The suicide on 29 November 2017 of former Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak after he failed to get his conviction for war crimes overturned has slightly overshadowed the conviction last week of Ratko Mladic, former general of the Bosnian Serb army, for war crimes and the life sentenced imposed on him, writes Geoff Ryan. Mladic’s conviction was just about the last act of the Hague based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) before it winds up next week.
With the jailing of Mladic most of those responsible for war crimes committed by Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and by Croat forces in Bosnia Herzegovina are either dead or in jail. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, his Croatian counterpart Franjo Tudjman, leader of the Serb Autonomous Republic of Krajina (ARK) Milan Babic and Mate Boban, his Croat counterpart in Herceg-Bosna (the attempt by Croat forces to carve out parts of Bosnia), Serb paramilitary leader Arkan) have died while former leader of the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic, Milan Martic who replaced Milan Babic as leader of the ARK when Babic fell out with Milosevic and now Mladic are in prison as a result of decisions by the tribunal.
The one major player who has escaped prison is Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party whose paramilitary Cetniks were guilty of many murders in Croatia and Bosnia. Bizarrely Seselj was found not guilty of all charges in 2016.
Of course many minor players remain at large and unlikely to ever face any criminal charges. Current Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic is a former member of Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party but his pro-western leanings will almost certainly mean he is fairly safe from anyone enquiring too closely into his role in Serbian wars of aggression. Or of his allowing both Karadzic and Mladic to openly move about Serbia and Republika Srpska. Republika Srpska is the part of Bosnia carved out by Mladic and Karadzic, with the acquiescence of western governments. Milorad Dudik, current leader of Republika Srpska, is probably also safe despite his close ties to Karadzic and Mladic.
In fact as Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian last Saturday (25th November), Mladic would probably have avoided jail if he hadn’t been arrested when he was. Western governments no longer have an appetite for arresting war criminals. Though Freedland could also have pointed out that western governments have rarely had such an appetite: after all they collaborated with Milosevic for a long time. The Dayton accords on Bosnia, engineered by the US government, rewarded Milosevic for his wars of aggression. Milosevic was quite willing to dump Karadzic and Mladic to gain support from western governments. It was only in 1999 when Serbian forces renewed war against the Albanian majority population in Kosova that the British and US governments decided that Milosevic had to go.
And some of the worst war criminals are missing from Freedland’s arguments: Henry Kissinger and Ariel Sharon are notable absentees, though hardly surprising given Freedland’s support for Zionism. And the US boycotts international war crimes tribunals and is clear that it will never allow US soldiers to be put on trial by such bodies, however heinous the crimes.
Break up of former Yugoslavia
The jailing of Mladic is of enormous historical importance, not least because some of the issues involved also have current relevance. The most important of these is the attitude socialists should take towards the national question. Most of the left, with some exceptions, hopelessly failed to understand the importance of the national question in the wars of aggression carried out by Milosevic against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They simply equated Serb, Croatian and Bosniak nationalism without, at the very least, recognising that ‘Bosniak’ nationalism was about the unity of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, alongside all other nationalities living in Bosnia.
Some had nostalgia for the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a laudable enough sentiment, but then saw Milosevic as the continuer of Tito’s legacy. They failed to understand that by oppressing the Albanian majority in Kosova, by replacing party leaders in Kosova and Vojvodina (both autonomous provinces within Serbia at the time) and Montenegro with yes-men Milosevic was giving rise to the Serbian domination of Yugoslavia that Tito had deliberately tried to prevent in the 1974 Constitution.
This nostalgia was frequently mistaken in that many of those supporting ‘Yugoslavia’ appeared to be unaware that Tito had broken with Stalin and the leadership of the Soviet Union. They saw everything through the prism of the cold war and therefore saw the break-up of Yugoslavia as an imperialist plot, usually a German plot. In one of the ironies of history, the most enthusiastic supporters of Milosevic were the government of Russia, led by Vladimir Putin.
Others saw the conflict between Serbia and Croatia as a conflict between two equally bad nationalisms, with nothing to choose between Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. The frequent references to the pro-Nazi independent Croatian state and the brutality of the Ustase (and failure to mention the pro-Nazi regime in Belgrade, the first in Europe to declare itself to be Judenrein, free of Jews) in fact suggested a preference for Milosevic.
In fact the central conflict was that between Milosevic and the leadership of the League of Communists of Slovenia. The Slovenes wanted a loose, confederal structure to Yugoslavia while Milosevic and the leadership in Serbia wanted a more rigid, highly centralised structure with Serbia having a dominant role. When the Slovene leadership exercised their right to independence under the 1974 constitution the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) intervened militarily. While the Slovenes resisted there is no doubt that the JNA could have defeated Slovene forces and forced Slovenia to remain within Yugoslavia. The reason they didn’t was because Milosevic had no interest in Slovenia. Unlike Yugoslavia as a whole (with its 6 nations, 10 nationalities and at least another 15 national minorities) Slovenia was relatively ethnically homogenous. Most importantly for Milosevic there were very few Serbs.
However, once Slovenia left Yugoslavia it was a certainty that the Croatian leadership would follow suit, especially since the by now Croatian nationalist Franjo Tudjman was in charge. War was more or less inevitable as large numbers of Serbs lived in Croatia and Milosevic was determined to create a Greater Serbia. The Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), with its headquarters in the town of Knin in the Krajina, ensured Serbs were well armed and ready to resist all attempts by the Croatian government to impose its rule. But the SDS was essentially a creation of Milosevic – to the extent that Milosevic replaced Milan Babic with Milan Martic when Babic dared to disagree with him.
The war in Croatia was exceptionally brutal towns such as Vukovar were systematically destroyed by the JNA, Arkan’s ‘Tigers’ and Seselj’s Cetniks. The beautiful Adriatic tourist city of Dubrovnik was shelled for the duration of the war. (It has since been sensitively rebuilt and remains one of the most attractive cities on the planet, as well as providing some of the locations for ‘Game of Thrones’).
But the war of Croatian independence (as it is known in Croatia) was in many ways a dress rehearsal for the even more brutal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnian government had initially supported remaining within the rump Yugoslavia of Serbia and Montenegro but the brutality of the Serb war machine in Croatia persuaded Bosnian President Izetbegovic that independence was necessary.
While Ratko Mladic had been involved in war in Croatia, it is his role in Bosnia that has made him infamous and for which he is now serving a life sentence. Mladic was responsible for the 3 year siege of Sarajevo during which Serb artillery shelled the city on a regular basis and snipers made going about one’s daily business a serious risk of death. Mladic was also responsible for the massacre of over 7,000 Bosniak men at Srebrenica, a supposedly ‘safe area’ ‘protected’ by UN troops. The Dutch troops did nothing to prevent the massacre. Other ‘safe areas’ were overrun by Mladic’s troops.
Support for self determination
So how do wars in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia relate to current issues? The main issue is the national question and our attitude as socialists to national self-determination. The most brutal example of refusal to grant any sort of self-determination (self-determination does not necessarily imply independence) is currently in Myanmar, with the expulsion of the Rohyngas. The Kurdish people are currently denied any right to self-determination in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Western governments are resolutely against any Kurdish state, not even as reward for the leading role Kurds played in the fight against Islamic State. We support the right of the Rohynga Muslim minority to be recognised as a nation alongside the majority Burmese nation and we are fully in support of the right of the Kurdish people to their own state.
Most of the left in western Europe would probably agree with those sentiments. But other issues are thornier: in particular the attitude of socialists to independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland. The main leftist group in the Spanish state Podemos has resolutely set its face against independence for Catalonia.
Of course Catalan independence is illegal but that is because the constitution of the Spanish state essentially continues Franco’s rule and makes it illegal to secede from the Spanish state. Tito’s constitution in Yugoslavia was vastly more democratic, at least in theory. But just as Yugoslavia had different nations – each, again in theory, with their own republic within the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia – so does the Spanish state. At the very least Catalans, Basques and Galicians do not consider themselves to be ‘Spanish’. They undoubtedly have the right to self-determination, including the right to independence.
Whether or not they exercise that right is up to the people of Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia. That is, all the people living in those parts of the Spanish state, not just Catalans or Basques or Galicians. That is basically what the now deposed Catalan government tried to do and it is totally unacceptable for a majority ‘Spanish’ party like Podemos to impose the views of the dominant nationality on national minorities.
Similarly sections of the British left have refused to support Scottish independence on the grounds of maintaining a unified Labour movement. They denounce nationalism as divisive while failing to recognise they are also expressing nationalist views. Once again members of the dominant English nationality want to impose their views on a national minority.
Of course the situation in Catalonia and Scotland today in no way resembles Yugoslavia in the 1990s. There is no equivalent of Serb paramilitaries fuelled by Serb nationalism. There is no Slobodan Milosevic. There is no Radovan Karadzic. There is no Ratko Mladic. But nobody in 1980s Yugoslavia foresaw the rise of Serb nationalism until Milosevic began to wage war against the Albanian majority in Kosova. And many hoped it would soon pass over. After all many considered themselves Yugoslavs, just as many in the Spanish state consider themselves ‘Spanish’ and in Britain ‘British’.