On the 29th anniversary of the Sebrenica massacre/genocide, we re-publish this important critique of the role of much the international left towards the Bosnian war at the time. First published by Workers Liberty, June 2011:
31 March 2003: Relatives of some of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre search rows of coffins next to freshly-dug graves for loved ones
Ratko Mladic, who commanded Serb forces during the Bosnian war of 1992-5, was arrested on 26 May in a Serbian village, and will now face a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.
In July 1995, two of the areas which the United Nations declared “safe havens” in the midst of a fierce war were overrun by Serb forces under Mladic’s command. In Zepa, some 200 lives were killed, and the bulk of the population of 40,000 fled.
In Srebrenica, over 8,000 civilians were massacred. In classifying the massacre as an act of genocide the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia outlined what happened:
“They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.”
Srebrenica was only the most infamous of the atrocities by Serb forces in the Bosnian war. Like the wars conducted by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic in Croatia in 1991-5 and in Kosova in 1999, that war was an imperialist war in the most straightforward sense: a war by a dominant power to gain control over other nations, conducted without regard to the wishes or the lives of the subject peoples.
By now Milosevic’s wars have few defenders. Although many people in Serbia mourned Mladic’s arrest, Serbia’s government is in no danger of being toppled by protest against it handing over Mladic to The Hague. In Britain, even the Morning Star has reported the arrest in a manner suggesting neutrality or approval.
At the time, though — and the scandal should be remembered, and learned from — large chunks of the left betrayed the left’s basic values of consistent democracy and freedom for oppressed nations. Some sided with Mladic and Milosevic explicitly. Others, including the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), gave them backhanded support by way of a form of pro-imperialism posing as “anti-imperialist”. They claimed there was nothing to choose between the forces in conflict within Yugoslavia. The only “imperialist” thing, to be opposed with vigour, was the police actions against Serbia which NATO took to contain the conflict, in 1995 and in 1999. Thus they presented the Serbian state as not imperialistic, but the fighter against imperialism.
A few years later the SWP would start puffing themselves as “fighters for Muslims”. At the time they refused to side with the Bosniac and Kosovar Muslims fighting Serb conquest, focusing all their sympathies on Serbia as the victim of NATO. They quietly went along with those who anathematised the Bosniac Muslims (mostly secularised) as the catspaws of Islamic-fundamentalist conspiracy.
The history is relevant to the arguments about Libya today.
The area which became known as Yugoslavia was throughout the 19th century a diverse and intermingled conglomerate of peoples on the edges of three great empires.
Official policy would later recognise six republics, two autonomous provinces, four main religious groups, 22 ethnic groups, and two alphabets among its peoples.
Most of it had been part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul). Croatia, and after 1878 Bosnia, came under Austro-Hungarian overlordship. Serbia won semi-independence in 1830 and full independence in 1867. Tsarist Russia sought influence in Serbia.
Socialists before World War One argued that the answer was to reorganise the area as a free and democratic Balkan Federation.
Influenced by that thinking, after World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires urban middle-class Croats pushed for a common state, “Yugoslavia”. It was formed, but soon became in practice a “Greater Serbia”.
Discontent grew. In World War Two, the Nazis could seize on the most militant Croatian nationalists and use them to construct a Catholic clerical-fascist puppet state in Croatia which slaughtered Serbs recklessly.
The Stalinists, led by Josip Broz Tito, were able to form a guerrilla army with ranks and leadership drawn from all Yugoslavia’s nationalities and at the end of World War Two constructed a new Yugoslav state.
In 1948 Stalin tried to slap down Tito, seeing him as too independent. Tito successfully resisted, and converted Yugoslavia to a “non-aligned” stance in the Cold War. He kept the basics of the Stalinist state he had erected after World War Two, but pursued more decentralised economic planning than elsewhere in Eastern Europe; a more liberal regime, for intellectuals at least; and a federal policy of elaborate checks and balances designed to hold the different nationalities together.
Some on the left saw Tito’s Yugoslavia as an alternative model of socialism, free of the repression and centralisation which characterised Stalin’s Soviet Union.
A new constitution, adopted in 1974, granted a degree of autonomy to the Serbian provinces of Kosova and Vojvodina. The same constitution created a “collective head-of-state”, consisting of representatives from the six republics and the two autonomous provinces.
The bureaucratic checks and balances, designed to assuage and head off nationalist discontent, paradoxically made nationalist grievance-mongering the only legal form of politics.
As economic and political crisis grew in the 1980s, bureaucrats used nationalist jousting more and more to divert social discontent.
In 1980 unemployment stood at around a million and Yugoslavia’s foreign debt at nearly $20 billion. Between 1980 and 1985 the real value of earnings fell by some 25%. By the close of the decade Yugoslavia was the country in the world most dependant on remittances from nationals working abroad.
The wealthier republics (Croatia and Slovenia) resented “paying for” the poorer ones. All the smaller nationalities resented Serbian political domination. Serbs resented the checks and balances, and the hostility they got from wealthier Croatia and Slovenia.
In Serbia Slobodan Milosevic, who was to become the republic’s president in 1989, portrayed himself as the man who would stand up for Serbs: “At home and abroad Serbia’s enemies are massing against us. We say to them: ‘we are not afraid, we will not flinch from battle’.”
Milosevic claimed that Serbs in Kosova were being victimised by the province’s ethnic-Albanian majority, and engineered unrest (which he called “anti-bureaucratic revolutions”) in Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosova on the back of which his supporters won control of the local governments.
Milosevic then had control of four of the eight seats in the country’s “collective head-of-state”. He worked to bring the officer corps and the arsenals of Yugoslavia’s federal army under Serbian control.
Milosevic’s supporters in Croatia organised an autonomous Serbian “republic”, the “SAO Krajina”, centred on the town of Knin, which declared itself a separate entity in December 1990 . In December 1991 it combined with other Serb-majority areas of Croatia to form the Republic of Serbian Krajina.
Bosnia had the most mixed composition of all Yugoslavia’s republics: 17% classified themselves as Croat, 31% as Serb, and 44% as “Bosniac” or “Muslim”. Stirred up by Milosevic, a Bosnian-Serb assembly proclaimed a “Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina” in January 1992. This covered not just areas in which Serbs formed the majority of the population but also, according to its founding proclamation, “regions in which the Serbian people remains in the minority due to the genocide conducted against it in World War Two.”
In August 1992 it merged with other self-proclaimed Serb regions to form the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic).
In November 1991 Croatian nationalists in Bosnia established their own “Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia”, declaring it to be a separate “political, cultural, economic and territorial whole.”
In both Croatia and Bosnia the proclaimed “Serbian Republics” received weapons from the Serbian government and from the federal army, now Serb-controlled.
According to Borivoje Petrovic (vice-president of the Serbian Parliament), all Serbs were to live in the same state, and it mattered not “whether the new state is called Yugoslavia or the ‘United States of Serbia’.”
By the end of the 1980s one-third of all marriages in Bosnia were “mixed”, and six per cent of the people refused to classify themselves as “Croat”, “Serb”, or “Bosniac”, instead choosing the term “Yugoslav”.
If the crisis of Tito’s Yugoslavia could have been resolved by majority vote, it would have led to a looser, fairer federation, with the chauvinists on all sides isolated.
But Milosevic’s aggression inevitably stirred up counter-nationalism among the smaller nationalities in Serbia. As national conflicts escalated, almost everyone, regardless of previous preference for unity and harmony, was pushed into looking to “their own” nationalists to defend them.
As the Stalinist system in Eastern Europe collapsed, national conflicts exploded.
In a December 1990 referendum, the people of Slovenia voted 95% for independence; in May 1991, Croatians 93% for independence. Both nations declared independence in June 1991. Under pressure from the big powers, they agreed to postpone implementation of independence for three months. Milosevic did not wait. He sent the “federal” (in fact, Serbian) army to stop independence.
Slovenia had only a “Ten Day War”, taking around 62 lives, before Milosevic admitted defeat. The fighting in Croatia was much more serious.
The most intense period of the Croatian war was over by January 1992, but it was only in 1995 that all hostilities ceased. By then some 20,000 people had been killed, $27 billion worth of material damage had been caused, and over 20% of the Croatian economy had been destroyed.
Socialists back the national self-determination cause, not the nationalist ideology. The Croatian nationalists were no better than other bourgeois nationalists in battle for national independence. In summer 1995 the Croatian army drove out most of the population of Croatia’s main Serb enclaves.
In February-March 1992 Bosnia called a referendum on independence, boycotted by the Serb minority but yielding a 99% majority in favour. In April 1992 the armed forces of Republika Srpska, the “federal army”, and Serbian paramilitaries from Serbia itself, went to war.
The Serb forces were far better armed than those of the Bosnian government. Because most of the equipment of the old Yugoslav federal army, including that stationed in Bosnia, was in the hands of the Serbs, an arms embargo imposed by the UN hit the Bosnian armed forces harder than the Serb forces.
By the middle of May the Serb forces had control of over 60% of Bosnia. The “federal” army then withdrew from Bosnia, but most of its weaponry and its higher-ranking personnel, including Ratko Mladic, remained in the Serb-controlled areas. Mladic was appointed commander-in-chief of the “Army of Republika Srpska”.
The Bosnian war was marked from the outset by ethnic cleansing. It was not enough for the Serb forces to seize territory in Bosnia. They had to “secure” it, driving before them the non-Serb population, or massacring them, and destroying all manifestations of their physical presence.
Once towns and villages had been secured by Serb forces, houses belonging to non-Serbs were ransacked and burnt down. Places of worship, cemeteries, and cultural and historic buildings were destroyed. If the inhabitants had not fled already, they were either killed or taken to “detention centres”.
Women held in detention centres were subject to repeated and systematic rape. The minimum estimate of the number raped is around 20,000, including girls as young as 12.
The Serb authorities set up detention camps for male detainees, the most notorious of them being Omarska (a mining complex), Manjaca, Keraterm (a converted factory), Trnpolje and Luka Brcko. The level of ill-treatment of detainees in some of these camps led to them being classified by Human Rights Watch as concentration camps.
In Omarska alone several hundred of the camp’s 7,000 prisoners died of starvation, punishment beatings and other forms of ill-treatment over a five-month period in the spring and summer of 1992.
Around 6,000 Bosnians were imprisoned in Manjaca camp in the period April to August of 1992. Again, several hundred of them were killed, with intellectuals, professionals and political and religious leaders being particularly targeted for murder. Those who survived the camp were expelled by the Serb authorities to non-Serb areas.
As more and more of the countryside fell into Serb (and Croatian) hands, Bosnians fled to the towns and cities in search of protection. In 1993 the United Nations declared six Bosnian towns to be “safe havens”. In theory, inhabitants of the “safe havens” would be protected by UN ground troops (Unprofor) and, if needed, NATO airstrikes.
Four of the “safe havens” had only 500 soldiers each to protect them, and airstrikes were rare, as they required dual Unprofor and NATO approval.
The “safe haven” of Sarajevo was besieged for 44 months by Serb forces, the longest siege in modern warfare. Serb forces stationed on the surrounding hills used artillery, mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, multiple rocket launchers, rocket-launched aircraft bombs, and sniper rifles against the civilian population.
An average of 300 artillery shells a day hit Sarajevo during the siege. On just one day in 1993 more than 3,500 shells hit the city. Overall, an estimated 10,000 people were killed and another 56,000 wounded during the siege. 35,000 buildings were destroyed, including 10,000 apartment blocks.
Ethnic cleansing and war crimes were also carried out by the forces of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg Bosnia.
In February 1994 an American-brokered deal, the Washington Agreement, brought an end to the fighting between Bosnian and Croatian forces. In September 1995, NATO finally moved against Milosevic and his allies, in a month-long bombing campaign.
Workers’ Liberty commented: “Yes, the Western powers are hypocrites… But to reckon that NATO’s bombardment of Mladic’s siege guns calls for protest meetings, and Milosevic’s atrocities do not, is to condone Serbian imperialism… Sarajevo relieved by a NATO offensive designed as a lever for an imperialist carve-up is bad; Sarajevo still besieged is worse.”
Others on the left rallied to a “Committee for Peace in the Balkans” focused on denouncing NATO. They said NATO action was about “enforcing Western interests” on Serbia. Back in 1991, the SWP had disdainfully said “neither of the nationalisms currently tearing Yugoslavia apart has anything to offer”. It had maintained the same disdain towards the Bosniacs’ struggle against Serbian conquest and ethnic cleansing. It backed the anti-NATO campaign.
In fact, the NATO bombing paved the way for an American-brokered peace deal, the Dayton Agreement. It ended the massacres, and set up Bosnia-Herzegovina as a quasi-independent state, for most purposes a loose confederation between Serb and Croat-Bosniac units, with an external “High Representative” as overlord.
In the course of the war between 100,000 and 176,000 people had been killed. More than 2.2 million had fled their homes. 530,000 of them had managed to reach other European countries, despite the European Union responding to the outbreak of war by imposing a visa regime on Bosnians.
After the end of the fighting Mladic continued to live openly in the Serb-controlled area of Bosnia. In the late 1990s he moved to Belgrade. Only after the overthrown of Milosevic in 2000 did Mladic go more or less underground.
Meanwhile Kosova, an area under tight Serbian control but with a 90% Albanian-Muslim majority in the population, was stewing.
The Kosovar majority organised a virtual parallel society, with underground schools, hospitals, and so on, beside the Serbian-run official institutions.
The big powers opposed Kosovar independence, but pressed Milosevic to ease off. From mid-1998 Milosevic started a drive to force hundreds of thousands of Kosovars to flee the province. The big powers called a conference and tried to push Milosevic into a compromise deal.
Milosevic refused. NATO started bombing Serbian positions, apparently thinking that a short burst of military action would make Milosevic back down. Simultaneously the Serb chauvinists stepped up the slaughter and driving-out of Kosovars. After two and a half months of bombing (March-June 1999) the Serbian army finally withdrew. By then around 850,000 Kosovars had fled.
From 1999 to 2008 Kosova was under UN rule. During that period there were a number of persecutions of the small remaining Serb minority in Kosova. In 2008 Kosova declared independence.
Far from being converted by the war into a crushed semi-colony of some big power, Serbia benefited from its defeat. In October 2000, following rigged elections, Milosevic was ousted by mass protest in the streets, and Serbia’s chauvinist frenzy began to dissipate.
Dispute on the left over the Kosova war was sharper than over Bosnia. Workers’ Liberty said that, while we could not and did not endorse NATO, the main issue was Kosovar self-determination. The SWP and others threw themselves into a “Stop The War Campaign”, later recycled for use over Afghanistan and Iraq and still in existence.
“Stop The War” here meant “stop NATO and let Milosevic have his way”. On Milosevic, their main message was that he was not as bad as painted; and on Kosova, that the reports of massacre were probably exaggerated, that nothing could be done about it anyway, and that the Kosovar revolt was undesirable because it could destabilise the whole region.
Michael Barratt Brown, a veteran socialist economist, was typical of a whole school of thought on the left claiming that the driving force in what he called “The Yugoslav Tragedy” was a conspiracy by Germany in particular, and the West in general, to gain “control over the oil supplies of the Middle East”.
He wrote “Once Croatia’s independence was recognised … war between Serbs and Croats was assured inside Croatia.” In fact the big powers pressed the subject peoples of Yugoslavia not to declare independence. Germany was less convinced about that than other states, but even Germany did not recognise Croatia until six months after the outbreak of war. And why shouldn’t states recognise Croatian independence demanded by over 90% of the people?
Consistently, Brown wrote of the actions of Milosevic and the Serbian government as if they were mere responses to the actions of Bosnian and Croatian nationalists, rather than the expression of an aggressive regional imperialism.
“Nationalists in Serbia followed enthusiastically where Slovenes and Croats had led”, he wrote, but he praised the “federal” army, which had already committed a succession of war crimes by the time Brown wrote his book, as “the one remaining force representing Yugoslavia”, and one which was engaged in “a state-building project.”
In To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, published in 2000, Michael Parenti argued that the West’s hostility to Milosevic was triggered by the Serbian government’s commitment to the defence of the country’s “socialist heritage”:
“After the overthrow of Communism throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia remained the only nation in that region that would not voluntarily discard what remained of its socialism and install an unalloyed free-market system… The US goal has been to transform Yugoslavia into a Third World region, a cluster of weak right-wing principalities.
“As far as the Western free-marketeers were concerned, these enterprises [in Serbia] had to be either privatised or demolished. A massive aerial destruction like the one delivered upon Iraq (in the first Gulf War) might be just the thing needed to put Belgrade more in step with the New World Order.”
In fact, the Serbian government pursued privatisation and pro-market policies of its own volition from the late 1980s, imposing cuts in public services and increasing social inequalities. And its old reformed-Stalinist structure was nothing to cherish.
After the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic in 2001, the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic said:
“Crimes were committed in Yugoslavia, but not by Milosevic. … His real offence was that he tried to keep the 26 nationalities that comprise Yugoslavia free from US and NATO colonisation and occupation.”
The chapter on the Bosnian war in The Liberal Defence of Murder, written by the SWP’s Richard Seymour and published in 2008, has similar arguments: Milosevic’s regime and its war crimes were not as bad as they were made out to be; the Bosnian and Croatian governments were not only at least as bad as that of Milosevic but were also guilty of the same kind of atrocities.
“In the run-up to that atrocity” [the Srebrenica massacre], he claimed, “a wave of terror, including rape, by Bosnian Muslim forces in surrounding areas had killed thousands of Serbs”.
The SWP itself, mostly, did not bother discussing the atrocities one way or another. It simply stated that NATO was “imperialism” and the job was to oppose “imperialism”. In other words, it put its opportunist concern to “catch the wind” of miscellaneous disquiet about or opposition to NATO military action in a region which most people knew little about above any internationalist concern for lives and freedoms in the region.