Kosovo and the Left:
Serbian Atrocities and U.S. Intervention
By Roger Lippman
(Updated June 3, 1999)
The response of many progressives to the Serbian repression of the people of Kosovo has been to condemn U.S. intervention, and even to minimize the Serbian atrocities. People seem largely unaware of Serbian attacks on Kosovo before the NATO intervention. March, 1999, was not when the problem began.
It disturbs me to see people reflexively opposing outside intervention above a concern for the people being killed, raped, expelled from their homeland. There have been times in my life when the reality that I observed conflicted with my politics, and I was forced to re-examine my view of the world to account for that. This may be such a time for many of us.
When NATO began military action against Yugoslavia, many progressives immediately took up the call to stop the intervention, and even brought out the same signs that had been used in demonstrations against U.S. intervention in Central America, Iraq, etc.
But for many of us, the answer is not that simple. As a 35-year activist in labor, civil rights, anti-intervention, solidarity, and environmental movements, I find myself in solidarity with the people of Kosovo, who must be defended against the Serbian forces bent on obliterating their society.
Recent news, from almost any source, portrays Serb destruction of Kosovo (which started well before the NATO bombings), the forced evacuation of entire cities, and the systematic murder of men from the ages of 15 to 60. These crimes are comparable to the Khmer Rouge destruction of Cambodia, the Serb destruction of Bosnia, and the U.S. in Vietnam.
We are fairly adept at recognizing the lies of the U.S. government, but not as familiar with seeing the faults of its enemies. We need a background in recent history to be able to understand the situation and sort out Serbian propaganda.
The status of all the Yugoslav republics was determined by the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. Under that constitution, Kosovo had almost identical rights as the other areas. But as a concession at the time to Serbian feelings, it was deemed an autonomous "province" of Serbia, mainly lacking only the theoretical right to secede.
See the article Kosovo Contradictions, from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Yugoslav President Milosevic rose to power by exploiting the Serbian nationalism that had been latent during the long reign of Tito. In 1989 he unconstitutionally revoked the autonomous status of Kosovo and instituted a brutal occupation. The 90% ethnic Albanian majority was denied the right to have schools in its own language, and large numbers of Albanian professionals were fired from their jobs. Over the past decade there have been arrests without charge, indefinite detention, disappearances, torture, assassinations, and attacks on villages.
In response to the Serbian occupation, there arose a massive, remarkably non-violent ethnic Albanian opposition movement, which was largely ignored or even unnoticed by most of the world, especially those in a position to do anything to support it.
Serbian repression increased. In 1997 and 1998, the Albanian people's movement mobilized demonstrations of over 100,000 people. But for all its dignity and massive base of support, the movement was outmatched by the sheer military power of the Serbian authorities.
As a result of the failure of the non-violent movement to make significant progress, small armed groups formed to fight the Serbian repression. These poorly armed and trained groups became the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
In the spring of 1997, the economy of the neighboring country of Albania totally collapsed. In the resulting chaos, Albanian military weapons were stolen when armories were raided and completely emptied. The weapons were given away or sold for a pittance, flooding into Kosovo and to the KLA. While there have been circulating some silly allegations that the KLA is financed, variously, by the CIA, drug trafficking, and/or organized crime, the major source of foreign support, beyond Albanian weapons, has been remittances from overseas Albanian immigrants.
However, the KLA was no match for the Yugoslav army, which historically was built to protect the country against attacks from both the east and the west, and not long ago was among the five largest military forces in Europe.
3. Failed negotiations
Months ago, the international community, including Russia, attempted to negotiate a settlement between the Serbian government and the Albanians of Kosovo. Months of discussions produced a compromise reluctantly accepted by the Kosovars, but rejected by Milosevic. Meanwhile, it was clear that Milosevic had no intention of negotiating an agreement.
NATO, too, has responsibility for the failure. Going back to the Croatia and Bosnia wars, the West arranged cease-fires and allowed them to be broken with no consequences. They never once really pushed back at Milosevic and the other separatists. They taught him that he could get away with atrocities.
Ignoring an October cease-fire, Milosevic massed police and troops in Kosovo and along its borders in numbers far beyond those allowed by the cease-fire plan. Throughout 1998, Yugoslav forces were shelling towns, looting, and burning villages, even right in front of the OSCE cease-fire verification force then in place. See, for example, the Serb preparations for Kosovo attack started long before bombing, Knight Ridder Newspapers, April 12, 1999.
Attempts at negotiations are not a new idea. It is precisely because they failed to stop the escalating repression that we have come to the unfortunate situation of outside military intervention.
4. NATO military intervention
NATO's mission is to neutralize Serb expansionism, with its threat to European stability - to prevent the spread of a hot war across borders into Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, and beyond. Those interests may coincide with protecting the Kosovo Albanians from being obliterated and restoring their autonomy.
Those who oppose NATO military intervention should be asked what they had to say before. Did they ever speak for the defense of Kosovo against Serbia? (Or, for that matter, are they speaking in defense of the Kosovars now?) They have the responsibility to offer serious, credible alternatives. Otherwise, their alternative to intervention is to give Milosevic a free hand. The last decade and the last months show that Milosevic did not and will not negotiate over Kosovo in good faith. The years of organized non-violence by ethnic Albanians yielded only sustained violence from the Serbs and virtually nothing from the international community. Meanwhile, the example of the Serbian destruction of Bosnia was right there in front of us, and the same or worse has been happening in Kosovo.
Some say that intervention in Kosovo should be under the auspices of the U.N. Clearly, that would be better than NATO. However, given the opposition of China and Russia, who have veto power, the Security Council has not been able to reach agreement on any intervention. So the result would be to leave the Kosovo Albanians at the mercy of Milosevic. If the final destruction of Kosovo is to be prevented, someone has to act. (For background on the role of the U.N., see The UN's Surprising Support, by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.)
Even if the bombing was a mistake, and negotiations should have been given more of a chance, where does that leave us now? Can the parties realistically revert to the situation of mid March? Remember that negotiations to get Milosevic to stop the destruction of the Albanians went on for a long time, and he continually broke his promises, as he did with Bosnia.
It demeans the peace movement to be standing out there in alliance with Serb nationalists, chanting the same old slogans left over from the 80s, without speaking out for the human rights of the Kosovars and calling repression, atrocities, and crimes against humanity by their names. The movement strips itself of its ethical legitimacy with its alternately simplistic and deceitful response to this crisis.
Anti-interventionism, socialism (to taste), a dash or two of pacifism, and identification with the oppressed have guided progressives well over the last four decades. Some have come to rely on these principles to the point where they don't think about the facts. Suddenly we're in a situation where most people don't know the complex history, and the facts don't fit our usual assumptions.
As Physicians for Human Rights recently stated,
Horrible abuses of all types occur all over the world, but the crime of genocide is in a class by itself. The [UN] Genocide Convention, which the United States has signed and ratified, defines the crime as:
...acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group... by killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction, in whole or in part.
We at Physicians for Human Rights believe that what is occurring in Kosovo meets that test. Milosevic and his forces are clearly destroying at least a part of this ethnic group by forcibly driving almost half its population out of Kosovo, by targeted killings of community leaders, by the execution of Kosovar men, and boys, and the whole-scale demolition of homes, villages, and cultural and religious sites. Our government is legally required by the Genocide Convention to prevent, suppress, and punish the crime of genocide.
The "socialism" of Milosevic is akin to the dehumanization, ethnic chauvinism, forced evacuation, and mass murders of civilians characteristic of the "socialism" of Pol Pot, or the National Socialism of Germany.
Curiously, Serbian propaganda is being uncritically disseminated by some self-described socialists, including the Workers World Party (and its front group, the International Action Center). They should be ashamed of themselves for justifying Milosevic's genocidal strategies against the Kosovars in the name of the working class and the oppressed, while imagining that the Milosevic government has anything to do with socialism.
To pacifists who oppose the NATO bombing I ask, what should be done to stop the Serbian war crimes? Howard Clark of War Resisters International wrote recently, "There are moments when the military manage to put a nonviolent solution beyond immediate reach."
Pacifists are failing to distinguish between the violence that inflicts oppression and the violence that resists it. Those who fail to extend solidarity with the Kosovars today are taking an accommodating position towards genocide itself.
6. A Better Approach
Many progressives are so confused by NATO intervention on the side of the Kosovars that they have to belittle the oppression and the struggle of the Kosovars in order to justify their own anti-imperialism. With weak or non-existent positions on the crimes of the Milosevic regime, the Left has found itself in a substantially less credible position than that of the U.N., whose international tribunal recently indicted top Yugoslav authorities for crimes against humanity.
Progressives must acknowledge the primacy of the original problem: Milosevic's decade of ethnic warfare. Once we are clear about our responsibility to support the victims of his campaign, we can have an honest debate about the appropriate role of NATO, the U.S., and the rest of the international community in dealing with the problems in Kosovo, and how to work creatively for solutions. The Left then can regain its legitimacy as a voice for the oppressed and a credible participant in the Kosovo discussion.
We should advocate:
Autonomy, at the least, for Kosovo. NATO must not sell out the Albanians: there should be no partition of Kosovo, no armed Serbian authorities in Kosovo.
Resources for the reconstruction of Kosovo.
A democratic Serbia and assistance for its reconstruction. No aid to the Milosevic government.
Your comments are welcome. Contact Balkan Witness