Revisiting the death of Yugoslavia

Flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

The destruction and disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, culminating in the 78-day air waged by NATO against Serbia and its people in 1999, during which thousands were killed and wounded, was a crime breathtaking in its open violation of international law, the UN Charter, and the embrace of might is right in the post-Soviet era. As nobel-prize winning English playwright Harold Pinter described it: “The NATO action in Serbia had nothing to do with the fate of the Kosovan Albanians; it was yet another blatant and brutal assertion of US power.”

Based on the wholesale demonisation of the Serbs that ensued both during and after a conflict that resulted in the dismantlement of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), you would think the Serbs were both the cause of the conflict and the only side engaged in it. However such a reductive rendering of one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the Balkans is offensive, not only to those who suffered but also to the truth.

The destruction of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was the overarching crime inside of which every other crime and atrocity committed in the course of the conflict must be understood. The attempt to elide this wider crime, to focus instead on the atrocities carried out in the conflict that followed, in which atrocities committed by all sides, is no accident.

For what we are dealing with is Western imperialism red in tooth and claw — and also how in the case of the former Yugoslavia the West succeeded in exploiting the regressive nationalist and ethnic fissures that have long criss-crossed the Balkans to achieve its objective of dismantling the last socialist state in Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the constitution of the SFRY those nationalist and ethnic fissures were successfully sublimated in favour of a common Yugoslav identity around which its citizens could cohere and unite to forge a multinational, cultural and religious state, one that for decades stood as a beacon social and economic justice.

Aftermath of a NATO air attack in Serbia

The problems that beset Yugoslavia were rooted in capital penetration and matured to the point of critical mass in the shape of the debt crisis that engulfed the country in the 1980s. Under Tito’s leadership the country had embarked on an overly ambitious programme of investment with the objective of developing its poorer regions, raising living standards, and effecting the modernisation of industry and infrastructure. The programme was rolled out under the auspices workers’ self-management, an industrial model of organisation that had been established in the 1950s to decentralise the management of industry to the factory floor, thus giving ordinary workers a stake in the running of the economy and, with it, the socialist system driving it.

A lacuna in this otherwise laudable effort to decentralise power and economic control was in allowing these enterprises to borrow autonomously from the West for the purposes of this investment programme. Inevitably, least ways in retrospect, borrowing got out of control, and the abundance of cheap credit and money swirling around the economy in the 1970s led inexorably to hyperinflation.

The resulting debt crisis, which means to say the inability to service outstanding debts, ushered in a recession, in response to which the richer and resource-rich parts of the country began to resent subsidising its poorer regions. We see a similar pattern when it comes to the economic basis of the Catalan independence movement in Spain today.

A process of growing ethnic tensions, exploited by nationalist parties, culminated in a unilateral declaration of independence by Slovenia in 1990, after a referendum was conducted in violation of the SFRY constitution. Croatia followed suit and the independence of republics was promptly recognised by the West — setting in train the conditions for conflict when the central government did as any sovereign government faced with secessionism would do and sought to reimpose its writ.

The result was a deepening of nationalist sentiment, pulling the veil of mysticism over that which the socialist system inspired by Tito had demystified with its vision of multiculturalism and a politics of solidarity that transcended cultural, ethnic and religious differences.

Professor Susan L Woodward, in her article ‘War: Building States From Nations’, included in the compendium of articles brought together in the pages of Masters of the Universe: NATO’s Balkans Crusade’ (Verso, 2000), astutely observes, “As a political force, nationalism is an empty vessel to be filled by all those who see their interests in political independence and states’ rights. Its key characteristic is its definition of a political community — its principles of membership, its cultural and territorial boundaries, and also, therefore, its enemies.” She goes on: “Nationalism is often compared with communism as a collectivist ideology, but in fact it defines the membership characteristics of individuals, not the quality of their social interaction.”

In recognising Slovene and Croation independence, the European Community [forerunner to the EU] was not only creating new states while dissolving an existing one, Yugoslavia, it was raising from the depths of the Balkans an ethnocentric nationalist consciousness shrouded in obscurantism and seething with ancient hatreds.

Those ancient hatreds were responsible for the worst atrocities committed in Europe since Second World War, the names of which still resonate: the sieges of Sarajevo and Mostar, the mass ethnic cleansing and murder of Serbian civilians by Croat forces during Operation Storm, and of course the Srebrenica Massacre in 1995, when local Bosnian Serb forces carried out the slaughter of between 7–8000 Muslim men in an act that was adjudged to have been an act genocide by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2007.

Mostar during the siege

Unsurprisingly, in the swirl of the Serbophobia embraced by the ‘humanitarian intervention’ political and media cohort in the West, desperate to take advantage of the unipolarity they’d won with the demise of the Soviet Union, nuance was stripped from the political vocabulary. The result was blanket condemnation and calumniation of Serbia and Serbs qua Serbs.

No distinction was made, for example, between Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia from 1989 to 1997 and of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) between 1997 and 2000, and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic, President of the Bosnian Serb breakaway state Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladic, head of Bosnian Serb armed forces during the conflict.

Slobodan Milosevic

This particular distinction is crucial, because though Milosevic was not a war criminal, exonerated by the International Court of Justice ICJ in 2007 its judgment on Srebrenica, and by the ICTY in 2016 as part of its Karadzic judgment, his name continues to resonate as the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ in the West, where he was demonised and traduced in the accustomed manner of those who talk the language of democracy and humanitarianism while practicing the crimes of imperialism and regime change.

Milosevic’s only crime was trying to forestall the disintegration of the last state in Europe that was inspired by the creeds of social solidarity and collectivism, thus standing contrary to the gods of greed, individualism and unbounded acquisition, presented to the world as the acme of freedom and liberty. That he died from a heart attack while incarcerated in The Hague before his trial for war crimes had concluded resonates as a double injustice; due both to the fact that he died innocent of the charges levelled against him, and that the prime movers behind the NATO air campaign that destroyed his country, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, were not incarcerated and have yet to face justice.

What must never be forgotten is that Hitler’s hatred of the Serbs was only exceeded by his hatred of the Jews. British historian Anthony Beevor reveals that during the war the fascist dictator “was bent on vengeance against the Serbian population [over its anti-Nazi stance]. Yugoslavia was to be broken up, with morsels of territory given to his Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Italian allies. Croatia, under a fascist government, became an Italian protectorate, while Germany occupied Serbia.”

The irony is that though the fascist dictator Hitler may failed in his objective of breaking up Yugoslavia, the democratic West succeeded in the same objective five decades later.