Yugoslavia: The Rise and Fall of Vance-Owen

Branka Magas

CONTRARY TO WHAT some on the Western left believe, the Western states, including Germany, all initially  favored Yugoslavia’s unity, which they saw as a stabilizing factor in the Balkans and—in the eyes of France and Great Britain, at least—a barrier to German expansionism.

They continued to insist on Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity, indeed, even when it had become quite clear that this could be maintained only by force of Serbian arms: i.e. by federal Yugoslavia becoming transformed into a Greater Serbia. The Western powers consequently showed little enthusiasm for the Slovenian-Croatian proposal in 1990 for a confederal Yugoslavia, and paid even less attention to the results of subsequent plebiscites in Slovenia and Croatia which showed that their populations did not choose to live in a Greater Serbia.

The European Community (EC) offered a carrot, in the generous economic assistance to the republics provided they stayed together. The United States meanwhile supplied the stick. On June 21, 1991, five days before the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav Peoples’ Army (JNA) attacked Slovenia, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker declared during a notorious stopover in Belgrade that the United States supported “Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity at all costs” and would not recognize an independent Slovenia.

The Road to the Vance-Owen Plan

When the Serbian military machine moved into action—a machine infinitely superior, of course, to anything possessed by other Yugoslav republics—the West quickly adopted an “evenhanded” policy of blaming all Aides equally for the war, and imposed an arms embargo and economic sanctions against all six Yugoslav republics. As a result, by mid-October 1991 one-third of Croatia was under occupation; the country was practically bisected at two points (Karlovac and Zadar); and the majority of its cities and industrial installations had been subjected to heavy shelling.

Lord Carrington, chairman of the EC-sponsored Peace Conference on Yugoslavia, now came up with a plan for “an association of sovereign or independent republics” to replace Yugoslavia: in other words, the original Slovenian-Croatian proposal. This plan was signed by all former constituent republics except Serbia; Belgrade preferred a Greater Serbia to any Yugoslavia it could not fully control.

Economic sanctions, but not the arms embargo, were then lifted against all republics with the exception of Serbia and Montenegro. These sanctions, limited as they were so far as Serbia was concerned—for example, the sanctions did not involve any freeze on Yugoslav foreign assets, which were exclusively in Serbian hands—were in any case never enforced.

This new EC policy toward Yugoslavia reflected an acceptance by now of the breakup of the Soviet Union. It involved a recognition that Yugoslavia was finished, and that Serbia and Montenegro bore prime responsibility for the war To justify maintenance of the arms embargo on Croatia, however, the conflict on its territory continued to be described as a ‘civil war” rather than outside aggression.

Despite the embargo, Croatia managed to raise an army, not a match for that of Serbia but not negligible either, and a stalemate of sorts was reached by the end of November 1991. It became dear that Croatia would not surrender without further and more punishing coercion, such as the bombing and occupation of its major cities, including Zagreb—as the Serbian regime had in fact planned.(1) The growing public unease in the West, triggered by the destruction of Vukovar and the shelling of Dubrovnik, led to a new Western policy.

In mid-December 1991, the EC made the decision to recognize individual Yugoslav republics, provided that the population voted in favor of independence. Recognition confirmed the existing republican borders, of course, and required formal guarantees for the rights of national minorities within the newly independent states.

These three principles—popular will, respect for borders, rights of minorities—placed the international recognition of the new states on a proper democratic basis. They were also in line with the terms of the previous Yugoslav constitution, albeit with the key difference that Vojvodina and Kosovo were treated not as members of the Yugoslav federation on a par with the republics, but as integral parts of Serbia.(2)

In mid-January 1992 Slovenia and Croatia accordingly received recognition, that of Macedonia was accepted in principle (but it would first have to negotiate its name with Greece!), while Bosnia-Herzegovina still had to pass the referendum stage. Serbia and Montenegro refused to apply, claiming for themselves the name and assets of the former Yugoslavia, including its United Nations seat.

It turned out, however, that what the EC—now joined by the UN—gave the new republics with one hand, it took away with the other whenever Serbian interests cam=splay Thus Serbia maintained territorial claims against Croatia, on the pretext that Serb minorities in the so-called Krajina areas needed its protection. Croatia’s recognition was consequently made conditional on its accepting the Vance Plan: U.N. forces would replace regular units of the Serbian/JNA army in the Krajinas, which would become United Nations Protected Areas (UNPAs).

In reality, the plan simply served to protect Serbian gains in Croatia. To be sure, the Vance Plan formally envisaged demilitarization of the UNPAs, return of their expelled non-Serb population and a gradual restitution of Croatian state authority over them. But since none of this was implemented, the question of Croatia’s borders was in effect left undecided. This weakening of a key plank of EC/U.N. policy was to have a devastating effect also on Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Throughout the war in Croatia, the Serbian-dominated JNA used Bosnia-Herzegovina as a conduit for supplying arms to its regular and paramilitary forces in the Croatian Krajinas, and as a base for waging war directly in Croatia. In Bosnia, too, Serbia had begun in October 1990 the process of establishing new areas from which Bosnian state authority was expelled and which were immediately militarized under the auspices of Radovan Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party. The Croatian and these new northwest Bosnian Krajinas were then treated as a single whole, effectively obliterating the Croatian-Bosnian border—a situation not altered by the subsequent arrival of U.N. troops.

Croatia responded by promoting its own so-called Croatian Community areas in northern and central Bosnia and western Herzegovina, whose initial function was mainly defensive but which were later consolidated into “Herzeg-Bosna,” mirroring Karadzic’s rebel state The effective partition of Bosnia thus began even before the start of the Bosnian war, and was directly facilitated by the Vance Plan—for the Plan allowed Serbia to withdraw its units from Croatia without loss of territory and prepare itself for war against Bosnia, whose independence was presaged in the EC invitation to apply for recognition.

It is significant that the EC mediators negotiated the withdrawal of JNA forces with all their hardware to Bosnia, thus strengthening Serbia’s military presence there. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic’s September 1991 appeal to Carrington to create conditions for a gradual dismantling of the JNA in Bosnia fell on deaf ears. What happened next is well known.

Bosnia was attacked even before it held its referendum (end of March 1992), with its capital city Sarajevo coming tinder heavy bombardment immediately afterwards. Within two months, two-thirds of its territory had been occupied and “ethnically cleansed.” By June 1992, information regarding camps, massacres and mass rapes was circulating through Western capitals, raising public pressure for Western military intervention.

Following French president Mitterrand’s visit to Sarajevo in June, U.N. troops arrived to open the airport for humanitarian aid. Western ships were also sent to blockade the Montenegrin coast, but sanctions-busting was allowed to proceed on a grand scale, especially by way of the Danube. In the last week of August at the London Peace Conference, several fine-sounding resolutions were adopted; the fact that none of these was implemented did not prevent the British government from hailing the conference as a real success.

Carrington resigned as mediator and was replaced by David Owen and Cyrus Vance, representing the EC and the United Nations respectively. The show was moved to Geneva, which gave birth to the Vance-Owen Peace Plan—VOPE.

The Deadly Mischief of VOPP

Like its predecessor the Cutilheiro Plan, VOPP took as its starting point Serbia’s insistence on an ethnic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina (seen in Belgrade as a necessary stepping stone toward realization of the project of a Greater Serbia). The Bosnian Croats’ acceptance of VOPP meant that a parallel Greater Croatia project now also made its appearance. It remains a moot point whether this latter construct would have arrived quite so promptly had VOPP not promised to Croatia a handsome if undeserved slice of Bosnian state territory.

Serbia’s and Croatia’s alleged concern for their minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina acted as cover for an old-fashioned land grab, which VOPP served to give international respectability. By accepting the idea that ethnic security can be achieved only by ethnic-territorial separation, VOPP signed Bosnia’s death warrant. For it is a simple fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina could never be divided along ethnic lines without large-scale bloodshed and the forced deportation of whole populations, so-called “ethnic cleansing.”

This truth was well understood by Serbian strongman Miosevic and his army when they prepared the Bosnian war, several years before its actual outbreak in April1992. It was this pattern of ethnic distribution—the inextricable intermingling of Moslems, Croats and Serbs—which had led the Communist Party at the end of World War II to make Bosnia-Herzegovina a separate republic in Federal Yugoslavia. For the Yugoslav Communists, for whom the national question was not so much abstract principle as active political practice, knew there was no way in which Bosnia-Herzegovina could be divided between Serbia and Croatia with substantial numbers of Serbs and Croats being left in the “wrong” republic, and that any such partition would also break up the Moslem nation into two parts.

For these reasons, neither peace nor the Communists’ New Yugoslavia could be achieved without restoration of Bosnia’s state identity. The 1939 Cvetkovic-Macek agreement, which had divided Bosnia-Herzegovina between a Greater Croatia and a Greater Serbia, had been immediately denounced by the Communists as a positive incitement to conflict among Moslems, Serbs and Croats. The truth of this has been amply proved by the horrors of two wars—World War II and the current one—fought on Bosnian soil.

VOPP like all previous Western peace initiatives, was born in response not so much to Serbian aggression as to its inhuman side effects. The West did not mind the idea of Serbia imposing its own “peace,” thus providing a kind of ‘final solution” to the potential instability of the post-Yugoslav Balkans.

The trouble was that Serbian expansionism involved areas of unfavorable (for Serbia) ethnic distribution. Belgrade’s war became for this reason a total war against a largely unarmed non-Serb (and frequently also Serb) population, with the aim of breaking its resistance to expulsion from the coveted areas, seen as the only guarantee of ultimate and permanent Serbian control.

The war—first in Croatia and now even more extensively and brutally in Bosnia-Herzegovina–thus necessarily involved “ethnic cleansing,” mass killing, systematic mass rape, detention camps, wholesale destruction of cities and villages, deliberate erasure of cultural and religious monuments, and repudiation of the very idea of a multicultural or multi-ethnic society like that of Sarajevo and other Bosnian urban centers.

This of course made for terrible TV pictures, which continued to fill our screens for far too long for the comfort of Western governments. For the Bosnians put up stiff resistance contrary to all expectations, thus denying a quick Serbian victory. As a result, Western governments found themselves indeed embroiled in the “Balkan quagmire,” trying desperately to keep out of it yet refusing to give up the right to influence its course and outcome.

VOPP encapsulated the contradictory attitude of Western states toward the war in former Yugoslavia, in which the principle that borders cannot be changed by force was at all times overridden in practice by the desire to appease Serbia, which was intent on doing precisely that. This was a policy of diminishing returns, in that each successive intervention by the Western states served only to prepare the grounds for the ultimate surrender of all principled politics.

Principles—both the particular one relating to borders and more general ones concerned with justice and human rights—were kept alive only to the extent that the victims of Serbian (and later also Croatian) aggression managed to fend it off. Thus Slovenia—inconveniently bordering Western Europe and also determined to resist—was deemed by Serbia not to be worth too much effort, so consequently allowed to go free after a ten-day engagement, only to be praised by the Western countries as a democratic (and their own!) success story Croatia almost went under, yet eventually survived—at the price of having the U.N. police a large part of its territory on behalf of Serbia.

Thanks to VOPE it seems the Bosnian story will have a wholly different ending. For VOPP although formally supportive of Bosnia’s territorial integrity, in reality provided an extremely sophisticated blueprint for its breakup. The basic mischief of VOPP lay not so much in its proposed division of Bosnia-Herzegovina–a small state with an ethnically very mixed population of 4.5 million—into ten ethnically defined provinces, as in the fact that it envisaged only a purely nominal central government.

VOPP thus left the Bosnian state without an army to protect its borders or a police force to maintain its authority internally. It is not even clear whether Bosnia was to be allowed to have its own currency. The Plan’s delineations of provincial borders, moreover, were not guided solely by the ethnic principle; they incorporated many of Serbia’s and Croatia’s military gains, allocated towns and villages in a way designed to maximize inter-ethnic conflict and, by leaving the door open for further territorial “negotiations,” ensured that the war and forced deportation of the population would continue.

In addition, by making no provision for return of the expelled or displaced population, the Plan legitimized the policy of “ethnic cleansing;” and by failing to provide for protection of existing or future minorities in the provinces, it made ethnic partition inevitable. Finally, no timetable for the Plan’s implementation was laid down, nor any means specified for implementation. In fact, as time went on it became clear that the Plan was not meant to be implemented at all.

The immediate consequence of VOPP was, on the one hand, a new Serbian drive to expel the rest of the Moslem population from eastern Bosnia and a massive push to establish full control over the northern corridor, on the other, the opening of a new front in the center and west, this time between Croats and Moslems. Croat units pressed forward to round off the areas allocated to them by the Plan, killing or expelling the Moslem population in the process, while the Moslems in a desperate act of self-defense responded in the same corn.

The end of the fragile yet vital Croat-Muslim alliance in Bosnia changed the nature of the war: What started as a war of aggression now became a fully-fledged civil war. Indeed, the Croat offensive may actually have been planned deliberately to forestall any plans for U.S. military intervention.

Bosnia from the start was faced with only three alternatives. Either it would be allowed to defend itself; or the United Nations would have to defend it; or it would be partitioned between Serbia and Croatia. The first option was blocked by the United Nations with its arms embargo. The second never materialized. This made the third alternative inevitable. Current talk of partial implementation of the Plan and protected areas for the Bosnian Moslems should be discounted as yet another cynical exercise by Western and Russian politicians to cover up the reality of their policies.

The End of an Era

The history of EC/U.N. peacemaking in former Yugoslavia shows Western and Russian leaders working together to destroy the potential foundations for any democratic and equitable settlement in the area.

They have proclaimed the sanctity of European borders, yet allowed Serbia to occupy one-quarter of Croatia, and Croatia and Serbia to grow unpunished at the expense of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They have recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as a U.N. member, yet done nothing to prevent its destruction—indeed, they made sure it would happen. They have endorsed popular referenda, insisted on minority rights and even set up a war-crimes tribunal for Bosnia, but have in practice allowed, legitimized and stimulated forced deportations of whole populations and what amounts to a genocide in the case of the Bosnian Moslem nation.

Finally, their pursuit of regional stability by way of appeasing the Milosevic regime in Serbia has resulted in a serious and long-term destabilization of the whole Balkan region. In sum, their peacemaking has turned out to be a cover for warmaking—a pendant to territorial aggression and population displacement unseen in Europe since World War II.

Nobody should believe that a Greater Serbia or a Greater Croatia will become stable states, or that Bosnian Moslems will meekly accept the fate of becoming a stateless nation. The destruction and partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the depopulation of a large part of it and the parallel creation of a densely populated Moslem ghetto in central Bosnia, carries a heavy price. When the bills come due for payment they will break the backs of Serbia and Croatia alike.

Even if the Serbian war in Croatia were to end in an amicable settlement—which seems highly unlikely—there is no way in which the two “victors” will be able to financially support, let alone economically reconstruct, their new possessions. The numerous warlords created by the contraband in arms, and by the looting of the land and humanitarian aid, will return to haunt their capital cities, providing a pretorian guard for all kinds of right-wing and retrograde political projects. A requiem for the Bosnian state is thus also a requiem for its Croatian and Serbian equivalents, as impending social and economic collapse comes to be consummated in a separatist dynamic of their own regions.

By opting for a conservative “balance of power” politics instead of one founded on bourgeois-democratic principles, the Western powers have dealt a serious blow to political stability throughout the European continent For Bosnia holds up a mirror to much of former Eastern Europe and Russia. If the whirlwind set into motion by Milosevic and his generals marks the end of forty-five years of peace in Europe, Europe’s decision not to quell it amounts to the final destruction of what was left of the political and moral capital won by the defeat of fascism.


  1. According to a recent statement by General Voljko Kadijevic, who headed the JNA at the start of the war, an assault on Osijek, Zagreb and Split was planned to follow the destruction of Vukovar. Kadijevic also stated that the aim of JNA intervention in Croatia was its territorial amputation. (Borba, Belgrade, May 18, 1993)
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  2. For background on the status of Vojvodina and Kosovo, particularly the crisis created by the Milosevic Serbian government crackdown against the autonomy of Kosovo, see Michele Lee, “The Strange Death of Tito’s YugosIavia?” in Against the Current 18, January-February 1989—ed.
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July-August 1993, ATC 45