Yugoslavia Dismembered

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

Kit Adam Wainer

Yogoslavia Dismembered
Catherine Samary
Translated by Peter Drucker
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995
192 papges, $30 cloth, $16 paper.

FOR THE LAST five years, two U.S. presidents have tried to sell the public an extraordinary bill of goods about the former Yugoslavia.

Newspaper and television reports have also bombarded us with a montage of Slavic names, unfamiliar places, and hitherto obscure rivalries so dizzying as to leave otherwise thoughtful individuals with an impression of the Balkans as a confused mess, seething with irrational hatreds.  From such an emotional impression flow the seemingly more analytical formulas which reason that the various Balkan nationalities have always hated each other, that they have been at each other’s throats for centuries, that any project of peaceful cohabitation is hopelessly utopian.

The impressionistic story reaches its logical conclusion with Western military intervention.  Against the backdrop of hateful Slavs appear the NATO forces.  U.S. and European generals finally arrive on the scene with sufficient firepower to send the various belligerents to their rooms and stop the fighting.

There is no conspiracy among the media to confuse the public or even to support U.S. policy.  Nonetheless the effects of this type of reporting are noteworthy.  The public has been prepared to accept two conclusions which all serious scholarship rejects and which fly in the face of readily available evidence: that nationalist fratricide in the region is eternal, and that Western policy is designed to prevent ethnic cleansing.

This logic of events is not entirely new. In the early 1980s reportage of the Lebanese civil war was both confusing and numbing.  Not surprisingly so many leaped to the conclusion that the Middle East was populated with crazed killers, divided into an inexplicable array of factions.  By 1983 Western troops somehow managed to retain the public perception of “peacekeepers” even while U.S. warships shelled Lebanese targets and Israeli soldiers invaded Lebanese territory.

Ironically, the parallel is not lost on the suddenly soft- spoken critics of Clinton’s foreign policy in Congress.  The former Yugoslavia reminds many of them of Lebanon; Sarajevo conjures up images of Beirut.  The comparisons make sense, however, only in that in both cases television reports have been so confusing as to leave even doves grasping for stereotypes and western ammunition.  Other than that, the two crises have very little in common.

Catherine Samary’s project of debunking myths is thus a welcome one. In her “Yugoslavia Dismembered” she shatters important illusions.

How Was the Nation Constructed?

First she demonstrates that nationalist hatreds among the south Slavic peoples are not eternal.  In fact, the nations themselves are not fixed.  Quite the contrary, they have expanded, evolved, and redefined themselves according to historic and political shifts in the societies they inhabit.  Consequently, identifying what is a Serb, Croat, or Muslim is a far more difficult task than one might think.  They often live in the same areas and speak the same language (although sometimes with different dialects).  Samary explains,

A religious approach would emphasize Orthodoxy as the distinctive sign of Serb identity.  But not all Orthodox are Serbs (any more than all Catholics are Croats); and over time religion has lost ground on all sides …. The `Greater Serbian’ nationalist approach traditionally emphasizes the common language instead.  (But are all European Francophones `French,’ even in Belgium and Switzerland?)

The notion of `Serbness’ has in fact been widened or narrowed over the years in light of political factors.  In the nineteenth century, when Croat and Serb intellectuals hoped for a coming together of South Slav peoples, they worked on unifying the grammar of what they saw as two dialects of a single language.  Today on the contrary, in a period of crisis, people are working to create two languages, Serb and Croat, as far apart from one another as possible.”  (37-38)

Today nationalist differences are probably more a rationale for violence than a cause.  The Franjo Tudjman regime in Croatia, the Slobodan Milosevic regime in Serbia, and the lesser nationalist leaders in both countries and within Bosnia, have utilized the politics of national renewal as the ideological framework within which they have justified their aggressions.  Samary puts it well:

Against a background of crisis and of economic policies deepening the gap between rich and less developed republics [within the former Yugoslavia], war is not an `interethnic struggle.’ It serves the purpose of the dominant nations’ governments: to build nation- states over ex-Yugoslavia’s dead body, using ethnicity as a basis of legitimation and a pretext for grabbing resources-including territory.”  (80)

Probably the strongest chapter in Samary’s work is the fourth one entitled “The Bosnian Symbol.”  Under the old, Communist regime which lasted from 1945 through 1991, Yugoslavia consisted of six republics: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia.

The constitutional reforms of 1974 gave the republics greater autonomy and declared Bosnia to be a state of three equal peoples: Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.  From 1974 through 1991, Bosnia was almost a mini-Yugoslavia.  Within its borders lived different nations, none of whom formed a majority (although the Muslims held a plurality according to the 1990 census).  Many Bosnians lived in integrated communities, many in mixed marriages.

While the conflicts that have ripped Bosnia apart in the 1990s take on a national coloration, their roots are not entirely national.  Nationalist hatreds are often expressions of rural-urban conflicts.  The cities, which tend to over-represent the Muslim communities, have been the greatest beneficiaries of post-war economic development and industrialization.  Multi-ethnic communities have also developed more readily there.  The countryside, on the other hand, has developed more slowly and has been the home base of the most extreme nationalism.

“In the cities,” Samary explains, “it is “the most recent past” that has the biggest impact on people’s consciousness.  In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the most recent past “tended toward the creation of a multiethnic `Bosnian’ national community, content to live together.”  Nationalist logics were rooted in the poorest and most religious social categories and regions.”  (90, emphasis original)

Clearly, nationalist hatred is not a given and multi-ethnic communities are not utopian.  In the former Yugoslavia their success or failure depended upon concrete historical, economic, and political developments.

The collapse of the Yugoslav economy in the 1980s encouraged bureaucratic rulers in several of the republics to attempt to resolve their crises at someone else’s expense.  The more prosperous Croatian and Slovenian regimes broke off from the Yugoslav Federation in 1991, ridding themselves of ties to poorer republics they now considered burdensome.  The Serb leadership attempted to address its internal crises first by fighting to maintain the old Yugoslavia, and then by battling to expand Serbian territory.

Western Intervention

In this context, the “humanitarian” intervention of the West is a great tragedy.  Western nations and banks exacerbated Yugoslavia’s troubles in the 1980s by insisting that Yugoslavia implement austerity measures in order to pay off its foreign debt.

Today the great powers are terrified of a wider Balkan war and are intervening to contain the conflict within Bosnian borders.  Thus the United Nations and NATO forces have adopted a cynical realpolitik in which they denounce ethnic cleansing in words while enforcing it with deeds.

All of the various international plans for Bosnia, from the ill-fated Vance-Owen arrangement to the current Dayton Accords, codify ethnic cleansing.  In each scenario, Bosnia is to be partitioned along national lines.  The logic of this is to continue the population transfer processes in order to carve out contiguous territories dominated by the right nationalities.

How artificial are these new borders which carve up a mixed republic into ethnic cantons! Yet the enforcers of this round of ethnic cleansing are not the nationalist militias but the NATO peacekeepers.

In the meantime, the new peace also legalizes Serbian and Croatian land grabs.  Although written before the Dayton Accords, Samary’s work provides a good description of the ways and means of Western intervention.

“The flexibility of `principles’ results from the negotiators’ main concern.  They are not interested in the real people and problems involved in the Yugoslav crisis.  They have based their actions on the `governments that count’ [Croatia and Serbia-KAW] in order to `impose peace’ (that is, their order) in the region.”  (124).

Samary’s historical analysis is a welcome relief from the confused set of impressions one can collect from most other sources.  Furthermore, her insights provide a useful counter to the commonplace assumptions about what lies behind nationalist violence in the former Yugoslavia.  More importantly, they raise alarming doubts about the motives and methods of the western powers.

Kit Adam Wainer is an activist within the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and is a member of Solidarity.

ATC 64, September-October 1996