Washington (GPA) – The American-led destruction of Yugoslavia happened over 20 years ago but laid the foundations of NATO’s post-Cold War imperialism that carries on to this day.
The handful of small nations in the Balkans that used to comprise the former Yugoslav Federation may not seem to be a high priority of western foreign policy in modern times but the story of what happened to the former socialist still holds important lessons for today. While the Balkans may be somewhat quiet now, this region at the crossroads of Western Europe, Russia, and the Middle East has always been contested by empires but it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of US neoliberal capitalism as the dominant global system that the region was finally ‘tamed’ by the imperialists.
But how did this happen? Who in the United States knows why the wars in the Balkans during the 1990’s started, let alone what the US role in this Yugoslavian tragedy was? And above all, what lessons and tactics did the imperialists take from this early post-Cold War adventure that are still employed today?
The war in the Balkans may be long over but the answer to these questions still remains very relevant today. Although the real story of this earliest example of “humanitarian intervention” by Washington may not have been widely known among the American populace at the time it was happening, this has changed since the end of the conflict.
If pressed on this real history of the Balkan conflicts, US officials would likely tell you the same story told by the Clinton Regime during the war about religious and ethnic minorities who needed protection during a civil war that, according to Washington, started organically in some imaginary geopolitical vacuum. This, however, is obviously not the truth.
In reality, the truth behind the “ethnic conflicts” in Yugoslavia will look incredibly familiar to those who follow the current machinations of the NATO juggernaut. From the plans of the governments that make up the Atlanticist organization to the lies spread by the western mainstream media propaganda complex boosting the alliance’s imperial adventures, the tactics employed on the former Yugoslavia can still be seen today in Washington’s dirty wars and pressure campaigns of the post-Yugoslav era in countries like Iraq, Libya, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to those that are currently being carried out in countries like Ukraine and Syria (and still ongoing in the DPRK and Iraq for that matter).
The setup: US stokes the fascist flames in Yugoslavia
Much like these more modern examples of NATO interference, political meddling by western intelligence agencies, and western media human rights PR campaigns, the US preparations for the wars in the Balkans also started long before the first bombs were dropped. Much like the current conflicts the first attacks against Yugoslavia weren’t military in nature but instead economic.
This familiar form of “soft” imperialism may be common now, but the tactics used across the Middle East, Latin America, and Eastern Europe now were just coming to fruition in the early 1990’s. These new strategies were birthed as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the tidal wave of US capital pumped into Russia to buy the majority of the nation’s formerly state-owned industries and turn the superpower into a powerless western vassal state.
But Moscow was not the only nation slated for this treatment now that the “threat” of communism was gone and the “end of history” had proven the undisputed superiority of American ‘liberal democracy’ and western neoliberal capitalism. When the borders of Russia suddenly receded from the Asian steppe and Eastern Europe back to where they are today, the western powers didn’t miss a beat swooping in on these countries in crisis and having them sign a deal with the devil of neoliberal capitalism and austerity in exchange for much-needed loans after suddenly finding themselves without the central administration of the Soviet government.
Most of these former Warsaw Pact nations already had dormant anti-Soviet movements that had been funded by western intelligence and NGOs for years before the collapse of the USSR. Groups like the Reagan-endorsed ‘Solidarity’ movement in Poland and Viktor Orban’s Soros-funded Fidesz in Hungary had been laying in wait hoping for the success of the US empire and were more than willing to assist the US in their looting the moment Soviet authority was gone.
While this hard transition to capitalism which would later lead Eastern Europe to become a source of new cheap laborers for the western EU states took place, however, there was still one thorn in Washington’s side that refused to submit to the new reality. This country was, of course, Yugoslavia. While not a part of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia was still also assumed to be on the same path as the countries like Poland into accepting global neoliberal dominance.
What Washington failed to account for though was the unique brand of independence that had been a major pillar in the creation and policy of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia may have done business with the Soviet Union but this did not mean that Yugoslavia was a dependent of Moscow. Unlike the Warsaw pact countries, Yugoslavia was not a member of the Soviet federation but instead was the leader of what was referred to as the “non-aligned movement.”
The non-aligned movement (NAM) was founded in 1961 by the leader of the anti-Nazi Yugoslav partisans and founder of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito and then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Belgrade to protect “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries.” Much like Yugoslavia, many of the nations that joined the NAM did trade with the Soviet Union but also with the US in an effort to stay well outside of the US proxy conflicts that were a trademark of the Cold War era.
Instead of this collapse after the Cold War though, this non-aligned status seemed to provide a crucial level of autonomy for Yugoslavia that would allow them the benefit of access to western markets to supplement the country’s massive state-owned industries and keep some level of independence. But there was also a downside to Yugoslavia’s position that Belgrade likely never saw coming based on their likely trust that the US had no need to be openly hostile. This thought seems reasonable for the time due to the fact that even during the height of the Cold War, Yugoslavia had always maintained some level of relations with the West. In fact, Tito was often invited to Europe to negotiate with western leaders, many of whom came to Tito’s funeral in 1980.
The war on Yugoslavia
Unfortunately for Yugoslavia, the US and EU had different ideas which required all the nations formerly out of the imperialists’ reach submitting to US capital’s control. This was made apparent – after months of the US predicting a Balkan civil war despite having seemingly no evidence of this – when the western financial institutions were compelled by US legislation meant to starve Belgrade into submission.
This US legislation, passed by Congress in 1991 (and met by universal opposition by Yugoslavians belonging to all the factions of the supposedly bloodthirsty sectarian hordes), cut off all US aid to Yugoslavia including much-needed trade credits that allowed the federation to borrow money from international banks. The US applied pressure to bodies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to also cut off Yugoslavia or face retaliation by Washington.
This tactic of economic warfare, similar to that still used by every President from Bush Sr. on against foes including Iran, Venezuela, Libya, the DPRK, and many more (including several US allies) under Trump. Just like these current sanctions and those on other nations in the past, shortly after their implementation, the US State Department began making demands of Yugoslavia.
Once these sanctions were imposed, the terms set by the first Bush Regime were established. Yugoslavia would have to abide by ransom demands like calling separate elections for each of the six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia and the two autonomous provinces within Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina.
While this strategy was employed to try to facilitate a faster breakup of Yugoslavia there were also exceptions made in the US legislation that would allow the US to pour extra fuel on the fire. The Yugoslavian government may not have been able to receive money but Congress did allow the allocation of funds to violent far-right nationalist groups – such as the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) – much like we saw repeated in the 2014 US-backed coup in Ukraine. These groups would later go on to encourage attacks on Yugoslavian troops who were often forced to defend themselves but was reported by the US media as soldiers slaughtering civilians.
With all of this happening in the background, the west still had the nerve to insist they were not hoping for the Yugoslav federation to fall apart. This was proven to be a lie later when Slovenia and Croatia broke away just a month after the US sanctioned Belgrade which was immediately acknowledged as legitimate by both Washington and Berlin.
After this, the European powers soon began to push “independence” for all of the republics and announced that the end of Yugoslavia was inevitable.
This, of course, ended up becoming a reality after the US and Berlin had sufficiently muddied the waters and stoked enough tension in Yugoslavia. This carried on for years following the events described here, as the states that were formerly members of the socialist federation fell into conflict.
As this conflict progressed more unsavory characters were added to the fight including groups like the Bosnian mujahideen which included mercenaries from all over the world. Most notable among these volunteers though were some of the former “freedom fighters” the US supplied and directed to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 80s. Much like in Syria now, these groups brought with them not only a very small spectrum of Salafist and Wahhabi interpretations of Islam but also the weapons and cash provided by their ideological kin in the governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several other nations.
These factors managed to prolong the war and continue to stoke the sectarian flames the US was so desperate for. The former Yugoslavian republics fell into chaos for years as terrorists operated with US permission and, in combination with the far-right ethno-nationalists, carried out bloody massacres. This chaotic situation is similar to what happened after the US destroyed Afghanistan in the name of freedom and sent the country into anarchy for decades. Also much like Afghanistan, after the bloody conflicts in Yugoslavia escalated enough to get US attention and President Bill Clinton soon teamed up with an international coalition.
In this scenario, the global body used by the imperialists was the United Nations which sent peacekeepers into the former Yugoslavia. It quickly became apparent these troops were here to stay and ended up essentially as an occupying force in the Balkans.
This occupied status only changed years later as the real goal was achieved and NATO was expanded closer to the real target: Russia. Once Croatia,, Montenegro, and Slovenia joined NATO the plan had proved fairly successful. With NATO closer to consuming all of the Warsaw Pact countries and expanding all the way to the Russian border, the imperialist control of the Balkans had produced some of the desired results.
This process is almost identical to what happened in Ukraine in 2013 where the US-backed both liberal NGOs and far-right nationalists after the country had internal disputes over the option of trying to throw their lot in with the EU and NATO. The goal is imperial domination and Yugoslavia was one of the earliest test cases for how imperialism would be done in the “end of history.” The US-caused conflict in the Balkans caused chaos, weakened a formerly united nation, and opened the door for domination by Washington and Wall Street. The tactics are the same, and so is the goal.
Featured photo: Nicolas Raymond
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.