Large and seemingly unlikely political changes will have to take place before November in order to avoid a momentous catastrophe in the Balkans. The primary threat to the region is posed by the prospect that war in Bosnia-Herzegovina will continue into the winter, cutting off many thousands from humanitarian aid, and leaving them to die from cold, starvation, and illness. This threat, moreover, is compounded by a number of secondary conflicts and problems which must receive urgent attention in order to prevent regional conflict from breaking out of its bloody Bosnian prison and causing havoc first in Croatia and then in what is left of Yugoslavia—i.e., in Serbia and Montenegro.
The rejection of the Owen-Stoltenberg peace plan by the Bosnian parliament on September 29 appeared to bury the possibility that an unjust but necessary peace settlement would be made. Only by accepting the plan could the Bosnians have set in motion the huge aid program needed during the coming winter to sustain the civilian population of all three communities, but the urban Muslims above all.
At the beginning of October, President Izetbegovic was expected to address the United Nations General Assembly, giving rise to faint hopes that a compromise may yet be reached; but most observers remained skeptical. When confronted with the prospect of winter, Izetbegovic said that “it will be very difficult but I think we will be able to survive it.” Not all ministers in his government agree. In Sarajevo I was told by Hussein Ahmovic, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s minister of food distribution, that “unless we get massive humanitarian help this winter, Bosnia is set to suffer a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.” Mr. Ahmovic explained that although last winter was unexpectedly mild, most trees in districts under government control were cut down to provide heat. Housing has been depleted by some 70 percent while the people of Sarajevo have already burnt most of their books to keep warm. Food stocks are only 10 percent of those available at this time last year. Doctors in Sarajevo have recently reported an outbreak of a hepatitis epidemic with over four hundred cases recorded in the city. The local authorities have appealed for the airlift of one hundred tons of rat poison, because the cities of Sarajevo, Zenica, and Tuzla are now infested by vermin. Perhaps most telling of all, according to Mr. Ahmovic, the average loss of weight of citizens throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina since the beginning of the war in April 1992 has been twenty kilograms—forty-four pounds.
Sarajevo’s plight, however, is modest compared with the desperate conditions elsewhere in the republic. Each day 35,000 Muslims seek protection from hundreds of Croat shells which land in the eastern part of Mostar. These people are living in “a sub-stone age society,” as one aid worker described it; and their compatriots who are surrounded by Serb forces in the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Srebenica, Zepa, and Gorazde are little better off. The United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees in Sarajevo has issued an urgent appeal to allow aid to be delivered to the Muslim population of the Maglaj-Tesanj region, which is under joint attack by Serb and Croat forces. According to amateur radio reports, people there are already starving.
In addition, large parts of the remaining civilian Croat population of central Bosnia are cut off from aid deliveries or are subject to a brutal campaign of atrocities and “ethnic cleansing” which is being carried out by members of the Bosnian Army’s Sixth Corpus. On September 14, UN troops found the victims of one particularly bestial massacre of twenty-nine Croat civilians (all, except for one fourteen-year-old girl, pensioners who died either in their beds or while trying to hide from Muslim forces). Altogether more than one hundred innocent Croats died during the fighting in the region on the preceding day. The UN has confirmed the deaths of several hundred Croat civilians in Central Bosnia as the Muslim offensive has gained momentum over the past two months. The human rights commissioner appointed by the Security Council, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, has already published details of atrocities committed by Croat forces on Muslims earlier this year.
Behind the rejection of the Owen-Stoltenberg plan lies a deep division within Bosnia’s war-ravaged Muslim population. Many Sarajevans were appalled by the Bosnian parliament’s decision. In a telephone poll conducted by the independent news station Radio Zid, the ratio of callers in favor of the peace plan to those against was nine to one. Other opinion polls confirm that a very large majority of Sarajevans would have accepted the plan. Their mood was summed up by the message scrawled prominently on a wall in downtown Sarajevo: “Sign it, Alija, Sign it! Even if all we get is a backyard!”
But the cities whose inhabitants appear to want an end to the war at any cost have also been swelled by the victims of “cleansing” from other parts of Bosnia who have nothing more to lose. They have nowhere to return to after the signing of a plan that would legitimize the seizure of their homes and the leveling of their villages. The weight of their opinion has combined with that of the two other groups that oppose the peace plan: the Bosnian armed forces in central and western Bosnia, who have been encouraged by the success of their offensive against the Croats of the region, and the increasingly influential radical wing of President Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), whose base in Zenica north of Sarajevo has become a center of Muslim nationalism and, it must be said, intolerance. The Zenica authorities were the first to undertake “cleansing” operations against Croats earlier this year. They were also instrumental in creating the Bosnian Muslim Assembly, where Serbs and Croats loyal to the Bosnian government have no voting rights. Pressure from the Muslim Assembly which met in Sarajevo a day before parliament opened had a strong influence on the parliamentary decision to reject the peace plan.
Immediately following the collapse of the Owen-Stoltenberg plan, the Bosnian Serb parliament withdrew the territorial concessions they had previously made to the Muslims. The Croat parliament in western Herzegovina has passed a similar resolution. Although the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said that the Bosnian Serbs would be prepared to return to the negotiating table, the assembly passed a resolution blocking Muslim access to the Sava River at Brcko, one of the key demands made by the Bosnian government at the peace talks in Geneva. Each time a peace settlement collapses in Bosnia, the Muslims lose more territory and more people. There are few signs of talks being revived but time is running out; civilians will be suffering the effects of winter in November.
In the Bihac pocket, the small government-controlled enclave north of Sarajevo that has become the stronghold of moderate Muslims, the split over the plan has now brought the region to the verge of civil war.1 A week before the Owen-Stoltenberg plan was to be debated by the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, the leader of the Bihac Muslims, Fikret Abdic, announced the formation of the Autonomous Zone of Western Bosnia which no longer recognized the authority of Sarajevo to determine the fate of its 300,000 inhabitants. The reaction from Sarajevo was swift. First, Abdic was dismissed from the country’s nine-man presidential council for advocating acceptance for the Owen-Stoltenberg plan. Then President Izetbegovic himself denounced the creation of the autonomous zone as treachery and called on the Fifth Corpus of the Bosnian army stationed in Bihac to overthrow Abdic.
The following day, the army took control of the Bihac pocket and announced it had assumed authority. The people of Bihac responded by holding demonstrations throughout the region demanding the restoration of Abdic and condemning Izetbegovic, who ordered his troops in Bihac to use force if they encountered any resistance. In the first two days of fighting, the UN authorities in Bihac confirmed that twelve people had been killed—seven Bosnian Army soldiers and five Abdic loyalists, including at least two civilians. It is no secret that Fikret Abdic is immensely corrupt; yet in order to feed, clothe, and arm the people of Bihac he has successfully made deals with the Serbs in the Croatian Krajina, the Croats in Zagreb, and the UN’s French battalion stationed in the pocket. Above all he has kept the residents of the Bihac region alive.
President Izetbegovic’s rejection of the peace plan and his decision, announced on Sarajevo radio and TV, to overthrow Abdic by force are signs of moral bankruptcy. Such policies can only result in the deaths of many more thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Muslims. The Bosnian president appears determined to join the bloodsoaked group of ex-Yugoslav leaders—with Slobodan Milosevic as commander and Franjo Tudjman as his subaltern—who are committed to sacrificing the lives of their compatriots for the sake of their own political goals. In the case of Izetbegovic (and probably Tudjman as well), there is virtually no chance of realizing those goals.
It is not only the Muslim community which is rapidly being fragmented. Cracks are beginning to appear throughout the statelets of former Yugoslavia. Even if a peace agreement were signed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the decay of state authority in Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia would almost certainly guarantee that the northern Balkans would remain in turmoil.
The situation in Croatia is particularly risky, since President Franjo Tudjman maintains he will no longer accept Serb control of the Krajina region of Croatia, where some 200,000 Serbs live under a Serb regime patrolled by the UN. The Croatian economy is now spiraling downward. The Croatian dinar (soon to be transformed into the kuna)2 has less and less value in a situation approaching hyperinflation. Tourists, on whom Croatia’s foreign currency reserves depend, are staying away from a coastline which is well within the range of Serb artillery.
The impact of this economic crisis is being felt deeply along the Dalmatian coast. The supply of electricity to Split, the regional capital, is turned off by the authorities throughout the day. Factory workers are being laid off and, as a consequence, resentment toward Zagreb and its government is growing, as are demands for autonomy, for which there is a long tradition. This process is already advanced in the region of Istria, where a substantial part of the population regards President Tudjman’s government as little more than an occupying power.
Croatia’s economy could revive if Zagreb were able to reestablish control over the Serb-occupied territories which are now patrolled by the United Nations Protection Force. Knin, the Serb stronghold, stands between Zagreb and Split, making transport and communication between them almost impossible. Frustrated by this situation, Tudjman twice ordered attacks on Serb positions this year. When he last did so, in early September, the Serbs replied by firing a ground-to-ground missile on Lucko, a Zagreb suburb, and three missiles on Jastrebarsko, a town twenty miles south of Zagreb; they also heavily shelled Karlovac, a Croat town on the border of northern Krajina. Such exchanges may grow in intensity.
Meanwhile Tudjman faces a serious challenge from the right wing of his own party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), whose most prominent leader is Gojko Susak, a Toronto pizza parlor owner turned defense minister. In late October, the HDZ holds its general assembly and the loathing which has been seething between moderates and radicals in the organization’s leadership is likely to explode. The best-known moderates are Stipe Mesic, the former president of the Yugoslav Federation, Josip Manolic, a former Croat prime minister, and Anton Tus, who was head of the Croat army during the war with the Krajina Serbs. They advocate a negotiated solution with the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina. This would, they say, result in a measure of self-government for the Serbs in exchange for the restoration of Croatian sovereignty over the region. Privately, the moderates also voice concern about Croatia’s complicity in the carve-up of Bosnia; they point out that if Bosnia’s borders are not firmly recognized as legitimate, this undermines Zagreb’s case for the return of Serb areas of Croatia to its control.
Susak’s supporters, who have been scoring notable successes in selecting delegates to the HDZ congress, have insisted that if the United Nations Protection Force is unable to disarm the Serbs in Croatia and to insure that the Croats regain authority over the Krajina by November 30, then they will cancel the UN mandate for Croatia and take over the Krajina by force. This would mean the revival of the Serbo-Croat war which has been frozen since the Vance plan for the region was signed in January 1992. In his recent statements, President Tudjman has been leaning toward Gojko Susak’s position.
As the Croat position hardens, so too does that of the Serbs in Croatia. At a meeting of the Krajina Serb Assembly on September 30, the commander of Serb forces, Mile Novakovic, said that the Serbs now wanted to form their own state and that his government would no longer participate in negotiations that would restore any sort of Croatian authority over the region. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, backed up this threat, saying that his forces would join the Krajina Serbs in armed resistance should Croatia attempt to take the Krajina by force.
At the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping operations in Zagreb, senior officials are warning that war between the Serbs and the Croats now appears inevitable. Neither side, they maintain, is interested in negotiations. The morale of the peacekeeping force is at its lowest point. Its officials increasingly feel that there is no longer much value in maintaining a peacekeeping force in the Krajina and that, as one of them remarked to me, “They are both making our task so difficult, if not impossible, that the time may have come for us to get out so that they can get on with the job of slaughtering each other.” In early October, after several days of pained negotiations, the UN Security Council was finally able to gain a six-month renewal of the peacekeeping mandate which appeared to suggest that UN sanctions on Yugoslavia would now also be linked to the need for resolving the situation in the Krajina. This may take some wind out of the sails of radicals in Croatia but it does not solve the underlying problem.
It is not just Bosnia-Herzegovina that faces a humanitarian catastrophe this winter. The economy of Serbia, groaning under the impact of sanctions and war, hardly functions. According to the official statistics office of the government, inflation in what remains of Yugoslavia is rising by 2,000 percent each month. Last month the government knocked six zeros off the dinar in a futile attempt to bolster the buying power of Serbia’s impoverished population. Most basic foodstuffs, including milk, flour, and salt, have long since disappeared from the shelves of Belgrade’s shops, although the few city dwellers who still possess deutsche marks can buy local agricultural products at wildly inflated prices. The rest must rely on ration cards which are scarcely more use than the redundant dinar. Sanctions have also stopped the flow of medicines into Serbia and Montenegro, where most major hospitals have issued desperate appeals for the United Nations and aid agencies to bypass the bureaucracy of the UN sanctions committee and allow supplies into the country.
For the Albanians of Kosovo, of course, the future is doubly unpleasant. As part of Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, the Albanians are suffering both from the effects of sanctions and from the discrimination of the Serb authorities. The coming winter is likely to place considerable strain on the delicate relationship between the Albanians and their Serb overlords in the province.
Sanctions have clearly devastated what is left of Yugoslavia, although the peasantry, upon whom Slobodan Milosevic relies for most of his support, has been less severely affected. Serbia is still capable of producing enough food to feed itself, but, because of the high inflation rate, the peasant farmers are holding back most of their produce or only selling it for hard currency. So although urban Serbs now suffer tremendous privation, the rural population continues to back President Milosevic. The other source of power on which Milosevic can count is his well-armed and well-paid police force (now estimated to be some 70,000 men). Many members of this militia are hard-bitten fighters recruited from the Krajina in Croatia and Bosnia; they would make up a formidable force should social unrest break out in Serbia’s cities this winter.
President Milosevic, instead of being brought down by sanctions, has thus been able to make use of them to break the spirit of opposition in Serbian cities.3 Nor have the sanctions been able to weaken the fighting machine of the Bosnian Serbs which remains as efficient as ever. If the sanctions have seriously undermined Milosevic’s power at all, it is because they have increased tensions within Serbia’s tiny ally, Montenegro.
Roughly a third of Montenegro’s population of about 800,000 people, recalling the days of their own pre-World War I monarchy, would insist that the republic has political and cultural traditions that are distinct from Serbia’s. Most Montenegrins, however, consider the republic’s fate to be inextricably linked with Serbia’s. Since the late summer, as economic privations and popular discontent have increased, so has the number of Montenegrins who want to break away from Serbia. The walls of the old Montenegrin capital, Cetinje, are daubed with anti-Serb slogans and graffiti which demand that “JNA occupiers go home.” Thousands have taken part in demonstrations in support of Montenegrin independence from Serbia, and this sentiment has begun to affect some members of the ruling party and the government. To curb this resentment, Milosevic’s government has proposed stripping Montenegro of some of its rights and integrating the republic further into the federation. For the moment, fear of Milosevic’s forces within Montenegro makes the immediate possibility of civil war there unlikely, but nobody can anticipate what the impact of winter will be on political discontent. Virtually everyone who knows Montenegro agrees that should it descend into violence, this relatively backward society, which has a clan system and a powerful tradition of the vendetta, will become one of the bloodiest places in the Balkans.
While many Bosnians and Croats and indeed Westerners who hold the Serbs exclusively responsible for the violence in the former Yugoslavia will welcome any hint of civil war in the remains of Yugoslavia, the destabilization of this country is unlikely to bring with it any long-term benefits. Indeed, because of the substantial Albanian populations in Montenegro and Kosovo, instability may set off further violence.
If this overall assessment of the Balkan peninsula appears bleak, it is intended to. If some form of peace agreement is not salvaged by the end of October at the latest, large-scale disaster seems unavoidable.
The international community remains as divided and as mystified as ever in its approach to the Yugoslav crisis. Having failed to persuade the Europeans to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government, President Clinton appeared to switch tactics in September by offering to commit 25,000 American peacekeepers to Bosnia in the event of a negotiated settlement to the crisis. This proposal was welcomed in Europe since no settlement can work unless it is backed up by American military power. The idea immediately ran into difficulty among US congressmen, however, who seem extremely reluctant to approve any such plan. Under the shadow of the disastrous operation in Somalia, American politicians are understandably wary of getting involved in Bosnia; and they are also understandably resentful of the incompetence of the Europeans in their handling of the Yugoslav crisis.
In a lucid paper released this summer, “NATO—Out of Area or Out of Business,” Senator Richard Lugar argues that collective inability to deal with the Bosnian and Croatian crises is now beginning to raise serious questions about the relations between the United States and Europe. Senator Lugar argues that unless NATO is capable of responding to conflicts outside NATO’s immediate sphere that threaten European stability, then NATO’s vast military machine would seem of very limited use.
In view of the complexity of the military situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO—as the frequently chaotic organization of the national battalions assigned to UNPROFOR has demonstrated—is the only organization with the professionalism and resources that are needed to operate there effectively. Yet the disagreements on policy both within the international community and among NATO members themselves suggest that NATO may have considerable difficulty remaining in business. At their summit meeting in August the NATO nations agreed to provide air cover for the UN forces in Bosnia; to send a peacekeeping force if a deal were signed; and, in the event of a deterioration of the situation to make air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. In response, Boutros Boutros-Ghali immediately insisted that any action would have to take place under UN command. That dispute still simmers. If NATO leaders were to insist on pursuing any of these policies, they would face the same demand. If they chose to sponsor air strikes—which the Russians have said they will oppose—the uncomfortable prospect of a Russian veto of NATO operations would be raised.
Ironically just as it appeared that the main international powers were overcoming their differences over policy in the Balkans, the Bosnian parliament’s decision to reject the Owen-Stoltenberg peace plan made their deliberations superfluous. Before that rejection took place President Clinton’s statement that he was willing to send 25,000 American troops to Bosnia in order to supervise a peace agreement was seen as a great break-through, and was welcomed by the Europeans, since an agreement without a decisive American presence would not have been worth the paper it was written on. No doubt it would have been exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to get congressional approval of such a deployment; but the administration’s move went a long way toward overcoming the resentment that has built up between the Americans and Europeans over the issue of Bosnia. The failure of peace negotiations means that some of that resentment is likely to linger on both sides although it will probably be felt more strongly in the United States.
Even more urgently than before, the central question has become whether the international community can face some unpleasant truths about Bosnia-Herzegovina and indeed about the entire former Yugoslavia. Once the war between Serbs and Croats broke out and the premature recognition of Croatia led to the armed conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only effective international response would have been to encourage some form of peace agreement. For such an agreement to be workable would have required the deployment of large numbers of well-armed troops (preferably from NATO) who could control military activity in the republic that violated the agreement. Any other response—for example, lifting the arms embargo or bombing the Serbs—would have led to increased conflict and destruction throughout southeastern Europe.
The only moral and political imperative guiding Western policy should have been the need to save the lives of the civilian population, above all the Muslims, of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We have failed in this utterly and many if not most of the Muslims now face possible extermination—by means of Serb and Croat guns, the ravages of winter, the incompetence of their own leadership, and the foolhardy responses of the international community. Even if we leave aside the increasing instability of Croatia and Serbia, the region is now likely to face a threat from those Muslims who survive. Some of the people who have suffered most from the recent wars are almost certain to turn to terrorism. Their probable aim, however, will not be to alert the public to their cause by committing outrages in the United States or Europe (although that cannot be excluded). They will seek to exact revenge against the Serbs and against Europe by starting a new war. And in the south of the Balkans, they will have rich opportunities to do just that.
—October 7, 1993
November 4, 1993
See my article on Bihac in these pages, August 11, 1993. ↩
The Croatian government originally intended to call its new currency the Kruna (crown). Under pressure from right-wingers, this was changed to the kuna, the name of Croatia’s currency during the wartime fascist regime of Ante Pavelic. ↩
The sanctions against Serbia have also badly affected the economies of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. (The Bulgarian president, Zhelyu Zhelev, has claimed that Bulgaria has lost $2 billion in revenue during the first twelve months of sanctions.) So far the UN has not committed itself to compensating these countries although it may be wise to consider doing so. In varying degrees all of their governments must deal with internal nationalist disputes that endanger their stability. Rather than penalizing their economic development, the wealthier nations should be supporting them. ↩