Europe seems determined to assert its primacy as the world’s most unstable region. It has been pushed to the brink of disaster by a lamentable combination of uncontrolled political change and confused diplomacy. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia could, until now, be seen as an old-fashioned if particularly ferocious Balkan war, but it now risks becoming international. If the United States, Western Europe, and Russia allow this to happen, the achievements that ended the cold war will be overshadowed by a chaos unmatched since World War II.
The struggle in Bosnia-Hercegovina is now a war without limits. The Bosnian Serb forces are intent on taking all of Eastern Bosnia. It is hard to see how Gorazde in the southeast can survive if the UN is unable to patch together arrangements to make Srebrenica a safe haven. At the same time the Serbs want to isolate Tuzla, the main Bosnian government stronghold in the north of the region, now crowded with refugees. Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb parliament have dismissed the Vance-Owen plan to split up the region among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. They did so despite a last-minute appeal made to the parliament in Bijeljina on April 25. In a letter the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, and his Yugoslav and Montenegrin counterparts urged the Bosnian Serbs to sign the Vance-Owen plan. Maybe Milosevic has had a real change of heart and is genuinely concerned about the strengthening of sanctions and the threat of military intervention. His troubles have certainly deepened since Boris Yeltsin, fresh from his referendum victory, made it clear that the Serbs will receive no weapons from Russia.
But on the ground in Bosnia the Serbs are relentlessly pursuing their original war aim—to secure 70 percent of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina in preparation for the day when they will reestablish constitutional ties with Serbia. The sanctions imposed on Belgrade and by implication on Bosnian Serb-controlled territory in Bosnia have so far had no perceptible impact on their behavior.
Still, eastern Bosnia is not the only site of carnage. Bosnian Croats and Muslims have been nominal allies, but, since mid-April, after many weeks of growing tension between them in central Bosnia and northeastern Hercegovina, they have been fighting one another in some of the fiercest battles of the entire war. The battleground runs from Vitez south toward Mostar and east toward Zenica. According to British soldiers in Vitez, the clashes began after the defense minister of Croatia, Gojko Susak, insisted on running up the Croatian flag in Travnik, a town allotted to Bosnian Croats under the Vance-Owen plan. During the past year it has been the policy of the Bosnian Croats to impose Croatian state symbols and Croatian currency on western Hercegovina, west central Bosnia, and Posavina in the north. In fact Croatian support for Bosnian independence was really designed to establish Croatian claims over these territories in Bosnia.
Within four days of the outbreak of the fighting between Muslims and Croats in April, UN officials reported that at least two hundred people had been killed. Eyewitnesses have described how both Croats and Muslims have been using such traditional terrorist activities as car bombings and hostage-taking in addition to the Balkan specialties of ethnic cleansing, rape, and mutilation. During the first week of the conflict President Alija Izetbegovic attempted in vain to stop his fighters from firing on Croats. His appeals went unheeded, increasing the suspicion that he had lost control of his army. But by the end of the second week, on April 22, he accused the Bosnian Croats of provoking the conflict in order to create their own state within Bosnia “The fighting will go on,” he added, “unless the Croats stop because the Muslim forces could not allow them to succeed in their aim [of consolidating a Croat state in Bosnia].”
Both Croats and Muslims have embarked upon what a confidential UN document has referred to as “an orgy” of ethnic cleansing and destruction. The document also reported that Muslim troops had begun firing on vehicles of the British battalion stationed in Vitez. The fighting has moved eastward to Zenica, the third largest town in Bosnia, where Muslim troops took hostage local commanders of the Croat Defense Council. UN military observers in the town reported that two hundred Croat families had been hounded out of their houses and their property sacked in villages southwest of Zenica.
The breakdown of the fragile alliance between the Muslim leaders in Sarajevo and the Croat government in Zagreb has grim implications. If the Muslim commanders in the field do not give up the areas allotted to the Croats under the Owen-Vance plan, they may face destruction at the hands of both Serbs and Croats, who are carrying out what the leaders in Zagreb and Belgrade have always considered to be the solution to the Bosnian question—the division of the republic between Serbia and Croatia. Yet to judge by the way the Muslim fighters in central Bosnia have been acting, these warriors seem bent on hastening the destruction of their own community.
Faced with the increasingly Byzantine violence in Bosnia-Hercegovina, we hear incessant calls for action to halt the suffering. What can the UN and the Western nations do about it? Much will depend on their ability to understand how the different sides arrived at their positions.
Tito stopped the civil war of the 1940s by slaughtering many thousands of Croat nationalists and a smaller number of Serb Chetniks. He then used the mechanism of the one-party state to deprive all national communities of their democratic rights. Instead, he encouraged the development of a Yugoslav identity which was artificial but not without its merits for keeping ethnic peace. Tito combined his repression with a political strategy. Contrary to the belief of many Croats, he considered it essential to keep Serbia relatively weak and to gradually increase the autonomy accorded first to the republics of Croatia and Slovenia, and then to Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and later still to the two autonomous provinces in Serbia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina. In order to calm the fears of the Serbian communities in Croatia, in particular, for whom the central Yugoslavian government was the necessary guarantee against a revival of Croatian nationalism, Tito then compensated the Serbs for having given Croatia autonomy by systematically giving them preference in the administration of Croatia.
This complex balancing act, which necessarily began to fail after Tito’s death, was, however, reinforced by a unique constitutional form, which invested sovereignty not only in the federal republics but in the “nations” of Yugoslavia as well. During the 1980s, this dual sovereignty came to mean that should one of the republics want to secede, it had first to secure the agreement of the sovereign nations that made it up. After coming to power in 1987, the Serbian Communist Party leader, Slobodan Milosevic, began to destroy this system by undermining the sovereignty of the separate republics in favor of one nation, the Serbs. In particular he laid claim to the parts of Croatia in which Serbs had settled. Following the spring elections of 1990 in Croatia, President Franjo Tudjman responded by asserting the right of Croatia to secede without first securing the approval of Croatia’s Serbs. And the Serbs were determined to assert their right as a sovereign nation to block any such change.
In modern history, Bosnia-Hercegovina has always suffered the most during periods of tension or conflict between Serbs and Croats, since the two nations’ claims on the territory overlap. For twenty-five years the concept of dual sovereignty within a federal Yugoslavia protected Bosnia from the imperial designs of Zagreb and Belgrade. Matters were complicated further, however, when in 1971 Tito elevated the Muslims—that is, Serbs or Croats who converted under Ottoman rule—to the status of a Yugoslav “nation.” In order to guarantee Bosnia’s security, Tito also gave a new twist to the idea of dual sovereignty in Bosnia-Herzegovina by establishing the principle that three constituent nations were to coexist under the Bosnian republic. This required that all three communities in Bosnia would agree before any constitutional changes, such as secession from Yugoslavia, could be made.
When the German government announced on December 15, 1991, that it would recognize Croatia unconditionally a month later, it effectively signed the death warrant for Bosnia-Hercegovina. Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegovic, was forced into choosing between joining the truncated Serbian Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic (a choice he could not have persuaded his own community to accept) or declaring independence. For a nation to qualify as independent, the European Community demands only that a simple majority (which the Croats and Muslims have) vote for independence in a referendum. The plebiscite that took place on February 28 and March 1, 1992, met the EC standard but it clearly violated the principle of the three constituent nations. The Bosnian Serb leaders explicitly opposed such independence and warned that it would fight for what they considered their constitutional right to have a veto over it. It was a right essentially conferred by Marshal Tito, not by any democratic process, but it was seen by the Bosnian Serbs as protecting their position in Bosnia.
Bosnia-Hercegovina had one more chance. In Lisbon on March 18, 1991, Izetbegovic, Radovan Karadzic, and the Croat leader, Stjepan Kljuic, agreed to a set of ethnically based cantons which might have, in effect, turned Bosnia into the entity conceived by Vance and Owen, although with one difference—there would have been no fighting. (I say “might” because the Bosnian Serbs have since often failed to keep their word.) On his return to Sarajevo, however, Izetbegovic, under pressure from his own hard-liners, renounced the agreement. Aware of the implications of this refusal, the Serbs and Croats, but not the Muslims, began fighting in two key, strategic regions of Bosnia. The battle for Sarajevo which began on April 6, during the weekend of formal recognition by the European nations of Bosnia-Hercegovina, was not the start of the war. It was only a further escalation. The war was not provoked simply by the recognition of Bosnia; what made the fighting inevitable was the conviction on the part of the Serbs that the principle of the three constituent nations they had counted on had collapsed.
This background is not merely of academic interest. It points to a fundamental fact: that the war in Bosnia is in the first instance a civil war. Certainly it has been exploited by those who dream of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia, and there is no question that the huge logistical support given to the Bosnian Serb and Croat war efforts by the governments of Belgrade and Zagreb is a form of aggression. In the case of the Serbs, this support has enabled them to carry out the most appalling atrocities against Muslims, and to refuse to allow civilians to have the food, medicine, and shelter that mean the difference between life and death. But that does not alter the fact that through its misguided diplomacy, the European Community and to a lesser extent the United States contributed substantially to the outbreak of civil war in Bosnia.