The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Carved up by Nationalist Leaders and Prey to Imperialist Rivalry

Jul 30, 1994

The rivalry between Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian nationalist leaders was what triggered the break-up of Yugoslavia and the developments leading to several years of civil war; their competition for power was what caused the old state apparatus to collapse. But the process was accelerated and enlarged because this local rivalry was taken up and extended by the wider rivalry which exists between the dominant imperialist powers of Europe, a rivalry which is now being played out on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

This current inter-European rivalry has not reached the same level as that which led to the first two world wars. But neither has it disappeared. To some extent, it is expressed in the European Union, within which the rival powers are supposedly working together, but where, in fact, they continue to confront each other economically.

The main imperialist powers invoke the "rights of peoples" to justify their intervention into Yugoslavia. Of course, for a long time the same imperialists have trampled on the same "rights of peoples" of the Palestinians or of the black population of South Africa, not to mention those of their former colonies. And they continue to trample underfoot the "rights" of the Kurds, among many others. But these "rights" served as an excuse for dividing up the former Yugoslavia into spheres of influence of the different European imperialisms. As early as December 1991, just after the European Community had asserted at Maastricht that it would henceforth have a common foreign policy, its member nations began to carry out different policies, each for their own aims. Germany hurried to satisfy the Croatian and Slovenian leaders, who demanded independence. France became a protector of the Serbian leaders. Britain had a still different policy, just as did Italy. Finally, Greece, alone among the twelve member states, refused to recognize Macedonia.

In effect, the different major powers aligned themselves along the lines of the rivalries which existed between the nationalist clans in the former Yugoslavia.

The hypocrisy of their various justifications is obvious. But it is nonetheless striking how fast the European powers took advantage of the break-up of Yugoslavia to revive their old spheres of influence in the Balkans.

The Balkans, Divided into Zones of Influence

Historically, the Balkans constituted a region where the great empires of the West and the East confronted each other.

From the 14th to the 19th centuries, they were the scene of conflicts between the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Turkish empire. Serbia and Bosnia, provinces ruled from Constantinople since their conquest in the 14th and 15th centuries, vegetated in a state of backwardness under the Ottoman yoke. The Slavs in the Croatian and Slovenian regions were governed within the somewhat more modern framework of the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs.

It was a zone of conflicts, not because populations were intermixed; nor because they harbored "ancestral hatreds", as fools would have us believe; but because major powers were there confronting each other. What later came to be called the "Balkan question" developed along with the rise of imperialism. It was this same "Balkan question" which served as the pretext for and one of the factors that triggered the First World War.

The decline of the old Hapsburg monarchy and the even deeper decline of the worm-eaten Ottoman empire sharpened the appetites of the imperialist European powers for expansion.

By the end of the 19th century, a young German imperialism, linking itself to the old Hapsburg monarchy, was seeking to find its own place in the sun and extend its sphere of influence. It inevitably looked toward the Croatian and Slovenian regions.

At the same time, the collapse of the Turkish empire attracted not only Czarist Russia, which had traditionally set its sights on Constantinople and the Dardanelles, but above all French and British imperialism, which had constantly tried to move into this same region, often via Russia. They all were trying to establish a dominant position for their own national capital, within the shade of the Ottoman Empire's increasingly imaginary power.

Serbia was freed from the Turkish yoke, and an independent Serbian state was subsequently set up after the Berlin Congress of 1878, during which Britain, France and Austria sought to divide up parts of the former Ottoman Empire. (In passing, we could note that it was at another "international" congress in Berlin eight years later, that the imperialist powers divided Africa into colonies.) This newly "independent" Serbia was a godsend for the British and the French, whose only thought was to lay their hands on it. But an independent Serbia was a thorn in the side of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, because it served as a pole of attraction for Serbs subjugated within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

More and more the Hapsburg monarchy began to eye Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been under Ottoman domination and which were populated mainly by Slavs. The same Berlin Congress placed these provinces under an Austro-Hungarian administratorship (supposedly in the name of the Ottoman Empire's Sultan!).

This division of the spoils did not put an end to conflicts, which, although partial, nonetheless continued in bloody fashion. As for the Balkans, borders were set up dividing Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia, primarily to mark a clear separation between very distinct imperialist interests, German on the one hand and Anglo-French on the other. But these borders also separated peoples who had no real wish to separate themselves from each other.

The rivalry between the major powers contributed considerably to the succession of bloody "Balkan" wars at the beginning of this century. This rivalry caused the borders between Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and so on to be constantly redrawn. And each redrawing reinforced the growing crass chauvinism of the leaders of these tiny countries.

The First World War, which started with a war in the Balkans, established the political shape of the Balkans for some 20 years, according to the balance of power existing between the dominant imperialist powers at the end of the war.

Yugoslavia was created by the Treaty of Versailles and other treaties after the defeat of German imperialism in the First World War. This was the first time the various "Southern Slav" peoples, who had long lived separately under different oppressors, were brought together in the same state.

For the victors, the creation of this state, made up of "Serbs, Croats and Slovenians," under the heel of the Serbian monarchy, was part of the overall plan of France's Clemenceau and Britain's Lloyd George to create a barrier against revolutionary Russia. It was also a means of subordinating the Croatian and Slovenian regions, up until then largely under Germanic economic influence, to Serbia, which was under heavy Anglo-French protection. This new state, which was a sort of "Greater Serbia", did not take the name of Yugoslavia until 1929.

Since Yugoslavia was born out of the defeat and weakening of German imperialism, it was not surprising that as soon as Germany was able, it adopted a policy contesting Yugoslavia's very existence. Along with Mussolini's Italy, Germany sought constantly and systematically to destabilize Yugoslavia. And the German victories in the first phase of the second imperialist war to redivide the world enabled them to carve up Yugoslavia according to Italian and German interests.

This division was called into question once again with the defeat of Germany. With the victors' envisaging the restoration of Yugoslavia, the bargaining over future spheres of influence began even before the end of the war. This time Churchill and Stalin planned to equally divide the dominant control over Yugoslavia. This was to be done through a monarchy, which they planned to restore.

There was, however, a stumbling block in the way of the victorious powers. The resistance movement led by Tito in the name of Yugoslav nationalism had grown powerful enough to get rid of the German occupation forces without outside help (although, of course, this victory was won after the tide of the war had turned against Germany).

The regime which emerged from this resistance movement, although undoubtedly dictatorial, nevertheless benefitted for a long time from the consensus forged in the war of liberation against Nazi Germany. It was thus able to ensure the coexistence of different peoples within the country, and was able to resist the self-interested outside pressures exerted by "friendly" powers. Instead of having their king and dividing the territory, Churchill and Stalin had to put up with Tito and accept the consolidation of the Yugoslav federation.

Yugoslavia ended up playing the role of a minor regional power, with its population of 22 million and its reputedly strong army. Moreover, after the break between the Soviet Union and the West with the advent of the Cold War, Tito's regime was able to turn the handicap of being caught between the two blocs into an asset, playing one side off against the other, including economically. On the diplomatic level, this policy resulted in the formula of "non-alignment".

The interlude lasted some forty years. But after Tito's death in 1980, a crisis of succession broke out. The political crisis was exacerbated by the present economic crisis. This left Yugoslavia more vulnerable to the imperialists as they sought to revive the old relations in the region.

Imperialism showed its interest as soon as the first squabbles appeared, especially those involving the privileged cliques in the most economically favored regions, Slovenia and Croatia. The leaders of those regions wanted to break away from the rest of the federation, even though they had profited greatly from the federation in the past. This opened the door to a new division of the country into separate zones of influence, once again under the domination of competing imperialisms.

Yugoslavia Carved Up Once Again

The strongest of the European imperialist powers, Germany, got a head start in the race. Its unconditional recognition of Slovenia and Croatia as independent states went almost without saying. The past had resurrected itself.

There were electoral and political reasons for the speed with which the German government moved in this direction. But there were other reasons too. The ruling cliques in Slovenia and Croatia had long maintained economic and financial links with influential circles in Austria and Germany – even as far back as under Tito – and these links multiplied in the 1980s, following Tito's death. For example, Slovenia and Croatia had been grouped together since 1978 with Bavaria, several Austrian regions and regions of northern Italy in the Alps-Adria Community which dealt with economic questions. Germany became Slovenia's main commercial partner and leading foreign investor while trade with the Soviet Union had plummeted.

On France's side, successive governments adopted the traditional policy of "protecting" Serbia. They undoubtedly did so because the Serbian side appeared to be the strongest; but French policy has always been to rest on Serbia to counter German attempts to extend its influence. Because Serbia, flanked by Montenegro, stood for the continuation of the former Yugoslavia, French diplomacy came out in favor of this too.

But as things turned out, French diplomacy fairly quickly aligned itself with German diplomacy, especially since France was not really concerned by the question of whether Yugoslavia disappeared. Like all the major or minor imperialist powers, France had no reason to believe it would benefit from a united Yugoslavia.

The hostile nationalist leaders at the head of the old internal administrative subdivisions were able to turn these divisions into recognized nations because they had international support. In some cases, these new states were promised they could join the U.N. even before they had come into being. These promises were made at the very time when the Croatian and Serbian nationalist leaders were openly declaring their intentions to create single ethnic group states, that is, a state solely for Croats or a state only for Serbs.

The Albanians of Kosovo and the Hungarians of Vojvodin had already fallen victim to increasing national oppression from the Serbian state. But now, the large Serbian communities in Croatia were also being threatened with becoming oppressed minorities as well.

Once the major powers gave their blessings to the regimes which emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia, they simultaneously accepted the logic of ethnic "cleansing," along with its predictable massacres. They opened the door to wars of conquest to modify administrative boundaries which had suddenly become national borders, but which bore only a distant relationship to the life of the peoples.

When Bosnia-Herzegovina was officially recognized by international bodies and accepted as a member of the United Nations, it became the main victim of this development. The leaders of Serbia and Croatia cynically posed as "protectors" of their peoples, who had now become minorities within Bosnia. And Bosnia, a kind of miniature Yugoslavia, with its inextricable mixture of peoples, was in turn divided up according to the balance of power between armed bands. Essentially this benefitted the armed bands backed by the Serbian and the Croatian states.

All the diplomatic contortions of the major powers come down to finding a better way to "manage" the war, not of seeking peace. Although the situation does create the risk of a general destabilization of the region, something the imperialist powers don't want, up until now, the present war has cost them little beyond the occasional crocodile tears shed by their leaders.

With the Serbian armed forces having proved themselves the strongest, the imperialist powers lined up on the Serbian doorstep. These powers handled Milosevic's regime tactfully. They bowed to Karadzic, the self-proclaimed chief of the "Serbian Republic of Bosnia", who is nothing but a bandit. In fact, the imperialist powers have no reason to turn against these armed bands, since they can be invaluable in the future. The Croatian armed forces could also bring weight to bear on a future situation. They, too, have proven themselves in the war, albeit to a lesser extent than have their Serbian counterparts.

So, of course, the successive "peace plans" presented by the major powers simply ratify the balance of power in the field.

The policy of the U.S. is motivated both by domestic policy and by its position as the strongest imperialist power on the international scene. Initially asserting that the framework of the Yugoslav federation must be maintained, the U.S. then shifted to officially condemning Serbia in the UN; it ended up sponsoring the Bosnian Muslim side, an attitude designed to please Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey. In any event, the loudest call for lifting the embargo on arms to the Bosnian Muslims comes from the U.S. Congress.

Nonetheless, the U.S. was ready to bring pressure on the Bosnian Muslim leaders to get them to agree to capitulate in one form or another, once it was clear they were losing.

In March of 1994, the United States sponsored an initiative to carve a Croat and Muslim "federation" out of that portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina which the Serbs will agree to cede. This federation is to be attached to Croatia at some later date. This plan has every appearance of a disguised attempt to "solve" the problem posed by the Bosnian "Muslim" population (40% of the total population of Bosnia before the war), by placing it under the heel of the Croatian leaders (who had just carried out a war against the Muslims!). In the future, it will probably come under the framework of a "Greater Croatia." This proposal is nothing but a disguised attempt to get the "Muslim" side to swallow the pill of defeat.

Where will the exact borders be established? Currently this is being decided by force of arms, and the conflict may continue for a much longer time before some kind of stability returns.

The territorial redistribution that the major powers approve will probably designate two main guardians of order: a Croatian state dependent on the Germanic zone of influence (just as the tiny Slovenian state is dependent on Austria), and a Serbian state of which Russia is likely to try to pose as the protector. But Western imperialist states will also try to elbow their way in. Will France or Britain gain the most influence? Most likely, the United States will force them to make some kind of agreement between themselves.

These two states, Croatian and Serbian, will perhaps be enlarged at the expense of what can already be called "former Bosnia-Herzegovina". And they may be strong enough to keep their peoples under their heel. But they will nonetheless be small states, economically subordinate to imperialism and politically no more than playthings.

The risk of confrontations will not end there. Under the rule of their nationalist leaders, Croatia and Serbia will be heavily-armed and mutually hostile states. Greece has its eyes on Macedonia. And not far away is Bulgaria, which considers the Macedonian people as simply other Bulgarians. Meanwhile Albania is expressing its concern for Kosovo and also for the Albanians of Macedonia....

The future looks tragic for these peoples as the rivalries between the imperialist powers continue to fan the flames of conflict. They will have to live in a constant climate of war, which will be used to justify all forms of dictatorship.

This is what Washington, Berlin, London and Paris are preparing for them, under the guise of peace and democracy.