Chris Harman

Thinking it through

No ‘liberation’ in Bosnia

(November 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.191, November 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The answer is not to back one lot of nationalists against their rivals, one sort of ethnic cleansing against the other. It is to stand for the unity of workers and peasants against the nationalist demagogues on both sides’

Socialist Review’s articles on Bosnia have met with hostility from many sections of the left. How can you refuse, they say, to support the national liberation struggle of ‘multi-ethnic’ Bosnia against the Serbs?

Such arguments reveal the degree of confusion that exists on much of the left. What has been tearing Bosnia apart for the last three years has been a three sided struggle between rival nationalisms.

The sociologist Laslo Skelj has traced the rebirth of nationalism to the reaction of Yugoslavia’s rulers to the student revolt which shook the regime in 1968. In a desperate attempt to fragment opposition to themselves, they encouraged nationalism among each ethnic group, with the central regime playing one nationalism off against another, while still imprisoning dissidents who took this nationalism too far.

The economic crisis of the late 1980s, a huge strike wave and the collapse of the other East European regimes, threw all the rulers into panic. In each republic they set out to divert developing class bitterness into a frenzy of nationalist agitation which left themselves secure.

Milosevic of Serbia pioneered this strategy, but Slovene, Croatian, Macedonian and Bosnian Muslim leaders were soon following suit.

The nationalism played a reactionary role everywhere. But it was particularly pernicious in regions where the different nationalities lived alongside each other. In the border regions of Croatia and in Bosnia the outcome was civil war.

Ethnically based states can only ever be formed in areas of mixed populations if one group imposes its supremacy on others. The horrific logic of this is intercommunal civil war and ethnic cleansing – the use of terror to drive members of rival groups from captured areas so as to secure them permanently. Atrocity then breeds counter-atrocity as the front line shifts and each side forces out potential opponents.

In such situations the answer is not to back one lot of nationalists against their rivals, one sort of ethnic cleansing against the other. It is to stand for the unity of workers and peasants against the nationalist demagogues on both sides.

It is not as if the Bosnian Muslims are an historically oppressed national group deserving special support. Under the Ottoman Empire, for centuries the ruling elite in the province was Muslim, not Serb. During the Second World War the Muslim upper classes collaborated with the Croat fascist Ustashe to oppress the Serbs, carting hundreds of thousands off to concentration camps. The Tito regime persecuted Muslim dissidents no more than any others, ensuring that every time a Muslim was imprisoned so was a Serb and a Croat. Only during the brief period between the two world wars were Muslims in any sense the underdogs in the Yugoslav kingdom.

Izetbegovic’s Muslim SDA sought to build itself with the collapse of Yugoslavia, as much as Karadzic’s Serb SDS and the Bosnian wing of Tudjman’s HDZ. Each saw its aim as being to advance the aims of one nationality at the expense of others.

So, as former BBC World Service correspondent Misha Glenny tells, where the SDA took control of local councils it sacked many Serbs and Croats from their jobs. When Izetbegovic built a paramilitary formation, the Green Berets, again it was recruited entirely from Muslims.

The only difference between Izetbegovic and the rival nationalist leaders was that he was in a weaker position, since Muslims amounted to less than half of Bosnia’s population and could not look to powerful external allies in the same way as the Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb nationalists.

Yet Izetbegovic made clear that he was prepared to go to war for a Bosnian republic in which his party would be the dominant force. ‘I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Hercegovina’, he told parliament in February 1991, and proclaimed national independence the following year after a referendum which the overwhelming majority of Serbs had boycotted.

The result was that the Serb nationalists and Milosevic’s government in Serbia proper found it easy to persuade most Bosnian Serbs to join them in a nationalist attempt to partition Bosnia. Just as Muslim nationalism demanded the setting up of Bosnia as a Muslim led state, so Serbian nationalism demanded the break away of a majority Serb state.

But this was only achievable by using terror to drive out Muslim and Croat populations from wide areas of the country. Soon the Croats were effectively doing the same in the Mostar-Vitez area, even while retaining seats in Tudjman’s government – and Muslim troops were retaliating in kind.

What is true is that the Serbs enjoyed military superiority for the first two years of the war and so most ethnic cleansing was by the Serb forces. Tudjman’s weak position forced him to talk of a ‘multi-ethnic’ Bosnia. This was at the same time as his party forced members of other ethnic groups from key civil service jobs and tolerated the Green Berets and other paramilitaries driving Serbs from their homes.

The US-Nato bombing of Serb positions and the arming of the Croats, and to a lesser extent the Muslims, by the US has now changed the situation. It is the Muslim and, especially, the Croat armies which are surging forward. The result has been the ‘cleansing’ of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the towns of the Croatian Krajina and north eastern Bosnia which the Western media virtually ignore while giving enormous publicity to atrocities by Serb troops.

Yet sections of the left treat the Croat and Bosnian armies as if they were ‘liberators’. In fact Tudjman, whose army has received most of the American arms and training, is clearly playing a double game – hoping both to seize Eastern Slavonia from the Serbs (with still more ethnic cleansing) and to establish his own dominance over a rump Muslim state in the US backed Croat-Bosnian confederation. Meanwhile, Izetbegovic is upsetting those Croat and Serb figures in Sarajevo and Tuzla who once believed his talk of a ‘multi-ethnic Bosnia’.

Last updated on 21 December 2009