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Origins of the War

Paul D’Amato

Origins of the war in the Balkans

The Collapse of Yugoslavia

(Spring 1999)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 7, Spring 1999, pp. 8–9.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AT THE beginning of 1991, two republics within Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia, declared their independence. This signaled the start of a bloody conflict over the question of how the former country’s borders would be redrawn.

Since its beginning, this conflict has often been portrayed as a product of centuries-old ethnic hatreds between the region’s peoples. But this explanation ignores the fact that the former Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic and multi-national state in which people of different ethnic groups lived peacefully. In fact, 25 percent of all marriages in the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) were mixed marriages between people of different ethnic groups.

The breakup of Yugoslavia and its descent into war has its roots in the economic crisis which gripped the country in the 1980s and the divide-and-conquer tactics used by Yugoslavia’s rulers. As the economic crisis spiraled out of control, Communist Party bureaucrats in the country’s constituent republics deliberately whipped up ethnic hatred as a way to re-establish their grip on power and to deflect popular working-class anger against years of austerity and collapse. The more each regional ruler turned to nationalist rhetoric, the more it fueled the nationalism of the others, creating a chain reaction that no side could control.

As British socialist Chris Harman wrote,

The economic crisis of the late 1980s, a huge strike wave and the collapse of the other Eastern European regimes threw all the rulers [of the Yugoslav Republics] into a panic. In each republic they set out to divert developing class bitterness into a frenzy of nationalistic agitation which left them secure. Milosevic of Serbia pioneered this strategy, but Slovene, Croatian, Macedonian and Bosnian Muslim leaders we re soon following suit, even if it meant abandoning the old ruling party for new formations led by one-time dissidents.

The nationalism played a reactionary role everywhere. But it was particularly pernicious in the regions where different nationalities lived alongside each other. And in the border regions of Croatia and Bosnia the outcome was civil war. This was not fortuitous or just the result of external meddling by Milosevic. Ethnically-based states can only ever be formed in areas of mixed populations if one group imposes its supremacy on others. And 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 breeds counter-atrocity as the front line shifts and each side forces out potential opponents ... [1]


The Balkan region is historically a patchwork quilt of different nationalities. But the region has long been a focal point for imperial rivalries. For centuries, the Balkans were divided between the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. In the years leading up to the First World War, two regional wars we re fought – one by various Balkan states against the Ottoman Empire; the other between the Balkan states over the division of the spoils. Hovering above all this we re the great imperialist powers – France, Russia, Britain and Germany. After each conflict, the international borders were drawn and redrawn under the control of these powers, without any reference to the interests of the local peoples involved.

The secret Treaty of London in 1915, signed by Britain, France and Russia, promised Italy large stretches of the Dalmatian coast (the western part of Croatia), Istria (part of Slovenia), a naval base in Albania and other territories to be taken away from Turkey – in return for Italy joining the Allied war effort. Though Serbia was an ally, it was never told about the content of the treaty. The treaty also promised the southern part of Albania to the Greeks. When the war ended, the areas of Western Macedonia and Kosovo, where the majority of the population is Albanian, we re sliced off and handed to Serbia as “payment” for its support of the Allies in the war.

Yugoslavia was created after the First World War by France and Britain, allowing for Serbian domination of the new country. At the Paris Peace Conference, one observer witnessed Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd George on their hands and knees pushing maps of the area around on the floor, watched over by Clemenceau, the French leader.

German occupation during the Second World War pulled Yugoslavia apart. The Nazis set up an “independent” Croatian state under the fascist leader Ante Palevic. His regime slaughtered tens of thousands of Serbs, Gypsies and Jews – a fact used by Milosevic to whip up nationalist fears among Serbs living within Croatia regarding the risks that an independent Croatia would pose for them.

Yugoslavia was restored as a multi-ethnic state after the Second World War, thanks chiefly to the multi-ethnic partisan movement led by Joseph Tito. Tito created a one-party state modeled on the Soviet Union. But when it became clear that Yugoslavia would not bow to Stalin’s control, the Soviet Union turned on Tito, cutting off all trade and forcing Yugoslavia into four years of deep economic crisis. Tito turned increasingly to the West for loans and trade in order to build the economy.

The new Yugoslav state consisted of six different republics: Serbia (including the autonomous regions of Vojvodina and Kosovo), Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. But aside from Slovenia in the north, where the population is fairly homogenous, each republic held within its borders a numerically dominant nationality, alongside minority nationalities. Using 1991 figures (now outdated by mass movement of populations due to ethnic cleansing), 15 percent of Croatia’s population was made up of Serbs who had lived there for centuries. In Serbia’s autonomous province of Vojvodina in the north, just over half of the population was Serbian, and 23 percent was Hungarian, along with a large number of smaller groups. In Kosovo in Serbia’s south, Albanian speakers made up almost 90 percent; Serbs 10 percent. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, 31.4 percent we re Serbs, 43.7 percent we re Muslims and 17.3 percent we re Croats.

Tito attempted to hold the state together by granting a kind of balanced equality between the republics (though the refusal to grant republic status to Kosovo’s Albanian speakers had to be imposed by force). Any manifestation of national separatism was suppressed by force, but wide autonomy was granted to each republic. So long as the Yugoslav economy experienced impressive postwar growth, this arrangement held. In the 1950s, the country’s growth rates averaged around 9 percent, and in the 1960s, around 7 percent.

However, within Yugoslavia, there was massively uneven development between the republics. Slovenia, where living standards are comparable to those in northern Europe, had a per capita income in 1985 seven times that of Kosovo, and almost three times that of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Croatia’s per capita income was almost 4.5 times that of Kosovo’s. Serbia’s fell somewhere in between, with a per capita income about 1.4 times higher than that of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The fact that Yugoslavia’s integration into the world market tended to favor the already more economically advanced sectors of Yugoslavia only exacerbated the economic disparities between the republics.

The beginning of economic crisis in the 1970s brought tensions between the different republics to the surface. The market encouraged economic disintegration of Yugoslavia. Trade between republics declined throughout the 1980s and 1990s, whereas trade between the richer republics and the West increased.

With the onset of economic crisis, combined with Tito’s death in 1981, stability began to unravel in Yugoslavia. Saddled with declining export revenues and massive debt to the IMF and Western banks, Yugoslavia plunged into a crisis from which its economic planners could find no way out. By 1987, the poorest areas – Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro – declared bankruptcy. Growth rates fell to less than 1 percent in the 1980s, and by the beginning of the 1990s, the country was experiencing negative growth rates – down 23 percent in 1990 alone. Inflation ran rampant.

The scale of the economic crisis faced by Yugoslavia in the 1980s is revealed sharply by one historian:

By 1985–1986 the preconditions of a revolutionary situation were apparent. One million people were officially registered as unemployed. The increasing rate of unemployment was above 20 percent in all republics except Slovenia and Croatia. Inflation was at 50 percent a year and climbing. The household savings of approximately 80 percent of the population we re depleted ... Attempts to alleviate the pressures made inflation worse and undermined economic management. This economic polarization led to social polarization. While most people were preoccupied with making ends meet under the austerity program and the dominant mood was that of localism, personalism, scapegoating against minorities, and anti-politics, independent political activity and new civic groups were also bubbling up. [2]

All of these economic developments fueled political divisions between the republics. The rulers of the richer republics – Slovenia and Croatia – began to argue that they should not be made to pay taxes for the poorer regions. At the same time, however, the crisis – and the rulers’ attempts to make Yugoslav workers pay for it through massive austerity and layoffs – also produced a growing class polarization which resulted in a rise in strikes throughout Yugoslavia. Strikes increased from only 100 in 1983, to 699 in 1985, and 851 in 1986. In 1987, the number of strikes shot up to 1,570, involving 365,000 workers, or one in 10 workers. The following year, the number of strikes went even higher.

Yugoslavia was entering a massive crisis that could go in only one of two directions. One possibility was that Yugoslavia would disintegrate into rival national republics, with the two dominant ones, Serbia and Croatia, fighting over the redrawing of borders. The other possibility lay in the growing class struggle, uniting workers across borders to seek a socialist solution to the crisis. But this road was at least partly blocked by the identification of socialism with the bureaucratic state capitalist regimes which had recently collapsed in Eastern Europe.

The threat of workers’ power in Yugoslavia was clear to the republics’ fragmenting ruling classes. They used increasingly repressive measures to hold onto power. Writes Susan Woodward,

Leaders of large workers’ strikes were harassed. Police activity intensified, often crudely, with the special aim of trying to prevent alliances of intellectuals, workers, or potential leaders across republican lines. It was clear from both government actions and words that the example of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980–81 defined the party leadership’s greatest fears. [3]

But in the heat of the intensifying class struggle and the widening fault lines between the republics, the republican rulers also began to realize that by seizing on ethnic divisions they could stabilize and even strengthen their own regimes.

* * *


1. Quoted in Bosnia and the Peace Accords, International Socialism Bulletin 1, March 1996.

2. Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1995), p. 73.

3. Woodward, p. 77.

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