IN THE 1950s and 1960s Yugoslavia was regarded as a stable and essentially peaceful part of Europe. Today the region is suffering another terrible twist in a decade of bitter division and hatred. Yet none of what has happened was inevitable. It is the result of economic crisis and manoeuvres by outside powers and local rulers.
For three decades in the middle of the century Serbs, Croats and Albanians lived in harmony. There were tensions, but nothing remotely on the scale of recent events. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, was a city where people of all ethnic groups lived and hardly knew each other's ethnic background, much less regarded it as fundamentally important. But, as with other states, it began sliding into economic crisis in the late 1960s. Yugoslavian leaders encouraged Western investment to pour in to stave off economic problems, but the problems got worse.
By the late 1970s, as the world economic crisis deepened, the problems inside Yugoslavia hit crisis point. Inflation rose to 38 percent a year and the country imported far more than it exported. The foreign debt was $1,000 dollars for every Yugoslav. A worker's average monthly wage was just $120. In 1987 workers' wages were frozen yet meat, sugar and bread prices went up by 25 to 60 percent. Workers of all nationalities found their living standards were suddenly thrown back to lower than the 1930s. The International Monetary Fund was now demanding even bigger cuts in welfare spending and workers' living standards as the price of further loans.
THESE SERBS joined 200,000 others fleeing Krajina after Croatian troops attacked in 1995
TODAY KOSOVAN Albanians are fleeing
Yugoslavia was being torn apart by deep crisisimposed by the market, intensified by the bankers. But workers' first reaction was not to turn on each other along ethnic lines. Instead they attacked their own bosses. In 1987 around 365,000 workers took part in 1,570 strikes, double the number of strikes in the previous year. In June the following year there were the biggest workers' demonstrations in Belgrade since 1945. Some 4,000 factory workers marched seven miles and held a joint protest of Serbs and Croats outside the regional parliament against the IMF's austerity package. They heckled politicians and bosses who spoke at the rally with cries of, "How much do you earn?"
The Guardian reported of one protest in Serbia in 1988, "The demonstrators appeared to have little time for a small group of Serbian nationalists demanding the blood of Albanians." It was then that the rulers of each part of Yugoslavia turned to ethnic rabble rousing in an effort to divert this class feeling into scapegoating. The Serbian banker turned politician Milosevic stepped in to divert the anger away from the government by whipping up racial hatred against Albanians living in Serb run Kosovo. Milosevic put forward a simple answer to the economic crisis brought about by the madness of the marketblame the Albanians, not the government.
Milosevic was not alone in such tactics. His mirror image in Croatia was Franjo Tudjman. Their scapegoating led to horrific conflict. The people of the various ethnic groups were not easily divided into their own republics or regions. There was a large Serbian minority in Croatia as well as Bosnia. Croats also lived in Bosnia. Albanians lived in Serbia, and so on. When the rulers of each republic talked about Croatia for the Croats or Serbia for the Serbs, it inevitably led towards violence and ethnic cleansing. In 1991, when Tudjman's supporters attacked Serbs at Borovo Selo, Milosevic unleashed his Chetniks (right wing monarchist Serbs) to attack Croats. The way was open for Yugoslavia's descent into hell.
WHEN WAR developed, the US and Britain backed Croatia against Serbia. They were supporting the most right wing government in Europe since the rule of fascist General Franco in Spain. Tudjman, Croatia's leader, had established his right wing credentials by claiming that the 600,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies killed by the fascist Croatian force in the Second World War were an "exaggeration". He denied that the Nazis had killed six million Jews and opposed a memorial to the Holocaust. Yet the Western leaders painted him as the "good guy" when the nationalist frenzy of Serbia and Croatia boiled over in 1991 into war that carved up Bosnia.
Tudjman strengthened his position after four years of war because he had the West's backing and NATO launched air strikes on Serb armies. Right wing Serbs had killed ordinary Croats and Bosnian Muslims. They carried out the most horrific massacre at Srebrenica. But it was the West's friend, Tudjman, who went on to carry out the greatest ethnic cleansing of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Tudjman, backed by Western firepower, ordered an assault on the Serbs of Krajina. Some 200,000 Serbs fled. Of the 10,000 mainly elderly Serbs who stayed behind, more than 200 were killed or disappeared.
The wars in ex-Yugoslavia were terrible. But no side had clean hands. Guardian reporter Ed Vulliamy wrote that the war was a "three sided" conflict with the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim leaders all out to use the war in their own interests. The West excused its intervention as providing protection for the Bosnian Muslims. But their leader, Alia Izetbegovic, was equally guilty of whipping up nationalism during the war. That encouraged atrocities like the murder of hundreds of Serb civilians in Sarajevo by Muslims paramilitaries who dropped their bodies in the Kazani crevice overlooking the city. Vulliamy concludes that ethnic cleansing was the "logical outcome of the mission to carve up Bosnia agreed by Tudjman and Milosevic and endorsed by the European Community".
So every ruler in the region has played the nationalist card and each time the people who have paid for it have been the ordinary Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Muslims. NATO's bombs do nothing to undermine those rulers and everything to strengthen the hand of someone like Milosevic who can pose as the defender of all Serbs. What scares Milosevic and all the other rulers is the sort of united movement that was seen in the 1980s, where workers of all nationalities begin to direct their anger at their rulers and not each other.
THE EFFECT of Western intervention in the region has always been to encourage nationalist tension, never to break it down. For a century revolutionary socialists have put forward the alternative of workers' unity across national boundaries. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky reported as a journalist from the Balkans in 1912-13. He wrote of the terrible legacy left by the imperialist powers of Russia, France, Germany and Britain all competing to expand and control access to rich trade routes in the region. Trotsky talked of the "national diversity of the Balkans" being converted into "a melee of petty states" by European diplomacy. He goes on, "Each separately was entangled in diplomatic bonds and counterposed to the rest and the whole lot were condemned to helplessness in relation to the great powers."
The many treaties negotiated during the wars could not last, Trotsky said, because "the new boundary lines have been drawn across the living bodies of nations that have been lacerated, bled white and exhausted". The big powers had ensured "every one of the Balkan states now includes within its borders a compact minority that is hostile to it". Trotsky's description of the West's role has come true repeatedly. Some groups have been offered their own states, but only in a context of bitter rivalry with others that stokes up ethnic hatred.
When the First World War broke out, the Serbian revolutionary Lapcevic stood up in the pro-war Serbian parliament and denounced the fighting. He said Serbia must "cease to be a tool of the great powers and pursue instead the goal of a Balkan socialist federation". He was against the oppression of all the Balkan peoples. He argued that to concentrate solely on the national question without regard to the wider issues of imperialism would lead to disaster. That is why, he said, the solution of the national question had to be linked to the unity of all Balkan peoples.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 revolutionaries from across the world met to discuss tactics and strategy. The 1920 Congress included in its manifesto a section dealing with the Balkans. It said that the great powers had fought the war under the slogan of the "defence of small nations" but that their interests had led to "the total destruction and enslavement of the Balkan peoples, victors and vanquished alike. Imperialism has created a series of smaller national states. It rules them through banks and monopolies and condemns them to unbearable economic and national hardships, endless conflicts and bloody collisions."
In the same spirit the Bulgarian revolutionary Kabakchiev argued that, although there were over one million Bulgarians divided off from Bulgaria by imperialism, it was necessary to go beyond nationalism. "It was nationalism that led the Bulgarian people through two terrible disasters in the wars of 1912 and 1918. The same applies to Serbia and the only way out is a Balkan socialist revolution."
The great powers have ripped the region apart and prepared the ground for mass murder and terror. Revolutionaries have been the voice of sanity and class unity across borders. Trotsky argued Balkan unity could be achieved by two different ways: "Either from above, by expanding one Balkan state at the expense of the weaker onesthis is the road of wars of extermination and oppression of weak nations." The alternative, Trotsky said, was "from below, through the people themselves coming togetherthis is the road of revolution."
Such an analysis is even more relevant today. Serbians cannot be free as long as their country oppresses Kosovo. Kosovo cannot be free if it becomes a pawn in NATO's game and its liberation is taken up cynically by the US, Britain and the rest. Serbians have to support the right of Kosovan Albanians to self determination, to decide their own future, and Kosovan Albanians have to be for harmony with Serbians and for an end to ethnic tensions.