Editorial from the July 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard
“What do you expect? They’ve been at it for centuries” is a common reaction to the situation in Bosnia. as if it was somehow part of the nature of Balkan Man to kill, rape, burn and otherwise generally feud with neighbours just because they speak a different language or come from a different religious background.
Certainly Socialists condemn without reservation the murderous acts of all groups fighting in Bosnia, who have introduced a new and disgusting word— “ethnic cleansing”—into the language. But there is another side to the story.
Not so much now but until fairly recent times, the Balkans was a region of key strategic importance for the various competing capitalist powers. The rulers of Tsarist Russia dreamed of gaining control of the Bosphoros as an outlet to the Mediterranean. Imperial Germany, and its junior partner the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wanted to control the area to protect the planned Berlin to Baghdad railway and trade route to the Middle East. The British Empire had an interest in neither of these rival powers dominating the area and so pursued a policy of propping up the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Each of these powers had its pawns in the region. Russia projected itself as the protector of the area’s Orthodox Christians (Serbs, Rumanians. Bulgarians). Austria played the Catholic card (Croats, Slovenes) while the Ottoman Empire relied on the Moslems (Turks, Albanians but also Slav-speakers, as in Bosnia).
These were the groups that were set against each other on the ground, as the various Empires vied for control of the Balkans. The so-called “historic” rivalry between these groups was artificially stirred up by the competing imperialist powers in the sixty or so years up until the First World War. And, as so often happens in these cases (we’ve seen it nearer home in Northern Ireland), once turned on such passions unleashed to serve capitalist interests can't be turned off just like that, however much some of the powers with a current interest in the area may now wish to.
The First World War led to the break-up of the German. Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. An artificial state called “Yugoslavia” (literally, the Land of the South Slavs) was set up ruling over peoples speaking a variety of languages (mainly Serbian, Croatian. Slovenian and Macedonian). It was so unwieldly that it proved impossible to hold it together other than by dictatorship, before the war that of the Serb monarch and afterwards by Tito and his clique.
In practice Yugoslavia was Greater Serbia, but the death of Tito and then the overthrow of the state- capitalist regimes in the rest of Eastern Europe seriously weakened the Yugoslav regime. Greater Serbia began to shrink as the various provinces—Slovenia, Croatia, then Bosnia, then Macedonia—broke away. The capitalists of Slovenia and Croatia, as the most developed parts of the “former Yugoslavia”, had their own economic reasons for wanting to break away. But this wasn’t the only factor. In the background was the newly re-unified Germany, anxious to flex its muscles in its re-found role as the most powerful state in Europe—and anxious to recreate its former spheres of influence in eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Germany pressed the other European states and America to recognise Slovenia, Croatia and, with more difficulty, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The rulers of the former Greater Serbia decided to resist militarily, conquering a third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia. This was not what the major capitalist states had intended and their response has simply been to try to contain the problem and stop it spreading to the rest of the Balkans, by holding the ring while their pawns of yesteryear battle it out amongst themselves.
If Socialists were stronger on the ground both here and in the Balkans we might be able to do something more than re-assert the principle that workers the world over have a common interest. As it is, all we can do is to place on record our abhorrence of this latest manifestation of capitalist barbarity and call upon our fellow workers in Bosnia not to be led by war-mongers into slaughtering each other. That way they certainly have no future.