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Bosnia and the Balkans: An Exchange

In response to:

Yugoslavia: The Revenger's Tragedy from the August 13, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Misha Glenny presents Alija Izetbegovic as a hapless victim of the Yugoslav crisis [“Yugoslavia: The Revenger’s Tragedy,” NYR, August 13], but Glenny’s own judgement may have been clouded by the horrific experience he has bravely endured in Sarajevo. He derides the idea that Bosnian Muslims could be fundamentalist and indeed most of them have long followed a tolerant live-and-let-live way of life. But Izetbegovic is the author of Islamic Declaration, published in 1970, reissued in 1990, and never repudiated, which asserts that Islamic unity, from Morocco to Indonesia, is the only cause for which a good Muslim would or should fight. Further, Izetbegovic has repeatedly thwarted efforts, by his own country-men and by outsiders, first to avert, then to halt the Bosnian civil war. His fellow-Muslims certainly are the principal victims of the present fighting, but personally he has achieved his aim: leader of an internationally recognized state, which can legitimately appeal for arms and diplomatic support to his friends in the Middle East, whom he frequently visits and on whom he relies. The ayatollah of Iran issued a declaration on July 29th, 1992, calling on all Muslims “to go into action” to defend the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina and he accused European countries “of trying to hold back the creation of a Muslim state in the heart of Europe.”

It is common knowledge that the Bosnian Serbs would never willingly agree to be part of a unitary state, in which Muslims and Croats would permanently hold the majority. Before Izetbegovic was elected president (in an election boycotted by the over-whelming majority of Serbs) Muslim and Serb leaders, fearful of the horrors of interethnic slaughter, effectively negotiated a power-sharing deal. Full details were published in Bosanski Pogledi in Sarajevo, 5th August, 1991. The principal negotiator was Izetbegovic’s rival for the presidency and, having at first seemed to support the deal, Izetbegovic not only denounced it, but accused his rival of “selling out” to the Serbs.

Even after his election, there was a faint chance of peace: EC negotiators thought that the three communities had accepted a power-sharing formula on the Swiss model of “cantonisation.” Having at first signified assent, Izetbegovic said on Sarajevo radio that he had had to simulate agreement in order to avoid being isolated and so postpone Bosnia’s chance of international recognition.

Izetbegovic is now preventing his ministers from negotiating any power-sharing arrangements until the Serbs surrender. In other words he still hopes for military support from abroad, to enable him to impose Muslim and Croat rule on the Serb minority.

Nora Beloff
London, England

To the Editors:

In his very well informed analysis of Yugoslavia’s crisis, Misha Glenny concedes that “Greek claims deserve some consideration.” He was referring to Greece’s strong objections to international recognition of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia as an independent sovereign state under that name. He calls, however, that objection “cavalier” and accuses the European Community and the United States of “cowardice” in refusing formal recognition to Macedonia.

That refusal has indeed been decided (“deserved,” Mr. Glenny himself says) in consideration of Greece’s very serious national concerns. It is true to say, as Mr. Glenny and others do, that every independent country is entitled to call itself whatever it wants. It is not, however, entitled to be automatically recognized by everybody if it chooses an offensive denomination against a neighbor. The British Foreign Secretary Mr. Douglas Hurd made this point very clear to the authorities in Skopje. Macedonia is a name not only indisputably linked to the history and cultural heritage of Greece, but also one which was deliberately and artificially attached to the predominantly Slav region less than fifty years ago by Marshal Tito. By so doing, he tried and failed (at the cost of huge Greek sacrifices) to expand his communist dominion through a “Greater Macedonia” to the Aegean Sea. Ever since, “Macedonia” has been not just a name but a program of ethnic aggrandizement and territorial expansion. It is surely not “cavalier” on the part of Greece to contemplate with concern and even revulsion the prospect of a revival of such ambitions.

The Skopje government may proclaim its innocence of any such plans. But the best way to make itself believed would be to accept the considered and by no means “cowardly” verdict of the world’s leading democracies, and to adopt a name less redolent of past aggressiveness. The truth is that they have never stopped dreaming of a “Greater Macedonia” with Thessaloniki (Solun in their lingo) as its capital. They publish maps to that effect and proudly display them on the walls of Skopje, even on their T-shirts. To add insult to injury, their parliament has now adopted the Macedonian star of the royal tombs of Vergina as their national flag and emblem. Absurdity has thus triumphed over reason in Skopje.

Theirs, however, is a simple choice: No country is better placed than Greece to provide the varied assistance which the new state will need to achieve economic viability and productive relations with the rest of Europe. Greece has solemnly and sincerely pledged its readiness to offer such assistance. It would indeed be “cavalier” on the part of Skopje to reject that help by insisting on a name which it does not properly own and which, for good historical reasons, arouses bitter memories for its neighbors.

Theodossis C. Demetracopoulos
First Secretary
Press and Information Office
Embassy of Greece
Washington, DC

Misha Glenny replies:

Let me assure Nora Beloff that my judgment has not been clouded by my experiences in Sarajevo. My article was based on observations in the former Yugoslavia over many years and I have never considered Izetbegovic a hapless victim. Ms. Beloff may have missed my statement that “no side can be exempted from blame for the fragmentation that took place [in post-Communist Bosnia].” The internal cause of the Bosnian war was the organization of the republic’s democracy along national lines. Once the three national parties claimed power both locally and throughout the Bosnian republic, all political disputes, whenever they took place, tended to become conflicts between the majority and minority populations. But to imply that the Muslim leadership was motivated by a nefarious fundamentalist ideology while the Serb and Croat leader-ships had nothing but the best intentions is absurd and more worthy of Lady Thatcher, who considers the Yugoslav conflict to be a straight-forward “war of Communist aggression,” whereby all Serbs are Communists and everyone else is a free-marketeer with a developed democratic consciousness.

First a few factual errors. Contrary to Ms. Beloff’s claim, Alija Izetbegovic was not elected president by popular vote. As the leader of the most successful party, the SDA, in the November 1990 elections, he was appointed by parliament as president of the “Presidency of Bosnia-Hercegovina,” a body whose members were drawn from all communities and which included the deputy leader of the Serbian Democratic Party, Nikola Koljevic, who is Radovan Karadzic’s right-hand man. These elections were not boycotted by any Serbs. Perhaps she is confusing the parliamentary elections with the referendum on independence eighteen months later on March 1, 1992, which was boycotted by many Serbs.

The “deal” which she refers to was an agreement reached by President Milosevic and Adil Zulfikarpasic, who co-founded and financed the SDA before breaking with Izetbegovic and founding his own party, the MBO. The MBO fared very badly at the elections of 1990 (which nobody claimed were unfair). Thus Zulfikarpasic had no mandate to negotiate Bosnia’s future with Milosevic in July, August, and September of last year. (The weekly paper, Bosanski Pogledi, referred to by Ms. Beloff, was founded and financed by Zulfikarpasic and therefore not entirely reliable in this matter.) Zulfikarpasic has so little support within the Muslim community that, on hearing of his agreement with Milosevic, the leadership of his own party renounced him and the plan. I was in Belgrade when the agreement was announced and the reaction of most Serbs I spoke to was one of derision and even hilarity. Nobody, neither Serb nor Muslim, took it seriously for a minute.

Beyond these inaccuracies lies the accusation of Islamic fundamentalism. Since taking office, Izetbegovic has repudiated the Islamic Declaration in several interviews, including one with me. He may, of course, be lying, but that is a generic problem in the former Yugoslavia. In addition, if we judge the presidents of the other five republics by what they were writing in 1970, we are confronted in Serbia, Slovenia, and Macedonia with three rabid Stalinists, in Croatia with a raving anti-Semite who was obsessed with military insignia, and in Montenegro with an unprepossessing teen-ager of uncertain views. During the last two years, Izetbegovic has stated unambiguously that all communities in Bosnia-Hercegovina should enjoy full religious and political rights.

No doubt some leading members of the SDA support the idea of an Islamic state, although they are in a minority. The question is whether such a state could be imposed in Bosnia-Hercegovina. As I pointed out in my article, the Muslims are largely a secular people, thanks mainly to the urbanization of the community in the postwar period. Even Ms. Beloff concedes that “most of them have long followed a tolerant live-and-let-live way of life.” If this people is determined to subjugate the Serbs in a jihad, how is it that 90,000 Serbs in Sarajevo have chosen to stay and fight with their Muslim neighbors against Karadzic’s forces? Have they been duped, as Ms. Beloff alleges I have been? She has no evidence for such a claim. If Izetbegovic ever attempted to ban alcohol consumption or introduce shariat law, he would be out of office within minutes, dumped by his own people. Naturally the longer the fighting goes on, the greater will be the pull of fundamentalism—but faced with what has been happening in Sarajevo, Gorazde, and the detention centers in Omarska and Broko, I think many people would find it hard to resist becoming radicalized.

None of this alters the fact that without the full agreement of the Serbs and Croats, a unitary, sovereign Bosnia is not workable. President Izetbegovic still demands that Bosnia-Hercegovina become a “citizen’s state” in which the claims of nationality would be sub-ordinate to those of civil society. However, as long as he heads a party which is identified specifically with one Bosnian nation, the Muslims, his pleas will lack any credibility. Despite the inconsistencies of all political leaders in the republic, the primary responsibility for creating the conditions in which the violent fragmentation of Bosnia took place, as I explained in my article in the January 30 issue of The New York Review, lies with the German-led decision to recognize Croatia before winning the consent of the Serb minority there. After Germany announced in December last year that it would recognize Croatia and Slovenia unconditionally, the European Community set a time limit for submitting applications for independence; the Bosnian government had no choice but to follow Croatia’s example. Had Izetbegovic chosen to stay in a truncated Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic, in which the Muslims would have been a vulnerable minority, he would have been forced out of office by his own people. Unfortunately, because of the Bosnian Serbs well-advertised opposition to recognition, the republic was not in a position to constitute itself as an independent state. Only if the international community had backed up its diplomatic support with something a little stronger would such an unprecedented unitary Bosnian state have been feasible. This, as we know, it conspicuously failed to do.

Now as demands grow to do something about the conflagration in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the extent of the West’s disunity on the one hand and its helplessness on the other is being revealed. The recent London Conference did at least go some way in overcoming the disunity, but it provided few suggestions for a solution. These have been handed on to the permanent conference convened in Geneva and presided over by Cyrus Vance. The former secretary of state is probably the only diplomat capable of squaring the many circles of the Yugoslav crisis but he was quick to warn that his will be an uphill struggle.

Despite many emotional pleas, the UN and the EC were never close to arranging an effective ceasefire in Bosnia-Hercegovina. However, probably the most significant development at the London Conference was the possibility of an end to the limited Serbo-Croat war which began in June last year and is still being fought in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In London, President Franjo Tudjman and the Yugoslav prime minister, Milan Panic, agreed on a six-point plan which may be signed at the Geneva conference. Its central proposal is for the immediate withdrawal of Serb-controlled Yugoslavian People’s Army (JNA) and Serb irregular units from Croatia and the mutual recognition of Croatia and the new, truncated Yugoslavia. Serbia would relinquish any claims it has to Croatian territory while both sides would allow the international community to monitor minority rights on their territory.

If the plan goes ahead, and it is not accompanied by an agreement concerning Bosnia, it will confirm the Muslims’ worst fears that the London Conference merely recognized the de facto division of Bosnia by Serbia and Croatia. President Tudjman returned from London saying that Croatia was more than satisfied by the outcome of the conference. Milan Panic returned after having publicly humiliated Slobodan Milosevic by successfully smothering the latter’s extreme nationalist program. Milosevic’s response was to try to engineer a vote of no confidence against Panic. This attempt failed. Milosevic no longer controls the apparatus of his Socialist Party of Serbia, which suggests that he has run out of political options.

The forceful objections of the Bosnian delegation to the decisions of the London Conference underlined the emerging, albeit exceptionally delicate, reconciliation between Serbia and Croatia. John Major issued a strong warning to President Izetbegovic to accept the outcome of London or lose any credibility in the international community. Now it is the task of Vance’s team to find the elusive constitutional settlement to the Bosnian crisis that would guarantee the republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina genuine sovereignty while accommodating the demands of the Serbs and Croats. If Serb and Croat imperial designs triumph over Bosnian sovereignty, the West will have set a most dangerous precedent. No border will be secure from Tirana to Vladivostok, and force will have been seen to prevail. If Bosnian sovereignty becomes the central concern of negotiations at Geneva, then the West will be confronted with the grave problem of enforcing such sovereignty.

The only way to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia-Hercegovina is to disable the capacity of all sides to fight. For that a huge military intervention would be required; but it would be effective only if it had two clear goals: disarming, or neutralizing, all parties to the conflict, and establishing a UN protectorate in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Despite many attempts, nobody has yet argued convincingly that military protection for aid convoys or punitive military action against the Bosnian Serbs, or Serbia itself, will go any way toward solving the crisis. Nobody has stated this conclusion more clearly than General Lewis MacKenzie who, as commander of the UN force in Sarajevo until early August, has the best-informed opinion on how the war is being fought. If the international community were to succeed in scaling down the fighting, only a UN protectorate could guarantee a peaceful transition to a workable constitutional order in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Under such a transition refugees would be allowed to return and camps would be closed down. (This operation would have to be policed by United Nations forces in order to avoid the problems now confronting the UN in the disputed territories of Croatia as it tries to disarm Serbs. For example, the Serbs are painting military vehicles dark blue and saying that they now belong to the police.) The idea of the UN protectorate was raised by several delegations in London. This is a welcome development, along with the belated recognition by the non-Yugoslav participants that if the Bosnian situation continues to deteriorate, Europe faces a Balkan war. If Bosnia’s sovereignty is disregarded, it will be of most immediate concern to Macedonia which looks exceptionally vulnerable.

A Balkan war will most likely be fought to a large degree on the territory of the republic of Macedonia. I respect the fears about Macedonia expressed by Mr. Demetracopoulos in his letter but believe them to be irrational. The Greek government has yet to explain how Macedonia, a land-locked state with a population of two million people (well over a quarter of whom belong to minorities), can pose any military threat to Greece, with a population of ten million and membership in both NATO and the European Community.

Apart from their historical arguments, why do the Greeks believe that recognition of the neighboring republic as “Macedonia” would change anything? If Macedonians do have designs on Thessaloniki, as Mr. Demetracopoulos claims, why would they desist in realizing these simply because they have not been offered international recognition? Surely the political organization of the Macedonian nationalists, VMRO, will only be strengthened if Macedonia continues to be denied recognition. Macedonia’s adoption of the Alexandrian sun as its state symbol—which I agree is an unnecessary provocation—merely underlines this radicalization, which is exacerbated by Macedonia’s isolation, an isolation encouraged by Greek policy. If the influence of VMRO increases, so will the possibility of political conflict in Macedonia. There are reasons to believe that Greek objections to the name, while genuine, place a convenient veil over some other issues.

If Macedonia were recognized, its government in Skopje would undoubtedly raise embarrassing questions about the status of Greece’s own Macedonian minority, or Slavophone Greeks as they are officially called in Athens. The Greek government already has a problem denying the existence of its large Turkish minority in eastern Greece, although less attention is paid to the smaller Albanian and Vlach minorities. The insistence of the Athens government that Greece is ethnically pure, a curiously unique state of affairs in the Balkans, undoubtedly contributes to its approach to Macedonia.

But there is one still more important issue. Macedonia is the most vital strategic region on the Balkan peninsula, since the Vardar and Struma valleys provide the only routes through the Balkan mountains. (See map on preceding page.) Whoever rules the region can determine whether the main line of communications in the Balkans will run from west to east, starting in the Albanian port of Durres and going through Skopje and Sofia and on to Istanbul, or whether it will run along a north-south axis—from Belgrade, to Skopje, to Thessaloniki. Relations between Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey (which has recognized both the Macedonian nation and the Macedonian state) have developed swiftly over the past two years. Greece has been separated geographically from its main Balkan ally, Serbia. Now, because of its refusal to recognize Macedonia, which I still maintain is cavalier, it is faced with the genuinely unpleasant prospect of being surrounded by countries which all support its most feared enemy, Turkey. If Macedonia remains unrecognized and Greece maintains its economic blockade of the country, there is a considerable risk of unrest. President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia insists that without recognition there will be a Third Balkan War. Prime Minister Konstantin Mitsotakis of Greece says that recognition itself will provoke war. To my mind, Gligorov has a more convincing case.

One final point. Mr. Demetracopoulos claims that Greece’s position is backed by the “considered verdict of the world’s leading democracies.” In fact, both the former foreign minister of Greece, Andonis Samaras, and Prime Minister Konstantin Mitsotakis, threatened to veto any recognition of Macedonia by the European Community. The Greek government also encouraged a popular boycott of Italian, Belgian, and Danish goods in Greece because these three leading democracies argued so forcefully within the Community for the recognition of Macedonia. If the other European nations cannot bring sufficient pressure on Greece to accept recognition, then the EC must again shoulder some responsibility should another Balkan conflict break out.

September 10, 1992

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