The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has had a bumpy journey since its foundation in 1993. It has long been condemned by Serb and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, as well as by left-wing and right-wing hardliners in the West, as a political court set up to serve the interests of the Great Powers. But until recently, it has been supported by liberals in the former Yugoslavia and in the West and beyond, as a positive and necessary exercise in international justice – albeit one that has not produced very satisfactory results. In recent months, however, a realignment has taken place: former supporters of the ICTY have begun to condemn it in the same ‘anti-imperialist’ terms used by the nationalists, and to present its judgements as the work of Great Power intrigue. Their anger has focused above all on the figure of Judge Theodor Meron, President of the ICTY. Meron is a Polish Jew by birth and a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel, was educated at the University of Jerusalem, and served as legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada and to the UN, before emigrating to the US. Meron is no Zionist hawk; in 1967, he wrote a memo for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol advising against the building of settlements in the newly occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Yet with a sad inevitability, his Jewish and Israeli background have taken on a sinister prominence in the current campaign against him.
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The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has acquitted on appeal Momcilo Perisic, former Chief of Staff of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), who had previously been sentenced to 27 years in prison for war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. He was one of only six officials from Serbia-Montenegro ever indicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. He was the only member of the high command of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) or VJ ever indicted for war-crimes in Croatia or Bosnia, and the only former JNA officer from Serbia or Montenegro of any rank ever indicted over Bosnia. His acquittal means that, to date, no official or army officer of Serbia-Montenegro and no member of the JNA or VJ high command has been convicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. By any standards, this represents a monumental failure on the part of the Tribunal. Precisely what kind of failure, and whether it is a failure of the Prosecution or the judges or both, is open to debate.
Perisic’s acquittal follows the ICTY’s recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, and of Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj. Those previous acquittals had provoked a veritable paroxysm of fury from Serbia’s politicians such as President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and UN General Assembly president Vuk Jeremic, who condemned them as proving that the ICTY was an anti-Serb and/or a political court. Commentators in the West widely agreed; an ill-informed rant by David Harland, former head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, upholding all the old Serb-nationalist stereotypes of the ICTY’s and West’s supposed anti-Serb bias, was published in the New York Times and received wide publicity even from reputable sources. People who had apparently been fairly satisfied with the ICTY’s not entirely glorious performance over the past two decades now emerged from the woodwork to denounce it in bitter terms.
The acquittal of such a high-ranking Serbian official, following the acquittal of two high-ranking Croats and one high-ranking Kosovo Albanian, provides further proof – if any were needed – that the ICTY is not ‘anti-Serb’. Perisic is, in fact, neither the first nor the most high-ranking senior Serbian official to be acquitted by the Tribunal; former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic was acquitted back in 2009 of war crimes against Kosovo Albanians.
Consequently, the Serbian government has now made a rapid U-turn in its view of the Tribunal. Prime Minister Dacic (also leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia founded by Slobodan Milosevic) had responded to the Gotovina and Markac acquittals by stating ‘This confirms the claims of those who say that the Hague Tribunal is not a court and that it completes political tasks that were set in advance’. Yet his reaction to the Perisic acquittal is that it ‘negates accusations about the alleged aggression of the Army of Yugoslavia against Bosnia and Croatia’. The latter conclusion is echoed by the Sense News Agency, which provides detailed overage of the activities of the ICTY and which claims that ‘Momcilo Perisic was the only senior official from Serbia and FR Yugoslavia convicted by the Tribunal and sentenced for crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Slobodan Milosevic was charged with the same crimes, and the judgment can be considered as Milosevic’s posthumous acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.’
In these circumstances, there is naturally a temptation for those on the other side of the front-lines from the Serb nationalists – those who wanted to see the Serbian perpetrators of war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia punished, and the victims receive justice – to cry foul, and to carry out a Dacic-style U-turn of their own. A temptation, that is, to say that the supporters of Milosevic, Seselj and Tudjman were right after all, and the ICTY is really just a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political. But this temptation should be resisted, both for pragmatic reasons and, more importantly, for reasons of principle.
Pragmatically, conceding that the ICTY is a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political means handing an enormous victory to those extremists – Serb and Croat, right-wing and left-wing – who supported the elements that carried out the war-crimes and that have always resisted the efforts of the ICTY to punish them. It is not for nothing that – both in the former Yugoslavia and in the West – ethnic cleansers, fascists and extremists have consistently opposed the Tribunal, whereas liberals, democrats and progressives have supported it. To reject the legitimacy of the ICTY and its verdicts means negating not only those verdicts we don’t like, but all the good that has been achieved by precisely this Tribunal, despite its undeniable numerous failures. The ICTY was the first international court to establish that the Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide, paving the way for the confirmation of this fact by the International Court of Justice.
Immediately following the acquittals of Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, the ICTY in December of last year convicted Zdravko Tolimir, Assistant Commander of Intelligence and Security of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), for genocide, and in the process established that the group targeted for genocide by the VRS was the Muslim population of East Bosnia as a whole – not just of Srebrenica – and that the genocidal act extended to Zepa as well as Srebrenica. It is a tremendous breakthrough for the legal recognition of the Bosnian genocide beyond Srebrenica. If the Perisic acquittal is to be dismissed as a political verdict, it undermines the Tolimir verdict as well. You cannot have it both ways, and cheer the verdicts with which you agree while denouncing those you don’t like. Either the ICTY is a legitimate court or it is not.
Which brings us to the matter of principle: a genuine, legitimate court must have the right and ability to acquit, as well as to convict. If the ICTY were really a kangaroo court, all those accused would be convicted. Instead of which, we have proof of genuine pluralism, with panels of judges dividing 2-1 and 3-2 over major cases, and the Appeals Chamber reversing the decision of the Trial Chambers. Whatever his political views or personal inclinations, Judge Theodor Meron, presiding judge at both the Appeals Chamber that acquitted Gotovina and Markac and the one that acquitted Perisic, and currently under attack from critics for the acquittals, was in each case only one judge in a panel of five who came from different countries. He was the only judge who acquitted both Gotovina and Markac on the one hand and Perisic on the other, and was not even a member of the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. The only other judge who was a member of the Appeals Chamber both for Gotovina-Markac and for Perisic was Carmel Agius, and he strongly opposed the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac but supported that of Perisic. Judge Bakone Justice Moloto was presiding judge both in the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic and in the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. In the first case, he dissented from the majority opinion but was outvoted – something that took place in September 2011, a mere year and a half ago. Hence, I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Eric Gordy, who argues that the acquittals all form part of a consistent policy on the part of the judges in this period.
The conspiracy theorists (among whom I do not include Eric) would either have us believe that the initial indictments of Gotovina/Perisic and their initial convictions were simply elaborate deceptions paving the way for the final, pre-determined acquittals. Or they would have us believe that whenever the ICTY convicts it is acting legitimately and whenever it acquits it is acting politically. But a court that only convicts and never acquits is not a genuine court. Even at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried the leaders of Nazi Germany after World War II, three of the twenty-four defendants – i.e. one in eight of the high-ranking officials of Nazi Germany who were prosecuted – were acquitted. The whole point of a fair trial is that guilt is not assumed and defendants are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
The present author has, in the past, condemned the ICTY for retreating in the face of Serbian obstruction of its activities, citing such instances as the failure to indict most of the leading members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise from Serbia and Montenegro; the acquittal of Radovan Karadzic on one count of genocide; and the censoring of the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council. However, the acquittal of Perisic is not part of this pattern; he had already been arrested and convicted, so any Serbian resistance in his case had already been overcome.
It is one thing to accuse the Tribunal of shabby or unprincipled compromises and retreats, but quite another to accuse it of actually falsifying the guilt or innocence of suspects. Karadzic’s acquittal aside, the present author has never accused the Tribunal either of acquitting anyone guilty or of convicting anyone innocent. I did not, for example, condemn its initial conviction of Gotovina and Markac. Nor did I condemn its acquittal of Milutinovic or of Miroslav Radic (one of the three JNA officers indicted over the Vukovar hospital massacre). I am somewhat amazed that so many people, of all national backgrounds and political persuasions, have so little respect for the principle that it is ultimately for the court to decide who is innocent and who is guilty. Of course, it is entirely possible for a court to get things wrong and for a miscarriage of justice to occur. But a miscarriage of justice needs careful explaining as to how it was arrived at, not mere petulant denunciation.
In the case of Perisic, the essence of the disagreement between the Trial Chamber majority and the Appeals Chamber majority was that the first considered that ‘under the VRS’s strategy there was no clear distinction between military warfare against BiH forces and crimes against civilians/and or persons not taking active part in hostilities’, while the latter argued that ‘the VRS was not an organisation whose actions were criminal per se; instead, it was an army fighting a war’, albeit one that also engaged in criminal activities. Thus, the Trial Chamber considered that there was no clear distinction between the VRS’s lawful and its criminal actions, while the Appeals Chamber considered that there was.
Furthermore, the Trial Chamber ruled that though it could not be proven that the military assistance provided by Perisic to the VRS was specifically intended by him to support its criminal as opposed to its legal activities, nevertheless, since he clearly knew that his assistance would be used for criminal activities at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, as well as for legal military purposes, he was therefore guilty of aiding and abetting its criminal activities. The Appeals Chamber, by contrast, ruled that since it could not be proven that that he intended his military assistance to be used for criminal as opposed to legal military purposes, he could not be held to have criminal intent and therefore be held culpable for aiding and abetting the VRS’s crimes.
In other words, there is little disagreement between the two Chambers regarding facts of the case (so far as the Bosnian part of it is concerned) but principally over what conclusion should be drawn from them. The disagreement is not equivalent to that between the Trial Chamber and Appeals Chamber in the case of Gotovina and Markac, when the two chambers fundamentally disagreed over what the facts were; i.e. over whether the Croatian Army had deliberately shelled civilian targets with the intent of bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina region. In the case of Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was not throwing out an unsafe conviction based upon a highly spurious interpretation of events, as was the case with the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. Rather, it was expressing a different judgement on the nature of culpability to that of the Trial Chamber.
In this disagreement, my own sympathies are entirely with the Trial Chamber, and I applaud the dissent from the Appeals Chamber majority opinion of Judge Liu Daqun, who argued that by acquitting Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was setting the bar too high for convictions on grounds of aiding and abetting. However, personal sympathies aside and on the understanding that judges are supposed to be wholly impartial, the conclusions of either Chamber could legitimately be drawn from the facts. Unfortunately, the more conservative type of conclusion of the Appeals Chamber is the one I would have predicted judges at the ICTY usually to reach. My colleague Florian Bieber has made the reasonable point that ‘arguing that not all [the VRS's] activities were criminal is about as convincing as stating that the Mafia is not only involved in criminal activities and thus supporting it does not mean that one is “aiding and abetting” criminal activities.’ Following that analogy, Perisic could be compared to a powerful businessman who donates money, vehicles and properties to a charity known to be acting as a front for Mafia activities. Even if he clearly knew the charity’s true purpose, convicting him might not be so easy for the courts. Al Capone was, after all, only convicted for tax evasion.
This brings us to the ultimate reason for Perisic’s acquittal: the Prosecution’s case against him, resting as it did on a model of culpability that was judicially controversial, was not a strong one. The Prosecution was unable to prove his intent to commit crime, or that the assistance he provided to the VRS was intended to further its crimes. It was unable to link him directly to any specific crime. It could merely prove that he aided and abetted an army – the VRS – that he knew was engaging in criminal activities, but which was also engaging in lawful military activities.
The second reason why the Prosecution’s case was weak concerns the question of command responsibility. The Trial Chamber ruled that Perisic had no command responsibility over VRS forces, but that he did have such authority over the ‘Serb Army of Krajina’ (SVK – so-called ‘Croatian Serbs’), and in addition to aiding and abetting the VRS forces engaged in criminal acts as Sarajevo and Srebrenica, it convicted him for failing to punish the SVK perpetrators who shelled Zagreb in May 1995, killing and injuring civilians. But the Trial Chamber recognised that Perisic had ordered the SVK not to shell Zagreb and that it had disregarded his orders, choosing instead to obey the orders of Milan Martic, ‘President of the Republic of Serb Krajina’, to shell the city. This implicit recognition of Perisic’s lack of effective command responsibility over the SVK forces formed the basis for the Appeal Chamber’s overturning of his conviction for the war-crime at Zagreb – and even Judge Liu, who dissented from the majority over Perisic’s acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica, agreed with the majority on this count. In other words, the Prosecution chose to indict someone who had no command responsibility over the Bosnian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Bosnia (Sarajevo and Srebrenica) and only ambiguous command responsibility over the Croatian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Croatia (Zagreb).
Having myself worked as a war-crimes investigator at the ICTY, I am not at all surprised that four out of the five judges (and one out of three in the original Trial Chamber) were not convinced by the Prosecution’s case. Generally speaking, cases involving high-ranking perpetrators far removed from the crime base are complicated to build unless their command responsibility is clear and unambiguous. Thus, it was relatively straightforward to build a case against Milosevic for war-crimes in Kosovo, where his command responsibility (as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was clear. But more complicated to do so over Bosnia, where (as President of Serbia) it was not. In such cases where evidence of de jure responsibility is lacking, prosecutors need strong evidence of de facto responsibility.
But Perisic was not a Milosevic, Karadzic or Mladic. He was not a member of the top Serbian-Montenegrin-JNA leadership that planned and instigated the wars against Croatia and Bosnia, and his name is not listed among the principal members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise as laid down in the Milosevic indictments. He was commander of the Artillery School Centre in Zadar in Croatia, and in January 1992 became commander of the JNA’s 13th Corps, based in Bileca in Hercegovina. In these roles of less than primary importance, he participated directly in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Had the Prosecution chosen to indict him for war-crimes committed by his forces in this period, he would in all likelihood have been convicted. However, it did not.
The three principal phases of mass killing by Serb forces in the Bosnian war were the initial Serbian blitzkrieg of spring, summer and autumn 1992, resulting in the Serbian conquest of about 70% of Bosnian territory; the siege of Sarajevo, lasting from spring 1992 until autumn 1995; and the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The first of these claimed by far the largest number of victims; according to the figures provided by Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre, more Bosniaks were killed in the Podrinje region (East Bosnia) in 1992 than in 1995, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. Moreover, the regular Serb army forces that undertook the initial blitzkrieg, until 19 May 1992, were formally part of the JNA and not only de facto but also de jure under the command and control of Serbia-Montenegro, in the form of the rump Yugoslav Federal presidency made up of members from Serbia and Montenegro, and of the high command of the JNA/VJ.
Had the ICTY Prosecution indicted the top JNA commanders and Yugoslav Presidency members (from Serbia and Montenegro) who commanded these Serb forces during the blitzkrieg, and prior to that the earlier assault on Croatia, they would no doubt have been successful and Serbia’s direct responsibility for the war in Bosnia would have been judicially established. A successful outcome would have been particularly likely, given that a couple of these war-criminals have been obliging enough to publish their memoirs or diaries in which they admit their planning of the war.
On 19 May 1992, however, the newly proclaimed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), comprising Serbia and Montenegro, formally withdrew its forces from Bosnia, and a Bosnia Serb army – the VRS – formally came into being. Serbia’s political and military leadership thereby ceased to have de jure command and control over the Bosnian Serb forces. Furthermore, the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic ruled that, in fact, the Serbian leadership in this period did not have even de facto control over the Bosnian Serb forces either – as did the International Court of Justice, in its own 2007 verdict in the case of Bosnia vs Serbia. The arrangement whereby the Bosnian Serb war-effort would be formally independent of Belgrade was put in place with the deliberate intention by Serbia’s leadership of avoiding accusations of aggression and involvement in the Bosnian war. Of course, Serbia continued to provide extensive financial and military support to the Bosnian Serb forces. But it should have been clear to any war-crimes investigator worth their salt that convicting FRY military commanders of war-crimes in Bosnia after 19 May 1992 would be a much more difficult task.
Momcilo Perisic became Chief of Staff of FRY’s army, the VJ, only in August 1993, and his indictment by the ICTY only covers his activities from this period. The policy of supporting the VRS had been put in place under his predecessors, and though he was a strong supporter of the policy and apparently institutionalised it, he was scarcely its architect. Even as regards the siege of Sarajevo – one of the two crimes in Bosnia for which Perisic was indicted – the Serb killings of civilians peaked in the spring and summer of 1992 and dropped considerably thereafter, dropping particularly from around the time that Perisic took over (according to Tokaca’s figures). Chief of Staff Perisic was therefore a singularly bad choice of individual to indict for war-crimes in the period from August 1993: though he was not a simple figurehead equivalent to President Milutinovic, and enjoyed real authority in a post of considerable importance, he was ultimately just one of Milosevic’s interchangeable officers; little more than a cog, albeit a large one, in the military machine, and moreover in a part of the machine whose culpability for actual war-crimes was secondary at the time, since the Milosevic regime had devolved most of the killing to a different part – the VRS.
Had the ICTY prosecutors ever really understood the chronology and organisation of the Serb aggression against Bosnia, they could have avoided such a poor decision. But it is clear from reading Carla del Ponte’s memoirs that she, at least, never had more than a muddled understanding of it. She nebulously attributes primary and equal responsibility to the war as a whole to two individuals, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, but is unable to explain how that responsibility translated into the form that the war took. Although she deserves credit for eschewing a narrowly legalistic and lawyerly approach to war-crimes prosecutions and for attempting to view the big picture of the war – and therefore for insisting on genocide indictments in the face of conservative resistance from some of her colleagues – the big picture that she viewed was an erroneous one. Her starting point was not a global systemic analysis of the aggression, but apparently the big crimes with which she herself, as a non-expert on the war, was familiar – the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.
In her own memoirs, del Ponte’s former spokeswoman Florence Hartmann recalls that del Ponte insisted, among other things, that Milosevic himself be indicted for Srebrenica and Sarajevo, in the face of resistance from Geoffrey Nice and others, who feared that they would not be able to convince the judges of the validity of the charge. Del Ponte was thus motivated by the commendable desire to ensure that Serbia’s leadership would not escape responsibility for the killing in Bosnia, but her analytical confusion ensured her plan would not go well. In light of Perisic’s acquittal, Nice’s caution, as recalled by Hartmann, appears entirely vindicated. That said, it is worth restating that Perisic’s indictment covered only the period from August 1993, when he was Chief of Staff, not the period when the Serbian aggression was actually launched and the largest part of the killings occurred. Thus, the claims made by Dacic and by the Sense News Agency, that the verdict exonerates Milosevic and Serbia of aggression against Bosnia and Croatia and of culpability in the siege of Sarajevo, are unfounded. Furthermore, as noted above, the Appeals Chamber has not actually changed the facts as established by the Trial Chamber: that the VRS was engaged in criminal activity, at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and that Serbia’s army was aiding and abetting it while it was doing so.
On Twitter, Luka Misetic, the lawyer who successfully represented Gotovina, has succinctly referred to ‘Carla Del Ponte’s dark legacy: Perisic, Haradinaj, Oric, Gotovina, Cermak, Markac, Boskoski, Halilovic all indicted by CDP, all acquitted.’ The failure at the ICTY is that of a Prosecution that has repeatedly failed to secure the convictions of those it has indicted, not of the judges who were unconvinced by its cases.
I have long looked at Bulgaria as a successful example for Serbia to follow. The two countries have much in common; speaking closely related Slavic languages and sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, both nations were shaped by the experience of centuries of Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire wholly destroyed the medieval Serbian and Bulgarian states, so their modern successors had to be built from scratch as they were carved out of the decaying Empire during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The uncertainties, among the nationalists of both people, as to where their true national borders lay, were part of the reason for the confused strategies for expansion and consequent military catastrophes experienced by both.
Until the 1990s, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Serbia had been luckier in the outcome of its wars. Serbia and Bulgaria were on opposite sides in the Second Balkan War of 1913 and in the First and Second World Wars. Though it would be a gross oversimplification to say that Serbia had been victorious and Bulgaria defeated on the battlefield in these three wars, yet Serbia certainly ended up on the winning and Bulgaria on the losing side in all three of them. Bulgaria then suffered the misery of a Communist regime imposed by the Soviet Union – one of the most brutal in the Soviet bloc – while Serbia enjoyed the comparative liberalism and prosperity of Tito’s independent model of socialism, so that particularly from the 1960s, Serbia appeared to move far ahead of its eastern neighbour. I recall being told in Belgrade how, for visitors from Bulgaria and Romania, Serbia was the West.
For all that, Bulgaria achieved a victory in defeat. Definitely confined within its actual state borders after its final defeat in World War II, further expansionism was no longer an option. Serbia, on the other hand – its political and intellectual classes suffering from the illusion that its borders with its Yugoslav neighbours, by virtue of supposedly being ‘administrative’, were not set in stone – embarked upon a final, catastrophic expansionist adventure in the 1990s. Consequently, the repressive and impoverished Bulgaria of the 1980s joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007, while the relatively prosperous and liberal Serbia of the 1980s became the new Balkan loser and outcast in the twenty-first century. Bulgaria has generally pursued a responsible foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, recognising the independence of Macedonia under its constitutional name of ‘Republic of Macedonia’ in 1992, recognising the independence of Kosovo in 2008, and avoiding anti-Western nationalist outbursts of the kind characteristic of Serbia and Greece. Bulgaria has contributed troops to the allied forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, Bulgaria’s record was not perfect; a trace of its former irredentist ambitions remained in its refusal to recognise the existence of a Macedonian nation or language. This has involved also the refusal to recognise the existence of the ethnic-Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and undemocratic restrictions on the minority’s freedom of expression: the ethnic-Macedonian party ‘OMO “Ilinden” – Pirin’ was ruled unconstitutional by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court in 2000. This, in turn, resulted in the censure of Bulgaria by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the ban was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
This caveat aside, the Bulgarian lesson for Serbia appeared clear: keep the country tightly confined within its own legal international borders and shut off all outlets for irredentist activity, and it will evolve into a responsible member of the international community. Unfortunately, membership of the EU, far from acting as a framework in which Bulgaria would continue to evolve harmonious relations with the rest of the Balkan region, has breathed new life into the weakened body of Great Bulgarian chauvinism. In December 2009, despite Bulgaria’s continued defiance of the European Court of Human Right’s refusal to permit the registration of OMO ‘Ilinden’-Pirin, the EU’s Committee of Ministers decided to end the monitoring of the execution of the 2005 ECHR judgement regarding the matter.
That month, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov of the Citizens for European Development in Bulgaria (GERB) held a joint news conference with his ally Volen Siderov, leader of the fascist party National Union of Attack (‘Ataka’) to announce a referendum on the abolition of Turkish-language news broadcasts on Bulgaria’s BNT1 public television channel, despite the fact that nearly 10% of Bulgaria’s population of nearly eight million is ethnic-Turkish and has a long experience of persecution in Bulgaria, particularly in the Communist era under Todor Zhivkov. Borisov was, however, forced to abandon the plan for a referendum in the face of international and domestic opposition, including from the Bulgarian president and parliamentary opposition.
Image: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Now, Great Bulgarian chauvinism has reappeared on the international stage: Bulgaria has abused its EU membership to veto, at a meeting on 11 December of the General Affairs Council of the EU, the setting of a date for the opening of talks with Macedonia on its EU accession – despite the fact that the European Commission and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule recommended that, since Macedonia has met all the necessary criteria, it should be permitted to start accession negotiations. This was the fourth time that the start of accession negotiations with Macedonia has been vetoed – by Greece on each previous occasion.
Whereas in 2009, the then Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov helped to block Borisov’s anti-Turkish referendum, on this occasion, current Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev – GERB’s candidate for the post – has joined Borisov to lead the nationalist assault. The veto was apparently coordinated with Greece – the country that has consistently obstructed Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and with which, back in 1912-1913, Bulgaria joined to dismember the historical region of Macedonia. It is as if Germany and Austria had banded together for nationalistic reasons to block Poland’s or the Czech Republic’s EU accession. Greece (population nearly 11 million) and Bulgaria (population over 7 million) are now openly collaborating against Macedonia (population 2 million) in a manner reminiscent of the collaboration of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman against Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 1990s.
Bulgaria’s new hostility to Macedonia focuses on its attempt to dictate to its smaller neighbour an official version of history that accords with the Bulgarian-nationalist viewpoint – including the way history is taught in schools and the way national anniversaries are celebrated. Thus, Plevneliev had proposed in October that Macedonia and Bulgaria celebrate certain historical anniversaries jointly, in order to stress the supposedly Bulgarian character of Macedonia and the Macedonians. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov rejected this, responding that Macedonia would only jointly celebrate anniversaries concerning the two states’ contemporary friendship: Europe Day; the date on which Bulgaria recognised Macedonia’s independence; and the date on which the two states established diplomatic relations.
The Bulgarian government is also attempting to curb freedom of expression in Macedonia. It has cited, as a reason for its veto, the production of a film in Macedonia, The Third Half, that highlights Bulgaria’s role in deporting the Macedonian Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust, at a time when the land that is today the Republic of Macedonia was under Bulgarian occupation. According to the website of Yad Vashem:
In February 1943 the Bulgarians signed a pact with Germany, in which they agreed to deport to the east 20,000 Jews from their territories. Since nowhere near 20,000 Jews lived in the newly annexed territories of Macedonia and Thrace combined, the Bulgarian authorities intended to include Jews from Bulgaria itself in the deportations. In March 1943 almost all of the Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Thrace (some 4,000) were arrested and surrendered to the Germans, who then deported them to their deaths at Treblinka. Another group of about 1,200 Thrace Jews was moved to Salonika and then sent to Auschwitz. At the same time, all of the Jews of Macedonia were rounded up by the Bulgarian authorities; all but 165 were deported to Treblinka. Some 200 Macedonian Jews survived the war, along with some 250 Jews from Thrace, who either joined the Partisans or hid with their Christian neighbors. Other Thrace Jews managed to escape to Italian-held territories during 1941–1942.
In his attack on Macedonia over the film The Third Half, Borisov whitewashed the Nazi-allied Bulgarian regime’s role in deporting the Macedonian Jews: ‘If we could save all Jews in the world, we would have, but we couldn’t and saved the 50,000. Other countries couldn’t do much and didn’t do much, maybe one two countries that saved 300-400 people. And Bulgaria deserves to see movies made against Bulgaria? Why? Because of its friendliness, its love, its openness … this is the same as accusing someone that there are thirsty people in Africa.’
Thus, Macedonia’s EU accession has been further obstructed because a film was made in Macedonia highlighting the role of the Bulgarian occupiers in deporting Macedonia’s Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust, and the Bulgarian government wishes to suppress the memory of Bulgaria’s participation in the Holocaust. The EU has enabled Bulgaria to do this, just as it has enabled the resuscitation of Great Bulgarian irredentism vis-a-vis Macedonia. As the film’s director Darko Mitrevski said, ‘To call “Third Half” anti-Bulgarian is analogous to calling “Schindlerˈs List” anti-German. My movie is anti-fascist. The fact there are EU parliamentarians who classify anti-fascism as “hate speech” is a European Parliament problem as well as a problem for the country they represent, not mine.’
The EU this year received the Nobel Peace Prize. It was already undeserved, but in light of the EU’s currently active role in undermining peace and stability in the Balkans, it is definitely time that this award be revoked.
Michael Dobbs of Foreign Policy and of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) appears upset at criticisms of his article ‘In defense of the Serbs’. He had claimed that the international community in 1991-1992 had treated the Serbs in an unfair and contradictory manner, on the grounds that ‘Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia.’ Responding to the accusation that he thereby ‘legitimizes the aggression and genocide committed by Serbs’, Dobbs has responded that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’.
Dobbs is simply putting forward a general principle, since he is incapable of responding to the concrete arguments. In my last response to Dobbs, I refuted his claim that the international community had treated the Serbs unfairly. I pointed out that Serbia was not treated differently from the other former-Yugoslav republics, in terms of its right to seek international recognition, and that the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were not treated differently from minority groups in other republics (e.g. Croats in Bosnia, Bosniaks in Serbia, Albanians in Macedonia) in terms of being denied the right to secede from their respective republics. Dobbs was unable to challenge this point.
Dobbs is right that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’. Unfortunately, he does not explain evil; he merely parrots the evil-doers’ own excuse for the evil, taking it as face value. Had he said ‘Serb nationalists opposed the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, and argued that the Serb minorities in these republics should have the right to secede from them’, then he could have reasonably claimed to be explaining the Serb nationalists’ point of view (or at least the point of view that they gave in public). But he went further than this, and effectively said that the Serb nationalists were right; that though they may have carried out the bulk of the atrocities, their view of the break-up of Yugoslavia was the correct one.
As has been suggested by bodies such as the Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada (IRGC) and Congress of North American Bosniaks (CNAB), this does not explain evil; it justifies it. Dobbs is claiming that the aggression and genocide unleashed by Serb leaders against Bosnia was merely a response – albeit an illegitimate and disproportionate one – to their legitimate grievances at the anti-Serb policy of the international community. As if the Serb leaders had not been planning or waging war and genocide prior to the international community’s recognition of Croatian and Bosnian independence in late 1991 and early 1992, and would not have embarked upon this war and genocide if the international community had not treated them unfairly.
Thus, Dobbs claims that as a result of the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, ‘The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.’ As if this ‘delicate ethnic balance’ had not already been ‘upset’ by Belgrade’s crushing of Kosovo’s autonomy, raising of a Serb rebellion in Croatia, full-scale military assault on Croatia and destruction of the city of Vukovar ! All of this having occurred, of course, prior to the international recognition of Croatia or Bosnia.
Dobbs continues: ‘To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’ He is accusing the international community of being guilty of something ‘worse than a crime’ because it rejected Serb-nationalist demands to dismember Croatia and Bosnia. It is a statement that is erroneous at several levels. Croatia and Bosnia were not ‘other people’s republics’; Croatia was the state not only of the Croatian nation but of all its citizens and minorities, among which the Serbs were explicitly listed in the Croatian constitution; Bosnia was the common homeland of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others. In the free elections of 1990, most Croatian Serbs voted for the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, which supported a sovereign Croatia, rather than the nationalist Serb Democratic Party. In Bosnia, too, although the great majority of Serbs voted for the Serb Democratic Party, significant numbers voted for non-nationalist parties that supported Bosnian unity. Dobbs speaks of ‘two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics’, as if every single Serb civilian – woman, child, elderly, invalid, anti-nationalist, etc. – were ‘well armed’, and ready to burst spontaneously into armed action the moment Croatia’s and Bosnia’s independence were recognised. The very title of Dobbs’s original post, ‘In defense of the Serbs’, is patronising and offensive; he is not defending ‘the Serbs’, but merely the Serb nationalist arguments. He certainly isn’t defending the brave anti-nationalist Serbs who opposed the war and genocide: Bogic Bogicevic, Jovan Divjak, Gordana Knezevic and many others. I wonder if he even knows their names ?
Dobbs appears to treat as some sort of vindication, the fact that his commentary has offended Bosniak survivors along with Serb nationalists: ‘Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing champions for both sides.’ One of the most consistently offensive aspects of the West’s involvement in Bosnia, has been the propensity of even the most ignorant Western observers to feel they have the right to patronise the natives ‘on all sides’.
I wonder if Dobbs would have been equally pleased with himself, if he had written something about the Holocaust that had succeeded in offending equally both Germans and Jews ? His argument about Bosnia is equivalent to saying ‘Yes, the Nazis did start World War II and murder six million Jews and millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others, but on the other hand, the international community was wrong to have imposed the Treaty of Versailles that left millions of Germans in other people’s countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc. – so things are not really black and white, and Jews should try to understand the Germans’ point of view.’ Yet every student of German history knows that the Treaty of Versailles, and the ‘unfair’ borders imposed on the Germans, are not sufficient reasons to explain why the Nazis embarked upon total war and genocide.
To put it differently: Dobbs is right that Serbs had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about how their rights would be protected in an independent Croatia or Bosnia. But people with ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ don’t normally slaughter tens of thousands of people in genocidal campaigns. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the US had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about the treatment of black Americans, but they did not organise a genocide.
Contrary to what Dobbs claims, I do not think he is an idiot; merely extremely naive. I do not think he is a ‘Mr Bean’; merely that he has as little to say about the Bosnian war as Mr Bean had to say about the painting ‘Whistler’s Mother’. I am not familiar with his work in other areas; for all I know, he may be an excellent journalist. But I remain unable to comprehend how someone with so little knowledge and such a superficial understanding of the Bosnian war and genocide should be given so much space to write about them by Foreign Policy and the USHMM.
There is a scene in the film ‘Bean’, in which Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, mistaken for an expert, is forced to give a speech about a painting in an art museum, about which he knows nothing. Trying to think of something to say, he points out that the painting is ‘quite big, which is excellent, because if it was really small, you know, microscopic, hardly anyone would be able to see it’. That scene sometimes comes to mind when reading Michael Dobbs, a Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine. For reasons that are beyond me, Dobbs has been tasked by these two bodies with investigating and writing about the Bosnian war, Srebrenica massacre and Ratko Mladic trial – despite apparently having no prior knowledge or expertise about these topics, or about the topic of genocide.
Dobbs is a well intentioned individual who tries hard to be balanced and objective. He writes frankly about the horrors of the Bosnian war. He consequently comes under regular vicious attack from the creepy-crawlies of the Srebrenica genocide-denial lobby and has been forthright in confronting them. He responds to criticism in a fair and measured way. Yet it’s as if the USHMM and Foreign Policy had simply walked into a random bar, pulled out a random Joe Bloggs, and told him to write about Bosnia and genocide. In October 2011, he wrote ‘I must admit that I find it difficult to use [in relation to Srebrenica] the word genocide, which conjures up images of the Holocaust… In the popular culture, at least, when we talk about “geno-cide,” we think about the killing of an entire race or ethnic group.’ That a Fellow of the USHMM should be guided by ‘popular culture’ when considering the meaning of genocide – instead of by expertise in the history and literature of the study of genocide – is incredible. It is, on the other hand, not in the least incredible, but wholly predictable and understandable, that his comment should have caused enormous offence among Bosniak people, prompting a letter of protest to the USHMM from the Congress of North American Bosniaks, Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada and Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Centre.
Now, Dobbs has put his foot in it again, with an article entitled ‘In Defense of the Serbs’, containing his pearls of wisdom regarding the international recognition of Bosnian and Croatian independence in 1991-1992:
‘Looking back at the start of the Yugoslav wars two decades later, I am struck by a contradiction in western policy to the former Yugoslavia. Europe, supported by the U.S., recognized the independence of the breakaway republics. In other words, the borders of the multi-ethnic state that resulted from the Versailles conference decisions of 1919 (see photograph above) were not inviolate. On the other hand, the international community (in the form of the Badinter commission set up by the European Union) also decreed that the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, and the other republics could not be changed simply because a minority wished to secede.
The practical effect of these decisions was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia. The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.
For what it is worth, my own personal view is that the breakup of Yugoslavia was inevitable, just as the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable. On the other hand, the United States and Europe (the nations that created Yugoslavia in the first place) should have been much more vigorous about establishing and enforcing rules for the breakup that guaranteed minority rights.
To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’
Two decades since the start of the Bosnian war, and a Fellow of the USHMM and writer for Foreign Policy can do nothing better than trot out the same, tired old sophistry that was being peddled by the Serb nationalists back then. It’s as if all the scholarship on the subject of the break up of Yugoslavia and recognition of new states, written in the interval by Richard Caplan, Michael Libal, Josip Glaurdic and others, simply did not exist. Dobbs is making a point that has been extensively addressed and refuted by real experts on the subject over a period of twenty years.
It would take a lot of space to refute all the misconceptions in Dobbs’s small passage above, so let me pick just one. There was, of course, no ‘contradiction’ in the policy of the international community as regards the right to secede of Serbs and of non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia in 1991-1992. Dobbs claims that ‘The practical effect of these decisions [by the international community] was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia’. This is false: ‘Croats and Muslims’ were not given the right to secede from Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was recognised as being ‘in the process of dissolution’, and the six constituent republics were recognised as the entities that inherited its sovereignty. Thus, it was the six republics – including Serbia – not the ‘Croats and Muslims’, whose right to independence was recognised. Serbia was not treated differently from Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia in this respect, and was entirely free to seek and receive international recognition of its independence, just as they did.
The right of the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia to secede from their respective republics was not recognised; neither was the right of the Croats of Bosnia. Nor of the Muslims/Bosniaks of Serbia’s Sanjak region. Nor of the Hungarians of Vojvodina, within Serbia. Nor of the Albanians of Macedonia and Montenegro. Nor, at the time, of the Albanians of Kosovo. In fact, the only group on the territory of the former Yugoslavia whose carving out of a wholly new entity has ever been recognised by the international community is the Bosnian Serbs. Thus, at Dayton, the ‘Republika Srpska’ was recognised, whereas the Bosnian Croats’ ‘Croat Republic of Herceg-Bosna’ has been dissolved, and the right of the Bosnian Croats to establish their own entity within Bosnia has been consistently denied.
It is difficult to believe that anyone could think about this for even a few minutes before realising that the ‘contradiction’ Dobbs posits is no contradiction at all. But I’m not suggesting he’s being insincere; merely that he hasn’t bothered to think seriously about this, let alone read anything much – if at all – on the subject. Hamdija Custovic, Vice-President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks, has quite rightly written another letter of protest to Foreign Policy about Dobbs’s article. What saddens me about this is not that Dobbs’s views are particularly outrageous – as I said, I believe he is a well intentioned individual trying hard to be balanced and objective. It is that respectable bodies like the USHMM and Foreign Policy consider it acceptable to provide a lot of space and opportunity for someone with no expertise on the former Yugoslavia or the Bosnian genocide to write about them, as if the subject wasn’t important enough to recruit a proper expert who actually has something informed to say.
The victims of the Bosnian genocide deserve better than this.
Review of Bato Tomasevic, Life and Death in the Balkans: A family saga in a century of conflict, Hurst and Company, London, 2008
The former Yugoslav lands have produced an extraordinarily rich body of autobiographical and eyewitness literature. So much so, that this has even somewhat squeezed out the academic literature. Rather too many readers seeking an introduction to the region have begun with Rebecca West’s dreadful, rambling travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Rather too many English-language authors writing about Yugoslavia in World War II have relied too heavily on a small number of memoirs and diaries, so well worn from repeated use that they have virtually dissolved into general knowledge: in particular, the memoirs of Milovan Djilas and the war diaries of Vladimir Dedijer. Journalistic accounts still largely dominate the literature on the 1990s Bosnian war. For all that, memoirs can provide an accessible and vivid introduction to the region – provided they are taken with a pinch of salt. The English-language reader is, in fact, limited to the tip of the iceberg; the vast body of memoir literature available only in the former-Yugoslav languages comprises a goldmine for the historian.
Bato Tomasevich’s autobiography and family saga, Life and death in the Balkans, is rather special, in that the Montenegrin author was just old enough to remember the 1930s (his earliest memory is of the assassination of Yugoslavia’s King Aleksandar in 1934), fought and was wounded as a Partisan in World War II, was a relatively well-connected member of the Yugoslav establishment in the Communist era, played a minor, though not wholly negligible role in the drama of Yugoslavia’s break-up, and was an observer of the wars of the 1990s – all the way up to the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Tomasevic does not provide much in the way of grand analysis, or give the reader any greater insight into any of these episodes at the all-Yugoslav level. But in telling the story of a Montenegrin individual and his family, the author throws much light on the Montenegrin identity, relationship to Serbia and experience within Yugoslavia – particularly as regards the period up to 1945.
Nebojsa ‘Bato’ Tomasevic’s father Petar was raised on the heroic tales of his Montenegrin forebears’ battles with the Ottomans. A veteran of the First Balkan and First World Wars, he supported Montenegro’s union with Serbia in 1918. After that, fired by romantic Serb-nationalist ideals, he settled in newly reconquered Kosovo as a colonist, where he became a police officer. Despite this, Petar strove to build good relations with the local Albanians, even learning some Albanian and becoming blood-brother to an Albanian village headman. This policy was not well received by other members of Yugoslav officialdom in Kosovo, which sanctioned oppressive and discriminatory treatment of the Albanian population – which Bato describes.
Bato attributes his father’s exile from Kosovo to his friendly policy toward Albanians, as well as to his readiness to welcome into his home the relatives of a Communist killed by the Belgrade police. The book provides an insight into the nature of the early Communist movement; the Communists in interwar Yugoslavia were often the children of members of the national or local elite. Thus, the author recounts how his father, as a deputy police chief in the historic Montenegrin capital of Cetinje, where he had been relocated, confronted with his officers a Communist-led student demonstration, among whose leaders was his own daughter, the author’s older sister Stana: ‘The police were carrying truncheons, the students their schoolbags. When the two advancing columns met, Father raised his truncheon and struck his daughter. This was the signal for the rest of the police to lay into the students.’ (p. 116).
Nevertheless, as Bato tells the story, Petar and Stana ended up on the same side following the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941 – of those who rejected collaboration with the occupier. A considerable portion of the book is devoted to Bato’s memoirs of World War II, providing the reader with an insight into the oft-neglected history of Axis-occupied Montenegro. Although Petar had been a supporter of Montenegro’s unification with Serbia in 1918, his opposition to collaboration marked him out from the Chetniks – the principal Serb-nationalist armed movement in occupied Yugoslavia. The author describes in some detail Chetnik collaboration with the occupiers: ‘In all parts of Montenegro, including Cetinje, units of Chetniks were formed as part of Draza Mihajlovic’s [sic] movement. These were armed by the Italians and sent to fight the Partisans.’ (p. 177)
Bato’s family supported the Partisans; his brother Dusko survived their legendary battle with the Germans at Drvar in May 1944, only to be subsequently killed by the Chetniks. Stana was a prominent Communist, and Bato describes how he joined the Partisans by accident, when he tried to visit her on Partisan territory and was wrongly assumed to have come to volunteer – a misunderstanding he was too embarrassed to correct. Bato nevertheless entered the movement enthusiastically, but his memoirs are far from whitewashing the Partisans’ record, and he describes their execution of the Communists’ political opponents, not to mention the atrocities of their Soviet allies. As he recalls one fellow Partisan telling him: ‘Russians are good comrades, and when it comes to fighting no worse than Montenegrins, but they’ll drink anything that’s not water. Groups of them wander around at night and go into houses, especially out-of-the-way farms, looking for wine and brandy, and raping any woman in sight. Nothing is sacred to them. They don’t seem to care we’re allies. The peasants have started keeping guard and shooting any Russians that try to enter their houses. You can imagine what problems this causes !’ (pp. 341-342)
Even under the post-war Communist regime, the ties of kinship and locality counted for much. Bato recalls how he secured a coveted place to study English at the Philosophy Faculty in Belgrade, solely because he bumped into an old Montenegrin friend who worked as a clerk at that institution, and who pushed his application to the top of the pile. Bato eventually secured an enviable job in the Yugoslav diplomatic service in the UK. His standing with the regime benefited from the fact that his sister Stana was a high-ranking functionary upon whom Tito himself looked favourably. He claims Stana was made Ambassador to Norway on Tito’s personal initiative, and that when she created a stir by marrying a Norwegian man, Tito invited the couple to be his personal guests at his Adriatic retreat at Brioni, thereby ensuring her status and career did not suffer.
Bato himself, however, was not so influential that he could get away with marrying a foreigner; his marriage to an Englishwoman called Madge Phillips resulted in the swift termination of his diplomatic career. But he remained a well connected individual in the Communist regime, which ensured that he continued to play a significant role in Yugoslav affairs. Thanks both to his connections and standing and to sheer luck, he came into personal contact with various interesting historical figures, and not just Yugoslavs. They included the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha, British envoy to Tito’s headquarters Fitzroy Maclean, former Yugoslav Crown Prince Djordje Karadjordjevic and British Labour politicians Denis Healey and Hugh Gaitskell. He was a passenger on the plane that crashed at Munich in February 1958, carrying home Bobby Charlton and other members of the Manchester United football team following a European Cup match in Belgrade. But perhaps the most curious personal encounter of the book was Bato’s witnessing of the death by suicide of Milan Nedic, the former leader of the Serbian Nazi-puppet regime.
In the final section of the book, Bato recounts his experiences during the break-up of Yugoslavia and Wars of Yugoslav Succession. Following the publication of sections of the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in September 1986, he recalls the heated arguments he would have with old Serbian friends: ‘Instead of a modern Yugoslavia, many of them now wanted a Greater Serbia.’ (p. 452) He is forthright in describing the role of the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic in destroying Yugoslavia and promoting Serbian nationalistic hatred, though he has harsh words too for the Croatian regime of Franjo Tudjman. Appointed in 1990 director of the Federal TV station Yutel at the initiative of Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic, Bato attempted to promote Markovic’s vision of a united Yugoslavia, but was ultimately forced to flee Belgrade to escape prosecution by the Milosevic regime: ‘Serbian nationalists, it seemed, wanted to get rid of all those who in any way, however slight, obstructed the creation of their “Greater Serbia”.’ (p. 468)
Bato’s judgement on the War of Yugoslav Succession was that ‘The Partisans had now withdrawn before the onslaught of nationalism, and the resurrected Chetniks and Ustashas wanted to renew the war and, if possible, win the battles they had lost when fighting on the side of Hitler. They thought it was still not too late to achieve their goals of a greater Serbia and greater Croatia by means of violence and plunder, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps.’ (p. 483). He has no hesitation in identifying the policy waged by the Serb and Croat forces against the Bosnian Muslims as one of ‘genocide’ (p. 486).
Bato Tomasevic was raised on stories of his family’s and country’s battles with the Turks; his father was a Serb nationalist. Yet his family’s story, as he tells it, is one in which the politics of national chauvinism are consistently rejected: from the anti-Albanian racism of the interwar Yugoslav administration, through the Chetnik movement of World War II, up to the Memorandum of SANU, the regimes of Milosevic and Tudjman and the genocide of the Bosniaks. When so many choose to obfuscate the Yugoslav story, having it presented so straightforwardly by an eyewitness from such a background is a breath of fresh air.
The Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has acquitted Radovan Karadzic, wartime president of the Bosnian Serb nationalist rebels’ ‘Republika Srpska’, of one count of genocide, relating to crimes committed in municipalities across Bosnia in 1992. According to its press release:
The Chamber’s oral ruling was delivered pursuant to Rule 98 bis of the Tribunal’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence which provides that at the close of the Prosecutor’s case, the Trial Chamber shall, by oral decision, and after hearing the oral submissions of the parties, enter a judgement of acquittal on any count if there is no evidence capable of supporting a conviction.
The Chamber found that whilst the evidence it had heard indicates that the circumstances in which the Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities were forcibly transferred or displaced from their homes were attended by conditions of great hardship and suffering, and that some of those displaced may have suffered serious bodily or mental harm during this process, this evidence does not rise to the level which could sustain a conclusion that the serious bodily or mental harm suffered by those forcibly transferred in the Municipalities was attended by such circumstances as to lead to the death of the whole or part of the displaced population for the purposes of the actus reus for genocide.
This represents a 180-degree U-turn from the Trial Chamber’s decision eight years ago over Slobodan Milosevic. On 16 June 2004, in ‘Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milosevic: Decision on Motion for Judgement of Acquittal’, the Trial Chamber refused to acquit Milosevic on the same grounds, and ruled:
246. On the basis of the inference that may be drawn from this evidence, a Trial Chamber could be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there existed a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, whose aim and intention was to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslim population, and that genocide was in fact committed in Brcko, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Kljuc and Bosanski Novi. The genocidal intent of the Bosnian Serb leadership can be inferred from all the evidence, including the evidence set out in paragraphs 238 -245. The scale and pattern of the attacks, their intensity, the substantial number of Muslims killed in the seven municipalities, the detention of Muslims, their brutal treatment in detention centres and elsewhere, and the targeting of persons essential to the survival of the Muslims as a group are all factors that point to genocide.
247. Having examined the evidence, the Trial Chamber finds no evidence of genocide in Kotor Varos.
323. With respect to the Amici Curiae submissions concerning genocide, the Trial Chamber, except for its holding in paragraph 324, DISMISSES the Motion and holds that there is sufficient evidence that
(1) there existed a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, the aim and intention of which was to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group, and that its participants committed genocide in Brcko, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Kljuc and Bosanski Novi;
(2) the Accused [Slobodan Milosevic] was a participant in that joint criminal enterprise, Judge Kwon dissenting ;
(3) the Accused was a participant in a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, to commit other crimes than genocide and it was reasonably foreseeable to him that, as a consequence of the commission of those crimes, genocide of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group would be committed by other participants in the joint criminal enterprise, and it was committed;
(4) the Accused aided and abetted or was complicit in the commission of the crime of genocide in that he had knowledge of the joint criminal enterprise, and that he gave its participants substantial assistance, being aware that its aim and intention was the destruction of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as group;
(5) the Accused was a superior to certain persons whom he knew or had reason to know were about to commit or had committed genocide of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group, and he failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the commission of genocide, or punish the perpetrators thereof.
324. The Trial Chamber finds no evidence that genocide was committed in Kotor Varos.
The contradiction between the Trial Chamber’s rulings over Milosevic in 2004 and Karadzic in 2012 indicates that it is not operating on the basis of consistent legal principles, and suggests a change of policy. A full analysis of the reasons behind this shift will have to await the Tribunal’s publication of the text of its decision.
I have been arguing since 2005 that the ICTY has been retreating in the face of international and Serbian resistance to its pursuit of justice. The list of failures, retreats, betrayals and unethical compromises has only grown over the years: the failure even to indict most of the principal members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise from Serbia and Montenegro – Veljko Kadijevic, Blagoje Adzic, Momir Bulatovic, Borisav Jovic, Branko Kostic and others; the failure to indict anyone at all for the destruction of the Croatian town of Vukovar; the indictment of only six officials in total from Serbia and Montenegro for war-crimes in Bosnia, and the conviction to date of only one of them; the sentencing of Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic to only eleven years in prison, without making her testify, and her release after serving only seven years, despite her withdrawal of her acknowledgement of guilt; the censoring of the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council, preventing their use by Bosnia in its case against Serbia at the International Court of Justice; the prosecution of the ICTY’s own former chief prosecutor’s spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, for having the temerity to reveal its dubious underhand dealings.
The ICTY’s U-turn over genocide in Bosnia is therefore par for the course. The people of the former Yugoslavia have not received justice from this tribunal.
This September, my latest book, ‘The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History’, will be published by C. Hurst and Co. According to its blurb: ‘The story of the Bosnian Muslims in World War II is an epic frequently alluded to in discussions of the 1990s Balkan conflicts, but almost as frequently misunderstood or falsified. This first comprehensive study of the topic in any language sets the record straight. Based on extensive research in the archives of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, it traces the history of Bosnia and its Muslims from the Nazi German and Fascist Italian occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, through the years of the Yugoslav civil war, and up to the seizure of power by the Communists and their establishment of a new Yugoslav state. The book explores the reasons for Muslim opposition to the new order established by the Nazis and Fascists in Bosnia in 1941 and the different forms this opposition took. It describes how the Yugoslav Communists were able to harness part of this Muslim opposition to support their own resistance movement and revolutionary bid for power. This Muslim element in the Communists’ revolution shaped its form and outcome, but ultimately had itself to be curbed as the victorious Communists consolidated their dictatorship. In doing so, they set the scene for future struggles over Yugoslavia’s Muslim question.’
(NB I refer in the book to ‘Muslims’ rather than to ‘Bosniaks’, since before the 1990s, the term ‘Bosniak’ applied equally to all native Bosnians – Orthodox/Serbs, Catholics/Croats and Muslims alike).
In completing this book, I have concluded the research project I began fifteen years ago as a doctoral student, and continued as a postdoc, and which previously gave rise to my books Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) and The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Saqi, London, 2007). Since this marks, for me, the end of a personal era, I should like to say a few words about the big questions I was raising in these books.
I began my research project against the backdrop of the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina of the 1990s. This war involved the destruction of the multinational Bosnian state as a result of the aggression and genocide waged by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and the Bosnian Serb rebels under Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The government and majority population of Bosnia-Hercegovina made an unsuccessful bid for independence in the face of this assault, but the war ended in 1995 with Bosnia’s statehood and multinational society effectively destroyed.
Although my own views of the rights and wrongs of this conflict are no secret, my motivation for embarking on my research project was intellectual rather than political. Back in the 1990s, as today, students and scholars interested in the Bosnian war had focused on the short-term and all-Yugoslav causes of the war, above all the period from the rise of Milosevic in the second half of the 1980s. The topic was, and is, most frequently approached from the perspective of contemporary politics and human rights rather than of history. This is fine as far as it goes, but it has meant that the medium- and long-term historical background of the conflict has remained hidden; accounts of the break-up of Yugoslavia tend to have Bosnia appearing only in the final chapters, and almost out of the blue.
My contention was then, and remains today, that you cannot understand how and why the modern Bosnian state was destroyed in the 1990s unless you understand how and why it was created in the first place. And it was created in the period 1941-1946, by the Yugoslav Partisan movement which, under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, waged a successful campaign of resistance against the Nazi and Fascist occupiers of Bosnia and of Yugoslavia. This resulted not only in their liberation from Axis occupation, but in the revolutionary overthrow of the old Yugoslav monarchical order, and the establishment of a new Yugoslavia as a federation of six republics. One of these republics was the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Why had the Communists decided to establish Bosnia as a separate republic in its own right ? How had they been able to mobilise their Partisan soldiers – who in Bosnia were, at all times, majority Serb – to accept Communist leadership and fight for this goal ? How had they been able to persuade Serbs, Muslims and Croats to fight alongside one another in a common, all-Bosnian Partisan army ? How and why did they defeat their enemies – the Croat Ustashas, Serb Chetniks and Muslim autonomists – and win the war ? How did they organise the new Bosnian state ? These were some of the questions I attempted to answer.
I also had a secondary reason for wanting to study this topic, that was not directly related to the Bosnian war of the 1990s: the desire to understand the Yugoslav Partisan movement and revolution of 1941-1945. The neglect of this topic by Western historians is astonishing. There have only been two successful, indigenous Communist revolutions in European history: the revolution in the Russian Empire of 1917-1921 and the revolution in the Western Balkans (Yugoslavia and Albania) in 1941-1945. The first has received enormous scholarly attention in the West; the second almost none. The orthodox Titoist narrative of the Partisans and the Yugoslav Revolution is an oversimplification that conceals as much as it reveals. The anti-Communist counter-narrative advanced by authors like David Martin and Nora Beloff is a politically motivated conspiracy theory.
To oversimplify somewhat, my book The History of Bosnia originally began as an attempt to trace the long-term causes of the revolution in Bosnia of 1941-1945. It explains in detail why the Yugoslav Communists supported the goal of a unified, self-ruling Bosnia-Hercegovina as an entity separate from both Serbia and Croatia. My book Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia focuses on the early phase of the revolution and on the Bosnian Serbs. It explains in detail how the Communists were able to attain leadership over the Bosnian Serb rebellion that broke out in the summer of 1941 against the anti-Serb genocidal Ustashas and the puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’. It explains how the Chetnik movement emerged in Bosnia-Hercegovina as a Serb conservative and nationalist reaction against Communist leadership of the anti-Ustasha rebellion, and how the rebellion divided into two opposing wings. On the one side, there was the Communist-led Partisans – a multinational resistance movement directed against the German and Italian occupiers, embracing Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews and others, whose goal was a self-ruling, multinational Bosnia. On the other side, there was the Chetniks – a purely Serb movement that collaborated with the Italians and Germans and that aimed to exterminate or expel Muslims, Croats and Jews, and whose goal was an ethnically homogenous Great Serbia. Hence the title ‘Genocide and Resistance’: the Partisan-Chetnik conflict was between on the one hand those rebels who wanted to resist the occupiers and opposed genocide; and on the other, those who wanted to collaborate with the occupiers and carry out genocide. I outline this book in more detail in my article ‘Author’s Perspective’, World War II Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 5, 2008, pp. 52-58.
During the second half of 1941, the Partisans in Bosnia were a predominantly Serb movement focusing on the struggle against the Ustashas. During 1942, however, the emergence of the Chetnik counter-movement in Bosnia turned the latter into the Partisans’ principal enemy. The Partisans effectively won the war with the Chetniks in Bosnia by the autumn of 1943, largely because they were able to expand beyond their Serb and peasant base to embrace Muslims, Croats and the population of the towns in general. Having secured their base among the Bosnian Serb peasant population by breaking the Chetniks, the Partisans could then move on to the next stage of their struggle: the liberation of Bosnia from the Ustashas and Nazis. For this stage, the role of the Muslims, and to a lesser extent the Bosnian Croats, was crucial – in a manner not properly acknowledged in the orthodox Titoist narrative. Bosnia was also a crucial springboard for any Partisan push eastward to liberate Serbia and the rest of eastern Yugoslavia from the Nazis and Chetniks; the role of Bosnia and the Muslims was critical for the outcome of the entire Yugoslav civil war.
Thus, just as my first book about the Bosnian Partisans, Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia, focused in particular on the Bosnian Serbs, so its sequel, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War, focuses in particular on the Muslims and Croats (the Croats were very much smaller and weaker as a community in Bosnia than either the Serbs or the Muslims, so their importance for the outcome of the struggle was correspondingly lesser). Of course, every title is an oversimplification, and both books tell the story of a multinational resistance movement and revolution, in which Serbs, Muslims, Croats, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others participated together.
As regards the war and revolution in Bosnia, some of the points I make in The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War are the following:
1) That the Axis powers’ incorporation of Bosnia in 1941 within the puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’, the re-erasing of Bosnia’s borders and identity by the Ustasha regime, and its brutal and murderous policies, provoked two, parallel movements of resistance that supported Bosnian self-rule: the People’s Liberation Movement (Partisans) and the Muslim autonomist resistance (which was not anti-fascist or anti-occupier, but merely anti-Ustasha).
2) That the Communist-led revolution in Bosnia that triumphed by 1945 did so because one section of the Muslim autonomist resistance went over to the People’s Liberation Movement – it did not simply involve a ‘pure’ triumph of the Partisans, as proponents of the orthodox Titoist narrative tend to imply.
3) That the People’s Liberation Movement on the one hand and its anti-Communist opponents, the Ustashas and the Muslim autonomists, did not comprise rigidly separate camps – as proponents of the orthodox Titoist narrative tend to imply. Rather, the three camps overlapped, with many individuals collaborating with two or three of them, and with members of each linked to members of the others through family and personal connections. These family and personal connections formed a major tool in the Partisan victory and Communist seizure of power; a conduit by which quisling soldiers and supporters of the Ustashas and Muslim autonomists could be recruited for the revolution.
4) That the Partisan victory was the product not simply of a successful guerrilla campaign, but also of political agitation by the Communists and their collaborators among the population of the occupied Bosnian cities and towns, and within the quisling armed forces – in particular, the Croatian Home Guard and Muslim legions.
5) That the Communists’ agitation on a Bosnian-patriotic basis, using Bosnian-patriotic slogans and arguing for Bosnian self-rule, allowed them to win over a substantial section of the Bosnian Muslim population, including of the elite.
6) That a major catalyst in bringing a large section of the Muslim population over to the People’s Liberation Movement, was Italian and German collaboration with the Chetniks, at the expense of the authority of the Ustasha puppet-state, and in particular Nazi Germany’s apparent turn in autumn 1943 toward an alliance with Great Serbian forces, posing an existential threat to the existence of the Muslims.
7) That the Partisan/Communist conquest of Bosnia in 1943-1945 represented not simply a military triumph – as presented in the orthodox Titoist narrative – but occurred through the wholesale defection to the People’s Liberation Struggle of elements of the quisling and collaborationist armed forces, including parts of the Chetniks, the Muslim legions, the Croatian Home Guard, the Bosnian SS Handzar Division and even some Ustashas. Hence, there are parallels between the Communist seizure of power in Bosnia in 1945 and the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in November 1917, which also succeeded through the winning over of the military units of the old order.
8) That the mass mobilisation and emancipation of women – a previously politically untapped section of the Bosnian population – was crucial for the success of the revolution, and conditioned the nature of the Bosnian state and society that emerged from it.
9) That the Partisan movement was itself heterogeneous and subject to a myriad of internal contradictions that, as it expanded, posed increasing problems for the Communist leadership.
10) That the above process constituted a specifically Bosnian revolution that was distinct from, albeit part of, the wider revolution in Yugoslavia; and that the outcome of this process was the establishment of a Bosnian republic within the new Yugoslav federation. This was not enacted top-down by the new Communist rulers of Yugoslavia, but was the natural outcome of the Bosnian revolutionary movement, led by the Communists in Bosnia, but embracing a much wider and more diverse section of the Bosnian population.
The last quarter of my book deals with the first year and a half after the end of World War II in Bosnia; i.e. with the period from mid-1945 to the end of 1946. Here, I discuss the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, set against the formation and organisation of the Yugoslav federation. I then discuss the weaknesses and problems faced by the new Bosnian Communist regime; its approach to reconstructing and governing Bosnia; and its attempts to deal with the rising opposition. I show how the broad, diverse coalition that was mobilized behind the Communists, to free Bosnia from the occupiers and quislings and to establish the Bosnian republic, subsequently had to be brought to heel by the new Communist regime, and how this involved its suppression of former allies and the imposition of a new political hegemony.
Thus, after many thousands of Muslims had fought for the Partisans or been active in the People’s Liberation Movement, there was a brief flowering of Muslim national and cultural freedom after World War II, and the Muslims were virtually, if not formally, recognised as a nation equal to the other five recognised Yugoslav nations (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins). But as the Communists consolidated their dictatorship, this freedom was curtailed, and many Muslims began to feel disillusioned with the new order. There was a resurgence of the radical ‘Young Muslim’ organisation in response, with a youthful Alija Izetbegovic, among others, figuring prominently in its dissident activities. Though they were suppressed, they would become, under the Communist regime, what the Communists themselves had previously been: a persecuted, radical sect, ready and able to lead the next revolutionary upheaval in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Part of the pleasure in writing this book was to tell in detail the exciting story of this great revolution. I have tried to avoid either idealising or demonising it, but to expresses its diverse, contradictory nature; to discuss both the high politics of the Communist leadership and the character of the revolution at the grass-roots level, and the many colourful characters it involved. The antics of Huska Miljkovic, the Muslim warlord of Cazinska Krajina in north-west Bosnia, were particularly fun to write about.
The Communists and Partisans succeeded in what must have appeared to many at the time an impossible task: of reuniting Bosnia, re-establishing its statehood and reintegrating its divided population. It is a story that has lost none of its relevance for the present day.
Review of Josip Glaurdic, The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011
The break-up of Yugoslavia has generated an enormous literature – much of it poor, some of it acceptable and some of it excellent. There are several decent introductory accounts of the break-up that competently summarise familiar information. There are some very good studies of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that do justice to the break-up as well. There are some excellent studies of sub-topics or related topics. But there have been few truly groundbreaking studies of the process as a whole. Too many of the older generation of pre-1991 Yugoslav experts had too many of their assumptions shattered by the break-up; too many journalists and casual scholars flooded the market in the 1990s with too many under-researched, third-rate works; too many younger scholars were handicapped by political prejudices that prevented them from addressing the truth squarely. Furthermore, the body of relevant primary sources has been vast and growing exponentially while the body of good supporting secondary literature has only slowly grown to a respectable size. In these circumstances, to write a groundbreaking general study of the break-up of Yugoslavia has been a difficult task that has required both a lot of talent and a lot of patient hard work.
Josip Glaurdic’s The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia is such a study. As far as general accounts of the break-up go, there are only two or three that rival this work; none that is better. A great strength of this work lies in Glaurdic’s careful balance between the domestic and international dimensions of Yugoslavia’s break-up; he gives equal space to each and shows carefully the interaction between them. As far as the domestic dimension is concerned, he has skilfully summarised and distilled the existing knowledge about the subject as well as anybody before him. But where this book is truly original and groundbreaking is in its analysis of the international dimension. For this is the best serious, comprehensive, scholarly analysis of the role of the West – specifically, of the US, European Community and UN – in the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The mainstream literature has tended to present the West’s involvement in the break-up in terms of a reaction after the fact: Yugoslavia collapsed and war broke out due to internal causes, and the West responded with a weak, ineffective and primarily diplomatic intervention. Some excellent studies of the responses of individual Western countries have appeared, most notably by Michael Libal for Germany, Brendan Simms for Britain and Takis Michas for Greece. Apologists for the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic or for the Great Serb nationalist cause have, for their part, churned out innumerable versions of the conspiracy theory whereby the break-up of Yugoslavia was actually caused or even engineered by the West; more precisely by Germany, the Vatican and/or the IMF. But up till now, nobody has attempted to do what Glaurdic has done, let alone done it well.
Glaurdic’s innovation is to begin his study of the West’s involvement not in 1991, when full-scale war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, but in 1987, when Milosevic was assuming absolute power in Serbia. This enables him to interpret the West’s reaction to the eventual outbreak of war, not as a reflex to a sudden crisis, but as the result of a long-term policy. He places this long-term policy in the broader context of the evolution of the West’s global considerations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most important of these considerations concerned a state incomparably more important than Yugoslavia: the Soviet Union.
Yugoslavia’s principal significance for the Western alliance during the Cold War was as a buffer state vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and as a model of an independent, non-Soviet Communist state. These factors became less important in the second half of the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev ruled the Soviet Union and the Cold War was winding down. Milosevic was initially identified by some influential Western observers as a possible ‘Balkan Gorbachev’; a Communist reformer who might bring positive change to Yugoslavia. The most important such observer was the veteran US policymaker Lawrence Eagleburger, who became deputy Secretary of State in January 1989. In his confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 15-16 March 1989, Eagleburger stated that ‘there is no question in my mind that Milosevic is in terms of economics a Western market-oriented fellow… [who] is playing on and using Serbian nationalism, which has been contained for so many years, in part I think as an effort to force the central government to come to grips with some very tough economic problems.’ (Glaurdic, p. 40).
This initial US appreciation for Milosevic dovetailed with a more important consideration: the fear that a collapse of Yugoslavia would create a precedent for the Soviet Union, weakening the position of Gorbachev himself. Of decisive importance was not merely that Western and in particular US leaders viewed Gorbachev as a valued friend, but the extreme conservatism of their ideology as regards foreign policy. Simply put, the US administration of George H.W. Bush valued stability above all else, including democratic reform, and actually preferred Communist strongmen, not only in the USSR but also in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to the democratic opposition to them. Bush and his team feared the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilisation that this threatened – given, among other things, the latter’s nuclear arsenal. This led them to acquiesce readily in Soviet repression in Lithuania, Latvia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Their acquiescence in Milosevic’s repressive policies was a natural corollary.
As Glaurdic shows, this conservative-realist worldview led the Bush Administration, right up till the end of 1991, to champion Yugoslavia’s unity rather than its democratic reform. Though the US gradually lost faith in Milosevic, its animosity in this period was above all directed at the ‘separatist’ regimes in Croatia and Slovenia. The irony was not only that Croatian and Slovenian separatism was a direct response to the aggressive policies of the Milosevic regime, but also that the latter was promoting the break-up of Yugoslavia as a deliberate policy. Through its unwillingness to oppose Milosevic and its hostility to the Croats and Slovenes, Washington in practice encouraged the force that was promoting the very break-up of Yugoslavia that it wished to avoid.
The problem was not that the Bush Administration lacked accurate intelligence as to what Milosevic’s regime was doing, but that it chose to disregard this intelligence, instead clinging blindly to its shibboleth of Yugoslav unity, indeed of Yugoslav centralisation. Thus, as Glaurdic shows, a ‘conservative realist’ ideology resulted in a highly unrealistic, dogmatic policy. In October 1990, the CIA warned the US leadership that, while the latter could do little to preserve Yugoslav unity, its statements would be interpreted and exploited by the different sides in the conflict: statements in support of Yugoslav unity would encourage Serbia while those in support of human rights and self-determination would encourage the Slovenes, Croats and Kosovars (Glaurdic, p. 110). The Bush Administration nevertheless continued to stress its support for Yugoslav unity.
This meant not only that the West failed to respond to Milosevic’s repressive and aggressive policy, but that Milosevic and his circle actually drew encouragement from the signals they received from the West. Milosevic scarcely kept his policy a secret; at a meeting with Western ambassadors in Belgrade on 16 January 1991, he informed them that he intended to allow Slovenia to secede, and to form instead an enlarged Serbian stage on the ruins of the old Yugoslavia, that would include Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia and Bosnia and that would be established through the use of force if necessary. This brazen announcement provoked US and British complaints, but no change in policy (Glaurdic, pp. 135-136).
The problem was not merely ideological rigidity and mistaken analysis on the part of Western and particular US leaders, but also sheer lack of interest. Glaurdic describes the paradoxical Western policy toward the Yugoslav Federal Prime Minister, Ante Markovic, who – unlike Milosevic – really did want to preserve Yugoslavia, and whose programme of economic reform, in principle, offered a way to achieve this. In comparison with the generous financial assistance extended to Poland in 1989-1990, no remotely similar support was offered to Markovic’s government, because in US ambassador Warren Zimmermann’s words, ‘Yugoslavia looked like a loser’. (Glaurdic, p. 68).
The US’s dogmatic support for Yugoslav unity was shared by the West European powers. Glaurdic demolishes the myth – already exploded by authors like Libal and Richard Caplan – that Germany supported or encouraged Croatia’s and Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia. When the president of the Yugoslav presidency, Janez Drnovsek, visited Bonn on 5 December 1989, German chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed to him his ‘appreciation for Yugoslavia’s irreplaceable role in the stability of the region and the whole of Europe’. On the same occasion, German president Richard von Weizsaecker informed the Yugoslav delegation that he supported a ‘centralised’ Yugoslavia (Glaurdic, p. 59). A year later, on 6 December 1990, German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told his Yugoslav counterpart, Budimir Loncar, that Germany ‘has a fundamental interest in the integrity of Yugoslavia’, and consequently would make ‘the Yugoslav republics realise that separatist tendencies are damaging to the whole and very costly’ (Glaurdic, pp. 124-125).
This German opposition to Croatian and Slovenian independence continued right up till the latter was actually declared in June 1991, and beyond. According to Gerhard Almer, a German diplomat and Yugoslav specialist at the time, ‘Everything that was happening in Yugoslavia was viewed through Soviet glasses. [Genscher's] idea was, “Well, Yugoslavia disintegrating is a bad example for Soviet disintegration, and this was bad for us since we needed a Soviet Union capable of action because we needed to get a deal with them on our unity”. This was widely accepted in the ministry.’ (Glaurdic, p. 160). Contrary to the myth of anti-Yugoslav imperialistic tendencies on the part of Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic government, the latter’s support for the Yugoslav status quo in the face of Belgrade’s abuses was so rigid that it provoked strong resistance from the Social Democratic opposition.
Genscher, subsequently demonised as a supposed architect of Yugoslavia’s break-up, actually resisted this pressure from the Bundestag for a shift in German policy away from unbending support for Yugoslav unity and toward greater emphasis on human rights and self-determination. The turning point for him, as Glaurdic shows, came with his visit to Belgrade on 1 July 1991, after the war in Slovenia had broken out. The combination of the overconfident Milosevic’s aggressive stance in his talk with Genscher, and the Yugoslav government’s inability to halt the Yugoslav People’s Army [JNA] operations against Slovenia, destroyed the German foreign minister’s faith in the Belgrade authorities, leading to his gradual shift in favour of Croatia and Slovenia. Eventually, after a lot more Serbian intransigence and military aggression, Germany would reverse its traditional policy by 180 degrees, and come out in favour of the recognition of Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence, while the EC would split into pro- and anti-recognition currents of opinion.
Nevertheless, as Glaurdic shows, Germany’s change of heart was a double-edged sword, since it aroused the anti-German suspicions and rivalries of other EC states, particularly France and Britain, which consequently hardened their own stances against recognition. On 6 November 1991, while the JNA’s military assaults on the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik were at their peak, Douglas Hogg, the UK’s Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, explained to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons that his government was opposed to the recognition of Croatia since it would create an ‘obstacle’ to territorial adjustments in Serbia’s favour and at Croatia’s expense. Several days later, the French president, Francois Mitterand, made a similar public statement, indicating that he saw Croatia’s existing borders as a ‘problem’ that prevented its recognition (Glaurdic, pp. 253-254).
The Bush Administration, meanwhile, acted as a brake on the EC’s shift against Belgrade and in favour of recognition, teaming up with the British and French to counter Germany’s change of policy. US Secretary of State James Baker and his deputy Lawrence Eagleburger, as well as the UN special envoy Cyrus Vance (himself a former US Secretary of State) waged a diplomatic battle in this period against any shift away from the West’s non-recognition policy, and against any singling out of Serbia for blame for the war – even as the JNA was massively escalating its assault on Vukovar in preparation for the town’s final conquest. Eagleburger had signalled to the Yugoslav ambassador in October that, although the US was aware that Milosevic was attempting to establish a Greater Serbia, it would do nothing to stop him except economic sanctions, and even these only after Greater Serbia had been actually established (Glaurdic, pp. 243-246). As late as December 1991, Vance continued to oppose recognition and to support the idea of a federal Yugoslavia, and continued moreover to put his trust in Milosevic, the JNA and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, while viewing the Croatians dismissively as ‘these Croatian insurgents’ (Glaurdic, pp. 264-265).
Glaurdic has marshalled an enormous wealth of documentary evidence to show that the British, French and Americans, far from reacting in a weak and decisive manner to a sudden outbreak of war, actually pursued a remarkably steady and consistent policy from before the war began, right up until the eve of full-scale war in Bosnia-Hercegovina: of vocally supporting Yugoslav unity and opposing Croatian and Slovenian secession; of resisting any singling out of Serbia for blame or punishment; of opposing recognition of Slovenia and Croatia; of seeking to appease Milosevic and the JNA by extracting concessions from Croatia as the weaker side; and finally of appeasing the Serb nationalists’ desire to carve up Bosnia. EC sanctions imposed in November 1991 applied to all parts of the former Yugoslavia equally, while there was no freezing of the international assets or financial transactions through which the JNA funded its war. The UN arms embargo, whose imposition had actually been requested by the Yugoslav government itself, favoured the heavily-armed Serbian side and hurt the poorly armed Croatians. Although, largely on account of Germany’s change of heart, the EC at the start of December 1991 belatedly limited its economic sanctions to Serbia and Montenegro alone, the US immediately responded by imposing economic sanctions on the whole of Yugoslavia.
According to myth, the Western powers applied the principle of national self-determination in a manner that penalised the Serb nation and privileged the non-Serbs. As Glaurdic shows, the reverse was actually the case. In October 1991, Milosevic rejected the peace plan put forward by the EC’s Lord Carrington, which would have preserved Yugoslavia as a union of sovereign republics with autonomy for national minorities, in part because he feared it implied autonomy for the Albanians of Kosovo and the Muslims in Serbia’s Sanjak region. Carrington consequently modified his plan: Croatia would be denied any military presence whatsoever in the disputed ‘Krajina’ region, despite it being an integral part of Croatia inhabited by many Croats, while Serbia would be given a completely free hand to suppress the Kosovo Albanians and Sanjak Muslims. Carrington’s offer came just after leaders of the latter had organised referendums for increased autonomy, and after the Milosevic regime had responded with concerted police repression (Glaurdic, p. 242).
Milosevic nevertheless continued to reject the Carrington Plan in the understandable belief that the West would eventually offer him a better deal. He consequently asked Carrington to request from the EC’s Arbitration Commission, headed by Robert Badinter, an answer to the questions of whether the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia possessed the right to self-determination, and of whether Serbia’s borders with Croatia and Bosnia should be considered borders under international law. Carrington submitted these to the Commission, along with a third question, of whether the situation in Yugoslavia was a case of secession by Slovenia and Croatia or a case of dissolution of the common state. That the Arbitration Commission ruled against Serbia on all three counts was, in Glaurdic’s words, a ‘terrible surprise for Milosevic and for many in the international community’ (p. 260), given that Badinter was a close associate of President Mitterand, whose sympathies were with Serbia’s case. The Badinter Commission’s ruling dismayed both Carrington and French foreign minister Roland Dumas, and paved the way to international recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. But it did not fundamentally change the West’s policy.
Glaurdic’s account ends with the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, which as he argues, should be seen as the logical culmination of this policy. The failure of the EC foreign ministers to recognise Bosnia’s independence in January 1992 along with Croatia’s and Slovenia’s was, in Glaurdic’s words, ‘the decision with the most detrimental long-term consequences, all of which were clearly foreseeable… The EC had missed a great chance to preempt a war that would soon make the war in Croatia pale in comparison. Of all the mistakes the European Community had made regarding the recognition of the Yugoslav republics, this one was probably the most tragic.’ (pp. 281-282). Recognition of Bosnia at this time would have upset Milosevic’s and Karadzic’s plans for destroying that republic; instead, they were given every indication that the West would acquiesce in them.
Thus, on 21-22 February 1992, Bosnia’s politicians were presented with the first draft of the plan of the EC’s Jose Cutileiro for the three-way partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina into loosely linked Serb, Croat and Muslim entities. Since the plan, based on the ethnic majorities in Bosnian municipalities, offered the Bosnian Serb nationalists ‘only’ 43.8% of Bosnian territory instead of the 66% they sought, the latter’s assembly unanimously rejected it on 11 March. Once again, the EC abandoned universal standards in order to accommodate Serb intransigence, and Cutileiro modified his plan so that the three constituent Bosnian entities ‘would be based on national principles and would be taking into account economic, geographic and other criteria’ (Glaurdic, p. 294), thereby opening the way for a Serb entity with a larger share of Bosnian territory than was justified on demographic grounds.
Ultimately, Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic rejected the plan. But as Glaurdic writes,
‘The damage that the Cutileiro plan did to Bosnia cannot be overstated. By accepting the ethnic principle for the reorganisation of the republic, Cutileiro in essence recognised the platforms of the SDS [Serb Democratic Party led by Karadzic] and the Boban wing of the HDZ [Croat Democratic Union] and opened a Pandora’s box of ethnic division that still mars Bosnia to this very day. Cutileiro’s intent was obviously to appease the Bosnian Serbs and their Belgrade sponsor into not implementing their massive war machinery. However, instead of lowering tensions and giving the three parties an impetus to keep negotiating, the plan actually gave them a “charter for ethnic cleansing”.’ (p. 290)
In these circumstances, the West’s belated recognition of Bosnia’s independence in April 1992 was naturally not taken seriously by the Serb leaders; Milosevic rather wittily compared it to the Roman emperor Caligula declaring his horse to be a senator (Glaurdic, p. 298).
My principal regret is that Glaurdic did not fully apply the logic of his iconoclastic analysis to his consideration of the Croatian dimension of the Yugoslav tragedy. He carefully and correctly highlights the retrograde nationalist ideology of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, including his equivocal statements about the Nazi-puppet Croatian regime of World War II and his promotion of the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Yet he does not properly stress the extent to which Tudjman’s repeated retreats in the face of Serbian aggression merely encouraged the latter, just as did the similar retreats of the Western leaders. Thus, Tudjman capitulated to the JNA’s bullying in January 1991 and agreed to demobilise Croatia’s reservists and arrest Croatian officials involved in arms procurement, including the Croatian defence minister Martin Spegelj himself. Glaurdic argues that this ‘defused the [JNA] generals’ plan for a takeover’ and brought Yugoslavia ‘back from the brink’ (p. 134), but it would be more accurate to say that such Croatian appeasement merely encouraged further Serbian assaults, and that the killing in Croatia began only weeks later.
Glaurdic has carefully described the Milosevic regime’s secessionism vis-a-vis the Yugoslav federation, but one significant detail omitted from his book is the promulgation on 28 September 1990 of Serbia’s new constitution, which stated that ‘The Republic of Serbia determines and guarantees: 1 the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia and its international position and relations with other states and international organisations;…’. In other words, Serbia declared itself a sovereign and independent state before either Croatia or Bosnia did. This is relevant when evaluating not only the Milosevic regime’s hypocrisy regarding ‘separatism’, but the extent of the West’s policy failure. Milosevic posed as Yugoslavia’s defender while he deliberately destroyed it. Western leaders were hoodwinked: they sought both to uphold Yugoslavia’s unity and to appease Milosevic’s Serbia. As Glaurdic has brilliantly demonstrated, their dogged pursuit of the second of these policies ensured the failure of the first.
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