First Check Their Sources 2: The myth that ‘most of Bosnia was owned by the Serbs before the war’
The myth that Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia and Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb rebels were victims of hostile Western intervention, indeed of a veritable Western imperialist conspiracy, is a bit like the idea that God exists – it really does rest on faith over reason. Ageing Western left-wing extremists who spent their entire lives believing that the Communist dictatorships of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. represented some sort of advance on liberal capitalism, were unwilling to jettison this shibboleth just because Communism collapsed ignominiously across Eastern Europe from 1989. They emotionally needed to believe that even the decaying remnant of this ancien regime represented by Milosevic’s dictatorship must have been the object of Western imperialist hostility in the 1990s, and their tribal loyalties moved them to solidarise with it in the face of all the evidence of its murderous nature. The solidarity was then perversely extended to Karadzic’s ideologically right-wing, anti-Communist Bosnian Serb rebels.
One of the clearest pieces of evidence that the Western alliance was not hostile to Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb rebels, however, was the fact that three and a half years of Western intervention in the Bosnian war culminated in a peace settlement that was remarkably favourable to them: not only were they granted a virtual state, through the recognition of their self-proclaimed ‘Republika Srpska’, with its own government, parliament, army, etc., but they were awarded 49% of Bosnia’s territory, despite the fact that Serbs constituted only 31% of Bosnia’s population at the time the war began in 1992. Meanwhile, the supposed ‘imperialist clients’, the Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims, had their Bosnian republic virtually dissolved and broken into two entities, with the Muslims and Croats, who comprised 60% of Bosnia’s population in 1992, receiving only 51% of the territory.
Can you imagine the US treating one of its real allies this way ? Granting 49% of Israel to the Palestinians or 49% of Colombia to FARC ?
The percentages are problematic not only for the myth of Western hostility to Karadzic’s Serb nationalists, but also to those believing in the justice of the Serb nationalist cause in Bosnia. To square this circle, the latter have traditionally claimed that the Serb-nationalist conquest of so much Bosnian land is not really a conquest at all, since Bosnian Serbs ‘already owned’ 65% (or 60%, or 56%, or whatever) of Bosnian private land.
The first problem with this argument is that private ownership of land is not the same as state ownership of territory, nor should it be. In a hypothetical country whose population was made up 90% of poor black peasants and 10% of rich white landowners, but in which the white minority owned 99% of the privately owned land and the black majority only 1%, nobody would seriously argue that the whites had the right to their own state comprising 99% of the country’s territory.
Nor is the area of a country’s territory the same as the area of its privately owned land, since part of the land of any country – particularly a Communist-ruled country like Bosnia – will be owned communally or by the state.
Nor does private ownership imply military control; if in another hypothetical country the native population owned 100% of the privately owned land but the country was heavily occupied by a colonial power, it would not follow that the native population ‘controlled’ the land.
The second problem with the argument that the majority of Bosnia’s land was owned by Serbs is that the figure itself is a myth – whether it is given as 65%, or 60%, or 56% or whatever. No evidence was ever produced to show that Serbs really did own more than half of Bosnia’s land.
David N. Gibbs, in First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2009) has this to say on the matter:
‘It is clear that Serb forces were on the offensive during much of the war, and they conquered large areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the extent of Serb aggression was once again exaggerated. Newspaper articles repeatedly noted that Serbs controlled some 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory, despite the fact that they constituted only 31% the [sic] total population… There was an insinuation that the Serbs must have conquered most of the 70 percent. Why, the reader might wonder, should the Serbs control so much land if they account for less than one-third of the population ? What such reports omitted was that the Serbs had always occupied most of Bosnia’s land area, owing to their demographic dominance in rural regions. The Dutch government’s investigation estimates that ethnic Serbs controlled 56 percent of Bosnia’s land prior to the war. During the 1992-1995 period, Serbs extended their control of Bosnia’s land area by approximately 14 percent above the amount of land that Serbs had held before the war. Clearly this 14 percent was gained through military conquest – but the extent of this conquest was nowhere near the levels implied in press reports. Such distortions appeared not only in newspaper articles, but also in US government reports.‘ (p. 124)
This argument allows Gibbs to claim that the various Western peace plans which awarded over 40% of Bosnian territory to the Serb rebels, even though Serbs comprised only 31% of Bosnia’s pre-war population, were actually unfavourable to the Serbs:
‘In fact, the Vance-Owen Plan was not especially favourable toward the Serbs, and for the most part it did not reward ethnic cleansing. The 43% that the Serbs were to receive under the plan was considerably less than the land area controlled by Serbs prior to the onset of the fighting. Critics of the plan ignored the fact that the Serbs had always controlled most of the land in Bosnia – since they were disproportionately agricultural – even before the war. When the war began in 1992, the Serbs owned or controlled some 56% of the total land, a proportion above what they were allocated by the Vance-Owen Plan.’ (p. 144)
Gibbs’s claim is already meaningless, since he doesn’t appear to know whether he is referring to ‘ownership’ or to ‘control’ of land by the Serbs – and as we have seen, the two are not the same and cannot be conflated.
Be that as it may, his source for the assertion that ‘the Serbs owned or controlled some 56% of the total land’ in Bosnia before the war is the 2002 report on the Srebrenica massacre of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), commissioned by the Dutch government. In Gibbs’s words, ‘The report states: “Prior to the 1992 conflict, 56% of Bosnian territory was in Serb hands.”.’ (First Do No Harm, p. 269)
It is certainly true that the NIOD report claims the following:
‘Prior to the 1992 conflict, 56 per cent of Bosnian territory was in Serb hands, although they constituted no more than 31 per cent of the population‘ (Part I, Chapter 3, Section, 2, p. 189).
Unfortunately, however, the NIOD report is, as regards historical background, a sloppy, unscholarly source. The NIOD report’s source for this claim is the book by Steven L. Burg and Paul S. Shoup, The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention (M.E. Sharp, New York and London, 1999, p. 28). Yet the NIOD report has cited Burg and Shoup falsely. What they actually claimed was the following:
‘If the cadastral opstina [municipality] was used as the unit to measure population distribution, about 56 percent of the area of Bosnia-Herzegovina could be said to have been inhabited by Serbs before the conflict began – a figure that should not be confused with the claim of the Bosnian Serbs that they “owned” 64% of the land. (This claim, even if true, can only refer to privately owned land.’
The claim by Burg and Shoup that 56% of Bosnia was ‘inhabited by Serbs’ is vague (what does it mean that 56% of Bosnia was ‘inhabited’ by Serbs ? Is a municipality in which Serbs comprise a small minority still considered to be ‘inhabited’ by Serbs, or must they constitute a majority ? How many Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs also inhabited the 56% of the territory that was ‘inhabited by Serbs’ ? And how is ‘56% of Bosnia’ defined ? Does it mean that municipalities with a Serb majority comprised 56% of Bosnian territory ? Was the city of Sarajevo, with its large Serb population but larger Muslim population, defined as ‘inhabited by Serbs’ ? Are uninhabited mountains located within Serb-majority municipalities included in the 56% or in the 44% ? etc. etc.).
Leaving that aside, Burg and Shoup specifically state that ‘inhabited by’ does not mean ‘ownership of’; nor do they claim that it meant ‘controlled by’. The NIOD report has changed the meaning of Shoup’s and Burg’s statement from ‘56% of Bosnia’s territory was inhabited by Serbs’ to ‘56% of Bosnia’s territory was in Serb hands’. Not bothering to check NIOD’s source, Gibbs has then used the NIOD report to claim that ‘56% of Bosnian land was owned or controlled by the Serbs’.
In other words, Gibbs’s confused and meaningless claim is based upon the NIOD report’s miscitation of Shoup’s and Burg’s already unclear claim – even though the original claim, however unclear it might be, very specifically does not mean what Gibbs claims it means. And he uses this essentially manufactured ‘fact’ to claim that successive Western peace-plans were unfavourable to the Serbs, since they awarded them less than the 56% of Bosnia they had supposedly originally ‘owned or controlled’ !
But are there any real figures concerning Bosnian land that can help us establish the truth ? One source whose reliability, we hope, will not be called into question, is the Encyclopedia of Yugoslavia, whose second edition was published in Yugoslavia during the 1980s. The entry for Bosnia-Hercegovina, which we cite here in the English edition of its published offprint (The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Jugoslavenski leksikografski zavod, Zagreb, 1983), has this to say:
‘The total area of B-H [Bosnia-Hercegovina] is 5,113,000 ha, which is 20% of the total area of Yugoslavia. Agricultural areas include 2,573,000 ha, that is more than a half of the area of B-H (50.3%), or less than 1/5 (17.9%) of all the agricultural area of Yugoslavia.’ (p. 137). Furthermore, ‘private holdings even now occupy almost all of the arable land (94.9%)’… (p. 139).
So according to this official source, private agricultural land holdings in Bosnia comprised just under half the total territory of Bosnia, and agricultural land as a whole comprised barely more than half.
Furthermore, according to a book published by the Republican Office of Statistics of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1976, the majority of the rural population of Bosnia-Hercegovina at the time was non-Serb. Specifically, in 1971, the village population of Bosnia-Hercegovina was 45.5% Serb and 53.7% Muslim and Croat (Ejub Sijercic, Migracije stanovnistva Bosne i Hercegovine, Republicki zavod za statistiku SRBiH, Sarajevo, 1976, p. 52).
Gibbs’s claim that ‘Serbs had always occupied most of Bosnia’s land area, owing to their demographic dominance in rural regions’ and that ‘the Serbs had always controlled most of the land in Bosnia – since they were disproportionately rural’ is therefore false. His deduction, based on this falsehood, that Western peace-plans that awarded over 40% of Bosnia to the Serb rebels were actually unfavourable to them, can therefore be exposed as an attempt to fabricate Serb victimhood at Western hands.
I shall be adding to this critique of Gibbs in future.
Update: See Srebrenica Genocide Blog on Radovan Karadzic’s use of a misleading ‘ethnic map’ of Bosnia.
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