The Yugoslav inferno

"How complacent were the generation of Europeans who grew up after the Second World War thinking that such barbarous behaviour was something that happened nowadays only in unfortunate and far-away countries like Ethiopia and Bangladesh".

"Villages from which the Serbs have fled in Croatia have been burned. Muslim villages in Serb areas of Bosnia are being burned to encourage their residents to leave. Under the noses of the United Nations peace-keepers, Croats in Serb-held territories of Croatia are being driven out. Serbs are fleeing towns in Bosnia where they are shot at, and towns in Croatia where they are frightened they will be. All sides have used massacre and mutilation to drive their message home" (The Economist. May 23rd 1992)

The war in Yugoslavia is a ghastly testimony to the meaning of the New World Order. On the eve of the twenty first century, we are confronted with a vision of barbarism, like a throw-back to the Dark Ages. And this is taking place, not in some distant country, but right on the doorstep of peaceful, prosperous, "civilised" Europe.

Not long ago, British, French and German tourists basked in the sunshine on Adriatic beaches, and wandered through the tranquil medieval alleys of Dubrovnik. Now the hotels are full of wounded men and terrified refugees. Cultured Europeans shook their heads at the sight of Dubrovnik's battered walls and churches. But Dubrovnik's walls still stand. Vukovar, and countless nameless small towns and villages, are just heaps of smoking ruins. Thousands have died. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. Almost one and a quarter million are refugees.

For a whole period after 1945, it appeared that the national problem in Yugoslavia had been resolved. The old hatreds and racial antagonisms seemed to have been relegated to the history books.

Up to the recent period, and even after the secession of Slovenia and the civil war in Croatia, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims of Bosnia continued to live peacefully together. Now, like some monstrous epidemic of collective madness, the war has taken hold of Bosnia, where it has assumed a still bloodier character than the war in Croatia. What is the explanation for the carnage in Yugoslavia? And what message does it hold for Europe and the rest of the world?

For centuries the Balkans have been synonymous with wars and national conflicts. The word "Balkanization" has passed into the English language as an extreme expression of the splitting up of entire regions into tiny warring states. The spark which ignited the First World War was struck in the Balkans, which also played a role in the Second World War.

Centuries of migration and the mixing of the peoples have turned the Balkans into a complex patchwork quilt of language, nationality and religion : Greeks, Turks, Albanians, Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Slovenes, Vlachs, Bulgars, Germans, Hungarians and gypsies do not occupy neat spaces, conveniently separated by natural boundaries. They are inextricably mixed.

All attempts to "solve" the national problem on the Balkans by establishing small nation states have led to nothing. Even before the World War II, the more far-sighted representatives of Capital were forced to recognise the intractable nature of the problem.

A study produced by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, written months before the outbreak of war, when all eyes were once more fixed nervously on South-East Europe, had this to say;

"History and politics together have thus produced the extraordinary motley of nationalities that one finds in Macedonia and the Banat, in Southern Bessarolia, in the Dobrogea, and in Transylvania, to name only the most striking examples. One finds in these districts several nationalities not only inhabiting different villages side by side, but often three or even four of them with as many languages and nearly as many religions sharing one and the same village. In these conditions, it is difficult to see how the principle of national self-determination could ever lead to a satisfactory political settlement in the Danubian region". (South Eastern Europe, A Political and Economic Survey. May 8th. 1939).

For centuries, the whole region was under the rule of Turkey. Beginning with Greece (1829), Serbia and Montenegro (1878), Rumania (1878), Bulgaria (1908) and Albania (1913) all secured their independence through wars and struggle. The Balkan wars (1912-13) and the First World War completed the process of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.


Through the Versailles Treaty, the victors of World War One divided up the spoils between themselves. Britain and France took the lion's share. The rising imperialist power of the U.S.A. consolidated its new world role. Its president Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the principle of "national self-determination", as a means of Balkanising Europe and securing the attachment of some of the smaller powers. The ones which supported the victorious camp of Anglo-American and French imperialism were thrown a few bones to chew over. They were allowed to take chunks of territory from their neighbours. Romania got Transylvania and part of Banat from Hungary, as well as Bessarolra from Russia and Bukovira from Austria. Czechoslovakia was carved out of the wreck of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yugoslavia was formed by the union of Serbia and Montenegro, with the former Austro-Hungarian territories of Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slavonia, Vojvodina and part of Banat.

The new states, created by a predatory peace treaty, forcibly united different nationalities and peoples regardless of their wishes. Thus, the seeds were planted for new wars, conflicts and racial strife.

Despite their formal independence, the tiny statelets were so much small change in the calculations of the big powers. Economically backward, they were dependent on the markets of Britain, France and Germany. With the exception of Czechoslovakia, they were viscious bonapartist dictatorships and feudal absolute monarchies.


In the case of Yugoslavia, in 1938, 71.2% of the population were occupied in agriculture, and only 12.3% in mining, industry and transport. In 1921, 51.5% of the population were illiterate. Even before the Nazi occupation, Yugoslavia was really a semi-colony of German imperialism. In the three years before the War, 40% of her imports came from Germany and 40% of her exports went there. From its foundation, the Yugoslav state was based on national oppression. The dominant Serbs oppressed the Croats, Slovenes and Macedonians. The relations between Croats and Serbs were particularly tense. Although the spoken language of both peoples is virtually identical, Croat is written in the Latin alphabet, while the Serbs use Cyrillic script. The predominant religion of the Croats is Roman Catholicism. In Serbia it is the Orthodox Church. Culturally, the Croats and Slovenes looked West towards the former Austro-Hungarian empire, while the Serbs had long been part of the Ottoman empire, and had pro-Russian tendencies.

The national oppression of the Croats, who were about 3.5 million before the War, compared to approximately 5 million Serbs, provided a fertile breeding-ground for reactionary nationalist demagogy. During the War, when Yugoslavia suffered the brutal occupation of German and Italian fascism, the Nazis established a puppet state in Croatia which was responsible for the mass murder of Serbs, Jews and gypsies. Once again the national question in the Balkans was used by the big imperialist powers to throttle and oppress all the peoples of the region.

The real war of resistance against German fascism and its Croat Ushtashe collaborators was not the bourgeois Serbian Chetniks, but the Stalinist partisan army, led by Joseph Broz Tito.


The bourgeois nationalist forces were rapidly crushed by the invaders. But Tito's guerilla forces waged a heroic struggle, which culminated in victory. The occupying forces were defeated partially by the Red Army, but to a greater extent by the Yugoslav partisans.

For more than 100 years, the democratic and progressive forces on the Balkans have striven to overcome national divisions and hatreds, and to unite the peoples of the Balkans on the basis of a federation, based on genuine equality and fraternal relations. However, on a capitalist basis, the idea of a Balkan Federation remained a hopeless utopia. Each national bourgeoisie, each feudal monarchist clique sought to dominate and exploit its neighbours.


Dialectically, formerly oppressed nations can become transformed into the most predatory imperialist states. The United States of America, after all, began as an oppressed colony of Britain. The newly independent small state on the Balkans, no sooner freed from the Ottoman yoke, engaged in a whole series of vicious wars of conquest against their neighbours. Behind the facade of "defence of national rights" and "self determination" lurked the national egotism and greed of the nascent bourgeoisie, expressed in the notion of "Greater Bulgaria", "Greater Romania", "Greater Serbia" and so on.

For generations, the weak bourgeoisie of the Balkan states demonstrated their total inability to solve any one of the problems of society. Not only were they incapable of overcoming the age-old problems of social and economic backwardness, but above all they failed to solve the national problem.

The rule of the landlords and capitalists not only meant the exacerbation of the national problem, with the increase of national oppression, fear and hatred, but the outward show of "national independence" barely disguised a humiliating dependence of even the biggest of these states on one or another of the imperialist powers

The abolition of landlordism and capitalism in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and other countries of Eastern Europe and the greater part of the Balkans after 1945 represented a great step forward. Had the revolution taken place in a healthy way, with the working class running society on democratic lines, the peoples of the Balkans could have at last begun to solve their problems on the basis of a democratic Socialist Federation.


However, under the leadership of the Stalinists, the revolution took place in a distorted, caricatured form. Tito, Dimitrov and the others manoevred between the classes to install totalitarian, one-party states in the image of Stalinist Russia.

Even so, Tito and Dimitrov initially proposed the formation of a Balkan Federation. This would have been a great step forward, although it was undoubtedly motivated by the interests of the Yugoslav and Bulgarian bureaucracies, who wished to join forces in order to withstand the pressure of Moscow. The narrow nationalism of the Russian bureaucracy prevented this from happening. Stalin brutally stamped on the plan for a Balkan Federation. Moscow deliberately maintained the national divisions on the Balkans, and "Balkanised" the whole of Eastern Europe, in order to facilitate its control.

A genuine Leninist regime would have immediately proposed the formation of a Socialist Federation, not only of the USSR and Eastern Europe, but also including China. Such a federation would have been in the interest of all the peoples.

The abolition of frontiers, and a common plan of production, based on democratic control and management, and the harmonious integration of all the economies, would have led to a rapid increase in living standards for all.

The area around the Danube basin forms a national economic unit. For centuries it has been one of the principal trade routes and channels of communications in Europe, and, furthermore, constitutes a corridor linking Central with South Eastern Europe, and Europe with the Steppes of Russia and Asia Minor.

A Socialist Federation would have linked all the economies of the region - Poland, with its enormous reserves of coal, Czechoslovakia and East Germany with their industry and technology, the oil and wheatfields of Romania, the agriculture of Bulgaria, and the huge populations, heavy industry, vast agriculture potential and immense reserves of raw materials of the USSR and China.

Instead, each bureaucracy pursued its own narrow-minded path, developing "its own" economy within the confines of outdated national frontiers. Thus, we had the insane spectacle of backward agricultural Romania and tiny Albania attempting to develop heavy industry. It is a scandalous fact that the degree of integration of the nationalised economies of Eastern Europe was less than that established within the capitalist economies of the Common Market. The pursuit of the national interests of each bureaucratic clique, under the guise of "socialism in one country", led to the clash between Tito and Stalin in the late 1940s.

Thereafter, Yugoslavia developed in isolation from the other Stalinist states. Nevertheless, despite its specific peculiarities and "liberal" image, which made certain self-styled "Marxists" describe it as a "healthy workers' state", Yugoslavia remained a bureaucratic, totalitarian one-party state.

Nevertheless, the introduction of a nationalised planned economy, in spite of the bureaucracy, permitted a rapid development of the production forces. For a time, the economy went forward at a rate of 10% per annum. There was a major development of industry and the working class, which became a majority of the population. Illiteracy was abolished, living standards rose.


Lenin explained that, in essence, the national question is a question of bread. The development of the productive forces and the increase in living standards led to a decline in national tension. Despite the terrible massacres and pogroms of the war years, Serbs and Croats, Muslims and Macedonians lived in peace. There was an increased mingling of the population, with a large-scale emigration from the land to the cities and from one Republic to another.

Tito, himself a Croat, worked an elaborate constitution which was intended to establish a balance between the different Republics, avoiding the domination of one nationality. For a long time, it appeared to work.

In fact, however, each national bureaucracy in the six Yugoslav Republics was pursuing its own narrow interests. The Serb, Croat and Sloven bureaucrats, each building "socialism" in their own Republics, jealously looked over their shoulder at the others.

After the break with Moscow, Tito was compelled to allow Yugoslavia to participate in world markets. Concessions were made to capitalist tendencies and "de-centralisation". Yugoslavia swallowed the advice of Western economists, which led to hyper-inflation and one million unemployed. Another million were forced to emigrate to Western Europe, especialy to West Germany, to find work. The decline in the economy caused the return of what Marx described as "all the old crap". National antagonisms, long submerged, came to the surface in a exacerbated form. The narrow-minded bureaucracies, especially in the wealthier and more industrilised Republics of Slovenia and Croatia, looked for a scapegoat in the link with the more backward provincies, to the East and South. Injected with the nationalist poison of Stalinism, they increasingly began to lean on nationalist and chauvinist elements in their own Republics.


The centrifugal tendencies which were already building up beneath the surface, began to acquire a rapid momentum after the death of Tito. The reaction of the central bureaucracy in Belgrade, represented by Slobodan Milosevic, was to unleash the terrible forces of Great Serbian chauvinism. All the most rotten and retrograde elements, long suppressed, rose to the surface: monarchism, racism, the Orthodox Church and militant nationalism, with the war-cry of Greater Serbia "on its lips".

The bloody suppression of the Albanians, who are now a big majority in Kossovo, which the Serbs regard as historically theirs, was a warning to all the Republics. But far from curbing separatist sentiments, it had the opposite effect. Fear of increased Serb domination rapidly increased the tendency towards a rupture.

The breakaway of Slovenia, the most developed part of Yugoslavia, last June encouraged the Croat leaders to follow suit. Belgrade was ill-prepared for the actions of the Slovenes, but Croatia was a different matter. The Yugoslav army, together with Serbs irregulars ("Chetniks") confronted the Croats in a fratricidal war.

The intention of the Yugoslav military caste was to prevent the break-up of Yugoslavia. But in practice, the Serb-dominated army has been used for the purposes of carving a Greater Serbia out of the wreckage of the old federation. To accomplish this end the most atrocious methods have been used.


The war aims of Belgrade are self-evident, Slobodan Milosevic seeks to hold onto power by stealing the clothes of the extreme Serb nationalists. In Croatia, the murderous "chetnik" guerillas, with regular army backing, were sent to seize chunks of Croatian territory, driving out the inhabitants by the most brutal means, under the pretext of "protecting" the Serb minority.

This war had absolutely nothing progressive about it on either side. While the Serbian "chetniks" carried out atrocities against Croat villages, the Croat "Ushtashe" did the same to Serbs, living in Croatia. The anti-Serb chauvinism of Franjo Tjudman is the mirror image of the anti-Croat chauvinism of Slobodan Milosevic. The nationalist regime in Croatia glorified the exploits of the pro-Nazi wartime "Ushtashe" who massacred the Serbs. And now, the nationalist regimes of both Zagreb and Belgrade are engaged in a cynical exercise of carving up the neighbouring Republic of Bosnia-Herzogavina. That is the real reactionary content of the war-cry of "self-determination" in present-day Yugoslavia.

The people of Bosnia had no interest in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Its 4.3 million inhabitants are a complex mixture of Serbs (33%), Croats (17%) and Muslims (44%). There are no really clearly defined areas, but a jumble of towns and villages of all the different ethnic groups. Most areas are of mixed nationality, and the rate of inter-ethnic marriages is very high. Thus, for Bosnia, the idea of a split on national lines is a terrible nightmare.

Faced with the fait-accompli of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia were afraid of coming under Serb domination in a new "Serbo-slavia". Similar considerations led the people of Macedonia to vote for independence. The population of Bosnia voted in a referendum by 61% for the same thing. But in the given situation, problems are solved not by votes but by guns and tanks.

Although, probably a majority of Bosnian Serbs would have accepted independence, Belgrade immediately began a war in Bosnia under the old excuse of "defending" the Serb minority. The methods used to "cleanse" whole areas of Bosnia of Muslims were even more savage than in Croatia.

Despite the hypocritical pledges of Tjudman and Milosevic to respect Bosnia's territorial integrity, Croat and Serb leaders met in Graz on May 6th to plot the division of Bosnia between them. Serbian gunmen, by prior agreement, abandoned the town of Kiseljak to Bosnian Croats. Only where Bosnian Serbs and Croats disagree over the spoils do they fight each other. The Bosnian Muslims, the largest group, are not consulted. The reactionary character of the war on both sides is transparent.

Eastern Europe

The war in Yugoslavia has given the excuse for imperialism to intervene, as so often in the past. The collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe was the green light for German imperialism to move once more into the Balkans. Germany's aim was to break up into its constituent parts, in order to increase its influence over Slovenia and Croatia, the most developed areas. This has exposed the existence of national antagonisms within the E.E.C. itself, which have not been eliminated by the move towards greater economic integration.

The other European powers are uneasy about the colossal economic weight of Germany. Despite the problems caused by German unification, the loger term prospect of a mighty industrial power of 80 million people in the heart of Europe is not at all to the liking of Britain and France.

The diplomatic manoeuvres of Germany in Yugoslavia sounded a warning bell in the Foreign Offices of Paris and London. The British and French made it clear that they were against the break-up of Yugoslavia. Initially, their policy gave tacit support for Serbia, until their hand was forced by Bonn's unilateral recognition of Slovanian and Croatian independence. Cursing beneath their breath, the British and French were compelled to fall into line.

The subterranean power struggle between Germany, Britain and France, reveals the existence of deep-going contradictions which were partially covered over by the long period of economic growth, but will increasingly come to the forefront in a period of capitalist downswing. The European powers and the United States do not want to be drawn into a bloody and intractable war. But the break-up of Yugoslavia, which now seems inevitable, will completely destabalise the Balkans, especially in the event of a downturn in the world economy.

Serbia, despite its relative economic backwardness, remains the most powerful military state in the region. The ruling clique in Belgrade is pursuing the single-minded aim of establishing "Greater Serbia" over the ruins of Yugoslavia.

All the peace treaties, diplomatic manoeuvres and "ceasefires" in the world will not stop it. The systematic shelling of Sarajevo, like the bombardment of Dubrovnik and Vukovar, is intended to soften up the other side (in this case Bosnia) to accept Serbia's terms at the peace talks organised by the E.E.C. in Lisbon.

The so-called "withdrawal" of the Yugoslav army from Bosnia is a ruse, an attempt, to prevent international sanctions. In reality, the only troops to pull out are Serbs who live in Serbia. Those Serbian Troops who come from Bosnia will remain behind, as will the Serb "militias". On the other hand, despite the presence of UN troops (or thanks to it) the Serbs have now tightened their hold on the conquered areas of Croatia. The Serb militias in Croatia will refuse to disband, arguing the need to protect the Serb population against reprisals by returning Croat forces. These Serb-held areas represent no less that one third of the former territory of Croatia.


Sooner or later Belgrade will try to hold referendums in Serb-held areas of Croatia and Bosnia which will vote for union with a new "Yugoslavia" formed by Serbia and Montenegro. The creation of Greater Serbia will sow the seeds of new wars and upheavals.

Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks, Albanians, Croats and Hungarians are all affected. The Macedonian question which was at the centre of two wars on the Balkans and caused terrible violence and upheavals between the Wars, has raised its head once more with the risk of Bulgaria and Greece becoming embroiled.

On the other hand, in the aftermath of the Gulf War and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has ambitions of becoming a regional super-power. It is extending its influence in the Caucacus and Central Asia, where it is vying for positions with Iran. But it is also casting its eye on the Balkans, as the "protector" of the Muslims in Bosnia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

The break-up of Yugoslavia represents a crime against all the peoples of the area. Serbia, formally the victor has inherited a ruined country. The Serbian economy is collapsing. Inflation is running at an incredible annual rate of 36,000%. In terms of hard currency, Serbs earn one-tenth of what they did twelve months ago, and with the imposition of new tariff barriers and the collapse of trade with the former Republic, the workers and peasants, whether Serbs, Croats or Muslims, will pay a terrible price in unemployment, inflation and poverty, in the coming years. Large numbers of embittered refugees will add to the general chaos, providing fresh material for new wars, terrorism and conflict.

All the Republic benefited from the unity of Yugoslavia in the past. To go back to the creation of tiny nation states, each with its own army, taxes, currency and tariff barriers, would be crazy from an economic and social point of view. The so-called "independence" of these statelets would be a farce. As in the past, they would be mere puppets of the big imperialist powers, engaged in endless wars and upheavals.

Socialist Federation

The European powers look with dread at the prospect of new wars on the European mainland. They have proved powerless to halt the war in Yugoslavia, despite all their efforts, just as they were powerless to prevent the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Future wars, civil wars, revolution and counter-revolution on the Balkans will threaten the stability of the whole of Europe.

The history of the last eighty years has shown that neither capitalism nor Stalinism can solve the problems of the peoples of the Balkans. On a capitalist basis, the only future which awaits them is one of fratricidal strife, war and all-pervading misery.

The workers and peasants have no interest in such a future. Only the victory of the working class can point the way forward on the basis of a Socialist Federation of the Balkans, which would pool all the resources of the area in a common plan of production.

The democratic administration of industry and the state by the working class is the prior condition for a free and harmonious development of society, and the establishment of equal and fraternal relations between the peoples.

The establishment of a Balkan Socialist Federation, with full autonomy for the different nationalities, would be the starting point for the Socialist United States of Europe, and the Socialist Federation of the world - the only alternative to the nightmarish future which confronts the human race under capitalism.

Alan Woods,
June 1992