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

Sarajevo, April 1992:
From Nationalist One-Upping to War

Apr 25, 2022

This article is translated from the April 22nd issue, #2803 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

Thirty years ago, on April 6, 1992, the army of Serbia began its siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These were among the six republics of Yugoslavia.

The siege lasted nearly four long years, with nonstop bombing by the Serbian army, camped high in the city’s outskirts. Deaths totaled 11,541, including 1,500 children. Tens of thousands more were injured by random shelling which sowed terror among the city’s 350,000 inhabitants, trapped in what became a hell hole.

“Fire! Fire non-stop! […] We have to make them crazy,” said Ratko Mladic, the Serbian general who led the fighting against Sarajevo under the orders of nationalist Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The whole population sank into the hell of war.

The country was crumbling. A year and a half earlier, Yugoslavia was still a federation of six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Each was based on a majority nationality, but they did not have hard and fast borders. Except for Slovenia, the various nationalities were generally intermixed. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the best example. In Sarajevo, people of various nationalities lived together in harmony.

Yugoslavia was created in 1918 from the ruins of the defeated Central Powers (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria). It was under the control of the victorious imperialist powers. In this multi-ethnic state, a certain unity was forged during World War II during the fight against Nazi occupiers, which was led by partisans directed by the Yugoslavian Communist Party and its leader Josip Broz Tito.

After the war, Tito maintained a relative balance between the republics of the Yugoslavian federation, and he personified their unity. But his death in 1980 whetted the ambitions of bureaucrats who carved out fiefdoms in their respective republics.

The poison of nationalism was injected from above. In 1987 in the context of political and economic crises causing a rise in social tensions, Milosevic as head of the Communist Party of the Republic of Serbia adopted nationalist perspectives to consolidate and extend his power. He claimed to be protector of the Serbs and said they were threatened throughout the country’s other republics. He called for creating a “Greater Serbia.” Constantly throwing oil on the fire, he provoked reactions by nationalist leaders of the other republics, such as President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. They feared having their power challenged on their own turf.

The Republic of Slovenia seceded on June 26, 1991. Then Croatia announced its desire for independence. In response, the Yugoslavian federal army, acting more and more to defend Serbian policy, and aided by various paramilitary groups, occupied parts of Croatia which had significant Serb minorities. The army attacked the city of Vukovar in August 1991 and laid siege to Dubrovnik on October 1, 1991. Vukovar was practically razed to the ground by bombings, and 1,100 civilians were killed and 5,000 taken prisoner in Serbian detention centers. The Serbian army expelled 22,000 Croats and other non-Serbs from the city. Villages were emptied of their inhabitants, Serbs on one side, Croats on the other.

When Bosnia prepared to proclaim independence, recent enemies Serb Milosevic and Croat Tudjman agreed to divide Bosnia, and unleashed war to that end. But Bosnia was 31% Serbs, 17% Croats, and 44% people considered “Muslim nationality.” These populations lived completely intertwined. In Sarajevo a third of the couples were mixed. War unleashed among them could only result in disaster. The entire population was dragged into a spiral of war that no one had wanted. Militias armed by Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian Muslim nationalist leaders all carried out massacres and so-called ethnic cleansing.

Although power struggles among the Serbian, Croat and Slovenian nationalist leaders were the immediate cause of the war, intervention by the imperialist powers made the situation worse. Just as before World War I, once again the Balkans became a battlefield for influence between them. France and Germany each rediscovered their pre-1945 allies, with whom ties had never been completely broken. German imperialism had relied on Croatian nationalism in the past and hastened to recognize Croatia and Slovenia’s independence. The government of France supported Serbian leaders, as it had done during the period of the monarchy between the world wars. But after thousands of deaths and atrocities, France’s position became difficult to defend, so France pivoted to defend Bosnia’s independence from Serbia.

Western leaders were less concerned with the fate of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia than with the risk that the conflict would destabilize the entire region. This preoccupation was seen in the attitude of the troops Western leaders sent under U.N. cover to Croatia and Bosnia. Often these forces were content to watch massacres, without intervening. And American imperialism supported the butcher Milosevic during the negotiations held in Dayton, Ohio in 1995. Accords were finally signed under American leadership on December 14, 1995, which ended the fighting. The siege of Sarajevo ended two months later. But the result was the partition of Bosnia between a Serb Republic and a Croat-Muslim Federation, which effectively gave official endorsement to the aftermath of ethnic cleansing.

Today, 30 years later, this division carried out through reciprocal massacres is reinvigorating tensions. Ordinary people are still suffering the effects of nationalist poison spread by power-hungry politicians, and the actions of imperialist leaders ever ready to speculate on division.