The Real Meaning of Kosovo (8/98)

During a popular morning show in Hungary, police revealed the images of suspects in the high-profile murder of a prominent businessman earlier this year. As the news report continued, the camera zoomed in on the face of the key suspect until his face covered the entire screen, continuing until all one saw were his eyes, staring menacingly. The announcer’s tone of voice reinforced the effect, searing into viewers’ consciousness that this was a Kosovo Albanian.

Ever since the murder, the Hungarian media has taken every opportunity to reiterate that the suspects were thought to be — and are now positively identified to be — Kosovo Albanians.While such media techniques may be suitable for art or entertainment, they’re not appropriate for news. In terms of propaganda, however, they’re very effective, coming precariously close to brainwashing.

It wasn’t enough to say that the alleged criminals were from rump Yugoslavia or Kosovo; they were Kosovo Albanians — as if it’s possible to differentiate between them and another type of Albanian, a Yugoslavian, or even a European. The media’s message is quite clear: the undesirability of those from eastern Europe or the Balkans. This position is slightly different from that espoused by the far-right, which is wary of not only "eastern" foreigners but all foreigners. For this reason, so the argument goes, Hungary must move as quickly as possible to the "west," distancing itself from the "east," which is often synonymous with the word "mafia."

This view finds political expression and public support through the process of NATO and EU enlargement. After all, Hungary has always been a part of "western" Europe; it was just through accident and bad luck that it wound up on the other side.

Yet, the negative image of Kosovo Albanians has a deeper, more global, even sinister, aspect — the complicity of the world community in the repression of Kosovo. This may sound strange at first, considering the fact that the EU and US have tried to force Milosovic to "listen" to the aspirations of the people in Kosovo and enter into "negotiations." Upon closer analysis, however, much of this is just empty rhetoric and neo-liberalist public relations. It’s also a good stick with which to hit rump Yugoslavia; concern for Kosovo’s Albanians is actually a secondary issue.

Consider how the western mass media has handled the situation. It started with reports on police violence in the region, which was hard to ignore, but later focused on Albanian gun smuggling and armed insurgents. The presence of heavily-armed Serbian units was partly justified because of the minor and irregular activities of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). At this point, the issue is no longer the national aspirations of a people; it’s a question of "both sides" opening a "dialogue" and coming to a peaceful "settlement." Through a process of what can be termed "media degradation," there’s a good chance that the conflict in Serbia will become like that of Turkey. After all, when was the last time you heard about the Kurdish resistance?

The assertion of national identity and demands for autonomy or independence are explosive issues, especially in eastern Europe. For example, sizable ethnic Hungarian populations live in neighbouring countries, such as southern Slovakia (600,00), Transylvania in northwestern Romania (two million) and Vojvodina in Serbia (400,000). Like Kosovo, the latter was an autonomous region that lost its independence during the breakup of the original Yugoslavia. Success for the Kosovo Albanians could reopen such old wounds and destabilize the region.

Given the situation of its own diaspora, you might think that Hungary would be sympathetic to the cause of Kosovo’s Albanians. The truth, however, is that the Hungarian government and most political parties are keen on preserving the status quo. Any instability would upset the flow of global capital. Moreover, places like Slovakia and Transylvania are sources of cheap labor and raw materials for multinationals. Having people assert their human/cultural rights and take control of their own land, labor, and resources threatens to upset profit margins. Since Hungary’s politicians are committed to globalization, foreign and domestic policies revolve around the dictates of "market forces."

People throughout the region are threatened into obedience by dominant political formations, which use nationalism as a trump card. Consequently, independent and progressive voices that try to resist oppressive neo-liberalist policies and fight for minority and cultural rights are usually drowned in a sea of paranoia about renascent fascism. Although this effectively muffles constructive opposition, it also radicalizes segments of the population that see no other alternative to extreme political movements, thus reinforcing propaganda about the rise of the far-right.

This process is global, as neo-liberalism paves the way for capitalism to seize control of what’s left of the world and its resources. As national movements threaten this oligopoly, the job of slick and sexy world leaders like Clinton and Blair is to contain outbreaks, applying damage control so that they don’t spread or link with each other. The object is to turn such movements against one another, or discredit them altogether. And when all else fails, there’s always direct intervention.

Intervention is shunned by neo-liberalists — at least publicly — because they recognize that it’s the least effective method of social control. Hence, the Ogoni in Nigeria, the Kurds in Turkey, the East Timorese in Indonesia, and the Tibetans in China suffer cultural denial and outright oppression the old fashioned way. Yet, while they may be down at the moment, they’re definitely not out — nor forgotten.

In the meantime, the struggle in Kosovo continues. Unable to simply ignore what’s going on — and taking advantage of the situation to squeeze Milosovic — Western Europe and the US has called on ethnic Albanians to be more moderate. Meanwhile, Central and Eastern European countries observe warily. In relatively more prosperous areas such as Hungary, news from Kosovo is usually mixed with indifference. Elsewhere, efforts are underway in co-operation with NATO and the OSCE to prevent the violence from "spreading." But the underlying reason has less to do with security than controlling the flow refugees.

John Horvath reports regularly for TF from Eastern Europe.