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Yugoslavia: The Great Fall

Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia's Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition, second edition

by Lenard J. Cohen
Westview Press, 386 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Yugoslav Drama

by Mihailo Crnobrnja
McGill-Queen's University Press, 281 pp., $42.95; $15.95 (paper)

Izmedju Slave i Anateme: Politicka Biografia Slobodana Milosevica (Between Glory and Anathema: A Political Biography of Slobodan Milosevic)

by Slavoljub Djukic
Belgrade: Filip Visnic, 288 pp., 10 Dinars

Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed

by Robert J. Donia and John V.A. Fine Jr., with maps by John C. Hamer
Columbia University Press, 318 pp., $24.95

Joegoslavische Kroniek: Juli 1991–Augustus 1992

by Henry Wijnaendts
Amsterdam: Rap, 206 pp., Dfl47.50 (paper)

Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West

by David Rieff
Simon and Schuster, 240 pp., $22.00

The Volatile Powder Keg: Balkan Security After the Cold War

edited by F. Stephen Larrabee
American University Press/A Rand Study, 320 pp., $61.00; $26.50 (paper)

1.

On June 21, 1991, Secretary of State James Baker spent a busy day in Belgrade talking to the presidents of Yugo-slavia’s six constituent republics, the federal prime minister, Ante Markovic, and the leaders of the Kosovo Albanians. He told the assembled group of malcontents, thugs, and unfortunates that the United States was committed to the continued existence of a unified Yugoslav federation. In doing so, he echoed the position outlined by Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, and Jacques Santer, Delors’s eventual successor, when they had visited Belgrade a little earlier. Unfortunately, Baker and Delors failed to spot one central fact—the patient was about to die. On June 25, three days after Baker’s visit, the parliaments in Ljubljana and Zagreb promulgated the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. Within hours, the Slovene weasel, the Croat marten, and the Serbian jackal were scratching one another’s eyes out as they attempted to chew off the best bits of the carcass.

The federation had been sickly for a long time, visibly so since 1987, when, as leader of the Serbian League of Communists, Slobodan Milosevic broke two of Tito’s golden rules—he used a nationalist issue (the constitutional status of Kosovo within the Republic of Serbia) in order to win a political struggle within the Communist Party in Belgrade, and he aroused mass opinion to back him on the same nationalist issue in Serbia.

When parties calling for secession won the elections in Slovenia and Croatia in the early spring of 1990, the malady affecting Yugoslavia entered its final phase. Its violent death might conceivably have been avoided had major reforms been made before December 1990, when Slovenia and Croatia announced their intention of seceding six months hence. After that Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia all launched a frontal attack on federal institutions.

The first great mistake of European and American diplomacy in the Yugoslav crisis was a failure to diagnose what had gone wrong. Or worse, and I suspect nearer the truth, they realized the country was breaking apart but considered the squabbles of a rather unappealing group of Balkan politicians to be insignificant when measured against the drama of the Gulf War and the rapid erosion of the Soviet Union. (President Bush’s desire to prevent the latter was reflected in James Baker’s demand in Belgrade that Yugoslavia remain whole.)

The steady disintegration of Yugoslavia led to dramatic shifts in identity and consciousness among the peoples who lived there. This was one of the most terrible times in their history. As in a bad dream, they were being dragged into an inferno, aware of the fate awaiting them and unable to do anything about it.

Since the death of the federation was impending, it followed that a new constitutional order was required if an uncontrolled and bloody breakup of the country were to be avoided. This is indeed what the presidents of the six republics attempted to do in a series of meetings held during the spring and early summer of 1991. A new constitutional order would have had to satisfy Slovene and Croat demands for much greater control over their own affairs and would also have to give the Serbs of Croatia—some 15 percent of Croatia’s population—sufficient guarantees of their safety, e.g., their own police force, to prevent them from taking up arms.

The Serbs in Croatia were especially attached to federal Yugoslavia because of atrocities committed against them during World War II (although they were by no means the only community to suffer). Rural Serbs inhabiting enclaves on the periphery of Croatia also had a strong tradition of organizing their own military forces. Anyone who followed Yugoslav history should have realized that these Serb communities had to be treated with great care as the Yugoslav federation began to collapse. The opposite happened. Milosevic encouraged the Croatian Serbs to arm themselves and the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, with no regard to the Serbs’ historical sensitivity, attempted to impose a nationalist Croatian regime in Serb-occupied regions. Both men were playing with fire.

What was needed was a constitutional mechanism that could neutralize the mutual suspicions of Croats and Serbs in Croatia by guaranteeing each group a convincing form of protection. If this could have been worked out, it might then have been extended to the rest of the country to prevent the possible outbreak of armed confrontation in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. If such a system of guarantees had emerged, it might even have been helpful in regulating other questions of borders and minorities throughout the Balkans. The presidents of the six republics were thus attempting to solve the central political problem of ethnic distrust and hatred that had been plaguing the region periodically since the collapse of the Ottoman and Austrian empires. This was a challenging test of statesmanship and good will, one that Milosevic and Tudjman were hardly likely to meet.

Surprisingly, the first statesman to have anticipated the problem they faced and to have offered a concrete solution was the Hungarian revolutionary leader of 1848, Lajos Kossuth. After the suppression of the Hungarian uprising against Vienna, Kossuth concluded that the repressive policies of his own revolutionary government toward non-Hungarians had then hardened opposition to Hungarian independence and were in large part responsible for his defeat. Kossuth came up with a program for establishing a confederation in Hungary, Transylvania, the Banat,* and Vojvodina (a mixed Serb / Hungarian region now part of Serbia), which could later be extended to the Romanian-speaking regions of Wallachia and Moldavia and to Serbia. Each region would be able to regulate its relationship with Budapest through negotiation, although it would have to establish by law its commitment to protect minorities, including their right to use their own language. A confederal army would be set up under the central command of Budapest, but the Romanians and Serbs would be allowed to form their own battalions with Romanian and Serbian as the language of command.

Kossuth reversed his views on the national question when he saw that Hungarian national goals could never succeed as long as the rights of others were denied. He was remarkably far-sighted in recognizing that the ethnic mix of Central and southeastern Europe imposes enormous strains on the creation of nation-states. Kossuth’s constitutional blueprint was improved by several constitutional scholars, including the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer and István Bibo, the distinguished Hungarian historian and a minister in Imre Nagy’s government. Both concluded that, at least for Central Europe, a Wilsonian concept of self-determination could only lead to conflict.

The problem has been especially acute on the strategically vital Balkan peninsula. Not a single nation-state can establish itself there without being perceived as a threat to another community with aspirations to statehood of its own. To this one must add three more elements. First, the religions and cultures of the region are extremely—one might say uniquely—diverse; secondly, the Balkan nations developed a modern historical consciousness at very different speeds; and, finally, there has been an uneven distribution of economic and military power among them. These elements make up what is known as the Balkan Powder Keg.

If this barrel of explosives is to be made harmless, each putative nationstate would have to agree to cede a degree of its sovereignty so that the Serbs of Croatia, say, would enjoy extensive political autonomy and the right to establish constitutional links (for example dual citizenship) with Serbia. Similar rights would have to be granted by the Serbs to the Albanians of Kosovo and the Muslims of the Sandzak region in Bosnia. Such a confederal solution necessarily implies greater independence for each of the republics of former Yugoslavia; but it also implies that complete sovereignty cannot succeed if it is promulgated without the explicit agreement of the minority populations. Such agreement never seemed likely in Yugoslavia. Referendums were held in Croatia and Bosnia when they declared independence in 1991; but these were little more than plebiscites imposing a majority will over the minority. The same goes for the referendum organized by the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. They were used as instruments of war and not designed to bring about a constitutional settlement.

During 1990 and 1991, the presidents of Bosnia and Macedonia, Alija Izetbegovic and Kiro Gligorov, spared no effort in trying to find that elusive settlement. Both men well understood that in the event of armed conflict breaking out between Serbs and Croats, the bloodiest fighting would probably take place in their own relatively weak republics; their own armed forces could hardly match those of the local Serbs and Croats backed by their mother countries. The last thing that the Muslims and Macedonians were demanding at the time was independence.

Of the two republics, Bosnia was the most vulnerable because it formed a wedge between the two main belligerents—Serbs and Croats, neither of whom disguised their territorial claims on Bosnian territory. And just as Bosnia’s existence is dependent entirely on the good will of its Serb and Croat minorities, so is the Macedonian state conditional on its acceptance by the Albanian minority.

During the past two centuries, Bosnia has always had protection from outside its borders to prevent it from being crushed by Serb and Croat attempts to establish their nation-states by force. Both Serbs and Croats consider part or all of Bosnia an essential ingredient of their national identity. And this sentiment is strongest, of course, among the Serb and Croat minorities actually living there.

The main ethnic groups in both Bosnia and Macedonia are relative newcomers to the Balkan national game. During the past half-century, the Bosnian Muslims have discarded whatever guilt they might have felt as the inheritors of Ottoman imperialist traditions; they have assumed many characteristics of a modern European nation. During World War II the Muslims and Macedonians were essentially bit players; that they have become co-stars in the present conflict has complicated the Balkan situation. Serb and Croat nationalists view the Bosnian Muslims as apostates at best, and at worst as a bridgehead of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. Both Milosevic and Tudjman have used this argument in order to justify the violent takeover of territory in Bosnia.

Three years after declaring independence the Macedonian state has been recognized by only two of its four neighbors, Bulgaria and Albania. The Bulgarians consider the Macedonians western Bulgarians while the Greeks consider them usurpers of a much older Hellenic culture. Yugoslavia protected a separate Macedonian identity which was immediately challenged when the federation crumbled.

Above all, the hostility to the independence of landlocked Bosnia (if we leave aside the small coastal town of Neum, which is as Croat as you can get) and of Macedonia derived from the location of the two republics. Both occupy key strategic and economic positions on the Balkan peninsula. The prospect of Greater Serbia including most of Bosnia-Herzegovina hangs over the Adriatic Coast like an impatient vulture. A Greater Croatia, including the Serb-occupied Krajina and much of Bosnia, would overcome the difficulties that are presented by Croatia’s awkward topography, and would block Serbian territorial aspirations.

Macedonia is both blessed and cursed as the only territory of the southern Balkans where the Balkan mountain range can be traversed both north to south and, with greater difficulty, west to east. Should any of Macedonia’s neighbors control the territory, they could determine whether the main transit route in the region runs from Belgrade to Thessaloniki, along an Eastern Orthodox axis, or from Durres to Istanbul, along a primarily Muslim route.

2.

In Broken Bonds, an extremely useful and coherent study of the crisis leading up to war, Lenard Cohen, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, quotes President Gligorov of Macedonia on his relations with Izetbegovic during the constitutional discussions in 1990 and 1991. Both agreed, Gligorov said, that “the similarity of our views does not arrive so much from identical positions in Yugoslavia, as much as from the interests of both republics to preserve Yugoslavia.”

One of Cohen’s most important points is that neither the Muslims nor the Macedonians originally wanted independence. Between May and June 1990, an opinion poll asked over four thousand respondents throughout Yugoslavia whether their personal attachment was strongest a) to their immediate region, b) to the republic in which they lived, or c) to Yugoslavia. The Muslims showed by far the greatest commitment to Yugoslavia (84 percent), followed by the Montenegrins (80 percent) and Serbs (71 percent), with the Macedonians a close fourth (68 percent). Attachment to Yugoslavia dropped off dramatically among the Croats (48 percent) and Albanians (49 percent), and spectacularly among the Slovenes (26 percent).

In the Bosnian and Macedonian elections of 1990, no political parties (except for an unstable coalition of Macedonian nationalists) ran on a platform calling for independence. They all wanted a more fairly organized, democratic Yugoslavia. Cohen argues convincingly that, of all the moves by Yugoslav leaders as they tried to find their way out of the postTitoist maze, Milosevic’s manipulation of Serbian insecurity over the Kosovo issue was the most important turn down the road to war. As president of the Serbian Communist party, Milosevic shook up the constitutional order by stripping of their autonomous status both Kosovo, with its ethnic Albanians, and Vojvodina, with its ethnic Hungarians. But Cohen is not prepared to let the Slovenes and Croats off the hook as many commentators do. Rather than cooperate with the federal government, and in particular, its reformist prime minister, Ante Markovic, the Slovenes and later the Croats started weakening federal authority.

A Croat and successful businessman, Ante Markovic performed an economic miracle during his time in office between early 1989 and 1991, when he resigned in despair. By then most of his good work had been assiduously undone. During his first year in office, he reduced the federation’s rampant inflation from five figures to almost zero. He began the difficult process of reforming the country’s utterly corrupt banking system, and he restored Yugoslavia’s reputation in the eyes of the IMF and the World Bank. Had he been a more skillful politician, and had he had more energetic support from the European Union, the IMF, and the World Bank, he might have succeeded in stabilizing and reforming the federation during his first two years in office. Central to his strategy was a plan to hold federal elections for a parliament that would have popular legitimacy. This could have countered the secessionist tendencies in Slovenia and Croatia and the centralist drive of Serbia. All three republics were guilty of stalling these elections and therefore of undermining Markovic.

Those who argue that Slovene and Croat secessionism was a legitimate response to the increased centralist tendencies in Serbia implicitly excuse the constitutional and economic obstacles the Slovenes and Croats themselves placed in Markovic’s way, such as their refusal to pay customs revenues into the federal treasury. As it turned out, Markovic, Gligorov, and Izetbegovic were unable to preserve Yugoslavia mainly because Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs had lost any interest in reconstructing the constitutional foundations of the country. Yugoslavia is now dead and Izetbegovic’s Bosnia has been all but smashed to bits. Macedonia is still afloat, but only barely.

John Fine and Robert Donia, two respected Balkan scholars from the United States, have been passionately committed to the Bosnian government during the current war. To their credit, however, they also recognize that the wholesale dumping of the old Yugoslav federation and the failure to create a more modern federation which would accommodate both Serbian and Croatian interests were the two greatest mistakes made in recent Balkan history. They were mistakes made not just by the Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian leaders but by the US and the European Union as well. The tragedy lay in forcing Bosnia to choose an independence in which it could not survive.

Having made the initial blunder of assuming the Yugoslav federation had life in it while doing little to help Markovic, the Europeans and Americans shifted to the other extreme. Within six months, after having failed abysmally to respond to the outbreak of war in Slovenia and Croatia, they recognized both Slovenia and Croatia as separate nations.

Most of the books under review perpetuate the well-established myth that plucky little Slovenia defeated the might of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) because it clearly prepared for a war in which its newly organized security forces were powerfully motivated. This is only part of the truth. Two books, The Yugoslav Drama by Mihailo Crnobrnja and Between Glory and Anathema: A Political Biography of Slobodan Milosevic by Slavoljub Djukic, raise serious objections to any such claims. Both writers have an acute eye for the subterfuge which lies at the core of virtually all political and military strategies in the former Yugoslavia—particularly including the conflict with Slovenia.

When the federal government ordered the JNA to keep open Slovenia’s borders following Ljubljana’s proclamation of independence on June 25, 1990, the JNA, Europe’s fourth largest army, had 20,000 troops stationed throughout Yugoslavia. However, just 2,000 were mobilized in the Slovene war and 1,000 of these were brought in from barracks in the Croatian towns of Karlovac and Varazdin. From this weak performance Tudjman drew one of his more erroneous conclusions: that the JNA would remain neutral in any war between Serbs and Croats in Croatia. That some 19,000 JNA troops stayed in their barracks instead of fighting in Slovenia raises some awkward questions about the heroic military victory of the Slovenes. In fact, a battalion from the Yugoslav Special Forces stationed in southeastern Slovenia was especially trained to deal with civil conflict of the kind that broke out in 1991; its men were confined to barracks throughout the tenday war in Slovenia.

The war in Slovenia was a counterfeit conflict which enabled Ljubljana to escape the federation and Milosevic to destroy Yugoslavia. Slovenia had always been an essential part of the country, which in its first incarnation had been called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Insofar as we can trace the development of Milosevic’s strategy, we know that he first publicly jettisoned the possibility of a unified Yugoslavia in March 1991 when he switched to a strategy of reestablishing a Serbian state and expanding it where possible. The British, French, and Americans wrongly assumed that Milosevic was trying to save Yugoslavia and thus granted him greater diplomatic respect than they gave Slovenes and Croats. (The Germans, Italians, and in particular the Austrians were already more sympathetically inclined to the two Catholic nations.) In fact, the evidence is becoming more and more clear that Milosevic wanted to finish off Yugoslavia. Djukic quotes an exchange in July 1991 between Milosevic and Gianni de Michelis, the then Italian foreign minister and a member, along with France and Britain, of the European Community’s ill-fated troika of mediators:

“The Slovenes want to secede from Yugoslavia,” Gianni de Michelis warned the Serbian president.

“They can go if they want to, they can go without problems,” answered the Serbian president, who had already redrawn the map of Yugoslavia in his head without Slovenia.

Slovenia’s exit from the federation was confirmed by the Brioni Declaration of July 8, 1991, by which the governments in Ljubljana and Zagreb both committed themselves, under European Union auspices, to suspending their secession for three months after signing the agreement; but the key clause, agreed to by both the Serbs and the Slovenes, stipulated the withdrawal of the JNA from Slovenia. There was no such provision regarding Croatia. Although it had formally suspended its declaration of independence, Slovenia behaved from then on as if it were an independent state with nothing to worry about from the JNA. Croatia also tried to behave as an independent state but was confronted by the Serb rebels who were determined not to be dominated by a Croat government and were willing to fight. At first the JNA attempted to intervene in the fighting between Serbs and Croats, but the army’s identity as a genuine Yugoslav force was fast eroding, while its support for the Serbs in Croatia was becoming stronger.

Many JNA officers faced a difficult dilemma. Admiral Stane Brovet, one of the three chiefs of staff, was a Slovene and a committed Yugoslav. He certainly had no reason to support a greater Serb ideology. The defense minister, Veljko Kadijevic, also a member of the chiefs of staff, was halfCroat, half-Serb, and a committed Yugoslav. From now on, both men came under increasing pressure to fight a war on behalf of Serbs against Croats. Slovene, Croat, and Yugoslav officers either left the JNA or were forced to make way for Serbs and Montenegrins. Milosevic was using the same powerful political weapon he first used in 1987. He was exploiting a national crisis outside Serbia’s borders in order to destroy opposition to his control over the two governments based in Belgrade: the federal government and the government of the Serb republic.

Djukic implies that he pursued this strategy with the complicity of the Slovene leadership. At the very least, the government in Ljubljana was well aware of Milosevic’s tactic. Until the Brioni Declaration, the Slovene leaders had coordinated their drive for independence with Tudjman and other Croatian leaders. Even before the end of the Slovene war, however, relations between Ljubljana and Zagreb started to cool. Djukic tells how the president of the Slovene parliament, France Bucar, and the foreign minister, Dimitri Rupel, flew to Belgrade to see Dobrica Cosic, one of Yugoslavia’s most prominent dissidents under Tito, whom many considered the spiritual father of postwar Serb nationalism. Like many others, Bucar and Rupel assumed that Cosic was guiding Milosevic’s policy at the time, although Milosevic was in charge. In a threehour conversation with Cosic,

Bucar and Rupel proposed a Slovene-Serb nonaggression pact, and appealed to Cosic to put this to Slobodan Milosevic. In short, this would mean that they [the Serbs and the Slovenes] would let bygones be bygones and begin a new policy of cooperation. Ljubljana would agree to neutrality in the dispute between Serbs and Croats:

“Can you put this on paper?” asked Cosic.

“Yes, we can.”

“In Slovenian and Serbian?”

“Okay!”

This was the genesis of a document of five points in which the Slovenes supported inter alia even the most controversial aspect of the Yugoslav crisis—the rights of Serbs in Croatia.

Even before the Slovenes and Serbs had patched up their differences, the real fight between Serbs and Croats had begun.

3.

The war in Slovenia lasted little more than a week. According to Crnobrnja, some sixty people lost their lives as a result; they included more foreign truck drivers waiting to cross the Slovene-Austria border than Slovene citizens. Skirmishes took place largely around Slovenia’s international border points.

The Croatian war was quite different. Croat forces and the Serb-dominated JNA confronted each other along the winding battle line, which ran up a large part of southern Croatia toward Zagreb. The war spread into western Slavonia, another territory controlled by the Serbs, which protruded into Croatia’s center, and into the territories around the old Hungarian region north of the Drava, Baranja. Fighting took place from village to village and massacres were commonplace. So was mass expulsion of Croats from Serb-held territories—the first systematic example of “ethnic cleansing.” To these was added the often indiscriminate use of JNA artillery, designed to fight other armies, on largely civilian urban populations.

Serbs in regions controlled by the Croats suffered only a little less. Tens of thousands of Serb houses were blown up or requisitioned unlawfully. Hundreds of Serbs loyal to Croatia were murdered by members of the Croat police and army and between 100,000 and 200,000 Serbs were forced to leave their homes—a large-scale ethnic cleansing which has received much less publicity than any other. The death toll was much greater as well. It is estimated that some 20,000 were killed in this war, more than half of them Croats. When the war was allowed to spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the human costs were ten times greater.

The Croatian war was regarded by international legal experts as a civil war within federal Yugoslavia so long as Croatia remained unrecognized. Once granted international recognition, it immediately became a Serbian war of aggression against the Croatian state. According to most Croats, they were fighting a war of liberation based on the Helsinki Final Act. The JNA officers believed they were entitled to fight in a territory that, according to their government in Belgrade, they were still obliged to defend. Most Serbs would argue that the Krajina Serbs were fighting for their right to self-determination in the face of Croatian aggression. All these elements were in fact present in the hideous and confusing attempt by the Serbs and Croats to define the borders of new nation-states by force and at each other’s expense.

The complexity explains why the Western nations and, most notably, the European Community had such difficulty knowing how to respond. As the war progressed, serious divisions emerged inside the Community. The German government more and more viewed the conflict as a war of aggression by the Serbs and the JNA. While strengthening its ties with Croatia, the Kohl government voiced its growing impatience with what it saw as the Community’s inactivity. As the war dragged into autumn of 1991 with no apparent solution in sight, the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, began to insist that Croatia and Slovenia should be given unconditional international recognition. Such resolute action, he argued, would deter the JNA from attacking the two new nations.

The French and the British (with strong backing from the Americans) disagreed, arguing that recognition would be premature—it would not solve the conflict and could cause it to spread. They said that recognition could come at some point but only after a comprehensive constitutional settlement of the conflicting claims had been found. Even if such a settlement took a long time, they argued, it was worth pursuing patiently in order to prevent the war from spreading, particularly to Bosnia-Herzegovina. There were no quick solutions to so intricate a conflict. In this view the Americans, French, and British were supported by both the German ambassador to Belgrade, Hansjorg Eiff, and Alija Izetbegovic, who argued that if Croatia were recognized then Bosnia’s stability would be seriously undermined.

The European Community’s final attempt at settling the Yugoslav conflict was the Hague Peace Conference convened on September 7, 1991, with the former British foreign minister, Lord Peter Carrington, as chairman. It soon became bogged down and was adjourned after several unsuccessful sessions. It reconvened on October 18 when Carrington presented a take-it-or-leave-it plan to the heads of the six Yugoslav republics and the JNA. Those who rejected it would face EC trade sanctions on certain imports excluding oil.

Five of the six leaders agreed to Carrington’s principles for a comprehensive solution to the Yugoslav crisis which he presented to them on October 18. Milosevic refused. The document bears similarities to Lajos Kossuth’s plan for a confederation of Hungary, Serbia, and Wallachia. In order to protect the minorities inside the new independent states, it envisaged that the minorities would be granted a “special status.” No international mediators have come closer to solving the Balkan riddle than Lord Carrington did with the Hague document.

A few months earlier the EC had appointed Henry Wijnaendts, the Dutch ambassador to France, as its special envoy to Yugoslavia. His book, Joegoslavische Kroniek, should be read by any student of the Balkan crisis. The first half testifies to his personal energy and courage as he swept back and forth between Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Podgorica, and Knin in his Fokker F27 and a variety of helicopters. He modestly describes three attempts to shoot him down. More important, he has new insights into the characters of the three main players in the Croatian war, Tudjman, Milosevic, and, most revealingly, General Veljko Kadijevic, head of the Yugoslav army and federal minister of defense. They all appear in his detailed account of the Hague conference, which he believes was undermined by Tudjman as well as by Milosevic, and finally by the German decision to push for the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia.

The Hague conference is frequently written off as a redundant affair manipulated by pro-Serb British diplomats. Wijnaendts, who is no friend of Milosevic, refutes this theory. Under the “special status” guaranteed by the treaty, the Krajina Serbs would have had political autonomy and the right to their own national anthem and emblems, but within a Croat state. When President Tudjman agreed to the plan he was making a substantial concession: Zagreb would have had to cede a large part of its sovereignty over the Krajina, which it previously had refused to do.

Wijnaendts describes Milosevic’s objections to the agreement. He claimed that with “the stroke of a pen” Carrington had destroyed Yugoslavia. In view of Milosevic’s eagerness to usher Slovenia out of the federation, this argument was disingenuous. What really upset him was not only that the Krajina Serbs were rewarded with a “special status,” but that so too were the Hungarians of Vojvodina, the Muslims of the Sandzak region, and the Albanians of Kosovo—all inside Serbia’s borders.

While ostensibly accepting the principles, Tudjman was undermining the Hague agreements in a different way. Aware that support for the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia was growing in Germany, he made sure that a number of the cease-fire arrangements that Carrington and Wijnaendts had negotiated with him and General Kadijevic of the JNA would not work. In particular, the Croats had promised to stop blocking access to the barracks in which JNA troops had become isolated on Croatian-held territory and to resupply them with water and food. Tudjman not only failed to keep his word but on the day that one of the agreements was to take effect, Croatian forces stormed the barracks in Bjelovar and confiscated the JNA’s equipment. In response to these broken promises, Kadijevic intensified his bombardment of the Croat town of Vukovar and, in a particularly gratuitous act of barbarism, ordered an assault on the Adriatic port of Dubrovnik. The siege of these two cities was crucial in persuading Hans-Dietrich Genscher to push for the recognition of Croatia. Helped by the JNA’s brutal reaction, Tudjman’s tactic had worked.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher did not advocate recognition of Croatia at the start of the conflict there. Soon after the fighting broke out, however, a variety of pro-Croat lobbies and publications in Germany began to put pressure on him to take a more partisan stand. Among the more influential were the CSU party in Bavaria whose support, along with that of the Austrians, Tudjman had assiduously cultivated since before his election as president; the German Catholic hierarchy; and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s editor in chief, Johann Georg Reissmueller, who published thundering daily sermons on the need to recognize Croatia. The politicians of the opposition SPD were also sympathetic to recognition. Just as Germany had benefited from the right to self-determination, they felt, so too should Croatia be afforded the same right. According to a German foreign official I spoke to at the time, there was also a feeling in Bonn that Germany, as emerging “first among equals” in the European Community, should take the lead in a region where it may not have had “vital interests” but with which it certainly had more cultural, religious, and geographical connections than did Britain or France. This would have been a fair position if Germany had already been intervening to bring about peace in such an explosive region. But it was not. A German diplomat told me he felt his boss “was making us run before we could walk.”

Wijnaendts spells out what most of the books under review confirm and what Alija Izetbegovic himself also warned: that premature recognition of Croatia was certain to lead to war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Throughout the summer of 1991, Franjo Tudjman claimed in interviews that the solution of the Yugoslav problem was to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina between Serbia and Croatia. Germany was thus pushing for the recognition of a country whose president was publicly advocating the dismemberment of another Yugoslav republic while insisting on the sanctity of Croatia’s own borders.

The Serbs and Croats within Bosnia included the most militant nationalists of these two nations. When they saw that Yugoslavia was disintegrating and that the fighting in Croatia was likely to cause the federation to fall apart once and for all, first the Serbs and then the Croats began forming “autonomous regions” (the Croats called theirs “communities”) inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Recognition of Croatia carried with it a terrible danger: it would give international endorsement to the claims of Serbia and Croatia to establish nation-states at a time when the leading ideologues in both countries were insisting that these states should also control large parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the period preceding recognition of Croatia, both Croats and Serbs were arming themselves and also negotiating secretly over who should take over which parts of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Matters were complicated by the intervention of the United Nations. In The Volatile Powder Keg: Balkan Security After the Cold War, James B. Steinberg tells how, in September 1991, both Germany and Austria raised the possibility that the UN might deploy peace-keeping forces to intervene in the fighting between the Croat National Guard and the JNA. Perez de Cuellar then appointed Cyrus Vance as the UN’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia on October 8, and Vance immediately set about arranging a cease-fire between the JNA and the Croat National Guard. But he also opened negotiations between Belgrade, Knin, the capital of the Croatian Serbs, and Zagreb about introducing a UN peace-keeping force. Milosevic, Kadijevic, and Tudjman were enthusiastic about having such a force, while the Serbian president was eventually able to quash objections from the Croatian Serb leader, Milan Babic.

Vance got agreement in principle for the deployment in late November, well before Germany announced its intention to recognize Slovenia and Croatia unconditionally on December 15. Had the deployment gone ahead without German recognition of Croatia, the war in Croatia would have been frozen; but the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina would not have started at that moment since neither Croatia nor Serbia would have gained from it. Croatia would not have been in a position to annex the Croat-inhabited regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina if it had remained formally part of Yugoslavia, since this would have meant attacking the superior forces of the JNA. The Bosnian Serbs would still have had constitutional links to Serbia proper so that they would have had no reason to fight. If Germany had not recognized Croatia, the Muslims led by Izetbegovic would not have been under intense pressure to declare the existence of their own state.

Croatia and Slovenia having withdrawn from all federal institutions, Milosevic’s Serbia dominated what was formally still Yugoslavia. And, if the Vance plan had been accepted, that would have included Bosnia-Herzegovina and its Muslim population. The question that must be asked is whether it is right to insist on a principle of self-determination where its application is not only dubious but will also provoke frightful bloodshed. Or would it have been better to buy time and continue with the negotiating process—the Hague conference—even if such a policy appeared to favor one side in the short term—in this case the Serbs.

A third alternative at this point would have been a large-scale UN intervention—including the imposition of a UN protectorate over Bosnia-Herzegovina. The estimates of the numbers needed for this have ranged between 100,000 and 300,000, half-military, half-civilian. Had such a force been organized in good time, with vast resources and with the initial aim of freezing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s constitutional status as a republic within what was still Yugoslavia, and protecting the Muslim population in any future political arrangement, it might have turned out to be a humane and workable solution. Although favored by many observers both within and without the former Yugoslavia because it represented a last chance to avoid the appalling bloodshed, such an unprecedented operation, lacking support from Bush, Major, and Mitterrand, would not have received the backing of the Security Council.

4.

Once the war began in Bosnia, the policy of the Western powers became one of “damage control”: they professed to have three aims. First, they said, there was a moral imperative to stop the killing in Bosnia. Secondly, they wanted to prevent the crisis from undermining international institutions and cooperation—the cohesion of the European Community had already come under severe strain because of the Yugoslav crisis, and it was feared that the same might happen to the United Nations and NATO. Those fears were clearly justified. Finally, they said the war must not be allowed to spread to the southern Balkans.

The disunity, public squabbling, and reluctance to take risks on the part of the Western powers prevented the first two aims from being accomplished. The prospects of the third are still in doubt. Every hint of division within the Big Five has been and indeed will continue to be exploited ruthlessly by the three armies in Bosnia.

During the first phase of the Bosnian war, between January 1992 and the spring of 1993, the much better-equipped and -organized Serb forces overran and brutally occupied large parts of Bosnian territory, including many areas in which the Muslims were a majority. Early in 1993 the Bosnian army reorganized itself and developed a serious military strategy in concert with the government. Particularly after the shaky Croat-Muslim alliance collapsed in April 1993, to be replaced by an all-out war between Croats and Muslims, the Muslims knew that they could not win unless they persuaded the West to enter on their side militarily. Nothing how support for their cause in the US invariably grows when the Serbs launch an artillery offensive against civilian areas, the Muslim leaders have acted on many occasions to provoke such an offensive. The Bosnian Serbs have acted similarly. When the Russians warn NATO that Moscow absolutely rejects the use of airstrikes without its consent (as almost happened around Gorazde), General Ratko Mladic and Dr. Karadzic immediately try to goad NATO into an air attack. The leaders in Sarajevo and in Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters, have been trying to manipulate the reactions of Washington and Moscow. Neither have quite succeeded.

The war will almost certainly continue unless America, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia—the “Contact Group”—arrive at a consensus to stop it. Just how difficult it will be to arrive at any such consensus is suggested in David Rieff’s Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. Early in the book he makes a frank admission:

If now I write both in support of the Bosnian cause…and in protest against the callous indifference, the shallow pessimism, and the hypocrisy that have surrounded the murder of Bosnia, I suspect that I am more surprised by my own stance than anyone. In a previous life, the life before Bosnia, I used to flatter myself that indignation was an emotion to which I was virtually immune.

The remaining two hundred pages reveal the depth of Rieff’s indignation. His target is less the Serbs—although they come in for much criticism for their brutality—and more the Western powers and the UN. Powerfully attacking the Clinton administration’s policy on Bosnia, he asks why the Bosnian government was promised all sorts of backing, which it never received, while it continued fighting on the assumption that it would. This first happened when the peace plan of Cyrus Vance and David Owen was published in early 1993 following Clinton’s inauguration. Under that plan the Bosnians would have had to accept Serbian control of parts of their country. The State Department told President Izetbegovic that the US would support him if he demanded considerable changes to the plan and, in effect, he rejected it. This rejection was one of the reasons why the Croats (who were quite satisfied with the arrangement) decided to end their alliance with the Muslims and start pounding the Muslim civilians of eastern Mostar instead.

Rieff gives both Cyrus Vance and David Owen a sympathetic hearing, observing that in retrospect their peace plan was not such a merciless carve-up after all. Here his account is concise, eloquent, and convincing:

If all sides could bring themselves to what Vance and Owen conceded was an unappetizing solution…the country could still be preserved. It was by no means ideal, the negotiators conceded privately,…but it offered a measure of justice. The Bosnian government balked though,…still under the false and tragic impression that there would be an American intervention. And the Americans, though they had no intention of intervening, were unwilling to be seen publicly sanctioning a Bosnia defeat by throwing their weight behind the Vance-Owen plan…. The Bosnians were willing to die for their state and their principles, and the Clinton administration preferred to let them do so—and never to really make clear what the limits of its involvement were—rather than be seen as abetting ethnic cleansing or, initially, climbing down from the stirring promises of help for Bosnia that candidate Clinton had made during the 1992 presidential campaign to embarrass George Bush.

Above all Rieff’s book will be remembered for his criticism of UNPROFOR, the UN peace-keeping operation in Bosnia, which he charges often acceded to Serb pressure and failed to protect beleaguered Muslims. (He is careful to exempt from that criticism the UN High Commission for Refugees and such private organizations as the Red Cross.) In describing such failures, Rieff raises fundamental questions about the UN Security Council’s ability and willingness to respond to international crises. Even more disheartening (and any independent observer of the war can confirm this) is the chronic bureaucratic sclerosis which caused delays of days and weeks in carrying out the basic tasks of supplying food and shifting troops to threatened zones.

But Rieff does not offer convincing arguments about how the US or the EU or the UN can intervene to save the Muslims. He insists that the war is a simple case of Serb aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina and dismisses the view that it is a civil war as “cant.” The Serbs, he writes, bear moral responsibility for the dreadful crimes they committed against the Muslims; but political responsibility lies elsewhere, with the West. Yet to accept the war as being exclusively a matter of Serb aggression, one has to show that Bosnia-Herzegovina was a stable, established state, and it was not. It was hastily brought into being by an international community that was strangely bereft of diplomatic or political sense. Rieff himself comes close to acknowledging this when he writes,

The Clinton administration continued until well into the spring of 1994 to hold out the hope of intervention. If, as seems increasingly likely in retrospect, Washington was insincere about this from the start, rather than simply having been confused or incompetent, then President Clinton and his advisers have almost as much Bosnian blood on their hands as General Mladic.

Rieff is quite right. But one should go further. The policy of recognizing Croatia, which did not even succeed in solving the crisis there, compounded by the recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was fundamentally irresponsible. The Serbs have been rightly denounced for their actions but the European Union and Germany in particular have got off too lightly.

Bosnia-Herzegovina had little chance to survive in the form it was originally proclaimed since its two main minorities warned that they had no intention of allowing it to exist as an independent entity. Since the Serbs and Croats make up 50 percent of the population and have an overwhelming superiority in weapons, the West should have listened harder to what they were promising explicitly—the destruction of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And even if a political and moral case for intervention on behalf of the Bosnian government against the Serbs is entirely clear, the question of Croat complicity in the destruction of Bosnia has never been properly addressed. Serb accusations that the West has adopted a double standard in its policies toward Serbs and Croats are well founded.

Once the Bosnian war had begun, only a political deal in which the Bosnian government ceded a large part of its sovereignty could stop either the fighting or the slaughter of the Muslims. It was because the Bosnians accepted such a deal that Croats stopped pulverizing the remains of eastern Mostar last March. They did so after they signed the Washington accords with the Bosnian government, with much encouragement of both sides by the Clinton administration. The Bosnian government consented to the carve-up of Bosnia when it signed those accords; in exchange the Croats stopped killing Muslims. (This was certainly a preferable alternative to lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government, which would have cemented a ruthless military alliance between the Serbs and Croats.)

The Clinton administration deserves credit for helping to bring about the Washington accords. But they are no guarantee of peace since, as with each of the other agreements in this war, including the Vance plan for Croatia, its international backers have not shown the will to enforce them. If the Bosnian war is settled during the first six months of 1995 on the basis of the Contact Group’s work—and we must remain skeptical about this—Europe, the US, and Russia are going to have to police it with a large force for some time to come. The Croatian and Bosnian conflicts, however, will only edge toward a resolution if a new political arrangement emerges to overcome the danger of uncompromising centralism and extreme fragmentation in the northern Balkans.

The Contact Group plan envisages the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into two units. One is the Bosnia-Croat Federation created by the Washington accords and in constant danger of collapsing. This unit would receive 51 percent of Bosnian territory. The Serb unit, whose constitutional relationship with both the Bosnian federation and Serbia still remains unclear, would receive 49 percent. The Croats and Bosnians, acting through the new federation, accepted the deal this summer; the Bosnian Serbs rejected it. The Contact Group is now undertaking tortuous negotiations in an attempt to make the plan acceptable to both the federation and the Serbs. It is extremely unlikely that they will succeed. The devil of the plan is in the details. The Bosnian Serbs are insisting on three revisions—they want control of the three eastern enclaves, Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Zepa; they want a widening of the key logistical corridor around Brcko in the north; and they want to divide Sarajevo in two. The Bosnian government says this is unacceptable, but it is under pressure by the Bosnian Croats in the federation to accept it.

Meanwhile, the decision by the Croatian government not to extend the mandate of UNPROFOR in Croatia (which has been stationed there since January 1991) beyond the coming deadline of March 31 poses a huge obstacle to efforts to secure peace in the northern Balkans. The Croats have good reason to be frustrated by the failure of the United Nations to carry out the clauses in the Vance plan which stipulated the return of Croat refugees to the Krajina under the surveillance of the United Nations. Nonetheless, American and German diplomats, who continue to have influence and respect in Croatia, have been shocked by the Croat government’s decision. It was taken in mid-January when the authorities in Zagreb and Knin finally signed an agreement on economic cooperation, which led to the opening of the the main highway running east of Zagreb across Serb-held territories, and to the opening of the oil pipeline which runs from the Adriatic up into Central Europe.

The US and German governments along with the EU and the United Nations have made vigorous attempts to persuade President Tudjman to rescind his decision to throw UNPROFOR out of Croatia. They argue persuasively that the absence of a UN force to stand between the bitterly hostile Krajina Serbs and the surrounding Croats will probably lead to a Serbo-Croat war over the Krajina which this time could easily draw in the full might of the Yugoslav army. Indeed, to judge by the most recent deployment of the forces of Croatia and the Krajina Serbs, it appears that all sides are now bracing themselves for a dreadful conflict that will overshadow all that has happened so far.

Since Tudjman’s decision, ceasefire violations by both the Krajina Serbs and the Croats have increased dramatically. And his decision ended any immediate hopes for a lasting truce in Bihac in northwestern Bosnia, which borders on Croatia. Preparing for a new war in Croatia, the Krajina Serbs are backing the rebel Muslim leader, Fikret Abdic, with the military aim of pushing Bosnian government forces out of Bihac, and establishing supply lines with the Bosnian Serbs.

The Balkan peninsula is now approaching a momentous turning point. The Western powers have until March 31 to dismantle the time bomb that Tudjman’s decision has set ticking. Never before have the diplomats involved responded with such alacrity. For a short time, America, the EU, and Russia even appeared to agree on what policy they should adopt. They offered to lift UN sanctions imposed against Serbia and Montenegro in the summer of 1992 if Slobodan Milosevic were prepared to recognize Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This strategy collapsed, however, in mid-February when the Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, visited Belgrade. Instead of persuading Milosevic to go ahead with recognition, Kozyrev endorsed Milosevic’s position that sanctions must be lifted before any discussions could start. Both the Russians and the Serbs stressed that Serbian recognition of Croatia was out of the question at the moment.

Now the only apparent escape route from an impending catastrophe lies in persuading both Zagreb and the Krajina Serb leaders in Knin to accept a change in the UN mandate for Croatia. The Krajina Serbs have said they will agree to “cosmetic changes,” which means a slight reduction in the number of UN troops stationed in the Krajina and a change in the mission’s name. Officially, the Croats have said that they would accept only a basic change in the UN mandate, one that will allow Croatia to establish its sovereignty over the Krajina.

UN officials in Zagreb and Knin are increasingly worried that if no deal is struck by midnight March 31, then the Serbs and Croats separated by UNPROFOR troops in the so-called Zone of Separation in the Krajina will start a struggle to occupy all the strategic points along a one-thousand-kilometer front line, which is now under UNPROFOR’s jurisdiction. Carnage is likely to follow on a wide scale in Croatia and Bosnia.

Zagreb, Belgrade, and Knin are now awash with rumors. Some suggest that Milosevic and Tudjman have concocted the whole crisis intentionally and will soon reveal their magic formula for peace. Others claim that Croatia will receive economic rewards from the European Union if it allows UNPROFOR to stay.

Even if the immediate crisis surrounding UNPROFOR’s withdrawal is defused, the Bosnian government has stated that it will not renew the ceasefire agreement due to expire at the beginning of May. In late February, moreover, a serious clash between Macedonian police and Albanian demonstrators left one Albanian dead. This has now raised the prospect of a political breakdown in Macedonia and an entirely new aspect to the conflict in Yugoslavia.

Step by step the Yugoslav republics have locked themselves into an impasse of violence, and at each point where the Western powers might have intervened effectively—going back to the failure to back the first Vance plan—they have tragically failed to understand the requirements of peace. They now have what may be their last chance to prevent an even greater disaster from occurring.

February 23, 1995

  1. *

    The Banat, now vanished as an entity, was a region extending across western Romania, northeast Serbia, and southern Hungary.