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<nettime> High octane, narrow gauge
Andras Riedlmayer on Thu, 6 May 1999 10:27:51 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> High octane, narrow gauge


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Amanda Sebestyen reports on a forum, sponsored by the London Review
of Books and New Left Review last month, in which leading figures of
Britain's leftish intelligentsia talked about the Kosovo crisis. The
event was chaired for the New Left Review by Tariq Ali; what was said
is what one might have predicted, which doesn't make it any less
appalling.

Sebestyen concludes:

    Several points occurred to me after the discussion. First,
    the very narrow band of concerns which were addressed: mainly the
    global machinations of Nato, followed by argumentative re-runs
    of Yugoslav history. Few addressed the present, and of these
    a disturbingly large proportion attempted to deny that the Kosovars
    were suffering mass murder. Several who spoke with most assurance
    against intervention had no previous record of concern for the people
    of the region. There were a large number of women in the audience
    but nearly all remained silent, even though (for example) Ursula Owen
    of Index on Censorship or the historian Sally Alexander might have
    had a lot to contribute. It seemed impossible to wrench the debate
    away from its Olympian geopolitical focus. A wider consensus of
    good taste was used to disqualify the notion that the Milosevic regime
    might possibly be "fascist" or committing "genocide". Strangely,
    these prohibitions reinforced the effect of spending an evening
    in the 1930s, where many of a Leninist persuasion could still
    apparently find national socialism preferable to capitalism.

Sebestyen's report on the event is posted on the Balkan Institute's
website.

Andras Riedlmayer
======================================================================
http://www.bosnia.org.uk/binews/300499%5F4.htm

30 April 1999

High octane, narrow gauge: left intellectual arguments
against the war

A joint discussion about the Kosova Crisis was held by the
London Review of Books and New Left Review on 19th April. While
LRB hosted the event and began by stating that differences
existed among both its staff and its contributors, the evening's
arguments were largely shaped by the more uniform views of NLR
and some newly co-opted allies from the right. I thought it was
worth summarising the meeting for the Bosnian Institute, partly
to show just how little impression the institute's information
and strategic thinking about the region seems to have made
on a fairly influential section of our peers.

Jeremy Harding from the London Review of Books began with a report
from his recent visit to Macedonia. He saw three incompatibilities
inside the country: ethnic Macedonians (he felt) joining Serb parties
in vocal hostility to Nato and threatening attacks on troops; the
leader of the ethnic Albanian party in the Macedonian coalition
stating his absolute Western preference for "Coca-cola not Cyrillic";
the Kosovar refugees unanimously refusing to blame Nato for any
of their sufferings.

Tariq Ali's keynote speech for NLR invoked Slavoj Zizek's critique
of Balkan stereotypes. [Clearly he hadnt read Zizek's recent statement
on the Nato action: "As a leftist, I say too few bombs and not soon
enough!"] This impressionism continued in a fast-forward view of
Balkan history. "Some of us felt the Yugoslav federation did not
have to split, it was caused by the IMF".... The Slovenes created
the crisis...Germans pushed through the defection of Slovenia
by bribing John Major... Bosnia is now an occupied protectorate,
this is what you get once you start breaking up a federation
along ethnic lines... With regard to Kosovo the position was more
sympathetic but not better informed: "Tito made a big error over
Kosovo... Kosovars were treated like the Irish... no European
power at any conference stood up for Kosovo.. . In March 1998 the
US ambassador described the KLA as terrorists and gave the green light
to Milosevic... casualties up to the Nato intervention were only
1-2,000." [No mention of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians
forced into emigration, plus the year-on-year deaths through the 1980s
and 90s, even before last autumn's driving out of 200,000 villagers
to die.] Tariq Ali acknowledged the honourable motives of the new wave
of former anti-war activists, but believed they were being drawn into
US plans to further isolate Russia . The big debate was inside Nato:
the USA wanting to move from defensive alliance to zap force, Italy
envisaging different forms of European defence, Oskar Lafontaine
leaving the German government over 'bombing an independent state'.
A political solution was then proposed. Stop Nato bombing, hold
a UN conference, and partition Kosova to provide a "safe haven"
for Albanians. But any Nato protectorate to assure Kosova's
independence would repeat the Western carve-up of Africa,
ostensibly undertaken in the Congo to end slavery. "We now have
a human-rights imperialism" ... It is difficult for Kosovan refugees
to admit that Nato is responsible for their being chucked out.
A ground war would lead to huge conflagration. As liberals and
democrats were now isolated in Russia, a "Russian Pinochet" would
soon emerge. This was a war defended in the West by liberals and
social democrats.

Richard Gott (Committee Against War in the Balkans) started the
discussion from the floor by comparing the Nato action to the start
of the Great War, and also to Gladstone's campaigns against the
Armenian and Bulgarian massacres in the 1880s.  The next speaker
decried the "bloodthirsty frivolity" of socialists supporting
armed intervention to support the Kosovars: Ken Livingstone here,
Cohn-Bendit in France, Enzensberger in Germany. Kosova was a
"small-scale nasty counter-insurgency which should have been
left alone."

Robin Blackburn (NLR) had recently met Gorbachev in Cambridge and
found him close to Primakov's position "but with some differences"
[unspecified]. The West's action has negated the Organisation for
Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. The West fears Russia's
remaining weapons and aims to encircle Russia: "Bosnia is now
a massive Nato base."

The next speaker described Bosnia as a failed liberals' and
social democrats' peace and Kosovo as a failed liberals' and
social democrats' war.

Henry Porter (The Guardian) broke this consensus: "Srebrenica has
left its mark on Tony Blair - and on me". How could he write in anger
when the UN and Western armies did nothing to prevent Srebrenica,
and now fail to support armed action over Kosovo?

Daut Dauti (Kosovar reporter for Zeri newspaper) pointed out that
US policy had at first been precisely to keep Yugoslavia together
and refuse to recognise the republics.  Then the West recognised
Slovenia and finally the six republics, but even at Dayton always
left out Kosova. Dayton was the time for bombs, not now. The Kosovars'
policy of peaceful resistance was a joke to the West; only later
did the KLA become a geopolitical factor. The majority of Kosovars
wanted independence, not union with Greater Albania. The OSCE mission
in Kosova stood by while people were killed, raped, robbed and looted...
Bombing needs to continue till Milosevic and the Serbs get the message.

The next speaker asked us to consider the nature of the Milosevic regime
independently of the IMF and external forces. Czechoslovakia broke up
under monetarist pressures  without producing 2 million refugees. The
Milosevic regime had the hallmarks of a "racially based proto-fascism
which can only survive through war".

Chris Harman (Socialist Workers Party - SWP) warned a bemused audience
that Uzbekistan was about to point nuclear weapons at Armenia. Perhaps
he was thinking of Azerbaijan, but he obviously felt that all of these
countries with a zed in their name - from the Balkans to Central Asia -
were a long way away. He pointed to a huge decline in living standards
across the former Yugoslavia and claimed that the hidden purpose of
nationalism had been to prevent working class unity and suppress strikes
"in a backward region". All the nationalisms in Yugoslavia were as bad
as each other, Operation Storm just as bad as Srebrenica.

It fell to me to take up the "bombs for peace" position. Against the
notion of Yugoslav backwardness, I suggested that peace and civil society
movements there had advanced ideas on human rights and regionalisation
which Western Europe was only now adopting. I'd first seen a hall full
of Kosovar refugees 10 years ago in Slovenia, where the independent media
were facing military show trials for revealing the Yugoslav National
Army's plans for a coup. Slovenia and Croatia did not originally want
independence but a confederation - they were expelled and then invaded.
They were only recognised as independent states six months after Vukovar,
and three months into the bombardment of Dubrovnik. The persecution of
the Kosovars went back far longer: large numbers of Yugoslav Albanians
now in Istanbul were driven out some as late as the early 1960s,
during Tito's  multi-cultural paradise. Kosovo was a brutal, festering
colonial situation and the best thing for Serbia would be to lose it
as soon as possible. I hoped we could listen to the Kosovars present.

Peter Gowan (historian, NLR editorial board):  when Yugoslavia was
opened up to Western monetarism 11 million workers lost their jobs,
with Serbia and the southern republics worst hit. Federation had always
depended on the sacrifice of Serb hegemony: Serbs, the most numerous
nation, were divided into different republics and provinces. The
Badinter Commission granted minority rights to Serbs in Croatia
but the EU and Germany ratted on that agreement by recognising Croatia
and Slovenia without conditions. "Everyone in Yugoslavia knew that Bosnia
had three nations", plus a million mixed Yugoslavs: the EU agreed not to
recognise independence unless all three nations approved, but later
pressed for an integral Bosnian state.[Possibly the most surprising
statement of the evening]. Krajina Serbs were not fascists but
had gravitated to nationalists to defend them. "There are 600,000
ethnically cleansed Serbs being used to colonise Kosovo - Serbs
and Kosovars are equal victims."

A young speaker for the SWP asserted that while Hitler had destroyed
the German opposition, Nato had destroyed the Serbian opposition.
Nato was also letting its member Turkey bomb Kurdish safe havens
in Northern Iraq. How could the same organisation pretend to be
concerned with human rights?

Mark Almond (Oriel College) spoke as a conservative  historian who had
recently been denounced both as a fascist and a Stalinist - a great
compliment. Srebrenica had been a shock to Western policy makers.
The UK government had changed since the massacre, but key people
in the Foreign Office remained committed to "humane ethnic cleansing".
The same people who suppressed information on the Dutch UN troops
collaborating with the killers were now thinking of dividing Kosovo
along ethnic lines "to end the trouble". Sadly the Albanians would get
a bantustan, as the Bosnians did after Dayton.

Mark Steel (comedian/columnist) gave another breathtaking SWP riff:
World War I used false propaganda that Germans were bayoneting babies/ In
the Falklands war the British media called Galtieri a Nazi / The My Lai
massacre was exactly the same thing/ British government should stop
selling weapons to Indonesia and stop sanctions against Iraq/ "The Sun
is now to the left of the liberal warmongers."

Young journalist from Belgrade: I always opposed Milosevic  but
intervention has come too late. Eight years ago, in 1991, it was decided
that Western democratic standards did not apply to us, but only the
"rights of nations", or nationalisms. Kosovans will not come back
to Kosovo - look at Dayton, only 10% of Bosnians have been able to
return. Over time Milosevic seemed to be weakening. Now even the leader
of the opposition Civil Alliance has been drafted and may be killed.
The Nato action in Kosova will lead to partition and irredentism.

Isuf Berisha (journalist/ Soros Foundation Pristina) had just been
driven from his home at gunpoint and come through the Macedonian camps.
"This is genocide. Even so, I am not one of those who hate all Serbs - I
have Serb friends in the opposition who tried to support us. But we have
to realise that they were a small minority. Ethnic cleansing is not just
being carried out by one man, Milosevic. He has been re-elected several
times. Nobody likes bombs, but at the moment this is the only way".
Berisha questioned Tariq Ali's figures on the casualties in Kosova this
winter: actually there were 200 Serb police and paramilitaries killed
and 2,000 Kosovar civilians. This situation did not start with foreign
intervention and the IMF, but had its own history. Nato's action had
just provided the excuse for a long-planned project. In the course
of 1998, one third of Kosovan villages had already been destroyed.

Robin Blackburn saw the Danube foaming with much blood. "We must register
the scale of this tragedy, which is not about genocide but a vastly
perilous wider war". A ground invasion may not use Allied troops: "The
mayor of Tuzla [the anti-nationalist Selim Beslagic] is sitting on
the biggest Nato base", Hungary is a Nato member, there are troops
in Romania, plus Macedonia and Montenegro. Russia has thousands of
intercontinental ballistic missiles. "Our Kosovan friends think
this is just about Kosovo - what about Moldova? .... East Central Europe
is a powder keg.  Rambouillet was close to agreement with Milosevic!
He is the only person able to withdraw his forces through negotiation.
We should ask the Russians to go in, not humanitarians - weak liberals
support negotiations through a bureaucratic OSCE, but I prefer the
process without illusions".

Bejtulla Destani ( Kosovar researcher). "There has never been one
demonstration in Belgrade to protest about Kosova.  We have bitter
memories of Russian troops in Albania: in 1879 they helped to cleanse
300,000 ethnic Albanians from Serbia, and in 1913 killed 50,000 more.
During the first kingdom of Yugoslavia, from 1920-41, 200,000 Yugoslav
Albanians were sent to Turkey . In a new Europe, we are in favour
of bombing and of US involvement. [Gasps and giggles from audience].
This is partly because after the First World War it was the US that
opposed Anglo-French plans for total partition".

Goran Goric (Belgrade journalist). "I opposed the Bosnian war, but
no Albanian intellectual has opposed the indiscriminate bombing of
Yugoslavia where 500 civilians have already been killed. It's not true
that Kosovar people are fighting Serbian oppression, because the first
demonstrations for independence came in the early 80s at the height of
liberal freedoms. This shows that the motive must have been nationalism,
not human rights. There has been bitter fighting between Serb and
Albanian throughout history". Milosevic had not won all the elections,
he had rigged them. The West failed to support the Serbian opposition
parties when they won the local elections. Since 1989 the Kosovans
boycotted Yugoslav elections when they could have voted for the
opposition, so they are partly responsible for keeping this government
in power. "Kosovars" is a newspeak word: they should be called "ethnic
Albanians".

Tariq Ali rounded off the discussion. Historically, colonising countries
have always had a blind spot. Serbian dissidents have treated Albanians
as different from other nations. But it is not true that Nato is
supporting self determination for Kosovo, because the press continues
to print attacks on the KLA. Most in the Western war party are
motivated by guilt over Srebrenica - "the only offence approaching
genocide in the Balkan wars". Why shouldn't long negotiations go on,
as they do in Ireland? It is a sign of weakness for supporters of
this war to use arguments from World War II: at different times everyone
from Nasser to Galtieri has been called a Hitler. We need not oppose
all armed interventions for humanitarian ends, such as the Tanzanian
expulsion of Idi Amin from Uganda or the Vietnamese invasion of Pol Pot's
Cambodia. The question was the function of such an action. In this case
the function was to impose a new kind of Nato on Europe.

Several points occurred to me after the discussion. First, the very
narrow band of concerns which were addressed: mainly the global
machinations of Nato, followed by argumentative re-runs of Yugoslav
history. Few addressed the present, and of these a disturbingly
large proportion attempted to deny that the Kosovars were suffering
mass murder. Several who spoke with most assurance against intervention
had no previous record of concern for the people of the region. There
were a large number of women in the audience but nearly all remained
silent, even though (for example) Ursula Owen of Index on Censorship
or the historian Sally Alexander might have had a lot to contribute.
It seemed impossible to wrench the debate away from its Olympian
geopolitical focus. A wider consensus of good taste was used to
disqualify the notion that the Milosevic regime might possibly be
"fascist" or committing "genocide". Strangely, these prohibitions
reinforced the effect of spending an evening in the 1930s, where
many of a Leninist persuasion could still apparently find
national socialism preferable to capitalism. Lead me to the
weak liberals and social democrats, please.


Amanda Sebestyen
11a St Martins Almshouses, Bayham Street, London NW1 OBD

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