The Yugoslav Wars Myths & Realities

 Once again the socialist assertion that nationalism can never serve the interests of the working class is being attested to daily amidst the horrors of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Despite claim and counter-claim of atrocities committed by one side or the other the simple fact is that worker is butchering worker—for the privilege of rearranging capitalist state borders!

Early August brought what could be a turning point in the Yugoslav wars with a major offensive by the Croatian army which recaptured almost the whole of the Krajina region including Knin, the capital of the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina, and an of offensive by the Bosnian Army’s 5th Corps who successfully broke out of the besieged Bihac enclave and linked up with the Croatian Army in Krajina. This has thrown into disarray not just the whole of the Serbian nationalist political apparatus but also the foreign policies of the great powers.

Not inevitable

Contrary to the ramblings of the “ancient hatreds” school of thought, war in Yugoslavia was not inevitable. Major constitutional changes were very much on the agenda and even though there was a tendency towards fragmentation, and with it a potential for violence. But full-scale war and genocidal carnage were not preordained.

Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces each having its own regional government within the federal structure. The two richer republics of Slovenia and Croatia wanted free-market-type reforms akin to those being implemented in the former state capitalist bloc, together with a looser confederal political structure and moves towards EC membership. For a time it looked as if this was the direction in which Yugoslavia would move, with Prime Minister Ante Markovic presenting a reform package that allowed for foreign ownership of Yugoslav industry and tied the Dinar to the Deutschmark. Such proposals met with the approval of the EC, who also made it clear that they were only interested in Yugoslavia as a single market and not as a number of smaller states. Similarly George Bush stated that the US would not recognise any breakaway republics from Yugoslavia (partly because Bush did not want to encourage secessionist tendencies in the Soviet Union).

In purely economic terms total breakup of the federation was in no-one’s interests. Even for Slovenia and Croatia, the Yugoslav federation though a drain on their economies was also the biggest market for their goods. To secede would have meant not only losing that market but losing also the possibility of EC membership, while for the poorer republics secession would mean losing a source of funding for economic development. In terms of international politics the West (and Moscow) feared that the break-up of Yugoslavia would not only destabilise the Balkans but provide a model and source of legitimacy for the break-up of the Soviet Union into a number of smaller and less stable states, some with a nuclear capability. The continued existence of the Yugoslav Federation appeared to be agreed upon by all concerned

Ancient hatreds?

According to John Major the Yugoslav wars are primarily the results of “the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the discipline that that exerted over the ancient hatreds in the old Yugoslavia Once that discipline had disappeared, those ancient hatreds reappeared and we began to see their consequences when the fighting occurred” (Hansard, 23 June colt 324). This view is repeated by many western politicians, partly to excuse their failure to have guided Yugoslavia peacefully into post-Cold War Europe (a not impossible task given the consensus noted above), and partly because it mirrors the racist propaganda of the nationalist regimes in Serbia and Croatia, the two regional imperia to emerge from the disintegration of Titoist Yugoslavia and behind whom the great powers are lining up against one another. It is, however, a view which bears no resemblance to historical reality.

The idea of ancient hatreds and longstanding ethnic feuds is wholly mythical. For centuries Serbs and Croats were barely aware of each other’s existence, being separated by the border dividing the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires the military frontier or Volna Krajina to use its Slavonic name. The Serbs who inhabited this region were descended from semi nomadic Vlachs who were encouraged to settle along the frontier by the Austro-Hungarian authorities to function as a buffer against incursions by raiders from Bosnia. In return they were awarded certain privileges such as semi-autonomy and freedom of worship (the Vlachs were Orthodox Christians unlike the Catholic Hapsburgs). The idea that these Genzers, as they came to be known, were Serbs running from religious persecution by Muslims is a myth fabricated by Serbian nationalist intellectuals.

It was only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that Bosnia’s Orthodox Christians and Catholics began to regard themselves as Serbs and Croats, and again this was due to propaganda by nationalist intellectuals. The often bloody conflicts for which the Balkans are known, and which at times took on an ethno-religious dimension, were in essence economic and political conflicts manifestations of the class struggle between the predominantly (but not exclusively) Christian peasantry and their predominantly (but not exclusively) Muslim overlords.

Only in World War II did Serbs and Croats finally confront each other directly, but even this is shrouded in mythology. The Ustase regime of Ante Pavelic which Serbian Nationalists claim illustrates the inherent fascism of all Croats was deeply unpopular and would not have lasted a day without the blessing of the Vatican and the support of the Nazis. Its victims were not just Serbs but Croats too. Many Croats, including the young Franjo Tudjman, fought with the Partisans led by Tito, another Croat. Serbs also fought Serbs in a three-way slaughter involving the pan-Yugoslav Partisans, the Nazi puppet regime in Belgrade and the Monarchist forces of Draza Mikailovic. Bosnian Muslims fought on both Partisan and Axis sides, and proportionally suffered more than either Serbs or Croats. The Yugoslav war of 1941–45, then, was not an ethnic conflict but ideological and political.

Similarly the Yugoslav wars of today have their origins in political struggles. Not in the political struggles of secessionist republics against the Federation as a whole, but in the political struggles occurring inside the Federation’s most powerful republic, Serbia.

The bones of Prince Lazar

Slobodan Milosevic was at one time hailed in the West as a Balkan Gorbachev, the first Yugoslav to realise Tito was dead, as the phrase went. Inside Yugoslavia he was known as something else, as the Saviour and Protector of the Serbs who, the nationalists claimed, were oppressed in Tito-the-Croat’s Yugoslavia despite the fact that Serbia dominated the political system, the army and was creaming of the profits from Slovenian industry and Croatian tourism.

In 1989 when the rest of Europe was celebrating the fall of the state capitalist empire and extolling the virtues of civic nationalism, Milosevic was staging rallies commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje and parading the bones of Prince Lazar around towns and villages across Serbia in a campaign calculated to whip up ethnic nationalist sentiment.

Milosevic began his rise to power in 1987 when he opportunistically latched on to the issue of the Serb minority in the province of Kosovo. The situation of these Serbs, though poor, was no worse and probably better than Kosovo’s Albanian majority; but in taking on the issue Milosevic was able to establish a power base among the nationalist intellectuals of the Serbian Academy of Sciences from which to launch an assault on the ailing Titoist political system. The Kosovo issue, which eventually led to the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina being swallowed up by Serbia, showed that the post-Cold War Yugoslavia was to be a Serbian-dominated centralised unitary state, thus further provoking confederalist tendencies in the other republics.

The Chetniks

The Yugoslav wars began in June 1991 when the Yugoslav Army entered the breakaway republic of Slovenia under the pretext of securing Yugoslavia’s borders. The Slovenian war lasted ten days, left less than seventy dead and ended with the army’s withdrawal. This allowing of Slovenia which had no sizeable Serb population to secede indicated that the Serbian Nationalists in the Yugoslav Army had won their power struggle with the “Yugoslavists” who wanted to retain Yugoslavia within its previously existing frontiers, and that Greater Serbia would be exactly that: a single state that incorporated all areas of the former Yugoslavia populated by Serbs.

Croatia and Bosnia did have sizeable Serb populations. As securing of borders could no longer be used as a front for Yugoslav Army intervention, the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia were induced to turn on their neighbours through a combination of propaganda and terror. When the army was deployed it was usually under the pretext of “peace-keeping” or protecting the Serb minority from attacks they themselves had provoked by actions instigated by Belgrade.

For the most part Serbian intervention came in the form of the Chetniks, volunteer units recruited from the underworld and far-right groups often commanded by gangsters and neo-fascist politicians. The Arkanovci, for example, were responsible for many of the atrocities committed at Vukovar and around Banja Luka in Bosnia. This unit take their name from Arkan, nom de guerre of Zeljko Raznjatovic a Belgrade mafia boss wanted by Interpol for murder who became an MP in Milosevic’s Serbia.

Arkan was last sighted around Srebrenica in the company of General Miadic prior to the town’s fall. Another unit, the Dusan Silni, forced elderly Croats to talk through a minefield in Slavonia, while the Seseljovci were responsible for the first documented incidence of mass rape in the Bosnian war after rampaging through Zvornik, a defenceless town on the banks of the Drina. This latter group are the paramilitary wing of the Serbian Radical Party headed by the rabid nationalist Vojislav Seselj.

Workers are always the victims

Needless to say, in this as in all wars it is the working class who suffer most. They do the fighting and the dying, they are raped and “ethnically cleansed”, and it is their lives and homes that count for most of the “collateral damage” whether or not they swallow the nationalist filth of their leaders. The people of Tuzla, for instance, an industrial town where Serbs, Croats, Muslims and others have lived and worked together for generations, didn’t even vote for Bosnian secession. Yet now they find themselves fighting and dying together for what will be, if Bosnia survives, a capitalist state that exploits them as surely as any other, for to lay down their arms will mean certain extermination at the hands of the Chetniks. The story is much the same throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina.

The Yugoslav experience shows us what can happen when structural changes in the capitalist economy result in power struggles that spiral out of control. These wars are not the results of ancient hatreds ore peculiar Balkan mentality, they are the result of capitalism and can therefore happen anywhere in the world, even here. The choice, as ever, is simple: Socialism or Barbarism.