The Dissolution of Yugoslavia

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Manuela Dobos

A WAVE OF NATIONALIST hatred, mass killing and warlordism has washed into the space left by Stalinism and has engulfed Yugoslavia. The war raging among Serbs and Croats and (as yet only) Bosnian-Herzegovinian Moslems is fifteen months old and already has proven to be the most rapacious violence Europe has seen since World War II. There are already 2.5 million refugees.

Leaving aside for the moment the deeper reasons for its outbreak, it should be clear from the conduct of this war that the immediate cause is Serb militarist aggression. The nationalist leadership of the Republic of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and allied, semi-autonomous Serb militias and warlords are the aggressors against the non-Serb populations. The war will only be stopped when they are.

The right-wing nationalist leadership in Croatia, guilty of the abuse of human rights of the Serbian minority there after its election (and of a lot more once the war began), never warranted the overkill the JNA has meted out.

The Croatian regime is far guiltier of collusion with Serbia for the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnia, from now on) in this phase of the war. It is hopelessly weak, despite the influx of foreign fanatics; Croatians were the first victim of Serbian military expansion. This leadership has been a convenient stimulus for Serb aggression, not a justification.

Over four million Serbs live in the Republic of Serbia proper, or heartland Serbia. Together with almost two million Serbs in Vojvodina, the autonomous province annexed by the Milosevic government in 1988, almost 1.5 million in Bosnia, and over half a million in Croatia, the Serb part of the population of the former Yugoslavia is the largest at 36%.

To the extent that they support the Serb government (by no means all, but certainly a large majority in all those areas), which commands the fifth most powerful army in Europe, Serbs far outweigh the poorly armed two million Slovenes, over 4.5 million Croats (16% of whom live in Bosnia) and less than two million Bosnian Moslems.

The JNA, whose bloated officers’ corps is 70% Serbian, is a military/industrial complex located in Serbia. Fed with immense portions of the GNP and foreign military aid during the Cold War, more recently with licence production deals with U.S. arms manufacturers, in which arms are sold to Third World countries, the JNA is tied to the Yugoslav (now Serbian) Communist Party apparatus.

The JNA also commands a vast, decentralized system of territorial defense in which huge arsenals are stored all over the republics (designed since 1948 to resist Soviet invasion). It is these arsenals which assure that the JNA will never run out of arms. So when Slovenia announced its severance from the (barely still functioning) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, there were 20,000 troops garrisoned there who moved against the elected government.

Slovenian territorial defense units resisted, blockaded garrisons and managed to keep control of some of the arsenal. That is when the air force stepped in to bomb and strafe cities. Planes, armor, heavy artillery and Serbian (the rest have left) conscripts have been fighting the war since then against militias armed with what they can get on the market.

But there was a war going on already by the time the JNA cut its losses in Slovenia and headed for the arsenals in Croatia. Since August 1990, rebel militias from among the 12% Serb minority there had been winning territory from Croatian authorities. There, as among the Bosnian Serbs, independent republics in union with Serbia were proclaimed before the referenda on independence in either Croatia or Bosnia were even held.

Milosevic had been threatening since 1989 just such an uprising of Serbs in the non-Serb republics should they move to looser confederation. What looked (and looks) like a coordinated effort to militarily change Yugoslavia was well underway before Slovenia and Croatia seceded.

It was these Serb uprisings that the JNA now joined. In so doing, the JNA’s long-time rationale, that it would intervene militarily only to keep the integrity of Yugoslavia, was shown to be untrue: Slovenia could go, but Croatia would be carved up. By August, major shelling of cities by Serb militias in eastern Croatia began, indicating that the army was supplying more directly.

The Year of “Ethnic Cleansing”

By September, huge columns of troops and matériel moved from Serbia through the eastern part of Croatia. There, the districts were far more mixed, particularly in the cities, so that this was clearly a relentless drive for territory, despite the unheeded calls to halt by the now moribund Federal Yugoslav government. The wholesale pulverization of cities with missiles (Zagreb was hit with a Maverick) and mortar began, as well as the siege and mass shelling of completely civilian areas with the aim of expelling the Croat populations.

It should be emphasized that already in July there were reports of both Serb and Croat soldiers executing and expelling villagers in occupied territory. This was the beginning of “ethnic cleansing,” or wiping out congenitally hostile forces in order to lay claim to territory. Atrocities rivaling those committed in World War II abounded and were used as excuses to commit more.

After a half year, with 10,000 dead, almost 50,000 refugees, the great coastal cities bombarded and with both the Yugoslav army and Serbian irregular troops having achieved control of 30% of the territory of the Croatian Republic (including a large chunk where Serb inhabitants had been less than a third of the population), the Croatian troops gave in and United Nations monitors took over. This assured the continued Serb control of the territory into which the army had blasted its way.

By March 1992, however, the army was transferring arms to the insurgent Serb irregulars in Bosnia (Serbs were 31% of the population there) and beseiged the capital, Sarajevo. In April, to give credence to Milosevic’s protestations that the Serbian government, by now calling itself, together with Montenegro, “Yugoslavia,” had nothing to do with the fighting by the Bosnian Serbs, the JNA left, leaving virtually all the arsenals plus Bosnia’s main armaments factory to the Bosnian Serb irregulars.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the homeland of the Moslem Slavs which they shared with 1.4 million Serbs and 760,000 Croats. The cultural mix had existed since early Ottoman times when a significant portion of the (as yet undifferentiated) Slavs converted to Islam.

Bosnia was a living multicultural success story, and one of the reasons was the tolerance practised by its Moslems, who are not fighting for a “Moslem state in the heart of Europe” as Serb and Croat nationalists keep repeating with no worthy evidence. This line reflects a very deep prejudice which we would have to call racism–if these religious groups were not all the same South Slavs.

Yet the contagion of fanatic, murderous nationalism consists precisely in making self-fulfilling prophecies: The more desperate the situation gets for the Moslems, the more likely they will give up their long-time tolerance and look to Islamic fundamentalism.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Serbian strongman Milosevic met in March 1991, (before the war even began) and agreed to partition Bosnia, knowing that for the Moslems there was no sponsor. Half their number have already had to escape for their lives to refugee camps abroad. While they are not being exterminated as European Jews were from 1941 to 1945, they are being terrorized for the purpose of expulsion in much the same way that German Jews were between 1938 and 1941–and they may end up like the Palestinians since 1948.

The Bosnian Croats, under one or another warlord, some open followers of the fascist “Ustasha” of World War II infamy, also murder Serb inhabitants, detain them in camps and expel them. But the Serb “ethnic cleansing” has been far more massive and systematic.

Beginning in March 1992, Serbs (calling themselves Chetniks, after the World War II Serb monarchist bands), under warlords such as Radovan Karadzic, the close collaborator of Milosevic, advanced on, surrounded and then “cleansed” towns and villages of their non-Serb population in a thirty-kilometer wide, 250-kilometer long swath through northern Bosnia, from Belgrade to the other side of Bosnia where Bosnian Serbs live, as well as to the other Serb military (now UN patrolled) enclave in Croatia. This is the base for a new, large Serbian ethnic state.

From Rivalry to Ruin

The deeper reasons for this debacle are many. They lie in the special development of nationality and nationalism of peoples under the domination of rival empires and “Great Powers;” in the late 19th century difference between national programs for state-building, particularly those of the Serbs and the Croats; in the conflict of these programs in the Serbian royal dictatorship that was the first Yugoslavia, 1918-1941; in the genocidal trauma of World War II which grew directly out of that Yugoslavia; in the failure of Titoist Stalinism to resolve the conflict; in the economic, political collapse of a party-state geared to the West European market, impelling opportunistic ex-members of the elite to use nationalist hatred and bloody mythology as an explanation to the desperate.

The desperate are now only being plunged into further ruin by the nationalist ex-communists. Every historical experience seems to have thwarted the desire of these nationalities for security from physical and cultural extinction. And that is why national self-determination keeps being important for them.

Hatred between Croats and Serbs dates only from the 1870s. Before then, Croatian writers and teachers developed the Yugoslav Idea, unification of all South Slavs, and were joined by their Serb and Slovene counterparts. The Croats conceived of this idea as including the continuity of their kingdom, having experienced the Austrians and Hungarians trying to take it away from them. Their idea of the unification of South Slavs was really a confederation.

The peasant-warriors who became Serbian kings, however, saw their Ottoman rulers as supported by the European Great Powers, all of whom they would have to fight single-handedly to be independent. They conceived of the future South Slav state as a Greater Serbia, growing as their leaders liberated the scattered Serbs into it.

In the 1870s Hungarian rulers of the Croatian Kingdom, fearing the Yugoslav Idea, moved to set Serbs and Croats there against each other. Both groups came to see each other as a threat to survival.

The Croatian Party of Rights was born, calling for an independent Greater Croatia (including Bosnia) and the expulsion of Serbs. This party, however, remained marginal until the 1930s. Far more important was the Croatian Peasant Party, which called for an independent republic in the old kingdom, but also a common front among all South Slav peasants and confederation.

The Yugoslavia created by the Great Powers under the Serb monarchy as a buffer against Bolshevism and Germany tolerated no confederative ideas or national self-assertion. The Croatian Peasant Party, the only real representative of Croat voters, was sup<->pressed.

The result was the growth from marginality of various fascistic nationalist parties, including the Croatian Party of Rights. With its paramilitary group, the Ustasha, it became the “Independent Croatian State” when the Nazis and others easily invaded and dismembered the very disunited Yugoslavia.

This state, with jurisdiction over much of Bosnia, murdered hundreds of thousands of (Croatian) Serbs, as well as Jews, Gypsies and anti-Ustasha Croats before it and the Germans were defeated by the Partisan army organized by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) under Tito. Other mass killings also took place, such as those of Moslems, Croats and Partisans by Chetniks from Serbia.

Communism, Decentralization, Crisis

Thus Tito attracted a powerful force by calling for keeping Yugoslavia together, but with independent component national republics. Tito’s two convictions were that a Yugoslavia could only survive if Serbs were kept from dominating and if the Communist Party was always in charge to balance things out. However, the system had to decentralize after the break with Stalin, or the party-state and its elite might have disappeared altogether.

While this decentralization brought more local self-assertion, including that of the national republics, it also tended to decentralize the CPY. While Tito was alive, the balancing could be maintained. The rotating-presidency and consensus government he left behind could not maintain it.

Decentralization brought the market into the economy, and as long as there was a European boom to take up the great unemployment, it worked. It ceased doing so in the 1970s; by the end of the 1980s there was a $20 billion debt and 2,000% inflation. The government didn’t function to meet the crisis and frustration grew.

Tito had also bequeathed a smaller Serbia (the 1974 Constitution had lopped Vojvodina and Kosovo from Serbian administration) in the interest of decentralization but also of balance. So it was in Serbia that the nationalist revolt exploded: Serbia was “economically exploited” by Slovenia, decentralization was actually the work of an “anti-Serb coalition,” said the Serbian Academy of Sciences in 1985; Serbs were said to be suffering “genocide” in their scattered homelands.

The following year, Slobodan Milosevic emerged from the bureaucracy to lead this stormy movement. He swore Serbs would fight to regain their rightful place, which meant annexing Vojvodina (75% Serb) and Kosovo (90% Albanian, at present a complete Serb dictatorship) purging the leadership of the unpatriotic and obstructing any further reform of the Federation. The other Republican parties grew alarmed, but all attempts at rescuing the center of the federal government or of the CPY were undermined by the Milosevic agenda. So the Republican
parties turned to radical restructuring and confederation, or even secession.

In January 1990, the CPY fell apart when the the Slovene Communists walked out, and by the end of the year all republics but Serbia had freely elected non-Communist governments.

In Croatia, the Croatian Democratic Union, counting the Party of the Right among its forebears, won the majority. Within a few months, Croats and Serbs there were at war.

Great Powers Tolerate Aggression

Massive as the military power of the Serbian nationalist leaders is, the very easy time Serb militias and irregulars and the JNA have had has also been guaranteed by the policies of the European powers and the United States. These policies are the most important reason for continued war: Serb leadership has been reassured at every important juncture that it would face no military opposition.

The position of Britain, France and the United States toward Yugoslavia, once the Cold War was over, was indifference. However, as the implosion of Stalinism threatened the existence of the Soviet Union, these powers aimed to keep Yugoslavia intact to prevent a bad precedent for the USSR. In both cases, they were trying to shore up structures that were already disintegrating, whose component parts wanted out.

Warnings by the CIA in late 1990 that Yugoslavia would fall into civil war in eighteen months were ignored. Prior to the expected announcement of Slovenian independence in June 1991, both James Baker, in a visit to Milosevic, and the full European Community (EC) meeting on the matter thereafter, announced their opposition to the “dismemberment of Yugoslavia.”

This had been the Serb position within the Yugoslav Federal government for the previous three years (that is, even prior to the free elections in 1990) over and against Slovene, Croat, and Bosnian suggestions for confederation. Milosevic could therefore not be faulted for sending in the JNA to “prevent dismemberment,” and he did.

@As Yugoslavia in fact fell apart in the next month and a half, showing the impotence of its federal government which could not control the JNA, the EC now called for an agreement among the warring parties for a reconstituted Yugoslavia or peaceful secession. Meanwhile, they would send monitors (five were killed by Serb guns that summer).

They specifically rejected any idea of a European military peacekeeping force again in mid-September: EC and U.N. negotiators would have to get a peace agreement first. They also rejected blaming the Serbs, although James Baker did. But meanwhile, Bush had made it clear that the U.S. had “no strategic interests” in the area.

By the end of September, after two months of the heaviest fighting in Europe in forty-seven years, the U.N. Security Council voted an arms embargo on all belligerents which could only really affect the Croatian government (and now, the Bosnian government).

Actually, there was not so much unity as agreement not to act separately among the EC members. For Germany, Austria and Italy had different perspectives: They have traditional cultural and commercial ties to the breakaway republics, had populations of Croats and Slovenes, and were the terminals for South Slav refugees.

German public opinion was shocked at images of war reminiscent of German history and was clamoring for something to be done to end it. In July, German Foreign Minister Genscher had urged sanctions against Serbia and in September, recognition of breakaway republics.

The argument that Western recognition would imbue the republics with enough clout to scare down the Serbs was balanced by the consideration that withholding recognition could be used as leverage with both Milosevic and Tudjman. And there needed to be control over these two to prevent the war from spreading to Bosnia.

Genscher choose the recognition-with-sanctions option–and chose wrong. The case could have been made that recognition, sanctions and troops would have ended the war. Troops were and remain the last item any European or U.S. head of state would send. Recognition and sanctions by themselves would only compel Serb and Croat militias to stake out claims in Bosnia, to make sure it did not exist as an alternative to ethnically based states as well as to get more “national” territory.

When in December 1991, the EC met at Maastricht, the most important issue was not the war in ex-Yugoslavia but the business of relative advantage in the common market. Perhaps because Germany was due to make a sacrifice in monetary policy, its desire for sanctions and recognition was accepted. They did, however, set up a commission to monitor human rights in each republic as a prerequisite to recognition.

Because of the pressure from Genscher, Croatia’s report card was not thoroughly approved before recognition. Bosnia’s President Alija Izetbegovic was against recognition, and preferred some compromise formula for the independence Bosnians (but not Bosnian Serbs) voted for in February 1992.

It was a hard choice for them: remain with Serbia and Montenegro and be treated like Kosovo, or leave and become, absent a good-sized army, a battleground for Serbs and Croats. As soon as the United States signed off on recognition in April, that is what happened.

The Next Acts

Interestingly enough, the republic which voted for independence but will not act on it for fear of Serb invasion, is Macedonia. That area is another multi-cultural society dependent on recognition of its republic to keep it that way. This the EC has withheld, although the commission monitoring human rights gave Macedonia great praise.

The reason that there will be no recognition of this highly vulnerable area is that Greece, which partitioned Macedonia with Serbia in 1913 (and thereby ingested a number of Macedonian Slavs its doesn’t want to recognize), sits in the EC and refuses to allow the Republic of Macedonia to call itself such. Greece has blocked trade at the border and imprisoned Greek citizens who have urged recognition. Beside Kosovo, Macedonia is another potential war zone, which the EC can be counted on to ignore.

The London Conference of September 1992, despite the tough-talk provided by U.S. negotiator Lawrence Eagleburger (former ambassador to Yugoslavia, former board member of a firm doing business with the Yugoslav armament industry), got signatures on agreements that have been violated more than honored thus far.

Eagleburger specifically rejected lifting the arms embargo for the Bosnians as well as any U.S. military involvement other than air cover for relief operations. The object is obviously to look as if Washington is doing something, given the hue and cry in the United States over the disclosure of the Serb internment camps, and do as little as possible.

The United Nations has been the vehicle whereby the powers keep their foothold but do nothing to end the war.

Brought in May to supervise relief efforts for beseiged Sarajevo, the peacekeepers’ role has been to equate the desperate defenders of Sarajevo with the immeasurably stronger attackers in order to get negotiated truces in place so that they can do the job of getting a pound of food to each resident of Sarajevo each day. To the residents this has seemed like keeping them (barely) alive for the final slaughter of a Serb victory.

Assuming the Bosnian Serbs as negotiating partners without a larger context has in effect legitimized plans for dismembering Bosnia, since the Serbs say they will lay down their arms if they are allowed to make ethnic enclaves (including in Sarajevo neighborhoods).

Karadzic says he agrees with a plan launched by the EC early in March to “cantonize” Bosnia. That is understandable, since it was virtually simultaneous with that meeting that the Bosnian Serbs started their “cleansed” corridor from Belgrade to the Serb territory in Croatia. There is, actually, no other way of making “cantons” but “cleansing” or extremely complicated population transfers which are painful even under the best of circumstances.

Although initially open to the plan, Izetbegovic rejected it as giving to Karadzic what the Bosnian Serb troops were carving out for themselves anyway. While the EC has dropped this plan, inherent in the unwillingness to “get into a quagmire” is the willingness to make a deal with the victor at the expense of those who do not even have a chance to defend themselves.

The German move to recognize Slovenia and Croatia is seen by some as evidence of a long-standing plot to get a geopolitical foothold in the Balkans for an imperialist scheme in East Europe.

There is no evidence that Germany, without an army, in which every third job depends on export to the EC, in which capitalists want cheap immigrant labor and don’t want skinhead fascists rocking the boat, is entertaining the notions capitalists had in 1932. The task of making capitalism grow in eastern Germany has been daunting enough.

Genscher may have simply made a bad call. Genscher’s wrongheaded speed to recognize may have unleashed the Serb and Croatian nationalists but war might have happened anyway. The matter is still cloudy, and he has resigned.

What is eminently clear, however, is that the callous, cowardly and self-serving policies of the the leaders of the New World Order are responsible for a great slide into barbarism which has by no means ended.

November-December 1992, ATC 41