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International Socialism, Winter 1995


Duncan Blackie

The left and the Balkan war


From International Socialism 2:69, Winter 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The war in Bosnia has been the sharpest European expression of the disintegration of certainties in the post Cold War era. And, just as in 1914, much of the left has failed to rise above the madness of war.

By 1995 many had swung round to view the situation in Bosnia as a mess in which there can be no certain allies, but in years past there has been nothing approaching such agnosticism. By turns the now nationalist leaders of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia have been held up as the saviours of civilisation in the Balkans.

Moreover, the Balkan crisis has led many veteran opponents of imperialism to call for Western firepower to be trained on the Serbians. In the United States, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky have all called for more aggressive US intervention [1], while in Britain Chris Mullin, the former Tribune editor, said, ‘It is, unhappily, a fact of life that only a credible force, military force on the ground, not bombing, is going to make any difference.’ Ken Livingstone called for troops to go in – as many as it takes and for as long as it takes’. [2] The ‘inveterate peacemonger’, former Labour leader Michael Foot, has also been prominent in campaigning for more Western involvement in the war.

The exclusive demonisation of the Serbs and illusions in the civilising influence of Western firepower have set the tone of debate for the last four years. However, the roots of this confusion lie further back. The post-war state in Yugoslavia acted as a pole of attraction for much of the left repelled by the horrors of Stalin’s Russia, yet unready to make its peace with the West. The orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International journal declared, ‘The Russian Revolution was the springboard from which the Third International took its historic flight. The Yugoslav revolution can become the springboard from which the Fourth will launch itself on its conquest of the masses’. [3] More recently Branka Magas claimed, ‘The legitimacy of the post-war state ... was built at once upon national equality and working class sovereignty’. [4]

The situation in Bosnia is traumatic in itself, but for those who believe that the country has descended to this from workers’ control it must be even more harrowing and confusing. This factor mirrored the confusion felt across much of the left in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the USSR. This had repercussions for many people’s understanding of all the major events of the 1990s, from the Gulf War to the role of the United Nations.

Regular readers of International Socialism will know that we have argued throughout that the roots of war in the former Yugoslavia and then Bosnia lay in the all round failure of first state capitalism and then market capitalism in the Balkans. [5] We argued that Serbian, Croatian and then Bosnian Muslim leaders have waved the flag of nationalism in a last hope of saving their discredited regimes. We argued that the nationalism of the Serbs could not be sustained without suspicions and hatreds being fuelled by leaders of other nationalities. One of the former advisers of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman has said as much himself:

We should have politically disarmed the Serbs in Croatia by promising them cultural autonomy and rights ... we left it too late. Last year’s election campaign by the Christian Democratic Union was won on a Croatian nationalist programme. Tudjman insisted that all Serbs take an oath of loyalty to the Croatian state. This played into the hands of Serbian nationalists and Slobodan Milosevic, who keeps accusing us of being fascist. [6]

Some others, with a more ambivalent attitude to Western intervention have also acknowledged this pattern. Mary Kaldor, for example, has written:

It is true that Belgrade subjected the Serb minority areas to merciless propaganda, that memories of the Ustashe period were continually exploited by Serb extremists, and that Serbian paramilitaries were armed by Belgrade. Nevertheless, it is also true that many Serbs were dismissed from their jobs, Serbian property was confiscated and, most provocative of all, Serbian policemen were replaced by Croats in Serbian areas. The use of the Croatian shield to replace the Yugoslav red star, the renaming of the ‘Square of the Victims of Fascism’ as the ‘Square of Croatian Great Kings’, and Tudjman’s remark during his election campaign that he was glad his wife was not a Serb or a Jew must have been very frightening to the Serbian minority. [7]

Those who consider that the problem is the phenomenon of ethnic nationalism and not Serbian aggression per se, even if the Serbs are among the worst affected by the virus, fear that one sided and ineffective pressure could be counter-productive. The danger is, and this seems to have been borne out by the recent election results in Serbia, that Milosevic and other more extreme national groups are actually strengthened by the perception in Serbia that it has been unfairly singled out for punishment by the outside powers. The sense of isolation, of having their backs to the wall, tends to foster nationalism and causes people to rally around the government. [8]

International Socialism has insisted from the start that any Western intervention would both fail to provide a solution and inevitably mean the Western powers coming down on one side or the other. Indeed, we have argued that the methods and priorities of the Western powers can be no different to those of the local rulers in the former Yugoslavia. With no prospect of adequately patching up the rotten economic edifice, they too could offer nothing other than more ethnic partition:

With such an apparently desperate situation, many have been tempted to call for a solution from outside. But no Western power is going to defend the Albanians, or be interested in smoothing over the antagonism between Serbs and Croats which they spent half a century promoting. Their economic ‘remedies’ have already been tried over the last 25 years. Anyway, the Western powers are split... If large numbers of troops do get sent in to pull the Northern republics away from Serbia and into the EC fold, then they could get bogged down for years. The fighting in Croatia has been bloody because it is a struggle over partition. The precedents for outsiders involving themselves in such battles are still to be seen in Belfast and Cyprus. The events have shown that the rulers of Yugoslavia can only divide with their nationalism. Milosevic, Tudjman and [Slovene leader Milan] Kucan have nothing to offer except pogroms and communalism. [9]

And of the repeated rounds of Western diplomatic ‘initiatives’ we said:

This process, under various guises – Vance-Owen, Owen-Stoltenberg etc. – has exposed the myth that the United Nations or the European Union, or whatever other outside body, represents a real alternative. Every one of the peace plans has been a blue print for ethnic partition. Indeed, each such intervention has proved an incentive for new rounds of ethnic cleansing and new offensives. The front lines of the battle have moved around the country according to the latest plan, as each side either gains the maximum territory before the plan is imposed, or, more often, moves in to expel populations in order to fulfil the plan? [10]

Four years on, with no end in sight to the ethnic purges, with Western intervention having failed to protect anyone and with the Bosnian government allowing itself to be a plaything of the US state department, we stand vindicated by events in arguing against two other strands on the left. The first of these states that the wars in the former Yugoslavia are a matter of borders. ‘Borders are for keeping’, goes this version of events. ‘Aggressors’ can always be spotted as the ones who fire the first shot. This approach has led, in some cases, to an astonishing blindness to reality brought on by a fixation on the party who crossed the border first. So Branka Magas wrote:

What was special about the Greater Serbian project was that it was ... officially endorsed by the Serbian regime. No other republican government has sought a redrawing of Yugoslavian’s internal borders. A tentative suggestion by Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, in July 1991, that Bosnia-Hercegovina might be divided up between Croatia and Serbia was promptly drowned by a chorus of disapproving voices raised both in Croatia and in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Sanctity of the internal border has remained the official policy of Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. [11]

Yet at the time this was written, a deal to partition Bosnia had already been struck between Milosevic and Tudjman, and endorsed by Bosnian leader Alia Izetbegovic. In the summer of 1993 and again in 1995 Croatia manoeuvred itself into an alliance which would give it effective control over large parts of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Elsewhere, John Sweeny argued in New Statesman and Society: ‘By its obstruction of and lack of interest in Croatian self determination the British government remains the most effective ally in Europe of Greater Serbia and its brutal war machine. This is appeasement, 1991’. [12] Similarly, Quentin Hoare attacked an article by Alex Callinicos, saying, ‘Part of the problem is just misinformation. For instance, Callinicos seems to have bought the idea propagated by Belgrade, and relayed in this country notably by The Guardian, that Tudjman is some kind of raving antisemite and apologist for the Ustashe – which is demonstrably rubbish’. [13] Presumably Tudjman’s choice of non-Jewish wife and denial of the Holocaust constitute thin evidence of anti-semitism. Hoare also went on to claim that ‘Croatia has no claim to territory outside its own frontiers. The existing borders are not merely preferable because of the – Pandora’s box – argument, they are in any case basically just’. [14]

Once the Croatian leadership was exposed in practice as every bit as brutal as the Serbian leadership, many of Tudjman’s former defenders switched alliance to the Bosnian government. Yet the tactics of the official Bosnian leadership have progressively come to mimic those of the Serbs and Croats. It is true they were the last to be drawn into the conflict, and lasted longer than any others as a multi-ethnic entity. However, the government under Alia Izetbegovic has had to turn to ethnically based solutions in the absence of a class based alternative. By turns the Bosnian leadership has found itself in alliance with Croatia, accepting Western demands for a solution based on separation, and then, from the end of 1993, combining both these policies with Muslim ethnic chauvinism to carve out the greatest possible slice of territory with offensives in central Bosnia. Izetbegovic, says one very sympathetic source, ‘embraced the ethnicisation of politics as eagerly as any of his contemporaries’. [15]

Those who have steered clear of becoming embroiled with any of these nationalist former communists have been called ‘appeasers’. The accusation is that we have matched the British government’s effective support for the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. But in Spain the war was fought between, on the one hand, a Republican side of Communists, socialists, anarchists and liberals, and on the other hand, a nationalist side led by fascists. Franco aimed to annihilate working class organisation. The Republicans fought to improve workers’ conditions and many anarchists and socialists fought for the overthrow of capitalism. This is a million miles away from the situation in the former Yugoslavia where all sides – no matter what their differences in military strength or their records of atrocities – are fighting for the control of territories in which the status quo will be upheld.

And the accusation of appeasement levelled against those who have consistently called for independent, working class opposition to all the main nationalist leaderships ill behoves those who have sprung to the political defence of people such as Tudjman. But more than illusions in the Croatian, Slovene and Bosnian leadership, the Western left’s overwhelming response has been characterised by illusions in their own governments.

The call for intervention has dominated debate. This tendency was not exclusively applied to Bosnia, although that is where it found its loudest voice. The mess in Bosnia, plus the Gulf War and new turmoil in Africa provided the excuse for a major attack on one of the principle tenets of the left – uncompromising opposition to imperialism.

’Is everything imperialism does negative?’ asked former New Left Review board member Fred Halliday. Michael Ignatief wrote of ‘liberal intervention’ which could ‘protect minorities from majorities ... feed the starving and ... enforce peace in case of civil strife’. [16] Former revolutionary Martin Shaw wrote that:

... oppressed peoples are looking for forms of Western intervention that can save them from the horrors visited on them by their ‘own’ and neighbouring regimes ... The new politics of peace cannot even begin until we embrace the need for Western governments, and through them the UN, to take up global responsibilities ... The West has an historic responsibility to undertake this global leadership, not because it should impose itself on the rest of the world, but because so many people in the rest of the world look to it for support. [17]

This, ‘new view of imperialism’ had definite implications in the Balkans:

Opposition to Western intervention – especially military – in the Third World is perhaps the point from the old consensus to which many on the left cling most tenaciously. John Pilger expressed this view forcibly ... when he lambasted the growth of UN sponsored interventionism and endorsed the view that it represents a move towards the ‘creation of a totalitarian world government’ that ‘must be resisted by all means at our disposal’ ... The force of this case is strongest in the former Yugoslavia, a matter on which Pilger has surprisingly little to say. If only the EC, the US and the UN had really pushed in 1991 for a settlement of regional problems based on the principles they eventually agreed in London in August 1992, they might have prevented the Croatian war. If only, with that experience behind them, they had heeded the warnings on Bosnia and intervened in the early months of 1992, they might have inhibited the appalling carnage of the past nine months. Now, of course, the Serbian conquest of Bosnia is largely accomplished; to reverse it, to restore the human rights of the dispossessed and starving, and punish those who have carried out genocide, are huge, though not impossible tasks ... The argument for military intervention has thus become stronger. [18]

Fred Halliday also called for the West to take up the ‘white man’s burden’ in an new, enlightened fashion:

In the last two decades the West, notably the United States, has on occasion opted to use local proxy forces as a substitute for engaging its own troops ... the Nicaraguan Contras, UNITA in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia ... But in each case these forces have had an almost exclusively destructive goal, spreading murder and mayhem in the hope of sabotaging the constituted government of those countries. On the other hand the UN has recently undertaken some trusteeships with a quite different – constructive – goal. It supervised a transfer of power in Namibia and the recent elections in Cambodia. The aim of these trusteeships was the very opposite of the Contra-style operations, namely that of helping to enhance local democratic forces and build an effective local state. [19]

Halliday would no doubt have squirmed when his analogy was developed by right wing US foreign relations committee chairman Jesse Helms, who said that they should ‘begin treating the Bosnians as we did the [Nicaraguan Contras]’. [20]

Others, such as Ken Cole, a former CND member, developed a strange new faith in the wonders of Western military technology so soon after the Gulf War. Blanket bombing, he said, was of course no solution, ‘but with the technical wizardry and enormous capability of today’s armed forces, there is no reason why the Serbian heavy guns and supply depots could not be picked off with minimal losses to civilians’. [21]

Some people had even more specific ideas about the new burdens on imperialism. David Marshland wrote in New Statesman and Society:

Only war will stop this war... Neither the EC nor the UN can conceivably reach agreement and take appropriate action as quickly as the desperate plight of Croatia requires. Again, therefore, as before in Europe’s history, it is Britain’s unique responsibility to stand up and fight for freedom ... we must

So while some on the left campaigned to uphold the honour of Croatia above that of Serbia (and then the honour of ‘Bosnia’ above all others), others sought a wholesale revision of opposition to imperialism. Amid these sorry capitulations, yet other voices could be heard: those who reluctantly and as a last resort hoped against their better judgement that some salvation might come from outside. Mary Kaldor, for example, perceptively wrote:

The no-fly zone, for example, is not very effective because air power is not very important in this war; it seems to have been introduced because it was an easy option for the international establishment. In the case of economic sanctions, those most affected are often the very people who are most likely to oppose nationalism. It was only in November, for example, that the UN exempted the independent media from the embargo; yet independent news papers and television stations have been much more affected by the embargo than the state-controlled media. As for the proposed bombing, this is notoriously counter-productive, as all studies of the Second World War have indicated. Finally, lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims is merely likely to prolong the war. Given that the Muslim paramilitaries also engage in ‘ethnic cleansing’, even if this is not the aim of the Bosnian government, it is very unlikely that recapture of the Serb-held and Croat-held territories, even if this could be achieved, which is doubtful, would lead to the establishment of a multi-ethnic state. Rather, lifting the arms embargo is more likely to contribute to ethnic division and undermine any claim of principled impartiality. [23]

Yet even Kaldor goes on to call for a solution including Western intervention by ‘military means’. Misha Glenny, who has in general provided excellent reportage and analysis, also reluctantly argued:

The reason why I have come round to supporting Western intervention is that Europe is now so chronically unstable, because of what happened in 1989, that war is now possible throughout Eastern Europe, throughout the former Soviet Union. Other major conflagrations of a political nature, possibly assuming a military nature, are now possible in Western Europe as well in my opinion ... I don’t like the idea of intervention. I don’t like the idea of the West coming in and sorting things out politically. But the fact is that now the peoples of the former Yugoslavia are not able to do it. Left to their own devices they will exterminate one another. [24]

International Socialism, on the other hand, has always argued two further things. One is that there is no solution to be found in Western intervention, no matter how bad the situation. Four years of war and intervention must surely have proved that. And we have argued, even in the darkest days, that an alternative still exists:

The horror of war can for a time paralyse the working class – for a period it seems as if all the old assumptions of class solidarity have been swept up by nationalism. But – for the very reason that war arises out of capitalist crisis it also regenerates class conflict, this time on a higher level. This can be seen clearly today in the case of the former Yugoslavia where the social tensions which were the precursor of war have been replicated on a much higher scale. In Zagreb and Belgrade, and even Sarajevo, mass unemployment, hyper-inflation, and food shortages have made the lives of millions of people much worse than they could have imagined. Repression and censorship are reminiscent of the worst days of Stalinist rule. In every city men hang their heads in cafés, hoping not to be spotted and press-ganged to the front …

In order eventually to stop the fighting, workers in former Yugoslavia will have to challenge the whole order which gave rise to it and sustains it. The job of socialists in the West is to do the same, to oppose all efforts by our rulers to prop up a stinking system, whether through diplomacy or bombs, and to tear away its very roots. [25]


1. Socialist Review, June 1993.

2. Ibid.

3. Quoted in I. Birchall, Workers against the Monolith (London 1974), p. 52.

4. New Left Review 174, p. 31.

5. For a fuller analysis of the roots and course of the Bosnian war, see respectively, D. Blackie, Yugoslavia’s Road to Hell, International Socialism 53, and D. Blackie, The United Nations and the Politics of Imperialism, International Socialism 63.

6. H. Poulton, The Balkans, Minorities and States in Conflict (London 1990), p. 33.

7. New Left Review 197, p. 101.

8. Ibid., p. 106.

9. D. Blackie, Yugoslavia’s Road to Hell, op. cit., p. 53.

10. D Blackie, The UN and the politics of Imperialism, op. cit., p. 67.

11. B Magas, Balkanisation or Lebanonisation, in The Destruction of Yugoslavia. Tracking the breakup 1980–92 (London 1993), p. 347.

12. New Statesman and Society, 6 December 1991.

13. Socialist Worker Review, January 1992.

14. Ibid.

15. E. Vulliamy, Seasons in Hell (London 1994), p. 41.

16. See Alex Callinicos, Marxism and the New Imperialism (London 1994), p. 64.

17. New Statesman and Society, 15 January 1993.

18. Ibid.

19. F. Halliday, The Break-up of Yugoslavia and the Fate of Bosnia, New Left Review 199, pp. 116–17.

20. Duncan Blackie, War without end, Socialist Review, No. 168, July 1995.

21. New Statesman and Society, 30 April 1993.

22. New Statesman and Society, 1 November 1991.

23. New Left Review 197, p. 106.

24. Interviewed in Socialist Worker Review, October 1992.

25. International Socialism 63, p. 72.

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