#10 - Yugoslavia, from break-up to civil war - warlords and politicians against the population

Apr 1993


It is now 20 months since the first shots of the present civil war were fired in Yugoslavia. What was a stable state which had successfully maintained its cohesion for over 35 years as a federative republic, has all but disintegrated. In its place has emerged a conglomeration of mushrooming and unstable shapeless statelets, each waging a bitter fight against its neighbours in what has developped into a protracted and bloody civil war.

Of the six republics - Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia - which made up the Yugoslav Federation, Slovenia has already gone its own way and is striving to integrate into Germany's sphere of influence. Serbia and Croatia, both now independent states, are the main protagonists in the civil war. And while the most spectacular battlefields of this war are now concentrated in Bosnia, the war itself continues within the territories of both Serbia and Croatia, away from the spotlights, but nonetheless a constant threat. Having been drawn unwillingly into the confrontation, the rulers of Bosnia may now be on their course to become the third significant protagonist in this war, with their own specific war aims. And there may be others joining in the confrontation in the near future. The alliance maintained so far by Serbia with Montenegro is becoming more and more unsteady every day. Just as is the apparent neutrality of Macedonia. In both these republics, centrifugal forces are at work, pushing both regimes towards playing an active role in the war, if for no other reason than fear of being forced into it like Bosnia. Furthermore, centrifugal forces are at work too in the former autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina, hoping to take opportunity of Serbia's military involvement elsewhere to achieve their own independence, whatever the cost might be.

These 20 months of civil war have already resulted in tens of thousands casualties. Over a million refugees from the war zone - some forcefully displaced by one armed faction or another but most simply running away from the battle zones - are scattered alongside the former Yugoslav borders, in allegedly "sympathetic" countries which make a display of hospitality by restraining the refugees within army-controlled camps.

Apart from providing a stage for worn out politicians like EEC chief negociator David Owen or for aspiring military "heroes" like General Morillon, the French chief in command of the UN forces, Western intervention has proved totally useless as far as preventing the expansion of the war, let alone stopping it. Thus, while the Western mediators were busy trying to reach a ceasefire in Bosnia, in January, the Croatian forces ostensibly defied the settlement reached months before with Serbia under UN supervision by moving into areas which were meant to be protected by the presence of the UN's "blue helmets".

None of the peace plans cobbled together by the UN have worked out so far. No sooner were they solemnly agreed by some of the rival factions than they were denounced by others, and sometimes by the same. Not surprisingly. None of these plans can cater for each of the numerous factions whose armed confrontation make up the fabric of the civil war. Even the carving up of Bosnia into nine autonomous statelets, under the Owen-Vance peace plan, cannot satisfy the warring factions.

Top UN officials are now coming up publicly with the assessment that, assuming the Owen-Vance plan was eventually agreed by all forces, guaranteeing it would take a permanent force of up to 50,000 UN soldiers well into the next century! And this assessment seems to be considered optimistic among UN circles since many UN officials do not even believe this peace plan to be workable under any circumstances.

There are simply too many rival factions involved. And there is not enough space in Bosnia, or even in Yugoslavia for that matter, to allow each one of them a meaningful territory. On the other hand there is neither incentive nor compulsion for any one of these factions to give in in front of the others. Nor is there one single faction strong enough to impose its rule on the others. In other words, there seems to be no end in sight to this civil war. And in any case, there can be no stable solution to the conflict as it stands, which would be to the advantage of any section of the population of the former Yugoslavia.

But who cares about the fate of the population in this crisis? The warring rival factions which have torn Yugoslavia apart? Certainly not. For them, the interests of the populations, of their "nations" as they say, are no more than a propaganda gimmick aimed at using them as a stage army and making them hostages for the sake of their own ambitions. As to the West's so-called "humanitarian" effort, it is only targetted at protecting the rich powers' interests; it is only concerned with political stability and "law and order" in the region, not with the aspirations and interests of its inhabitants.

At no point have the populations of the former Yugoslavia been given a say in the present crisis. The Western claims about the wonders of liberalisation and the so-called "return to democracy" in this part of the world are lies, as much as their now blaming the civil war on some poisonous inheritance from Tito's years. Lies too, the fairy tale, or rather the horror story, describing the Yugoslav population as a bunch of hereditary nationalist fanatics. Whether the aspiring rulers in Yugoslavia and their Western mentors like it or not, the truth is that had the Yugoslav population been offered another choice, another perspective, none of this would ever have happened in the first place.

From the break-up of Yugoslavia to the civil war

To start with, let us recall the unfolding of events over the past 20 months. Superficially, one can be under the impression that the whole process leading to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of the present civil war was completed in just a few months, sometime between 1989 and mid-1991. In reality, this process took a whole decade to unfold. It started with the crisis of succession opened by Tito's death in 1980. There were many warning signals that a conflict was in the making throughout the eighties. But for a long time, this conflict remained largely hidden within the intricate machinery of the Yugoslav state and the privileged ruling layers.

Slovenia and Croatia leave the ship

When did this looming conflict turn into an overt one is difficult to say. But by 1988, Serbia's new strong man, Milosevic, was already voicing the alleged historical rights of Serbia over the rest of Yugoslavia and using an extensive nationalist demagogy to build up support for himself within the Serbian population.

Then, in September 1989, the Slovenian Assembly followed suite, by taking the unprecedented step of endorsing a constitutional amendment which explicitly allowed the republic to secede from the Yugoslav Federation. By January 1990 the Serbian authorities had retaliated by calling an economic boycott between the two republics while those of Slovenia had introduced border controls. A whole year of economic and political tit-for-tat warfare between the two governments followed. Slovenia's economic situation was deteriorating fast, although not as fast as in the rest of the federation. It was not too difficult for the Slovenian leaders to find an easy excuse by blaming the 80% rise in unemployment and the virtual collapse of Slovenia's economy on Serbia. Not surprisingly the referendum held on 26 December 1990 came out overwhelmingly in favour of Slovenia's independence.

In the meantime, very similar developments were taking place in Croatia. Except that, unlike Slovenia, the Croatian territory is cluttered with pockets of ethnic Serbs, some of them quite significant in size. This time, the demagogic nationalist war of words between governments was matched by a much more dangerous and immediate threat of strife within Croatia itself.

While Croatia's government and most of its newly-formed so-called "democratic" parties were whipping up anti-Serbian feelings and agitating the banner of a long-forgotten independent and allegedly prosperous Greater Croatia, aspiring warlords in the Serbian-populated regions of Croatia were busy preparing a future for themselves. And by September 1990, "autonomous Serbian republics" were proclaimed in two of Croatia's largest Serbian provinces - Krajina in the South and Slavonia in the North.

The conflict came to a head in June 1991, with the secession of both Slovenia and Croatia. One would have thought that breaking up a 46 years old country was a rather serious and desperate move. In the event, the Slovenian and Croatian governments turned the occasion into a farcical race for the dubious glory of being first to opt out of the Yugoslav Federation and establish an independent republic. This was little more than symbolic, but it showed that the looming break-up of Yugoslavia was not likely to end the rivalries between the new independent states.

Civil war in Croatia

The first shots in the civil war were fired on June 26, when Serb paramilitaries launched an attack against a police station in a mixed Serb-Croat area of the Krajina. For the following ten days, though, the spotlight was turned on the unconvincing attempts of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) to take over the border posts in Slovenia. The JNA conscripts were obviously unprepared and unwilling to fight. The fighting was comparatively light, leaving forty-nine dead on Slovenia's side before the Slovenian government was allowed to have its way. Meanwhile, in Croatia, the fighting was spreading in Krajina between Serbian paramilitaries and Croatian armed gangs retaliating. But it was in eastern Croatia, in Slavonia, that the worst fighting took place at this stage with the armed intervention of Croat irregulars against local officials who were trying to defuse the tension.

By August 1991, the Belgrade government had had enough time to consolidate the JNA by getting rid of its unreliable elements while the Croatian government had been stockpiling weapons smuggled from Hungary and re-organising its police force into a full-blown army. The siege of Osijek and Vukovar, both in eastern Slavonia, by Serb and JNA forces, began. JNA Mig fighters were used to terrorise the population. The siege lasted nearly three months, reducing both towns to rubble. By then refugees had fled across the border to Hungary in their tens of thousands. Then, in October, the JNA turned to southern Croatia and launched its blockade and shelling of Dubrovnik, which was to last until the end of 1991.

In the rest of Croatia, where the JNA presence was sparse, fighting carried on with uneven fortunes. The newly-formed Croatian units started to regain some of the ground lost since the summer, triggering an immediate reinforcement of Serb irregulars, this time with heavy equipment "borrowed" from the JNA. So that, by the time a ceasefire that held was arranged by the United Nations in January 1992, one-third of Croatia had been turned into a battlefield. Thousands of lives had been lost and, according to the Red Cross, just under half a million people had become refugees. In itself, the ceasefire solved nothing. It only froze military positions as they were. The Serbian paramilitaries remained entrenched in the Serbian-populated areas of Croatia while Croatian irregulars, and often regulars, went on the rampage against isolated Serbian communities in the rest of Croatia.

From Croatia to Bosnia

At that point, the civil war shifted to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In March 1992, Serb nationalist groups and paramilitaries retaliated against the organisation of a referendum over Bosnia's future status by resorting to terrorist tactics. Barricades went up and snipers appeared in Sarajevo, as well as street demonstrations for and against Bosnia's independence. In the end Bosnia's president, Izetbegovic, agreed joint police/JNA patrols to try and defuse the tension.

On 6 April 1992, the EEC recognised Bosnia as an independent state. The following day, a "Serbian Republic of Bosnia" was proclaimed and seceded from Bosnia, although what this grandiose and symbolic statement really meant was to become clear only later. Nevertheless, this was followed the next day, on 8 April, by the US recognising "en bloc" the independence of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

This last sequence of events triggered a general offensive of the Serb irregulars with the support of the JNA throughout eastern Bosnia. The blockade and shelling of Sarajevo started. Muslims were driven out from their villages along the banks of the River Drina on the boundary between Bosnia and Serbia. Small towns were occupied and declared part of the "Serbian Republic of Bosnia". And when this happened to the town of Zvornik, both Muslim and Serb inhabitants fled over the river into Serbia... In other parts of Bosnia, the balance of forces was reversed and Serb forces suffered severe setbacks like in Bosanski Brod, when thousands of Serbs were forced to flee the town after it was taken over by joint Muslim/Croat forces. Three days later the JNA had to abandon its ultra-modern military airport at Bihac in the middle of a Muslim area near the Croat border. And in June, the JNA suffered an even bigger setback with the loss of Mostar, capital of Herzegovina.

It was during this period that the phrase "ethnic cleansing" entered the vocabulary. Not so much because the driving out of whole populations from their towns and villages was a new phenomenon, since this had been current practice in parts of Croatia and Vojvodina in the previous period. What made it different in Bosnia though was the systematic way in which it was organised by all protagonists. According to the UN Committee for Refugees, up to 10,000 Bosnians per day were losing their homes. By the autumn there were more than 2 million refugees, the majority still in Yugoslavia but over 200,000 in Germany.

On 17 June 1992, the Croat-Muslim alliance which had operated so far on the ground against the Serbian forces was made official by a military treaty between the Croatian and Bosnian governments. Yet a few weeks later, on 3 July, a "Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia" was declared in south-western Herzegovina and, in October, the Croat paramilitaries took over Mostar, the capital of Herzeg-Bosnia, held so far by the government's Muslim-dominated Territorial Defence. Soon there was growing evidence that the leaders of the self-proclaimed "Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia" were making deals with the Serbs behind the scene, and that possibly the Croatian government itself was involved. In any case, suddenly the Croat forces appeared to have stopped fighting the Serbian forces allowing them to regain some of the ground lost in various parts of Bosnia, thereby triggering yet another another flood of refugees away from these areas, this time of Muslims. By December, however, the process was reversed, this time in eastern Bosnia when 10,000 Serbs fled across the river Drina in front of advancing Muslim forces.

Since the beginning of this year, the forefront of the scene, seen from here, seems to have been occupied by Western humanitarian aid. One after the other, while denouncing the atrocities of the other camps, each protagonist has been calling for the West to relieve the plight of their own side by providing food and medecine. At the same time each of them have shown their preparedness to use this humanitarian aid to try and blackmail the Western powers into choosing sides.

Atrocities are undeniable and revolting facts in this war, just as in any war. But the strident denunciation of these atrocities by Western politicians who have so often denied and covered up similar atrocities when they were carried out by their own troops, in Vietnam, Algeria or Kenya, and more recently the Falklands, Iraq and Somalia, is even more revolting. As to the Western humanitarian aid issue, it has turned into a charade and a mere instrument in the propaganda war, which conveniently conceals the reality of the Yugoslav war and the responsibilities of those behind it, directly or indirectly.

On the ground, the fighting has never ceased in Bosnia, with constant advances and setbacks for all camps, with hundreds of thousands being pushed back and forth according to the fortunes of each camps and with a steady flow of thousands of unwilling but desperate people being forced to join the fighting forces in the hope of saving their skins and those of their families. Moreover, since January, fighting has resumed in some parts of Serb-held territory inside Croatia that were supposedly protected by the UN ceasefire, thereby creating a serious risk of the war in Bosnia extending again to Eastern Croatia and even Western Serbia.

So the issue is not that of more or less charity by allegedly well-meaning Western powers, as they would have us believe. The issue is that of a whole population being torn to pieces by a war which it never wanted and was forced into; it is that of the responsibilities of those politicians and factions who consciously chose to wage this war; it is finally, whether there is a way for the peoples of the former Yugoslavia to put an end to this war and to get rid once and for all of whatever and whoever caused it.

There are no "nations" at war in the former Yugoslavia

Portraying the civil war in Yugoslavia as a war between nationalities, as has been done so often by the Western media, is not a mere statement of facts as it purports to be. It is implicitly making two assumptions. Firstly that the gulf between the nationalities which made up Yugoslavia decades ago was so deep that it could still make them mortal enemies today. Secondly that national differences within a population inevitably arouse aspirations towards setting up separate states and that this is the only viable solution in such a situation.

It is rather ironical to hear this last argument coming from the political representatives of the Western bourgeoisies. As far as we know, the American mediator Cyrus Vance has never gone on record suggesting the setting up of a Black state in the USA in response to the national aspirations of Black Americans. Nor has a most loyal subject of the British Crown like David Owen ever suggested that Northern Irish Catholics should be allowed to have their own statelet nor that Gibraltar or Hong Kong should be left alone once and for all by British occupants! Yet both of them are keen proponents of a plan that would reduce Bosnia to a myriad of unviable statelets, allegedly justified on the grounds of national differences.

As to the reality of national differences within the population of the former Yugoslavia, there is no denying that they existed and that it was complex patchwork of nationalities. The question rather is to gauge how deeply divided the population was by these differences before the civil war. And even today the question remains whether the existing divisions are the result of these differences or of something else.

Overall the two largest national groups identified as such in the former Yugoslavia, and the ones described as most antagonistic to each other, were the Serbs with 36% of the total population and the Croats with almost 20%. Yet what difference is there between these two groups? Historically they are one single people - southern Slavs - which settled in the region in the 7th century. They speak the same language, known as Serbo-Croat, and are, and have been for 75 years, tightly intertwined geographically. The only thing that makes them different is the fact that in the days when the Yugoslav territory was split between the Austrian empire of the Habsburgs and the Turkish Ottoman empire, the Croats happened to be on the Austrian side while the Serbs were more often than not on the side of the Ottomans. This has resulted in a few cultural differences - the Serbs write their language using the cyrillic alphabet while the Croats use the latin alphabet, and the Greek orthodox church was predominant among the Serbs while Catholicism was predominant among the Croats.

Much the same can be said of the so-called Bosnian "Muslims", who made up almost 10% of the population of the former Yugoslavia, and are in fact southern Slavs, whose integration in the society of the Ottoman empire was taken further than that of the Serbs, in particular in terms of religion. Or of the Montenegrins whose only difference with the Serbs is one of regional identification. The Macedonians, who represent 5.6% of the overall population, would only show similar regional differences were it not for the decision made in 1945 to create from scratch a Yugoslav-Macedonian written language which was closer to Bulgarian than the predominently Serbo-Croat dialect spoken at the time. Likewise the Slovenes are regionally-based Croats whose language has taken a different course.

In addition, two national groups stand as clearly separate - the Albanians, with 9.1% of the population, concentrated in Kosovo and part of Macedonia, and the Hungarians, with 1.4%, who are only to be found in Vojvodina, on the Hungarian border.

Leaving aside these last two groups who make up a small minority of the Yugoslav population overall, surely, with the development of education, the knowledge of several alphabets and even several related languages, has become extremely widespread and differences in this respect are no longer serious. As to religion, it was no longer a major factor in social life in Yugoslavia anyway.

So what was, and is still left in reality, of these national differences are minor cultural differences - names, folk traditions, feelings akin to the regional pride that is found in any long-unified country, language in a few cases - in any case nothing that can be a serious obstacle to all these people coexisting within the same state. All the more so as, in the case of the three largest national groups in particular, the mixing of population has resulted in long standing integration of large sections of them who live and work together within the fabric of the Yugoslav society and economy.

By and large one could in fact argue that the present national differences in the former Yugoslavia are no more significant than those between the English, Scots and Welsh in the last century, or than those between the various people that came together initially to build many of today's Western countries. Yet who would consider seriously the viability of an independent Scottish state, except for lunatics and politicians desperate for votes?

This of course does not mean that all national differences are necessarily and automatically evened out by history. Spain and the Basque country show that more than that can be required in certain cases. But in Western countries, such cases are the exception rather than the rule. Why then should we be expected to believe that the former Yugoslavia is a special case?

Tito - a (dead) scapegoat that comes in handy

Western politicians, as well as today's rulers in the former Yugoslavia, all have a final answer as to why Yugoslavia should be such a special case. That it is the inheritance of Tito, the sins of what they call Tito's "communist" regime.

Yet, leaving aside the stupidity of calling Tito's regime "communist", it is rather ironical that anyone should blame Tito for national tensions in Yugoslavia. After all, whatever our criticisms of Tito's regime may be, he was more successful than any of his predecessors in getting the different national components that made up Yugoslavia to work together and build an economy and a country. And certainly, he was more successful than celebrated heroes of Western imperialism like those architects of the Treaty of Versailles, David Lloyd George and George Clemenceau, whose attempts at building a Yugoslav state around the Serbian crown in 1918, failed to result in developing a modern country. True, their aim was first and foremost to create a lasting counterweight to Germany in the Balkans. But they ended up creating a situation of permanent instability and looming civil war, with the emergence, as early as 1934, of a strong fascist nationalist movement in Croatia in particular.

On the contrary, the main feature of Tito's march to power was his ability to rise above national differences, leading Serbs, Croats and Muslims to stand shoulder to shoulder against the return of the old Western-backed regimes. This, in addition to the attempts of Britain and later Russia to intervene in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia which were successfully thwarted by Tito, gave him and his regime enough popularity and prestige to cement the unity between all national groupings in the country.

Despite the undemocratic nature of his regime, Tito was always very careful to achieve a balance between all nationalities. The very setup of the Federation of republics, as codified in particular in the 1974 constitution, was aimed at giving equal rights to all national groups regardless of their size, thereby preventing the Serbs, in particular, from dominating the regime despite their greater numbers. Therefore, on the one hand Tito strived to curb Greater Serbian chauvinism while at the same time providing a stable arrangement for the three million or so Serbs living outside Serbia's boundaries. Thus Vojvodina, where large minorities (Hungarians and Croats in particular) were intertwined with a Serbian majority of just over 50%, was turned into an autonomous province within Serbia in order to achieve a balance between the Serb majority and the non-Serb minorities. Likewise, national rights, particularly in the fields of culture and language, were always recognised and respected, something that few of today's Western powers can boast of ever having achieved!

Another factor which quickened integration of national groupings was the post-war industrialisation of the country. Where an industrial project was to be undertaken, specialists and workers were needed. These could often not be provided locally so people came from other areas. This has had social consequences. In the last 45 years there have been almost 800,000 "mixed" marriages. In 1981 more than 1.2m called themselves "Yugoslav by nationality" an increase of nearly a million over the previous census ten years earlier. Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of the regions which benefited most from industrialisation and the resulting integration of nationalities.

After Tito's death - the crisis of succession

In 1980 Tito died. But he was no fool and he certainly knew all about the ambitions and the ruthlessness of his peers. Rather than leaving a vacuum that could be an invitation for ambitious politicians to try to build political support on nationalist demagogy, Tito had devised a system of collective leadership by which the federal presidency would rotate annually among the different republics.

But given the absence of democracy and control from below, this rotation could not totally prevent a massive power struggle developing between rival factions of the ruling party for the succesion of Tito. These factions took different forms at different times. But in the end, the strongest factions turned out to be those whose power basis were the ruling machineries in the individual Yugoslav Republics.

The relative decentralisation of the economic machinery and the devolution of most controls to the republics was another decisive factor in a situation where the world economic crisis was having devastating effect of the comparatively weak Yugoslav economy. Those who were in control of the strongest economic machineries were tempted to save their lifestyles and privileges at the expense of the poorer republics.

Under Tito the prestige of the regime was such that social stability could be maintained without its hand becoming too heavy. After Tito's death the whole regime lost prestige. With the economy worsening, stability was only maintained by the bureaucracy tightening its grip. Blaming the largest republic for all evils, and accusing Serbian oppression, became the obvious and convenient excuse used by the other republics' leaders. And it was all the more easy as the Serbian leaders were themselves using the numerical strength of their republic and the large numbers of Serbs living outside Serbia to increase their own grip on the country as a whole. Symetrically, accusing the much poorer Albanians of Kosovo of being an expensive drag for Serbia's economy was also an easy demagogy for the Serbian leaders. The recent growth of the Lombard League in Italy, on a programme that is nothing but blaming the poorer southern regions for the rise of unemployment in the richer north, gives a clear picture of how this happened in Yugoslavia.

Indeed moral or political scruples were not likely to stop the privileged layers from whipping up nationalist hatred if it could help them to remain in power and, even better, to boost their influence. For they were a corrupt bunch, living a parasitic life at the expense of a poor country under the disguise of a so-called "socialist" system. Nothing was too luxurious for them. They had villas in the country, private swimming pools, expensive Mercedes and high salaries, not to mention bank accounts and sometimes even businesses abroad.

Not that nationalist forces had completely disappeared under Tito. There had been all sorts of centrifugal forces emerging from time to time in the republics. But in most cases their nationalist language were only a thin disguise used by some section of the privileged layers to conceal a very obvious attempt at increasing their privileges at the expense of the population. And by and large, the prestige of Tito and of the League of Yugoslav Communists had been strong enough to contain these attempts with the support of large sections of the population.

Only in one case had Tito been forced to resort to more extreme, and potentially dangerous, measures. In 1971, during what came to be known as the "Croatian Spring", a whole layer of mostly discontented middle-class joined behind nationalist demands hoping to improve their own lot and to gain the material and social status enjoyed by the middle-class of the rich Western countries. This time the rebellion was serious enough to force Tito to undertake a wholesale purge among the ruling circles of the Croatian republic and to seek support among Croatia's minority Serbs who had been left aside by the leaders of the "Croatian Spring".

To sum up, it was not Tito's achievements but rather the inability of his successors to settle his succession within the framework that he had created, and their exasperation and resulting rivalries under catastrophic economic conditions, that opened the way for the resurgence of nationalist forces in Yugoslavia.

D.I.Y. guide to building a nationalist movement

As soon as the doors were thrown open to liberalisation in the late '80s, scores of new parties emerged in every republic - 30 within a month in Serbia and 100 in Slovenia less than two years after independence! Or at least they insisted on their "newness" in order to build support.

In reality there was nothing very new in any of these revamped versions of old, and sometimes very old, parties. Some were just factions of the local section of the ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) under another name. Others were attempts at reviving ancient parties the existence of which had been confined to the memories of a few nostalgic old-timers, or in the best cases, to the communities of a few obscure suburbs in the big cities of Australia or Canada.

Most importantly, many if not all of these not-very-new parties were only the political expression of one or another among the rival factions that had existed among the privileged layers over the previous period. Many embarked in a more or less overt nationalist drive, claiming to be the sole representatives of one section or another within one of the old nationalities that made up Yugoslavia and demanding more rights and more space for their own selected lot. The new parties did not waste much time in justifying their demands, since these demands had no ideological basis whatsoever and were solely tailored to allow them to fill as much political space as possible as quickly as possible. No sooner were they launched, often by just a handful of individuals, than they engaged in a furious struggle to gain a power base.

Few of those who led these parties had started their careers as nationalists. Many like the future presidents of, in fact, all six republics had spent most of their past political career in the League of Communists. Others like Dobroslav Paraga, today a prominent leader of the Croatian nationalist right, had become famous as civil rights activists under Tito! What was taking place therefore at that point was not so much the resurgence of a nationalist movement which had been forced underground for decades by Tito's regime, than a sharp turn taken by all sorts of seasoned politicians towards strident nationalist demagogy as a means of bidding for power.

Serbia - Milosevic wins the Great-Serbian contest

What provided a pretext for politicians to revive Serbian nationalism was a social explosion in Serbia's autonomous province of Kosovo, in March 1981. Kosovo was by far the poorest part of Serbia. At a time when the Yugoslav economy was under terrible strain due to its heavy debts, Kosovo was bound to suffer most. The authorities' crack down in the wake of demonstrations triggered a wave of riots which only ended with the enforcement of martial law by federal security troops.

In retaliation, the Serbian authorities, anxious to justify the repression in Kosovo, as well as to divert discontentment over their economic bankruptcy, blamed the crisis on Kosovo Albanians. This explanation was then expanded to include all the minorities living in Serbia and the autonomous republics of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

Among the privileged layers a number of intellectuals soon proved their willingness to go even further along this road. Thus a petition signed by 200 intellectuals, some of them very well known writers and doctors, was circulated in 1986, accusing the authorities of condoning an alleged "genocide" of the 10% strong Serbian minority in Kosovo. Such accusations were nonsense. Nor were they meant to be credible anyway. The signatories' only aim was that of all demagogues - to provide a flag to the discontented. And some of the leaders of today's Great-Serbian nationalist groups arose from the movement around this petition - for instance the novellist Vuk Draskovic, leader of today's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) or Vojislav Seselj who relaunched the long-forgotten monarchist Chetnik movement.

However it was from within the ruling party that a Serbian nationalist leadership eventually emerged. An increasingly strong faction of the ruling layers was striving to build up its own influence by claiming a more extensive role for Serbia in the running of the Yugoslav federation. Its leading figures were Ivan Stambolic and his deputy Slobodan Milosevic.

In 1987, Milosevic endorsed Great-Serbian demagogy and embarked in a bid for power against his former mentor Stambolic. By December 1987, Milosevic had succeeded in ousting Stambolic. Less than two years later, he won a second victory when the autonomous status of Vojvodina and Kosovo were reduced and the latter placed under virtual direct control of the Serbian authorities and their local appointees. And by 1990, Milosevic was the unquestioned leader of the new Socialist Party of Serbia, the revamped Serbian section of the old ruling party.

In winning this campaign, Milosevic had also defused another potentially dangerous threat for the ruling layers - that of the working class. In Spring 1987, a wave of strikes had spread from Croatia and Slovenia to the rest of the country, against the wage freeze ordered by the federal government. Industrial unrest remained rife until the end of 1988, involving hundreds of thousands throughout the country, in what was certainly the largest strike wave in Yugoslavia since World War II.

But striking, measuring and showing their strength, could not in itself solve the problems of the working class. In a situation where the whole country was virtually bankrupt and threatened with a wave of chauvinism, workers needed more than just militancy, they needed a policy allowing them to join ranks across Yugoslavia and to win the support of the discontented masses. Unfortunately, what would have been needed to put forward such a policy, namely a revolutionary party, did not exist. Instead, the most radical language that the militant workers could hear was that of Milosevic and his supporters among the unofficial union leaders. Some workers were eventually taken in by the demagogues, while the majority were left disorientated and demoralised.

As a result, when the miners of Kosovo forced a general strike in the region over Milosevic's chauvinist coup against the autonomous status of Kosovo, they found no support from the rest of the Yugoslav working class and Milosevic was able to unleash a brutal repression including mass sackings - although he was unable to prevent the unrest from carrying on, in particular in the mines, for yet another year.

Croatia - armed militias competing for state power

In Croatia's first multi-party election, in April 1990, the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) emerged as the outright winner with a two-thirds majority. Its leader, Franjo Tudjman, a former general under Tito turned dissident during the 1971 "Croatian Spring", became Croatia's president.

The HDZ's election proclamation amounted to a hymn to nationalism, private property and conservative values. It spoke of "an end to the biological endangerment of Croatia" and a "speedy return of the scattered Croatian diaspora to their ancestral home." True, there was a clause guaranteeing the equality of citizens "regardless of nationality". But how credible was that to over 500,000 Serbs living within Croatia's borders, not to speak of other minorities, who were being subjected to daily doses of Croatia's supposedly heroic past from which they were so conspicuously excluded?

Tudjman's HDZ was by no means the only force standing on nationalist grounds. On the Croat side, its most prominent rival was the Croatian Party of Right (HNZ) which claimed the inheritance (and took the name) of the oldest Croat nationalist party formed in 1861 as well as that of the fascist Utasha movement. On the Serb side, Tudjman's main rival was Raskovic's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) whose power basis was the Krajina. By the time of the 1990 election, all these parties and a few others had their own private armies. Particularly the HSP whose paramilitary wing, the Croatian Defence Forces (HOS), was in a position to control parts of Croatia given the absence of a disciplined state police force. Not only was the HOS well supplied with weapons bought in Eastern Europe, it also had semi-official recruitment offices abroad, including one in London.

Caught between these rivals, Tudjman was left with no option other than to engage in a confrontation with Serbia. Taking any other course would have meant compromising on Croatia's independence and territories. It would also have meant offering power to the HSP on a silver platter, so to speak!

Reluctant or not, Tudjman showed no lack of determination, neither on the battlefield, nor in resorting to nationalistic demagogy, still less in enforcing his rule. After the civil war broke out, the power struggle between Tudjman's "legitimate" regime and the HSP/HOS continued looking very much like the on-going war of rival mafias, whose favourite combat method is to ambush the enemy commander and then run away.

In the end the HOS had to give in, or so it seemed, in the sense that HOS units were incorporated into the Croatian National guard - a rather pyrrhic victory, as it turned out for Tudjman, since it meant putting his rivals into positions of influence in his own army. The odds are that, even now, the power struggle with the HSP is simmering away in the background. One can wonder for instance whether it was the intervention of HOS units in Bosnia which forced Tudjman to involve Croatian regulars in the civil war or whether the activities of the HOS in Bosnia provided Tudjman with just the right excuse he needed to intervene.

At the end of the day this does not make much difference. What the Croatian population is left with is a so-called "democratic" regime in which political differences are resolved at gunpoint in the darkness of night, where the press has been hijacked by the HDZ using the cover of management teams appointed by the regime as part of the privatisation process. Ah but, as John Major would exclaim, this is at least a "multi-party democratic regime". A more accurate description would be a "multi-militia dictatorship"!

Bosnia - a playground for the warlords

Bosnia was certainly the most highly integrated republic in Yugoslavia. Its national components were intermingled in most towns and many rural areas. Industrialisation and urbanisation, the education of the younger generation, the high incidence of mixed marriages, the toleration for other cultures had all contributed a higher degree of national integration than anywhere else in the country. In the 1981 census nearly a quarter of the inhabitants of Sarajevo described themselves as Yugoslavs. And when fighting broke out in Slovenia and Croatia, the Bosnians at first ignored it.

Yet, the first multi-party election, held in 1990, involved parties organised along national lines. These were the Muslim Party of Democratic Action or SDA, the Bosnian HDZ, a local offshoot of Croatia's ruling party and the Bosnian SDS, linked to Croatia-based Serbian Democratic Party. Among the less important players was an organisation linked to the Serbian Renewal Movement called Young Bosnia - after the name of the terrorist group which was responsible for the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 thereby providing the justification for the first World Butchery...

Behind the apparence of power-sharing which emerged from the election, the reality was somewhat different. In the regions whichever party had local control used office to reward their supporters, throwing out functionaries who were not of the required nationality. The SDS had long been arming the Bosnian Serbs with the explicit or implicit help of the JNA. The Croatian HOS had been busy organising armed units recruited from Bosnian Croats, with or without Tudjman's agreement. And all sorts of Muslim organisations had been busy reinforcing their influence amongst the armed forces with the financial support of several Arab countries. Ironically the Bosnian president, Izetbegovic, had a long record as a religious activist. In particular he was the author of an "Islamic declaration" circulated in 1970 which advocated the organisation of society along religious lines in a country where the expression "Muslim" was much more a cultural than a religious description.

After civil war broke out in Bosnia, there were many changes of alliance. At first the official Bosnian regime was backed by Croatia, then the Croats changed their minds and joined in an alliance with Serbia. The "Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia" demanded 25% of Bosnia-Herzegovina around Mostar, under local warlord, Mate Boban, and planned to exclude Muslims from government. Meanwhile the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, was claiming control of some 65% of the Republic thanks partly to the presence of JNA units. So the Muslims with 44% of the population were to make do with 10% of the land!

So the Muslim leaders appear as the losers. As things stand today, Izetbegovic cannot expect Serbia and Croatia to allow him any space at all unless he proves prepared to make extensive concessions. His main problem, therefore, at this point in time is to avoid being squeezed between the two main protagonists. His policy of forcing the unwilling Muslim population into fighting, by ordering a general mobilisation or by preventing the population of Sarajevo from leaving the city before the siege began, is aimed at gaining time. He hopes to gain enough recognition from Western powers to retain some kind of power base, however small, as suggested by the Vance-Owen plan which proposes splitting Bosnia into ten autonomous statelets.

However the odds are that Izetbegovic's eyes, or if not his, certainly those of other Bosnian Muslim leaders, are turned towards a potentially much stronger power base, that of the Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. If this is their perspective, they will think they only have to hang around long enough for their time to come in the form of some home-brewed version of Muslim fundamentalism.

The nationalist plague

Nationalist feelings are therefore an instrument and plaything in the hands of rival factions seeking to secure or bolster up power for themselves. Where national divisions did not previously exist, except to a limited degree as cultural traditions, the rival cliques have built them, from scratch, simply by creating an irreversible situation, in which people came to feel they had no option other than to take weapons against their alleged enemies to save their own lives.

Given the degree of integration and the length of time that different groups have been living alongside each other in most of Yugoslavia, the inflammatory talk from the nationalist leaders about the threat to "kith and kin" was not enough to create an unbridgeable gap between communities, even after the fighting had begun.

So-called "ethnic cleansing" has been organised by the warlords on the spot since the war in Croatia. The image in the western press is of a one-sided reign of terror being engineered by the Serb irregulars. In fact for a displacement of population to lead to a permanent resettlement, there has to be "ethnic cleansing" on both sides. In this respect the different peoples are pawns on a chessboard where the nationalist leaders are the players, rather partners in crime, swopping pieces. So the Croats living in the Krajina, a Serb-dominated part of Croatia, are driven out to be replaced by Serbs from another part of Croatia where Serbs have been frightened away.

It is usually the nationalist thugs who have caused people to flee, threatening arson and death otherwise. While, by resettling refugees, the politicians gain a constituency which owes their new land to their intervention and they can expect the settlers to be willing to defend their new property against the return of the original owners.

Likewise the rape of women has become a propaganda weapon to terrorise and divide the population. When Serbian soldiers are ordered to rape Muslim women in Bosnia, the effect is not just to sow terror among Muslim women in neighbouring villages; it is also making the coexistence of local Serbs with the local Muslim population impossible in the future.

Rape camps or not, the method is not new. It was used by the British in India to widen the gulf between hindus and muslims - even if the tabloids of the time never publicised it. As to the systematic displacement of the population, it was used by Hitler to promote aryan domination and by Stalin, with the consent of Western imperialism, to create and destroy national identities in Eastern Europe, long before the term "ethnic cleansing" was invented by a John Major or a Douglas Hurd!

There are not many ways of setting up people against people, but these are among the most effective and most tested. If, today, national hatred is expressed amongst the patchwork of nationalities that made up Yugoslavia, they are mostly an expression of terror, created from scratch by the politicians and warlords involved.

While as communists we have every sympathy for the aspirations of populations fighting against the yoke of national oppression, we are irreconcilable enemies of those who create national hatred to further their own ambitions. For us the increasing Serb domination of the state and of the whole country which developed over the last decade in Yugoslavia was unacceptable. But so, too, are all the various national oppressions developing in every corner of Yugoslavia under different national banners. The fact that the latter claim to be in reaction to the former does not justify them or make them any less criminal.

While we recognise the right of the oppressed to secede from the Yugoslav federation, we have to state bluntly that the dismantling of a whole country and the creation of petty fiefdoms, or at best runt states, each with its own state apparatus and dictator, is a deadly trap for peoples that can only lead to barbarism. All the more so as each statelet will have its own oppressed minorities, all the more oppressed as these states will be economically unworkable.

Western intervention in the Balkans: a deadly record

In recent months the question has been raised more than once as to whether Western military intervention could put an end to the bloodshed in Yugoslavia. As if imperialism had a clean record in the region!

The initial setting up of the first Yugoslav state in 1918 with the British and French bourgeoisies cobbling together a Greater Serbia was only aimed at creating a counterweight to the future resurgence of German influence in Central Europe as well as providing a captive market for their exporters. In the process, borders were drawn without the slightest regard to the population - whether Hungarian, Bulgarian, Albanian or Greek Macedonian - which were cold-bloodedly split up.

Later on, in the late 30s and 40s, imperialist intervention took the shape of invasion by Hitler and Mussolini, and the emergence of a Croat-based fascist state responsible during WW2 for the death of hundreds of thousands of Serbs.

By the end of the war the successes of Tito's liberation army forced even the British to take notice. A series of British intelligence officers, including Tory MP Fitzroy Maclean, were parachuted into Bosnia where they reported back favourably on Tito and noted the chronic incapacity of the Serbian royalists to fight the Germans. Eventually Churchill ditched the monarchy. Not that Churchill intended Yugoslavia to go its own way. After all, both he and Tito's mentor, Stalin, had decided in Moscow to split Yugoslavia "fifty-fifty", as Churchill recorded in his memoirs.

To overcome some of the historic disadvantages of the region, Tito proposed the formation of a Balkans Federation which would have included Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and Greece. But the British invaded Greece and slaughtered the Communist Party while Stalin, who saw Tito's project as a threat to his authority, opposed it. As a result, it never got off the ground leaving Yugoslavia with an uncertain economic future.

As a poor and backward country, Yugoslavia could not go it alone indefinitely. But its partial reintegration into the world market, far from solving Yugoslavia's problems, compounded them. By the time of Tito's death in 1980 the population was having to service a $20bn debt to the International Monetary Fund.

While 1990 saw the collapse of the Yugoslav League of Communists, mainly due to the economic bankruptcy, Western politicians insisted on describing it as further evidence of communism's "failure". The new "wind of democracy", expressed in the mushrooming of nationalist currents, was welcomed. Again, the imperialist leaders' hailing of the so-called "liberalisation" process in Yugoslavia took no notice of its content nor of its consequences for the population. Its content was of course bound to please imperialism since it meant the restoration of "free" business in Yugoslavia, for the local privileged layers, of course, but primarily for Western capitalists.

As to the consequences, the unleashing of political rivalries and the resulting whipping up of nationalist feelings did not worry imperialism, at least not until the civil war broke out. On the contrary Western governments were falling over each other trying to establish their influence in the region ahead of their rivals.

The German government had a head start over Britain and France. The prospect seemed to beckon towards the pre-World War I situation returning where Central Europe, as far south as the Serbian frontier at any rate, was part of Germany's sphere of influence. Hence Germany's championing of an independent Croatia which for a while was such anathema to Britain.

Was the British government just piqued by the probable success of Germany in creating a new zone of economic influence from which they would be excluded or could Britain see further to the problems which lay beyond a declaration of independence? Probably both. But all governments feared a disintegration of the region. In the end, though, they discounted their fears in the rush to celebrate what they hoped would be the final "death" of communism.

Events have proved the doubters to have been right. As a result they have been much less keen to champion the independence of Macedonia or Kosovo though there, too, majorities in a referendum have voted in favour of breaking from what is left of Yugoslavia - namely Serbia and Montenegro.

The threat of an imperialist military intervention

For nearly two years now, the civil war has been continuing in Yugoslavia. The toll in lives lost and destructions has been enormous. That being said, the intensity of the war cannot compare with the Gulf War or the large bombing raids of WW2. In that respect imperialism can live with the war at its present level.

The worry for them is, though, that this civil war will not just remain localised and rather static. Too many politicians harbour grandiose ideas of Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, Greater Albania and Greater Macedonia. And what about Hungary's nationalists who dream of absorbing some or all of Vojvodina into a "Greater Hungary"? And if Macedonia were to seek to expand its frontiers, would Bulgaria and Greece watch on?

Of course, none of this may happen. But the danger is growing by the day. All the economies in the region are being dragged down by the disruption of trade caused by the war but also by the collapse of the old East European and Soviet trading bloc. With pressures mounting at home, nationalist leaders will be looking abroad to divert the anger. With Serbia being painted more and more as an international pariah, strikes against Serbia become more likely particularly if they can be coordinated. The danger of this developing into a free for all which could eventually spark off a wider conflict is in the minds of the politicians in Washington and London.

Ever since the fighting broke out in Slovenia and Croatia, the EC has been attempting to broker ceasefires between the combatants, acting in this matter largely on behalf of US imperialism. In fact the options available to contain the fire are limited. The United States, despite its strategic interests in the region, has so far refrained from becoming involved beyond a few airlifts - a sign that military intervention, is deemed too much of a high risk strategy, for the time being at any rate.

The reasons are not hard to see. Apart from the military difficulties involved, what American president wants to risk a re-run of Vietnam only this time in Europe? Such an intervention even at the scale of Bosnia would need tens of thousands of troops. Casualties in a war against well armed militias who know their region are likely to be high. Such a war can only be unpopular. But the point may be reached, and that point may be sooner rather than later, when imperialism may have to decide between an extremely unpopular intervention or sitting back and watching the whole Balkans region ignite.

If imperialism was to choose such a course, no "humanitarian" illusions would be permitted. It would be solely to safeguard their own interests. Having accepted the political and military risk of such an intervention, they would do everything to get the best possible return for their money and their gamble.

In such an event the "ethnic cleansing" blamed on the paramilitaries today could pale into insignificance compared to the "solutions" adopted by the imperialist machinery once it is set in motion - with the enormously superior material means at its disposal. Their intervention could even involve one or other of the protagonists doing the dirty job of physically eliminating all potential opponents - whether rivals or a rebellious population - only to end up helping a dictatorship into power far worse than Tito's regime ever was.

Let's not forget the policy of imperialism during the Gulf War in a situation where the risks were much less for the world bourgeoisie. Their looking on while Saddam Hussein's tanks were turning the Shiite uprising around Basra into a bloodbath, their initial passivity when Saddam's National Guard clamped down on the insurgent Kurds, were as much part of their plans to enforce their "world order" as was their bombing into the ground of Iraq's military nerve centres. Not only was Saddam Hussein left in power, but the Turkish army was then entrusted with finishing off the job he had started against the Kurds.

And this is all that can be expected from any imperialist intervention in Yugoslavia, even under humanitarian pretexts. At some point the real targets of their intervention, the real cause for imperialism to be worried for the future - that is the populations - will be forced into the shape imperialism likes to see them in, namely that of sheepish terror. If imperialism has to resort to mass murder on a scale far greater than anything we have seen so far in Yugoslavia in order to achieve this, it will do so. Either executed by imperialism itself or through the hands of some trusted local butcher.

That is why no one can afford to have any illusions in the possibilities of an imperialist intervention. Not only is it something that revolutionaries should not call for under any circumstances, it is something they should fight against to the best of their abilities.

Getting rid of the nationalist warlords, their politicians and their system

Does this mean that the situation in Yugoslavia is a complete stalemate? Not necessarily. It may be true that after 20 months of this revolting civil war national hatreds are so intense that there is no way to turn the clock back. Certainly it would be difficult to conceive today of Slovenia and Croatia, in particular, reintegrating into a resurrected Yugoslavia similar to the old one.

But is it impossible to imagine that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the territory of the ex-Yugoslavia might be determined to cure the scars left by the past two years? Is it impossible to imagine people belonging to all nationalities wanting to get rid of that past by working together to build a new future on a new basis, one that is sufficiently worthwhile and epoch-making to provide them with the will and the enthusiasm to overcome the great obstacles involved?

Of course such a perspective is inconceivable within the existing framework, however well patched up. And it is inconceivable without getting rid of all the political forces which have played a role in the Yugoslav catastrophe.

But it would not be inconceivable if instead of allowing political factions to play off social forces one against the other - as they were allowed to in Kosovo - the lead was given by a social force strong enough to pull behind it large layers of the population, acting consciously behind a political instrument of its own.

Such a social force exists in the former Yugoslavia, like everywhere else in the world. It is the working class. And as we saw before, the Yugoslav working class has plenty of credentials speaking up for it. Not only has it nothing to lose, but it has learned the hard way what fighting the wrong war entails.

Above all the Yugoslav working class is the only homogenous social layer that spans all national divisions, all regional and cultural differences. It is the only social force that has enough ties among the rest of the population to pull larger layers behind it; it is the only social layer that has enough of a community of interests to act as one single body across the artificial boundaries set up by the civil war.

But to build the confidence, the enthusiasm and the determination that would be necessary for such a task, the working class would need a perspective that is worth fighting and dying for, that of building a future and a society rid of the cause of today's collapse - the exploiters and the privileged who pushed Yugoslavia to its demise.

Such a perspective can only be that of a proletarian revolution which could even push back the narrow borders of the ex-Yugoslavia to include most of today's central and southern Europe. Such a perspective can only be put forward, expressed, formulated and embodied by a communist party. That the only solution to the crisis in the realm of the so-called "end of communism" should be a genuine communist movement may be ironical. But it is the future.