Macedonia and consistent democracy

Self-determination for Balkan peoples

Suddenly the Albanian population in the Balkans has become the bête noire of politicians in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. The fighting in Macedonia threatens to bring about a new, bloody phase of ethnic conflict.

The Nato imperialists, when they intervened militarily against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, had only a nebulous idea of their long-term objectives, much to the consternation of many of their more far-sighted and strategically-minded ideologues.

Their immediate purpose was to thwart Serbia and its attempt to maintain its borders in the face of massive discontent and active resistance in the Albanian region of Kosova.

The Milosevic regime in Belgrade, dominated by a coalition of outright fascists and ultra-nationalist Stalinists - whose nationalist perversion of socialist ideas had accentuated to the point that it was often difficult to distinguish one coalition-partner from another - had undertaken to militarily crush the ethnic Albanian insurgency of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). The 10 years of out-and-out apartheid-style rule in Kosova since Milosevic's removal of all political rights from the Albanian population in 1989 had finally led to an explosion among the oppressed Albanian population of Kosova. The determination of Milosevic to crush it led to the mass expulsion of the Albanian population, which had long since been an openly declared political aim of key elements of Milosevic's coalition.

The imperialists, as the history of the 20th century shows, have no principled objection to mass expulsions or even the killing of entire populations. However, this one was pretty inconvenient for them, given that the likely result would be the creation of an intractable bloody mess similar to (or worse than) the situation in the Middle East, which could only damage imperialism's political and economic hopes for the region. Since this future perspective includes at some point down the line the incorporation of south-eastern Europe into the economic and political sphere of the European Union, and thus a massively expanded market for investment and capital accumulation, Milosevic's Serbia came to be seen, after much vacillation, as a loose cannon and a destabilising menace. Thus he had to be dealt with, and cut down to size, as indeed he was.

The other side of this was that the ethnic Albanian insurgents, who were fighting a genuine war against national oppression, had to be thwarted also. The last thing that Nato wanted in the Balkans was an example to the oppressed peoples of the world that armed struggle against national oppression could be successful - if such struggle by ethnic Albanians were seen to succeed, imagine what a message that would send to Kurds suffering under the bloodthirsty chauvinist regimes in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, or to Palestinian Arabs facing the might of Israeli terror, or to Chechen victims of Russia's bloody occupation of their homeland, to name but a few.

The imperialists may have their own temporary quarrel with the current regime in Iraq, and may even hypocritically toss a few crumbs in the direction of Iraqi Kurdish rebels as long as Saddam Hussein remains. But imperialism is implacably hostile to any independent action by oppressed peoples for their own liberation. Therefore, as in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kosovar Albanians were treated to a dose of Nato 'protection' - independence was denied, indeed their status under international law as part of the rump state of Yugoslavia was guaranteed, irrespective of their wishes, and the fall of Milosevic was awaited.

For these reasons, while siding unconditionally with the rights of the oppressed Albanian population to fight against the bloody Serbian nationalist occupation, and to resist their mass expulsion by Milosevic's SS-style killers, communists were opposed to imperialism's war and its post-war 'protection' of the Kosovars. Not from the standpoint of one iota of support or defence of Milosevic's vile regime, which was often the case with many red-brown Stalinists and their tailists among various strands of Trotskyists (who happily marched on demonstrations during the war with Serb nationalist racists carrying signs supportive of the expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians), but rather from the standpoint of support for independent struggle of the oppressed. We took no side between the Nato imperialists and the Milosevic red-brown occupation forces, while supporting armed action by any ethnic Albanian formation aimed against the armed Serb occupation forces in Kosova.

In the aftermath of the overthrow of Milosevic by the Serbian masses in October 1999, the situation has changed dramatically. The imperialists have an apparently more rational regime to deal with in Belgrade which they consider less likely to engulf the region in war through attempts to expel neighbouring peoples. Meanwhile, the Albanian national question, long suppressed and in many ways the wild card of the Balkans, has dramatically reasserted itself .

No other nation in the Balkan region has suffered from such a fundamental crippling of its national aspirations as the Albanians. The mountainous, impoverished country of Albania, itself the poorest in Europe, only attained statehood in 1912. Even in a region where many states have national minorities, such as the Hungarian minorities in Serbia, Romania and Slovakia, or the Turkish minority in Greece, what is extraordinary about the Albanian question is the proportion of ethnic Albanians who live outside the Albanian state, in regions immediately geographically contiguous to Albania proper, who have been denied the right to self-determination.

The population of around 3.3 million in Albania is bordered by an adjacent ethnic Albanian population of around 2.4 million - the majority in Kosova, but around 0.4 million in western Macedonia, living in a region that is distinct from the rest of the country. The collapse of Serb rule in Kosova has evidently fired the national aspirations of this long-suppressed population, and the consequences are anything but comfortable for the imperialist 'pacifiers'.

The national question in Macedonia itself is as complex as any in the Balkans, though not because of the kind of intermingled population that for instance existed in Bosnia. The majority Macedonian population of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia speak a distinct Slavonic language, whose classification divides linguists and anthropologists - it closely resembles Bulgarian, and Bulgarian nationalists claim that it is merely a dialect of Bulgarian, and indeed that Macedonia is part of the Bulgarian nation. However, history has worked out rather differently than such nation-builders would like - the Macedonian Slav population itself has been historically divided about whether they are a separate, Macedonian national entity, or whether their close connections to Bulgaria make them co-nationals.

In addition, there is the Greek question, and the fact that for reasons of Greek history, the name 'Macedonia' is regarded by Greek nationalists as a symbol of Greek nationalism, derived primarily from the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great, an important figure for the manufacturers of national identities and modern myths in Greece.

There has in fact been a long history of Macedonian nationalism, and sometimes quite bloodthirsty terror by highly secretive conspiratorial nationalist organisations, directed against the many powers that have ruled this region. Historically this also included wide areas of the north-eastern part of Greece, including the city of Salonika. More contemporarily, there is still, despite numerous enforced population shifts in the last century, a small but significant minority of Macedonian Slavic-speaking people in Greece, who officially do not exist. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the draconian attacks on those who speak the Kurdish language in Turkey, people have been branded as traitors and legally persecuted in Greece for even daring to publicise the existence of this Slavic-speaking minority.

When the governments of Greece and Bulgaria recently expressed their support to Macedonia against ethnic Albanian insurgents, one interpretation that may have entered the minds of their respective politicians is that their declarations of support had potentially threatening undertones to each other. Such are the complexities of the Macedonian question.

So the recent emergence of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) in areas within Serbia proper that contain a predominantly ethnic Albanian population, together with the growth of the National Liberation Army (Albanian armed insurgents) in Macedonia should, when linked to the situation in Kosova, be seen as a symptom of a deep malaise, arising from the denial of rights to entire peoples. If progressive solutions are not advanced for these questions of national oppression, the situation could lead to disasters for the peoples of the region. Such denial of rights, oppression and injustice to whole peoples have the potential to lead to a cycle of fratricidal conflict and revenge.

One only has to remember that the sequel to the failed attempt by Milosevic to expel the entire ethnic Albanian population was the return of many thousands of armed and angry Albanians, whose own nationalist consciousness had been inflamed and who then proceeded to do to the Serbian minority in Kosova a smaller-scale version of what the Chetniks had done to the Albanians, with the result that the formerly dominant Serbs in Kosova are now an oppressed and persecuted minority.

In such situations, it is vital that revolutionaries advance solutions to the national question which embody the programme of consistent democracy, defending the rights of all peoples. When national struggles erupt in circumstances of low or non-existent socialist consciousness, there is a spontaneous tendency to simply reverse the terms of oppression. We must aim to neutralise this possibility and in the process engender class consciousness amongst the workers.

The actions of ethnic Albanian rebels around Macedonia and the Albanian-inhabited regions in Serbia cannot simply be condemned. For socialists to fetishise existing borders would be simply to hand over the banner of democracy to nationalism - and ultimately to the imperialists, as happened in the war over Kosova. The Socialist Workers Party, for instance, simply extends the political bankruptcy and blindness to democratic questions that led to its apologetics for Milosevic's mass expulsions in 1999, and to the shame of Chetniks marching with anti-Albanian slogans like 'Kosova is Serbian' on Socialist Worker placards, by its defence of existing borders today.

Alex Callinicos lectures the imperialists that they have let the genie of Albanian nationalism out of the bottle, and complains bitterly about "Albanian nationalist hopes of tearing up most of the borders in most of the region" (Socialist Worker March 10). But why are borders, drawn not according to the democratic will of the population that actually inhabit the region, but rather at the behest of imperial powers and rival Stalinist elites, sacrosanct for socialists? This panic-stricken lament only signifies that the economistic SWP has no answer for situations like the Balkans. It vainly hopes that the national question will disappear and the workers will spontaneously unite. But class unity has to be fought for - and consistent democracy is the only means of waging such a fight.

Adjustments of borders could be democratically agreed so as to reflect the real national composition of the populations. This might, for example, involve some Serb-inhabited territory in Kosova being ceded to Serbia, and may also involve some Albanian-inhabited territory in Serbia being ceded to Kosova or some broader Albanian nation-state - in the best-case scenario within a democratic Balkan federation. The Albanian-inhabited regions of Macedonia should certainly have the right to self-determination, as indeed should the Macedonian/Bulgarian inhabited regions.

Whether we argue for or against the exercise of this right in favour of separation is another question entirely, which can only be determined by means of a concrete view of the political situation in the entire region. It cannot be denied just because it is inconvenient. It is permissible to adjust borders to reflect the will of the population. But what is completely impermissible is to 'adjust' the population to suit the aims of one or another rival nationalism - that is 'ethnic cleansing'.

But for the left to avoid advocating consistently democratic solutions to such problems would only be to do our little bit to make certain that disaster once again blights the lives of the peoples of this troubled region. By adopting this Bolshevik perspective of consistent democracy, instead of being part of the problem, the left can provide the solution.

Ian Donovan