Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links
RSS feed

Search the Web


The Last Days of Bosnia?

Ivo Banac, once described as the "political conscience of modern Croatia," discusses the historical roots of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and what can be done to preserve the integrity of Bosnia.

An Interview with Ivo Banac
by Rabia Ali and Lawrence Lifschultz

I. Roots of the Conflict

Rabia Ali: The war in Bosnia-Hercegovina has been generally perceived in the West as a civil war or a tribal blood feud -- the product of centuries-old enmities between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, a "typical" Balkan convulsion which cannot be understood, much less mediated or settled, by any international intervention. As an historian, how would you define the war and its historical roots in Bosnia?

Ivo Banac: I view the war as essentially a war of aggression conducted by Serbia and Montenegro, in tandem with the Yugoslav People's Army which was taken over by Serbia and used for its own purposes. It is a war of aggression against an internationally recognized independent state with a democratic constitution that guaranteed rights to all citizens, including Serbs. In the process of waging this war, aggressive forces had to instrumentalize the Serbian community in Bosnia-Hercegovina: to turn a relatively peaceful population -- however large its prejudices about the nature of Bosnia and its role in Bosnia -- into a group that would become auxiliary to the aims of the aggressor. This was one of the reasons the instigators of the process had to proceed very slowly, gradually implicating the Bosnian Serb community in their project of aggression and expansion. First they had to isolate those who were opposed to their plans and had struggled against them. Then they had to implicate all the others initially in small acts of repression against the other communities and, ultimately, in very large and horrid crimes.

The position of the Croat community was somewhat more complicated. At first, and to a considerable extent even now, the aims of its leaders were to join with the Muslim community in the defense of Bosnia-Hercegovina. But the dominant party among the Croats went through several changes. There were purges of its leadership which turned it into an instrument of [President Franjo] Tudjman's own aspirations in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In sum, I see what has happened in Bosnia as a form of aggression clearly instigated and directed by Serbia which has succeeded in creating an entirely different political climate in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The defense of the Bosnian state has, today, come to be centered largely around the Muslim community. And for things to have reached this stage, the world, too, bears a great deal of responsibility: it has not allowed Bosnia-Hercegovina the right, and the arms it needed, to defend itself.

To define the war as a tribal feud or a civil war is simply an easy way of dismissing the whole thing. The assumption on the part of the outside powers-that-be is that these sub-humans will get tired of killing one another, and then, perhaps, those outsiders can step in and do something to patch up the situation in one way or another. It all adds up to a combination of political opportunism and intellectual laziness.

Lawrence Lifschultz: Related to the question of definitions is the issue of the validity of Bosnia-Hercegovina as a political entity. Many pundits and politicians continue to describe Bosnia as an artificial construct that has never had a distinct identity or presence in history. Notable among these is the former editor of The New York Times, A. M. Rosenthal. He has attempted in his columns to "inform" the debate by suggesting that Bosnia has no historical legitimacy and the Muslims no national rights since they are a community of converts. "As for the Muslim leaders," he writes (New York Times, 16 April 1993), "they had declared the independence of a Bosnia which had not existed as a nation and in which they did not have a majority. There are no `Bosnians' -- just Slavs who call themselves Serbs, Croatians or Muslims." How do you respond to such statements and interpretations of Balkan -- and Bosnian -- history?

Banac: This is all sheer nonsense. The historical fact is that Bosnia-Hercegovina has a unique profile, distinct from the identity of the neighboring countries. Its existence goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bosnian state was the last of the major South Slav states that emerged in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was a major regional power which, at various moments, included sections of present-day Croatia and Serbia. During the period of the Ottoman Empire its structure was maintained in a peculiar, local way precisely because it was a frontier area for the Ottomans. The maintenance of a hereditary landed nobility was unique in the Ottoman Muslim state and gave Bosnia a very clear regional distinction which set it apart from other central Ottoman provinces. In the 19th century, this feudatory structure of Bosnia assumed leadership in a struggle to maintain Bosnia and seek a greater measure of autonomy, which, in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, was as good as independence. So the continuity of Bosnia as a distinct political entity was preserved in the Ottoman Empire.

During the Austro-Hungarian period, Bosnia-Hercegovina was a separate province, administered both out of Austria and out of Hungary through joint ministers of finance, the most important of whom was Benjamin von Kállay. Kállay's political program, as well as his ideology of Bosnianism, effectively denied the region to both Croatia and Serbia.

This sense of autonomy was maintained during the early years of the first Yugoslav state even though, in royal Yugoslavia, Bosnia did not exist as a formal entity. While it was not divided, as some other areas were, its unity consisted essentially of a collectivity of smaller entities. The denial to it of the formal status of a province in the interwar period fed into the national program of the Communist Party during the 1930s. The autonomy of Bosnia-Hercegovina became an objective of the Party. Its position was codified at the end of the war as one of the constituent republics of the Yugoslav Communist Federation, but it was constituted on a non-national basis. It was, by definition, a multinational republic.

Thus, from the medieval period to Tito's federalism there has been a Bosnia, with its own distinct cultural flavor. An important influence, of course, has been the presence of a very large Muslim community. With the exception of Albania there is no comparable group in the neighborhood. Furthermore, when one examines the national cultures of the non-Muslims there -- the Serbs of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the Croats of Bosnia-Hercegovina -- one can find unique and distinctive features that are not identical to the national cultures of Serbia or Croatia. The literature of the Bosnian Croats is distinct from that of the Croats in Croatia. Similarly, the literature of the Bosnian Serbs is quite distinct from the literature of the Serbs in Serbia proper.

Ali: The fact that Bosnia existed as a separate and unique entity long before it became part of Yugoslavia still leaves open the question of its viability as a sovereign state under the present political circumstances. If Yugoslavia failed as a multinational state, what legitimacy would an independent multinational Bosnia-Hercegovina, often described as a Yugoslavia in microcosm, have? The constituent nations of Yugoslavia -- the Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes -- sought their affirmation, identity, and progress in new states defined by or based on ethnicity. Was it not inevitable that Bosnia, too, would disintegrate as the Serbs and Croats of Bosnia-Hercegovina sought, or were encouraged to seek, the union of "their" Bosnian territory with their "mother" countries?

Banac: If Bosnia were a collectivity of separate entities, then it would have been a mini-Yugoslavia. But it is not. It is an historical entity with its own identity and history. I view Bosnia as primarily a functioning society, which Yugoslavia never was. My question is how does one keep a complicated entity like Bosnia-Hercegovina together? Undoubtedly the answer presupposes an interest in the maintenance of Bosnia-Hercegovina by its neighbors. This is something that makes the situation extremely complex. Precisely because Serbia does not wish to have an independent Bosnia-Hercegovina, the project becomes immensely more difficult. And because the present Croatian leadership would like to settle all the historical issues with Serbs by the division of Bosnia-Hercegovina, the project is made still more difficult. Had the unity of Zagreb and Sarejevo been maintained in a sincere way, Serbian aggression would have been defeated a long time ago.

II. Western Policy

Ali: Would you also say that Tudjman and others who sought the division of Bosnia might have contained their own expansionist ambitions had the West provided support -- instead of settling on the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina as the best and quickest solution? In the end, or rather from the very beginning, did the Vance-Owen plan, by putting an international seal of approval on the policy of an ethnic carve-up of Bosnia-Hercegovina, encourage both the Serbs and the Croats to secure their share of Bosnian territory?

Banac: There is no question that the Vance-Owen plan did precisely that, and the consequences in their fullness are there for all to see. The horrors of Vitez and the escalation of the war between the Croat and the Bosnian government forces, which are now fighting on two fronts, are a direct result of the Vance-Owen plan. As a result, you have the current situation which, in my view, can be solved only in one of two ways. The first would involve a change of heart in the neighborhood. For the present this is improbable. The second would involve the determined support of the international community, which has been sorely lacking. And there are many reasons why the international community should act.

To my mind, if Bosnia did not exist, it would be necessary to create it -- precisely because it mitigates the hostilities between Serbia and Croatia. There is another very important reason why Bosnia should exist as an independent state: the Bosnian Muslim community has no other national home. This is why the Muslim community has, to a very large extent, become the cement of Bosnia-Hercegovina. It would be wrong to say that this community is uniquely Bosnian and the others are not -- because there is a great danger that this argument, too, would undermine the unity of Bosnia-Hercegovina. As I mentioned earlier, the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Serbs have distinctive cultures that distinguish them from their mainstream cultures that obtain, respectively, in Croatia and Serbia. They are distinctively Bosnian. It is this element which sustains the cultural unity of Bosnia-Hercegovina and explains why so many Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs have supported the Bosnian government.

Lifschultz: How do you analyze European and American diplomacy in the 1988-1992 period? Was the dissolution of Yugoslavia inevitable? And, if so, would other policies on the part of the international community have led to a less brutal form of dissolution? Or was all of this irrelevant in the end to the internal dynamic of the expansionist project of a "Greater Serbia"?

Banac: In my view, American policy was the most important factor. And the dominant note in that policy was the belief that Yugoslavia was capable of surviving as a unitarist state. This view misunderstood fundamentally the nature of the deep cleavages in the country and the stage of disintegration that had already been reached. By 1991 such a position was not plausible. By stressing the unity of the country, the United States effectively helped Milosevic. Perhaps the most negative moment was in June 1991 when Secretary of State Baker visited Belgrade. Baker delivered exactly the wrong signal at the wrong time to Milosevic and the Yugoslav People's Army. By declaring itself in favor of Yugoslav unity at precisely the moment Milosevic was preparing to undertake military action on behalf of his "Greater Serbia" project, the United States essentially encouraged him.

Why did the United States act in this way? One factor is that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was an obsession of American policy at this stage. American diplomats judged both situations as analogous and concluded that the break-up of Yugoslavia would be extremely dangerous and destabilizing. The difference, of course, was that in Yugoslavia the Americans were encouraging precisely the figure who, more than any other, was himself responsible for the political agenda that would finally destroy Yugoslavia. As the political sponsor of a resurgent and aggressive Serbian nationalism, Milosevic had made coexistence impossible for others.

Lifschultz: Could the Americans have stopped events from taking the turn that they did?

Banac: Absolutely. I think that they could have stopped it all along the line. I'm not saying that nothing was done. There are indications that by the spring of 1991 Washington had acted to prevent a total military takeover in Belgrade. This happened, probably in January 1991, during extremely dramatic negotiations between Tudjman and the military leadership in Belgrade. Perhaps the United States also intervened on another occasion in the spring of 1991. But all these actions were within the framework of Yugoslavia: In Washington it was simply inconceivable to imagine that Yugoslavia had been shattered, and irreparably so. But I think that the real test of American inaction and European inaction came in the fall of 1991 during the bombardment of Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and many other places in Croatia. At any point, a clear message could have been delivered to Belgrade to stop these attacks. This was not done, thereby opening the way to the German initiative in favor of the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. For this the Germans have been called to considerable account. I disagree. From my point of view, not only was recognition right under the circumstances, but the demoralization in Belgrade that took place after the recognition shows how much more effective such a move could have been had it come even earlier.

In fact, at this point precautionary or preemptive measures, especially in Bosnia-Hercegovina, were crucial, but these were not taken. If at this stage, contingents of United Nations troops -- or, perhaps, troops from that Sleeping Beauty, the European Union -- had been introduced into Bosnia, it is possible that many of the things that happened later on would never have occurred. We are talking about the summer and especially the fall of 1991.

Lifschultz: Was there anyone in the West at all who saw the necessity of such preemptive or protective action in Bosnia at the time?

Banac: Not really, no. This is quite remarkable, isn't it?

Ali: Would you say that, in France and Britain, considerations of their historic alliance with Serbia were operating at some level which led them to balk continually at any decisive international action against Serb aggression?

Banac: It is difficult to believe that these could be political considerations at the end of the 20th century, but there is probably something to it. I think this has not so much to do with Serbia as with fears of the future role of a united Germany. Historical memory in Western Europe is not as insignificant as many Euro-politicians pretend, and a united Germany did change the political landscape of Europe. Moreover the cost of uniting Germany has created a number of difficulties for Western European economies. So I think that the problem of Germany was then transferred to the Balkan situation, and in a curious way. European actions or decisions were less a response to the question of what path to find for the successor states of Yugoslavia and more a part of the political fencing that went on between the Germans and their western allies. Perhaps these divisions would have come over other issues, but they came precisely over the issue of Yugoslavia, and demonstrated amply, in 1991-1992 -- the year of European unity -- the extent to which Europe was not really united and not really a political entity.

III. Any Hope?

Ali: If Bosnia-Hercegovina did not exist, you said, it would have to be created. Well, since it does exist, the question becomes: how can it be saved from extinction? In this context, perhaps we can come back to the policies the international community has pursued in seeking to secure peace in Bosnia-Hercegovina. How do you assess their actions and their thinking?

Banac: There has been a contradiction in the behavior of the international community. Before the Bosnian government declared independence a set of rules and criteria were established as the basis on which Bosnia-Hercegovina would receive international recognition as an independent state. It met these criteria. The international community then abandoned this policy by treating the government of Bosnia-Hercegovina -- at this point, still multinational -- as if it were merely one of several contending factions. The correct and logical thing was for the international community, having once recognized Bosnia and its territorial integrity, to have then intervened on behalf of a very weak and essentially unarmed state that was suddenly faced with the most brutal forms of aggression. When it became independent, Bosnia had on its territory all the units of the Yugoslav People's Army withdrawn from Slovenia and Croatia and the military units which were already there. Bosnia had been one of the centers of Yugoslavia's military industry and there had always been a large garrison of the Yugoslav military there during the Cold War. Thus, Bosnia was especially vulnerable to attack. The only solution was to suppress and then to defeat aggression. This could only have been done with a significant investment of military power, but no one wanted to do what was required.

Ali: When you call for international action, what precise form of intervention are you calling for?

Banac: First, I think the Bosnian state must be permitted to arm itself. The notion that one is neutral by preventing Bosnians from arming themselves is political dishonesty. In fact, one is acting on the side of the aggressor by preventing the lifting of the arms embargo. There is a great deal of evidence that not only Bosnian Muslims but other Bosnians -- certainly Croats, but also many Serbs -- were ready to fight for Bosnia against the aggressors. But this resolve to mount a multinational defense was essentially undercut by the international community, which thought that the entire matter was not very dangerous. They chose to believe that Milosevic -- as awful as he was, and as deeply implicated as he was in the bloodiest crimes since 1945 -- could not create the conditions for a major international conflagration. I can only say that their analysis really demonstrates a failure of imagination. Perhaps Milosevic cannot trigger a Third World War, and perhaps this is impossible in a post-Cold War situation. But what Milosevic has done, and with greater effectiveness than many realize, is to demonstrate that there are no real restrictions on aggressive behavior. This will simply give carte blanche to Milosevices everywhere.

Lifschultz: I would like to come back to the Vance-Owen plan. It is the principal -- in fact, the only -- solution the international community has insisted on. David Owen called it "the only game in town." The plan was built on the notion of partition along the lines of ethnicity which the government of Bosnia has consistently opposed on the grounds that it wants to maintain a multinational state. Kemal Kurspahi'c, the editor of Sarajevo's Oslobodjenje, refers to it as an enforced "apartheid" solution. What do you feel were its fundamental flaws? Or, could it have been a basis for peace?

Banac: It was a seriously flawed plan. The Vance-Owen plan divided Bosnia-Hercegovina on the basis of national cantons where it would be difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee the rights of minority groups; it would ultimately lead to a partition of the country. The plan presupposed that the Mladi'c-Karadzi'c forces would withdraw into those areas which the plan had reserved for the Bosnian Serbs. But who was going to compel them to do that? Let us, for argument's sake, say that this were to happen in one way or another. Who was going to protect the democratic liberties of, say, Muslims in Banja Luka? Who was going to make certain that people who had been driven out of Bile'ca would be able to return to their homes? The Vance-Owen proposals put forward an extremely complicated set of requirements with absolutely no means of implementation. Their plan was basically a placebo meant both for the Bosnians and for the international community, and nothing more. In the real world, it would be more difficult to enforce the Vance-Owen plan than to mount military operations against the aggressor. In backing the plan, the West decided to do the very minimum, to make a show of protecting the Bosnian Muslim community. As for the rest of Bosnia-Hercegovina, the thinking is that different parts of it will simply gravitate to the centers of national attraction -- Serbia and Croatia. And this has been the unarticulated aspect of the Vance-Owen plan. The Washington agreement of May 1993 [between the United States, Britain, France, Spain, and Russia] on the creation of six Muslim "safe havens" merely takes this to the final logical conclusion. The "safe havens" are no longer Muslim cantons but reservations for the maintenance of a moribund Muslim people. The plan for the partitioning of Bosnia-Hercegovina put forward by Milosevic and Tudjman in June -- backed once again by David Owen -- follows on the heels of the Vance-Owen plan and the Washington agreement legitimizing Serbian and Croatian victories in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Lifschultz: What is the alternative? Is the full arming of the Bosnian government the only means to equalize or more than equalize the military balance? Are you saying that a well-armed Bosnian government could re-establish control over the areas now held by Serbia and Croatia and then grant rights of equal citizenship to all? Is this the only alternative scenario?

Banac: I can think of nothing else. Of course, along with military assistance there would also have to be a mechanism to verify the good intentions of the Bosnian government. Because of the horrors inside Bosnia-Hercegovina there is considerable bitterness which could lead perhaps to a repetition of some of the most damaging aspects of Serbian aggression. A mechanism needs to be established to prevent this. In my view the most effective measure would be the apprehension of war criminals whose identities are quite well known. This would deter vigilante efforts. However, it is rather difficult to establish a genuine mechanism when one is negotiating with people like Karadzi'c, Mladi'c, and Milosevic.

Lifschultz: Among the many who oppose any international military action against the Belgrade regime is Misha Glenny, the BBC's Eastern European correspondent. He is opposed to UN or European military action to relieve the siege of Sarajevo or to secure access to so-called "safe havens." On the crucial question of the arms embargo on Bosnia Glenny has adamantly opposed lifting the embargo. In his April 1992 Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, for instance, he states that "for those of us who live and work in the Balkans, things look a little different. We know that bombing the Serbs will let loose a sea of blood in which Southeastern Europe will drown. . . . Only the Vance-Owen plan has recognized the complexity of the situation." Given your extensive history of working and living in the Balkans, what do you make of Glenny's position? Do "things look a little different" to you?

Banac: Mr. Glenny is not a very reliable reporter on the Balkan conflict. He truly believes in all these myths of Balkan savagery and imagines that Milosevic has the resources to withstand a well-directed blow. He claims, for example, that should Serbia be attacked she would spread the war to Kosovo. But Serbia is already at war in Kosovo. It is a silent war, a desperate war, but war all the same. This war cannot be negotiated away. Certainly not by Milosevic. Glenny is representative of all the good partisans of civil rights who find resistance to national inequality more distasteful than the causes. Time will not work wonders. Only struggle against Serbian aggression will change the Balkan battlefront.

IV. Nationalism

Ali: Perhaps we could conclude with some discussion of the resurgence of nationalism in former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe as a post-communist phenomenon. How would you define or analyze this whole phenomenon across Eastern and Central Europe which we are witnessing after the collapse of the communist states? Eric Hobsbawm, for instance, distinguishes the project of nationalism in the 19th and the early 20th century as it was taken up by the anti-colonialist movements in Africa and Asia, and the kind of nationalism that we see now, certainly in Eastern Europe, and in other parts of the world. According to Hobsbawm, the earlier brand of nationalism sought to expand the human social, political, and cultural unit; it subsumed various ethnicities, various regional, parochial, linguistic differences within a larger nation, so to speak. That particular nationalism had a project, a program, a wider vision; it was building a particular kind of state. (Whether it succeeded or not, of course, is a different matter.) On the other hand, the nationalism that we see today is exclusionist, seeking more sharply to distinguish "us" from "them," focused almost entirely on ethnicity, race, language, and not having, therefore, a larger, overarching ideological, philosophical, or political project. How do you respond to Hobsbawm's view?

Banac: First, I think Eric Hobsbawm is singularly ill-prepared to deal with this particular issue because he sees nationalism as basically the revenge of society for the failure of socialism in Eastern Europe. He then goes as far as to question the Leninist project of national self-determination, which he sees as the Original Sin of the Communist movement that basically brought about its downfall. All of this is wrong. Leninism could not have succeeded had it not taken into account the most serious problem of the Russian Empire, which was a collectivity of unequal nations. Second, there is this notion of the "icebox effect": that communism froze all discussion of nationhood in Russia since the Revolution in 1917, and in Eastern Europe, more or less, since 1945, and now, suddenly, with the collapse of communism we are going back to 1939, or to 1917; we are witnessing the return of history. I repeat once again: the national question never disappeared in any of these countries except that it was debated under adverse circumstances, and, basically, within the ruling communist parties.

Now, as my third point, I would like to introduce, perhaps, a more sensible way of looking at nationalism, which to me is always an ideology. Nationalism is an ideology and, moreover, an extremely adaptive ideology as opposed to, say, socialism, which has a very basic, firm, and clear structure. Nationalism is adaptive, and it adapts to the intellectual concerns of the center. Nationalism in Europe, in its different manifestations, has reflected a whole series of intellectual changes. For example, there was a nationalism of the Enlightenment, of the French Revolution, of the Romantic period, and of the Positivist period at the end of the 19th century. Then there was a nationalism of the period of fascism, and also a nationalism of the period of socialism, of communism.

In each of these cases, the form of nationalism reflected the dominant concerns of the center, albeit with some exceptions. For example, the split in Europe after the Second World War created two centers, and this was unusual. Now, once again, Europe is being reintegrated basically around the West European center. Bearing all of this in mind, given the adaptive nature of nationalist ideology, you cannot have the fascist type of nationalism in an era of Enlightenment. Should present-day East European nationalisms turn fascistic, it will be because of the changes in Western Europe. Therefore, worry about fascism in Eastern Europe when Mr. Le Pen comes to power in France; worry about it when Solingens become commonplace in Germany or in Britain. Extreme, rabid nationalist movements are not yet -- perhaps, they will not be -- significant in European politics. This is a surmise.

Still, we do see in some countries the growing political importance of extremist nationalist movements. When Seselj wins 18% of the vote in Serbia, that is a very dangerous sign because it is the first time in postwar Europe that a party that is fascist by anybody's definition is in possession of almost one-fifth of the electorate. But I don't think that even under the circumstances of isolation in Serbia, politics can take a direction that would be totally dissonant with the developments in Western Europe. I think that Serbia is an isolated case, a case of a country that is undergoing a tremendous internal crisis. But I don't think that this particular movement can sustain itself forever as long as it is at odds with the dominant ideological currents in Western Europe.

Lifschultz: How, then, in terms of ideology, does one characterize the Milosevic regime in Belgrade? Seselj's movement in Serbia is clearly a reflection of fascist ideology. Milosevic and Seselj both stand behind the program of "ethnic cleansing" and the "Greater Serbia" project. Is the Belgrade regime a fascist formation reminiscent of Mussolini with a few technical borrowings from the Nazis vis à vis "ethnic purity" and the targeting of civilians?

Banac: I did not mean to exculpate Milosevic by calling Seselj a fascist. There have been arguments that Milosevic's regime resembles the early Mussolini regime in Italy. Indeed, if one looks at what is possible and what is not possible in Serbia, one can argue that the Milosevic regime, too, is a fascist regime. In Italy, in the early 1920s, you did have oppositional deputies in the parliament. Terror was conducted against them -- for example, the assassination of Matteotti. You had an oppositional press, which you also have in Serbia but it is marginalized --Vreme, Borba, Ekonomska Politika, and so on. These are newspapers that are not widely read, and I don't think they have any influence on the behavior of the masses in Serbia. So one can have pockets of opposition within certain types of fascist regimes. From every other point of view, I would say that the Milosevic regime is a fascist regime. Yes, I have argued that. There are many people who see this as not terribly significant. To me it is, because it helps us understand the social nature of this phenomenon.

Ali: Would you say that this fascistic element in Serbia today reflects any kind of continuity, in the historical sense, to the political current represented by the Chetniks in the earlier part of the century?

Banac: The Chetniks are an interesting lot, but I would very much hesitate to call them fascists, and not simply because they arose in the context of opposition to the occupation of Serbia. The Chetniks were, essentially, a pre-modern phenomenon whereas fascism is a modern phenomenon. The Chetniks were a continuation of the armed bands that operated in Macedonia in the period before the Balkan wars, at the time when all the interested neighboring states -- Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria -- were trying to develop their own insurgent groups in Macedonia. There was a tradition of this non-political, nationalistic activity that existed in the interwar period in Yugoslavia where the Chetnik movement existed in two forms: as state-sponsored and independent clubs, and also as guerrilla units inside the Yugoslav Royal Army which were then very easily rejuvenated after 1941. But in all of this you do not see the presence of any modern political ideologies. What you see is Serbian nationalism, and during the Second World War, the program of "ethnic cleansing." So there is some continuity. But, all the same, the Chetniks are really a hoary Balkan phenomenon -- an armed band that has its roots in the Hajduk movement during the Ottoman times. Ali: One of the reasons I brought that up is because there has been a tendency on all sides to define one another by terms that conjure up an unsavory historical past. The Croats refer to the Serbs as Chetniks, while the Serbs use the blanket term, Ustasas, to describe all Croats (and both have labeled the Muslims, the Mujahideen, a term of more recent vintage in western discourse). How would you explain the resurgence of this sort of rhetoric? As cheap, manipulative propaganda which has no connection with any reality on the ground?

Banac: It is sad to say that the term Chetnik is no longer considered pejorative in Serbia. And there are actual Chetnik units with all the paraphernalia. It is very interesting to analyze the iconography. For example, the beard -- which in the peasant culture of Serbia is a sign of mourning: somebody dies, one does not shave. This was something that happened in times of war and times of mourning. Then the fur hat, usually with symbols of skull and crossbones -- intimidating symbols -- and the black flag, again with skull and crossbones with such inscriptions as "For King and Fatherland," and so on. This is a throwback to pre-modern forms of consciousness. The Ustasas, on the other hand, had an element of this Balkan primitivism, but they were also a modern movement in the sense that they were a fascist movement. So the two groups were entirely dissimilar in their origins, although, in fact, in everyday encounters during the Second World War they probably were not all that much different -- very similar methods, very similar types of organizational and behavioral forms.

Ali: What is the strength and the significance of the Ustasa element in Croatia right now?

Banac: Formally nothing, but there is a certain nostalgia for it which I find extremely unpleasant and dangerous. The Ustasa period did enormous damage to Croatia. It is not an exaggeration to say that the legitimacy of the Croatian state, to a very large extent, was compromised precisely because the very idea of a Croatian state after 1945 was seen as necessarily a revival of the Ustasa experience in the Second World War. So it upsets me enormously when I see these graffiti in Croatia that glorify Ante Paveli'c's fascist dictatorship of the '40s. It upsets me enormously when I see that some Croat units in Bosnia-Hercegovina have the names of the Ustasa commanders of the Second World War. On the other hand, this is happening precisely in the context of Serbian aggression, and also in response to the Serbian version that all Croats are, in fact, Ustasas. There is a certain bravado element which turns that around, and says, "They want to call us Ustasas. So that's what we are. By God, we are Ustasas!" It is infantile, it is primitive, it is dangerous, and I think not enough is being done to suspend it.

Lifschultz: What proportion of the Croat population separates itself from this and makes the distinction?

Banac: An overwhelming majority. Parties that play up these symbols are politically marginal.

Lifschultz: In light of our earlier discussion on the nature of the Milosevic regime in Serbia, how would you characterize the Tudjman regime? What would you say is the project of this regime and the forces which support it?

Banac: To begin with, the Constitution as it stands today gives excessive powers to the president and, in addition, the role of the parliament is limited almost to that of an extra in the political system. But despite all the bad aspects of the Tudjman government, Croatia is not a dictatorship and it is not a state in which civil liberties are systematically suspended. There is an attempt on the part of the current government to monopolize the political scene, but, on the other hand, this has to a large extent been successfully resisted. The elections for local government in February 1993 show a great loss of influence on the part of the ruling HDZ. In many localities, including the three most important cities outside Zagreb, the opposition won! There is a real mobilization on the part of the opposition that is channeled within the legal and constitutional grounds. There is no attempt to fight the weaknesses of the government on the extraconstitutional plane -- which is good, despite the fact that one would wish the opposition were more successful under the current rules of the game. I think that one should not worry about the democratic institutions of Croatia, provided there isn't a real upsurge of the right-wing forces. The latter is a possibility. The strength of the right will be determined by a very, very threadbare situation on the fronts, and the fact that Croatia is in real danger of losing significant portions of its territory -- ironically, precisely because of its policies in Bosnia-Hercegovina. For there is an analogy at work here: by backing Croatian claims to the "Croat" regions of Bosnia, the Croatian government strengthens the Serbian claims to the "Serb" regions in Croatia.

So it is a precarious situation, and there is much to be worried about. But it is by no means as precarious as may appear from many of the reports on Croatia. The economic situation is extremely difficult; production is down to half of the prewar period; markets have been lost; integration with Western Europe has not been accomplished; there is a certain embargo, as it were, against Croatia which is to a considerable extent unfair. But I think that all these difficulties could be surmounted if one could reach a lasting peace.

Lifschultz: The recent destruction of the Old Bridge at Mostar by Croat artillery (finishing off the destruction begun by Serb guns in 1992) and the revelations regarding the existence of concentration camps under the control of Boban's forces dramatically raises the question of the role of the political opposition in Croatia to the policies of the Tudjman government, which has backed Mate Boban's military offensive to partition Bosnia. What role has the opposition in Croatia played, if any, in constraining the Croatian government's policy toward Bosnia? Or, have oppositional forces in Croatia essentially failed to halt Croatia's own variant of expansionism?

Banac: Speaking quite personally, the destruction of the Old Bridge at Mostar was a watershed. It is curious how certain events, which are by themselves perhaps not as horrifying as concentration camps and strategic rape, become symbolically important. I walked over the Old Bridge at Mostar many times, always with a sense of insecurity and wonder; insecurity, because it was a terrifyingly smooth and slippery edifice; wonder, because of the thrill of temporarily occupying a space that was meant for the birds of the sky. Now, various propagandists of Boban's parastate tell us that this was really a strategic pontoon "for the new conquests and Islamicization of Croatian lands" (Marko Matic in Vjesnik, 8 December 1993). No, for me the destruction of the Old Bridge became the symbol of Tudjman's policy in Bosnia. This wanton act was for me what the raising of the Nazi flag at Moscow Airport and the Red Army band's playing of the Horst Wessel Lied was for Arthur Koestler in 1939, as he read the reports of Ribbentrop's infamous treaty-signing voyage to Stalin's capital. "From then onward," wrote Koestler, "I no longer cared whether Hitler's allies called me a counter-revolutionary." Similarly, after the destruction of the Old Bridge, I no longer care whether the criminals responsible for this outrage call me anti-Croat. That being so, it is legitimate to ask what the Croat opposition has done to stop the national catastrophe that Tudjman prepared for Croatia with his Bosnian policy. Unfortunately, the results are discouraging. The leaders of the oppositional parties, notably Drazen Budisa of the Croat Social-Liberal Party (HSLS), Drago Stipac of the Croat Peasant Party (HSS), Savka Dabcevic-Kucar of the Croat National Party (HNS), and Dobroslav Paraga of the Croat Party of (State) Right (HSP), have denounced Tudjman's course in Bosnia. Catholic church leaders and independent intellectuals have done the same, but the net result is not promising. Croatia today is divided not by the usual left/right political cleavages, but over Bosnian policy. Most Croats are opposed to the division of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Yet, the opposition has not succeeded in moving the people against Tudjman's Bosnian disaster. In the words of Stanko Lasic, Croatia's foremost literary historian, "the Croat government is not responsible for the destruction of the Old Bridge, for the fact that Mostar, a multinational city, was declared a Croat city. I am responsible for that. That is my sin -- the sin of all Croats. When the [massacre] at Ahmici occurred, how many people in Croatia took to the streets to demonstrate? When the [massacre] at Stupni Do occurred, where were the hundreds of thousands of Croats who opposed that? They do not exist, just as there were earlier none in Serbia. That means that we stand behind these things."

That may be too harsh, but it is all the same true that Croatia's good name is being sullied in Bosnia. Moreover, Croatian leadership has graduated from the role of Milosevic's victim to that of his accomplice. One unfortunate result has been the "Serbianization" of Croat public opinion. The Croat media increasingly present Croatia as a victim of a vast western-led conspiracy, precisely as the Serbian media has done under Milosevic. However threadbare in the long run, such propaganda has helped stabilize Tudjman's stranglehold. The larger danger is that the virus is spreading to Bosnia. Should the government of Bosnia-Hercegovina decide to follow the narrow Muslim course, increase pressures on the Croats and Serbs in Muslim enclaves to leave, and cave in to the western partition diktat, Bosnia-Hercegovina will cease to exist. Much depends on the ability of all oppositional forces, in the West no less than in Croatia and Bosnia, to marshal support against aggression and partition. Time is running out.

Originally published in the February/March 1994 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2006. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |