National oppression and the collapse of Yugoslavia

By Michael Karadjis

Michael Karadjis is a member of the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective. He recently completed an MA thesis on the break-up of Yugoslavia..

The constitution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, set up following the revolution that drove the Nazi occupation forces out of Yugoslavia in 1945, begins "The nations of Yugoslavia, proceeding from the right of every nation to self-determination, including the right to secession ..." From the Leninist standpoint, this was a formally correct approach adopted by the new Communist regime led by Tito.

In reality, this formal structure, while a huge advance for national rights over capitalist Yugoslavia, masked a growing Serbian domination of the federal bureaucracy and military high command, just as official socialism masked the rule of a Stalinist bureaucratic caste. What occurred in the late 1980s was the culmination of this clash between Serb domination, pushed in a more naked way by the capitalist restorationist forces under Slobodan Milosevic, and the official national equality of the federation.

In response to this Serb nationalist drive from the centre, the other nations of Yugoslavia began exercising their constitutional right to self-determination, first declaring their "sovereignty", calling for the federation to become a looser confederation and, finally, when all else failed, holding independence referendums.

For Marxists, support for the right of the Yugoslav nations to self-determination, regardless of their leaderships, should have been a fairly straightforward position, and not only because it was consistent with the Yugoslav constitution. Yet, for various reasons, a large section of the left either opposed it outright or put an equals sign between the nationalism of the Serb regime, trying to strengthen its domination, and the nationalism of the other nations, trying to throw it off.

The peculiarities that led to these conclusions can be summarised as follows:

Firstly, there is confusion about whether the right to self-determination still applies in socialist states. What if the oppressed nations have pro-bourgeois leaderships that aim to break up the socialist state allegedly defended by the leaders of the oppressor nation?

Secondly, this problem was transposed onto the Yugoslav situation in an incorrect way. It was assumed that the Yugoslav federal government and the Serbian government were "defending socialism" while the Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian and Macedonian leaderships were more pro-capitalist. These assumptions were false.

Thirdly, it was commonly believed that Croatia and Slovenia were "rich" republics that wanted to escape helping the poorer republics. In trying to hold the federation together forcibly therefore, the Serbian regime was allegedly caring for the poorer republics.

Fourthly, it was assumed that Western imperialism wanted to "break up" socialist Yugoslavia, and so naturally "encouraged secession" among the other republics. It was alleged that the "rich" republics would then be in a position to join the European Union without the weight of the poorer south.

Fifthly, this is all mixed with a view of history that cannot help seeing "Serbs" as a whole as progressive and "Croats" as a whole as fascist, due to conflicts in World War II. Apart from the non-Marxist view that entire nations are one thing or another, rather than being divided into different social classes and political currents, this was also a completely false reading of what happened in World War II.

A schema is then presented in which socialist Serbia tries to maintain a socialist, united Yugoslavia against imperialist backed, pro-capitalist rich republics eager to jump the queue and join the European Union. The entire schema is completely false.

No self-determination under socialism?

Recognising that the balance of class forces was against the working class in the Baltic states in 1918, Lenin chose not to send the Red Army in to help the Communist forces in these republics, where right-wing regimes came to power. The Bolsheviks did not believe socialism could be imposed through the barrel of a gun; only the working classes in those states could carry out this task.

In the 1930s, following the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the revival of Great Russian oppression by the Stalinist regime, the issue again arose of movements for self-determination in the oppressed non-Russian republics. Leon Trotsky's view was clear. Calling for a "united, free, and independent workers' and peasants' Ukraine", Trotsky pointed out that it was precisely the denial of the right to self-determination by a "Communist" regime that had shifted the Ukrainian national movement to "the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques", who had won over a section of the Ukrainian working class. On the other hand, an independent Ukraine would become "if only by virtue of its own interests, a mighty southwestern bulwark of the USSR".1

Yugoslavia's nations

There was no Yugoslavia at the beginning of the century, and no necessity for that particular state to arise, just as Marxists see no particular reason for it to exist today, other than the will of its peoples. Rather, the Balkans were a collection of many different peoples, fairly interspersed.

The whole region had been under the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, but, in the course of the nineteenth century, independent bourgeois states had arisen in Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. A great swathe of the Balkans remained under Ottoman rule, including present-day Albania, Kosova, Macedonia, Thrace, Bosnia and the Sanjak.

In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire seized Bosnia, and in 1911, years of resistance by the Albanian people allowed them to set up a state on a part of Albanian ethnic territory. In 1912-13, the rest of the region was taken over by Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, oblivious to ethnic realities. Thus Serbia incorporated the Slavic Muslim Sanjak, Kosova with its 80 per cent Albanian majority and 40 per cent of Macedonia, with a solid ethnic Macedonian majority.

These borders drawn by force were officially recognised by the imperialist powers at the London Conference of 1913. Serbia was seen as a key ally of the British-French-Russian imperialist bloc in its impending clash with its German-Austrian rivals. Meanwhile, living under the Austro-Hungarian yoke were other South Slavs, the Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians. In their own freedom struggle, the idea had emerged of the unity of all South Slavs, in a "Yugoslav" state. In practice this meant that these Hapsburg-ruled Slavic nations would unite with the expanded Serbian monarchy.

This "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" was proclaimed in 1918 under Anglo-French auspices. It was a classic prison-house of nations. Macedonians were declared "South Serbs", and a ruthless campaign of forced assimilation continued for the next twenty years. Montenegro, which had been a small independent state, was abolished as a state and came under direct Serbian rule; its population is ethnically Serb, but with a strong sense of its own identity. Similar oppression was directed against the Slavic Muslims of Bosnia and Sanjak, thousands of whom were driven to forced exile in Turkey.

The worst excesses occurred in Kosova, where the Albanian majority were not Slavic at all, and even worse were Muslim, in a land that Serb nationalists declared the cradle of their nation due to the presence of a large number of medieval Orthodox churches. The Albanians furiously resisted the occupation. The Serbian monarchy was pitiless in its suppression: according to the investigators of the Carnegie Commission, referring to the period after the Balkan wars in 1912-13, "Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind—such were the means which were employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery, with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians".

Between the two world wars, the Albanian population dropped by half, around 400,000 people being forced into Albania or Turkey. The Yugoslav and Turkish regimes made a pact, as Turkey wanted to use the Muslim Albanians to colonise eastern Anatolia as an outpost against its own oppressed Kurds and Armenians. Some 15,000 Serb families—100,000 people—were moved into Kosova from Serbia proper as colonists and given large properties.

In 1929, Serbia's King Alexander dissolved parliament and the fiction of the state of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In its place was a unitary Yugoslavia, which the Serbian monarchy ruled with an iron fist. This resulted in increasing oppression of the Croats as well, who resisted with parties such as the Croatian Peasants Party. Later, a more right-wing nationalist group, the Ustasha, based among Croatian emigres, began a series of violent attacks.

World War II

In World War II, a huge resistance movement against Nazi occupation, led by Tito and his Communist "partisans", swept across every part of Yugoslavia. The Communist Party advocated a new Yugoslavia, based on an equal federation of nations, to replace the Serbian-ruled Yugoslav monarchy.

The partisans were drawn from all nations of Yugoslavia. While the initial group was composed largely of Serbs and Montenegrins, it rapidly spread beyond them, especially following the crushing of a partisan revolt in Serbia in late 1941. From then, the overwhelming bulk of resistance activity occurred in Bosnia and Croatia. According to Yugoslav statistics, at the height of the war in late 1943, there were 122,000 partisans active in Croatia, 108,000 in Bosnia and only 22,000 in Serbia.

Of course, that is not the whole story, as many partisans in Croatia and Bosnia were ethnic Serbs. However, many were also the other nationalities—in Croatia 61 per cent of the partisans were Croats and 28 per cent Serbs. While figures don't exist for Bosnia, it's clear that a large proportion were Serbs, but a large proportion were also Muslims, because they were being slaughtered, and only the partisans promised a Bosnian republic within their proposed new Yugoslav federation. The Muslim clergy, in 1941, issued resolutions condemning atrocities being carried out by Croatian Ustashi and Serbian Chetniks, and explicitly condemned persecution of Jews and Serbs by the Ustasha. Bosnian Muslims suffered the highest proportional losses of any nationality in Yugoslavia.

The ignoring of the Croatian contribution to the resistance by both left and right historians since World War II is all the more glaring when it is considered that Tito himself was a Croat, and current Croatian President Tudjman was a partisan leader. The last Yugoslav federal president, the Croat Stipe Mesic, had much of his family murdered by the Ustasha, even if in Yugoslavia's dying days Milosevic scandalously slandered him as Ustasha and blocked his presidency.

Just as partisans existed among all nationalities in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, so did collaborators. There were two main puppet states, the Ustasha in Croatia and the Nedic regime in Serbia. The Ustasha regime was called the "Independent State of Croatia" (NDH), but was neither independent, nor a state, nor in Croatia. Virtually the whole of Croatia's Dalmatian coastline was annexed by Italian imperialism, and part of Croatian Slavonia given to pro-Axis Hungary. On the other hand, the whole of Bosnia was incorporated into the NDH, giving the Ustasha gangs the task of controlling this difficult mountainous region for the Nazis. The whole NDH was then divided into a German-occupied north and an Italian-occupied south.

While many Croats, after years of Serbian oppression, may have initially welcomed the idea of an "independent state", the shine wore off rapidly. The sheer brutality of the Ustasha in its genocidal treatment of Serbs, Jews, Roms (Gypsies), Muslims and Croat opponents rapidly turned the mass of the Croatian population against it. It is estimated it had the support of only 2 per cent of the population.2 Initially, the Croatian partisan movement sprang up in Dalmatia, resisting the Italian annexation. In this region, the Italians began using Serbian right-wing forces, the Chetniks, against the Croatian partisans.

The regime of Serbian General Nedic contained the core of the pre-war Serb monarchical state. Its terror was similarly unlimited; Belgrade was the first city in Europe to be declared "Judenfrei" (free of Jews). Muslims, Albanians and Roms were also important targets. The regime formed an organisation called the "Chetniks" to spread terror against opponents.

There was also a Chetnik movement nominally independent of Nedic. This was the Serb nationalist movement that advocated the return of the pre-war Serbian royal family and had Anglo-US backing. Hence many Chetnik forces, outside of Nedic's control, initially fought against the Ustasha regime, because their goal of a Greater Serbia conflicted with the Ustasha aim of Greater Croatia. However, as the fascist Italian occupiers developed some differences with Germany, they came to use the Chetniks as their ally against both the partisans and the Ustasha. Before long, the Chetniks' main war was against the partisans, and they eventually became full-scale collaborators with the Nazis. Their own program was for the elimination of the Muslim population, and they massacred tens of thousands of Muslim villagers. Their barbaric aims were outlined as follows in 1941:

"To cleanse the state territory of all national minorities and anti-national elements.

"To create a direct continuous border between Serbia and Montenegro and between Serbia and Slovenia, by cleansing Sanjak of its Muslim inhabitants and Bosnia of its Muslim and Croatian inhabitants."

Serbian postwar domination

The new federation after 1945 consisted of six republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro) and two provinces (Kosova and Vojvodina) which both had autonomy within Serbia. Each major nation had its own republic or province. Four republics—Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia—were clear nation states, while Montenegro was something of a second Serb republic. However, only Slovenia was relatively nationally homogeneous, all the other republics having a mixture of nationalities alongside the dominant group. Borders were established as fairly as possible, but the mixing of nationalities made it impossible to establish purely national states. In the case of Bosnia, which was completely mixed between Muslim Slavs, Serbs and Croats, there was no dominant nation, though Muslims were the largest group.

Of the autonomous provinces in Serbia, Vojvodina had a slight Serb majority but large Hungarian and Croatian minorities; in a sense its existence recognised the Hungarian "national minority", not considered a "nation" because its nation state was Hungary. Similarly, Kosova's autonomy signified the status of the Albanians as a "national minority", whose nation state was Albania. However, there were some important differences.

Firstly, Albanians were the vast majority of the population of Kosova in 1945. Secondly, in sheer numbers, they were bigger than many of the "nations" of Yugoslavia, and growing. Thirdly, Albanian partisans had fought hard in World War II for the right to self-determination, including unity with Communist Albania.

In the first major violation of the impending federal order, Tito had gathered Serb partisans together with large numbers of Chetniks (who came over in two amnesties in late 1944) and crushed the Kosovan partisans. Tito and Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha had aimed for Albania to become part of the federation, which in Tito's view would be a federation of all Balkan nations, not just those of pre-war Yugoslavia. There could be no Kosovan republic, because it would eventually be part of the Albanian republic in Yugoslavia. Because this never came to pass, Kosova was stuck in the highly unsatisfactory situation of autonomy inside Serbia. This lack of republican status, combined with Kosova's drastically poorer economy, made the Albanians an unambiguously oppressed nation in the new Yugoslavia.

While the new federation was a huge step forward for the other nations, it rapidly became Serbian-dominated at a political and military level. The root of the problem was that Tito's regime was Stalinist, the new socialist economic base being saddled with a huge central apparatus with massive privileges, as in other European states, despite a number of more liberal aspects.

This bureaucratic nature of the regime explains why the formal equality of nations after 1945 eventually degenerated, once again, into Serb domination, even if not to the extent of capitalist Yugoslavia. Since the bureaucracy was based in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, it became more Serbianised, while the lack of democratic structures meant that people living in the other national regions were not able to exercise political power and make decisions at the centre.

Serbs, around 40 per cent of the population, made up 78.9 per cent of personnel in the federal administration3 (Croats made up only 8 per cent, the other groups less). Serbs also made up around 70 per cent of the military officialdom of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA).4 Croats made up only 15 per cent, while the remaining 15-20 per cent was left for Slovenes, Bosnians, Albanians, Macedonians and smaller groups. Albanians, with 8 per cent of the population, were only 1 per cent of officers.

Similarly, within the Yugoslav League of Communists (LCY), between 50 and 60 per cent of members were ethnically Serb, though this had declined from well over 60 per cent earlier.5 Since it was the only legal party, its composition reflected the relations between nationalities. Croats were 23 per cent of the population, and in 1946 made up 31 per cent of the LCY, reflecting their big role in the resistance. However, by 1978, this had fallen to 17 per cent, well below their percentage of the population. All the non-Serb nations had even smaller percentages.

Tito's new constitution of 1974 had both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, the formal rights of the different republics were strengthened; above all, Kosova and Vojvodina had their autonomous status within Serbia upgraded to a far higher level. This followed a huge upsurge in the Albanian national movement in the late 1960s, calling for republic status for Kosova. While still formally in Serbia, the two provinces were now directly equally represented in the federal government, rather than via Serbia. Like other republics, they had their own Territorial Defence Force, a kind of decentralised, partisan-style popular militia set up in 1968 throughout Yugoslavia. They had their own central banks, provincial assemblies and high courts. In addition, the Albanians got their Pristina University, so they could begin to train their own people for jobs in the provincial administration, till then staffed mostly by minority Serbs.

In addition, around this time, Muslims (mainly in Bosnia and the Sanjak region of Serbia) were officially recognised as a distinct nation within Yugoslavia, as were Roms. Bosnia officially became a tri-national republic of Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

However, because this decentralisation was combined with a lack of democracy, plus economic rule by the market in Yugoslavia's system of "market socialism", it gave more power and economic decision making to the local bureaucracies rather than the local people. This gave the republican bureaucracies, including in Serbia, more of a base for nationalism, and helped increase economic disparities between republics.

At the same time, it did not diminish Serbian domination at the federal level. On the contrary, by transferring important functions to republican capitals, it left federal jobs to local Serbs and upwardly mobile Serb immigrants from poorer regions.6 Ironically, this growing irrelevance of the federal government did not result in a reduction in the size of the federal bureaucracy; on the contrary, employment in the federal administration was growing at 16 per cent annually, in contrast to 2.5 to 4.5 per cent for the country as a whole, in the early 1980s.7

Before this bureaucratic decentralisation, Tito had made sure it didn't develop into a democratic one by carrying out a massive purge of oppositionists within the party and state in the early 1970s, including much of the new generation of leaders. While Croatia gained more bureaucratic autonomy in 1974, an autonomy movement there in the early 1970s, called the Croatian Spring, led by the Croatian Communists, was crushed, and henceforth the Croatian republic government became dominated by ethnic Serbs. In Croatia, only one in twenty Croats were LCY members, while one in nine from the Serb minority were.8 Forty per cent of Communist Party members and 67 per cent of the police force were Serbs.9 Where no other parties existed, party membership was an indicator of who had power.

Rich republics?

While these figures show that political and military power had been taken by Serbs, it is often pointed out that Croatia and Slovenia were the richer republics, while in the south, Kosova, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro remained chronically poor and underdeveloped. Hence, Croatian and Slovenian demands in the late 1980s for more control over their own economic wealth are often interpreted as the rich republics wanting to look after themselves and not distribute anything to the poorer republics.

The label of "rich" republics, as applied only to Slovenia and Croatia, was a sleight of hand. According to most analyses, Slovenia's wealth per capita was nearly double Croatia's, whereas Croatia was only slightly ahead of Serbia/Vojvodina. Virtually all analyses agree: for example, Slovenia with 8 per cent of the population accounted for 17 per cent of GDP; Croatia with 20 per cent and Serbia proper with 24 per cent of the population accounted for 26 and 25 per cent of the GDP respectively, not much different. The three poor republics (Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro) had a GDP percentage well below their share of the population, while Kosova's GDP percentage was only one quarter of its share of the population.10

Hence Serbia was one of the "rich" republics; the fact that its main victims, Kosova and Bosnia, were far poorer shows that the Serbian bureaucracy had the same nature as its Croatian and Slovenian counterparts, but its domination of the federal government and JNA enabled it to do in a far more dramatic way what its rivals could only dream of: by suppressing these poorer regions, it was able to pillage them.

This explains why Serb nationalist fears about the decline of Serb numbers in Kosova and Bosnia, relative to Albanians and Muslims, are baseless: Serbs emigrated from these poor regions to wealthier north Serbia for economic reasons (as did Bosnian Croats to Croatia). And of course the higher birth rates of Albanians and Bosnian Muslims were due to their poverty. Nearly 16,000 people per year left Bosnia in the 1950s and 1960s, most going to Serbia; they were fleeing a republic which, after Kosova, had the highest infant mortality rate in Yugoslavia, the highest illiteracy rate and the highest proportion of people whose only education was three years of primary school.11

The fund for developing the underdeveloped regions, by which the richer north helped subsidise the poorer south, was ineffective, as the gap widened and the south remained mired in poverty.

Slovenia's GDP by the 1980s was seven times as large as that of Kosova. The reasons for this are highly complex, and partly due to what happened to prices throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s—prices rose for manufactured goods, which were produced more in the developed north, and fell for primary products, produced more in the south.

However, another reason would seem to be the diversion of considerable republican funds to the central bureaucracy in Belgrade and the bloated JNA. An example of the lavish lifestyle of military officialdom is the fact that, while the average income in 1991 was $400, the average army officer received $2300 monthly, an apartment, medical insurance, early retirement and a pension ten times the average.12

As examples of the diversion of funds to Belgrade, in the late 1960s, Croatia created 27 per cent of national income and earned about 50 per cent of Yugoslavia's foreign exchange, largely due to tourism on the Dalmatian coast, yet received only 15 per cent of new investments; while Serbia created 33 per cent13 of national income and 25 per cent of foreign exchange, yet Serb banks controlled 63 per cent of total bank assets and 81.5 per cent of foreign credits.14

This naturally created suspicion about "helping the poorer republics". Further, of the four poorer regions, only ethnically Serb Montenegro consistently "received well above its capital investment share" even as the shares of the other "less developed regions" were reduced.15

Hence while the local bureaucracies in Croatia and Slovenia strived to loosen bonds of solidarity, as they, like Serbia, moved towards capitalism in the late 1980s, this was not the dominant view among the masses whom they would need to win over. Rather, what did appeal more to the masses was growing opposition to diversion of their republican funds to pay for what they saw as a bloated, Serb-dominated, irrelevant JNA, which ate up two-thirds of the federal budget.16

This attitude strengthened following the JNA's crackdown in Kosova from 1981 onwards, essentially only on Serbia's behalf. Giving money to help the Kosovan economy is one thing; giving it to help Serb troops police the Albanians is another. In 1989 Croatia and Slovenia withdrew their forces from the federal occupation of Kosova.17 It is noteworthy that Slovenia first refused to continue funding the federal defence budget, not the fund for the south; and when Milosevic suppressed the Kosova assembly in 1989, President Kucan did indeed refuse to pay Slovenia's share for Kosova through the federal fund, but sent it directly to the now illegal Kosova provincial government,18 far more an act of solidarity than of greed.


When Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia had a $20 billion foreign debt amassed by the bureaucracy. The IMF and World Bank were brought in and laid down draconian conditions of austerity and free market radicalism to try to squeeze the debt out of Yugoslav workers. The Yugoslav federal government essentially became the internal agency of these imperialist financial institutions. While a description of the economic disaster is outside the range of this article, these conditions eventually helped pave the way for various bureaucratic nationalist warlords to explain the disaster to the workers of "their" nation as being the fault of the "enemy nations" rather than of the bureaucrats themselves.

Furthermore, this process came on top of an already highly deregulated form of "market socialism" which Yugoslavia had been experimenting with since the 1960s. This had already resulted in massive unemployment and other features which were absent from other East European socialist states. Hence there was nowhere further to go other than outright restoration of capitalism.

This process took hold in 1988-89, driven through by the federal governments of Mikulic and Markovic, strongly supported by the new Serbian republic government headed by Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic gathered around him the cream of Belgrade's liberal economists into the "Commission of the Presidency of the Republic of Serbia: The Commission for Questions of Economic Reform",19 in May 1988 to push for the further liberalising of the economy. Its main recommendations were further opening to foreign investment (Yugoslavs had to overcome their "unfounded, irrational and ... primitive fear of exploitation" by foreign capital, according to Milosevic), including full foreign ownership rights, deregulation of the banking system, equality of public and private ownership, greater flexibility for enterprise managers in the "self-managed" enterprises to act without restraint by the workers and related policies long advocated by the IMF and the most advanced liberals. The workers councils were replaced by "social boards" controlled by the enterprise owners and creditors.20 Milosevic exhorted these boards to "function on economic principles ... strive to create profits and constantly struggle for their share and place in the market".21

While much of the Western left continues to insist that imperialism "broke up" Yugoslavia, this only reflects continued illusions in bourgeois—not socialist—Yugoslavia. In reality, Western powers continued to insist not only on the maintenance of Yugoslav unity to the bitter end, but in fact on the strengthening of the central apparatus.

This was due to the demands of the IMF and World Bank for greater central authority to force repayment of the $20 billion foreign debt, to carry out a "free market" transformation and privatisation of the economy, to overcome republican barriers to an unrestricted Yugoslav-wide market for the flow of Western investments and goods, and to remove the republican veto on federal economic decisions dictated by the IMF.22 This stubborn insistence on centralisation eventually led to the Yugoslav break-up for the opposite reason—the non—Serb republics could no longer bear the increasing weight of the central regime.

Political commentary in sections of the Western media known to be close to government policy emphasised the need for greater central authority far more than "democracy".23 The US Congress assessed that "some strengthening of federal powers" would be necessary and that "unless there is a reduction in those geographic barriers [i.e. republican borders], economic reform in Yugoslavia will have to wait. Such an eventuality could be catastrophic."24

This centralising push had an echo in the JNA, which was the strongest federal institution. The "hard-line" JNA strongly supported the neo-liberal economic reforms.25 In 1987-88 the JNA centralised its command structure in a way that similarly undercut republican rights, replacing the eight units based on republics with four which completely cut across republican borders.

After the IMF/federal government and the JNA, a third force was pushing for centralisation—the Serb nationalists. This was contradictory, given that Serbia is a republic itself, and nationalism would have a fragmenting rather than unifying effect. Yet the difference was Serbian domination of federal institutions—increased central powers meant increased Serbian power. This push for recentralisation thus struck at the very basis of the federation of equal nations.

Whereas the JNA argued for unity from a traditional Titoist point of view, the Serb nationalist intelligentsia attacked the entire postwar order. In 1986, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences released its "Memorandum" which claimed that the "Communist-Croat alliance" represented by Tito had set out to destroy the Serb nation by imposing an "alien" (federal) Yugoslavia upon them, and that the division into federal republics divided the Serb nation.26

This reflected the ideology of the growing Serbian capitalist class, wanting to free itself from the shackles of the ideology of "Communism", "federation" and "brotherhood and unity". As with all rising bourgeois classes, naked nationalism was the ideology that could best justify its attempt to seize control of as much of Yugoslavia's resources as possible; it was also necessary to divert the Serbian working class from the enormous class struggle it was engaged in in 1987-88, in alliance with the working classes of all Yugoslav nations, against the IMF/federal government austerity regime.

In reality, the so-called "division of the Serb nation" worked to its advantage. As Serbian academic Vojin Dimitrijevic points out, "the proliferation of 'Serb' federal units offered a chance to the Serbs, or the Leagues of Communists dominated by them, to appear in the organs of the federation under various hats".27 This applied not only to the two autonomous provinces and ethnically Serb Montenegro, but also even in Croatia, where the 11 per cent Serb minority dominated the regime.

Unfortunately, this Serb nationalist propaganda has rubbed off onto some on the left. For example, Peter Gowan, writing in New Left Review,28 claims "the Serbs were split up between Serbia proper, Croatia, Bosnia, Vojvodina and Kosovo". While admitting this was "more in form than in fact", he claims that this division became "more of fact than of form in the context of Yugoslavia's break-up". However, the same points could be made about the division of the Croats between Croatia, Bosnia and Vojvodina, of Muslims between Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro and of Albanians between Kosova, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia (let alone Albania). The reasons the supposed rights of Serb minorities elsewhere became an issue were, firstly, that independence would reduce their position from a privileged one to an equal one, something not the case with the other nationalities; and secondly, the fact that the Serbians had overwhelming military dominance meant that they could force the issue.

The assault by the Milosevic regime on the federal order and the national rights of non-Serbs in 1988-89 needs to be seen in this context. Milosevic organised large crowds around the banners of Serbian nationalism in an "anti-bureaucratic revolution" which overthrew the Communist governments in Montenegro and Kosova and Vojvodina. In these demonstrations expressions of openly bourgeois and reactionary ideology were seen for the first time since World War II—Chetnik, royalist and Serbian Orthodox banners.

Milosevic put his stooges in power in these republics/provinces. The high level autonomy of the 1974 constitution was reduced in 1989. Autonomy was abolished outright in Serbia's 1990 constitution. Nevertheless, the seats of the formerly autonomous provinces were maintained on the federal presidency, giving Serbia and its satellites four out of the eight votes. The fact that this was in accord with the recentralisation pushed by the IMF and imperialism perhaps explains why there was little fuss made by Western powers over this assault, and restoration of Kosovan and Vojvodinan autonomy was never one of the West's demands over the next decade.

The question of Kosova

The key issue in this new Serbian nationalist push was Kosova. The 1974 constitution had left both sides unsatisfied. While it gave Kosova near republic status, the Albanian majority still aimed for full republic status, which it considered would be formal recognition of its equality with other Yugoslav nations. This was accentuated by Kosova's dramatic economic situation: unemployment hovered around 50 per cent, two and a half times the Yugoslav average.

In 1981, demonstrations at Pristina University were brutally crushed by the military, with considerable killing. Thousands were arrested. This was followed by years of repression. Albanians, while only 8 per cent of Yugoslavia's population, made up 75 per cent of political prisoners in the 1980s.29

This crackdown only demonstrated to the Kosovars how frail their "high level" autonomy really was, and hence intensified their push for republic status (and, amongst a minority, for full independence or unity with Albania). An array of far left underground groups sprang up in the 1980s, supported by Enver Hoxha's Stalino-Maoist regime in Albania. From these groups arose the core of the Kosova Liberation Army in the 1990s.30

The US ignored the massive violations of the human rights of the Kosovan Albanians in the 1980s due to Yugoslavia's key role in Western strategy as a bulwark against the Warsaw Pact. According to the US Congressional Research Service: "... [while] human rights in Kosovo and elsewhere in Yugoslavia has been the subject of US concern in the past, its relative importance was reduced by many other factors ... the USA saw Yugoslavia as a symbol of differences within the communist world. Its human rights policy seemed liberal in comparison with the countries of the Warsaw Pact, while its foreign policy was one of non-alignment."31

On the other hand, the Serbian bureaucracy and the nationalist intelligentsia who had released the "Memorandum" began a counter-mobilisation of Kosovan Serbs in the 1980s with the aim of abolishing Kosova's autonomy, or at least reducing it to a meaningless pre-1974 variety. In particular, they believed, correctly, that there was a contradiction in Kosova being autonomous within Serbia yet having many features of a republic. In 1986, Vojislav Seselj (today leader of the extreme Chetnik Serbian Radical Party) demanded the reduction of autonomy, because, as he saw it, the contradiction could be interpreted as Kosova, as a federal unit, having the same right to secession as the republics. Seselj also called for the abolition of the Bosnian republic and its partition between Serbia and Croatia—clearly a nationalist ahead of his times.

The reason a considerable percentage of the Kosovan Serb population was able to be mobilised was that it did indeed have "grievances"—like those of white South Africans after the end of apartheid. High level autonomy, and particularly Pristina University, had resulted in a growing percentage of jobs in government and administration being taken by Albanians. While still not equal to the Albanians' percentage of the population, this was a big change. In the context of Kosova's high unemployment, this was a perfect issue for nationalists. The economic flight of Serbs to greener pastures in northern Serbia and Vojvodina was interpreted as flight from alleged violence by the Albanians.

The centrepiece of this propaganda was an alleged campaign by "backward, Muslim" Albanians to rape Serb women. Official statistics, however, showed that rape was at a lower level in Albania than in Serbia and Slovenia, and the overwhelming majority of victims were Albanian women. The larger families which poorer Albanians tended to have were interpreted as a deliberate strategy to outbreed Serbs. This then led to a far deeper anti-Muslim ideological crusade by the Serb nationalist movement and the cream of its writers and intellectuals, such as future prime minister Dobrica Cosic, and Vuk Draskovic, now head of the moderate Chetnik Serbian Renewal Party (SPO). The repression in Kosova and the later genocide against Bosnia's Muslims were presented as Serbia being in the front line of Western Christian civilisation against the "Islamic threat".

Since the bloody crushing of the heroic Kosovan miners, who, bearing portraits of Tito and red flags, led the working-class resistance to Milosevic in 1989, a state of apartheid has existed in Kosova. Albanians were expelled from all jobs in public administration, all Albanian police were sacked, only Cyrillic script was allowed in official dealings, thousands of doctors and teachers were sacked, and the federal army completely occupied Kosova. Thousands of Albanians were hauled before the courts on the most trivial of charges; a state of complete lawlessness characterised the relations between the Serbian occupation authorities and the mass of the population, a situation inevitably leading to the rise of armed resistance a decade later.

The Croatian and Slovenian response

Far from rushing headlong into independence declarations, the first reaction of the other republics was to appease Milosevic. Thus in October 1988, the federal presidency, with the votes of all the republics, accepted constitutional amendments reducing the provinces' autonomy. However, when Milosevic then pushed this through violently against the will of the Kosova assembly in 1989, thus violating the constitution, other republics began to worry that they might be the next victim. Further, there was large-scale class solidarity with the Kosovan miners expressed throughout Yugoslavia. Under such pressure, the Slovenian government, League of Communists, trade unions and population mobilised in a united front in defence of Kosova in March 1989.

As Milosevic and the federal Markovic government tried to push IMF-backed constitutional changes in 1989 to strengthen federal powers over the republics, Slovenia came up with its own opposite amendments, reaffirming Slovenian "sovereignty" (consistent with the Yugoslav constitution) and proposing the loosening of federal powers, turning Yugoslavia into a confederation of sovereign states. The Croatian government, on the other hand, said little throughout 1988-89; this was known as the "great Croatian silence".

However, following Markovic's introduction of an even more drastic IMF austerity and privatisation package in January 1990, which virtually stripped the republics of any cash, the three dominant republics went into revolt in their opposite directions. Part of this was fierce competition over the spoils of privatisation.32

In Serbia, the League of Communists changed its name to Serbian Socialist Party, claiming to be based on western European social democracy, while in practice being based on the principles of pre-World War II Serbian reaction. A new constitution made the Serb nation dominant without any mention of other specific minorities, while Kosova and Vojvodina were reduced to mere provinces of Serbia like any other.

Ominously, the constitution declared Serbia's right to intervene in other republics "to defend Serbs". It was declared that "border changes" might be necessary if republics seceded. If a recentralised, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia could not be achieved, the push was on for a "Greater Serbia". Such a Serbia would tightly control the Albanian, Muslim, Croat and Hungarian minorities within Serbia and the former autonomous provinces, yet would incorporate the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia wherever they existed in a majority or a minority, any land deemed to have previously been occupied by Serbs and any strategic territory to connect these disparate areas, no matter who lived there. The Montenegrins and Macedonians were considered to be bogus nations who were in reality Serbs, so their republics would also be part of Greater Serbia. Only Slovenia, which had no Serb minority, and part of Croatia would be free to leave this "Yugoslavia".

Croatia and Slovenia held elections in April 1990, in both cases the League of Communists losing to centre-right coalitions. The new governments officially put forward a proposal for the transformation of the federation into a confederation. They let it be known that if Milosevic continued to obstruct such a process, they would declare independence. In December 1990, Slovenia held a referendum on independence in which around 90 per cent voted in favour. Slovenian leader Kucan made it clear this would be activated in six months if no progress was made. In any case, in a secret meeting in January, Milosevic let Kucan know that he had no problem with Slovenian independence as long as Slovenia put up no obstacles to Greater Serbia. In June 1991, Croatia had its own independence referendum, with 94 per cent of the population voting in favour.

For Marxists, such unambiguous expressions of the popular will for self-determination mean we support that right, regardless of our opinion of whether it is a good idea, and regardless of the nature of the leaderships. To oppose it in practice can only mean support for the "right" of the dominant nation to maintain others within their boundaries by force. It was not in the interests of Serb workers to massacre Croat workers to force the latter to stay in their state against their will; on the contrary, the only way Serb workers can ever break free from the ideological shackles imposed by their own ruling elite is to recognise the right of Croat and other workers to self-determination, including the right to form their own independent state. Even if Serb workers mistakenly thought there was something intrinsically progressive about maintaining the shape of Yugoslavia, regardless of who was ruling it, they would be unlikely to convince Croat workers of such views by bombing them.

Nevertheless, there were a number of difficult issues. The first was the nature of the regime of Franjo Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Like Milosevic, Tudjman was a former Stalinist bureaucrat turned nationalist. He was routinely referred to by Milosevic (and many Western leftists) as a revival of the Ustasha, despite having been a Croatian partisan.

It was widely felt by Croats that their secondary position in Yugoslavia resulted from their being unfairly singled out as disproportionately responsible for crimes by Nazi collaborationist forces. A certain nationalist symbolism returned under Tudjman—as under Milosevic. The most controversial was the revival of the traditional Croatian chequerboard flag. This flag had been used for hundreds of years in Croatia. However, many minority Serbs saw it as a "Ustasha" flag, because the Ustasha had also used the chequerboard as part of its flag. Serb fears were not allayed by Tudjman's rapid changing of street names along nationalist lines, his direct methods of reversing minority Serb domination of the police and media, and his bigoted statements.33 The regime was right wing, nationalist and anti-Communist. Marxists would oppose the regime. However, it was up to Croatian workers to change it, not up to the equally reactionary regime of Milosevic to stop Croats having the government they voted for.

The other complex issue was the Serb minority, some 600,000 people. Much has been made of the transformation of the Serbs in Croatia from officially a "nation" to a "minority" under Tudjman, and of the alleged denial of their right to use Cyrillic script.

However, Croatia's constitution of December 1991 proclaims Croatia the "national state of the Croatian nation and the state of members of other nations and minorities who are its citizens: Serbs, Muslims, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews and others". Article 12 states: "The Croatian language and the Latin script shall be in official use . In individual local units [i.e. where another group forms a majority] another language and the Cyrillic or some other script may, alongside with Croatian language and the Latin script, be introduced into official use". Article 15 states: "Members of all nations and minorities shall be guaranteed freedom to express their nationality, freedom to use their language and script, and cultural autonomy".34 Notably, Tudjman offered the post of vice-president to Jovan Raskovic, leader of the nationalist Serb Democratic Party (SDS).

What if these were just fine words, masking real oppression of the Serb minority? In the abstract, the Serb minority should have the same right to self-determination as the Croat majority, meaning their right to autonomy, independence or union with Serbia, if they wished. Many leftists believed that, if they accepted Croatia's right to self-determination, the Serb minority must have the same right, and they interpreted the Serbo-Croatian war of 1991 through this prism.

But reality was not that simple. Regardless of Tudjman's tactless symbolic moves, his regime did not oppress the Serb minority. To suggest that it did is to ignore who had armed power in Yugoslavia. Straight after the Croatian and Slovenian elections, the JNA seized the arms of the Territorial Defence Forces of the two republics, yet another violation of the federal constitution. The JNA was also funnelling arms to the right-wing Serb Democratic Party, which was engaged in an armed campaign for autonomy of the "Krajina", a part of Croatia with a Serb majority of 69 per cent. The only attempt by Tudjman to bring the province under control was thwarted by the JNA. The JNA was using its massive armed superiority to rip out a part of Croatia.

As a majority in the Krajina, the Serbs had a right to autonomy. Notably, they held their referendum on autonomy in August 1990, before Croatia had put proposals for confederation of Yugoslavia (later, the Krajina leaders declared independence in March 1991, before Croatia declared independence in June). However, the referendum (simply "Vote to Decide Serb Autonomy: For/Against") had no clear territorial dimension. Until then, Raskovic had merely spoken of "cultural autonomy", which was then granted in December's constitution.

Some Serb majority areas, such as Korenica, opposed territorial autonomy, and these areas were brought under SDS control by force. Later Croat majority areas in the Krajina were conquered and the Croat population expelled.

Krajina, the only part of Croatia with a Serb majority, was separated from Serbia by entire republics and hence could not in practice unite with Serbia; at the same time, it was situated on Croatia's main road and rail links between Zagreb and the Dalmatian coast. If it was cut right out, it would be devastating for Croatia's economy. Likewise, those Serbs who had to be forced to heel to the SDS had logical reasons for their position: given the lack of perceivable "oppression", their economic situation was dependent on maintaining good relations with Croatia as a whole. Krajina itself had no economic value: for Milosevic the Krajina Serbs were cannon fodder for use against his real intended victim, Bosnia.

Those who view Tudjman's "refusal to grant autonomy to the Serbs" as a major cause of the 1991 war miss the point that autonomy in Krajina was a fact. There would have been no need to go to war over it. War did not result from any Croatian attack on Krajina. Even at the outset of the war, on August 1, 1991, Tudjman declared his openness to more than just "cultural autonomy".

In much left commentary, the Krajina Serbs become equivalent to the Kosova Albanians. This misses the point of who really had the arms to oppress. It also overlooks that Kosova was not just an issue of minority rights but of the violation of the constitutional rights of an existing federal unit. In Krajina, by contrast, new and messy borders would have to be drawn.

A better comparison would be with the oppression of the Croat minority in Serb-controlled Vojvodina, and of the Muslim minority in the Sanjak region of Serbia. The autonomy referendum held by the Sanjak Muslims in August 1991 was ignored by Serbian authorities. Much of the Sanjak has since disappeared, thousands of Muslims fleeing to Bosnia from Chetnik terror. If the somewhat imaginary "oppression" of the Krajina Serbs was a reason to oppose Croatia's right to independence, as argued by large parts of the left, should the oppression of Albanians, Muslims, Croats and Hungarians in Serbia have meant the denial of Serbia's right to exist?

In any case, Krajina had little to do with the war of 1991, which was a war of conquest for Greater Serbia. The JNA flattened virtually defenceless Croatian cities far from Krajina. Dubrovnik, a south Dalmatian city with a 2 per cent Serb population, was reduced to ruins. Vukovar, a historic multi-ethnic (Croat majority) city on the Danube, was completely levelled by a three-month siege, during which thousands of local Serbs fought in the Croatian army against the barbaric attack.

Apart from a Krajina expanded into Croat majority areas, two other regions were conquered for the Serb republic. In Western Slavonia, Serbs were a majority in only one of eleven districts. The most populous region, Eastern Slavonia, which includes Vukovar, had a population of 647,000, of which only 14 per cent were Serbs, yet this was the main theatre of war, because this region bordered on Serbia and had oil deposits. Chetnik forces joined the JNA in large numbers here, finally resulting in the ethnic cleansing of more than half a million Croats. Serbs made up a total of about 25 per cent of the population of the three regions as a whole. Yet even with all three regions, Serbian forces controlled only 45 per cent of Croatia's Serbs—the majority lived with Croats throughout Croatia.

Hence, while defending the right of Krajina Serbs to autonomy in districts that freely chose it, regardless of their right-wing leadership, Marxists also had to defend Croatia, regardless of its right-wing leadership, from this war of conquest by Greater Serbia.

Imperialist policy

The charge that imperialism encouraged secession in order to break up "socialist" Yugoslavia, even if true, would not alter the right to self-determination. If imperialism wanted to encourage secession, it would find much more fertile ground if the nation was oppressed.

But in any case, this view of imperialism is a complete fantasy. The IMF and World Bank strongly pushed Yugoslav recentralisation. In particular, the US, the EC, Britain and France insisted throughout 1990 and 1991 that Yugoslavia remain united. Even proposals for a looser confederation, which might have saved Yugoslavia, were rejected, because they were in total opposition to the IMF's needs. When Tudjman visited the White House in October 1990 to gain US support for the Croat-Slovene confederation proposal, he was told "coldly" by Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and "permanent adviser" Henry Kissinger, that the US supported the maintenance of Yugoslav federalism and unity "at all cost".

Kissinger, Scowcroft and Bush's assistant secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, all had important business connections with Yugoslavia. During the 1991 war, the major Western initiative was to impose an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, which prevented the disarmed Croats from getting arms, while the Serb-dominated JNA was one of the largest military forces in Europe.

Reading the article by Peter Gowan, one might be led to believe that there was a major imperialist bloc, opposed to the US-UK-France bloc, that wanted to break up Yugoslavia. "The forces eager to see the break-up of Yugoslavia through independence for Slovenia and Croatia were the Vatican, Austria, Hungary, Germany and, more ambivalently, Italy".35 His footnotes for this section are from John Zametica, a paid publicity agent for Radovan Karadzic's Bosnian Serb gangster "state" and a key link between Karadzic and the British ruling class. The supposed role of the Vatican says little about imperialist policy, except perhaps for feudal "imperialism". The attitude of Hungary's bourgeois nationalist Antall regime, which had its eyes on Vojvodina, says even less. Austria had long borders with Slovenia, and may have had a particular economic interest quite separate from other imperialist states, yet Gowan's only evidence, apart from obscure quotes from Zametica, was Austria's open support to "democratic rights" in the two republics.

As for Italy, there was nothing ambiguous. Italian foreign minister Gianni di Michelis made this clear, telling the Belgrade journal Borba in May 1991 that no-one in Croatia or Slovenia should be under the illusion that entry to the EC would be eased by secession from Yugoslavia—that only a "united" Yugoslavia could hope to enter a "united" Europe.36 Italy has since remained among the closest of west European imperialist states to Serbian and "Yugoslav" interests.

The charge that a newly united Germany "encouraged" Croatia's secession has led to the most enduring left fantasies, especially as it can be simplistically related to a version of World War II.37 For example, in Susan Woodward's mammoth Balkan Tragedy, many pages are devoted to German assertiveness,38 without, however, revealing a single fact previous to the outbreak of war in June 1991. In fact, just before that, German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher gave one of the strongest speeches supporting Yugoslav unity at the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in Berlin on June 19-20.39

That is not to deny the expansion of German economic interests throughout eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia, or to argue for German innocence. Rather, it is precisely because Germany was the dominant economic power throughout Yugoslavia, not just in the northern republics, that the last thing it wanted was a break-up of this market, economic turmoil and new state barriers. Even if it had traditionally stronger links with the north, as long as Yugoslavia remained united, there was no barrier to its further expansion.

These links no doubt made Germany more sympathetic once the war began and all hope of maintaining unity died. It is certainly true that this growing assertiveness by Germany in late 1991 was a factor in its US-British-French rivals steadfastly opposing this recognition push. Yet while it has often been stated that Germany railroaded the rest of the European Community into recognition, and that this recognition was "premature", a grudging and belated acceptance of reality is a more realistic explanation for the change. The JNA attack on Croatia had continued relentlessly since July; after Vukovar, and finally the beginnings of a Croatian fight back late in the year, it was difficult to imagine forcing Croatians back into "Yugoslavia". By the end of the year a cease-fire was in place and UN troops were moving in; EC recognition of Croatia and Slovenia finally took place on January 15, when the war had ended. Germany's sin—its attempt to establish itself in the new states—was recognising the republics three weeks ahead of schedule, on December 23. The US steadfastly refused to follow the EC in recognition, attempting for a couple of months to maintain the myth of "Yugoslavia" in order to contain the German advance.

As regards the rights of Croatia's Serb minority, the EC's Badinter Commission into recognition noted that Croatia had confirmed its acceptance of the provisions of the Carrington Plan for Yugoslavia relating to "special status" for minorities and had for the most part incorporated them into the new "Constitutional Law of Human Rights and Freedoms and Rights of National and Ethnic Communities or Minorities in the Republic of Croatia", passed by the Croatian parliament on December 4, 1991. It nevertheless called on Croatia to further "supplement" this law.40


What the EC recognised was a truncated Croatia. Under the US-inspired Vance Plan (former US defence secretary Cyrus Vance was acting for the UN), UN forces moved in to freeze the confrontation lines in Croatia, essentially leaving SDS forces in control of a third of Croatia, cleansed of its Croat inhabitants. More crucially, Vance also allowed the JNA, by now clearly a Serbian rump, to take all the heavy weaponry, which had been the property of all Yugoslavs, into Bosnia, where it was about to be used in a far more destructive way. This signalled joint US and EC policy at the time to maintain Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosova inside the Serb-dominated rump "Yugoslavia".

These states nevertheless applied for recognition. Kosova was simply ignored, the EC using the excuse that it had not been a full republic and therefore had no right to secession under the Yugoslav constitution. This was despite the 97 per cent vote for independence in Kosova's 1991 referendum.

Macedonia's bid was blocked by Greece's virulently nationalist campaign, focusing on the republic's alleged "theft" of a Greek name and false accusations of irredentist claims against the Greek part of geographic Macedonia. While Serbia initially opposed Macedonia's independence, even proposing it be partitioned between Serbia and Greece, it eventually settled down to a pragmatic acceptance of Macedonia as it got bogged down in Bosnia. Several years later, the US and EC recognised the state under the cumbersome name of "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."

In Bosnia's case, the EC attempted to hold up the process by pushing a crude ethnic partition plan, the Carrington-Cultheiro Plan of March 1992. This plan had essentially been drawn up by local Serb and Croat right-wing nationalists, both backed by Milosevic and Tudjman. With Croatian semi-independence, the two nationalist regimes joined forces over the next three years in an attempt to divide Bosnia between them.

For imperialism, the role played by the formerly united Yugoslav state, as the enforcer of stability in the region, was now taken by the two major bourgeois states emerging out of the wreck of Yugoslavia. For the whole three years, the EC and finally the US pushed one or another ethnic partition plan, continually demanding that the multi-ethnic Bosnian government accept partition as demanded by Milosevic and Tudjman. The whole time, they also enforced, with their navies in the Adriatic Sea and their armies in the occupying UN force, an arms embargo on the disarmed republic, under genocidal attack from Serbian and Croatian nationalist forces, the former using all the heavy weaponry granted them by Vance.

While the EC's partition plan had aimed at holding up Bosnian independence, the issue was forced by the US, in a dramatic policy reversal in March 1992, suddenly launching a push for recognition of Bosnia. This policy switch was related to a growing conflict between major EC states and the US over the continuing relevance of NATO versus the push for a Europe-only security system. Suddenly coming out more aggressively against Milosevic, and helping push Bosnia into the abyss, was part of asserting NATO's new relevance.

It had nothing in reality to do with defending Bosnia. Having pushed for Bosnian independence, after stacking the military situation against Bosnia, the US sent nothing but loud rhetoric to aid the Bosnians once they came under massive Serbian attack in April 1992.

The question arises: who had the right to self-determination in Bosnia, the Bosnians as a whole or its separate Serb, Croat and Muslim national components? Peter Gowan claims there was no Bosnian nation, so the component nations had the right to self-determination; he then accuses the US of denying the right to self-determination to the Serb and Croat minorities. By implication, the EC was on the right track with its partition plans.

This has two major problems. Firstly, while there was officially no Bosnian nation—Bosnia was constitutionally a republic of the Serb, Croat and Muslim nations—it had in reality come into existence. The Bosnian cities and in particular the Bosnian working class were by now clearly an entity of their own. People of the three groups lived together in the same apartment blocks and worked together in the same factories and mines, producing for the same economy; they intermarried to a very large degree. If you are part Serb, part Muslim and part Croat, which "nation" do you belong to? For a large number, their own answer, hence their own national identity, was obvious: Bosnia. The constitution had lagged behind the reality.

The Bosnian nation was expressed in the institutions of the state. The presidency consisted of two Muslims, two Serbs, two Croats and one "Yugoslav" (which in Bosnia's case had the specific meaning of "Bosnian"); the Bosnian army was led by one Serb, one Croat and one Muslim general; large numbers of Serbs and Croats fought in the multi-ethnic Bosnian army alongside Muslims against Serb and Croat national chauvinist forces. As equal partners in the state, the Serb and Croat nations experienced neither oppression in independent Bosnia nor the threat of it. Clearly, Bosnia as a whole had a right to self-determination.

The other problem was where to draw dividing lines. Any map showing which areas had Serb, Croat and Muslim majorities shows a thoroughly interspersed patchwork, and even these "majorities" were usually tenuous. Interspersed between them was about a quarter of the Bosnian land area, which had no ethnic majority. The EC partition plans were a recipe for massive population transfer—i.e. ethnic cleansing. Imperialism was well aware of this: the continuing Communist era "brotherhood and unity" among the Bosnian working class, embodied in these multi-ethnic institutions, was what imperialism wanted to smash with these plans.

If the principle is that areas with an ethnic majority have the right to autonomy, that had already been agreed to by the Bosnian government in October 1991. If it means they have a right to independence or to join their respective "fatherlands", the reality is that there were very few areas41 of any size, let alone adjoining their "fatherland" borders, that could have exercised this right. Hence, the right of Bosnian Serbs and Croats to self-determination was never an issue in the war; rather, it was a war of conquest and genocide, where the two regimes, above all the massively armed Serbian regime, conquered as many areas as they could, regardless of ethnic composition, and expelled more than 2 million people, leaving 200,000 dead—in both cases mostly Muslims. It was the right of self-determination of the Muslims and of the Bosnians as a whole that was violated.

Appearing to take the moral high ground against partition, the US dropped this once it took control of the situation in 1994, presenting its own more extreme plan. The US-inspired Dayton Accord of November 1995 represented the most complete version of partition, with a fully fledged Bosnian Serb republic (Republika Srpska) set up on 50 per cent of Bosnian territory, with its own army, in territory from which 1.5 million non-Serbs had been expelled.

While much has been written in the bourgeois media about Milosevic having been "defeated" in "four disastrous wars", the outcome of the Bosnian war was in fact an outright victory for Milosevic and the Serb nationalist movement. Half of a UN member state had been transformed into a new Serb republic. The fact that it remained within a loose Bosnian confederation, and hence had an international border separating it from Serbia, was more in form than in fact, as the growing merger of the economies of Serbia and Republika Srpska demonstrates.

If many Serbs also left the other half, which had been transformed by the US from a region still controlled by the legal Bosnian government into a "Muslim-Croat federation", this was also a victory. The aim the whole time had been to carve a Serb state out of Bosnia, and indeed those Serbs who do attempt to maintain a multi-ethnic existence with their Muslim and Croat neighbours in the other half are regarded as traitors by the Serb nationalists.

In the context of formalising the division of the region with Croatia, Milosevic no longer had any need for the conquered territories in Croatia itself, least of all the Serb majority Krajina, which was economically worthless and territorially far outside the Serbian zone in the new, more stabilised ethnic borders of the region. Hence when Tudjman retook the Krajina in August 1995 and expelled its entire 150,000 Serb inhabitants,42 Milosevic neither made any attempt at military resistance, nor made any issue of it. This is despite the massive armed strength of the Krajina Serb forces, who had been using napalm and cluster bombs against Bosnian Muslims in neighbouring Bihac. Hence it is also a myth that the catastrophe of the Krajina Serbs represented a defeat for Milosevic;43 it was the result of agreement.

Kosova in Greater Serbia

However, the exact borders of the new Greater Serbia were still unclear, this being a major source of continuing instability for the Serbian ruling class. As Vojvodina had a slight Serb majority, the abolition of its autonomy had remained fairly stable; much of the Croat minority had fled, and the Hungarian minority remained quiescent in this wealthy region.

While Montenegro had remained firmly within the new "Yugoslav" federation, it was a republic in its own right, officially separate from Serbia, something which the ruling elite aimed ultimately to rationalise. Differences began to emerge between the Serbian and Montenegrin elites, more over policy than any feeling of separate Montenegrin "ethnic" identity. And despite the victory of Republika Srpska, even the official international border remained an issue to be resolved in the long term.

More serious than all this was Kosova. How could the new Greater Serbia, constructed on an unambiguously ethnic basis, continue to rule over an area which was 90 per cent Albanian? Continued Serbian rule could only be a source of permanent instability.

When Milosevic finally abolished the fiction of the old Yugoslavia in 1992, setting up a new "Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" between Serbia and Montenegro and a new bourgeois constitution, the oppressed Albanians had no say in the matter, their autonomy having already been suppressed.

Nevertheless, when Kosovan resistance leader Ibrahim Rugova asked to be invited to the Dayton conference, to include Albanian grievances in peace discussions, he was rejected. While recognising the Bosnian Serb gangster "republic", the US also officially recognised the borders of the new "Yugoslavia", hence including Kosova.

This rejection led to the upturn of the Albanian struggle in 1996-97. Then the revolutionary uprising in neighbouring Albania in 1997 gave a boost to a new armed struggle led by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), as a flood of cheap weapons from looted Albanian armouries coalesced with increasing Kosovan frustration with the failure of peaceful resistance.

For imperialism, Serbian control of Kosova was part of the regional balance. Furthermore, any move towards independence for Kosova was seen as a major threat to the stability of other bourgeois regimes in Albania, Macedonia and throughout the southern Balkans, which it was feared would spill over to Greece and Turkey. This was all the more of a threat if carried out by an armed liberation movement outside of imperialist control. Hence the statement in Pristina in February 1998 by US envoy Robert Gelbard that the KLA "is, without any question, a terrorist organisation", was clearly a green light for Milosevic to crack down.

The problem was that Milosevic's brutal tactics of destroying and emptying villages drove thousands of Kosovans to the KLA. Imperialism came to see that it would need its own troops in Kosova to bring stability to the region. As it does this, it continues to insist that Kosova cannot have independence (or even republic status, apparently) but only what is in fact a weaker form of autonomy than that which Kosova enjoyed before 1989. For imperialism, autonomy within Serbia is seen as the best way of stabilising the situation.

For the Serbian ruling class, the aim is not so clear. While it prefers autonomy to independence—and indeed, Rambouillet autonomy appears to codify some of the restrictions on autonomy initially proposed by Milosevic in 1988—the stabilisation of an ethnic state may require shedding as much of this troublesome Albanian population as possible. Throughout 1998, voices were again raised among the Serbian intelligentsia for the partition of Kosova, in particular by Dobrica Cosic, the intellectual "father" of modern Serb nationalism.

The problem remained how to draw lines and physically separate Kosovan Serbs and Albanians. The 1999 war, involving NATO terror bombing and unimpeded Serbian genocide against Kosova Albanians, appears to have achieved this result. It now appears virtually impossible for the two peoples to live together in mixed areas. The most dramatic effects are being seen in the exodus of a large part of the Serb population, fearing revenge from returning Albanian refugees, from Albanian-dominated regions.

Much less is being said of where Serb paramilitaries, backed by French NATO troops, are preventing the return of Albanian refugees to their homes in the north. Media reports on the division of Kosova's second biggest city, Mitrovica, invariably refer to the north of the city as the "Serb sector", masking the fact that its population was 80 per cent Albanian before the war. The armed Serbs there have declared the whole of Kosova north to the Serbian border a Serbian zone.

North of Mitrovica is the Trepca lead-zinc-gold-silver-cadmium industrial complex, worth $5 billion, the largest mining and metallurgy complex in the Balkans. This material wealth, not the alleged cradle of the Serbian nation, is what the Serbian ruling class really wants to hang onto.

Of course, there are medieval Serbian monasteries in Kosova, which returning Yugoslav troops will be sent to guard. And even the very status of Kosova as autonomous rather than a republic means that however much "self-government" the Albanian majority exercises, ownership of resources is still officially vested in the Serbian republic (which has been busily trying to privatise them, including a stake by a large Greek company in Trepca—a process held up only by the unstable situation that NATO occupation hopes to address). Hence in theory, even partition may not be necessary for Serbia to maintain ownership of Trepca—but the partition moves ensure it just in case. Like Israel and its devolution of "self-government" to Palestinian population centres while controlling resources, Serbia would prefer to get rid of the people and keep the resources.

For Kosovans, the loss of the Trepca complex would doom hopes for viable self-determination more than the destruction unleashed by the war has. For imperialism, de facto but not official partition means the best of both worlds—separation of peoples, making them easier to control and stabilising the situation, combined with maintenance of international borders.


1. Leon Trotsky, "Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads", July 22, 1939, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973, pp. 44-54.

2. Philip Cohen, Serbia's Secret War, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1996, p. 93, citing German estimates.

3. Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1995, p. 212, quoting Ekonomska Politika, Belgrade, January 27, 1969. Also, Marko Veselica, The Croatian National Question, London, 1980, p. 12, giving the figure of 73.5 per cent.

4. According to all surveys. See, for example, Iraj Hashi, "The Disintegration of Yugoslavia", Capital and Class, no. 48, Autumn 1992, p. 73, table from Vreme, July 15, 1991, showing 67 per cent of officers being Serb or Montenegrin (compared to their 39 per cent of the population) and another 7 per cent being "Yugoslavs", half presumed to be Serbs. The charge that the lower proportions of Croats and Slovenes were due to their allegedly better economic opportunities compared to Serbs would be hard to reconcile with this table showing only 1 per cent of Albanian officers, compared to their 8 per cent of the population, Albanians being far and away the poorest group in Yugoslavia.

5. Hashi, p. 73.

6. Susan Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, Brookings Institution, Washington, 1995, p. 109.

7. Susan Woodward, Socialist Unemployment, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 356, quoting Zagreb daily Vjesnik, September 8, 1982.

8. Veselica, p. 12.

9. Noel Malcolm, Bosnia, A Short History, Papermac, London, 1994, p. 216.

10. Sissy Vovou (ed), Bosnia-Herzegovina—The Battle for a Multi-Ethnic Society, Deltio Thiellis, Athens, 1996, p. 19, table.

11. Malcolm, p. 202, from 1971 census.

12. Jack Anderson, "The Price of Balkan Pride", in the Washington Post, December 29, 1991.

13. Figure for all Serbia, including provinces.

14. Dijana Plestina, in John Allcock, John Horton and Marko Milivojevic (eds), Yugoslavia in Transition, Berg publishers, New York, 1992, p. 140.

15. ibid., pp. 144-46.

16. James Gow, Legitimacy and the Military, Pinter Publishers, London, 1992, p. 105.

17. ibid., p. 103.

18. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, p. 115.

19. Leonard Cohen, Broken Bonds, Westview Press, Boulder, 1993, pp. 55-6.

20. World Bank, Industrial Restructuring Study: Overview, Issues and Strategy for Restructuring, Washington, June 1991, p. 8.

21. Foreign Broadcast Information Bulletin—Eastern Europe (FBIS-EU), p. 39.

22. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, p. 59.

23. According to the New York Times, "the political will to carry it [economic reform] through has failed because of the absence of a political centre of power", Henry Kamm, "Yugoslavia Unglued", October 11, 1988, p. A12. The London Financial Times in an editorial claimed "The economy is bent out of shape in many ways, partly to do with its fragmentation . along the lines of the country's eight republics and provinces . and partly to do with the vaunted system of self-management .", Editorial, July 29, 1985. Neither had anything to say about democratic reform.

24. US House of Representatives, Committee on Small Business, Economic Restructuring in Eastern Europe: American Interests, 101st Congress, First Session, September 1989, p. 12.

25. But it despaired of the ability of the government to carry them through. Defence minister Branko Mamula warned in 1983 that while the JNA strongly supported "economic stabilisation", (i.e. the IMF program), he found it "difficult to understand . the slowness and certain inconsistencies in implementing the agreed policy and the widespread phenomena of giving preference to partial interests at the expense of general, Yugoslav ones", J. Gow, Legitimacy and the Military, p. 74, quoting Mamula from Narodna Armija, December 22, 1983.

26. Branka Magas, The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Verso, London, 1995, pp. 199, 201. The Memorandum demanded that the Serbian nation re-establish its full "national and cultural integrity . irrespective of the republic or province in which it finds itself". In particular, Kosova had to be crushed, to prevent the ongoing "genocide" against the local Serbs.

27. Vojin Dimitrijevic, The 1974 Constitution as a Factor in the Collapse of Yugoslavia or as a Sign of Decaying Totalitarianism, European University Institute Working Paper RSC No. 94/9, Florence, 1994, p. 24.

28. Peter Gowan, "The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy", New Left Review 234, March/April 1999.

29. Amnesty International, Yugoslavia's Ethnic Albanians, New York, 1992.

30. These groups included the Movement for the National Liberation of Kosova, the Group of Marxist-Leninists of Kosova, the Red Front, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) of Yugoslavia, and the Movement for an Albanian Republic in Yugoslavia.

31. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, November 2, 1989, p. 19.

32. The assertion that Croatia and Slovenia were more pro-privatisation than Serbia or the federal government is incorrect. In fact, the federal government was the radical privatiser; all three republics slowed it down to keep it under their own control. As late as 1986, the World Bank complained about the fact that Croatia's privatisation had "virtually stalled" and that the bulk of heavy industry was still in state hands (World Bank, Trends in Developing Economies, Croatia, 1996). Similarly, Slovenia had sold only 200 of the scheduled 1500 enterprises slated for privatisation by that time.

33. Such as his notorious statement that he was glad his wife was neither a Serb nor a Jew.

34. The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, December 22, 1990.

35. Gowan, p. 87.

36. Mark Almond, Europe's Backyard War, Mandarin, London, 1994, p. 43.

37. See, for example, Sean Gervasi, "Germany, the US and the Yugoslav Crisis", Covert Action, Winter 1992-93, pp. 45, 64-65, where he argues strongly that a new German imperial drive was responsible for encouraging Croatia to "disassociate" from Yugoslavia.

38. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, pp. 183-89.

39. It was after this meeting that US secretary of state George Baker visited Belgrade and insisted on Yugoslavia's "territorial integrity and unity", calling any unilateral secession of Croatia and Slovenia "illegal and illegitimate", which would "never" be recognised by the US.

40. Opinion No. 5 on the Recognition of the Republic of Croatia by the European Community and its Member States, Paris, January 11, 1992.

41. Perhaps the East Herzegovina Serbs and the West Herzegovina Croats were the only exceptions.

42. Just before this, the Krajina rulers rejected a us-Russian offer of high level autonomy, including keeping their own army!

43. The anti-Croat, pro-Serb nationalist lobby has always played up this event, by bolstering the numbers expelled to 300,000 or more. The figure of 150,000 is based on census figures. The purpose of this is to make the ridiculous claim that this was the largest act of ethnic cleansing in the whole Balkans, which has been repeated ad nauseam. This would be news to the 2 million Bosnian refugees.