Boston Review
CURRENT ISSUE
table of contents
FEATURES
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
poetry
fiction
film
archives
ABOUT US
masthead
mission
rave reviews
contests
writers’ guidelines
internships
advertising
SERVICES
bookstore locator
literary links
subscribe

 

Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind


Site Web



 

 

Spreading the Nationalist Virus


Yugoslavia was killed by toxic nationalism. The poison was invented by politicians to win a struggle for power, according to Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, by Laura Silber and Alan Little (TV Books Inc./Viking, $29.95)

Michael Montgomery


1.

The Communists are not nationalists; for them the insistence on nationalism is only a form, just like any other form, through which they strengthen their powers. For this purpose they may even act like vehement chauvinists from time to time. --Milovan Djilas1


In his classic book, The New Class (1957), Milovan Djilas tapped the root of communism's essential malaise and in the process prophesied the demise of his own country. I suppose the prophesy was unwitting since Djilas always saw himself as a staunch Yugoslav patriot. Imbued with a regenerative idealism, he had struggled his entire life for Yugoslavia: first as an unswerving and ruthless Stalinist, then, after Yugoslavia's expulsion from Moscow's Cominform in 1948, as an architect of the desperately improvised experiment to check Soviet and American hegemony that welded the multinational federation with one-party rule. Finally, after his quixotic break with Tito in the early 1950s, Djilas opined as communism's heretic-in-residence, penned his celebrated memoirs, and toiled for the evolution of a democratic Yugoslav federation.

Despite his political defeats, Djilas' early critique of the communist oligarchy stands as a lasting contribution to political understanding as well as a road map to the tragedy that befell Yugoslavia. Echoing Bakunin, Djilas argued that communism's new class of privileged exploiters was wedded to power much like other ruling elites. Initially a means to higher ambitions, power became an end in itself -- the alpha and omega of contemporary communism. "Ideas, philosophical principles and moral considerations, the nation and people, their history . . . can all be changed and sacrificed. But not power." In other words, the new class was ideologically protean. Events in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s provided stunning confirmation of Djilas' observation: With communist power fading, the new class' most politically agile members preserved authoritarian rule by shedding an old ideology and newly clothing their ambitions in exclusive, ethnic nationalism.

For the political elites in Serbia and Croatia, the two biggest republics whose discord dominated Yugoslav politics from the country's founding in 1918, embracing nationalism meant replacing one kind of authoritarian rule with another, manufacturing new enemies, and rallying the public against them. Undemocratic in structure, totalitarian in outlook, the new nationalist movements forged in the late 1980s were all too familiar.

Though the Yugoslav tragedy has no single cause, this political dynamic lies at its heart: Competing for power, political and military elites from rival republics consciously unleashed the nationalist virus upon receptive populations and willfully sabotaged the road to a democratic transition. These new class luminaries are the central protagonists in Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, a meticulously documented, insider's account of the road to war and the feckless Western response. Authors Laura Silber and Allan Little capture the political essence of theYugoslav conflict by dissecting the remarkably candid observations of the men who directed the war. The book accompanies an extraordinary six-part television documentary produced for the BBC and Discovery Channel by Brian Lapping Associates.

2.

For all his worldly cynicism, Djilas revealed an implacable optimism in our numerous conversations before his death in April 1995. Late in life he had aligned himself to Yugoslavia's liberal federalists, a coalition of modernizing optimists -- communists and non-communists -- who argued that improvements in most people's lives in post-WWII Yugoslavia provided the foundations for the institutions and practices of civil society necessary to bind the multinational federation.

Yugoslavia was indeed better placed than any East bloc country to make this peaceful transition to multi-party democracy. It had an educated labor force, a solid middle class that bridged the gully between the various ethnonational groups, and a sense, albeit fragile, that Yugoslavia was something more than the sum total of its six republics; Slovenia and Croatia, prosperous and situated on western Europe's fringe; and Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia, poorer and with histories that often looked eastward.

The common culture that constituted "Yugoslavism" was never precisely def- ined -- particularly after Marshal Tito's death in 1980. But many of the country's citizens, particularly the younger generation, understood the benefits of remaining within the multinational federation even if those benefits were articulated through stale, communist-era slogans such as "brotherhood and unity" and, my personal favorite, "after Tito, more Tito" (posle Tita, Tito). The non-nationalist federalists who coalesced in the late 1980s around Ante Markovic, Yugoslavia's last federal prime minister, believed that most people would place greater prosperity above all other concerns and that the will of ordinary citizens would determine events. They were overly-optimistic about the ability of the economy to power reforms, and grossly out of touch with the nationalist political forces wrenching Yugoslavia's social fabric.

Despite economic and social advances, Yugoslavia's political capacity had been squandered in the 1970s and in the decade following Tito's death. Under the weight of austerity measures to alleviate the country's foreign debt, Yugoslavia's modest prosperity rapidly eroded. By the mid-1980s its substantial middle class, the key support base for the federalists, was under siege and increasingly insecure. One million people were officially unemployed, with the jobless rate beyond 20 percent everywhere except Slovenia and Croatia. Double-digit inflation would skyrocket by the decade's end, depleting the savings of most of the population and fueling widespread industrial actions.2 Most people were struggling to hold on to what they had, and these fears made them ripe for exploitation by the nationalists.

The political realignment toward competing nationalisms based in the separate Yugoslav republics smoldered for years before finally flaming up in Serbia, fanned by blood-curdling slogans and mass rallies. A common misperception of post-WWII Yugoslavia is that the communists simply smothered any vestiges of nationalism or national identity. In fact, the rights of national groups were institutionalized by the communists rather than nullified, to the point of granting the republics virtual statehood. Over time, this process of decentralization would undercut the unity forged by the Yugoslav communists during WWII. Yugoslavia's rotating head-of-state or presidency, which Tito bequeathed to balance republican interests, insured political paralysis at the top and guaranteed the emergence of republican leaderships as the real power brokers.

Cynical machine politics was the name of the game in Yugoslavia in the 1980s but with the ultimate arbiter, Tito, gone. Increasingly, republican leaders -- "national bureaucrats" to borrow from Djilas' lexicon -- sought popular support for their battles over constitutional reform and the economy. The federation was fraying economically, socially, and politically. Alpine Slovenia, well-ensconced in central Europe, moved steadily towards political pluralism, greater free-market experimentation, and an isolationist and nationalist-tinged approach towards the poorer, southern republics. In Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, membership in the party and dogmatic adherence to Marxism-Leninism reemerged as prerequisites for a career in business, media, or education, stifling democratic forces. Dissidents called this process "negative selection" because it meant that communist careerists and doctrinaires rose to the top.3 The resurgence of Communist Party authority, occurring only ten years after Tito's massive purges of liberals, technocrats, and nationalists, produced a gray political landscape, as Yugoslavia faced the moment of truth which had been postponed by the unwieldy 1974 constitution.

With the economy in free fall, and the polity imploding, the stage was set for a military coup or a demagogue to assume Tito's mantle. What Yugoslavia got was even worse: a battle between and among contending strong men. Mostly products of the "new class" who had adopted competing nationalisms, they were corrupt, opportunistic, and delusional men, armed with ideologies of hatred, whose primary motivations were brutal nation-building and self-aggrandisement. The war, as Death of a Nation demonstrates, emerged from their competition for power. The country's bloody collapse was not ordained by history, nor by a mysterious Balkan psychology, nor by tribal, atavistic blood lust. It was planned and waged by a group of politicians, ideologues, and army commanders who invented, and re-invented, a thousand years of Balkan history to rationalize their political ambitions.

In Death of a Nation the burden of responsibility for the Yugoslav catastrophe rightly falls on Slobodan Milosevic, the jowly Serbian leader who had at his disposal the arsenal of Europe's fourth largest army. "Force and fraud," said Thomas Hobbes, "are in war the two cardinal virtues," and Milosevic used both. Under the fascist-tinged banner of "national homogenization," Milosevic opened the floodgates for populist nationalism in 1986, using back-room bullying and organized mobs to rip the heart out of the federation and cannibalize its vital organs. But the Serbs are by no means the only guilty party here, and one of the many strengths of the book is the compelling evidence -- including direct testimony -- establishing Slovenian and Croatian culpability in the break-up and, to a lesser degree, the bloodshed and destruction that followed.

3.

Milovan Djilas bristled when our conversations turned to Milosevic. Djilas was one of the first Serbian intellectuals to condemn Milosevic's politics of fear and victimization, and he frequently compared the Serbian leader to Stalin. "Both men essentially used ideology as a means to power," he once said. "For Stalin it was communism, for Milosevic it is nationalism." Djilas was not surprised that communists would embrace nationalism -- he predicted it -- but he was shocked that his fellow Serbs would follow the nationalist impulse with such alacrity, a development he and the liberal federalists had gravely underestimated. Djilas was even more disturbed by the enigma surrounding Milosevic, which endowed the Serbian leader with exaggerated powers and tended to ignore broader political dynamics and the Croatian role in the war. For this, Djilas blamed the West's vilification of the Serbs and its failure to undercut Milosevic with a coherent strategy to manage the Yugoslav crisis from the outset.

It was never easy to classify Milosevic's politics because he embodied so purely the protean opportunism of the new class. Although Milosevic had risen through the party ranks as a monochrome apparatchik, his mid-1980s advocacy of economic liberalism caught the eyes of Western bankers and diplomats, who saw in him a key supporter for IMF-mandated reforms. In this period prior to democratization, some economists expressed hopes of exporting the "Pinochet model" to parts of eastern Europe -- political authoritarianism mixed with a quasi-free-market economy open to foreign investors.4 Milosevic seemed a perfect partner -- he had served as director of a leading Belgrade bank, a post that allowed him to circulate in investment and financial circles in New York. During this period he became a virtual confidante of US ambassadors past and present, most notably Lawrence Eagleburger. The company Milosevic kept stoked rumors among Serbian nationalists that he was a CIA mole whose task was to destroy Yugoslavia and Serbia and pave the way for a joint United States/United Nations military occupation. Nationalists initially spurned him as a con man and political chameleon who would sell out anything and anyone in his quest for power. One of Milosevic's remarkable achievements was his eventual success in co-opting Serbian nationalists, who in time stepped up to fight the Serbian leader's battles.

Even as some western diplomats continued to court him, Milosevic adopted the nationalist mantle, though at first as a tool to oust his one-time mentor, Ivan Stambolic, then president of Serbia, and consolidate control in the republic. Death of a Nation traces the emergence of this born-again nationalist in 1986: how Milosevic adroitly exploited the issue of the flickering Serbian minority in the predominantly Albanian Kosovo province as a battering ram and then, flushed with victory, broadened his sights.

Kosovo was of utmost importance to Serbian politics. Historically, the southern province has been perceived as the cradle of Serbian culture. Many Serbs speak of the region as their Jerusalem. An essential element of the Kosovo epic, passed down to generation upon generation of Serbs, was the Serbian defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1389, which marked the beginning of 500 years of Turkish rule in the Balkans. The Kosovo epic demonstrated that nation-states are forged through blood and sacrifice, a theme that would be transplanted into the nationalist ferment of the 1990s.

Politically, Kosovo epitomized what some Serbs perceived as their loss of control in Yugoslavia's post-war political order and their slow retreat from regions outside the Serbian heartland. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, mostly of Muslim faith, accounted for over 90 percent of the population, and the 1974 constitution had largely separated Kosovo, and Serbia's other province, Vojvodina, from Serbia proper. The two provinces also had the power to veto any changes in the Serbian constitution. Since the other five republics had (formal) sovereignty over their territories, Serbia complained that it had been emasculated under the Yugoslav constitution, even though Serbs were Yugoslavia's biggest and most geographically dispersed national group.5

According to Serbian nationalists, including many intellectuals, this emasculation was part of a conspiracy to leave Serbia perpetually weak and the Serbian nation divided. This interpretation led a group of leading figures in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences to formulate a nationalist blueprint in 1986, something opponents have branded the Serbian Mein Kampf. The "memorandum," as the document became known, portrayed the Serbs as an embattled nation threatened by a repetition of the genocide unleashed by WWII fascists. With Yugoslavia disintegrating, the memorandum called on Serbs dispersed throughout the Yugoslav federation to unite in the creation of a single pan-Serbian state. Drawing on their 19th century forebears, nationalists proclaimed this new state "Greater Serbia," although Milosevic, ever-cautious in his public statements, continued to refer to it as "Yugoslavia."

An immediate demand was that Kosovo's autonomy be annulled and the province placed under direct Belgrade rule to prevent its secession from Yugoslavia. To accomplish this, Serbia would make two decisions that forever altered the post-WWII balance and put the country on the road to catastrophe: the deployment of police and army units to arrest Kosovo's communist leaders and brutally quash a popular Albanian uprising, and the unilateral amending of Tito's constitution. The war in Yugoslavia began in Kosovo, although few people understood this at the time.

Most accounts of Milosevic's conversion to nationalism speak of a clarion call he gave to a gathering of embittered Kosovo Serbs in which he embraced their cause with the ringing slogan, "No one should dare to beat you." In fact, Death of a Nation reveals this episode to be largely apocryphal. On the day in question, April 24, 1986, Milosevic addressed thousands of angry demonstrators, but he did so in the bureaucratic, wooden language of the times, only cautiously raising the issue of the Serbian and Montenegrin minority in Kosovo. The famous sentence Milosevic purportedly delivered to the crowd was in fact uttered in passing to an elderly protester who had been roughed up by police (who attacked the demonstrators, we learn, only after being provoked with rocks and bricks). What created history was the camera crew that recorded the remark, and its broadcast by Belgrade television that evening and over the days that followed. Milosevic's founding legend was not so much a lie as a television invention.

Television would play a vital role in shaping Milosevic's aggressive populism and delivering it to homes throughout Yugoslavia. The authors and producers of the documentary make brilliant use of comments from Dusan Mitevic, Serbia's television supremo and Milosevic's propaganda master, who is remarkably candid about the artifice of Milosevic's nationalism. It was Mitevic's idea, we are told, to begin live broadcasts of communist party meetings, which allowed Milosevic to demonstrate his personal power to the public without facing large gatherings (Milosevic rarely appeared in public, in part because of his poor oratorical skills and fear of crowds). Belgrade television also broadcast the many "meetings of truth" that traveled around Serbia, inciting fear and hatred and creating the illusion of popular protest. Stambolic, the old-guard Serb leader destroyed by his former friend, describes the dangerous cycle that followed: "Milosevic became aware that Kosovo was only the launch pad. The goal was Yugoslavia. He used his populist method throughout Yugoslavia. It was the red rag to the bull of other nationalisms. When the biggest nation begins to wave flags, the smaller nations are obviously afraid."

The violence in Kosovo revealed Milosevic's brutal side, but it also exposed the compliant role played by the other republics at the outset of the Yugoslav crisis. There is dark irony in the fact that the order to crush the largely spontaneous Albanian protests was delivered by a Bosnian Muslim (as head of the collective presidency) and enforced by federal police from all the republics; the suppression was not a purely Serbian operation. But it would become a Serbian affair as politicians in Slovenia and Croatia became uneasy with the ramifications of Kosovo within their own republics. The Slovenes were the first to recall their police from Kosovo. They were followed by Croatia and the other republics, leaving the federal security structure severely compromised. Milosevic was pleased: In a master stroke he had all but obliterated federal authority in Kosovo, carved a purely Serbian force out of the federal police and forced the Yugoslav army, which still had many non-Serb and dovish Serb officers who clung to Titoist ideology, to side with the Serbs in a civil conflict.

By adopting emergency powers in Kosovo, Serbia intensified the militarization of the Yugoslav crisis. Milosevic, and Franjo Tudjman following his election as president of Croatia in 1990, drew on bigotry still powerful in rural areas and a generalized fear of change to further inflame passions. In addition, moderate voices needed to be silenced and for this both leaders used time-honored tactics of police terror and murder. One of the film's most moving episodes recounts the murder in 1991 of Josip Reihl-Kir, a Croatian police commander who courageously struggled to restrain ethnic strife between Serbs and Croats in eastern Croatia. The producers present compelling evidence implicating senior Croatian officials, including the powerful defense minister Gojko Susak, in Reihl-Kir's assassination. It was the first of many political murders connected to Susak, who would conduct brutal ethnic cleansing operations in Bosnia against Serbian and Muslim civilians and who remains a fixture in the Tudjman regime.

The conquest of Kosovo allowed Belgrade to crow about the "reunification" of Serbia, but it was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory that exposed a deep contradiction in Milosevic's strategy: In seeking to "protect" a Serb-centric notion of Yugoslavia, he was destroying any chance for a compromise with the other republics and, by extension, ruining the Serbs' only chance of remaining in the one unified state they had ever known.6 Serbia's extraordinary measures, officially undertaken to prevent Kosovo's secession, had the effect of strengthening aspirations for autonomy (a self-fulfilling prophecy that would repeat itself elsewhere). Indeed, one direct consequence of Belgrade's intervention was the unification of the Kosovo Albanians' fractious political groups, which came about in part through the ending of blood feud traditions. This marked the beginning of a long-term Albanian struggle for independence, an explosive issue that remains unresolved.

A year after "pacifying" Kosovo, Milosevic blundered again, this time in his attempt to seize control of the Yugoslav communist party in 1990. His heavy-handed efforts prompted Slovenian and Croatian delegations to quit the party, thereby destroying Yugoslavia's last cohesive element. This in turn propelled Croatia into multi-party elections that brought to power an independence movement led by anti-Serb nationalists. Later, by helping the Slovenes quit the federation, Milosevic killed any idea that he was fighting to preserve Yugoslavia and set in motion the unrealizable project of "Greater Serbia."

Even with close scrutiny it is difficult to decipher any grand strategy in Milosevic's actions. What, beyond the accumulation of power, was the final prize? Perhaps, as the authors assert, he aimed to become a new Tito. But Milosevic had neither the creative instincts nor the power base to grab hold of the federation. Attempts to re-centralize Yugoslavia's power structures emboldened counterforces outside Serbia that would not bend to Milosevic's threats. The authors contend that Milosevic's principal aim, as the key secessionist, was to destroy Titoist Yugoslavia and the federal government that was Titoism's last stronghold. Though this thesis is sound, and helps explain Milosevic's ultimate ambivalence towards "Greater Serbia," it does not fully account for his erratic behavior. Another factor often overlooked is Milosevic's personality -- his arrogance, vindictiveness, and contempt for the common citizen. These despotic qualities contributed to Milosevic's most critical failures -- his inability to evaluate opponents outside Serbia and his gross miscalculation of the international response to the Yugoslav crisis. Pundits still in the spell of Milosevic attribute his staying-power to political genius. But the fact that all Milosevic has to show for his ten years in power is a sea of human misery and formidable presidential powers surely earns him a niche in the "new class" pantheon.

4.

The manipulative powers of nationalism achieved full expression in the Bosnian conflict. Fundamentally, the Bosnian war was planned and waged by Serbia and Croatia in order to destroy the Muslim Slavs as an independent political force and dismember the republic, either formally or through nationalist proxies. This is not to suggest that Bosnian Muslim leaders are entirely without responsibility -- indeed the coterie of Muslim nationalists surrounding President Alija Izetbegovic singularly failed to understand the lessons of the Croatian war. But the Bosnians7 were Tudjman's and Milosevic's primary target and were virtually powerless to stop the nationalist assault. The nationalists' strategy of inciting a civil war in order to seize large tracts of ethnically-homogenized territory was largely successful in destroying Bosnia's multi-ethnic tapestry and in dividing the republic.

In face-to-face meetings and through intermediaries, Milosevic and Tudjman agreed to the broad outline of a Bosnia partition in 1991. Ample evidence suggests the two leaders shared a low, racially-charged opinion of the Bosnian Muslims. "An urban population with no attachment to the soil and a cowardly proclivity of adapting to the prevailing political winds": That's how Radovan Karadzic, the sports-psychiatrist-turned-Bosnian-Serb-party-leader, described the Muslim Slavs to me on the eve of Bosnia's first multi-party elections in 1990. Croatia's Tudjman was ready to cut a deal with Milosevic -- the same man who had so devastated his republic in the six-month Croatian war -- in part out of pressure from Croatian nationalists from Bosnia, but also because he believed all outstanding issues with the Serbs could be settled over Bosnia. But crucial differences remained between the two leaders, which would later benefit Croatia -- Tudjman understood the importance of mobilizing international sympathy and maintaining Western backers, while Milosevic embraced the myth of his own omnipotence.

In April, 1992, Bosnia was recognized as an independent state against the wishes of most of its minority Serbs, but with support of two-thirds of the overall population, including some Serbs. Death of a Nation shows how the West's recognition, combined with its failure to protect Bosnia's borders, served as the casus belli for Serbian and Croatian attacks on Bosnia rather than the cause of the war itself.

It has been well established that Belgrade used army and secret police networks to create the Bosnian Serb militias and launch the initial strike against Bosnian independence. But one unknown detail is revealed by Borislav Jovic, a Milosevic crony. In Death of a Nation, Jovic explains how, in the months before the war, he and Milosevic secretly transferred every Bosnian Serb in the Yugoslav army to Bosnia as the foundation of the Bosnian Serb army. The transfers included the appointment of Ratko Mladic, who would later be indicted for war crimes, as the Serb commander in Bosnia. Despite the Yugoslav army's formal pull-out from Bosnia in May 1992, Serbia continues to this day to pay the salaries of its hand-picked generals in the Bosnian Serb army, and to train new officers. It is also common knowledge that every Bosnian Serb battalion had a Yugoslav army "liaison officer" who transmitted orders from Belgrade.

Belgrade's involvement in Bosnia was never really a secret: It was the central reason trade sanctions were imposed against the rump Yugoslav state in May 1992. Three years later Milosevic's authority over the Bosnian Serb leadership would serve as the linchpin of the Dayton agreement. More controversial is Milosevic's personal connection to the Bosnian atrocities, many of which were committed by militias operating out of Serbia, and whose leaders are public figures in Belgrade (Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, is the most infamous). Death of a Nation fails to make a convincing argument on this question. Though the authors assign responsibility to Milosevic, they rely too heavily on the claims of another ultranationalist leader and Milosevic creation, Vojislav Seselj. Seselj, a notorious self-promoter, says Milosevic directed the militias as part of a master-plan but leaves the formal command-structure hazy, a crucial omission. "Milosevic and his generals didn't give us orders, just requests: `We need your fighters in this or that place.' We didn't let them down," he says. In a grudging interview, Milosevic dismisses the allegations with icy composure, stating that charges of an organized genocide are out of the question. It is unfortunate that Death of a Nation virtually ignores crucial players such as Mihalj Kertes and Jovica Stanisic, Milosevic's secret police henchmen who were the main conduit of arms and material to Serbian militias in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as the direct command links between the Yugoslav army general staff and Ratko Mladic's high command.

Croatia's military engagement in Bosnia was often even more transparent than Serbia's, although Croatian atrocities were not on the same scale and, after 1993, Croatian troops were fighting at the behest of the Bosnian government. Nevertheless, in 1995 Tudjman went so far as to promote into the Croatian army a Bosnian-Croat commander indicted by the war crimes tribunal. This would be akin to Milosevic bringing Mladic into his supreme command.

5.

The debate about the roots of the West's failures in the former Yugoslavia remains unresolved. It seems clear, though, that several factors rested outside Yugoslavia: Europe's preoccupation with integration, the war in the Persian Gulf, and the continuing political crisis in the Soviet Union all conspired to divert attention away from the Balkans in the key period from 1990 to the summer of 1991. Yet even when outside mediators focused on Yugoslavia, they repeatedly failed to address the political dynamics of the conflict or confront the primary motivations of the republican leaders.

Death of a Nation presents Western diplomats in full vanity and fanciful fecklessness -- slick careerists with little interest in the region's complexities and nothing but unbridled contempt for the local players. Time and again, negotiators "behaved as though war were self-evidently futile and irrational; as though all that they needed to do was to persuade the warring parties of this truism and, once the scales had fallen from their eyes, the guns would fall silent. What the diplomats often failed to realize is that despite the appearance of chaos, the wars have been prosecuted with terrifying rationality by protagonists playing long-term power games."

Two mediators, David Owen and Peter Carrington of Great Britain, garner some sympathy from the authors for recognizing the futility of Western efforts to win Serb concessions without mustering a united front and a credible military threat. But both men reject the charge that their failed peace plans, while noble-sounding inside their stately Geneva chambers, served only to intensify the brutal land grabs and ethnic expulsions, and to delay the ultimate reckoning with the Serbs.

One British commentator and staunch interventionist assessed the West's distorted view of Bosnia and the policy implications: "In the eyes of Western policy-makers, this war was not a project engaged in by a set of people with political aims; it was an outbreak of an undifferentiated thing called `violence,' which had just sprung up, as a symptom of Bosnia's general malaise, here, there and everywhere. Clausewitz was out; Freud and Jung, as theorists of the death-wish and the collective unconscious, were perhaps thought more appropriate. Lacking a political understanding of the origins and nature of the war, the West responded to it not with politics but therapy."8

Despite the large-scale deployment of UN "peace keepers," a massive operation to deliver humanitarian aid from the middle of 1992, and repeated threats by the United States to use force against the Serbs, by 1995 more than half of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.3 million had either fled the country, been displaced within its borders, or been killed, according to CIA estimates. The vast majority of the victims were Bosnian Muslims uprooted by Serbian "ethnic cleansing" operations (a term coined by the Serbs), actions a UN commission has judged as "genocide." Four years of war and, in the case of Serbia, international trade sanctions, have obliterated most economies in the former Yugoslavia. At the end of 1995, Serbia's economy had contracted by more than 65 percent, Croatia's had fallen by half and Bosnia's by 85 percent.

With the United States finally in the driver's seat, the Dayton agreement exploited the warring parties' exhaustion but its only immediate consequence was the establishment of a cease-fire and separation of forces by NATO troops. For most Bosnians this was a welcome development. US negotiators presented the accord as a breakthrough when it was really a clever fait accompli. Like each of the West's previous proposals dating back to the failed Lisbon accord of March 1992, Dayton outlines a three-way ethnic division (with Muslim and Croatian entities federated), enshrines nationalist leaders and their armies (three armies will exist in post-Dayton Bosnia), legitimizes ethnic parastates, and preserves the power structures that precipitated the war. Moreover, the treaty's implementation is wholly dependent on the deployment of a massive Western occupation army.

The Dayton accord was probably the only game in town by 1995, as the mediators claimed, but the treaty represented the culmination of four years of failed diplomacy. Nevertheless, the timing of the US initiative was odd, coming after the strategic balance had shifted and Bosnian Serb forces were facing a rout by Bosnian and Croatian armies. With Belgrade unlikely to intervene, Bosnian government troops might have recaptured much of the republic had they not been ordered by the United States to halt offensive operations. This suggests the United States intervened to preserve the existing power structures in order to use them as proxies at the negotiating table.

The collapse of Serb forces in Croatia and northwestern Bosnia that opened the way for the accord suggests at the very least that an earlier adoption of a robust, US-led policy could have been an effective deterrent to the Serbs. The "lift and strike" policy of arming Bosnian government troops and hitting the Serbs with NATO air power that emerged in 1995 (in part through US covert weapons shipments to the Croatian and Bosnian armies) had been advocated by interventionists since 1992. Such a policy, combined with sustained political engagement, might have saved tens of thousands of innocent lives.

But this is by no means certain. With the direct engagement of the Yugoslav army in the first six months of the war, the Serbs scored most of their conquests and committed the bulk of the atrocities. By the end of 1992, the Bosnians were largely defending themselves against the Serbs in most regions (although not against the Croats). Even without the arms embargo, which was imposed on all the Yugoslav republics in September 1991, vital artillery and other bulky weapons systems would not have been in place much earlier than late 1992, and the undisciplined Bosnians needed extra time to train and improve their crude command-and-control structure. In addition, the Bosnian government's mini-war against the Croats in 1993 severely damaged Sarajevo's offensive capabilities.

Most tragically, the Bosnians remained vulnerable in areas the Serbs would exploit as chokeholds -- the isolated eastern enclaves and besieged Sarajevo. The Western powers bear ultimate responsibility for failing to provide the means to protect these UN-declared "safe areas," a failure born of political cowardice that culminated in the mass murder of thousands of men and boys by Serbian forces in Srebrenica and Zepa in the summer of 1995. It was only after the Srebrenica massacre that the Clinton administration moved firmly to end the bloodshed.

6.

In our final conversation six months before his death, Milovan Djilas was tired, his country destroyed, his optimism for the next generation pressed to the limit. I found him brooding over the ethnic tumult in Russia, as familiar, Milosevic-style patterns were emerging among the political elites there. What then, I asked, was the model for reform in multinational states lacking strong democratic foundations? Djilas didn't appear to have a ready answer -- or perhaps he was too exhausted to address a question put to him hundreds of times before. His thoughts moved back to 1943, when the Yugoslav Partisans, brimming with internationalist ideals and combat fervor, conjured up the new Yugoslavia that would emerge from the ashes of war and the bitter legacy of the pre-war, Serbian-dominated kingdom. "We thought about all these issues, it wasn't just a ruthless construction," he said. Djilas had handled the delicate task of drawing up Yugoslavia's internal borders, a central issue in the later wars of secession. "They were basically fair, although everyone complained. The Croats weren't happy with parts of Bosnia, the Serbs were pissed off over Macedonia. But everyone was compelled to understand the mutual benefits of compromise."

We touched on Bosnia and the atrocities. Djilas had been outspoken in his denunciation of Serbian actions in Bosnia and was never in doubt over Belgrade's direct involvement. He became circumspect, almost fatalistic. "I'll tell you a secret," he said. "It's one I've said before, only now it seems like a secret." It concerned Bosnia and the Partisans' ability to mobilize Serbs, Croats, and Muslims to battle against their nationalist compatriots, the Croatian Ustashe, the Serbian Chetniks, and Muslim S.S. troops. One myth that legitimized the creation of communist Yugoslavia portrayed the Partisans as enlightened anti-fascists and multi- cultural devotees who instinctively placed the interests of class above nation. Djilas had commanded a Partisan division in Bosnia. "You know, the only way we prevented the kinds of things you're seeing right now in Bosnia was to be more brutal than the nationalists. Any infraction meant execution, be it rape or mere theft. Without that we would have been just like them."

As a divided Bosnia attempts to rebuild under another occupation army, it is worth remembering both the savagery and the remarkable individual acts of compassion and reconciliation that took place during WWII and in the war's immediate aftermath. Of the estimated 1.7 million Yugoslavs who died in that war, more than half perished at the hands of other Yugoslavs rather than the German invaders. Some 400,000 civilians, mainly ethnic Germans, were deported, and tens of thousands of others were executed in communist reprisals after the war. There was no justice except that meted out by people's courts and firing squads. And yet amidst such brutality many people turned squarely towards the future. In parts of western Herzegovina, where Croatian Ustashe slaughtered Serbs like cattle, mixed marriages -- Serbs with Croats -- were occurring by 1947. Yes, the red flag was flying at the head of the wedding processions but they were not shotgun affairs. I learned of one such couple whose marriage had lasted to this war. They were partisans to the core. The husband, a frail, 70-year-old Serb, was shot dead by Croatian militiamen in 1992. The wife, a Croat, was devastated and died soon after. I hope someone in the village of Gabela will see in this couple a shining example, but that won't happen soon. Too much has been disrupted and the buoyant hymns of brotherhood and unity are of a bygone era.

Bosnian Serb fighters are fond of mocking Tito-era slogans with their own. One such creation, "After war, more war"-- posle rata, rat -- suggests a common belief that each war plants the seeds of the next, in a never-ending, genocidal epic. Indeed, in the 1990s many people believed they were fighting the wars of their fathers and grandfathers: The first significant killings in Croatia in 1991, in an eastern hamlet named Borovo, involved families from Bosnia who had moved there as internal refugees after WWII and brought their blood lust with them. Serbs and Croats, they settled into the homes of the deported Volksdeutsche. With some nudging, these people or their descendants continued the killing delayed by a 45-year hiatus.

Today's refugees often march in tomorrow's wars. But as Death of a Nation informs us, it takes politicians to conjure up war, define enemies and send their people into battle. There are millions of the dispossessed now scattered across the Balkans. Some 200,000 of them are Serbs driven from Croatia last fall. Now in Serbia they are straining resources and endangering fragile ethnic relations in a country whose population is still at least 35 percent non-Serb. Perhaps this will be tomorrow's combat zone, with armies of the "cleansed" battling each other. Certainly the political climate is ripe for renewed conflict, as all the former Yugoslav republics except Slovenia remain snared in the authoritarian trap bequeathed by state socialism.

I share the authors' general assessment that the Yugoslav conflict was primarily the result of a manipulated nationalism among communities with a shared history of conflict and peaceful coexistence. History weighs heavily in the Balkans just as it does in most other places. But if Yugoslavia is to teach us anything, surely it is about the malleability of historical memory, myth, and identity. To refuse to recognize this, as the outside world did for too long, is to sacrifice the ideals and values we struggle to uphold in our own society.

But five years of carnage creates its own historical weight that stifles the political imagination. Ordinary Bosnians had little voice in deciding whether to go to war, and they had no role in laying the cornerstones for peace. Now, Bosnia's constitution has been written in Washington, not Sarajevo, and the country's real police force wears NATO shoulder flashes. The Dayton accord resurrects the inherent flaws in Bosnia's Titoist constitution and at the same time relies on the good will of the men who started the war in the first place. Furthermore, a large part of the plan is predicated on a simplistic modernization scheme that did little to halt the slide to war in the late 1980s.

In Bosnia, a lasting peace will not be imposed by outsiders, nor will it be implemented by new class relics. A successful peace must destroy the pillars of "national homogenization" by ousting the nationalist manipulators and allowing people to reimagine themselves politically. Ordinary citizens must speak freely with each other and bring down the barriers of fear and racism imposed by the political and criminal elites that still reign. A political center must emerge from the nationalist detritus.

It would be foolhardy to expect such a turnaround overnight, or even through the snap elections scheduled for the fall. Peace must come from the inside, but without a long-term Western political and military engagement in the region, Bosnia will either erupt in bloodletting following the expiration of the NATO mandate, or remain mired in a gray zone between open warfare and a lasting settlement. Herein lies the Bosnia paradox: Our current efforts to build peace through military occupation are deepening the lines of partition and potential confrontation and further dividing communities that one day must live together. Indeed, events are steering Bosnia away from reintegration and closer to the final disintegration plotted by Tudjman and Milosevic in 1991.

Such a carve-up would leave the Bosnian Muslims encircled by hostile regimes in Serbia and Croatia and virtually stateless -- the Kurds of Europe. Just as an independent Kurdistan was once promised but never delivered by the Western powers, so the Bosnian state pledged in Dayton is as much a diplomatic mirage as it is a viable dream for millions of people. The Bosnian mirage may one day vanish, but the people will not. Nor will their bitter memories of a newborn country whose mutilation was treated as daily fare on television screens around the world. These disenfranchised Bosnians will have little regard for Western rhetoric of peace and reconciliation, but they will understand the great lesson of the Yugoslav wars, as spelled out in Death of a Nation: Victory in the former Yugoslavia falls not to the just, but to the strong.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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