An echo from the past

Geoff Ryan finds similar arguments used against NATO during the Yugoslav Wars are being resurrected, this time in the Ukrainian crisis.


Sometimes you do end up appearing to be on the same side as your own imperialism. (See this article)

During the wars in former Yugoslavia, I was responsible for developing the assessments of the wars put forward by then Socialist Outlook (basing myself on work on eastern Europe previously done by Dave Shepherd and (the late) Patrick Baker).

I believe the analysis produced then has stood the test of time.

The wars in former Yugoslavia were NOT caused by NATO, as some argued at the time and is now being resurrected in Facebook posts, any more than the current war in Ukraine was caused by NATO.

The wars in former Yugoslavia were caused by the disagreements between the leadership of the Leagues of Communists of Serbia and Slovenia about the future of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. N.B. The Serbian and Slovene leaderships NOT Serbian and Croatian.

The Slovene leadership wanted a looser essentially confederal structure while the Serbian leadership wanted a more tightly centralized state dominated by Serbia – particularly once the head of the League of Communists of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, adopted the greater Serbian nationalist demands of some of the Serbs living in Kosova/Kosovo. The leaders of the Kosovo Serbs made claims about being brutally treated by the predominantly Kosova Albanian leadership, complaints echoed in the claims of persecution of Russian speakers by the Ukrainian government. The Kosovo Serbs were vehemently opposed to the demands by Kosovars for recognition as a republic rather than being a constituent part of the Federal Socialist Republic of Serbia. Not too different to Putin’s attitude to Ukrainian independence. Indeed both Kosovo and Ukraine have significant meanings for greater Serb and great Russian nationalism.

The refusal of Milosevic to contemplate any loosening of the SFRY state structures, in particular refusal to even contemplate any loosening of Serbian domination of Kosovo, eventually led to the leadership of the League of Communists of Slovenia utilising their constitutional right to secede from the SFRY. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA), which at the time was not under the control of Milosevic but the federal government, intervened militarily but withdrew after 10 days, allowing Slovenia to secede.

Milosevic did not care about the secession of Slovenia since it was easily the most ethnically homogenous of all the Yugoslav republics and had very few Serbs. However the secession of Slovenia set in play a dynamic that was unacceptable to Milosevic: once Slovenia had gone it was inevitable that other republics would follow. Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina contained far too many Serbs for Milosevic to simply let them walk out of the federation and without Slovenia, there was no way Croatia would remain, especially since it had a Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman.

After Slovenia had gone Tudjman, who up till this point had largely sat on the sidelines waiting to see the outcome of the arguments between the Serbian and Slovene leaderships, declared independence. The JNA, supported by fascist groups such as the Cetniks of Vojislav Seselj and Arkan’s paramilitaries invaded Croatia, visiting massive destruction on Vukovar before attempting to take over the whole of Croatia. Once the war in Croatia was over Milosevic turned his war machine on Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tudjman also tried to carve out territory in Herzegovina to add to the Croatian state.

There are other parallels with Putin’s war and the response of sections of the British left:

  1. Both the Ukrainian and Croatian governments have been denounced as resurrecting fascist symbols and figures from the second world war: Banderists and Ustase. Certainly the far right in Ukraine is a danger, and Putin’s invasion will probably strengthen them. But we have to analyse what ‘Nazi’ symbols actually mean to people as opposed to our interpretation, especially in Ukraine where the Soviet imposed famine still has resonance. In the case of Croatia sections of the British left saw the promotion of the sahvonica (the red and white checkerboard that the Croatian football team wear as their first team shirts) as a return to Ustase terror. Certainly the Ustase promoted the sahvonica but it has been a Croatian symbol since the middle ages. More to the point it was also on the flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Croatia, one of the Republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
  2. The view that independence movements are creations of the EU, US and NATO. (In relation to Croatia their secession was blamed on Germany, which fits in nicely with the obsession of sections of the British left with a nationalist view of the second world war). This is a truly appalling view which dismisses the working class of Ukraine or former Yugoslavia as political imbeciles who are easily manipulated by omnipotent pro-imperialist forces. Of course imperialism will try to take advantage of crises to steer them in a pro-imperialist direction: it would be surprising, to say the least, if they did not do so. But that is not the same as saying that imperialist powers created the crises, particularly that they planned to break up former Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. That is to give too much credit to the abilities of imperialism.
  3. Both Putin and MIlosevic created supposedly independent republics in Ukraine, Croatia and Bosnia. The Serb republics were totally under the control of Milosevic, any attempt at developing policies independently of Belgrade led to local ‘leaders’ being hurriedly sidelined.
  4. Some of the left saw Milosevic as continuing the legacy of Tito just as some saw Putin as the heir of Lenin. I have even heard references to the Red Army by Putin supporters on at least two occasions. Hopefully Putin’s rambling incoherent denunciation of Lenin may convince at least some of them that Putin’s Russia is not a continuation of the Soviet Union any more than the great Serbian chauvinism expounded by Milosevic was a continuation of the attempts by Tito to prevent the Yugoslav federation being dominated by Serbian nationalism.

I apologise for this lengthy discourse but it is essential we are aware of the real timeline of the events that led to the break up of the SFRY, of the real actors and their acts which led to brutal wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova. Some comrades were not involved in the discussions in SocialIst Outlook and others may have forgotten them.

To return to the original issue, Socialist Outlook played a major role in establishing International Workers Aid To Bosnia (IWA). [For a history of the activities of IWA see Solidarity is More Than A Slogan by Nicolas Moll, available from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation]. We promoted a campaign within the Labour movement and insisted on that orientation. Our primary focus was on the multi-ethnic, multi-national town of Tuzla in Bosnia. Our links were with the trade unions, particularly the mjners. However, when it came to public meetings there was a Tory MP (Patrick something, I forget his surname) who supported the right of Bosnia-Herzegovina to independence. I don’t recall him or Michael Foot arguing for NATO intervention but even if they did I don’t think it would have caused problems for the campaign since the demand of the campaign was to arm the resistance to Milosevic not for western states to send their armies. Was it wrong to demand capitalist governments arm the Bosnian resistance? Yugoslavia provides an answer to this question: during the second world war Tito and the Yugoslav partisans received large amounts of weapons from the British government headed by the monstrously imperialist Winston Churchill.

Of course, we weren’t able to pressure any government to arm the Bosnian resistance, we were much too weak but that doesn’t invalidate the demand. Nor were we able to prevent NATO from bombing Serbia when, very late in the day, after western governments had finally given up promoting Milosevic as central to any solution, they launched air attacks on Belgrade.

The war in Kosova posed several problems. We correctly opposed NATO intervention and participated in anti-war meetings and demonstrations. However we were confronted by some Serb nationalists who objected to our use of the Albanian Kosova rather than the Serbs Kosovo in our leaflets and our newspaper. And on the demos we were opposed by Kosovars who wanted NATO to intervene. ‘NATO. Just Do It’ read their placards, complete with the Nike swoosh. Sometimes you just can’t win!

My final point and it is an important one, is we need to be aware of, and able to challenge the untrue claims that imperialist powers set out to break up Yugoslavia, claims that are becoming increasingly made both by those opposed to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and those forces who either support or justify the invasion.

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Geoff Ryan is a member of Undod, YesCymru, Labour For An Independent Wales, and Carmarthen East & Dynefwr Labour Party.

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