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Nationalism and Destruction in the Balkans

We review a recent film about the break-up of Yugoslavia.

'The Weight of Chains', a documentary written and directed by Boris Malagurski (2010)

‘Who in their right mind would actually want to be a colony? ‘So begins The Weight of Chains, a documentary written and directed by Boris Malagurski (2010) which argues that the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was orchestrated by Western powers in furtherance of imperial ambitions. Director Boris Malagurski, hailed by the Belgrade press as the ‘Serbian Michael Moore’, claims his film ‘takes a critical look at the role that the US, NATO and the EU played in the tragic breakup of a once-peaceful and prosperous European state’.

The film is narrated by Malagurski himself and begins with a whirlwind history of Yugoslavia: the country was first established as a kingdom in 1918, and encompassed people of various religions and ethnicities, including Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians (all of Slavic extraction), as well as sizeable Hungarian and Albanian minorities. The country was reorganised as a federation of six national republics in 1943, the Titoist ruling party opting for an economic model which mixed state and private ownership of capital. By the 1970s Yugoslavia came to enjoy levels of social and economic prosperity which rivalled even many of its avowedly capitalist neighbours.

The historical background thus set, Malagurski pinpoints the beginning of Yugoslavia’s decline to the early 1980s, when it took out an IMF loan to shore up its waning economy. Around the same time, Ronald Reagan issued a secret memo, National Security Decision Directive 133, which committed the US to widen its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe by aggressively promoting Western-style market capitalism in Yugoslavia. US-sponsored NGOs promptly began funding Yugoslavian opposition groups, journalists, free-market economists, and trade union activists. By the late 1980s, this ideological groundwork had paved the way for ‘privatisation through liquidation’: US-guided Yugoslavian bankers and legislators started implementing monetary and economic reforms which triggered the bankruptcy of thousands of state-run firms. This, explains Malagurski, deepened the state’s massive debt and led to runaway inflation and unemployment, cuts to welfare spending, and tension between the subnational governments. Foreign speculators snapped up failed companies at rock-bottom prices, and the federal government, cut off from further foreign credit, was forced to accede to American demands for ‘free’ multiparty elections in the constituent republics.

Lured by the promise of Western favour and financing for their individual republics, regional politicians sowed the seeds of ethnic discord; these in turn were eagerly cultivated by the impoverished workers who were searching desperately for someone to blame for their sudden misfortune. Malagurski aptly shows how the ensuing nationalist secessions brought their leaders into open and often very bloody military conflict over land and resources.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should – long-term readers of the Standard will recognise this part of Malagurski’s analysis of the Yugoslavian breakup and ensuing wars as much the same one we have always presented. Like Malagurski, socialists eschew the ‘ancient hatreds’ theory which holds that interethnic hostility is biologically innate and genocidal violence preordained. Instead, we observe how a faction of the ruling elite, when confronted with rivals to its privileged position as owners and controllers, is compelled to enlist masses of the working class to defend that position. One way of rallying this support is to seize upon some unimportant characteristic – say, religion, language, or ethnicity – which the workers share with the ruling faction, but not with the workers of the rival faction. By exaggerating such differences and ignoring or obscuring the more important commonalities, leaders convince the workers that they share a common interest with their masters, and to happily march off to war in support of it.

By this point in the film, therefore, Malagurski has set things up wonderfully for a scathing indictment of nationalism, irredentism, and capitalist warmongering. Unfortunately, this indictment never comes: as it turns out, Malagurski is just another nationalist, albeit one pining for the ‘good old days’ of pre-breakup Yugoslavia (which, rather tellingly, he himself is far too young to remember). While he correctly surmises that the new ‘Bosnian’, ‘Kosovar’ and other national identities are largely artificial distinctions, invented or overinflated by their respective governments in order to win the support of their electorate and of foreign powers, he ignores the fact that the same was true of the even more artificial ‘Yugoslav’ national identity they supplanted.

In support of its pan-Yugoslav agenda, the film devotes considerable screen time to documenting how the political and economic leaders of the newly independent states enriched themselves at the expense of the common people. Malagurski explains how they did this by cutting back social programmes, skimming foreign investment funds, and selling off entire domestic industries to foreign concerns. But what he fails to establish is how any of this could have been prevented had Yugoslavia remained united, nor why foreign private ownership of industry is any worse for the workers than local private ownership. Russia, for example, emerged from the USSR with a strong national identity and a much greater proportion of its industry in local hands, though its workers also experienced widespread poverty and massive social cutbacks. Of course, even Titoist Yugoslavia was never the paragon of social and economic equality Malagurski seems to think it was. The Yugoslavian nomenklatura may have avoided the conspicuous consumption typical of Western capitalists, but it remained a privileged ruling class which was just as keen to enrich itself through exploitation of its workers.

Many of the film’s flimsier claims and arguments can be explained as the work of a naïve but well-meaning patriot, but others cannot be so innocently excused. For example, Malagurski outright denies that the ethnic minorities in Serbia were oppressed, conveniently omitting any mention of the mass protests and general strikes that led to the revocation of their political autonomy in the late 1980s. In another segment, he paints Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović as a rabid jihadist, quoting from a thirty-year old Islamist manifesto which the man had long since repudiated. Most controversially, he presents the infamous Srebrenica massacre as a ‘stage-managed’ ploy by the Bosnians and Americans to justify NATO military intervention against Serbia. Whatever the plausibility of this theory, it’s particularly distasteful how Malagurski trivialises the village’s civilian death toll as ‘no larger than the number of Serbs killed’ in the surrounding area, without any pretence of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant deaths.

Given this it is not hard to see why Malagurski’s detractors accuse him of being a pro-Serb whitewasher and historical revisionist. Are they correct?  With so many of the post-breakup events still under active historical and criminal investigation, it’s hard to say for sure. But at least one thing about Malagurski is clear: for all the effort he spends exposing and decrying the dishonest propagandising which fuelled the Yugoslavian implosion, he certainly has no qualms employing many of the same tricks when it suits his own agenda. Whatever that agenda may be, the conclusion is that he has a very low estimation of the intelligence of his audience.

TRISTAN MILLER