International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

Balkan Tinder Box Threatens European War: Civil War in Yugoslavia

This article originally appeared as the lead article in the “Bulletin” on July 5, 1991.

The long-developing political crisis in Yugoslavia has now exploded into open civil war following the declaration of independence last week by the republics of Slovenia and Croatia.

More than 100 workers have already been killed, and tens of thousands of others face the threat of being slaughtered as the tanks plow their way through the towns and villages and bombers strafe and bomb the cities.

Two ceasefire arrangements under the auspices of the European Commission have already broken down. A third, informal ceasefire in Sloveniain effect since Wednesday threatened to collapse as the Slovenian government rejected demands by the federal presidency that its forces relinquish border posts.

“Yugoslavia no longer has a border with Austria and Italy,” Slovenia’s Information Minister Jeiko Kacin declared defiantly. It was the seizure of the 27 border crossings on the boundaries with Italy, Austria and Hungary which provoked the federal army’s intervention.

Contained within this crisis is the threat of a far wider war as Austria and Italy mobilize troops along the Yugoslav border and the American, German, British and French imperialists assert their conflicting interests in the Balkans, the historic tinder box of the capitalist nation-state system in Europe.

Only four months ago, the Bush administration concluded the Persian Gulf war, declaring that the mass murder of Iraqi troops would insure peace and lay the basis for a “new world order.” The eruption of the crisis in Yugoslavia confirms the warnings of the Workers League that the gulf war marked the beginning of a new period of inter-imperialist wars which threaten to engulf every region of the globe.

The working class must break from the bourgeois nationalists in Slovenia and the other republics, as well as from the rotting Stalinist apparatus in Belgrade. The solution to the crisis lies neither in nationalist separation nor in the maintenance of the Yugoslav federation, but in the fight for the socialist federation of the Balkans as part of the struggle for the United Socialist States of Europe. There is no way forward within the present order.

American Secretary of State James Baker voiced the fears of all the imperialists that the explosion of national tensions in the Balkans could play the same role today as in 1914, when the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo triggered World War I.

“We came to Yugoslavia because of our concern about the dangers of a disintegration of this country,” he declared. “Instability and breakup of Yugoslavia, we think, could have some very tragic consequences, not only here but more broadly, in Europe, as well.”

So fragile are the nation-state structures throughout Europe that ethnic and language disputes similar to those in Yugoslavia could erupt in any country in Eastern Europe, not to mention such supposedly stable Western European powers as Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Great Britain.

The disintegration of the federal state and the eruption of civil war are the outcome of the policies pursued by all sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy to restore capitalism in Yugoslavia and offer their services as agents for the various imperialist powers. Whatever political labels they give themselves—”democratic” or “socialist”—the leaderships of the Yugoslav republics are made up of rival cliques of bureaucrats and capitalists seeking to establish their own sphere of operations.

All of them trace their political careers back to the leadership of the Stalinist Yugoslavian Communist Party of Tito and all of them have played the same card of petty nationalism in the attempt to preserve their own power and privileges and stifle any independent movement of the Yugoslav workers.

The leaders of the Serbian republic in the capital Belgrade, under President Slobodan Milosevic, are not “Marxists” or “socialists” but Serbian nationalists, whose program for capitalist restoration is based on the fight for a “greater Serbia.”

Similarly the army, which has acted with such apparent independence as to raise the serious threat of a military coup, is fighting not for the preservation of national unity much less “socialism,” but to defend the rule of the parasitic and capitalist restorationist federal bureaucracy, within which the officer corps constitutes one of the most privileged layers.

While the Serbian Stalinists and budding capitalists fight to retain the federal state structure of Yugoslavia as the best means for advancing their interests in the struggle to secure imperialist investments, the emerging national cliques in the republics of Croatia and Slovenia consider that their most advantageous road to capitalist restoration and integration into the imperialist world market is a break from the federation.

This is the basis of the civil war which has now erupted.

As each of the rival national cliques moves to complete the restoration of capitalism, so it cynically whips up national hatreds and communal antagonisms in a desperate attempt to split the working class and divert the rising anger over steadily worsening economic conditions.

In Serbia, the Bonapartist Milosevic and the Stalinist apparatus which he heads utilize nationalist demagogy to incite attacks against both the Albanian minority in the province of Kosovo and against Croatians.

Croatia is ruled by the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, headed by former Stalinist leader Franjo Tudjman who has appealed for United Nations intervention into Yugoslavia.

His semi-Bonapartist regime has conducted a ruthless attack on democratic rights while whipping up ethnic hatreds. State enterprises have been given the power to fire non-Croats who refuse to sign loyalty oaths, and on Croatian television Serbs are referred to as “Eastern barbarians” bent on aggression.

Tudjman, who was the youngest general in the CP-led partisan movement in World War II, now invokes the memory of the fascist regime set up by Ante Pavelic in 1941 under the Nazi armies. The Pavelic regime carried out mass murder of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, exceeding even the atrocities committed by Hitler’s SS.

Slovenian President Milan Kucan, who proclaims himself a “democrat” and is actively working to involve the European imperialist powers directly in the crisis, is a former president of the Slovene Communist Party. He rose through its ranks by organizing purges of so-called “liberals” in the 1970s. Like his fellow Stalinist bureaucrats throughout Eastern Europe, Kucan has carried the program of Stalinism to its logical conclusion by openly espousing a program of capitalist restoration.

Kucan’s policy is to transform Slovenia, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a virtual semicolony of Austria in which he and his fellow bureaucrats and capitalists would function as the representatives of their new imperialist masters.

The Yugoslav economy is on the brink of collapse. National production has plunged in the past 18 months. There is no effective federal budget, no control over spending or even over the money supply. Workers go unpaid for months.

The federal Social Accounting Agency has reported that one-third of all Yugoslav enterprises, employing two million people, are insolvent.

The rise of nationalist sentiment does not reflect the intrinsic power of such reactionary ideologies, but is an expression of the deliberate manipulation by all sections of the ruling bureaucracy of the anger, fears and frustration of wide layers of the population about disintegrating living standards.

To defend their own power and privileges, the ex-Stalinists turned bourgeois nationalists are prepared not only to sacrifice every gain of the Yugoslavian revolution but to plunge the country into a civil war which could claim the lives of hundreds of thousands.

The rise of nationalism is the most acute expression of the crisis of leadership of the working class. An independent movement of the working class advancing its own solution to the crisis would see the rapid demise of all the reactionary nationalist demagogues.

The eruption of civil strife within Yugoslavia has provoked feverish intrigues and maneuvers by every section of world imperialism. Italy and Austria have both announced the mobilization of their armies on the Yugoslav border. Both countries have centuries-old claims on Yugoslavian territory dating back to the days of the Hapsburg monarchy and even the Holy Roman Empire. The present crisis has whetted the appetite of these imperialist powers.

Even more striking is the emergence of German imperialism as an open and enthusiastic proponent of “self-determination” for Slovenia and Croatia. Volker Ruehe, the general secretary of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, expressed the ambitions of the German ruling class by linking the issue to the country’s recent unification. Germany was “morally” obliged to back Slovenia and Croatia, he declared, because “we achieved the unity and freedom of our country through the right to self-determination.”

As the crisis has unfolded, the spokesmen for the German bourgeoisie have spoken in an increasingly violent tone about Yugoslavian actions against the secessionists. When the federal army sent a large column toward Croatia and Slovenia, German Foreign Minister Genscher declared that the military had “gone mad,” and added menacingly, “We have to make these numbskulls realize they have gone beyond the pale of civilized behavior.”

The crisis has once again underscored the mounting tensions between Europe and America. When the crisis erupted, following the declarations of independence by Croatia and Slovenia, the initial response of US imperialism was to declare its support for the maintenance of the unitary Yugoslav state and its opposition to secession.

With the European powers seeming to gain influence by siding with the breakaway republics, the Bush administration has attempted to backtrack somewhat on its unqualified defense of Yugoslavian national unity, declaring that its principal concern is to “avoid bloodshed.”

This sanctimonious declaration by the spokesman for US imperialism serves as a mask for its own predatory interests in the Balkans. Washington fears that the crisis will become the occasion for intervention by the European imperialists operating independently of the US-dominated structure of NATO.

This is precisely the goal of the bourgeoisie of Germany, Italy, France and Britain. Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, one of the European Community’s emissaries to Belgrade, summed up the position. “This is the hour of Europe,” he declared. “It is not the hour of the Americans.” Italian Foreign Minister Giannis de Michelis said that Washington was being “informed, but not consulted.”

Meanwhile, the 35-member Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a body which includes the Soviet Union, agreed on Wednesday to send an “observer” mission to Yugoslavia to monitor ceasefire violations and troop movements. Significantly, the CSCE placed execution of this decision in the hands of the 12-nation European Community.

Thus, the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev has signaled that the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy has no intention of “meddling” in Yugoslavia or in any way opposing an imperialist intervention and carve-up of the country. As with all aspects of its foreign policy, the Kremlin bureaucracy subordinates itself fully to the interests of world imperialism, hoping that its collaboration will win it increased backing for its policy of capitalist restoration at home.

The working class must advance its own independent program to answer the crisis in the Balkans against the reactionary conspiracies of the imperialists, bourgeois nationalists and the remnants of the rotting Stalinist bureaucracy.

This program must be based first of all on the understanding that no solution can be found on the basis of redrawing national boundaries, or attempting to establish which nation is historically viable and which is not.

In fact, the historical significance of the crisis in Yugoslavia is that it demonstrates the bankruptcy of all forms of national organization. The working class must advance a higher form of social organization, based on the overthrow of the nation-state system.

This is the significance of the World Conference of Workers against Imperialist War and Colonialism to be held in Berlin on November 16-17 of this year. It has been convened in order to mobilize the working class on the program of socialist internationalism as the only way out of the crisis created by bankrupt capitalism. As the May Day manifesto of the ICFI explained, the crisis in Eastern Europe is only the most striking expression of the fact that no genuine democratic solution can be found for the problem of national self-determination within the framework of capitalism.

“The Fourth International,” the manifesto stated, “consistently and intransigently supports the demand for national self-determination wherever it expresses the entirely legitimate and inherently progressive desire to overthrow imperialist domination or end the suppression of the democratic rights or any national and ethnic group. But the Fourth International proposes to realize this vital aspect of its democratic program through the unification of the proletariat of all nations in the struggle for world socialist revolution. That means that the proletariat must push aside the reactionary demagogues of bourgeois nationalism and ennoble the fight for self-determination with the universal message of international class solidarity.”

The implications of the crisis extend well beyond Yugoslavia, and even Europe, raising decisive historical tasks before the international working class.

This century opened with the emergence of deepening conflicts in the Balkans, eventually providing the spark for the eruption of the first imperialist war in 1914. Now the 1990s open with the imperialist onslaught in the gulf and the eruption, once again, of war in the Balkans.

The imperialist war of 1914-18 marked the opening of three decades of bloody turmoil in which millions of workers died. Only in 1945-47 was imperialism, with the deadly assistance of Stalinism, finally able to bring the situation under control with the setting up of a series of mechanisms for regulating economic and political conflicts.

The containment of the national conflicts in the Balkans under the Tito regime was a crucial component of this postwar order. But it is not just the postwar order in the Balkans which has collapsed but the entire equilibrium of world capitalism, threatening the working class with the danger of being dragged into war—the situation now confronting millions of workers in Yugoslavia.

Only the International Committee of the Fourth International advances a solution to this crisis—the international unification of the working class and the overthrow of the outmoded and reactionary nation-state system by means of the world socialist revolution.

It is to organize this struggle and construct the necessary revolutionary leadership that the World Conference against Imperialist War and Colonialism has been called. We urge all workers and youth to build this conference and take forward the construction of the world party of socialist revolution.