Michael Dobbs

In defense of the Serbs

The off-and-on war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic got underway again this week in The Hague after a month-long summer break. As the prosecution outlines its case, I am planning a series of posts that will attempt to explain the mindset of the former Bosnian Serb military commander. By way of introduction, I want to ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The off-and-on war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic got underway again this week in The Hague after a month-long summer break. As the prosecution outlines its case, I am planning a series of posts that will attempt to explain the mindset of the former Bosnian Serb military commander. By way of introduction, I want to look at the terrible war in the former Yugoslavia from the viewpoint of the Serbs, widely viewed in the West as the aggressors.

My focus in this blog has been the crimes of a single individual, and in particular Mladic's decision to kill or deport the Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, which has become the centerpiece of the genocide charge against him. While I have inevitably talked a lot about Mladic's crimes against Bosnian Muslims, I do not mean to imply that Serbs were the only people committing war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, or that Serbian leaders were exclusively responsible for the war. 

In fact, Serbs had some perfectly legitimate concerns both prior to and during the war that are often overlooked by western commentators who have painted an excessively black-and-white picture of the conflict. Foremost among these concerns was the security and rights of some two million Serbs living in the breakaway republics of Croatia and Bosnia. The terrible atrocities committed against Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia during World War II by Croatian Ustashe remained fresh in the minds of many Serbs, stirred up by the poisonous propaganda of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The off-and-on war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic got underway again this week in The Hague after a month-long summer break. As the prosecution outlines its case, I am planning a series of posts that will attempt to explain the mindset of the former Bosnian Serb military commander. By way of introduction, I want to look at the terrible war in the former Yugoslavia from the viewpoint of the Serbs, widely viewed in the West as the aggressors.

My focus in this blog has been the crimes of a single individual, and in particular Mladic’s decision to kill or deport the Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, which has become the centerpiece of the genocide charge against him. While I have inevitably talked a lot about Mladic’s crimes against Bosnian Muslims, I do not mean to imply that Serbs were the only people committing war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, or that Serbian leaders were exclusively responsible for the war. 

In fact, Serbs had some perfectly legitimate concerns both prior to and during the war that are often overlooked by western commentators who have painted an excessively black-and-white picture of the conflict. Foremost among these concerns was the security and rights of some two million Serbs living in the breakaway republics of Croatia and Bosnia. The terrible atrocities committed against Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia during World War II by Croatian Ustashe remained fresh in the minds of many Serbs, stirred up by the poisonous propaganda of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Looking back at the start of the Yugoslav wars two decades later, I am struck by a contradiction in western policy to the former Yugoslavia. Europe, supported by the U.S., recognized the independence of the breakaway republics. In other words, the borders of the multi-ethnic state that resulted from the Versailles conference decisions of 1919 (see photograph above) were not inviolate. On the other hand, the international community (in the form of the Badinter commission set up by the European Union) also decreed that the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, and the other republics could not be changed simply because a minority wished to secede. 

The practical effect of these decisions was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia. The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset. 

For what it is worth, my own personal view is that the breakup of Yugoslavia was inevitable, just as the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable. On the other hand, the United States and Europe (the nations that created Yugoslavia in the first place) should have been much more vigorous about establishing and enforcing rules for the breakup that guaranteed minority rights.  

To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was "worse than a crime." It was a gross error of political judgment.

Up next: Serbs were also victims

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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