NATO’s goals in Yugoslavia

First published: December 1999

NATO’s goals towards Yugoslavia are well established. Through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Yugoslavia had enjoyed rapid economic growth, industrialisation and relative political stability on the basis of three pillars. First, its planned economy gave it the possibility of a relatively independent path of economic development, not subordinated to more powerful outside imperialist powers. Second, its federal constitution, together with economic planning, united the great majority of its different peoples on the basis of almost unprecedented constitutional respect for the national rights and redistribution of economic resources from the richest to the poorest parts of the country. Third, its international position, as a non-capitalist state outside the Warsaw Pact at the height of the Cold War, allowed it to balance between east and west, being courted by both, and enjoying access to western financial credits.

This relative stability was smashed by two things. Firstly, the re-introduction of capitalism into Eastern Europe and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact made special relations with Yugoslavia superfluous for the west. Secondly, in these circumstances, having become dependent upon financial support from the IMF, by the mid-1980s the latter, with the support of the Yugoslav federal government, imposed economic reforms designed to open the way to the privatisation of the economy. This brought the economy to the point of collapse.

This provoked two different reactions within Yugoslavia – both directed against the federal government. In the two richest republics, Slovenia and Croatia, these policies had brought to the fore political forces which proposed pulling out of Yugoslavia, in order to stop subsidising the poorest parts of the federation. These forces co-ordinated their activities with German imperialism.

In Serbia, where massive strikes erupted against the IMF-inspired lay-offs and effective wage cuts, the reaction combined opposition to the economic reform programme with demands to increase the weight of Serbia within the federal constitution in order to change federal policy. This was logical, as although Serbs made up 35–40 per cent of Yugoslavia’s population, under Tito’s constitution designed to allay fears of domination by the Serbs, they effectively only had one seat out of eight in the Yugoslav federal presidency, with its two autonomous regions, Voijvodina and Kosovo each controlling their own federal presidential seat. So this reaction took the form of moves, carried out under Slobodan Milosevic, to reduce the autonomy of these two regions and regain Serbian control of all three of its seats in the federal presidency. This combined with agitation by the large Serb minority in Kosovo to reduce the province’s autonomy which took the form of a Serb nationalist movement, endorsed and ultimately led by Milosevic. The Albanian majority of Kosovo totally opposed these moves and thenceforth embarked upon a massive peaceful campaign against them.

Although Slovenian and Croatian nationalist leaders, echoed by the Western media, tried to use these moves to whip up fears of a plan for a Greater Serbia, in reality they always made clear that the motivation for their campaigns for independence was economic. In Croatia’s case, the spectre of a Greater Serbia was used to justify withdrawing national democratic rights from the Serb minority. Although national oppression of the Albanians in Kosovo was real, no-one seriously maintained that national oppression of Croats, Slovenes or Bosnian Muslims existed in Yugoslavia.

The Slovenian and Croatian independence moves were sponsored by, and co-ordinated with, Germany and Austria which aimed to break up Yugoslavia and integrate its two most prosperous northern republics into a new German sphere of influence in the Balkans. This was precisely the approach taken in the Balkans and Eastern Europe by Hitler and the same dynamic of fragmentation followed 1989 in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Although Croatia, with its 11 per cent Serbian population did not comply with the European Union’s criteria for respect of minority rights, Germany pressured the EU into recognition of its independence, and thereby precipitated the break-up which led to war, first in Croatia and then in Bosnia.

This was inevitable. If the Croats and Bosnian Muslims were to secede from Yugoslavia, then the large Serb minorities within Croatia and Bosnia – who had experienced real, not media manufactured, genocide under the independent Ustashe Croat regime during the Second World War – would wish, in the absence of the protection of an over-arching federal state, to exercise their own rights to self-determination under Yugoslavia’s constitution. Within Tito’s Yugoslavia, the weight of the Serbs within the federal presidency had been minimised, and borders drawn which left millions of Serbs outside Serbia, as a guarantee against the largest national group dominating the federal republic. But if the guarantee of equal rights constituted by a common federal state which recognised national rights, not only for republics but also for national groups, was withdrawn, naturally Serb minorities would seek a re-drawing of republican borders or, at the very least, autonomy within newly independent republics. The nationalist regime of Franjo Tudjman fanned Serb fears by reviving the symbols of the wartime fascist Croatian republic, deleting Serb rights from its constitution, purging the civil service and police of Serbs and rejecting all proposals for autonomy for the Serbian parts of Croatia.

Hence, the EU’s effective de-recognition of Yugoslavia, and refusal to support the right to self-determination of the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, together with Croatian and Bosnian refusal to accept Serb votes, led inevitably to civil war with the Serb minorities stranded within Croatia and Bosnia.

Within what remained of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, these Serb minorities within Croatia and Bosnia enjoyed overwhelming support.

This is the origin of the demonisation of the Serbs by the NATO states. They constituted the chief obstacle to the capitalist break-up of Yugoslavia, for the simple reason that it threatened not only their living standards, but also their national existence. If Yugoslavia was to be broken up, they had to be defeated – and if they were to be attacked this had to be justified to Western public opinion by their supposed crimes. This was facilitated by the fact that at the outset the Serbs, as the largest group, and the Yugoslav army as the largest armed force, could be projected as the aggressors against ‘little Slovenia’, Croatia, Bosnia. In reality behind these states stood forces immensely more powerful than any section of Yugoslavia – German and US imperialism. Under the influence of their own media, most of the Western left completely failed to see this reality and fell in behind the anti-Serb crusade.

The United States initially opposed German moves to break up the federation – as did France and Britain, who had no desire to see the Balkans transformed into a German sphere of influence. The original goal of the United States had been to introduce capitalism into Yugoslavia as a whole, and in one go as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, via the pro-American federal government of Ante Markovic. When it became clear that this was not going to happen, they accepted the German strategy of the capitalist recolonisation of the country a piece at a time via the sponsoring of its break-up – Balkanisation. But in order to thwart Germany, they developed their own client groups, the Bosnian Muslim leadership and later the KLA. They blocked every effort at a peaceful resolution of the Bosnian civil war, until the point where it had brought France and Britain, which had ‘peace-keeping’ forces on the ground, to accept NATO bombing of the Serbs, brokered a military alliance of the Bosnian Muslims and Croatia and re-armed and trained the Croatian and Bosnian Muslim armies to impose the largest possible defeat on the Bosnian Serbs.

The Yugoslav government tried to find a way through this situation. In relation to Slovenia, a relatively ethnically homogeneous republic, it rapidly recognised that the only way in which secession could be stopped would be by a war in which Slovene civilian casualties would be massive. It consequently prevailed upon the federal army to withdraw. In Croatia, it upheld the right to autonomy of the Serbian minority and the federal army was deployed to defend the Serb enclaves against the new Croatian military, until the point where EU and US sanctions pressured Milosevic to agree to the deployment of UN forces in the disputed areas. This resulted in a total clash between Belgrade and the Serbian leadership in Croatia who, presciently, had no confidence in the UN’s commitment to protect them.

In Bosnia, Belgrade initially supported the Bosnian Serbs who succeeded in carving out a large autonomous area within Bosnia. But, under the pressure of EU and US economic sanctions, which devastated the Yugoslav economy, and ultimately the American threat to bomb Belgrade, the Yugoslav government broke off relations with the Bosnian Serb leadership and imposed sanctions against them. US intervention to arm and train the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims and then bomb the Bosnian Serbs as the signal for a coordinated offensive against the Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia, then set the terms for the Dayton Agreement. This was signed for the Bosnian Serbs, who were excluded from the negotiations, by Milosevic, and sealed the fate of Bosnia as a joint EU/US NATO colony – within which the Bosnian Serbs enjoy the status of pariahs. Their elected leaders are regularly removed by the new colonial master – the EU/US appointed High Representative – and their television transmitters seized because NATO does not like their politics. In September 1999 Richard Holbrooke, the US rep at the UN, even called for the anti-NATO Serb political parties in Bosnia to be ‘disestablished by international order’ (International Herald Tribune, 15 September 1999).

Within Croatia, a blitzkrieg was organised with US support, which resulted in the largest ethnic cleansing of the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were forced to flee. The military commander of this operation, Agim Ceku, went on, with NATO support, to become the military commander of the KLA in Kosovo and has now been appointed by the UN governor of Kosovo to lead the so-called Kosovo Protection Corps – an appointment which does much to clarify how much credence should be given to Kfor statements supposedly reassuring the Kosovo Serbs that their rights will be respected. Dayton definitively established United States leadership of the imperialist intervention into the Balkans. This had been accompanied by a shift in the emphasis of the propaganda war against the Serbs. In Germany and Austria, the Serbs had been, and still are, projected as defenders of communist ‘dictatorship’ against Western democrats like the Croatian regime (sic). The US considers this approach ineffective. In the eyes of hundreds of millions of people in the world there are worse horrors than those of the Western-created caricatures of communism. Under US leadership, involving PR firms, the emphasis was shifted to transform the Serbs from die-hard communists (who came to power in a revolution against Hitler) into fascists. PR agencies invented analogies based on no evidence likening Serb crimes to the Nazi holocaust. This proved most effective in disorientating the left in the NATO states. Yet, it is in Croatia today that football supporters wave banners like ‘Serbs to Jasenovic’ (the wartime concentration camp).

Far from Milosevic being the champion of a Greater Serbia portrayed by western propaganda, he faced serious opposition within Serbia from political forces – including some of those now demonstrating against the government – which argued that he was selling out first the Croatian, and then the Bosnian Serbs, in order to ease the massive western pressure on Yugoslavia. Indeed, these divisions over how to defend the national rights of the Serbs, violated by the capitalist break-up of Yugoslavia is at the root of the West’s failure to construct a unified capitalist opposition within Serbia. Milosevic represents the bureaucracy of the Yugoslav state, which was created in the socialist revolution which was entwined with the resistance struggle against Hitler in the Second World War. Milosevic came to ascendancy on the back of vast Serbian popular nationalist mobilisations in what he called an anti-bureaucratic revolution aimed at increasing the weight of Serbia within the Yugoslav Federation, not breaking it up. He has again and again tried to reach an accommodation with the West – but none has been forthcoming because in the post-1989 world order NATO does not want peaceful coexistence with a non-capitalist Serbia. It demands the full privatisation of the economy and a government subservient to NATO.

Neither is the Milosevic regime the dictatorship of Tony Blair’s mythology. In reality, it is as or more (in relation to Croatia, let alone the NATO colony of Bosnia) democratic than the new capitalist states which have been carved out of the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Opposition parties in Serbia frequently control their own private television or radio stations, as well as newspapers – generally financed by the western intelligence services. Demonstrations are more frequent than in any other European state. The local and national government is the result of elections.

Indeed, as one pro-NATO, but exceptionally thorough, author put it reviewing Serbian politics in the 1990s: ‘Serbia under Milosevic was not a dictatorship in the totalitarian sense of the word. Opposition political parties, and civic organisations, continued to operate throughout this period, and the independent media continued to publish and broadcast’ (Serbia under Milosevic, Politics in the 1990s, Robert Thomas). He goes on to claim, bizarrely that: ‘These freedoms “granted” to the opposition groupings and media were, however, symptomatic of the strength of the ruling party and the authoritarian nature of its rule rather than its tolerance and belief in democratic practice.’

This so-called ‘authoritarianism’ is, however, defined basically as the non-capitalist nature of the country’s economy: ‘A democratic and pluralist polity, however, amounts to more than a functioning parliamentary system and an active political culture. Such a political system must be underpinned by the dispersal of power though the social and economic spheres’ (ibid). Translating this from academic jargon, it means that without private ownership of the economy, mere democracy is unacceptable.

Thus the real NATO objection to Serbia is that the pro-NATO opposition parties have utterly failed to win majority public support in democratic elections. The author already quoted argues feebly that this is, in effect, due to the lack of political sophistication on the part on the part of Serbian workers: ‘Milosevic’s support remained strongest among the rural population and industrial workers of Serbia whose political loyalties were determined more by the attraction of the “symbols of power” than by the merits of policy in the civic marketplace of ideas.’ In reality, it reflects their good sense and the inability of the capitalist parties to overcome their divisions over the negative consequences of the capitalist intervention into Yugoslavia for the social and national rights of the Serbs.

In fact, when non-socialist parties have cut into the support for Milosevic’s socialist parties, the most successful have been those who have criticised him for too many, not too few, concessions to NATO and the West. Thus the most successful non-socialist party is the most anti-Western party of all – Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party.

In Serbia’s first democratic presidential election on 9 December 1990, Milosevic won 65.3 per cent of the vote, compared to 16.4 per cent at that time for monarchist and Serb nationalist, Vuk Draskovic. In the parliamentary elections, the former communist Serbian Socialist Party took 46.4 per cent, compared to 15.8 per cent for Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Party and just 7.4 per cent for the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic – the NATO-sponsored leader of the post-Kosovo demonstrations against Milosevic.

In December 1997 presidential elections, the last prior to the NATO bombing campaign, the Serbian Socialist Party candidate, Milutinovic, won 43.7 per cent in the first round, compared to 32.2 per cent for Seselj and just 15.4 per cent for Draskovic. In the second round, the socialist beat Seselj by 58.6 per cent to 38.1 per cent.

In the preceding parliamentary elections, on 21 September 1997, the ‘left coalition’ around Milosevic’s Serbian Socialist Party had won 110 seats, Seselj’s Radical Party 82 seats, Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Movement 45 seats. This left the socialists short of a parliamentary majority and they formed a coalition first with the radicals and then, as NATO’s goal of war became apparent, also with Draskovic. It is a peculiar kind of dictatorship which only holds 40 per cent of the seats in parliament. The eventual bowing of the regime to opposition demonstrations against attempts to disallow some of the local elections which had been won by pro-Western opposition parties further reinforces that point. The socialists remained in power in Serbia, and the country remains outside of NATO’s orbit, because after nearly a decade of draconian economic sanctions and NATO-backed wars on its borders, pro-NATO political parties continued to fail to win significant popular support. Socialist election slogans included ‘Serbia is not for sale’.

Unable to overthrow the regime from within, NATO therefore continued its drive to use force and terror to impose its will upon the peoples of Yugoslavia.

The next stage of the NATO offensive was into Kosovo. Here, the peaceful opposition led by Ibrahim Rugova did not meet the needs of US diplomacy precisely because its largely non-violent nature provided no pretext for outside intervention. So the US and Germany started to promote, and covertly arm, the KLA which embarked upon a classic terrorist campaign of random shootings of Serbs and Albanian ‘collaborators’. This intensified from 1998. An international outcry was then orchestrated against Yugoslav military operations against the KLA, and the civilian casualties in their wake, depicted as the latest round of Serb genocide. The US ensured that every attempt at a negotiated settlement broke down by the simple expedient of assuring the KLA that they would ultimately be aided by outside military intervention.

The Rambouillet negotiations set the scene for this. The US authors of the Rambouillet document obviously understood that its terms would not be acceptable to any sovereign state. It called for a NATO occupation of Kosovo, a Yugoslav military withdrawal and free NATO access to the whole of Yugoslavia, including priority use of all ports, airports and roads. The Yugoslav refusal to accept this ultimatum, not ethnic cleansing – which the German courts, for example, acknowledged was not taking place in Kosovo before the bombing – was then the pretext for NATO military intervention. NATO’s demand was simple: full acceptance of the Rambouillet text by Yugoslavia. This would have given the US-led military alliance control not only of Kosovo, but also the ability to intervene directly within the rest of Yugoslavia.

Despite 78 days of bombing NATO failed to achieve these objectives. Indeed, this failure significantly weakened the pro-NATO opposition within Serbia. Notwithstanding the massive discontent of the population after years of war and savage economic sanctions, and now facing a winter with their infrastructure devastated by NATO bombs and missiles, the Serbian people show little sign of giving in and rallying around the CIA backed politicians trying to overthrow the regime. The army remains the most trusted institution in the country and its popularity has increased. This is hardly surprising, as following the experience of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, 52 per cent of Serbia’s population fear being driven from their homes – ethnically cleansed, as the Guardian would put it, if they were anything but Serbs.

These sentiments are reinforced by the events which have followed NATO’s entry into Kosovo. The ethnic cleansing of the Serbs and Roma amid daily murders, lootings and arson attacks by the KLA, the transformation of the KLA into the Kosovo Protection corps by the UN, and bolstering of the KLA as the government in waiting of Kosovo even though all polls show that their support amongst the Albanians continues to lag far behind that of Rugova. A Western survey of public opinion in Kosovo published by the International Herald Tribune on 18 October 1999 found that life under Kfor and the KLA has produced the following: ‘The political party formed by [KLA leader] Hashim Thaci… would be crushed in provincial elections at all levels… An opinion poll commissioned by a Western organisation found Mr Rugova favored over Mr Thaci by a 4:1 margin… A recent and less vigorous survey of 2,500 voters by an independent media organisation found that Mr Rugova would receive 92 per cent of the vote in a two-way race with Mr Thaci. And the rebels’ support in former KLA strongholds, such as the Drenica area in central Kosovo, Mr Thaci’s home base, has withered to single digits.’ Nonetheless, it is the KLA which Kfor has placed in power.

The colonial administration’s recovery plan for Kosovo includes the privatisation of its economy and slashing employment in the public services from 120,000 to 52,000 (Financial Times, 28 September).

NATO’s entry into Kosovo does not mean it will back off. The Serbian people are being told that their privations will increase until they bow to NATO’s will. This is the significance of the various statements at the time of the international conference on aid for the Balkans in Sarajevo in the summer of 1999. Carl Bildt, former imperial High Representative in Bosnia, explained that no reconstruction plan will work until Serbia can be included. By this he did not mean that Serbia should be aided in reconstructing its economy. He meant that NATO will not have finished its work until the Serbian government is overthrown and replaced by NATO puppets. If the economic sanctions do not achieve this, then future military action remains on the agenda. That is why the international left and anti-imperialist movements must campaign for the sanctions against Yugoslavia to be lifted, for economic aid to reconstruct the country and prepare for the likelihood of a new phase of NATO military intervention – quite possibly around a Western-engineered attempt to break Montenegro (and access to the sea) away from Yugoslavia.