Balkan Strategic Studies

April-May 1993

The Balkan Debacle Could Have Been Averted

By Professor Walter Roberts, author and former US diplomat. Appeared in April-May 1993 edition of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy.

International political and media thought today is that the current Yugoslav crisis was an unavoidable resurgence of centuries-old hatreds. But it was neither inevitable nor logical, says Professor Walter Roberts, author and former US diplomat who served in Belgrade.

The impression conveyed by newspapers, magazine articles, television, and by popular pundits and commentators, high-ranking military and government officials, and even some old "Yugoslav hands" of the diplomatic corps is that the former Yugoslavia is an area where hundreds of years of deep hatred erupted again in bloodshed and murder with the demise of its post-World War II leader, Marshal Tito, whose communist government had held the country together and forcibly suppressed ethnic loathing. I challenge this facile picture. A great deal of rewriting of history is being done these days in order to prove whatever favorite political point is advanced.

The argument that the South Slav people have been murdering each other for generations is simply not true. That the Serbs opposed their Ottoman rulers -- the world "Chetnik" emanates from those days, not from World War II -- is, of course, a fact. It is also true that some of the wars like the two Balkan wars were bloody. The opposition of the Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, and, of course, the Serbs, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire is equally undeniable. There was, however, no internecine warfare of Slavs within Austria-Hungary. Indeed, Serbs Croats and Slovenes connived with each other against Austria-Hungary, and it was they who in 1918 formed a new country: the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. That new country was not an artificial Allied creation, as some now say.

Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia were, before World War I, part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Only the Kingdom of Serbia, which had re-emerged from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century, had become an independent entity. Important Croat, Bosnian and Slovene personalities, together with Serbian leaders with similar ideas, were influenced by parallel 19th Century movements for cultural and national identity, and they agitated for a form of union of South Slavs.

They succeeded in their aspirations when Austria-Hungary was defeated in World War I. Looking to the postwar future, it was far preferable for Croats, Bosnians and Slovenes to ally themselves with Serbs who, unlike themselves, had fought on the winning side and were thus allies of Britain, France and the United States, rather than to remain under foreign rule or obtain a separate but weak sovereignty over only a small piece of territory. Separate, their territories would indeed have been small. Without union, the victorious Serbs would have succeeded in enlarging the territory of pre-war Serbia to include sections of Croatia and Bosnia where hundreds of thousands of Serbs lived under Austrian-Hungarian tutelage.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, as it was called before the name Yugoslavia was adopted in 1929, lasted from 1918 until 1941. It was not a happy marriage, yet it did not break up. While there were tensions and even assassinations (eg: the Croatian leader in Parliament was shot by a Serbian member; the King, a Serb, was assassinated by an agent of Croatian fascists), the populations lived peacefully together; they intermarried, moved and traveled freely about the country.

When Hitler's Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Croats, for the most part, welcomed the nazi troops, while in Belgrade the Germans were received with icy stares. What transpired after Yugoslavia's quick defeat is pivotal to today's tragedy. The Germans and Italians created a fascist state of Croatia, which included the present Bosnia-Herzegovina. This state, during its short existence, massacred hundreds of thousands of Serbs, and thousands of Jews and Gypsies.

Croatian troops, including Muslim units, fought on the side of the Axis during World War II, and participated in military actions against both the Yugoslav resistance movements: the Mihailovic-led Serbs and the Tito-led partisans. To compound the situation, the two resistance movements fought each other. It is a fact that most of the two-million Yugoslav casualties during World War II were the result of internecine warfare. This internal conflict was, at the same time, a struggle to realign the distribution of power in a disintegrated pre-war political order.

Tito, who was of mixed Croat and Slovene background, emerged victorious. He created a communist state with new internal borders: a country largely free of ethnic problems. The only obvious antagonism was the legacy of World War II, putting Titoites against adherents of Mihailovic. Even this problem receded as the years passed.

People who today present themselves as Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, and Serbs, were only a few decades ago proud to call themselves Yugoslavs. Was this all due to the overpowering personality and shrewd policies of Tito? The answer, largely, is yes.

Not only did Tito not award Bosnia-Herzegovina to Serbia as the Serbs had wished, but he created a new Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, thereby endearing himself to the many Muslim Slavs residing there. He also detached Macedonia from Serbia, creating a new Republic of Macedonia, a measure which Bulgarians and Albanians living in that republic wholeheartedly approved. He went even beyond these steps: creating within Serbia two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina. This act was applauded by the Albanians and Hungarians resident in those respective areas. The Serbs were stunned, but, having lost the civil war, were in no position to resist.

Tito, after purging the holdover Mihailovic adherents, then moved to soothe the Serbs. The capital of Yugoslavia remained Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Important government jobs went to prominent Serbs or Montenegrins: Milovan Djilas, Alexander Rankovic, Koca Popovic, etc. And, very importantly, the Army and internal security services were largely Serb-dominated. As well, in one instance, the pre-World War I borders of Serbia were redrawn favorably, with a large part of Slavonia going to the Serbs.

The communist idea initially proved relatively strong as a force for maintaining the cohesiveness of the Tito Administration throughout Yugoslavia, but Tito cleverly used international factors to solidify the country. When, at the behest of Stalin, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform in 1948, Tito, the communist, adroitly evoked in the country an anti-Soviet mood which helped him solidify the Yugoslav concept. And when, after a few years, the anti-Soviet concept began to lose its luster, he promoted the idea of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Yugoslavia was suddenly placed in the center of this world, hosting non-aligned leaders from dozens of countries: Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Nkrumah of Ghana, the Shah of Iran. In turn, Tito went on state visits around the world: to London, Washington, Paris and Moscow.

Yugoslavia, under Tito, saw different nationalities moving to other parts of the country for various reasons -- business, family or climate, for example -- so that each republic represented more of a mix of ethnic origins than ever before.

Tito, in his 35 year reign, several times faced nationalistic problems within the League of Communists, as the communist party renamed itself after is was expelled from the Soviet bloc. He knew that these problems could get out of hand, and dealt quickly with the problems, deposing Croatian and Serbian party leaders and naming new ones who would play by his rules.

The strong unifying forces disappeared with Tito's death in 1980. Economic difficulties, long ignored, arose. Submerged ethnic tensions resurfaced, fed by the weak governmental structure which Tito had bequeathed, and a power struggle emerged within the upper reaches of the ruling party. The signs of disintegration were first apparent in Kosovo, where a growing Albanian minority demanded the transformation of its status as an autonomous province within Serbia to that of a republic with the right to secede from Yugoslavia.

Kosovo is sacred to the Serbs, who regard it as the cradle of their civilization and religion. It was there, in 1389, that the Serbs finally lost their independence to the Ottomans, something which they were not to regain for almost 500 years. Kosovo today, however, has become 90 percent Albanian, because of the immigration and high birthrate of this non-Slav, Muslim group, accompanied by continuing Serb departures -- forced and unforced -- from the region.

The relationship between action and reaction is often complex and unclear, as it is in the case of Yugoslavia's disintegration. The marriage which was entered into in 1918, and which had its rough times in the inter-war periods, was foundering. The Serbs say that the Slovene, Croat and Bosnian leaders were unwilling to negotiate a fair secession [from Yugoslavia], while those leaders say that they could neither negotiate nor live with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic. There is probably truth on both sides.

Two Western ambassadors stationed in Belgrade offered contradictory interpretations: one said that Slovenia and Croatia would never have seceded had the Serbs had a leader other than President Milosevic. The other said that they would have seceded even without Milosevic.

The Yugoslav constitution, while recognizing the right to secession of "nations," does not specify a legal way in which this might be achieved. The then-President of Yugoslavia, Borisav Jovic, a Serb, stated in 1991 that all Yugoslavs would have to agree to a secession, and not only the republic concerned. So there was basic disagreement as to how secession could be effected. Parenthetically, in the United States (where the Civil War was, in essence, a conflict over secession), the Supreme Court has held that secession is not a right.

Several scholars have declared that the manner in which the break-up of Yugoslavia has occurred was in contravention of international law.

The incontrovertible facts, however, are that Slovenia and Croatia, and later Bosnia, took unilateral actions which they must have known would lead to bloodshed; and that these actions were abetted by several European countries, primarily Germany, which bear a heavy responsibility for the tragedy.

The world was warned by the US intelligence community (among others) as early as the Fall of 1990 that Yugoslavia would break apart within 18 months and that civil war was highly likely. This was confirmed in an article by David Binder in The New York times, of November 15, 1990, in which he disclosed the contents of a National Intelligence Estimate. The international community failed to arrest these developments.

Since bloodshed was anticipated should Slovenia and Croatia secede from Yugoslavia, why was the strongest international pressure not applied to nip the situation in the bud?

The member governments of the European Community (EC), as well as the Government of the United States, failed. EC and US policy should have clearly stated that unilateral secessions would not be recognized; that while self determination of the different Yugoslav nationalities was not opposed, the new countries would be recognized only after successful secession negotiations. If these negotiations could not be resolved amicably, then the US and EC should have insisted that the parties submit the conflict to the United Nations for adjudication and if necessary to compulsory arbitration.

It is true that the US Secretary of State, James Baker, went to Belgrade on June 21, 1991, and met with leaders of all six Yugoslav republics and urged them not to act unilaterally. But he was not sufficiently forceful. Slovenian and Croatian leaders promised Secretary Baker that they would not so act, but they reneged four days later.

Secretary Baker regarded these acts as "devious treatment," but he made no decisive declaration when the two states seceded.

Why did the international community before June 1991 not pressure Germany to stop supporting Slovenia and Croatia in their plans to secede? Why did the international community act only after the secessions were fact and hostilities had broken out?

Even then, six months after Slovenia and Croatia seceded, but before Bosnia declared its independence, the foreign ministers of the EC, meeting in Maastricht, were pressured by Germany -- despite urgent pleas to the contrary by the UN Secretary-General and the EC Yugoslav negotiator, Lord Carrington -- to recognise Slovenia and Croatia as independent countries.

The vote in this gathering was eight to four against recognition, but the German Foreign Minnister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, insisted that the would not leave the table until the EC foreign ministers would unanimously support him. It was 10pm. By 4am the next morning he had his way.

Would it not have been wiser if the British and French foreign ministers had declared that they would not leave the table until Germany and its three allies agreed with the majority not to accord recognition?

Mr Genscher's sudden resignation as German Foreign Minister a few months later may have had something to do with his over-zealous Yugoslav policy. There is now much soul-searching in Bonn as to whether the German policy was not, after all, a tragic mistake. Had the EC and US not recognized Croatia and Slovene, then Bosnia-Herzegovina would not have taken the fateful step of declaring its independence, and the present bloodbath could have been avoided.

There were excellent reasons for the international community to take an anti-recognition stand; not only the likelihood of bloodshed in the light of the World War II history [see Strategic Policy, December 31, 1992], but the very real question as to the status in international law of the member republics of the Yugoslav federation. They were created in 1945 by Tito, with borders drawn simply in accordance with the predilictions of the local communist party apparatchiks.

It must be stressed that the internal borders drawn in 1945 are completely different both for the pre-1914 borders of comparable regions, and from the 1918 borders which divided the then-new Kingdom into nine districts named after important local rivers.

It is precisely because the 1945 borders were never conceived as international borders that the secessions were so unpalatable to the Serbs. It was one thing for a Serb to live in Croatia or Bosnia as long as there existed a national Yugoslav Government with Serbian cabinet members, but quite another thing for three-million Serbs to suddenly find themselves living in foreign countries. Particularly in countries whose previous leaders were responsible for the most outrageous anti-Serb atrocities 50 years earlier, and whose present leaders made statements -- oral and in writing -- which could only arouse more fears among the Serbs.

There were two obvious solutions: either negotiated border rectifications or wide autonomy for the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. But Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian leader, and Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian leader, were unwilling to agree to one or the other course. The international community should have insisted that they take either of these steps before secession. But instead, the West declared that it regarded the internal administrative borders as internationally binding. And not until hostilities had broken out did the West push the Croatians into recognizing the Serbs' minority rights and come up, for its part, with the Vance-Owen plan to restructure Bosnia-Herzegovina.