destructive social system and that it will remain such until the people of the earth put an end to it"[7]. The independent US-American communist Paul Mattick wrote this 33 years ago about the war in Vietnam, yet its relevance remains disturbingly intact.

[1] One should not forget the Albanian revolt of 1996/7 that led to the collapse of the Berisha government which the West highly favoured for keeping the borders between Albania and Yugoslavia/Kosovo well -policed.

2 This process is analysed in the article "The Workers Have no Fatherland..."

3 No war but the class war! Discussion Bulletin, No. 1, London, April 1999. C/o PO Box 2474, London N8 OHW, or e-mail escape6@hotmail.com

4 A good account of these desertions which started in mid-May can be found in No war but the class war! No. 3

5 Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, May 1999

6 Breakdown Notes, Nightmare and hope in the Balkans, London, April 1999

7 Paul Mattick, 'The United States in South East Asia', International Socialist Journal, Rome, March 1966