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Irving Howe

World Politics

Will Russia Quit the Balkans?

(31 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 13, 31 March 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

You’ve got to hand it to the “think piece” writers of the New York Times. As perhaps the most authoritative journalistic spokesmen for U.S. imperialism, they help us understand just what their masters are up to – at least to the extent that such matters are made public. Thus Edwin James, managing editor of the Times, has a most interesting piece on the Moscow Conference in its March 23 issue in which he suggests that though the German problem is in the forefront of public attention, the inner circles of the State Department arg at least as interested in the signing of a peace treaty with Austria.

James explains his statement in this way: There is no real likelihood of an actual treaty on Germany being drafted at Moscow. “There are many hopes,” he writes, “that the conference. will complete a treaty with Austria.”

The draft of the proposed Austrian treaty which the deputy ministers of the major powers have drawn up provides for the withdrawal of all occupying troops from Austria within 90 days after the signing of the treaty. Since the only sizable military establishment in Austria is the Russian army, this treaty would mean removing the Russian occupation. But that is not all. The peace treaty with Hungary, which has been completed and signed, provides that within 90 days after signing, the occupying powers will withdraw all troops “subject to the right of the Soviet Union to keep on Hungarian territory such armed forces as it may need for the maintenance of the lines of communication of the Soviet army with the Soviet zone of occupation in Austria.”

There are similar provisions in the treaties with Hungary and Rumania. That means that if an Austrian treaty is signed, the Russians would presumably have to withdraw their troops from all of the Balkan countries where they are now present. It would mean withdrawal of Russian troops from every European country except Poland and eastern Germany, where they remain in force.

An Opportunity for U.S. Imperialism

This would be a tremendous opportunity for Anglo-American imperialism, James hints. Truman’s speech indicates that it intends to sink millions of dollars into Europe in order to maintain the position of western capitalism and push back its Russian rival imperialism. And when it comes to dollars, the U.S. has more of them than anyone else. The superiority of Russia in the Balkans has been based largely on its geographical proximity and therefore on its ability to maintain large armies in those countries. Only secondarily has its puppet Stalinist movements in these countries enabled it to maintain its occupation, for in most instances the Stalinists would be proven in a free election – as in some cases, such as Austria and Hungary, it already has been proven – to be a mere small minority.

Now then, withdraw Russian troops; enter U.S. dollars. A pretty picture for U.S. imperialism, no? Perhaps a “readjustment” in regimes ... but let us not continue: the possibilities for U.S. imperialism are endless once the ball starts rolling.

Will Stalin Withdraw Troops?

But will it start? That is the question which intrigues Mr. James and not without reason. Is it likely that Stalin will voluntarily withdraw his troops from these Balkan countries and allow the U.S. dollar to do subtly what his bayonets did bluntly?

The Russian regime must surely have understood from the very beginning that it could not maintain its occupation indefinitely. It must have calculated on the length of time it would take to strip these countries dry economically and create a stable apparatus of agents and supporters within them after Russian troops were withdrawn.

Yet it seems quite doubtful if the Kremlin has succeeded in its plans. All the evidence points to the likelihood that it has not created a mass base in any of these countries with the possible exception of Yugoslavia. (Even with regards to that country we suspect that there is not nearly as much popular support for the regime as a very skillful publicity machine would make out.) In some countries, like Hungary and Austria, we know from the election results that the Stalinists have failed to create a mass base. In other countries like Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria their extensive use of terror against opposition indicates that their regimes rest on bayonets rather than popular will.

The Kremlin did not count on what we Marxists have been calling, in our verbal shorthand the “national question.” That is, the Stalinists did not foresee the mass popular resentment which would arise in these occupied countries against the invading “liberators” who took everything – personal possessions, agricultural products, industrial plants. And if they did foresee this popular resentment, they could find no way of placating it.

As a result, it seems quite likely that the Kremlin has decided on a course of retreat, of pulling in its lines. The simultaneous pressures of a stiffer U.S.-British bloc and the continued resistance in the occupied countries (which resistance is always present even if not often publicized) may well be enough to force the Russians to draw in a little.

Have the Stalinists Succeeded?

That they would sooner or later have to draw in, they must have foreseen. But they expected to create such powerful outposts that their rule of the Balkans would remain firm.

Whether or not they have succeeded is perhaps too early to say. That they have not succeeded nearly as much as they wished is obvious. For a real withdrawal of Russian troops from the Balkans would soon result in a collapse of at least several of the puppet regimes.

The Russian ruling class is in a considerable difficulty on this matter. Powerful internal social-economic pressures dictated its policy of expansion into Europe – pressures as diverse in nature as its desire to recoup its battered industrial plant, its inability to find homes for its soldiers, its immediate need for agricultural products, etc. Yet the costs of such an expansionist policy are very high in terms of upkeep of an army of occupation, in terms of the morale of soldiers who find even in the wretched Balkan lands a standard of living higher than in the “workers fatherland,” and in terms of the struggle with western capitalism which the Kremlin for all its bravado is not yet ready to pursue to the end.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that if and when the Russians withdraw their armies from the Balkans their influence will be at an end. The puppet Stalinist parties will still work in their behalf; the GPU and numerous auxiliary agents will still be functioning; and above all the threat of future intervention by the Russian colossus will still hang over the heads of the Balkan nations.

One thing we may with certainty predict: the interimperialist struggle for the Balkans is not yet over. While the Russians still retain by far the most advantageous position, the wedge of U.S. dollars into Greece and the possible withdrawal of Russian troops from the area portend new and bitter struggles. No wonder then that Mr. James of the Times and the social class for which he writes look with such interest to an Austrian treaty.

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