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The Kosovo Question: A New Way Forward from the Serbian Left


With its feet stuck in the wet mud of Kosovo Polje[1] and its head lost in the thick fog of Brussels, the government has been in soul-searching torment over the key question of our political life – what to do about Kosovo?

The source of all this torment is not, of course, difficult to locate. Trapped by its desperation to join the EU – its key strategy for ‘resolving’ Serbia’s debt crisis – our ruling class has been weeping tears of nationalist self-pity over the need to do a deal on Kosovo it will not like, in return for EU membership. Indeed, for some time now, Washington and Brussels have been waiting patiently for the pressure to build on Serbia to join the EU and, as a result, for Beograd to relent on Kosovo.

The latest episode of this saga demonstrates, once again, that the Kosovo question today is not, and never has been, just about Serbia’s role in Kosovo; it is, and always has been, entangled with the role of the West, led by the US, in Kosovo, the Balkans and Eastern Europe as a whole.

If a new way forward on the Kosovo question is therefore to be found, we have to provide answers to the two key, closely interlinked, aspects of this question that are most responsible for the current, conflict-ridden state of affairs – US-led imperialism and Serbian nationalism.

The agreement reached to such self-acclaim in Brussels does the very opposite, however. It entrenches rather than weakens the idea that a way forward on Kosovo can be found by those most responsible for the dire situation we are in today. As a result, the agreement fails to provide any of the answers we should be seeking. What is more, its proposals are fundamentally flawed in a number of key ways.

Opposing the Brussels Agreement

Firstly, the guarantee NATO has reportedly provided that it will ensure that Kosovo Albanian forces will not be deployed in the Serb autonomy in the north entrenches rather than weakens the idea that US-led imperialism – the very same imperialism that devastated rump Yugoslavia in the 1999 war and now runs Kosovo as a neo-colony – continues to have a valuable role to play in the province. Crucially, this guarantee came at Serbia’s express request. Serbia’s embrace of NATO (and its Kosovo forces, Kfor) has been brewing for some time, but the present government has gone one step further. In September last year, the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Aleksandar Vučić, stated that Serbia “highly appreciates NATO’s and Kfor’s contribution to the creation of a peaceful environment in Kosovo”.[2] And in December, when he met US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, it was reported that Vučić had “requested that the NATO-led Kfor troops should not withdraw from the territory of Kosovo and Metohija”.[3]

The Brussels deal further entrenches imperialism in Kosovo by formalising Serbia’s express support for NATO’s presence in Kosovo and by signalling Serbia’s increasing complicity with US-led imperialism.

Secondly, the special autonomy negotiated for the Serbs in the north – based on Serb police chiefs, judges and NATO ‘protection’ – entrenches rather than weakens the idea of territorial division on ethnic grounds and thus feeds the Serbian nationalist hope that, if it cannot get Kosovo back, it may, one day, be able to get its hands on the north. In late February, Prime Minister Ivica Dačić repeated yet again a view he has long been repeating, that he “still believes that [partition] is the best and only solution,” adding, revealingly, that the government “won’t let me talk either about partition or separation any longer”.[4] In today’s context of antagonistic relations between Beograd and Priština, it is clear that our ruling class will be tempted to see the Serb autonomy in the north as a form of partition-lite which, in a more geopolitically favourable climate, could open the door to full-blown partition – which will likely lead to yet more bloodshed and further imperialist intervention.

Thirdly, the Serb autonomy in the north will entrench rather than weaken the hostility between our two nations. The special status of this autonomy – in essence, a semi-state within a semi-state – is certain to be a source of competitive antagonism between Beograd and Priština for years to come. To mutual irritation, Priština will seek, eventually, to establish its unchallenged sovereignty over the autonomy, while Beograd will oppose this and seek instead to consolidate its position there. In both cases, our ruling classes will seek to mobilise popular support for their respective claims, yet again setting nation against nation. As for the Kosovo Serbs, their plight will only be exacerbated and not eased by being the object of all this explosive rivalry.

Finally, with the mutual promise Beograd and Priština have made not to block each other’s applications to join the EU, this agreement entrenches rather than weakens the idea that the solution to our deep economic problems lies with the crisis-ridden neo-liberal capitalist states of Western Europe. Dačić is a Serb and Hashim Thaçi, the Kosovo Prime Minister, is an Albanian but, as representatives of their ruling classes, these two “hostile brothers”[5] agree on more than they are prepared to admit – namely, a neo-liberal policy of free market privatisation that will have the same disastrous social consequences for us as it has had, and is having, for many in the EU, above all for Greek workers.

For all these reasons, we must oppose this agreement. It does not provide a way forward on Kosovo; on the contrary, it only stokes a fire that those gathered around it simply cannot extinguish.

The time to think anew and to act boldly on Kosovo – in ways our ruling class cannot contemplate – is therefore long overdue. A fundamental change of policy is necessary in Serbia, and only we on the left can provide it. The main goals of such a new policy should not only be to bridge the gulf between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians which our ruling classes and their imperialist overseers have failed to bridge, but also to demonstrate to Washington and Brussels that we can find our own answers to our own problems – without their ‘assistance’. The challenge for the left is therefore considerable: can we find a concrete way of addressing both of the two key, closely interlinked, aspects of the Kosovo question today – Western US-led imperialism and Serbian nationalism – that have led us into the current quagmire? To answer this question, we must first look at why we are in this situation.

US-led imperialism: the road to Kosovo

Ever since 1989, when the Russian Empire and the Warsaw Pact began to collapse, the US-led West has, via the medium of NATO and the EU, followed an imperialist policy of expansion and integration in Eastern Europe. After over 40 years of the Cold War, 1989 was an historic opportunity to absorb the East into NATO by taking advantage of Russia’s weakness to encircle it with NATO states. Then, to consolidate and reinforce this advantage, the East was absorbed into the EU, giving the giant multinational conglomerates of the West direct access to markets and labour long hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

Having thrown off the chains of one empire, therefore, Eastern Europe wrapped itself in the chains of another. For this was not just a simple matter of “Western pressure”. Indeed, as the Hungarian Marxist, G. M. Tamás, has observed, the ruling classes of the East, fearing Russia, “volunteered” to join NATO and the EU in a process of ideological, economic, political and military “self-colonization.”[6]

Nevertheless, there was one potentially serious threat to the smooth transition from one empire to another. This was the war in Yugoslavia. As Ivo H. Daalder, a national security adviser to President Clinton, later explained, “As long as the war festered, it proved impossible to exploit the opportunities created by the collapse of Communism, the unification of Germany, and the dissolution of both the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself.”[7] The US-led West had to demonstrate that NATO, and only NATO, could bring the war to an end by stamping its military authority on the Balkans; for failure here could have fatally undermined its policy of expansion and integration as a whole, by causing the “volunteer” states in the East to question the credibility of US-led power.

As a result, the war in Yugoslavia became entangled in a much wider imperial geostrategy. In due course, after the 1995 Dayton Agreement, Kosovo became, for a time, the key focus point of the West’s policy of imperialist expansion and integration in Eastern Europe. And in Kosovo, US-led imperialism was to find a people only too willing to submit to direct “self-colonization”, in what became the most extreme expression of a broader process underway across Eastern Europe. After the 1999 war, Kosovo Albanians exchanged Serbian rule for US-led neo-colonial rule, whether administered by NATO, UNMIK or EULEX; they “volunteered” themselves and they did so because of Milošević’s Serbia.

For a Balkan policy of friendship with Kosovo

Ever since its occupation of Kosovo in 1912, when it found the ‘holy cradle of the nation’ peopled with non-Serbs, Serbia has followed a nationalist policy of enmity towards the Kosovo Albanians, with disastrous consequences.

Before the Second World War, Kosovo Albanians were denied self-government; they were denied schooling in Albanian; and the resistance of the Kaçaks (an early KLA) was mercilessly crushed. To adjust population figures, Kosovo was settled with thousands of Serb colonists; to ‘make room’ for them, land was confiscated from Kosovo Albanians; and an agreement was reached for Turkey to ‘take in’ 40,000 Kosovo families. The degree of oppression was such that many Kosovo Albanians regarded fascist occupation as ‘liberation’ from Serbian rule. Even after 1945, Kosovo’s institutions were dominated by Serbs, whose minority rule was enforced by the terror of Ranković’s UDBA.[8] Again, to adjust population figures, Kosovo Albanians were encouraged to identify themselves as Turks and, by 1966, with Istanbul’s agreement, some 100,000 had emigrated to Turkey.

Ranković’s fall and the 1968 demonstrations across Kosovo brought some reprieve from oppression. Kosovo gained real autonomy, and the long overdue albanianisation of its institutions began apace. But the reprieve was short-lived, ended conclusively by Milošević’s rise to power. His leadership of a ruling class determined to ‘recover’ Kosovo for Serbia was based on a nakedly racist campaign of popular mobilisation against the Kosovo Albanians in order to deprive them of the autonomy they had gained in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. As a result, Kosovo Albanians became, once again, second class citizens in Serbia.

This policy of enmity has ‘succeeded’ – in the only way it could have: it has made Kosovo Albanians enemies of Serbia and thus potential allies of any external power willing and able to come to their support. The 1999 war was the most calamitous expression of the ‘success’ of this policy.

The 1999 war was devastating, but it was an opportunity the US-led West seized with both hands in the confident knowledge that Serbia’s policy of enmity would give Kosovo Albanians little immediate reason to think critically about the imperialist support they received. On the contrary, Kosovo Albanians threw themselves wholeheartedly into Washington’s arms for one immediate and pressing reason – the desperate desire for freedom from oppression by Milošević’s Serbia. As the Polish-German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, long ago observed of the national question in the Balkans, “The masses do not engage in complex and remote reflections…. they accept the first and best method that corresponds to their immediate interests, even if this method is the vile diplomacy of [a Great Power]”.[9]

The 1999 war should have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that Serbia’s policy of enmity towards the Kosovo Albanians was a catastrophic failure, resulting in the establishment of imperialist power in Kosovo and ever greater hostility between our two nations. Blinded by nationalist dogma, however, our ruling class pursues it still, as if addicted to a self-destructive drug it cannot do without. But if the terrible cycle of catastrophe over Kosovo is ever to be broken, the policy that has helped to give birth to this cycle has to be rejected.

Instead, in place of Serbia’s policy of enmity, the left in Serbia should advocate a quite different policy, a Balkan policy of friendship with the Kosovo Albanians. What should be the central plank of this new policy and why should it enable us to avoid the catastrophes of the past?

Defending Kosovo’s right to self-determination

A central feature of Serbia’s policy of enmity has been, and remains, the denial of Kosovo’s right to self-determination, that is, its right to form an independent state. By contrast, a central feature of a Balkan policy of friendship should be to defend Kosovo’s right to self-determination, its right to form an independent state, against the dogmatic denial of this right by our ruling class.

Given the depths to which the hostility between our two nations has sunk, this defence is the only way today of starting to bridge the gulf that exists between us, by demonstrating, with the sharpest clarity, that there are people in Serbia who are serious about opposing the nationalism of their own ruling class and befriending those who have been for so long treated as our blood enemies. It is, in short, an indispensable precondition to friendship.

Such a Balkan policy of friendship would have a number of concrete benefits for both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.

We should first recognise that our ruling class has, time and again, used the Kosovo question to divert economic and political discontent with its rule into nationalist discontent with the Kosovo Albanians. Indeed, who can deny that one of the reasons Milošević was able to climb to power and cling on to it for so long was his exploitation of the Kosovo myth to justify a regime that was oppressive, not just to Albanians, but to us too? Kosovo has not been about the oppression of the Kosovo Albanians alone; it is also about oppressing us at home. By exposing the way this nationalist weapon has been used by our ruling class, the left will be in a position to weaken Beograd’s ability to oppress us all.

Such a policy would also do more than any other act to lessen anti-Serb Albanian nationalist feeling. For their nationalism is closely linked to ours: the more our nationalists threaten Kosovo, the more their nationalists threaten us in return. But if Kosovo Albanians had nothing to fear from a Serbia that followed a Balkan policy of friendship, greater political space would be cleared for those Albanians who are more open to us and our common interests. Moreover, the plight of the Kosovo Serbs would be eased, not just in the north but throughout Kosovo. In fact, 40% of Kosovo Serbs do not live in the autonomy in the north.

All in all, therefore, this policy promises to reduce the pulling power of nationalism in both Serbia and Kosovo. As a result, there would be greater room for both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians to focus in on and address the dire social consequences of the destructive neo-liberal capitalism our two ruling classes are determined to impose on us, giving the left, both here and in Kosovo, more chance to get a hearing. Serbs and Kosovo Albanians have a common interest in standing together against their neo-liberal governments and this can only be done effectively if we are not distracted and divided by our own nationalisms.

Finally, this is the only policy that promises to close the ethnic breach between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, through which the US-led West has entered into, and now seeks to determine, Balkan affairs. Kosovo Albanians place faith in the US because they fear Serbia. A Balkan policy of friendship that removes this fear would shake that faith. As a result, there would be greater political space for those Albanians who want to shed Kosovo’s neo-colonial status; in other words, who wish Kosovo to be ruled by them and not for them. This development would have wider, positive implications for the Balkans, above all in Bosnia.

Such a Balkan policy of friendship is, then, the only rational response to Serbia’s policy of enmity. However, although it lays the foundations for addressing the question of imperialism in the Balkans by promising to bring Serbs and Kosovo Albanians together and giving Washington and Brussels less room to divide and rule us, we need to go further still.

This is important. Serbia is a local power in the Balkans, but US-led imperialism is a global one, with the power to impose its brutal will not just in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Serbian left also needs to be armed with a concrete proposal for how best to challenge US-led imperialism in Kosovo today.

For recognising Kosovo – on one condition

Our government has vowed never to recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.[10] US-led imperialism, by contrast, is trying to edge Serbia step by step towards recognition. However, these are not the only two alternatives.

Certainly, by defending Kosovo’s right to self-determination, we argue, as a matter of principle, that Kosovo has the right to be independent and to be recognised as such. This means that the left should reject the government’s blank refusal ever to do so. But it would be wrong to conclude that we believe Kosovo should be recognised now. Recognition is a political act and its timing is political too; whether it happens and under what conditions is critical.

We therefore say that the government should tell Washington and Brussels that it is prepared to recognise Kosovo’s independence – if, and only if, a key condition is fulfilled.

Given NATO’s central and critical role in the execution of the US-led West’s imperialist policy of expansion and integration in Eastern Europe, not least in Kosovo, we say that the government should tell Washington and Brussels that it will recognise Kosovo as soon as they agree that Serbia and Kosovo will be NATO-free zones, that is, free of NATO troops, NATO bases, such as Camp Bondsteel, and free of NATO membership in the future.[11]

In the unlikely event that Washington and Brussels were to agree to this condition in return for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo, then an important precedent would be set in the recent history of NATO’s apparently relentless advance eastwards. It would send a powerful signal, not least to Bosnia, that there is an alternative to the apparently unstoppable process of “self-colonization”, not just militarily but, by implication, in other areas too. In the more likely event, however, that Washington and Brussels were to refuse, Kosovo Albanians would see that real independence was now no longer blocked by Serbia, but by US-led imperialism, which might embolden them to throw off their neo-colonial masters and their local accomplices, and take power into their own hands. Moreover, such a refusal would clearly demonstrate that the overriding goal of US-led imperialism is the extension of its own power rather than the interests of the Kosovo Albanians it has claimed to defend.

Either way, this condition of NATO exclusion will raise the question of the comprehensive decolonisation of Kosovo, including the withdrawal of the corrupt neo-colonial bureaucracy that is EULEX. It thus opens the door, at last, to the liberation of Kosovo – by the Kosovo Albanians themselves.

Of course, we do not for one moment believe that our government will ever be prepared to take this course of action and therefore that this chain of events will unfold. That is not our purpose here. Our purpose is to provide the Serbian left with a coherent position on Kosovo that is both anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist. The argument that Serbia should conditionally recognise Kosovo fuses these two politically abstract principles into a single politically concrete position, and thus gives our left a new way forward on Kosovo it can argue for and agitate around with confidence.

Towards a Balkan Federation

The Balkan policy of friendship with Kosovo we have been arguing for is, however, only a stepping stone. It lays the basis for a broader Balkan policy of mutual reliance on our neighbours, instead of a narrow nationalist policy of competitive dependence on one or other imperialism, with each state vying for the support of a foreign power against its neighbours. The tragedy of our history has been the repeated failure to bring this Balkan perspective to our politics.

But this is no accidental tragedy. Our ruling classes have always been too narrow-minded and too selfish – in short, nationalistic – to think and act for the common good, and they always will be. The left needs, therefore, to put its faith in the only class which has the potential to see through the borders that currently divide us – the Balkan working class. But if the Balkan working class is ever to fulfil this potential, the Balkan left needs to be as astute in battling nationalism as our ruling classes are in fomenting it. This can only be done, not with abstract slogans, but with concrete policies that point us again and again in the direction of the goal we have to reach if we are ever to end the bloody cycle of our history – the establishment of a Balkan federation which will end national strife and save us from the self-destructive temptations of imperialism.

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and is the co-editor, with Andreja Živković, of The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (London 2003).”

[1] “Kosovo Field” where the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 took place, when Serbian-led forces were defeated by the Ottomans. This battle plays a central role in Serbian nationalist mythology.

[2] ‘KFOR should stay but not train Kosovo forces’,, 21.09.2012

[3] ‘Deputy PM urges continued deployment of NATO in Kosovo’,, 7.12.2012

[4] ‘PM believes partition is “best solution” for Kosovo’,, 28.02.2013

[5] An expression Karl Marx uses in Capital to describe capitalists: brothers of the capitalist family who are hostile when competing with each other in the market.

[6] G. M. Tamás, ‘Words from Budapest’, New Left Review March-April 2013

[7] Ivo H. Daalder, Getting to Dayton, Washington, D.C. 2000, p.187

[8] Aleksandar Ranković was a Serbian politician who was Minister of the Interior and head of Yugoslavia’s notorious security services, UDBA. He was removed from power by Tito in 1966.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Social Democracy and the National Struggles in Turkey’ (1896) in Dragan Plavšić and Andreja Živković (eds), The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915, London 2003, p.44

[10] Most recently, ‘President: Kosovo will never become state’,, 3.05.2013

[11] A version of this argument was first stated in ‘Situacija na Kosovu: nacionalizam samo jača imperijalizam na Balkanu!’ [The Kosovo situation: nationalism only strengthens imperialism in the Balkans!] on our website,, 1.8. 2011

By Dragan Plavsic

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and is the co-editor, with Andreja Živković, of The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (London 2003).”

3 replies on “The Kosovo Question: A New Way Forward from the Serbian Left”

Partition does not tend to lead to reconciliation. The partition of India in 1947 has not done so. India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons pointed at each other and clashes over divided Kashmir are common. The partition of Palestine into Israel and a Palestinian rump state in the West Bank and Gaza has not done so and shows no sign of doing so, even with the wall the Israelis have built between them. The partition of Cyprus has not done so; the Turkish north and Greek south remain hostile. Closer to home, the effective partition of Bosnia has not done so either; there is no evidence of any real ‘coming together’ there, quite the contrary as recent events show. Nationalists tend to favour partition because, deep down, they do not believe that different nations can (or should) live peacefully together. Despite their liberal rhetoric, imperialists tend to favour partition too, as the four cases referred to above show, and as their agreement to a Serb autonomous enclave in Kosovo also indicates. They resort to partition in order to divide and rule and so ‘manage’ a situation in a way that suits them. Therefore, the left has to stand up and defend the alternative, that different nations can live together peacefully, because we know they can given the right circumstances; otherwise, we too will be dragged into a deadly game from which only nationalists and imperialists can profit.

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