Imperialism and the Balkans
To the extent that the media maintained its monomaniacal focus on the theme of ethnic cleansing, it deterred an examination of the more substantial and essential reasons for the decision of the Clinton administration to launch its assault against Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, with only a few honorable exceptions, US academic experts in the field of Balkan history and international politics showed little inclination to publicly challenge the propaganda campaign. Indeed, they lent a degree of intellectual credibility to the US government's humanitarian posturing by dismissing the very suggestion that any significant material interests were at stake in the Balkans.
As even a cursory study of the region reveals, this is certainly false.Kosovo is rich in marketable resources. Finally breaking its long silence on the subject, the New York Timesthat pillar of the US State Departmentcarried an article on June 2, 1999 entitled, "The Prize: Issue of Who Controls Kosovo's Rich Mines." It began: "A number of unofficial partition plans have been drawn up for Kosovo, all raising the question of who would control an important northern mining region. The bombing has made up-to-date production figures difficult to come by. Experts say the resources include large deposits of coal, along with some nickel, lead, zinc and other minerals."
Of course, the presence of such resources cannot, in and of itself, provide an adequate explanation for the war. It would be too great a simplification of complex strategic variables to reduce the decision to launch a war to the presence of certain raw material in the targeted country.
However, the concept of material interests embraces more than immediate financial gains for one or another industry or conglomerate. The financial and industrial elites of the imperialist countries determine their material interests within the framework of international geopolitical calculations. There are cases in which a barren strip of land, devoid of intrinsic value in terms of extractable resources, may still be viewedperhaps due to geographical location or the vagaries of international political relationships and commitmentsas a strategic asset of inestimable value. Gibraltar, which consists mainly of a large rock, is precisely such an asset. There are other regions which possess such extraordinary intrinsic valuenotably the Persian Gulfthat the imperialist powers will stop at nothing to retain control of them.
The Balkans do not float above a sea of oil; nor is it a barren wasteland. But its strategic significance has been a constant factor in imperialist power politics.If only because of its geographic location, either as a critical transit point for Western Europe toward the east, or as a buffer against the expansion of Russia (and later the USSR) toward the south, the Balkans played a critical role in the international balance of power. Events in the Balkans led to the outbreak of World War I because the ultimatum delivered by Austria-Hungary to Serbia in July 1914 (shades of the US-NATO ultimatum 85 years later) threatened to destabilize the precarious equilibrium between the major European states.
One of the famous "Fourteen Points" formulated by Wilson as a basis for ending the World War championed the rights of Serbia, including the right of access to the sea (which is now threatened by the United States' encouragement of Montenegrin secessionism). After the conclusion of World War II, the deepening confrontation with the Soviet Union was the decisive factor in determining US policy toward the new regime in Belgrade led by Marshal Tito. The eruption in 1948 of a bitter conflict between Stalin and Tito had a dramatic impact upon Washington's assessment of Yugoslavia's role in world affairs.Viewing Tito's regime as an obstacle to Soviet expansion via the Adriatic Sea into the Mediterranean (and, thereby, toward both southern Europe and the Middle East), the United States became a determined advocate of Yugoslavia's unity and territorial integrity.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union altered Washington's relations with Belgrade.Without the specter of Soviet expansion, the United States no longer saw any need to retain its commitment to a unified Yugoslav state. American policy reflected a new set of concerns related to the rapid reorganization of the economies of the former USSR and the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe on the basis of capitalistic market principles. After some initial hesitation, American policy makers were won to the view that the process of economic denationalization and the penetration of Western capital would be facilitated by the breakup of the old centralized state structures that had played so great a role in the Soviet-style bureaucratically-directed economies. The United States and its Western European allies then proceeded to orchestrate the dismantling of the unitary Yugoslav Federation. This was done, quite simply, by officially recognizing the republics of the old Federationbeginning with Slovenia, Croatia, and then Bosniaas independent sovereign states. The results of this policy were catastrophic. As Professor Raju G.C. Thomas, a leading expert on the Balkans, has pointed out:
"There were no mass killings taking place in Yugoslavia before the unilateral declaration of independence by Slovenia and Croatia and their subsequent recognition by Germany and the Vatican followed by the rest of Europe and the United States. There were no mass killings taking place in Bosnia before the recognition of Bosnia. Preserving the old Yugoslav state may have proved to be the least of all evils. Problems began when recognition or pressures to recognize occurred. The former Yugoslavia had committed no aggression' on its neighboring states. Surely then, the real aggression' in Yugoslavia began with the Western recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. The territorial integrity of a state that was voluntarily created and which had existed since December 1918 was swept aside.In 1991, new state recognition policy provided a method of destroying long-standing sovereign independent states. When several rich and powerful states decide to take a sovereign independent state apart through the policy of recognition, how is this state supposed to defend itself? There can be no deterrence or defense against this form of international state destruction. Indeed, the West led by Germany and later the US dismembered Yugoslavia through the policy of state recognition."
The international strategic implications of the dissolution of the USSR provided yet another reason for the United States and NATO to encourage the dismantling of the old Yugoslav Federation. The United States was anxious to exploit the power vacuum created by the Soviet collapse to rapidly project its power eastward and assert control over the vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas in the newly-independent Central Asian republics of the old USSR. Within this new geopolitical environment, the Balkans assumed exceptional strategic importance as a vital logistical staging ground for the projection of imperialist power, particularly that of the United States, toward Central Asia.
Herein lay the ultimate source of the conflict between the United States and the regime of Milosevic. To be sure, Milosevic was neither opposed to the establishment of a market economy in Yugoslavia nor, for that matter, to the elaboration of a working relationship with the major imperialist powers. But the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation, contrary to the initial expectations of Milosevic, worked to the disadvantage of Serbia.
One need not sympathize with the program of Milosevic to recognize that imperialist policies in the Balkans were shot through with a "hypocritical double standard" that weakened Serbia and endangered the entire Serbian community living in different parts of the old Federation. While actions taken by Croatian and Bosnian Muslim military forces which included what came to be known as "ethnic cleansing" were largely viewed as legitimate measures of national self-defense, those of the Serbs were denounced as intolerable violations of international order. The logic of Yugoslav dissolution tended to criminalize every measure taken by Serbia to defend its national interests within the new state system. Recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia transformed the Yugoslav army, in the eyes of the imperialist "international community," into aggressors who threatened the independence and sovereignty of new independent states. The actions of Serb minorities outside the borders of what remained of the old Federation were likewise viewed as examples of Yugoslav aggression. To the extent that Serbian dissatisfaction with the result of the carve-up of the Balkan peninsula proved disruptive to the far-reaching strategic aims of American imperialism, it aroused the ire of Washington and led it to conclude that Serbia had to be taught an unforgettable lesson.