Along NATO’s Road to War/Ruin

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Branka Magas

THE WAR TAKING place in the so-called Federal Republic of Yugoslavia involves three sides: Serbia (not FRY: Montenegro has declared itself neutral!),[see note 1] Kosova [see note 2] and the NATO alliance.  War being an extension of politics, it is what the protagonists are trying to achieve that determines whether their war is just or not.

The Serbian leadership’s war aim is clear: it is to rid Kosova of its population by murder or deportation.  This is a genocidal war. International treaties oblige the signatory states to prevent, stop and punish the crime of genocide which is defined as a crime against all of humanity.  Your editorial speaks of the imperative need to stop this crime and insists that this can be achieved only by force, but it says nothing about how is this to be achieved.  This is its basic weakness.

Kosovars’ war aim is also clear.  They want independence from Serbia.  They are seeking recognition of this right from the international community, and the West in particular.  Their war, as your editorial rightly stresses, is just. But the KLA is poorly armed and without the population to sustain it (practically all of it has been uprooted and expelled), it cannot engage in an effective guerrilla struggle, which is why outside help is required.  The KLA’s military weakness and the population’s urgent need for protection brings into the focus NATO and its current action.

NATO’s professed war aims are to force Milosevic to remove all his troops from Kosova so that the deported population can return home, and to introduce into Kosova an international force capable of safeguarding their security.  It is obvious that the refugees cannot return otherwise.  As far as they go, these are good aims. Your editorial nowhere refers to them, however, but instead denounces NATO’s intervention as a “thoroughly reactionary war.”

This brings you into conflict with the Kosovars themselves, all of whom support NATO’s action, even though it will not deliver the desired independence.  In London these months many people on the left have refused to attend Kosovar demonstrations because of their pro-NATO banners.  Faced with a mortal threat to their very existence, however, NATO’s offer is one which they cannot afford to reject.  What the Kosovars hope is that the departure of the Serbian forces of occupation will create the conditions for institutions of self-government to emerge as a first step towards independence.  They may well be wrong in their hope that NATO will bring this about, but it is their right now and in the future to seek outside support, beginning with NATO countries.  This is what self-determination is all about.

Dependence on the outside world does not end with the proclamation of independence.  Their country has been destroyed and their society shattered and they will need international help for a long time to come.

The Kosovar efforts to secure help of powerful states makes every sense.  One can draw here a parallel with the Yugoslav partisan movement in World War II. On its own it would have been unable to expel the Axis armies from the Yugoslav soil. Yugoslavia’s liberation, and in that context the right of its constituent nations to fashion their future, was realized through an international war effort.  The Yugoslav partisans were part of a broad alliance, which included some of the leading imperialist powers.  Yugoslav Communist resistance accepted militarily aid from Great Britain, although it knew that London would try to make them take the discredited king back. Without Soviet help the partisans would have found it very difficult to enter Belgrade and this help was accepted, although the Soviet Union discouraged their revolutionary aspirations.  People make history in conditions that as a rule are not of their choosing.

Whether NATO’s war is reactionary or nor will depend on its will to achieve its stated aims. If its leading nations make deal with Milosevic (yet again), they will effectively side with the most reactionary regime in Europe.  The main problem with NATO’s intervention, in my view, lies in the limited nature of what it is trying to accomplish.  The question with which we should concern ourselves—by “we” I mean all those who wish the Kosova population to return and who support its right to self-determination—is whether NATO’s stated aims can be realized within the perspective of leaving Kosova under Serbian rule. This is the crux of the matter.  Since the West does not uphold Kosova’s claim to independence and sees instead Kosova as part of Serbia, it has refused to help the KLA in its struggle while at the same avoiding Serbia’s total defeat.  This flawed policy has resulted in a flawed military campaign.  The danger to the Kosovars and the whole Balkan region lies not in the U.S. “desire to affirm its power to call the shots,” as you suggest, but in its readiness to negotiate with the Butcher of the Balkans.

What Serbian Opposition?

Milosevic `s ability to wage a decade-long war, of which Kosova is its last and perhaps the most bloody phase, is to a large extent due to the absence of an effective opposition in Serbia itself.  Your editorial praises the “admirable antiwar struggles of the Yugoslav [i.e.  Serbian] democratic opposition” and compares it favorable to the U.S. antiwar demonstrations of the Vietnam era. One wished this were true, if only for Serbia’s own sake, but it is not and certainly not where Kosova is concerned.  Much of the “Serbian democratic opposition” has backed the regime in its efforts to keep Kosova under Serbian rule, even when they disagreed with it on other issues.  Serbian democrats never understood that democracy is inconceivable in Serbia so long as Serbia is enslaving Kosova.  The policy of peaceful resistance practiced by the Kosovar politicians during the 1980s permitted this opposition to appear democratic, but the emergence of the KLA changed all that. Judging by the e-mail messages they send to their friends and institutions abroad and by their press too, the Serbian democrats refuse to acknowledge that NATO bombings has anything to do with what their government has done in Kosova.  They complain of NATO’s destruction of Serbia’s material infrastructure, but not of the Serbian police and army scorched-earth war in Kosova, which has turned it into a virtual desert.

Your editorial rightly argues that Western policy of appeasing Milosevic has discouraged the emergence of a democratic opposition in Serbia.  This does not fully explain its weakness, however.  The fact is that the so-called democratic opposition in Serbia (with few honorable exceptions) never protested against the suspension of its autonomy nor does it support, after all that has happened, even such minimal demand as the restoration of the same. It prefers to spread the blame for the war equally between the KLA, Milosevic and NATO, as if they were all fighting for equally reprehensible war aims.

NATO—Friend and Foe

Your explanation of what actually pushed NATO into intervening, though persuasive in part, is essentially contradictory.  The half-hearted nature with which NATO has been pursuing this war argues against the alleged threat of a “more virulent post-Cold War NATO” bent on intervening everywhere emerging as a result.  It is true, on the other hand, that the United States and its NATO allies have miscalculated Milosevic’s determination and that, once their bluff was called, they had to act. This “need to save face,” however, cannot be the only reason.  During the war in Bosnia Western bluff was often called with no comparable reaction.  Western soldiers wearing UN uniform were at one time tied to strategic objects to prevent NATO bombing them. What has made the Western governments finally undertake this action has been the understanding that, unless Milosevic accepts some degree of self-rule for Kosova, the whole of the southern Balkans would explode, with unpredictable consequences for Europe.

The emergence of the KLA was the sign that something had to be done, not least because Belgrade was using the KLA as a pretext for the start of its campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” After Milosevic had refused to accept the Rambouillet compromise, a limited number of strikes from the air were supposed to make him change his mind. If Milosevic had not used the start of the bombing to push a million of Kosovars into the neighboring countries, NATO would have stopped its action early on. But once he did, NATO had no choice but to carry on. If the Kosovars are unable to return to their homes, war will spread to Macedonia and Albania and throughout the whole region in fact. This is no idle threat.  An even greater destruction, disruption of economic exchange and outflow of refugees would be the result.  This is something that Europe could not possibly tolerate.

It should be also borne in mind that NATO’s defeat will be perceived as a defeat not only of the West, but also of democracy and individual human rights which it has come to symbolize.  Western retreat would feed anti-democratic forces in general and all kinds of reactionary and xenophobic forces will gain in strength.  If Milosevic can murder and deport hundreds of thousands of Bosnians and Albanians and get away with it, why should not others try to get rid of their minorities, even when these are very large?  And why should one stop at the ethnic Other?  Why not drive out or kill all those who do not think like you?  Why should one not murder or drive into exile journalists or trade unionists, for example?  This is what all kinds of people will be asking.  These are some of the reasons why Europe cannot afford to allow genocide to be become a “normal” part of its political reality.

The people who these past month have been demonstrating in the streets of Western Europe against NATO bombing and for immediate negotiation with Belgrade do not understand what is at stake.  Fifty years of peace and prosperity have made West Europeans comfortable and complacent.  They refuse to see that other unprincipled settlements which their governments have made with Milosevic over the past years have made many millions destitute and a good part of the Balkans destroyed.  They do not wish to see (such is the political culture that has formed them) that the regime in Belgrade is something quite exceptional—a machine put together for the purpose making war, which can survive only by permanently generating conflict.

Your editorial seeks NATO’s defeat “on the grounds that by its very nature it is not and cannot be anything other than a machine for imperialist domination” and that the USA has gone to war against Serbia in order to maintain its hegemony.  The United States and NATO did not provoke the war, it says, and actually tried to avoid it “through a criminal policy of appeasement.” However, now that they have stopped avoiding war, now that they have given up the policy of appeasement, it accuses them of seeking “naked military-political aggrandizement or profit.”  It sketches out an unlikely scenario of an all-out occupation and redrawing of the map of the Balkans’ (a costly enterprise in a region in which NATO states have no direct economic interest) and presents it as the realities: “Given these realities, it is impossible for socialists to want NATO’s operation to succeed.”

This line of argument is purely ideological.  The editorial, in fact, need not have been written at all. Your paper could have simply stated that, since NATO is an imperialist alliance, supporting NATO is supporting imperialism.  What begins as a “truly agonizing dilemma”—between the need for immediate action to stop the crimes against the population of Kosova and the need to oppose and halt imperialist interventions—turns out not to be a dilemma at all. The choice was easily made. Halting NATO is far more important than halting Milosevic.  While the Kosovars seek support in the polities and public opinion of Western Europe and the United States, given their power to affect their fate, your magazine is concerned above all with potential dissenters within the socialist camp: “Our fundamental quarrel is not with the victims who are understandably seeking help from any possible source, but rather with those supporters of this war who fail to face up to the consequences of where it is most likely to lead.”

For the people in the Balkans, however, the consequences of NATO’s failure to stop Milosevic far outweigh the danger of NATO’s imperialist ambitions.  After all, NATO is sitting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but its soldiers are not torching towns and villages, murdering and raping helpless citizens.  For the Kosovars the main enemy is not NATO but Milosevic: it is he, not NATO, who must be defeated, if they are to return to their homes.  As your editorial states, NATO defeat means that “the Kosovars will be left a landless and homeless people.” This does not detract true socialists,[see note 3] however, from the belief that NATO’s ruin—not Milosevic’s ruin —”is the only possible good that can come from this horrific human holocaust.” They “uphold Kosovars’ right to struggle for their survival by any means available to them”—provided, of course, that one of these means is not NATO. But if not NATO, which other?

This categorical stance would be more understandable if “true socialists” offered a workable alternative.  They do not, however.  As the editorial puts it so neatly: “Obviously we cannot influence in any way the struggle between the Kosova Albanians and the Yugoslav Army.” The seemingly compassionate demand that “all the [one million] Kosovar refugees receive immediate asylum wherever they wish to come” will, however, only relieve Milosevic of his unwanted human burden.  Tens of thousands of Albanians who leave Kosova’s neighborhood for a permanent settlement in the so-called “third countries” will not return to disturb the newly created ethnic balance in “Serb Kosovo.” The Kosovars, however, do not wish to become refugees in the USA, but return to their own country.

What Future?

What is the likely future of Kosova and Serbia?  That depends on the outcome of the war. If an international force backed by NATO removes de facto Serbian presence in Kosova, one can expect most of the Kosova population to return, but now to a largely destroyed country.  Genocide and exile has shattered Kosova’s society, particularly its urban part, as well as all civic and political structures, and the country will take a lot of time to rebuild these.  In the meantime it will be placed (yet again!) under a foreign administration, which will provide fat salaries for various UN, OSCE and other bureaucrats, but which will not be able to create a self-sustaining democratic order.  As in Bosnia, absence of democratic control of the governing institutions will result in corrupt minority, and physical and legal insecurity of ordinary citizens.

Milosevic for his part will do his best to disrupt the refugees’ return and generally to impede Kosova’s reconstruction by stressing Serbian sovereignty.  He has already appointed a “Minister for Refugees” whose main task will be to keep Albanians out. He will try to squeeze as much money and political concessions from Western donors—the bill for rebuilding what he has destroyed will be largely paid by the West European taxpayers—in return for his cooperation.  Some of the destroyed Serbian infrastructure will be repaired as well, particularly those parts that belong to the continent’s system of communication, such as the bridges on the Danube and the main north-south roads.  The Serbian society will not be forced to face up to what has been done in its name, and will instead blame NATO and the West for death and destruction their own state has caused.  The status and future of Kosova will keep them united around their leaders, and the Great Serb project will remain waiting for another historical opportunity.  It will take a generation at least for some sort of democracy to emerge in Serbia.

The whole region will remain highly unstable and it is difficult in such circumstances to envisage for it any significant economic, social or political progress for long time to come. This is the price of NATO’s lack of will to punish a Balkan regime which in less than a decade has caused four wars and an unprecedented human and material destruction.  A good deal of blame for the fact that the crime of genocide will go unpunished in Europe at the end of the 20th century rests also with a large part of what has remained of the U.S. and West European left, which has emerged—to borrow your happy phrase—as one of the most backward relics of the Cold War. The whole tradition rooted in the revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles of this century has vanished for good in the smoke of the burnt out cities of Bosnia and Kosova.


Branka Magas is the author of The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Breakup, 1980-92 (Verso).

ATC 81, July-August 1999