The death of Slobodan Milosevic, fittingly dubbed “the butcher of the Balkans”, has provoked much sanctimonious commentary. Some of this has been hypocritical, uttered by figures blind to Britain’s butchery in Iraq, and to that of its acolytes abroad, such as Israel’s Milosevic, Ariel Sharon.
We should spurn such selective moralising in favour of placing the bloody story of Milosevic in its proper context. Milosevic’s rise to power began during the crisis of the Stalinist model of one-party state control imposed on Eastern Europe after 1945.
Yugoslavian leader Tito’s looser version of this model began to crumble during the economic crises of the 1980s. At the International Monetary Fund’s insistence, the Yugoslav ruling class enforced a series of market based austerity measures that sparked spontaneous mass strikes by the country’s workers.
Milosevic emerged as the leader of a desperate but influential wing of the Serbian ruling class. He was ready to break with Titoism and use Serbian nationalism to divert workers’ anger. By leading a racist campaign against the Kosovo Albanians, Milosevic built a base to defeat his Titoist rivals.
Then he brought the mass strikes under control. As one commentator noted of a delegation of striking workers addressed by Milosevic, “They arrived as workers, but they left as Serbs.”
With left wing ideas discredited by their association with Stalinism, nationalism won the day. Milosevic was a nationalist because his head, rather than his heart, told him to be one.
What Milosevic did to restabilise ruling class power in Serbia destabilised Yugoslavia itself. Elsewhere, anti-Serb nationalists came to power.
In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman became president boasting that his wife was “neither a Jew nor a Serb” and a the rights of the Croatian Serb minority. In Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic won power on a Bosnian Muslim nationalist platform.
The Croatian and Bosnian Muslim ruling classes contemplated secession from a Serb-controlled Yugoslavia in which their power would be curtailed. The Serbian ruling class feared that if the large Serb populations of Bosnia and Croatia were cut loose from Serbia, its power would be jeopardised.
The break up of Yugoslavia made war inevitable. All three sides were guilty of atrocities and ethnic cleansing, generally in proportion to the size and spread of their populations. So, the larger Serb population tended to commit more atrocities, followed by the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims.
That Milosevic was singled out for special attention by the West is only partly attributable to the fact that the Serbs committed more outrages.
It is primarily attributable to the fact that the West intervened in the war against Milosevic, for imperial reasons essentially unconnected with the rights and wrongs of the combatants.
Ivo Daalder, an adviser to then US president Bill Clinton, explained, “The war in Bosnia had profound implications for the Clinton administration’s Europe policy. So long as the war festered, it proved impossible to exploit the opportunities created by the collapse of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.”
Settling the Bosnian war was indispensable for the expansion of the US-dominated Nato organisation eastwards towards Russia. In the Balkans, the natural allies of the US were the Croats and Bosnian Muslims rather than the pro-Russian Serbs.
So the US bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, giving Tudjman the green light to ethnically cleanse 200,000 Croatian Serbs. The US and Britain also backed the Kosovo Albanians and bombed Serbia in 1999. During the bombing, the Hague Tribunal indicted Milosevic.
This was hardly an impartial act, from a body that was never to indict Tudjman or Izetbegovic, let alone Blair or Clinton.
The final act of this drama was not the work of the West, the Hague or of Milosevic’s nationalist opponents. In October 2000, a revolution led by a mass uprising of Serbian workers overthrew him. This inspiring act of self-emancipation should be uppermost in our minds when we remember the butchery of Slobodan Milosevic.