Saturday, February 25, 2023

Review: To Kill A Nation by Michael Parenti

I loved Slovenia when I visited. It's a beautiful country, with an interesting geography and a resulting interesting history. Spanning an opening in the alps, it forms a passage between western Europe and eastern Europe. As a result, it has historically been a strategic territory to hold, and was part of empires ranging from Rome’s to Byzantine’s to Napoleon’s to Austro-Hungary’s to the Nazi’s. The territory was liberated from this latter empire by socialist Partisans, and became part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. 

Slovenia's relationship with its past was fascinating. In the half dozen museums I visited while I was there, the country spoke positively of its socialist era, but similarly it was proud of being part of the European Union and of NATO. I wanted to learn a little more about its fascinating 20th century history, so I was happy to see Parenti wrote a book on the final years of Yugoslavia. As Parenti lays out, Yugoslavia was a particularly multi-cultural country that showed strong economic success:

Between 1960 and 1980 it had one of the most vigorous growth rates, along with free medical care and education, a guaranteed right to an income, one-month vacation with pay, a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, and a life expectancy of seventy-two years. Yugoslavia also offered its multi-ethnic citizenry affordable public transportation, housing, and utilities, in a mostly publicly owned, market-socialist economy.

In the late 1960s-1970s, Yugoslavia took out loans from the West to invest in its industrial capacity, however when a recession hit western economies, Yugoslavia found their export market dried up, and had challenges servicing their debt. In response, the IMF demanded an economic restructuring: wage freezes, elimination of worker-owned enterprises, cuts to social spending. These cuts led to an economic depression that “helped fuel the ensuing ethnic conflicts and secessionist movements.” 

These conflicts, or rather, the aggressions of the Serbs against the Albanians specifically, formed the basis of NATO’s justification to violently intervene in Yugoslavia. Parenti investigates the claims of NATO and the West, looking for evidence that (a) mass murder and mass rape was committed on a “genocidal” scale and that (b) these acts formed part of a government-sanctioned policy. Citing sources like The New York Times, Amnesty International and the UN, he finds that the oft-repeated allegations that 100,000-500,000 people were unaccounted for and presumed dead are based on poor evidence, that detailed investigation of grave sites by French, British and other Western sources found evidence of about 2,000 dead — just a fraction. Nor could the UN War Crimes Commission nor Amnesty International find evidence of mass-rape campaigns, nor survivors of rape in any substantial numbers.

No doubt there also were despicable grudge killings and executions of prisoners and innocent civilians as in any war, but not on a scale that would warrant the label of genocide or justify the death, destruction and misery inflicted upon Yugoslavia by bombings and sanctions.

These allegations of violence are put into context of the devastation wrecked by NATO. The US itself estimated NATO killed 500 (Belgrade puts the number at 2,500 dead), and displaced 100,000 civilians hoping to flee the destruction. (This refugee crisis was then pointed to by NATO as post hoc justification for NATO’s intervention.) NATO’s bombing surgically eliminated waterworks, power plants, bridges, hospitals, schools, churches — marvelously sparing all foreign-owned firms while destroying 164 state-owned factories. These strikes constituted illegal war crimes, and were committed by an institution without elections: “the first major war declared by a body that has no constituency or geography as would be found in a nation-state.” 

So if the alleged humanitarian crisis shows no strong basis in reality, why did NATO invade? Parenti lays out a more compelling explanation: (1) the Balkans form a strategic territory from which to exert power towards the east, (2) prior to IMF interference, Yugoslavia was an admirable socialist success story (despite Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that There Is No Alternative [to capitalism]), (3) the financial and US hegemonic benefit of “Third Worldizing” a non-allied country, that is, converting Yugoslavia to a smattering of small, right-wing nations that are (a) incapable of charting an independent course, (b) open to transnational corporations to extract labour and natural resources, (c) populated with literate but impoverished workers who labour at subsistence wages, depressing wages in Europe and elsewhere, and (d) no longer possess competitive mining, automotive, pharmaceutical, etc industries of their own. 

While this text is two decades old, and Yugoslavia has generally faded from pop culture memory, and even from current criticism of NATO, this book felt highly relevant. In it, we see the same media patterns used to allege genocide of minority groups by socialist nations and the humanitarian justification of Western atrocities. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaches its first anniversary, I also see hints of how negotiation talks might unwind. Yugoslavia proposed peace conditions that included “guaranteed human rights for all citizens and promotion of the cultural and linguistic identity of each national community” as well as granting legislative assemblies with representation specifically designated for national communities. NATO instead put forth the Rambouillet Peace Agreement, which “demanded complete autonomy for Kosovo, the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from the province, and occupation by NATO forces”, with Yugoslavia barred from legislation over Kosovo’s affairs while Kosovo would be able to exercise influence within Yugoslavia’s parliament and receive funds from Yugoslavia’s budget. The Serbian delegation was told they had two choices: sign the agreement as written or face NATO bombing. Russia is in a little better of a negotiating position than Yugoslavia was, with its tiny population and GDP. However, I think we can expect to see very one-sided reporting, little good-faith effort on NATO’s behalf, and we are unlikely to arrive at a solution involving an unaligned, thriving, multi-ethnic state. 

This book, out of all of Parenti’s, is particularly controversial, with his critics charging him of minimizing or denying the genocide of Albanians. However, I haven’t seen a critique that lays out what evidence Parenti leaves out or misconstrues, and the sources Parenti cites (such as UN tribunals or New York Times retractions) are likely trustworthy on this line of messaging. (Parenti notes, “Generally, mainstream information that goes against the mainstream’s own dominant paradigm is likely to be reliable. It certainly cannot be dismissed as self-serving.”) These criticisms of Parenti often come from avowed fans of Parenti — those who like him but insist that while his other books are great, in this one he takes an uncharacteristic mistep. To those critics, I ask what part of Parenti’s philosophy or research methods could lead him to come to the correct conclusion in his much-beloved Blackshirts and Reds, but to the wrong conclusion when aimed at Yugoslavia.

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