Kosovo - back to the brink

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The Balkan province of Kosovo has been largely forgotten in British politics since the war there nine years ago. It was obvious at the time that the post-war settlement would come to a crisis over the question of Kosovan independence.

If a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo doesn't lead to war, that's only because the Serbs are too war weary and defeated to fight against what most of them see as a further attack on their country.

The Kosovo war in 1999 was Tony Blair's first big pitch at humanitarian intervention. Backed by Blair and Bill Clinton, Nato launched an attack on Belgrade in the name of stopping ethnic cleansing of Albanians. The campaign was ferocious, killing hundreds and bombing trains, bridges, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and a television station. Eventually Serbia was defeated and Kosovo became a United Nations (UN) protectorate.

Talks on power sharing between majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs have got nowhere and the Kosovo government recently stated that it would declare independence before May. This is dividing Western rulers who launched the original attack. Russia opposes independence and those like Cyprus worry it will lead to calls for independence from Turkish North Cyprus. Bordering countries with ethnic Albanian minorities are worried there will be moves for them to break away and join an independent Kosovo.

It is the latest depressing turn in the whole saga of 1990s Balkan wars, in which Western intervention helped destabilise the former Yugoslavia and led to wars involving ethnic cleansing on all sides. The West backed different sides as the ethnically mixed country fell apart.

Western powers have since run Bosnia and Kosovo, two of the poorest regions in Europe, with high levels of gun running, prostitution, drugs and organised crime. A joke about the UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) goes like this: the only difference between Unmik and organised crime is that Unmik is not particularly organised.

Serbia has become increasingly dependent on Russia, while behind the UN in Kosovo lies the power of the US.

The Kosovo war divided the left. I was very involved in the Committee for Peace in the Balkans which organised three demonstrations against the war, while some on the left defended it as a humanitarian war to rescue Albanians from Serb aggression. Some of the people involved in the Stop the War Coalition today took this view, including many Muslims who saw it as defending Muslims.

Those of us who protested saw it rather as a new phase of imperialist war. Looking back, Kosovo clearly marks a new phase in the post Cold War reordering of the world. The "war on terror", launched in 2001, has superseded Kosovo in terms of scale and impact, so the Balkans remains a footnote for most people.

One of the lessons of "humanitarian wars" is that they do little for the people they are purporting to protect. They create artificial states maintained from above, allowing warlords, strongmen and gangsters to dominate. Neither do they solve the fundamental problems of discrimination or oppression.

Today independence will almost certainly mean more ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo, although many Serbs and Roma have already been driven out into ghettos. There may be attempts to partition Kosovo, with the Serbs being confined to the north. But, like partition everywhere, this will satisfy few while setting in stone the sectarian divisions which exist. Kosovo, independent of Serbia, will initially fall under the control of the European Union, which will have ultimate executive power and 15,000 troops in the country.

It is reported that many Serbs in Belgrade are more concerned with their living standards and daily problems than they are with this question.

Serbian nationalism, whipped up by the now dead Slobodan Milosevic, has brought nothing but war and misery to ordinary Serbs. National independence will do little for ordinary Albanians.

A socialist federation of different ethnic groups across the Balkans has been a traditional left response in the face of the traditional divisions.

Building the level of confidence needed to overcome ethnic rivalries may seem utopian under present circumstances. It will require a grassroots anti-imperialist movement capable of challenging all forms of oppression, and arguing for genuine self-determination. Only this points towards genuine equality between different groups without the region breaking up into a partitioned patchwork of states.

In the meantime, whatever happens there, the real losers are the ordinary Albanians and Serbs, brought once more to the brink of war, as the pawns of the big powers.