The claim of genocide
The assault on Yugoslavia has been justified by NATO and the media as a humanitarian effort to halt repression of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The heavy-handed and cynical character of the propaganda campaign that has accompanied the bombing in its own way reflects the glaring contradictions in NATO's defense of the war. The crude demonization of Yugoslav President Milosevic, the wildly divergent claims of Serb massacres and Kosovan Albanian deaths, the endless claims of “genocide,” and the barrage of TV images of suffering refugees are designed not so much to convince through the force of argument, as to wear down, inure and intimidate the public. “Opposition to NATO means support for the forced expulsion and mass murder of Albanians!” the establishment politicians and media pundits declare.
In the mobilization of public opinion behind the bombing of Iraq, the Clinton administration repeated endlessly the phrase, "weapons of mass destruction.” Only by pounding Iraq day after day, the Clinton administration declared, could the world be saved from Saddam Hussein's invisible arsenal of deadly gases, germs and chemicals. In the war against Yugoslavia, “weapons of mass destruction” has been replaced with a more powerful and evocative mantra—that of “Ethnic Cleansing.” The principal value of this phrase is that it conjures up the image of Nazi Germany. The “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo, NATO would have it, is the 1990s version of the Holocaust.
The comparison is so misleading and historically false as to be obscene. The Holocaust consisted of the rounding up of millions of Jews throughout all of Nazi-occupied and -controlled Europe and their transportation to death camps that were essentially assembly lines of mass murder.
Six million defenseless Jews were killed by the Nazis. This compares to an estimated two thousand people who were killed in Kosovo last year. (The recent claims that 250,000 Albanian men have been killed, it must be added, are noxious fabrications, which have been contradicted by first-hand observers from Western newspapers.)
Even if the total number killed in Kosovo were doubled, the loss of life would still be smaller, even adjusting for differences in population, than in many analogous conflicts around the world (for example, Sri Lanka or Turkey). The comparison is not an argument for indifference to the suffering taking place in Kosovo. It does, however, reveal the grossly misleading character of the claims that have been used by NATO to justify its full-scale bombardment of Yugoslavia.
A further point about the context of the violence in Kosovo must be made. It commenced in 1998 with the outbreak of civil war between the Albanian nationalist and separatist Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav government, which sought to retain control of the province.
The International Committee of the Fourth International, the publisher of the World Socialist Web Site, opposes all forms of national chauvinism. We hold no brief for the reactionary nationalism of the Belgrade regime. But it is a flagrant falsification of political reality to claim that the year of sectarian violence that preceded NATO's offensive was the exclusive handiwork of the Serbs. The KLA—financed with drug money and enjoying the behind-the-scenes support of CIA advisers—carried out its own campaign of terror against Serb civilians.
No small degree of hypocrisy is involved in NATO's pose as defender of the ethnic Albanian minority from Serbian repression. Consider the NATO member countries that have carried out even more extensive campaigns of “ethnic cleansing.”
Two hundred thousand Serbs were expelled from Croatia in 1995 with US support. (Croatia has since become a US ally and one of NATO's “frontline states” in the war against Serbia). Over the past fifteen years, more than one million Kurds have been driven from their villages in Turkey, with the support of the US, including American military hardware. Turkey, meanwhile, retains NATO membership and participates in the bombing of Yugoslavia.
In the punishment inflicted on the Albanian population, Serbia trails far behind the savageries inflicted by the French on Algeria or the United States on Vietnam.
Had political conditions dictated, the US media could have presented the Israeli suppression of the intifadah in 1987-91 or the massacres that unfolded in Beirut in 1982 under the auspices of the Israeli state in no less inflammatory terms than last year's events in Kosovo.
In evaluating the claim of “ethnic cleansing,” it should also be remembered that the major world powers have, on more than one occasion, cited ethnic conflicts as a justification for imperialist meddling, setting the stage for disaster. Let us recall that one of the most horrific episodes of the 20th century occurred in 1947 when Britain, citing conflicts between Hindus and Moslems in India, arranged for the establishment of the separate state of Pakistan. The violence that followed the partition claimed one million lives and created twelve million refugees.
Likewise in Yugoslavia, imperialist intervention has had the objective impact of escalating the scale of communal violence and increasing the likelihood that it will spread to neighboring countries.
The exodus from Kosovo: who is responsible?
NATO now says that a primary purpose of its offensive is to return the estimated 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to their homes in Kosovo. Here cynicism reaches new heights.
An honest review of the sequence of events that led up to the refugee crisis refutes the claims of NATO. Mass flight began after, not before, March 24. Clinton's speech that day, in which he gave the official rationale for the war, spoke almost entirely of preventing an exodus. He pointed, in fact, to the danger that, without a NATO strike, the size of the existing refugee population might expand by “tens of thousands.”
What actually happened? The bombing, destroying no small amount of Kosovo and terrorizing its inhabitants, set off a renewal in the fighting between Belgrade's forces and the KLA. Not tens but hundreds of thousands were made refugees.
Not all these consequences were unintended. The NATO powers had hoped that the air offensive would enable the KLA to push out the Serb forces, much in the same manner that the 1995 air strikes in Bosnia allowed the Croatian and Moslem forces to go on the offensive and drive out the Serbs.
As for the refugees themselves, they have been cynically used. Once the Kosovan Albanians were displaced in the aftermath of the bombing, NATO exploited their plight to drum up public support for the war, while providing only the most minimal aid to their makeshift camps, where conditions became so abhorrent that riots broke out. Even then only a relative handful of refugees were accepted into Western countries.
Some NATO military leaders have acknowledged—though their statements have gone largely unreported—that the depopulation of Kosovo works to their advantage, giving them a freer hand to initiate carpet bombing and prepare for a ground invasion of the province.
In regards to the return of the refugees, the logical question to ask is: Return to what? What portion of Kosovo's homes, workplaces, roads, bridges, and waterways has not been bombed by NATO?
The political function of propaganda
“The propagandist's purpose,” wrote Aldous Huxley in 1937, “is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” In the present war, the demonization of the Serbs has been required by the scale of NATO's violence against the Yugoslav people.
By early summer, killings by NATO will surpass those by the Serb government and KLA that preceded the alliance's intervention in Kosovo. Prior to March 24, most estimates put the total number killed in Kosovo at about 2,000 in the course of one year of civil war. Since March 24, the number of Serbs and ethnic Albanians killed by NATO is well over 1,000.
NATO, to be sure, only makes “mistakes” whereas Serbia carries out “atrocities.” Generally speaking, each new NATO claim of Serb plunder and murder follows rapidly on the heels of the latest proof of civilian deaths from NATO bombs. At any suggestion that NATO's cure is worse than the disease the spokesmen for the alliance become more shrill. “Has the real enemy been forgotten?”
An interesting question. It would seem the category of “enemy” is quickly expanding in scope. Initially, Albanian deaths and suffering were declared to be solely the fault of the Milosevic regime. In recent days, however, a more venomous strain has emerged in the propaganda war: the Serb population as a whole is to blame.
According to the new line, the Serb people have become corrupted, organically indifferent to the suffering of the Kosovan Albanians, and obsessed by an almost incomprehensible sense of victimization. According to many of the NATO propagandists, the remedy for this malaise is a ground invasion, the conquest of Belgrade and a prolonged occupation. This is described, reviving the terminology of 19th century colonialism, as a “civilizing” mission.
An imperialist war
Propaganda requires simplification. It demands that the complexities of immense political conflicts be shoved aside and public opinion be confronted with a loaded question which allows only one answer. In the present war, that question is: “Doesn't ethnic cleansing have to be stopped?”
This simplification allows the media to portray Yugoslavia rather than NATO as the aggressor. The alliance, in a complete inversion of reality, is presented as conducting an essentially defensive war on behalf of the Kosovan Albanians.
To determine the nature of a given war, its progressive or reactionary character, requires not selective examination of atrocities, which are to be found in all wars, but rather an analysis of the class structures, economic foundations and international roles of the states that are involved. From this decisive standpoint the present war being waged by NATO is an imperialist war of aggression against Yugoslavia.
The US and the European powers that form the nucleus of NATO comprise the most advanced capitalist powers of the globe. Within each of these countries, state policies express the interests of finance capital, based on the major transnational corporations and financial institutions. The continued existence of the ruling class in these countries is bound up with the expansion of capitalism throughout the world.
As a scientific term, imperialism signifies a definite historical stage in the development of capitalism as a world economic system. It denotes fundamental objective tendencies in capitalism as it developed toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. The most important of these are: the suppression of free competition by the growth of huge, monopolistic business concerns; the increasing domination of gigantic banking institutions (finance capital) over the world market; the impulsion of monopoly and finance capital in the countries where capitalism had developed most strongly (Europe, North America, Japan) to spread beyond the national borders and gain access to markets, raw materials and new sources of labor throughout the world.
Imperialism enjoys a predatory and parasitic relation to the less developed countries. Through its position of financial hegemony, using the vehicle of massive financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, imperialism is in a position to dictate policy to smaller states which rely on their credit. Through their domination of the world market, the imperialist powers drive down prices for raw materials and keep the smaller states impoverished. The more these countries borrow, the more destitute and dependent they become.
Finally, hanging over the weaker states is the ever-present threat of military bombardment. Whether they are to be apotheosized as “emerging democracies” or demonized as “rogue states” depends, in the final analysis, on where they fit in the unfolding strategic plans of world imperialism. Thus Iraq, supported by the US in its war against Iran during the 1980s, became the object of attack when it fell afoul of plans to strengthen America's grip over Middle East oil reserves.
The same is true of Serbia. In the 1980s Washington looked upon Slobodan Milosevic with favor to the extent that he initiated market policies and dismantled state industry in Yugoslavia. In the 1990s the rules of the game changed and Serbia became a thorn in the side of imperialist concerns. Milosevic joined Saddam Hussein on imperialism's list of “Most Wanted.” The judgment of imperialism on any given country or leader can change abruptly because, as Prime Minister Palmerston said of the British Empire, it has neither permanent friends, nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests.
Yugoslavia is not an imperialist power but rather a small, relatively backward country that has been diminished over the 1990s by the secession of four of its former six republics. To be sure, Milosevic's role in this process was thoroughly reactionary. His exploitation of Serbian nationalism could hardly counter the chauvinist policies of Tudjman in Croatia, Izetbegovic in Bosnia, and Kucan in Slovenia. But Milosevic was by no means the instigator of this process. Rather, he adapted himself—like so many other ex-Stalinists scoundrels in Eastern Europe—to the centrifugal social tendencies unleashed by the reestablishment of market economies.
Here the imperialist powers played a principal role, demanding the break-up of nationalized industries and the imposition of austerity policies that exacerbated simmering ethnic tensions. The economic pressure exerted upon Yugoslavia laid the objective foundations for the dissolution of the unified Balkan state. From 1991 on, the breakup of Yugoslavia was guaranteed by the political intervention of the major powers. Though a violent outcome of Yugoslav dissolution was predicted, the break-up was encouraged by Germany, which abruptly recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991, and the US, which even more recklessly gave its approval to Bosnian secession in 1992.
Yugoslavia, moreover, is not a capitalist state of even regional stature. It has no transnational conglomerates. Yugoslav finance capital plays no significant role outside the borders of the country. To the extent that one can speak of a Serbian bourgeoisie, it is only now emerging from the layers surrounding Milosevic that enriched themselves by stealing state property in the process of dismantling Yugoslavia.
Comparisons of Serbia to Nazi Germany and Milosevic to Hitler are a combination of ignorance and deceit. Scientific political analysis does not consist in the hurling of epithets. The transformation of the Austrian corporal with a loud voice and a Charlie Chaplin moustache into the most monstrous embodiment of world reaction depended upon certain objective prerequisites—namely, the immense resources of German industry. Hitler was the leader of an aggressive imperialist power that sought to achieve the hegemony of German capitalism in all of Europe. Before Hitler's bloody offensive was halted, German domination stretched from the English Channel to the Caucasus Mountains, embracing the Balkans, including Yugoslavia. Hitler's military ambitions reflected the economic appetites of Siemens, Krupp, I. G. Farben, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank and the other great German conglomerates.
Were it not for the tragic consequences associated with this distortion of historical reality, the comparison of Serbia to Nazi Germany and Milosevic to Hitler would be laughable. Serbia, to begin with, is not seeking to conquer foreign lands, but rather hold on to territory internationally recognized as falling within its borders. As for Milosevic, the main preoccupation of this “Hitler” has been to hang on to whatever he can of a rump federation whose borders have been shrinking year after year.
To sum up: This is a war by a coalition of major imperialist powers against a small, semi-backward country. It has a neo-colonialist character, trampling on Yugoslav sovereignty. Its aim is a type of NATO protectorate over Kosovo, which will likely resemble the NATO-IMF regime that runs Bosnia.
Beyond the propaganda: Why is the war being waged?
Once the fraudulent claims of the NATO spokesmen and the falsifications of the media are stripped away from this war, what remains? A naked aggression by imperialist countries against a small federation, in which the official reasons given for the onslaught serve as a smokescreen. Without the frenzied propaganda, it would be far more difficult to keep the public from inquiring into the actual reasons for the imperialist powers taking the road of military bombardment.
At the opening of this century, Rosa Luxemburg noted that capitalism is the first mode of production to have mass propaganda as a weapon at its disposal. “Humanitarianism” was, at the time of her comment just as today, a cover for taking by force that which was desired from the weaker countries. The “civilizing missions” of the US, England, France, Belgium, and Holland had the actual purpose of securing valuable raw materials, markets and geopolitical advantage over their major rivals. Likewise, today the attack on Yugoslavia aims to secure the material interests of the imperialist powers.
For starters, the Western powers are positioning themselves to exploit Kosovo's abundant mineral reserves, which include substantial deposits of lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and gold. Kosovo also holds an estimated 17 billion tons of coal reserves. But this is merely the “small change” of imperialist calculations. The immediate material gains that might be plundered from Kosovo are dwarfed by the far greater potential for enrichment that beckons in regions further to the east where the NATO powers have developed immense interests over the past five years. It is astonishing that so little attention has been paid to the connection of this war to the world strategic ambitions of the US and the other NATO powers.