Between a Rock and a Hard Place (1999)


It fells almost obscene to have An Opinion about ‘NATO, Milosevic and the Kosovans’ when the world is awash with opinions from people who are either paid to have opinions; have some score to settle; are out-and-out propagandists; or have a pressing psychic need to take the ‘right line’ on the situation and then express it with absolute confidence. It is indeed horrible to see that it is NATO, and a NATO which uses aerial bombing only (a strategy that is inherently reckless) , which is confronting a Serbian regime whose morbid ethnic ideology leads it to want to wipe away the presence of part of its own citizenry. Civil society is sidelined across the board, left only to have opinions. Yet at the same time the question arises, what would you do then, what have you done to stop what the Milosevic regime is doing again. It’s not comfortable to be uselessly wedged between a rock and a hard place, but that’s how it is, and it’s a lot more comfortable than the situation of Yugoslav citizens from Kosovo who are ‘ethnically’ Albanian.

For many years in the West, the media has occupied more and more of the space once occupied by a politically active ‘civil society’. It’s true that during the assaults on other parts of former Yugoslavia by the Milosevic regime there were journalists who were very courageous in their reporting of what was happening in Bosnia, but their reports, outrage even, had no impact on Western political elites or even on the media gatekeepers ‘back in the studio’. Worse, from the Dayton Agreement of 1995 onwards, they stopped keeping an eye on the Milosevic regime. In an almost unique piece of self-criticism Channel 4’s man in the studio, Jon Snow, admitted that this was what had happened even though they’d been told enough times that Kosovo would be next, Kosovo where Milosevic had fist set in motion morbid Serbian paranoia in 1987. me too, who had at least felt passionate about the need to defend Bosnia and its multi-ethnic Sarajevo.

In this mood, in these terrible times, it’s hard not to leap on Slajov Zizek’s “Against the Double Blackmail”[1] with relief, to feel Here At Last is something which I’ve been thinking and feeling. But the writing is sloppy and thus all too easy to say that what it amounts to is a ‘plague on both your houses’ response to NATO’s military campaign against the Serbia of Milosevic. The relationship between globalization and the rise of morbid symptoms like Serbian ethnic nationalism, which he describes, is too bland, too universalized. The situation is too painful for blandness. Of course we can say, “Neither Milosevic nor NATO and feel correct, the genuine Third Way in a world full of bogus Third Ways, but genuine though it might be, it’s insufficient.

We are constantly presented with new fait accompli in which have not made the facts, and live in a world where “consciousness always comes too late”, as Guy Debord said it. Zizek is right to point to the lateness of the Western response to the terror in Kosovo as it was in Bosnia, and how this lateness has resulted in a campaign that shows no sign of directly helping those ethnically Albanian Yugoslav citizens who are being terrorized and robbed by their own government. Neither does it help to say, “We told you so,” of how things have turned out, but it does seem important to point out some Western sins of omission and commission.

For one thing, the matter of aerial bombing. It is now a commonplace that Western military strategy is premised on a form of Racism of Democracies, of no casualties on their side. Zizek gives his own version, but it is one which blurs over how there is bombing and bombing. “Not yet enough bombs and they are too late,” he says. Far less bombs, far far less, would have been required were they not too late. In the early 1990s Serb gunners, backed by snipers, lobbed artillery into Sarajevo with impunity, safe on the mountain ridges around the city. An unholy alliance of hard-wallet Western rightists who described themselves as ‘realists’, and reactionary leftists in Europe who, with references to Word War II heroism and a vicious sentimentality, romanticized the tough heroism of Serb fighters, was formed. But these were not fighters, From a safe place they terrorized and maimed a multi-ethnic city month after month. In this situation, just one day’s bombing of these position by the international ‘peace forces’ present, would have been enough to bring the siege of the city to a halt.

This did not happen, the rationalizations were legion, and the struggle remained militarized. It is amazing how little Muslim ethnicity developed in any ‘fundamentalist’ way, but militarization almost inevitably brutalized even some of those fighting for a multi-ethnic Bosnia. Isolated instances of this were seized on with glee by callously self-important people like Mr Tony Benn as if the maintenance of his illusions was well worth the suffering. It is tempting to think that as with the British state in Ireland, exemplified by Bloody Sunday in Derry, western states prefer such political struggles to be militarized. It has certainly been the attitude of the Milosevic regime. The model of self-organization by Kosovan Albanians over many years in organizing their own education and other services in response to the discriminatory non-provision of such services by the state, like Free Derry, this was intolerable. The response? Ad hoc military state terror. And this encouraged by not inviting Ibrahim Rugova, who represented this non-violent Kosovan radicalism, to the Dayton Peace Talks of 1995.

The late-in-the-day NATO response has taken the way in which such militarization sidelines any democratic elements of civil society to an nth degree. We become – as Zizek and others have said – spectators of our Western states who we normally think of as fumbling and bumbling with questions of employment, pensions and demographic trends, busy proclaiming their powerlessness against unsentimental Market Sentiment, suddenly transformed into the operators of sophisticated technologies, masters of logistics. This prejudice against the civil society of others, of democracy elsewhere had already been clearly expressed in the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 to which Rugova had not been invited. Here, in a drawn-out process of negotiations in American country houses, what had been in effect a defeat for Serbian forces in Bosnia – for which late-in-the-day Western bombing was almost an afterthought, those forces were somehow not defeated. Instead Milosevic emerged as a ‘key player’.

There was a sordid side to this. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, long-term purveyor of the ‘realist’ view that the terrorizing of Sarajevo was too complex for ordinary folk to understand, and that each side was as bad as the other, took on a new role soon after as an adviser to NatWest bank, and in this role negotiated a deal with Milosevic over the sale of Serbian Telecoms. The bank took its commission and Milosevic had close on a billion dollars to start the campaign of terror against the majority population of Kosova.

In his realpolitik role however, the rapprochement with Milosevic was based on a template of Western Foreign Ministries, the Regional Strongman. From Milosevic’s point of view a look at the fate of General Noriega and the Gulf War, an intelligent analysis might have made him conclude that being a Western-backed strongman was a precarious role. It’s a role which in reality requires the perpetuation of regional instability, and which has the function, planned or otherwise, of preventing the development of any progressive secular politics as in the area labelled the ‘Middle East’.

This template, however selectively applied, has not been abandoned and yet those in government in Europe now are different from those of the early 1990s, a different generation, a change that is not mentioned by Zizek at all. This is a sloppy omission on his part if there is to be any precision to his argument that multinational capitalism is now one side of a coin of which the Milosevic government is another. New Labour and Tony Blair’s fetishizing the competence of capitalism, unctuous moralizing at the poor, and a Bolshevik hatred for trade union organizing is repulsive. This however does not alter the fact that this, and other European governments, have acted differently to those in power during the assault on Bosnia. Hypocrites though they are given their policies towards other parts of the world, they have been shocked specifically by the use of elite directed ethnic violence in a way that was not true for Douglas Hurd-type ‘realists’. In the case of the Clinton Administration which had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything against the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, and then ended up institutionalizing it at Dayton, first-hand accounts of the Rwandan genocide would seem to have shocked it. A terrible case of the-consciousness-that-always-comes-too-late and Western-centric indifference no doubt, but it had an impact.

Yes, hypocrites in so many ways:

– For the USA and Germany to bomb in the name of multi-ethnicity: when in the USA, cities have de facto apartheid and there are an almost unimaginable number of black men in its prisons; and in Germany when the struggle to separate citizenship from ethnicity is one the Schroeder government has little stomach for.

-The selectivity of its interventions when the same criteria have not been applied to the Kurdish people being terrorized in Turkey, a country – unlike ex-Yugoslavia- of real strategic importance, and now the USA’s second mid-east barracks.

But to cry hypocrite, giving us the satisfaction of being in the right, is insufficient when real people are being killed in Kosovo. What has happened is that the shift in attitude of Western governments underplayed by Zizek has been labelled as “Human Rights Imperialism”, by, for example by the alternative geo-politicians of New Left Review. Toni Negri, a far more reliable analyst, and for whom I have the greatest respect[2]  has entitled a recent article, “The ‘Democrats’ as Gendarmes of World Order”. His analysis of USA hegemony in which the power of the dollar and its military superpower status are independent is spot on, but as an analysis of the NATO campaign it becomes uselessly abstract and rhetorical from the moment he writes, “In the new war in Yugoslavia, a small Balkan dictator rises up against the United States.” Negri does go on to acknowledge the ‘brutality’ of the Milosevic regime but has to qualify the acknowledgement this way and that. This dictator has not “risen up against the United States”, but violently attacked a part of the citizenry of the country he rules in a manner he has done before.

The fact that the NATO bombing campaign is taking place at a time when a USA-led geo-economic offensive has been especially aggressive is obviously relevant, but neither Negri nor Zizek look at it with any rigour. Zizek for example talks of the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment), and how it institutionalizes the dictatorship of the investor. That is exactly what this proposal would do, but what he doesn’t say is that the MAI proposal has been rejected by a combination of ‘Third World’ diplomacy and social movements, and now abandoned. This omission is significant when he worries about whether the only resistance to the capitalist offensive with its rhetoric of democracy and human rights is going to be nationalistic, and /or dependent on variants of ethnic ideology or other fundamentalisms; that it in fact breeds such variants; and of whether “criminal figures like Milosevic will be elevated into the model fighters against the New World Order.” As a Slovenian, Zizek is much clearer about what the Milosevic regime is, but the reason he gives for the process he describes is not related to the capitalist logic of the MAI, but rather the humiliation of Russia.

To pursue the question he poses, requires not making the Milosevic government analogous to others. Where there is oil on which the Western economy and culture is so dependent but which it does not geographically control, it is clear that there is a strategy of maintaining an acceptable level of ‘instability’ and preventing the development of a secular progressive politics that delivers to its peoples. Where there has not been actual encouragement of fundamentalist groups, the ground has been created for their existence and successes by the prevention of any forms of social democracy, let alone socialism. But despite the extraordinary contortions made by European leftists to make ‘the Balkans’ significant in terms of oil pipelines and geo-politics, it is not important in this way.

The alternative mandarins of New Left Review have, as an alternative rationalization, blamed the break-up of Yugoslavia and ethic cleansing as a strategy on IMF dictates. To repeat again, there are hypocrisies, tears over Rwanda should make reference to the USA collapsing of the international coffee price agreement in 1987. It must have exacerbated tensions over incomes, but ethnic cleansing is not an ‘inevitable’ consequence. Similarly IMF policies and the siege of Sarajevo cannot conceivably have any A-to-B causation.

Such rationalizations serve only to get any concerned person out of the position of being stuck between a rock and a hard place in these days. This denial of that being where one is, seems to lead to denials, distortions and euphemisms. In its view of the world, this denial seems to have allowed in a loss of a sense of proportion and humanity. There has been something almost inexorable in the way that those whose singular demand is to stop the bombing of Serbia have had to denigrate the Albanian people of Kosovo. People of the left have described them in a way that would be denounced as racist if applied to anyone else; seem to be desperate to make moral equivalences, desperate for any evidence that they are as bad as Milosevic’s army and racist militias; or worse, wanting the KLA (whose Maoist origins have been airbrushed out) to become so brutalized, that they, in the safety of the world outside of Kosovo, can be proved right. And in this version, no mention of the heroic class-conscious miners of Mitrovica who happen to be Albanian and were refused admission to the miners union on the base of their ethnicity.

There is a vicious, and vicarious sentimentality in all this, shown for example by Tony Benn’s arrogant refusal to even talk to a Kosovan woman socialist comrade as he marched with Serbian nationalists. This in part derives from a chronic tendency to believe that what people say they are, carries more weight than what they do. Only this can explain revolutionary leftists describing Serbia as socialist in face of all the evidence as to the nature of its economy. But it also comes from a ‘cold war’ view of the world in which American ‘hegemony’ is taken to mean that it controls everything that is going on in the world. What the USA has, and continues to do to its own people and other parts of the world is bad enough, but this ‘cold war’ view of the world glosses over the autonomy of globally local progressive struggles, and globally local elites exploiting their own people, and exploiting potential ethnic tensions in their own interests. The Milosevic regime is such an elite. As ethnic cleansers they are amateurs as compared to the Israelis, but their crude brutality as shown at Sebrenica is no less real.

To be stuck between a rock and hard place is not comfortable, but unless one collectively has no sense of realist modesty, it is not useless. The job is to argue that the increased recklessness of the NATO bombing be curtailed and that only those who operate the system of ethnic terror be targeted; to support Workers Aid convoys to Kosovo which, however symbolically, asserts the role of international class solidarity; to argue a degree of economic generosity to the whole area; and perhaps most of all to show support to those other heroes, those Serbian civilians who have so courageously opposed the Milosevic regime through frightening times.







[1] “Against the Double Blackmail”: New Left Review March-April 1999. Number 234

[2] Both for his predictive analysis of the capitalist counter-offensive of the 1970s, and for a refusal, which cost him his freedom, to denounce selectively generic ‘violence’.