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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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