Kosova needs genuine self-determination

Eddie Ford analyses the recent elections in Serbia and the plans for "limited independence" for Kosova

Following the Serbian parliamentary elections of January 21, attempts are still being made to cobble together some sort of relatively stable coalition government. Clearly no easy task, given the highly fractious and volatile nature of Serbian politics. However, no matter how great their apparent differences or formal programmes, one thing that seems to unite all the respective parties is flat opposition to the right of the Kosovar Albanians to self-determination.

So, cheeringly for the Kosovars, the 'extremist' Vojislav Å eÅ¡elj - now facing trial for "war crimes" in The Hague - and his ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party won 28.7% of the vote, securing them 81 seats in the 250-seat legislature. Then we had the 'moderate' Boris Tadic, the current president of Serbia and leader of the pro-European Union Democrat Party, taking 22.9% of the vote and winning 65 seats. Next there was the 'semi-extremist' Vojislav KoÅ¡tunica - the Serbian prime minister - and his nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia (or 'Popular Coalition'), gaining 16.7% and 47 seats. After that, the G17 Plus got 6.8%, the Socialist Party of Serbia ended up with 5.64% and (deep breath) the Liberal Democratic Party-Civic Alliance of Serbia-Social Democratic Union-League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina managed 5.31%. The other remaining parties got eight seats between them.

In a bureaucratic attempt to partially offset sectarian tensions, those officially registered as 'ethnic minority parties' did not need to surpass the 5% threshold in order to gain seats in the parliament - but instead just needed 0.4%. Thus, for instance, the Roma Union of Serbia was allocated one seat thanks to its 4.2% vote. Furthermore, the d'Hondt method was used to distribute parliamentary mandates. This allows parties having relatively few votes to be represented, and was precisely the system used to distribute ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland executive.

However, the stubborn fact remains that the Kosovar Albanians will continue to be denied their democratic right to self-determination. True, for the first time in over a decade, Albanian parties from the Preševo Valley in southern Serbia's Pcinja district participated in the elections. The Albanian Coalition from Preševo Valley - to use its official name - got 4.2% of the vote (one seat), and is pledged to defend and advance ethnic Albanian minority rights in that region.

However, the Kosovar Albanian parties continued their boycott of all Serbian elections and censuses - a position steadfastly maintained since 1990. Indeed, most Kosovar Albanians are not registered to vote at all. This is hardly surprising really, as the process is predicated on the fundamental denial of their democratic rights. It is a universal assumption in official Serbian politics that the Kosovar Albanians will be denied self-determination in perpetuum.

This was graphically revealed last October, when KoÅ¡tunica cynically engineered and easily won a referendum on a proposed draft Serbian constitution. In the first article of this new constitution, Serbia is defined as a "state of the Serb people and all its citizens" - with the preamble describing Kosova as an "integral part" (or even "eternal part", depending which translation you use) of Serbia, albeit one which theoretically exercises "fundamental autonomy".

Naturally, the likes of Å eÅ¡elj, Tadic KoÅ¡tunica, etc all pledge their loyalty to the new constitution. Indeed, Å eÅ¡elj's Radical Party has, Ian Paisley-style, vowed "never to surrender" - that is, never to accede to the democratic wishes of the Kosovar Albanians. 'Moderates' like Tadic, of course, echo such nationalist and anti-democratic sentiments - even if they might express them in a less vituperative fashion.

And the same goes for the United Nations and all the 'great powers'. The UN mediator on this issue, Martti Ahtisaari, has just called for a degree of "limited independence" for the province of Kosova, made up of some 87% (mostly muslim) ethnic Albanians. But this relies on a UN vote, and Russia is almost certain to use its veto.

Russia steadfastly upholds Belgrade's "eternal" claim to Kosova - in part because of a common Slavic identity forged in opposition to the Turkish Ottomans, in part because of a common orthodox christian tradition, and in part because of Moscow's own thorny problem with muslim separatists in Chechnya and elsewhere.

As for the US, the UK, Germany and France, they want to integrate the whole Balkan region into the European Union. Towards that end their answer is to grant Kosova "limited independence" and try to persuade Serbia to accept the facts on the ground in return for EU membership "¦ and all that means in terms of aid, labour remittances and the world's biggest market. However, standing by the right to national self-determination would not only upset Belgrade and Moscow, but others too who face their own national questions - such  as Cyprus, Greece and Spain. Hence the most likely scenario in the short term is the continuation of the UN protectorate.

On the other hand, the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians, beyond a shadow of doubt, want and demand full independence - not "autonomy", "limited" national rights or any other stitch-up. Self-evidently, the Kosovar people have expressed that wish time and time again - whether through explicit support for the Kosova Liberation Army in its struggle against the Serbian army and its paramilitary death squads or through the boycotting (whether politically wise or not) of Serbian-run elections. Only the wilfully blind - or terminally chauvinist - can fail to see this.

Unlike the imperialists and Serbian political elite, then, communists support the right of Kosovar Albanians to self-determination - and have always done so. While we favour the coming together of all peoples, the biggest possible state units and the eventual abolition of all borders, we recognise that this can only be achieved on a voluntary basis. Eg, we favour not the break-up of the bureaucratic EU by splitting away various countries, but winning working class domination over the EU as a whole. Our EU would be fully democratic and centralised.

Kosova is an oppressed nation under UN/Nato forces. That oppression began, however, under the Yugoslavian 'socialist' state inaugurated by Tito - where Kosova was denied the status of a republic. A 'democratic deficit' which turned into brutal oppression under Slobodan Miloševic's vile Serbian chauvinism. Not only were Albanian universities and the Kosova parliament closed down in a most despotic manner, but in 1999 the Serbian authorities launched a naked pogrom against the Kosovars.

Milosevic's assault on Kosova was designed to utterly crush even the semblance of remaining rights for the Kosovar Albanians, whose territory was to be fully incorporated into 'greater Serbia'. As part of this monstrous irredentist drive, Kosovars were forced to flee their homes and livelihoods and retreat across the border into Albania. Up to 250,000 ethnic Albanians took to the road, 'encouraged' by the Yugoslavian army and its Serbian paramilitary accomplices in Kosova. Thousands were killed. Here was Miloševic's 'final solution'.

Disgracefully, many of those considered 'darlings of the left' lined up to pour scorn on the idea of Kosovar self-determination - many even denied the reality of Kosovar oppression and suffering. So we heard people of the calibre of Tony Benn, Harold Pinter, John Pilger and Noam Chomsky tell us that the Kosovar Albanians had somehow brought it upon themselves - they were 'drug runners', 'agents of Nato', 'mafia members', 'neo-Nazis' and so on. Frankly, many of these statements - motivated by not much more than a petty and myopic 'anti-Americanism' - bordered on, if not crossed over into, rank anti-Albanian chauvinism.

Even more outrageously, the 'revolutionary Marxist' Socialist Workers Party well and truly ratted on the Kosovar Albanians as soon as the Nato bombs started to fall in 1999 - leaving them to the tender mercies of 'anti-imperialist' Serbia. This was, of course, before the SWP discovered islamophobia.

Throughout the anti-Kosovar war raged by Serbia, the SWP - like many on the left - totally failed to address the central democratic issue surrounding the conflict. Instead, the comrades moaned about the "catastrophe" and "horror" of the Balkans war - occasionally chastising the MiloÅ¡evic regime, but always firmly placing the blame for Serbian ethnic cleansing on Nato and imperialism.

Hence, for example, we read in Socialist Worker: "Nato ... played a crucial role in accelerating the terror faced by Kosovan Albanians ... The scale of killings and ethnic cleansing soared after March 24, the day the Nato bombing began ... There were killings before March 24, but they were on a relatively small scale, similar to those which, disgracefully, go on every day in regimes throughout the world. Nato created the climate in which murder and torture became a hundred times more likely" (June 26 1999).

In other words, had it not been for Nato's air offensive, MiloÅ¡evic would have limited himself to killing only "relatively small" numbers of muslims in Kosova. This would have been "disgraceful", to be sure, but nothing out of the ordinary. An abhorrent but typical position from the SWP, which demonstrates - not for the first time, and definitely not the last - how the organisation seems to think that a commitment to 'anti-imperialism' gives you carte blanche to junk the struggle for democracy, leaving us with an 'anti-imperialism' which is robbed of its emancipatory content. Monstrously, in this particular case it became a craven apologia for the violence of the oppressors - as if the Serbian regime's ersatz 'anti-imperialism' represented or advanced any kind of working class interests.

Even worse, if possible, was the SWP's attempt to retrospectively justify its position when looking back on the conflict the following year. Alex Callinicos informed us that the fact that hundreds of thousands had fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes could not be blamed on MiloÅ¡evic at all: "Now The Guardian has accepted, as anti-war campaigners argued from the start, that the refugee crisis was a consequence of the bombing" (Socialist Worker March 25 2000). Furthermore, in Socialist Review he explained that the "mass expulsions of Kosovan Albanians" were "in fact precipitated" by Nato's bombing campaign (April 2000).

You might as well argue that the 1943-45 Nazi holocaust was "precipitated" by the Allied war effort. In reality the mass exodus of the Kosovar people was the result of a deliberately planned and executed pogrom directed against them from Belgrade. True, Nato's military strikes had the effect of escalating the Serbian terror campaign against the ethnic Albanians as a by-product. But to imply that Nato was somehow directly responsible for the refugee crisis was almost worthy of a Göbbels - or indeed a Callinicos, who went on to argue: "In fact, as The Guardian now acknowledges, it seems the Serb forces killed several thousand Albanians last spring, not tens of thousands. This was a barbarous atrocity, but not the holocaust" (Socialist Worker March 25 2000).

So the Serb terror launched against the oppressed Kosovar muslims was not so bad then. And more to the point, perhaps, the fact that a mere "barbarous atrocity" - not "the holocaust" - was inflicted on the majority of the Kosovar people clearly invalidated their democratic right to self-determination. Grotesquely, the 'holocaust denial' line peddled by the SWP absolved them of any need to act in a principled Marxist way and make its organisation a tribune of the oppressed.

And what has changed since 1999? There has been absolutely no indication in the pages of Socialist Worker, or elsewhere, that the SWP has learnt from the disastrous failures of its Kosova policy - or is prepared to honestly re-evaluate its 'anti-imperialism'. Quite the opposite, if anything.

Now, just as we did in 1999, communists are obliged to explain why Serbia's working class needs to support the right of Kosova to independence. Naturally, this in no way implies that the CPGB has abandoned the idea that our main enemy is at home. After all, we argued with absolute consistency against the Nato bombing of Serbia and unreservedly condemned the imperialist war aims. But real proletarian internationalism can only be built on unequivocal opposition to all forms of oppression and reactionary violence.