Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Europe's bloody war

Air strikes by NATO forces against the Bosnian Serbs show how deeply the West is prepared to intervene in the war raging in former Yugoslavia. Lindsey German looks at recent events and argue why the left should not take sides.
Serb refugees: Does anybody care?

The summer months have seen a deadly turn in the course of the war in former Yugoslavia. The picture painted only a couple of months ago was of besieged Muslims in the so called safe areas pounded by the Bosnian Serb aggressors.

Croatia's invasion of the Serb populated Krajina has changed all that, forcing up to 200,000 Krajina Serb refugees to flee to Bosnian Serb areas or even to Serbia, in a process described by the United Nations as the largest amount of ethnic cleansing since present hostilities began four years ago.

The real forces behind the war are becoming more obvious as time goes on. Croatia launched its invasion after making a formal military pact with Bosnia and with the tacit agreement of Germany and especially the US. The US ambassador told Croatia's president Tudjman that the war had to be a 'short and clean battle', and the US was centrally involved in brokering the peace deal with Bosnia.

As the Financial Times reported:

The US Congress decision to lift the Bosnian arms embargo and NATO's most recent use of air strikes against Bosnian Serbs have further fuelled the threat of all out war developing far beyond the borders of Bosnia.

The continued Western intervention plus the formal alliance between the two states of Croatia and Bosnia gives the lie to the two notions so beloved of the British media: that the Serbs are the sole aggressors in this war and that it is simply an internal dispute between different ethnic groups of whom the Serbs are by far the worst.

In fact, the war is about the repartition of the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic cleansing has been sanctioned by all the major powers and where it is practised by all three sides in the conflict. The victims of this bloody war--the dead, the orphaned, the refugees--are from every nationality.

Croatia is trying to take back land that it lost in 1991 when it declared its independence from Yugoslavia. The strongly nationalist Serb area of Krajina then resisted breaking away from Serbia, fearing the repressive Croat nationalist regime would discriminate against it. Since May, when Tudjman's forces invaded Western Slavonia, the attack on Krajina has been on the cards.

There is confidence among Croatia's rulers that the West will do nothing to stop its army running roughshod over the Serbs, despite the murmurs of protest at the invasion. As the Independent said:

The Western powers are hoping that repartition enforced by the Croats can stop the war in Bosnia--although at massive cost to the various populations. The cynicism of the outside powers is obvious. They are prepared to back ethnic cleansing and partition if it makes the area more 'stable'. But it is a very dangerous game for the West to play--a fact that Western leaders themselves are aware of. Hence the divisions between them, and the reluctance of particularly the British and French to commit too many troops to the area.

It is all too possible that Serbia can be dragged into the war, especially if Eastern Slavonia which borders Serbia is attacked by Croatia. Tudjman has already said he will attack the region, thereby putting pressure on Serbia's Milosevic, who so far has left the Bosnian Serbs to sink.

A full scale war between the Croatians and Serbia will not only be much more bloody than what we are seeing at present, but threatens to involve Russia on Serbia's side, increasingly unhappy with the US role backing Croatia and Bosnia. The likelihood of a full scale Balkans war, involving powers such as Greece and Turkey, is also greater than it was even a few months ago.

In such a situation it is very important that we understand what is at stake in this war and the attitudes socialists should take. The war arose out of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, when the ex-Communist leaders of Serbia and Croatia banged the nationalist drum in an attempt to divert discontent and strikes following the collapse of the economy. The independence of Croatia and Slovenia--backed by Germany and the rest of the EU--led directly to the war, with the Serbs fearing a Croat regime which used the symbols of the hated wartime pro-Nazi Ustashe, deliberately encouraged by Tudjman to bolster his support and win finance from right wing expatriate Croats.

Tudjman and Milosevic were happy to do a deal then to partition Bosnia between the two powers. Right from the start there was little to choose between the sides. Yet many on the left who now proclaim Bosnia the innocent victim took a similar view of Croatia in 1991. It was argued that the Croats were only acting defensively, were more democratic than the Serbs and indulged in less ethnic cleansing.

Today this argument is hardly tenable, but the status of victim has now been transferred to the Muslims in Bosnia. However, just as taking the side of the Croats in 1991 ignored the wider issues and the various outside powers involved in the war, so the idea of the Bosnian Muslim government as the innocent party in all this succumbs to the worst sort of single issue politics and fails to understand what is really happening.

The Bosnian government is a major player in this war, and indeed launched the war's latest phase earlier this summer. The Bosnian army is an increasingly professional and well equipped army, receiving arms from eastern Europe and Iran through Croatia, which takes its own cut. The backing for Bosnia by the great powers is increasingly strident, and its current alliance with Croatia gives it very substantial military forces.

It is claimed that the Bosnian government is more multi-ethnic but this is becoming less the case as the war develops. The Bosnians have also been involved in ethnic cleansing, for example in Zenica against the local Croats. According to a Dutch UN commander in Srebrenica, 'The Bosnian Muslims had burned around 200 surrounding villages' in July.

Croation soldiers with a familiar salute

The nature of the war makes it inevitable that the misery and atrocities inflicted on one group of people will be reproduced against other groups. This is the hideous logic which has been at work, and which now sees Krajina Serbs fleeing in large numbers from the advancing Croats. It is inevitable that we will continue to see Serbs, Croats and Muslims at different times both as aggressors and as victims in the war.

Any war of partition has this effect, as different nationalities are removed over often quite arbitrary boundaries. In Bosnia, where a third of the prewar population was Serb and a fifth Croat, all sides will be involved in the forcible removal of populations.

The point here is not to take sides, but to argue for a solution not based on intervention from the West, which can only make the situation much worse and will do nothing to help the beleaguered populations. Rather it is to say that the solution lies with the peoples of the region themselves. If they want to end the war, they have to begin to present a challenge to all their nationalist leaders which can begin to point the way to a peaceful--multi-ethnic--solution.


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