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Who's to blame?

Western intervention is the problem in Yugoslavia not the solution, argues Joan Phillips

Almost everybody agrees that Western intervention is the only way to sort out the mess in Sarajevo (and sort out the Serbs). This misses the point about what is happening in the dismembered land that was once Yugoslavia. The West has been intervening in Yugoslavia for the past year and the Western powers are responsible for causing the conflagration that is now engulfing Bosnia. Any further interference from them in the affairs of the Balkans can only make matters worse.

Haunted Balkans

History has been landed with a lot of the blame for what has happened in Yugoslavia. In response to the siege of Sarajevo, an editorial in the Economist once again rehearsed the argument that history has returned to haunt the Balkans:

'The people of the Balkans are fired by hatreds that go back centuries. Roman Catholics have been fighting Orthodox Christians there since 1221; Serbs remember their defeat at the hands of the Turks in 1389 as though it were yesterday. Though the tribes are intermingled, and sometimes intermarried, the intensity of ethnic and religious rivalry has not diminished, nor has the ferocity with which it is expressed.' (4 July 1992)

According to this view, history is one long continuum in which the patterns of the past simply repeat themselves over and over again.

Is it really the case that Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs are fighting each other today because of a religious schism seven centuries ago? Did the civil war start in 1221 or 1991? The stupidity of trying to explain the dynamics of a late twentieth-century conflict with reference to something that happened in the early thirteenth century should be readily apparent.

Why now?

The popular emphasis on the recurrence of past problems in the present begs another question which nobody has so far answered. Why now? The supporters of the 'history is happening all over again' thesis never explain why it is happening now. If these nationalist enmities have always existed, why have they suddenly erupted into bloodshed today after half a century of lying dormant? Why did Yugoslavia fall apart in 1991 and not 1951?

Cold storage

The only thing we have been offered by way of an explanation is the fact that communism has collapsed. Since the end of the Cold War, we are told, nationalism has been taken out of cold storage and old ethnic hatreds have been rekindled to set the Balkans aflame once again. What magical powers were possessed by the old Stalinists who ruled Eastern Europe which meant that they could suppress emotions which, we are told, are demonically strong?

In reality, the crisis in Yugoslavia has got very little to do with the distant past. On the contrary, it is rooted in present-day realities. Before the war started, most historians of the Balkans saw this as rather obvious. Christopher Cviic stated back in May 1991 that 'what is tearing Yugoslavia apart is the clash over present interests rather than over ancient ethnic and religious prejudices. The past matters, but the present matters more' (Independent, 15 May 1991). An understanding of the origins of this contemporary conflict is crucial to understanding part of the dynamic behind Yugoslavia's disintegration.

In so far as there was a local factor which contributed to the Balkanisation of Yugoslavia it was economic competition and not ethnic conflict. This competition for resources was turned into ethnic conflict by nationalist politicians in the competing Yugoslav republics. In turn this ethnic conflict exploded into all-out civil war only after the intervention of outside powers.

Competing claims

Under the Stalinists, Yugoslavia suffered from a scarcity of economic resources. Inevitably this generated competition since there was never enough to go round. As a result, Yugoslavia was characterised by profound social inequalities between the classes. In addition, competition over resources took a regional form because of the profound economic differentiation between the Yugoslav republics.

It is ironic that today the myth has grown that Croatia and Slovenia had a really hard time in the old Yugoslavia, and that is why they wanted to leave. In fact, they were the most privileged republics in Yugoslavia. They had the highest living standards and the lowest unemployment, the biggest share of national wealth and the best connections with the Western market economies.

Slovenia contained only eight per cent of Yugoslavia's population, yet accounted for 25 per cent of its gross national product. Meanwhile the underdeveloped southern republics suffered at the other extreme. While just two per cent of Slovenia's workforce was unemployed, in Kosovo the figure was 56 per cent, Macedonia 27 per cent, Montenegro 25 per cent, Bosnia 24 per cent and Serbia 18 per cent (H Lydall, Yugoslavia in Crisis).

Yugoslavia's increasing exposure to the world market, and its closer relations with the Western market economies, had the effect of widening regional divisions. The cumulative introduction of market reforms by the old Stalinist bureaucracy over a period of several decades benefited the minority of better-off republics but brought few gains for the badly off majority.

Unequal gains

Slovenia came to be known as 'Little Austria', while Croatia cemented ties with Germany. The other republics languished in economic backwardness. This was not because the Stalinist leaders of the poorer republics were committed centralists as some have suggested. Indeed, the bureaucracy was united in its support for market reforms. The problem was that there were unequal gains to be made from the market by the republics.

The reforms had the effect of increasing regional differentiation and fuelling economic tensions. In this sense the market made a big contribution to the fragmentation of Yugoslavia along regional lines. The basis for a civil war between the rich north and the poor south had been laid long before Western intervention triggered the conflict between Croatia and Serbia.

As regional disparities became entrenched, the richer republics began to resent subsidising the poorer ones. They complained about having to redistribute their resources to Serbia and the others in the form of development aid, budgetary supplements, federal projects, national defence and natural disaster relief.

Accusing other republics of being backward and lazy, Slovenia and Croatia began to implement protectionist measures to keep revenues and investment at home. Trade wars between the republics became more frequent as the regional bureaucracies organised 'buy national' campaigns and boycotts of 'foreign' goods.

Slovenia and Croatia sought greater autonomy within the federation so that they could hold on to their own earnings and prevent them being redistributed elsewhere. They began to insist that they should have sovereign control over their own budgets, legislation and defence forces. By the late eighties they were threatening to secede unless they got a confederal constitution that gave them full sovereignty. Finally, on 25 June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia both made a unilateral declaration of independence.

The fragmentation of Yugoslavia gathered pace under the impact of the market economy. The celebrated Western market system was no more capable of establishing a viable national economy in Yugoslavia than was Stalinism before it. In fact, with a little help from the Western powers, the market ended up taking Yugoslavia apart.

They started it

The arrival of the market in Yugoslavia did not simply deepen the economic divisions between the republics, it also encouraged the growth of national particularism in the richer republics. Today Serbian nationalism is blamed for the destruction of Yugoslavia. But the rise of nationalism in recent years began in the more privileged republics of Slovenia and Croatia, those with the closest links with the West and the world market.

Slovenia's former Communist Party leader, Milan Kucan, was the first politician to wrap himself in the national flag and demand national autonomy. He was followed by Croatian party leaders who also began to beat the nationalist drum and demand national sovereignty.

While the turn to nationalism in Slovenia and Croatia was a ploy by former Stalinist bureaucrats to secure their futures, it was strongly encouraged by the regionalisation of Yugoslavia under the impact of the market. For politicians in the north, the demand for national independence was seen as the best way to protect the privileged position of their republics. On the other hand, the nationalism espoused by Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, while it was also designed to save his skin, was that of the economic underdog in response to the increasing assertiveness of the richer republics.

By early 1991 relations between the republics had reached a low-point, with Slovenia and Croatia both threatening to secede. But even at this late stage, civil war was not considered a possibility. In retrospect it is debateable whether the two were serious about seceding; there still seemed to be a desire to negotiate some sort of confederal arrangement.

If the leaders of the republics were still not sure about going the whole hog, their people certainly were not enthusiastic about secession. Opinion polls in the summer of 1991 showed that 50 per cent of people in Croatia favoured immediate secession while 45 per cent wanted more negotiations; in Slovenia the figures were 44 per cent for and 34 per cent against. There was clearly a considerable body of opinion in both republics which was not persuaded by the arguments of the secessionists.

What was decisive in polarising the divisions inside Yugoslavia was the intervention of the Western powers. Until that fateful summer they were united in calling for Yugoslavia to stay together. What they feared more than anything was the destabilising consequences for the rest of Europe of the disintegration of the federation. They realised that once the internal borders of Yugoslavia were called into question then the entire postwar settlement could unravel.

A nod and a wink

By coming out in support of independence for the two republics, Germany ensured that Yugoslavia would come apart. Bonn's commitment to Croatia and Slovenia meant that compromise was no longer an option. If the two republics had had second thoughts about going it alone, these were dispelled by the support they received from Helmut Kohl's government. There is little doubt that Zagreb only went ahead with its independence declaration once it had got the nod from Bonn. In the space of a month a fluid situation was transformed into a rigid stand-off between Croatia and Serbia.

Germany's intervention did not simply polarise the divisions within Yugoslavia, however. It also made the Balkans the focus of competition within the Western camp, which in turn had even more divisive consequences for the region. As soon as Germany decided that this was the issue upon which it would assert its leadership role in Europe, it was inevitable that Yugoslavia would become the victim of rivalries among the imperialist powers (see pages 4 and 5).

Split asunder

The first calamitous effect of Western intervention was to split Croatia in two. The secession of Croatia from the Yugoslav federation left the 600 000-strong Serbian minority stranded in a state which had already signalled its contempt for their rights.

The Serbs in Croatia had become increasingly alienated and angry as a result of the nationalist policies pursued by Franjo Tudjman's Croatian regime since it had taken power in March 1990. The response of the Serbs in Krajina and elsewhere to the secessionist moves in Zagreb was to declare their own regions autonomous. The fate of the Serbian minority proved to be an emotive issue for the Belgrade regime in justifying its intervention in Croatia.

Next Yugoslavia itself was split down the middle. A civil war between Croatia and Serbia was an inevitability once Germany began to push for recognition. With the knowledge that it had the backing of the most powerful state in Europe, Croatia refused to make any concessions.

Blame Belgrade

Having set the two republics at each other's throats, Germany proceeded to blame Serbia. Bonn began to present the conflict as a frontier war. On one side stood Croatia, Western, democratic, Catholic, civilised; on the other side stood Serbia, Eastern, communist, Orthodox, barbaric. Emphasising the Balkan character of the civil war, the other Western powers went along with this demonisation of Serbia.

The third consequence of Western intervention was to split Bosnia Hercegovina in three, between the Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The recognition of Slovenia and Croatia by Europe and America acted as a spur to Bosnia to announce its secession from Yugoslavia. This in turn led to increasing tensions between the various ethnic groups in a republic which for 40 years had maintained its reputation for harmonious cooperation between the nationalities.


The green light for the eruption of hostilities in Bosnia was America's recognition of the breakaway republic on 7 April 1992. America's sudden conversion to the anti-Serbian cause had nothing to do with events in Bosnia. It was an act of diplomatic one-upmanship, with the sole purpose of establishing America's leadership role at the expense of Germany.

The spread of the civil war to Bosnia looks like it could end with the partition of the republic between Serbia and Croatia. Both sides have had about 50 000 troops fighting there, although, given the flurry of Western injunctions against Serbia alone, you might be forgiven for thinking that Croatian forces haven't set foot inside the republic. Both sides have declared their own autonomous regions inside Bosnia as the prelude to formalising the partition.

A clean partition is the solution favoured by Zagreb and Belgrade. But Bosnia could easily end up splintering into a myriad of tiny ethnic fiefdoms. The European Community's plan to cantonise Bosnia - divide the republic into ever smaller ethnic units - expresses the logic of the disintegrative process which started with Western support for the secession of Slovenia and Croatia.

Western intervention has incited ethnic conflicts throughout the length and breadth of Yugoslavia and indeed across the Balkans. After Bosnia the conflict could spread to embroil Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and of course Kosovo, where Muslim groups have already declared their own autonomous regions and signalled their desire to link up in a federation. This ethnic hot potato could easily spill over the borders of Yugoslavia and involve Albania in yet more bloodshed.

Balkan powder-keg

Macedonia meanwhile is still awaiting Western recognition, delayed because of the vituperative opposition of Greece. Athens fears that Skopje has irredentist claims on its territory and that recognition will inflame relations with its own Macedonian minority. The combustible Macedonian question could easily lead to explosive developments throughout the Balkans, involving Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Albania. Apart from the possibility of major ructions in these places, the fate of the Hungarian minority in the Serbian-controlled province of Vojvodina is also a cause for concern in Budapest.

Where will it all end? One thing's for sure, if the West has anything to do with it, it will end only with the whole of the Balkans being torn asunder. At every stage of the Yugoslav crisis, Western intervention has served to polarise regional conflicts and inflame ethnic divisions. Even if the West refused to have anything more to do with Yugoslavia, it has already done enough to guarantee the Balkanisation of the whole country.

Some nerve

In this it has been greatly aided by the radical intelligentsia in the West. Today every British liberal is opposing the cantonisation of Bosnia on the grounds that it will create still more minorities within still smaller ethnic homelands. They haven't got a leg to stand on. The implosion of Bosnia is the end result of a policy which they sanctioned.

The British left supported the disintegration of Yugoslavia. This is what they put their names to when they signed up to support Croatia. They were happy to see Yugoslavia go down the tube then. But now that disintegration has reached the grotesque proportions of cantonisation in Bosnia, they hold up their hands in horror and say it has all got to stop.

If Serbia is bombed into oblivion and Bosnia is divided into bits, or if the whole of the Balkans goes up in flames, British liberals will have only themselves to blame.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992

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