Over 20 wars are raging around the globe. Why then was NATO so concerned with the Balkans? The plight of the refugees is the stock pro-war answer. Yet, 15.3 million refugees were made homeless by war in 1995 alone. So, again, why did the war in Kosovo, where US military might was 99 times greater than that of the state it opposed, command the attention of the world’s great powers?
The causes can’t be found by looking only at the Balkans, or at the events of recent months. The roots are much broader and deeper. To see the whole picture we must return to the central fact of recent European history — the fall of the Stalinist states in 1989.
The end of these regimes, and German unification soon after, gave the international capitalist institutions an unrivaled opportunity to expand into Central and Eastern Europe, "cherry picking" the most profitable sites and markets. Substantial investment quickly followed, but wasn’t large enough to sustain a turnaround in most of the Eastern European economies.
The European Community also talked of eastward expansion. But, in a Brussels bureaucracy that still regards Greek EU membership as a mistake because its economy is insufficiently prosperous, the integration of Eastern European states was always more of a carrot to encourage pro-market reform than an immediate policy goal.
Thus, the fastest expansion into Eastern Europe came from NATO. The Alliance, reports the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "has confidently extended its collective defense provisions to three new members of the former Warsaw Pact … while the EU’s enlargement process remains mired in bickering over fundamental issues such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy."
Historians of the 1999 Balkan War will no doubt marvel that so little comment was made about the integration of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into the alliance in the very month the war broke out. Its southern flank between Hungary and Greece is now pierced by the states of the former Yugoslavia, giving NATO considerable strategic interest in controlling the Balkans.
But there’s more at stake. The effect of NATO enlargement is to swing the line of the old Iron Curtain to the east. Where once it used to divide Germany, it now runs down the eastern borders of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and ends at the borders of the former Yugoslavia. The next three states to be considered for NATO membership are a former republic of Yugoslavia itself, Slovenia, and Serbia’s neighbors, Romania and Bulgaria. Thus, the whole ten-year process of NATO’s eastward push is caught up in the fate of the Balkans in general, and the former Yugoslav states in particular.
President Clinton expressed NATO’s war aims clearly enough in an International Herald Tribune article. "Lasting stability" in the Balkans, he said, could only come if "the European Union and the United States … do for southeastern Europe what it did for Europe after World War II and for Central Europe after the Cold War … . We can do that by rebuilding struggling economies, encouraging trade and investment, and helping the nations of the region to join NATO and the European Union." The nations of this area, Clinton continued, were already responding to "the pull of integration" by sticking with their pro-market reforms and "supporting NATO’s campaign."
The new Iron Curtain between Western and Eastern Europe isn’t the end of the Balkans’ strategic importance for NATO. The fate of the region is tied to another crucial area of post-Cold War instability — the arc of oil states running up from the traditional spheres of Western interest in Iran and Iraq to the Caspian Sea and the newly independent states on Russia’s southern rim.
Just as NATO expansion into Eastern Europe was being celebrated at the alliance’s 50th birthday party in April, another pro-NATO alliance was being constructed. At the Washington summit, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova joined with Uzbekistan to form GUUAM, a new alliance aimed at strengthening the member states’ economic and political ties with the West. Three of these states — Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan — only pulled out of the Russian-dominated Confederation of Independent States’ collective security pact this spring.
GUUAM has agreed to low-level military cooperation, but claims it isn’t a military alliance aimed against Russia. Yet, its formation comes hot on the heels of the Ukrainian parliament’s decision to rescind its previous order to get rid of nuclear weapons, a direct result of the Balkan War. And, as plans for NATO ground forces were being drawn up, Azerbaijan offered to send troops to Kosovo as part of the Turkish battalion.
Although not eager to directly intervene in the Caucasus, the US is nevertheless "keen for Turkey to be its surrogate there," according to The Economist. Meanwhile, as the Balkan War developed, the nations of the Caspian area "plainly divided into pro-Russian and pro-NATO camps." A GUUAM peacekeeping battalion was set up under NATO auspices.
Thus, it’s not surprising to find Russia’s foreign minister asking, "How should we understand the fact that this new regional organization has been created in Washington during a NATO summit?" The answer was provided by Eduard Shevardnadze, president of Georgia: "When I met [NATO Secretary-General] Javier Solana, I asked him, ‘When will you finally admit Georgia to NATO?’ He whispered in my ear, but I can’t reveal what he told me."
In all likelihood, what Solana told Shevardnadze was that NATO won’t be signing up Georgia in the very near future. This is because, at the moment, the main significance of the GUUAM area for the Western powers is more economic than military.
The Real Stakes
GUUAM’s main task, according to the Financial Times, "is to develop the area’s rich oil and gas deposits to the exclusion of Russia." To this end, "aligning with GUUAM from the outside are Turkey, Britain and the US — nations that have proved far more able than Russia to invest in and trade with the region."
There is indeed a rich prize at stake in the Caspian Sea region. Its proven oil reserves are estimated at between 16 and 32 billion barrels, comparable to the US’s reserves of 22 billion barrels and more than the North Sea’s 17 billion barrels. Total reserves could be as high as 179 to 195 billion barrels, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Chevron’s Tengiz field is the largest oil reservoir discovered in the last 25 years and contains 6 billion barrels. A one billion barrel field is now considered to be a "big, world class find," according to the Financial Times.
The Offshore Kazakstan International Operating Company (OKIOC), whose shareholders include Mobil, Total, Britain’s BG, Statoil of Norway, and the US Philips corporation, is investigating a field in the north Caspian said to be three times the size of Tengiz. No wonder the Financial Times reports that "the political implications of a discovery could be more far-reaching than the potential commercial rewards. A big find would … be a big boost to US policy in the Caspian region."
These reserves are a long way from the Balkans, but the routes by which this oil must come west aren’t. In April, a new pipeline was opened carrying Caspian Sea oil through Azerbaijan and Georgia. The oil will continue its journey by tanker through the Black Sea, the Bosphorus, and on past the Turkish and Greek coasts. Other possible western pipeline routes lie through Turkey to the coast near Cyprus or through the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Greece — which are, respectively, a GUUAM member, an aspiring member of NATO, and an existing NATO member. The Economist reports that NATO "says it may advise the GUUAM club on security –especially for the pipelines."
All these routes give the necessity of security in the Balkans an additional direct economic importance, adding to the primary strategic concerns that stand behind NATO’s war. The Financial Times reports that an oil find by the OKIOCA "could support the construction of a big export pipeline, such as the trans-Caspian link to Baku in Azerbaijan and then on to Ceyhan, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Such a pipeline is a US foreign policy priority, as it would help wean the former Soviet republics along the Caspian away from Russia while undermining growing commercial interests in using Iran as an oil export route."
US energy secretary Bill Richardson explained last November, "This is about America’s energy security … . It’s also about preventing strategic inroads by those who don’t share our values. We are trying to move these newly independent countries toward the west. We would like to see them reliant on western commercial and political interests. We’ve made a substantial political investment in the Caspian and it’s important that both the pipeline map and the politics come out right."
It is the "pipeline map" that connects the Caspian Sea oil reserves to the security of the area between Turkey, Greece, and the other Balkan states. As the International Herald Tribune points out, "[P]rofound economic and geopolitical consequences" stem from the decisions about the routes by which the oil will come west. "Rivalries played out here will have a decisive impact in shaping the post-Communist world, and in determining how much influence the United States will have over its development."
Zone of Conflict
Geographical expansion isn’t the only way that NATO has changed in the 1990s. It is no longer simply a defensive alliance, as it claimed throughout the Cold War. All the old Cold War NATO policies remain — including "first use" of nuclear weapons if it deems that necessary. But after the fall of the Stalinist states, NATO redefined its aims so that "out of area" operations became part of a new "strategic concept."
At first, this was seen as primarily a "peacekeeping" role. But, reports the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "NATO’s exclusive command of the Implementation Force (IFOR) operations in Bosnia completely changed this view." Thus, the collapse of the Eastern European regimes and NATO’s expansionism fueled its concern with the Balkans; its experience in the Balkans fueled its determination to use military weight beyond its borders. At the Washington Summit, a Combined Joint Task Force for rapid force deployment in "areas of crisis" was grafted onto a revised NATO military structure.
The results of these trends are enormous. The Cold War structure that underpinned the nuclear stalemate between the West and the eastern bloc has disappeared. This means "hot wars" are no longer pushed to the colonial and former colonial periphery. Now they’re fought less between national liberation movements and colonial or neo-colonial regimes, and more between politically-independent states which can quickly move from clients of the major powers to "rogue" or "terrorist" states if their interests and those of the major powers diverge. Iran, Iraq, and Serbia are just the most prominent examples of the last 10 years. This pattern will continue, if only because 75 percent of US arms sales in the past five years have been to countries whose citizens have no right to choose their own government.
Even more importantly, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has created a zone of imperialist conflict stretching from NATO’s new eastern border through the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, through to the southern rim of Russia and the GUUAM states. This economically weak and unstable region is now a major zone of rival imperial claims. The Balkans have become a contested area once again because the tectonic plates of the major powers now grind against each other there, just as they did before the accident of Cold War imperial geography and the long post-war boom gave them temporary respite.
Logic of Empire
The New World Order promised 10 years ago will not be delivered. The imbalance between US military power and that of every other state, once touted as the guarantee of a more peaceful world, now stands exposed as a source of greater instability. US military spending is greater than all the military spending of the next 13 countries ranked beneath it. Yet the US share of world trade and world manufacturing is substantially less than it was during the Cold War. This is one central reason why military might is so often the choice of the US ruling class.
The other reason is the economic enfeeblement of Russia. But the policy of using this weakness to carry Russia reluctantly along with NATO objectives has its limits, as the course of the Balkan War shows. Moreover, as NATO encroachment comes ever closer to Russia’s borders, the still enormous military machine of the Russian state may once again begin to look to the country’s leaders like its one real asset in a threatening situation.
When we see the Balkan War in context, it’s no surprise to find that the 1990s have been one of the bloodiest decades since the Second World War. Most of those killed have been civilians. Fifty years ago, half of war deaths were civilian. In the 1960s, civilians accounted for 63 percent of war deaths, and in the 1980s that figure rose to 74 percent. In the 1990s, the figure is higher still. Only the destruction of the imperialist system will stop this carnage.
— John Rees is the editor of and a contributor to the book Marxism and the New Imperialism (London, 1994), and the editor of the London-based quarterly journal International Socialism.