The Balkans

Chapter Fifty-Two


OPPOSITION TO racism in Britain was undoubtedly reinforced by the rise of racist and fascist groups in Europe. 

The Bosnian nightmare, with its “ethnic cleansing”, mass rape and brutal massacres, also fed a mood, particularly amongst youth, that everything must be done to prevent such a scenario opening up in Britain. 

By 1993 two million people had been driven from their homes in Bosnia and 130,000 had been killed. From Thatcher to David Owen, including those who claimed to stand on the ‘left’ of the Labour Party, a clamour began for military action against the Bosnian Serbs. Heart-rending pictures, broadcast into every front room, of broken Muslim bodies fed the mood that “something must be done”. We conceded:

Certainly it’s true that the Bosnian Serbs, with the hardware of the former Yugoslav army at their disposal, have been responsible for the most extensive ethnic cleansing. But right now Bosnian Croats (supplied by the government of Croatia) and Muslims are both trying to ethnically purify the area around Vitez in central Bosnia.

But we made it clear:

Militant opposes any military interference by the capitalist powers in Bosnia. 

We don’t have any faith in Major or Thatcher to protect mining communities or racial minorities at home, nor do we put trust in them to protect the suffering and oppressed abroad. 

All they will ever defend are the profits and strategic interests of capitalism. The fate of the Balkan people can only be determined by the working class of the area. And at the beginning of the last two fateful years, the working class was emerging as a force in its own right…

 In Sarajevo there were unity demonstrations against the nationalist bigots. Serbian gunmen deliberately shot down some of those involved to inject the ethnic poison. 

A clear call for workers’ unity then and for the establishment of workers’ defence committees could have held the line against bloodshed in Sarajevo. That could have changed the course of events in Bosnia. (1)

The “Arm the Muslims” slogan

One of the issues which Militant was challenged on was its refusal to support the slogan of “arm the Muslims”. Militant supported the right of all communities, particularly oppressed minorities, to defend themselves against attack, if necessary with arms. We pointed out: “The Bosnian Muslims have this right but so also do the Serbs and Croats where they are in a minority and are attacked.” (2)

Militant always linked this demand to the idea of establishing democratic defence committees. It was true that Bosnia’s Serb and Croat populations had received an ample supply of arms, particularly heavy weapons, from powerful neighbouring states. 

In the beginning this option was not open to the besieged Muslim population. But the Bosnian Muslims had in effect broken the arms embargo and received quite a plentiful supply of heavy weapons. It is true that vicious persecution of the Muslim population has been carried out, both by Serb and Croat groups. 

But massacres and persecutions have also taken place against all three ethnic groups which made up Bosnia. The Independent in 1993 reported the opening of a “mass grave” containing 17 Serbs, massacred in a wave of revenge attacks on Serbian villages in Fakovici. A similar mass grave of Serbs killed by Muslims was opened in Bosanski Brod, in nothern Bosnia on 2 May 1993. Mutual slaughter, usually provoked by uncontrolled nationalist militias, is inevitable in an ethnic civil war.

The comparison, drawn by some on the left, with the Spanish civil war is completely erroneous. The overwhelming majority of workers and peasants fought against Franco’s fascist takeover. This earned the moral and political support of the world working class and the call for arms and volunteers for Spain found a powerful echo in the international labour movement. Things stand differently in Bosnia. The dominant political and military forces on all sides are pro-capitalist nationalists. It is these ethnic warlords, including the Muslim warlords, who at present receive the benefit of arms. We pointed out:

It will be their class interests, the drive to carve out as much territory and influence as possible no matter the suffering, that predominates over the interests of the ordinary Muslim, Serb and Croat workers and peasants of Bosnia. This applies as much to the main Muslim leader Izetbegovic as to the main Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Croat creatures of Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia. (3)

Izetbegovic had, according to The Independent,

put his cards on the table in his 1990 Islamic Declaration. He envisages a pure Muslim state with religious, political and social dimensions wholly integrated. He regards Islam as timeless and above consideration of reform. (4)

A sectarian religious stand like this could not fail to arouse Serbian hostility and suspicion. This was ruthlessly played upon by the Serbian nationalists who warned the Bosnian Serbs that an Islamic state was to be formed in which they would be discriminated against.

The aims of the Serbian and Croatian nationalist forces towards Bosnia were clearly spelt out in a meeting between Karadzic and the Croat representative Boban in the Austrian town of Graz early in 1992. 

There, as if they were dividing up a cream cake, a plan was devised to carve up Bosnia. Part of the region was to be drawn into a Greater Serbia, part into a Greater Croatia, with a buffer Muslim state in between. The Muslim nationalist/pro-capitalist forces, on the other hand, would not hesitate to repress other national groupings in order to enhance its power and prestige. 

Even a British officer serving with UN forces in 1993 in the beleaguered town of Vitez believed that any new arms supplies to the Muslim forces would not be used to counter-attack against the Serbs but would be “more likely to go for the weakest target, the Croat towns in central Bosnia.”  (5)

For all these reasons Militant could not put forward the slogan of “arming the Muslims”. The principal demand for socialists and Marxists in the very complicated situation of Bosnia would be for a united workers’ defence force to repel all attacks on the community. 

The cynical manoeuvres of each national capitalist grouping is shown by the recent alliance of Croat and Muslim forces in attacks on the Serbs. This is despite the fact that the Croat forces mercilessly attacked Muslims in Mostar in 1993. There have also been many other examples of Muslims brutally repressing Croats. 

The priorities for the working class and the international labour movement in conflicts such as this should be at the outset to develop independent class action of the organisations of the working class.


One of the factors staying the hands of the European capitalist powers was the fear of open Russian intervention on the side of the Serbs, “fellow Slavs”. 

Up to now Russia had had little influence in this area. Yeltsin, in April, had won his referendum with 62 per cent saying they trusted him as president, and 56 per cent approving his “pro-market economic policies”. 

At the same time, there was a vote against any early presidential or parliamentary elections. The outcome of the elections was, in effect, that the Russian workers opted for what they saw as the “least bad” alternative. So lacking was faith in the recently established “democracy” that the polling stations played music and sold cut-price snacks to attract voters. 

The mood was one of discontent with a large degree of cynicism and apathy. And how could it be anything else, given the catastrophic state of the country with Russian workers’ wages now able to buy just half of what they could 16 months before? Moreover, in the course of the campaign Yeltsin had promised everything to anybody in order to garner votes. 

Kuzbas miners “could have the state’s 38 per cent share when their pits were privatised.” Student grants, pensions and soldiers’ pay would go up, petrol and other prices would go down. In Yeltsin’s baggage train were bundles of roubles with which to bribe individual groups of workers. 

Unfortunately, the alternative to Yeltsin’s pro-market disasters was equally unattractive. Alongside extreme Russian nationalists were the former Stalinist politicians in congress, whose dictatorial methods, flaunted privileges, waste and mismanagement were not going to be quickly forgotten. We predicted:

The referendum will not solve Russia’s problems. The bloody conflict in former Yugoslavia haunts Yeltsin. Conflicts around Russia’s borders, in Georgia, Armenia/Azerbaijan etc could be mirrored now within the huge Russian federation… Yeltsin’s triumph – and that of capitalism – will end up in a hollow victory. (6)

In October 1993, the simmering conflict between the increasingly dictatorial Yeltsin and his opponents in the Russian parliament, led by Alexander Rutskoi and Khasbalatov, reached a bloody denouement. Yeltsin, after a stand off, sent tanks against his opponents. 

The Russian parliament was consumed by flames after days of gun battles. Militant Labour stood neither for Yeltsin nor Rutskoi. Yeltsin offered nothing to workers. His “fast track” to capitalism was based on a tight monetarist programme dictated by the International Monetary Fund. 

It demanded a cut in inflation by slashing state spending, lifting all safeguards on workers’ rights and rapid privatisation of factories. Rutskoi, on the other hand, argued for a slower transition to the market. He also argued for keeping up state subsidies to industry, privatisation through ‘management buy-outs’, and state regulation of labour conditions (that is no trade union defence for the workers).

The main problem in Russia is the weakness of independent trade union organisations and the absence of genuine socialist, labour or workers’ parties. The indifference of the mass of the population of Russia, particularly in Moscow where the ‘drama’ unfolded, was shown by the fact that Muscovites, while out walking their dog, would calmly and indifferently observe the conflict between the two sides. We commented:

Stable capitalist democracy is a pipe dream [in Russia]. The army have saved Yeltsin’s skin and they will want an even greater say in the direction of the economy and foreign policy. Even before this crisis, measures had been taken to set up a professional army loyal to the president. As Russia’s crisis deepens, Yeltsin’s credibility will be undermined and outright military rule could be on the cards for a period, before a renewed movement of the working class.7

Events in other parts of the globe also shattered the sunny optimism of 1989-90.

Middle East peace?

The bourgeois internationally were deeply pessimistic about the prospects for Russia. However, following the new Palestinian/Israeli deal in the Middle East they were euphoric. The Daily Mirror enthused “miracle in the Holy Land.” 

The desperate gamble of Yasser Arafat to shore up his declining support in the occupied territories would, Militant argued, be undermined by this deal. It was a betrayal of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people for a separate Palestinian state. Indeed Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, was insisting as the deal was agreed that a fully fledged Palestinian state was not on offer. 

There was no commitment for the withdrawal of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and no right to return in particular for those exiled from Israel/Palestine since 1948. Only those who had left since 1967 would be allowed back in. Israeli and world capitalism was no longer fearful of a Palestinian entity under the PLO, which in the past had tended towards the establishment of a nationalised economy (albeit on a bureaucratic Soviet model). 

Such a development in the past would have acted as a potential rallying point for the Arab revolution. But the collapse of Stalinism and the move to the right of Arafat and the PLO leadership left a vacuum which Hamas and other fundamentalist groups had filled. Despite the promises of massive aid from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, which Militant conceded could for a period mollify the Palestinian population, the national problem would not be solved. 

Therefore inevitable flare-ups would take place in the future and the fragile peace would be broken. Militant predicted that, if not outright civil war, elements of a civil war between the PLO, who became the new police power in Gaza and Jericho, and those who followed Hamas and Islamic Jihad were inevitable. 

By tying themselves to negotiations with the Israeli, Arab and US capitalist oppressors of the Arabs, the PLO had ended up with a rotten compromise. 

Only by linking themselves to the struggles of the working class throughout the Middle East and advancing a programme for the overthrow of capitalism, Jewish and Arab, would it be possible to guarantee the rights of all national groups within a socialist federation of the Middle East.

Visit to South Africa

Militant also devoted considerable coverage to the unfolding drama in South Africa in 1993. A visit by myself to South Africa in September and October meant that a detailed first-hand account could be given of the mood of African and Coloured workers on the ground.

In a series of articles, the mood of workers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban was charted. The gist of these articles appeared subsequently in a pamphlet (South Africa – From Slavery to the Smashing of Apartheid), which was produced following the victory of the ANC in the general election in 1994. In November, however, former jailers and their ex-prisoners,

drank and boogied the night away to the strains of Michael Jackson at Johannesburg’s World Trade Centre on 18 November. The revellers were inundated with congratulations from around the world.8

The cause of the celebration was the adoption of the new South African constitution by representatives of 21 parties. This constitution effectively ended the long night of apartheid and the 350 years of slavery for the African and Coloured people. They were due to get the vote for the first time in the elections scheduled for 27 April 1994. The question was posed by Militant:

But will this usher in the ‘new dawn’ promised by the constitution’s authors? Will it transform the lives of South Africa’s 46 per cent unemployed or the occupiers of the seven million shacks?9

De Klerk and the National Party had been defeated on a 60 per cent blocking mechanism for the white minority. He may have got away with this a year earlier but the mass movement of African workers had effectively prevented this. 

“Majority rule”, at least in the cabinet, was now a fact where decisions would be adopted if 50 per cent voted for a proposal. Nevertheless, “real majority rule will still be blocked by the ANC leaders’ acceptance of a voluntary five-year coalition with the capitalist parties.”

We concluded: The drive to elections is now unstoppable. Any attempt to postpone them would trigger off an explosive revolutionary upheaval which the negotiations were precisely designed to avoid. (10)