Saturday, September 30, 2023

Why is the Serbia-Kosovo situation globally serious?


I learned about the newest dispute between Serbia and Kosovo in a New York café when I overheard a very animated conversation between a lady who seemed to blame Serbia for World War I (and perhaps World War III?) and the well-dressed maitre d’ who  was so excited that he kept on stammering that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia, not recognized by most UN members.

But, leaving aside WW1, why is the current situation, and I do not mean in the next week but in the next years as well, extremely serious? It is, after all, not only a very local squabble but a squabble about the territory half the size of Luxembourg, with the population (around 70,000) less than those living in a few buildings along the Hudson river, and even from Serbia’s own perspective entirely marginal as it involves about 1% of all Serbs. Why should the world order depend on this? Because, as often in history, it is small conflicts that are being fought for big stakes. Because small nations like to draw into their conflicts big powers so to achieve their own (small) objectives while big countries see such conflicts as tests of their power. 

To understand why the crisis is serious, we have to look at its four actors. They are (in the order of discussion here), Kosovo, Russia, NATO and Serbia.

Albin Kurti, the PM of Kosovo is, without much doubt, the most capable politician in the Balkans. He is helped in this by his anti-colonial ideology (as he believes, with some good reasons, that Kosovo should have never have been part of Serbia; it became part of Serbia in 1913) and very good political skills. Kurti’s short-run objective is to solve the “Serbian problem” in Kosovo by expelling the Serb minority. He sees the Serbs there as people who would never accept Albanian sovereignty (and he is right in that), and he notes that the expulsion of the Serbian minority from Croatia made Croatia much more politically stable (and he is right in that too). In order to achieve his objective he needs to constantly terrorize the Serbian minority, make them feel unsafe and ultimately incentivize them to leave. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine he has (again rightly) realized that if he manages to provoke a war, he will become a new Zelensky and will have a full support of NATO. (His long-term objective is, I think, the unification of Kosovo and Albania but for now we can leave that out of discussion).

The second actor is Russia. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia had an interest to maintain tensions in Kosovo, but not to encourage a war. Things have changed since: Russia has a clear interest to create as many conflicts in the world as possible, not only to weaken the West, but to “globalize” its war with Ukraine so that a final settlement, when it comes, would be akin to the renegotiation of the global order that was introduced, or imposed, after the end of the Cold War. Moreover, for Russia, the NATO-Serbia war would be as comfortable as for the West is the Ukraine-Russia war. They would send war materiel to Serbia (if they can spare any) but will not have to bear any human cost.

So for now have two actors in favor of the war.

But we have one actor against the war. That actor is, perhaps unexpectedly, NATO. NATO does not need another conflict in Europe, on an entirely peripheral matter of no importance to the United States, while it is focused on the global-order changing de facto war with Russia.  NATO and the  EU were so angry with Kurti’s destabilization tactics that he has employed since February 2022 that they recently moved to the mildly pro-Serbian positions simply in order to keep things quiet and the conflict from escalating.

The fourth actor is Serbia and it has now an incentive to go to war. The reason is as follows. President Vučić ‘s policies have for more than a decade been driven by the objective of obtaining in Kosovo a territorially-based Association of Serbian Municipalities to which several pre-Kurti Kosovo governments, with EU inducement, have agreed. Vučić would then have been able to claim domestically two victories: to have given to the Serbs in Kosovo a quasi autonomous government while not having recognized Kosovo’s independence. Quire a feat. That strategy failed when Kurti refused to accept Western demands to do what the previous Kosovo governments have agreed, and introduced his tactic of daily harassment.  

If Vučić  cannot get a key part of his program and at the same time has to deal with Kurti-induced harassment of the Serbian minority, thus exposing his own impotence, his entire policy has failed. Would then a war help?

There, we have to take into account that such a war that would start with Serbian forces moving into Kosovo to protect the population in four municipalities and would immediately pit Serbian forces against NATO. But it will not be a cake-walk for NATO. NATO won the 1999 war by bombing civilian targets and threatening to carpet-bomb Belgrade with Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin on the same side of the table showing to Milošević that Belgrade would be a table rase. There would be no Chernomyrdin now. The war would also put NATO in a very awkward position of either sending ground forces to Kosovo which is not logistically easy (and is wasteful in light of possible wars with Russia or China) or bombing Serbia as in 1999. The world would be then treated to daily images of civilian targets being destroyed in Ukraine and Serbia by  two rival super powers. Other than for propaganda reasons (that the West with its powerful propaganda machinery can more or less control), the war would require significant NATO forces that would either have to expel the Serbian minority from Kosovo or fight against them in an environment which would obviously be hostile.

But it is precisely such a calculation of difficulties of NATO invasion of the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo which might embolden Vučić to go for war. He might recall  that Milošević’s popularity reached its peak precisely during NATO bombing of Serbia, that his personal power was then untrammeled by any parliamentary or social restraint, and that he managed to eventually extract a fairly good agreement (that was never observed by NATO). And Vučić might hope that the “winds of freedom” of which he eloquently spoke at the recent UN General Assembly assembly might, miraculously, like in the First World War, turn things in his favor.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The red bourgeoisie

            June 3, 1968 was a beautiful late Spring day in Belgrade. The school year was just about to end, and, for me the best days were about to begin: until the mid-July when many of my friends who had either relatives in the village or second homes on the seaside would go on vacation and I would not see them for two months. But now, during the beautiful, clear June days with long sweet evenings we could stay out in the streets seemingly forever, play soccer, tell tall stories and talk about the girls.

During that day, June 3rd, just for a few moments, probably to pick another soccer ball, we went to the apartment of one my friends; only his grandmother was there. The phone rang. His mother called. She worked for the federal government whose HQs were across the river. In deep panic she called to tell her son, my friend, not to go out in the streets, but to stay at home because (and I do remember her words well) “the students are out trying to overthrow the government”.

For sure, as soon as we were told by the grandmother that we should stay indoor, we promptly went outside. My friend’s apartment, like mine, was close to one of the main university buildings in Belgrade. When we, kids, got there it was already occupied by students, surrounded by the police that did not let anyone get into the university perimeter (in those days, the old-fashioned rules of the “university autonomy” were still observed, even under communism), and we could just look at the seemingly feverish activity inside and listen to the incendiary speeches carried on loudspeakers.

We were attracted to the “forbidden” things happening there. So I remember when several days later as the insurrectionist students communicated with the city only through large banners, I first saw the words “Down with the Red Bourgeoisie”. It was a new term. The students were protesting against corruption, income inequality, lack of employment opportunities. They renamed the university of Belgrade, “The Red University Karl Marx”. It was very difficult for an officially Marxist-inspired government to deal with them. The days of uncertainty  ensued: the newspapers attacked them for destroying public property and “disorderly conduct”, but rebellious students continued skirmishes with the police, and proudly displayed the name of their new university. I remember vividly a bearded student with a big badge “The Red University Karl Marx” standing in the bus, and everyone around him feeling slightly uncomfortable, not sure whether to congratulate him or curse him.

But the slogan was true. It was a protest against the red bourgeoisie, the new ruling class in Eastern Europe. It was a heterogeneous class: some came, especially so in the underdeveloped countries like Serbia, from very rich families; others from the educated middle class, many from workers’ families. Their background was similar to the background of students who were protesting against them now.. Had the students won in 1968, they would have become the new red bourgeoisie.

The red bourgeoisie itself was the product of huge inequities of underdeveloped capitalist societies. From my mother, who got the story from my father (who came from an impoverished merchant family) I learned that on the last day of his high-school, when he managed to save enough money by giving private math classes to the rich parents’ kids and proudly came to school in his new coat, one of the rich kids took the inkpot and poured it on my father’s jacket: “you will never wear what we wear”. Many years later when I told the story to my North European friend, he said you me: “this is the European class system in a nutshell”.

It is against such a system the students in the 1930s, who would later become the red bourgeoisie, stood up. But by 1968 they were the new ruling class and the new students stood up against them.

This ruling class is insufficiently studied and known. It varied between the countries. I liked  lot a book by Tereza Toranska about the new bourgeoisie in Poland, entitled “Them”; a young Serbian journalist Milomir Maric wrote in the 1980s a popular book called “The children of communism” (in the origin “Deca komunizma”). The story of the red bourgeoisie’s very top is narrated in the Russian novel, “The house of government” by Yuri Slezkine. One can find it in Solzhenitsyn’s “First Circle” too.  Emma Goldman noticed it very early on, just a few years after the October Revolution. I was pleased to re-discover that I discussed some of its empirics (income level, housing ownership) in my 1987 dissertation. But this is all very little. The class is unexplored, neither in literary terms nor in its economics.

Like all ruling classes, its members did not think they were a ruling class. I asked many years later one of my close friends who, thanks to her belonging to the upper echelons of the red bourgeoisie, spent several summer holidays on the three small islands off the Dalmatian coast that Tito took for his exclusive resort, how were social relations among the people there: powerful indeed, but each with their own different agendas, wives, children, preferences, drinking habits, and the like. (Very similar to the US Martha’s Vineyard in the Summer: people who may not suffer each other politically, but are “condemned” to be there together, sharing the same beaches, restaurants, tennis courts, with children fighting each other or falling in love.) She told me nothing: she saw none of the political infighting or personal feuds reflected on the beaches or in the altercations over the umbrellas. She did not think people there were special in any way. It was just another workers’ rest home, with better food and more comfortable rooms.

The Yugoslav red bourgeoisie was perhaps specific because it was self-created (i.e. came to power by itself), and developed among its members a feeling of pride connected with non-alignment policies and the huge role that Yugoslavia, compared to its objective importance, played in the world. Eventually, that bourgeoisie splintered along the republican lines, every one deciding that it would be more powerful if it could break country in smaller pieces and rule that small piece unmolested by others. That’s how democracy was born.

I thought of that recently—as indeed I had for many years—as I read about the background of many among the capitalist rulers of Yeltsin’s Russia and today’s Putinism. Their origins are typically in the affluent upper-middle class of the red bourgeoise. That ensured for them all the privileges of the Soviet system, including (in the Soviet case) the ability to travel to the West, to trade in foreign currencies, to listen to the latest rock albums from England. They were the ones who when Gorbachev came to power most eagerly embraced democracy, adulation of the United States, and gaily participated in the plunder of the country. They bought villas in the Riviera, and then, either disappointed at the treatment they received in their Summer resorts by their new Western neighbors, or having overgrown their infatuation with the things Western and the United States in particular, moved to the other side, championing nationalism not only as a way to stay in power, but to create an ersatz ideology that would justify their continued rule.