It appears that every one of these postings begins with a retraction. At least you know I’m honest, that I’m dragging you along in my process as I’m thinking it out myself. I’d be a little embarrassed, except all the would-be experts I read don’t seem to be doing much better.
In the first analysis that I put up about the situation in Kosovo after the declaration of Independence, I wrote that I had initially feared a new outbreak of war, particularly as Russia seemed to be actively establishing itself in the region by signing energy contracts with Serbia and Bulgaria and eager for a show of its returning power on the geopolitical stage. On the other ‘side’, the ethnic Albanians would certainly take to arms before allowing Belgrade to ever take back their hard-won gains. The u.s. and other western powers have committed to exercising control of the region through the Albanian government. Like Israel or the Saudi royal family, the Albanians make great allies exactly because of their regional unpopularity – they realize that they’d have little chance of retaining their position without u.s./western support, whatever conditions it might come with, e.g. for neo-liberalization and a continued military presence. Contrary to some other lefty analysists, however, I don’t claim that Albanian claims of independence (which, in their current form, began to be voiced in the late 60’s) were somehow cooked up by Western powers; I don’t think whatever legitimacy they might have, after 10-20 years of living under apartheid, is automatically invalidated by their utility for western imperial interests. If only things were so simple!
However, I concluded the previous post by guessing that, after some initial symbolic protest by Kosovo Serbs, there was little chance (in the short-term) of serious conflict. Serbs in Serbia are exhausted after 20 years of war, sanctions, and isolation. The majority will quietly refuse to back any more hopeless military disasters, despite the rhetoric. Everybody seems willing to fight except, ironically, the very forces whose aggressive centralism drove the break-up of Yugoslavia. Let me repeat once again, I am speaking of forces in the political sphere, which I do not see as ever having represented the opinion of the majority of Serbians.
Reading the news this morning, however, made me realize something terribly obvious. As Serbs opened fire on international forces in northern Mitrovica, and attempted to seize a rail line elsewhere in northern Kosovo, the similarity to the violence which preceded the wars in Croatia and Bosnia gave me pause. In those situations as well, the majority of inhabitants never supported the war. They protested, they voted, but they were ultimately left without a political voice. As a number of academics have argued, the media war and the ‘ethnic’ wars were themselves methods of demobilizing opposition, rather than organic results of some historically endemic hatred. The opinion of the majority of Serbians (or Croatians or Bosnians) not only wasn’t considered in making war, but the main reason for the wars may have been keeping these opinions from counting. Political elites threatened by change were thus able to remain in power. Any Americans who have hesitated, even for a moment, to express their dissent in the “post 9-11” environment might relate in some very small measure. In all of the above cases, the wars might most accurately be viewed as state elites waging war on their own populations, through the images and the bodies of The Other.
Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica dissolved the government two weeks ago, blithely stating, “The government will function in a reduced capacity until the elections are held,” supposedly because his opposition (President Tadic) is ‘going soft’ on the Kosovo issue. A struggle for control within the Serbian state through the Other is again underway. Given that Serbs could never hope to regain control of all of Kosovo at this point, their best hope lies in the partitioning off of Mitrovica (with their half of the $5 billion dollar Trepca mining complex) and the rest of northern Kosovo, which ajoins Serbia and in which they are a large majority. And if nationalist Serb forces have learned anything through their experiences in Croatia and Bosnia, it is that aggressivity and war-mongering are always rewarded with the prize of partitioning.
The fact that the private sentiments of the majority of Serbians lies against a new war, as it did against the previous wars, may or may not end up mattering. Clearly President Tadic is in a better position than Milosevic’s opposition was in the late 80’s. We can hope that Kostunica is no Milosevic. The nationalist right does not have the advantage of surprise this time. However, compared to the position of Serbs in Croatia in 1991 which set off the 90’s wars, Kosovo Serbs (and other non-Albanians) really are in a vulnerable position, have much more legal precedent for objecting to independence, and, most importantly, seem to have much stronger international (Russia, China, and several EU states) sympathy and support.
As an aside, for those curious about the project with Voice of Roma to teach ESL classes to Roma, it all depends on what Serbian President Tadic called the danger of “escalation of clashes in the entire territory.” As of today, my friend in the Gracanica enclave, which we’ll be teaching in, says that the situation is quiet, but they haven’t heard yet from Roma in Mitrovica. Gracanica is 25 miles from Mitrovica, which is a long ways in terms of lines of power. But as one of the largest enclaves of non-Albanians in Kosovo, it would not remain neutral if the conflict becomes serious. The precedent of clashes and cleansings under internation eyes in 1999, 2001, and 2004 are not encouraging.
As a final note, rather than enclosing my whole original rant in response to the Tariq Ali interview with Global Balkans, I have decided to foist the responsiblity over on a couple links. Last May, an interesting CIA document on Yugoslavia from 1970 was finally released under our beloved FOIA. The document drives home the point that Yugoslavia always had some deep structural problems, mainly a deep conflict of interest between centralized federation (as embodied at the time by Slovenian Communist leader Kardelj) and a decentralized confederalism (which was already emerging through Croatian and Kosovar Albanian demands for increased autonomy.) The dilemma of Yugoslavia’s basic form was already huge. However, without the greedy rush for land and power of Milosevic and the other nationalist leaders, and the bumbling of conflicting international influences, this tension would never have resulted in war. Interestingly, at the time, the CIA was most worried that this tension would be exploited by the KGB as an excuse to expand Soviet influence in the area!
Sabrina Ramet’s Balkan Babel starts with a great essay on this structural tension written in 1990, though in later years she went on to develop an outlook that frames everything as Communist-Serbs vs. Democratic everybody-else, a bit too simple-minded for me. However, I spoke with Ms. Ramet after a lecture in Slovenia, and even she seems to have now come over to a “demoblization” analysis (rather than a “Rational Choice Theory” one.) Perhaps the more recent editions of her book reflect this – I could only afford the 1995 edition.
Lasly, as much as I hate anything popular, I finally rented the six-hour-long BBC documentary Yugoslavia: Death of A Nation. The related book is a classic in its way, but the documentary is amazing. All these totally incriminating things that I might not have believed, but that the incriminated are speaking for themselves, right into the camera. Not perfect, not so analytical, but really the best historical overview. Check for it in your local library.
Though I agree with Tariq Ali’s criticisms of the 1999 NATO bombing, the pro-war swing of the Left, and the threat of neo-liberalization, I find that he, like many ‘hard left’ critics, focus too much agency on conspiratorial western designs to dismember Socialist Yugoslavia. Germany, the Vatican, the U.S. and others were clearly interested in the outcome of the crisis, and acted in their various interests to damaging effect, but to conspiratorially assign all agency to them is to deny local agents the indignity of their own faults. Though clearly Milosevic, in Ali’s words “was not the only problem,” equating him with Tudjman is another common mistake. Tudjman’s nationalism may have been even worse ideologically than Milosevic’s, but Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo did not break from Yugoslavia to get away from Tudjman.