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

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One Trackback

  1. […] Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo [1] Detrez, Raymond, 2000, De Sloop van Joegoslavië, Relaas van een Boedelscheiding, Gadewijch Antwerpen-Baarn, BRTN-VAR, pp.339, p. 122-127 […]

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