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The Left and the Balkan Wars
From the ISN.
There was a flurry of excitement some time ago about a controversial interview with Noam Chomsky in the Guardian. Chomsky himself strongly contested the account of his views given by the article, and in due course the paper repudiated it. Reading over the text, there’s little doubt that the journalist (Emma Brockes) was trying too hard to cause a stir – with the goal of scalping a well-known figure firmly on her mind, she lost the run of herself and delivered a sloppy, inaccurate and misleading piece. What many people lost sight of during the controversy, though, was the light it shone on a troubling problem: the persistence of left-wing stupidity concerning the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
If you want to trace the roots of this sinister idiocy, you might as well start with a bizarre political sect that began life as the Revolutionary Communist Party and published the journal Living Marxism. Many radical-left groups are described as “cults”, and often it’s far too harsh a label. But the RCP/LM crowd were and are as pure a case of cultism as you’ll ever find. In recent times, they’ve been courting notoriety by helping to produce fraudulent documentaries purporting to refute the global warming “hoax”.
Their first serious venture into the business of defending the indefensible came in the 1990s, when they accused Ed Vulliamy and ITN of fabricating evidence about death camps in Bosnia (Vulliamy, incidentally, cut his political teeth with the Anti-Nazi League at the time of the Lewisham demo in the 1970s). Their exposés of the abominable camps at Omarska and Trnopolje helped bring the world’s attention to the terrible crimes being committed against Bosnian Muslims by the “soldiers” of Radovan Karadzic and Radko Mladic.
ITN responded by suing, and won its case. There are legitimate points to be made about the use of the libel courts to settle matters of historical truth, but it’s impossible to sympathise with the Living Marxism crowd. They have since moved onto fresh, financially rewarding pastures, making the journey from far left to far right without the least appearance of shame, and can still be found cheer-leading for their deceased hero Slobodan Milosevic in a broad cross-section of the British media. To paraphrase their one-time hero Trotsky, LM’s acolytes deserve only to be crowned with infamy, if not with a bullet: these self-important, reactionary vermin are mortal enemies of anything and everything the democratic Left stands for.
That should have been the end of it. But people with far more distinguished records have taken up the very same line, extending and amplifying it. Ed Herman is a well-known figure on the US Left: co-author of several books with Noam Chomsky (including their classic work Manufacturing Consent) and a star contributor to Z Magazine. He used that platform to mark the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre by publishing one of the most disgusting articles penned by a self-proclaimed leftist in living memory.
“The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre” regurgitates all the most poisonous lies of pro-Milosevic propaganda. Herman claims that the Bosnian government killed its own people in Sarajevo so that it could blame the Serbs. He describes the same government as an ally of Osama Bin Laden: the sort of pathetic slander Herman would surely dismiss if uttered by the Russian government about Chechen separatists, or by the Israeli government against the PLO.
Most revoltingly, he devotes thousands of words to the task of diminishing the war crime committed by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica. He plays games with bogus statistics in the hope of discrediting the well-established figure of Muslim men slaughtered by General Mladic’s forces. Herman has the nerve to argue that the massacre was an act of retaliation for attacks on Serb civilians by Bosnian government forces, and claims that the men who were killed were mostly soldiers, not civilians.
He ignores or dismisses all the carefully-compiled evidence (excavations of mass graves, testimony of Bosnian Serb participants), while citing officials of the Milosevic government as if they were trustworthy sources. Tellingly, Herman quotes gruesome first-hand accounts of atrocities against Serb civilians committed by Croatian forces in the Krajina, but resists the temptation to include any similar eye-witness reports from Srebrenica (of which there are many).
The fact that Herman published his dreadful article at all says something: it would be hard to imagine him offering a similar whitewash of a massacre by pro-Indonesian death squads in East Timor or right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia and expecting his radical comrades to greet it with anything but horror and contempt. There’s a sordid strain of revisionism concerning the Balkan wars that has infected parts of the Left, albeit to varying degrees.
Noam Chomsky, for example, is no apologist for Milosevic, and acknowledges the reality of Chetnik war crimes in Bosnia and Kosova. But he has made a number of foolish, ill-informed comments about the subject: giving credence, for example, to the claim that the butchery at Srebrenica was in some way a response to Muslim atrocities. If Chomsky really knew what he was talking about, he would understand that Serb forces began killing Muslims in eastern Bosnia long before there was any “provocation”. He has also appeared to endorse some of the claims made by Living Marxism – although in a frustratingly ambiguous manner.
Perhaps most damagingly, the celebrated academic signed his name to a letter in support of another apologist for Serb nationalist crimes, Diana Johnstone – along with John Pilger, Tariq Ali and others. The letter described her book Fool’s Crusade as an “outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.” If it was simply a question of defending Johnstone’s right to express her views, there would have been no need for such a hymn of praise.
Almost certainly, Chomsky would defend the right of a vulgar apologist for Israeli crimes against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians to express himself or herself: his record as a defender of free speech is consistent enough to show that. But it’s hard to imagine that he would do so by praising the “outstanding work” of anyone who sought to whitewash the record of Zionist atrocities. Such indiscretions (to put it charitably) left him exposed to the hostile Guardian interview.
What lies behind this widespread blindness? For anyone familiar with even the bare out-lines of the conflict, it’s hard to explain. No matter what way you look at it, no matter what criticisms you make of the other players (and there are plenty to be made, of course), there’s no avoiding the conclusion that Slobodan Milosevic and his allies were the main culprits in the wars of the 1990s. Milosevic ensured the break-up of Yugoslavia by taking over the Serbian Communist Party and adopting extreme Serb nationalism.
The other republics of the Yugoslav federation then had a simple choice: to accept Serbian dominance or to declare independence. To be sure, the Croatian government of Franjo Tudjman was an unpleasant, right-wing nationalist regime, which committed its own war crimes. But Milosevic came to power and tried to impose Serbian hegemony well before Tudjman took the reins in Zagreb.
In the case of Bosnia, there is no room for doubt: the local allies of Milosevic broke away from the Sarajevo government with his aid and encouragement, then set about consolidating their mini-state with a campaign of mass murder. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians were killed, horrendous death and torture camps were established, women were raped, mosques and libraries were destroyed. It was nothing less than an attempt to wipe out the presence of the Bosnian Muslims in their own country.
How anyone can look at these well-documented facts and conclude that Milosevic and co. were the victims of the story is almost beyond comprehension. The revisionist school of thought seems to reason backwards from the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. Because the imperialist powers of the West eventually went to war against Milosevic, it stands to reason that they must have had it in for him from the start. From this dubious claim, it’s a short jump to outlandish stories about a western capitalist plan to break up the Yugoslav state, against which Milosevic took a brave stand.
The flaws in the logic are not hard to discern. The US and its allies fell out with Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, fought a war with him the following year, then isolated his regime for the next decade before finally overthrowing him in 2003. Does this mean that the relationship between imperialism and the Ba’athist dictatorship was always hostile? Of course not, as the lengthy story of collaboration between western governments and the Butcher of Baghdad will show.
Equally, there is no evidence to back up the claim that the major western powers were determined to get Milosevic from the very start. In fact, the record shows that they pandered to his regime for years. The most important western intervention in the Bosnian war was a huge boost to the Bosnian Serb forces: by imposing an arms blockade, the West merely punished the Bosnian government, denying it the opportunity to buy the weapons it needed to defend its people against Serb aggression.
The killing machine organised by General Mladic had no such problems, with a generous supply of tanks, artillery and APCs from Belgrade. When the practical results of the arms embargo were pointed out to the British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, he derided the idea that it would be right to establish a “level killing field” - not even troubling to hide the implication that he preferred an unbalanced killing field, with the Muslims of Bosnia abandoned to racist butchery. The fact that NATO governments belatedly decided that Milosevic was too much of a threat to Balkan stability and went to war with him over Kosova does not erase the record of appeasement throughout the Bosnian conflict.
BLAMING THE VICTIMS
Nor can the character of the Bosnian government explain the reluctance to identify Serbian culpability. As we have noted already, the Tudjman regime in Croatia was hardly likely to endear itself to any socialist: Tudjman was a mirror image of Milosevic, guilty of his own atrocities. In fact, the two leaders quietly agreed to carve up Bosnia between them. But the government in Sarajevo was democratic and multi-ethnic – it was flawed of course, but it was the only force in the conflict taking a stand against racism and ethnic cleansing, and it deserved support.
How many times have we heard people saying, regarding Palestine or Lebanon or Iraq, that we can’t expect a perfect resistance movement, with the best possible left-wing programme, to take shape before we offer solidarity to people struggling against oppression? The argument is solid (as long as it’s not taken as an excuse to abandon critical thought). And it applied with particular force in the case of Bosnia. When people were being killed in the most horrific way because their ancestors found the ideas of Mohammed more congenial than the teachings of the Orthodox Church, a government that included Muslims, Serbs and Croats at all levels was something worth defending.
The anti-imperialist Left has become very sensitive to the question of Islamophobia in the last few years. With that awareness, they should have no trouble understanding that Bosnia in the 1990s represented the cutting-edge of Islamaphobia in modern European history. The Chetnik forces put the racist fantasies of Jean-Marie Le Pen or the British National Party into practice, dynamiting mosques and driving out Muslims with murder and rape as their chief weapons.
It should really have occurred to people who have spent years condemning Israeli abuses that there was something very familiar about the pro-Serbian arguments. Because the Serbs were the victims of terrible oppression during the Second World War, they could do no wrong, and their opponents were latter-day Nazis. The Muslims of Bosnia were all primitive fanatics (just take Ed Herman’s vile article, replace “Serb” with “Jewish”, “Bosnian” with “Lebanese” and “Srebrenica” with “Sabra and Chatila” – you’ve got a bog-standard apologia from the Zionist ultra-right). Anyone who condemned the actions of Milosevic or the Bosnian Serb republic was guilty of “demonising the Serb people”.
The latter claim is one of the most pernicious arguments to have been used by so-called leftists. People who think about the world in terms of class, who recognise that state power is usually exercised in the interest of powerful elites not the general population, ought to recognise easily that you can hold a state responsible for terrible acts without necessarily blaming its people.
The primary responsibility for the crimes committed by Serbian forces in Bosnia and Kosova lies with the political leaders who organised the atrocities, and the soldiers and paramilitary thugs who carried them out. The Serbian people as a whole can be accused of failing to do enough (or anything at all) to oppose the murder campaign being carried out in their name - that’s a matter for their own conscience, there can be no question of punishing people who weren’t directly involved in war crimes. But this is not “demonisation”, by any stretch of the imagination.
When NATO finally went to war with Milosevic over Kosova, anyone familiar with the record of US-led military interventions was bound to be deeply sceptical about their humanitarian rhetoric. There was and is a strong case to be made against that war. But it could only be made by those who condemned the system of apartheid imposed on the province by Milosevic and the vicious terror campaign launched in response to armed resistance by the KLA.
Just as it was correct for socialists to uphold the right of the Lebanese people to defend themselves against Israeli oppression, without signing up to the political programme of Hezbullah or condoning its attacks on civilian targets, it was necessary to defend the right of the Kosovar Albanians to resist Serbian oppression. This did not mean becoming cheer-leaders for the KLA or ignoring atrocities committed by its units.
Above all, the right of Kosova to self-determination should have been made into a foundation-stone for any left-wing view of the situation. The failure of many anti-war leftists to do so made it easier for NATO to win support. Socialists with a principled position in support of democratic rights for the Kosovars would have found it much easier to challenge the hypocrisies and deceptions of Clinton, Blair et al. The criminal attacks on Serb civilians in Kosova that have taken place since the war ended should of course be condemned – but not as a tactic to minimise the earlier suffering of the Albanian population.
The job of rooting out this distorted view of the Balkan wars has been made a little harder by the political trajectory of many of the left-wingers who took up the Bosnian cause in the 1990s: quite a few of them (Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Marko Attila Hoare for example) have ended up in the imperialist camp, supporting the invasion of Iraq and directing anathemas against the anti-war Left. It’s easy to imagine Ed Herman or Alexander Cockburn (another Milosevic cheer-leader) reading articles on Iraq by Hitchens or Cohen and patting themselves on the back, drawing a parallel between their “demonisation” of the Serbian regime a decade ago and their support for the neo-conservative agenda today.
But having taking up a pro-Serbian position is no guarantee of anti-imperialist conviction: if it was, we should have expected to find Ariel Sharon on the side of the Palestinians. As Robert Fisk has noted, Sharon used his position as Israeli foreign minister to condemn NATO’s war against Serbia, referring to “Islamic terror” in Kosova and warning “the moment that Israel expresses support … it’s likely to be the next victim. Imagine that one day Arabs in Galilee demand that the region in which they live be recognised as an autonomous area, connected to the Palestinian Authority.” The old war criminal clearly understood what was at stake better than many socialists: for him, it was perfectly logical to support Milosevic, and his own repression of the Palestinians was consistent with that support.
There was nothing inevitable about the path trodden by Hitchens and others like him. The fact that many people who explained and defended the case of the Bosnians were to be found in opposition to Bush and Blair shows this. Nor are the pro-Milosevic leftists entitled to be smug when they see their former antagonists on the side of the Empire. It’s likely that their own refusal to offer solidarity to the victims of Serbian nationalism played its part in the alienation of so-called “Cruise missile leftists”.
Of course, there are many issues in global politics today that demand the attention of the Left. The urgent need to challenge imperialist policies in the Middle East or Latin America might lead some people to believe that the Balkan wars are at best a secondary issue. But there are two compelling reasons for giving this matter due attention and taking on the disinformation campaign.
Firstly, it reminds us of the terrible mistakes that can result when left-wingers fall into the habit of simply putting a plus wherever imperialism puts a minus. Our anti-imperialist politics should be based on a firm commitment to democracy and human rights, otherwise they may become an alibi for new forms of injustice. If you want a current example, look no further than the confrontation between Iran and the US – anyone who denies the repressive nature of the Tehran regime in the name of anti-imperialism is just playing into the hands of the neo-conservatives, and betraying the true allies of the Left inside Iran.
Secondly, and most importantly, whenever left-wingers deny or diminish the crimes of the Milosevic regime, they encourage the most retrograde tendencies in Serbia and Bosnia, and cause even more pain for their victims. As the journalist Nerma Jelacic argues: “They should accept that their words lend credibility to radical nationalists who remain active in Republika Srpska and who are still calling for ethnic and territorial division in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They should understand how their continuing revisionism over the past still, today, clouds the future … of all Bosnia’s children.”
The goal of a democratic socialist federation of the Balkans seems almost hopelessly utopian at the present time. But it remains the best solution to the problems of the region. If it is ever going to happen, every dream of racist domination will have to be confronted and defeated by the peoples of the Balkans. With that in mind, socialists might well consider that the front-line of the class struggle in the former Yugoslav republics lies not in the factories or the mines, but in the neighbourhoods of Srebrenica, where survivors of the massacre have begun moving back.
They’ve endured hostility and threats because they don’t want to let the fascist thugs who killed their relatives win. Their courage in facing the dangers of the present and the ghosts of the past deserves our admiration. And the least we can do in support is to oppose every attempt to erase the memory of what was done to them by the Chetnik forces.
The following articles provide useful information about the Balkan wars, often from a left-wing perspective:
Eddy Jokovich - Bosnia-Herzegovina 'peace' accord a fraud
Michael Karadjis - Srebrenica atrocities: evidence of US complicity
Michael Karadjis - Kosova genocide: made in USA
Michael Karadjis - Is Serbia socialist?
Michael Karadjis - What is the KLA?
Michael Karadjis - Kosova: what remains after 'victory'?
Michael Karadjis - Kosova revisionists let NATO off the hook
Michael Karadjis - Reluctant Reply to John Pilger on Kosova
Michael Karadjis - Srebrenica still waiting for justice
Michael Karadjis - UN plan reinforces colonial rule in Kosova
Ed Herman - The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre
Roger Lippman - Srebrenica (reply to Herman)
Bill Weinberg - Why does Z Magazine support genocide? (reply to Herman)
Michael Farquhar - Srebrenica: anatomy of a massacre
Ed Vulliamy - Srebrenica: ten years on
Nerma Jelacic - Revisionism will cripple Bosnia's future
Ed Vulliamy - Poison in the well of history (commentary on the Living Marxism trial)
Nerma Jelacic - Revisionism will cripple Bosnia's future
Ed Vulliamy - Poison in the well of history (commentary on the Living Marxism trial)