The Balkan Peninsula has played a special role in Europe’s political imagination. For the greater part of contemporary history this region figured as a kind of barbaric wasteland. Barbaric in the original sense of the word, that is, of people speaking incomprehensible languages. Beyond this linguistic sense, barbarity was usually, and more importantly, attached to the level (or lack) of civilisational development – cultural, political, and economic. In all of these aspects, the Balkans were, and more or less still are, seen as the backward region of Europe. This also generates the more common imagery of the barbarian, the crude, primitive, aggressive, chaotic, unorderly, etc. If the United States had the Wild West, Europe had the Wild Southeast. The collective political imaginary of Europe has been quick to point its finger at the Balkans as a kettle always brewing with potential conflicts and always threatening to spill over into more civilised European nations. As Bismarck remarked in 1888: ‘One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.’
In order to fully comprehend the contemporary situation in the former Yugoslavia, we need to glance at the Second World War. Besides the partisans led by Josip Broz Tito, general secretary of the Yugoslav Communist Party, at the time still a staunch supporter of Stalin and a member of Comintern, there were other forces at work whose political ancestors played a marginalised role during the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but gained a political voice and social following after the breakup.
Specifically, these were forces that openly collaborated with either Nazi Germany or fascist Italy and had to various degrees gotten support from them combined with some autonomy. This was first and foremost the case with the Independent State of Croatia, led by Ante Pavelić and his fascist Ustaše regime. The Ustaše were notorious for their brutality and bloodthirstiness, which in many cases surpassed and even disgusted the Nazis. A case in point was the Jasenovac concentration camp where more than one hundred thousand Jews, Roma, communists, homosexuals, Muslims, Serbs, and others met their tragic fate. The Serbs were victims of a special level of ferocity and brutality; a special kind of claw-like knife attached to the wrist was invented, named ‘the Serb cutter’, to make the slaughtering of prisoners even quicker.
Other regions did not enjoy the kind of autonomy that the independent state of Croatia did (which included all of contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as parts of modern Serbia). In other cases, the territories were either integrated, as with Slovenia – where territory was annexed by Germany, Italy, and Hungary – or puppet governments were installed (as in Serbia). In these instances, some political forces also collaborated with the fascists. In Serbia there were Chetniks under the command of general Draže Mihajlević, who were loyal to the former king of Yugoslavia (then in exile in London), and which at first even participated to some extent in the common anti-fascist struggle in an ad hoc coalition with Tito’s partisans, only later to collaborate with the Nazis. Lastly, in Slovenia, there were the Domobranci, who swore allegiance to Hitler; they were backed by some sections of the Catholic church and represented themselves as a kind of defence against the harassment of the civil population on the part of partisans and against the prospect of the Communist Party gaining sole political hegemony. What happened at the end of the War, and also after it, is likewise crucial to understanding contemporary antagonisms.
The Germans, Ustaše, the Domobranci, and others tried to reach Austria and surrender to the allies there, which seemed more promising than facing the wrath of the local population. Despite the capitulation of Germany and the signing of the Armistice, these units had not laid down their arms and had retreated in military formation. Up to two weeks after the official end of the war armed struggles between them and the partisans continued. When they finally reached southern Austria, an area under British supervision, the British refused to take them in and even sent them back to Yugoslavia, though leading them to believe they were going to Italy. The agreement between the allies was that each country would deal with its own people. It goes without saying that in being extradited to Yugoslavia many of these people were liquidated without a trial, in dubious circumstances or under false pretence.
As brutal as these extrajudicial killings appear from today’s vantage point, they cannot be understood outside the circumstances in which they took place. To a somewhat lesser extent similar post-war killings were perpetrated throughout Europe. Nevertheless, the fact is that their magnitude was much greater in a specific region, north-eastern Slovenia, where fighting continued for two whole weeks after the peace treaty was signed. Because of the greater concentration of population and armed soldiers, the percentage of killings and the absolute figure was also much higher there. As Yugoslavia and its Communist leadership turned out to be on the right side of history, had practically achieved total self-liberation, and later even dared to challenge Stalin, the Yugoslav League of Communists emerged from the War as a great political and moral victor. At the same time, collaborators were of course prosecuted and unanimously seen as traitors for helping the very forces that had openly declared their plans to enslave or exterminate the races they considered inferior.
Yugoslavia, it is true, contributed many genuinely new ideas to the world socialist movement, from the idea of socialist self-management, as opposed to the Soviet planned economy, to the non-aligned movement that challenged the bipolar constitution of the world and became a decisive force in the United Nations. However, in many respects the post-war renewal came to a clear halt at the beginning of 1970s, that is, the period from which the onset of neoliberalism in western societies is usually dated. That very similar processes took place in the East Bloc, as well as Yugoslavia for that matter, is generally overlooked. The world in general has enjoyed steady economic growth since the Second World War, but economic stagflation set in by the 1970s. We should not be deceived by appearances; although Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were not governed by Reaganomics, this does not mean that serious attempts at liberalising the markets were not made, and to a lesser extent implemented.
In almost all of its constituent republics, there were liberal currents inside the parties making up the Yugoslav League of Communists, which wanted to liberalise and deregulate the economy. As this was an inner party struggle, and the liberal current was in a minority, the more hard-line, orthodox majority, headed by Tito himself, eventually prevailed. Though this attempt at liberalisation was averted and unity and the central role of party were maintained, it was, as could be seen later, only a temporary victory. On the one hand, despite their defeat, the ghost of liberal ideas was out of the bottle. In the 1980s when, for example in Slovenia, civil society was increasingly critical of the federal authorities and to a lesser extent, of the national authorities as well, there was an explicit referral to the liberalism that had been defeated a decade earlier. Liberalism in the political sense, that is, autonomy and independence of civil society, respect for human rights, a multi-party system, as well as economic liberalism, now had returned in a comeback the system was not able to block. One of the reasons for its success was the above-mentioned global turn to neoliberalism; although these currents had been suppressed in the East Bloc, they were, with the cabinet of Margaret Thatcher and administration of Ronald Reagan, becoming the official doctrine of the West. A kind of post-war cohabitation was ending, and a renewed power struggle initiated by policies such as Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ was to be the final challenge to actually existing socialism, which it was not able to withstand.
This global political pressure was combined with economic pressure, as in the case of Yugoslavia, which, in order to receive new loans or loan extensions from the International Monetary Fund, had to increasingly change, that is, liberalise and deregulate its economy. The liberal current was thus both internal and external and ultimately succeeded in toppling the socialist state structure.
But it is not only liberalism that accounts for the breakup of Yugoslavia. An almost equally potent force, which had to be continually held at bay, and conceded to, was of course nationalism. Yugoslavia’s constantly repeated central slogan was ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. The weight and importance that national unity and the brotherhood of nations had for the Yugoslav League of Communists is obvious as it was essential for building a state and society on the ruins of the Second World War, a war almost exclusively characterised by extreme nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. That being said, the issue of nations and nationalities was a very complex one and was defined by a much more complex attitude than the quite general dismissal of liberalism on the part of the party leadership. On the one hand, the League had to maintain a stable balance between the nation and nationalities, even build on national solidarities and unity. In a more positive perspective, there was an attempt at developing some initial elements of a Yugoslav identity, but this had to be done very cautiously as too aggressive measures would quickly destabilise the balance of nations. Despite all languages having equal rights, Serbo-Croatian was the de facto lingua franca of Yugoslavia.
It is quite interesting to look at today’s linguistic situation in the former Yugoslavia; where Serbo-Croatian once had primacy, the acronym BHS (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian) is now seen, and recently even Montenegrin has begun to be developed as Montenegro’s language. As these languages have much more in common than they have differences between them, the grammatical differences having been, throughout the 1990s, artificially produced and exaggerated. While in Yugoslavia all students were obliged to take classes in Serbo-Croatian, these classes were immediately abolished after gaining independence, for example in Slovenia. One of the sad outcomes was that the youth, especially those with little to no connection to the cultural space of ex-Yugoslavia, have almost no knowledge of Serbo-Croatian and now usually communicate in English.
The post-war period was arguably the most economically successful. Indeed a number of countries in the region still fall short of the levels of development that existed before the breakup of Yugoslavia and the fall of actually existing socialism. The programme of aggressive market liberalisation and deregulation, as well as the privatisation of public infrastructure (energy, health, education, etc.), have been the major characteristics of the regional transition to market capitalism. Along with deindustrialisation, processes of political subjugation have also taken place. Despite the broad political consensus in the region that joining the European Union and NATO was desirable and inevitable, the fact is that doing so has dealt further blows to the economic and political sovereignty of these countries. Rethinking industrial policy in the Balkan region, therefore, must take into account this rather limited sovereignty that constrains radical industrial-policy proposals. In some countries, monetary policy is impossible (Slovenia joined the EMU in 2007), while others (Kosovo and Montenegro) are using the euro as their de facto domestic currency. In still other cases, savings accounts are tied to a foreign currency (in Croatia to the Swiss franc). Be that as it may, most of the Balkan region still has its own currency and thus could manipulate it to its benefit and for greater industrial output (notwithstanding that such a move would probably bring a negative response from the EU).
A bedrock of any meaningful reindustrialisation includes the nationalisation of some of the previously privatised infrastructure that is of major economic and strategic importance. In many cases, and especially in Slovenia, there already was de facto nationalisation of a great deal of nonperforming companies, which were bailed out through state-backed and guaranteed loans and are now once again slated to be privatised. In such cases, (re-) nationalisation could be much swifter but then again it would inevitably have to face EU discontent with such policies. This brings us to the basic truth that this region has to face, which is that divided it simply does not stand a chance and is destined to remain a long-term periphery of the European core countries.
We have tried to indicate the contemporary political situation faced by progressive forces in the region, which required a quick and very general overview of the last couple of decades. We did this to show that incumbent political players all have roots in that past. Liberal democratic forces usually claim connection to attempts at liberalisation in the 1970s and its protagonists as well as parts of the civil-society movements of the 1980s. Nationalist, conservative, and religious political groups have recently been aggressively pushing a revisionist historical and political agenda. In Slovenia this means the rehabilitation of the collaborationist forces of the Second World War – the Domobranci – mostly on the part of the SDS (Slovenian Democratic Party) and the NSi (Christian Democratic Party). In Croatia such rehabilitation refers to the Ustaše regime, and in Serbia, the Chetniks are being politically rehabilitated as well. Apart from the liberal and conservative bloc, there is, at least officially, a social democratic bloc, but upon closer examination it is clear that it does not belong in a separate category.
After the breakup of Yugoslavia, there were different scenarios involving the newly established socialist, social democratic, even communist parties, which all claimed to be the true heir to the Yugoslav League of Communists. In some cases, as in Slovenia and Croatia, these became the typical Western social democratic parties; in others, as in Serbia under Milošević, they were even a ruling force for many years to come. Despite confusing some Western intellectuals (even Noam Chomsky), Milošević and his Socialist Party represented something completely different from the Yugoslav League of Communists, as events throughout the 1990s made abundantly clear. In other cases, the inflation of these parties and lack of any real political power made them marginal and without any meaningful impact on political life. Ultimately, where the social democratic camp did function, it acted like the currently typical western type of social democratic party. In other words, it ultimately pursued a neoliberal agenda.
Furthermore, even the two political camps that ultimately remain in the region, that is the liberals and conservatives, are not all that different from each other, at least in their economic policy. We could say that the conservatives are advocating an ‘honest’ and proper neoliberalism, while the liberals are trying to present it as ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. Incidentally, the results are, from the standpoint of capital, usually even more favourable when the liberals are in government. Those differences that ultimately do exist regard issues such as the right to abortion, the separation of state and church, LGBTQ rights, etc. This shows that despite multiparty systems, which each of the former Yugoslav republics nominally has, there in each instance is a de facto two-party system. There is a liberal group of parties (including the social democrats), and there is the conservative group of parties (including nationalists). In other words, the evolution of the political scene involves two factions of capital with more or less the same basic interests and economic policies continuously trying to take power. They have some meagre cultural differences which they (especially the liberals) are willing to concede if they get in the way of their economic interests, which is almost always the case.
Thus progressive left forces in the region faced a manifold task in trying to constitute themselves. On the one hand, there were the liberal and conservative forces that have hegemonised the political space. These were their opponents in various civil-society struggles as well as student struggles in the region such as the occupation of the Faculty of Arts in Belgrade and Zagreb and then later in Ljubljana as well, all within only a couple of years. And there were the campaigns for the rights of the LGBTQ people who still do not have universal and equal rights in any of the region’s countries. Criticism of the NATO accession process was a huge mobilising factor, especially in Slovenia, and really unified broad strata of civil society, as did the protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently, anti- austerity protests have been occurring in the region against the policies of the European Commission, although many of these measures have already been extensively implemented in the transition to market capitalism. In general, Eastern Europe had experienced a decade earlier much of what the financial crisis brought about in the West.
These actions and experiences were formative for a whole generation, which received its political education from them and who were then able to critically reflect on the ever persistent question: what is to be done? In almost all instances, the answer tended towards more intense political articulation of the whole project, specifically, moving it beyond the narrow constraints of university struggles and making it a truly universal struggle. This, of course, brought the dilemma of what kind of organisational form is needed to best enter such broader political struggles.
In the case of Slovenia, this led to the establishment of the United Left coalition that now has 6 out of 90 MPs in the Slovenian National Assembly. Other parties have been founded, like Radnička Front (Workers Front) in Croatia or Leica (The Left) in Macedonia. In Croatia, many progressive media initiatives were successfully implemented, first and foremost the regional web portal Bilten, which covers the news in the whole Balkan region from a critical left perspective. Another very important organisation, also from Croatia, BRID (platform for workers initiative and democracy), which specialises in cooperation with trade unions, has gained a lot of concrete experience with day-to-day labour struggles.
Another step forward in reanimating the efforts of progressive forces in the region was the establishment of the League of the Balkan Left, which aims to connect progressive movements, civil-society initiatives, and political parties across the Balkans. Its short-term objective is to build a communication platform that will serve as a medium for information exchange. The League of the Balkan Left has only just come into existence and has a very short history. The idea was first put forward at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation regional summer school in Baška, Krk (Croatia) in October 2015, specifically at a workshop devoted to the issue of regional cooperation. At that time the idea that a kind of delegate system for continuous communication needed be established gained general support. The follow-up meeting on a smaller (delegate) scale was held in February 2016 in Brežice, Slovenia. This meeting was devoted to concretising the general ideas adopted in Baška and also served as a team-building event for the first assembly of the participating delegates.
Currently, there are around 16 different organisations involved in the process of building this Balkan network. Each organisation is represented by at least one delegate. These represent a wide array of organisations. Some are student organisations such as Iskra (Slovenia), Mugra (Macedonia), while others primarily focus on media work, such as Bilten (Croatia). There was also a representative of Brid (Croatia), which is predominantly working with trade unions and workers on the shop floor. In addition, Left Summit from Serbia is a broad coalition of many different organisations, while Initiative for Democratic Socialism (Slovenia) is a political party, a member of the United Left coalition and has representatives in the Slovenian parliament. And then there were representatives of more theoretically oriented projects, along with representatives from Bulgaria, Romania, Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In all, the organisations, their focus, and their state of development reflect the broader development of left forces in the region. As such, they provide a realistic starting ground for stronger regional cooperation and exchange of ideas and experience.
When continuous and reliable communication is established, the next, mid-term objective is to begin work on common projects. Coordination of the regional activities, such as the anti-privatisation struggle, exchange of experiences in field work, policy-making, campaign coordination, etc. are among the many activities that may be promoted through the Balkan network sometime in the next six to twelve months. Despite its short history the League of the Balkan Left does have a longer past, its aspirations coming out of various conferences (of a more academic or political nature) that took place in the region in the last three to four years. To mention but a few: the Subversive Film Festival (Zagreb, Croatia), the May Day School (Ljubljana, Slovenia), conferences by the Centre for Political Emancipation (Belgrade, Serbia), etc. We see the League of the Balkan Left as a qualitative step for furthering these efforts and bringing them to a new level.