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From Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 64, 1999.


Andrew  Kilmister

The Kosovo Albanians and the Breakup of Yugoslavia

Labour Focus on Eastern Europe issue no.63 performed a valuable service through presenting a variety of material opposing what it rightly termed 'NATO's Unjust and Illegal War' against Serbia. However, the articles 'Notes on the Kosovo Problem and the International Community' and 'NATO's Humanitarian Trigger' by Diana Johnstone, which opened the issue, contained a number of arguments which in my view are both erroneous and likely to hinder the process of building political solidarity against imperialist designs in the Balkans. I want to concentrate on two aspects of Johnstone's analysis, her approach to the Kosovan Albanian population and her account of the break up of Yugoslavia.
  It is disputed by no-one that the Kosovan Albanians have constituted since 1945 a distinct national grouping within the Yugoslav state and within Serbia, while remaining part of a broader nation located also in Albania, Macedonia and elsewhere. Johnstone's treatment of this national grouping is singular to say the least, coming from a writer on the left. While the Serbs are 'modernised' and 'attached to modern state institutions' (pp.32-3), the Albanians are characterised in terms more appropriate to imperialist, 'orientalist' scholarship of the nineteenth century. They 'have never really accepted any law, political or religious, over their own unwritten "Kanun" based on patriarchal obedience to vows, family honour, elaborate obligations' (p.33). These obligations and vows are enforced by 'male family and clan chiefs protecting their honour, eventually in the practice of blood feuds and revenge' (p.33). Not a shred of evidence is offered for this sweeping, one-dimensional characterisation of social relations in Northern Albania and Kosovo.
  Given this view of Kosovan Albanians it is not surprising that Johnstone feels that they need tutelage and induction into democracy: 'it is highly doubtful that holding parallel elections for ethnic Albanians only, resulting in unanimous election of an unchallenged leader, Ibrahim Rugova, and of election of a "parliament" which has never functioned, provides a better initiation into democratic political practice than could have been gained by using the official elections" (p.23). Johnstone's prescription for the Albanians in Kosovo through the 1990s is basically to say that they should have shut up about national issues and stopped complaining. Instead they should have participated in Serbian institutions like anyone else: 'they could, for instance have voted to fill 42 of the 250 seats in the Serbian parliament with their representatives' (p.7). But, sadly, they chose to remain obdurate: 'formally at least, the ethnic Albanian residents of Kosovo have more citizenship rights in Serbia than the many ethnic Serb refugees who have flooded into Serbia from Croatia and Bosnia since the collapse of Yugoslavia. But they refuse to exercise them' (p.11). Not only that, but they won't learn the Serbian language (p.7). While Johnstone does support bilingual studies in Kosovan universities (p.33) in other contexts she criticises Albanian insularity while saying nothing about Serb attitudes to other languages and cultures in Kosovo in the 1980s and 1990s.
  Can one imagine a similar account from a US or European leftist of the Kurdish national movement in Turkey, the Palestinians in Israel, the East Timorese under Indonesian rule, Republicans in the North of Ireland or even the Francophone poulation of Quebec? To ask the question is surely to answer it. Yet in each of these cases, viewed from the perspective which Johnstone adopts, very similar criticisms could be made. The reason they are not is that this perspective has correctly come to be recognised as entirely inadequate for characterising societies where national differences play an important role. It is inadequate both normatively, because it neglects the real grievances and concerns of the national groups affected, and analytically because nationalities simply do not act in the way that Johnstone wants the Kosovan Albanians to do. Those who recommend this programme to them are then forced into a posture of simply bemoaning their obstinacy and pig-headedness - a perfect mirror image of the approach taken by Western liberals over the last decade to the Serbs which is rightly criticised by Johnstone and others.
  Johnstone's account of the breaking up of Yugoslavia is also problematic. This break-up was tracked in Labour Focus on Eastern Europe through the 1980s in a series of articles by Branka Magas, now collected in her book, The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-Up 1980-92 (Verso, 1993),  the introduction to which is sharply criticised by Johnstone. I would not necessarily agree with every aspect of Magas' analysis and would certainly not endorse her current political positions with regard to the war over Kosovo. Yet in one crucial respect Johnstone's account marks a decided step backwards from that earlier work. Magas attempted to provide an account of the crisis in Yugoslavia which linked together three interlocking strands - the unresolved national question, the lack of true socialist democracy resulting from Stalinist practices and structures and the worsening economic collapse. The merit of her analysis was precisely that these were not seen as rigidly separate, but rather that the democratisation of the Yugoslav polity depended on an equitable solution to the problems of national difference while economic renewal was inconceivable without democratic progress. Whatever other criticisms can be made of her work this linkage has surely been borne out by the history of the last decade. To say this is not in any way to deny the baleful impact of outside intervention on both nationalism in the Balkans and the economies of the region.
  For Johnstone however, these differing aspects of the Yugoslav crisis are not integrated in a concrete analysis. Thus she writes of the revoking of Kosovan autonomy by Milosevic in 1988 and 1989 that 'however unwelcome to the ethnic Albanian leaders, these changes were widely supported in Serbia as necessary to enable the realisation of the economic liberalisation reforms; they were enacted legally; and they left intact the political rights of ethnic Albanians as well as a considerable degree of regional autonomy' (p.7). The true import of these changes is lost by separating out the national, political and economic levels in this way. Formally, they may have been legal, just as the Soviet Constitution under Stalin was formally democratic. In practice they represented a fundamental challenge to the basis of the compromise between nationalities within Yugoslavia, by forming part of a process whereby the leader of one state, Serbia, created a situation where he could control half the votes at the level of the Federal Presidency. This challenge was integrally linked to the strategies of that leader for consolidating and maintaining his political power and for launching attacks on working-class rights and living standards. The latter point is implicitly recognised by Johnstone through her reference to the necessity for Kosovo to lose its autonomy in order facilitate economic 'liberalisation'. It is far too abstract to argue, as Johnstone appears to do, that democracy and legality in Serbia can somehow be partitioned from the national question, so that if autonomy is removed from one group they can simply participate in the unchanged democratic structures enjoyed by other citizens. Rather, the revoking of Kosovan autonomy was a central part of the process of denying real, as opposed to formal, democratic rights to all the inhabitants of Yugoslavia, including of course Serbs.
  This was understood very well in March 1989 by the miners of Trepca in Kosovo who struck and occupied in protest against the policies of Milosevic and by the Albanian demonstrators in Pristina of November 1988. Contrary to Johnstone's picture of an movement devoted to secession at the expense of any other goals, the strikers and demonstrators explicitly looked back to Tito's nationalities policy as a model and were fully clear of the links between the destruction of this policy and other elements of political and economic oppression. It was not they who needed initiation into the meaning of democracy but rather Johnstone.
  Johnstone is correct in claiming that double standards have been applied to Serbia both by Western governments and liberal media opinion. She is also right in pointing to the disastrous consequences of economic, political and military intervention in the Balkans by outside powers.
These issues are challenges for us all on the left. But they will not be solved by ignoring the reality of nationalism in Kosovo and simply exhorting the Albanian population to forget the issue. At this time, when it is Serbs and Roma who are being expelled from Kosovo and worse, making it necessary to combat Albanian chauvinism and exclusivism in the area, and Western policies which permit it, it is more important than ever to do this from a firm standpoint of respecting and acknowledging Albanian national rights.

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