On 4 December of last year, the Bosnian Embassy in London did me the honour of hosting the launch of my book, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History (Hurst and Co, London, 2013). Very special thanks for organising the event go to His Excellency Mustafa Mujezinovic, the Bosnian ambassador to London, who also gave the opening speech; to Ms Jasmina Turajlic, Second Secretary; to all Bosnian Embassy staff; and to Jon de Peyer of Hurst Publishers. Very special thanks go also to my friend and colleague Dr Edina Becirevic, for coming to London to speak at the event. The following articles are based on the texts of our respective speeches.
Since the aggression and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place two decades ago, so many books have been written on the subject. Yet, very few people have understood Bosnia as well as Marko Attila Hoare does. The first of Hoare’s books that I read was, How Bosnia Armed, and I remember many of my colleagues commenting that, finally, there had been a new approach taken to examining the war against Bosnia. Hoare’s handling of the topic was different because it followed the dynamics of the rise of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and attempted to determine why initial intentions to create a truly multinational Army of Bosnian people – of all nationalities – instead manifested as a predominantly Muslim, i.e. Bosniak, military force.
When war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the international community stood aside and watched as Serbia unleashed an aggression against the country’s non-Serb population. Hoare belonged to the world of academics, civil society members and journalists who understood what is going on and openly campaigned for the defense of Bosnia. He lived in the small universe of people who saw the genocide and aggression for what it was. And this is also why Hoare’s book How Bosnia Armed carried so much weight: his inquiry into past events did not deter him from lobbying for the defense of Bosnia, even when his analysis of the responsibility of Bosniak leadership led him to conclude that they had given up on the ideal of a multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina in exchange for the pursuit of exclusively Bosniak interests, and had thus played into the hands of Serb and Croat nationalists. The pattern that Hoare recognized, and was one of the first to analyze – on the loss of the multicultural character of the Bosnian Army – became a central theme as he tried to answer the question of why Bosnian leadership settled for the Dayton Accord; which essentially legitimized the division of Bosnia. And this pattern can be steadily traced through the post-Dayton period in Bosnia, too, in many political compromises that Bosniak political elites made at the expense of Bosnian statehood.
I am not sure where the saying originates, but I have heard it many times from many people, that “Serbs and Croats cannot destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina unless Bosniaks agree to it.” And Hoare’s work is therefore even more important; because it has offered researchers in Bosnia and Herzegovina a model of how to tackle this issue without falling into the stereotypical traps of dispersing responsibility for the war and genocide equally to all sides and of viewing it as a war in which there were no clear victims and no clear aggressors. Hoare’s methodological framework can be the example to researchers who identify as victims of the war and who want to address that pattern of de-multiculturization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This can allow them to step back from a sense of victimhood that disabled many of them to fully understand the dynamics of the war and aggression.
History is important not only for the sake of understanding the past, of course. Historical lessons matter in both the present and the future. Today in Bosnia, Bosniak political forces continue to be inconsistent in defending Bosnian statehood and preserving its multiculturality. The battle for what many still consider to be the core multicultural values of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now left to a group popularly called “the others” – representatives from ethnic groups who were not accommodated in the Dayton Accord – who stand behind the “Sejdić-Finci” ruling and demand political rights equal to those of the three dominant ethnic groups in the country.
Marko Attila Hoare has published four books. Besides How Bosnia Armed, he is also the author of Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943, which looks at the conflict between Yugoslav Partisans and Chetniks in Bosnia during World War II. In The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, he focuses on the history of national identity in Bosnia. All three of these books are essential reading for understanding the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the present day political chaos facing the country.
But the book The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History, which examines the role of Bosnian Muslims in World War II, not only comes full circle in his corpus, but carries a special significance in relating how events that took place in WWII still affect Bosnia and Herzegovinia presently and by deconstructing the Serbian propaganda of the 90’s, which put forth that all wars waged by the Serbian state were fought to prevent genocide against Serbs. For, it is unquestionable that the various collective myths and memories of the past, of different ethnic groups in Bosnia, played a role in the 1992-1995 conflict, and that they continue to shape – and sometimes strangle – Bosnian society today.
The genocide of Serbs in World War Two is indeed a part of the history of Yugoslavia and the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and no one seeking truth could deny that. However, growing up in Yugoslavia, the genocide and suffering of other people in Bosnia and Herzegovina was never mentioned at all. In school, history books told a one-sided story about both World Wars, giving us the impression that it was only Serbs who had been victims of genocide. And it was the continuity of this narrative that convinced many of my Serb friends to go into the hills to join the forces which turned their heavy artillery against Sarajevo.
In a way it is understandable that there were few books on the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina that went against the official narrative, for there were just as few brave historians willing to detail the complex alliances of the Second World War, and to tell the story that it was not only Serbs, Jews, and Roma who suffered losses. But World War Two meant suffering for Muslims and Croats as well; and while genocide against Serbs is an undisputed historical fact, the changing coalitions and patterns of crimes committed during the war were extraordinarily complex and convoluted. This latest book by Marko Attila Hoare plays a crucial role in setting the record straight, and not only for historians in the region. It also successfuly deconstructs stereotypes about World War Two that many Western historians, regardless of their ideological perspective, have blatantly promoted without reservation.
The residual effects of alliances and aggressions that played out during World War Two revisited Yugoslav society around the time of Tito’s death and began a discussion that is still ongoing; bringing with it an impact on all the societies of former Yugoslav states. But most of the narratives that have emerged are influenced by official dicourse of some kind or another. Some are apologetic toward the Ustasha, others toward Chetniks, some glorify the Partisan movement, and others, as Hoare writes, tell the tale “through the prism of Allied policy.”
Yet, Hoare, in this as in his previous books, does not depend on official narratives or safe stereotypes. He illustrates the complicated game Communists had to play in “leading predominantly Serb and peasant armed resistance to the Ustasha regime in the countryside,” while at the same time conquering the hearts and mind of a predominantly Muslim and Croat urban population. And both of those strategies were, as Hoare says, “ulimately necessary for the Communists to become masters of Bosnia; and both were achieved.”
The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War is the first book that views the history of World War Two in Bosnia from the perspective of the Bosnian Muslims – and not only that of political elites, but also of ordinary people, who formed different political and military alliances. Hoare concludes that, “Political divisions among the Muslim elite were not essentially ideological, but were between conflicting strategies of how best to safeguard its position, and the Muslim population as a whole, in the face of two threats: the assimilationalism and hegemonism of the Croat Ustashas and the genocide of the Serb Chetniks.” And Hoare refers to those threats as two sides of the same coin.
Future generations in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be thanking Marko Attila Hoare not only for this last book, but for all of his books, including those that I hope are yet to come. I say “future generations” because I am not confident that this generation of Bosnian historians and intellectuals fully grasps the importance of Hoare’s work. But I am hoping that there will come a day when real accounts of Bosnian and Herzegovinian history by rare historians like Hoare will serve as the essential content for history textbooks. For, books like this one do not only present fair accouts of Bosnian history of benefit to academics, but can also serve as the basis for a process of reconciliation among Bosnian people, who must understand their history in order to move forward into the future.
What Hoare always brings to his reader is the invaluable insight that time and the events of an era cannot be seen in isolated compartments; that we miss seeing key parts of the picture of today if we are blind to the realities of the past. And his work beyond the pages of this and his other books, to identify and address genocide denial, is a natural extension of this insight. The value of his commitment to bringing awareness to the dangers of genocide denial cannot be understated.
The issue of genocide denial is an understandably contentious one. There is always an accused “side,” for which denial of their crimes is desirable; and since genocide is rarely achievable without the backing of state-level apparatuses, accused perpetrators usually have the backing of both political power and historical rhetoric. But, as the list of genocides in the world sadly continues to grow year after year, the issue of genocide denial becomes one of greater and greater importance. And what motivates Hoare and activists like him, is the knowledge that it is precisely this denial that invites further genocides.
What sets Hoare apart in debates about the topic – and believe me, it is a topic rife with debates, usually fueled as much by emotion as by concrete evidence – is his firsthand knowledge of Bosnia and his exhaustive research on and in the region. He has developed a relationship with the Balkans that few Westerners who deny genocide occurred there, or who tend toward revisionist views of the recent conflict, can lay claim to. This has predictably made him a target of those who do wish to deny genocide, and yet Hoare has remained a consistent “thorn in their side.”
As academic discourse invites ever more questioning about what “truth” and “denial” and “narrative” actually mean; as denial itself is viewed increasingly as a valuable coping mechanism in the face of a world full of trauma; and as we are bombarded more and more by images that Stanley Cohen rightfully points out are bound to overload and overwhelm our senses of reality, it is so important that activists like Hoare continue to demand that we see. For, as Cohen pointed out in his famous treatise on denial, “there is nothing positive about a society denying that it has an AIDS problem or the failure of the international community to recognize early warning signs of genocide…” While my guess is that most people would quickly jump to agree with his first statement; until genocide is seen as something as dangerous and pernicious as AIDS, the world needs activists like Marko Attila Hoare fighting to remove people’s blinders.
Edina Becirevic’s book Genocide on the Drina River will be published this year by Yale University Press
Marko Attila Hoare
Thank you all for coming. I would like to begin by thanking His Excellency Ambassador Mustafa Mujezinovic, Second Secretary Ms Jasmina Turajlic and Jon de Peyer of Hurst Publishers for hosting and organising this event.
I started researching the subject matter of this book seventeen years ago, in 1997. The war in Bosnia-Hercegovina had just ended. As a graduate student in history, it was impossible for me not to be gripped by the need to understand why it had happened. Of course, I have my political views about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, which I have never tried to conceal. But history should not be researched and written with political objectives in mind; rather, it should be guided by the need to answer intellectual questions.
The genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina of 1992-1995 involved the destruction of the Bosnian state; the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Consequently, the questions I wanted to answer were: why had the state been created in the first place, and how had it been possible to build a common, multinational state encompassing Serbs, Muslims, Croats and others ? I believed it was necessary to understand how and why the Bosnian state had been created, in order to understand how and why it was destroyed a half century later.
I have used the name ‘Muslim’ to refer to the Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak people in my book. Although this nation is properly called ‘Bosniak’ today, in the 1940s, when the events described in the book take place, the Bosniak name applied to Bosnian Orthodox and Catholics as well, whereas Muslim Bosniaks were referred to as ‘Muslims’ in most of the documents. It was only in the 1990s that the Bosniak name came to be synonymous with Muslim as opposed to Orthodox, Catholic or other Bosnians. I do not, however, wish in any way to question the legitimacy of the Bosniak national name today.
The revolution in Yugoslavia in the 1940s, led by Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, had been the object of a great deal of myth-making, both by its supporters and sympathisers and its by its anti-Communist critics. Yet it has been greatly under-researched in the West when compared to other great European revolutions, such as the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. One of the purposes of my research has been to demystify the Yugoslav Revolution; to explain what really happened and what it really looked like. Set against the depressing outcome of the 1990s Bosnian war, the outcome of the 1940s revolution appears more positive, for it involved the establishment of a Bosnian state in which Croats, Muslims, Serbs and others were able to coexist for nearly half a century. But history is not about happy endings, and my work has sought to understand the flaws in this original state-building project, in a manner that might help explain the catastrophe of the 1990s.
My first book on Bosnia-Hercegovina in World War II - Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) focused on the Bosnian Serbs. It sought to explain how they had been led to support, in large numbers, the establishment of a unified Bosnian state instead of a Great Serbia – something that seems paradoxical in light of the apparently overwhelming and violent Serb rejection of this same state in the 1990s. In fact, as I showed, for many ordinary Bosnian Serbs, there was a fine line between supporting a unified Bosnia, as demanded by the Communist-led Partisans, and supporting a Great Serbia, as demanded by the anti-Communist Chetniks. Both options were open to the Bosnian Serbs; both reflected aspects of their national heritage; and many of them switched from supporting one to supporting the other at least once during the course of World War II.
In this, my second book on Bosnia in World War II, I focus on the Bosnian Muslims, and to a lesser extent on the Croats and smaller Bosnian minorities. The Croats were very much smaller and weaker in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the 1940s than the Serbs or the Muslims, and it was these two latter groups that were and remain ultimately most important for the outcome of the Bosnian question. My book stresses the diversity of forms assumed by the Muslim resistance to the new order established by the Nazis and Fascists in 1941, whereby occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina was forcibly incorporated into the Great Croat puppet state named the ‘Independent State of Croatia’, under the rule of the Ustashas, or Croat fascists. Members of the Muslim elite resisted this incorporation in a number of ways: some turned to an alliance with the Serb nationalists (Chetniks); others appealed directly to Hitler and the Germans; others built their own autonomous Muslim forces within the framework of the Croatian puppet state. But all of them shared the goal of ensuring the national survival of the Muslim people in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Communists realised that in order to win the war in Bosnia, they would have to co-opt at least part of this Muslim autonomist movement.
For in the 1940s, the Bosnian Muslims were the key to victory in Bosnia-Hercegovina. This was apparent also in the 1990s; the Serb nationalists rebels under Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who attempted to conquer Bosnia on the basis of a total rejection of the Muslim population, found themselves unable to break the latter’s resistance; they were brought to the very of total defeat by the autumn of 1995, something they escaped only thanks to Western – above all US – diplomatic intervention. As the eminent Bosnian Muslim notable Muhamed Sudzuka had recognised already before World War II, the Muslims were the key to Bosnia and Bosnia was the key to Yugoslavia. So the Bosnian Muslim story was crucial for the outcome of the Yugoslav Revolution. The mass influx into their ranks of Muslims and others, including Croats and members of smaller minorities such as ethnic Poles and Ukrainians, was decisive for the Partisans’ victory in Bosnia. Above all, the mass defection of quisling troops to the Partisans – members of the Home Guard, Muslim legions, Handzar SS Division and even some Ustashas – enabled the Partisans to capture Bosnian towns and cities without destroying them or destroying their own forces in bitter street-fighting of the kind that broke the back of the Serb forces at Vukovar in Croatia in 1991.
In order to win Muslim support, the Communists championed the goal of a unified, sovereign state of Bosnia-Hercegovina within the Yugoslav framework, and treated the Muslims in practice, if not formally, as the sixth Yugoslav nation – alongside the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins. Considerable freedom was accorded to the Islamic religion. The Partisan triumph consequently resulted in a brief flowering of Muslim national life and freedom. Yet following this triumph, as the Communists began to consolidate their dictatorship, many of these freedoms were taken away. Muslim religious and cultural institutions were suppressed or neutered. Less respect was shown to the dietary needs of Muslim soldiers in the Yugoslav army. Official statements stopped using the large letter ‘M’, denoting a nation, in relation to the Muslims, and reverted to using the small ‘m’, denoting a mere religious community.
This curtailment of Muslim rights and freedoms set the stage for the next movement of Muslim resistance, involving members of the ‘Young Muslim’ organisation, including a youthful Alija Izetbegovic. But this movement was ruthlessly suppressed, and the Bosnian state that took shape in the 1940s did so on the basis of the hegemony of the Bosnian Serbs – as the group that had numerically dominated the Bosnian Partisan movement. It was when the Bosnian Serb hegemony began to crumble from the 1960s, as the Communists in Bosnia-Hercegovina moved to emancipate fully the Muslims and Croats, by recognising finally the Muslims as a nation and by removing the Ustasha stigma from the Bosnian Croats, that the Serb disenchantment with Bosnian statehood truly began; a disenchantment that would gather pace as the Muslims overtook the Serbs as the most numerous Bosnian nationality during the 1960s and 70s, and that would reach a head when Izetbegovic’s presidency sought to establish Bosnia-Hercegovina as a fully independent state, wholly separate from Serbia, in the 1990s.
The state of Bosnia-Hercegovina was therefore at all times a fragile project, based as it was upon a compromise between the national aspirations of its constituent peoples; a compromise that was unstable as the balance of power between them shifted. Nevertheless, the lesson of the 1940s is that in order for Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats to be reconciled and live in harmony, there has to be a strong, functioning Bosnian state. And this cannot happen again so long as the constitutional order established by the Dayton Peace Accords, which cripples Bosnia-Hercegovina as a state, persists.
Photos by Sarah Correia, Anna von Buchenroder and Jonathan Norton
This interview appeared in Bosnian translation in Dnevni Avaz on 12 January 2014.*
How real, if there is any basis for it at all, is the fear that Bosnia and the Bosniaks could be left outside of the EU due to the growing resentment in the EU towards Muslims in general ?
I believe the principal obstacles to Bosnia entering the EU are, firstly, the unresolved constitutional status of the country, its dysfunctional political order and the Sejdic-Finci question, and secondly enlargement fatigue among European policy-makers. Anti-Muslim prejudice may be an aggravating factor, however. EU membership for Bosnia and Serbia might actually accelerate the disintegration of Bosnia, as the West would lose leverage against the leaders of Serbia and the RS.
Bosnia-Hercegovina, in other words, must on no account enter the EU and must employ all means to prevent the entry of Serbia ?
I believe Bosnia’s future lies in the EU, and that the country and its citizens need the opportunities that membership offers. Bosnia has no future outside the EU if Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro are in. But Bosnians need to enter in full awareness of possible consequences. This should serve as an additional motive for preparing a resistance strategy to save the country from partition.
It looks as if the West has, regardless of that, already given up on Bosnia-Hercegovina.
The West gave up on Bosnia during the war of 1992-95, when it effectively engineered the partition of the country, and rescued the RS from defeat and destruction in the autumn of 1995. However, in the late 1990s and first half of the 2000s, there was a partial reversal of policy as the international community, via the OHR, particularly under Paddy Ashdown, took major steps toward the reintegration of the country. Unfortunately, that momentum was lost as Western leaders wrongly believed that the progress achieved could permit them to reduce their presence in, and supervision of the country. Now the EU and US have lost the will to push for the reintegration of Bosnia and are once again appeasing the separatism of the RS leadership.
That means that the fear of the collapse of Bosnia-Hercegovina is justified ? Will the West, nevertheless, react if it comes to that ? Should Bosnia count on such action ?
The experiences of 1992-95 should have taught Bosnians that they can never count on the West. A scenario can be envisaged whereby Bosnia and Serbia eventually join the EU; the RS then declares independence, and its independence is recognised by Serbia, Russia and maybe some other countries. Sanctions would be difficult to enforce against those within the EU. Right-wing Islamophobic opinion across Europe would support the RS. In such circumstances, why should we expect the West to take action, when it has failed to act to reverse the partitions of Cyprus or Georgia ? No: if Bosnians want to save their country, they will have to rely on their own strength.
But are the Bosnian Serbs really intending to declare secession ? That is still a risky move.
I believe the RS leaders will not go for secession in the short term, as the status quo suits them: they enjoy most of the benefits of independence, without having to take the risks involved with formal secession. So long as Bosnia and Serbia remain outside the EU, then the RS and Serbia will always be vulnerable to sanctions and isolation. But in the long run, when the right moment comes, I believe the RS will attempt secession. So Bosnians need to start preparing themselves right now to confront that threat.
You worked for the ICTY. How does that institution now look to you ?
The tribunal’s achievements have been poor overall, but they should not be dismissed completely. The recent convictions of Zdravko Tolimir and the Herceg-Bosna six were significant successes, and the reversal of Radovan Karadzic’s acquittal on one count of genocide was also positive. The acquittals of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic represented a terrible failure of justice, but it is possible that the appeal against them will be successful. The ICTY’s failure to prosecute or convict the principal military and political officials of the JNA, Serbia and Montenegro for war-crimes in Bosnia remains its biggest disgrace. Nevertheless, the eventual conviction of Karadzic and Mladic will count for something, particularly if they are convicted on one, or ideally two counts of genocide. So there is a lot left to hope for from the ICTY. Anger at the acquittals of Momcilo Perisic, Stanisic and Simatovic has understandably led some Bosnians and friends of Bosnia to dismiss the ICTY’s verdicts as ‘political’, but this is a mistake as it undermines the legitimacy of the tribunal, and of any future convictions.
The UK is preparing to have elections. Could they bring about a change in the foreign policy of that state when it’s a question of Bosnia?
No; I believe that British policy toward Bosnia will remain the same regardless of which party wins the next election. Britain’s role in the Bosnian war is almost universally recognised as a disgrace, so neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to want to revert to the anti-Bosnian policy of the 1990s. But this has not stopped the Labour leadership from sabotaging effective British intervention over Syria, similar to the way that the Conservative government in the 1990s obstructed effective international action over Bosnia !
How, in your opinion, are Bosnia-Hercegovina’s neighbours behaving ? What are the real policies of Serbia and Croatia when Bosnia-Hercegovina is in question ?
Serbia’s policy toward Bosnia remains what it has been since the late Milosevic era – with variations in intensity – which is to preserve the country in its dismembered, dysfunctional state, and preserve the RS. However, I am deeply concerned that Croatia, which under Stipe Mesic pursued a positive policy toward Bosnia, is indeed now reverting to Tudjman’s policy of collaboration with Belgrade and the RS on an anti-Bosnian basis. In Croatia, as was the case with other countries in the region such as Hungary and Bulgaria, entry into the EU has removed restraints on bad behaviour, and the Croatian right-wing is on the warpath: as witnessed in the campaign against gay marriage and against the Cyrillic alphabet.
On the other hand, another cause for concern is the role being played by Dejan Jovic, who is Chief Analyst and Special Coordinator at the Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia. Jovic recently wrote a book review in the Croatian journal ‘Politicka Misao’, in which he praised a book by David Gibbs, ‘First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia’, as ‘excellent, original and convincing’. This book is a propaganda tract that denies the genocide in Srebrenica and accuses the Bosniaks of provoking the massacre, and also accuses the Bosnian armed forces and government of having shelled their own civilians in Sarajevo, and of having deliberately increased their suffering during the siege, in order to blame it on the Serbs. Gibbs’s book regurgitates the Serb-nationalist interpretation, whereby Yugoslavia was destroyed, and Serbia victimised, by hostile Western powers. When the Croatian president’s chief analyst and special coordinator praises a book containing such views, Bosnia has to be afraid.
What is it about the anniversary of World War One that so arouses Serb feeling ?
According to the traditional Serbian patriotic interpretation, World War I was for Serbia a heroic national struggle against Austro-Hungarian and German imperialism, and straightforward war for self-defence and for the liberation and unification of the South Slavs. However, the reality is somewhat more complicated. It is true that Serbia by 1914 had experienced decades of bullying by Austria-Hungary, which sought at all times to subordinate it to Habsburg imperial interests. On the other hand, Serbia had its own expansionist goals directed toward Austro-Hungarian territory, particularly toward Bosnia-Hercegovina. The extreme-nationalist, terrorist organisation ‘Unification or Death’ (the ‘Black Hand’) was deeply embedded within the Serbian Army and exercised a great deal of influence over Serbian politics, and it was responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. Serbia was not to blame for the fact that World War I happened, as it was ultimately caused by the competing imperial interests of the great powers – Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, all of which were guilty. But an objective analysis of the reasons why the war broke out must necessarily challenge the traditional Serbian patriotic view of the conflict.
* The meaning of certain passages was altered slightly in translation and editing in the version published in Dnevni Avaz. These passages have been highlighted here.
We live in small-minded, mean-spirited times. More than two years into the Syrian civil war, with 100,000 dead and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah openly supporting Assad’s murderous campaign, Britain’s parliament has narrowly voted to reject Cameron’s watered-down parliamentary motion for intervention. This motion would not have authorized military action; merely noted that a ‘strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons.’ Cameron would still have needed a second parliamentary vote before he could have authorised the use of force. Parliament’s rejection of even this feeble step sends a clear message to Assad that he can go on killing without fear of British reaction.
The strength of isolationist, Little Englander feeling in Britain has been demonstrated. Cameron was defeated by the same uncontrollable ‘swivel-eyed loons’ of the Tory backbenches and grassroots who tried to sabotage gay marriage and want to drag Britain out the EU. It was perhaps too much to expect a parliament that is so savagely assaulting the livelihoods of poorer and more vulnerable Britons to care much about foreigners, particularly Muslim foreigners.
“I’d prefer Assad to win.” Not his actual words, but that is the only conclusion to be derived from the suggestion of Boris Johnson, the London mayor, that arming the Syrian opposition would lead to British weapons in the hands of “al-Qaida-affiliated thugs”. With 93,000 of Syria’s citizens dead, a kill rate in the country higher than in post-invasion Iraq, and one of the world’s most murderous and tyrannical regimes poised to win a historic victory thanks to western inaction, Johnson can only fret about hypothetical dangers.
In fact, it is the west’s failure militarily to support the Syrian National Coalition and its principal military counterpart, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), that is strengthening the hand of al-Qaida in Syria.
Continue reading at The Guardian, where this article was published on 18 June.
According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.
This in practice assists Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; freezing in place its military superiority over the poorly armed Free Syrian Army, and enabling the dictatorship better to massacre its own citizens. FSA soldiers, demoralized by their shortage of arms, have been responding by defecting to the relatively well-equipped Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Iran systematically violates the arms embargo by sending arms to its Syrian ally.
Continue reading at Left Foot Forward
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.
David Harland, Executive Director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, recently published, in the New York Times, a polemic against the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Responding to the recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac and Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj, he accused the Tribunal of ‘selective justice’ on the grounds that it has essentially only convicted Serb perpetrators, acquitted non-Serb perpetrators and failed to punish crimes against Serbs. This is, of course, the claim that hardline Serb nationalists and supporters of Slobodan Milosevic have been making for about the last two decades. Instead of carrying out any research into the actual record of the ICTY in order to support his thesis, Harland simply repeats a string of cliches of the kind that frequently appear in anti-Hague diatribes by Serb nationalists.
1) Harland writes: ‘More Serbs were displaced — ethnically cleansed — by the wars in the Balkans than any other community. And more Serbs remain ethnically displaced to this day.’
Harland doesn’t provide any statistical evidence to support this claim, but he appears to be conflating being ‘displaced’ with being ‘ethnically cleansed’, and to count all Serbs displaced by all the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo as having been ‘ethnically cleansed’ – as opposed to being evacuated by the Serb authorities themselves, for example, or fleeing Sarajevo to escape the siege. The Appeals Chamber of the ICTY, in acquitting Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, rejected the prosecution’s claims that a Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) existed, on the part of either the Croatian or the Kosovar Albanian perpetrators, to bring about the removal of the Serb population from either ‘Krajina’ or Kosovo. Harland has not attempted to address the Appeal Chamber’s conclusions. He has simply re-stated a falsehood after two panels of judges carefully explained why the claims on which it was based are false.
2) Harland writes ‘Almost no one has been held to account [for these crimes against Serbs], and it appears that no one will be… Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics.’
It is untrue that nobody has been convicted by the ICTY for crimes against Serbs, or that no non-Serbs have been convicted. Bosniaks, Croats and Albanians convicted of crimes against Serbs include Rasim Delic, the top Bosnian army commander in 1993-1995; Enver Hadzihasanovic, former commander of the Bosnian army’s 3rd Corps; Amir Kubura, former commander of the 7th Muslim Mountain Brigade; Zdravko Mucic, Hazim Delic and Esad Landzo, former commanders and guard for the Celebici prison-camp; and Kosova Liberation Army camp guard Haradin Bala. Former Croatian Army major-general Mirko Norac was indicted by the ICTY for crimes against Serb civilians in the Medak Pocket in September 1993; his case was transferred to the Zagreb District Court, which convicted him.
3) Harland writes: ‘Altogether, almost all of the West’s friends have been acquitted; almost all of the Serbs have been found guilty.’
Harland appears here to be following the example of the extreme Serb nationalists who divide all former Yugoslavs into ‘Serbs’ on the one hand and ‘friends of the West’ on the other, and who claim that the ICTY ‘persecutes’ Serbs because they are independent of the West. Yet two of the most senior Serb officials to be convicted by the ICTY, former Republika Srpska president Biljana Plavsic and former Yugoslav Army chief of staff Momcilo Perisic, had pursued friendly relations with the West in the second half of the 1990s. On the other hand, being unfriendly to the West is scarcely something of which other prominent Serb indictees can be accused, since Western and Serb officials spent the best part of the 1990s collaborating with one another.
Ratko Mladic and Britain’s Michael Rose
Slobodan Milosevic and the US’s Richard Holbrooke
Ratko Mladic and the Netherlands’ Thom Karremans
Milosevic and Holbrooke again
4) Harland writes: ‘Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics. The Croatian leaders connived in the carve-up of Yugoslavia, and contributed mightily to the horrors on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I witnessed for myself the indiscriminate fury of the Croatian assault on the beautiful city of Mostar.’
Harland either does not know, or chooses not to mention, that the ICTY is currently prosecuting a group of prominent Bosnian Croat perpetrators for crimes carried out in Bosnia: Milivoj Petkovic, Jadranko Prlic, Slobodan Praljak, Bruno Stojic, Valentic Coric and Berislav Pusic. They are specifically being tried over the Croatian attack on Mostar. The ICTY has already convicted a large number of Croat perpetrators, including Dario Kordic, wartime leader of the Croatian Democratic Union in Bosnia and vice-president of the Croat Community of Herceg-Bosna, and Tihomir Blaskic, former commander of the (Bosnian) Croat Council of Defence (hence equal in rank to the Bosnian Serbs’ Ratko Mladic) and inspector in the General Inspectorate of the Croatian Army. NB Blaskic spent longer in prison than any Yugoslav army officer sentenced over the 1991-1992 Croatian war, except Mile Mrksic.
5) Harland continues: ‘The Bosnian Muslim leadership had deeply compromising links to the international jihahist movement, and hosted at least three people who went on to play key roles in the 9/11 attacks on the United States. I witnessed attacks by foreign mujahedeen elements against Croat civilians in the Lasva Valley.’
The accusation regarding the Bosnian government’s supposed links to the international jihadist movement and 9/11 attackers is sheer Islamophobic defamation. As regards the mujahedin, Harland either does not know, or chooses not to mention, that Rasim Delic, commander of the Bosnian army from June 1993 until the end of the war, was convicted by the ICTY over crimes carried out by the mujahedin against Serb civilians. On the other hand, the ICTY Appeals Chamber found in the case of Bosnian army 3rd Corps commander Enver Hadzihasanovic that he could not be held culpable for the crimes of the mujahedin, since ‘the relationship between the El Mujahedin detachment and the 3rd Corps was not one of subordination. It was quite close to overt hostility since the only way to control the El Mujahedin detachment was to attack them as if they were a distinct enemy force.’
As with the Croatian attack on Mostar, so with the Bosnian government and the mujahedin, Harland’s portrayal of the ICTY as simply having ignored the crimes in question reflects either an extraordinary degree of ignorance regarding the ICTY’s record, or is deliberately deceptive of his readers.
6) Harland continues: ‘And the Kosovar Albanian authorities deserve a special mention, having taken ethnic cleansing to its most extreme form — ridding themselves almost entirely of the Serb and Roma populations. Kosovo’s ancient Christian Orthodox monasteries are now almost the only reminder of a once-flourishing non-Albanian population… Haradinaj has been cleared of the charges brought against him, but the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Serbs — mostly the elderly, women and children — were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians.’
Again, Harland does not attempt to address the ICTY judges’ refutation of the claim that Kosovar Albanians had engaged in a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ to remove the Serb and other non-Albanian population from Kosovo. His claims that the Kosovar Albanian authorities have succeeded in ‘ridding themselves almost entirely of the Serb and Roma populations’ and that ‘hundreds of thousands of Serbs — mostly the elderly, women and children — were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians’ are further falsehoods: of the roughly 200,000 Serbs living in Kosovo before 1999, roughly half are still there.
7) Harland concludes: ‘What has happened at the tribunal is far from justice, and will be interpreted by observers in the Balkans and beyond as the continuation of war by legal means — with the United States, Germany and other Western powers on one side, and the Serbs on the other.’
To which one can reply: only by anti-Western Serb-nationalist politicians and ideologues and their fellow travellers.
Perhaps the most disgraceful statement in Harland’s tissue of falsehoods is his claim that ‘I lived through the siege of Sarajevo.’ In fact, as the UN’s head of Civil Affairs in Bosnia from June 1993 until the end of the war, Harland was scarcely a victim of the siege. Following the Markale massacre in Sarajevo of 28 August 1995, when Serb shelling killed 37 civilians, Harland engendered the myth that the Bosnians themselves might have been responsible; as he testified, ‘I advised [UN commander] General Smith on that one occasion to be a little unclear about what we knew about the point of origin of the mortar shell that landed on the Markale market-place in order to give us time, give UNPROFOR time, to get UNPROFOR and UN people off Serb territory so they couldn’t be harmed or captured when General Smith turned the key to authorise air-strikes against the Serbs. That is true. That was less than fully honest.’
Indeed, the UN in Bosnia collaborated with the Serb besiegers of Sarajevo and helped to maintain the siege. It obstructed any possibility of outside military intervention to halt the genocide. It maintained an arms embargo that prevented the victims of the genocide from defending themselves properly. It was complicit in the murder of Bosnian deputy prime-minister Hakija Turajlic by Serb forces in January 1993. It abandoned the ‘safe areas’ of Srebrenica and Zepa to Mladic’s genocidal operations. Romeo Dallaire said of the UN, ‘Ultimately, led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, this world body aided and abetted genocide in Rwanda. No amount of its cash and aid will ever wash its hands clean of Rwandan blood.’ The same could be said of the UN with regard to Bosnia and Bosnian blood. Yet no former UN or other international official has been prosecuted by the ICTY or any other court for complicity in genocide or war-crimes. That is a real scandal of selective justice about which Harland has nothing to say.
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.
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