Sorry, comrades, the Serbs aren't nice old Communists

We might have avoided the slaughter in Bosnia, but few on the left were prepared to speak out
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The Independent Culture
MILOSEVIC HAS used the worst evil possible to rise to political power, to divide his people, to trade on fear and to operate a regime of systematic mass rape, murder and genocide. It is a scandal that he has not been indicted for war crimes. Instead, we have negotiated with him while, year by year, his butchers have worked their way through one part of the former Yugoslavia after another.

Yugoslavia is a totally artificial state, cobbled together across an international dividing line that had existed for 1,500 years. The eastern and western Roman empires bisected the land between what are broadly the Croat and Serb areas. It was then divided again between the West and the Ottoman empire. Yugoslavia was created by the imperial powers for their convenience at Versailles at the end of the First World War, without consultation with any of the component populations. It is simply amazing that Yugoslavia lasted as long as it did.

I remember being in the House in 1991 when the then foreign secretary told us, in the aftermath of free and democratic votes by the peoples of Slovenia and Croatia, the British Government's view that there should be no change in the status of Yugoslavia. I asked: why, when we enjoy our own independence and nationalism, were we denying the same freedoms to people who had been subordinated in a wider federation?

Yugoslavia was never a democracy; the old feudal Serb monarchy dominated it. In the Thirties, Albert Einstein organised a round robin of protest, denouncing the use of terror by the Serb monarchy against the Croat leadership. That fact explains why, when the Germans marched in, so many Croats lined up with them. The world had ignored the systematic brutality of the Serb monarch, and they seized the chance to escape.

But from the moment of Tito's death in 1980 it started to unravel. In 1981, there were protests and demonstrations throughout Kosovo as Albanians demanded stronger autonomy and the upgrading of their regional autonomy to an equivalence with the other six component republics. The Serbian Academy of Sciences began to stir up nationalism with a notorious report, published on 24 September 1986, that talked about historic injustices to the Serb people.

With Yugoslavia starting to fall apart, what would any responsible leader do? Try to pull people together? Build safeguards for minorities? Recognise their legitimate demands? What Milosevic did was to go to Kosovo to whip up a fury of Serbian resentment that could be ridden to power.

Many on the left view the Serbs as wonderful old Communists. Yet in the internal debates of the Yugoslav Communist party in the late Eighties, the real old Communists warned, one after the other: "Beware of what you are doing. Beware of what you are unleashing." The British left failed to condemn Milosevic then, and also when he suspended the autonomy of Kosovo in 1989.

I called for the use of air strikes to stop Milosevic when he first sent troops into Slovenia in 1991. If we had acted then, we might not face the current disaster. We might have avoided the slaughter in Bosnia. But few on the left were prepared to speak out. This is not some imperialist attempt to establish control of the region. The reason 41 American senators have voted against intervening is they see no profit in it for America, and the fact that the West was silent as Tudjman organised the driving out of Serbs from Krajina was an outrage. Frankly, he should be under indictment for war crimes and for the liquidation of Serbian areas in Krajina.

However, that does not justify what Milosevic is now doing to the Albanians. When the Krajina refugees arrived in Belgrade they were not allowed off the train to seek comfort among their Serb neighbours. They were sent, against their will, to the Albanian areas of Kosovo to tip the balance of the population there.

If we were to stop the air strikes, would Milosevic stop the destruction of the Albanian areas in Kosovo? Of course not. He would recognise that action for what it was - a sign of weakness. He would press on, seizing every day, week and month, to carry on his "ethnic cleansing".

I see this action not as another Vietnam but as a classic parallel with the rise of Hitler in Germany. Hitler rose by exploiting fear of the Jews; Milosevic has risen by exploiting fear of Muslims. We heard Hitler demand: "All Germans within one state." That is exactly the cry we hear now from Milosevic: "intervene in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Bosnia so that all Serbs come under one nation". Europe cannot be so governed. Nationalities are scattered and mixed across the continent.

I hope our action will deter Milosevic. But we must not let him think that because some voices are raised against the bombing, he need simply hold on long enough for us to lose our will. It is not a matter of whether we continue bombing or stop it; if the bombing does not persuade Milosevic to treat his own people as human beings, the West should be prepared to send ground forces.

Preferring to avoid the problem, some ask: why intervene in Kosovo when horrors happen around the world? I agree with Bernie Grant who denounced the fact that the West stood by for so long while genocide happened in Rwanda. The end of the Cold War has made a more dangerous and deadly world for many minorities who find themselves on the wrong side of an international border. Where we use power to protect the weak, I will support intervention, as I would have supported intervention in Rwanda.

The left is as deeply divided on this issue as the Tories. I don't know whether this split is the same as that which divided the House of Commons on appeasing Hitler. So that honest Labour pacifists find themselves in the same lobby as Tories who believe it is none of our business what happens in a small, faraway country. Ranged against them are the bulk of Labour MPs and what remains of the liberal-minded wing of the Tory party.

Or perhaps the division is between two camps: those who saw Communism as the only force capable of resisting Hitler and German aggression, and see the hand of modern Germany raised against an old Communist stalwart; and those of us who became politically conscious in the years between the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and never believed that the old Stalinist regimes were the route to the future.