Yugoslavia: Nationalist competition opened door to imperialist intervention

Oct 1, 2005

The former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Can different nationalities coexist within a single, multinational state? Many people point to the fracturing of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s as evidence that such a project is impossible. But in the years after World War II, the Yugoslav socialist revolution provided hope to workers around the world that multinational unity was possible without the conflicts between oppressor and oppressed nationalities that characterize capitalist society. What happened?

The 1999 U.S./NATO war against Yugoslavia was a continuation of the counter-revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that began in 1989. Five NATO powers—the United States, Germany, France, Italy and Britain—led the war and subsequently occupied the Serbian province of Kosovo.

The 1999 war was a culmination of a decade of imperialist intervention, which played a key role in tearing apart the Yugoslav socialist federation. Until 1991, Yugoslavia was made up of six republics and two autonomous regions. Its population included more than 20 nationalities.

A series of civil wars beginning in 1990 opened the country to foreign intervention and dismemberment. By the end of 1992, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia were independent states, and Bosnia remained in civil war.

Where did these civil wars come from? During the 1999 U.S. invasion, the capitalist media depicted Yugoslavia as a country ravaged with perpetual and unmanageable  “ethnic conflict,” using the term as a justification for war.

The capitalist media failed to mention that Yugoslavia had been one of the greatest experiments in multinational unity. The story of how it ended up in civil war and bitter ethnic cleansing begins much earlier, and requires a thorough investigation of Yugoslavia’s internal economic and political developments.

The creation of Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia came into being as a country following the end of World War I in 1918. The great diversity of the population was due to the fact that the Balkans is a crossroads between western Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

For hundreds of years the region was divided. The border often shifted between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Large parts of the occupied population adopted the religion and other customs of the occupiers, in order to gain economic or social advantages.

Many of the divisions and differences between the nationalities were the product of imperial conquest. Those who are today Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims all speak the same language and have a common Slavic heritage. Among the non-Slavic nationalities are Hungarians, Albanians and Roma; other Slavic nationalities include Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bulgarians.

The idea of Yugoslavia arose before the country itself. “Yugoslavism”—South Slavism—advocated the unity of the Balkan Slavs into one state as the means to escape the domination of the “Great Powers.” Uniting the many small nationalities was seen as the only means for the region’s people to take control of their own destiny.

When Yugoslavia was formed in 1919, it fell under the rule of the reactionary Serbian monarchy. It was only semi-independent. Modern Yugoslavia came into being with the revolution during World War II.

The liberation struggle and the Yugoslav Revolution

The Yugoslav Revolution of 1941-46, organized by the Council of National Liberation, liberated the country from the fascists and established the first new workers state since the period of the Russian Revolution.

Beginning in April 1941, Yugoslavia was occupied by the German Nazis and Italian, Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian fascist armies. The country was completely broken up and divided into two zones of control, one German and the other Italian. Despite this highly unfavorable situation, the partisan movement launched a national uprising in the summer of 1941 and immediately began inflicting heavy casualties on the occupiers.

The Communist-led partisans united workers, peasants, students, intellectuals and others from all the nationalities in a diverse country where no nationality was the majority. The largest numbers came from among the Serbian population. The partisan resistance grew into an army of 800,000 and eventually tied down 650,000 fascist troops. In 1944, the partisans and units of the advancing Soviet Red Army liberated Belgrade.

At the end of the war, the Council of National Liberation was the new and uncontested state power. In 1946, they created the People’s Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (later renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), made up of six republics — Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, and two autonomous regions of Vojvodina (with a large Hungarian-speaking minority) and Kosovo-Metohija with an ethnic Albanian majority. Both autonomous regions were within the Serbian republic.

The pressing question was how to overcome national, ethnic and religious divisions. The rights of all nationalities were guaranteed in the new constitution, and the new Yugoslavia set out on a course of building socialism.

The leader of the Communist Party and greatest hero of the partisan resistance was Josip Broz, or “Tito,” a Croatian-Slovenian metal worker. Other leaders of the Communist Party included the Serbian Alexander Rankovic, the Montenegrin Milovan Djilas, and the Slovenian Edvard Kardelj. Representatives of all the republics and autonomous areas were included in the leadership.

In the early years of the socialist federation, Tito and the other leaders stood for class solidarity and Yugoslavism and against nationalism. Any party leader who spoke in the name of his or her nationality, even in a muted way, would be expelled from the leadership, if not from the party as well, for chauvinism.

The Communists opposed all of the rival nationalisms within Yugoslavia. Tito worked to restrain the power of the stronger nationalities, especially the Croats and the Serbs, and elevate the position of the smaller and poorer nations, particularly the Macedonians, Bosnian Muslims and, later, the Albanians.

Tito saw economic inequality as a danger to the unity of the federation. He aimed to accelerate economic development in the less-developed regions as a way to close the gap between wealthier and poorer republics.

While they created republics and autonomous regions for the eight largest nationalities, in the early years the party’s strategy relied heavily on appeals to working class internationalism and solidarity, as opposed to nationalism.

In June 1948 a stunning development occurred: the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries broke all economic and diplomatic ties with Yugoslavia. Regardless of the dubious merit of the disputes between the socialist countries, the steps taken by the U.S.S.R. against Yugoslavia were unprincipled forms of state-to-state retaliation. It was impossible for Yugoslavia to survive in complete isolation.

The Soviet bloc’s economic embargo delivered a devastating blow. Within two years, Yugoslavia’s trade deficit soared by 1000 percent. Its five-year industrialization plan was severely disrupted.

Workers’ self-management

In the economic crisis that followed the break with the Soviet Union, the Yugoslav leadership turned to the West, first for loans and aid. Aid from the United States grew rapidly in the 1950s, and for a period, Yugoslavia adopted “neutralist” — in fact, sometimes pro-imperialist positions on world events.

Yugoslavia continued on the path of socialist construction, but also began a long series of economic “reforms.” Lacking the needed technology and facing opposition in the countryside, the Communist Party abandoned the drive to collectivize agriculture in 1950. About 80 percent of farmland remained in private hands.

In the industrial sector too, the Yugoslav leadership moved away from a socialist planned economy. One reform implemented the system known as “workers’ self-management.” The June 1950 law said: “Factories, mines, carriers, transport, trade, agricultural, forest, public utility and other state economic enterprises, as the general people’s property, shall be managed by working collectives on behalf of the social community within the framework of the state economic plan. … The working collectives shall exercise this right of management through workers councils.”

The idea was to give the workers more direct participation in managing the enterprises, which remained socially (or state) owned, as a way to increase productivity. In this first stage, the workers’ councils and people’s committees were generally advisory bodies, but over the years, a great deal of economic decision-making passed from the federal level to the republic level, and then to the local level.

How could “workers’ self-management” run counter to socialist construction? As a leading U.S. Marxist, Sam Marcy, wrote in 1992: “The gates to imperialism opened wide when Yugoslavia established its so-called workers’ self-management. … Workers’ control as a step away from capitalism is progressive. But it’s a backward step when it leads away from centralized socialist planning. The concept of workers’ control soon degenerated into managerial control and the abandonment of centralized planning.” (“Imperialist Intrigue and the Breakup of Yugoslavia,” 1992)

“Market socialism”

Worker self-management gave way to “market socialism,” which was promoted in the beginning of the 1960s. This contradictory term meant that while the basic productive forces would remain state-owned, the market would decide what was to be produced and sold.

While the federation government played the major role in redirecting resources to the less-developed republics and Kosovo, its role in overall investment declined rapidly, especially in the 1960s. Where in 1961, 62 percent of investment financing came from government sources, by 1968 nearly 80 percent came from enterprises or domestic banks. With self-financed and self-managed enterprises and banks, the “market” replaces socialist state planning as the basic motive force of production decisions.

The decentralization encouraged by “self-management” and “market socialism” had in fact strengthened the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements of all nationalities, particularly in Croatia and Slovenia. In the long run, the position and role of the working class in Yugoslavia had weakened. Economic questions, particularly the disparity between regions and republics, became the driving force behind national antagonisms.

Early attempts to close the gap

The republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Vojvodina province of Serbia had the highest per capita income and were the most economically developed. Croatia was also the center of tourism, due to its long coastline on the Adriatic. The poorest areas were the republics of Macedonia and Montenegro and the province of Kosovo.

During the first three decades of the socialist federation, there were huge steps forward in development and living standards. In Yugoslavia as a whole, real per capita income by 1975 had tripled from the 1939 level. Industrial development increased nine times in the same period. In the more backward areas like Montenegro, it increased by as much as 40 times. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Yugoslavia’s economic growth rate was one of the highest in the world.

Education, health care, food, shelter and the right to employment or income and social services were guaranteed. Under the socialist system, life improved dramatically for the population as a whole.

As part of the attempt to close the gap between the richer and poorer areas of the country, it was party and state policy to subsidize economic and social development in the poorer republics, provinces and regions. The richer republics contributed at a fixed percentage to a federal fund for less-developed areas. In 1988, Kosovo received 48 percent of the fund, Bosnia and Herzegovina received 25 percent, Macedonia received 18 percent and Montenegro 9 percent.

The less-developed areas also received federal assistance for public services and preference in getting loans from foreign banks and institutions. The loans went to the individual republics or Kosovo, but the repayment obligation went to the federation as a whole.

These were very progressive policies — forms of affirmative action. While they did not solve all of the problems of economic backwardness, they did have many highly beneficial effects. For instance, by the late 1970s, Kosovo had one of the highest percentages of students in the world. This would not have been possible without assistance from the more developed republics.

Decentralization and inequality

But economic policies ran counter to these progressive steps. Enterprises and banks under “self-management,” in the wealthier republics were far more likely to invest, make loans and increase production within their own borders. Thus, the decentralized economic system, organized on the basis of “our enterprise first,” (or “our municipality” or “our republic”) overwhelmed attempts by the party leadership to close the economic divide between the republics and regions.

Political and economic decentralization created the material basis for bourgeois nationalism. It encouraged the masses, including large sections of the working class, to see themselves as Croats or Slovenes or Serbs or Albanians first, discouraging working class consciousness.

Shortly after Tito’s death in 1980, the first IMF austerity program was imposed on Yugoslavia, leading to widespread layoffs and cutbacks. The austerity plans exacerbated the crisis and fostered widespread discontent. By 1991, the debt had grown to $31 billion; unemployment was estimated at 20 percent and inflation at 200 percent annually.

In the 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s, economic development had limited the appeal of the bourgeois nationalist elements. In the 1980s, however, when the reliance on imperialist banks caused an economic crisis, the nationalist message gained a wider audience. This was true not only in Croatia and Slovenia, but also in the poorer areas and particularly Kosovo.

While living standards for all nationalities had greatly improved over 40 years, the gap between the rich and poor areas was still wide. Slovenia, the wealthiest of the republics, still produced ten times more than Kosovo.

The resurgence of bourgeois nationalism

The constitutional amendments of 1971 and the new constitution of 1974 accelerated the process of turning Yugoslavia from a federation into a confederation. The federal government remained responsible for defense, foreign policy, issuing a common currency and assisting the economically backward regions, but the new constitution reduced the power of the central government.

Under the new constitution, no important decision could be taken, at either the federal government or party level, without the agreement of all the republics and autonomous regions. Real power passed more and more to the republican governments and party organizations, while within the republics economic decision-making devolved increasingly to the enterprises.

A parallel development to the governmental changes was taking place inside the party. Instead of developing into one unified communist party, each republic had its own party, with its own congress, central committee, executive committee, etc.

Tito and the Yugoslav leadership followed economic decentralization with political decentralization as an attempt to counter bourgeois nationalist and secessionist movements. If the republics were given wide powers, they reasoned, there would be no reason to secede. This strategy, which aimed to solve the dilemma of a multinational state by making concessions to nationalism, failed.

As one long-time sympathizer of Yugoslavia observed, “The advance toward autonomy simply whetted the appetite of the more extreme nationalists for even further devolution. In each republic there began to develop a local ‘red bourgeoisie,’ each with its political power base in the republican League of Communists and its economic base in the local industrial enterprises and banks.” (Fred Singleton, Twentieth-Century Yugoslavia, 1976, p. 272)

This was certainly the case in Kosovo, where Albanian nationalists embarked on a campaign designed to drive the Serbs, Montenegrins, Roma and other non-Albanians out of the province en masse.

Bourgeois nationalist forces grew in every republic and province. By the late 1980s, the Communist parties had either collapsed or adopted nationalist positions. In Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia some of the main bourgeois parties that arose and came to power in the early 1990s had strongly chauvinist and even fascist politics.

Economic decentralization undermined socialist solidarity and all attempts to overcome the gap between richer and poorer regions. That, in turn, broke down the multi-national Yugoslav working class, led to the dissolution of the federation and ultimately opened the door for imperialist intervention.