The Balkan Endgame

The Balkan Endgame

Ten years have passed since the bloody carnage began in Bosnia, initiated by Serbian nationalist forces led by Slobodan Milosevic. To be sure, the Serbs were not alone. Croatia’s separatists, led by an equally authoritarian former communist general, Franjo Tudjman, reveled in chauvinist nostalgia for the pro-Nazi Ustase regime. They drove their substantial Serbian minority to an ill-considered armed revolt, backed and funded by Belgrade. Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its mostly secular Muslim plurality, found itself stuck between two rival nationalisms, Serb and Croat, agreed in only one thing—to divide Bosnia between them, leaving the Bosnian Muslims at best a minor bantustan.

What followed was carnage on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War—until the international community, through the belated use of NATO airpower, imposed peace in the fall of 1995. Bosnia suffered around two hundred thousand casualties; two-and-a-half million refugees fled, three hundred thousand of them probably permanently, to Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These last were for the most part the best-educated and well-trained young people. The country’s population has been brutally moved around, by “ethnic cleansing” by the three sides, so that most now live in ethnically homogeneous areas. The towns have been flooded by displaced rural masses. While the U.S.-sponsored Dayton Agreement in 1995 imposed an effective if unloved peace on Bosnia-Herzegovina, enforced by the continued presence of NATO and Russian troops, it took at least one more major military intervention in Kosovo to break the Serbian regime’s desire for military adventures and ethnic cleansing. In October 2000, Milosevic was finally overthrown, after refusing to concede a lost election, and replaced by relatively decent if somewhat reluctant reformers.

Today the weak, post-authoritarian reform governments in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia share many features. All three include an uneasy mix of moderate social democrats, liberals, nationalists, and crooks. All three have inherited more or less unchanged military, police, secret service, and judiciary structures from their authoritarian nationalist predecessors. All three preside over devastated economies overrun by mafia-like organizations that their predecessors placed in power. All three have, to put it mildly, an ambivalent relationship toward media freedom, human rights, and the right of refugees to return. All three use unreformed courts against journalists and writers. All three are reluctant to move against their own war criminals or to acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for massive violations of human rights. All three are firmly under the thumb of neoliberal international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Finally, all three have unstable quarreling coalitions, with the old authoritarian nationalists in opposition, thirsting for power and revenge.

The irony is that the nationalist separatists have managed to create states far less independent than Tito’s Yugoslavia was. With the exception of Slovenia in the North, which managed a successful exit in 1990, all the former Yugoslav states are also far less prosperous than Yugoslavia was. Despite the robust pro-natalist policies of official churches and nationalist governments, all three suffer negative birth rates (the only exception is the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia). Except for gangsters and the nomenklatura—sometimes the same, or at least related—the middle class has been pauperized.

Can one find some generalized lessons in all this suffering? I reject two major paradigms that guide most of my academic colleagues and most American politicians dealing with the region. One is that age-old, deep-rooted hatreds, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, shape the conflict, that ordinary Serbs and Croats hold deep grievances about things that happened five hundred years ago. I do not believe this is true. Instead, I think that a catastrophic failure of the political and intellectual classes in Yugoslavia as a whole—primarily in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia—is mainly responsible for the bloody collapse of the country. This failure of elites was much exacerbated by the failure of international institutions—the United Nations, the European Community, and the United States—to intervene effectively, and above all in time, to stop this slowly unfolding catastrophe. The political elites and the independent intellectuals share responsibility with the media, which were fearful and compliant. The few exceptions only prove that it was possible to resist the ethnic hatred orchestrated from above.

Certainly, it would have been safer to resist if more people had resisted. Some did: people in the nongovernmental organizations, student groups such as the Serbian OTPOR (Resistance), independent unions like Nezavisnost, and critical journals and radio stations such as Feral in Croatia and Radio 52 in Belgrade. Most of these owed their very existence to outside donors like George Soros. All are now in jeopardy; essential aid is drying up. Aid from the new government and the UN is no substitute; both are bureaucratic and overcautious, supporting only “respectable” NGOs and opposition groups.

We cannot ignore the fact that the death of the secular religion of communism created a value vacuum, which has been filled with all kinds of cultural, historical, and political kitsch. Nationalism, patriotic histories, and shallow official religiosity (often one and the same in the former Yugoslavia), along with arcane conspiracy theories, dominated the media and opinion-making institutions. The history was mostly wrong, and the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies had precious little in common with Christianity. Nevertheless, this potent mix, a lazy person’s worldview, requiring no critical thought or effort, is still the primary frame of reference. The academies in Belgrade and Zagreb became bastions of nationalism; even some leading philosophers from the Marxist humanist journal Praxis, Mihailo Markovic and Ljuba Tadic, became warmongering nationalists. Nationalism still dominates the language and politics of most of what used to be the democratic opposition and is now the government. The only visible difference is that the “democrats” in power are pro-Western and defend neoliberal economics. Otherwise, they share with their predecessors the belief that the world has been uniquely unfair to their own nation. This sense of grievance and entitlement against an unjust world paralyzes the political scene and makes it all but impossible to deal with what can and should be dealt with: the vast criminal structures left in place by the Milosevic, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic governments.

One of the consequences of this paralysis is that refugees are returning at a snail’s pace. Six years after the end of the war, only fifty thousand out of a half million Serbian refugees have been able to return to Croatia. Even fewer have been able to get their homes or businesses back. The figures for Bosnia are just as dismal, despite the efforts of international agencies, the European Union, and, more modestly, the United States pressing for the return or compensation of all refugees. The ugly truth is that most nationalists do not want their fellow nationals living where they do not rule.

The second paradigm that I reject holds that one must pay scrupulous respect to national sovereignty even when carnage occurs. That has been and is a deadly idea in far too many parts of world. Think of Cambodia; Cyprus; East Timor; Afghanistan; Southern Sudan; the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq; Rwanda; Liberia; Sierra Leone; former Yugoslavia, including Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo; and yes, even Palestine/Israel. All of these have something in common: the “locals” don’t have the resources—political, military, and above all moral—to resolve the local disputes. In all of these cases, a solution, even if it is less than perfect, has to be imposed from the outside by some armed surrogate for the world community. In most of them, an imposed solution, combining something like the Bosnian Dayton Agreement with the Cyprus model, would be the least evil outcome. This requires that the imposed peace be firmly maintained by an international force with teeth. That is the main lesson I draw from the Balkan wars.

The dismal reality of the current post-Yugoslavia scene is most visible among the educated young. Entire graduating classes of engineers, electro-technicians, computer experts, agronomists, economists, and doctors line up at the gates of the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian embassies—or any other embassies willing to take applications from emigrants. The impact of the brain drain on the economies of these societies is yet to be felt. Most of these young people will never come back, even if the new regimes place no obstacles in their path.

In Croatia and Serbia, the leading parties are the local “social democrats,” proud members of the Socialist International, whose meetings they regularly attend. The Serbs never hint at social democracy at home, where they are a neoliberal, pro-Western party, claiming to represent modernity and “civilized nationalism.” What all these social democrats have in common is a visceral hostility to trade unions and an uncritical love for privatization. No soft German- or French-style social capitalism for them; the social democrat they like best is Tony Blair.

The Serbian reform government, like its counterparts in Bosnia and Croatia, organizes official religious instruction in the schools. In Croatia this was imposed by the right-authoritarian regime of Tudjman, in Serbia by the democratic reformers who replaced Milosevic. Needless to say, religious instruction is fiercely nationalist. Clericalism is on the rise in both countries. The former liberal and democratic opposition’s lack of political courage explains the continued absence of any political catharsis in Serbia, any willingness to accept responsibility for war crimes, as well as the absence, in Croatia, of any real attempt to acknowledge and deal with the hostility that its resident minorities have faced—especially the Serbs.

Since the old opposition came to power, it has failed even to begin to address the local fascists. It has not gone after the far right militias, now disguised as veterans’ organizations. It has not touched the old judges, bureaucrats, policemen, secret services, or military. In Croatia today it is legal, on radio, on television, and in mass demonstrations to give the fascist salute and sing songs of the World War II fascist movements. Both Belgrade and Zagreb have allowed publication of the infamous, anti-Semitic tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well as new editions of Mein Kampf, which one cannot buy in Germany. This is all done, of course, to show that the societies are liberal, democratic, and tolerant. Ethnic hate speech is not illegal, nor is Holocaust revisionism. Young skinhead thugs bedecked with Nazi, Chetnik, or Ustase symbols parade around and scream slogans of ethnic hatred at concerts and sports matches; they assault the Roma with impunity. State-funded veterans clubs sometimes join them.

Croatia has eight times as many police per capita today as Germany; Serbia is also grossly over-policed, which raises the question for donor nations of why we should continue to aid these regimes. To be sure, they have adopted the tried and true, tighten-your-belt, IMF / World Bank formulas. But the rulers don’t tighten their belts by getting rid of excess cops and soldiers or by cutting down the huge salaries and pensions of parliamentary deputies and government bureaucrats. They save money by cutting the already threadbare welfare state and dismissing steel workers, sanitation workers, male nurses, and all married women, who, of course, should be home and, preferably, pregnant. The IMF does not object. The American embassy is wonderfully silent.

The only major politician who has offered an apology for the war horrors thus far is the president of Croatia, Stjepan Mesic, who spoke out when visiting Sarajevo. For this he was roundly denounced in the main Croatian press and by others in the government. Such a gesture is clearly beyond the capacity of the Serbian president, Vojislav Kostunica, who has expressed his disgust at the existence of The Hague court and at the very idea that Serbs might have committed war crimes. The Serb and Croat politicians who hold real power are not going to apologize for crimes committed by their own nationals.

In the wars of the Yugoslav succession, there was an unbelievable ratio of civilian to military deaths: roughly ten to one. Mass graves of civilians are still being discovered throughout Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Was there any real battle where two military units actually fought each other? The closest one can find is the siege of Vukovar in 1991. This Croatian city, with a population about 50 percent Serb and 50 percent Croat, was mercilessly shelled for days by the Yugoslav Army. After the Yugoslavs “won” the battle, they took prisoners out of the hospital and killed several hundred. Yet some of my friends in Belgrade still ask, “Why is the world so mad at us?” Try to get a contemporary Serbian politician to talk about Srebrenica, where, with UN “protectors” present, seven thousand to eight thousand Bosnian men were separated from their families and murdered—the largest single massacre in Europe since the Second World War. No politician has seriously proposed that the Serbs themselves should try these people, without waiting for The Hague court.

In Croatia, when the demand came to take care of their own war criminals, the social democratic-led government had the nerve to say, “It’s not true we’re not punishing our war criminals; we have actually jailed more than a thousand [!] war criminals.” Before coming back, Serb refugees would check with the UN, and ask, “Are there any charges filed against us in Croatia?” The answer would be “No.” When they returned, however, they would immediately be charged with genocide, on the novel theory that having been drafted into the Serbian artillery made one guilty of genocide—if one is a Croatian Serb. The Croats themselves recognize the absurdity of this, and so people convicted of genocide are sentenced to four years in prison. The intended effect, of course, is to discourage other refugees from returning. The reformers are thus continuing the ethnocentric policies of their predecessors.

Kostunica insists that The Hague tribunals are illegal. The notion that the international court is not legal because it was set up by the Security Council and not by the General Assembly of the UN, also popular with some Western ultraleftists, is nonsense. The court was not set up by NATO; Russia and China could have vetoed its establishment. The West, the UN, the world community—all share heavily in the responsibility for what happened in Bosnia, Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and Srebrenica, because they did not intervene earlier than they did. But that does not excuse a single act by Milosevic.

The question that really should be raised by people protesting the trial of Milosevic is this: why have the United States, Britain, and France, which are occupying powers in Bosnia, not yet arrested Karadjic and Mladic, the main leaders of the Bosnian Serbs who are most directly responsible for Serbian war crimes? How is it that they dare ask the relatively fragile governments in Zagreb and Belgrade to make politically dangerous arrests when they have failed to do so during six years of occupation?

We have never had a serious debate in the United States about why we are in Bosnia and Kosovo. Of course, we have never had a serious debate about foreign policy goals in the post–cold war world at all. However, pending such a debate, I oppose withdrawing U.S. troops from the Balkans in the near future. My model is Cyprus, which remains divided and peaceful. In any case, why keep troops in garrisons in Germany or Italy rather than Bosnia and Kosovo where they can do some good? But the occupying authorities should be more proactive, going after Serb, Bosnian, Albanian, and Croat war criminals—and also the local mafias. Unfortunately, the attention span of our political establishment is extraordinarily short. Apparently it can deal with only one issue at a time, and the well-being of the former Yugoslavia is not the current issue. As a consequence, we are not pushing the Croats, the Serbs, the Bosnians, and the Kosovars to make the reforms that must be made if there is to be stability, let alone democracy. There are killers still walking the streets of Zagreb and Belgrade. They are much safer today than human rights workers are. This is not the outcome we looked for when, belatedly and rightly, NATO intervened in the former Yugoslavia.



Bogdan Denitch is the president of Transitions to Democracy, a nongovernmental organization working on democracy, human rights, and refugee return in Croatia, former Yugoslavia, and Bosnia.

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