What Were the Underlying Causes of the War on Yugoslavia?



Following is a speech given at the New York City Socialist Action forum, “NATO’s War on the Balkans and U.S. Foreign Policy,” on June 30, 1999.

The U.S./NATO military attacks against Serbia and Kosovo represented a military offensive against the Yugoslav revolution of 1945. It was also an effort to further soften up Eastern Europe for capitalist investors and to promote imperialist economic interests and power in the region.

Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander; all the heads of state-Clinton, Blair, etc.-and even the NATO pilots who flew the bombing missions shattering the Serbian republic’s industry, infrastructure, and living conditions for the Serbian workers, all are international terrorists and criminals, the most dangerous war criminals in the world.

It was with the utmost cynicism and abuse of the ignorance and compassion of the world working class that the NATO forces and capitalist powers claimed that this aggression was for the sake of the rights of the Kosovar Albanians or to promote democracy in Serbia.

In actuality, the world capitalist lenders and their organizations like the IMF (which is dominated by U.S. finance capital) already bore central responsibility for the devastation of the economy of the former Yugoslavia.

The economic conditions imposed on Yugoslavia by the IMF beginning in the early 1980s wreaked havoc on the Yugoslav economy and caused a deep plunge in the living conditions of the workers there, as the IMF does the world over.

As a result, the economic and social crises of Yugoslavia in 1991 were the worst the population had faced since World War II. Thus, the NATO military attack on March 24, 1999, was only a continuation by other means of imperialism’s war against the Yugoslav workers and their economy that had been seriously building up for over 15 years.

As Prussian military theoretician Clausewitz stated: “War is politics by other means.” But what are the politics behind the present situation?

In reality, there are three wars going on at the same time. One is the NATO war against the Serbian and Kosovo regions. It is not so hot a war now but it goes on. The 78 days of bombing targeted mainly Serbian industry, infrastructure, and institutions.

But Kosovo was also a victim. There are not only the unexploded bombs and cluster bombs and mines but the residue of the depleted uranium that tips much NATO ammunition, leaving a radioactively contaminated environment. The NATO attacks prompted escalated expulsion of Kosovar Albanians and the destruction of homes and settlements by the Serbian military forces. The so-called peace brings the partition of Kosovo and its military occupation by foreign armies.

That was one war. The second war was the war by the Serbian government headed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and its military and paramilitary forces against the national liberation struggle of the Albanians of Kosovo led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (the KLA).

This war of the Serbian chauvinists against the movement of Albanians in Kosovo for their national rights has been going on since the early 1980s; but it escalated into a broad military campaign in 1998 when the Kosovo Albanians began to defend themselves militarily against the Serb attacks.

Some 250,000 Albanians had been driven from their homes by Serb militia in 1998 in an attempt to destroy the KLA-which had gained control of some 40 percent of the territory. Kosovo stretches about 90 miles from east to west and a bit more north to south.

The third war, which was behind the other two, is the class war. This is the one which is most important because it is causing the other two wars.

What does this mean? As Marxists say: While war is politics by other means, politics is concentrated economics. What are the economics behind these wars?

The economy of the original Yugoslav Federation was post-capitalist with socialist aspirations but not yet socialist. Socialism takes a world system and cannot be built in one country.

As a transitional society, isolated and still underdeveloped compared with the advanced capitalist countries, Yugoslavia was characterized by extreme inequities from region to region; and extremely primitive production technology, particularly in the agricultural sector.

Major economic problems eventually led to considerable borrowing of foreign capital. After Tito’s death, in 1980, Yugoslavia had a debt to imperialist lenders of $20 billion. The Yugoslav federal government then turned to the IMF for more loans and to reschedule debt payments.

To get such financial assistance, the Yugoslav government began in 1983 to impose IMF-dictated reforms that did not improve, but drastically worsened the standard of living for the masses of workers and peasants. The international capitalist lending institutions, particularly the IMF, continued to press their demands throughout the 1980s, even as the very fabric of the society was collapsing.

What the IMF was doing was demanding Yugoslavia repay the foreign capitalist lenders at the expense of the workers of Yugoslavia: it demanded the government end subsidies to unprofitable but socially necessary enterprises, remove price controls on food, fuel, and other vital consumer goods, freeze wages, and of course, privatize factories and other means of production and public service.

These IMF policies meant plant and mine closures, industrial decline, rising food and fuel costs, and unemployment.

Despite the pain these reforms caused the workers and despite the Federation-wide protests against them, the regime continued to impose these anti-worker and counterrevolutionary measures. After all, the privileged bureaucrats were not suffering from the reforms and continued to live in comfort, some handsomely benefitting from the privatization of the enterprises.

“Down with the red bourgeoisie!”

The only progressive force resisting the IMF measures was the workers’ protests. By mid-1986 and 1987, hundreds of thousands of workers in the factories, mines, and fields joined together in protests throughout the Yugoslav republics, frequently invading government buildings, shouting such things as: “Down with the red bourgeoisie,” “We want bread,” “Out with the thieves.” These protests united workers regardless of nationality.

As the crisis deepened in 1986 and 1987, a section of Serbia’s ruling Communist Party (the League of Communists of Serbia) made a conscious decision not to stand up to the IMF and defend the workers but to disorient the workers and deflect the protests from the government. It decided to adopt Serbian chauvinism as a means for diverting public consciousness away from the economic problems.

The turning point came during ongoing mass unrest in the Kosovo province itself in 1987. Yugoslavia, which was about the size of Colorado, had a population of some 23 million. It had six republics and two autonomous provinces -Vojvodina and Kosovo-both in the republic of Serbia.

The Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, whose 1.9 million population was about 82 percent Albanian, was the poorest region in Yugoslavia. The unemployment level in Kosovo, around 20 percent in 1980-ten times higher than in Slovenia, the most prosperous republic-reached 50 percent by 1987.

The economic reforms had made life even worse in Kosovo province and the population was demanding a say in the matter. They virtually shut down the province over their legitimate demands.

The Serbian government responded with police repression. Then, Slobodan Milosevic, who became Serbian party chief in 1986, made a trip to Kosovo to speak to the Serbian minority (some 10 percent of the province’s population).

On April 27, 1987, at Kosovo Polje (the organizing center for the Serbian nationalists in Kosovo), Milosevic inaugurated his bid for control of the League of Communists of Serbia, and of Yugoslavia as a whole, by staking his future-and the future of the section of the increasingly insecure bureaucratic apparatus he sought to represent-on a campaign of blatant Serbian chauvinism:

Appealing to emotions, fears, and ignorance, Milosevic proclaimed himself the champion of the Slavic Serbian “victims of history,” who were depicted as being threatened by the non-Slav Albanians in Kosovo.

So began a campaign to create a new official ideology. It put forward the myth that the Serbian people as a whole were besieged victims throughout history, who must now take a stand. Class differences were forgotten; they were superceded by national differences.

This bourgeois nationalist type of ideology suited the material interests of the ruling Serbian bureaucracy, which sought to redirect popular anger away from itself and nursed high hopes of getting rich with the new expansion of the pro-capitalist measures.

Thus, the ruling bureaucratic caste in Serbia made two decisions that threw it into battle against the the working class and on the side of world imperialism: the decision to implement IMF reforms and the decision to reinforce its power by relying on the ideology of Serbian chauvinism.

A barrage of anti-Albanian propaganda began in the media-unfortunately sometimes repeated by people who consider themselves progressive-claiming that the Albanians were out to take over the country through rapid procreation; that the Albanians in Kosovo were controlled by agents of Albania’s Hoxha regime and were seeking only to break away from Yugoslavia and become part of Albania so as to take all the province’s (“Serbia’s”) wealth and resources with them; fabricating “incidents” of violence by Albanians against Serbians, etc.

Meanwhile, the real violence going on was the violent repression of Kosovo’s Albanian population by the police forces of the Milosevic regime. A state of siege was imposed on Kosovo province; Albanian schools, radio, and newspapers were closed; Albanians were removed from positions of authority throughout the enterprises and institutions of the province.

While a mass media campaign whipped up anti-Albanian fears, mass demonstrations promoting Serbian nationalism were orchestrated throughout Serbia. And protests by workers elsewhere against the economic reforms were channeled in Serbian chauvinist, anti-Albanian directions.

All this successfully undercut working-class unity and gave the government a free hand to repress the Kosovo workers’ struggle for economic justice and democratic rights.

But the impact of this chauvinist campaign spread all through the Federation. Throughout 1987 and into 1988 this was followed by a number of measures to tighten the control of the Milosevic wing of the Serbian party bureaucracy and, consequently, Serbian hegemony in the Yugoslav federation:

1) During the period April-October 1987, there was a purge of the Serbian party leadership.

2) Supporters of Milosevic organized a putsch in the other autonomous province of the Serbian republic, Vojvodina, putting in power a group loyal to the Milosevic leadership.

3) A similar overthrow in January 1988 established a government in the republic of Montenegro that was loyal to the Milosevic leadership.

As a part of the continuing repression in Kosovo in 1989, docile figures were placed in power there by the Milosevic faction of the Serbian League of Communists and this faction thereby gained control of four of the eight votes on the Yugoslav Federal Presidency. The Federal Presidency ran the Federation after Tito’s death.

These maneuvers, along with the escalating officially sponsored Serbian chauvinist campaigns, raised understandable fears among the masses of non-Serbian workers, peasants, students, and intellectuals as well as in the governing apparatuses of the non-Serb republics -Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia.

As the austerity reforms continued, industrial production dropped and thousands of workers were swept into poverty. The inflation rate in Yugoslavia as a whole rose from 200 percent in early 1988 to 2000 percent by the end of 1989.

A brief history of Kosovo

The Albanian population of Kosovo had been in the vanguard of the opposition to the IMF-dictated economic policies and the suppression of democratic rights these required. The collapse of the Yugoslav Federation began there.

How did this Albanian enclave end up in the Yugoslav federation?

Modern Yugoslavia was born from the partisan struggle against fascist occupiers during World War II.

From 1944 it had been conceivable that the new Albanian republic, also the product of the partisan struggles and led by the Communist Party of Albania, might have become a part of a Balkan socialist federation with Yugoslavia. This would have united it with the Albanian population of the Kosovo region, which was nearly as large as the population of Albania itself.

It had also been possible that the Albanian-populated Kosovo region could have been united with Albania into a single republic. But because of the short-sighted and opportunist policies of the Albanian and the Yugoslav Communist leaderships, educated and led by the Stalinized Comintern counseling “socialism in one country” and considering all nationalist aspirations “bourgeois,” this did not happen.

Kosovo was a victim of these Stalinist policies, which are still being felt today. In June 1948 Stalin’s Cominform expelled Yugoslavia, thus isolating Yugoslavia from Albania and the other workers states. The Albanians of Kosovo were incorporated into the Serbian republic.

From the beginning, the Albanians of Kosovo did not have full democratic rights. They were not allowed to even call themselves Albanians. They were also the poorest region of the Yugoslav Federation, and there was much popular discontent.

During a search for arms in 1956, more than 100 Albanians were killed by Yugoslav security forces. By 1966, the Yugoslav regime sought to decentralize power to promote conditions for “market socialism,” so the security forces were purged and the political environment became more open.

Protests by Albanians in Kosovo for more freedoms in the late 1960s won greater rights for Albanians in Kosovo when the 1974 constitution declared Kosovo the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, with its own parliament, and the central government considerably increased funds for development there.

From 1968 to 1980, Albanians of Kosovo made advances. A university was established in the capital, Pristina, and a whole new strata of leaders, scholars, economists, and other specialists and personnel emerged, along with newspapers and journals.

The many peasants coming to the city expanded the Kosovo proletariat. They worked in the new factories with some of the most advanced technology in the federation. But economic conditions for the masses in Kosovo still lagged far behind the federation-wide average.

After Tito’s death in 1980, the economic and social problems came to the fore. In March 1981, Albanian students at Pristina University took to the streets for better conditions, jobs, and extended democratic and national rights.

Their protests were violently suppressed. Police opened fire on the unarmed protesters killing at least 12 people and wounding 150. In April, 1981, the Province of Kosovo was placed under martial law.

This was followed over the next year by trials and hearings as a result of which hundreds were sent to prison-some for up to 15 years-for their political activity during the protests. Hundreds were expelled from the party and lost their jobs. There was a general political crackdown against the province, which only strengthened the calls for independence.

As the effects of the austerity measures became more pronounced in the late 1980s, workers in Kosovo mobilized with others across the federation against wage cuts, job losses, etc. It was then that the Serbian bureaucracy headed by Milosevic-epitomized by his speech on April 27, 1987, to Serbians at Kosovo Polje-launched its Serbian chauvinist and anti-Albanian campaign described previously that became the cause for the disintegration of the federation and the current military conflicts

Strikes by miners in the Trepca lead and zinc mines the winter of 1988-89 for economic and political demands got the support of students and broader masses in Kosovo. But in early 1989, the Milosevic forces abolished Kosovo’s autonomy.

Workers who joined protests were summarily fired. All the workers at the Trepca zinc and lead mines who had launched an underground hunger strike for their economic and political rights were fired. Tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanian workers lost their jobs in this way, and Serbs were hired to replace them.

It was thus the Stalinist bureaucracy itself that created the political dynamic that led to the reaction among non-Serbs-Slovenians, the Croatians, and the Republic of Bosnia Hercegovina-from 1990 and 1991 to seek independence. The Serbian bureaucracy and its retrograde gangster allies responded with bloody wars of aggression to grab land and resources for themselves in the name of a “Greater Serbia.”

This reactionary, expansionist ideology has brought the Serbian workers nothing but continuing economic hardship and decline. The Serbian regime’s criminal war against Bosnia -Hercegovina left that republic divided, under imperialist control, with 250,000 dead and millions still displaced (homeless), including Serbs themselves.

Failure of passive resistance by Kosovars

By 1998, the center of conflict returned to Kosovo. Conditions of life in Kosovo became less and less tolerable and the repression continued. No improvements came from the policies of passive resistance-underground schools, health facilities, institutes, and even an underground parliament-led by Ibrahim Rugova and the League of Kosovo.

In the spring of 1998, a small radical force emerged as the Kosovo Liberation Army. It attacked Serbian military personnel, captured territory, and won broad support despite its lack of a clear political program.

The powerful Serbian military response to the KLA offensive provided the pretext for the enormous NATO attacks begun March 24, 1999.

Now, after 78 days of NATO bombing, Kosovo, like Bosnia, is divided and occupied. Far from being independent, Kosovo is totally controlled by foreign, imperialist military forces and will be governed by foreign imperialists of the United Nations. Its only army of self-defense (the KLA), is being disarmed.

The million or so Albanian refugees returning have little but destruction to come home to, and thousands of Serbs are fleeing Kosovo. The Serbian republic’s economy and infrastructure are severely damaged, if not destroyed, and Milosevic and all his cronies are still in power.

Again: War is politics by other means, and politics is concentrated economics!

The imperialists have won this phase. They occupy additional territory and have reduced much of what was left of the Yugoslav workers state to rubble. The NATO devastation of Serbia and Kosovo and the NATO occupation of Kosovo is a defeat not only for the workers there but for workers internationally.

The Serbian and Kosovar workers have been converted into beggars. Unemployment among Serbian workers is now estimated to approach 90 percent. The only jobs in Kosovo will be those handed out by the imperialist conquerors (and the capitalists who follow them). Scarcity and want prevail.

However, at the same time, it is only the workers of Serbia and of Kosovo and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia who can lead the way out of this crisis to a future of economic and social justice for the working class. Unfortunately, these workers are now vastly weakened as a class, both materially and psychologically, with millions no longer socialized at the point of production but dispersed and even homeless due to the wars.

How can they win?

There needs to be a Balkan socialist federation that would reunite the workers in former republics on the basis of respect for national self-determination of oppressed nationalities up to and including the right to independence.

The socialist federation would have a program for achieving working-class needs, under the leadership of revolutionary workers’ parties, coming together again on the basis of mutual cooperation and collaboration. This would inspire workers throughout Europe to fight for a European socialist federation.

But no revolutionary gains are conceivable without organization, particularly the organization of revolutionary Leninist parties and a revolutionary international, through which revolutionary parties can collaborate to carry out the necessary political work.

If the Belgrade regime had followed such a policy of revolutionary internationalism-as had inspired the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Communist International it founded under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky-instead of relying on great power chauvinism to promote a capitalist economic plan, there would have been enormous progress and hope for workers everywhere instead of the present disasters.

We who defend workers’ rights and organize for socialist revolution in the United States-where admittedly such a revolution is most necessary-must condemn the NATO attacks and occupations and the so-called peace accord and expose the responsibility of imperialism and capitalism for causing the crisis in Yugoslavia and the Balkans.

We must also condemn the Serbian Stalinist rulers and their collaborators, who attacked and suppressed the workers’ movements through police measures and an orgy of great power Serbian chauvinism.

We must also support the struggle of the Albanians of Kosovo for self-determination and independence, a struggle that has been badly set back by the wars but that is far from over.

Finally, we must support the fights for political and social revolution throughout the former republics of the Yugoslav federation and Soviet Union to overthrow the Stalinist rulers, many of whom are now yearning to become full-fledged capitalists, and establish worker republics to continue the fight for world socialism.

Socialist Action /August 1999

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