Friday, February 22, 2008

Resisting the demonological temptation

Serbian protesters, angry at the secession of Kosovo, certainly picked the right target. There's hardly anywhere in the world where people don't delight in seeing a US embassy go up in flames. Unfortunately, they also managed to burn some poor functionary to death. Inevitably, the old cliches will be drawn upon. The reaction will be put down to simple-minded nationalism, ethnic hatreds, ancient prejudices etc, augmented by an obstinate Serbian administration stirring things up. There's no manipulative demagogue around to help the fantasy this time, since he's kicked the bucket. Further, the pro-Western candidate, Boris Tadic, won the recent elections. Nevertheless, there are ominous murmurings about the Serb regime trying to make it difficult. These myths are entirely unhelpful to understanding what's happening, but they have been cultivated for almost two decades now.

The break-up of Yugoslavia, for all that it involved the instrumentalisation of nationalism, was not fundamentally about that. It was about changes in property forms, a neoliberalisation enforced by the IMF with predictably catastrophic results. Producing waves of strikes and protests, it also led to intense competition among the players in the federation about the political forms in which the changes would take place, who would benefit, and how. The two northernmost republics, Croatia and Slovenia, were also the wealthiest and had reason to resent paying taxes toward the federation, while their political elites were straining at the leash. They took up democratic demands in order to win popular support, but also encouraged reactionary brands of nationalism, especially in Croatia, where Tudjman gave vent to pro-Nazi and anti-semitic politics, not to mention virulent anti-Serb sentiment which would be formalised in state repression and exclusion. Though one cause of resentment was the redistribution of their wealth to the poorest autonomous region, Kosovo, they nonetheless opportunistically backed Kosovan protesters if it would weaken the Serbian republic. It had nothing to do with the legitimate grievances of Kosovan Albanians. Milosevic had successfully used the resentment about Kosovo's autonomy under the 1974 constitution, to put himself in a virtually impregnable position in the Serbian communist party. Many of the accounts melodramatically describe a cold manipulator and demagogue, and he was adept at diverting discontent and protest into nationalist sentiment, outplaying far more doctrinaire rivals such as Vuk Draskovitch. However, trying to get the broadest layer of support on his side and also hoping to rely on the JNA whose elite was concerned about its privileges, took a formally pan-Yugoslav position and kept to it throughout.

While none of the secessionist parties won a majority in the December 1990 elections, and while the IMF and EU initially preferred a federation-wide solution, European states eventually came to the aid of Slovenian and Croatian secessionists, with Germany under Chancellor Kohl taking the lead in recognition. Kohl's quite immovable hostility to the claims of pan-Yugoslav unity and his willingness to break agreements and EC rules, is often put down to domestic pressures from Germany's Catholic constituency and from Croatian emigres. Yet, for a recently reunified German state, the prospect of two wealthy allies in the Balkans was surely very tempting. And while the other EC states blamed Kohl's intransigence and bullying, they were quite happy to go along with secession as long as certain concessions were made. The UK delegation, for example, was mostly concerned about conserving the interests of British capital, by allowing the UK to opt out of the social contract in the Maastricht Treaty. But they all agreed in principle to the partition of Yugoslavia. And the US got in decisively on the action by backing Alija Izetbegovic, arming him with the assistance of Iran, helicoptering mujahideen into the republic and encouraging Izetbegovic to resist compromise settlements. The EC broke its own rules to recognise Bosnia, and so contributed to the centrifugal forces tending to civil war. The JNA's abortive interventions in Slovenia and Croatia were pitched in terms of defending the constitution and, in Croatia's case, an oppressed minority. Certainly, this is how Milosevic presented his case, although he proved a false friend to the Krajina Serbs. As for the Bosnian Serbs, with no guarantee as to their rights or status, they largely rallied to nationalist parties and paramilitaries. A plebiscite held by the nationalists found that most Bosnian Serbs would rather secede from Bosnia in the event of a secession on its part.

The wars of the 1990s resulted from an interaction between class restructuring within Yugoslavia and the intervention of external powers. As Radha Kumar has written, the break of Yugoslavia very closely resembles the classic colonial partition. Such partitions have a lousy record, of course, and the brutality of the ensuing wars show that Yugoslavia was no exception. But as soon as the Western powers opted for partition, the demonology became crucial. Thus, it was all about rabid Serbs being whipped up by a malicious demagogue bent on genocide. As a result, the deaths during the Bosnian war were inflated and the blame placed almost exclusively on the Bosnian Serbs, with the subsidiary insistence that Milosevic was behind it all. Thus, Bosnia became a UN protectorate, a colonial dominion with a light democratic facade overseen by an appointed High Commissioner. Then, as the Kosovan Albanian secessionist movement turned to armed struggle, in light of repression and the lack of any resolution on their behalf in international agreements, Milosevic adopted a classical counterinsurgency strategy. This involved quite severe atrocities, although it bears repetition that in 1998, the year preceding NATO occupation, the KLA were responsible for more deaths than the Serb military. Spying an opportunity, the US led a negotiations process which was intended to fail. When Milosevic didn't agree to the neo-colonial terms set at Rambouillet, once again he was a genocidal maniac. The war was launched with the promise that anythying between ten thousand and a hundred thousand bodies would be recovered in mass graves. Kosovo became another colonial outpost governed by the UN, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs were ethnically cleansed from the province. Today, Serbs in Kosovo are a beleaguered and reviled minority. And while the Serbian working class was strong enough to overthrow Milosevic, it was not strong enough to impose a government that would defend its interests, so we have had a succession of timid, neoliberal administrations. They have all made use of the Kosovo issue, which has been a running sore on account of gangsterism in the Kosovan Albanian political elite, ethnic violence and endless provocations. But they're pretty impotent. Kosovo has now attained 'independence' with colonial oversight - what kind of independence is that? I note that Serbian socialists have argued (scroll down) that they support Kosovo's right to secession on the grounds that only solidarity of this kind can undermine the imperialist stalemate. They also point out that there is a radical element in the independence movement that also calls for an end to colonial rule. Quite. Nationalism in Yugoslavia has been a constant alibi for imperialism, and it can't be otherwise. However, for those Western liberals and even lefties raised on a diet of Serb 'evil', it's rather important to resist the demonological temptation here. The facile dichotomies of ruthless expansionism and genocidal aggression versus multicultural unity and patriotic defense have to be abandoned at long last. Milosevic was thuggish, corrupt and autocratic, but he was not a fascist demagogue as has been claimed, and his farcical trial actually made that rather plain. Izetbegovic was responding to a set of circumstances that he didn't decisively shape, but he was not a democrat fighting the good anti-fascist fight a la the Spanish civil war. The demonisation of Serbia and the overestimation of opposing forces has gone on for long enough. The protesters who have trashed the American embassy have plenty of reason to be angry at Washington. We do too.