The Last War of the 20th Century - Chapter 3
March 5, 2008 16:45 | by Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra van Loon
A college of applied social studies
'Nothing is so terrifying as ignorance in action.'
On an evening in May 1999 in a packed hall in the Dutch town of Zoetermeer a public debate on the war in Kosovo took place. One of the speakers was Kees van der Pijl, a political scientist affiliated to the University of Amsterdam, and this evening without doubt the one to whom we would be listening with the greatest attention. The analyses which he set before us, of the conflict in Yugoslavia and the motives which lay behind the actions of the parties to the struggle, were so remarkable and went so far against the grain that we, when we began to think about this book, had immediately put the name of Kees van der Pijl high on the list of those with whom we wanted to speak. .
Van der Pijl was for many years a leading member of the Dutch Communist Party. He wrote books such as Marxism and international politics and The making of an Atlantic ruling class. And on the lengthy list of his published articles could be found, amongst others, 'Imperialism and the arms race between now and the year 2000' and 'The capitalist class in the European Union'. Van der Pijl has never felt called upon to pay much attention to Bolkestein's call to the Dutch communists to pay compensation for their 'errors'. He goes further than that, continuing to consider himself a communist. And that sort of contrariness is something for which we harbour a warm sympathy.
It will come as no surprise to hear that Van der Pijl feels less and less at home in the current intellectual climate in the Netherlands. The Chair of International Relations at the School of European Studies of the University of Sussex, in the south of England, came for him therefore as a gift from the (for an historical materialist, of course, non-existent) gods. Just as he himself put it at the beginning of our conversation, 'The academic climate in England is incomparable to that in the Netherlands. It's a relief!
But we had not, of course, invited him to The Hague for a course on academic mores or the difference between the practice of the social sciences in the Anglo-Saxon and Dutch worlds. We were interested in that unfashionable social analysis with which our own political consciousness had begun. Not from nostalgia, but because we have the feeling that the accepted explanations for the violent collapse of Yugoslavia were inadequate. And that Van der Pijl, with his sharp analysis and great erudition, would be able to make important additions to these explanations.
A popular line of reasoning is that the Balkans is a powderkeg with huge ethnic divisions which the former leader of Yugoslavia, General Tito, kept down with a heavy hand. After Tito's death these divisions had sooner or later to come to the surface.
Kees van der Pijl: 'In a certain sense you could say that Tito's system, with such a fragile balance between self-determination for the separate republics and unity within the federation, did indeed have the function of shelving certain national developments. The purpose being to spread them over a number of generations. But the idea that people in the Balkans want nothing more than to pick up a knife and do each other in, and that these tendencies could only be temporarily kept in check by a tough dictatorship is a major misconception.'
How then do you explain that nationalism became suddenly so popular in the course of the 1980s?
Van der Pijl: 'To begin with you cannot identify nationalism as a single political current; it's not an unambiguous phenomenon. Various groups in the former Yugoslavia have quite different reasons for calling on national labels and identities. Because people in the first place were citizens of the state of Yugoslavia, in most of the population petty nationalist ethnicity played only a very small role after the Second World War. At the end of the 'sixties, especially in the Western-oriented parts of Yugoslavia, such as Croatia and Slovenia, a youth movement arose which looked a lot like the May '68 movement in the West and the anti-Soviet movement in Czechoslovakia. Sometimes I think that it was simply the demographic curve which fed this movement, that the baby-boomers were demanding their space and wanted to let it be known that they counted. And as young people in the West were taking action against Yankee imperialism, and those in Czechoslovakia against Moscow, so the Croatian and Slovenian youth rebelled against the central power in Belgrade. That protest was in the first instance completely un-nationalistic, but Belgrade's reaction to the 'spring' in Croatia and Slovenia meant that it was forced into a national-versus-federal pattern'
What form did this reaction take?
Van der Pijl: 'Instead of recognizing that they were dealing with a movement for renewal, it was called "nationalism". And against this there was, naturally, a heavy taboo, because it might put the unity of Yugoslavia in jeopardy. At the point that people began to want to rediscover their own history, because they believed that their entire existence could not simply be summarised within the story of the Yugoslav working class, they went looking for their own folk dances, their own music, literature and other cultural expressions. And that led in turn to its being written off as nationalism and on those grounds suppressed. In Croatia, where the demands of the movement for renewal were strongest, this led in the early 1970s to major purges. With the result, inter alia, that in the present conflict it was a long time before people in Croatia were prepared to take this nationalist path again.'
So it did eventually become a nationalist movement?
Van der Pijl: 'No, I don't believe that you can put it so definitely. Tudjman, for example, the first president of an independent Croatia, was indeed a nationalist, but he was also part of the old power structure that was always so against nationalism. What happened was that Yugoslavia as a federal ideal was lost during the 1980s. And that was to do with the enormous burden of debt, and with the advice given by the IMF and the West to run down the state, dispose of state-owned industries, lower taxes and so on. That released enormous centrifugal forces which meant that the Yugoslav republics began to operate ever more independently.
'In this climate of huge uncertainty, nationalism, not as movement, but as idea, served two ends. Firstly, it helped the leaders to find a new "grand narrative", following the discrediting of communism in the second half of the 1980s. The Yugoslav leaders were career politicians who wanted only one thing: to stay in power. And in order to achieve this goal they then in an extremely cynical manner went to the people with national symbols in order to win support. One week they were still communist, and when it turned out that communism was bankrupt, they became nationalist. And if anything else was still needed, they became that too: Greek Orthodox, or militant, whatever. That's one side of the story. The other side is that the nationalism of the people helped them face up to a great uncertainty over the future. People were asking themselves, what if the Yugoslav state goes bankrupt, who will take care of us? Who is going to pay pensions? And who does this mine actually belong to? These are problems which have still not been solved. In Kosovo are found the biggest lead and zinc suppliers of Europe. But whose are they?'
How big are the economic divisions between the various republics and what role did these divisions play?
Van der Pijl: 'I'm no Yugoslavia expert and I lean heavily in my analysis on other people's work, particularly a book by Susan Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, that I recently read.[i] In this you can read that the most modern sections of Yugoslav industry could be found in Slovenia and Croatia. The factories for shoes, sports equipment, textiles, radio assembly, that sort of thing. While Bosnia had an extremely mixed economy, it was moreover where the whole of the clandestine weapons industry was based. Serbia can be compared with southern Poland, with a lot of heavy industry, steel works, power stations, oil refineries.'
Did this mean that the richer republics such as Slovenia also had the feeling that they were paying too much for the backward areas via the federal state? You see an example of such in Italy, where the North refuses, increasingly frequently, to pay for the South. Or didn't this play any role?
Van der Pijl: 'That probably did also play a role, but the matter is a lot more complex. It was, after Tito's death, at the beginning of the 1980s, especially the case that Slovenia in the first place, together with Serbia, wanted a revision of Yugoslavia's structure. Except that they wanted it for different reasons. Slovenia wanted to belong to Europe, and saw itself as a sort of new Switzerland. And Serbia wanted to put an end to the policy of the rest of the republic, that is of disciplining Serbia. Tito's policy was directed at this in order to prevent a repeat of what had happened between the two world wars, namely that Serbia, the most populous nation within Yugoslavia, could impose its power on the rest. For this reason Tito, himself a Croat, introduced a system under which numerous Serbs settled outside Serbia itself, and gave autonomy to the provinces of Serbia in which other minorities lived, such as Kosovo.'
And so Serbia wanted an end to this, and Slovenia wanted something else, but both wanted to see the back of the Yugoslav unity which Tito had constructed?
Van der Pijl: 'Precisely. And in this Slovenia also wanted out of the whole idea of socialism and communism. That's also of course the larger background against which all of this was played: the collapse of communism. Whereas in 1960 it still seemed that communism as a system was slowly on the way to catching up with capitalism, it became obvious around 1980 that its batteries were flat. That loss of self-confidence led to a situation in which communist and socialist elites no longer had any answer to the criticisms and provocations of opponents. The youth movement in Slovenia, for example, made use of Nazi symbols at rock concerts. Not because they were followers of Nazism, but purely as provocation. The worst sacrilege in communism is, after all, flirtation with the Nazis. These provocations led to tough intervention from the police, and that played into the hands of the Slovenian leadership, who in public of course distanced themselves from these youths but at the same time let them carry on regardless. .
In Serbia Milosevic was also adept at making use of anti-communist sentiments. Milosovic was a banker who from an ideological viewpoint actually had nothing to do with communism. For along time he was managing director of a bank in Belgrade. It is no coincidence that he originally was able to get on so well with people like He speaks fluent English as well. Milosevic knew precisely how to win those Serbs to him who had always been opposed to communism because they believed that the Serbs had too little power within Communist Yugoslavia, and that moreover their national interests were damaged by the system. In addition, by coming out with a whole new programme for his party, the SPS, he snapped up the workers from the major steel enterprises who had been badly affected by the economic crisis which Yugoslavia underwent during the 1980s. Because these big producers, who formed the backbone of the Yugoslav economy, were being put under the knife by the diktat of the IMF. And Milosevic...'
Just a minute. This is the second time that the IMF has been mentioned. What has the International Monetary Fund to do with the Yugoslav crisis, precisely?
Van der Pijl: 'I'll explain that. Perhaps "IMF diktat" are also actually the wrong words. As is always the case with advice from this kind of international organisation, there's always someone from the country itself who is not capable of acquiring the power to push through a certain, in this case neoliberal, policy, who then calls on the IMF or the EEC or whatever. You could compare it to what managers do when they bring in an external advice bureau in order to effect a certain reorganisation. They say in fact also, if you take care that you say in your report that we have to change course then we'll fill in the details in order to support this position. That's how it went in Yugoslavia. The modernising powers in Slovenia and Croatia, who were pro-market, encouraged the IMF in order to solve the debt crisis."
How did Yugoslavia find itself in this debt crisis?
Van der Pijl: 'When Tito died the total Yugoslav debt amounted to around 20 billion dollars. But all debts taken on before 1979 were contracted in soft dollars, which is to say that inflation was at the time so high, something around 12%, that often the rate of interest fell to negative levels. For a good understanding of the debt crisis it's important to look at a few different years. First of all, 1971, when Nixon began to force the dollar downwards in order to confront America's domestic problems. Another turning point was the oil crisis of 1973. Due to the fact that after this oil prices rose enormously, there began a massive flow of petro-dollars. All of these dollars had to be loaned out in order that at least something could be made from them. That's the first phase of the debt crisis. Until 1979, so we're talking about a length of time of almost a decade, and above all in London, where the Arab world invested its wealth, massive amounts of dollars were loaned to whomever wanted them, which included countries in the eastern bloc. I know for a fact that Citibank in London ran an ad with pictures of the Kremlin leaders in fur stoles surveying a parade. This is how sound we are, was the message. Nobody thought then that this system could fall into bankruptcy.
In 1979 Paul Volker was named head of the United States Federal Reserve with a monetarist programme. Because, between 1974 and 1979 in banking circles and those elements of capitalist society capable of strategic thinking, it began to be understood that something was amiss. The American government was asked whether it knew what was happening to all of those dollars loaned to different parts of the world. No new industrial world was being built. In fact, nothing whatsoever was being done. In the Soviet Union they had put an end to the development of their own computers and such, because they could buy everything off the peg in the West. Volker's task was therefore to reduce debt to reasonable levels and in this way put an end to the situation. And this he did, principally through a drastic reduction in the quantity of dollars lent out annually. In this way the remaining dollars lost their inflationary momentum and a mass of hard dollars was created. Every country which had accepted these dollars at a rate of inflation of 12-15 percent, had suddenly to cope with a dollar which was no longer losing value. At that point the debt crisis broke.
Tito died in 1980, just after this important development, and Yugoslavia then saw itself confronted by the question of who should repay the debt of 20 billion hard dollars. That's the general context. Then you have to take into account also the international economic recession of 1981 to 1984. This crisis was overcome in many countries through exports to America, which you can find in the statistics. But countries such as Yugoslavia couldn't do that because their economy was insufficiently geared up for export. So that from that moment elements came to the fore in Yugoslavia, amongst them for example Milosevic, who said: we are going to earn back this debt by developing ourselves into an export economy, and in order to become a successful export economy we must liberalise. They then discussed this with the IMF, and the IMF made recommendations accordingly.
Don't forget that the IMF consists of around two hundred economists in Washington of whom hardly any is over forty, and a number of councils, such as the Council of Ministers, which never meet. The IMF cannot therefore do very much on its own. The people who determined what happened in Yugoslavia were people from Yugoslavia itself, people like Milosevic. The IMF could not dream up the figures itself, it could only process them. And then you could of course give the standard advice, that everyone knows well enough. Thus: cuts in social spending, a halt to the redistribution of wealth, make prices reflect reality. If shoes made in Yugoslavia, for example, cost a tenth of those made in Austria, you must make them worth a tenth also on the world market. Yugoslav dinars must therefore come to stand in the same relation to the Austrian schilling. The only way to achieve that in a society such as Yugoslavia was through lowering state spending in one go, running down every element of redistribution or social protection - by these means you can achieve a hard currency at a very low rate of exchange.
During this process of monetary reform an extremely complex game was played out between provincial elites who wanted to privatise their own part of the country - you can read about this in Woodward.[ii] The Croatian elite wanted, for example, to see everything in Croatia become the property of Croatian, for Croatia to become responsible for its own fate. And that clashed with the aspirations of the pan-Yugoslavian neoliberal elites. As far I can see there were no new elites who were deciding in favour of a new phase of socialism; certainly groups of intellectuals, but no 'power groups'. From Milosevic to whatever other politician you care to name, they were all in favour of the transition to a market economy. Only some wanted to realise this in the context of a small nation, and so in independent states, and others on the provincial level, within the federal context. Originally this was also the position of the Americans and of the western banks, because there was a great fear that when Croatia and Slovenia left the federation, the rest would say: we can't pay these debts any more, go to them for your money. So the IMF, the banks, America and the European Community were in principle all in favour of the maintenance of Yugoslavia as a federation, but with a neoliberal capitalist programme. That was the opening bid.'
There was therefore no secret agenda of the international bankers' world or of the Western countries to cause Yugoslavia to fall apart?
Van der Pijl: 'No, quite the opposite.'
It was internal mechanisms?
Van der Pijl: 'Yes. And in part it was also an objective effect of the economic and monetary policies which were followed. You see, it wasn't a goal of the United States, either, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was agreed, that the Mexican province of Chiapas should go into decline. That was simply the effect of the creation of zones of extreme prosperity and investment, and of other zones of complete neglect with, simultaneously, exposure to new competitors. This was also the case in Yugoslavia. As soon as you instituted a neoliberal programme there, you found on one side people who said 'great, I see plenty of opportunities for my firm, my town, my republic', or whatever. But at the same time you expose the weaker sectors in a country of this kind to extremely disruptive influences. Suddenly, cheap grain came on to the market, while they were themselves grain producers. Or vegetables and fruit from the Netherlands, while they were themselves producers of peppers. This also happened in Hungary. They had the best peppers in eastern Europe - for the goulash. They had a great deal of taste, but in our eyes they were small, unsightly, half-rotted things. Then you had these boxes with cellophane and three peppers, real beauties, red, yellow and green, that we know from Albert Heyn[iii]. And all at once Hungarians didn't want to eat their own peppers any more. The new peppers were associated with the West and with progress, the old with the bankrupt communist system and with the past. This sort of effect is something you simply have to deal with. And then you could well say that the population wants this itself, but this is a short-lived effect of the glamour that the West carries with it, and the association with the poor quality of their own products. It's not an objective reflection of reality. So in this way such a society, suddenly exposed to the world market, is subject to enormous centrifugal forces. And these in their turn loose forces such as nationalism, religious fanaticism and racial hatred. These are therefore secondary, determined by the accidental legacy that a country carries along with it.'
Could there have been any alternative to these developments in the case of Yugoslavia?
Van der Pijl: 'In my view certainly. One alternative would have been to introduce the welfare-state variant of capitalism. Instead of the establishment of a revamped American neoliberalism, the policies of Gorbachev, of Willy Brandt or even up to a certain point of Helmut Kohl could have been implemented. A social-democratisation of eastern Europe. This was also tried, but all those involved came to an end in a somewhat spectacular fashion. The man who wanted to extend major loans to Gorbachev, Alfred Herrhausen, spokesman for the management of the Deutsche Bank, was blown away in 1989, allegedly by the RAF. In the acute phase of disassociation of the Soviet Union, at the moment when it must be decided which alternative must be pursued, Herrhausen was blown up with a bomb. And in 1991, Detlev Rohweder, director of Treuhand and the man therefore charged with integrating East Germany into West Germany, was also murdered, by a sniper. These are of course mere footnotes to the story, which is primarily about structural historical forces, but it isn't without significance that those who who supported a policy of reconciliation with respect to Gorbachev, and primarily the more strategic figures, all in one or another sinister fashion disappeared from the picture, including Gorbachev himself. Because we haven't heard the last word on the coup of August 1991, a soup with many curious aspects.'
That all sounds extremely conspiratorial.
Van der Pijl: 'Yes, I'm also aware of that. The danger is, of course, that when you read things about this, you are dragged into such a different way of looking at how our society functions, that nobody takes you seriously any longer. And I think also that the decision of the Hungarians to choose Dutch peppers over their own has been quantitatively speaking a much bigger factor in determining how such a country will develop further, than is the question of who was working for whom when someone was shot from the street. But that does not mean that you should not try to embed such remarkable incidents structurally. Or that you should not take note of the sphere of influence in which this kind of affair unfolds. Or that you should be averse to saying that those who continued stubbornly to hold that another policy should be implemented were all put out of the way - even if I don't yet know precisely by whom or why this was done. Capital is in principle of course interested in a civilised conquest of hegemony, but that does not mean that use is never made of less civilised methods if that's the way things turn out. You can't depict this too conspiratorially, in the sense that certain powerful groups would have known perfectly well what was going to happen, but there are at the same time numerous reasons to assume that not everything happens so spontaneously as is often thought.'
Let's go back to the question of the alternative for Yugoslavia. For you that would have been for the country not to have been exposed in one go to the American variant of capitalism, but to a European, social-democratic variant.
Van der Pijl: 'Yes, a mixed economy. But by your choice of words you yourself indicate where that would meet obstacles, namely with the Americans. At the beginning of the 1980s there were with regard to eastern Europe two strategies. The first was the Americanisation of Europe, in the east as well as the west. And the second was the Europeanisation of eastern Europe, in the context of which much attention was paid to central Europe as a sort of new centre. People such as Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel and Gyorgy Konrád represented that central Europe, a central Europe that had always been part of European civilisation. The thinking was that these people must once again be accepted into the European family. But from the American point of view that was looked upon with a great deal of suspicion. Because for the small political elite in America who know where to find different countries of the world on a map, there existed a great awareness of the danger of a German Alleingang, of their going it alone. Or, to put it better, of a combination of German economic ingenuity, but also indeed that of France and Italy, with the inestimable raw materials and resources of Siberia.'
And in order to prevent the establishment of any such cooperation the American approach thus became: no European integration of eastern Europe into the rest, but an Americanisation of the whole of Europe?
Van der Pijl: 'Well, the Americans did actually want a primary economic integration - and no political integration. Neither the Americans nor the neoliberal financial world in London had ever put up obstacles to the establishment of the EMU, the European Monetary Union, in the Treaty of Maastricht in December 1991. This EMU suited them perfectly, as it at last facilitated movement between American and European branches of multinational corporations. But there was a lot of suspicion over the efforts from the European side to arrive at a so-called political cooperation and their own defence organisation. The Americans had said in response to proposals for the merger of certain European firms, for example, that it's all very well for British Aerospace to work with DASA, but if you go through with this, you will soon be unable to go to war alongside us, because then you'll be using a different communication system from the one we use. That's one of the levels on which American supremacy is absolute. They can leave an aeroplane hanging in the air somewhere, for example over Yugoslavia, and at a given moment the order comes from inside that plane, this and that are the coordinates, so go! And the next thing you know you've dropped a bomb. The whole thing is coordinated from inside the Awacs aeroplane and with the help of satellites. There's absolutely no European answer to this. And as far as the Americans are concerned, they don't want there to be a European answer. That could in time involve America and Europe in a war between each other.'
So the American strategy with regard to eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia, was in your view always aimed at the liberalisation of the economies and at the same time at counteracting the formation of a larger European bloc?
Van der Pijl: 'Indeed. Primarily what they wanted was to prevent a new unity emerging from the remains of a divided Europe which would combine the energies of the West with the resources of the East, and which would then chart its own political and military course.
Yet in the meantime the Common European foreign and defence policy has moved to a position high on the agenda. And former NATO head Javier Solana is charged with looking into whether there could be a European army.
Van der Pijl: 'Yes, that's the crazy thing. And that has of course everything to do with the Kosovo war. The more I think about it, the more important this becomes. Because what happened there is of vital significance for the world towards which we are moving. It was, namely, primarily a war about the will of NATO - for which read America and those sections of opinion in Britain, France, Germany but also the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark which did not want a closed European bloc but a world economy into which the eastern European countries would be absorbed - to further its ends. Everything was devoted to undermining an independent Europe. But the price which in the second instance had to be paid for this was that European interests moved higher up the agenda.
The Dutch social democrats, the PvdA are currently arguing in favour of an intensification of the European arms industry.
Van der Pijl: 'Exactly. It's unbelievable!'
But you say then that the Kosovo war was primarily a war of those who wanted to prevent an independent European military force. How then do you explain that the result was the opposite of this?
Van der Pijl: 'I think that what's happening is as follows: the European leaders all knew that they were "menaced" in this war. I know for a fact that the way in which the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his Green Minster of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer, for example, came to hear that they were given a quarter of an hour to say 'yes' to a war against Yugoslavia unauthorised by the UN, and also the way in which the Dutch government was dragged into it, meant that what was being said internally was 'we don't want that to happen again.' People felt they'd been had. At the same time they of course defended the humanitarian character of the war while it was being fought. In a wellnigh hysterical tone they professed their love for the Albanians. And in my view that was because they were looking for a common denominator, in America as much as here, by which they could prevent their own people from asking themselves questions about the real motives behind the war. The core of the policy was in part to keep the real discussion points within the political class and attach the people to these discussion points via subordinate themes such as human rights. Which is not to say that these rights aren't real, but these cynics have in general very little to say about these rights if things go badly.
That's one aspect of what happened. At the same time as the intervention was officially supported in the name of humanity, and fine speeches were being given that moved one to tears, they were really pissed off because of the trick that was pulled on Europe's political leadership by the Americans and British. Because we shouldn't forget that Blair as a politician is much keener on capital directed at the world market than was Margaret Thatcher, so much became clear within the first years of his government. This policy of Blair and Clinton was therefore supported in words by the European politicians, but in reality they saw it for what it was, a policy aimed at stopping Europe from following its own policy. And as a reaction to this, there is now such a loud call for a European foreign and defence policy. In this sense also the Kosovo war led therefore to the opposite of what was intended.'
The question is not whether everything that Kees van der Pijl told us is true - what is true in international politics is primarily whatever one wants to maintain is true. The question is rather whether the consistent exclusion from the public debate of views such as those of this political scientist of the left does not lead to an enormous flattening out of that debate. We believe so. It is precisely in time of war, when decisions are taken which lead in one way or another to destruction and devastation, that it is of the greatest importance to listen to dissident voices, in order to see whether what you yourself hold to be true is in reality so much better thought out and argued than a view which is diametrically opposed to it. In times of war many people lose their sense of discretion - that is inherent to the nature of war's conduct. You do not send bomber planes into the sky, you don't fire off rockets, you do not sow death and destruction, you do not put lives in the balance if for you too many question marks hang over your right to do these things. War is a matter of exclamation marks. That is why waging war sits so uncomfortably alongside democracy.
[i] Susan L. Woodward Balkan Tragedy: chaos and dissolution after the cold war, (Brookings Institute, May 1995)
[ii]See, in addition to Woodward, Laura Silber and Allan Little Yugoslavia : death of a nation (Penguin, 1997)
[iii]A leading Dutch supermarket