Kosovo: The Devil and the Details
By Roger Lippman, Peter Lippman, and Dave Lippman
It is astonishing that a progressive could visit the scene of some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II and then write about it without any acknowledgement of who the victims were. Christian Parenti’s “Colony Kosovo,” (SF Bay Guardian, August 23, 2000) fails to comprehend the nuances or even the plain truth of a complicated situation. With a shaky grasp of the history and the present-day situation in Kosovo, he cannot clearly distinguish between cause and effect.
Parenti has got hold of a couple of truths:
U.S. military intervention has usually been to the detriment of those on the receiving end.
Kosovo is a war-ravaged mess, rife with fresh ethnic hatreds.
But like so many other Left writers, Parenti seems not to have noticed the Serbian campaign against Kosovo’s self-determination, beginning with Milosevic’s ascendance in the late 1980s and continuing through the widespread atrocities that preceded NATO intervention by more than a year. Parenti manages nary a word about the criminality of Serbian actions in Kosovo.
Despite the U.S. government’s fine talk about its humanitarian aims in Kosovo, it’s just by chance that in this rare case the interests of the most oppressed, the Kosovo Albanians, overlapped (not to say coincided) with the interests of the Western political and economic establishments.
Progressives have had a very hard time getting their minds around this ironic situation. Ordinarily, a lot of good people could be counted upon to oppose a racist, genocidal war against a poor population. In the case of Kosovo, most of them have either stayed on the sidelines or found themselves in the streets demonstrating side-by-side with Serbian nationalists and political groups who believe that they are speaking out in defense of a Serbian socialism that is, in actual fact, long gone.
The Left has bought consistency of anti-interventionism at the expense of relative silence regarding the local fascist forces. Witness the constant parade in the Left press of notices of Kosovar wrongdoing, without the same regarding Serb actions. This is intended to prove the U.S. backed the wrong horse. Left opposition to the NATO bombing was not necessarily the same as supporting Milosevic’s war, but the Left’s failure to understand or support Kosovo appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction to NATO intervention.
There comes a time when aggression against a defenseless people becomes such a clear crime that it is a bigger crime for other nations to stand idle than to intervene. (Consider the cases for intervention: the U.S. in World War II; Vietnam vs. Pol Pot.) In reference to Serbian military activities, the pacifist leader Howard Clark, of War Resisters International, said, "There are moments when the military manage to put a nonviolent solution beyond immediate reach.”
Let’s take a look at the main problems with Parenti’s article.
The United Nations
The Serbian assault on Kosovo in 1988-99 left the province with no government to speak of and precious little infrastructure. It is the role of the United Nations to oversee the rebuilding of Kosovo as a functional entity. Parenti is unhappy that “The U.N. has opened Kosovo to a kaleidoscopic jumble of governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) ranging from Oxfam to obscure evangelical ministries.” The U.N. does not implement programs but rather funnels money from member states to implementing partners such as Oxfam. Issues identified by the U.N., such as shelter, food, water, and sanitation, are coordinated, funded, and supported by the U.N. but implemented by NGOs. To Parenti, this appears to be “imperialism.”
Parenti complains that the U.N. Representative’s powers include censoring the local press. And well they should. A newspaper printed the name and workplace address of a Serb whom it accused of being a war criminal, and someone went there and shot him. No due process. And while Parenti expresses concern about anti-Serb abuses, he is championing freedom for the Albanian press to endanger Serbs. Post-war reconstruction is not a walk in the park. Certainly we can all imagine situations in which such controls are appropriate; this is one of them.
In an important move to improve the quality of life in northern Kosovo, U.N. police seized and shut down a lead smelter that for years had been one of the worst polluters in Europe. The U.N. will invest $16 million this year to clean up the most significant environmental damages and develop a plan to make the plant operable again. We mention these actions to show that there are measures taken in this transition that make sense and do not require explanation through recourse to one-dimensional anti-U.S. rhetoric. That kind of formula is, at the least, disrespectful to the people on the ground, and it significantly hobbles the ability of the Left to make useful critiques of world events.
Human Rights Violations and NATO Intervention
Parenti cites left-wing critics of the U.N. administration “who argue that American and European corporate power and military aid are the main causes of human rights violations internationally.” Yes, but what has this got to do with greater-Serbian expansionism and genocide? Why did Parenti go to Kosovo and then write about human rights violations everywhere but there?
We are rightfully suspicious of U.S. intervention, and well prepared to oppose it, but it’s worth our while to think about what brought NATO into Kosovo. There was a present danger of Milosevic’s wars spreading beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia and engulfing Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, and other surrounding countries. Additionally, there was the potential for massive flows of poor Muslim refugees to Western Europe. None of this was desirable to Western governments and commercial interests, whose priority is to maintain stability and continue business as usual.
Racism had a lot to do with the development of Serbia’s aggressive wars, which started and ended in Kosovo. Yugoslavia began to fall apart with the economic decline that followed Tito’s death. The process was exacerbated by the rise of fascism, personified by Milosevic, who built his popularity on bashing Albanians starting in the late 1980s and went on from there. Serbs, including many in the opposition now coming to power, have a racism against Albanians that is as systemic as what is found in Mississippi.
U.S. Leftists have plenty of experience opposing racist wars. But we have heard virtually no calls here for solidarity with the oppressed Albanians. Not in the late 80s and early 90s, when their movement was remarkably non-violent, and not in the late 90s, when the limitations of that movement led many Kosovo Albanians to form an armed liberation movement, the KLA. For that matter, U.S. progressives were mostly absent in 1991, when support was needed for the victims of greater-Serbian expansionism in Croatia, and subsequently during the war in Bosnia. What was neglect by the Left a decade ago became denial by the time of Kosovo.
Milosevic’s attacks on Kosovo neatly bracketed his wars on Croatia and Bosnia. Taken all together, the Serbian wars should make clear that Kosovo is the moral and political equivalent of Chiapas.
Sadly, as his authority on the supposed evils of the KLA, Parenti quotes a racist South Jersey cop who hates Albanians – and Parenti “almost agrees” with him. The KLA was composed of all types of people, from Marxists to monarchists, and from petty crooks to really heroic community-minded types. Now there is chaos and anarchy, and people like Parenti are blaming the KLA, as much because the West accidentally came down on their side (for a while, in a way) as for any other reason at all. There are other imperfect guerrillas in the world - some much more so. Can we soon expect to hear Leftist commentators condemning the FARC while remaining silent on Colombian government and right-wing paramilitary activities?”
For all of Parenti’s complaints about pro-Albanian judges (read, “pro-Black judges in Washington, DC”) in a province that is, after all, 90+ per cent Albanian, it should also be noted that there is now an international judiciary set up in addition to the local judges.
Parenti writes, “The U.N.'s paper pushers [whatever that is supposed to mean] are hard at work trying to turn Kosovo into a free-market paradise.” But there’s no chance of maintaining a socialist economy in Kosovo now, any more than anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia. Sad to say, what a progressive would recognize as socialism wasn’t working that well in Yugoslavia anyway. He is naively concerned about Western dismantling of a “socialism” that has been gone for years. Anyone still laboring under the illusion that the rump Yugoslavia is a workers’ world needs to do a little catch-up reading.
He complains about U.N. privatization of Kosovo’s industries, while conceding that they are actually just being leased. That sounds like a pretty good idea - the U.N. knows it can’t sell state property. What matters is getting the economy going again. The leasing is an argument in favor of the U.N. protectorate. Compare to Bosnia, which is not a protectorate, where the nationalist gangsters are ruining the industries so they can buy them cheap when they get privatized. That's less likely in Kosovo.
And how have all these industries have been run in the last 10 years? There has been major environmental degradation, and money has been sucked out of Kosovo and into the pockets of Milosevic and his cronies. Serbia was running Kosovo into the ground through neglect and its own version of privatization. They were getting ready to sell off a significant portion of Kosovo's electrical production company to Greeks and Italians, as they had done with Serbia's Post and Telecom exchange (PTT). So much for Milosevic's socialism. Privatization was how he paid his police force.
Another positive development that Parenti apparently was not aware of is that several businesses are now owned or run by worker cooperatives. For example, this is being tried in at a winery in Orahovac, with international partners, as well as at cement and tile plants. The U.S. and some in the U.N. think that they should all be privatized and run by a local entrepreneur or an international company. Those in the EU who are heading up the reconstruction effort are more willing to look at the model of worker-owned cooperatives.
Parenti says that the U.N. unilaterally ditched the Yugoslavian dinar for the German mark. Actually, both currencies can be used in Kosovo. The mark has become the currency of choice but Serbs and Albanians alike were using it before. Swiss francs and British pounds are also in use.
In a paragraph with more misrepresentations than sentences, Parenti attempts to paint a picture of hopeless despair:
Despite the city's modernist aesthetic (the place was rebuilt from scratch after an earthquake in 1963), Prishtina has no public transportation or refuse collection. All the most impressive modernist buildings downtown have been reduced to bombed-out relics. Throngs of cell phone-wielding crowds and streams of new Mercedes and Audis choke the streets below the charred towers. Water and electrical services are intermittent, yet several cybercafés and brothels operate around the clock.
Only a few of the buildings were “reduced to relics” by NATO bombing - the police station, a bank, the PTT, and perhaps one or two others. ”All” is a ridiculous exaggeration. Nor did the Serbs wreck Prishtina, as they did Mitrovica and Pec. Prishtina is not Grozny, bombed almost at random.
There is definitely public transport, and U.N. and KFOR subsidies have helped get it back up and running.
Early on, KFOR took over garbage pickup, employing locals. The operation was then handed over to the U.N., which contracted with a local company.
The reason for the cell phones is that the wired phone system is unreliable, as in most underdeveloped countries. Of course the NATO bombing of the PTT didn’t help. What does still work goes through Belgrade, and a lot does not work because of years of neglect.
Parenti cites a population of 800,000 for Prishtina. The pre-war figure was about 250,000, and while accurate current estimates are problematic, Reuters correspondents and others familiar with the city quote a figure of about 400,000.
Parenti consistently misspelled the name of U.N. Special Representative Bernard Kouchner, as well as the town of Mitrovica, the front line of ongoing clashes between Albanians and Serbs.
Peter Lippman, of Seattle, has traveled and worked throughout the former Yugoslavia over the past 20 years. He has visited Kosovo six times since 1981, including extensive research visits in March 1998 and July 1999. He recently returned from two years working in Bosnia as a translator, journalist, and relief worker.
For some further discussion of this article, click here.
Peter Lippman's LETTERS from KOSOVO and BOSNIA