Seeking a Third Way: Apo’s Rojava in the Shadow of Tito’s Yugoslavia

By Matt Broomfield

A handful of historical reference points are commonly deployed to contextualise the Kurdish freedom movement for unfamiliar audiences. The jailed Kurdish figurehead Abdullah Öcalan is represented by his supporters as the ‘Mandela of the Middle East’ – while his detractors opt for less generous comparisons. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led polity established around the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava, and governed by the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES) on the basis of Öcalan’s doctrines is variously compared to flash-in-the-pan revolutionary phenomena like the Paris Commune, the brief flourishing of anarcho-syndicalism in the Spanish Civil War, and the Zapatista territory in Chiapas.

But there is precious little written to compare the Rojava ‘Revolution’, which has united ethnically, culturally, and politically diverse populations through a nominally-decentralised system known as ‘democratic confederalism’, to a more significant 20th-century socialist endeavour. As Slovene historian Jože Pirjevec’s recent biography of ‘Tito and his Comrades’ shows, there are striking commonalities uniting both Öcalan (affectionately referred to as “Apo”) with communist partisan-turned-statesman Josip Broz (remembered by the world as “Tito”), and the DAANES with the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In each case, diverse communities were initially united by a revolutionary political vanguard on the basis of what Pirjevec represents as twin foundational concepts of anti-fascism and (inter-ethnic) brotherhood – namely Europe’s only truly successful partisan resistance against Nazi Germany and the struggle against ISIS; with Yugoslav ‘brotherhood and unity’ the avatar of Öcalan’s ‘brotherhood of peoples’. In each case, domestic policies marked by utopian rhetoric and pragmatic compromise and the complex but largely successful management of potentially restive populations, occur in tandem with attempts to implement a ‘third way’ internationalist foreign policy between (and in Tito’s case, beyond) warring great powers. And each movement has also been misunderstood and maligned as backward, authoritarian, and Eastern, with their unique contributions to socialist thought and praxis all too often dismissed or overlooked.

Naturally, there are deep-seated differences between post-WW1 state formation and the Kurds’ rise in Rojava. The purpose of this review is not to conduct an in-depth assessment of Yugoslav workers’ self-management as compared to Öcalan’s ‘democratic confederalism’, but rather to identify commonalities worthy, mutatis mutandis, of deeper study. Rojava’s supporters should be encouraged to consider that long-term survival in the cracks between warring great powers has previously proven possible, while the comparison should also illuminate potential pitfalls akin to those that preceded the Yugoslav project’s collapse amid the internecine wars and ethnic cleansing, which many people now associate with the Western Balkans. For instance, on Wikipedia’s list of ‘English words of Serbo-Croatian origin’, the only terms with currency beyond direct reference to the Balkan region are ‘paprika’, ‘cravat’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’, in one tragicomic illustration of how Western posterity has dismissed the region’s rich political and social contributions.

Half a century apart, first the Balkans and then Kurdistan (an occupied region formally divided between southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran) witnessed a surge in sundry national consciousnesses as the Ottoman Empire which once governed both regions, gradually atrophied. In the Western Balkans, it was Orthodox Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Catholic Croats, Slovenes, Muslim Albanians, and Bosniaks, among others, who began pursuing their own nation-states in Europe’s most heterogeneous region, as would latter-day Kurdish nationalists. Though the Middle East and the Balkans are both now associated with bloody disputes between ethnic groups, it is equally possible to trace a history of coexistence despite differences in both regions, as Andrej Grubacic and Thomas Schmidinger have suggested with reference to the pre-19th century Balkans and pre-revolutionary Rojava respectively. (In Rojava, venerable Christian minorities sometimes united with, and sometimes suffered pogroms at the hands of, Kurdish nationalist movements.) ‘Balkanisation’ is only ever deployed as a pejorative, suggesting an epistemic association between the region and violent political fragmentation, but under Tito, the region represented quite the opposite ideal.

In both regions, therefore, distinct political programmes would develop that incorporated multi-ethnicity and decentralisation as panaceas to inter-ethnic conflict – along, crucially, with the emergence of political leaders with the vision, skill, and strength to forge these proposals into material reality.

Analyses of great leaders’ personalities always have an element of ambiguity, with Stalin’s own castigation of Tito’s ‘eyes like a lynx’ recalling Lenin’s famous representation of Stalin himself as a ‘grey blur, which flickered obscurely and left no trace’. Tito and Öcalan are no exception. It is impossible to reconcile harsh descriptions by detractors and dissidents on the one hand and their valorisation by devoted supporters on the other. Each is aloof and deified – while also capable of a uniquely intimate charm, inspiring the greatest personal confidence. Each is highly charismatic and yet flickers obscurely, making it difficult to grasp except through momentary anecdotes which have the quality of parable – Tito and his siblings making shoes out of cow dung, Öcalan and his early comrades surviving on a handful of olives each day.

If this ambiguity is characteristic of many great 20th-century statesmen, it is likely because it speaks to a deeper ideological flexibility. Both Tito and Öcalan proved themselves capable of extreme ideological commitment but also of scrutinising and overcoming their own dogmas when put to the test by circumstance. Though each leader had their share of blind luck, this rare ability to judge the precise moment to break with previous fanaticisms lies at the root of both leaders’ achievements. Even after 800 of 900 Yugoslav emigrees in Moscow were liquidated during the Stalinist purges, Pirjevec reports, Tito continued to cleave to Stalinist orthodoxy with a level of commitment that seems almost demented: but he was also able to make his subsequent, high-risk break with Moscow at a crucial historical juncture, ultimately preserving the federal Yugoslavia as an independent entity rather than seeing it subsumed into the Warsaw Pact and Soviet domination.

Likewise, it does Öcalan no disservice to recognize that his move away from the struggle for an independent, socialist Kurdish state was at least partially occasioned by the impossibility of achieving this goal. As in Yugoslavia, his ‘third way’ beyond state socialism and capitalism was not dreamed up in isolation but forged in response to very real material circumstances imperiling his people.

As Dilar Derik adroitly notes in her study of the Kurdish Women’s Movement, the Kurdish freedom arrived ‘late’ following the heyday of national liberation struggles which saw state socialism established in both the Balkans, and across the globe following wars of national liberation in the Third World (often supported, it should be noted, by Tito’s avowedly internationalist Yugoslavia). This was a curse, with the capitalist hegemony of the post-Soviet consensus contributing to Öcalan’s 1999 failure to find a foreign state willing to offer asylum, his subsequent capture by the Turkish intelligence services, and the period of crisis his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) subsequently endured. But it was also a blessing, contributing to Öcalan’s necessary pursuit of a political model that could learn from the failures of state socialism.

Arriving ‘late’ also meant Öcalan’s guerilla movement was never going to achieve the overthrow of the central Turkish authorities. Rather, as in the Balkans during World War II, it took a violent breach to cause moribund, repressive state systems to crumble, clearing the way for a unifying war of liberation and the subsequent implementation of a new political ideal.

The Kurdish Peoples’ and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) rapidly established themselves as Syria’s only effective, disciplined, and principled fighting force capable of resisting ISIS – just as Tito’s Partisans would distinguish themselves in comparison with the disorganized, disreputable, collaborationist, Serb nationalist Chetniks. Each therefore won support from an unlooked-for backer in the USA, conditional on establishing a ‘popular front’ allying the revolutionary vanguard with other, less progressive military and political actors. Pirjevec relays an anecdote wherein Tito stole away from his American backers in the dead of night, remaining highly suspicious of their offers of unconditional aid even as Stalin turned his back on the Partisans for fear of provoking the other Allies. The vanguard Syrian Kurdish movement, intimately linked with Öcalan’s PKK, found itself in a similar bind. The Kurdish movement was continuing its decades-long guerilla struggle against NATO’s second-largest army (Turkey) on the one hand, while benefiting from airstrikes and military support conducted by the USA on the other, even as NATO’s largest power continued to provide intelligence and hardware to Ankara for the express purpose of targeting the Kurds.

The broad-church ‘popular front’ serves well enough in the context of an existential war against a common enemy. But what then? Each movement faced the struggle to transition from a clandestine, guerilla existence to governing and feeding an actually-existing population of millions. Pirjevec’s break-neck, vivid narrative of the clandestine years is followed by a description, in hypnotic, back-and-forth detail, of factional warfare, rumblings between jealous constituent republics, and pinball diplomacy between the West and East.

In both cases, efforts at the implementation of a third-way socialism were variously hampered by the costs of post-war reconstruction, grass-roots indifference, and the pressure of foreign markets. While Rojava’s supporters valorise its supposedly cooperative-based economy, agricultural cooperatives are only responsible for a fraction of total production, while the DAANES has struggled to achieve any degree of autarky or industrialisation. Ironically, despite its nominally ecological and decentralised agenda, the region relies on centralised and nationalised oil revenues to provide subsidized bread, diesel and other necessaries to impoverished Syrians and fund national defence, enabling the region’s survival and keeping DAANES residents from starvation. This ‘war economy’ is the avatar of the pragmatic centralisation of control over essential industries in Yugoslavia.

Pirjevec’s account of Yugoslav efforts to avoid Soviet bureaucratisation by placing managerial power into the hands of the workers puts an elitist focus on ‘illiteracy…. economic backwardness [and] the general deficiencies of the society,’ characterising self-management as always doomed to fail. In both cases, it can at least be concluded that nominal concessions to cooperative production proved insufficiently transformative in the face of the broader reality of concessions to market forces, ultimately undermining efforts toward a genuine socialist alternative.

A more germane point of comparison, though, is the way in which the drive toward decentralisation was simultaneously produced and undermined by the federation of diverse regions. In Yugoslavia, southern republics pushed for a greater degree of centralisation given the relative underdevelopment of regions like Bosnia, Kosovo, and southern Serbia, while those richer republics (Slovenia or Croatia) who had benefited from Austro-Hungarian modernisation pursued greater autonomy and a turn to foreign markets. In Yugoslavia as in Syria, it was precisely the fact of difference and potential discord that forced the implementation of a federal solution – in line with Tito’s perspicacious belief that ‘Yugoslavia’s pre-war frailty… was caused by ethnic and religious conflict’.

In northern Syria, meanwhile, the gradual expulsion of ISIS posed the Kurdish political cadre with an unexpected dilemma. The AANES (as it was previously called) now governed a majority-Arab population, including major population centres like Raqqa, which had suffered the worst depredations under ISIS – but also where large swathes of the conservative, rural population, including tribal power-brokers, continued to sympathise with the Islamic State and shelter its insurgent network. Kurdish-nationalist parties opposed to the AANES’ progressive, federal program would willingly turn their back on these restive regions, where AANES employees were and still are regularly gunned down by ISIS sleeper cells and protests mix legitimate grievances over service provision and Kurdish dominance of political institutions with calls for the release of all captured ISIS members, and instead forge a comfortable, US-sponsored alliance with the neighbouring Kurdish-nationalist petro-statelet, the Kurdistan Regional of Iraq (KRI).

The DAANES has thus been forced into an unexpected, unlooked-for political compromise. To take one well-known example, polygamy is banned in the Kurdish heartlands but only frowned upon in those Arab regions recently liberated by ISIS. Paradoxically, it is here that the DAANES has been repeatedly forced – through admirably open-minded public consultations, pressure from conservative tribal federations, and street protest — to rethink, revise or defend its positions on issues such as women’s education, conscription, and relations with Assad. In one such public consultation in Raqqa, I witnessed tribal sheikhs quarrelling with Kurdish women’s activists over the attempted implementation of the DAANES’ progressive primary-school curriculum. These Arab-Kurdish tensions are the primary internal crisis facing the DAANES, but it’s precisely this crisis which has driven the region’s continued pursuit of a federal solution. This is the ‘brotherhood of peoples’ – in all its Cain-and-Abel complexity.

Internationally, too, the DAANES has been forced into more complex compromises than is commonly recognised. The continued US presence in the region serves as an inconstant guarantee against Turkey, hell-bent on eradicating the project in Kurdish-led decentralisation on its southern border. As nominally anti-imperialist cynics often forget, the US has already once abandoned the region to suffer a devastating 2019 Turkish invasion, marked by both ethnic and political cleansing and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities: while it is Russia which serves as a guarantor power for western regions under DAANES governance, although Russia, too, abandoned the DAANES exclave of Afrin to an equally catastrophic Turkish invasion and occupation in 2018.

Each great power maintains a presence in northern Syria, not due to any interest in the region’s paltry oil reserves but as a bulwark against the other. Absent any international power with a genuine interest in preserving the Kurdish-led federation as an ideological entity, the DAANES survives as best it can in the cracks. Kurdish forces literally mediated between Russian and American patrols when they clashed on border roads in North and East Syria, a striking image of the precarious dance between quarrelling imperialist powers that has enabled the region to survive.

For his part, Tito reaped the dubious benefits of arriving ‘earlier’ in the 20th century, successfully steering his non-aligned state through the iciest gulfs of the Cold War. Of course, his state’s independence was a result of the post-Yalta compromise on NATO’s eastern flank. Had either of the two not viewed the Balkans as so strategic, ironically, Yugoslavia would have been subsumed into one or the other bloc. As it was, Tito was able to both establish his state and play Washington and Moscow off against one another. He could look beyond a mere policy of survival like that adopted in Rojava, establishing the global non-aligned movement which Pirjevec represents as his crowning achievement.

It was easier, Pirjevec suggests, for Tito to enjoy the outsized influence Yugoslavia exerted on the world stage as he cruised around on his yacht Galeb, smuggling arms to Algeria here and pressuring Eisenhower and Khruschev there, than to reckon with the internal contradictions between quarrelling republics, party cadre and local workers, or would-be reformers and the communist old guard. As the President’s impending death became unavoidable in 1980, Pirjevec reports, doctors kept him alive on life support for so long that he developed complications and infections hitherto unknown to medical science. Here, as elsewhere, the historian is unable to resist the compelling metaphorical assignation between ailing President and nation.

Yugoslavia’s own death knell was sounded in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR and the dissipation of what Jodi Dean calls the ‘communist horizon’ and a genuine, if flawed, alternative to capitalist hegemony. In this reality, Yugoslavia could no longer endure. All that remained was a scramble for the spoils of privatisation, ultra-fine ethnic partition imposed by the West, and Russian-backed irredentist Serbian nationalism – what Grubacic pointedly decries as a ‘balkanisation from above’.

Does a similar fate await the DAANES? The region, too, must reckon with predatory imperialist forces – chiefly Turkey, gripped with a monomaniacal desire to extinguish Kurdish-led autonomy, but also the Syrian regime, which long managed Rojava as an internal colony and continues to look longingly at the region’s wheat and oil resources. That neither Assad nor Turkey have managed to turn the Arab regions to revolt against the DAANES (and not for want of trying) is testament to the administration’s partial success in achieving a modus vivendi and the ‘least-worst’ living conditions in Syria, a fact further attested by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Arab IDPs in DAANES regions. Nonetheless, for so long as the region continues to endure economic isolation, impoverishment, ceaseless assassinations, and Turkish drone strikes targeting not only political and military cadres but also civilian personnel, water pumps, and medical infrastructure, its subaltern Arab populations will doubtless remain open to a return to state governance. Tellingly, powerful tribal alliances in the hinterland intentionally maintain both pro-DAANES and pro-Assad wings, as it is all too easy to imagine simmering Arab-Kurdish tensions providing the foil for Assadist revanchism or Turkish expansionism.

Ultimately, perhaps, both Rojava and Yugoslavia might be remembered as having constituted what could be termed, following Dean, a ‘third horizon’ – an outsized contribution to the dialectic of socialist experiment and failure, with each polity making a virtue of external isolation and internal contradiction. Pirjevec quotes Tito as lamenting toward the end of his life: ‘Yugoslavia does not exist any more’. It was a prescient remark, with ‘Yugoslavia’ now serving as a shorthand for the catastrophe that followed the federation’s collapse via the catch-all term ‘in the former Yugoslavia’, tacitly assigning ultimate blame to socialism for the violence which followed in socialism’s wake.

Rojava might well suffer the same fate. Critical and contradictory voices condemning the region as authoritarian, Assad-allied communists on the one hand and US-backed, boot-licking separatists on the other will prevail, over and above those capable of recognising the productive political solutions sought in response to these admitted external pressures. The DAANES’ unique political contribution will be written off as mere happenstance, its survival a fluke, and the region defined by the ultimate resurgence of tensions it has been intent on reconciling

Albeit Pirjevec says he still believes in a socialist solution, the diplomatic historian’s account is stronger on political intrigue than on a comradely-critical assessment of self-management. Nonetheless, his account is encyclopedic and erudite enough to frustrate any lazy dismissal of Tito’s achievements. Indeed, given the region’s third-way alignment, Yugo-nostalgia has never had and could never have the distasteful ring of either left-melancholic Stalinist apologia or liberal triumphalism. Öcalan, and Rojava, can only hope for such an even-handed assessment by the historians of posterity.


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