Saturday, February 23, 2008

Kosovo: Open for Business

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog:

After decades of uneasy existence as part of Serbia the newly independent state of Kosovo has emerged with its inevitable new anthem and new flag. But there are real political concerns best not forgotten in the ballyhoo and hopes for a brighter future.

One man interviewed by the BBC's Mark Mardell described how during the war he fled his village with many relatives under attack by Serbian troops. He had to leave his aunt behind and she was burnt to death. He said: "Kosovo is rich in minerals and rich in farming land, is rich in all other aspects. Here, we provided wealth for so many years for the whole of Yugoslavia, there is no reason why we cannot provide now for just Kosovo. That's why I'm saying Kosovo has a bright future." (Mark Mardell's Euroblog: 'Mining Kosovo's Future' 29 January)

Alongside the declared humanitarian reasons for the UN intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s there were other, economic and political, considerations also in play. It is these interests that will shape future developments in the states of the former Yugoslavia and dominate the lives of workers there.

The New York Times (8 July 1999) carried an article by Chris Hedges about the Stari Trg mining complex in Trepca, Kosovo. Possibly inadvertently, it gave an insight into some of the considerations that surrounded the decision to intervene. According to Hedges, "The sprawling state-owned Trepca mining complex, the most valuable piece of real estate in the Balkans, is worth at least $5 billion."

It was the reported view of the mine's director, Novak Bjelic, that "The war in Kosovo is about the mines, nothing else. This is Serbia's Kuwait - the heart of Kosovo. In addition to all this, Kosovo has 17 billion tons of coal reserves." The Yugoslav web site (now defunct) described Trepca as having the "richest lead and zinc mines in Europe." The capacity of the lead and zinc refineries ranked third in the world and the area as a whole represented some 80% of Yugoslavia's mineral deposits. The problem was they were old and inefficient and seriously polluting.

According to Michael Palairet of the University of Edinburgh, a leading authority on the economic and social history of the Balkans,

"The Trepca system 'as a rule' lost money under Yugoslav socialism … Because of Trepca's incapacity to generate funding of its own for investment, all investment funding had to be financed externally, by fund providers who did not anticipate that they would see any return on (or of) their capital."

In his opinion the $5bn figure quoted above was exaggerated. However while Trepca consistently performed poorly, this was not because it could not have been managed more effectively: "Unlike most heavy industry… Trepca had good mining assets and low cost access to energy, so on the face of things there were no structural reasons for its inability to trade profitably." (From European Stability Initiative)

Further insight may be gained into the economic underpinnings of the UN intervention from a report by the International Crisis Group. The report is interesting in that it provides further evidence that the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was in large part motivated by conflicting economic interests. The various regions of the Federal Republic had fallen out over how their assets and liabilities were to be divided and allocated. The differences were long standing and could not be resolved peacefully. In other words it was a fight among competing capitalists interests. One of these interests lay in Kosovo - the supposed "heartland of Serb identity."

"Trepca is a sprawling conglomerate of some 40 mines and factories, located mostly in Kosovo ... Its great mineral wealth is the basis of the economy of Kosovo, but the complex is badly run-down as a result of under-investment and over-exploitation by governments in Belgrade." (From Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth ICG Europe Report N°82, 26 November 1999)

In 1974 Tito's new constitution accorded the province near-republic status, with its own parliament and courts, Kosovo elites enjoyed a period of greatly increased control over their own resources. They used their enhanced authority to build factories in Kosovo that capitalised on their mineral production, created thousands of jobs, and brought some income into the province.

After Tito's death, pressure grew for more rights and greater political and economic autonomy, but with little success. Belgrade reasserted control of the mines. Kosovo Albanian workers were accused of having stolen vast quantities of gold and silver and many engineers and technicians were fired.

"From 1981-89, Belgrade monopolised the export of Trepca's minerals to Russia and elsewhere, reaping the profits in hard currency and oil, while compensating the Kosovars only with electricity and other non-fungible forms of payment.…

"Trepca's Kosovar management attempted to sell its products on the European market and to modernise the facilities' modes of production, only to be foiled time and again by the Serbian government, which was in the process of "integrating" Serbia's economy - that is, of tethering all economic sectors even more closely to Belgrade.

"By the late 1980s, with the final integration into the Serbian system of the power generating system, Kosovars had lost virtually all control over their economy, as they would over their politics and civic freedoms." (Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth (ICG))

In 1996 Trepca had exported $100 million of products, making it the largest exporting company in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and an invaluable foreign exchange earner at a time when the country was experiencing grave economic difficulties.

Throughout the 1990s the ownership of Trepca conglomerate was never entirely clear. In November 1997 Trepca was under consideration for privatisation by the federal government in Belgrade. This process stalled when the 'red business man' Zoran Todorovic, was murdered by a gunman in Belgrade. Todorovic had been a close confidant of Slobodan Milosevic and was one of the richest men in Yugoslavia. He was one of a group of state capitalists who had been able to use their political connections to purchase state assets at bargain prices. (He was also director of Beopetrol, another state firm in the process of being privatized.) This was in effect a conversion of state owned assets into de facto privately owned ones by the ruling capitalist class.

Officials of the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), who took over governing Kosovo in 1999 after the withdrawal of Serbian troops, concluded that the complex was overall public property and therefore came under their authority in accordance with its mandate. The then head of UNMIK, Bernard Kouchner (now French Foreign Minister), confirmed that an international consortium had been appointed to run the plant. A $16m (£10.7m) investment package was also announced, funded by Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and the EU. The money was to be spent on a full-scale refurbishment of the plant prior to it being sold off. "We have no intention of closing any part of the Trepca mining complex. On the contrary, we're going to make it safe and profitable." he said. (From The Guardian, 15 August 2000)

But it was not only the mines that capitalist interests had their eyes on. In July 2000 it was announced that a fund run by the billionaire George Soros was to invest $150 million (most backed by U.S. guarantees) in companies in the Balkans. Soros Fund Management would invest $50 million of it own equity in new businesses, expansions or privatization in the region and would have full autonomy to choose the investments in a whole swathe of South East Europe. Soros had invested millions of dollars in philanthropic endeavors in the region, but said this fund would practice "tough love," and be driven purely by profit.

The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation had agreed to provide a loan guarantee for another $100 million of investments. OPIC describes itself as a self-sustaining federal agency that sells investment services to American businesses expanding into emerging markets around the world. It provides a level playing field for U.S. businesses in emerging economies.

"Since 1971, OPIC has supported nearly $130 billion worth of investments that will generate over $61 billion in U.S. exports." (From here.)

The Soros investment was conceived at a "donor" conference in Sarajevo in 1999. It was one of a series of efforts to take advantage of emerging investment opportunities in the Balkans. "A year ago, after NATO won the war in Kosovo, more than 40 leaders came together in Sarajevo determined to win the peace with economic investments", according to National Security Advisor Samuel M. Berger.

George Munoz President and CEO of OPIC said he was pleased that they were making the region safe for international capital. It was a demonstration that

"Southeast Europe is an important region on which we should focus our efforts, to enable it to rebuild and enter the global marketplace as a full partner. The Southeast Europe Equity Fund is an ideal vehicle to connect American institutional capital with European entrepreneurs eager to help Americans tap their growing markets."

The Soros Private Funds Management, he said, was sending "a strong, positive signal that Southeast Europe is open for business."

Gwynn Thomas

The Radical Cinema of Peter Watkins

Cut and pasted from A Very Public Sociologist blog. The blogger, Phil B-C, is a member of the SP/CWI Trotskyist tradition.

Keele MCC heard from John Cook of Glasgow Caledonian University this evening. He spoke on the little-known work of the radical film maker, Peter Watkins. Watkins was part of the amateur film movement that grew up in the mid-late 1950s and found himself taken on at the BBC on the strength of his short film on the Hungary uprising, The Forgotten Faces. Released in 1961 it was, contrary to popular belief, among the very first films - if not the first - to pioneer the documentary-drama style. Rather than being a straight apologia of either side, it showed how revolutions are necessarily very messy, how circumstances can transform the downtrodden and oppressed into people fired by murderous rage. In one key scene, we are shown crowds coming under fire from uniformed snipers. When they surrender the people wreak bloody vengeance by crushing them beneath their heels and boots. As a tribute to Watkins style, when Forgotten Faces was shown to the founding chairman of Granada, Sidney Bernstein, he quipped "if we showed that film, no one would believe our documentaries anymore".

Having secured a position at the BBC he became the centre of controversy in 1965 with The War Game. This film imagined the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Kent and its aftermath. Immediately it was banned and remained so for 20 years. Watkins was convinced this decision was taken on political grounds, and was so disgusted by the experience that he left Britain in 1968, and hasn't worked here since. But the hallmarks of his film making had been established. The docudrama style (also seen in his earlier film, Culloden, which involved scenes where participants of the famous 1746 battle were interviewed by filmmakers), his preference for hand held camera work, and the casting of "ordinary" people, not professional actors, have continued to mark out his oeuvre from the mainstream.

Post-BBC Watkins has continued to make films outside of the conventional production process and on very tight budgets. Typical of this is 1971's Punishment Park. Inspired by the trial of the Chicago Seven, it is set in a future where subversives and hippies jailed for political offences get the chance to have their sentences commuted if they complete a desert wilderness course. All the while they're being pursued by law enforcement as part of their training in tracking, shooting, and apprehending suspects. The clip shown this evening's audience is taken from the trial scene. The defendants are arrayed before a tribunal and time after time the presiding judge disallows pleas and defences guaranteed under the US constitution. Contemporary criticism attacked Watkins for exaggerating the violation of basic democratic rights, but post-Guantanamo these seem rather quaint objections. The film itself was on general release in the states for four days until it was mysteriously dropped, so obviously somewhere the film spoke an uncomfortable truth to power.

Watkins' last major film is La Commune (Paris 1871). Filmed in 1999 the 200-strong cast was populated almost entirely by non-professional actors, and casting was done to type. The roles of the communards were taken by leftists and students, and the counterrevolutionary forces recruited from adverts placed in Le Figaro. Like previous work, in the battle scenes the film crew interview 'communards', who would alternate between acting as a participant and commenting on current affairs. Furthermore Watkins filmed La Commune chronologically so the actors knew what was coming and helped simulate a more authentic feel, albeit one anachronistically juxtaposed to interventions by modern media.

Throughout his presentation Cook compared Watkins to Ken Loach, arguing of the two the former was a more radical film maker. Though Loach is famed for the controversial nature of his subject matter how he makes and presents his work is far more conventional. Furthermore Loach's films are very clearly of the left. However, Watkins is a bit more problematic. He describes himself as a leftist, and a superficial acquaintance with the above films seems to reinforce that. But for Cook, Watkins' work is a comment on polarisation and the politics of hate. In Punishment Park for example, there are multiple scenes of the radicals and agents of the state attacking one another verbally and physically. There is a certain even handedness in their portrayal as reaction gets just as much time to put its case against subversion. The same is the case in La Commune - there are scenes capturing the Versailles troops berating and polemicising against the communards and leftism. In both Watkins manages to make visible the polarisation between the two - to take sides and start shouting (as he does in his role as a cameraman in Punishment Park) is to become seduced by hate. What is needed is some middle ground, a space for dialogue between the two antagonistic camps. Only then can real progress be made.

What to make of this? I don't think Watkins has retreated into the wishy-washy liberalism/populism that tries to be all things to all people. Instead it is a call to the left to realise the views of our opponents are as convincing to them as our politics are to us, that we should not forever hector or starkly oppose our views to theirs but rather take the time to address their concerns and win them over through persuasion. As he puts it, "the ideological left is as flawed as the right - any politics that doesn't take on the views of ordinary people is playing at politics".

Phil B-C