Serbia: Death of Slobodan Milosevic surrounded in controversy

Balkan leaders and imperialist powers responsible for wars and division

The death of the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, last weekend, while held in custody by the International Tribunal Court at The Hague, in the Netherlands, is surrounded in controversy and mystery.

Milosevic’s son, Marko, claimed the former President of Serbia was murdered by the authorities. Many Serb nationalists believe the West wanted rid of Milosevic because the case against him at The Hague Tribunal was not going to be proven and because the defence wanted to put former US President Bill Clinton and other important establishment figures in the dock, possibly revealing highly embarrassing revelations of the role of Western imperialism in the bloody demise of the former Yugoslavia.

A Russian doctor, reviewing the results of an official autopsy, agreed with Dutch doctors that Milosevic died of a heart attack. But the Russian official said his death could have been prevented. Milosevic’s family accused the UN war crimes Tribunal at The Hague of causing the death of the former president by turning down his request to go to Moscow for medical treatment.

On the other side, spokespeople for the Hague Tribunal authorities have indicated Milosevic may have taken his own life. Dutch doctors who did an autopsy on Milosevic speculate that he may have changed his medical treatment himself, to worsen his condition to win his demand to go to Moscow for specialist help, and this went fatally wrong.

Whatever the truth of Milosevic’s demise, many Serbs, not just nationalist hardliners, will continue to treat his death with great suspicion, reflecting the anger felt in Serbia at the actions and influence of Western imperialism over the Balkans in the last decade and a half.

Western powers’ hypocrisy

Working people and socialists around the world will not shed tears for Milosevic, the Stalinist apparatchik turned authoritarian, pro-market, warmongering president. But neither will they accept the hypocrisy and double standards of Western politicians.

Milosevic played a key role in whipping up nationalist and ethnic divisions in the former Yugoslavia, which helped led to the bloody break up of the country in the 1990s. But so too did the major imperialist powers, which competed with one another for influence and power in the region. Going by the media commentary on Milosevic’s death and the statements of Western politicians, it would seem that Milosevic alone, the “Butcher of the Balkans”, was responsible for the break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia, a series of wars and inhuman ‘ethnic cleansing’. The truth is that major imperialist powers played a direct and decisive role in these events. The US and Germany, in particular, supported the separation of Slovenia and Croatia from the federation, signalling the break up of Yugoslavia and the start of bloodletting on a scale not seen in Europe since WW2. By promoting the breakaway of Slovenia and Croatia, German imperialism aimed to reassert its historical influence in the Balkans, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the capitalist re-unification of Germany. US imperialism initially opposed the break-up of Yugoslavia but then changed tack and sponsored its dismemberment, seeing this bloody process as the best way to increase its influence and power in the Balkans, and to put US capitalism in pole position to exploit the working class of the region.

None of this excuses or justifies the actions of Milosevic, who was indeed a “butcher” of working people, or other local Stalinist bureaucrats turned capitalist warmongers, like Franjo Tudjman, the leader of Croatia.

A ‘Communist’ local boss under the old Marshal Tito regime, Slobodan Milosevic rode to power in the late 1980s as the old Stalinist Yugoslavia stagnated and collapsed. In April 1987, Milosevic, as number two in the Serbian Communist Party, went to the restive province of Kosovo. Serbs made up 10% of the population and complained of persecution by the majority ethnic Albanians. Milosevic told a huge crowd of Kosovo Serbs, “No-one will ever dare beat you again!”

On the back of rising Serb nationalism, Milosevic removed his party boss, Ivan Stambolic, and became Serb president in 1989. He also abolished autonomy for Kosovo and another province, Vojvodina, in the same year.

In 1991, capitalist-nationalist leaders in Slovenia and Croatia – with the support of German and US imperialism – seceded from Yugoslavia. Croatian military forces and the Serb dominated Yugoslav army subsequently fought a bloody conflict that led to around 20,000 deaths.

Milosevic and other leaders of the Yugoslav republics – President Tudjman in Croatia, Milan Kucan in Slovenia, Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia –promoted national and ethnic divisions, fostering the dreams of a ‘Greater Croatia’, a ‘Greater Serbia’ and, later, in the case of reactionary ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo/Kosova, a ‘Greater Albania’, from the remnants of Yugoslavia. Instead, the former Yugoslavia divided up along nationalist and ethnic lines in a series of disastrous wars. Over 100,000 perished in the three-way civil war in Bosnia. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was first used to describe the forcible removal of ethnic groups or worse. This ‘ethnic cleansing’ was not just carried out by Serb forces; Croatian and Muslim forces also committed war crimes against civilian populations.

Disaster for Serbs

Milosevic’s policies only brought defeat to Serbs and a catastrophic fall in living standards. His gangster-capitalist regime used reactionary Serbian nationalism to grab markets and resources, while presiding over chaotic privatisations. Milosevic cronies looted sections of the economy which remained in state hands. The result was disastrous. Economic output in 1999 was half the level of 1990. Gross domestic product fell by 23%. An almost permanent state of war saw tens of thousands killed and more than 700,000 Serb refugees created.

But the deaths of thousands of working people and the collapse of people’s living standards under Milosevic were not a problem for Western imperialism. Indeed, Milosevic was a leader “you could do business with” when he signed the US sponsored 1995 Dayton Peace Treaty, which formerly brought the Bosnian conflict to an end.

The West turned against Milosevic when he tried to crush Albanian separatists, in Kosovo, in 1998. Conditions for ethnic Albanians had worsened since 1989 and they demanded self-rule. In the summer of 1998, as Albanians held mass protests, the police and army were sent in to destroy the Kosovo Liberation Army, a right wing force with ‘Greater Albania’ ambitions.

The West feared the Serb president’s brutal crackdown would unleash a new wave of conflicts across the Balkans, threatening imperialist and capitalist interests in the region. They did not have anything, in principle, against Miloseivc’s methods in Kosovo – after all, various Western powers stood back and allowed ‘ethnic cleansing’ against Serbs by Croatian forces – but the powers were terrified of the regional consequences of the Serb leader’s military assault in Kosovo.

In October, 1998, under the ironic cover of a “humanitarian intervention”, Nato forces bombed Serbia for weeks, causing the deaths of many civilians and widespread destruction of infrastructure, eventually forcing Milosevic to withdraw his troops from Kosovo.

The installation of Nato/UN troops in the former Yugoslavia was also, of course, an important geo-political strategic advantage for the US and other Western powers.

Once the Serb army was removed from Kosovo, the Nato troops mainly stood by when large numbers of Serb civilians fled or were expelled by reactionary Albanian paramilitaries.

This carnage and the flouting of international law by major powers and the aggression against a small nation, was devised and led by US president and Democrat, Bill Clinton, and can be seen as a forerunner to the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Faced with disastrous wars and worsening living conditions, Serb youth and workers began to oppose Milosevic in greater numbers. They had enough of demagogic nationalism and conflict and wanted a better life and democratic rights.

It was widely believed that the presidential election of September 2000 was won by the opposition leader, Vojislav Kostunica. When the tame Federal Election Commission called for a second ballot, to force in another period of Milosevic rule, workers and young people took to the streets. A general strike and huge demonstrations led to protesters storming Belgrade’s parliament building and the state television headquarters, on 5 October.

Over a decade of Milosevic rule was undone in a few hours of mass action. But in the absence of a powerful, organised workers’ movement, right wing, pro-Western politicians used this movement to scramble to power.

‘Victors’ justice’

Under intense Western pressure, the new Serb government arrested Milosevic in April 2001, and in June 2001 he was bundled off to The Hague in the Netherlands. In early 2002, Milosevic’s trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity began at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

But the war crimes tribunal was never about bringing justice for the victims of the Balkans conflicts. If that was the case, Clinton and other Western leaders would have been put in the defendants’ dock to answer for their part in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia and for the Nato’s attacks on innocent civilians in Belgrade and other parts of Serbia. The crimes of local gangster-capitalist leaders, like Milosevic, and those of Western powers, perpetrated against the working people of the Balkans, left a terrible legacy of national and ethnic division, mass unemployment and poverty – the bitter fruit of capitalist restoration and imperialist meddling.

The Hague tribunal represents “victors’ justice”. It was set up, funded, and directed by the Western imperialist powers to further their interests and agenda. They wanted to show that Milosevic was mainly responsible for the break-up of Yugoslavia and ethnic division, and to try to absolve themselves of any blame.

But the Criminal Tribunal proved to be a deep embarrassment for the Western powers. By the time of Milosevic’s death, the prosecution had completed its case and had not managed to provide real proof of Milosevic’s guilt for the crimes of which he was accused. Furthermore, the defence had asked the tribunal to subpoena the former US president Bill Clinton and also General Wesley Clarke, the former US military commander who oversaw Nato’s bombing of Serbia, in 1999. The cross examination of these two high profile figures could have proved very embarrassing for the Western powers, showing the involvement and collusion of imperialism in the bloody break-up of the Balkans.

The working class of the Balkans, and everywhere, cannot rely on the ‘justice’ of the ruling elite and imperialist victors. The same US administration that claims Milosevic “cheated justice” by his death, refuses to be accountable to the International Criminal Court and demands that US military and personnel are excluded from liability for war crimes. Major imperialist powers, like Britain and the US, have much more blood on their hands than Milosevic, barbaric as the late Serb president was. It is estimated that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the illegal US-led invasion, as well as thousands of US troops sacrificed for the big oil companies and imperialism’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

Just as the task of kicking the gangster Milosevic out of power fell to the Serb working class and youth, so too only the working class can win genuine justice and lasting democratic rights. If a workers’ government had been brought to power after the overthrow of Milosevic, in October 2000, one of its first tasks would have been to convene a genuine trial of Milosevic and his cronies for their crimes against the peoples of the Balkans and the Serb working class. This would have also examined and revealed to the world the role of other regional capitalist-warmongers and also imperialism.

This was never going to happen with the pro-Western, pro-market government that came to power in Serbia, after Milosevic was forced out, many of whose members were former colleagues of Milosevic and who share responsibility for the bloody dismemberment of Yugoslavia.

Lessons of Milosevic years

For the working class of Serbia and the Balkans, the main lesson of the life and times of Slobodan Milosevic, and of the terrible events of the last decade and a half, is to have no faith in the false promises of reactionary, demagogic nationalism – be that Serbian, Croatian, Albanian, Bosnia Muslim or whatever form of nationalism – and to oppose opportunist leaders like the former Serb president, and meddling imperialism.

Only the organised working class can find a way out of the horrors of conflicts and poverty in the Balkans. Serbia remains poor, with high levels of unemployment. Serb ultra-nationalists are trying to make a comeback, as disillusionment sets in over the market policies of the current government. Vice President of the pro-Milosevic ‘Socialist Party’, Branko Ruzic, said he expected a “great gathering of people to give their last respects”, when Milosevic’s body is put on view for two days at the Revolution Museum, in Belgrade. Fearing an outpouring of uncontrollable nationalist sentiment, Serb authorities ruled out a state funeral for the former president.

A section of the Serbian population view Milosevic as a national hero, who “stood up” for Serb interests. Most Serbs, however, regard the Milosevic years as a series of disasters. But they have little faith in the present government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a ‘moderate’ nationalist, and the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, leader of the Democratic Party, a fierce supporter of the market economy and an advocate of EU and Nato membership for Serbia. As the policies of these politicians cause more misery for workers – and in the absence of a powerful socialist alternative – right wing, opportunist nationalists can make a comeback.

Balkans tinderbox

Under capitalism, the Balkans will remain a tinder box. Planned discussions on the future status of Kosovo/Kosova, overseen by the Western powers, will not lead to a lasting solution and, in the short term, will inflame ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs. Bosnia remains a patch quilt of ethnically-controlled areas, only held in check by an oppressive UN force. Areas like Macedonia and Montenegro are also unstable.

A socialist solution allows for genuine self-determination for oppressed nations, while guaranteeing the rights of all minorities. Socialists call for workers’ unity across all ethnic, national and religious divisions, for mass struggle against local capitalist governments and elites, opposition to privatisations and job cuts, and for the removal of imperialist troops. Only a genuine socialist federation, on a voluntary and equal basis, can pool together the resources of the region to lift working people out of poverty and mass unemployment, and transform living standards.

The struggle of the working class and poor for these aims will be most apt response to the carnage and divisions caused by the likes of Milosevic and Tudjman, and their heirs, and by rapacious imperialism. The starting point to achieving these goals begins with the struggle to build genuine, independent workers’ organisations, including powerful unions, in Serbia and throughout the Balkans.

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March 2006