Since the summer of 1991, at least 50,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the former Yugoslavia and at least a million more have been turned into refugees. After two-and-a-half years of fighting, a comprehensible explanation for the carnage still eludes most observers. The outside world’s unspoken conviction, as it watches the unfolding savagery, is that all the parties must be, in differing degrees, insane. This belief comes in both simple and complicated forms, ranging from the sweeping finality of “they’re all fucked,” which I heard from a Canadian UN soldier trying to keep Serbs and Croats apart at a UNPROFOR checkpoint, to visiting journalists’ speculation on the irrational strain throughout Balkan history.

The Balkans depicted in Robert Kaplan’s recent book, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History,1 for example, are a dark zone haunted by ghosts of violence and fanaticism. “Here men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry,” he writes, “dooming them to hate. Here politics has been reduced to a level of near anarchy….” The tone is familiar from better books, notably Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) and John Reed’s The War in Eastern Europe (1916). The doom-laden approach purports to illuminate the present by delving into the past. In reality, it straightens out the meandering paths of the Balkan past into the more circumscribed tracks of destiny.

Nationalists everywhere turn the historical record into a narrative of self-justification. In the Balkans, the contestants have a particular interest in turning their history into fate, so that the past can then serve to explain away their hatreds. But there is no reason why outside observers should do the same.

Westerners often assert, for example, that the roots of the antagonisms in the Balkans lie in the fact that the Croats are Catholic, European, and Austro-Hungarian in origin, while the Serbs are essentially Orthodox, Byzantine Slav, with an added tinge of Turkish cruelty and indolence. The Sava and Danube rivers, which serve as borders between Croatia and Serbia, once demarcated the boundary between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. If this historical fault-line is emphasized often enough, the conflict between Serbs and Croats can be seen as inevitable. Yet it is not how the past dictates to the present, but how the present manipulates the past which seems decisive in the Balkans. The Croats’ insistence, for example, that they belong to Europe, because they once belonged to Austria-Hungary, is also a way of saying: we’re not those backward Balkan Serbs.

In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman’s ruling HDZ Party asserts that it is a Westernstyle political movement on the model of the Bavarian Christian Democrats. Actually, the Tudjman state resembles Milosevic’s regime much more than either resembles a Western European government. They are both one-party states, democratic only in the sense that their leaders ratify their power by manipulating populist emotion.

Freud once argued that the smaller the difference between two people the larger it was bound to loom in their imaginations. This effect, which he called the narcissism of minor difference, is especially visible in the Balkans. An outsider who travels the highway between Zagreb and Belgrade is struck not by the decisive historical fault-line which falls across the lush Slavonian plain but by the opposite. Serbs and Croats speak the same language, give or take a few hundred words, and have shared the same village way of life for centuries. While one is Catholic, the other Orthodox, urbanization and industrialization have reduced the importance of religious differences. As Misha Glenny points out in The Fall of Yugoslavia, the war between Serbs and Croats in 1991 was not driven by irreducible historical or ethnic differences. Rather it was ignited by nationalist ideologues who turned the narcissism of minor difference into the monstrous fable that the people on the other side were genocidal killers, while they themselves were blameless victims. What is truly difficult to understand about the Balkan tragedy is how such nationalist lies ever managed to take root in the soil of a shared village existence. No more poignant proof of the intertwining of Croat and Serb ethnic tissue can be found than ethnic cleansing itself. When both sides began cleansing villages in 1991, they often dynamited or shelled every second house. It cannot be repeated too often that these people were neighbors, friends, and spouses, not inhabitants of different ethnic planets. Misha Glenny argues that it was precisely because they were brothers and recognized each other across the barricades that the fighting so often degenerated into atrocity, for example into horrible acts of facial mutilation.

In order for war to occur, nationalists had to convince neighbors and friends that in reality they had been massacring each other since time immemorial. But history has no such lesson to teach. The different sides were kept apart for much of their past in separate empires and kingdoms. The killing began only in 1928 with the assasination of Croat politicians in the Belgrade parliament. This in turn set off the slide into ethnic warfare during World War II. While the present conflict is certainly a continuation of the civil war of 1941–1945, this explains little, for one still has to account for the nearly fifty years of ethnic peace in between. These years were not merely a truce. Even sworn enemies on either side still cannot satisfactorily explain why the peace fell apart.


Moreover, it is a fallacy to regard the current conflict as the product of some uniquely Balkan viciousness. All of the delusions that have turned neighbors into enemies have been imports of Western European origin. Modern Serbian nationalism dates back to a Byronic style of national uprising against the Turks, while the nineteenth-century Croatian nationalist ideologue, Starcevic, derived the idea of an ethnically pure Croatian state indirectly from the German Romantics. The misery of the Balkan people does not derive from their home-grown irrationality, but from the pathetic longing to be good Europeans, that is, to import the West’s most murderous ideological fashions. These fashions proved fatal in the Balkans, because the very idea of national self-determination could only be realized by destroying the multiethnic Balkan reality in the name of the violent dream of ethnic purity.

Even genocide is not some ghastly local specialty, but an import from the grand Western European tradition. Ante Pavelic’s wartime Ustashe regime, which Serbs mistakenly regard as the true face of Croatian nationalism, couldn’t have lasted a day in office without the armed backing of the German fascist regime, not to mention the tacit approval of that eminently European authority, the Catholic Church.

In effect, therefore, the “West” is making excuses for itself when it dismisses the Balkans as a subrational zone of intractable fanaticism; or when it insists that local ethnic hatreds were so rooted in history that their explosion into violence in 1991 was inevitable. On the contrary, the Balkan peoples had to be transformed from neighbors into enemies, just as the whole region had to be turned from a model of interethnic peace into a nightmare from the pages of Thomas Hobbes.

Mention of Hobbes should help to point us toward a more convincing explanation of the catastrophe. For as Hobbes understood, no emotion is more likely to generate ethnic and religious hatred than fear. By 1990, post-Titoist Yugoslavia had become a Hobbesian world, a state of nature in which the means of violence were too widely distributed to afford anyone safety, especially those who found themselves a minority in the successor republics. Interethnic accommodation depended on the existence of a multiethnic state. When this disintegrated, society rapidly decomposed into its primary national elements, since these alone appeared to promise the Hobbesian minimum of security.

As Branka Magas, a Croatian historian who lives in London, observes, Tito’s achievement was to create a state which accomplished the peaceful national unification of the six major peoples of the region. Multiethnic federalism was the only peaceful way such a unification could have been achieved. For Serbs or Croats to unify their nation would have required the forcible movement of populations, for as much as a quarter of the Croat and Serb populations had always lived outside the borders of their republics. Tito understood this and created an intricate ethnic balance which, among other things, reduced Serbian influence at the heart of the federal system in Belgrade, while promoting Serbs to positions of power in Croatia.

Tito’s strategy, built as it was on a personal dictatorship, could not have survived beyond his death in 1980. Even by the early 1970s, his socialist rhetoric of “brotherhood and unity” was falling on deaf ears. In 1974, he compromised with nationalism, allowing the republics greater autonomy in a new constitution. By the end of his reign, however, the League of Communists, instead of counterbalancing the ethnic clientism among elites in the republics, was itself splitting up on ethnic lines.

This fragmentation was inevitable, given Tito’s failure to allow the emergence of civic-rather than ethnic-based party competition. Had Tito allowed a citizens’ politics in the Sixties or Seventies, a non-ethnic principle of political affiliation might have taken root. But as Milovan Djilas correctly foresaw, the great anti-Stalinist turned out to be a Stalinist in the end. By refusing to allow democracy, Tito only delayed his regime’s collapse while guaranteeing that nationalism would be the only available language of political appeal for his successors. Tito always insisted his was a communism with a human face. In the end, his regime was no different from the other Communist autocracies of Eastern Europe. By failing to allow a non-ethnic political culture to mature, Tito insured that the fall of his regime turned into the collapse of the entire state structure. In the ruins, his heirs turned to the most atavistic methods of political mobilization in order to survive.


Ethnic difference itself was not responsible for the nationalist politics that emerged in the 1980s. Consciousness of ethnic difference, as Glenny argues, only turned into nationalist chauvinism when a discredited Communist elite began manipulating nationalist emotions in order to cling to power.

This is worth insisting upon since most outsiders assume that all Balkan peoples are incorrigibly nationalistic. In fact many of them lament the passing of Yugoslavia, precisely because it was a state which allowed them non-nationalistic ways of defining themselves. In a poignant and bitter essay, “Overcome by Nationhood,” which she includes in her fine collection The Balkan Express, Slavenka Drakulic describes what it was like, as an independent Croatian journalist in the late 1980s, to be engulfed by the rising clamor of nationalist rhetoric Having always defined herself by her education, profession, gender, and personality, she found herself, in the maddened atmosphere of 1991, stripped of all defining marks of identity other than simply being a Croatian. All that mattered in Zagreb was whether one was supporting the nation. What is true of a courageous and independent Croatian intellectual cannot be less true of ordinary villagers. The language of nationalist pride and nationalist grievance only appeared to give voice to their fears and longings. In reality, it ended up imprisoning everyone in the fiction of “pure” ethnic identity.

As Misha Glenny shows. Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic was the first Yugoslav politician to break the Titoist taboo on popular mobilization of ethnic consciousness. With the unscrupulousness of a true demagogue, Milosevic portrayed himself both as the defender of Yugoslavia against the secessionist ambitions of the Croats and Slovenes and as the avenger of the wrongs done to Serbia by that very Yugoslavia.

For Branka Magas, the entire Yugoslav tragedy can be traced back to Milosevic’s program, first set out in the 1986 Serbian Academy of Arts and Science Memorandum, to build a greater Serbia on the ruins of Tito’s Yugoslavia. If the other republics would not agree to a new Yugoslavia dominated by the Serbs, Milosevic was prepared to incite the Serbian minorities in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to rise up and demand Serbian protection. These minorities served as Milosevic’s Sudeten Germans, the pretext and justification for his expansionary designs.

It is easy in retrospect to demonize the Serbs and to make it appear as if Milosevic was merely responding to the ethnic paranoia of both his domestic constituency and the Serbia diaspora. The reality is much more complicated. While there were Serbian nationalist extremists, like the Chetniks, still seething with resentment at Tito’s campaign against Mihailovic during the Second World War, most urban Serbs in the early 1980s displayed little chauvinist paranoia and even less interest in their distant rural brethren in Knin, Pale, Kosovo, or Western Slavonia.

What needs to be explained, therefore, is why many ordinary Serbs’ general indifference to the Serbian question turned into phobic anxiety that the Serbian diaspora was about to be annihilated by genocidal Croatians and fundamentalist Muslims. Magas argues as if Milosevic invented Serbian nationalism to serve his demagogic ends, but Serbian nationalism was not of Milosevic’s making. It arose inevitably from the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Once the multiethnic state disintegrated, every nationality outside a republic’s borders found itself a national minority. As the largest such group, the Serbs felt particularly vulnerable.

Magas also argues as if the Croatian drive for independence was a protective response to Milosevic’s expansionism. Misha Glenny’s account rightly views Croatian nationalism as an independent force that bears some responsibility for the descent into tragedy. While both Croatia and Slovenia professed a willingness to live within a loosely federal Yugoslavia, in reality, by the late 1980s, the leaders of both republics were determined on independence. Croatians had a right to an independent state, but as Glenny points out, an independent Croatia aroused genuine fear in the 600,000-strong Serbian minority within its borders.

When Croatia set out on the path to independence in 1990, its new constitution described it as the state of the Croatian nation, with non-Croatians defined as protected minorities. While many Croats sincerely believed they were complying with European norms for the protection of minority rights, Serbs did not regard themselves as a minority but as a nation equal to the Croats. When the Croats revived the Sahovnica, the red and white checkered shield, as their new flag, Serbs took one look and believed the Ustashe had returned. The Sahovnica was both an innocently traditional Croat emblem and also the flag of the wartime regime which had exterminated a very large, if still undetermined, number of Serbs. When Serbs were dismissed from the Croatian police and judiciary in the summer of 1990, the Serbian minority concluded that they were witnessing the return of an ethnic state with a genocidal path.

Defenders of the Croatian position insist that these fears were exaggerated or manipulated by Milosevic. No doubt they were, but in the broader context of the collapse of the multiethnic Yugoslav state, Serbs had good reason to be afraid. (Glenny himself reported in these pages on the massacre of Serbs by right-wing Croats in the town of Gospic in the autumn of 1991).2 This is the substance of Glenny’s case, and while it has made his book unpopular in Zagreb, it is not anti-Croatian. It merely insists on showing, against the background of the general collapse of authority in the region, how each side’s paranoia fed upon the other’s.

As the BBC’s Central European correspondent between 1989 and 1991, Glenny was uniquely placed to observe the disintegration of authority within Croatia’s borders. He describes how in town after town the Serbian-Croatian war began with battles for control over the main seat of local power, the police station. In Serb villages like Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in Western Slavonia, the Croatian state dismissed local Serb policemen only to see them resurface as paramilitary vigilantes. When the Croats tried to restore control over Serbian areas, these paramilitary forces resisted and set up roadblocks at the entrance to their villages. With the Croats losing control of the Serbian areas of their state, the Yugoslav national army intervened, at first to restore order and then to smash the Croatian state altogether. Croatia then had no choice but to defend its national existence. It now finds a third of its national territory occupied by the rump state of Serbian Krajina and its supply routes to the Dalmatian coast blockaded by Serbian paramilitaries in Knin. The world’s fitful attention is now turned on Bosnia. But the situation in Croatia is untenable and could explode into war at any time.

Glenny completed his book in June 1992, when the Bosnian war was still in its infancy. Yet in the chapter he devotes to Bosnia, he argues convincingly that it is not a separate drama, but a continuation of the primary struggle between Serb and Croat nationalist elites to establish ethnic states in the region. While Serbs have been rightly outlawed by the international community for their attempt to destroy the Bosnian state, the Croats have also been feeding on Bosnia’s prostrate corpse. Croatia maintains both paramilitary and regular army units in Bosnia-Herzegovina and even otherwise liberal Croatians insist on their right to dismember the Bosnia-Herzegovina state, in order to guarantee the security of Dalmatia and south-central Croatia. As Misha Glenny recalls, Tudjman actually proposed to Milosevic in 1992 that they divide Bosnia between them. If Tudjman is now assisting Izetbegovic and the Muslims it is not in order to defend Bosnia’s territorial integrity but merely to repel their common enemy.

From this it follows that the West may have made a mistake in singling out the Serbs for sanctions. At the least, Croatia should have been condemned, not for defending itself against invasion, but for its subsequent role in the dismembering of Bosnia.

When I talked with Milovan Djilas in Belgrade recently, he argued that the “satanization” of Serbia by the West had not undermined Milosevic or prevented him from aiding the Bosnian Serbs. Instead of blaming his regime for the long gas queues and the inflation, running at 200 percent per month, most Serbs in the streets blame the West. Even if economic chaos were to cause Milosevic to fall, his place might merely be taken by an even more odiously nationalistic demagogue.

Sanctions may be the minimum moral response to Serbian war crimes, but the West cannot suppose that they will be effective in stopping the war. Indeed the so-called “international community” has precious few cards left to play in the Balkans. It will not invade and protect citizens because no political leaders will take the risk. It cannot cut and run since its entire credibility is at stake. It cannot even impose a peace. At best it can only supervise a cease-fire once the disputants are sufficiently exhausted. Even then, peace keepers will have to stand on guard at the checkpoints, not for years but for decades.

The West’s central dilemma is what position it should take toward the emerging order of ethnically cleansed micro-states which have taken the place of Yugoslavia. Ethnic apartheid may be an abomination, but for the more than a million refugees who have fled or been driven from their homes, apartheid is the only guarantee of safety they are prepared to trust. The Vance-Owen plan is much condemned in Washington for appearing to reward the results of Serbian ethnic cleansing. But the innocent civilian victims in the area are indifferent to such scruples. For the West has failed to protect Sarajevo, where Muslim, Croats, and Serbs lived together in peace for centuries. The traumatized victims of this conflict are hardly likely to trickle back to the multiethnic communities they have left behind simply in order to vindicate our liberal principles.

Standing back from the catastrophe, one begins to see, with the help of Misha Glenny’s fine book, that Western failures of policy were caused by something deeper than inattention, misinformation, or misguided good intentions. The very principles behind our policies were in contradiction. In the light-headed euphoria of 1989 our political leaders announced their support for the principle of national self-determination and for maintaining the territorial integrity of existing states, without realizing that the first principle contradicted the second. We insisted on the inviolability of frontiers, without making clear whether we also meant the frontiers between the republics within federal states like Yugoslavia. Most of all, we allowed guilt over our imperial past to lead us to evade our responsibilities for defining the terms of the postimperial peace. The Western Europeans and the US could have ended the cold war with a comprehensive territorial settlement in Eastern Europe, defining new borders, establishing guarantees of minority rights, and adjudicating between rival claims to self-determination. After Versailles, after Yalta, the collapse of the final empire in Europe gave us a third opportunity to define a durable peace for the whole continent. Yet so concerned were we to avoid playing the imperial policeman, so self-absorbed were we in the frantic late Eighties boom, that we let every local post-Communist demagogue exploit the rhetoric of self-determination and national rights to their own nefarious ends. The terrible new order of ethnically cleansed states in the former Yugoslavia is the monument to our follies as much as it is to theirs.

This Issue

May 13, 1993