Eight years after Nato's 'humanitarian war;
April 2007 | Elise Hugus

Seventy-eight days of aerial bombing, resulting in 1500-5700 civilian casualties; a decade of international sanctions; 20 percent unemployment; a 12.2 billion dollar debt-eight years after Nato's "humanitarian war," Kosovo remains the key factor in the long division of Serbia.

A short distance from the busy shopping district of downtown Belgrade, the carcasses of the military and police headquarters remain as Nato's legacy-gaping holes where offices used to be, vacant, blown-out windows, crumbling bricks and debris. Residents wait for buses and chat with friends in front of the once-majestic facades, each one occupying a whole city block. Although the Serb government claims to have no money to repair the buildings -- still containing unexploded ordinance -- they serve a more abstract, powerful purpose in their current state. Rather than instill contriteness for their role in the Yugoslav wars, the buildings remind Serbs of a foreign war of aggression, the first time a European city has been bombed since World War II. Though Nato's Balkan adventures (and their dubious justification) have been all but forgotten in the West, Serbs are not so fortunate.

When the subject of Kosovo comes up in conversation, even the most even-tempered Serb will have an abrupt change in body language. Considerations for the Albanian population's grievances are cloaked in the rhetoric of wounded pride. No one has recognized the violence committed against Serbs, they say, certainly not in The Hague tribunals, not during the Nato "intervention," or after a series of ethnically-motivated Albanian attacks in Kosovo in March 2004. Although an estimated 63 percent of Serbs have never visited the province -- mirroring the number of Kosovars who have been to Serbia -- the prospect of losing the province has less to do with land and everything to do with vindication.

Since the March-June 1999 bombings, ostensibly Clinton's only recourse to quell a Serbian "policy of ethnic cleansing," the demographics of Kosovo have changed. Following a mass exodus of 120,000 Serbs from the province, the Albanian population now outnumbers that of the Serbs by 9 to 1. UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) troops, in tandem with the Nato police force KFOR, maintain a virtual occupation. Serbia and its Kosovo statelet operate as two separate entities -- with separate tax systems and jurisdiction over schools, hospitals, and the like. Belgrade rules from an arm's-length. Kosovo's two million inhabitants had no chance to vote in last October's referendum concerning the new constitution of Serbia, which defines Kosovo in the preamble as an "integral part" of Serbia with "fundamental autonomy." The Western press slammed the document for being "undemocratic," but not the exclusion of 20 percent of the country's eligible voters.

After a period of diplomatic dormancy, the breakaway province is back in the headlines, following the long-awaited status report by UN Special Envoy Maarti Ahtisaari. The proposal, announced in early February, never mentions the word "independence." But by granting Kosovo the right to "negotiate and conclude international agreements," to seek membership in the UN and the World Trade Organization, to have a national flag that "reflect[s] the multi-ethnic character of Kosovo" and its own holidays -- even its own army -- statehood is basically implied. The proposal would shift ultimate authority from Nato to an International Civilian Representative (representing Brussels), "appointed by an International Steering Group comprised of key international stakeholders" during an undetermined length of transition.

The Ahtisaari plan mirrors the 1995 Dayton Accords, proposing an ethnically-divided "two-state solution," which satisfies the international community, but not the people of the region. Skirting the issue of statehood, while paying lip service to Serbian cultural and religious rights, the proposal is regarded by all parties as the first step towards Kosovo's independence. Though the official line is that they will respect Serbian sovereignty, Western politicos don't deny that eventual statehood is desireable, even inevitable.

The Kosovar Albanians have indicated as much in street demonstrations where two Albanians were killed and several wounded by UN police on February 10, as well as in statements made to the Washington Times by Ylber Hasa, a member of Kosovo's negotiating team in Vienna: "[The] package includes serious compromises in favor of the Serbs...so if anybody tries to buy time, I don't think anyone will win. We'll just lose the possibility of a political solution," the paper reported on February 20. "If you want to see a new Balkan war, that is the perfect scenario."

Not surprisingly, the Serbian government is treating the negotiation process with caustic contempt. During talks in Vienna in February, Serb and Albanian leadership hit a predictable stalemate. Given the low odds of an amicable compromise, the future of the province, based on the Ahtisaari proposal, will be decided by the UN Security Council. Although a Russian veto is seen as a possible option to counteract Western support for the plan, Serbs are not hedging their bets on an outside savior. It's as if Kosovo, a historic battleground in Serbia's age-old struggle against the Turks, is already lost. Negotiating a partition state, gaining a better deal for the remaining Kosovar Serbs, and a fair financial settlement is seen by some Serb politicians as the only way to get out of the breakup with dignity.

While the U.S. tried to bomb Serbia into submission, the European approach is more coy. Seduced by promises of improved trade relations, thousands of jobs and billions of euros of economic development, Eurocrats are hoping the Serbs won't notice as they slip a blindfold over Kosovo. Serbia's pre-accession negotiations have stagnated in recent months over what Brussels considers unwillingness to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal: namely, to extradite Ratko Mladic, the commanding general of the Bosnian Serb Army during the Srebrenica massacre. But this quest for "justice" seems to have taken a back seat to Serbian cooperation regarding Kosovo. Although the EU's official line is that Mladic is still a condition for resuming talks, the "Kosovo question" has taken center stage.

The European Union's Kosovo strategy is tied into Serbia's entry into the fold, the only way it can guarantee control over the mercurial Balkan country. Not to be outdone by the U.S., the EU is using a "kinder, gentler" ruse to wrest control of Kosovo. The province has its own process, separate from that of Serbia, for joining the Union. Under the Ahtisaari plan, EU troops will control the province, only their second deployment after Bosnia. Although EU officials insist that the status of Kosovo has nothing to do with renewing accession negotiations with Serbia, it is more or less understood to be a fair exchange: give up Kosovo and we'll recognize you as an equal partner in Europe, eventually.

While U.S. and EU talking heads publicly express support for each other's diplomatic efforts, Kosovo is at the center of a power struggle over who will eventually control the region: Nato or the EU? It may be two sides of the same tarnished coin, but to Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, a Serbian law and history specialist, the EU's "50-year credibility is at stake. They're telling us, ‘the solution for Kosovo is a European solution,'" comments Unkovski-Korica. "The only carrot they can offer Serbian people is eventual entry into the EU."

However, Maja Bobic, deputy secretary of the European Movement in Serbia, an NGO dedicated to promoting EU integration, denies that the issues of Kosovo and the EU are connected. She says the Serbian government must do more to fulfill its obligations, not just to the EU, but to the Serbian people. "All the (EU-required) reforms we need to conduct are necessary anyway. It's better to do this with the nice goal of joining the EU family," says Bobic. It's more productive to concentrate on the EU negotiations, she says, rather than view everything through the prism of Kosovo's status. "Serbia doesn't have very many choices now. It has to show a willingness to participate and be involved," says Bobic. "There's narrow space for negotiation." To paraphrase a U.S. despot, it's a "you're either with us or without us" situation.

After the accession of fellow Balkan states Romania and Bulgaria to the EU this year, the noose is tightening around the Balkan peninsula. But even without tying the knot, the Balkan states will hang. Before gaining Union status, imposed neo-liberal trade reforms have opened up new markets in the former Eastern bloc, allowing companies to tap Eastern Europe's most plentiful resource: a cheap yet eager and educated labor pool. Needless to say, freedom of movement is much more limited for citizens of these countries.

Widely seen as a "ghetto within the Balkan ghetto," Serbians cannot travel abroad -- even to neighboring EU countries -- without a visa, a costly and time-consuming process. The new, improved Serbian constitution promises the lofty goals of gender equality, recognition of human rights, and a "European" standard of living, but the country is plagued by gender-based violence, unequal representation of women and minorities in government, and an average monthly salary of $300 -- less in the rural regions.

Bobic admits that privatization and rising unemployment -- even Serbia's first reported case of poverty-related starvation -- are nasty side effects of the transition to capitalism. "In a globalized world companies are coming and taking over anyway. It will happen whether we're in the EU or not," Bobic says.

From a historical point of view, the current "Kosovo crisis" is a continuation of resistance to foreign invasion. Smack in the middle of the crossroads between rival empires, Serbia has hosted a never-ending series of power struggles, from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Bulgarians and Mongols to the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans. The centuries of brutal occupation endured by the Serbs lit a spark of rage that ignited both World Wars and played out viciously during its brief glory as the dominant state in Tito's Yugoslavia.

These days "Yugo-nostalgic" Serbians claim that the country's tenuous existence as a "third way" between Stalinism and McCarthyism during the Cold War was the only time the state knew independence. But this was only in relative terms. Unkovski-Korica is writing his PhD thesis on what he describes as "the hoax of a self-sufficiency" during Tito's 30-year reign. Just as is common practice today, he says, the one-party communist government relied on nationalism -- whether the threat lay inside or outside of the border -- as a cheap tool to remain in power.

"At first, nationalism was a temporary attempt to exit the crisis imposed by the world market," posits Unkovski-Korica. "One can argue that Yugoslavia could have done better, but it's a system based on competition. There are winners and losers in the world market and, let's face it, we lost."

The right-wing Radical Party's much-publicized (and criticized) majority gain in January's elections was based on a similar scare tactic wherein the "Other," in this case, was the international community and Serbian "traitors" who would sell out Serbia via Kosovo. But closer examination of the Radical Party's "All Serbia, One Party" platform shows that they were just as willing to exploit the population for the sake of joining the EU.

U.S. foreign policy operates on the same principle of manipulation. With local populations occupied by ethnic tensions, it's easier to invade, even to be perceived as the "good guys." It's a model that has resulted in disaster in Iraq, but has worked in most of the Balkans.

Unkovski-Korica notes the parallel roles Kosovo and Israel play in areas of geo-strategic interest. "The [Americans] don't want it to be entirely independent or self-sufficient, but in a general state of dependency. I don't think they want to solve the issue. If they gave Kosovo away, they wouldn't be able to keep tensions up in the region."

As pipelines from the Caspian Sea crisscross the Balkans on their way to lucrative European and U.S. markets, controlling even small areas can mean big bucks for the oil dons. The Burgas-Vlore project, which will shuttle Caspian oil from Bulgaria's Black Sea coast through Macedonia to Albania's Adriatic sea port, is one of several pipelines slated for construction through the region in the next few years. There's fierce competition for the U.S.-registered Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil (AMBO) consortium -- which has direct ties to Halliburton -- to start digging before Russia's Gazprom or France's Total can do so. As Centre for Global Research founder Michel Chossudovky commented in the Guardian (July 18, 2001), the AMBO deal is sweetened by the inclusion of a transportation and communications corridor linking the underdeveloped East with the rest of Europe. From all sides, political rhetoric concerning human rights and economic development lies under a slick veneer of oil greed.

The modus operandi of destabalization and obfuscation has served both European and U.S. interests, making the impoverished region ripe for foreign corporate buy-outs and the NGO industry. Since the Nato takeover in June 1999, Western NGOs -- most notably, USAID -- have force-fed Kosovo into virtual dependency. In an area with 50 percent unemployment and an annual per capita income of $1,300, foreign aid is the primary basis for the economy. In Ahtisaari's vision Kosovo would be a weak, decentralized state owned by foreign corporations and run by international "peacekeepers" -- a replication of present-day Bosnia.

Kosovo is already well on its way. Under the auspices of the UN-controlled Kosovo Trust Agency (Serbia has its own privatization board), the province's coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, "publicly-owned enterprises" are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.

Interpress News Service (February 20) reports that the sale of 300 public firms since 2003 has garnered the impoverished province only $344.5 million. According to the Serbian daily Politika, it was a "mono-ethnic privatization" based on undervalued prices favoring ethnic Albanians. Anticipating the worst, Serbia is seeking to regain $30 billion in "lost investment" should Kosovo gain statehood, IPS reports. The Ahtisaari proposal accounts for a mere $250 million worth of moveable property to return to Belgrade's control.

In Serbia dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic's ouster in 2000, the United States has emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of "committed investments" represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.

Word on the streets of Belgrade is that joining the EU is inevitable -- if not entirely enviable. Polls conducted by the European Movement in Serbia and Freedom House show that around 70 percent of Serbians are in favor of joining the EU, but as Ratibor Trivuvac, organizer of the University of Belgrade's Education Union, points out, the main attraction is to leave Serbia, not for the benefits it will bring the country. When asked specific questions concerning workers' rights to equal pay or even to make homemade rakija (plum brandy), he said that the majority showed a preference for more socialist policies.

"The government wants to be part of the EU, but they're not pro-West. The young people want the EU, but they're not into the free market," says Trivuvac. "It's a false dichotomy, a reaction against nationalism. Ideals are being replaced with free market ideas, pushed by the media and repeated by people who are confused."

The political assumption is that Serbians want to join the EU, but Bobic admits that even the main stakeholders -- in Parliament, the business world, and the media -- don't fully understand the implications. Euroskepticism runs high among a world-weary older generation; Serbian youth are inclined towards a mixture of apathy and cynicism.

Yet for the 80 percent of young Serbians who have never left the country, the EU represents a chance to work for a living wage and to escape what's come to be seen as the Serbian destiny of occupation and isolation. As depicted in Emir Kosturica's film Underground, the Serbian characters prefer to live in a manufactured subterranean environment making weapons for a fictional war, rather than be exposed to a cruel and misunderstanding outside world. But it hasn't always been this way. "This used to be a wonderful country," Mirica Popovitch tells me, almost beseechingly, as she walks her dogs through the Bohemian section of Belgrade. "Now, I don't know where it's going. We don't have many visitors these days, not even from places that used to be part of this country."

During Tito's dictatorship, Yugoslavians were the only members of the communist bloc with the ability to move freely. Popovitch, a swim instructor, remembers traveling to Rome and Greece as a teenager with her parents. Now, even to participate in international events, Popovitch must go through the visa ordeal or wait for the competitions to take place in Serbia.

It's an irony of globalization when young people are faced with an isolation their parents barely noticed under communism. "What's the best thing if we join the EU?" asks Sanja, a teenager checking her cellphone outside a McDonald's in downtown Belgrade. She's the model of capitalist perfection. "It will be easier to get to other countries. I want to work somewhere else after my studies, there's no point here," she says in flawless English. "It's not like it will happen tomorrow. But it would be good if more bands can come."

Others have a more skeptical, yet just as apathetic view. Vladimir Miloicic is a history student at the University of Belgrade, focusing on Serbian history in the 20th century. Incidentally, he feels the same way about the European Union as he does about the International Criminal Tribunal. "It's out of my power to influence so I don't care about it. No one my age is truly interested -- it's a non-topic," he says. "No one ever managed to unite Europe. The big question is, will the EU survive? I don't see why we need to rush into it. But I don't think the politicians will let us decide. Sooner or later, we will be in the EU."

Stepping outside her NGOspokesperson role for a moment, Bobic tells of a running joke in Serbia: when the entire Balkans have joined the EU, it will be dissolved. As if somehow "Balkanization" is a contagious disease, not the result of external forces. Yet, however flawed, the process of EU integration can be seen as a barometer of cooperation between the divided Yugoslav states and their neighbors.

While NGOs use trade agreements such as CEFTA (between Central European and Balkan countries) to promote regional dialogue, anti-EU organizers across the continent believe that a common struggle for sovereign rights will unite Europeans. Contrary to popular opinion, it's not a nationalist agenda, but an expectation of empowerment shared by primarily working-class people across the Union. "If the EU is a rallying point, it's not the right one," says UnkovskiKorica. "As an alternative to the U.S., it's like saying, ‘Another form of imperialism is possible.' But fundamentally, it's the same. I don't want to fight for a better EU; I want to fight for a better Europe."

Power is based on control, whether communist, socialist, or capitalist, Unkovski-Korica says. But if Tito's "third way" was a myth, he and Trivuvac see the opportunities opening up for another "third way," embodied in a pan-Balkan alliance spanning from the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania. Unification based on the specific needs of the post-communist region, claims Trivuvac, will bring people results that have eluded them in the last 17 years of transition to capitalism.

Trivuvac's enthusiasm would sound like any other anarcho-syndicalist "pipedream" if it were not for his recent success organizing a six-day sit-in of the philosophy faculty at the University of Belgrade, after which the Administration accepted student demands to halve university tuition, with continuing decreases. On their own volition, Trivuvac says, students who had never heard of anarchist principles adopted an "extremely radical" manifesto, collectively composed in a student assembly. Although Triviuvac complains that Serbians are far behind their Greek counterparts in resisting university privatization, he says the experience woke many up from their apathy or aversion to political involvement -- an example he believes could spread to other sectors of society.

Given the tradition of worker-oriented policies in the former Yugoslavia, the level of union organizing is fairly low, Trivuvac says. Whether due to corruption, indifference, or simply exhaustion, strikes haven't been successful in Serbia for some time. But signs of a sea change are beginning to make waves in Serbian society. Taking a cue from the worker take backs in Argentina, the Jagodina beer factory has been operated by workers since last year, unbeknownst to most beer drinkers. Jugoremedija, a pharmaceutical plant that worker shareholders rescued from privatization in 2003, is a further example of successful resistance to factory closures and corporate takeovers.

"The problem is really between markets and democracy," says Trivuvac. "We as Serbs really have to start to develop alternatives across the region. If we can show that fighting each other is not solving the issue, but about fighting the common enemy."

The big "if" is whether or not this generation of Serbs will recognize how the patterns of nationalism, corruption, and warfare have allowed each successive empire to divide and conquer the region. Kosovo, Nato, and the European Union are modern-day examples of a continuing foreign occupation, which many Serbs believe they are powerless to resist. In a country rocked by violence and poverty, middle-class idealism is quite strong. But the desire for self-determination is an integral part of the capitalist-democracy daydream. By forming alliances with historic rivals -- Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Romanians -- the occupiers can be beaten at their own game. Not only Serbia, but the entire region, will finally come into its own.