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Ex-Yugoslavia, or: when “the beast” stuttered in Europe

French media made but sparse comments about the recent verdict of the International Tribunal in The Hague, condemning Ratko Mladić, the “Serbian butcher” and confirming on appeal a life sentence for war crimes and genocide in ex-Yugoslavia.

That among other crimes committed in ex-Yugoslavia1 a general, both author and executioner of the largest mass massacre committed in Europe since the second world war should be definitely judged for what the expression of Serbian ultra-nationalism was capable of, did not interest more than a fringe of people, while this same “beast” is still  currently on the prowl in the area. And on July 11, thousands of people probably communed in memory of Srebrenica, at the Potocari memorial, created to commemorate the victims.

As is the case for the Rwandan genocide, perpetrated in the same years, the crimes and genocide in Bosnia2,  find themselves in a political  and historical impasse in France notably, both on the left and on the right. Raising the issue of those “Bosnian years” in militant surroundings is totally obliterated by the absence of transmission, and consequently of a political memory of what will nonetheless mobilize in the early 1990s around the cry “no to ethnic cleansing”.

For Rwanda, the role played by France in providing political cover for the genocide, even supplying it with weapons, is still barely acknowledged nowadays despite the fact it is now an open secret. An open secret still denied by the social democrats who, at the time were in power jointly with what was the traditional old French right wing. The matter is more complicated for ex-Yugoslavia. The same period of confusion between social democracy and nascent neo-liberalism led to the same consequences, this time at a European scale. Moreover, one can even say that history was re-written by media falsifyers, aided by the bad conscience of that phoney “left wing”, unable or unwilling to recognize “the beast” in action in Europe.

There is nothing surprising about the fact these same falsifyers are the same ones in France now battling against “leftist islamism” and calling for a “combative form of secularism”, spring-like and Republican, which happens to be the darling of all tendencies within the French right wing.

I admit to feeling somewhat ashamed in still finding my name on a “European list” from 1994, next to the names of those who were already guilty of total duplicity at the time. For anyone who experienced it from the inside, even the story and the description of this list titled “Europe begins in Sarajevo” has now become a real fake on Wikipedia,  thanks to the contribution of specialists and peddlers in amnesia.

So why were there no politicial lessons learned and transmitted about that four-year period that brought about a large scale anti-fascist mobilization concerning a nationalist war in the heart of Europe? Why, a contrario, has there remained this media foam that persists as a stepping stone for a racist, identitarian and virilist extreme right wing, in the person of “French intellectuals” busy admiring and displaying their own navels, intellectuals whose shipwreck no longer needs to be demonstrated?

I dare say and write that the decade in question, which began by the so-called “first Gulf war” had many issues following the fall of the wall in Berlin. In the leftist movements, the rifts around the ex-big brother in the Soviet Union was producing disastrous consequences, among others. So that convulsions around the imperialist war in Irak, along with the extreme repression of the Kurdish people in Turkey, the genocide in Rwanda and… the dislocation of the ex-Yugoslavia, all received a media and political coverage depending on whatever dishonest compromises needed covering up. On these “international” questions “specialists” in the media mainly expressed the view of “tribal wars from another time.”  Meanwhile, “the beast” was laying its eggs.

Thirty years later, one can read in its broken shells the main lines of ongoing events.

Therefore, what I wish to write for this third column on “the beast” are not the reminiscences of an “old Sarajevo fighter”.

Thirty years ago, a “war of ethnic cleansing” caused the death of 130 000 people in the heart of the European continent. Relativists will say this is much less than the figures of the Covid pandemic, and only a third of the provisional numbers in the Syrian war, for example. Inhumanity has thus done much better since, with the same actors getting better at their game. So what need is there to stir up the past?

Aided at first in this by the United States, the member states of the European Union have since become masters in the way to contribute to wars by proxy, as “suppliers” of weapons and of technology, ever since direct interventions have demonstrated their devastaating consequences in creating chaos. Ruins are always bad for business, when you are not the one providing the concrete. France for example learned this lesson at its own expense  in Libya, after following the judicious advice of the prophets I mentionned above. Commentators call this “geopolitics”. States and blocks with “hegemonic vocations” confront one another by supporting regional powers with nationalist, religious and totalitarian regimes. Then follows the diplomacy conducted through  Rafale combat planes and S 400s. The regional powers themselves then delegate the “ground work” to groups to which it supplies these weapons. This is the process used by a member of NATO such as Turkey, supplying militias, gifted both in producing mass crimes and in the fine criminal detail work of targeted and daily crimes. What kind of “beast” is this, then, half-bigotted, half nationalist psychopath?

But let’s get back to Bosnia and try to to find out if this analysis was done concerning this/these wars as the expression of a wider confrontation, in line with the immediate “cold war”, and if the “nationalisms” were not simply evil bacteria liberated by the collapse of the communist block in Yugoslavia.

Finally, in this view, the “tribes” would have been awakened because the Yugoslavian communist hegemony had never respected the nation-states it was composed of? This kind of thinking is a way of saying that it was “natural” and “legitimate” for a Slovenia, a Croatia, a Serbia to exist and to redistribute territories according to majority settlements, Bosnia becoming an extra part to be divided, not to mention Macedonia and Kosovo.

Thus, where a Serbian bone rested in the sun, or a Croatian cross was raised to the sky, the land was to belong to the corresponding “nation”. And too bad if this happened to be within the same cemetery. Arise all ye Dead, in marching order for the nation!

Settlements are the result of human history. How could it be otherwise. And those settlements considered as forming a “majority” can be the result of an establishment going back millenia as well as the result  of conquest and colonizations, or of very ancient successive migrations. It is thus in this history and these strata that reside the keys to the first inklings of understanding. In the case of ex-Yugoslavia, these settlements had nothing to do with tribal migrations, but are the result of a fairly recent history involving the Ottoman empire, its wars, its conquests and its limits, in this specific case, in the European part. And going back further still, one could wonder about the origin of these “Slavs” who settled in these areas and became “mercenaries” against the Ottomans later, defending the German-speaking empire that had little regard for them previously.

But why go back that far? Why dilute into something relative this period known as the “war of ex-Yugoslavia” by presenting it as a product of human history and of territorial power confrontations? Would this simply mean that the violence of these wars of conquest, or re-conquest, are, in final analysis, the “flaw” in the human species? With apologies to our friend Prévert, but it’s the old story of “war is horrible” so, quick, peace, and at all cost. In the final reading, “the beast” had  only appeared in order to devour the victims.

As you can see, here also the “fascism” label requires another, complementing the list of additions to it.

I’m not convinced that the horror of crimes committed in the name of an exacerbated nationalism somewhere is a sufficient qualification for fascism. Because fascism does not only consist of  nationalist violence and  a political system orchestrating it, but of a full-fledged ideology that, at some point, is theorized as a response to crises, when social tensions caused by class antagonisms within a system can no longer be controlled by identitarian populism. And this ideological theory, although drawn from a common matrix and abundant, readily-available fascist literature, is always shaped according to the current crisis.

This quick detour through Bosnia thus brings me back to the beginning of this open-air column.

To be continued…

Read the other articles in the series The Vile Beast

Image : CC Lila Montana solidary photographer-journalist

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Daniel Fleury
Lettres modernes à l’Université de Tours. Gros mots politiques… Coups d’oeil politiques…