Dialogue: The Issues in Bosnia

— David Finkel

THE ISSUES RAISED in E. Haberkern's letter have become even more urgent at the beginning of 1993, as the imperialists of the United States and Europe indeed appear closer to a massive military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. The opportunity to clarify Against the Current's views on these issues, and to engage in a vitally important dialogue among socialists regarding them, is therefore a particularly welcome one.

To briefly review, our editorial opposed imperialist military intervention, including the actual form that intervention has taken: the arms embargo that deprived the republic of Bosnia of the means of self-defense against the annexationist and "ethnic cleansing" war which the Milosevic government of Serbia unleashed against it.

We stated that "the Bosnians have the right, first, to weapons and ammunition from any possible source;" and we opposed the introduction of foreign combat troops. We still oppose sending troops into the former Yugoslavia; and most immediately, we energetically condemn the "ethnic partitioning' of Bosnia which the European imperialists are presently (early January 1993) cramming down the throats of Bosnia's people after refusing to permit them to defend themselves.

Haberkern appears to misunderstand our point regarding the role of European powers, and particularly Germany. Since Germany happened to be the political-economic cop on the Balkan block, it is of interest—without giving any legitimacy to its presence there in the first place—to note where it chose to intervene or to stand aside as Yugoslavia came unglued in the course of 1991 (see Manuela Dobos' essay in ATC 41).

The German government made no demands on Tudjman's Croatia to guarantee the rights of the Serbian minority in Croatia The reduction of their rights afforded Serbia a pretext for war to secure "a Serbian state for all the Serbs." And when Milosevic's Serbia exploited this persecution of Serbs in Croatia with its own greater criminal act—the invasion of Croatia and the murderous mass bombardment of Croatian cities (Dubrovnik Vukovar etc.)—Germany and the rest of the great powers stood by.(1)

In this context we wrote the war "could have been stopped by a decisive European response (even a threat to bomb Serbian warships)." To do that would have been intervention, yes. But outside powers (Germany in particular) were already up to their necks in the politics of Yugoslav dissolution. Their decision to do nothing was not "non-intervention," any more than United States and French troops in Somalia were practicing "nonintervention" when they passively watched the near-fatal beating of a woman in the street. The decision to do nothing about the bombing of Croatian cities led directly to the slaughter in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Haberkem does make a valid and important point, that "All the Bosnian parties were against the recognition of Croatia initially' because of the threat it posed to their own multi-cultural society.(2) But he goes on to state that once Croatia was recognized "People saw no alternative except to save themselves in a country that was breaking up."

But who is "people"? Haberkern ignores the fact that Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the republic's capital city Sarajevo are standing, fighting and suffering together in its defense. New York Times correspondent John Burns stated in a radio interview in late December that he was amazed to find unanimous sentiment in Sarajevo for continuing the struggle at all costs.

The most informative accounts I have seen, Misha Glenny's series in the New York Review of Books, strongly indicate that the multi-communal defense of Bosnian unity is very real among the urban population.(3) And if this weren't true, how could the badly outgunned republic have held out so long?

The separatist Serb militias in Bosnia are rooted in the most politically backward rural regions, and they are supplied, encouraged and in fact commanded—with a thin veneer of Bush like plausible deniability—by the Milosevic regime. It has nothing to do with the Serb right of self-determination in Bosnia." It is an annexationist war plotted and implemented by Milosevic of Serbia, with the complicity of Tudjman's regime in Croatia, to which it would appear imperialism had no profound objections until it became clear the war could spread and threaten the stability of numerous surrounding European states.

We do not "think that the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia are frenzied nationalists driven by paranoid fantasies bred in along ago war." The historic, and current, repression of the Serbian people in Croatia is all too real. Milosevic did not invade Croatia to save the Serbs there, but to advance his used-to-be-Communist/nationalist coalition project of "Greater Serbia." Nor should the genocidal character of the pro-Nazi Croatian regime of World War II be cited to cover up the Nazi-like behavior of the Serbian regime here and now.

The most important obstacle to a successful multi-ethnic perspective in the former Yugoslavia (and one important reason for the federation's disintegration) is, in fact, the relatively privileged position that the Serbs enjoyed. This could not last forever. It needed to be renegotiated, and of course the bureaucratic "Communist' legacy produced no democratic political culture to accomplish this. In Bosnia in any case the Serb population did not face repression.

Haberkern suggests a number of analogies, mostly bad ones: The Serb military adventure in Bosnia has no similarity to the PLO's struggle, though it bears some features (for example) of Syria's intention through various proxies to dominate Lebanon and the Palestinians. But he overlooks the most obvious one: The Serbian population in Bosnia is being exploited and manipulated by Milosevic in a similar manner to the Sudetenland Germans of 1930s Czechoslovakia, Hitler's pretext for the annexation of that land.

No socialist or democrat would have endorsed "the right of self-determination for Sudetenland Germans." Most ordinary Serbs in Bosnia, and of course Croatia, today are victims rather than oppressors But the war in Bosnia is not a liberation war of the Serb minority there!


  1. This writer, while speaking on the subject last fall in Boston, encountered a Serb who described himself as a left-winger and who flatly stated that the shelling of Croatian cities was a myth manufactured by Croatian and western media!
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  2. 1 think, however, that Haberkern is wrong about popular sentiment regarding dissolution of the Yugoslav federation. If I'm not mistaken, governments in Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia were all elected on programs of independence. This contrasts with the breakup of Czechoslovakia, where the Klaus (Czech) and Meciar (Slovak) regimes, after their election, agreed from the top to split the country without consulting the population.
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  3. In his most recent essay (New York Review of Books, January 14, 1993), Glenn reaches e conclusion that some form of cantonization of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only alternative to escalating genocide. This however, does not mean that the partitioning has any progressive content, but only that the Muslim community and all Bosnian supporters of a multicultural republic have been defeated by the international arms embargo.
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March-April 1993, ATC 43