An interview with Agon Hamza, Marxist political philosopher, editor of the Crisis and Critique journal and former advisor to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo about parallels between the war in Ukraine and conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
— The spectre of the Yugoslav wars seems to constantly follow Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Thus back in 2014, when annexing Crimea, Putin cited the West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008 as a precedent, and Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities is often presented by the Kremlin propaganda as almost a response to the US bombing of Belgrade in 1999. The key argument here is the affirmation of the right of the strongest: if America was allowed to do this in Yugoslavia, why can’t Russia do the same in Ukraine? In your opinion, are all these parallels solely a propaganda device that distorts historical reality, or can these parallels still make sense?
— There is something problematic about returning to the ‘past’ in order to explain our present. Think about it — one often hears liberals describing certain situations as “complex.” Russia invaded Ukraine and, according to pundits and peaceniks, we must take into account the “complexity” of the situation in that part of the world, which dates back many decades, if not centuries. I think this is an ideological cover up, which maintains that beyond every situation, there is a hidden element or a deeper meaning, which must be unveiled in order for us to understand current events on proper terms. I am inclined to argue that this very idea of a “deeper historical (or other) meaning” of a given situation is evoked to justify the present, in terms of its crimes, atrocities, and so forth. Evoking the past is our inability or rather our unreadiness to confront the present. In a way, this is the lesson of Hegel’s thinking; given he is a superficial thinker, all his philosophy is dedicated to emptying out the “beyond” of any substance, doing away with all essentialist dualisms. With regard to Ukraine, the reality is rather simple: Russia invaded the country, has displaced tens of millions of people, and is apparently committing crimes against civilians who are clearly targeted. It is Russia who started the war. Of course there are further complications, or “complexities” if you will, given the situation, but they are no deeper or more complex than the rather brutal “simple” facts.
We have heard similar approaches to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. In order to understand what is happening in the former Yugoslavia, we must go back centuries, we must understand their myths and customs. While being problematic in many aspects (it is a region of philistines etc., etc), these approaches to the Balkan War miss the crux of the matter. Myths and other folkloric aspects served an ideological function: when the wars exploded, these myths were brought up (resurrected), to serve as an ideological supplement for what was happening in the present.
“The present Russia is the absolute negation of everything that the Soviet Union stood for, even nominally”
It is quite astonishing to hear some radical Marxists asking for “understanding Putin.” It gets bizarre when they call for a new politics of containment, and a new George F. Kennan for our era. It is astonishing to conceive the Russian Federation as a continuation of the Soviet Union. The present Russia is the absolute negation of everything that the Soviet Union stood for, even nominally. Putin, who recently became very fond of giving lectures on history, denounced the Soviet Union and Lenin, thus distancing himself and the present Russia as far as possible from the Soviet Union. He blamed Lenin for creating the Ukrainian nation, and his attack is directed against the Ukrainian nation, whom he doesn’t recognise as one. As he said in February of this year, “Let’s start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, by the Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process began almost immediately after the 1917 revolution.” This is why Russia is not calling the invasion a “war”, but refers to it as a “special military operation.”
Lenin was very clear about this and some fragments of his book on the right to self-determination are worth recalling in this conversation.
“The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that “its own” nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.”
And as Lenin continues further, those who fail “to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc. — are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.”
This said, one must always be extremely careful about drawing comparisons. In the former Yugoslavia, the war broke out because of the hegemonic aspirations of the Republic of Serbia, which in fact was the reason for the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. One must also always be careful with “similarities”, because at one level, everything might resemble something else. This holds for politics, for theory, for culture, and so forth. I think that the mere fact that Putin is referring to the Kosovo war as a “justification” for his invasion of Ukraine, speaks about the incompatibilities of the two cases.
— One of the concepts that may be in danger of being devalued today is “genocide”. Russian propaganda continues to use the argument of “preventing genocide in Donbass” as one of the key arguments to justify its aggression. On the other hand, the horrific crimes in Bucha were similarly characterized as “genocide” by the Ukrainian government. From a post-Yugoslav perspective, remembering the ethnic violence in Bosnia and Kosovo, what does the accusation of genocide look like? What does the term mean today and what might be the political implications of its use?
— I would like to refer to the previous question. To state the obvious, I would have to say that every situation has its specifics which should be analysed. Lenin proposed the formula of engaging in a “concrete analysis of the concrete situation.” Whenever one is engaged in providing a ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ the beautiful souls of the Left immediately react by evoking Marx and sometimes even Lenin in order to make up and justify their total lack of concrete positions on specific situations. The real difficulty in Lenin’s dictum is not analysing “the specific situation” (what is truly going on singularly), but rather providing a “concrete analysis”. That is to say, an analysis that is not more committed to the identification of the analyst (as an “abstract analyst” of a concrete situation or as someone who can guarantee that providing the correct analysis will guarantee his/her recognition by others as a “true” Marxist). Undertaking a “concrete analysis” can be traumatic precisely because it gives priority to the concrete situation over the reproduction of the analyst as an abstract individual. This means that it takes the side of the people over the side of the Left, waiting for the effects of the intervention/analysis in order to find out where one stands. It is precisely at this point that the risk is located.
“Against peace, we must insist on justice and equality”
I think it is from this perspective that we need to analyse if what is happening in Ukraine can indeed be called a genocide. But there is something obscene in international law (just like law in general). The international criminal court ruled against qualifying Srebrenica massacre as genocide. The law is not impartial, it always works within an ideological framework which it sanctions.
On the other hand, the war in Ukraine is still ongoing and it doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. It will go on for many months, if not years. It is quite difficult, if not impossible to predict the outcome of any situation. The situation is open and the longer the war goes on, the less peaceful and the more risky the situation will get. Ultimately, it will be less relevant whether we define it as a genocide or not, when we know that it is an act of aggression from Russia. As a result we are faced with a real catastrophe, which will only be accelerated. Definitions play little role in this.
— The price of war in Ukraine is growing every day meaning not only the lives lost, the devastation and millions of refugees, but also the economic crisis in Europe and the increasing risk of a global military conflict. It seems that while Putin’s first plan — a rapid takeover of Kiev — has failed, the second — the prospect of a prolonged war whose consequences would force the West to make concessions (i.e. de facto give him Ukraine) — has some chance of being realized. What consequences, in your view, would such an outcome have on the Balkan region and Europe as a whole?
— The risk of a global war — I am not very fond of the word “conflict”, because of its depoliticising effects is increasingly a real possibility. The enormous effects of the pandemic still persist albeit overshadowed by that of the war in Ukraine. The political, economic and social consequences of these two ‘crises’ have only deepened and/or accelerated the contradictions, which to state the obvious, only accelerate the risk of war in real terms. The antagonisms of capitalism are not manageable anymore within the framework of capitalism. The political, economic and social antagonisms are converging with the increasingly dire possibilities of famine and hunger, other ecological catastrophes, exploding class antagonisms, patriarchy and so on, which of course are part of a much bigger unravelling of the contradictions of capitalism.
That said, one should not subscribe to some kind of a ‘nature’ of the nation-states. The relations between the two are in hyperbole, a little barbaric. One way to understand international relations is the perpetual failure of ‘civilising our civilisation’, that is to say, a perpetual failure in the attempt to de-barbarise the barbaric relationship between the nation-states. Even Immanuel Kant, the appropriated poet of liberal freedoms, knew this. In his third critique he discusses the inevitability of war.There cannot be a lasting, or “perpetual peace” between the states. The periods of peace are only an interim armistice, because the relations between states exist under the permanent threat of war. War goes well beyond, or transcends the moral condemnation, as conceptualized by the common-sense wisdom of Natural Law. What moral insights don’t have a say in how the spirit actualizes itself and takes a given form: in this enterprise, the moral insights fall into oblivion.
This brings me to the main problem of the war as such. There is a tendency (which is not a characteristic of the left alone), with regard to wars and military interventions, when peace and stability are placed above justice and equality. They are willing to endorse repression, as they have already done and continue doing, based on flimsy moral or neutral grounds, from a safe distance.Of course, this is not meant to be a defense of war, that would be cruel, to say the least. But we must all be really careful when we call for peace. In the Balkans, the peace that we have for over 20 years now seems to be only a temporary armistice. Against peace, we must insist on justice and equality. Here one must evoke Lenin’s statement: “Either revolution will prevent the war or the war will trigger revolution.” The sad news, however, is that the non-existence of any revolutionary potential or force in our present situation will only further accelerate the possibility/possibilities of new wars and other atrocities. In this very strict sense, we are not in historical similarities with either the aftermath of the First World War (Bolshevik Revolution), nor with the aftermath of the Second one. Our situation is one of hopelessness.
“The anti-American position comes from an easy position, usually from a safe distance”
In the Balkans, the idea of land swapping, territorial exchanges or partitions, keep returning as political options for dispute resolution. Of course, the countries who are the objects of such enterprises are Bosnia and Kosovo. I believe the situation in Ukraine, or rather its outcome, will not have a determining effect, but surely it will have an influence on the way in which the situation in Bosnia and in Kosovo might be shaped. In the Balkans the only way to prevent a war is to struggle against the kind of peace we have, which needs a plethora of political and military tensions to keep it going. All this gets more complicated, both analytically and politically, when you place the situation of these two countries in the perspective of what they are not: namely, nation-states. Louis Althusser always said that you cannot see everything from everywhere, and I think this holds for our predicament here. The way in which the situation is handled, namely of a political game which presupposes that some stable rules were in the background. But, when the rules falter or fail, everything is pushed back to the starting line, again and again. In these situations, things get pretty messy and the war is again on the table as an option.
So once again, it is of essential urgency to struggle against (any kind of) peace which comes at the cost of justice and equality.
— The war has presented the Western left with a serious challenge. Although an absolute majority of them condemned Russian aggression, only a minority supported the need for military support for Ukraine. Is it possible to combine criticism of NATO with a demand for military assistance? And is consistent solidarity with Ukraine possible in principle from the traditional pacifist position of most of the left?
— The left is going through the night of the living dead, it is predominantly comprised of forces which have no political efficiency in fighting to remain alive on the ‘scene’. At the same time it pretends to have an understanding of the political reality. This holds true for both the political groups as well as for left intellectuals.This comes, in part, as a result of a necessary moment of the Western bourgeois expansion. In fact, this is quite an interesting sign, or a symptom if you like, that the left in almost any given country is composed of a strong middle class. This position is interesting, because this composition of the left makes it possible to explain quite a few phenomena, including its anti-Americanism, which in large part, is the constitutive element of the left itself. It is peculiar, or so it seems to me, that the anti-American sentiment has grown in the contemporary left in direct proportion to how western it itself has become. This middle class, which is leftist, has started to hate its own roots, so to speak, and the anti-American sentiment gets so prevalent, only because it proves that they are not so middle class as they seem. But this is not new. The leftist middle class usually, or as a rule, hates the middle class that it itself is, as if this exaggerated hate would purge it from its own social basis. In a way, the anti-Americans are negatively self identified with America. It is because they know that this sentiment is constitutive of their identity that they turn to Putin, who, until now, they barely knew or understood. What is truly interesting, I think, is to analyse that none of these defences of Putin are wholehearted, it is always done from afar, from a certain safe distance. It seems that none of these defenders seem to really know what they are doing, they only know it is not America. The left has supported Assad of Syria, Milosevic of Serbia, insofar as these dictatorial individuals are anti-Americans. But, what is of crucial importance is that the anti-American position comes from an easy position, usually from a safe distance, which is all too easy to take. Many examples come to mind here, both in political as well as in the intellectual scene. The moment one takes the position of anti-Americanism, as the premise of intellectual, political or/and cultural labour, one loses the sight of the conceptual roots of Americanism, that is to say, one loses the ability to distinguish another “Americanism”, such as Putinism, Erdoganism, and so on. One of the most hypocritical positions regarding the war in Ukraine, that is Russia’s invasion of the country, is the usual left-liberal litany of “terror only breads more terror”, “peace is crucial, the rest can be solved afterwards”, “violence cannot be fought with violence.” The question is: who wants peace? I cannot think of one occupying force which doesn’t want peace — Israel, Turkey, Serbia, even Nazi Germany, they all sincerely want (ed) peace. But, in Ukraine, peace is not an option, as one great philosopher recently declared. Ukrainians do not want peace, they want liberation. Putin, as an invader, wants peace. All the calls for pacifism, or the positions which call for “peace at any cost” are not only depoliticising the cause (s), but ultimately, they are siding with the oppressing forces, be it in the case of the frontal war (like in Ukraine, or previously in the Balkans), or in the other forms of class struggles in the field of economy, politics, culture, etc.
This text was first published in posle.media.