Feuding pawns of empire

Triumph of the Lack of Will - Croatia - The Serbs
June 13, 1997

It is often said that history has repeated itself in the Balkans. In fact, there was nothing predictable about the history of 20th-century Yugoslavia. Around 1900, for example, it was far from obvious that Croatia was merely going to trade Austro-Hungarian domination for Serbian predominance. If one had said in 1940 that Croatia was on the verge of a mass murder of the Jews, as well as the more foreseeable massacre of Serbs, most contemporary experts on Balkan anti-Semitism would have shaken their heads in disbelief. And it would have been a brave man indeed who predicted in the dark days of 1991, when much of the country was in the grip of Serbian occupation, that Croatia's lost territories would be recovered in a three-day lightning campaign that astonished the world.

Similarly, not even the most pessimistic Serb could have imagined in 1993 - when Greater Serbia marked its biggest territorial extent - that within two years generations of Serb settlement in Croatia and western Bosnia would have disappeared. Nor could any of them have known that the only republic to survive the war with its multinational character more or less intact would be Serbia itself, where to this day nearly a third of the population is either Hungarian, Slav Muslim or Albanian.

Finally, few people in Western Europe, buoyant with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the "end of history'' in 1989-90, foresaw an unchecked war of ethnic displacement being waged on their very doorstep. Fewer still could have anticipated in the early summer of 1995, that the West was on the eve of launching the decisive intervention that the experts had always dismissed as impossible.

Anybody wishing to understand these complexities will be well-served by Marcus Tanner and Tim Judah's highly readable and stimulating new books. Of the two, Tanner's on Croatia is perhaps the more learned: it is certainly a long-overdue corrective to the one-sidedly negative view long entertained about Croatia by the educated British public. Judah's book, on the other hand, is a more polemical attempt to counter the "demonisation'' of the Serbs. But it is far from being a whitewash: with very few exceptions, he successfully walks the tightrope between "balance'' and relativisation.

As Judah points out, the history of the Serbs has been a history of trauma. Their halcyon medieval kingdom was crushed at the legendary battle of Kosovo - the "Field of the Blackbirds'' - in 1389. The victorious Ottoman Turks were to remain for more than 500 years. Periodic risings were put down with utmost savagery. Serbian identity was kept alive by the Orthodox church, which was allowed considerable autonomy within the Ottoman system. Perhaps the most important result of the Ottoman period was the Serbian diaspora: Serb refugees settled in the military frontier areas of Croatia, known as the Krajina; and in 1689 a bungled rising was followed by a mass exodus from the historic heartland of Kosovo to Habsburg Vojwodina, then in southern Hungary. After successful wars of liberation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there followed catastrophic defeats in the first world war. But the most traumatic period was that of the independent state of Croatia between 1941-44, when Croat fascists, the Ustase, under Ante Pavelic, murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs.

Yet as Tanner reminds us, the history of Croatia, at least in its early stages, has been no less traumatic. It too experienced the ravages of Turkish occupation. Admittedly, the Turkish presence was briefer, and it never extended to the north and much of Dalmatia. But in many ways it was more pernicious, for the Catholic clergy were regarded by the Ottomans, not entirely unjustly, as potential fifth columnists in league with the Habsburgs; Muslim persecution hit them more severely than their collaborationist Orthodox counterparts. The result was that the Croat presence in Bosnia, overwhelmingly Catholic on the eve of the Turkish invasion, went into sharp decline. Later on the Croats entered a partnership with the Habsburgs against the Turks, but were forced to endure the alienation of much of the country to Serb military settlers.

Throughout all this Croatia remained part of the central and western European mainstream. Unlike the Serbs, most Croats lived within a feudal structure and were "represented'' by a corporate parliament (Sabor), which ultimately developed into a democratic assembly; the 19th-century Serbian parliament, by contrast, could boast no such unbroken descent. Unusually, the Reformation seems to have made little impact in Croatia. But Tanner shows us that almost all the other great movements from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, through to freemasonry and Jacobinism, left their mark there, whereas they passed Serbia by.

The modern-day Serb-Croat conflict was not, however, preprogrammed. During the 19th century the Croats attempted to enlist Serbs against Magyarisation; and in 1918, it was Slovene and Croat fears of Italian expansionism which promoted them to inveigle an unwilling Serb establishment into the first Yugoslavia. Indeed, the whole Yugoslav - "South Slav'' - idea had been pioneered by Croatian intellectuals and politicians.

Unfortunately, most Serbs were not interested in cooperation but in a Greater Serbia. Judah shows skilfully how a direct line of continuity runs from Ilya Garasanin's masterplan of 1844 to the infamous "memorandum'' of 1986, when prominent Serbian intellectuals committed themselves to the nationalist programme. Serb nationalists were prepared to accept Yugoslavia, but only if they could dominate it. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the most virulent early Croatian nationalists, such as Ante Starcevic, were disappointed Yugoslavists or "Illyrians''.

The "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes'' after 1918 became, as its Croatian detractors predicted it would, a "Serboslavia''. Serbs controlled the officer corps, diplomatic corps and indeed all branches of the public service. Croat politicians were harassed, imprisoned and even murdered. During the second world war, the royalist Chetnik resistance movement under Draza Mihailovic sought not only to defend Serb communities from the Ustase and Germans, or Tito's communist partisans, but also waged a war of ethnic annihilation against Croats and Muslims in pursuit of Greater Serbia. Indeed, the greatest proportional losses between 1941 and 1944 were suffered by Slav Muslims.

The new communist Yugoslavia after 1945 was not Serb-dominated, per se. Admittedly, in Croatia and Bosnia, Serbs tended to dominate the police, party and administration. They also continued to control the army and foreign office. But within Serbia itself, two autonomous republics of Kosovo and Vojwodina were created. In the former, the majority Albanian community rapidly gained the upper hand from the mid-1960s onwards and began to agitate for their own republic.

By the mid-1980s concerns for the position of the Serb minority in Kosovo underpinned the re-emergence of radical Serbian nationalism. At the same time, the Serbian communist leader Slobodan Milosevic - partly to outflank party rivals - threw his weight behind the Greater Serbia project. The scene was now set for confrontation with the rest of Yugoslavia, and it was the Serbs themselves who were the greatest secessionists. At first they merely tried to turn Yugoslavia into Greater Serbia: the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojwodina was abolished; and when Slovenia protested it found itself faced with a Serbian economic blockade. None of this, of course, prevented Serbia from playing the Yugoslav card when it suited it, be it to deceive gullible western diplomats, or genuine federalists in army and government.

The new Serb radical nationalist programme was a particularly brazen inversion of the categorical imperative: "What is yours is mine, but what is mine is my own''. Where Serbs were in a clear minority, as in Kosovo, they argued on historical lines. Where they had recently become a minority as a result of internal economic migration and higher Muslim birth-rates - as in Bosnia - they claimed (falsely, as Judah points out) that the imbalance was the result of losses during the second world war. Where historical and legal arguments were against them, as in Vojwodina, the Serbs argued on the basis of demographic strength. Nothing could have been more calculated to encourage nationalism in Croatia and Slovenia, which declared their independence in the summer of 1991. The Bosnian Muslims, loyal Yugoslavs to the end, were caught in the middle before they too were forced to bail out of Greater Serbia in April 1992.

What followed is well known. In 1991-92, Serb nationalists launched a meticulously planned war of ethnic displacement in Croatia and Bosnia. Whole swathes of Slovenia, northern and eastern Bosnia, home to age-old communities of Croats and Muslims, were "cleansed'' within weeks. The programme of an ethnically pure, maximalist, contiguous Greater Serbia, as envisaged by Garasanin, Mihailovic and generations of radical nationalists appeared on the verge of realisation.

At first sight, there is a seductive symmetry with Croatian Ustase policies. But the two genocides are not comparable. The Ustase experience was a radical departure from mainstream Croatian politics. Croatia, unlike Serbia, had no substantial anti-Semitic tradition before 1941; here both authors have missed the new work by Philip Cohen. The Ustase themselves enjoyed minimal popular support before the war, while the mainstream Croatian politicians under Anton Macek refused to collaborate with the occupiers. Ante Pavelic's success was thus entirely due to his Italian backing and the extraordinary circumstances of the German invasion. The Greater Serbian project, on the other hand, has long been part of the Serbian political mainstream. There can be no doubt that the recent war against Muslims and Croats enjoyed the support of all but a tiny minority of the Serbian population.

The initial success of the Serb campaign was primarily a consequence of their overwhelming technological superiority. But it was also the result of Croat, Slovene and Bosnian disunity. In 1991, the Croats failed to come to the assistance of the beleaguered Slovenes; as a result they faced the subsequent Serb onslaught alone. Similarly, the Bosnian Muslims left newly independent Croatia to battle it out on its own, and were in turn abandoned by their erstwhile Croat allies during the disastrous civil war within a civil war in 1993-94. It was only after the American-sponsored Washington agreement between Croatia and Bosnia in early 1994, that the path was cleared for the recovery of 1995, when Croatia recovered the Krajina and Bosnian forces pushed the Serbs out of much of northwestern Bosnia. Only unity saved the non-Serbs.

But as James Gow's new book shows, the Serbs also benefited greatly from western disunity and indecision. Whereas Germany and the United States supported Bosnia and Croatia more or less from the beginning, Britain and France professed a neutrality which effectively favoured the Serbs. The upshot was a series of pathetic peace plans, most of which were predicted on making the Bosnians "see sense'' and agree to the truncation of their country. Only the Americans, with their policy of lifting the arms embargo and launching massive airstrikes against the Serbs, possessed a coherent strategy for winning the war, or at least forcing the Serbs to the negotiating table. But successive American initiatives foundered on Anglo-French objections. It was, as Gow puts it in an apt play on Leni Riefenstahl, a "triumph of the lack of will''. In the end, after everything else had been tried, the American line prevailed, the Serbs were routed, and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled towards Serbia proper. To historically minded Serbs the sight of Nato aircraft must have resembled iron-clad blackbirds, circling portentously over the field of battle, just as legend had it at Kosovo 600 years earlier.

Finally, as Judah reminds us, there may be further calamities in store for the Serbs. The great territorial dispute with the Albanians of Kosovo remains unresolved. They are the people with whom it all started, and they have not spoken yet.

Brendan Simms is a fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Triumph of the Lack of Will: International Diplomacy and the Yugoslav War

Author - James Gow
ISBN - 1 85065 208 2 and 322 4
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 343

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