Kosovo and Neo-Nationalism

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Kosovo has meaning far beyond its borders: what Kosovo means today is the emergence of old ethnicities as new nationalisms.

Joe Lockard

Thursday, March 25 1999, 8:04 PM


There is dark irony in watching transatlantic internationalism come to the defense of Kosovar counter-nationalism produced in substantial degree by an authoritarian Serbian nationalism determined to preserve a claim on territories associated with its own historical memory.

The circumstances of the birth of Kosovar nationalism are debatable. Did the bully-boy authoritarianism of the fascist, racist Milosevic government create it through a decade-long revocation of regional autonomy and discriminatory anti-Albanian policies? Or was Kosovar nationalism lying latent in the new Albanian-speaking ethnic geography of the region that resulted from World War II? Will a potential new nation-state be protected and allowed to emerge, or will it be crushed through military violence, ethnic transfer, and cultural erasure?

At an intercontinental distance from the conflict we might debate history and specifics, but we cannot avoid the issue of neo-nationalism. Kosovo has meaning far beyond its borders: what Kosovo means today is the emergence of old ethnicities as new nationalisms.

In Canada and Quebec, Israel and Palestine, Indonesia and East Timor, Kurdistan and Turkey, Iraq and Iran — in all of these fractured national geographies, neo-national identities are in the midst of political contest with their predecessors. Each predecessor views the new or new-old claimant as a threat to its own integrity, or even to its continued existence as a state. Neo-nationalism has come to mean violence, whereas it should mean mutual recognition and new opportunity. 'Velvet divorces', as between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, or successful new federal solutions are rare.

There is no doubt that the Kosovar Albanians, constituting nine-tenths of the local population, wish to rule themselves, whether for reasons of ethnic self-affirmation or antagonism towards and fear of Serbian rule. Serbia is not alone in experiencing geographic splintering opposed by conservative radical nationalism, nor is Serbia isolated in its ethical dilemmas encountering neo-nationalism. The ease with which Serbian media labelled separatist violence as "terrorism" echoed official terminology from Sri Lanka to Turkey.

The current violence has not reached a particularly large scale compared with possible outcomes, given that nationalism has been the leading cause of political mass murder in this century. The conflict can flash ignite far larger animosities pitting nationalistic and have-not societies of the region — now including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — against interventionist Western states. As a formerly unified colonial power and military occupier of much of eastern Europe, they cannot swallow being treated as an indebted postcolonial weakling who cannot do more than protest.

The animosities generated by Balkan nationalism are part of a broader late-century regional alteration of the terms of conflict from class and labor to nation and power. In the present case, the rise of neo-nationalism has much to do with the ideological collapse of concern for social justice. Twenty-five years ago, Yugoslav economic experimentalism, which attempted to combine cooperative labor organization with Euro-American business practices, attracted widespread attention; today that effort towards distributional justice has disappeared beneath 'free market' policies, economic gangsterism and state corruption.

On an even broader international stage, intra-European nationalist crises have little meaning to the real have-nots of the world in Asia, Africa and Latin America, beyond their potential to damage the economic future. To cynical eyes in the less-developed world, this NATO intervention after an estimated 2,000 Kosovar deaths highlights a Western double standard by comparison with the inaction during the 1994 genocide of approximately 800,000 Rwandans. Some of the same nations now joining the high-tech airwar ordered their UN contingents out when the Rwandan slaughter began. A basic human right to existence comes in a single, irreducible and non-racial standard.

Kosovar Albanians need international protection against genocide, and that will require an international resolve that was absent when Serbians were slaughtering Bosnian Moslems in Srbernica and many other towns and villages. While justified as a defense of Kosovo against Serbian ethnic cleansing, NATO airstrikes will not resolve the basic question, one that Euro-American diplomatic formulations have repeatedly avoided: will Kosovo's right to self-determination be recognized?

The answer is unambiguous: Kosovo has a right to self-determination and to international support for a democratic process towards that end.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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