The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

War in Kosovo:
U.S. Victory—Feeding Further Wars

Jul 17, 1999

On June 12, President Clinton declared that the NATO alliance had won the war in the former-Yugoslavia. After 11 weeks of intensive bombing, Slobodan Milosevic accepted NATO’s terms. He withdrew Serb forces from Kosovo and accepted that Kosovo would come under the authority of NATO and the U.N.

Clinton and the Democrats claimed this as their victory. According to them, it showed that the bombing worked, and not a U.S. life was lost (at least not in combat).

Yet the polls have shown that this war did something that Ken Starr’s impeachment inquiry could never do: bring Clinton’s poll numbers down, especially as the war continued. Even with the end of the war, and the declared victory, those numbers did not jump back up. Of course, these numbers could be attributed to many things: a lack of interest, fatigue, as people, with their own problems, were bombarded by the images of suffering and destruction in a far-away land with which they felt no connection. And for many, there is the question of why the U.S. is bothering there, when we have so many problems here. But besides that, there must still be a residue of mistrust that goes back to the Viet Nam War, and even the after effects of the Gulf War.

To the military industries, however, this war had to be very popular. Not only did Congress increase their funding in the middle of the war, but it is already assumed that there will be further steep increases in military procurement, i.e. business and profits, over those that had already been projected, money that may very well be spent in future wars in the Balkans or other countries, where misery and violence are spreading.

The Democrats, even the most liberal, like Senators Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, as well as Jesse Jackson, initially supported the bombing and always supported what Clinton stated to be his objectives.

The Republicans played to the full range of all those who opposed the war for any reason, from anti-war to the old, parochial isolationist sentiment that is so much a part of this country’s history. Those Republicans, like Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, from whom one is used to hearing the most warmongering rhetoric, actually denounced the war, or at least denounced giving the President a blank check to carry out the war. This was reflected in the House vote that failed to formally support the war. Of course, their rhetoric was liberally laced with chauvinist sentiments like that of Representative John Kasich of Ohio, who said, "Those people have been fighting each other for a thousand years." It is precisely this kind of logic, which can be turned around and used to justify further U.S. wars and interventions, when it is convenient.

But when it came time to vote for the money that Clinton requested to continue the war, the Republicans doubled it. They did this not only as a way to hand more tax money to the big defense contractors, but because despite all their demagogic rhetoric, they supported the war’s main objective: to demonstrate U.S. military power.

U.S. Power

And this war first of all was a demonstration of U.S. power. What the lesser imperialist powers, like Germany, France and Britain, lacked militarily, the U.S. made up for in its use of air power. The air campaign was basically the work of the U.S., which flew 90% of the 20,000 missions. As during the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. demonstrated what kind of terrible destructiveness it can rain down on a country and a people, when it chooses. U.S. bombs destroyed much of the Serbian infrastructure: key bridges, power plants, railroads, surface roads, water treatment plants, oil refineries, factories, etc. This set back the Serbian economy by many decades. There was also a huge environmental cost from NATO’s bombing of military and industrial targets. According to a U.N. report, it has caused "extensive pollution of the natural environment with highly toxic agents, oil and oil products." Literally hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous and poisonous chemicals were released into the air, ground water, rivers and soil to be breathed and ingested by the surrounding populations.

Under the guise of "degrading" the Serb military’s ability to resist, the U.S. military punished almost the entire Serb population.

The U.S. did force the Serb military out of Kosovo, opening the way for hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees to return home. But what these refugees are returning to has also been turned into ashes. The U.S. bombing did not stop the Serbian authorities from their campaign of terror against the Kosovar population. On the contrary, it effectively aided and abetted this campaign. Once the bombing started, the Serb forces accelerated and intensified the "ethnic cleansing" campaign, burning, looting and destroying. At the same time, U.S. bombs terrorized the Kosovar population from the air, thus contributing to the flood of refugees, as well as destroying much of the infrastructure in Kosovo itself. Moreover, as the Christian Science Monitor (April 29) first revealed, the U.S. was using shells and bullets containing depleted uranium, thereby rendering parts of the environment in Kosovo radioactive. These weapons had previously been used in the Gulf war and then against Bosnian Serbs in 1995; they have been linked with Gulf War Syndrome side effects and will be a source of disease for generations to come. There still remain countless tons of dangerous unexploded ordnance that will continue to blow up the limbs and lives of unsuspecting civilians for many more years.

In no way did the U.S. and its NATO allies carry out this war in order to allow the people of Kosovo to democratically decide their own fate. The people of Kosovo were not consulted about the final agreement that ended the war. Nor did the final agreement contain even the hint of allowing them to have a say in their final status. Instead, the agreement specifies that while Kosovo would come under the authority of NATO and the U.N., it will remain a province of Serbia. In other words, under the guise of "helping" the Kosovar people, the U.S. is busy fitting them into a new strait jacket.

A Legacy of Imperialist Domination

The Balkans are populated by a mosaic of different peoples. Over the last century, the major powers in Europe, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Britain and Russia have conquered, plundered and competed for control of this region, leaving disaster in their wake. The conquerors and rulers divided people against each other, fostering one cycle after another of internecine violence and vengeance.

In 1918, the imperialist victors of World War I redrew the map of the Balkans, not in regard to the desires of the people in the region, but only to reflect the new relationship of forces between the different Great Powers, even if it meant drawing borders that arbitrarily divided people. For instance, they created a small "independent" Albania, which was under their "protection," which contained only half of the Albanian population, leaving the rest of the Albanian people inside Macedonia and Kosovo. Kosovo, where Albanians made up 90% of the population, became a province of Serbia, which was included in the new state of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia, this "Kingdom of the South Slavs," included Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Under the rule of the Serbian king, there was virulent national oppression in Yugoslavia, including against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Josip Broz Tito, the nationalist leader of the Yugoslav partisan army that fought Hitler during World War II, ruled Yugoslavia from the end of the war until he died in 1980. This regime wasn’t communist, despite the label, and it was a dictatorship; nonetheless it allowed the different ethnic groups and nationalities inside Yugoslavia to live together, to mix and to begin to consider themselves to be Yugoslavs, rather than Serbs, Croats, Albanians, etc. In 1974, Tito revised the national constitution so that Kosovo was granted a large autonomy from Serbia. Kosovo gained its own governing bodies, and Kosovars gained many more legal rights. But Kosovo remained the poorest and most underdeveloped part of Yugoslavia.

In the 1980s, after Tito’s death, his potential successors competed for power on the basis of a nationalist demagoguery that became more strident, especially with the underlying international economic crisis that had struck particularly hard at the underdeveloped countries. They relied on this demagogy not only to boost their personal fortunes, but to divert and derail the growing unrest, strikes and protests against the falling living standards and growing unemployment. And they were strongly encouraged to do so by the major European powers whose rivalries contributed to the dislocation of the country.

Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power in Yugoslavia was based directly on attacks against the Kosovar population. And he has played the Kosovo card ever since. In a 1989 speech at the anniversary of an ancient Serb battle in Kosovo, Milosevic argued that Serbs were being cheated out of their fair share of jobs and prosperity. He complained that few Serbs lived in Kosovo and that ethnic Albanians were mistreating Serbs in Kosovo, including by rape and violence. Milosevic then vowed that "Kosovo belongs to Serbia." As soon as he came to power later that year, Milosevic ended Kosovo’s constitutional autonomy, dissolved Kosovo’s elected parliament, dismissed ethnic Albanians from government, state enterprises and schools, encouraged racist discrimination against Albanians in housing and instituted linguistic and cultural oppression. Serbs were brought in from the outside, given jobs and privileges.

Between 1991 and 1995, Yugoslavia was torn apart as Slovenia, Croatia and then Bosnia seceded, a process that ignited one war after another. At that time, Kosovo remained deceptively quiet. But resistance and defiance inside Kosovo against national oppression continued. In 1992, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by Ibrahim Rugova, advocated passive resistance. The League organized boycotts of Serb institutions. In their place, the LDK set up a shadow ethnic Albanian government for Kosovo, complete with underground elections, a parliament and a presidency. The League collected taxes, ran schools and clinics. Diplomas and certificates were granted by this self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo which no government officially recognized.

Certainly, the big powers recognized the potentially explosive situation in Kosovo, and moreover the danger of destabilizing the neighboring countries, Albania, Macedonia not to speak of the entire region. It had been a concern since 1992. But over the next years, Kosovo remained relatively quiet, and so little more was said.

The Kosovo Crisis Deepens

The turning point of the Kosovo crisis came with the Dayton Accords of November 1995 that settled the war in Bosnia. This peace settlement was worked out directly under the tutelage of the U.S. State Department and Pentagon, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The Bosnian war, which had pitted Serbs, Croats and Muslims against each other in the Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, lasted for over three years. The war was a bloodbath: 200,000 people were killed, and half the population was displaced. One million people were forced out of the country, while another million people were turned into refugees inside Bosnia. The U.S. and major European powers had allowed the conflict to play itself out. The various parts of Bosnia were weakened and bled dry to the point that all the combatants finally accepted this settlement. The Dayton Accords resulted in Bosnia being broken up into three micro-states: Serb, Croat, Muslim under the domination of Milosevic of Serbia and Tudjman of Croatia.

In effect, with this accord, the big powers endorsed the leaders most responsible for the barbaric ethnic cleansing and massacres that had marked this war. Clinton even went so far as to call Milosevic and Tudjman the "guarantors of peace." This formal recognition of Milosevic, the sworn enemy of the ethnic Albanians, was brought home to the Kosovars, every time the television news carried images of Clinton’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, meeting with Milosevic.

Moreover, there was nothing in the Dayton Accords that dealt with the crisis in Kosovo; all of the governments that took part in the negotiations consciously avoided any discussion of Kosovo. This could only mean one thing: the U.S. and European powers had consciously decided to leave Milosevic free to continue his oppression of the people of Kosovo; it was their acknowledgment that Kosovo was an "internal affair."

Rugova’s brand of passive resistance had counted on the support of the big powers to pressure or force Milosevic to grant the Kosovars concessions. The Dayton Accords spelled the end of all illusions on that score.

This led to a radicalization inside the ethnic Albanian population, and a decline of Rugova’s LDK. Ethnic Albanians began to funnel their support away from the LDK to a small guerilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or UCK in Albanian), which had been founded in 1993. Substantial numbers of young people, ready to fight with their bare hands, if necessary, began to join. And more of the contributions that used to go to Rugova’s shadow republic, began to go to the KLA to buy arms. Over the next two years, the KLA picked up more arms in raids on police stations. It began to target individual Serb cops and officials, as well ethnic Albanians who were suspected of being collaborators. In January 1998, the rebels assassinated an important Serbian official, riddling his body and car with bullets.

Milosevic’s response to this was to go to war, by employing many of the same brutal methods of massacres and ethnic cleansing as had been used in the Bosnian war. To reinforce the special police, he brought in ever more thousands of black-uniformed, special paramilitary units, the same Serbian units that had been responsible for so much of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. And the military also sent tanks, helicopter gunships, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery. Their target was not only the KLA, but the ethnic Albanian population itself, in which the KLA lived. The Serbs massacred, imprisoned and tortured people. They blasted and burned the villages, and slaughtered the cattle, sheep and horses. When people tried to escape to outlying forests, they were bombarded with heavy artillery and mortar shells.

With the first massacres in February 1998, thousands more people, especially young people, joined the KLA, and they gained the support of villages and towns throughout much of Kosovo. By the summer months of 1998, KLA units had been able to gain control of about one-third of Kosovo’s territory. However, the largely untrained and underarmed KLA was no match for the heavily armed, mechanized units that Milosevic was sending in. By the fall, the KLA had been pushed out of much of the territory that it had gained. But this was not enough to crush the KLA, and the support it had in the population.

Meanwhile, the human toll from Milosevic’s offensives in Kosovo was staggering. By the end of the summer, thousands had already been killed, hundreds of villages lay in ruins, and there were 300,000 refugees, or 15% of the population.

The Roots of the NATO Intervention

The U.S. never really opposed Milosevic’s goals of keeping Kosovo as a part of Serbia. Independence for Kosovo could set off a new chain reaction of instability in the region. They feared that the guerilla war could encourage more nationalist movements in this region, destabilize countries like Albania and Macedonia, or even involve Turkey and Greece, two members of NATO, but rivals in the Balkans. It could encourage other ethnic minorities to challenge the Dayton Accords, the settlement worked out by the U.S. and European powers, and therefore a direct blow to them. The way Milosevic had dealt with what he considered his own internal affairs was likely to create a major crisis in this part of Europe. Nonetheless, they obviously gave Milosevic a chance to crush the armed resistance of the Kosovars and bring the situation that he created back under control.

In spite of a few token gestures, they did not oppose Milosevic’s efforts to crush the KLA. In February 1998, only days before Milosevic launched his first offensive in Kosovo, in a visit to Belgrade, U.S. special Balkan Envoy, Richard Gelbard praised Milosevic, and branded the Kosovo Liberation Army "without question a terrorist group." It was said that Milosevic took this as a signal from Washington that it would look the other way while he did his dirty work.

And the U.S. made it very clear that they were not at all ready to intervene militarily at that time. As one "senior" American official told the New York Times (September 16, 1998), "We don’t want to be the Kosovars’ air force. It’s not the same dynamic as in Bosnia, because we don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence. We recognize the Kosovo region as an important part of Serbia."

In the months that followed, the U.S.-European allies played for time. As Morton I. Abramowitz, head of the International Crisis Group, explained in October, "The United States and its allies have waited four months while he [Milosevic] cleaned the clock of the Kosovo Liberation Army." According to The Times, some policy analysts even admired Milosevic’s military operations for having very "skillfully managed a key requirement for Washington: he made sure the war did not spill over into neighboring Albania and Macedonia, fragile countries in a traditionally volatile region... Mr. Milosevic catered to Washington’s concern that the conflict be contained. The Yugoslav Army mined Kosovo’s borders with Macedonia and Albania, insuring that few refugees could escape and limiting routes for arms supplies for the rebels." (New York Times, October 5, 1998)

However, by October, it had become clear that the situation inside Kosovo was rapidly deteriorating. Milosevic had failed to crush the KLA. Instead, the war had broadened its support. As one U.S. general said, Milosevic was the KLA’s best recruiter. Besides that, the flood of refugees created by the war already 15% of Kosovo’s population posed enormous political problems. By now many refugees were pouring into neighboring countries, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, which themselves were impoverished, with little means to care for them. If this flood continued, it threatened these countries’ fragile stability, and perhaps it could even draw them into the war. Inside Kosovo, tens of thousands of refugees were sleeping in open fields and forests with little or no sustenance. An estimated 50,000 refugees were trapped in the mountains. If winter came, and nothing was done, many of these people could die, which also could lead to much greater social unrest in the region.

So, the U.S. and European powers stepped in, and insisted that Milosevic accept a ceasefire, and the withdrawal of many of his troops. And the U.S. and Europe insisted that he accept that 2,000 military observers monitor the cease-fire. But while Milosevic signed the ceasefire, the Serbian army dragged its feet leaving Kosovo. In many instances, they made it difficult for the military observers to monitor it. By the end of December, Milosevic had officially broken the cease-fire, and had resumed military operations in Kosovo.

To the U.S. and NATO, the major problem in this war had become Slobodan Milosevic, who had created a situation which threatened to destabilize an already very explosive Balkan region, and then had defied the U.S. and the other major European powers.

This was most likely the final confirmation that NATO would have to restore order itself. In the first three months of 1999, as the fighting in Kosovo raged, the big powers set up what amounted to two more rounds of negotiations in Rambouillet outside Paris, France. However, there has been some speculation in the news media that the U.S. and Europe had already decided that NATO would have to intervene, and they were using that time to plan and prepare for the war.

Finally, on the night of March 23, NATO began to bomb Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro with the aim of demonstrating to Milosevic that the big powers, and not he, were the masters of the Balkans.

Imposing Order

Of course, this was not a war carried out for humanitarian reasons, as the politicians and news media insisted. The U.S. and NATO used their power against Milosevic and his cronies by mainly bombing the people of Serbia and their means to survive. U.S. smart technology, surgical bombing, hit mainly economic targets when they weren’t hitting trains, hospitals, convoys. And the bombs the U.S. employed often just happened to be the kind that do the most damage to flesh and bone: cluster bombs, anti-personnel weapons.

When pressed, spokespersons for the U.S. and NATO justified this as being "strategically" necessary. In one instance, a NATO official told reporters that NATO took into consideration the vast environmental damage that resulted from the bombing of an oil refinery and chemical factory complex in Pancevo. "The oil refinery in Pancevo was a key installation that provided petrol and other elements to support the Yugoslav Army. By cutting off these supplies we denied crucial material to the Serbian forces fighting in Kosovo. When targeting is done we take into account all possible collateral damage, be it environmental, human or to the civilian infrastructure. Pancevo was considered to be a very, very important refinery and strategic target, as important as tactical targets inside Kosovo." And this so-called very important target justified in their eyes what thousands of people suffered as a result: the miscarriages, birth defects and debilitating and chronic poor health, caused by mysterious illnesses that doctors had never seen.

The stated purpose of the bombing was to "degrade" the Serbian military’s ability to carry out the war in Kosovo, and during the war the Pentagon claimed that it had damaged at least one-third of the Serb tanks. Yet, after the war ended, and the Serb troops and tanks left Kosovo, reporters couldn’t help but notice that they had not suffered much damage at all, that Pentagon claims were inflated. Most likely this had less to do with the Serbian military’s cleverness and cunning use of decoys, than of the U.S. and NATO’s own political choices. The U.S. never intended to significantly weaken the Serbian army, one of the strongest in the region, because they depend on it to keep order in the region.

Neither did the war result in the removal of the main target, Milosevic, from power. Milosevic might have been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal. There may have been some demonstrations inside Serbia calling for his removal. The U.S. and other powers might prefer otherwise, but Milosevic remains in power, for the simple reason that there may not be anyone to take his place, that is, fulfill the role of strongman in the region by gaining loyalty and control over the Serbian state apparatus. Those things cannot be promulgated from on high, but have to be won in contests of power. This may mean, of course, that the U.S. and NATO will continue to count on Milosevic to "to build a stable peace in the Balkans," or, in plain English, to uphold order against the population.

This war had supposedly been fought to protect the Kosovar population. In reality, the U.S. and NATO bombed the Kosovars, rather than the Serb army that had been attacking them. Once the war ended, one of the first goals of the NATO and U.N. occupation has been to disarm the KLA guerillas, to assure that there is no independent force that can challenge them. NATO and the U.N. speak of integrating some of the KLA elements into a police force, that will be under their control.

In fact, the war did not open the way to solving any of the enormous problems that plague the region, but aggravated these problems further. The falling bombs did not reduce the divisions between the different peoples, but only fueled the hatreds further.

At the same time, the already impoverished economies in the region, including not only Serbia and Kosovo, but Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria bear the burden of the war and its aftermath. During the war, they had to pay for and provide the facilities for caring for the hundreds of thousands of refugees. Now, after the war, the region is in an even deeper economic crisis. A destroyed Serbia is a giant hole in the economy of southern Europe. The bombing destroyed important bridges, making the Danube River, one of the most important arteries for trade and transportation, unusable. The Danube is also an important source for drinking water in that region. But the flow of toxic waste, as a result of the bombing, also made that impossible.

No one should expect that the major powers will come through on their promises to lend a helping hand in these countries’ reconstruction. Certainly, during the bombing, there was a lot of talk about all kinds of reconstruction plans. But much of this talk quieted down once the war ended. The U.S. government said that since it had paid most of the cost of the bombing, it would leave it to the European governments to pay for the reconstruction. Then the European governments announced that budget constraints will force them to cut drastically down on what they are able to contribute. If experience is any guide, the people of the region will never see whatever reconstruction money is finally spent, since reconstruction efforts are merely excuses to shovel subsidies to the major multinationals, like Bechtel, Flor, etc.

Feeding Further Wars

U.S. and NATO leaders recognize the dangers inherent in this worsening situation. The comments by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek (June 21) most likely reflect some of the fears and misgivings of U.S. leaders. In the article, Kissinger first recalls that the long reign of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires over the Balkans was punctuated by numerous revolts among the peoples they oppressed. He then expressed the concern that in this part of the Balkans, the U.S. might end up being considered "the modern equivalent of the Ottoman and Austrian empires" and find themselves drawn into "near- permanent American involvement in an endless set of predictable conflicts and possible guerilla wars." Indeed, says Kissinger, talking about the KLA, "after what its members and the population of Kosovo endured during the ethnic-cleansing war, remaining within Serbia will be inconceivable to them." As a result, "we will be in the ironic position that, having fought on the side of the Albanians for their autonomy, we may find ourselves resisting them (or perhaps even fighting against them) over the issue of their independence... Not only are we imperceptibly on the road to replace the Ottoman and Austrian empires in the Balkans; in time we may face the same hostility from the native population that they did."

In other words, the war in Kosovo will only lay the ground work for more wars in the Balkans that pit the people in the region against the major imperialist powers.

Certainly, there is no imperialist "solution" capable of unraveling this situation. It is the propertied classes, their politicians and their police and military machines, with the support of their masters, the leaders at the imperialist powers, who lead peoples into fratricidal wars. It is they who condemn the populations to a life of fear and hatred and to the retrogression resulting from the reactionary ideas which they use as a whip. It is these classes, and the economic and social roots of their power, which must be fought and eradicated.

And this is also necessary in order to lay down the foundations for a peaceful solution to national problems.

Under imperialist rule anything that may appear as the beginning of a solution for a particular population in the Balkans, is immediately turned into a trap, or at least, a threat, against the neighboring peoples. The inhumanity of this system is such that instead of being a source of collective enrichment, the mixing of different peoples turns into a cause of catastrophe for whole regions.

This is why the only possibility for satisfactory recognition of people’s national and cultural rights lies in free federation, on the basis of the right to self-determination and respect for all, and within the framework of an economic organization designed to serve the collective general interests. But for such a perspective to be possible, the Balkan proletariat will first need to develop a consciousness of its class interests and to build political organizations which represent this consciousness. To this end, it will have to fight against the political and ideological domination of the nationalist and imperialist bourgeoisies.