Ratko Mladic and the Labour left

By Martin Thomas

On 22 November 2017, Ratko Mladic, a general in Serbia’s war against the non-Serbian communities of Bosnia, was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The decision came more than 20 years after Mladic was first indicted by an international tribunal, six years after he was captured, and a year after the closing arguments in his case at The Hague.

Yugoslavia was established as a multinational (but in fact Serb-dominated) state in the aftermath of World War 1. It was broken up during World War 2. The Nazis sponsored a puppet state ruling Croatia and Bosnia run by Croatia clerical-fascists, and another puppet state, more directly dependent on Nazi military force, in Serbia.

Stalinist-led Partisan forces, with aid from the USA and the UK, eventually defeated the Nazis and the Croatian fascists, and set up a new federal state of Yugoslavia in 1944.

The new Yugoslavia made more elaborate attempts to sustain a balance between the nationalities than the Yugoslavia of the 1920s and 30s had done, but remained decisively Serbian-dominated.

The Stalinist regime collapsed, along with others in Eastern Europe, in 1988-90. The successor state in Serbia gained control of the bulk of the former federal state’s armed forces, and set out to try to dominate the other nationalities.

Slovenia won independence after a short war; Croatia, after a longer war; Macedonia, without a war.

Bosnia, as a component state of Yugoslavia, was uniquely diverse, about 40% “Bosniac” (Bosnian Muslim), 30% Serb, 20% Croat, with a larger minority than in other component states telling the census that they were simply “Yugoslavs”.

In early 1992 the Bosnian government declared independence, after a referendum in which 99.7% chose independence on a 64% turnout. The Serbian army and Bosnian-Serb forces sought to regain control in a war which lasted until NATO bombing in 1995 forced Serbia to back off and sign a peace deal in late 1995.

Mladic was prosecuted for his part, during the war, in atrocities and “ethnic cleansing” (driving out Bosniac or Croat populations to augment Serbian-dominated territory).

A study funded the Norwegian government concluded in 2007 that about 100,000 people were killed in the war, some 65% of them Bosniacs.

The left today should learn some lessons from the failings of the 1990s left over Bosnia. Some of us on the left did support Bosnian self-determination and campaign against the arms embargo imposed by the big powers on the Bosnian government.

Others did not, including those who have been loudest since in declaring themselves “the best fighters for Muslims” and denouncing secularist and socialist criticism of political Islam as “racist”. They preached a plague on both houses. Given the much greater military clout of the Serbian forces, that meant de facto acquiescence in Serbian conquest.

And some, including many on the Labour left, positively supported Serbia.

John Reid, an ex-Stalinist who was one of Tony Blair’s chief deputies in government, and Home Secretary in 2006-7, went to Geneva in 1993 for a weekend in a luxury hotel, paid for by a lobbyist, with Radovan Karadzic, the now-convicted war criminal who led the Bosnian Serb forces. In Parliament he praised the “even-handed” policy of the then Tory government, i.e. the arms embargo on the Bosnian government.

Bob Wareing, known as a left Labour MP, was suspended by the Labour Party in 1997 for failing to declare payments received from Serbia for work as a lobbyist. He had gone to Bosnia in July 1995 for a friendly meeting with Mladic and Karadzic, just after a notorious massacre at Srebrenica.

Dennis Skinner, again known as a left MP, denounced the Tories for recognising the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, saying that they had done that only “because Germany twisted the British government’s arm”.

Tony Benn records in his diaries that on 26 June 1995 he spoke together with Alfred Sherman – a right-wing Tory who had been a Stalinist in his youth, became one of the pioneer Thatcherites, and was an adviser to Karadzic – at a meeting on Bosnia chaired by the left Labour MP Alice Mahon. He commented approvingly on Sherman – “he supports the Serbs completely” – and censured the socialist campaigner for Bosniac rights, Quintin Hoare, who tried to intervene, as “heckling… shouting… shrieking”.

Seumas Milne, now Director of Strategy and Communications for the Labour Party, was only a rank-and-file reporter for the Guardian in the 1990s, but by 2001 had risen high enough in the Guardian to be able to get an opinion piece published to denounce the bringing of Serbia’s 1990s ruler Slobodan Milosevic before an international court.

“If evidence is produced directly linking him to killings and deportations”, wrote Milne oilily, “that responsibility would be criminal” – but Milne was not minded to wait for evidence in order to denounce the court. He saw it as part of a plan with “the ghastly dismemberment of Yugoslavia” due to “German encouragement of Croatian separatism” and “logistical US backing”. So the Bosniacs were only unfortunate pawns of Germany and the USA?

The common political background in Reid, Wareing, Skinner, Mahon, Milne, and even Sherman was identification, or past identification, with a “left” defined in Stalinist terms and geared around support for states like the post-1944 Yugoslavia as representing “socialism” despite their lack of democracy and great social inequalities. Benn too: his diaries from 1960, when he was a conventional middle-of-the-road member of a right-wing Labour Party leadership, show him as fascinated by what he saw as Russia’s “Marxism”.

Even today, effort is still needed to clear away the ideological debris and cultural inertia of that Stalinist-defined “left”.

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