The wars in Croatia (1991-5), Bosnia (1992-5), and Kosova (1999), all part of the break-up of Yugoslavia, were among the first wars of the new era following the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe (1989) and the USSR (1991).
And the different attitudes then of different trends on the left were among the first markers of how the left would differentiate in the new era.
Workers’ Liberty backed the peoples of Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova in their struggle for self-determination against what we saw as Serbian proto-imperialism, quasi-imperialism, or sub-imperialism.
Leading figures of the parliamentary left then, such as Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner, saw the Croatian and Bosnian governments, and the Kosovars, as catspaws for aggression by German or American imperialism against the old Yugoslavia and against Serbia. Some of their co-thinkers identified Milosevic’s Serbia as the last redoubt in Europe of socialism, when in fact it was privatising and marketising in much the same way as other ex-Stalinist states, while retaining highly authoritarian rule.
One group, Workers’ Press, did valuable and courageous work to promote Workers’ Aid to Bosnia, with convoys to Tuzla, but politically refused to see anything but the “defence of Bosnia” and multi-ethnic democracy against “fascism”.
They rightly praised the attitude of the trade unions in Tuzla, but refused to register the increasingly Muslim-communalist and sometimes sectarian drift of the Bosnian government of Alia Izetbegovic.
Workers’ Press wound up in 1996, and there was little direct sequel to its policy on Bosnia.
The attitude of Socialist Worker, however, would have sequels.
They saw the Bosnian war as only “a cynical battle between ruling groups with two aims in mind: to grab as much territory as possible and, in doing so, to stir ethnic hatred...” (Socialist Review, July August 1995).
Unlike the pro-Serbian former admirers of the USSR, Socialist Worker had a record which suggested a better response.
When some on the left had denounced nationalistic rebellions in Hungary and Poland against USSR domination as imperialist-inspired attacks on “socialism”, Socialist Worker had supported the rights of the Hungarian and Polish peoples.
But Socialist Worker was shifting. In 1987 it had switched its attitude on the Iran-Iraq war which raged from 1980 to 1988.
Until 1987 Socialist Worker had, like us, said that was a war in which socialists could back neither side. On neither side was it a fight, however warped, for national liberation. It was a battle between two aspirant regional powers for regional domination.
Now Socialist Worker backed Iran, on the grounds, so they said, that they had discovered that the USA was backing Iraq. (In fact the USA had been doing that since early in the war. It feared that Iran, as the bigger power, would overrun Iraq, and focused its policy on preventing a clear Iranian victory).
Thus Socialist Worker buried the positive democratic principle of national rights as a guideline, and replaced it by the negative rule of supporting whomever was “against imperialism”. And, as the power of the USSR crumbled, Socialist Worker increasingly identified “imperialism” as just the USA.
As Yugoslavia fell apart, the big powers generally sought to minimise separation and, for as long as it seemed even half-plausible, to press the weaker nationalities to be patient and continue under Serbian overlordship. The big powers imposed an arms embargo on the Bosnian government in the 1992-5 war.
But the USA tilted somewhat more towards Bosnia than the European powers. The USA was the driving force behind the NATO bombing of some Serb positions in 1995 and the subsequent (botched) Dayton Agreement of 1995, which ended the war with Bosnia intact.
That US tilt was enough to persuade Socialist Worker that the Bosnian cause was not “anti-imperialist” enough to support.
By 1999, and the Kosova war, Socialist Worker had moved further pro-Milosevic. They did not deny that Milosevic was to be criticised, but now he was up against the USA, and the main thing had to be opposition to the USA.
Over Bosnia, Socialist Worker also emphasised that the Bosnian government was dominated by a Muslim party (the SDA), which had a Muslim-chauvinist wing, and “the Muslims of Bosnia were not an oppressed group before the war started”.
At that time, Socialist Worker like others on the left took it for granted that the left should oppose Muslim-chauvinism or political Islamism. And (again like others on the left) they must have taken the fact that the hijab had been banned in Bosnia from 1950 to 1992 as a (bureaucratic) form of secularism, rather than as “Islamophobia”.
Things are different with Socialist Worker these days. It denounces ex-Muslim secularists as “racists”, praises Hamas, claimed to be “the best fighters for Muslims” as its election pitch in its 2004-07 “Respect” period, and hails hijab-wearing as a gesture of solidarity with the oppressed.
The Bosnia story shows us that those attitudes come not from any principled stance for universal rights, but from the negativist “back whomever fights the USA” rule, and a catchpenny opportunist hope that militancy against the USA (no matter for what positive alternative) may win support.