Fact-finding Mission to Kosovo

11 September 2008

Fact-finding Mission to Kosovo

SP Euro-MP Erik Meijer this summer visited Kosovo. Kosovo, long part of Yugoslavia, and since earlier in the year a country which has newly declared its independence. Meijer spoke there to a range of representatives of different social movements.

Poor country

The old and the new flag of KosovoNeighbouring Serbia sees it as one of its provinces. But Kosovo, with two million inhabitants, on 17th February 2008 declared itself to be an independent state. The Albanian red flag with the black double eagle, flying everywhere since 1999, has all of a sudden given way to the blue flag with six stars. The contours of the country are picked out in yellow on a blue background, giving it a resemblance to the EU flag. The Netherlands, along with more than forty other countries, recognised Kosovo within three weeks of its declaration.


Most inhabitants believe that in reality they have been independent since 1991. It was from then that they no longer took the Milosevic regime seriously, no longer participated in Serbian elections, and established their own network of Albanian-language schools. Up until the war of 1999, there remained large numbers of Serbian soldiers and police officers, who made it clear, in a less-than-friendly fashion, that Serbia wished to hold on to the area indefinitely.

The new country has had a difficult beginning. Imports are ten times greater than exports. Roughly half of the population is unemployed. This republic's self-determination is limited, as has now been the case in Bosnia for thirteen years. The executive is partly in the hands of the United Nations. The EU, also, is involved in the construction of a legal apparatus and there remains a heavy NATO military presence.

Our Balkan specialist

Erik MeijerBetween 1962 and 1987 Erik Meijer was a regular visitor to Yugoslavia, spending time in every part of a country since split into seven separate states. He first worked there as part of an international youth brigade on the building of a motorway and a flood-control dam, motivated by admiration for the country's socialist system. In Yugoslavia, unlike in the Communist-ruled countries which bordered it, a great deal of power lay not in the hands of party bureaucrats but instead in workers' councils in the factories and other workplaces, and in small-scale local authorities. Yet even then, at the beginning of the 1960s, he learned for the first time of the expectation that Yugoslavia would collapse along ethnic lines as soon as its inhabitants no longer saw it as the best country in the world.

Today Meijer is spokesman on EU enlargement within the European United Left (GUE/NGL) group in the European Parliament. His brief includes the extensive EU involvement in the Balkans, and he is a member of the various EP delegations to the parliaments of the former Yugoslav republics. He is also Rapporteur for the European Parliament on the pre-accession arrangements for Macedonia, its preparations for EU membership. In the summer of 2008 he visited Kosovo once again, on this occasion the capital city, Priština, where he spoke with representatives of extra-parliamentary left opposition movements.

Ultra-left became neoliberal

He first talked to 61-year old Shkëlzen Maliqi well-known in Kosovo as a philosopher and political analyst. He was one of the very few ethnic Albanian Yugoslavs who belonged to the primarily Croatian activist group 'Praxis', which consisted of critical left intellectuals. Their view even then was that socialist Yugoslavia was heading for a crisis, an opinion which was not popular with President Tito, who believed that everything continued to go well.

He remembered also what Tito had said to the Albanian Kosovars: "You can have the same rights within Yugoslavia as those of a separate republic, as long as you don't press the Serbs to recognise you as such." This remained the core of the problem, in Maliqi's view, until 2008, because as a republic they would have had a constitutional right to secede but as a self-governing province within Serbia they did not have such a right. "The leaders of the biggest Yugoslav state, Serbia, simply wanted more power for themselves, without the democratisation which had been carried through in the other republics. After the death of Tito in 1980, the army was the only remaining unifying force in Yugoslavia. So it was bound to go awry."

Erik Meijer with Shkëlzen Maliqi
Erik Meijer with Shkëlzen Maliqi (in red T-shirt)

Maliqi later became leader of a social-democratic party in Kosovo, which just failed to reach the electoral threshold of 5% as almost all voters opted for nationalist pro-independence parties. He is now director of a centre for humanitarian studies. He is very critical of the present governing group, once young ultra-left Marxist-Leninists who saw the guerilla struggle of Ché Guevara in South America as their great example and their future in joining the authoritarian Albania of then dictator Enver Hoxha. "But now they're only interested in friendship with international corporations and the leaders of the US and EU. Premier Thaci is now a neoliberal. Real trade unions are not functioning, so they aren't in a position to offer the necessary counterforce. The two big parties, the PDK and the LDK, which divide state offices between them, differ little one from the other. This sort of politician has primarily an admiration for America and Berlusconi."

Anger over colonial experiment

Maliqi expects little from the EU. "The EU wants Kosovo in its sphere of influence, but they don't expect Kosovo to become a member state. Nobody wants this burdensome baby. Perhaps we will in the end yet be forced by this to join Albania, which eventually may well join the EU, although the Albanian government is no longer working towards accession. NATO sees itself still as having long-lasting tasks to carry out in Kosovo, but principally for the purpose of justifying its own continued existence here."

Maliqi considers that well-paid foreigners with big cars now have far too much power in Kosovo, although they are not helping the inhabitants of the country to solve their problems. This criticism is shared by Austrian journalist Hannes Hofbauer, who was also present during Erik Meijer's conversation with Shkëlzen Maliqi. Hofbauer has written about this in left German papers Neues Deutschland and Junge Welt, and is now writing a book with the title Experiment Kosovo, the return of colonialism.

Vetëvendosje: self-determination

For years now in Kosovo walls, and lots of them, have been sprayed with the slogan 'Jo negociata - vetëvendosje!' (Not negotation but self-determination!). This is the work of Levizja Vetëvendosje, an extraparliamentary opposition movement with a wide following amongst the proportionately large younger generation. This movement's foundational principle is that the people themselves must control their own lives and destiny and solve their own problems, instead of relying on the foreign occupiers who, following the war in Kosovo in 1999, took over power from the Serbs.

The Vetëvendosje organisation has long demanded a referendum on independence, but independence has now arrived as a result of international power politics and without such a referendum, circumventing ordinary people. That is why Vetëvendosje, in stark contrast to other groups in Kosovo, has as yet not participated in state institutions or elections and has had no contact with the EU and NATO, putting all its energy into the construction of an oppositional movement from below.

Albin Kurti

Vetëvendosje's most important leader is 33-year-old Albin Kurti (33), currently working as an electrical engineer. He attracted international attention as a rebel student leader who from 1997 organised non-violent actions against Serbian violence, for which he was sent to prison. The British, French and German foreign ministers and a representative of President Clinton came, somewhat ostentatiously, to seek him out.

Nowadays, when Kurti has shown that not only the Serbian government is at fault but also the executive body installed in power under the foreign occupation, he attracts far less international sympathy. Seen as a nuisance and once dubbed 'the Lenin of Kosovo', whether he can, with his activists and from outside the circle of power, transform Kosovo from below (as Lenin once did in backward Russia) he will have to show in the next few years.

Led by the leash by the US, EU and NATO

In the offices of Levizja Vetëvendosje in Priština, Erik Meijer spoke with Albin Kurti and one of the group's other leaders, Visar Ymeri. They pointed out that the government was led by the leash by the US, EU and NATO, and expressed the fear that they would soon be pressured from abroad to give up part of Kosovo's territory to Serbia. Meijer made no secret of the fact that he also expects the four northern administrative areas in which a majority of the population consists of 60,000 Serbs to remain in Serbian hands and that they will eventually return officially to Serbia. Nobody will in the end, he feels, be able, or even want, to do anything to stop this. But Vetëvendosje fears further far-reaching concessions in other areas of the country, whereby Serb settlements, and roads joining them, Orthodox churches and Orthodox cemeteries will be claimed as self-governing Serb areas. They compare this to the Israeli settlers' villages within the Palestinian area on the West Bank, which cut through the rest of the country and obstruct movement around it with road-blocks. Vetëvendosje is determined to do anything within its power to stop this.

 Albin Kurti, Erik Meijer en Visar Ymeri
Erik Meijer with Albin Kurti (left) and Visar Ymeri (right)

Kurti's view is that a great deal remains to be done, even after the formal declaration of independence, because for the ordinary person little has changed. "On paper we're independent," he says, "but without sovereignty. The Dutchman Pieter Feith splays an important role here on behalf of the EU, and he enjoys immunity which means that should he do anything illegal he can't be prosecuted for it. The economy isn't in our hands, because it's the UN and the foreign bankers who have control of the state-owned firms, which they want to privatise. They are laying the basis for a neoliberal model, in which our state will be made powerless for the foreseeable future. And if they force us to contribute to the repayment of loans taken out with international banks in the past by Serbia, then we will become completely bankrupt."

His view is that the international community sets too much store by stability. "Kosovo has certainly a market, but no economy. Our national income per head is 1/22 that of Germany, and no more than a third even of our neighbour, Albania. Very little is produced here, only imports are flourishing. Employers are only out to make quick money so that they can buy a villa on the French Riviera. It's not stability we need here but progress. The international crisis-managers who have descended on Kosovo are conspicuous mainly because they ride around in jeeps and enjoy all sorts of privileges. But the economy must no longer be directed towards the needs of international representatives, but at fulfilling those of ordinary people."

The left's alternative

In the last twenty years the left in former Yugoslavia has completely lost the initiative. Seen as clinging to an increasingly despised model of a state of many peoples in which everyone continually quarrels with everyone else, the left could not solve the real problems and the smaller ethnic groups became ever-more openly discriminated against. The necessary changes became as a result exclusively the preserve of the right, as happens in any country where the struggle for language, culture and national independence demand the greatest attention.

If the left fails to attach the struggle for national liberation to its own goals, this gives room for other forces to come to the fore. When these people speak of 'freedom', they mean primarily freedom to fill their own pockets. If the struggle for freedom is left to them, the struggle for fair shares and against poverty will be neglected.

Kosovo is such a country. For more than thirty years the left was in power there, but in the end this ground to a halt in a terrifying apartheid state in which army and police prevailed and the majority of the population were reduced on ethnic grounds to second class citizens. The current governing elite have become rich business people, doing well out of the foreign occupation force and perhaps also from smuggling.

New left movements are looking in Kosovo no longer in the direction of the old red nostalgia, but instead, just as does the SP, towards the resolving of the problems of people in the here and now. It is for this reason that the left in other European countries should pay attention to oppositional forces capable of mobilising people in such countries for a future better than the wild west capitalism now prevailing or the extreme nationalism of those who see dignity and value only in the feelings of a majority group.

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