European Intervention

By February 1991 the Council of Europe followed the U.S. measure with its own political demands and explicit economic intervention in the internal affairs of the Yugoslav Federation. Their demand was similar: that Yugoslavia hold multi-party elections or face economic blockade.

Right-wing and fascist organizations not seen in 45 years—since the defeat of the Nazi occupation by the anti-fascist partisan movement—were suddenly revived and began receiving covert support. These fascist organizations had been maintained in exile in the U.S., Canada, Germany and Austria. Now they became the main conduit for funds and arms.

By March 1991, Croatian fascists were organizing attacks and demonstrations calling for the overturn of the socialist federation and the expulsion of all Serbs from Croatia.

On May 5, 1991, the date of the six-month deadline imposed by U.S. Foreign Operations Law 101-513, Croatian separatists staged violent demonstrations and besieged a military base in Gospic. The Yugoslav Federal Government, under attack, ordered the army to intervene. The civil war had begun. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence on June 25, 1991.

In Croatia the right-wing party, the Ustashi, came to power using fascist symbols and slogans from the era of Nazi occupation. Its program guaranteed a return to capitalist property relations and denied citizenship, jobs, pensions, passports or land ownership to all other nationalities, but especially targeted the large Serbian minority. In the face of armed expropriations and mass expulsions, the Serbs in Croatia began to arm themselves. The experience of World War II—when almost a million people, primarily Serbs, but also Jews, Romani and tens of thousands of others died in Ustashi death camps—fueled the mobilization.

As the largest nationality and the one that opposed the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation, the Serbs became the target and the excuse for Western intervention. History was turned on its head as the media portrayed the Serbs as fascists. In 1991, right-wing nationalist parties swept the elections in Slovenia and Croatia. However, in Serbia and in Montenegro the mass mood was overwhelmingly for the federation and also against further privatization or other capitalist inroads. This was an unexpected resistance to the political collapse sweeping Eastern Europe at the time.

The tactic of targeting the Serbs with UN resolutions, imposing brutal sanctions, and freezing all credit and trade also serves as a veiled threat against Russia. The breakup and dismemberment of the Soviet Union has been encouraged by the same forces that encouraged the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Reunited Germany moved aggressively into the region to consolidate its position. It was the first to openly grant diplomatic recognition to the break-away republics.

The U.S. State Department’s position after Croatia and Slovenia seceded was official support for a continued federation. But this flew in the face of the demands and the process set in motion by the U.S. Foreign Operations Law passed in 1990 before the Yugoslav civil war began.

Rewriting history

The rationale behind Western intervention in Yugoslavia is based on rewriting history.

Every debate about drawing and redrawing the map of Bosnia assumes the right of the Western powers as outside "neutral" forces to carve up and decide the fate of the region in the interests of "peace." The implied justification is that the small, barbaric nations of the Balkans are so torn by ethnic hatred that they are incapable of deciding anything themselves.

There is a bloody history in the Balkans—but it’s not the one that’s being connected to the present-day struggle. It’s much more to the point. That’s the history of the major imperialist powers battling for control and domination of this strategic crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.

The history of modern Europe sometimes seems to revolve around carving and recarving the Balkans. It is a history of continually redrawing borders and defining regions of influence, of arming mercenary bands and holding international conferences in Paris, in Berlin, in London and at the Hague to confer about which power would be in control of what region. All this was always without any consultation with the many small nationalities whose fate hung in the balance.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Turkey, Czarist Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have all considered the Balkans their rightful "sphere of influence." World War I began in Sarajevo. Although the competition and rivalry for markets extended globally—far beyond the Balkans—this small region has always been a tinderbox for the big powers.

In World War II the resistance movement to Nazi German occupation led by Marshal Tito and the League of Yugoslav Communists united the small nations of the Balkans into an explosive political force. From scattered bands of guerrillas it grew into the largest partisan movement in Europe, more than a million strong. Forty-three German divisions could not destroy the movement. This experience shaped Yugoslavia’s history and laid the basis for the socialist federation. It remains a powerful heritage today.

Today, while the capitalist media speak endlessly of "ancient ethnic hatreds," this revolutionary partisan movement and the long tradition of struggles to unite the South Slav peoples against outside domination is never mentioned.

For 45 years the Yugoslav Federation—six republics and two autonomous regions—was able to hold the Western powers at bay. It was able to develop industry in an impoverished, underdeveloped area and raise the standard of living. The fact that the IMF and U.S. banks were able to again strangle and dismember it does not negate its historical accomplishment.

Casting the Serbs as fascists

How did the Serbs come to be viewed as fascists in this developing conflict? This characterization has now become an accepted fact, an issue beyond debate. It makes U.S. motives seem unimpeachable and on the side of good against evil.

An April 1993 interview by Jacques Merlino, associate director of French TV 2, with James Harff, director of Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, explains the role of the corporate media in shaping a political issue.

Harff bragged of his services to his clients, the Republic of Croatia, the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the parliamentary opposition in Kosovo, an autonomous region of Serbia. Merlino described how Harff uses a file of several hundred journalists, politicians, representatives of humanitarian associations, and academics to create public opinion. Harff explained: "Speed is vital ... it is the first assertion that really counts. All denials are entirely ineffective."

In the interview, Merlino asked Harff what his proudest public relations endeavor was. Harff responded:

"To have managed to put Jewish opinion on our side. This was a sensitive matter, as the dossier was dangerous looked at from this angle. President Tudjman was very careless in his book, ‘Wastelands of Historical Reality.’ Reading his writings one could accuse him of anti-Semitism. [Tudjman claimed the Holocaust never happened—S.F.] In Bosnia the situation was no better: President Izetbegovic strongly supported the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in his book, ‘The Islamic Declaration.’

"Besides, the Croatian and Bosnian past was marked by real and cruel anti-Semitism. Tens of thousands of Jews perished in Croatian camps, so there was every reason for intellectuals and Jewish organizations to be hostile toward the Croats and the Bosnians. Our challenge was to reverse this attitude and we succeeded masterfully.

"At the beginning of July 1992, New York Newsday came out with the article on Serb camps. We jumped at the opportunity immediately. We outwitted three big Jewish organizations—the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, The American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. In August, we suggested that they publish an advertisement in the New York Times and organize demonstrations outside the United Nations.

"That was a tremendous coup. When the Jewish organizations entered the game on the side of the [Muslim] Bosnians we could promptly equate the Serbs with the Nazis in the public mind. Nobody understood what was happening in Yugoslavia. The great majority of Americans were probably asking themselves in which African country Bosnia was situated.

"By a single move, we were able to present a simple story of good guys and bad guys which would hereafter play itself. We won by targeting the Jewish audience. Almost immediately there was a clear change of language in the press, with use of words with high emotional content such as ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, etc., which evoke images of Nazi Germany and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. No one could go against it without being accused of revisionism. We really batted a thousand in full."

Merlino: "But between 2 and 5 Aug. 1992 when you did this you had no proof that what you said was true. All you had were two Newsday articles."

Harff: "Our work is not to verify information. We are not equipped for that. Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us, to aim at judiciously chosen targets. We did not confirm the existence of death camps in Bosnia, we just made it widely known that Newsday affirmed it. ... We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to moralize."

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