The Breakup of Yugoslavia

League for a Revolutionary Communist International (predecessor organization of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency), February 1999,



We refer readers to the introduction to our essay “Are the Bosnian Muslims a Nation?” where we explain the correction of our line in the first few months in the Bosnian War in 1992 (


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Imperialism has played, and continues to play a destructive and reactionary role in the Balkans and in the breakup of former Yugoslavia. But no revolutionary socialist can neglect to point the finger of blame at Stalinism too.

For forty years the "Communist" rulers of Yugoslavia, under the leadership of Tito, held the country in a bureaucratic vice. The working class was excluded from political power and economic decision making. Stalinist policies fuelled national hatreds and helped fuel the murderous wars that have tormented the region throughout the 1990s.

And rival nationalist bureaucracies built up power bases from which, after the death of Tito, they launched attacks on each other. They prepared the battleground. They are anti-working class criminals.


Yugoslavia under Tito: A Variant of Stalinism


Yugoslavia, after the Tito-Stalin split, experienced decades of the "market socialism" and economic decentralisation that Gorbachev vainly tried to introduce in Russia from 1985 onwards.

Indeed Yugoslavia was the pioneer of "market socialism". The Yugoslav economic stagnation and breakdown, which became critical in the mid-1980s, was a crisis of this system in extremis, rather than of the old Soviet model of "command planning".

Heavily in debt to western financial institutions, Yugoslavia witnessed a deep economic crisis in 1985. The debt totaled one third of the nation's gross material production. Between 1979 and 1984 real earnings fell by 30 per cent. At the same time inflation spiraled up to 200 per cent by 1988. Mass unemployment meant further misery for the impoverished masses.

The Yugoslav federation had become virtually a confederation after 1974, though with Tito as final arbiter. The bureaucracies of each republic were able to thwart and obstruct any centrally decided measures which harmed them.

Tito's system could not survive his death because no bonapartist arbiter could replace him. Indeed, a cumbersome revolving "collective presidency" was his legacy. This was a recipe for complete paralysis. Yugoslavia, like many "third world" countries, had been lured into heavy debt by the western banks throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In the mid-1980s the IMF decided it was pay-back time.

The monetarist recipe for Yugoslavia - as everywhere else - was austerity and "economic reform" (i.e. privatisations, closures, opening to western trade). Thus, when the federal bureaucracy was pressured by the IMF to adopt just such a package of "reforms", this led to waves of mass strikes and demonstrations by industrial workers both in 1987 and 1989. The response of the Serbian bureaucracy was to play the nationalist card.

The rise to power of Gorbachev in the USSR, and the deepening of the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika in 1987 had its influence in Yugoslavia too. In Croatia and Slovenia, existing dissident movements came into the open demanding democratisation.


Miloševićand Serbian Chauvinism


Within Serbia itself, democratisation manifested itself primarily in militant demands by the Albanian minority for full republican status within the Yugoslav federation. The response amongst Serbs was the famous memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences inspired, if not written by the father of the Serbian nationalist revival, Dobrica Cosic.

Cosic had specialised in presenting the Serbs as the victims of genocide, of a hysterical and self-pitying rhetoric which confused the real genocide carried out against Serbs by the Nazis and the Croatian Ustashe regime in the Second World War with the largely economically motivated movement of Serbs out of Kosova.

"The Serb is the new Jew, the Jew at the end of the twentieth century", Cosic repeated again and again. Cosic was only the foremost of a whole wave of nationalist writers who presented the Serbs as the victims of a conspiracy to rob them of their historic lands, of their statehood and eventually of their very existence as a nation.

But the only hard evidence they offered was the autonomy of the provinces of Vojvodina, which had large Hungarian and Romanian minorities, and Kosova, which had a huge Albanian majority. They also blamed Serbia's economic backwardness relative to Slovenia and Croatia on an anti-Serb alliance between all the other federal states, Vojvodina and Kosova.

The upsurge of nationalism amongst the Serb intelligentsia was skillfully utilised by a former bank official and then party chief in Belgrade, Slobodan Milošević. Beginning in 1986, he rose to power in the League of Communists of Serbia, stabbing in the back his former patron Stambolic and his clique.

After a famous visit to Kosova, where the Serb nationalists had started to organise mass demonstrations by bussing in Serbs from Serbia proper, Milošević realised that these demagogic mobilisations, with the implied (and sometimes actual) threats of street violence against his opponents, were the way to oust the old Titoite bureaucrats, grown fat on the plunder of the collective property.

He used demagogic calls for an "anti-bureaucratic revolution" against them. He was able also to criticise the federal liberalisation programme - although he did support economic liberalisation, albeit at a slower pace.

To the demands of the autonomous provinces for republican status in 1990 he responded with measures that abolished the provinces' existing limited autonomy in all but name.

When pressure mounted to hold multi-party elections in December 1990, he called a snap election with tight control of the media. The League of Communists was renamed the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and, shamelessly using nationalist demagogy, took 194 of the 250 seats in the Skuptsina (parliament).

But the opposition, tied to the IMF policies which would lead to mass unemployment, could not reach beyond the white collar and intellectual strata who valued "democracy" above social security and jobs because they assumed theirs were safe.

Through iron control over the media, thuggish police methods, and an astute playing off of extreme nationalist and liberal democratic forces within the opposition, Milošević ensured that no effective electoral rivals emerged.

Whenever discontent with the regime reached boiling point and spilled over onto the streets, Milošević stepped up or initiated a crisis which enabled him to play the national-chauvinist card.

And since all the major forces in the opposition, whether on the fascist right (the Radical Party of Vojeslav Seselj) or the supposedly pluralist "left" (the Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Draskovic), also banged the nationalist drum, chauvinism began to poison large swathes of Serbian society.

Milošević's resistance to a multi-party political system in Serbia and at a federal level stopped the latter re-legitimising itself by national elections.


The Collapse of Yugoslavia


The federal government thus had no mandate for its economic reforms. In a tit-for-tat action the other republican leaders refused to sanction Serbian repression in Kosova. Deepening divisions along these lines led to the collapse of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990 and, over the next 12 months, the federation too, as the republics declared sovereignty and forced the withdrawal of the federal army - because of its predominantly Serbian character.

In Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, what in the rest of East and Central Europe developed into an anti-bureaucratic democratic revolution was transformed, or rather subsumed, into struggles for national independence and/or the extension of dominance over other nationalities. In Serbia mass strike waves by workers resisting the first attempts at restorationist reforms were headed off by Milošević's national chauvinist course.

In November 1988 Workers Power wrote:

"… the Serbian Communist Party has embarked on a pogromist crusade to end the partial autonomy of both Kosova and Vojvodina. At its forefront has been Serbian party leader Slobodan Milošević . . . [who] has authorised a series of anti-Albanian and Greater Serbian demonstrations in Kosova, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Macedonia. He is campaigning for Kosova and Vojvodina to be brought back under direct Serbian control on the road to building a Greater Serbia within Yugoslavia. His politics are quasi-fascist."

This proved prescient. Within a matter of a few years Milošević's chauvinism inflamed rival nationalisms in Croatia and Bosnia – rivalries which effectively destroyed the Yugoslav Federation and started the wars between and within its successor states.

Milošević's preventative counter-revolution and its rapid imitation by Franjo Tudjman in Croatia (albeit with an overt anti-communist coloration) aborted the unfolding of a political revolutionary crisis in the former Yugoslavia.

Instead, the masses were lined up behind the nationalist leaders and used as cannon fodder in the wars of the Yugoslav succession. While the "war" with Slovenia proved to be a farce, the following wars were tragedies.


Imperialist Powers: Rivalry and Joint Goals


Most importantly, they opened the door to direct imperialist involvement in the Balkans. Once again the rival imperialists saw the opportunity to use the Balkan nations for their own purposes.

The newly strengthened and assertive German imperialism, supported by Austria, had a different perspective to the US and to its major European partners.

With historic links and aspirations in Slovenia and Croatia, Germany encouraged Croat and Slovene separatism. Surreptitiously they armed the Croats, hoping to cut away these economically advanced regions and to bring them into a relationship with the German-led Europe as semi-colonies.

In contrast, up to June 1991, the US and its British shield-bearer tried hard to preserve the federation and blocked recognition of the seceding republics. So too did French imperialism, fearful of seeing the new German giant flexing its muscles so soon after unification. But the tide of developments was on the side of German strategy.

The Serbian Stalinist bureaucracy was not so intransigent and obdurate because it was defending the workers' historic gains, but because its survival in Serbia now depended on its espousal of the most extreme Serb nationalist claims and objectives.

The war between Serbia and Croatia ensured that Croatia became independent of Yugoslavia. But it left unresolved the problem of control of the Serbian enclaves in Croatia and Bosnia. Milošević's credibility hinged on his ability to impose Serbian control of these enclaves. And war was the only way in which this could be achieved.

The war with Croatia, therefore, was the prelude to the savage conflict in Bosnia. Milošević's goal was always the expansion of Serbia and the consolidation of its power.

To win, he had to do more than just fight. He had to clear whole areas of their existing populations so as to ensure total Serbian domination over them. The grim and criminal process of ethnic cleansing began.

Milošević's characteristic obduracy eventually convinced the US-Franco-British bloc that their unitary-state strategy was bankrupt and that there was no alternative to supporting the division of Yugoslavia.

They adopted the German plan to ensure the completion of the restoration process, first in Slovenia and then in a larger and economically viable Croatia.

This meant sealing off backward Serbia and awaiting the effects of economic crisis which they trusted would eventually bring the downfall of Milošević and the installation of a more pliable regime. They hoped to get a "democratic" fast-track restorationist regime that will do imperialism's bidding.

The Serbs' major crime in the imperialists' eyes was not that of the horrors committed by the Chetnik butchers or the army bombardments. It was their control over the rump of the Federal army, which enabled them to seize most of the Muslim-dominated buffer zone that the US and EC imperialists hoped to place between Croatia and Serbia.


The Genocidal War in Bosnia 1992-95


The break up of the Yugoslav Federation made a terrible war in Bosnia virtually certain, since it was a republic where each of the three main nationalities was a "minority" vis-a-vis the other two. The only force that could have prevented it was the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian proletariat.

Indeed, in the years 1989-91, the vanguard elements of the working class, together with the progressive intelligentsia and youth tried to do just this in the form of peace movements in all three countries. The final and tragic attempt was the great demonstration of 1992 in Sarajevo.

What this revealed was that pacifism alone, no matter how honourable its intentions are as against the chauvinist warmongers, is too limited and reactive. To stop war it was necessary to drive the warmongers from power.

A revolution was needed in all three republics to remove the Miloševićs, Tudjmans and Izetbegovics (the leader of the Muslim party in Bosnia). Its aim could only have been achieved by ensuring a voluntary and equal federation with full rights for all minorities and the preservation of a planned economy, but this time under the democratic control of the working class.

Instead of this Bosnia was plunged into war. All three forces – Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim – sought to enforce a reactionary nationalist settlement on minorities that had no wish to be incorporated.

The Bosnian Muslim leader Alia Izetbegovic's aim was to preserve the unity of the Bosnian state in an alliance with the Croat nationalists, backed by imperialism, who extended diplomatic recognition to the republic. Such a unitary state included the Serb minority against their wishes, and so threatened them with national oppression.

But a sudden shift in US imperialism's strategy towards accepting the German plan for the break up of Yugoslavia, a turn by the Croatian government against the Bosnian Muslims in order to carve out a "historic Croatia", and a ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in eastern Bosnia by the "Yugoslav Army" and Serbian irregulars transformed the conflict into a reactionary war of annihilation against the Muslim people of Bosnia by the Serbs and Croats.

By August 1992 there were 50,000 dead and 2 million refugees. Where the working class was strongest - in cities like Tuzla and Sarajevo - multi-ethnic militia fought the pogromists in an alliance with the Bosnian army.

Milošević's objective of a Greater Serbia meshed with Tudjman's project for a "historic" Croatia. Indeed there is considerable evidence that the Bosnian War was a joint effort, once fighting had ceased in Slavonia and Krajina.

This clashed with imperialism's plans to stabilise the Balkans since they saw beyond this a further war in Kosova and maybe in Macedonia too. This held the danger of Greek, Bulgarian and even Turkish intervention a real pan-Balkan war involving NATO allies on opposite sides.

Between 1991 and the end of 1994 the number killed in Croatia and Bosnia was anything between 200,000 and 400,000 people, with 2.7 million people turned into refugees. Late in the war the uselessness of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) was demonstrated in the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica.

When the Serbs attacked, the Dutch Unprofor "protectors" pressured the Bosnian forces to surrender and then withdrew allowing the city to fall. Thirty thousand women, old men and children made their way by bus and on foot to Tuzla. But some 10,000 young men were rounded up and "disappeared".

Then the Serb forces under Ratko Mladić started an intensified bombardment of the besieged capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo. The prospect of its fall finally persuaded the US and the EU to undertake some (thoroughly useless) bombing of Serb artillery sites. They scored a direct hit on some tents and one armoured car!


The reactionary Dayton Agreement


What really ended the war was a massive Croatian offensive on the Krajina and a simultaneous, coordinated offensive by the Bosnian forces. Milošević and the Bosnian Serbs – for the first time in a position of strategic weakness were now willing to consider the western plans for partition that a series of international figures such as David Owen had submitted over the past three years.

The Bosnian war ended with the cease-fire of 10 October 1995 and the Dayton peace accords on 20 December. Sonorous pledges to a "united and sovereign Bosnia" were made; freedom of movement for civilians, a reversal of "ethnic cleansing" and the return of refugees to their homes were all promised. In fact only about 250,000 of the 2.5 million displaced Bosnians have returned to their homes.

The largest groups of displaced population, the Bosniaks of Eastern Bosnia, the Serbs of the Krajina and the Croats of northern Bosnia stand no chance of being allowed to resettle.

Two entities were recognised at Dayton; the Republica Srpska and the Bosnian Muslim-Bosnian Croat Federation (formed under US pressure in Washington in March 1994).

But the two parts of the federation are not one state. The federation army, trained and equipped by the Americans is strictly divided into three Muslim and two Croat divisions. In Mostar, despite repeated attempts, the Croat chauvinists will not allow freedom of movement for Muslims.

The International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague has only managed to indict 74 people, arrest eight and try one. The Republica Srpska has a new president but behind the scenes Karadžić still has considerable power.

Their only substantive concession has been withdrawal from the Serb suburbs of Sarajevo in February 1996, but true to their principle that Serbs can only live under a Serb government they emptied these districts of their entire Serb population. As one historian observed:

"The Dayton agreement stopped the war before any of the three warring parties had achieved their political goals. It recognised the nationalist goals of all three governing parties, legitimised the ethnic principle of rule and completed the aim of the war to change the geographical distribution of the population to make national control over territory irreversible."

Only one of the direct parties to the war - the Bosnian Muslims under Alia Izetbegovic - actually signed Dayton. The Croats of Herzeg-Bosna and the Serbs of the Republica Srpska both refused to sign. They were "signed for" by Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milošević.

The minimal carrying through of Dayton on the Bosnian Serb and Croat sides is totally dependent on Milošević and Tudjman. Hence imperialism's tacit support for Milošević and Tudjman will last as long as both are needed to implement Dayton.


Misery after the War


The post-war situation in Serbia was a dire one. There was 60% unemployment and inflation was running at 50% per month. The gross external debt was $9bn. There were 700,000 war refugees from Krajina, Slavonia and Bosnia. Milošević's old slogan "All Serbs in One State" was coming true but in a way the Serb population had never dreamed of. In Milošević's ten years of power the average income had more than halved in real terms.

The local elections held on 17 November 1996 were won by the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together) in Belgrade and fourteen other towns - among them Nis, the second city in Serbia. Protests were initiated by the students of Belgrade and the masses responded.

There were daily demonstrations of up to 200,000 in Belgrade and in Nis and other major towns. But according to western commentators "noticeable was the absence from the streets of Serbia's workers, of organised labour".

The reasons for this were clear. Zajedno was a coalition of human rights activists, reactionary anti-communist nationalists and advocates of fast track restoration. Such a programme cannot win the organic support of all the students, let alone draw in the Serbian working class.

But at the same time it was clear that Milošević could no longer mobilise the workers against the opposition either. On 24 December the Serbian Socialist Party tried to stage a rival rally at the same time and in the same place as Zajedno.

It had boasted that 500,000 would turn out. In the event only 40,000 showed up. An OSCE mission of investigation, agreed to by Milošević, found in favour of the opposition in 14 out of the 15 results challenged. Milošević pledged 1997 as "a year of reforms" that would take Serbia towards a market economy and see "huge investments".

Promise of foreign investments, however, came at a price. In his last months as Britain's foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind persuaded Milošević to accept the Zajedno leaders into the government.

Vojeslav Seselj was made deputy president and Vuk Draskovic appointed deputy prime minister. Even Zoran Djindjic - who is linked with Radovan Karadžić, the bloody butcher of Bosnia - has been brought into Milošević's inner circle.

The shoring up of the Serbian government was necessary to head off workers' strikes and demonstrations over wages, jobs and conditions. Inevitably, however, it brought war with Kosova closer. In spring 1998 the Yugoslav Army moved into Kosova to flush out the UCK units.

After some initial setbacks, the war took a turn in late summer through to the cease-fire in October 1998, with the Serbian forces going on an ethnic cleansing offensive to clear out the north and east of Kosova - where the mineral-rich mining towns and all the major cities are.

By January 1999, Milošević, now accompanied by all the nationalist oppositionists as well as the major genocidists from the Bosnian war, the notorious fascist Arkan and the destroyer of Srebrenica, Ratko Mladić, was ready to restart the war. This time, his aim was to drive the Albanian majority out of Kosova once and for all.