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.

On this question it is worth listening to Milorad Pupovac, the leader of the urban Serbs in Croatia. His longstanding commitment to rational discussion has led to his being denounced by both the Croats in Zagreb and the Serbs in the Croatian Krajina. He has advanced the theory that by violating the principle of the three constituent nations in Bosnia, the international community has itself unwittingly become a fourth constituent nation of that tragic place. As such, he argues, there can be no solution to the Bosnian question without the participation of the UN as the country’s arbiter, with, if necessary, a military force large enough to enforce agreements by military action. Pupovac explains that unless that happens, the fighting can end only with the liquidation of the Muslims in the republic.

In this light, the nations that seek a peaceful settlement must be absolutely certain of what they hope to gain from their next move and what kind of protection they will get from the US and other nations. Now that Boris Yeltsin has apparently consolidated his position in Russia following the referendum of April 25, the pressure on President Clinton from within his administration to undertake some form of military action seems likely to prevail. Still, as A.M. Rosenthal pointed out in The New York Times, it is all very well bombing the Serbs on April 26 [that is, after the referendum] “but what happens on April 27?”

More than ever, the options open for an international response to the Bosnian war are extremely limited. As the Russian foreign minister, Andrej Kozyrev, put it: “There is no best option. We are choosing between bad and worse—or very, very bad, as a matter of fact. Let us not forget that the First World War started exactly in Sarajevo. There is unfortunately very much potential for a bigger Balkan war, which should be avoided by all means, and there is potential also for an international crusade, be it Muslim or Christian or whatever.” As long as there is no consensus among the four major outside powers with interests in the region (the US, Russia, the European Community, and Turkey), no policy for intervention can succeed.

Since it took office, the Clinton administration has said that it has been considering “all options except the sending of US ground troops to Bosnia.” These boil down to lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government or selective air strikes against Bosnian Serb artillery positions, or both. Although the first policy is supported by some influential members of the Clinton administration as well as a caucus of developing world countries at the UN and among the Islamic states, carrying it out would be extremely difficult. After the embargo is lifted, just how would the Muslims receive more arms? The Croats control all land routes from the Adriatic to the Bosnian forces and for three months Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudjman, has prevented weapons from reaching them. Since the latest fighting in central Bosnia, it is inconceivable that Tudjman would allow new weapons to reach Bosnian government forces. Therefore, arms could reach Sarajevo, Gorazde, Bihac, and Tuzla only by air and, as we know from the food drops to Zepa and Srebrenica, this is a difficult policy to carry out. Food reached some of the besieged enclaves only because the Serbs agreed not to fire on the trucks carrying it. Planes carrying weapons into Bosnia would become targets for Serb forces and most probably Croat forces as well. The forces flying in those weapons would be at war with the Serbs and Croats.

Let us assume for the moment that it were possible to supply weapons to the Muslims. What would be achieved by that? In the first instance, it would mean a sharp increase in the fighting in Bosnia-Hercegovina. If the Muslims received sufficient weapons, they would try to push back the Serbs in eastern Bosnia. If their recent behavior toward Croats in Zenica is anything to go by, they would commit the kind of atrocities to which their people in the region have been subjected by the Serbs. Is the assumption behind this move—so attractive as an expression of indignation—that it will force the Serbs to the peace table? Is it to punish the Serbs? To stop the Serbs from committing atrocities? To drive the Serbs out of eastern Bosnia never to return? We do not know because nobody in the Clinton administration has actually articulated what it hopes to achieve in the Balkans.

Indeed while the Clinton administration has been strong on rhetoric and declarations, it has failed badly when it comes to working out a policy. Inheriting a muddled and evasive US position from Bush, the President began his term with strong words about the unacceptability of Serb actions in Bosnia and an attack on the Vance—Owen plan for “legitimizing ethnic cleansing,” and “justifying aggression.” The administration then spun a cocoon around its Bosnia policy. Three weeks later, the butterfly emerged—And lo! it hardly differed from the Vance-Owen plan—except, that is, for Warren Christopher’s remark that the new map of Bosnia-Hercegovina suggested by Vance and Owen was unacceptable. It is time to scotch a persistent myth about the Vance-Owen plan. It does not legitimize ethnic cleansing. On the contrary, it punishes the Serbs by taking away 60 percent of the territory they have conquered militarily during the last year. It demands of the Serbs that they hand back Srebrenica, the key towns of eastern Bosnia, Zvornik, Foca, Visegrad, and other places they have “ethnically cleansed.” It provides for a UN force to supervise the agreement once it is signed.

The Croats and the Muslims have signed the Vance—Owen plan (maps and all) because, whatever their reservations, they believe it to be in their best interests to do so. The Serbs feel it discriminates against them precisely because it forces them to take so many territorial losses. For all its blustering about the inadequacies of the Vance-Owen plan, the Clinton administration has come up with nothing else in its place. It has succeeded in doing one useful thing—appointing Reginald Bartholomew as a special envoy to Yugoslavia; and Mr. Bartholomew has, in fact, been busy in Zagreb and Belgrade trying to persuade all sides to agree to the scheme that has been the object of so much contempt—the Vance-Owen plan.

Since the Serbs will not agree to it, should the international community instead bomb them into accepting it? In response to this question, three things must be considered. First, are effective strikes possible on the terrain of Bosnia-Hercegovina? Secondly, will the Bosnian Serbs (and indeed Serbians inside Serbia) retreat when they realize that a punitive UN or US force has military superiority? Thirdly, will the Russians stand by and accept such a move?

The Western military leaders, such as Colin Powell, who have commented on the feasibility of bombing the Serbs into submission have not been confident about it. The senior NATO commander, General John Shalikashvili, recently counseled caution. “Bombing limited targets, for instance, artillery positions,” he said, “is more difficult than people think and there is also no guarantee that such an act would bring a party to the negotiating table.” This means that bombing risks further inflaming the situation on the ground for no real purpose other than an understandable but misguided desire for retribution—retribution that may also kill civilians.

The idea that the Serbs are inveterate cowards is most frequently propagated by exhausted journalists, like myself, who have been traumatized by taking cover so often from Serbian shells. However, the history of the last two centuries would tend to favor the private assessment of Cyrus Vance’s tireless deputy, Herbert Okun. He maintains that “the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs kill without compunction and die without complaint.” General Ratko Mladic, the commander of Bosnian Serb forces, has promised to lay waste large parts of the northern Balkans in the event of air strikes against his forces. Having talked at length with the man and observed his handiwork in several parts of the Kninska Krajina and Bosnia, I take his threats seriously.

And the Russians? There is much empirical evidence to suggest that most ordinary Russians care not a fig for the Serbs, concerned as they are with chronic problems of their own. President Yeltsin appeared to confirm this on April 27 when he announced that he would not supply arms to Serbia in the event of outside military intervention. So it does not appear that air strikes against the Serbs would break the delicate spirit of cooperation which has emerged between Washington and Moscow over the past three years. However, the foreign minister, Andrej Kozyrev, has warned that no action should be taken without first seeking the approval of the Russians.

If I am right on just one of the cautionary points I have raised, then the kind of military intervention being proposed may result in the escalation of the war in an appalling fashion. The UN and its officers on the ground in Bosnia and Croatia are firmly opposed to the action. The most senior civilian UN official in the former Yugoslavia, Cedric Thornberry, has said, “I am totally skeptical of the idea of quick, clean, Rambo-like, clinical strikes. All that’s going to do…is solidify [Serbian] opposition and possibly widen the war.”

I would add one element that could make an all-out Balkan war between the different religious and national communities explode—the military interference of great powers. An experienced diplomat who shuttles between New York, Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo described an American intervention as potentially “the Tonkin Gulf of the Balkans.” So far as the northern Balkan war is concerned, such intervention would almost certainly mean an end to the negotiations which have successfully frozen the conflict between Croats and Serbs in Croatia for almost eighteen months now. It would also mean the withdrawal of the UN forces now delivering humanitarian aid. The great problem with the bombing that has recently been proposed is that it has no clear political policy that it wishes to reinforce—it is instead an expression of moral indignation, which is quite justified, masquerading as policy. Field Marshal Richard Vincent, the chairman of the NATO military committee, has explained the difficulties of such a policy: “The military out there are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. If we go out on the basis that we are an end in ourselves, we will be there halfway through the next century.”

So what is left? Not much. At the moment, the United Nations is at last trying to establish the principle of a safe haven around Srebrenica which would protect not the Bosnian army but the city’s civilian population. By the end of April there were almost 150 Canadian soldiers in Srebenica. Representatives of the UN in Zagreb are keen to expand this number and to turn the town into a model safe haven. They want to concentrate next on Gorazde and Zepa, the other two threatened Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia. The plan would then be expanded to include other communities, of which most would, of course, be Muslim although some Serb and Croat areas should have similar treatment. The people inside the havens should be disarmed but assured of protection.

In order to carry this out, the UN would have to send many more troops into Bosnia, at first as many as thirty to fifty thousand. Their mandate would have to be strengthened: UN troops should be given the right to return fire when they are protecting civilians and shipments of aid. After the first safe havens are established, UN battalions should secure the major roads so that humanitarian supplies can pass unhindered. The final stage of such a UN operation, which would lead to a gradual demilitarization of Bosnia, would be to secure Bosnia’s borders. This would protect the republic from the illegal transfer of weapons and other military supplies from Serbia and Croatia. So far as protecting life is concerned, the Americans, the Russians, the European Community, and the United Nations all now support the principle of safe havens. It is time to carry out a policy which they all agree on and which just may save them from sinking into the Bosnian quagmire.

Even after the Bosnian Serb parliament had rejected the Vance-Owen plan, Greece and Russia, two countries friendly to Serbia, were urging Milosevic to force Karadzic into signing the Vance-Owen plan. If Milosevic is serious about his support for the United Nations proposal (which remains the only policy being offered), he should start imposing the sanctions on the Bosnian Serbs and stop greasing the wheels of their war machine. Otherwise the Bosnian Serbs may take Serbia and large areas of the Balkans into an unholy war which will dwarf the current conflict.

This offers no solace, I know, to the millions of victims of the Serbo-Croat war in Croatia and the Serbo-Muslim-Croat war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. But we also have a responsibility to the millions of Croats, Serbs, Muslims, Albanians, and Macedonians who are now more than ever endangered—not to mention the UN troops who have through good fortune so far escaped the ravages of a fullscale conflagration in southeastern Europe.

—April 29, 1993

This Issue

May 27, 1993