Yugoslavia: New War, Old Hatreds
Today's fragmented former Yugoslavia could help pave the way to a more peaceful solution to Europe's most pressing problem: the fierce pride and mutual hatred of the Continent's many ethnic minorities.
The collapse of the Cold War was a joyful event on both sides of the political divide. To the people of the East, it meant economic prosperity and political pluralism. To those in the West, it brought relief and satisfaction. Yet it was immediately clear that the former communist countries' transition to market economies and democracy would be long and painful. What was not immediately apparent was the unraveling of the geopolitical solutions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. That was accompanied by a slow meltdown of European institutions and security arrangements, and an almost total lack of ideas for dealing with the rise of ethnic hatreds throughout the former communist world. Yugoslavia's implosion not only highlights those negative trends but also serves as a catalyst to them.
The collapse of the Cold War was a joyful event on both sides of the political divide. To the people of the East, it meant economic prosperity and political pluralism. To those in the West, it brought relief and satisfaction. Yet it was immediately clear that the former communist countries’ transition to market economies and democracy would be long and painful. What was not immediately apparent was the unraveling of the geopolitical solutions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. That was accompanied by a slow meltdown of European institutions and security arrangements, and an almost total lack of ideas for dealing with the rise of ethnic hatreds throughout the former communist world. Yugoslavia’s implosion not only highlights those negative trends but also serves as a catalyst to them.
Yugoslavia had been an anomaly in the Cold War, a communist country within Moscow’s reach but beyond its grasp. For most Americans, it was a place of quarreling and obscure ethnic groups who were welded together by the great communist heretic Marshal Josip Broz Tito. Americans admired the Tito image: a courageous rebel who defied the Goliath Stalin and abandoned suffocating Soviet-style policies in favor of a kinder, gentler communism. The United States, wanting a strong Yugoslavia, poured billions of dollars into Tito’s treasury.
After his death in 1980, Tito’s strong hand was replaced by a council of bland ethnic chieftains. Yugoslavia simply vanished from the American consciousness. The collapse of the Soviet empire eliminated any remaining U.S. strategic interest in Yugoslavia. American concern over Yugoslavia’s disintegration related mostly to what it might portend for Russia, the other multi-ethnic Slavic country, and its nuclear weapons. By the time war broke out, the United States had willingly let the Europeans handle the problem.
Hence Yugoslavia became the first major test of the European Community’s (EC) multilateral foreign policy. Its failure was conspicuous. Not only have the Europeans been unable to stop a civil war on their doorstep, but some of their contradictory responses have aggravated it. From the beginning, the absence of policy poisoned relationships within the EC. Germany enthusiastically led the diplomatic charge in support of secessionist republics. However, Greece, which had a vested interest in maintaining Yugoslavia, continues to support Serbia despite agreed upon EC positions and United Nations sanctions.
The disarray has contributed to new instability in the Balkans and adjacent areas. The climate of uncertainty has pushed neighboring countries to seek new security arrangements and to reorient their foreign and defense policies in more nationalistic directions. Greece, for example, has closed its airspace to NATO ally Turkey. Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Turkey are all involved in discussions about the war. The former Yugoslavia bordered seven countries and-with the exception of the Romanian-Yugoslav border — all of its frontiers are challenged, either overtly or subtly.
Even before the Yugoslav civil war spread beyond Slovenia and Croatia to the central republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Europeans had conceded defeat and requested American leadership. President George Bush, facing a tough reelection campaign and fearing entanglement, refused to offer more than strong diplomatic action. Harsh U.N. sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, which constituted the new Yugoslavia, were followed by rhetorical blandishments from Washington. But the main work was left to U.N. envoy Cyrus Vance and EC representative David Owen.
Now the new Clinton administration has taken steps that gradually drag the United States into the Balkan conflict. Responding to public pressures. President Bill Clinton has authorized the use of U.S. military planes for food airdrops to besieged Bosnian Muslims. He has also pledged the use of U.S. forces to "enforce" peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina once it is accepted by the three warring parties there. In April 1993, U.S. and other NATO warplanes began flying missions over Bosnia to enforce a U.N.-declared "no-fly zone."
The real question is whether the United States should be engaged militarily in the Balkans without a clear and practicable political blueprint. Such a blueprint does not exist at this time. An impulsive rush into Bosnia could easily make the administration hostage to an intractable problem, and even undermine Clinton’s presidency. In a continent haunted by resurgent nationalism and political fragmentation, the unhappy territory of Bosnia is uniquely treacherous ground. Yet without a settlement on Bosnia, there can be no resolution of the dispute between the former Yugoslavia’s two largest nations, the Serbs and Croats. Whoever controls Bosnia controls the western part of the Balkan peninsula. And although one may argue the United States has no direct strategic interest in the former Yugoslavia, it does have a vital interest in the stability of Europe.
History of Hatred
The lands of the Yugoslavs have long been haunted by conflict. Ever since Emperor Constantine decided to split the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D., the tectonic plates of imperial, religious, and racial interests have ground together in the Balkans. Rome and Constantinople, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Christianity and Islam, Germans and Slavs, Russia and the West — all have clashed along a shifting fault line running down the middle of the former Yugoslavia (or, more precisely, through the territory of today’s Bosnia Herzegovina).
In more recent history, instability and violence in Bosnia led the European Great Powers to expel the Turks and place the province under the administration of the Hapsburgs. But that decision of the 1878 Berlin Congress was undone by the Hapsburgs themselves, who annexed Bosnia 30 years later. Hapsburg rule provoked a new cycle of unrest and violence that culminated in the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Hapsburg throne. With Archduke Ferdinand’s death, all of Europe quickly found itself marching into the First World War.
The concept behind Yugoslavia originated in nineteenth-century thinking. It literally means the "land of the South Slavs," who wanted to have a state of their own. Such a state could not be realized until the various Yugoslavs united against their oppressors — the Austrians, Hungarians, and Ottoman Turks. By the early twentieth century, the word Yugoslavia became a rallying cry.
With the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles tore the South Slav lands away from those dying empires. The international community assumed that the Yugoslavs were tribes of a single people and, if united, would forge a common national existence. Enchanted by dreams of Slavic harmony, Yugoslav nationalists ignored the historical and religious differences among them. Though originating from a common Slavic background, the Yugoslavs spoke different dialects or languages, used different scripts, and had never lived in a common state before 1918. Their history had been one of suffering and humiliation. The Croats lost their state in 1102, the Serbs theirs in the mid-fifteenth century. The northwestern part of Yugoslavia had been under the domination of Austria-Hungary and Venice; the southeastern half was ruled by Ottoman Turkey.
Despite shared suffering, the region’s core groups have been divided along more profound lines. While the Slovenes and Croats are Roman Catholic, the Serbs and Macedonians are Eastern Orthodox Most Roman Catholic Yugoslavs lived under the rule of Austria-Hungary or Venice, which belonged to the world of European civilization. In contrast, most Orthodox Yugoslavs became subjects of the conquering Ottomans. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Serbs rebelled against the Turks and won first political autonomy, and then their independence. Their success inspired the suppressed Slavic peasantry in Bosnia and Croatia. In Croatia itself, an increasingly harsh Hungarian rule sowed political division. One side, led by Ante Starcevic, advocated the creation of a Greater Croatia-from the Alps to Bulgaria; the racist ideology of that radical movement has plagued Croat politics ever since. The Yugoslav idea, meanwhile, was championed by Roman Catholic bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer, who was imbued with tremendous ecumenical spirit. With Starcevic’s death, his Party of Right declined and a new generation of Croat intellectuals embraced Strossmayer’s concept. Forming a Croatian-Serbian coalition in 1905, they easily triumphed in the first elections for the local legislature. The Croats warmed to the idea of union with other Yugoslavs — meaning primarily the Kingdom of Serbia — for several reasons, but chiefly because alone they were powerless to wrest independence from Austria-Hungary.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ivo Andric used his 1945 novel The Bridge on the Drina to describe the promise of a new national state with Serbia playing the pivotal unifying role. The year is 1913. Bosnia is seething with rebellion. One character, Toma Galus, whose father is a Croat and mother is a Serb, talks to his friend Fehim Bahtijarevic, a descendant of the Muslim beys who used to rule Bosnia. Fehim’s silence incites Toma.
"You’ll see," Toma says passionately.
"We shall create a state which will make the most precious contribution to the progress of humanity, in which every effort will be blessed, every sacrifice holy, every thought original and expressed in his own words, and every deed marked with the stamp of our name …. We will build…a state, born in freedom and founded on justice, like a part of God’s thought realized here on earth."
Fehim remains quiet. His silence stands "like an impassable wall in the darkness which by the very weight of its existence resolutely rejected all that the other had said, and expressed its dumb, clear and unalterable opinion." The microcosm of Bosnia is completed by two Serb youths in the same scene whose talk about revolution quickly deteriorates into a personal quarrel.
It is significant that leading politicians in the Kingdom of Serbia were apathetic about or rejected the Yugoslav idea. The most senior among them, Nikola Pasic, was strongly opposed. Having fought on the side of the victorious allies in World War I, Pasic felt that Serbia could achieve its strategic objectives without entering into a marriage with Roman Catholic Croats and Slovenes. Serbia’s goal was to expand its territory to the west and north, incorporating areas in Bosnia, Croatia, and Vojvodina that were home to nearly as many Serbs as lived in the Serb kingdom. Serbs resented the very name "Yugoslavia" because it obscured Serbia’s preeminence in the new state. The Serbian royal family favored the new state, however, and it prevailed.
The Trouble Begins
The first Yugoslavia, under the rule of Serbia’s royal dynasty, was a problem child from the start. The crux of the problem was the relationship between the two largest ethnic groups — the Serbs and Croats. The Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, and Slovenes were too small in numbers and too weak politically to do more than shift alliances and maneuver between the two dominant groups. In fact, until its collapse in 1991, Yugoslavia was in essence the unhappy union of its two largest nationalities.
The Serbs looked upon the new country as an extension of their former territory, the fruit of their struggles in two Balkan wars and World War I. Roughly one third of Serbia’s total population perished in those conflicts. Inspired by Italian count Camillo Cavour, King Alexander sought a unitary nation-state solution to a multinational problem. But Serbia was not the Piedmont, and the historical and religious differences confronting him were staggering compared to those of Cavour’s Italy.
At the December 1, 1918, unification ceremonies, Alexander declared that the three Yugoslav peoples in his new kingdom were one nation under three tribal names. The Croat representatives did not object to that formulation. Only one prominent Croat politician, Stjepan Radic, refused to travel to Belgrade, declaring that his colleagues were acting like "drunken geese in a fog."
Within months the Croats began to feel betrayed. Instead of Hungarian overlords, they had a Serbian king, his army, police, administration, and the Orthodox Church. For a Roman Catholic people on the periphery of civilized Europe, that signified submission to an inferior, Oriental culture. Yugoslav politics quickly degenerated into tribalism. Political parties formed around ethnic blocs. In Parliament, Radic and two other Croat deputies were assassinated by a Serb deputy in 1928. Six years later, Croat nationalists organized the assassination of King Alexander during a visit to France. Croat politicians discussed plans to break up Yugoslavia with foreign leaders much as they did in seeking support from Germany and Italy in 1990-91. Prince Paul, the regent of Yugoslavia, also flirted politically with Hitler and in 1941 joined the Tripartite Pact, only to be deposed two days later in a military coup. Germany then attacked Yugoslavia, leading to its dismemberment.
What followed can only be described as a savage religious and tribal war similar to the one being fought now. Hitler created an independent Croatian state and placed at its head Ante Pavelic, leader of the Croatian fascists known as the Ustashi. Though most established Croat politicians refused to join Pavelic, the reemergence of Croatia during World War II was a tragic event: Its leaders perpetrated genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies in Krajina and Bosnia.
Serb nationalists, known as Chetniks, retaliated in kind. They carried out massacres of Croats and especially Bosnian Muslims, most of whom allied themselves with the Croats. Acting in the name of preserving their nations and faiths, Serbs and Croats conducted a holy war trying to exterminate each other. Lower clergy on both sides sanctioned their crimes. The widespread use of the knife as the instrument of death revealed the depth of their tribal hatreds.
The Yugoslav idea seemed dead. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt entertained the idea of dismembering Yugoslavia after the war’s conclusion — but found Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin unreceptive.
But in 1945 the Yugoslav idea was reinvented and reinvigorated by the dictator Tito. A communist since 1917, Tito secured power in the fashion established in Serbia in the early nineteenth century-by leading a guerrilla uprising, this time against the Germans. Emerging victorious from World War II, he proclaimed the "fraternity and unity" of the South Slavs. Following Lenin’s formula in the USSR, he contrived a federation of six national republics. It was a purely Leninist arrangement. The republics were given fictional sovereignty fully complemented by cultural and political institutions; in return, they ceded political power to Tito and his party. Tito, a Croat, believed that balance was crucial to keep Yugoslavia together.
However, Tito’s scheme went beyond balance, and that forms the core of Serb grievances today. Given Serbian domination in Alexander’s Yugoslavia, Tito sought to weaken the Serbs by dividing them internally. In addition to the three constituent nations of Alexander’s Yugoslavia-Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes — Tito turned prewar "Southern Serbia" into the republic of Macedonia, made the tiny former Serb kingdom of Montenegro a nation in its own right, and created two federal units within Serbia itself — the "autonomous regions" of Kosovo, with its sizable Albanian population, and Vojvodina, where many Hungarians, R0omanians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, and other minorities lived.
The largest obstacle to Tito’s plan lay between Serbia and Croatia, where a mixed population lived. That region, Bosnia, was the crucial problem of Yugoslavia, both literally and metaphorically. Conscious that both Croatia and Serbia laid historical claim to Bosnia, Tito declared even during the war that its future would be "neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim but rather Serbian and Croatian and Muslim." As his Yugoslavia was to be a multinational socialist state, Bosnia would be its most genuine portion. The cradle of a revived Yugoslav idea, it would become a republic in its own right.
The import of those maneuvers passed virtually unnoticed at the time. Nationalism was relegated to history, according to the simplistic future envisaged by Tito’s totalitarian regime — maintained by raw power and propaganda. However, some in the artistic community objected to Tito’s rejection of nationalist concerns. Novelist Andric had serious doubts and came close to saying that the whole multinational enterprise was impossible. Born in violence, Yugoslavia could only be maintained by force and by stymieing its democratic development.
On paper, things looked better than in reality. Officially, the republics were not national territories — and, therefore, not embryonic nation-states — but rather federal units in which all ethnic groups enjoyed equal rights. Yugoslavia, in Tito’s mind, was to become one nation. His party formally adopted the concept of a single Yugoslav nation in 1958, or just about the time when Tito began to abandon suffocating Soviet-style policies at home and opened up Yugoslavia to the outside world.
Few people seriously considered constitutional changes in the 1960s as Tito abandoned the unitarist approach and moved toward the notion of a Yugoslav commonwealth in which all ethnic groups were given home rule and the right to full national and cultural affirmation. Seeking to reinforce the Bosnian balance, Tito in 1964 created yet another nation-the Bosnian Muslims.
The first signs of liberalization led to a revival of Croat nationalism. The fact that Croats shared the same language with the Serbs was a source of great frustration. In 1967, Croat intellectuals advanced a Language Declaration, endorsed by leading figures and institutions, demanding full constitutional recognition for four-instead of three-Yugoslav languages:
Croatian was to join Serbian, Slovene, and Macedonian. The Language Declaration initiated a mass Croat nationalist movement embraced by those voicing separatism, spite, and national exclusivity. The appearance of the symbols of the Ustashi, the Croat fascist movement, frightened the Serbs and revived memories of 1941. Tito suppressed the Croat movement in 1972, but not before the Serbs in Croatia began arming themselves. Driving through Serbpopulated areas of Croatia in 1974, I found that the envenomed shrillness of both sides had already hardened: "I can tell you, we’ll never be surprised again," a Kordun Serb told me. ”Today there is at least an axe behind every door."
The 1974 Yugoslav constitution marked the climax of Tito’s decentralization. It proclaimed the Yugoslav federation "a state community of voluntarily united nations and their Socialist Republics" and accorded sovereign rights to "nations and nationalities" in their respective and autonomous regions. Yet few people, even in Yugoslavia, paid attention to that lengthy, complicated document. Tito certainly did not. With unlimited power, he was the ultimate arbiter of Yugoslav affairs and the latest constitution seemed like another technique to balance domestic politics by ensuring a parity of rights as well as grievances.
For the Bosnian Muslims, the new constitution opened the prospects of a future embryonic nation-state. Their recognition as Yugoslavia’s sixth nation 10 years earlier meant that the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina had a nation of its own, just like Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. The 1974 constitution became the departure point for the Bosnian Muslim national assertiveness that in the post-Tito period provoked an adverse reaction among the Bosnian Serbs. Their loss of ethnic domination coupled with political liberalization marked a decline in the Serbs’ share of political and economic power in Bosnia-Herzegovina. By 1990, Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic was voicing his concern for "all three million Muslims" living in Yugoslavia. His reference to 3 million Muslims was telling. That figure excluded the more than 2 million Muslims who are ethnically Albanian and live in the Kosovo area of Serbia. "Perhaps you from Europe cannot understand this because for you Muslims are defined by their faith whereas here they are in the first place a national group," said Izetbegovic.
Tito’s formula for unity could not survive without his persona and total authority. It was only months after his death in 1980 before the Yugoslav federation began to unravel. The glue that held the federation together was gone. While the communists still held the levers of power, their Yugoslav League of Communists turned into a debating club. The reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev accelerated the disintegration process in Yugoslavia. The end of the Cold War completed it.
The collapse of ideology threatened to deprive the establishment of legitimacy. The threat was amplified by democracy, which became the primary goal across Eastern Europe. Regional Yugoslav leaders began to look to nationalism as a new source of legitimacy to maintain their power bases. Nationalism gained strength naturally as the republics had to defend their own interests. The crisis of the early 1990s resembled the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1940s. Most of those outside Serbia began to advocate constitutional changes, saying that the federal system created by Tito no longer functioned adequately. Slovenia and Croatia gingerly advocated greater autonomy and floated a proposal for the creation of a confederate state. The Serbs viewed the move suspiciously, as another twist in the long-running conspiracy against them purportedly masterminded by the Croat Tito and his first lieutenant, the Slovene Edward Kardel; Serbian communist strongman Slobodan MiloSevic rode to power in 1988 on the crest of a powerful nationalist wave. In fact, nationalist parties were swept into power in all republics in the first free post-Cold War elections in 1990. Supranational parties were sent into political oblivion. The results in Bosnia were, in retrospect, the most ominous. Of the three parties in Bosnia — Muslim, Serb, and Croat — the last two marched to tunes composed in Belgrade and Zagreb respectively.
Milosevic’s coalition was an especially curious one. It consisted of former apparatchiks in the party, army, administration, and police who thought to protect their positions and embraced nationalism as the new religion. More important, however, was the crucial participation of Serb nationalists — many anticommunist — who saw Serbia threatened by the prospective disintegration of the federation. That nationalist perspective was articulated in a 1986 memorandum by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences; it condemned the partition of Serbia by the 1974 constitution. The declaration denounced Tito’s regime as dominated by anti-Serb Croat and Slovene politicians who condoned "Serbophobia," and it urged Serbs to pursue their national interests.
Today the memorandum still supplies the basis for Serbia’s self-image — a wounded self-righteousness and obsessive preoccupation with the past. The sense of just grievance is so widespread and so deeply rooted that it provided a political force of its own when manipulated by such a Byzantine politician as Milosevic. Serb resentments set the stage for Milosevic’s maneuvers in 1989 to revoke the autonomy of Serbia’s two special regions — Vojvodina and Kosovo. The sense of victimization also partially explains the absence of strong public reaction to outrages committed by Serb forces fighting in Croatia and Bosnia.
The Serbs are profoundly convinced that they are more sinned against than sinning. Serbs talk about their nation’s suffering under Turkish rule and sacrifices in the two world wars as though they themselves had taken part in the 1389 battle of Kosovo, or personally fought against the Austrians in 1914 and the Germans in 1941. They do not see the logic of the proposition that if Serbia demands minority rights for Serbs in Croatia, then Serbia is obligated to grant those same rights to Albanians in Kosovo. They only see enemies hating Serbs, plotting against them, maligning them in the press, and killing their children. It is not important whether that judgment is real or not. What is important is that the Serbs passionately believe it.
The genius of Milosevic is his ability to mold a medieval myth of Serb identity to his political purposes today. For centuries the myth of Kosovo has been the banner of Serb national pride and a justification for the Serbs’ miserable condition. The Kosovo myth is the touchstone of the Serb national character — its disdain for compromise, its messianic bent, and its firm belief in the meaninglessness of loss and the promise of restoration of Serb glory and might.
Handed down through the generations in the form of popular ballads, the Kosovo myth centers on the choice facing Prince Lazar before the 1389 battle with the Ottoman Sultan Murad in the "Field of Blackbirds." On the eve of battle, the Mother of God appears to Lazar and offers him the choice of a heavenly or earthly empire. If he wants the first, he should prepare himself and his army for destruction. If he wants the second, he should defeat the Turks. The epic tells how Lazar weighs the options:
"Kind God, what shall I do, how shall I do it? What is the empire of my choice? Is it the empire of heaven? Is it the empire of earth? And if I shall choose the empire, And choose the empire of the earth, The empire of earth is fleeting, Heaven is lasting and everlasting. And the Emperor chose the empire of heaven Above the empire of earth."
The Serbs lost. Lazar and Murad both died on the field. The Serbian state was destroyed some 60 years later, but the Kosovo battle came to be seen as the cataclysmic event that led Serbs into captivity.
It is a tragedy that Serbs in Serbia and throughout the former Yugoslavia are obsessed with the myth, which calls on them to avenge the injustice of Kosovo and teaches them that no sacrifice is too great for the ultimate good cause of the Serbs. Milosevic became the most popular postwar leader of Serbia when, on the 600th anniversary of the battle, he went to the Field of Blackbirds and promised half a million people that "nobody will beat you again." He also said that the Serbs "throughout their history never conquered or exploited anybody else."
However medievally morbid, there can be no understanding of the Serbs without fathoming those sentiments. And unless the West understands the Serbs and their interests, there can be no lasting peace on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.
The Serbs have a strong argument. One of their historical objectives was the unification of Serb lands. But apart from Serbia and Montenegro, they also live in Bosnia and Croatia. (They accounted for 32 percent of Bosnia’s population before the current war and for 12-14 percent of Croatia’s.) If the Slovenes and Croats had the right to secede, the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia had an equally justifiable right to remain in Yugoslavia.
However, the Serbian government showed no interest in a confederate Yugoslavia-an idea advanced in the late 1980s — nor in the protracted diplomacy by which it could achieve that objective. Serbia has never stated that the creation of a Greater Serbia was its aim, but its proxies had no doubt about it. That aim inevitably meant a military conflict with their former compatriots, which the Serbs, as the largest Yugoslav nation, assumed they would win. They would rely on the former Yugoslav army, dominated by Serb officers.
The exact borders of a Greater Serbian state remain vague. Slovenia, with few Serbs, was of no interest to Milosevic. He publicly blessed its independence several months before it occurred. The brief and comic war in Slovenia in June 1991 was the last gasp of the federation and its army. But the situations in Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia have been fundamentally different.
Deprived of Soviet backing after the USSR’s collapse, Milosevic made some disastrous diplomatic miscalculations. Instead of courting visiting American politicians, Milosevic snubbed them. He refused to meet with seven visiting U.S. senators, led by Bob Dole (R-Kansas), in the summer of 1990. Instead of making his case to foreign journalists, his government imposed local taxes on them. Rather than leveling with Serbia’s traditional foreign allies, his aides involved them in a labyrinth of deception. Instead of calming Serb populations in Bosnia and the Krajina region of Croatia, Serbian politicians incited them to rebellion with rumors that Croats and Muslims were plotting new massacres against them. By the time the war in Croatia began in June 1991, Milosevic’s popularity in the West was lower than that of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Milosevic was in a diplomatic vacuum.
The Croatian war was clearly a war of Serbian conquest, even though Serbia fought it by proxy, using paramilitary forces and remnants of the Yugoslav People’s Army. But it is equally clear that the Croats and their European allies inflamed the situation, encouraging the current impasse. Although they professed to be advocating a confederal arrangement, the Croats in fact were determined to destroy Yugoslavia. In the course of the first free election campaign in Croatia, the rhetoric of the victorious president Franjo Tudjman and his supporters conjured up images of a fascist spirit stalking that land, at least in the eyes of Serbs in Croatia. Once again the Krajina Serbs became alarmed. Memories of Serb massacres perpetrated by Croat fascists in 1941 were fueled by venomous propaganda from Belgrade. Meanwhile, Tudjman, a former general in Tito’s army, refused to disown the fascist Croatia as a travesty and instead revived its symbols in a blaze of glory. Rather than reassuring Croatia’s Serb minority, he amended the constitution to deny Serbs any kind of political autonomy. They were purged from the police force, guns were retrieved from army arsenals in Krajina, and signs with Cyrillic Serbian words were replaced with Latin-lettered Croatian signs.
The outcome was terribly predictable. With radicalism begetting radicalism on both sides, the Krajina Serbs voted to proclaim autonomy, then put forward their maximalist demand: union with Serbia. There were no brakes to halt the descent into war. Both sides engaged in "ethnic cleansing." Serbs were expelled from western Slavonia, Dalmatia, and other areas where the Croats enjoyed military superiority. The Croats were expelled from much of Krajina and eastern Slavonia, which was seized by the Serbs with the help of the Yugoslav army. Both sides engaged in acts of cruelty against civilians; incomplete evidence suggests the Serbs excelled at brutality, especially in Krajina and eastern Slavonia. Imbued with their messianic spirit and self-righteousness, the Serbs saw no need to present their case to world opinion. Later, after reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres in Bosnia, the Serbs were no longer in a position to present their case: Nobody wanted to listen.
The fighting in Croatia was halted in March 1992 after the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces under a plan negotiated by U.N. envoy Cyrus Vance. But the EC, spurred on by Germany, had already sealed the stalemate by extending recognition to Croatia in January without securing adequate guarantees for the rights of the Serb minority. Despite the ceasefire accord’s call for refugees to return to their homes, few have been able to do so.
While the Vance plan for Croatia remained unfulfilled, world attention shifted to the incendiary question of Bosnia. Because of conflicting ambitions in Bosnia, no overall Serb-Croat peace settlement is possible before a resolution of the Bosnian question.
Twice in 1991 before the outbreak of the war, Tudjman had tried to cut a deal with Milosevic to partition Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. Tudjman’s aides showed proposed maps to journalists. In an effort to stabilize the Bosnian situation and prevent its partition, the U.N. decided to locate its Protection Force headquarters in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. For the same reasons, the United States and the EC recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as a new country in April 1992.
But if the multinational Yugoslav federation was no longer viable, why sanction the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the very microcosm of Yugoslavia’s problems and weaknesses? In retrospect, and only in retrospect, the recognition was a dreadful mistake. At the time, senior Western diplomats argued convincingly that the action would prevent a wider war and was in line with the U.S. policy of refusing to accept border changes wrought by force. Yet there was (and is) no viable plan to keep together the three hostile communities engaged in a war that has so far claimed an estimated 120,000-200,000 lives and displaced more than a million people.
There are two clear choices: the division of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia or the imposition of a U.N. protectorate on Bosnia. The first would ease the fighting and bring a certain measure of peace, but it would reward aggression and eventually obliterate a distinct Bosnian Muslim identity. The second course is costly, dangerous, uncertain; it would require decades of military and political presence.
The first option is out of the question because it would amount to condoning ethnic cleansing and forcible changes of recognized borders, which the United States and its allies have said they would not do. By accepting the division of Bosnia, the international community would be punishing the Muslims, who are the war’s principal victims. Bosnian Muslims would become the Palestinians of Europe — a stateless, angry people. The only way to avoid that would be to give the Muslims their own state in Central Bosnia, something the Muslim leaders have so far refused to consider.
A U.N. protectorate, however, would become an excruciatingly difficult project because of the area’s religious, ethnic, and other complexities. Yet no alternatives are apparent. The plan negotiated by Vance and EC envoy Owen to divide Bosnia into 10 semi-autonomous regions, in fact, also proposes a vague form of U.N. supervision of Bosnia once peace is established. The vagueness creates the Vance-Owen plan’s short-term strength, as well as its long-term weakness. It offers the prospect of an uneasy peace and a breathing space for considering political solutions. It does not offer a workable political solution of its own.
The vagueness, however, was inherent in compromises required to square the vicious Bosnian circle. The plan correctly recognizes that a multi-ethnic coexistence in Bosnia is not possible, at least in the coming decades, and that the three communities would only be able to interact while living separately. But it does not satisfy the vital interests of Serbs in general or the Bosnian Serbs in particular: Its prescribed geographic division excludes links between large Serb communities in western Bosnia and Croatia and the Serb lands in northeastern Bosnia and adjacent Serbia. Regardless of the merits of the Bosnian constitutional arrangements, that land corridor is essential as long as the status of Krajina’s Serbs remains unresolved. The narrow U.N. corridor proposed in late April by Owen was unacceptable to the Serbs because they would not control it. Even if the Serbs were granted a corridor of their own under the Vance-Owen plan, the past record in creating such links is not a promising one. A punitive military venture, as demanded by some in the West, is hardly a way to peace in the Balkans. Without a clear political blueprint, the deployment of American soldiers would be simply foolish, a prelude to U.S. involvement, justifications for which would have to be manufactured later.
Although the former Yugoslavia is primarily Europe’s problem, the United States should fill the leadership vacuum with new diplomatic, political, and economic ideas. The situation calls for a determined and imaginative approach. In particular, Bosnia could be created as a new buffer state on the basis of Tito’s 1943 proclamation that it is "neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim but rather Serbian and Croatian and Muslim."
The Vance-Owen plan should still form the basis for a more comprehensive political settlement. Those who claim that it is a dead letter offer no alternative except quick fixes like air strikes to soften up Bosnian Serbs and punish them for their recent territorial gains in eastern Bosnia. A massive show of force might reduce Serb military superiority but would also prolong the Bosnian agony and make the search for a lasting political settlement even more difficult. However imperfect, Vance-Owen’s basic concepts point the way to an eventual settlement.
But it would be a grand folly to believe Vance-Owen’s implementation would bring lasting peace and end the vicious cycle of retribution. Stringent U.N. sanctions against Serbia and the threat of U.S. military intervention prompted Milosevic to change his policy almost overnight and to order his Bosnian Serb proxies to sign the Vance-Owen plan in early May 1993. His dramatic betrayal of the Bosnian Serbs must have prompted a good deal of soul-searching and weakened the bonds between the Bosnian Serbs and Serbia; that could lead Bosnian Serb moderates to seek a new future in a unified Bosnian state based on a confederal principle. If the Serbs and Muslims develop a vested interest in such a state, the Croats, who make up only 17 percent of the population, would follow. As a first step, the Serbs’ self-styled Republic Srbska and the Croats’ Herzeg-Bosna both must be dismantled.
Bosnia’s new provinces should be placed under direct U.N. administration, perhaps with someone such as Owen as governor. The governor would also be commander-in-chief of the U.N. force. All Bosnian military forces, except for local police, would have to be disarmed. All current Bosnian political leaders – Muslim Alija lzetbegovic, Serb Radovan Karadzic, and Croat Mate Boban — and their entourages would have to be barred from public office for a substantial period. New leaders could then emerge in provincial elections to be held within 12 months of a general cease-fire. All military or civilian officials from Croatia and Serbia who are operating in Bosnia would be expelled, along with individuals acting as proxies for the two sides. Refugees must be allowed to return to their homes. The plan should also be modified to grant a territorial link in northern Bosnia to the Serb communities. Another corridor would run along the Adriatic Coast to Croatia. A truly independent Bosnia within its 1945 borders is not acceptable to Croatia because Bosnia’s access to the Adriatic cuts Croatia’s territory into two.
Given time and infusion of money, the effort to create a Swiss-type confederation should have a greater chance of success than a military protectorate. Countries now contemplating the expense of military invasion would do better by helping rebuild Bosnia. Europe’s interest in removing a cancerous war from its neighborhood is obvious, but so are the interests of the Islamic countries and the United States. With foreign financial and technical assistance, Bosnia could eventually become an economically viable unit in which three separate communities share a common market in goods and labor and porous borders without restrictions on movement and residence.
It is clear that the concept and the muscle must come from the outside. U.N. sanctions against Serbia are working and should continue; the international community should impose similar sanctions on Croatia if it continues its subversion in Bosnia. Above all, the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina must not be decided by Serbia and Croatia (or their proxies) since both harbor territorial designs at the expense of the Muslims. The decisions must be made by the Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. That, of course, will require patience and time. The international community should create conditions in which all three nations in Bosnia take pan in the creation of a new and better country. The emphasis must be on healing the wounds. The Serbs should be given what the Chinese call a chu lu, a way out with a modicum of dignity. Recent atrocities between Croats and Muslims show that the Serbs are not the sole perpetrators in this war. War crimes will have to be dealt with by international tribunals-once peace is established. To start a healing process, amnesty should be extended to combatants who were not involved in atrocities or related crimes.
At this stage, it is crucial that the international community act firmly but on the basis of settlement concepts that are perceived as equitable to the people of all three communities in Bosnia. The demonization of the Serbs will have to end, and the international community will have to recognize that the Serbs have legitimate interests like anyone else.
The Bosnian solution must be sought in the context of a broader approach to the challenge of many newly emerging small nation-states. Once the fighting stops, all former Yugoslav republics will quickly discover that economic considerations dictate the restoration of severed links. Those small states must become building blocks for a new regional order. Today’s fragmented former Yugoslavia could help pave the way to a more peaceful solution to Europe’s most pressing problem: the fierce pride and mutual hatred of the Continent’s many ethnic minorities.
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