Prelude to Genocide:

How Capitalism Caused the Balkan Wars

Revolutionary Worker #1001, April 11, 1999

The U.S. claims that the Balkan people are gripped by irrational hatreds. And that the U.S. (the self-appointed "cop of the world") and their allies have no choice but to step in, bomb, impose, threaten and dictate. The imperialists insist that the people of the Balkans need outside forces to dominate them--to save them from themselves! It is an imperialist self-justification--based on crudely turning history upside down. It blames the people for the suffering imposed on them by capitalism.

The Balkan region of southeastern Europe is a complex "jaguar skin" of different nationalities. The Catholic northern part of Yugoslavia--including Slovenia and Croatia--had longstanding links to Austria and Germany to the north. The southern part of Yugoslavia had long historical ties eastward toward Greece, Turkey and the northern Slavic countries of Bulgaria and Russia.

History has created pockets of national hatreds here--the same way some towns or counties in the U.S. are known as white racist towns. But the hatreds of these rural backwaters did not need to infect and polarize the whole country. But over the last ten years, waves of war have washed over the Balkans, subjecting the masses of people to "ethnic cleansing" by death squads and now large-scale bombing by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

The origins of this warfare are not ancient--they are quite modern. These wars are caused by the capitalist rivalries of various ruling classes of the republics of former Yugoslavia--coldly egged on, armed, and backed by imperialist powers, like Germany, the U.S. and Russia.

This article looks at the history of Yugoslavia since its founding after World War 2. It shows that capitalist development caused tensions and inequalities within Yugoslavia and how reactionary war emerged from the power grabs of various bourgeois nationalist forces there.

Behind the Civil War

The nationalities living in the Balkan mountain area can unite--and they proved it. These peoples created a powerful multinational guerrilla movement during World War 2 to defeat the German Nazis and Italian fascists who occupied the region for three years. The peoples of Yugoslavia pinned down many divisions of Nazi troops--and ultimately freed themselves, guns in hand, in a communist-led resistance war. Modern Yugoslavia was build out of that unity--bringing together six nations and several other significant nationalities.

There was no reason why a new, progressive, multinational unity could not have been built. The key would have been uniting on the basis of the interests of the masses of people--along the road of socialism and proletarian internationalism.

But there was, unfortunately, never any real socialist transformation in Yugoslavia. The leaders of the new Yugoslavia, headed by Josef Broz Tito, betrayed the revolution and took the capitalist road--straight into the embrace of U.S. imperialism. This laid the seeds for the wars of today.

The Titoites broke the Yugoslav economy into small independent units. In agriculture, early experiments in collectivization were reversed--by 1957 virtually all the farms were in private hands. Nationalized industry was "privatized." Individual factories were officially operating under "workers' self-management." But the policy was set by directors, and the real control was exercised by the market mechanism of capitalism. Without socialist planning, profit decided where investments flowed, what was produced, and who got to work. In reality "worker self-management" meant that wages were tied to factory profits--they were a form of piecework. Factories, industries and whole regions were competing with each other and profit was in command. And, more importantly, the proletariat did not have state power. It was impossible for them to revolutionize society.

The World's First Experience with "Capitalist Roaders in Power"

By 1948 Tito was sharply criticized by the world communist movement, then led by Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile Tito was praised and supported by the imperialists--who were waging all kinds of warfare against revolutionary and socialist forces around the world. Tito claimed that he would walk a "non-aligned" path between East and West. But in fact, his Yugoslavia quickly became dependent on the imperialists--politically, economically and militarily--tied to the world capitalist market while he huddled under the U.S. "nuclear umbrella."

For the first time in history a victorious armed movement led by supposed communists had come to power, but it set up a capitalist society. This was the first experience with "revisionism in power"--meaning a capitalist ruling class that claimed to be leading a socialist society.

The development of Yugoslavia was closely studied by revolutionaries like Mao Tsetung. In 1955, Khrushchev, a top leader in the Soviet Union, visited Yugoslavia and praised Tito. Within a year, Khrushchev himself had seized complete power in the Soviet Union and took it too down the capitalist road.

In 1963 under Mao's leadership, the Chinese Communist Party sent an open letter called--Is Yugoslavia a Socialist Country?--to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In that polemic, Mao's forces wrote: "The restoration of capitalism in Yugoslavia will make all Marxist-Leninists see better and enable people to realize more keenly the necessity and urgency of combating modern revisionism. So long as imperialism exists, there is apparently no ground for saying that the danger of the restoration of capitalism in the socialist countries has been eliminated."

Capitalist Roots of National Antagonisms

Under the weight of growing debt to the West, the Titoites carried out new "reforms" in 1965. They moved to make their currency convertible to Western currencies--so that investments could more easily flow in and profits could more easily flow out. After 1968, foreign capitalists could invest directly in the private sector. Yugoslavia became the first revisionist country to set up a stock market. These innovations of the capitalist road are now being carried out in the rest of Eastern Europe.

Yugoslav proletarians were sent off as cheap labor for northern Europe--they basically became an "export commodity." By 1971, over a million Yugoslavs were immigrant workers, over half of them in West Germany.

According to World Bank statistics, the wealthiest 5 percent of Yugoslav households earned 25 percent of the national income in the 1970s, while the poorest 20 percent of the population earned less than 7 percent. This was one of the most extreme income gaps in Europe--in fact, according to the World Bank, even India's income distribution gap was not as big!

The northern nations of Yugoslavia--Slovenia and Croatia--were more highly developed industrially and agriculturally. The three southern national areas--Macedonia, Montenegro, and the Albanian region of Kosovo--were far more undeveloped and poor. Serbia, the largest national grouping, is in between North and South and is also a relatively poor area. These divisions within Yugoslavia got even more acute because of the capitalist development pursued by Yugoslavia. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Over decades, this created a powerful basis for antagonism between the nationalities of the country and for the growth of reactionary nationalism.

Investment flows where the profits are greatest. The industrial northern nations developed rapidly after 1945, while the poorer southern republics stagnated. When the 1990s started, per capita production in Slovenia was three times as high as it was in poorer regions like Macedonia. By 1970 the per capita income of the average Slovene was over six times that of the average Kosovar. Kosovo lives in Third World conditions--comparable to Bolivia or Morocco--while in Slovenia the standard of living is closer to that of neighboring Austria.

The villages in the poorer peasant regions of the south emptied. People went north for lousy jobs and barrack-like living conditions as "guest workers"--within the supposedly "equal" Yugoslav federation. These "guest workers" make up 15 to 20 percent of the Slovenian workforce and are treated like dirt.

The old phony-communist system of Yugoslavia was based on state capitalism and a complex system of balancing bourgeois national interests. Inevitably, that old federation became strained. Bourgeois forces leading each republic tried to shift wealth toward "their" nations.

Inequality Gives Rise to Political, then Military Conflict

In the 1980s the conflicts intensified because of classic "IMF crisis." Yugoslavia sank deeply into debt to the International Monetary Fund and other international imperialist lenders--to the tune of $1.8 billion. The lenders demanded that capitalist Yugoslavia take "austerity" measures to pay back the debt, and this inflamed the conflict in the country.

The masses themselves were not especially gripped by national hatreds--certainly not at the beginning. Large parts of the population had intermarried. In urban areas people moved away from religion--which had been a form through which national hostilities had been expressed. Many people no longer identified with one or another nationality--but simply considered themselves "Yugoslavs." Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia was famous for this kind of multicultural fusion. Today, the masses of people there still fondly remember the days when people lived and worked together peacefully.

Meanwhile, under the surface, the inequalities between Yugoslavia's regions and the rival ambitions of the different national capitalist forces within Yugoslavia created conditions for an eruption.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, and imperialist power shifted in Europe, it tore old Yugoslavia apart. Warring bourgeois camps sprang out--claiming to protect the survival of different national groups--while they pursued their own interests and sought to divide the people along national lines.

After Tito died, an extremely reactionary movement won the leadership of the state-capitalist forces in Serbia. Led by Slobodan Milosevic, this political current insisted that the time had come for the Serbian nation (meaning the Serbian national bourgeoisie operating within the larger Yugoslavian state) to grab for itself--and impose its will by force. Milosevic, like most ruling class figures in the former Yugoslavia, was a former revisionist--meaning that he had been part of the ruling Yugoslavian party, the "League of Communists," which was a phony communist, state capitalist government institution.

Some forces argue that the U.S. is attacking Serbia to enforce economic privatization and the elimination of "socialist" remnants in Yugoslavian society. These analyses are completely off the mark.

There is no socialism in Yugoslavia today and there never was. Yugoslavia has been controlled by running dogs of the U.S. and enemies of real communism for its whole history. Yugoslavia built its economy along capitalist and free-market lines over 40 years ago. And today, there is certainly nothing socialist at all about the economy of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation or the politics of local capitalist-nationalist reactionaries like Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic is the top representative of the Serbian capitalist ruling class which is attempting a reactionary power grab in the region--and has collided with some larger interests of NATO's imperialist/capitalists --especially those ruling Germany, Britain and the U.S.

In 1989 Milosevic made Kosovo a symbol and a starting point of this regional power grab. As he came to power within the Yugoslavian federation he revoked the autonomy that Kosovo had exercised within Serbia. He started to systematically impose a Serbian domination on the Albanian majority of Kosovo. He brutally suppressed a powerful strike among the Kosovo miners, expelled Albanians from the universities, imposed Serbian police and troops on the province--and generally made it clear that his government intended to drive Albanians from Kosovo. There were repeated incidents of police murder, as the cops acted like an occupying force.

All this signaled that military force was being applied to turn Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia. It greatly accelerated the development of separatist sentiments among the ruling classes of the other nationalities (like Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia). The masses of people feared that they would soon be targeted for their nationality.

The capitalist forces controlling Slovenia and Croatia thought they could get a better deal outside of the Yugoslavian federation. They were encouraged, backed, and armed by newly reunited German imperialism. Once Croatia and Slovenia seceded, the Yugoslavian federation started to unravel. The Federal army command, dominated by Serbian officers, emerged more and more as the real power holding the Yugoslav federation together. Warfare erupted in waves.

First came war between the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavian army and the governments of Croatia and Slovenia that declared independence from Yugoslavia. That war ended with independence for both Croatia and Slovenia.

Then, a three-sided war erupted within the most multinational republic, Bosnia, as Serbian and Croatian militias fought to drive other nationalities out, and annex parts of Bosnia to their republics.

Both the Croatian and Serbian nationalists developed death-squad like forces that carried out "ethnic cleansing"--murderous terror campaigns designed to force the masses of people to flee multinational areas and group with their own nationality.

With major German and U.S. military backing, the Croatian forces were able to fight the Serbian/Yugoslavian army to a stalemate--inside and outside Bosnia. This led to the 1995 Dayton Accords where the U.S. and Milosevic together imposed a defacto partitioning of Bosnia between Croatian and Serbian forces--and cut the very ground out from underneath the Bosnian Muslims (who the U.S. claimed to be helping).

The third wave of fighting has now erupted in Kosovo--as Milosevic moved to defeat the armed Albanian forces resisting his reactionary nationalist moves. The campaigns of suppressing Albanians accelerated. Serbian death squad forces, like "Arkan's Tigers," made their appearance with high-level government support. This fighting is particularly troublesome for U.S. interests because it threatens to destabilize Macedonia--and carried a great risk of disrupting U.S./NATO alliances in this region.

This bitter series of Balkan wars is a living example both of how capitalism leads to the domination of one nation over another and how imperialism inflames conflicts among the people into reactionary war.

Reactionary Polarizations

The bitter events of years of civil war and ethnic cleansing have deepened painful chasms between the peoples of various nationalities that can only be overcome through tremendous struggle and revolutionary leadership. Progressive sentiments, opposition to ethnic cleansing and desires for unity are often heard among the masses of people throughout this whole region--along with considerable hatred of reactionary nationalist forces leading the governments of Serbia and Croatia. However, despite that, the political and military initiative has remained in the hands of those bourgeois nationalist forces.

Within these intense and often many-sided conflicts--there are forces who have been fighting for just causes. In particular, the Bosnian Muslims and the Albanians of Kosovo have been fighting in self-defense, and have raised just demands for self-determination and independence to guarantee the security of persecuted peoples.

The whole situation in the Balkans cries out for an armed, determined multinational force with a internationalist vision of solidarity between the peoples and a program for defeating reactionaries and building a new society. Unfortunately, there is no Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party in the Balkans today to lead such an armed struggle. One will have to be built. There is no shortcut out of this situation. Support for imperialist intervention and occupation will only deepen the divisions, confusions and sufferings among the people--and it will only strengthen the position of imperialism in the world as a whole to impose its interests on oppressed people.

Many millions all over the world are watching the bitter sufferings of the Balkan people. And there is a way for them to help create the conditions for something better. It is to firmly and forcefully oppose the interventions and intrigues of the U.S. and NATO. It would be a great contribution to the future of the Balkan peoples to make it as difficult as possible for the Great Powers to bomb and occupy, infiltrate local movements and governments, build up their favorite local reactionaries, and impose their interests over the bones of the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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