Distortions about Yugoslavia's Disintegration

by Konstantin Kilibarda

March 17, 2003


[Ed. The text below is a slightly edited version of e-mails that the author recently sent to Prof. Edward S. Herman, in which he expressed his appreciation for the superb book review Ed Herman has written about Diana Johnstone's book, "Fool's Crusade." ("Diana Johnstone on the Balkan Wars," Monthly Review, February 2003.) Konstantin Kilibarda presents his analysis of the Yugoslav tragedy as well as the role, actions and intentions of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Milosevic, the Diaspora, et al. during that fateful period -- an analysis that widely and correctly debunks the "official" history. It is published by courtesy of the author.]

My grandparents were Yugoslav communists and we never identified with the ethno-nationalist factions in the former Yugoslav space, but with the still, rhetorically at least, openly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist discourse of the Socialist People's Party (SNP) in Montenegro and Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in Serbia. Fact is that the elections in 1990 brought nominally communist parties to power only in these two republics. In every other republic it was nationalist-chauvinist parties that triumphed (here, I distinguish between Third World progressive "(inter)nationalism" geared at liberation from colonial occupation and nationalist-chauvinism or chauvinism, which is profoundly reactionary).

Actually, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) [Ed. The DPS eventually split, with the SNP most closely aligned to the original ideals of the DPS.] in Montenegro came to power after a massive uprising, led by workers from the Radoje Dakic firm in Titograd (the capital of Montenegro, now Podgorica) in mid-January 1990. While there was a chauvinist anti-Albanian current in this mass-movement in both republics, it was a minority tendency and was systematically rejected from the DPS's new government in Montenegro. The leader of this chauvinist current, Novak Kilibarda -- funnily enough, a distant uncle of mine -- was told to form his own party and was one of the most pro-Western and anti-Milosevic actors in rump-Yugoslavia.

A similar process occurred in Vojvodina, where a multiethnic group protested against the local bureaucracy that was undermining the social gains of the past fifty years by imposing economic austerity measures in this autonomous region. And yet these episodes of mass-action by workers in these regions (i.e., Vojvodina and Montenegro) are rarely mentioned in official NATO discourses on the immediate background to the Yugoslav Wars; and if they are mentioned at all, they are presented as top-down coups orchestrated by Milosevic to impose loyalists in power (and as evidence of his "power grabbing"). To have the Western party line tell it, the only worker protests in Yugoslavia were the Albanian miners' strike in Kosovo (which was instigated by chauvinist currents in this province).

In fact, the real story of the 1980s wasn't escalating chauvinist sentiments among "the Serbs," but the largest wave of labor militancy in Yugoslav history. Thus, when pro-Western Slovene authorities blocked buses from Serbia and Montenegro from coming into this Republic to stage a pro-Yugoslav rally, it wasn't to block Milosevic's "power-grab" in favor of a "Greater Serbia" but to prevent the Slovenian public from learning about the true brotherly intentions of "the Serbs" (it should be noted that at the time one of the main slogans of Slovene "pro-democracy" rallies that were sanctioned by the Kucan government then in power in that Republic was "Srbe na Vrbe" -- i.e., "(Hang) Serbs from the Willow Trees").

While such ethno-chauvinist appeals were actively fostered in other republics (and among Serbs in these republics, by local chauvinist leaders), the SPS in Serbia continuously rejected chauvinist currents from its party platform and forced them to form alternative parties to compete with the SPS in open electoral contests (which the SPS won repeatedly). Social instability had risen tremendously in Serbia by the early 1990s, due to rising inflation and neo-liberal austerity carried out by the Federal government. Strikes were very prominent and people were by and large mobilized. Yet this mass movement differed from most mass movements in Eastern Europe in that the masses in Serbia (a multiethnic republic) were generally agitating for greater workers rights, the preservation of Yugoslavia, and opposing external economic and political interference in their country, that is to say in Yugoslavia.

There was, of course, a substantial "grass-roots" element of mobilization around Kosovo (even prior to Milosevic's ascendancy) in response to continued reports of discrimination and ethnic-cleansing in the republic (including an incident in the mid-1980s in which one of the leading local Kosovar Albanian Communist Party leaders suggested that Serbian women wouldn't be raped if they simply started working as waitresses and prostitutes). What is interesting is not that the SPS appropriated this issue for its own ends, but that it did it largely in order that the "pro-democracy" chauvinist parties operating in Serbia and Montenegro wouldn't run-away with the issue and undermine the Communist Party system in Yugoslavia.

The SPS was therefore careful to frame the issue of Kosovo as one of defending Yugoslavia from chauvinism, combating "counter-revolution" and the importance of preserving multi-ethnicity in every part of the Federation (as Kosovo was threatened with ethnic purity, which it was argued would destabilize the Balkans as such an outcome would only fuel other ethno-national movements with similar aims if any region ever became "pure"). This was an official discourse that was explicitly opposed to ideas such as "ethnic cleansing" and to the populist agitation of chauvinist-nationalists in Serbia who framed the situation in Kosovo within the zero-sum communalist logic of Serbs vs. Albanians. The SPS was thus careful to frame the crisis in Kosovo as a Yugoslav crisis that should concern everyone (including pro-Yugoslav Albanians), and not as a crisis that "proved" the subjugation of the Serbian-people within the framework of Yugoslavia (as some chauvinist currents in Serbia and in the Diaspora would have had it). This is because the SPS's goal was to preserve Yugoslavia, and not to create a Greater Serbia (otherwise why make appeals for peace to potential ethnic-rivals?).

It is abundantly clear that a large majority of people was being mobilized by the SPS discourse, not that of the nationalists. In fact when Western journalists show the mass-"nationalist" rallies that took place during that time in Serbia -- in movies like the BBC's "The Death of Yugoslavia" -- it is interesting to note that the crowds are mostly waving communist Yugoslav flags and chanting "Yu-go-slavia!" (Compare that to the incomparably smaller Serbian-chauvinist rallies at the time, where the main symbols are the Serbian royalist flag and chants of "Serbia! Serbia!" -- rallies that were actively suppressed by the authorities in Serbia, unlike in other republics where the "democratic" leaderships actively fostered such rallies). In industrial cities like Kragujevac this movement was particularly strong and it had a clearly socialist, progressive, and anti neo-liberal character as it was led by autoworkers of various nationalities.

Contrast this with the March 1991 pro-chauvinist demonstrations in favor of the Serbian Renewal Movement of the neo-Chetnik Vuk Draskovic, which were portrayed in the Western media as "pro-peace" and "pro-democracy" demonstrations! The SPS put these demonstrations down again as "counter-revolutionary." Milosevic actually asked to impose Martial Law from the Federal Presidency in order to put down this, what he termed, "fascist" threat! Most nationalist-chauvinist leaders actually spent time in jail for their beliefs in "Milosevic's Serbia" of the early 1990s (including Draskovic and Seselj). This produced a common joke among nationalist Serbs that the Albanians couldn't complain that they weren't equal because both Serbs and Albanians were on the receiving end of Milosevic's police batons in equal parts!

The Milosevic government went so far to combat Serbian chauvinism that it even tried to suppress "turbo-folk" music, with heavy populist-chauvinist over-tones, as dangerous kitsch, and instead went about promoting more universalistic cultural acts. Actually, it could be argued that nationalist factions that took up "the Serb cause" had closer ties to Western intelligence agencies than to Milosevic's security apparatus.

This observation is true for many in the Bosnian Serb leadership. Some, such as Milan Babic in Croatia, and people within Serbia who were cultured by the Serbian-American Diaspora, viewed Milosevic derisively as a "communist" and ultimately sided with the US Administration in ousting Milosevic and in imposing a neo-liberal order (early hints of such a strategy became more evident during the coordinated American Serbian Diaspora and Western backing for Serbian-American businessman Milan Panic in 1992-1993). Many of these nationalist and conservative anti-communist forces, from Plavsic, to Djnidjic, to Kostunica, to Mihaijlovic, et al., would later play key roles in ruling the state on behalf of Western economic, political, and military interpenetration of the rump-Yugoslav Federation and its continued dismantlement, as well as colonial government over occupied Bosnia and Kosovo.

Thus, far from promoting Serbian chauvinism, Milosevic was actively engaged in combating it with a very heavy-handed approach. This is not to say that the SPS is beyond criticism, for it did support some privatizations (mostly to local elites), and in its second party program drafted in 1992 there was a very reactionary resolution on demographics with respect to Albanians (it was framed in the developmentalist language of population control and the program was never actually implemented, and may have been pushed through by nationalist elements that eventually left the party). It is interesting to note, however, that in his address to this Second Party Congress, Milosevic never mentioned that "demographic" provision targeting Albanians (i.e., he definitely wasn't the one agitating for it within the party), and by the Third Party Congress any reference to demographic engineering was completely absent. There were no laws ever passed to implement that provision, which was more likely just an aberration; not even secessionist factions in Kosovo have cited it as "proof" of the government's ill intentions towards Albanian citizens and it never figured prominently in the list of grievances put forward by Kosovar Albanian secessionist factions.

What is known about Milosevic at the time, however, is a number of factors that probably increasingly alienated the West for the following reasons:

- In 1989 Serbia and Montenegro, and to a similar extent Bosnia and Macedonia (until they were replaced by pro-Western leaderships), became increasingly opposed to the neo-liberal reforms being implemented. This wasn't necessarily due to hostility to capitalism -- the Yugoslav elite had opened its doors to international capital long before Milosevic had anything to do with it -- but it was because most firms slated to have subsidies cut where located in Serbia and Montenegro (and to a lesser extent in Bosnia and Macedonia, to the extent that these rural economies also disposed of an industrial capacity). The reforms would have thus led to mass unemployment and even greater instability in Serbia and Montenegro. Thus, while Milosevic initially supported structural adjustment, and wasn't necessarily hostile to it, it became politically untenable to support it, and his party eventually became one of the main obstacles to the deepening "reforms" of the Yugoslav system. (The main goal of the IMF/World Bank was to abolish the Constitutional categories of "socially owned" and "publicly owned" property, and replace them solely with "privately owned capital." In fact, all Western-brokered peace agreements in the region stipulate explicitly that the economy will run on the principle of "private property".)

- It is important to also remember that during the late 80s/early 90s, most Western governments were run by profoundly conservative parties that viewed the East European space and its peoples as being trapped in "the prison house of peoples" that was "Soviet communism." These right-wing parties actively fostered ethnic chauvinists and revanchists, who were seeking to return from exile, throughout the region. This was true not only for the Republican Party in the United States, under George Bush Sr. and the "Captive Nations Caucus" within his Party (an organized lobby of old school East European anti-communist and former fascist collaborators), but also of the Thatcherite Conservative Party in Britain and the Christian Democrats in Germany. In Germany, this was particularly true of the far-right CDU leadership in Bavaria, and similar far right-wing forces in Austria. Thus, the voting patterns of publics in Serbia and Montenegro were fundamentally at odds with the vision of the world propounded by these reactionary Western parties (and in the case of Austria and Germany fell into historical discourses of the right-wing in these countries that imagined "the Serbs" as an inherently hostile other worthy of extermination (replicating the WWI war-cry of Austro-Hungary: "Serbien muss Strieben" i.e., Serbia must Die)). For these parties, Milosevic had to be a "dictator" who had somehow subverted the people in Yugoslavia in an attempt to perpetuate Soviet-style communism on European soil and had to be purged. This ideological incompatibility between the conservative parties in Britain, the U.S., Germany, Austria -- not to mention conservative clerical factions in the Vatican and even right-wing militaries in Latin America, which sent arms to Croatia (witness arms scandals in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia) -- and the party leaderships in Serbia and Montenegro is curiously and unfortunately overlooked in most analyses of the conflict. Thus, a "community of interests" created between some of the most reactionary forces worldwide is simply ignored. What is interesting about this ideological component to the Yugoslav drama is that it actually profoundly influenced early interference and "Peace Making." Thus the first comprehensive peace-proposal, the "Carrington Plan" which was floated in the fall of 1991, spent the most time dwelling on economic arrangements for a reformulated Yugoslav space (17 Articles), which replicated the neo-liberal Thatcher/Bush/Kohl agenda, whereas minority rights and human rights came a distant second (11 Articles) -- provisions that were largely based on the conservative principle of ethnic-partition as the solution to civil war in "false" entities like multinational states (echoing Hitler's propaganda about Yugoslavia during WWII in the process).

- It should be noted that in 1990 or 1991 the Republican parliament in Serbia passed a law demanding restitution from Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria for war crimes committed during WWII in response to Genscher's agitation in favor of Slovene and Croat ethno-nationalist factions. This measure was to counter the demands by some creditors for the repayment of loans as many came to term in this period.

- In August 1991 Milosevic openly sided with the hardliners in the Soviet-military that briefly ousted Gorbachev. Thus Milosevic and the head of Tajikistan (an old-style hardcore doctrinaire communist if there ever was one) became the only heads of government in Europe to back this action. Not only does this explain, again, increased Western hostility to Milosevic -- the major Western powers were all run by conservative parties hostile to anything resembling communism -- and the public in Serbia and Montenegro, which failed to proceed to the end-of-history by installing a chauvinist liberal-market "democracy" as other East European elites did, but it also helps partially explain Yeltsin's continued hostility to Milosevic. Yeltsin's hostility further increased in 1993 when Milosevic backed the anti-Yeltsin forces in Parliament that were eventually brutally suppressed with tanks by Russia's neo-liberal mafia-elites.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the SPS actively adopted a policy that sought to preserve Yugoslavia's internal and external territorial status quo to the extent possible. Thus when Croatian Serbs held a referendum demanding that Serb-inhabited regions in Croatia be joined to the Socialist Republic of Serbia, the Republican Parliament in Serbia immediately voted to repudiate the referendum results and the SPS denounced the leadership in Krajina for fomenting ethnic tensions. Belgrade demanded that another referendum be held and that the Croatian Serbs make their separation from Croatia contingent on Croatia's separation from Yugoslavia. There was no need to change borders within the existing Yugoslavia it was claimed, and any move to do so would alienate other peoples in the Federation and open a Pandora's box. In April 1992, just as the Bosnian war was beginning, the Yugoslav and Serbian/Montenegrin Parliaments collectively voted to recognize the secession of all republics within their existing borders, thus abandoning extra-territorial claims to other Republics by forming a new constitution that redefined Yugoslavia as comprising only Serbia and Montenegro within their borders (after it became clear that Bosnia and Macedonia had opted for secession). Thus, Serbia and Montenegro even rejected the "smaller Yugoslavia" formulation that would have legitimized the desires of most Serbs to continue living in Yugoslavia. Of course, as the secessionist republics were arming mono-ethnic military formations, Belgrade never denied material support to these Serbs, as a failure to do so would have accelerated the already enormous influx of refugees fleeing Zagreb's and Sarajevo's anti-Serbian policies (by the end of 1992, the refugee population in FRY (Serbia and Montenegro) had reached 600,000). An embargoed Yugoslavia could hardly cope with such an influx and it was necessary to ensure that the entire Serbian population wasn't cleansed. However, the judicial interventions mentioned above show that judicial and constitutional interventions by the SPS actively sought to deny the possibility of pursuing a "Greater Serbian" agenda as they explicitly denied and foreclosed territorial claims on other republics, even after their illegal secessions. Instead of fostering such claims, SPS parliamentary interventions effectively foreclosed the possibility of pursuing constitutional guarantees made within the pre-war Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) constitution that could have been interpreted to justify retaining territories inhabited by Serbs in other Republics. Such a policy further undercut Milosevic's "nationalist" credentials as it is inconsistent with any rational pursuit of a policy to maintain "all Serbs in one State." In reality, the policies pursued by Belgrade actually helped establish a legal framework in which the Serbs would be divided into three states and not one. Why, again, would Belgrade adopt the policies it did if its goal was to create a "Greater Serbia"?

It should also be noted that Bosnia and Macedonia only began adopting more openly secessionist stances in mid-December 1991, after: 1) the USA stated that it would lift the credit freeze imposed on Yugoslavia only for those republics that cooperated with the international community, and 2) after Germany coerced the European Union to adopt its recognition policy. While Croatia and Slovenia forwarded maximalist demands of republican autonomy and separation, Bosnia and Macedonia favored a loose federation, while Serbia and Montenegro favored an updated Federation with more integrative trends cross-nationally across all republics and greater popular participation in Federal decision making (the claim that this would have led to Serb dominance is silly; the Serbs were only about a third of the population, and even then they were an extremely internally fragmented lot ideologically. Furthermore, the Federal level parties that the Serbian and Montenegrin leadership backed were pro-Yugoslav multi-ethnic parties).

In fact, the rump-Yugoslav federation was organizing an orderly withdrawal of Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) forces in negotiations with Bosnia and Macedonia before the Bosnian war broke out, when it became evident that the West wanted to dismantle Yugoslavia. Serbia and Montenegro's policy became an attempt to negotiate secession in an orderly manner, so as not to be dragged into another war. This policy translated into the relatively modest policy of recognizing the secession of those republics that desired it, while simply asking for constitutional and political guarantees that the Serbian people in the new republics not be treated as second-class citizens. While the JNA pulled out of Macedonia without incident, JNA barracks in Bosnia were surrounded by Izetbegovic's loyalists and withdrawing hardware was intercepted, triggering some of the first serious clashes.

This was similar to the pattern adopted with respect to the JNA in Slovenia and Croatia. In fact, Milosevic was so averse to conflict that he consistently backed JNA withdrawals from secessionist territories, the arrival of neutral UN forces, and all this in spite of the fact that the multi-ethnic military command of the JNA, which explicitly envisioned the secessionist leaderships as neo-fascist and imperialist agents, consistently argued for a comprehensive military solution to deal with the secessionist republics. While NATO, Zagreb and Sarajevo disparaged the UN -- Tudjman went so far as to demand the withdrawal of African and other Third World troops from Croatian soil, claiming that only first world peoples could understand first world problems -- throughout the conflict, Belgrade's official diplomacy put its entire faith in this institution (despite the fact that it had largely been manipulated by US policy) in the belief that it could still play on its status as one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned movement and win sympathy to this end. This was a pattern that was repeated during the Kosovo crisis as well.

An examination of Milosevic's world view would show a picture of someone who saw himself as acting within the Yugo-communist tradition and was fighting fascist secessionist movements backed by a newly militaristic imperialism. The unauthorized biography by Dusko Doder, suggests that the "Partizan" history of Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic created a certain ideological worldview that was painted in those "Partizan" discourses of WWII. Acknowledging this doesn't mean he actually was a communist; but the perception was there that he was, and the attachment went slightly deeper than that of other national communists in the former Yugoslavia who saw in the Party a way to power.

The dominant theme in SPS writings/discourse in Serbia (and of the SNP in Montenegro) -- the most recent speech by Goran Matic in Parliament against the new "Constitutional Charter of Serbia and Montenegro" can serve as an example -- is the resistance of little Balkan peoples to imperial power and the need to resist state fragmentation because it will lead to vassal status.

The enemy of the West never was Balkan chauvinism as such, but multiethnic Yugoslavia and the mixed statist system of capital accumulation therein, as well as local populisms that clashed with the interests of global capital flows (i.e., the local populism that opposed the desired "release" of Yugoslavia's productive parts and their incorporation into the global economy) and the geostrategic designs of NATO in the region. What's new? Nothing much, because this is the consistent history of this region with respect to the Great Powers that have considered first Serbia (1914), then Yugoslavia (1941), finally Serbia/Yugoslavia (1991) -- i.e., three times in the past century -- as an obstacle to their designs for domination of Eurasia.

It is no coincidence that control over the Berlin-Belgrade-Baghdad transversal that started WWI is still at the source of the conflicts and Great Power Games of the late 20th/early 21st centuries and has caused the deepest rifts within the Western alliance system during the post-Cold War era in the 1990s and even more now.

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The Balkans and Yugoslavia on Swans


Konstantin Kilibarda is currently completing a Collaborative MA in International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto (U of T), Canada. He is very involved in organizing with anti-imperialist causes in Toronto and contributing to AGITATE, a radical U of T student organization hosted by Victoria Students for a Critical Consciousness.

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Published March 17, 2003
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