After the Balkan War: The Imperialist "Peace"

What is arguably the fourth or fifth Balkan War this century (see Imperialism in the Balkans below) has now come to an uneasy armistice. It is likely that it will hold. 60,000 NATO troops should see to that. After over 200,000 deaths the imperialism can claim to have established peace. We say “claimed” because the forces of imperialism have also promoted the war, despite all the hypocrisy about humanitarian aid and peace missions. (1)

But the lie machines of the West are already rewriting the history of the area. In Britain this reached its height with the “much acclaimed” BBC TV series “The Death of Yugoslavia”. The programmes were accompanied by a book of the same name written by Laura Silber (of the Financial Times) and the BBC’s Alan Little. This claims that:

The war in Yugoslavia was not the international community’s fault. It was a home-baked cake.

They go further in saying that the war for Yugoslavia was started by the Serbian ruling class and the responsibility is virtually single-handedly that of one man, Slobodan Milosevic,

A similar view was expounded by Lord (David) Owen, the failed peace negotiator in the Balkans. In a lecture at Sheffield University in November he portrayed the Southern Slavs as congenital nationalists always eager to cut the throats of the next nationality. For Owen, Milosevic also emerges as the number one baddie in the whole story. This “great man” theory is always a convenient smokescreen for capitalist lick-spittles. The truth is that the causes of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia tells us more about the capitalist world in general than they want us to know. This is why they are now claiming that the war has local causes whilst it is only “the international community” which has brought peace. Thanks to the United States, civilisation and sanity can once again prevail in ex-Yugoslavia.

All this is so much bollocks. It is true that the break-up of Yugoslavia did have internal causes but this is by no means the whole picture. In the first place it was the world economic crisis which began the process of the destruction of Yugoslavia. A “communist” state which was propped up by Western aid it no longer had a role to play once the Cold War began to wind down in the mid 1980s. With the loss of traditional markets in Eastern Europe after the crisis then collapse of the Soviet Empire the crisis bit deeper still. By 1989-90 inflation had reached 2000% per year whilst thousands of factories closed throwing 1,400,000 out of work. Unemployment reached 25% of the economically active population. In the same period there were 1,700 strikes involving millions of workers. They were demanding no more than jobs, better working conditions and wage increases to defend their standard of living. Despite these limited enough demands, despite the almost total absence of political demands or a clear working class programme, the Yugoslav bourgeoisie was terrified by the prospect that the working class were resisting. The workers were beginning to understand that Yugoslavia was not a form of self-managed socialism but just as capitalist in its exploitative relations as any other state, East or West.

The political pressure from the West following the collapse of the Eastern bloc added to the sense of crisis inside the Yugoslav Communist Party. Faced with the loss of power and influence, the various national sections of the Communist Party now spawned nationalist leaders. Where they did not (As in Croatia) they were pushed aside by ex-communists like Tudjman, or Islamic oppositionists like Izetbegovic in Bosnia.

The first nationalist upsurge was that of the ethnic Albania ruling class in Kosovo who wanted to secede from Serbia. Under Tito’s 1974 Constitution Kosovo became an autonomous region of Serbia. Now the Kosovan ruling class wanted to become the seventh Yugoslav Republic (which would have given them a militia and a national bank). This was clearly a first step on the road to complete separation from Serbia. Kosovo also only had a 10% Serbian minority, some of whom now began to leave Kosovo. There were now mass Serbian demonstrations in the capital Kosovo Polje against “Kosovan oppression”. The fact that the Serbian ruling class has always claimed its historic roots lie on Kosovo made it easier for them to whip up Serbian nationalism. This posed a problem for the leaders of the Serbian Communist Party and the Yugoslav leadership. Milosevic, a long time Communist bureaucrat simply saw that it was the only way the old apparatus could hold onto power. By turning himself into the spokesman of Serbian nationalism he rapidly became the undisputed leader of Serbia. This however did not automatically mean the break-up of Yugoslavia. For that we have to look elsewhere.

Germany’s “Drang nach Osten”

To be precise we must look to Germany. Slovenia and Croatia, Yugoslavia’s two most northern republics, had always looked north ever since the days when both had been part of the Austrian Empire. The two richest provinces of Yugoslavia (and the ones which suffered the most from the collapse of Yugoslavia’s old markets) their rulers began to look for a way to break from Yugoslavia. It is no accident that they turned to Germany. In 1991 speaking German became fashionable in Slovenia as the Youth League proposed to fly Nazi symbols on Tito’s birthday (2).

During Slovenia’s ten day “war” with the Yugoslav Army (the JNA) Hans Dietrich Genscher, the then German Foreign Minister was in constant communication with the Slovene leaders. When the Slovenes attacked the JNA he took a train down to Ljubljana to denounce the atrocities of the JNA (who, held back by the Serbian leaders, had suffered the only losses!). This ensured that Britain and Italy also stepped in with their support and meant that Slovenia could happily leave the Yugoslav Federation. At this time the German Government of Chancellor Kohl was determined to reassert Germany’s place in Europe. Germany was the most powerful state in the new European Union which had just come into being in 1991. With re-unification with East Germany also completed the traditional German imperialist drang nach osten (drive to the East) could begin. The second beneficiaries of this new aggressiveness were the Croat nationalists. They were led by an ex-communist General Franjo Tudjman who had spent time in Yugoslav jails for supporting some aspects of the Croat fascist state created by the Nazis in World War Two. The Croatians had pushed for independence when they got the committed support of Germany, even though they had not made the necessary preparations for it.

In December 1991 when the Carrington peace plan to divide up Yugoslavia had every chance of success it was the intervention of the Kohl Government on behalf of Croatia which led to a renewal of hostilities. The Kohl Government now bounced the rest of the EU into recognising Croatia. At the EC Foreign Ministers meeting in December 1991 Carrington warned that:

If they recognised Croatia and Slovenia then they would have to ask all the others whether they wanted their independence. And that if they asked the Bosnians whether they wanted independence, they inevitably would have to say yes, and this would mean a civil war [in Bosnia].

Quoted in The Death of Yugoslavia, p.220

The British, whose public position was to maintain the integrity of Yugoslavia did not even send its Foreign Minister to the Brussels meeting to argue against the Germans and all the others folded to German pressure rather than see a split so early in the life of the EU. The EU Foreign Ministers followed the German diktat and Carrington’s prophecy was proved right. Any talk of foreign intervention in Yugoslavia to maintain peace was just so much lies. Now every step in the so-called peace process was a move amongst both the local and international gangsters as they manoeuvred in their own interests.

War Against the Working Class

With the declaration of Bosnian independence (in April 1992) the inevitable civil war that Carrington predicted began. It was war which was to claim 250,000 lives, the vast majority of them women and children. This is no small point. War is the ultimate attack of the bourgeoisie on the working class. Before this war was launched the Yugoslav working class was militantly fighting for its own living standards. The bourgeoisie had to find some way of disciplining the workers.

Nationalist ideology was at first surprisingly unsuccessful despite the nationalists’ control of the media. Workers never universally followed the flags of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. It was a conflict imposed upon them by a minority of ruling class politicians desperate to hang on to power. Young workers on all sides have evaded conscription in this Balkan War and some conflicts have been started only through the provocations of local politicians (it was some of Tudjman’s own ministers who had started the war in Slavonia. They had to personally carry out a mortar attack on the JNA barracks in Sisak since they could not find a Croat militia to do it for them). The local Croat police chief who tried to prevent their murderous intentions was himself later murdered. Whenever Yugoslavs have managed to talk to western newsmen away from the ears of the militia (of all sides) they have denounced the war and stated that it was being forced on them by the various ruling elites.

None of this is noted by our British Trotskyists groups. Obsessed with the formulae of their founder they search to find which side is the most progressive in the conflict. Some unreconstructed pseudo-Stalinists, like Socialist Outlook, conclude that we should support the Serbians because the attacks by the West on Serbia is the first line of attack on the USSR. No-one seems to have told them that they USSR no longer exists! Even groups which adopted a position that the war between Serbia and Croatia had got nothing to do with the working class revealed that this was not due to any working class standpoint. As soon as the war spread to Bosnia the likes of Workers Power abandoned their flimsy identification with the working class and called for support for Bosnia (on the dubious grounds that workers were still working together there.). What they did not see was that they were calling for support for Izetbegovic’s national state. This is already taking military action against its own working class and is ensuring that ethnic or religious differences are exploited to the full.

The class position is that in this era imperialism “the workers have no country”. The more the bourgeoisie everywhere tries to impose a nationalist agenda the more we have to assert the internationalist policy of the working class. The working class of South Slavdom have no interest in massacring each other in the name of some local warlord. They do have an interest in working together to overthrow the system which has spawned this disaster in the first place. Whilst a kind of peace may be imposed under the guns of 60,000 NATO troops the various national bourgeoisies and their imperialist backers will still be manoeuvring for maximum advantage. In doing so they will try to draw workers into their bloody conflicts by playing the nationalist card but as we have seen already the chief victims of the last four years fighting have been the working class. Do we need further evidence of the need for proletarian internationalism and an international party of the working class to unite our struggles?

Imperialism in the Balkans

1908: Austria declares Bosnia-Herzegovina part of its Empire to the fury of the Serbian monarchy. Russia opposed this but Germany supported Austria and the Russians were isolated.

1912: The First Balkan War

Egged on by Russia, the Balkan League (Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece against Turkey was founded. They fought to get the Turks out of Macedonia (virtually their last European possession). Turkey was defeated “a disaster for Austria-Hungary” (David Thomson). Albania came into existence on the demand of Austria and Britain by the Treaty of London

1913: The Second Balkan War

The Bulgarians were deprived of most of their gains in the First Balkan war when they were attacked by a combination of Greece, Serbia, Rumania. The Treaty of Bucharest meant that Bulgaria gave up land to all her neighbours. It drove Bulgaria into the German camp.

1914: June 28th The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Austrian throne) in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists demanding union with Bosnia. A month later Austria attacked Serbia with German support. Russia (supported by Britain and France) came to the aid of Serbia and the Third Balkan war became an outright imperialist war with all the Balkan states following their imperialist masters (Bulgaria and Turkey fought with Germany, Romania and Serbia with Russia).

1915: The secret Treaty of London offered Italy parts of the Dalmatian coast (now in Croatia) for joining the war against Austria.

1919: The establishment of Yugoslavia at the Peace of Paris under the Serbian Karadgeogevic dynasty. This became a monarchist dictatorship in 1929 tied to France and Britain.

1941: Germany invaded Yugoslavia and overran it in a fortnight. A puppet regime was set up in Croatia under the Ustashe (fascist) leader, Ante Pavelic. In occupied Serbia monarchists (Chetniks) fought Communists (partisans) as often as they did the Germans.

1944-5: The Red Army arrives in Yugoslavia allowing Tito (now backed by Britain too) to take over and establish the People’s Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.


(1) For our earlier analyses see back issues of Workers Voice (70 pence including p&p), in particular, issues number 78 and 79. The International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party to which the CWO is affiliated produced a second statement on the war after the NATO bombings in October. This is available from the group address (send SAE).

(2) The pop group Laibach (the German version of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia) who strutted on stage in Nazi uniforms became something of an icon for Slovenc nationalism at this period.

Friday, December 1, 1995

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