Category Archives: former Yugoslavia

No top and no bottom

1. I agree with Vladimir Putin, up to a point

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

It’s the way he tells ‘em.

To be fair, Putin’s address to the American people did make some good points, in particular this one:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

I liked his conclusion, too:

I would rather disagree with a case [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.

In passing, I was amused to see that this last glimpse of the blindingly obvious had annoyed Thomas Friedman. Who does this so-called President Putin think he is, making out that America isn’t the greatest goddamn country on earth?

2. Inter arma enim silent leges, only not just yet

But is the man from the KGB really standing up for international law – and what does it actually say about Syria? This is a bit less of a live issue, thankfully, than it was before the rush to war was stopped in its tracks (well done that weakling!). The UK government’s case for intervention, set out by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, rested on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. The argument was that it would be permissible under international law for the UK (or, presumably, any other state) “to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime”. Such an intervention would be legal under three conditions:

That there is “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”; it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and the proposed use of force is “proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need”.

In response, Dapo Akande of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict pointed out that neither the second nor the third condition had been met. The third was particularly hard to get past:

“Even if there is a rule allowing intervention to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that rule would not simply permit action to deter and disrupt use of chemical weapons,” Akande said. “This standard is too lax. It would be a rule about preventing and about stopping. The UK is not proposing to take action which will actually prevent or stop further uses of chemical weapons.”

Unless, of course, what the UK government was planning was to carry on bombing until every last chemical weapon in Syria had been put beyond use; we’ll never know. It’s probably just as well.

Akande also made a broader point, which is that the idea of legality invoked by Grieve is rather a provisional thing. To the extent that it’s codified in any way, international law provides for military action in self-defence, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution and, er, that’s it. What Grieve is referring to is the informal or ‘customary’ international law which is constituted from year to year by what states actually do.

when the attorney general’s advice says international law allows Britain to take measures to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe without security council approval, this can only be in reference to customary international law which is based on the “views and practices of states”. [Akande] said there is “very little evidence of state support for this view. Indeed most states have explicitly rejected this view.”

3. Better not ask them to split the bill

The BBC canvassed opinions from Akande and four other lawyers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Professor Dr Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg) as well as the political analysts Dmitry Babich and Sinan Ulgen. Their views stacked up as follows. There were five key issues: the role of the UN, including but not limited to the UN Security Council; the legality of “humanitarian” interventions; the legality of past interventions in Iraq and Kosovo; the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in the case of crimes against humanity; and the appropriate response to breaches of the ban on chemical weapons.

ROBERTSON: Intervention to prevent crimes against humanity – such as the use of banned chemical weapons – does not require UN Security Council approval; the legality of humanitarian intervention was established even before the UN was founded, in the context of actions against piracy and slavery. The intervention in Kosovo was not condemned by the UN Security Council, making it legitimate.

SKOGLY: Normally, any intervention needs to be approved by the UN Security Council. However, the legality of humanitarian intervention is a separate question. UN member states have a duty to promote human rights; consequently, if the regime has used chemical weapons, they have committed crimes against humanity. This means that UN member states are obliged to act on the basis of the responsibility to protect.

McCORQUODALE: Military action must be approved by the UN Security Council; failure to gain this approval means that the Iraq intervention is considered illegal. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, or on the basis of the responsibility to protect, is not lawful in terms of international law, although it may be in future.

AKANDE: The principle of responsibility to protect “does not create a legal right for intervention without Security Council approval”. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention rest on “a view of international law that has been rejected by most states”. (The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while not approved by the UN Security Council, was in pursuit of demands made by the UNSC.) A General Assembly resolution might be a possibility, but permanent members of the UNSC are unlikely to offer the GA that kind of authority.

HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG: In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, intervention could only be justified on the basis of “customary international law”. The US and allies acted on this basis in their humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, although many states still regard this intervention as illegal. International treaties outlaw chemical weapons but do not provide for military intervention in response to their use. Some states currently turn a blind eye to limited action against chemical weapons, but this may change.

BABICH: Although the US might cite chemical weapons as a justification, UN Security Council approval is essential to make any intervention legal. Iraq and Kosovo didn’t have UN approval and were therefore illegal. And let’s not forget that they never found any chemical weapons in Iraq.

ULGEN: Only action approved by the UN Security Council would have “full legitimacy”. An alternative would be to try to get a resolution passed by the General Assembly. Other possibilities, outside the UN framework, include the responsibility to protect principle (invoked successfully in Kosovo) and international law banning chemical weapons, going back to the 1925 Geneva Convention.

4. At the shatterproof heart of the matter

So what does that lot add up to? For McCorquodale, Akande and Heintschel von Heinegg (three of the five lawyers), as well as Babich, the lack of UN approval makes intervention illegal. At the same time, all three lawyers acknowledge that international law changes over time and that customary international law may, arguably, give support to actions which are formally illegal. In this respect they contrast the Syrian situation unfavourably with Kosovo, although it’s a question of degree: none of them goes so far as to assert that the Kosovo intervention was legal. They also note, as does Babich, that customary international law is contested: one state’s customary international law may be another state’s illegal aggression.

Robertson dismisses the idea that UN approval is needed before military action can be taken. He argues that humanitarian intervention is legitimate, and that it’s legal under international law unless and until it’s ruled to have been illegal. Robertson’s invocation of piracy in this context is odd; action against piracy was justified historically on the basis that pirates were hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind and outside the protection of any nation. Robertson also refers to slavery, which seems more relevant: British actions in suppressing the slave trade – such as detaining slave ships and offering the slaves their freedom – could certainly be seen as outside the law, and did cause international incidents. However, these were at worst acts of unlawful expropriation, for which the slaveowners and their governments could (and did) ask for redress. Any parallel with the proposal to ‘free’ the people of Syria from the use of chemical weapons through outright acts of war is stretched in the extreme. Skogly and Ulgen both argue that the responsibility to protect could justify intervention, although Ulgen does acknowledge that this would be outside the UN framework. Skogly goes so far as to argue that “responsibility to protect” makes intervention obligatory, although she avoids stating outright that it would be legal.

Four of the experts refer to the “responsibility to protect” principle; only Akande notes, correctly, that it supplies a reason for intervention rather than a separate justification, and does not justify action by individual states outside the UN Security Council framework. (McCorquodale says that a state-level “responsibility to protect” would not make intervention lawful; Skogly and Ulgen both suggest that it would.) Another word worth watching is “legitimate”, a particularly slippery concept in this context (and only used by Robertson and Ulgen out of our experts). “Legitimate” doesn’t have a precise definition, but I’m taking it to mean “of uncertain legality, but unlikely to be challenged”. Of course, this is a fundamentally political judgment, as it depends on what you regard as a challenge: a nasty comment on Voice of Russia? a formal diplomatic rebuke? a referral to the International Court of Justice? (Or, if you’re a Republican President, none of the above?)

Having picked my way through all these different opinions, I think things ultimately are as simple as Babich makes them seem. The putative legal justification for an intervention has been variously rested on the 1925 Geneva Protocal banning chemical weapons (which doesn’t justify intervention), on the doctrine of preventing crimes against humanity (which is purely customary) or on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (which is codified, but doesn’t justify intervention outside the UN Security Council framework). In short, there’s nothing there, unless you define ‘international law’ as ‘what states do and then claim to be legal’ – and that’s not really satisfactory if the reason you’re invoking international law is to justify your state doing something and then claiming it to be legal. In this ‘customary’ perspective, international law (like reality) really is “what you can get away with“. This approach may work for a while if, like the USA, you’re one of those states that tends to get away with things (Britain historically isn’t, to its credit). But it’s not a principle that could ever coherently be generalised – which may be why, as Akande says, most states don’t want it to be. Remove this impossible option – of a kind of informal international legal order built on generalised lawlessness – and we’re left, as Putin effectively said, with a choice between international law and exceptionalism: either the law applies to everyone, or we maintain that it doesn’t apply to us because we say so.

This isn’t to say that there will never be an international mechanism for intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis, or that the ‘responsibility to protect’ will always be subject to agreement at the level of the UN Security Council. International law can and does change. But it hasn’t changed yet – not in the way that the interventionists would have liked.

5. Hark, now the drums they beat again

I think the failure (legal as well as political) of the arguments for intervention is significant – and very welcome, if that doesn’t go without saying. It should, hopefully, set an enduring precedent.

I have some sympathy for the people who say

it cannot be the case that [Security Council authorisation] is the only way to have a legal basis for action … We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. …That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention

or

a system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable; and so where the UN itself becomes delinquent by not upholding some of its own most fundamental principles, the UN not only may, it should, be defied by member states willing to give those principles more respect.

or, more succinctly,

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal … If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’.

(James Bloodworth, David Cameron, Norman Geras. Not necessarily in that order.)

I don’t agree with them, because I believe they’re missing two very important points. One is that legality – even the cobbled-together legality represented by international law – is a virtue in itself, and an extraordinarily important virtue. If the legal system of England and Wales governs 56 million individual actors, the international legal order governs 200 (give or take a few). If a handful out of 56 million actors defect from an agreement, they’re in trouble; if a handful out of 200 defect, the agreement is in trouble. An action in breach of international law isn’t simply an action with the quality of not being internationally legal  – it’s an action which breaches international law, leaves a (customary) breach in it. In other words, it’s an action which makes international law harder to invoke from then on, and harder to develop further. (Let’s say we hope to gain Russian and/or Chinese agreement to the principle of “responsibility to protect”. Would acting unilaterally now make gaining this agreement in future (a) easier or (b) harder?)

Pace James B, if military action against Assad (or anyone else) is illegal, that must be the case regardless of whether or not it’s morally justified – or, to put it another way, regardless of how much we may want it to be legal. And if you’re going to use your moral justification to knock a hole in the – already horribly imperfect – edifice of actually existing international law, it’s going to need to be a very good moral justification. Which brings me to the second point, touched on by Akande. Politically, the great merit of a rush to war is that it gets you into the war nice and quickly, without too much time to sit around debating the whys and wherefores. Conversely, one of the great merits of insisting on legality – at least, insisting on stopping for long enough to have the argument about legality – is that it creates a pause in the rush to war, in which there’s time to ask the awkward questions: in particular, what is the government trying to achieve, and has it chosen the best means to do it? Fortunately – and thanks to some excellent political footwork from Ed Miliband – there’s been a long enough pause for those questions to be asked; I think it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that the UK (and US) government’s goal was all too unclear, and the means chosen seemed likely to be horribly counter-productive. But it was a close thing.

Too often, when the drums start beating, the appropriateness of military force goes unquestioned, even by people who position themselves on the Left. But if all your solutions look like craters, I think you need to ask yourself why you believe that all your tools are missiles.

Ciao, Ceausescu

It may be worth noting that La Repubblica appears to have just called Berlusconi a dictator:

An empty regime by Ezio Mauro

Unable to save Italy, they’re trying desperately to save themselves. This is all that’s left of the titanic force of Berlusconism, the “liberal revolution”, the government of “getting things done”, the Lega’s wind from the North. A terrified political class, afraid even to show their faces to their own supporters, unable to manage the crisis and now unable to come up with the solutions in government which the country needs.

The only solution offered is a cut-price agreement, inadequate at best and probably useless, which they hope will distract Europe’s attention for long enough to offer some breathing space for the shared desperation of Bossi and Berlusconi, shut away in government offices that have turned into their last bunker.

Both the effective leaders of Europe (Sarkozy/Merkel) and the formal leadership (Van Rompuy and Barroso) told Berlusconi that he had three days to pass the necessary measures to get Italy out of the Greek circle of Hell. The Prime Minister agreed. Then, back in Italy, he had to deal with the brick wall of the Lega Nord; with open crisis in his own party and in Bossi’s; with the ungovernability of his parliamentary majority; and with the self-evident exhaustion of his own leadership and its total loss of authority.

He should resign, allowing the country to try and save itself while there is still time. But he is no statesman; he sees his own personal fate as more pressing than the fate of Italy. He is locked into a political death-agony like something from the last days of the Christiam Democrat empire*, which may end up producing a lowest-common-denominator agreement, but can no longer produce either a political programme or a government. Europe and the markets will pass judgment on this utter lack of responsibility. We should also take note: governments regularly fall when their political time is up, but regimes can never find a way to end**.

* un’agonia democristiana, da tardo impero
**mentre i governi cadono regolarmente quando una fase politica si esaurisce, solo i regimi non sanno finire

The key word is ‘regime’: this is strong stuff in the Italian context, as it specifically refers to non-democratic regimes – whether Communist or, er, what was the other one…

I’ve got a piece in the next issue of the Bulletin of Italian Politics about ‘the Italian transition’: the idea that the period since 1993 has been a period of transition from the Christian Democrat-dominated First Republic to some new and more politically ‘normal’ settlement, featuring (among other things) Left and Right parties which can change places in government without bringing the entire system into crisis. Against this idea, many people argue that 18 years (and counting) is a bit on the long side for a period of transition; maybe this is the Second Republic and we (or rather the Italians) are stuck with it. I think the extraordinary fragility and turbulence of the current Berlusconi government, which itself derives from the steady erosion of his original centre-Right coalition, tells against this; we’re clearly not there yet, as there’s no ‘there’ here. In the paper I suggest that, rather than compressing the period of transition, we should extend it: the real ‘transition’ is the transition from Fascism to democracy, which stalled in 1948 with the imposition of Christian Democratic hegemony, stuttered into life again around 1993 and then ground to a halt again under Signor B.

Fascism has never quite been forgotten in Italy; the Republic was built on massacres by Fascists and massacres of Fascists. This is not to say that Italian politics is riven with anti-Fascist and anti-Communist passions; on the contrary, the strongest and most widely-shared passion is the passion for centrism, the dream of being a normal European country without any ‘opposed extremisms’. But this means that the one essential requirement for an Italian leader is the ability to put the Fascist past decisively behind him or her, to lead a governo and not a regime. La Repubblica is a centre-Left paper, generally more ‘centre’ than ‘Left’; its writers share that passion for normality, and the underlying passion for avoiding civil war. As a result they generally give the government – any government – the benefit of the doubt; a typical Repubblica editorial will urge the government to be more responsible and moderate, even when it’s clear that they’re committed to being anything but.

No longer: the paper’s served notice on Berlusconi that he is the problem. He must go, and soon.

Everything you stand for

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone being left wing when young and becoming more right wing as they get older. What’s strange about the RCP, though, is the way the group seems to have moved together

From Jenny Turner’s terrific piece on the Institute of Ideas and its siblings and precursors.

What’s particularly good about this article, apart from its length and thoroughness, is its open-endedness: the title is “Who are they?”, and this question – like the related question “what are they doing?” – is never really answered other than descriptively. Turner’s conclusion gestures towards the idea that the ex-RCP network might be keeping its powder dry for the coming upsurge in class struggle, but her heart isn’t really in it. More typical is her remark that “it isn’t clear what the Continuity RCP is after, except that someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up”.

I seem to have jumped the gun on anecdotes involving the RCP, but don’t worry, I’ve got more. One more, at least. In 1993 or thereabouts, I was in London on an assertiveness training course. I was on my way back to my hotel when a Living Marxism seller made the mistake of approaching me. Usually I would just walk straight past, but that night I said No, thankyou!, quite loudly and distinctly. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when the guy called after me, “Why not?”. I stopped and spun round. Why not? Because you’re a bunch of fucking fascists, that’s why not! (This language is of course aggressive rather than assertive, and is not recommended in a workplace scenario; the poor guy would have been well within his rights if he’d told me that he had an issue with the way I addressed him. He didn’t, though.)

They do consistently tend to rouse strong feelings, the RCP – never more so than in that period, when Bosnia had substantial parts of the Left feeling fairly aggrieved with one another. But “fascists”? Not really. It would have been true to say that I felt an absolute enmity towards the RCP, more than I did towards Labour or even the Tories – or anyone else except the fash – but that’s not quite the same thing. Turner again:

‘RCP members were the first to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of a Serb concentration camp in Bosnia,’ Nick Cohen wrote in 2006. Neo-Nazis? Really? ‘Living Marxism’s attempts to rewrite the history of the camps,’ Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2000, ‘was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps.’ How could he possibly know that?

It’s a point that needed making. They’re not fascists; in many ways they’re quite recognisable revolutionary socialists. The contrarianism, and the dogged rationalism that backs it up, aren’t at all unusual – back in the eighties any socialist worth their salt could explain at some length how it was that the Labour Party were the real class enemy, the British Army in the North of Ireland were the real terrorists, or whatever. Also very familiar is the stultifying fakery that comes of combining front work with cadre organisation:

These days, IoI bods look like delegates at a Unison conference, or the seekers who gather at Landmark seminars and the Alpha Course. The ones who make the speeches are mostly white and in their thirties and forties (the volunteers on the cameras and boom-mikes are younger and more diverse). They’re more relaxed than they used to be, less aggressive and overtly controlling, but they still have a habit of sitting on panels together, pretending they don’t already know each other, and they still dominate meetings with tedious, well-rehearsed spontaneous interventions.

I’ve noticed something similar from SWP members, some of whom seem to have taken a vow never to mention the party itself – even when the conversation turns to Martin Smith (of Unite Against Fascism), Weyman Bennett (of Love Music Hate Racism) or Marxism 2010 (“great speakers, great workshops, have you thought of going?”).

What’s not clear is why the RCP have ended up staking out this weird business-friendly anti-green smug-libertarian corner – or, for that matter, why they went quite so heavily for the pro-Serb (or anti-anti-Serb) cause in the 90s. I don’t believe they’re provocateurs in any straightforward sense, but their psychological makeup does seem to include a love of the wind-up – a sense that getting a reaction is an end in itself.

The magazine’s Bosnia coverage had a very odd tone, cold and flippant and a bit sarcastic. The July 1992 edition had Serbia on the cover, described as the ‘WHITE NIGGERS’ of the New World Order. ‘The world’s media have invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia,’ Furedi wrote, under his own name, a couple of months later. ‘It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry in Belgrade.’ LM was perhaps trying to counteract the ‘very one-sided, anti-Serb’ gushiness it objected to in ‘the liberal media’ but the effect is not cool, disciplined, objective – it’s just mean.

Put it another way. Suppose you were accused of denying that a prison camp known to be a place where people were brutalised and murdered was really as bad as all that. You probably wouldn’t set up a libel defence campaign and advertise it with a picture of the barbed wire that caused all the trouble in the first place. You probably wouldn’t call it ‘Off the Fence’.

Their more recent angles – denying global warming, denouncing anti-racism – are perhaps a milder form of the same kind of shock tactics; they’re certainly aimed at shocking the same kind of people. It’s not, to put it mildly, the way political groups generally make propaganda. It’s more like a particularly dedicated satirist, trying to identify the few kindred souls who get it by setting out to offend almost – but not quite – everyone in the audience.

So what is it all about? Back in 2003, Jamie suggested that this might be what you get if you keep the vanguard role going (with its contrarian and rationalist presumptions) but quietly lose the revolutionary politics that gave it its point:

Their oppositionism has been the one constant thing about them. Yet it does seem to have led over the years to a kind of surreptitious hankering after nihilism, expressed at one level by their eager apologetics for genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda and on another by their inability to avoid mechanical sneering at any social or political phenomena. In theory, they are apparently in favour of confident humanity making choices. A glance at Spiked tells you that they can find nothing good to say about the choices humans make. The whole site reads like the effusions of the snottiest 14 year old in the grammar school playground. This is apparently where vanguardism for its own sake leads.

Or perhaps they run campaigns and hold conferences and issue press releases because it’s what they’re used to doing – someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up – and their pro-corporate evolution is just a kind of tropism towards a guaranteed source of funding.

Anyway, read the article. Jamie’s post about it is also well worth a look, particularly the comments thread.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo

Written for the Socialist Society, 1992-3.

At present everyone from Baroness Thatcher to Socialist Outlook seems to agree on the subject of Serbia. Serbia has caused the break-up of Yugoslavia; Serb forces are committing war crimes in Bosnia; Serbia must be punished. Some socialists have put forward a dissenting view. Serbia, the last remnant of Yugoslavia, is a socialist state; the Serbs have legitimate grievances; in any case, Serbia is not solely responsible for the carnage in Bosnia. Through analysis of current events and the history which lies behind them, I intend to show that the “dissenting” arguments are both factually and politically wrong. I shall also examine the main objections to the “consensus” perspective and propose some priorities for the current situation.

Prehistory: Yugoslavia before 1945

The first state called Yugoslavia was created in 1919: a unitary state with strong continuities with the pre-war state of Serbia. Serb domination was pronounced, especially after parliament was suspended in 1929. The Cyrillic alphabet, used by Serbs and not Croats, was imposed throughout the country; the people of Macedonia and Montenegro were renamed as “south Serbs” and “coastal Serbs” respectively. (Compare the Turkish government’s designation of the Kurds as “mountain Turks”).

In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis. A Serbian and a Croatian state were set up. The Independent State of Croatia or NDH, ruled by Ante Pavelic’s clerical-fascist Ustasha forces, is rightly notorious. The Ustashe, who numbered perhaps three hundred in total, were given charge of all the territory inhabited by Croats, including the whole of present-day Bosnia. This territory they undertook to cleanse of non-Croats – Serbs and, secondarily, Jews – by a systematic combination of forcible conversion to Catholicism, expulsion and murder. The extent and ferocity of the Ustasha’s anti-Serbian atrocities shocked observers from the SS; the massacres were halted by the Italian Fascists.

Serbs were the largest nationality among the Partisans, who were organised throughout Yugoslavia and on a multi-ethnic basis. The other main resistance force was a Serbian royalist organisation, the Chetniks; the name was taken from a military corps active before the First World War in the conquest of the province of Kosovo, who were noted for their savagery towards the area’s Albanian population. The Chetniks withdrew from anti-Nazi operations after a reprisals order was issued by Hitler; instead they concentrated their efforts on non-Serbian groups, whom they accused of betraying Serbia. Their targets included the Partisans, against whom they co-operated with the collaborationist State of Serbia and even, in 1942, the Ustasha. The war left a legacy of ethnic bitterness which has never dissipated.

Federal unity, 1945-1987

Post-1945 Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) plus the “autonomous provinces” of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The latter were a means of representing national minorities within Serbia. The majority population of Vojvodina is composed of Magyars and Romanians; the Albanians of Kosovo, for their part, were by 1990 the fourth most numerous nationality in the federation. The federal Presidency had eight members, one from each republic or province; the role of President (and hence the casting vote) was rotated annually between the eight.

The internal boundaries of post-war Yugoslavia were drawn so as to favour self-determination for national and sub-national, rather than supra-national (pan-Serb or pan-Croat) groups. State unity would complement national plurality: a double emphasis which served to legitimate both the republican governments and the Communist Party. However, the appeal to ethnicity brought its own problems. Apart from the Slovenes, none of the recognised national groups was confined to one republic, or formed a conclusive majority of the population within it. Both points apply with particular force to Serbia. Of all groups, Serbs were most widely spread through the federation; of all republics, Serbia had the largest number of different national minorities.

“Srbija je ustala”: 1987-1991

Throughout the 1980s Serbian national anxiety mounted, particularly with regard to Kosovo, historically regarded as the “cradle” of the Serbs. Demonstrations demanding republic status for Kosovo were violently suppressed. An open letter issued in 1986 accused Kosovar Albanians of deliberately outbreeding Serbs and alleged “genocide” of Serbs within Kosovo, a claim for which no evidence existed. The letter was signed by members of the Belgrade dissident milieu, including the writer Dobrica Cosic (who was president of the rump federation of Serbia and Montenegro until he was ousted by Milosevic supporters in 1993).

In 1987 Slobodan Milosevic took power within the Serbian Communist Party on an aggressive nationalist programme. The Party and the press were subjected to tight control. In 1989 Milosevic forced the resignation of the Communist Party leaderships of Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro and their replacement by his allies. This manoeuvre represented a redefinition of Serbia along ethnic Serb lines; it also gave Serbia four of the eight votes on the federal presidency. A cult of personality developed around Milosevic, seen as the saviour of the Serbian people.

In 1990 Croatia’s first multi-party elections were won by the main right-wing nationalist force, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Tudjman called for Croatia to have greater autonomy within the federation. In reaction Serb militias seized control of border areas and cut road links to the rest of Croatia. Croat nationalism had been dormant since a liberal nationalist movement was suppressed by the federal government in the 1970s; now it had revived in response to its Serb mirror image. Misha Glenny witnessed two crowds, one Serb, one Croat, chanting identical slogans. “Serbia has risen”: “Srbija je ustala”. “Croatia has risen”: “Hrvatska je ustala”.

The Milosevic regime had given Serbia a hegemonic position within Yugoslavia and imposed an ethnic Serb definition of Serbia. The rest of the federation was left in little doubt of Milosevic’s ultimate goal: a new Yugoslavia, remade along pan-Serb lines. Milosevic was supported by Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia and Croatia, which were being supplied with weaponry by the Yugoslav Army (JNA). In a vote on secession following Bosnia’s first multi-party elections Bosnian Serb representatives abstained en masse. Throughout the federation, Serb political leaders rejected the authority of any republic but Serbia, while at the same time proclaiming their loyalty to the federal government. It is against this background that the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and finally Bosnia can be understood.

Independence and war, 1991-

After Croatia’s secession, Croatian Serb militias rebelled once more. Their efforts were now directed less against the centre and more against Croats living in Serb-dominated areas. Local Croat forces responded in kind. At the same time, the Yugoslav Army (JNA) invaded Croatia and Slovenia, ostensibly to preserve the unity of the federation; the main effect was to give JNA firepower to Serb militias in Croatia. The (Croatian) President of Yugoslavia ordered the army to withdraw, to no effect. The four Serbian and Montenegrin members of the federal presidency subsequently expelled the members representing the republics which had seceded – without, however, recognising the secessions.

Local Serb campaigns for ethnic purity and the JNA campaign for national unity rapidly became indistinguishable. Croat as well as Serb militias are active in Bosnia and Croatia, but the two are barely comparable. Unlike the independent republics, which remain subject to a UN arms embargo imposed on the former Yugoslavia, Serb forces have the weaponry of the former JNA at their disposal; the former JNA in Bosnia has even redesignated itself the army of the Bosnian Serbs. Croat forces control a sixth of Bosnia; Serb forces control two-thirds, and a third of Croatia. (It may be worth emphasising that no aggression has taken place within Serbia – at least, none against Serbs). Available evidence suggests that “ethnic cleansing” is being carried out more extensively and systematically by Serb forces than Croats, in Bosnia and Croatia.

Undeniably Croat forces have committed war crimes in Bosnia; undeniably, Serbs in Croatia suffer official and unofficial discrimination – as well as the activities of unofficial nationalist militias. However, the weight of the evidence is clear. Hundreds of thousands have been made homeless, tens of thousands killed, in the war in Bosnia and Croatia. The vast majority of these are accounted for by Serb forces. Pan-Serb nationalists, using the name of Communism, tried to control Yugoslavia and destroyed it in the attempt. In its place they are building a racially-pure Greater Serbia by force of arms and calling it Yugoslavia.

Objections

“But the Serbs are being demonised!”

This is true, but should come as no surprise: as we know, the West periodically sets up a former client as demon of the week. Last year’s “holocaust” allegations against Serb forces, coming after five years of untroubled co-operation with the Milosevic regime, fit this pattern all too well. The “demonisation” argument is politically irrelevant. The task for the Left is not to befriend whichever demon happens to be in the frame, but to analyse the situation on our own terms.

“But these people are fascists!”

Some analysts of the invasion of Croatia depict Croatia as a fascist state. This clearly mandates support for its (appropriate) antagonist, the Stalinist regime of Serbia: for Vukovar read Stalingrad. The picture dissolves on examination. Franjo Tudjman (who held a general’s rank with the Partisans) is an anti-semite and an apologist for the 1941 regime; he leads a clerical-nationalist government, which is unofficially defended by neo-fascist militias. It’s not a pleasant picture, but it’s not fascism.

It’s also not unique. Tudjman’s apologias for a Nazi-installed regime are repugnant, but even views like these are unpleasantly commonplace in the former Soviet states, from Latvia to Romania. Nor are neo-fascist elements on the fringes of government a Croatian speciality: Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian MP and head of a paramilitary force, has proposed solving the “Croatian problem” by cutting the throats of all the Croats. Belgrade routinely accuses the Tudjman government of planning a repeat of 1941, but there is no evidence of this. Discrimination against Serbs in Croatia exists, it is deplorable and it should be stopped. This, though – at a time when a third of Croatia is under armed Serb control – cannot be the only demand which is made.

The conflict in Bosnia has been analysed in similar terms, by tarring Bosnia’s elected government with the brush of Muslim fundamentalism. This story is even more at variance with reality. Although President Alija Izetbegovic advocated an Islamic state twenty years ago, an Islamic state is not what he proposed in 1991 or what the government which he led attempted to set up. Izetbegovic’s Cabinet contains – or contained – representatives of the Serb and Croat communities; his government was based on a parliamentary coalition with, of all groups, the main Serb party. A parliamentary party supported by 44% of the population could hardly do more in the cause of consensus; most parties in that position elsewhere in Europe would do much less. The argument that the Serb and Croat armed campaigns in Bosnia are a legitimate act of resistance to an oppressive government – implicitly endorsed by the Geneva talks, which set Izetbegovic on the same footing as the Bosnian Serb and Croat warlords – is entirely untenable.

As for Serbia’s credentials for representing the enlightened Left against the forces of Islamic and fascist reaction, it should be obvious from the above that these are fairly thin. The argument that state ownership and a one-party monopoly of power indicate a socialist state is dubious at best. The Milosevic programme, combining those elements with a leader cult, territorial expansionism and racial discrimination, has been aptly summed up in the phrase “national socialism”.

Proposals

Arguments against Western intervention of any kind are untenable. Non-intervention, in the current situation, would amount to intervening in support of the status quo. We saw Western “non-intervention” in action in 1991, when recognition of Croatia was being withheld on the grounds that it would “prolong the fighting” – better a quick defeat, presumably. The West is bound to affect the situation; we can at least argue for its influence to be exercised in pursuit of principled goals.

There are four immediate priorities. The most urgent is to restore the territorial integrity of Bosnia and the authority of the Bosnian government. This will entail securing the withdrawal or disarming of the “Bosnian Serb” JNA and any other external forces, Serbian or Croatian. Territorial gains made by force must be treated as illegitimate by the international community and reversed wherever possible – rather than, as in UN-administered Croatia, being effectively ratified. Secondly, Macedonia should be recognised immediately. Thirdly, the arms embargo currently in force against all the former Yugoslav republics should be lifted with regard to Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Lastly, it should be impressed on Croatia that Western democracies do not look kindly on apologists for fascism – a point which could have been made a bit more often in the past.

The “fragmentation” of the former Yugoslavia is not to be feared. After Tito some evolution of the political situation towards greater national and regional autonomy was inevitable; to the extent that this development takes place peacefully it should be welcomed, in predominantly Serb regions of Croatia as much as in predominantly Albanian regions of Serbia. However, this form of development should not be confused with the politics of armed irredentism and ethnic purity, which has been encouraged on all sides by the Milosevic programme. Self-government, for the former Yugoslav republics and the distinct regions within them, is a positive goal; armed conquest of territory, ethnic exclusivism and attempts to merge with existing nations are not. (The point would hardly be worth making, but for Vance and Owen’s attempt to ratify the latter under the guise of the former). All the nations of the former Yugoslavia should be judged on how far they deliver both regional autonomy and minority representation at national level: a criterion which Bosnia’s elected government meets adequately, Croatia’s poorly and Serbia’s not at all.

As for meeting the grievances of the Serbs, that should be one consequence of following these policies. We do the Serbs no favours by assuming that the only Serb interest is a Greater Serbia. However, any just settlement will inevitably aggrieve pan-Serb nationalists; the only settlement which would assuage their grievances would be a version of the 1919 Yugoslavia, a unitary state with a Serb ruling class. The attempt to restore that state is an enterprise with no political merits, which is doing nothing but harm to the nations of the former Yugoslavia.

List of sources omitted

He once inspired awe

Tonight, we burn the king of straw

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time; his writing on the Balkans, in particular, strikes me as not only obstinately self-deluded but actively poisonous. Francis Wheen, Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch (a fairly unlovely troika, I admit) have now published a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre. They demonstrate conclusively that Diana Johnstone, a writer commended by Chomsky, systematically minimises and downplays the massacre, using an armoury of devices familiar to any student of Holocaust denial. They also show that Chomsky’s commendation of Johnstone’s work specifically and emphatically endorses its factual content, rather than being based on a ‘free speech defence’.

If you’ve been inclined to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt – or to dismiss him and Kamm as equal and opposite obsessives who deserve each other – you should read this now.

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time, but I’ve always assumed that his eminence in linguistics was unchallenged; I’ve certainly never felt I had the academic chops to challenge it. Fortunately not everyone is so timid. Thanks to Stuart and Dave, I’ve recently become aware of Chris Knight’s critique of Chomsky the linguist. Knight, who has nothing but respect for Chomsky as a political activist, traces the tangled evolution of Chomsky’s linguistics and finds it wanting. More, he argues that it is shaped by the twin imperatives offered by Chomsky’s institutional background (military-funded computing) and by an anarchist mistrust of social science. The result is that, as a linguist, Chomsky is driven to positions of Cartesian rationalism, biological determinism and psychological individualism: we have language because we are the kind of animal that we are; we are that kind of animal because at some unknowable point we just, mysteriously, became that kind of animal; and nothing about how we interact with one another in society has, or has ever had, any bearing on the question. Needless to say, Knight finds this an extremely unsatisfactory account of human nature. This essay (also published in this expanded version (PDF)) is well worth reading, if only for some extraordinary passages of peevish circular logic from Chomsky on the subject of the social sciences (“I don’t think they’ve ever made any great breakthroughs, so they can’t have done, or I would have heard of them…”).

Smash your idols, kids! (Only not my idols, all right? I’ll deal with them myself. Later.)

A herd of independent minds

I read Francis Wheen warily, not knowing from paragraph to paragraph whether I’m going to agree or start swearing. I read young Oliver very warily indeed: most of what he writes is drivel and some of it’s repulsive. And I don’t read Aaro at all if I can possibly help it.

Wheen, Kamm, Aaronovitch: it’s an unpromising troika. They’ve come together to launch an attack on the Guardian over Emma Brockes’ silly and slapdash interview with Noam Chomsky (which has been taken down from the Guardian Web site but can still be read at Chomsky’s own site, apparently). More specifically, the trio object to the Guardian‘s apology for the interview; they argue that the apology goes too far in correcting the misleading impression given by the interview, painting Chomsky – and, incidentally, Diana Johnstone – in an unwarrantedly favourable light. They have argued this case in a letter of around 4,500 words to the Guardian‘s Reader’s Editor, who has – understandably – concluded that it raises issues outside his competence.

I haven’t seen the letter, but I believe I’ve read enough about this somewhat quixotic endeavour – primarily on Kamm’s blog – to form a judgment on it. My judgment is that it’s a really positive initiative, which I support wholeheartedly. Chomsky is a tendentious and untrustworthy polemicist, whose partisans react with outrage (and in numbers) to criticism of his arguments – and whose rhetorical skills make it extraordinarily difficult to construct a cogent critique. (For illustration, wade through this page, recommended recently by a Chomsky partisan.) On both counts, it is very much to the credit of Kamm & co that they are making the effort; it’s a lot more than I’d care to do just now.

A little background from 1995:
Milan Rai, Chomsky’s politics (Verso, £10.95)

Review printed in New Statesman and Society, 18/8/1995

Since 1969 Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost radical critics of US foreign policy. Chomsky assiduously documents both the promotion of US interests around the world and the biases and omissions in subsequent media coverage. The resultant portrait of power, corruption and lies is presented as a rational deduction from objective study: the implication is that the government’s apologists cannot plead either difference of opinion or ignorance, but stand self-convicted of lying in the service of power. This is a serious matter: the mendacity of the “intelligentsia” entrenches the limitations of US political culture, foreclosing the prospects for any kind of political reform. Chomsky himself, by contrast, shoulders the responsibility of intellectuals, which is “to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

Milan Rai’s presentation of Chomsky’s politics is detailed, comprehensive and uncritical. Rai has even emulated Chomsky’s habitual contemptuous dismissals of his opponents: Auberon Waugh is characterised, not very accurately, as a “brainwashed intellectual”. (A larger problem is Rai’s treatment of French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s writings on Chomsky, who had – for reasons which remain obscure – written a relatively friendly preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson; Rai dismisses Vidal-Naquet’s criticisms undiscussed as “falsehoods”). This book is thus a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding the enormous value of Chomsky’s work in setting the record of US foreign policy straight, his political assumptions deserve a more thorough and more critical examination.

US society, for Chomsky, is dominated by the “elites”: a term which refers variously to the state apparatus, big business, journalists and academics. The relationship of the elites to the US population is that of an occupying power to a subject territory: the choice is between resistance to elite power and collaboration. Similar considerations apply to the US elites’ relationship with the rest of the world. Indeed, Chomsky denies any significance to the internal politics of nations affected by US foreign policy: “It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world”. Prior to 1989 arguments of this sort even led Chomsky to disparage criticism of the Soviet Union: “the moral value of this work is at best very slight”.

Elite rule is sustained by the “propaganda system”, whereby intellectuals abjure their truth-telling responsibility in favour of manufacturing consent to the status quo. A nuanced analysis shows the “propaganda model” to be multi-faceted: conformity is produced by the economic interests of media businesses, government requirements, cultural resistance to unorthodox analyses and reluctance to put in the necessary work, as well as – what is more commonly cited in practice – the moral turpitude of journalists. (A more accurate term than “propaganda” might have been “received ideas within the capitalist media”). Chomsky even acknowledges the existence of journalists who “use whatever leeway they have”, without thereby modifying his judgment on the class as a whole. Given this level of over-determination and defence against counter-examples, Chomsky’s finding that the model is “one of the best-confirmed theories in the social sciences” is to be expected.

Unsurprisingly, Chomsky’s arguments are at their weakest with respect to the question of what is to be done. On one hand, intellectual self-defence against elite lies is easy (it only requires “ordinary common sense”); on the other, “it does require a degree of fanaticism”, which explains why so few have followed Chomsky’s lead. Chomsky approves non-participation in US presidential elections (“people are intelligent enough to understand that … they are voting for Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola”); he also advocates voting: “you’ve got to multiply those little differences in policy by the power of the United States.” Tactical considerations are a moral necessity (“if you write, you have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of what you write”); then again, “you should do what you think is right and not what’s going to be tactically useful”.

This analysis is conducted, despite Chomsky’s stress on objectivity and rationality, in highly polemical terms. Fascism, Stalinism, terrorism are constant reference points: the US intelligentsia inhabits an “intellectual culture dedicated to terrorist values and policies”; “Fascism is deeply rooted in everyone’s mind in the United States”. While assertions like these are invariably backed up by meticulously syllogistic arguments, the terminology seems designed to raise the rhetorical stakes: analysis turns into name-calling.

These paradoxes rest on the two convictions which underpin Chomsky’s politics. There is a quasi-anarchist stress on the primacy of power relations: capitalism, Communism and fascism all hinge on the control of society by a bureaucratic or managerial elite (“Bolshevism and American liberalism are basically manifestations of the same thing”). This is a powerful vision which illuminates many real continuities; however, it needs to be qualified in the light of history if it is not to turn into a theory of the uniform and interchangeable evil of the elites. This kind of qualification can seem to elude Chomsky, who has argued that the Nazis were among the true victors of the Second World War.

Equally significant is the view – stated by Rai as an ethical truism – that “we must take responsibility for what our society does”. This stress on duty explains the persistent tone of outrage in Chomsky’s work: as a responsible US citizen and intellectual, Chomsky weighs the actions of the US government and the intellectual class and finds them wanting. If, as the “elite” model dictates, the US government is quasi-fascist and the intellectual class composed of power-worshippers, this only rouses Chomsky to greater moral indignation. The classical radical analysis of the state – as an illegitimate imposition on society for which nobody is responsible but the bastards themselves – is foreign to him.

The final paradox of Chomsky’s work is that, however ill-founded his convictions may be, his Herculean labours “to speak the truth and to expose lies” are inconceivable without them. Chomsky is perhaps best seen as a figure like Orwell or Ruskin, his virtues inseparable from his faults. Like those predecessors, when Chomsky goes wrong, he goes seriously wrong; but when he’s right he’s unsurpassable.
[ends]

The conclusion is kinder than I’d be now, obviously.

PS No, I know he didn’t write it as a preface. He wrote a statement solicited by Serge Thion, a (left-wing) associate of Faurisson, and gave it to Thion with instructions to use it as he saw fit. When he heard that Thion planned to use it as a preface to Faurisson’s work he objected, but too late to prevent it appearing; however, he has subsequently repented the objection. In short, he wrote “a relatively friendly [statement which appears as] a preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson [with Chomsky's consent, despite initial objections]“.

PPS On Chomsky, Johnstone and Srebrenica, see Lee Bryant’s comments here and this from Attila Hoare. (Personal to JM – I don’t know why Attila’s writing for them either. Because they asked him, probably.)

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