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Breaking Yugoslavia: How the US Used NATO as Its Battering Ram

November 1991 is a month and year that will forever live in infamy when it comes to one of the most grievous crimes committed under the rubric of Western foreign policy, as it was on this month in this year that the break-up and destruction of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was set in train.

The Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on Yugoslavia was a body set up in 1991 by the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community (EEC) in response to the conflict that had broken out between separatists in Slovenia and Croatia and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) earlier that year. It was tasked with providing the peace conference with legal advice and on 21 November, in the first of its legal opinions on the crisis, it determined that Yugoslavia was “in the process of dissolution.”

Just four simple words, yet taken together they constituted a blatant violation of the Yugoslav constitution. They are words which still today call to mind Rome adjudicating on the destruction of Carthage.

From that moment on Yugoslavia’s fate was sealed, though it would take a protracted and bloody civil war before it was finally consigned to history, ending a multiethnic state founded on the principle of international brotherhood and solidarity that had emerged from the ashes of a central European continent devastated by the 1936-45 war against fascism.

The Western depiction of the break-up of Yugoslavia would have us believe that it was down to the inherent barbarity and cruelty of the Serbs, the largest ethnic group in the former SFRY, in attempting to suppress the legitimate right of the other constituent Yugoslav peoples – Slovenes, Croats, Kosovan Albanians, etc. – to self-determination. In this narrative the Serbs – a people who numbered among the most of any single ethnic group killed by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Second World War – were summarily and disgracefully demonized to an extent unparalleled in the postwar period.

In order to understand the break-up of Yugoslavia it is important to understand something of its history. The six Balkan republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia were brought together after the Second World War in 1945 to form the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, a Croat who led the Partisan resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Balkans and the old monarchist kingdom of Yugoslavia. Their resistance was so effective and determined that the Germans were forced to divert considerable men and resources in order to meet it.

Between 1960 and 1980 Yugoslavia enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth that funded its commitment to social and economic justice. Free health care and education was provided as a right for all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, as was the right to work, a living wage, affordable housing and utilities, while most of its economy came under state ownership.

As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations that refused to be subsumed into either the Soviet or Western blocs during the Cold War, Yugoslavia enjoyed considerable influence and prestige on the international stage.

Yet despite Tito’s refusal to be subsumed into the Soviet Bloc, Yugoslavia remained safe from capitalist penetration while the Soviet Union existed as a countervailing force to US-led western imperialism. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, however, this protective cloak was removed and the die was cast.

Fuelling the economic growth enjoyed by Yugoslavia during the ‘60s and ‘70s was its decision to borrow heavily from the West in order to invest in industry and the production of both export and consumer goods. This rendered the Yugoslav economy vulnerable to the fluctuations of global capitalism. And so it proved, when as a result of the world recession of the 1970s export markets contracted with the result that Yugoslavia’s export production dried up along with its ability to service its debts. In response the IMF demanded a restructuring of the state’s economy in order to prioritize debt repayment. Stuck between the hammer of indebtedness and the anvil of continued borrowing in order to subsidize its commitment to the provision of education, health care, housing and social security for its citizens, by the late 1980s the Yugoslav economy was in free fall.

It was at this point that central banks moved in at the behest of policy-makers in Washington, London and Bonn. Determined to break up the last socialist country in Europe, they threatened to institute an economic blockade unless the Yugoslav government agreed to hold separate elections in each of its six republics. The passing of the US Foreign Operations Appropriations law 101-513 in 1991 contained a section relating specifically to Yugoslavia, stipulating that all loans, aid and credits would be cut off within six months unless elections were held.

The most devastating provision of the law stipulated that only the forces within Yugoslavia deemed democratic by Washington would now receive loans from the US. Various right-wing factions in each of the six republics benefited directly from this provision and became the recipients of US largesse. In a climate of growing economic crisis it was a measure guaranteed to exacerbate ethnic tensions and give succor to centrifugal and separatist forces within SFRY.

Germany recognized the secession of first Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991, whereupon civil war ensued. It lasted for the next eight years until a three-month NATO air war unleashed against the Serbs, who had refused to acquiesce in the break-up of the federal republic, brought it to an end.

As Tariq Ali observed at the time, “American strategists, desperate to retain NATO as their battering-ram in new Europe, maneuvered Europe into a war in order to prove that NATO had a permanent function, that it was the ultimate arbiter and could act alone, presenting the rest of the world with a fait accompli.”

Atrocities were committed by all sides in the conflict, yet it was the Serbs who carried the can. During the trial of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s in The Hague evidence of genocide against his government was never produced. Yet the former Serb leader was only personally exonerated in March of this year in a five-volume ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the prosecution of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić.

NATO’s relevancy and continued purpose was affirmed with its role in the break-up of Yugoslavia, the last socialist state and economy left in the heart of Europe, which for obvious reasons could not be allowed to survive. Its descent into the ugly swamp of ethnic conflict came as a result of economic crisis, creating a political crisis that was exploited by the West in the interests of securing new markets and sources of raw materials in service to western neoliberalism.