A Curse Over The Balkans?: Nationalism and War in ex-Yugoslavia

The bloodshed that took place throughout the former Yugoslavia in the last decade has been interpreted in many different ways by many different bourgeois theoreticians. The only common threads throughout all these pearls of wisdom were those of the sometimes naïve, but mostly calculated, interest driven prejudices and nonsense. In an attempt to explain the ongoing war, the media labelled it as “ethnic”, “religious”, “civil” and in some cases even “tribal”. As Marxists we fight against these misinterpretations which flow from a basic misunderstanding of the causes and nature of the wave of violence which hit the Balkans in the nineties.

Today, under the influence of the right wing, the break-up of Yugoslavia is commonly used as proof that the multi-ethnic state is a pipe dream in the Balkans and that any attempt to establish socialism must eventually end up in a disaster. Our understanding is that the national question was just an excuse here for the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart – wars which were first and foremost class wars. They represented a collective effort of the local Stalinist bureaucracies and imperialism against the Yugoslav working class as a whole, an effort which had no real roots in religion or nationality. In order to understand this approach it is necessary to look at the historical development of the Balkans.

Late Formation of Nation-States

Anyone who has had a chance to travel through the lands which are traditionally considered to be a part of the Balkan Peninsula (namely: the ex-Yugoslav republics, Bulgaria, the European part of Turkey, Albania and Greece), can testify that this is a differentiated area in Europe with a relatively similar cultural heritage, history, people and customs. On the other hand this geographical area is sharply cut across with numerous artificially created state borders, different religions and local chauvinisms.

The total surface area of the Balkans is as big as say Germany or Spain. However, this region in the south east of Europe had a particular historical development which separates it from the industrialised Western European countries. Despite the economic logic of capitalism, this region never managed to develop a common unified market. Europe underwent a drastic transformation in the 18th and 19th centuries with an insurgence of a new class on the world scene, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie had a progressive role in that time of crushing tight feudal borders and forming modern nation states.

The Balkans, however, stepped onto this historical stage stuck in between the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empire (later Tsarist Russia), two bastions of reaction in a revolutionary Europe which held its southeast in a tight grip of feudal backwardness. In the beginning of the 19th century, with the first signs of deteriorating power of the once powerful Ottoman Empire, the first attempts at the creation of independent national states in the Balkans began. The local bourgeoisies, however, were in comparison to their western brothers a very weak class made up of small merchants organically connected to the feudal oligarchy and completely dependent upon support from imperialist forces, whether from the east or from the west. Tsarist Russia was especially worried sick about the fate of its “Slavic brothers” after the retreat of the Ottoman Empire. It played a major role as a “protector” of the Slavs. From the other side, the Austro-Hungarian Empire conducted its colonisation under the disguise of cultural enlightenment and a historic mission of freeing the peninsula from Turkish backwardness. Leon Trotsky spent a part of his life travelling across Balkans as a war correspondent for the Russian daily “Kievskaya Mysl” and he described the cunning Austrian politics in these words:

Austria’s policy in the Balkans naturally combines capitalist predatoriness, bureaucratic obtuseness and dynastic intrigue. The gendarme, the financier, the Catholic missionary and the agent provocateur share the work between themselves. All this taken together is called the fulfillment of a cultural mission.” (Leon Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, page 44)

The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) in which the young Balkan bourgeoisie joined forces to push Turkey back further east were late wars for national liberation and at the same time predatory, mini-imperialist conquests in which the local bourgeoisies under the patronage of imperialist powers tried to grab territories and smaller peoples that Turkey left behind. The main participants in this conquest were Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece all of which, like vultures, took over some pieces of the former Ottoman Empire. Serbia for example “re-gained” control over the area named “Old Serbia” – today Kosovo – and entered into north and central Macedonia while the army of Montenegro took Sandzak and came to Albania. Once they were done with Turkey, the Serbian and Bulgarian ruling classes started to fight each other over control of the newly “freed” territories. During this time of continuously changing national borders, national armies committed so-called ethnic cleansings in an attempt to artificially create nation states. In the European context however, the ruling classes of the Balkans were still dwarfs. The imperialist powers used fresh Balkan states as pawns for chasing away the fading Turkish Empire and at the same time strictly controlled the growth of each one of them. As soon as it seemed one of them could potentially become a regional power they would cut its aspirations at the root and re-organizing borderlines at their own will. Albania was therefore “given” sovereignty at a peace conference in London as a means of preventing them rising against Serbia to obtain an exit to the Adriatic Sea.

As Marxists, and basing ourselves on historical materialism, we do not see the nation as an “eternal state of spirit” of a certain group of people. If for instance, the Serbian Lazar gave an order in fields of Kosovo in 1389 saying “Forward Serbs!”, the knights gathered around the Christian cross and their local nobles would give each other puzzled looks. The “nation” and therefore nationalism are historical categories and products of the bourgeois revolutions and the creation of nation states. In contrast to a metaphysical perception, we realise that at bottom what unifies different people into the same nation with the same language and culture is a longer period of living together in common under the same capitalist economic formation. The same happened with enslaved colonial peoples in Africa and Asia where under imperialist exploitation different people where merged into a unified nation by force.

Numerous occupiers, the lack of a long standing common market, chopped up territories and constantly changing borders prevented a similar process from developing in the whole of the Balkans and therefore created preconditions for divisions, economic backwardness and ethnic slaughter that this region would become famous for. Similar to the Middle East, borders in the Balkans are artificial creations created in the smoky conference rooms of imperialist powers which divided people in a perverse way. The Balkans were and remain a semi-colony inside Europe.

After the retreat of Turkey, the economic policy of Austria was consciously channelled to prevent any development of an independent industrial base in neighbouring Balkan countries. Low tariffs for agricultural products and livestock ensured that the economies of these countries remained tied and dependent on Austria and its finished industrial products. Unfavourable terms of trade and concessions granted by the obedient Balkan aristocracy and bourgeoisie over local natural resources turned this region into an economic cripple which lagged behind the rest of Europe. The whole region accounted for only 2.5% of total European industrial output in the beginning of the last century. Most of the industry that existed was connected to the basic processing of agricultural goods and concentrated in western parts of the region. 80% of the population were peasants tied to the land and kulaks by feudal relations.

“Yugoslavia” As Imperialist Creation

The economic logic of capitalist development led the ruling classes of the Balkan states towards the creation of a wider market which would break imposed parochial setup and enable further growth of the productive forces. This tendency, mirrored in the attempts for the creation of a “Great Bulgaria” or a “Great Serbia”, made local chauvinisms stronger and brought about bloody clashes. On the other hand the idea of “Pan-Slavism” was spread out and popular for a certain period, but in reality it was just a cover for the ugly face of Tsarist Russia and its interests in the region. The mixed interests of the different imperialist forces also played a role in the instability of the state structure. With constant coups, overthrown dynasties, assassinations etc. the Balkans became the global centre of intrigue and a place where to this very day most political earthquakes are explained with conspiracy theories.

The people of the Balkans found themselves on different sides again in the First World War. Bulgaria aligned itself with the Axis powers in an attempt to regain the territories lost in peace conferences after the Balkan Wars, while Serbia stood with the Allies and got out of the slaughterhouse as a “winner” with a terrible price paid in blood. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy the question of what should be done with the territories which emerged under its dominance in the western Balkans arose. As a prize for sacrificing its own population, the Serbian monarchy got to play the role of gendarme in the new Frankenstein creation of imperialism – Yugoslavia. In an attempt to somehow resolve the national question in the region, the victorious powers decided to build a new nation in the heart of the Balkans.

Of course this historical task was impossible to achieve with a decree from above and the newly formed state did not succeed in resolving any of the burning national conflicts nor move the region away from its heritage from the Middle Ages. The Serbian bourgeoisie proved utterly incapable to advance the productive forces and unify the different people living in the area, thus unable to accomplish the historical mission that was assigned to it by imperialism. The first Yugoslavia was righteously labelled a “dungeon of the peoples” by the socialists of that time.

In times of world wide economic crisis, and with a poor starting position, the perspectives for the development of a modern bourgeois parliamentary democracy were slim. The Serbian monarchy was forced to rule in an authoritarian manner, forbidding political parties and suppressing different nationalities and their cultural rights. In this type of atmosphere the resistance of the Croatian and Slovenian bourgeoisie grew, which, leaning on the peasant masses within their republics, started to develop chauvinistic tendencies in an attempt to counter Belgrade and its drive towards the centralisation of power. Re-armament and the renewed ambitions of the German ruling class in the thirties only made the situation worse. The future of bourgeois Yugoslavia was sealed.

The Second World War

The bourgeoisie proved to be completely incapable and unwilling to defend the territory it controlled from the invading Nazi army. One part of the bourgeoisie along with the royal family packed their suitcases and escaped to the West where their bank accounts were waiting for them. The most reactionary layer of the ruling class put itself enthusiastically at the service of the occupying forces. The Yugoslav Armed Forces were stomped over and the occupation was complete in 11 days. Parts of the ruling class of each nationality formed their own armed units which were directly or indirectly under the command of the Nazis. The havoc of ethnic cleansing was unleashed once again. Seeing that the project of a unified bourgeois Yugoslavia fell into water, the local bourgeoisies began trying to establish their own little national states under foreign protection. With the backup of Italian and German fascists a puppet fascist regime was set up in Croatia which immediately began conducting genocide against the Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Serbs and Croatian communists. In Serbia, the government of Milan Nedic and military squadrons of Dimitrije Ljotic, under the excuse of “saving the Serbian nation” helped the Nazis gather up Jews and openly participated in the genocide. Belgrade was the first city in Europe that was declared “judenfrei”. On the other hand part of the Serbian army officer caste decided to form an independent armed force, the so called Chetniks movement, which was supposed to represent the “anti-fascist” part of the Serbian bourgeoisie and loyal to the King in London. Other nationalities also had their own pro-fascist armed gangs such as the Muslim Militia in Bosnia under the coverage of the Ustashe, or the Albanian Balli Kombetar gangs in Kosovo under the sponsorship of Italians.

The only alternative to all this madness came in the shape of the Partisan movement under the leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party. The working class movement had deep roots in the Balkans. Along with the mass of the peasantry, the young working class developed in the cities, which was quick to adopt the most progressive thought from the West, so at the very beginning of the 20th century the first social democratic parties were founded. The October Revolution in Russia found a great echo amongst the youth, workers and peasantry in the Balkans. The rapid economic advancement in between world wars, agrarian reform and broader cultural and social progress in the Soviet Union promoted the planned economy as an attractive alternative to capitalist depression and feudal backwardness.

Immediately after the First World War, the Communist Party gained great popularity in Yugoslavia. In 1920 the party had 60,000 members and won third place in the elections that year with 12% of the total vote. However, in the period of repression that followed the party was forced to function illegally. Communists were hunted down, the leadership was imprisoned, liquidated or in exile. It was not only the pressure from the Yugoslav ruling class which changed the party. The strengthening of the privileged bureaucratic layer in Russia in the twenties and thirties, embodied in the persona of Joseph Stalin, turned the Communist International and all its sections into obedient followers of orders. There was no clear constant political line. Instead of advancing the prospects for revolution in every country, the national parties were used for manipulations in accordance with the interests of the Stalinist foreign policy and the building of socialism in the “Motherland”. The Yugoslav party did not escape this process of political degeneration and experienced regular purges and the loss of internal democracy. Josip Broz Tito himself came to the head of the party in one of these Stalinist purges after the liquidation of the previous leader Milan Gorkic. Despite everything, under the management of a talented organiser such as Tito, the party managed to keep a solid underground network and a number of experienced cadres. It found itself at the beginning of the occupation with 12,000 underground members and around 30,000 young communists organised in a separate youth section – SKOJ.

Armed units were set up soon after the invasion. However, despite the popular mood within the membership and the willingness to fight, the decision to start an active struggle was dragged on and on. The role that Moscow gave initially to the partisans was that of a small guerrilla force whose duty it was to slow down the German army in its advance, and not to engage in national liberation, and not to talk about social revolution. Stalin still had his pact with Hitler and he was trying to avoid the unavoidable German invasion. Only after the attack on the Soviet Union, the green light was given to launch an open fight. What kind of fight was it and with what sort of political line? In accordance with the orientation of the International at that time, the tactic of the Popular Front was enforced in which communists were supposed to fight fascism along with the “progressive” section of the bourgeoisie. What did this tactic mean concretely in the case of Yugoslavia? The Partisans were supposed to fight united with the Chetnik movement of General Draza Mihailovic and along with them conduct the “national liberation” struggle. “National Liberation”, in this context, meant kicking out the occupier with no changes whatsoever in the socio-economical relations inside the country. Throughout the war, Moscow officially recognised the provisional Yugoslav government in London and the crown as the official representatives of the Yugoslav population. Radio Moscow would regularly give credit for successful Partisan actions to Chetniks in accordance with the official Allied line of recognizing the Chetnik movement as the official anti-fascist movement inside Yugoslavia. The Chetniks enjoyed the political, financial and logistical support of Washington, London and Moscow. The Soviet Union refused to give any material help to Tito’s units until 1944. World Imperialism, the Soviet bureaucracy and Tito had a silent understanding. After the liberation, the king and his gang of politicians would return to the country and continue business as usual, while Tito and Moscow would be satisfied with the ending of an illegal existence and strong influence of the Communist Party in the Yugoslav parliament. Everybody however, including the Nazis, overlooked the most important factor in the equation – the Yugoslav masses.

The Partisan movement proved extremely popular. Propagating national equality and exploiting the widespread anti-fascist mood, Partisan units attracted peasant masses of all nationalities like a magnet, especially the youth. By the end of 1942, the Partisan army already counted 150,000 fighters. A year later, that number doubled. By the end of the war there were 800,000 people under arms in the heart of the Balkans!

The Partisans had grown into a massive social movement. Hundreds of thousands, oppressed for decades under dictatorship finally gained self-esteem and the feeling that they could change society with their own hands. This kind of pressure from below unavoidably changed the political line of the party leadership.

“National-Liberation”or Social Revolution?

Step by step, the battle for national liberation grew into a social revolution. By leaning on the masses, the party leadership started to feel strong enough to ignore dictates from Moscow in certain aspects. In accordance with the general orientation of Popular Front tactics, instead of workers and peasants soviets formed on class criteria, the party established anti-fascist committees consisting of anyone who was willing to join them, including the representatives of pre-war bourgeois parties. However, it turned out that Tito was chasing phantom allies in the form of the “progressive bourgeoisie” which would be ready to fight determinately against fascists. The ones who had foreign bank accounts had disappeared a long time ago, the ones who stayed however would much rather lean on the invading army, no matter how oppressive it may be, because this guaranteed the continuation of property rights inside the country, which was far more desirable than resting on communist guerrillas and hungry masses.

In such a vacuum, without the real participation of the bourgeoisie in parallel structures of power, the Partisans had an open path to clear away, in the space of a few months, all the relics from the Middle Age that the bourgeois were unable to do away with through their parliament in decades. On November 29 1943, the highest representative body of anti-fascist committees (AVNOJ) declared Yugoslavia a Republic. In the free territories, laws were passed which ensured the nationalisation of the property owned by “fascist collaborators”, which in practice meant the expropriation of the local capitalists and kulaks. Factories renewed their production for the front and were put under workers’ control. Women broke centuries old patriarchal bonds by joining the Partisan ranks en masse and actively participated in the fighting.

For the first time, national minorities also gained the opportunity to participate in political life on an equal basis. Schools were opened up and the first literacy campaigns for the peasant masses started in territories under Partisan control.

Moscow was not enthusiastic about these moves made by the Partisans. Stalin’s highest priority at that moment was to maintain a coalition with the Allies and he did not want to scare them away by any signs of “exporting” the revolution. For example, in a letter the Comintern sent to Tito in 1942 it is stated: “Why have you created this ‘proletarian brigade’? At the present moment, our main duty is to unify all anti-fascist tendencies”.

Moscow’s tactics however proved to be a complete disaster in the field. Co-operation with the Chetniks was impossible in practice. Units of General Dragoljub Mihailovic were passive and disorganised. Since December 1941, Chetniks carried out regular attacks on the Partisans. Mihailovic highly overestimated the readiness of the Serbian bourgeoisie to fight the occupier. With a lack of sound backup from the ruling class or the monarchy all they could rely on was the backwardness of the peasantry and a tiny layer of kulaks. In 1943 the vast majority of Chetnik activity was based around the elimination of the Partisans with the open collaboration of the fascists and the ethnic cleansing of the non-Serbian population in mixed areas. Divided into numerous fractions, without a clear centralised line of command, the Chetniks degenerated to the extent that the world bourgeoisie was forced to abandon them and began supporting the only force that was effectively opposing the fascists. To this very day, this fact stands as a thorn in the side of the right wing of the Serbian bourgeoisie whose ideologists usually explain this historical twist with different conspiracy theories. The truth is however much more simple and painful for them. Faced with the menace of fascism, the world bourgeoisie abandoned their degenerated Serbian brothers and pragmatically backed up their natural foes – for the moment.

“Yugoslav Nationalism” or Worker’s Internationalism

The Partisans became a force that was impossible to ignore. Despite the Stalinist leadership, the Partisan Movement was the most progressive phenomenon ever seen in the Balkans. For the first time in history, a movement appeared in the very heart of the Balkans, which indiscriminately gathered all nationalities, all religions and tirelessly dragged society forward.

After the war, Tito found himself faced with a historical decision. In 1945 at Potsdam, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill confirmed their agreement to divide Europe. According to this plan Yugoslavia was labelled as a fifty-fifty zone of influence. Still blindly following the Stalinist school and the Popular Front, the Yugoslav communists took the bourgeoisie by its sleeves and dragged it into a so-called Tito-Subasic government, even though they could have easily taken complete power. This class balance could not possibly last. The bourgeoisie was not prepared to sit in this hot chair with armed masses breathing down its neck. Bourgeois representatives left the government and the workers and peasants felt the country was in their hands. The Communist Party established state monopoly over foreign trade, and most industries were nationalised.

Similar things were happening in the neighbourhood as well. In Albania, a popular Partisan movement similar to the one in Yugoslavia carried through a revolution. In Bulgaria, the Red Army and local forces of resistance took control. In Greece and Italy, mass armed communist movements were on the edge of taking power. With a complete defeat of the weak Balkan ruling classes, the conditions were created for the first time in history for the melting away of borders and the formation of a broader, unified Balkan federation on a socialist basis. This was a realistic, common sense option. It was so straight-forward in fact that local Communist Party leaders, despite their Stalinist background, seriously considered this possibility and took concrete steps in this direction. Tito, Georgi Dimitrov and Enver Hoxa discussed the possibility of Bulgaria and Albania joining the “new Yugoslavia”. However, the last thing that the Moscow bureaucracy wanted to see was the creation of a Socialist Federation in the Balkans which could serve as an alternative to the “cradle of socialism” and shake their privileged positions.

With the Cold War heating up and an imperialist offensive on a world scale, the Red Army was forced to answer back and carry through the unplanned nationalisations in Eastern Europe, thus creating Soviet satellites out of these countries. The Yugoslav leadership, seeing how the “motherland” treated these nations in its “sphere of influence”, broke from Stalin, and leaned on the masses and partly on world imperialism.

Greece and Italy fell outside of the line drawn by Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam. The fate of the revolutions in these countries was therefore sealed. Following the catastrophic advice from Moscow, the Italian Communists handed over their weapons and gave power to the bourgeoisie. In Greece, communists made the same mistake in the beginning only to make an ultra-left turn later by beginning a late uprising.

In this situation, Tito closed the Yugoslav border with Greece and refused to help the pro-Moscow Greek partisans. Albania and Bulgaria, under pressure form Moscow broke their relations with Belgrade and each party in the region turned inwards and to the construction of socialism in its own backyard. Tito abandoned the idea of a broader federation and started creating a “Yugoslav path towards socialism”- so-called “self-management”.

Building Socialism in One Country

By keeping the revolution within Yugoslav borders, Tito basically made a compromise and decided to carry through the tasks that the bourgeoisie was not capable of doing. The new state was supposed to be based on “brotherhood and unity”- meaning the creation of a new unified Yugoslav nation as an alternative to ethnic hatred and divisions. For a long time it seemed that Tito had done it. The New Yugoslavia was a qualitatively different formation from the former one. The abolition of the market, the planned economy, as well as the expropriation of private property and the monopoly over foreign trade created conditions for the most dynamic economic advance in the history of the Balkans. However, this state was deformed from the start in the sense that real workers’ democracy was never set up and all major decisions were made behind closed doors based on the judgment of the party bureaucracy. History shows us that the potential for an economic upswing on this basis is limited. With no possibility for the free flow of information or democratic decision-making, problems in allocation and distribution soon arise. However, it must be said that until the late nineteen-seventies this framework managed to advance the productive forces. Despite bureaucratic abuses, missed investments and the lack of worker’s democracy “Socialist Yugoslavia” managed to achieve impressive growth rates in the first three decades of its existence. A peasant society was turned into a modern industrialised economy. Real progress was not measured by pure growth of GDP though. Yugoslavs enjoyed high levels of social protection, schooling and labour laws. The planned economy enabled the government to pay special attention to the historically most underdeveloped regions such as Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro. In a few years big parts of these communities made the leap from a feudal, patriarchal clan structure to that of the urbanised proletariat.

In these first three decades of progress, the Communist Party enjoyed overwhelming support in all layers of society. Therefore it was in a situation to grant a certain level of freedom of speech and expression which was not seen in other countries of the Eastern Block. Freed from the dogmas of Socialist Realism culture flourished and various national minorities which historically did not have the chance for autonomous expression were granted cultural and religious autonomy. In this atmosphere and economic progress, nationality as a political category lost any significant meaning. Migrations of workers and students between urban centers in different republics and mixed marriages became the norm. National and religious labels disappeared from people’s minds. The Yugoslav nation, it seemed, was finally established with a strong foundation in a common state.

In the first post-war decade, the privileged layer was not so obvious. In 1940s and 1950s, the privileges enjoyed by party bureaucrats were in accordance with the general underdevelopment of the country. The most a party bureaucrat could get out of his position was a slightly better apartment, a personal driver and an opportunity to spend the summers on the Adriatic coast. Besides, the collectivist revolutionary spirit developed during the war years was maintained within a good part of the party and among former fighters. Most ordinary party members who carried the revolution on their backs detested any type of privileges and had moral disgust towards any type of abuses of position for personal gain. In a post war Partisan culture, the aspiration to get rich was the most shameful thing. Ethical principles and revolutionary moral are one thing though, and material reality something completely different. As the productive forces of society grew, so did the basis for privileges of the upper layer of the party leadership. Already in the 1960s this growing layer started to suffocate the further development of the Yugoslav economy. By stifling the proper allocation of capital and production as well as the distribution of goods based on real life needs, this bureaucratic layer served as a unique seal on the economy. The mismanagement of production capacities and corruption further stifled healthy growth. By the end of 1960s it was already clear that the road towards socialism was not so secure. As always, students, acting as a barometer, are the first layer to indicate ferment within society. Student demonstrations in 1968 were the first cry against this tendency. Slogans against the “red bourgeoisie” and calls for a return to genuine Marxism clearly mirrored the deep dissatisfaction ordinary people felt with the growing polarisation of society.

“Market Socialism”

Faced with growing contradictions within society, the bureaucracy, instead of returning to genuine Marxism like the students demanded, turned towards the liberalisation of economic life. With no clear political line, the independent position in relation to the USSR brought the Titoist bureaucracy closer to imperialism.

Before any of the other nomenklatura in Eastern Europe, the Yugoslav party established relationships with imperialist financial organisations like the IMF and the World Bank. In an attempt to fight inefficiency, the party introduced a series of reforms in the 1960s and with the new constitution in 1974. The liberalisation of foreign trade, the labour market and the centralised plan were conducted under the disguise of perfecting “self-management” – which was supposed to give more decision making rights to workers. The existing self-managing workers’ committees were easy prey for the manipulation of the upcoming managerial technocracy. Liberalisation gave them unprecedented opportunities for corruption and personal enrichment. Big state companies were divided in pieces, thus tripling bureaucracy. Decentralisation of political and economic life went to such an extent that each autonomous part of one company could freely bid for credits on foreign capital markets. The IMF was frustrated in an attempt to allocate the responsibility for numerous credits that were taken. In this kind of set up, rivalry between the bureaucracies of the republics naturally grew as they tended to engage independently in negotiations with imperialist financial institutions and keep as much as possible in their own republic.

By the 1980s, the growing foreign deficit and rising inflation began to tear up the already delicate economic relations. In an attempt to lower the deficit and pay off the debt the government decided to cut general consumption and carried out the first restriction programs imposed by the IMF. The economically most backward regions of the country were the first to feel the repercussions of this policy.

The working class of Kosovo and Macedonia, and eventually others, started to feel the impact of the “reforms”. Nationality returned to the scene as a political factor and the bureaucracy was forced to apply more ruthless measures to stifle disobedience. In 1981 a wave of protests swept across Kosovo. Faced with the uprising of the Albanian minority, Belgrade was forced to purge the local party and government structures and ruthlessly broke up the protests. A wave of migration started from Kosovo. Both Albanian and Serbian workers, faced with high unemployment and political pressure, left for Western Europe and central Serbia. The bureaucracy exploited this in a media and propaganda campaign that blames the Albanian separatists, who it was said were forcing the Serbian minority to leave. Albanian separatism became a scapegoat for the piling economic problems in the region.

Further destabilisation came with the death of Josip Broz Tito. For decades Tito ruled in a typical Bonapartist manner by relying on different layers within Yugoslav society and the bureaucracies of the different republics in critical moments, thus managing to achieve equilibrium. Under his absolute authority the class contradictions and the conflicts between the regional bureaucracies were covered up and remained well hidden. The conditions were set in the 1980s for the final explosion of the contradictions which had been mounting for decades. After forty years of relative stability Yugoslav society once again entered into a revolutionary phase.

Roots of Modern Nationalism

Since the early 1980s, living standards in Yugoslavia had started to decline sharply, falling 40% by the end of the decade which brought it back to the level it was in mid 1960s. The Yugoslav working class answered this pressure with a series of strikes in the 1980s. In the first nine months of 1987 over 1000 strikes were organised all over the country in which some 150,000 workers of all nationalities participated. In 1989, the number of workers on strike rose up to 900,000! The Yugoslav working class found itself once again at a historical turning point. Either it would forge ahead with a political revolution and create the conditions for further economic growth and keep the revolutionary achievements intact by breaking the grip of the bureaucracy, or it would be broken and pulled into bloodshed and capitalism.

The 1980s were definitely years in which the party finally lost its “innocence”. The differences between ordinary workers and the party elite and the managerial technocracy became drastic. With time, the aspirations of the alienated bureaucratic layer became much bigger. The Titoist caste developed an internal culture and a system of values with which it imitated the ruling classes of the West. Part of this layer already had well-established relationships with different western mentors and had foreign bank accounts in which they stored money obtained through the abuse of their positions and the privileges they enjoyed. The bureaucracy became a transmission belt over which imperialism put pressure upon the Yugoslav working class.

The working class lost all illusions and began to leave the party en masse. Already in 1985 it was calculated that only one out of every 11 semi-qualified and one out of five qualified workers was a member of the party. Until 1987, only 30% of the party and 8% of the Central Committee consisted of workers. On the other hand, 95% of company managers and 77% of intelligentsia were members of the party. Ordinary people began to look at the Communist Party as a place for careerists and directors, not as an instrument through which they could express themselves. However, outside of the party there was not much space for expression either. The tradition of independent union organizing had ceased to exist in the 1940s. The Stalinist bureaucracy was terrified of any workers organizing independently of the state structure. The role of the unions in Yugoslav “self-management” consisted of organizing cultural events, vacations and food distribution. Whole generations of workers grew up without any real experience in class struggle. The Yugoslav working class was “naïve” with a low level of class-consciousness and was therefore relatively easy prey.

In the beginning, these protests had a spontaneously progressive outlook. Even though the main demands did not go much further than the economic field, the workers were almost instinctively pro-Yugoslavia and anti-bureaucracy. Workers of all nationalities marched together with pictures of Tito and Yugoslav flags. Horrified by the movement of the working class, the ruling bureaucracy in all republics had no other choice but to try to ride out this wave of dissatisfaction and turn it to their advantage. The easiest way to do this was to play the old card of chauvinism, and so the bureaucracy let out the germ of nationalism. By constructing ethnic conflicts and using media propaganda for the spreading of hatred the bureaucracies of the different republics were able to divide the movement by tearing it up along national lines. With nationalism, the bureaucracies saved their own heads in a pre-revolutionary situation. All of a sudden the ones responsible for unemployment and falling standards in Serbia were not the fat cats sitting in the Serbian parliament, but the Croats and Albanians. The same scenario played itself out in each republic where the responsibility was placed on people of other nationality. The leadership of the different republics easily abandoned “brotherhood and unity” and began to employ nationalistic hysteria. Everybody wanted to abandon the sinking ship. Imperialism, of course, greeted these forces with open arms and encouraged them. The bureaucracy of each republic had Western bourgeoisie allies as their guardian angel.

When we clear away all the distracting rubbish such as: nationalism, charismatic leaders, religion, renegade generals, ethnic cleansing, mujahadeen, ustashe, chetniks, mafia and conspiracy theories; it is clear that the break-up of Yugoslavia and the wars that took place can be explained by one basic socio-economic transformation. The collective ownership of the means of production and the planned economy simply became straightjackets for the growing appetites of the bureaucratic castes. For decades they imitated the life style of the ruling classes in the West and once they were faced with a stagnating economy a section of the bureaucracy decided to “leave their ideals” and “go for it”. The underlying process is the transformation of ex-bureaucrats into capitalists who seized a historical moment to become the ruling class in their own republics. Milosevic, Tudjman and Co. were just representatives of this ambitious layer, and the reflection of this layer at the top of the Communist Party. They were politicians who used the revolutionary situation to make coups in their own republics, purge the old Titoist cadres who still had illusions in a unified Yugoslavia and started to sail towards the promised land of capitalism.

Every counter-revolution is bloody and Yugoslav was no exception. The ruling classes in the making had to conduct the initial accumulation of capital and split the zones of influence using gangster methods, but above all they had to destroy the idea of a unified Yugoslavia. The monstrous crimes committed in the nineties in ex-Yugoslavia were not a coincidence, nor simple thrills of sick minds. Blood had to be split in order to burry the last hope of a unified republic. Today, if you ask an average worker in any of the former republics what he thinks about the former Yugoslavia they will tell you that it is a noble but impossible idea. A big state with a planned economy in the heart of the Balkans was a thorn in the side of imperialism after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nationalism was a perfect weapon for its destruction and for burying all the achievements of the Partisan movement. Yugoslavia had to be crucified. Its people had to be punished for the heresy they committed fifty years ago when they dared to abolish capitalism and tried to take destiny into their own hands. The example of Yugoslavia had to be horrific so that all other people in the Balkans and all over the world could once and for all see that socialism was “impossible”.

It was not possible to build socialism in one country. As Marxists we defend unified Yugoslavia and its planned economy, but only as a good starting point for a much broader Balkan Socialist Federation. Of course, our task is to defend the former Yugoslavia and its achievements against all the lies and distortions of the pro-capitalist elements and nationalists, but at the same time we must not fall into the trap of making a fetish out of this state. Because at the end of the day that is what Yugoslavia was – a nation state. True, that state was much more progressive then the present, dwarfish, semi-colonial states born out of the blood of ethnic slaughter. But when we look at things from this angle, processes that developed in the 1990s become much clearer. Yugoslav nationalism, that unique “self-managed” way towards socialism that all Yugoslavs should have been proud of, was simply exchanged for national roads towards capitalism. Given the state of mind of the bureaucrats or some of the workers with low class-consciousness it was not unusually difficult to switch and begin to feel pride as Macedonians or Slovenians rather than as Yugoslavs. Albanians, Turks, Romanians and other non-Slavic people living inside that state always found it hard to feel as “southern Slavs” anyway. Things started to go downwards, not in 1991, but much earlier when Tito and the other Balkan leaders decided to build many different national “socialisms”- each one in their own country.

Today, after 15 years, the “balkanisation of the Balkans” is not yet finished. Perhaps imperialism would like to “stabilise” the area for the moment, but it is too late. The Pandora’s box has been opened. Divisions and bloodshed will not stop until the workers of the Balkans separate themselves completely from the pro-capitalist, nationalist parties and begin to build their own organisation which will not recognise state borders. The Partisan Movement is a gigantic historical milestone which the ruling classes cannot slander and hide under the rug for much longer. The working class of the former Yugoslavia, with such a rich heritage of struggle, will re-discover its history and start a new fight. We must look beyond “brotherhood and unity” towards “worker’s internationalism”. Class is what connects us and puts us on the same side of the barricade, not Slavic ancestors. In the struggle ahead we divide people only on one basis – capitalists and workers – everything else is simply outside of our interest.