After Kosovo, East Timor; after East Timor, Chechnya. Barely has the blood from one massacre dried than it is flowing again somewhere else on the planet. At the same time, the African continent is in agony: the endemic wars in Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Congo, and other countries, have been joined by new massacres in Burundi and a confrontation between Rwanda and its Ugandan "allies", just as the war gets under way again in Angola. We are far indeed from the prophecies of President Bush, exactly ten years ago after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, predicting "a new world order of peace and prosperity". The only peace that has made any progress is the peace of the grave.
In reality, every day that passes brings further confirmation of capitalism’s plunge into chaos and decomposition.
East Timor and Chechnya: two expressions of capitalist decomposition
The slaughter (thousands dead) and destruction (between 80% and 90% of houses burned down in some towns) that have ravaged East Timor are not new to that country. One week after Portugal granted it independence in May 1975, Indonesian troops invaded it, and a year later it became Indonesia’s 27th province. The killings and famine that followed left between 200-300,000 dead, out of a population of less than 1 million. However, this does not mean that today’s events in East Timor are simply a pale "remake" of the events of 1975.
There were already many bloody conflicts under way at the time (the Vietnam war only came to an end in 1975), but the systematic extermination of civilian populations solely on the basis of their ethnic origins was still an exception, rather than the rule it has become today. The 1994 massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda is not an "African" peculiarity caused by the backwardness of the continent. The same tragedy took place in the heart of Europe only a few months ago, in Kosovo. And the repetition of these acts of barbarity in East Timor must be seen, not as a specific problem linked to a failed decolonisation 25 years ago, but as an expression of the barbarity of capitalism, of the chaos into which the system is plunging.
The clear distinction between the present period and the one that preceded the collapse of the Eastern bloc is perfectly illustrated by the new war which today is ravaging Chechnya. Ten years ago, the USSR lost the imperialist bloc which it had ruled with a hand of steel for four decades, in the space of a few weeks. This collapf a few weeks. This collapse was primarily the result of a catastrophic economic and political crisis which had led to the complete paralysis of the bloc’s dominant power. As such, it bore within it the disintegration of the USSR itself: the republics of the Baltic, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and even Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Byelorussia) all wanted to follow the example of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, etc. In 1992, the Russian Federation thus found itself alone. But Russia itself is constituted by multiple nationalities, and began to fall victim to the same process of disintegration, concretised by the war in Chechnya (1994-96). After 100,000 deaths on both sides, and the destruction of the country’s major towns, the war ended in a defeat for Russia and de facto independence for Chechnya.
In August, the entry of Islamic troops led by the Chechen Chamil Bessaiev and the Jordanian Khattab kicked off a new war in Chechnya. This war is a concentrate of the expressions of decomposition which affect the whole of capitalism.
On the one hand, it is part of the fallout from the collapse of the USSR which to date has been the most important expression of the decomposition of bourgeois society. On the other hand, it brings into play the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which reveals the decomposition of society in a whole series of countries (Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria, etc), and whose counterpart in the advanced countries is the rise in urban violence, drug addiction and religious sects.
Moreover, if it is true as many sources say (and as is perfectly possible) that Bessaiev and his clique are in fact financed by the Mafia millionaire Berezovsky, the power behind Yeltsin’s throne, or that the explosions in Moscow were the work of the Russian secret services, then we would be confronted here with another expression of capitalist decomposition, which is far from being limited to Russia: the ever more frequent use of terrorism by the bourgeois states themselves (and not just by little uncontrolled groups), and the rise of corruption within them. At all events, even if the Russian "services" are not behind the bomb attacks, they have been used by the authorities to create a powerful sentiment of xenophobia in Russia and so to justify the new war against Chechnya.
The war is wanted by every player on the Russian political scene (except Lebed, who signed the August 1996 agreement with the Chechens), from Zhuganov’s Stalinists to the "democrats" behind Lujkov, the mayor of Moscow. That Russia’s entire political apparatus, despite the fact that most of them denounce the Yeltsin clique’s corruption and incompetence, should support the latter’s plunge into an adventure which can only aggravate country’s economic and political disaster is eloquent testimony to the chaos which is gripping it more and more.
The cynicism and hypocrisy of the "democratic" powers
A few months ago, the NATO offensive in ex-Yugoslavia was dressed in the fig-leaf of "humanitarian intervention". It took an intensive barrage of images of the distress of Kosovar refugees, and the mass graves discovered after the retreat of Serb troops from Kosovo to make the populations of the NATO countries forget that the first result of the military operation was to unleash the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo’s Albanians by Milosevic’s militia.
Today, hypocrisy is beating new records over East Timor. When the region was annexed by Suharto’s Indonesia in 1975-76, leading to the death of nearly two thirds of the population, the Western media, and still less the governments, barely noticed this tragedy. Although the UN General Assembly refused to recognise the annexation, the great Western powers offered unstinting support to the Suharto regime, which they saw as a bulwark of Western order in that part of the world. Clearly, the USA has particularly distinguished itself in its support for the butcher of Timor, in particularly with arms deliveries and training for the Indonesian special forces, who organised the anti-independence militias recruited from the Timorese underworld.
But it was not alone, since France and Britain have also continued to deliver weapons to Indonesia (the latter’s SAS also helped to train Indonesia’s crack troops). As for Australia, which today is presented as the "saviour" of the East-Timorese population, it was the only country to recognise the annexation of East Timor (for which it was rewarded in 1981 by a stake in East Timor’s offshore oil fields). Still more recently, in 1995, Australia signed a military co-operation treaty with Indonesia, aimed in particular at combating "terrorism" - which of course included the independentist guerrilla of East Timor.
Today, all the media have mobilised to reveal the barbarity which the East Timorese population has suffered ever since the massive vote for independence. And this media mobilisation has of course supported the intervention of the UN mandated forces under Australian command. As in Kosovo, military intervention is preceded by campaigns about "human rights". Once again, the humanitarian organisations (the swarms of NGOs) have arrived with the army’s baggage, making it possible to put over the lie that an armed intervention has no other aim than to defend human life (and of course not to defend imperialist interests).
However, while the massacre of the Albanians in Kosovo was perfectly foreseeable (and was in fact desired by the NATO leaders as a justification a posteriori of their intervention), that of the East Timorese was not only foreseeable but openly announced by its perpetrators, the anti-independence militias. Despite all the warnings, the UN sponsored the preparation of 30th May, and delivered the East Timorese to the slaughter.
When UN leaders asked why they had behaved with so little foresight, one of its diplomats calmly replied that "the UN is only the sum of its members". And indeed, for its main member, the USA, the discredit which overshadowed the UN was no bad thing. It was a means of restoring the balance after the end of the war in Kosovo, which had begun under the aegis of the USA with the NATO bombing campaign, only to end under the influence of the UN, which the US is less and less able to control because of the weight within it of other powers, like France, that contest US leadership.
The US made its position perfectly clear on a number of occasions: "There can be no question of sending UN troops in the short term. The Indonesians must themselves recover control of the various factions that exist within the population" (Peter Burleigh, aide to the US ambassador to the United Nations). This was well said, when it was blindingly obvious that the anti-independence "faction" was at the beck and call of the Indonesian army. "Just because we bombed Belgrade doesn’t mean that we are going to bomb Dili" (Samuel Berger, chief of the National Security Council at the White House). "East Timor is not Kosovo" (James Rubin, spokesman for the State Department).
These words at least have the merit of highlighting the hypocrisy of Clinton a few months previously, just after the end of the war in Kosovo, when he proclaimed:
"Whether you live in Africa, in Central Europe, or anywhere else, if anyone wants to commit crimes against an innocent civilian population, then he should be aware that as far as we are able, we will prevent him".
In fact, the USA’s refusal to intervene springs not just from a desire to cut the UN down to size. More fundamentally - and apart from the fact that the world’s greatest power did not want to "offend" its faithful ally in Djakarta (with which, on 25th August, it had just conducted joint manoeuvres around the theme of "aid and humanitarian assistance in disaster situations"!) - the USA’s aim was to support the "police operation" of the Indonesian state, which consisted of the massacres perpetrated by the militias.
Although the Indonesian army (the main power in the country) knew that it could not keep control of East Timor indefinitely (which is why it agreed to the intervention of the UN-mandated troops), the massacres it orchestrated after the referendum were intended to deliver a warning to whoever else throughout the vast Indonesian archipelago, such as the people of Northern Sumatra or the Moluccas, who might be tempted by the siren songs of the various nationalist movements. This objective of the Indonesian bourgeoisie is entirely shared by the bourgeoisie of the other states in the region (Thailand, Burma, Malaysia) which all have their own problems with ethnic minorities. It is also entirely shared by the American bourgeoisie, which is worried by the destabilisation of this region, coming on top of so many others.
The operation to "restore order" to East Timor had to happen, since anything else would have discredited the floods of "humanitarian" ideology of recent years. The United States delegated the job to Australia, its most solid ally in the region, which had the advantage of avoiding a direct conflict with Djakarta. For Australia, this represented a good opportunity to advance its own imperialist projects in the region (even at the cost of a temporary cooling of relations with Indonesia). For the US, it is vital to maintain a strong presence, through its allies, in this region, since it knows that the general development of the imperialist tensions contained in the present historic situation brings with it the threat of a growing influence of the other two powers which can claim to have a role to play in the region: Japan and China. region: Japan and China.
The same kind of geo-strategic concerns explain the attitude of the USA and other powers towards the present war in Chechnya, where the civilian population is being crushed under Russian bombs. There are already hundreds of thousands of refugees, and tens of thousands of families are homeless in the face of approaching winter. The Western leaders have spoken out at this "humanitarian disaster". Clinton has declared himself "concerned" at the situation in Chechnya, while Laurent Fabius, president of the French National Assembly, has said outright that all attempts to secede from the Russian Federation should be opposed:
"France supports the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and condemns terrorism, operations of destabilisation, fundamentalism, which are all threats to democracy".
Although the media continue to play on the humanitarian string, there is a consensus, including amongst countries which are often in confrontation elsewhere (such as France and the USA) to avoid creating the slightest difficulty for Russia, and to let the massacre continue. In fact, every sector of the Western ruling class has an interest in avoiding a new aggravation of the chaos into which the largest country in the world is plunging, and moreover one that possesses thousands of nuclear warheads.
At two extremes of the vast Asian continent, that holds the biggest population on the planet, the world bourgeoisie is confronted with the growing threat of chaos. During the summer of 1997, this continent was subjected to the brutal attacks of the crisis, which had a particularly destabilising effect on certain countries, as we have seen in Indonesia (which although it is not part of Asia properly speaking is nonetheless in close proximity to the continent). At the same time, factors of chaos have been accumulating, especially with the deterioration of traditional conflicts such as that between Pakistan and India at the beginning of the summer 1999. In the end, the same danger threatens the whole Asian continent: the explosion of confrontations such as those engulfing the Caucasus today, the development of a situation similar to that of the African continent, but obviously with far more disastrous consequences for the rest of the planet.
The chaos affecting ever-wider areas of the world is obviously a matter of real concern for every sector of the world bourgeoisie, especially for the leaders of the great powers. But their concern is impotent. The desire to guarantee a minimum of stability is constantly coming up against the contradictory interests of the different national sectors of the ruling class. As a result, the advanced countries, the "great democracies", more often than not play the pyromaniac firemen, intervening to "stabilise" a situation that they have largely helped to create (as we have seen notably in ex-Yugoslavia, and today in East Timor).
But this spreading chaos in the inter-imperialist arena is itself only an expression of the general decomposition of bourgeois society: a decomposition which is the result of the ruling class’ inability to offer the slightest response - including that of World War as in 1914 and 1939 - to the insoluble crisis of its economy. A decomposition which is expressed in the whole of society rotting on its feet. A decomposition which is not reserved for backward countries, but which also affects the great bourgeois metropolises, as we have seen most recently in the awful rail accident of 5th October in London, capital of the world’s oldest capitalist power, and the nuclear accident of 30th September at Tokaimura in Japaember at Tokaimura in Japan, the country of "Total Quality" and "Zero Defect" manufacturing. A decomposition which will only come to an end with capitalism itself, when the proletariat overthrows this system which has become synonymous with chaos and barbarity.