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Bosnia: The Last Chance?

A gray-haired middle-aged man on a Bosnian hillside peers into the sights of an automatic rifle. He looks down at the people in Sarajevo, going through their infernal daily routine of survival. He pulls the trigger with a studied concentration and the barrel spits out its rounds. Eduard Limonov, a self-styled dissident Russian writer who first came to prominence during the Brezhnev era when he emigrated to the United States, adds his small contribution to the sacred war of the Serbs, his Slav brothers. Just as mujaheddin from the Middle East and from Afghanistan have responded to the call from their brethren in Bosnia-Hercegovina, so have Russian fighters, politicians, and propagandists rallied to the cause of the Orthodox Serbs, who have been pilloried by so much of the Western world. “If the West is arrogant enough to attack us, who are the saviors of Christendom,” I was told by Dusan, a Montenegrin fighting with the Serb militia in Bosnia-Hercegovina, “we shall not be alone. Our brother Cossacks will be here to defend us.”

On December 14, the moderate Russian foreign minister, Andrej Kozyrev, pulled a remarkable diplomatic stunt when he delivered a speech at the foreign ministers’ summit of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), demanding that sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro be lifted; he hinted that if the West planned punitive attacks against Serbia, Russia would be prepared to support the Yugoslav state militarily. Half an hour later, with the delegations still shocked by what the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, described as a bombshell, Kozyrev explained that it was all a joke. But he added that should President Yeltsin fall, and be replaced by the nationalist opposition in Moscow, these are the policies with which the West would have to contend.

Kozyrev’s speech was only one of many signs that the shadow of Balkan history, with its recurrent national and religious conflicts, is lengthening over Europe. Russia is the ultimate battle-ground between, on the one hand, the democratic forces that are seeking a modern pluralist politics in Eastern Europe and, on the other, the nationalism that would seal it off from outside influence. The political instability looming there could have huge consequences for Europe. The Balkan peninsula is both a model for what could happen in the former Soviet Union and a catalyst for impelling disparate reactionary pan-Slav and pan-Orthodox groups in Russia to work together.

Yet until now most diplomats and politicians in Western Europe and the United States have failed to understand the Balkan conflict and its wider implications. They have been unable either to stop the struggle in Bosnia or to reduce the possibility of a full-scale Balkan war in the south of the region. Indeed Western diplomacy bears considerable responsibility for the appalling slaughter in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Cyrus Vance, the co-chairman of the Geneva Peace Conference, deserves credit for an important success—the partial implementation of his peace plan for the Krajina, the Serb-occupied regions of Croatia. In addition, the United Nations peace-keeping force in Croatia and Bosnia has attempted bravely to fulfill its highly restricted mandate to protect humanitarian aid, despite hostility from all sides in the conflict.

But apart from these two successes, the West’s inconsistent policy toward the wars of Yugoslav succession has been an important element contributing to the deepening of the crisis. In a depressing exchange of letters last October and November, the United Nations secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, vainly urged the then German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, to give up his determination to recognize Croatia unconditionally since this would ignite “the most terrible conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina.” Not only did German recognition of Croatia finally provoke the war in Bosnia as Boutros-Ghali predicted, it has provided no solution for dealing with the status of the several hundred thousand Serbs who live in Croatia. A third of Croatian territory, which is of vital importance to the economy, still remains outside Zagreb’s control. The uneasy calm in Croatia since January 1992 has been guaranteed by the peace plan put forward by Vance, who had also specifically urged that Croatia not be recognized. Restoring Croatian sovereignty over the Krajina will be achieved only through a diplomatic miracle or a revival of the Serbo-Croat war.

The West now faces yet another choice in the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic, having been re-elected, seems able, if he so desires, to start the Third Balkan War. If there was any doubt before, the results of the elections in Serbia and Montenegro on December 20 proved that the West’s economic sanctions and strong words will not persuade the Serbs to reject Milosevic’s aggressive policies. On the contrary, the results of the parliamentary elections show an alarming growth in support for Milosevic’s extreme nationalist ally, thirty-eight-year-old Vojislav Seselj, who calls himself the Chetnik Duke, and who is committed to total “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo. Seselj’s paramilitary forces have been accused of some of the worst atrocities against Muslims. Candidates supporting him received more than 20 percent of the votes in the Serbian parliamentary elections. Milosevic has consolidated his authority as the Serbian president and as a consequence the Balkan peninsula has taken another great step toward catastrophe.

No doubt the elections in Serbia and Montenegro were rigged in favor of Milosevic and the coalition of his Socialist Party (SPS) and Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRP). Milan Panic, the Serbian-born American businessman who opposed him, knew the cards were stacked against him from the first. As soon as the extent of Milosevic’s victory became clear, Panic denounced the election as fraudulent and demanded that a new election be held within ninety days. He was supported by the group of international observers who claimed that corrupt electoral practices—for example, the exclusion of potential voters for Panic from the voting lists—had given Milosevic an advantage of between 5 and 10 percent. If the latter figure is correct then Milosevic would have been forced to face Panic again in the run-off. But whether a fair election would have much affected the parliamentary majority of the SPS and SRP seems more doubtful. While Panic, who was forced out of office on December 29, is entirely justified in calling for new elections, Milosevic will not give the idea a moment’s thought. Still less will he be impressed by similar demands from the international community.

Before the outcome of the election became clear, the foreign ministers of the European Community delivered a blunt warning that a victory for Milosevic would be greeted by a tough response. They threatened to isolate Yugoslavia completely by cutting off postal and telecommunications while also considering ways of curbing the military activity of the Bosnian Serbs. But this warning by the European Community comes too late. While the Western politicians waved a number of rhetorical sticks at the Serbs in the weeks before the elections, including the possibility of military intervention in Bosnia-Hercegovina, they neglected to offer any clear hope to the Serbs that sanctions would be lifted if Panic won. If they had done so, they could have given important support to Panic’s campaign.

Instead the Western politicians mainly reiterated their disgust with the barbarous behavior of the Bosnian Serbs and underscored Milosevic’s responsibility for the aggression in Bosnia. The announcement during the week preceding the elections by Lawrence Eagleburger, as secretary of state, that Milosevic, among others, should be investigated on suspicion of having committed war crimes was perhaps the most curious example of this. As a former ambassador to Belgrade, a fluent Serbo-Croat speaker who has had close links with Serbia, Eagleburger, more than any other diplomat, should have been aware that this type of name-calling—with no real prospect of prosecution—ran the serious risk of playing into Milosevic’s hands in the election. Nor has the administration so far made a coherent case for enforcing the no-fly zone in Bosnia and the other military options it is now proposing. One senior diplomat at the Geneva conference spoke of the outgoing president handing “a poisoned chalice of intervention” to the president-elect.

At the end of August, Slobodan Milosevic walked out of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Hall in London looking like a defeated man. He had been upstaged by the president of Yugoslavia, the novelist Dobrica Cosic, and Cosic’s unlikely ally, Prime Minister Milan Panic of Serbia. Both had overruled Milosevic and agreed to enter talks with the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, about ways to settle the main cause of war in the northern Balkans, the Serbo-Croat conflict. Milosevic’s prestige and power appeared to be wavering while Cosic and Panic offered new hope for a solution to one of the most vicious struggles of the twentieth century. They talked of a political settlement under which Serbs might trade acceptance of Croatian political sovereignty and disputed territory in return for guarantees of autonomy for the Serbian minority in Croatia.

During the months following the London Conference, the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina obscured the tangled politics within what remains of Yugoslavia, i.e., Serbia and Montenegro. Yet the bitter struggle between two conflicting visions of Serb nationalism, embodied respectively by President Cosic of Yugoslavia and President Milosevic of Serbia, soon developed into the single most important domestic issue in the former Yugoslavia. The issue was whether or not peace and some equitable order could be restored to the Balkans. As one perceptive and worried British diplomat remarked at the end of the London Conference. “The entire deal which may bring peace to Bosnia rests on the sands of Panic’s rhetoric”—rhetoric that had at least some plausibility because Cosic endorsed it.

Since accepting the office of Yugoslav president earlier this year, the seventy-one-year-old Cosic, whose novels about World War I and peasant life are widely read throughout Yugoslavia, has used the considerable moral authority he enjoys in Serbia to support a policy of “cooperative nationalism,” under which Serbs would accept guarantees of autonomy in Croatia and Bosnia. Liberal opinion in Belgrade had been suspicious of Cosic because he is seen as the man who prepared the intellectual ground for Slobodan Milosevic, in 1986, when the Serbian Academy of Sciences published a controversial document known as “The Memorandum,” of which Cosic was the main author. The Memorandum accused the League of Communists in Serbia and Kosovo of allowing the small Serb minority in the provinces of Kosovo to be systematically discriminated against by Albanians. The following year Milosevic used the accusation in the Memorandum to get rid of the conservative leadership of the Serbian League of Communists. After war broke out in June 1991, Milosevic consulted Cosic regularly about strategy, because Cosic had over the years acquired strong influence among the Bosnian Serbs. Like Milosevic, Cosic at the time believed in the need to unite the Serbian lands into a single state.

But whereas Milosevic’s craving for chaos and blood appears difficult to satisfy, during the past eighteen months Cosic has turned against a war in which tens of thousands of Serbs have been either killed or driven from their homes in Croatia. It is hard to say just when Cosic decided that Milosevic’s project was driving the Serb nation toward disaster, not to mention the rest of southern Europe, although there is evidence to suggest that this did not happen until after the war had broken out in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Indeed some Muslim intellectuals and Serb liberals believe that Cosic bears part of the responsibility for encouraging the Bosnian Serbs to make war on Muslims. Why Cosic changed his mind in order to seek a peace based on compromise remains a mystery. The late leader of the Croatian Serbs, Jovan Raskovic, may have offered a clue when he said, “Cosic thinks one thing, says another, and then does something completely different.”

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