A critical look at Yugoslavia – OpEd – Eurasia Review
By Jonathan Power
Serbia and Kosovo are back. The fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia seems like an endless story. Serbia rejects American and European demands for recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade maintains that historically Kosovo is a province of Serbia. Ethnic Albanian citizens insist that Kosovo be independent, following in the footsteps of Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia.
When in 2008 the provisional government of Kosovo declared its independence, most NATO countries supported it. Spain did not do so because it feared the precedent it would set for Catalan and Basque separatist movements. Russia also refused to support this decision. (Ironically, NATO scored an own goal, as Russia later used the Kosovo issue as a precedent for its own takeover of Crimea.
Perhaps if there had been no recognition of Kosovo as Russia advocated at the time, Moscow would have been embarrassed to encourage Crimea to secede from Ukraine. Maybe he wouldn’t have moved to take over Crimea.
It might be too much to expect the world to learn one thing from the Yugoslav imbroglio:that his ethnic wars were the product of political imagination. The Balkans are not, as Robert Kaplan so aptly put it, “a region of pure memory” where “every individual sensation and memory affects the great movement of peoples who confront each other” and where the processes of history have been “held on hold” by communism for forty years. -five years, “thus creating a multiplier effect of violence”.
If ethnic warfare is when “old hatreds” cause one ethnic group to become the ardent, murderous, and devoted adversary of all members of another group, this was not it. It was, as Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University wrote in the Harvard University Quarterly, International Securitya situation in which “a mass of mostly meek ordinary people, reluctantly and in considerable confusion, came under the vicious and arbitrary control of small groups of armed thugs”.
The murderous core of supporters of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman were by and large not ordinary citizens incited to violence against their neighbors and even their families – Intermarriage especially in the Communist era was a widespread phenomenon, but thugs, football thugs and street gangs, even criminals, were released from prison for this purpose.
They were recruited by politicians, first and foremost by Milosevic, to pursue a nationalist agenda which he believed could keep him in power at a time when it became apparent that the Yugoslav army was disintegrating in the early part of the first war with Croatia, with around 150,000 young Serbian men emigrating or going underground. In Belgrade, only 15% of reservists showed up for work.
Once such a process is underway, it is extremely difficult to control. More moderate – and generally better educated – people emigrate, either abroad or to safer places. Hooligan killers inevitably attract opportunists drawn to the fruits of war – the looting, rape and excessive drinking that are their daily lot. Vladan Vasilijevic, an organized crime expert, says most of the well-documented atrocities in Bosnia have been committed by men with long criminal records.
With no alternative political leadership, the rank-and-file citizens side with them – or at least tolerate them – especially as the revenge killings on the other side begin to take their toll. Milosevic and Tudjman were adept at using their secret police to direct and coordinate killings in pursuit of ethnic cleansing.
Some of these groups evolved into semi-coherent paramilitary groups like Arkan’s Tigers and Vojislav Seselj’s Chetniks. Arkan, one of the most feared war criminals of the entire war, had been the leader of Delije, the official fan club of Belgrade’s Red Star football team.
Once Arkan and Seselj had established their reputation as murderers, all they had to do was announce that they were on their way to a village to be emptied of its non-Serb inhabitants. Yet the core of Arkan’s forces never numbered more than 200 men and at its peak never attracted more than a thousand followers.
Even in Rwanda, where the genocide was larger and much deeper, it was a small minority that committed the real killings. Hutu extremists were largely responsible for the ruling party, the government bureaucracy and the police. Yet even if one accepts that there were as many as 50,000 outright killers, and if each of them killed one person a week during the 100-day holocaust, then the 700,000 who died were killed by about 2% of Hutu men. population. In other words, 98% of Hutus did not kill.
Of course, many simply closed the door and didn’t want to know, but there were also a good number who hid or protected Tutsi neighbors and sometimes even foreigners.
For all the horror of these recent cataclysms, they were not Hobbesian wars of all against all and neighbor against neighbor. They were agitated by unscrupulous politicians who relied on a relatively small number of malefactors to do their bidding. In most, if not all, societies, if these thugs were allowed, they could commit similar acts. Until recently, it was quite possible to imagine that Northern Ireland would descend into Bosnia-like chaos if the British authorities had not been prepared for the long term of a maintenance of patient order and political accommodation.
(And even then the process would have been faster if local elected officials hadn’t turned a blind eye to grassroots thugs doing their dirty work and if the Brits had been more determined at an earlier stage to root out those who were within the police and security services who worked hand in hand with the paramilitaries.)
One only has to look at the Balkan neighbors of the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania, to see how ethnic violence can be avoided when politicians commit to healthy, non-confrontational policies. Even within the former Yugoslavia, the examples of Macedonia and Slovenia stand out as places where legitimate political leaders have sought to calm ethnic tensions and smooth over rough patches.
No other explanation can provide an answer as to how the overthrow of Slobovan Milosevic, the President of Serbia, occurred. What was done was done in a non-violent way, apart from some brutal behavior on RTS radio and television. He achieved in 24 hours what 78 days of NATO bombing could not. It was people power – the mostly good and silent majority, who were ready to vote first, and then to demonstrate when they saw they had a chance of success.
These people have always existed – as they did in Poland, the country of Solidarity, in Czechoslovakia, the birthplace of the “velvet revolution” and in the Soviet Union where Mikhail Gorbachev finally came to power, determined not to pour the blood.
As for Western nations, it is time to reflect on the methods they used during the many years of Yugoslav conflict. They had an oversimplified analysis – “ethnic warfare” – that led to simplistic conclusions – the bombings – which only served to consolidate Milosevic’s power and, in the case of Kosovo, precipitated the ethnic cleansing that they were supposed to try to avoid.
Today, the status of Kosovo, a remnant of the first Yugoslav wars, has again come to light. Simmering tensions between Serbia and Kosovo flared up in early August when the Kosovo government tried to ban Serbian documents and car license plates. Serbia reacted strongly and the drums of violent conflict began to beat again.
For now, the United States and the EU are relying on Kosovo to calm its aggressiveness, while continuing to push Belgrade to recognize the breakaway province as an independent country. Belgrade has so far shown no willingness to agree. Recently, US NATO troops were deployed along the main road from Serbia to Kosovo.
The only good news is that politics in Kosovo and Belgrade is shaped, not by independent ethnic warriors recruited from football clubs run by unelected politicians, but by democratically elected governments aspiring to join the European Union. Both know that violence will set this cause back decades. Nevertheless, if things cannot return to violence, the necessary steps towards a peaceful resolution of this dispute seem more remote than ever.
About the Author: The author was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for 17 years for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. It was the European who appeared the most in the opinion pages of these newspapers. Visit her website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com