Reviewed by Konstantin Kilibarda
Independent Vancouver-based filmmaker Boris Malagursky’s The Weight of Chains is the latest in a long line of misguided attempts to give an ‘alternative’ account to the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. This review seeks to directly address some of the more flawed accounts of the Yugoslav wars by first providing a critical analysis of Malagursky’s film and then examining the broader tendency by some progressives to simply invert dominant media portrayals of regimes targeted for Western intervention (a tendency again seen in debates over Libya and Syria). I’m very familiar with this terrain because during the early 2000s I regretfully wrote similar pieces and fell into similar traps regarding the Balkan wars.
Reviewing The Weight of Chains
The main problem with Malagursky’s film is that it attempts to weave two very different narratives together. On the one hand, Malagursky picks up on a general regional consensus among progressives in the Balkans that the wars in the 1990s were partially related to the neoliberal drive to restructure Yugoslavia’s socialist and self-managed economy along more explicitly market oriented lines. As Susan Woodward points out in Balkan Tragedy, the IMF and World Bank only added fuel to the fire of growing inter-republican tensions during the 1980s as they cornered Yugoslav leaders into pursuing austerity measures that quickly began to unravel the country’s tenuous social contract. This narrative also includes a critique of newly emerging elites – often cooperating with one another across ethnic divides (most notably through Milosevic and Tudjman’s plans to partition Bosnia) – while using the cover of ethnic conflicts to plunder the economies of their newly emerging republics. For those interested in understanding some of those dynamics, Chip Gagnon’s The Myth of Ethnic War, Peter Andreas Blue Helmets and Black Markets, and a special edition of Problems of Postcommunism (2004) on illicit economies during the war offer important perspectives on these developments.
The second narrative that Malagursky attempts to weave into the first, is much more controversial. This is the attempt to minimize, deflect and distort the well established role of Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian leaders in the former Yugoslavia in pursuing a militant nationalist program since the late 1980s that sought to reclaim Kosovo through the imposition of martial law, as well as create ‘ethnically compact’ territories that would link Serbs in Serbia with Serbian minorities in Bosnia and Croatia. The brutal, often genocidal nature of this campaign and the ensuing ethnic-cleansing is well documented by UN reports (click here, here, here, and here) as well as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (here and here) studies into these crimes. The most notable war-crimes include the genocidal murder of at least 8,100 Bosniak Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica over the course of a week in 11-17 July 1995; the siege by Bosnian Serb forces of Sarajevo which left an estimated 10,000 dead after three years of shelling, sniper fire and restricted supplies; the mass expulsion of Kosovo Albanians in the late 1990s; as well as a string of massacres in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. It also included the interment of tens of thousands of men in torture camps and the systematic rape of women. In all, the wars claimed 100-150,000 lives in Bosnia, 15-20,000 in Croatia and 10-12,000 in Kosovo, as well as displacing 2.6-million people.
Malagursky’s second narrative is thus an oft repeated refrain that stems from various quarters that seek to place an accent on Serbian victimization during the 1990s by arguing that: (a) other ethnicities also committed war-crimes and that Serbs were victims as well; (b) that Serbs were historical victims of a greater genocide in WWII; and that (c) that Serbs didn’t want to enter the conflict but where pushed into it by the nationalist and separatist agendas of ethnic others. Certainly, the Western media often engaged in collective blame of ‘the Serbs’ (especially in the early- to mid-1990s, though arguably the image of the Balkans as a whole was distorted), while Serbian civilians in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo were also targeted (i.e. Operation Storm and Operation Allied Force). However, none of this alters the reality of the roles that Milosevic (Serbia/Kosovo), Karadzic (Bosnia), Mladic (Bosnia/Croatia), and Babic/Martic (Croatia) played in instigating, organizing and pursuing a militant nationalist program that repeatedly resulted in violence on a genocidal scale. Most scholarship on the former Yugoslavia agrees on this. Nevertheless, Malagursky draws on a cast of marginal ‘intellectuals’ and figures – spanning the gamut from far-rightwing Islamophobes like Srdja Trifkovic to conspiracy minded professors like Michel Chossudovsky – to highlight these points. The end result is a narrative of Serbian victimization that eclipses the suffering of Albanians, Bosnians, and Croats who were the primary victims of these wars. Furthermore, the movie neglects to interview the countless Montenegrin and Serbian critics of these wars, who bravely fought the regime in the rump-Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s to bring forward a critique of the militarism pursued by Milosevic and his local proxies in the region.
What makes the attempt to weave these two narratives together in Malagursky’s film problematic is that those he interviews to establish the first narrative – including Bosnia’s popular dub-reggae trio Dubioza Kolektiv, the families of Josip Reihl-Kir and Milan Levar, etc – would probably not have agreed to participate in the film if they had known that Malagursky would try to use their stories to legitimate the second narrative that seeks to minimize or deflect responsibility for genocidal policies pursued by Serbian leaders in the 1990s. In fact, one only needs to listen to Dubioza Kolektiv’s music to realize the group’s radically different reading of what happened in the 1990s from that presented in Malagursky’s film. This manipulation of the first narrative of neoliberal penetration and corrupt elites in order to legitimate the second narrative of Serbian victimization in the 1990s is what makes this film a questionable enterprise. Those forwarding such a narrative claim that they are only seeking to ‘correct’ the ‘distorted’ view that ‘the West’ has created of ‘Serbs.’ However, such a claim deliberately marginalizes the actual experience of millions of Albanians, Bosnians, Croatians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, Slovenes, self-identified Yugoslavs, people of mixed ethnic-backgrounds, women, workers, Roma and countless of Yugoslavia’s smaller minority communities who happen to share such a ‘Western’ understanding of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Any attempt to point this out to those crafting this narrative is greeted with calls of being a ‘cruise missile leftist,’ ‘an apologist for imperialism,’ ‘a fifth column,’ Islamophobic denunciations and worse. For those interested in learning more about progressive movements in the former Yugoslavia (click here, here, here, and here).
Denial on the Left and the Breakdown of Solidarity
As recent debates by progressives over Libya and Syria illustrate, Malagursky’s film is by no means unique. In fact, it is part of a broader trend that rightwing and liberal pundits never fail to point out when critiquing ‘the left.’ That is the tendency of some progressives to simply end up adopting an inverted perception of reality by minimizing the crimes of regimes targeted for Western intervention or opprobrium. This is a tendency that has been present ever since early debates on the Soviet Union and particularly Stalin and has been repeated in similar form throughout (with anarchists, Trotskyists and migrants/refugees from these regimes often pushing more nuanced and critical readings). In the Yugoslav case, the Workers World Party (USA), as well as progressive authors like Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti, and even Nobel-laureate Harold Pinter (among others) took up versions of this position. This position was also evident in some attempts to defend the Iraqi regime, as well as in more recent apologies for the Qaddafi and Assad regimes. The main problem with such positions is that they effectively undercut attempts to build solidarity with progressive forces in countries that are being targeted by intervention; that is, those forces that fight authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, while also maintaining a critique of imperialism (groups that were present across the former Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria and that continue to challenge Western policy well past the expiry of local dictators).
The three most problematic assumptions that undergird such distorted positions among progressives are worth reviewing:
(1) The assumption that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – If the USA / West hates [fill in name of preferred villain of the moment], then certainly they must be good. The West invades countries that oppose its policies and if someone opposes Western policy they must be doing something right. Right? Such a reactive position is unhelpful in discerning the true nature of a regime because the US / West has targeted both progressive and reactionary regimes for intervention, sanctions, etc. Furthermore, in the past two decades when the West has intervened against a regime it has often done so against one that the US State Department, military or intelligence apparatus had fostered ties with at various points in the past. This includes Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden and the precursors of the Taliban, Milosevic and his interior minister Jovica Stanisic, Muammar Qaddafi, Manuel Noriega, Bashar el-Assad, elements of the Iranian regime, etc.
(2) Fetishizing statist and a geopolitical worldviews – Such positions erase the human landscape on which interventions occur and reduce politics to a simple game between competing elites or states for primacy. In this vision, US policy is simply guided by pure power and geopolitical concerns to secure oil resources, pipeline routes, etc. The world becomes a chessboard and each country a sovereign space that the US seeks to penetrate. Certainly this is how many US strategic planners see the world, but it is not the prism that should guide a progressive understanding of global politics. Statism and geopolitics represent distinctly masculanist and militarized views of the world that are rooted in imperialist and fascist strategic thinking – they are the foundations of realist military planning. While it is certainly important to understand the distorted worldviews that drive policymakers, it is also important to steer clear of using them to guide our analyses. Otherwise, the diversity and social struggles that shape the societies involved are simply reduced to functionalist interest groups to be manipulated by this or that power. In such a vision, everything that happens in a country targeted for intervention becomes either a function of the regime or imperialist agencies. Local struggles are thus stripped of any autonomy and capacity for action and marginalized in discussions.
(3) Anti-Imperialist racism – Assuming that those who oppose a given regime targeted for intervention are working for ‘the West’ or are naïve and need to be educated amounts to a form of anti-imperialist racism, which sees people in the rest of the world as unable to fully comprehend their own situation. Apparently, some progressives in the West believe that they are in a much better position to judge ‘what is really happening behind the scenes’ and ‘what the people of [insert country] should do’ than those on the ground who directly suffer and chafe under brutal regimes. Adopting such a position effectively breaks down the vital transnational solidarities that need to be built between progressive movements. Given that the Western left has proven incapable of stopping their own leaders from staging militarized interventions, a more long-term strategy is needed to foster links and to support those forces that are critical of the object of Western intervention (more frequently a US / Western intelligence asset that has strayed too far or outlived his usefulness) as well as opposing the pursuit of Western and local elite interests at the expense of ordinary people (often seeking to reproduce the patterns of the deposed regime).
As world discussion turns to potential interventions in Iran and Syria, these three assumptions are worth keeping in mind as a cautionary note. Maxime Rodinson, who became critical of his own previous Stalinist positions, warned in the early 1980s against the: “ideological delirium and moral lapses to which even the most admirable of commitments can lead.” Rodinson’s warning is worth keeping in mind and rereading whenever we find ourselves falling into the above traps. Let’s hope Malagursky chooses to use his talents in the future for actually fostering solidarities rather than sowing the seeds of on-going partition, confusion and conflict.