International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

The Role of Imperialism in the Balkans

The Workers League is the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Workers League condemns the growing preparations for an imperialist military intervention into the Yugoslav civil war.

In August 1992 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution providing UN sanction for the use of military force, supposedly in the interest of providing humanitarian relief to the suffering population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The resolution was jointly sponsored by the three major imperialist powers on the Security Council—the US, Britain and France.

The UN resolution nominally limits military intervention to the protection of relief supplies, but the logic of any military action in the highly combustible region inexorably leads to a far wider use of force. As the Wall Street Journal remarked in an August 12 editorial, “Once the West has agreed in principle to military action, it is not a very big step to go beyond protecting relief efforts to protecting populations.”

Emergency meetings of both the US-dominated NATO alliance and the Western European Union, the military arm of the European Community, have been convened to discuss military intervention.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lieut. Gen. Barry McCaffrey revealed that the Pentagon is discussing plans involving the deployment of anywhere between 60,000 and 400,000 troops in the Balkans.

American workers must reject the barrage of war propaganda, lies and chauvinism from the politicians of both capitalist parties and from the big business media. It is necessary to grasp the real class forces and material interests which lie behind the drive to war in the Balkans.

The shelling of cities, “ethnic cleansing,” detention camps and all of the other horrors associated with the fighting in Yugoslavia did not fall from the sky. They are the inevitable result of the drive to restore capitalism and carve up the country along ethnic and national lines. Both of these processes have been actively supported and provoked by the imperialists as a means of furthering their own economic and strategic interests.

For more than forty years, Serbs, Moslems, Croats, Slovenes and other nationalities lived together in peace in Yugoslavia. The bonds which unified them were forged in the partisan struggle against Nazi occupation and the native oppressing classes, a struggle led by the Yugoslav Communist Party of Tito.

After the war, these bonds were strengthened by the nationalization of much of the country’s productive forces and the introduction of economic planning. While these measures were limited and fatally undermined by the Tito bureaucracy’s Stalinist perspective of “socialism in one country,” they nonetheless led to an unprecedented rise in living standards and the industrialization of what had been a predominantly agricultural country.

The privatization of these productive forces and the elimination of economic planning were carried out by the Yugoslav Stalinist bureaucracy under the direct supervision of the International Monetary Fund and the imperialist banks. These bureaucrats embraced the “market” and sought to transform themselves into capitalists as a means of defending their own power and privileges against the mounting opposition of the Yugoslav workers.

National chauvinism and ethnic hatreds were deliberately fomented by the ruling bureaucracy as a means of diverting the anger of the Yugoslav workers over drastically worsening economic conditions. Moreover, its dismantling of socialized production and the planned economy shattered the material foundations for unity between the various national and ethnic groups.

In the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, the crisis of the Balkans was the flash point for worldwide inter-imperialist conflicts which exploded in the First World War.

As in all nations with a belated capitalist development, the national movements in the Balkans emerged in the context of a world economy already dominated by powerful capitalist states. The bourgeoisie in the various Balkan states was incapable of completing the tasks of national unification and development. Bom politically impotent and rancid with chauvinism, its internecine disputes were deliberately manipulated and exacerbated by rival imperialist powers seeking to promote their own interests.

With the drive to restore capitalism, this same reactionary political framework is reemerging under even more explosive conditions.

In June 1991 German imperialism, which fifty years ago sent thirty divisions to the region in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Yugoslavia, once again showed its solicitous concern for the well-being of the Balkan peoples. It rushed to recognize the break-away republics of Croatia and Slovenia. The US, at that time, opposed the drive to independence, which it saw as a vehicle for the revival of German influence in the region. This was the point at which the civil war in Yugoslavia was ignited, beginning first in the bloody struggle between Serbs and Croats.

Imperialism is ultimately responsible for the present slaughter. When they threw their backing behind the breakup of Yugoslavia, they were well aware that the likely outcome would be a communal bloodbath.

As long as the south Slavic peoples were united, there existed some guarantees of peace and equal rights between different ethnic groups. The tearing apart of the country suddenly transformed different ethnic groups—in some areas Serbs and in others Croats—into foreign minorities in their own land, ruled by regimes which openly promoted chauvinism directed against them. The conditions had been created for a bitter conflict.

The ex-Stalinist bureaucrats and petty-bourgeois nationalist demagogues who are whipping up ethnic hatred on all sides are, in the final analysis, only junior partners in the execution of the policy of capitalist restoration and national dismemberment promoted by every imperialist power.

The drive toward military intervention is being prepared by a full-scale propaganda campaign centered on Serbian atrocities in Yugoslavia. Workers and those sections of the middle class which have not lost their capacity for critical thinking must not allow themselves to be swept along by the headlines and television reports on the bloodshed in the Balkans.

In their haste to intervene militarily, the representatives of the bourgeoisie cite “public opinion” and “popular pressure” for action in Yugoslavia. This is a patent hoax. The decisions on intervention are being settled by small cliques representing the most powerful sections of the ruling class.

Class-conscious workers cannot be indifferent to the immense suffering of the people of Bosnia, but neither can they afford to ignore the self-serving and sinister hypocrisy of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Atrocities have taken place on all sides of the conflict. They are the inevitable by-product of the attempt—backed by the imperialists—to divide Yugoslavia into its separate national groups.

Such atrocities have occurred wherever imperialist-inspired national divisions have erupted into civil war. Similar, and far bloodier, massacres, detentions and mass expulsions accompanied the British-engineered independence abortion in the Indian subcontinent, the Biafran secessionist movement in Nigeria and in civil wars which have long wracked the Horn of Africa.

What is behind the distorted and highly selective outrage over Serbian atrocities which is now being heard in every imperialist capital?

History has shown that the moral glands of imperialism secrete outrage only when they are stimulated by very definite economic and political interests. While a hue and cry is being raised about human rights in Bosnia, there is callous indifference to the suffering of the people of Somalia, where millions are expected to die.

The fact is the imperialists have already been building up for war in the Balkans. They are concerned with atrocities only as a pretext for a policy decided some time ago. The aim of such an intervention will not be to rescue the Bosnians nor curb Serbian “aggression.” It will certainly not be to bring peace between the various ethnic groups which once made up Yugoslavia. Of all the countries of the world, none is less in a position to give lessons on ethnic brotherhood than the United States of America.

None of the imperialist powers even pretends to have a solution for the crisis raging in Yugoslavia. They are dealing with a region which is subject to the most complex problems, the product of a convoluted history in which it served as a battleground for ceaseless imperialist rivalries and ethnic antagonisms. What is imperialism’s answer to such complexities? Tear the country apart and then bomb it!

The fundamental truth is that there are no solutions to the conflicts in the Balkans within the existing confines of the capitalist nationstate system.

This is not a peculiar Balkan question. All over the world ethnic and language disputes threaten to tear apart existing nation-states. Such conflicts have already severed Czechoslovakia in two and have ignited a series of bitter wars in what was once the USSR. Supposedly stable advanced capitalist countries, including Canada, Spain, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Switzerland, are by no means immune to similar eruptions. In the US itself, the bourgeoisie promotes virulent racism and works systematically to split the working class along racial and ethnic lines.

Incapable of putting forward a progressive solution to national and social crises anywhere in the world, capitalism in its death agony spawns national divisiveness and ethnic conflicts everywhere.

Any intervention by the US will be directed at promoting American imperialism’s domination of the Balkans and, ultimately, all of Eastern Europe. It will represent a continuation and escalation of the provocative actions of imperialism and will only serve to deepen the tragedy of the Balkan peoples.

The Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic has been targeted by Washington for much the same reason as the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was just two years ago. It has found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As with Hussein, Washington enjoyed a long and close working relationship with Milosevic. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as US ambassador to Belgrade from 1977 to 1981, returned to the US as a business partner of Milosevic. He became a director of the US branch of Yugoslavia’s second largest bank, as well as of Global Motors Inc., the US distributor of the now defunct Yugo auto company. Others in the Bush administration, including National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, enjoyed similarly close and personally profitable ties with the man now described as “the Serbian butcher.”

Despite this profitable relationship, Milosevic’s regime is seen as a potential obstacle to the imposition of unrestrained imperialist domination over the region. He is no opponent of imperialism and certainly no “communist,” as he is routinely described in the capitalist media. Nonetheless, the very existence of the Serbian army is viewed as an unacceptable impediment to the US dictating its will in the region. A primary aim of any intervention would be to destroy this military force.

Imperialist spokesmen, from former State Department official and New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb to Britain’s Tory ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, are advocating the bombing of Belgrade as the solution to the Yugoslav crisis. Such a campaign, just as in Baghdad, would result in massive loss of life and would mean the destruction of the country’s economy and infrastructure.

For many it may seem hard to believe that little more than a year after the end of the Persian Gulf war, Washington is fast preparing another bloody act of military aggression. In the past, such interventions abroad were accompanied by great political crises and controversy. Now they are becoming almost a routine event.

Not since Austria-Hungary delivered its ultimatum to Serbia in 1914, triggering the First World War, has imperialism behaved with such recklessness. It is not only the rush to join the horrifying bloodshed in the Balkans. Indeed, over the past weeks bourgeois journalists have begun speculating over whether US imperialism will first intervene in Yugoslavia or resume its war against Iraq.

For the whole past period, imperialism’s nature was partially masked by the so-called Cold War. The existence of the Soviet Union placed certain restraints on its worldwide activities. Now, in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, imperialism’s true face is reemerging.

This is the real content of the much-heralded “new world order.” The imperialist powers intend to deal with weaker nations and settle international problems as they see fit. Violence and intimidation will be used to create the political conditions for the unrestrained exploitation of the world’s resources and labor.

The massacres, interventions and “pacification” campaigns, which once were the stock in trade of the old colonial powers, are once again on the order of the day. It is not only a question of colonial-style wars. With such military adventures comes the ever-growing threat of an imperialist third world war, as economic and political tensions between the major imperialist powers steadily mount.

Nowhere is it written that the imperialist powers will always find themselves on the same side in these regional conflicts. While all of the major powers are presently denouncing Serbia, there are already clear indications of conflicting agendas in the Balkans.

There is an inexorable character to the rush to war in the Balkans. The imperialists are being drawn into an intervention by the logic of world politics. They fear, on the one hand, that the conflict which they themselves ignited will rage out of control, threatening to spread to other parts of the Balkan peninsula.

“If we do not take any kind of military action, the war will spread outside Bosnia. I have no doubt of that,” a NATO official told the Financial Times. “The next flash point is Kosovo. Maybe even in Macedonia.” Fighting in either of these two regions could easily draw in Albania, Turkey, Greece and other nations.

At the same time, rival imperialist powers are determined to impose a settlement which will serve their own interests. Even before the UN Security Council passed its resolution authorizing the use of force, separate meetings were called of both the Western European Union and the NATO alliance. There is no agreement on whether the all-European WEU or the US-dominated NATO will direct operations in the Balkans.

“There isn’t much chance of a let-up in this debate,” a NATO diplomat told Reuters. “Both sides know that whoever gets to take the lead on Yugoslavia will set a key precedent for the future. There’s too much at stake.”

What is “at stake” is which of the major imperialist powers will dominate the markets and resources not merely of the embattled Balkans, but all of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. An intervention in Yugoslavia will represent the testing ground for future actions throughout the region. For all the attempts of bourgeois pundits to dismiss the idea that the Balkans could once again serve as the spark for an imperialist world war, this is precisely the direction of events.

The developments in the Balkans have tragically vindicated the warning made by the International Committee of the Fourth International in its May Day 1991 manifesto convening the World Conference of Workers against Imperialist War and Colonialism in Berlin in November 1991. The ICFI said that the war in the Persian Gulf marked a new eruption of imperialist barbarism in which “all the great historical and political tasks that confronted the working class and the oppressed masses at the beginning of the twentieth century are now posed in their starkest form.” It further spelled out that, despite all efforts to suppress them, the fundamental contradictions of imperialism—between social production and private ownership and between the world character of production and the outmoded nation-state system—are building toward an explosion.

The drive to imperialist war has exposed the utter collapse of all the traditional parties and trade union organizations of the working class which base themselves on national programs. All of them have become transformed into direct appendages of the capitalist state and agencies of imperialism.

Everywhere these nationalist bureaucracies have led the working class into a blind alley. In Yugoslavia itself, the old Stalinist leadership plunged workers into a reactionary fratricidal war. In the US, the nationalist program of the anticommunist trade union bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO subordinates the working class to the interests of US imperialism and its preparations for war.

There are no differences within the American ruling class, nor among its servants in the labor bureaucracy, on the drive to war. It is striking that the campaign for military intervention in the Balkans has been spearheaded by the Democratic candidates supported by the AFL-CIO. Clinton, who, in August 1992 announced he would “begin” by bombing Serbia, now proclaims that he is prepared to use “all measures” in a Yugoslav intervention. If such a war begins, the bureaucrats will be its most enthusiastic supporters.

The international working class must reject the war policy of the two capitalist parties and the reactionary chauvinism of the union bureaucracy. It must unconditionally oppose any US intervention in the Balkans. The problems of this region can only be resolved by the Balkan workers themselves, together with the workers of all Europe and the entire world, in the struggle to put an end to the national divisions imposed and perpetuated by capitalism.

Only by fighting to unite its struggles across national boundaries can the working class defend its jobs, living standards and its democratic and trade union rights and defeat imperialism’s drive to war.

The renewed threat of war underscores the urgent task of building a new, revolutionary leadership based on the historic principles of proletarian internationalism and socialism. Only the International Committee of the Fourth International—and, in the United States, the Workers League—advances a program to confront this threat and resolve in a progressive manner the contradiction between the national state and world economy. This program is based on 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.