Dusk falls on the center of Sarajevo and two hundred ghostly figures, turned eastward, silently pass seven bodies from hand to hand before lowering them into another mass grave. The three imams offer up prayers on behalf of the dead. Inspired by these voices which seem to pierce Sarajevo’s shadows, the neighborhood dogs begin to howl in unison as if sensing the grief of their fellow creatures.
This dignified, miserable rite took place a few hundred meters from the outdoor market where the seven men died along with dozens of fellow Sarajevans. The spot is marked by a hole in the ground, no larger than a clenched fist. This little crater, bearing its grim testimony, is surrounded by a few concentric circles of shrapnel—the handful of shrapnel from the 120mm mortar that did not reach its target. The rest, after exploding a meter above the ground, ripped off the faces, heads, and limbs of almost three hundred people, sixty-eight of whom died. This particularly unpleasant atrocity in a war already renowned for its bestiality left only a few ripples of shrapnel on the ground but the political shock waves this sent throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Western world changed the course of the Bosnian conflict.
No incident has shaken Bosnia-Herzegovina as thoroughly as the marketplace mortar attack. “There is a paradox, of course,” I was told by Zlata, a seventy-four-year-old Muslim woman who fought as a partisan in Mostar during the Second World War. “This number of people are killed and injured every day, so what difference does it make either to us or the world if it just happens to be in one place?”
There is no better example to underscore the decisive impact television can have on policy-makers. The mortar attack may have just been another mundane massacre were the film crews from CNN, among others, not out in the city that Saturday morning. (How many massacres have we missed in other parts of Bosnia and Croatia?) Instead, the mortar attack has been transformed into a moment of history much more powerful than the explosion itself.
The responses of the Russians, Americans, and Europeans to the mortar attack were influenced by considerations that went well beyond the Bosnian conflict. Once both the United States and Russia decided to become much more actively involved, the still unanswered question, “Who fired the mortar?” remains of strong interest to historians and journalists but of less interest to policy-makers. Even if we were to learn tomorrow that it was the Muslims who fired on their own people in order to encourage air strikes, this information would not make NATO rescind its ultimatum to Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from around Sarajevo; nor would the Russians move their troops from the Serb-occupied section of the city where they installed themselves after the mortar attack, establishing for the time being what amounts to a Green Line in the Bosnian capital.
The mortar attack propelled the international “community,” as we have come to call the nebulous blob that has failed to contain the Balkan war, into a new and unknown phase of diplomacy. The Europeans—exhausted, divided, and largely ineffective—are handing over the central mediating role in the Balkans to the Americans and the Russians, a development with large implications. On February 28, the slight toughening of the American position prompted NATO to enter into combat for the first time since it was founded in 1949, when two American jets shot down four Bosnian Serb fighter bombers. Similarly, the Russian deployment of troops around Sarajevo boosted the confidence of the Bosnian Serbs at the moment when they faced a clear ultimatum to stop shelling the city.
In fact, the decision of the Bosnian Serbs to comply with the NATO ultimatum speeded up both American and Russian involvement. This has brought the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict closer, but it has also raised the stakes—if the Americans and Russians fail to steer Bosnia toward peace, then the consequences both for greater violence in the Balkans and impaired relations between Moscow and Washington could be severe.
The mortar attack on the market-place produced two responses, one put forward by the United Nations and favored by Britain and Russia, and one conceived by NATO in collaboration with Washington. Although the stated aim of these two policies was identical, they employed very different methods to achieve it. The UN, the UK, and the Russians concentrated on the power of negotiation, NATO and the Americans on the power of air strikes. The withdrawal of the artillery and the Sarajevo cease-fire was a curious hybrid born of these two policies.
The day before NATO issued its ultimatum, the UN’s new head of mission in the former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, and the new commander of UNPROFOR in Sarajevo, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, traveled to Belgrade. Politely but firmly, they told Slobodan Milosevic that unless he persuaded the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to pull back the Serb guns from around the Bosnian capital, then NATO would almost certainly unleash air strikes against those positions. Milosevic replied that he would recommend the policy of withdrawal to Karadzic, whose military commanders duly accepted it.
The arrival of General Rose in Sarajevo has made a marked difference to UNPROFOR operations in Bosnia. Inside the United Nations, it is no secret that the organization’s operations were turning into a farce. Theovald Stoltenberg, the co-chairman of the Geneva Conference in charge of UNPROFOR, could not tolerate General Jean Cot, the rather peppery French military commander in Zagreb, and Cot, in turn, developed a loathing, which was reciprocated, for the UN head of Civilian Affairs, Cedric Thornberry.
General François Briquemont, commander in Sarajevo, sank into a deep depression and failed to achieve anything. This was partly because he had virtually no experience of combat and partly because he was duped by the three warring factions into the nightmare of “linkage.” A UN official in Sarajevo explained to me what this meant:
The Bosnians would only agree to a cease-fire in Sarajevo if the Croats would allow convoys through to Mostar. The Croats would link the convoys to the evacuation of wounded from Nova Bila hospital and the Muslims would only agree to that if the Serbs allowed Tuzla airport to be opened. The Serbs would say yes but only if they were given more aid at the expense of the Muslims. It was a circus and of course nothing ever happened—it was a recipe for operational gridlock.
General Rose, a former commander of the tough British special unit SAS, broke the gridlock. After he had threatened Milosevic in Belgrade, he returned to Sarajevo where he visited the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and members of the Bosnian Army leadership. He adopted the same forceful tone as he had used with President Milosevic. He quickly secured the agreement of both sides to attend a meeting the following day at which a plan for the withdrawal of the heavy artillery of both sides from in and around the Bosnian capital would be concluded.
That evening NATO issued its ultimatum. This was a substantial political victory for the Muslims—if NATO planes were to attack the heavy artillery positions around Sarajevo, then the Serbs would be at war with NATO. No longer, the Muslims argued, would they be put at disadvantage by their lack of fire power. There was only one problem—the Muslims had already told General Rose that they would sign the deal which guaranteed the withdrawal of Serb forces without air strikes (although unknown to the Muslims, Rose had already warned Milosevic about the threat of NATO intervention).
The following day at noon, the Bosnian Serb leadership and General Rose turned up at the airport, but the Muslims were nowhere to be seen. As far as they were concerned, the ultimatum had rendered the Rose plan redundant, but they had not reckoned with the general himself. After waiting a short while, General Rose drove to the Bosnian presidency in downtown Sarajevo where he was received by the deputy commander of the Bosnian Army, Jovan Divjak, and President Izetbegovic. It is not known what arguments the commander used to force the Bosnians to go to the airport but these must have been fairly persuasive since within minutes the Bosnian delegation had changed its mind and decided to accept the Rose plan after all. According to one eyewitness, Commander Divjak was “white and shaking like a leaf” after the encounter with Rose.
Having threatened both the Muslims and Serbs, General Rose then announced that under the terms of the NATO ultimatum, he was the only authority at liberty to order the use of air strikes. An American observer I talked to in Sarajevo was skeptical about this claim: “I hardly think,” he said, “the White House or the Pentagon is likely to give that much power to a former head of the SAS who has that glazed look in his eye which comes when you have spent too much of your time crashing through bedroom windows and then icing everything in sight.”
Thus when the countdown to the end of the ultimatum started, the tension between the NATO strategy and the UN strategy became evident. NATO was gearing up for air strikes, helped along by some steely rhetoric from Washington. General Rose, on the other hand, said he was confident that the two sides would fulfill their commitment and that air strikes would be unnecessary. The Bosnian Serbs started pulling out some weapons, handed some over to UN control, and allowed UN military observers to guard the rest. As we now know, they also hid some. (So much for the UN’s and NATO’s ability to detect these weapons.) They also dawdled: if they had continued to comply at that slow rate, they would have faced a NATO attack.
NATO’s decision to issue the ultimatum was of great moment. Unlike most other international organizations, NATO had yet to burn its fingers in Yugoslavia. Once the ultimatum was issued, NATO had to display an iron resolve if either side (the Serbs in particular) flouted the demands stipulated in the ultimatum. NATO was preparing to break with the habit of a lifetime and move “out of area.” President Clinton is alleged to have warned the British prime minister, John Major, that failure to carry out the threat would probably lead to the collapse of NATO.
The NATO threat set off the alarms in the Kremlin. President Yeltsin argued forcefully that NATO had no right to prepare unilateral military action against the Bosnian Serbs without first securing the approval of the UN Security Council. Washington retorted that existing Security Council resolutions relating to the establishment of “safe zones” in Sarajevo and five other Bosnian towns gave sufficient authority for the strikes. Russia and NATO were on a collision course, with both sides having maneuvered themselves into a corner. NATO was certainly in no position to back down, while President Yeltsin (under increasing pressure from the nationalists and the military) evidently believed that he could not accommodate the Americans on this issue. A real danger arose that the Bosnian conflict might develop into a proxy dispute between Russia and the US.
This potential crisis was defused by the announcement from Moscow that Russia would transfer its troops serving with UNPROFOR in eastern Croatia down to Sarajevo, some two hundred and fifty miles away. Their job would be to guarantee that the Bosnian government did not exploit the withdrawal of the heavy guns by launching an infantry attack on Serb positions around Sarajevo.
The Bosnian government immediately rejected the idea. Ejup Ganic, the country’s loquacious vice-president, claimed that the Russian soldiers (and by implication the UN) would be merely assuming the military functions of the retreating Serbs so that the siege of Sarajevo would remain intact.
His assessment was more or less correct. It is perfectly possible that if the UN is unable to introduce a neutral administration for Sarajevo soon, then the UNPROFOR troops will establish a line blocking off one part of Sarajevo from the other and putting an end to the Sarajevan conception of a cosmopolitan city that transcends ethnic ghettos. Four years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the foundations are being laid to divide another capital. But Ganic’s bitterness was deepened because the Russian deployment almost certainly ruled out the use of air strikes. The longstanding hopes of the Bosnian government for Western military intervention had been thwarted at the eleventh hour.
While this arrangement disappointed the Bosnian government, it did perhaps stave off worse, as William Pfaff recently pointed out:
The Serbs, in their collective paranoia, need Russian assurances in order to make concessions. Threat alone might have made the Serbs retire their heavy weapons from Sarajevo…; but it is also possible that, in their conviction that they possess the power to bring a third world war down upon their enemies, they would have defied NATO, the consequences of which we are better off without. Russia’s intervention spared everyone that.
For his part, General Rose pointed out that the UN was making good on its promise—the Serb guns would be withdrawn or put under UN guard, and indeed once the Russians began arriving in Sarajevo, the trickle of Serb guns out of the twenty-kilometer exclusion zone became a flood. This had a swift impact on the civilian population of the capital. Life was, of course, still miserable, but for the first time in almost two years people were able to walk around the city normally without wondering whether their heads were about to be blown away. An eerie silence fell on the city and the jets waiting to take off from airbases in Italy and aircraft carriers in the Adriatic were grounded.
The combination of the NATO threat and the Russian deployment afforded the Serbs a minor tactical victory even as they withdrew their artillery. The members of the Bosnian government were visibly downcast when NATO announced that the strikes were not necessary. Yet some real advantages resulted for the Muslims and indeed for the cause of peace in Bosnia. The decision by the United States to stop carping from the sidelines and assume an active part in the negotiations has been welcomed by everybody involved, with the possible exception of the Bosnian Serbs. The Europeans, especially the co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference, Lord David Owen and Theovald Stoltenberg, consider the new American position to be essential in the search for a peaceful solution. The Russian involvement will be equally important. It is now possible that the Americans can put pressure on the group with which they are loosely allied, the Muslims, while the Russians can force the Serbs to see reason. We must hope so, for if it goes wrong, there is still a danger that Moscow and Washington may lock horns over Bosnia.
By the first week of March, the signs were promising. In late February the Americans took the initiative in organizing plans for both a Muslim-Croat federation within Bosnia and a loose confederation between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. If these plans can be carried out, they will amount to a breakthrough in the search for a constitutional peace for the former Yugoslavia. The agreement implies that both Bosnia and Croatia must give up a part of their sovereignty in order to overcome the problem of minority rights. A Muslim state in Bosnia is no longer a feasible goal, and the same can be said for a Greater Croatia. Instead of regulating their territorial dispute by armed conflict, the governments in Zagreb and Sarajevo have, at least for the while, committed themselves to solving it by a complex treaty arrangement. This is to be strongly welcomed, and the initial Russian reaction to the idea would suggest that the current peace negotiations have a future.
That future, of course, much depends on whether the Serbs, who still control some 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina, can be pulled into this process or not. If this new-found but still extremely delicate alliance is used exclusively as a stick to beat the Serbs, then it will shrivel and die. If, however, the US and Russia can persuade the Bosnian Serbs and the Krajina Serbs in Croatia to conclude treaties which draw them into a federal arrangement, while affording them an organic relationship with Serbia proper, then we may have the makings of peace in the northern Balkans. But although Charles Redman, President Clinton’s special envoy, has made considerable progress in bringing together the Croats and Muslims, the Serbs have so far rejected the possibility they would join the federation. In addition, Peter Galbraith, the US ambassador to Zagreb, has now said that sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro (which were imposed because of the logistical support that the Yugoslav army provided the Bosnian Serbs) should stay in place until Croatia regains sovereignty over Krajina and the Albanians in Kosovo are guaranteed human rights.
This American demand has upset the UN officials in the former Yugoslavia since it extends the scope of sanctions without Security Council approval and is bound to meet with Serbian hostility. Certainly solutions for Kosovo and the Krajina which take into account Albanian and Croatian concerns are an urgent necessity. But they cannot be achieved through punitive measures against Belgrade alone.
And time is on nobody’s side. Already the cease-fire in Sarajevo is looking shaky despite the presence of the Russian, British, French, and Norwegian troops in the Bosnian capital. The cease-fire between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia is also holding, but the UN reports the situation to be “very tense.” General Rose has warned that the entire operation is living “on borrowed time” and that unless the international community is able to supply approximately 10,000 more troops in the immediate future it will be in danger.
Time and again, the peace-keeping operation in the former Yugoslavia has foundered because the UN forces have been ill-equipped and poorly trained. The current efforts at peace-making demand soldiers of the highest ability, and only the Russians, Americans, British, and French have such professionals in sufficient numbers. This explains why the UN is now openly pleading with the Clinton administration to send troops despite the domestic problems this may cause, and why the French head of the UN forces in the former Yugoslavia, General Cot, has gone so far as to say that it was a “strange and not very courageous idea” that the US would send troops only after a settlement was secured. If the US is not willing to contribute ground forces, the UN argues, the momentum toward a peaceful solution which the fateful mortar attack on the marketplace generated will collapse and die.
This must not happen. Beyond Bosnia-Herzegovina, the possibilities of armed conflict in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and possibly in Kosovo, have now become more ominous than ever. On March 2, George Soros, after a visit to his organization’s office in Macedonia, warned:
If the government of the last intact multi-ethnic state in the Balkans [FYROM] falls, you are likely to have a break-up of Macedonia. That would lead to a general war of much greater proportions than what you have in Bosnia.
Soros was attacking the Greek decision, announced by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, in the middle of February, to impose a total commercial blockade on FYROM. The government in the capital, Skopje, is dependent upon oil supplies which are shipped through Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia. Albania and Bulgaria have responded by allowing shipments to be diverted to their own smaller ports of Durres and Burgas, but this will not compensate fully for the Greek move.
Papandreou’s decision is widely regarded by European officials to have been a response to the American announcement recognizing FYROM. Seven European Union countries including Germany, Britain, and France had already recognized FYROM. Two days after Papandreou spoke, tens of thousands of angry Greeks threw rocks and eggs at the US consulate in Thessaloniki during a demonstration organized by the Archbishop of Thessaloniki; the Greek Orthodox Church has taken the lead in organizing opposition to the recognition of FYROM. More demonstrations are planned, and they are likely to get bigger and more aggressive.
An official from the Greek foreign ministry told me that his office had learned of Papandreou’s decision on Greek television news. Papandreou, he believed, was incensed by President Clinton’s decision to recognize FYROM before the Greek prime minister’s visit to Washington in April.
Jacques Delors, the head of the European Commission, attacked Greece’s decision to impose the blockade and warned of consequences if it were not rescinded. However, the EU responded by dispatching Hans van den Bruk, the former Dutch foreign minister with a proven record of failure in the Balkans, for two days of fruitless shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Skopje.
But the Greek decision is not the central difficulty affecting FYROM. It has merely exacerbated the increasingly visible tension between the Albanians of FYROM, who make up between 25 percent and 40 percent of the population depending on whose statistics you believe, and the Slav Macedonians. The main Albanian party, the Party of Democratic Prosperity (PDP), has split in two and the majority faction led by a twenty-nine-year-old, Mendu Taqi, who comes from Kosovo, has proclaimed a radical line denouncing the Macedonian Slav leaders. The basis of consensus inside FYROM is breaking apart, and the Albanian community and the government in Skopje now appear to be moving toward a conflict.
Its potential dangers can hardly be exaggerated. Should small-scale fighting between the Albanians and the Macedonian police break out, observers in Skopje believe that it will be exceptionally difficult to prevent the Albanian, Serb, and even the Bulgarian armies from going to war. If Macedonia were destabilized, Albania would protect its minority, the Serbs would move in defense of the small Serb minority in the north and the Bulgarians would have to consider whether to defend the Macedonians (whom Bulgarians believe to be western Bulgarians). George Soros has expressed fears that Greece and Turkey would then become directly involved. Even if they did not, they would certainly line up behind opposing sides, and their relations would deteriorate even further.
The threat to Macedonia and the possible outbreak of the Third Balkan War are no longer matters for speculation by journalists. The European Union and the State Department have both described the situation as being extremely serious. One senior diplomat in Skopje told me that he was “very nervous” about the country. Through discreet diplomatic channels, the Clinton administration has warned the Albanian government not to give open support to the majority faction of the PDP led by Taqi. By sending aid, the Americans are trying hard to sustain FYROM so that it can become a workable state. But more must be done. The eight hundred UN soldiers now camped near the Skopje airport (including three hundred lightly armed Americans) could be joined by a larger preventive deployment of perhaps three to four thousand well-armed peace-keeping troops.
But a solution can only emerge from negotiations between representatives of the governments in Skopje and Athens, on the one hand, and, on the other, between the Macedonian government and Albanian leaders in Western Macedonia and Tirana. Absurd as it may sound, President Kiro Gligorov will have to find a way of changing his country’s flag by dropping the Sun of Vergina, the symbol whose use offends the Greeks so much. But the Greeks must also be told that their recent blockade is unacceptable. Albanian television should stop beaming reports into western Macedonia which favor Mr. Taqi while international mediators should be trying to work out an agreement between the Macedonians and Albanians. In my own recent visits to Macedonia I found a frustrated consensus among the more perceptive observers there: time is running out fast, and hardly anyone outside Macedonia is paying any attention.
The cease-fire in Bosnia-Herzegovina remains enormously important psychologically and politically. The world must try to build fast on the delicate foundations of peace, first in Bosnia-Herzegovina but almost immediately in the Croatian Krajina, Kosovo, and in Macedonia as well. If it cannot, the guns will return to Sarajevo before laying waste to Macedonia and possibly Kosovo. Skopje would be a Sarajevo without defenses.
—March 10, 1994
April 7, 1994