The radical left, libertarians, and interpreting Yugoslavia
February 15, 2021 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeing competing narratives on what happened in Yugoslavia. I am not trying to legitimate them but don't understand the political landscape.

I was in high school in 1984. The standard narrative is that the Serbs were ethnic cleansing and American intervened with bombings, etc. and eventually the perpetuators were brought to justice in a war tribunal. I don't disagree with this. But then I see Ted Carpenter from the Cato institute arguing that everyone in the conflict was equally to blame. And then Edward Hermann and Noam Chomsky arguing about the Srebrenica massacre and other details.

Why are the the libertarians and the far left arguing over the details of the war in Yugoslavia? I don't understand what's at stake here. I'm not being disingenuous or trying to whitewash the atrocities, just trying to understand what the motive is for these conflicting narratives. Is there a single book that covers these differing ideological readings of the war?

tl;dr What is up with the far left, libertarians and the Yugoslavian war?
posted by mecran01 to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea why this is popping up now (although I just happen to be in the middle of the BBC’s Death of Yugoslavia documentary, so maybe I’m part of some bigger trend), but I think it’s safe to say that your “standard narrative” is an oversimplification. There have been ICTY convictions on all sides. In particular, my impression is that the standard narrative lets Croatia off really easily.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Yugoslavia is on people’s minds because ethnic nationalism is on people’s minds. But that’s not based on any real knowledge.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:04 PM on February 15 [3 favorites]

Perhaps it's part of the endless war on the Clintons?

I'm in Europe, I have lots of friends from the region that once was Yugoslavia, and members of my family were deeply involved in the Western response, both at a high level and on the ground. It was extremely complicated, and the creation of a simplified narrative was probably necessary for anything to be done.
The Croatians were at least as cruel and genocidal as the Serbians in some areas, but got away with it.

In our current weird political situation where up is down and left is right, it's perhaps worth mentioning that Russia supported and still supports Serbia for cultural/religious reasons and also because it was their only option for keeping a sliver of influence in the region. And Russia also supports both the far left and the far right in the US and some other countries (wherever they can get a foot in).

To complicate things, France also has ties to Serbia, which somehow paves a path for some people on the radical left. Specifically in Serbia, much less in the other countries, the cultural elite were part of the nationalist movement. These people had close ties with the cultural elites in other European nations, which I think has confused a lot of people. I usually say that for the first many years, I thought people on the far right were joking. Their ideas were so far out. They weren't.
posted by mumimor at 2:21 PM on February 15 [6 favorites]

At least with respect to Chomsky & Hermann, it's sort of a "thing" for them -- they also tried to downplay the Khmer Rouge atrocities, using essentially the same arguments. Look for an article in The Nation, 1977. I have my particular opinions on why Chomsky tends to do this, but they'd be a distraction from the matter at hand.
posted by aramaic at 2:38 PM on February 15 [7 favorites]

What’s at stake (I think!) is the question of whether socialism/“communism” works or not. For tankies, Yugoslavia was too capitalist, it didn’t go far enough (no true communist). For libertarians, it’s an example of communism not working, since everyone there was desperate for Levi’s and McDonald’s. (Really it was a kind of benevolent dictatorship that only *just* held each republic’s ethno-nationalistic ambitions in check as long as Tito lived, after which it imploded.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:50 PM on February 15 [4 favorites]

This is something I have thought a lot about too (from a left perspective--not aware about what the Cato Institute is saying.) For a lefty American, Yugoslavia is an interesting case study in war and foreign policy. Leftists have relatively straightforward, common-sense answers when it comes to domestic policy--single-payer health care is elegant and cuts right to the core of many issues, for example. But when you ask leftists to articulate a coherent foreign policy outlook, things get a lot trickier.

It's easy to be anti-war when the war in question is something obviously compromised like Iraq or Vietnam, but IMO it's fair to ask if stronger countries have a burden of responsibility in the face of flagrant genocide and human rights violations. There is no easy answer to this problem, but ideologues will try hard to make complex cases like Yugoslavia fit their narratives. The genocide thing is particularly weird. Chomsky and Johnstone resist the characterization of Srebrenica as a "genocide," but no one seems to disagree that it was an egregious civilian massacre and human rights violation. Seems to be a weird hill to die on. The larger post-Yugoslavia ambiguity is frustrating but if anything I think it makes it even more important to learn about the details of the conflict so you can have a nuanced understanding.
posted by zeusianfog at 3:09 PM on February 15 [8 favorites]

AIUI, there were a lot of different governmental and quasi-governmental entities around and operating semi-independently of each other, so trying to nail down what "the Serbians" or "the Croatians" or whoever did quickly runs into the issue that none of these somewhat fluid groups were monolithic. There were war criminals among many of the different ethnic and national groups, lending some credence to the "they're all bastards" narrative, but the magnitude of the crime, and the extent of official color under which it was done, varied widely. My (admittedly somewhat ignorant) sense of where things lie is that a disproportionately high level of atrocity came from Serbs, that Croats were less terrible but still didn't have clean hands, and that Bosnians were more often victims than perpetrators.
posted by jackbishop at 6:22 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]

I worked for a company some years back which was mostly Croatians. I asked one of my friends - and they were all intelligent, educated people - and she said, "We're nice people. It's just that every so often we have to kill each other."
The area known as 'the former Yugoslavia' has been like this back to before Roman times. The ethnic groups have remained separate, and every so often someone decides to get even for the last atrocities fifty years back, which were reprisals for the ones before that. Every time there's a war - and you have to put this in the context of Europe, which is seen as being calm and sophisticated, and which actually has a staggeringly bloody history - one side allies with anyone they can find and goes after the other guys. Very often they don't get on the good side of either history or human rights.
Another friend found out I was working with a Serb, and was outraged. A year later I found that they were sharing an office, quite happily. I asked how they managed to get along. "We don't behave like that in this country." And this was from someone who had seen atrocities against children.
I think it's a combination of long memories, millennia of violence, and a culture which says that you don't punish individuals, you strike at anyone from that ethnic group, even generations later. But also - and no culture is immune to this - the perception is that a strong leader is preferable to a decent or wise one, and that a bad man who's on your side is in no way a problem.
Also, of course, the mad political desire to make countries out of multiple ethnic groups which do not get along is part of the problem. How much, I can't say. I suspect that it's not over yet. It's not a mess I'd want to have to sort out.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 7:45 PM on February 15 [4 favorites]

>Also, of course, the mad political desire to make countries out of multiple ethnic groups which do not get along is part of the problem.

I mean all the areas concerned have been multicultural since forever, people from different groups have intermarried, there are siblings and cousins with different nationalities. At no point in history was *any* place 100% associated with 100% of a single ethnicity, this very much includes the former Yugoslavia. The lie that keeps things going is that this is possible. Ethnonationalism esp seen through the framework of the modern state is a dangerous fiction. And yet for sure, people have long memories and right, no one is totally innocent. (Not unlike eg Ireland and Northern Ireland, I understand.) Also Yugoslavia was strategically important to Russia and other outside actors for many reasons, and the shape of its republics and territories and groups have most definitely been influenced by them too, it’s not all internal stuff.

Both the yearning for identity (for pragmatic reasons like joining the EU, as much as sentimental ones) and its impossibility are sidestepped by communists and libertarians, same with foreign influence.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:47 PM on February 15 [5 favorites]

The sense I get of why people are arguing over the details of the Yugoslavian War now is a combination of:
  • the standard narrative is an oversimplification of what actually happened and people like being the ones who genuinely know so it's a good topic
  • in particular, a distinction can plausibly be made between the actions of the Bosnian Serbs, and of the Serbian Serbs, with the Serbian Serbs having committed fewer crimes than the standard narrative implies giving them underdog status, which some people are drawn to championing
  • the Clintons are not left enough, this happened under their watch and there has been a renewed interest in them since 2015-6
  • it's in someone's (the Russians, the Serbs) interests to rehabilitate Serbia further by rewriting the standard narrative and they're deliberately doing so in ways that appeal to this group
None of those points have much to do with what actually happened. My very uninformed understanding is similar to jackbishop's, but I assume it's all more complicated in reality.
posted by plonkee at 3:03 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]

The area known as 'the former Yugoslavia' has been like this back to before Roman times. The ethnic groups have remained separate, and every so often someone decides to get even for the last atrocities fifty years back, which were reprisals for the ones before that.

With all due respect, the focus on ethnic nationalism that we have seen through the last decades is both a load of rubbish and also a real method for incitement to violence. It's the same with the "shia-sunni divide", which millions of shia and sunni muslims had no idea existed before the year 2001.
It's what Trump is inciting in the USA, the nation of immigrants.
After the fall of the Warsaw Pact, a lot of countries needed to redefine their identities. In many places that led to ethno-nationalist movements. Mostly, they were hard-right bordering on proto-fascist and disgusting. But the international community ignored this, seeing as they were a reaction against 50 years of communist suppression. And some people couldn't see through the propaganda, also because they had been inundated in propaganda for 50 years (and often more). I have friends who were caught up in nationalist thinking for a couple of years until they saw the consequences. So someone who had nationalist views in -92 or -93 might be completely cured of the pest in 2000.
Also, for several years after 1990, the international community was strongly against new borders, in ex-Jugoslavia and other places in the former East Block. This was mainly because there are tons of separatist movements all over the world. The notion was that if Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia, or any other country was allowed to break up, there was no stopping the Basques, or the Catalonians, or the Northern Irish, (Scotland wasn't as much of an issue then), or the Kashmiri, or Greenland, or the Tamils. And on and on.
Now separatism is not always identical with ethno-nationalism. For instance in Kosovo, they stated from the outset that their ambitions were about self-governance, equal rights and the rule of law, not ethnic homogeneity. They wanted self-governernance because they weren't safe within Serbia (and still struggle for independence because the Serbs have decided that the heart of Serbian nationalism is in Kosovo). I don't really remember, but I think Slovenia took a similar stance to that of Kosovo.
Serbia was probably one of the worst places in Europe for the proto-fascist version of this, not because Serbs are genetically disposed towards killing other people, but because the ethno-nationalist leaders were really smart and cynical people, more so than in other countries, where they were often more like the Trumpists of this age.
When it became clear that the former Yugoslavia would be split up, fighting began to grab as much territory as possible, and it was kind of obvious that the most disputed areas would be those where people lived together across religious and national affiliations. Not where they had fought for generations, but where they had lived peacefully for generations.
No one was threatening Belgrade or Zagreb.
The first war to be fought was the war of propaganda, persuading people that they had an age old hatred towards people they were in fact married to, or best friends with.
Particularly for the Serbian leadership, it was also important to literally burn all the bridges. Anyone thinking that maybe Yugoslavia wasn't such a bad idea after all had to be strongly discouraged.
Apart from the fact that the Serbs were very good at this, there were also different strategies on the two sides. Serbia early on decided to align with Russia, for several reasons. And Croatia couldn't wait to join the EU. This meant that the Croats had to distance themselves from all aspects of fascism, including ethno-nationalist leanings, ASAP. They became the good guys as seen from the EU and the US, in spite of having committed atrocities, specially in Krajina.
The smaller nations in the region, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia each had their own path forward, more or less chaotic, but not as terrible as in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But it is worth noting that the smaller countries also have mixed populations, and have managed that without resorting to armed strife.
posted by mumimor at 3:27 AM on February 16 [10 favorites]

If you want to know what the tragedy looked like on the ground as it was happening, read Love They Neighbor: a Story of War, by Peter Maas.

I don't see how you can hold the Bosnians or their leaders culpable for what happened. Beyond that, there were many responsible players, some actively evil, some who could be accused of abetting the killing through inaction.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:16 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]

You don't even need to leave this site for a view of what the tragedy looked like on the ground as it was happening.

A mefite who lived through it has posted several personal accounts over the years.
posted by the latin mouse at 6:29 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]

This question has gotten me to do some quick research. I didn't see anything particularly recent (Herman died in 2017), but the three you cited all have long publication records on the topic, and they've been pretty consistent.

Chomsky's point is that the human rights aspect was propagandized by the West in order to justify a neoliberal-economic intervention against Serbia. Not dissimilar to the objections to the second Iraq war, and, TBH, pretty much Chomsky's explanation for everything. It's a bit of a "when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. While Chomsky has more than than a hammer in his intellectual toolbox, he can still be kind of a caricature of himself, and this is one of those times. And because Chomsky is so widely read and respected on the left, his take, even if wrong, gets shared pretty widely. IMO, he's overplaying his hand here. You can oppose military intervention without denying human rights abuses, and you especially don't have to cite obscure conspiracy theorists to portray those human rights abuses as fictional.

Herman's problem seems to be primarily with the term genocide, which is also part of his wider work. He believes the term is selectively and misleadingly applied, usually to opponents of American foreign policy, while atrocities committed by the US or its allies are overlooked. He does dispute some facts about Srebernica, but I get the impression that he's not particularly interested in how many people actually died and by whose hand, so much as he's interested in making his case against the usage of the word genocide.

Carpenter is a longtime vehement opponent of foreign intervention, and of NATO in particular. His analysis of Yugoslavia is grounded in his belief that NATO airstrikes were a priori wrong, and in order to justify that, he's quibbling with details and engaging in all-sides-ism. His paper is a particularly good example of being factually correct and logical while completely missing the point (that being, even by the most conservative estimate he cites, at least 27,000 Bosnian civilians were killed, and 100,000 people total). His bedrock belief is that NATO should never intervene, and it doesn't matter what the justification is for the intervention, because NATO should never intervene.

In all three cases, the arguments don't seem to really be *about* Yugoslavia so much as they are using Yugoslavia as an example to fit pre-existing theories of foreign policy. They are, in short, selectively applying facts to support ideology. It's a bit icky to me. None of them are disputing that tens, even hundreds of thousands of people died in the Bosnian war, just, basically, whether we should care, and how we should talk about it. As a former history major, I think it's helpful to remember that conventional wisdom is often an oversimplification, and that there's more to most stories than you heard on a five-minute evening news segment. But it's also possible to go too far in the opposite direction as well, and that's not any more helpful.

One of the reasons this could be bubbling back to the surface recently is because we just passed the 25th anniversary of a lot of the events of the wars. The anniversary of Srebernica was seven months ago, and the anniversary of the Dayton accords (937 represent! ) (sorry, I grew up in the Dayton area and we don't have much else to brag about) was three months ago. So some old pieces might have been reposted to social media around that time.

As to part of your question - why are libertarians quibbling? - well, that's just what libertarians do. Is it even possible to be a libertarian without engaging in obscure doctrinal arguments?
posted by kevinbelt at 7:24 AM on February 16 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for these helpful answers. Sometimes Ask.Mefi feels like having access to a room of bright, bored graduate students who are generously conducting research for me. I sort of picture you all like Sherlock Holmes, sitting around bored with your under-utilized massive intellects, then along comes a great puzzle and a quick snort of Victorian cocaine later and we are off to the races!

I came to this question because I was talking to a friend who teaches Middle Eastern studies and lived in Turkey for a while about the original Deep State (as opposed to the crappy, appropriated version of the term--must Donald ruin everything?) and he pointed me at work by journalist Stephen Kinzer. I thought I was lefty but quickly realized I am not. Kinzer in one piece was complaining about Samantha Power [New Yorker profile on the limits of American Intervention], whose book on genocide I just purchased, and I also noticed that Power was being criticized by the Cato Institute for "advocacy journalism," as opposed to the careful, object work that the Cato Institute engages in [smirk]. So anyway, while clicking around in the Kinzer/Power morass, I came across Chomsky's take on parts of the conflict. I'd already seen Hermann's quibbling and just assumed that he had gone insane, but now this all makes more sense. I guess if the left didn't passionately believe in Truth and Justice they would just close ranks and crush their political enemies with the weight of their united ideological front.

I suspect that I will have to read multiple volumes to get some kind of a fair appraisal about what happened in Yugoslavia.

I want to reiterate that I am operating out of naivete, and this is not an attempt to coyly point out the wacky, sometimes disturbingly fractious nature of ideological disagreements among various leftist intellectuals, most of whom I respect despite their quirks.
posted by mecran01 at 11:15 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I'm married to a former Yugoslav, whose homeland is Croatia. From what I have gleaned over 35 years of marriage and yearly travel to Croatia and Slovenia is that the country of Yugoslavia was always a very artificial and uneasy alliance, formed by Tito as a way of holding back Russia and the Soviet Union. Also the Nazis. Tito's essential importance was his ability to manipulate both the Nazis and Communists, and as a result keep Yugoslavia open to the West. Even during the Iron Curtain years Yugoslavs were able to travel. As long as Tito lived there was a mechanism to forge unity among the constituents, but after he died the stronger players and ethnic differences emerged to divide the collective. Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo have been, and generally continue to be, too impoverished to wield much power. (I attended a dinner once where my table mate had financed his emigration from Yugoslavia by driving a truck of peppers from Bosnia to Ljulbjana, Slovenia, where he sold them all at a farmer's market. The essential part of the story is that he received the Slovenian price for his produce, enough to buy a ticket to New York.) The most industrialized and prosperous areas have always been Slovenia and Croatia, basically colonies of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. Serbia has always looked to the East.

Religiously, there is a stark difference to the constituent areas. Slovenia and Croatia became Roman Catholic - that Austro-Hungarian influence. Serbia is Russian (not Greek) Orthodox, cementing its affinity for Russia in politics, as well. The more southern and poorer areas are Muslim and were outposts of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, I discern that the divide between Christian and Muslim has not advantaged the Muslims, and they have been perceived, with their large families and large social support needs, to be a drag on the Croatian and Slovenian economies. These areas are agricultural and most of the manufacturing and financial economy is in the north - their economic needs were much resented.

Serbian families left Croatia and Slovenia during he 90's war. Most of the Serian poppulation in the parts of Croatia I drove through in 2019, hundreds of miles east from the Adriatic coast are empty of Serbs, their houses left vacant for decades. The families left voluntarily - formerly easy relationships with neighbors became so uncomfortable that families fled to Serbia. I couldn't believe it - abandoned houses for mile after mile still, thirty years later.

Cohesiveness was always a lot to ask of people with profoundly different religions and cultures.

A couple of interesting war anecdotes I can offer - My husbands uncle, at the age of perhaps 18 served as a Partisan in Tito's army. He was heading home to the mountainous area in Croatia east of the Adriatic, the village of Fuzine to be specific, when he was killed. He was the only boy with four sisters in his family. It was thought he was betrayed - there were a lot of lower-level informants who were active around his village.

My husband's aunt, one of those sisters, was a minor Partisan informant herself, more of a message-carrier or courier. She was married and her husband was thought to be important informant. Wrong, actually, but it was helpful to her. They were both arrested for spying and taken to a concentration camp in Italy, near Trieste. Her husband insisted she downplay her involvement and denounce him so that one of them might survive. She did this after many months of resisting, and renounced and divorced him. He died in the camp. She survived to remarry and devoted herself to seeing that my husband had a good start in life, paying for his education and supporting his every endeavor. The rest of the family, the three remaining sisters and parents never recovered from the depths of their losses. The losses have been epic, on all sides.
posted by citygirl at 8:39 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Because no one has brought it up, I learned as an undergrad that the west (including the US government) had a heavy hand in drawing those borders in Yugoslavia. The intention, of course, a "divide and rule" approach. I haven't read the history, but I see it being played out now in Bulgaria with their tensions with N Macedonia, a country with whom they share a mutually intelligible language and long shared history, feeling very divided these days.
posted by hannahelastic at 11:25 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

I spent a lot of time in Yugoslavia before 1990, and many of my friends in the USA were from former Yugoslavia. I was impressed by Yugoslavia - its mixed socialist economy, its multi culturalism, its avant garde art scene, and especially the surreal hospitality of its people. In 1989 I did witness active tension between Macedonians and Albanians... but a the time I never believed that the country was on the verge of violent ethnic warfare. Among my post 1989 East Europe foreign journalist buddies I was something of "the Yugoslav expert"...

I watched in horror as Yugoslavia disintegrated into war. The conflict went against all the positive assumptions I had made while living in Yugoslavia. I saw most of my friends become exiles and refugees. I used to listen to Radio Sarajevo on AM radio at night from my flat in Budapest and remember how the broadcast staff would go downstairs into a bunker with the station accordion player to continue the broadcasts when there was shelling of their studio. I was working as a journalist in Budapest in 1992 when foreign papers suddenly began recruiting freelancers willing to go to Yugoslav war zones as war reporters. Several of my colleagues began their professional careers that way. I had a new family to consider and refused the job. I didn't want to see a place that I loved so much go to hell. I also had to admit to myself that everything my experience in Yugoslavia had taught me was wrong. I did not go back to the former Yugoslavia for fifteen years.

One of my buddies, who worked for the UN in Bosnia after the war and is a respected left socialist writer these days , said "The Yugoslav war was not about religion, or ethnicity. It was about grabbing money, land , and power." I have read the studies, watched the documentaries, and read the history books. And to this day I have no idea what the fuck happened to Yugoslavia.
posted by zaelic at 3:45 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]

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