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12 August 2004 Edition

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Examining the Yugoslav conflict

Book Review

Breaking the South Slav Dream: The Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia

By Kate Hudson

Pluto Press

€10 paperback

This account of the Yugoslav crisis in the 1990s could yet emerge as the definitive account of this tragic period. Unlike the other surveys done to date, which tend to concentrate solely on the imponderable ethnic hatreds that exists between the various nationalities, this book highlights the greater role played by external powers with imperial interests in causing internal instability.

It charts the development of Yugoslav nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the first attempt to form a common identity among Slavic speakers in the Western Balkans and override the religious and dialectical differences between them (differences between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims are religious and not ethnic, in real terms).

From the foundation of the first Yugoslav state in 1919, following the Paris Peace conference after WWI, various ethnic tensions came increasingly to the fore in the new 'Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes'. The Serbs dominated this new state, with the full blessing of their Western allies, as it acted as a strategic counterweight to the expected resurgent Germany. However, perhaps more significant than the various ethnic conflicts, was the emergence of a pan-South Slavic communist movement, with the Yugoslav ideal very much at its core. They would increasingly challenge the various reactionary forces - be they Serbian Chetniks, Croatian Ustashe, right-wing Bosnian Muslims and Slovene fascists. It wasn't just reactionaries in Yugoslavia who were alarmed, but also further afield in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. All these pre-WWII developments are quite ably charted and analysed by Kate Hudson, who is principal lecturer in Russian and East European politics at South Bank University, London.

She goes on to cover the period of the Second World War and the appalling human tragedy that took place here. In this period, Josip Broz (better known as Tito) successfully led a communist partisan movement against the Nazis and their Ustashe allies, the Chetniks, and Mussolini's forces. In the following post-war period, the new regime was able to steer an independent course from Moscow. Although Tito often ruled with a heavy hand, it was a viable credible state and it is generally acknowledged that the various ethnic components were fairly treated.

With the death of Tito in 1980, this state began to drift away from its founding principles. In the 1980s, the US began to exert a major economic and subsequent political influence on Yugoslavia and demanded that they follow a neo-liberal course, which had catastrophic consequences on living standards. At this time, West Germany played a major role in sponsoring and supporting extreme right-wing secessionist groups in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. All these factors contributed significantly to the breakup of the state, according to Hudson.

She analyses three phases of war throughout the 1990s. The first phase consisted of the war between Yugoslavia and the secessionist states of Slovenia and Croatia. While the Slovenian secession was a relatively bloodless affair, the issue of a large Serbian minority in Croatia (20-25% of population there) sparked a vicious war, leaving thousands dead.

The second phase was the worst of all, with a free-for-all civil war in Bosnia between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats from 1992 to 1995. Contrary to the propaganda of the time and the perceptions today, it was not just Serbs who were involved in ethnic cleansing and war crimes. These were committed on the Serbian population as well, and also by Bosnian Muslims and Croats on each other.

Hudson points out that this war developed because of the determination of Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic, with his Muslim and Bosnian Croatian allies, to exclude the Serbs from any running of the country following Bosnia's declaration of independence in 1992 as well as other outstanding issues. She also asserts that American, EU and NATO intervention always revolved around selfish strategic interests.

The third phase of the war, the one in Kosovo, had been brewing for some time before 1998, between the majority Kosovan Albanian population and the minority Kosovan Serbian population. Hudson maintains that this war was deliberately sparked by the US and other NATO interests in order to oust Yugoslav President Milosevic, an objective they achieved.

Again, the propaganda machine swung into action and demonised the Serbs, without making any honest effort to evaluate the outstanding issues for both sides. The KLA were portrayed as freedom fighters, despite the fact that most Kosovan Albanians rejected quite overwhelmingly to give them a mandate, given their rampant criminality, such as trafficking of women of their own community to enforced prostitution in Western Europe. NATO intervened unilaterally in this conflict, pursuing their real objective of removing Milosevic, rather than to bring about a just and lasting resolution.

The book concludes with the bringing down of Milosevic and his subsequent trial in The Hague. The overall theme is that imperialist interference was always paramount in stirring up ethnic conflicts for selfish strategic interests, although Hudson does acknowledge native reactionary tendencies.

This book laments the undermining of the Yugoslav ideal for many years to come. It does a lot to lift the fog of propaganda from this contentious period and give us a far better understanding of this region and of the historical background. It is by far the best account of the recent past of this region that I know of.


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