Sabrina Petra Ramet. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 4. Fall 1992.
In late June 1991 Yugoslav army tanks rolled into the newly declared Republic of Slovenia, igniting a war long feared among the peoples of Yugoslavia. Now, more than a year later, the war has resulted in some 50,000 deaths (mostly civilians), more than two million homeless and as much as $60 billion in property damage. Numerous Croatian, Serbian and Muslim villages have disappeared from the map in the fighting, with what was once the thriving city of Vukovar, population 45,000, reduced to rubble. The Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the city where World War I began, was placed under siege by Serbian forces in March, and in the daily bombardments that have followed, the unique cultural blend that gave Sarajevo a special charm has been extinguished, probably forever.
The war is increasingly being felt beyond the borders of what was once Yugoslavia. Austria and Hungary, Croatia’s neighbors to the north, have taken in about 50,000 refugees each. Germany, which had taken in some 125,000 as of late April, subsequently closed its borders to refugees lacking German visas, but relaxed the restriction on July 20. The number of refugees in Germany has since shot up to 200,000. There are also some 40,000 refugees from the Balkan war in Sweden, 13,000 in Switzerland, 4,000 in the Netherlands and as many as 50,000 in other countries. Italy, which has already accepted 7,000 refugees, is starting to brace for what its politicians fear may become a full-scale exodus if and when the war spreads to the Albanian-populated Kosovo region of the former Yugoslavia.
Other European states, such as France, Britain and Spain, however, have done precious little to relieve the pressure from the flood of refugees straining the economies of Germany, Hungary and Austria. Meanwhile the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expects the war in Bosnia—if it is allowed to continue—to result in up to one million additional Bosnian refugees seeking new domiciles. Few of these are expected to return to their homeland.
Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey have all signaled that they may be unable to remain aloof from the fighting if Serbia takes military action to drive the largely unarmed Albanian population of Kosovo out of the so-called autonomous province, which is under Serbian political control. Indeed the leaders of those states fear that a Serbian assault on Kosovo, the “southern front,” is only a matter of time.
Macedonia, an independent republic of the former Yugoslavia, is aware that in the event of military action in Kosovo, it would quickly feel the effects because of the large Albanian minority that resides in the western part of Macedonia.
Consequently there is a serious threat that the conflict will spread to Kosovo and Macedonia, and that it will draw in Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. If that eventuality is not averted, the damage to west European and American interests will rise considerably. The longer Western statesmen put off military action, the higher the stakes will become. Indeed, if these other powers were to be drawn into the conflict, their economies would be further strained and the democratization process under way in places like Albania and Bulgaria would become more tenuous still.
Western officials and publications circulate myths that perpetuate misunderstanding about the nature of the war and render any effective countermeasures more elusive. Of those myths the most popular are these: the conflict between Serbs and Croats is “centuries old”; the war is primarily a “religious” war (between Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats or Bosnian Muslims); “no one” anticipated the war (the usual canard circulated by people who have not been paying attention); and, since the Croatian government is also repressive (alongside the Serbian government), it must share near-equal blame for the war. None of these myths is true, and yet each has gained a certain currency.
Regarding the first myth: Serbs and Croats have, in fact, lived together peacefully for centuries prior to the twentieth century. There was no rancor until after World War I, when the two nations united in a single state. The Serbian regime ignored the protests of Croatian and Slovenian politicians (who wanted regional autonomy) and introduced a centralized government based in Belgrade and a centralized constitution. During the interwar period the Serbian-dominated government in Belgrade introduced unequal taxation for the various nationality groups, gave preferential treatment to Serbs in military promotions, imposed the Cyrillic alphabet on the Croats, denied the Macedonians schooling in their own language (claiming that they were Serbs), closed all state schools for Kosovo’s Albanians and forcibly expelled about 45,000 Albanians from Kosovo province—confiscating their land and turning it over to some 60,000 Serbian “colonists.” It was this legacy of Serbian repression that gave birth to the Yugoslav “national question.”
Second, the war is not a religious war. The war is about land, not religion. The Serbs, with 11.6 percent of the population of Croatia and 31.5 percent of the population of Bosnia, have seized some 30 percent of Croatia’s land and about 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory. Religious differences did not impede interethnic social contact in either republic until Serbia’s politicians began to manipulate religious sensitivity and historical memory to kindle collective hatred for non-Serbs.
Third, various observers both within Yugoslavia and in the West had been warning for nearly a decade about the dangers of civil war in the country. As early as 1983, Dusan Biber, a historian living in Zagreb, pointed to the country’s growing internal tensions and warned that, if not corrected, they could lead to the ultimate “Lebanonization” of Yugoslavia. This warning was soon echoed in the West. By 1987 ordinary Yugoslavs were talking openly about the growing danger of civil war, and by the summer of 1989, with the Croatian suppression of the illegally established Zora Society, a Serbian cultural association, it had become clear that there was a significant new escalation in Serb-Croat polemics. By February 1991 it was possible to predict that a Serb-Croat war was only weeks away.
And fourth, regardless of the Croatian government’s marked drift toward authoritarian rule, it is important to remember that the Serbs were the first to set up irregular militias, that the hostilities in both Croatia and Bosnia were started by Serbian forces and that since July 1991 the fighting has been confined to Croatia and Bosnia: to date there has not been a single attack on Serbian soil.
For nearly forty years, from 1943 to 1980, Yugoslavia was guided by the firm hand of President Josip Broz Tito. Tito’s brand of liberalized communism offered Yugoslavs regional pluralism but not political pluralism (though this was enough to guarantee that rival viewpoints could be voiced in the daily press, albeit largely across republics rather than within them). The Titoist system had been founded on three core principles: self-management (embodied in its well-known workers’ councils), brotherhood and unity (the doctrine of ethnic harmony through one-party rule), and nonalignment in foreign policy. All three began to decay in the years following Tito’s death in 1980.
At first this process of political decay contributed to a genuine democratization, as Communist Party elders lost both the capacity and the will to assert firm control. In the context of political weakness and increasing fluidity, new associations and groupings emerged, many with clear political programs. Some of the founders of these associations are now in the leadership of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia.
But another process was also under way—ethnic polarization. This process must be traced to the Kosovo riots of April 1981, when Albanian inhabitants of that province protested against the failure of Belgrade’s economic policy to improve their living standards. The riots took on an anti-Serbian tone, and local Serbs reacted with anger and by spreading stories of Albanian atrocities against Serbian women. The waxing Serbian backlash crested in March 1986, when the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts drew up a memorandum claiming that Serbs were being oppressed in communist Yugoslavia—that the Serbs, not the Albanians, were the true underdogs of the system. The memorandum became the manifesto of the Serbian nationalist opposition.
In mid-December 1987 an internal coup in the Serbian party organization brought to power Slobodan Milosevic, a banker by training. Milosevic promised to carry out the Serbian nationalist program demanded by the academy. Milosevic, unlike his predecessors, spoke simply, without ambiguity. For Milosevic the task was to “restore” the Serbs to their rightful place. Some of his hardline rivals even called for a line-for-line restoration of the laws and institutions of the old interwar kingdom, which had proven so burdensome to Croats, Albanians and Macedonians. Kosovo, often called “the Serbian Jerusalem” (because it had once been a core part of medieval Serbia, but now has a population that is 90 percent Albanian) lay at the heart of Serbian frustration.
A speech by Milosevic at an outdoor meeting in Belgrade in November 1988 played on Serbian fears of Albanian demographic growth and provided a clue of things to come:
This is no time for sorrow; it is a time for struggle…. We shall win the battle for Kosovo regardless of the obstacles facing us inside and outside the country…. We shall win despite the fact that Serbia’s enemies outside the country are plotting against it, along with those in the country. We tell them that we enter every battle with the aim of winning it…. And there is no battle in the world that the people have lost.
Milosevic wanted to overturn the old Titoist system, with its sundry institutional checks and careful proscription of all nationalist points of view. To do this he cultivated a populist style, appealing to the Serbian people’s passions and inflaming their desire for “justice.” If the old system was “unjust,” then clearly it had to be overthrown and, just as clearly, Milosevic was the person to do so.
An extra-legal organization, the Committee for the Protection of Kosovo Serbs and Montenegrins, emerged in 1988 and became an important organizational tool for Milosevic’s subversion of the political system, not merely in Serbia, but also in its two provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina) and in the neighboring republic of Montenegro. The committee built a network in the villages and organized a series of rallies, involving up to 160,000 persons, which destabilized the governments of these federal units. By the spring of 1989 the committee had organized almost 100 protest actions, with an average of 50,000 participants per demonstration. Through these demonstrations Milosevic was able to bring down the governments of Vojvodina (October 1988), Montenegro (January 1989) and Kosovo (February 1989). In each case office-holders hostile to Milosevic were forced to resign and, in each case, they were replaced by Milosevic’s supporters. In February 1989 Milosevic succeeded in obtaining constitutional changes that eliminated the provinces’ authority to pass their own laws and that established the Supreme Court of Serbia as the highest court of appeal for Kosovars and Vojvodinans alike, prior to appeal at the federal level.
Milosevic had taken politics to the streets in order to accomplish his ends. He had drawn the bulk of his support from Serbia’s villages. Milosevic’s overthrow of the Titoist system represented, thus, the revolt of the countryside against the city. But the recourse to street protests to settle disputes had set a dangerous precedent.
By the summer of 1989 politicians in Slovenia and Croatia were becoming convinced that Milosevic posed a threat to the stability of the entire country. But there was little they could do. In the course of that summer, debates between the writers’ associations of Slovenia and Serbia sparked more general polemics between the still-communist leaderships of the two republics; the polemics started by focusing on Serbia’s policies in Kosovo, but gradually grew into a wide-ranging debate about the political future of the country. By the beginning of autumn 1989 Slovenian patience ran out and, over loud Serbian protests, the Slovenian Assembly passed a series of amendments to the Slovenian constitution: claiming for Slovenia the unilateral right to secede, and the exclusive right to impose a state of emergency in the republic or to authorize the presence or movement of military formations within its borders. These amendments sounded the death knell for Yugoslavia.
As the growing tensions between Slovenia and Serbia over alternative political visions reached a climax, the Serbian Socialist Alliance of Working People—an organizational hand-maiden of Milosevic’s Communist Party—called on Serbian businessmen to sunder all forms of economic contact and cooperation with Slovenian firms. Serbia’s enterprises enthusiastically complied. Meanwhile political, cultural and academic contacts between the two republics atrophied. In late December the Slovenian Communist Party held its Eleventh Congress, endorsed a multiparty system and drifted toward final organizational rupture with the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. The LCY convened an extraordinary congress the following month, but the congress collapsed when the Slovenian delegation walked out. Shortly thereafter the Slovenian party pulled out of the LCY and was followed in turn by the other parties.
As 1990 wore on it was increasingly clear that Yugoslavia was already dead and that its federal institutions, whose powers and revenues were now steadily shrinking, were no more than an empty shell. When the Slovenian parliament met in early October 1990 and adopted a constitutional law partially or entirely annulling 30 federal laws in the areas of the economy, politics and defense, it was only confirming a course that had by then become inexorable.
Meanwhile a series of local elections transformed the political landscape of Yugoslavia. By the end of 1990 Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were under noncommunist governments and Macedonia under a coalition government in which the communists were a minority. Only in Serbia and Montenegro did the communists continue to hold onto power.
Milosevic had been talking for years of the need to recentralize the system. Croatia and Slovenia, by contrast, felt strongly that the system needed to be fully confederalized, with the retention of only an economic union and coordination in foreign policy and military matters. The governments of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia fashioned a joint compromise that embraced elements of both the confederal plan and the centralist plan. Montenegro, which had been backing the Serbian (centralist) proposal, now gave encouragement to the compromise plan and ironically on June 26, 1991, the very day that Yugoslav army tanks attacked Slovenia, the “Yugoslav” legislature assessed that the compromise offered by Bosnia and Macedonia contributed “a solid basis for (the) continuation of negotiations on Yugoslavia’s future organization.”
At the turn of 1991 the leaders of Yugoslavia’s six republics held a series of meetings ostensibly designed to avert a showdown. But the two chief antagonists—at this point, still Slovenia and Serbia—showed no signs of reaching a compromise, and Milosevic seemed unimpressed that his was a minority position. Slovenia and Croatia served notice that unless some interrepublican agreement were reached on a new political formula for Yugoslavia by June 26, 1991, they would terminate their association with the federation. Throughout May and June there were violent incidents in several locations in Croatia that resulted in a number of deaths. As the late June deadline approached it was less and less likely that a peaceful solution would be found. On June 25 Slovenia and Croatia announced their intentions to secede from the Yugoslav federation, and the following day, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) began its destructive attack, striking first at Slovenia, but later withdrawing from that republic and opening hostilities in Croatia. Milosevic probably realized the impracticality—if not impossibility—of annexing Slovenian territory, in which hardly any Serbs live, to the “ethnically cleansed” state he and his cohorts are building. Shortly after the initial shots, in fact, Milosevic announced that Belgrade had no objection to Slovenian secession.
Slovenia and Croatia had agreed in December 1990 to coordinate defense and security policies—an accord that sounded very much like a mutual defense pact. Milosevic was determined to pry this alliance apart. Thus he contacted Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and, at a secret meeting between the two presidents, offered him assurances of his goodwill and cooperation in resolving the dispute peacefully and to Croatia’s satisfaction, provided that Tudjman stay out of the impending Slovenian conflict. Subsequently, when the JNA attacked Slovenia, the Croats remained aloof, thus signaling to the Slovenes that the Croats were not making much of their “coordination in defense.” This lesson proved its value later when the Slovenes returned the compliment and declined to help an embattled Croatia.
By the end of the year Serbian irregulars, equipped with JNA arms and fighting alongside the JNA, had driven native Croats out of more than 30 percent of Croatian territory. The historic Croatian cities of Osijek, Zadar, Dubrovnik and Vinkovci were under siege. Some 40 percent of Croatian industry had been destroyed. Croatia’s Serbs proclaimed the establishment of a “Krajina” republic and requested annexation by Serbia; Croatian President Tudjman, meanwhile, swore that Croatia would never yield any of its territory and would keep fighting until it had retrieved all of its lost territory. Tudjman seems to have meant it but, short of a U.N.-sponsored intervention, he is unlikely ever to achieve that goal.
With the spread of the war to Bosnia in the spring of 1992 the idea of an eventual partition of the republic between Serbia and Croatia came to seem ever more inevitable. Vreme, a privately owned weekly magazine published in Belgrade and known for its critical stance toward Milosevic, published a report in September 1991 alleging that Radovan Karadzic, president of Bosnia’s Serbian Democratic Party, had met with Milosevic to discuss the timing of an eventual army assault on Bosnia. Ironically, on the very eve of Serbia’s attack on Bosnia, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic told the Zagreb weekly Danas that he was convinced that Bosnia would neither be attacked nor slide into war. But Milosevic had set his sights on bringing Serbian-dominated parts of Bosnia into his “New Yugoslavia.” Less than two weeks later Bosnia found itself at war as JNA artillery began pounding the Bosnian city of Bosanki Brod.
Macedonia is not yet affected by the fighting. But local politicians are aware of the danger that the war could spread across that republic’s borders. Macedonia does not have a significant Serbian population, though its Albanian minority has become increasingly outspoken and will be a factor in any effort to consolidate an independent Macedonian state. Macedonia’s Albanians, who constitute as much as 21 percent of the republic’s population (according to the 1991 census), are disconcerted with their present status.
Sali Berisha, president of Albania, has asked that Albanians in Macedonia be afforded better possibilities for schooling in their native language and an expansion of Albanian-language radio broadcasts. Ibrahim Rugova, president of the republic of Kosovo (thus, leader of the Albanian opposition in Kosovo), has demanded that Macedonia either allow its Albanians to seek annexation by Kosovo or grant them wide internal autonomy. Yet most of Macedonia’s political parties are hostile to the idea of any enhancement of the status of the republic’s Albanians.
The Macedonian republic adopted a declaration of sovereignty in September 1991, subsequently declared its independence and was said to be building up a small army of some 30,000 troops. Bulgaria hastened to recognize the Macedonian republic, as well as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia—declaring at the same time its full respect for Macedonian sovereignty. But Bulgaria qualified this by repeating its long-standing claim that Macedonians are merely western Bulgarians.
Greece, which was demanding that Macedonia relinquish its “Greek” name as a condition for diplomatic recognition—the Greeks have suggested that the Macedonians call their state “the Republic of Skopje”—protested Bulgaria’s initiative. Bulgaria’s recognition of Macedonia, said Antonis Samaras, the Greek foreign minister, “endangered the security and stability in the Balkans.” (Ironically, less than a week earlier, Greek and Bulgarian military delegations had concluded four days of discussions and had agreed on military cooperation “at a high level,” as well as “close contacts … between combat units.”)
Bulgarian and Greek intentions are unclear, the future proclivities of Macedonia’s sizeable Albanian minority cannot be predicted with any certainty and, at last count, Serbia’s strongman Milosevic had not yet reconciled himself to the secession of Serbia’s southern neighbor (which Serbs recall was once the southern province of the “kingdom of Serbia”). Serbs, who constitute two percent of the Macedonian population, have been complaining about “discriminatory” treatment in that republic, which they describe as an “artificial state.” For all these reasons the future of Macedonia seems especially uncertain, even by post-Yugoslav standards. Macedonia’s parliament did try to assuage Greek sensitivities by incorporating into its constitution a clause indicating that Macedonia did not have any territorial designs on any of its neighbors. But the Greek government has remained unimpressed.
In Kosovo the remnants of self-rule were gradually stamped out between 1989 and 1990, when Milosevic suppressed the Kosovo assembly and tried to have its deputies arrested. Serbian occupation has been maintained at the cost of widespread dismissals of Albanians from their jobs, general disenfranchisement of the local Albanian majority and the tough policing of the province, extending, according to a Pristina newspaper, to the blockading of Albanian villages.
Although less than ten percent of Kosovo’s population is Serbian, Milosevic had forced through in 1988 the adoption of Serbo-Croatian as the official language in Kosovo. Serbian authorities subsequently terminated all secondary schooling in Albanian, dismissing about 6,000 ethnic Albanian secondary-school teachers. The policy of suspending Albanian-language secondary education “for an indefinite period” was reaffirmed last October.
In July 1991 the Serbian assembly passed a law authorizing the distribution of 6,000 hectares of land among Serbs wishing to settle in Kosovo. To carry out this plan authorities have confiscated the property of Albanians and turned it over to Serbian “colonists.” These colonists have been granted Albanian land at bargain prices, and to date, protests from the Albanian owners have been without effect.
Serbian police have jailed prominent Albanian journalists and political activists and broken up weapons-smuggling rings organized by local Albanians, while Serbian authorities have refused to recognize Rugova’s legitimacy as spokesman for the Albanian population of Kosovo (despite Rugova’s expressed readiness to enter into dialogue with Belgrade).
The Kosovo problem is inherently dangerous. As long as Kosovo is occupied by Serbia, such occupation can only be achieved at the expense of democracy and self-determination. An independent Kosovo, living peacefully between two hungry neighbors, scarcely seems conceivable. In May there were confirmed reports that the Serbs were reinforcing military forces in several districts in Kosovo, especially along the borders with Macedonia and Albania. In addition arms were once again being distributed among Serbs and Montenegrins living in the province. Meanwhile Tanjug, the Serbian news agency, has reported that Kosovo’s Albanians have succeeded in smuggling some arms and have set up guerrilla forces to oppose the Serbs. These Albanian guerrillas were said to have obtained basic training across the border in Albania.
The war has done major and irreparable damage in much of Croatia and Bosnia. Serbs as well as non-Serbs have suffered in the fighting, and many important cultural landmarks have been destroyed. Yet the West has fumbled around for more than a year. At first many in the West were unconvinced that any Western interests were at stake. Later, doubts were raised about the propriety of helping Croatia to repel Serbian forces when the Croatian government of President Tudjman is itself becoming increasingly authoritarian. Former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, now serving as the U.N. special envoy for the Yugoslav crisis, repeatedly advised the State Department to withhold recognition from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia on grounds that Washington should avoid “precipitious” moves.
For the most part diplomatic activity aimed at resolving the crisis last year was premised on the assumption that both parties were prepared to negotiate in good faith. The failure of more than a dozen ceasefires showed how wrong this assumption was. The ceasefires were useful, however, in allowing the contending armed forces to regroup. It was not until the Serbian attack on Bosnia that Western resolve gradually stiffened.
In early May 1992 the United States asked the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to suspend Serbia. The CSCE at first declined to do so, primarily as a result of Russia’s objections, but eventually, on July 8, it suspended Serbia for three months.
Over the summer foreign ministers of the 12 European Community states, in a show of solidarity, announced that they were recalling their ambassadors from Belgrade. In the same statement they declared that they were recognizing Serbia-Montenegro as a new state and would not view it as the successor to former Yugoslavia. A few weeks later Austria followed suit. At around the same time the governing council of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade effectively suspended Serbia.
Most significant the U.N. Security Council voted overwhelmingly on May 30 to impose trade sanctions on Serbia. The sanctions require all countries to cease trading with Serbia-Montenegro in any commodity, including oil, to freeze all foreign assets of the Serb-Montenegrin federation, to refuse to repair, service, insure or provide spare parts for aircraft registered in Serbia or Montenegro and to suspend all air traffic with those countries. (Russia, which at first opposed the application of sanctions against Serbia, eventually decided to support their adoption.)
The sanctions have the potential to cripple the already strained Serbian economy. Although self-sufficient in hydroelectric energy, Serbian oil fields produce at most 25 percent of the country’s needs. Moreover, with the cancellation of foreign contracts for the importation of exploration equipment, experts believe that Serbia may not be able to maintain current levels of oil production. As a result of the sanctions the official price of gasoline was doubled in early June in both Serbia and Montenegro, and the Belgrade government announced it would introduce gasoline rationing. Serbia’s chief suppliers of oil hitherto have been Romania, Greece, Iran, China and Russia.
In addition the Serbian government failed to build up adequate reserves of raw materials and spare parts. Andraj Vince, a Hungarian economist living in Belgrade, pointed out that Serbia was dependent on Hungary for most of its chemical needs. Furthermore the country’s steel mills were already running out of coke and iron ore, which had been imported from Latin America and eastern Europe. This, in turn, will have immediate effects on the Serbian arms industry.
The Serbian war economy has functioned on borrowed time. To increase its hard currency coffers the Serbian government confiscated some $12 billion in private hard-currency bank accounts, taking an even larger slice from its state-controlled enterprises. It also authorized the unrestrained printing of money, thus fueling inflation; but by mid-June the Serbian mint was running out of banknote paper and watermarks, which it had been importing from Slovenia. As the situation grew more difficult, Serbian authorities began selling much needed flour from Kosovo to Russia, in exchange for oil, producing a local bread shortage. Already in March Serbia announced a unilateral moratorium on repayment of its $2.5 billion hard-currency debt. Meanwhile by early May the Serbian airline JAT reached the brink of economic collapse, while other industries, including textiles, clothing, upholstery and tobacco (which have already experienced hardship as a result of the war) are expected to suffer further as a result of the sanctions.
Moreover industrial production in Serbia has declined 18 percent since 1991, and unemployment in Serbia stood at 20 percent in June. As a result of Serbian fiscal policies, prices in May 1992 were 1,915.7 percent higher than in May 1991, and the inflation rate last May alone stood at 80.5 percent (80.9 percent in Montenegro), or an annual 120,000 percent.
The social fabric in Serbia is unraveling, and a growing number of observers believe that civil war could break out in Serbia itself, between rival Serbian parties. In response the Serbian government sketched a plan to bring most sectors of the economy under state control if U.N. sanctions were to extend into the latter half of the summer. In the meantime, notwithstanding the sanctions, Serbia has reportedly continued to import oil, food and weapons from Greece, Romania and Russia. The cargo is loaded onto ships nominally headed for states in Africa but is rerouted, thus eluding customs controls.
Hence, in such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rumors about Milosevic’s imminent resignation or disappearance abound. By early June a new wave of rumors held that Milosevic had been stashing away gold in a secret bank account in Cyprus and that, if the situation became too precarious, he intended to flee. These rumors are important insofar as they indicate the state of mind among ordinary Serbian citizens.
Despite the economic and political uncertainty within Serbia, there is no assurance that either the economic collapse of Serbia or the removal of Milosevic from power would end the conflict. On the contrary there are reasons to believe that the conflict will continue and spread to Kosovo and Macedonia, quite apart from those factors—unless the West takes decisive steps to change the situation.
On the streets of Belgrade today one sees men in uniform everywhere one looks—in fatigues from half a dozen rival military and paramilitary organizations. And nonuniformed citizens frequently carry pistols.
On the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina today there are at least 150,000 persons under arms, organized in various paramilitary formations. In addition the Croatian armed forces have built up their strength to a level of 200,000 troops, 350 tanks and 400 artillery pieces. The JNA, by comparison, has 138,000 troops on active duty, 400,000 troops in the reserves, 1,850 battle tanks and 2,000 artillery pieces.
In late May, moreover, the Sarajevo government belatedly announced the formation of a Bosnian army. All of these militias and formations have been built up at tremendous economic cost, and their organizers are determined to keep fighting. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs’ party leader, put it quite simply: “This is not an ideological but a civil war. We shall fight to the death.”
Sentiments in Serbia are no less marked by zealotry. In fact it can be argued that Milosevic’s removal would not clear the way for a pacifist government in Belgrade. Dobrica Cosic, the renowned Serbian novelist who on June 15 was named president of the new “Yugoslavia” (the Serb-Montenegrin federation; Milosevic is president of Serbia) is himself a fervid nationalist. Cosic had been expelled from the Central Committee of the Serbian Communist Party in 1968 for opposing recognition of the national identity of the Bosnian Muslims and, in 1986, he was the principal author of the notorious memorandum of the Academy of Sciences and Arts that fanned Serbian nationalist sentiment.
Then there is Vojislav Seselj, whose Serbian Radical Party seeks the incorporation into Serbia of all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dalmatia, Dubrovnik, Lika, Kordun, Slavonia and Macedonia. In an August 1991 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Seselj said he aspired to reduce Croatia “to as much as one can see from the tower of the cathedral in Zagreb. If this is not enough for the Croats, then we will take everything.”
And yet there is rising antiwar and anti-Milosevic sentiment within Serbia, above all in Belgrade, the scene of numerous street demonstrations calling for the Serbian strongman’s resignation. Matija Beckovic, president of the Serbian Association of Writers, sent Milosevic an open letter in June, calling on him to resign. Even NIN, the Belgrade newsweekly once controlled by Milosevic, has asked the Serbian leader to step down.
Meanwhile Crown Prince Alexander, living in exile in London, is waiting in the wings to be asked to become king of Serbia. The crown prince promises that, as a constitutional monarch, he would be “outside and above politics,” and that he would work for a system in which “all political parties … adhere to … democratic principles and contribute to the development of genuine parliamentary democracy in Serbia.” The crown prince is perhaps the one ray of hope for pacifists in Serbia. “Monarchy,” he promises, “will guarantee equal rights to all citizens of Serbia including those who are ideological opponents of monarchy as a form of government. In this lies the essential difference between monarchy and a regime that classifies its political opponents as ‘enemies of the people’.”
Finally there is Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renaissance Party, who has pledged that if he is ever sworn in as Serbia’s president, he will pull all Serbian forces from Croatia and Bosnia and will personally visit Zagreb and Sarajevo to extend his apologies for the war. Whether this should be taken literally or not, it is clear that Draskovic is speaking a different political language from Milosevic and could not be treated by Western powers in the same way, if he ultimately should come to power.
There is very little chance of the war winding down without external international involvement, despite the increasing political vulnerability of the Milosevic regime and the economic difficulties faced by Serbia. Indeed the chief actors on both sides show an undiminished will to fight to realize extravagant aims. Cosic, the new “Yugoslav” president, has offered to talk with the Albanians about partitioning Kosovo, for example, even though Albanians constitute 90 percent of the population of the province and though Albanian leaders in Kosovo have repeatedly emphasized that the borders of Kosovo are nonnegotiable.
Most recently Croatian forces have launched campaigns to take back territory lost to Serbs earlier. Croatian forces also enjoyed some successes against Serbian forces in Bosnia in June, and were at that point moving troops toward Trebinje, headquarters for Serbian troops who had besieged Dubrovnik. So much has changed since the outbreak of the war in June 1991 that some observers have recently started to suggest that Croatia might defeat Serbia in the long run, and end up the primary territorial beneficiary of the war. Indeed Croatia has territorial designs on Bosnia-Herzegovina as well and has already annexed parts of that republic.
The casualties from the war are, for the size of the affected communities, staggering. In addition to the estimated 50,000 dead and two million homeless, there are also about 20,000 wounded and 6,000 missing in Croatia and more than 25,000 wounded and 30,000 missing in Bosnia, while 60,000 people are languishing in Serbian and Croatian prisoner-of-war camps.
The West had hoped that imposition of an international arms embargo would end Serbian aggression. This strategy ignores the fact that the JNA had stockpiled huge quantities of weapons, especially in the months immediately preceding the war, and that the JNA had enjoyed access to a formidable domestic arms industry. On the other hand the embargo has slowed Croatian and Muslim efforts to import arms and, as a result, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia have only a limited amount of artillery and some small arms, purchased in eastern Europe, with which to hold off Serbian militias equipped with rocket launchers and other sophisticated gear. As The New York Times pointed out in July, “Western officials say the embargo’s main accomplishment may have been to prevent the breakaway republics of Croatia and Bosnia from buying the types of heavy weapons that could turn the tide on the battlefield.” Recently, however, Croatia has succeeded in purchasing 150 205-mm. Messerschmitt howitzers and about 150 Leopard tanks from Germany.
What should the West do? Pressures for international military intervention against Serbia have been growing. Bosnian and Croatian officials have sought international military intervention, restating their requests in May and June. In Germany Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, CDU/CSU foreign policy spokesman Klaus Lamers and Western European Union assembly president Hartmut Soell have all demanded the creation of an international military force to push back the Serbs, although all three ruled out the use of German troops, for well-known “historical reasons.”
The Italian high command has reportedly declared its readiness to commit Italian naval forces to military action against Serbia. Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev declared himself in favor of a NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia as early as June 1991 and restated this view a year later.
In the United States, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) urged the Bush administration to take the lead in putting such intervention on the U.N. agenda. “The time for drawing the line has come,” he said. “The U.N. should authorize nation states to use force. NATO should draw up plans for a comprehensive use of force as thorough as that formulated for air, sea and ground forces in Desert Storm.” If Serbia should refuse to yield to a final demand for withdrawal, Lugar added, “it should face sufficient military force to ensure its certain and swift defeat.”
In mid-July U.N. Security Council member Austria, backed by Germany and Hungary, proposed that the United Nations consider “further steps” (meaning military intervention) to end the fighting in Bosnia. But the United States, Britain and France refused to support the Austrian proposal.
As of late July authorities in Belgrade (among them, prominently, the new federal prime minister, Milan Panic) were promising to present a plan for resolution of the crisis. But even as the authorities talked peace the Serbian forces of Karadzic, supplied by the Yugoslav Army, continued to bombard Sarajevo and Gorazde, and to expel non-Serbs from the areas of their control. Whether this means that Karadzic’s forces and other paramilitary groups are no longer responsive to Belgrade’s wishes, as many observers believe, or that the Belgrade government is not willing to show its good faith by an immediate cessation of hostilities is almost beside the point. The conclusion remains the same: the continued use of force against innocent populations in Croatia and Bosnia will end only when effective countervailing force is marshaled (or, in a pessimistic scenario, when one side accomplishes its objectives).
Meanwhile the embargo has had leaks. Various reports have suggested that Greece, Russia and perhaps also Israel are continuing to sell oil (and in Greece’s case, food) to Serbia, circumventing the embargo with various artifices. Weaponry has also continued to flow into Serbia, much of it coming via Greece and Romania.
The Bush administration, however, like the EC more generally, has been slow to conclude that the mobilization of decisive force against Serbia is necessary. “We’re not the world’s policeman,” President Bush said on June 11, when asked about speculation that the United States was planning military intervention against Serbia. And although Washington decided to commit air force and navy combat aircraft to protect an international relief mission in Bosnia in early July and sent six warships bearing 2,200 marines into the south Adriatic, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney indicated that in the administration’s view, “the situation doesn’t merit a Desert Storm-like military coalition, involving substantial U.S. ground power.”
And yet the postponement of an international military intervention entails the risk that, if unchecked, Serbian forces may further expand the war, raising the stakes, driving even greater numbers of refugees into west European countries and possibly drawing Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey into the fighting. Turkey has maintained close diplomatic contact with Bosnia-Herzegovina and has rallied the Islamic world in protest of Serbian aggression.
Given Greece’s perceptible pro-Serbian tilt throughout the crisis—a result both of Greek-Serbian economic interdependence and of longstanding Greek animosity toward the Macedonians—it is likely that Greece and Turkey would find themselves on opposite sides of the war. In such circumstances the entire situation would become vastly more complicated, vastly more devastating to the regional economy and vastly less susceptible to surgical intervention.
An argument can be made, thus, that it has become a matter of self-defense for western Europe—and hence in the strategic interest of the United States—to organize a plan for the use of military forces to end Serbian aggression before the war spreads any further. Such military intervention would not necessarily require the use of ground forces. On the contrary the implementation of the following policies might be sufficient to drastically diminish Serbia’s capacity to prosecute the war: first, the imposition of an effective sea, land and air blockade, and the use of surgical air strikes to destroy Serbian hydroelectric plants, dams, bridges, army depots and arms factories in both Serbia and Bosnia (including an important factory in Serb-held Banja Luka, as well as certain farms operated by Serbian militias near the front); second, the lifting of the ban on weapons sales to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia, and the provision of limited armaments to the Muslim and Croatian forces loyal to the legitimate government of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Intervention at this level would be sufficient to tilt the balance in Croatia’s and Bosnia’s favor, and perhaps to relieve the pressure on Macedonia. But the war would likely continue for years, even under these revised circumstances, as an attrition campaign on the part of militia leaders. Indeed one of the conclusions to be drawn from this war in the Balkans is that ethnic war is apt to be more ferocious and vindictive than other types of conflagration, and its combatants more tenacious (at least in the absence of external intervention).
To effect an absolute cessation of hostilities ground forces would ultimately be necessary, as an increasing number of observers agree. Their task would be a complicated one—to force both Serbian and Croatian forces to withdraw from Bosnia, to obtain the withdrawal of Serbian militias currently in Croatia and ultimately to disarm irregulars on all sides. Only then could a just and stable peace be sought, on the basis of respect for the pre-June 1991 jurisdictional borders and some limited population exchanges between Croatia and Serbia, and between Bosnia and Serbia.
The deployment of American ground troops into Bosnia would surely stir up at least as much domestic opposition—probably more—as the preparations for Desert Storm. But the failure to marshal countervailing force to push back the Serbs could end up destabilizing much of the Balkan peninsula. It could produce a wave of refugees that exceeds the capacity of west European countries to absorb.
At yet another level, allowing Serbia to mount a war of aggression with impunity, to engage in “ethnic cleansing” and to redraw the boundaries of sovereign states by force would signify that the United States and the European Community view the Helsinki agreement on human rights as a dead letter—a dangerous precedent. For all these reasons I am inclined to view the employment of countervailing force under a U.N. aegis as the lesser evil.
In June 1991 most west European and American politicians viewed the war as a “Yugoslav affair,” having little importance for their own states. A year later it has become clear that the crisis is already a “European affair,” with the threat of igniting a more general Balkan war, one that would affect U.S. interests as well.