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Yugoslavia - Background to barbarism

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The war in what used to be Yugoslavia continues, bringing a daily toll of death and destruction, hundreds of thousands of refugees and the threat of an imperialist military intervention. But what is the war about? Paul Morris explains the changing aims of the participants, imperialism’s dilemma and the class issues at stake.

There is a famous Marx brothers’ movie, Duck Soup, in which Groucho leads a tinpot Balkan nation—Freedonia—into a surreal and senseless war. The western media have seized on this image to describe the current war in Yugoslavia.

The Duck Soup comparison has served a useful ideological purpose for the bosses. It portrays the war as incomprehensible, tragic, surreal and ultimately something for the civilised world to view through the other end of a camera.

It hides the fact the imperialist countries are gearing up for a military intervention. They have already assembled a multinational navy in the Adriatic. The crisis wracked semi-colonial countries and rival Stalinist states of the region are also gearing up for a war, should imperialism fail to impose its “new world order” in Yugoslavia.

It is vital that workers everywhere understand the Yugoslav conflict. Appalled at the savagery of inter-ethnic violence, we should not allow it to obscure where the real responsibility for the crisis lies, nor the class lines that are being drawn.


It was the “market socialist” strategy of the Titoite bureaucracy that gave impetus and a real economic basis to the resurgence of bourgeois nationalism in Slovenia and Croatia (see box). As the crisis of the Stalinist regime deepened it turned on national minorities such as the Albanians of Kosovo as scapegoats, subjecting them to an ever more systematic repression.

Then, faced with a massive strike wave in 1987-89 against the effects of the failure of “market socialism”, the ruling bureaucracy turned to nationalist demagogy, focusing the blame on the workers of rival republics, and in particular on the minorities within their own republic. Thus the reactionary projects of “Greater Serbia” and “Historic Croatia” were born, and secessionist war was inevitable.

Only if a truly internationalist working class party had been built in Yugoslavia could the present crisis have been averted. But instead the opposition to Stalinism was dominated by reactionary, religious and monarchist far-right organisations.

Once the collapse of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe began in earnest, in 1989, the way was open for nationalist demagogues in all of the Yugoslav republics to begin to put into practice their own particular “national” road to capitalist restoration.

It is important to remember, from the very outset, that this includes the government of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Milosevic, no less than Nazi-apologist Tudjman of Croatia, is a product of the restorationist wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Essentially Milosevic’s project was for a slow path to capitalist restoration and to prevent it taking the form of national fragmentation: not out of some remnant of internationalism, nor even a pragmatic desire for order, but because he realised that economically developed Slovenia and Croatia were being lined up as rich pickings for European imperialism. Under a restoration process which saw northern Yugoslavia rapidly assimilated into EC and Austrian imperialism, Serbia would be left to stagnate as a second rate semi-colony.

Though Milosevic’s strategy was reactionary, and has clearly failed, it was not altogether ill founded. For the best part of a year US, British and French imperialism based their own strategy for capitalist restoration on the maintenance of a Federal Yugoslavia. The openly restorationist Federal government of Ante Markevic was to play the role of a Gorbechev in their schema—balancing between the rump of Stalinist hardliners and the demands for nationalist separation.

Only German imperialism worked with an explicitly different strategy: the breakup of Yugoslavia and the incorporation of Slovenia and Croatia into an economic space dominated by Germany and its minor imperialist partner Austria. But it wanted to achieve this goal peacefully—not least because neither Germany nor Austria has the military power or the constitutional right to carry out foreign interventions independent of the more politically powerful imperialist countries.

Both utopias were cruelly shattered. After majority votes for independence in referenda, the Slovenian government of Lojze Peterle and Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian regime declared separation in June 1991.

After a short but intense military clash the Yugoslav Federal Army was effectively expelled from Slovenia by local militias. That was the signal for the start of a full scale military conflict between Serbia and Croatia.

The military aims of the Milosevic regime were never to reconquer and forcibly reintegrate the whole of Croatia and Slovenia. They were a redrawing of the Federal borders in order to encompass the large Serbian minority population within Croatia and to ensure Serbian access to vital trade routes like the Danube (in the battle for Vukovar) and the Adriatic Sea (in the battle for Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast).

In the Serbian dominated areas of Croatia, guerilla attacks on the Croatian police by right wing nationalist led Serbian irregular forces (the Chetniks), followed by Yugoslav Army intervention, drove out the Croat communities and armed the Serbian irregulars for systematic combat.

But the Serbian offensive also took on a more “regular” character where it involved the fight for strategic Croatian dominated towns like Vukovar, Vinkovci and Dubrovnik.

The war aims of the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army were completely reactionary. They constituted a violation of the democratic rights of the Croat minority in the Serbian areas and of the right of self determination of the Croat people.

But Croatia’s war aims were no less reactionary from the standpoint of the working class.

Tudjman, long before the war began, had managed to drive the Serbian population of Croatia’s border regions into the hands of Serb nationalists with his virulent attacks on them, denying them minority rights.

Tudjman referred to the war years, when the Croatian nationalist Ustase movement collaborated with the Nazi occupation forces, as “an expression of Croat aspirations”. His war aims too were expansionist and pogromist, his nationalism encouraging the growth of Croatian fascist militias. Every objective account of the Serbo-Croat war reveals that atrocities were carried out systematically on both sides.


The fact that the whole war was fought out on Croatian territory did not mean that revolutionaries had to side with Croatia. Neither did the slow restorationist policy of Milosevic mean workers had to side with Serbia against the fast-track restorationist Tudjman regime.

It was a war in which the workers should have taken no side. The workers should have struggled to carry on the class struggle against their own rulers regardless of the consequences for the war effort Their aim should have been to turn the reactionary nationalist war into a class war, preserving the remnants of post-capitalist property relations and launching the struggle for a socialist solution to the crisis.

Does that mean workers had no right to defend themselves against the atrocities on both sides? No. The revolutionary socialist answer to this situation is to fight for the right of self-defence for civilian populations under attack or threat of pogrom. Wherever possible we fight for unified, multi-national militias to do this. Where it is necessary to make a limited bloc for self defence with the armed forces or irregulars this has to limited purely to the defence of the community itself and not to the wider military aims and pogroming of the armed forces of both sides.


Revolutionary defeatism in the Serb-Croat war was far from a utopian goal. In July 1991 the Bosnian capital Sarajevo—then still at peace and part of the Serb-dominated rump Federation—witnessed a mass demonstration of 100,000 workers, led by soldiers’ mothers, in the so-called insurrection for peace.

The war remained deeply unpopular in Serbia itself. Raw conscripts were sent to the front, led by reservist officers, while the military bureaucrats remained in the rear. By December 1991 an estimated 50% of reservists had failed to respond to the call up. In the capital Belgrade it was as high as 85%.

In Kosieric, in eastern Serbia, 200 conscript soldiers staged a protest at the fact that only working class and peasant youth were being sent to the fighting. They deposed the town council, elected their own reservist officer as mayor and demanded the resignation of the Defence Minister, holding the town for two days until the threat of army intervention forced a climbdown.

The failure of the sporadic soldiers’ protests, and Milosevic’s ability to repress and discredit the nationalist opposition, ensured a reactionary outcome to the first phase of fighting between Serbia and Croatia.

In January 1992 the EC sponsored 15th ceasefire led to a qualitative lessening of the intensity of the conflict in Croatia, in effect bringing to a close the war for the Serbian enclaves in Croatia with a military and political victory for Serbia, for the moment policed and guaranteed by UN ceasefire observers.

But in Belgrade the anti-war opposition continues to grow. In June a students’ strike and sit down protest against the war swelled to 20,000 strong and sparked a sympathy strike of higher education workers.

However the anti-war movement is beset by political misleadership. In Belgrade it is dominated by the Serbian nationalist opposition, supporters of Vuk Draskovic’s Movement for Serb Renewal. Draskovic is a fast-track restorationist and a supporter of the Greater Serbia project, but he wants to get it through negotiations and imperialist brokerage rather than war.

In Sarajevo, the spontaneous pacifism of the mass demonstrations has brought to the fore peace movement activists who see sanctions against Serbia and, if necessary, UN intervention as the only hope for an end to the bloodletting.


It is not certain whether there was direct collusion between Milosevic and Tudjman, but certainly secret meetings were held to discuss the “exchange of territories”. This meant the turn to military conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a republic where Muslim, Serb and Croat minorities were massively intermingled.

Despite the intermixed character of its population, and the fact that there is as a result no Bosnian-Herzegovinian nation, this republic too had started out on a “national independent” road to capitalist restoration analogous to the Croatian and Slovenian examples.

Urged on by the EC and the US, the Bosnian Muslim leadership of Alia Itzetbegovic attempted to impose independence on the 32% Serb minority of the republic through a bogus referendum which the Serbian population totally boycotted. In February 1992 Bosnia declared its independence from the Yugoslav Federation, handing Milosevic and Tudjman the excuse to launch the war to partition Bosnia.

In response to the declaration of Bosnian independence Serbian nationalists declared the “Serbian Republic of Bosnia” and launched the war whose military and political aims have become clearer as Serbian military victories have accumulated.

The whole of Eastern Bosnia is now virtually under Serb control, and is ripe for incorporation into a Greater Serbia. The inconvenience of large enclaves of Muslims meant that this Bosnian Serb republic could only be achieved by the driving out of large Muslim populations and the siege of large towns like Sarajevo and Gorazde.

At the same time, adding circumstantial evidence to the assertion that Serbia and Croatia struck a deal to partition Bosnia, the Croatian forces have massed in the south-west of the republic. They have brought into existence the Croat dominated “Republic of Herceg Bosna”—another fragment of Bosnia-Herzegovina ripe for incorporation into a Tudjman’s “Historic Croatia”. Already the Croatian military is constructing a road to link its new acquisition to the Croatian port of Split, via formerly impassible mountains.

Effectively Bosnia has been carved up between Serbia and Croatia. Only two small areas plus the capital Sarajevo remain under Muslim or multi-ethnic militia control. (See map)


This outcome of the second phase of the fighting, if it solidifies, will be another blow to the plans of imperialism.

Brokered by the US, imperialism’s solution to the Serb-Croat conflict was to create a buffer zone in Bosnia, proposing the “cantonisation” of the republic into ethnically autonomous communities. This provided an imperialist sponsored recipe for “ethnic cleansing”, but it was designed to maintain Bosnia’s borders as a republic and to maintain the Sarajevo regime as a diplomatic counterweight to Tudjman and Milosevic.

Now, with the exception of the battle for Sarajevo, analysts expect the Bosnian conflict to peter out as both Serbia and Croatia attain their expansionist aims.

In the meantime we have seen a marked shift in the strategy of the various imperialisms. In order to encourage the Slovene and Croat breakaways German imperialism surreptitiously armed the Croats and precipitated their recognition by the EC by unilaterally recognising these states even before the planned date of 15 January 1992.

Up to June 1991 the US, British and French imperialisms tried hard to preserve the Yugoslav Federation.

Now German imperialist strategy has triumphed, in the face of Milosevic’s intransigence in fighting to construct not a united Yugoslavia but a rump Greater Serbian state committed to a snails’ pace economic restoration process. US imperialism now realises that it must abandon the idea of the Yugoslav Federation as the vehicle for an orderly restoration process, and attempt to salvage what it can from the disorder which now reigns.

But the swing towards the German strategy has created new divisions amongst the imperialists about how far to get militarily involved.

The change in US policy has been the most dramatic. From advising against early recognition of Croatia it swung in March towards a policy of “collective engagement”: joint action with the EC and the UN to impose the new world order on the Balkans. In June it demanded, but failed to achieve, UN permission to back up economic sanctions with military force.

In July French imperialism suddenly and unilatarally adopted a forward interventionist stance, sending in first Mitterand, then a detachment of military helicopters to Sarajevo.

Later in the same month the German parliament voted to send warships and surveillance aircraft to the Adriatic to assist the build up of EC military forces there, an unprecedented move for post-war German imperialism, whose constitution limits the role of the Bundeswehr to defence.

Britain by contrast remains the least enthusiastic about military intervention, insisting that effective intervention would bog down hundreds of thousands of troops and squander countless millions of pounds.

Meanwhile the UN, whose bureaucracy is facing huge deficits due to the failure of US and other imperialisms to meet their financial obligations, has begun to complain about the over commitment of its multinational blue beret forces to the region.

At present therefore co-ordinated imperialist intervention is limited to economic sanctions and the assembly of forces for a potential naval blockade against Serbia.

Military intervention could come in the form of an isolated and unilateral action by France, or from a co-ordinated US led attack—both of which would probably centre on Sarajevo.

It is important to understand that this might not immediately take the form of all out war.

The Serbian journalist Milos Vasic spelled out one likely course of events:

“The pressure points for likely action will be Dubrovnik and Sarajevo. The first move will be an attempt to transport food and medical aid to Sarajevo airport . . . Should Mladic’s crowd on the hills be tempted [i.e. should the Serbian irregulars attack the planes - WP] the answer would be quick and firm. Protected by electronic countermeasures fighter planes would strike positions of the territorial defence of the “Serbian Republic of B-H”. Then the question would be asked discreetly, is that enough?”

Precisely because of the difficulty of an imperialist imposed solution without the collaboration of Serbia, the imperialists are at present wary of an all out intervention. It carries enormous financial and political risks for the imperialist governments.

So in the absence of an all out intervention the imperialists will have to live with a divided Bosnia. The limited actions around Sarajevo described above could either serve as the prelude for further involvement or the start of a negotiating process with Serbia which would close this second round of the armed redivision of Yugoslavia.


At present the war in Bosnia has a reactionary character exactly like that of the Serbo-Croat war in Croatia. All the war aims of the opposing forces involve annexation, the oppression of minority populations and the restoration of capitalism. They have set worker against worker, deflecting from the economic struggles which, as late as last September in Bosnia, were reaching mass proportions.

The UN forces guaranteeing the ceasefire in Croatia and purportedly providing protection for “humanitarian aid” in Sarajevo are in fact the advance guard of imperialist intervention.

They are not there to provide aid but to oversee a reactionary solution to the conflict. That is why we call for their immediate withdrawal.

At present, whilst there is no systematic military conflict between these troops and Serbia we should not let any sporadic military clashes alter the Marxist characterisation of the war.

However, if imperialist forces intervene in Bosnia in force, waging all out war to crush the Serbian armed forces and ultimately to overthrow planned property relations in Serbia, or to submit Bosnian Serbs to a Muslim-Croat regime, then workers would have to rally to the defence of Serbia.

Serb resistance to this onslaught would take on the character of a legitimate anti-imperialist defence of the remains of a workers’ state and defence of democratic national rights. In a war between Serbia and imperialism revolutionary socialists give full military support to Serbia and seek to hamper the imperialist war effort through class struggle.

At the same time we have to fight to dissuade Croat and Muslim workers from tying their fate to an imperialist intervention. If Croatia or the Bosnian government join an imperialist backed onslaught against Serbia, then we would abandon the position of “defeat on all sides” in favour of the military victory of Serbia against these countries.

We would support the Serbian side in this war despite the presence of Chetnik fascist irregulars on the same side. At the same time we would fight for Serbian workers to overthrow the Milosevic regime and prevent the defeat of imperialism turning into an orgy of oppression against the populations of its allies.


The current conflict and the further disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation will produce new tensions and new alignments throughout the Balkan region, potentially even drawing Albania, Greece and Bulgaria into war. At present it is impossible to predict the exact course of events.

Like Trotsky on the eve of the Second World War, we can say that it is not certain which side various competing states will take. It is even possible that an escalating Balkan conflict will open deeper cracks in the imperialist alliance.

The only certainty is that, without a fight for a revolutionary working class solution, ultimately expressed in the slogan of the Socialist Federation of the Balkans, the peoples of the entire region will be condemned to years of war and poverty.