A gray-haired middle-aged man on a Bosnian hillside peers into the sights of an automatic rifle. He looks down at the people in Sarajevo, going through their infernal daily routine of survival. He pulls the trigger with a studied concentration and the barrel spits out its rounds. Eduard Limonov, a self-styled dissident Russian writer who first came to prominence during the Brezhnev era when he emigrated to the United States, adds his small contribution to the sacred war of the Serbs, his Slav brothers. Just as mujaheddin from the Middle East and from Afghanistan have responded to the call from their brethren in Bosnia-Hercegovina, so have Russian fighters, politicians, and propagandists rallied to the cause of the Orthodox Serbs, who have been pilloried by so much of the Western world. “If the West is arrogant enough to attack us, who are the saviors of Christendom,” I was told by Dusan, a Montenegrin fighting with the Serb militia in Bosnia-Hercegovina, “we shall not be alone. Our brother Cossacks will be here to defend us.”
On December 14, the moderate Russian foreign minister, Andrej Kozyrev, pulled a remarkable diplomatic stunt when he delivered a speech at the foreign ministers’ summit of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), demanding that sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro be lifted; he hinted that if the West planned punitive attacks against Serbia, Russia would be prepared to support the Yugoslav state militarily. Half an hour later, with the delegations still shocked by what the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, described as a bombshell, Kozyrev explained that it was all a joke. But he added that should President Yeltsin fall, and be replaced by the nationalist opposition in Moscow, these are the policies with which the West would have to contend.
Kozyrev’s speech was only one of many signs that the shadow of Balkan history, with its recurrent national and religious conflicts, is lengthening over Europe. Russia is the ultimate battle-ground between, on the one hand, the democratic forces that are seeking a modern pluralist politics in Eastern Europe and, on the other, the nationalism that would seal it off from outside influence. The political instability looming there could have huge consequences for Europe. The Balkan peninsula is both a model for what could happen in the former Soviet Union and a catalyst for impelling disparate reactionary pan-Slav and pan-Orthodox groups in Russia to work together.
Yet until now most diplomats and politicians in Western Europe and the United States have failed to understand the Balkan conflict and its wider implications. They have been unable either to stop the struggle in Bosnia or to reduce the possibility of a full-scale Balkan war in the south of the region. Indeed Western diplomacy bears considerable responsibility for the appalling slaughter in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Cyrus Vance, the co-chairman of the Geneva Peace Conference, deserves credit for an important success—the partial implementation of his peace plan for the Krajina, the Serb-occupied regions of Croatia. In addition, the United Nations peace-keeping force in Croatia and Bosnia has attempted bravely to fulfill its highly restricted mandate to protect humanitarian aid, despite hostility from all sides in the conflict.
But apart from these two successes, the West’s inconsistent policy toward the wars of Yugoslav succession has been an important element contributing to the deepening of the crisis. In a depressing exchange of letters last October and November, the United Nations secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, vainly urged the then German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, to give up his determination to recognize Croatia unconditionally since this would ignite “the most terrible conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina.” Not only did German recognition of Croatia finally provoke the war in Bosnia as Boutros-Ghali predicted, it has provided no solution for dealing with the status of the several hundred thousand Serbs who live in Croatia. A third of Croatian territory, which is of vital importance to the economy, still remains outside Zagreb’s control. The uneasy calm in Croatia since January 1992 has been guaranteed by the peace plan put forward by Vance, who had also specifically urged that Croatia not be recognized. Restoring Croatian sovereignty over the Krajina will be achieved only through a diplomatic miracle or a revival of the Serbo-Croat war.
The West now faces yet another choice in the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic, having been re-elected, seems able, if he so desires, to start the Third Balkan War. If there was any doubt before, the results of the elections in Serbia and Montenegro on December 20 proved that the West’s economic sanctions and strong words will not persuade the Serbs to reject Milosevic’s aggressive policies. On the contrary, the results of the parliamentary elections show an alarming growth in support for Milosevic’s extreme nationalist ally, thirty-eight-year-old Vojislav Seselj, who calls himself the Chetnik Duke, and who is committed to total “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo. Seselj’s paramilitary forces have been accused of some of the worst atrocities against Muslims. Candidates supporting him received more than 20 percent of the votes in the Serbian parliamentary elections. Milosevic has consolidated his authority as the Serbian president and as a consequence the Balkan peninsula has taken another great step toward catastrophe.
No doubt the elections in Serbia and Montenegro were rigged in favor of Milosevic and the coalition of his Socialist Party (SPS) and Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRP). Milan Panic, the Serbian-born American businessman who opposed him, knew the cards were stacked against him from the first. As soon as the extent of Milosevic’s victory became clear, Panic denounced the election as fraudulent and demanded that a new election be held within ninety days. He was supported by the group of international observers who claimed that corrupt electoral practices—for example, the exclusion of potential voters for Panic from the voting lists—had given Milosevic an advantage of between 5 and 10 percent. If the latter figure is correct then Milosevic would have been forced to face Panic again in the run-off. But whether a fair election would have much affected the parliamentary majority of the SPS and SRP seems more doubtful. While Panic, who was forced out of office on December 29, is entirely justified in calling for new elections, Milosevic will not give the idea a moment’s thought. Still less will he be impressed by similar demands from the international community.
Before the outcome of the election became clear, the foreign ministers of the European Community delivered a blunt warning that a victory for Milosevic would be greeted by a tough response. They threatened to isolate Yugoslavia completely by cutting off postal and telecommunications while also considering ways of curbing the military activity of the Bosnian Serbs. But this warning by the European Community comes too late. While the Western politicians waved a number of rhetorical sticks at the Serbs in the weeks before the elections, including the possibility of military intervention in Bosnia-Hercegovina, they neglected to offer any clear hope to the Serbs that sanctions would be lifted if Panic won. If they had done so, they could have given important support to Panic’s campaign.
Instead the Western politicians mainly reiterated their disgust with the barbarous behavior of the Bosnian Serbs and underscored Milosevic’s responsibility for the aggression in Bosnia. The announcement during the week preceding the elections by Lawrence Eagleburger, as secretary of state, that Milosevic, among others, should be investigated on suspicion of having committed war crimes was perhaps the most curious example of this. As a former ambassador to Belgrade, a fluent Serbo-Croat speaker who has had close links with Serbia, Eagleburger, more than any other diplomat, should have been aware that this type of name-calling—with no real prospect of prosecution—ran the serious risk of playing into Milosevic’s hands in the election. Nor has the administration so far made a coherent case for enforcing the no-fly zone in Bosnia and the other military options it is now proposing. One senior diplomat at the Geneva conference spoke of the outgoing president handing “a poisoned chalice of intervention” to the president-elect.
At the end of August, Slobodan Milosevic walked out of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Hall in London looking like a defeated man. He had been upstaged by the president of Yugoslavia, the novelist Dobrica Cosic, and Cosic’s unlikely ally, Prime Minister Milan Panic of Serbia. Both had overruled Milosevic and agreed to enter talks with the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, about ways to settle the main cause of war in the northern Balkans, the Serbo-Croat conflict. Milosevic’s prestige and power appeared to be wavering while Cosic and Panic offered new hope for a solution to one of the most vicious struggles of the twentieth century. They talked of a political settlement under which Serbs might trade acceptance of Croatian political sovereignty and disputed territory in return for guarantees of autonomy for the Serbian minority in Croatia.
During the months following the London Conference, the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina obscured the tangled politics within what remains of Yugoslavia, i.e., Serbia and Montenegro. Yet the bitter struggle between two conflicting visions of Serb nationalism, embodied respectively by President Cosic of Yugoslavia and President Milosevic of Serbia, soon developed into the single most important domestic issue in the former Yugoslavia. The issue was whether or not peace and some equitable order could be restored to the Balkans. As one perceptive and worried British diplomat remarked at the end of the London Conference. “The entire deal which may bring peace to Bosnia rests on the sands of Panic’s rhetoric”—rhetoric that had at least some plausibility because Cosic endorsed it.
Since accepting the office of Yugoslav president earlier this year, the seventy-one-year-old Cosic, whose novels about World War I and peasant life are widely read throughout Yugoslavia, has used the considerable moral authority he enjoys in Serbia to support a policy of “cooperative nationalism,” under which Serbs would accept guarantees of autonomy in Croatia and Bosnia. Liberal opinion in Belgrade had been suspicious of Cosic because he is seen as the man who prepared the intellectual ground for Slobodan Milosevic, in 1986, when the Serbian Academy of Sciences published a controversial document known as “The Memorandum,” of which Cosic was the main author. The Memorandum accused the League of Communists in Serbia and Kosovo of allowing the small Serb minority in the provinces of Kosovo to be systematically discriminated against by Albanians. The following year Milosevic used the accusation in the Memorandum to get rid of the conservative leadership of the Serbian League of Communists. After war broke out in June 1991, Milosevic consulted Cosic regularly about strategy, because Cosic had over the years acquired strong influence among the Bosnian Serbs. Like Milosevic, Cosic at the time believed in the need to unite the Serbian lands into a single state.
But whereas Milosevic’s craving for chaos and blood appears difficult to satisfy, during the past eighteen months Cosic has turned against a war in which tens of thousands of Serbs have been either killed or driven from their homes in Croatia. It is hard to say just when Cosic decided that Milosevic’s project was driving the Serb nation toward disaster, not to mention the rest of southern Europe, although there is evidence to suggest that this did not happen until after the war had broken out in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Indeed some Muslim intellectuals and Serb liberals believe that Cosic bears part of the responsibility for encouraging the Bosnian Serbs to make war on Muslims. Why Cosic changed his mind in order to seek a peace based on compromise remains a mystery. The late leader of the Croatian Serbs, Jovan Raskovic, may have offered a clue when he said, “Cosic thinks one thing, says another, and then does something completely different.”
Yet despite his advocacy of Greater Serbia, Cosic, once he accepted the Yugoslav presidency in July 1992, soon made it clear that he would not support Milosevic’s aggression. Cyrus Vance, Franjo Tudjman, and the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic—the main non-Serb participants in the Geneva Conference—have all said that Cosic has been genuinely committed to ending the war as soon as possible.
Cosic’s victory over Milosevic at the London Conference prepared the ground for the accord between Tudjman and Cosic which was signed in Geneva last October. Had it been carried out, this agreement could have cooled down the conflict between Croats and Serbs. Cosic agreed in principle to Croat sovereignty over the Krajina, the four Serb-occupied areas which are now under the control of the United Nations’ peace-keeping force. In return the Serbs in Croatia would be given a degree of political autonomy which would be guaranteed by the international community. This major concession was to be part of a comprehensive agreement whose final goal was the mutual recognition of Croatia and the new Yugoslavia and an end to hostilities between Serbs and Croats.
Both Tudjman and Cosic also committed themselves to a solution to the Bosnian problem which was to be based on the agreement of the republic’s “three constituent nations”—Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. This phrase is Titoist in origin but for some diplomats it has become a euphemism for “cantonization,” a process which implies the de facto subjection of most of Bosnia-Hercegovina to the imperial capitals, Belgrade and Zagreb, at the expense of the Muslims. Under intense pressure from Cyrus Vance and his cochairman, Lord Owen, both presidents also accepted the principle that the three constituent nations would be part of a Bosnian state, although such a commitment clearly caused President Cosic difficulties with his Serb compatriots in Croatia and Bosnia.
In Belgrade, Milosevic saw the Tudjman-Cosic accord as a defeat for his aggressive vision of a greater Serbia; but he was quick to recognize that he could exploit the accord in order to revive his fortunes. He could, and did, support both the Krajina Serbs (who are adamant in their refusal to recognize any form of Croatian sovereignty) and the Bosnian Serbs. Within Serbia itself, he encouraged the already widespread perception that Western sanctions and denunciations of Serb aggression were a great injustice, punishing Serbia for the secession of Croatia and Bosnia, which, according to Milosevic, is the only cause of war in the former Yugoslavia. In both Krajina and Bosnia, the Serb forces rallied to Milosevic.
The Serbian president has exploited the Western sanctions in a variety of ways. Sanctions were imposed by the Security Council in May 1992 because of evidence that the Yugoslav army was fighting inside Bosnia. Most Serbs, including many who support Panic and Cosic, have felt aggrieved that the same punishment was not meted out to Croatia. Among the UN officials in the former Yugoslavia, it has long been an open secret that units of the Croatian army were fighting in Hercegovina and northern Posavina. But it was only after the UN was able to place military observers in these areas in November 1992 that the head of the UN civilian operation in Zagreb, Cedric Thornberry, was able to confirm, in early December, the presence of these troops.
In addition to claiming that Serbs were being unjustly condemned, Milosevic has also taken credit in Serbia for his ability to flout the sanctions. For almost three months now, gasoline has been easily available in Serbia and Montenegro, and although there has been a serious decline in living standards in both places, it has not been as dramatic as the decline suffered by the beleaguered people in Macedonia and the wretched Albanians in Kosovo, or even in many parts of Croatia. To circumvent the sanctions, Milosevic has set up an effective war economy, making use of profiteering militia groups, which he finances by drawing on the offshore hard currency reserves he maintains in Cyprus—reserves he accumulated before sanctions were imposed. The thugs who police Milosevic’s Serbia have gained enormously from the corrupt smuggling networks in which citizens of all the surrounding states have participated. The borders of the Balkans are the most porous in the world, and the goods the sanctions are supposed to block flow in both directions. The sanctions, moreover, do not have as strong an effect on the backward peasants, who are Milosevic’s main supporters, as they do on liberals whose numbers are declining in the big towns. The farmers of southern Serbia who vote solidly for Milosevic could not care less about Western threats to cut off Yugoslavia’s telecommunications links with the outside world, including telephones, television, radios and faxes, and computers. For the activists in Belgrade who have been working hard to get rid of Milosevic, this could undermine their political will.
During the past three months, the Bosnian Serb leaders have moved from giving covert support to Cosic to openly backing Milosevic. The Krajina Serbs were quick to denounce Milan Panic as a traitor for his peacemaking efforts, and they threw their weight wholeheartedly behind Milosevic. Not for the first time in the Yugoslav conflict, the Serbs who live outside Serbia have been able to exert their will on those who live in Serbia. As a senior official of the Serbian Krajina government in Knin told me, “We Serbs here have a decisive influence over what happens in Belgrade—not the other way round.”
Reactions against the Cosic-Tudjman accord, combined with Serbian military success in Bosnia and the revival of Milosevic’s political fortunes, have radicalized Bosnia’s Serbs. They now refuse to take part in a highly decentralized Bosnian federation—which they might well have accepted a year ago; and in late October at a session of the Bosnian Serb parliament held in Prijedor, they passed legislation aimed at unifying the Bosnian territories they control with the Krajina, the first step in the creation of Greater Serbia.
With Milosevic’s victory for his warped vision of Serbia’s future, Cosic’s appeal for peace has failed. His idea of “cooperative nationalism,” backed by a fragile coalition of liberals, social democrats, monarchists, moderate nationalists, and students, now must make way for Milosevic’s destructive nationalism. If he so wishes, Milosevic can prepare to move into the last, most active, and most dangerous phase of his project for Greater Serbia. This does not, for now, include provoking a war in Kosovo—the Serbs already control Kosovo, and there is no reason why they would want to tie down their resources in a war over territory which they already dominate. It does, however, mean renewing the challenges to Croatia, and to the West over Bosnia, and it means threatening the tattered republic of Macedonia.
Milosevic’s success suggests that the wars of the nation states in the Balkans will now have a new impetus. There is growing opinion inside the three Albanian communities—in Kosovo, in Macedonia, and in Albania itself—that the time has come for action to unite Kosovo and western Macedonia with Albania proper. The increasing disquiet in Hungary will surface in January at the special conference of the ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum when one of the Forum’s prominent members, the xenophobic nationalist Istvan Csurka, will challenge the liberals in the governing coalition to protest the treatment of Hungarian minorities in Yugoslavia, in Romania, and in the southern part of the new nation of Slovakia. Croatia is displaying increasing impatience at the inability of the United Nations to restore Zagreb’s sovereignty over the four Serb-occupied areas of Croatia under UN protection; and Milosevic’s victory will undoubtedly strengthen the political forces in Croatia who oppose extending the UN’s mandate after March. The prospects for an end to the war on the blighted territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina have rarely looked more bleak.
Now that Milosevic has won in Serbia and Yugoslavia, it is probably too late to stop the conflict in the Balkans. On America’s initiative, however, the UN appears to be preparing some form of military response to the crisis. The Western nations have felt compelled to do this both by pressure from public opinion and by the implicit warning issued by almost fifty foreign ministers from the Organization of the Islamic Conference that if some sort of action to protect the Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina is not undertaken by January 15, then they will consider breaking the arms embargo and supply the Bosnian government with weapons. The Bush administration is likely to succeed in pushing through a resolution at the security council enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia with all military means. According to Lawrence Eagleburger when he was interviewed on the BBC on December 20, if the Bosnian Serbs were to respond to the enforcement by attacking UN personnel (as the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, has threatened) then the UN, working through NATO, would consider punitive strikes against the airfields of the Bosnian Serbs.
One hears two schools of thought concerning the Serbian response to this type of military intervention. Some maintain that the Serbs are illdisciplined cowards who would turn and run at the first hint of superior air power. Others hold that such punitive strikes would strengthen Milosevic’s position and the Serbs’ commitment to fight a brutal guerrilla war. They may also, so the argument goes, result in an unprovoked attack by the Serbs on Kosovo or Macedonia with the specific aim of provoking a Balkan war. On December 23, the commander general of the Yugoslav army promised that his forces would respond to any punitive strike. We cannot know for certain what the reaction of the Serbs would be; but it would be criminally irresponsible not to consider the second possibility very carefully.
Still, this is not the central issue. The West is planning military intervention largely as an indignant emotional response to the atrocities committed by Serbs in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and not as a way of dealing with the political situation which caused the war in the first place. Although the Bosnian Serbs have had a huge advantage in Bosnia-Hercegovina because of the gigantic arsenals at their disposal, the conflict is still a civil war. It was provoked by President Alija Izetbegovic’s decision to leave Yugoslavia without first securing the agreement of the Serbs, who make up 33 percent of the population. When the West encouraged the Bosnian government to declare its independence, Bosnia-Hercegovina was not in a position to set itself up as an independent state unless the West backed its commitment to secession by protecting it. This the Western nations failed to do.
The only military intervention in Bosnia-Hercegovina that does not run the risk of provoking a Balkan war in which the West would become bogged down would be one linked to a political settlement of the crisis. The only policy that fits this description and that seems to have a chance of working would be to create safe havens for the Muslim population of Bosnia-Hercegovina, as proposed by the Austrian foreign minister, Alois Mock, and the leader of the British Liberal-Democratic Party, Paddy Ashdown. They envisage, for a start, UN forces surrounding the four largest Muslim cities in Bosnia and guaranteeing their safety from invasion and their continuing supplies of food and fuel.
This would protect the remaining Muslim population, which, if left undefended, is in danger of being liquidated. It would also provide havens for the prisoners held in concentration camps. Such a plan would, at least temporarily, leave intact the territorial gains made primarily by the Serbs but also by the Croats; once the fighting subsides political negotiations could then continue. Naturally such a solution appears to give legitimacy to the division of Bosnia-Hercegovina, which is unacceptable to the West. The problem with such objections, however, is that the Western response to the disintegration of Yugoslavia bears significant responsibility for allowing the conflict to have developed in the first place. The Western nations have been embarrassed by the horrifying reports of atrocities and they may take some kind of action; but they are no longer in a position to act according to the principles that should have guided them a year ago. The central aim of Western policy must be to prevent the spread of war to the rest of the Balkans and that means acting pragmatically in Bosnia. It means recognizing that the war there is in its origin a civil war, and taking account of the claims of the Serbs who make up one third of the country.
Those who demand punitive action against the Serbs for a series of conflicts that are not exclusively a consequence of Serbian aggression should consider the potential effects on the Kosovo Albanians. Anybody who believes that a Serbian government run by the hideous coalition of Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj is not capable of inaugurating a massacre of Kosovo’s Albanians in order to plunge the south of Europe into anarchy—or of attacking elsewhere in the Balkans—should be reminded of the atrocities committed by Serbs in Bosnia. Seselj has stated publicly that he aims to start a new European war. He and Milosevic are now in a better position to do so than ever before.
—December 30, 1992
January 28, 1993