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Vol 2, No 17
2 May 2000
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Sam VakninYet More Myths of Yugoslavia
Part III of a series of articles debunking Balkan misconceptions
Sam Vaknin

Click here to read part I of this series, The Myths of Yugoslavia
Click here to read part II of this series, More Myths of Yugoslavia

12. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was inevitable

Slobodan Milošević came to power (1987-9) on waves of popular support for his rabid nationalism and fake anti-establishment credentials. His first actions were directed at the Kosovo Albanians, as he revoked their autonomy by altering the constitution and proceeded to demolish the educational and legal infrastructure of the region.

He also applied bloody force to suppress street protests. Combined with the IMF's pressure to repay maturing loans, the other republics watched the phoenix of Serb dominion with horror and indignation. Kosovo was the undoing of Yugoslavia a few times over its long history - and it lived up to its historical reputation.

Hitherto fringe nationalist parties emerged as viable alternatives in both Slovenia and Croatia as a direct result of the suppression of Kosovo. The "shock therapy" of 1990 (composed of a wage freeze and a hike in the general price level), the cut-off of American aid pending republic-specific elections and the populist, grievances-orientated electoral campaigns that ensued -combined to seal Yugoslavia's fate.

When Franjo Tuđman, running on a neo-Ustaša platform with Ustaša symbology, won a two-thirds majority in the elections of April 1990 and a 94% vote in favour of independence in a May 1991 plebiscite, the Croatian Serbs prepared for war. Cordoning-off their regions and refusing to allow ballot boxes in, they began to arm (the JNA was helpful in this) and teamed up with Milošević, who had his own Greater Serbia (and even greater personal profit) in mind.

The US - as it is wont to do - inadvertently stoked the flames by pleading with all parties to maintain "territorial integrity." This conflicted directly with both German views on the matter and with weighty German investments in the region, as Germany urged the EU to recognize the breakaway republics. It would not be the last time the West spoke in (at least) two voices.

Technically, though, the Serbs started the war everywhere.

The JNA invaded Slovenia immediately after it declared its independence, only to suffer heavy and disgracing losses at the hand of hastily organized Slovene militias. Next, following the Croatian declaration of independence, the Serbs in the Krajina expelled their Croat neighbours. The JNA then invaded eastern Croatia, as Serb artillery demolished Vukovar. These were undoubtedly the first acts of war.

But atrocities against both warriors and civilians were committed by all parties involved. Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosnians all engaged in mass expulsions, slaughters, rapes and executions with fervour, zeal and glee. The Serbs did so more visibly and their actions were, perhaps, more numerous, but the guilt is shared.

The demonization of the Serbs only served to alienate them further and enhanced their paranoiac siege mentality. It was not conducive to making peace and it may have prolonged the war unnecessarily.

13. The West acted too late and too hesitantly

The West may have acted ignorantly once the war started- but definitely not too late or too hesitantly. The European Community held a peace conference in the Hague as early as September 1991, though it failed because Milošević insisted on his dream of a Greater Serbia. With the entire might of the JNA behind him, he may have felt invincible.

Then, between October 1991 and February 1992, international mediators, both European and American, secured a total of 15 cease-fires, though admittedly none of them was too effective. The last one, organized by the eminence grise Cyrus Vance, involved UN troops. Unfortunately, these valiant efforts were coupled with some pretty dumb moves, such as recognizing Croatia in December 1991, thus incensing Serbia to insanity. This was German finesse at its apex.

In June 1992 this insult was coupled to the injury of a UN-imposed unilateral embargo on Serbia, though an arms embargo applied to all parties equally - thus preserving Serb superiority in weapons.

14. The Bosnians were the fiercest enemies of the Serbs, and Serbia suffered its worst defeat there

When it all began, the Bosnians actually opted to remain within a Yugoslav Federation. They were the only ones -together with the Macedonians - who seemed to have no design on independence. Negotiations commenced between Belgrade, and the local Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

These negotiations were interrupted by a referendum in which Muslim and Croat Bosnians voted for secession while the Serbs abstained en masse. The leadership of Bosnia did not want to hold the plebiscite, but was forced to do so in emulation of Croatia and Slovenia and in response to the growing rumble of street protest. The lines of the emerging war coalitions were already clearly visible.

Alija Izetbegović's first post-election government actually included Serbs, but Milošević was fanning the flames. He regarded Bosnia as easy prey and an integral part of Serbia, and he intended to use the local Serb populace as pawns on his ever more bloodied board. Izetbegović's Muslim-nationalist past did not help.

The Serbs clearly won the ensuing war. The army of the emerging Republika Srpska incorporated JNA units, complete with their heavy armour, and were supported with food and supplies from Belgrade. At their height, they controlled an ethnically cleansed swathe of Bosnia equal to 70% of its surface area. Moreover, they linked to Serb-dominated zones in Croatia. The West (notably, President Bush) seemed to acquiesce despite Serb atrocities committed in dedicated rape camps and execution sites.

Even Mate Boban's Croat forces did not succeed in reversing this uninterrupted streak of luck and success. They fought a few successful but rather meaningless battles before the Vance-Owen partition peace plan was introduced and accepted by them and the Muslims. The Serbs rejected it in their makeshift parliament.

The Croats then turned on their Muslim collaborators in places like Mostar, hoping to secure a larger Croat space and the Serbs seemed to comply by standing aside. Conspiracy theories abounded among the Muslims, but the reality was a division of Bosnia between Serbs and Croats, even as fighting broke out between the compatriots of these new-found allies on Croatian soil.

15. The war brought to power the most extremist and radical leaders in each of the countries involved

Milošević was not the most radical Serb politician. He was very often criticized by the likes of Vojislav Šešelj for betraying the Serb cause. Extremist parties won handsomely in Serb elections and held many seats in the national parliament of Serbia.

The same can be said about Croatia. Franjo Tuđman - while an authoritarian Ustaša sympathizer- had nothing near the neo-Nazi nostalgia of Dobroslav Paraga.

Both Šešelj and Paraga had their own paramilitary formations which fought each other in Bosnia.

Izetbegović, for this part, did publish an "Islamic Declaration," for which he was jailed in 1983, but he was no Muslim fanatic or fundamentalist.

All sides were bound by shady dealings in drugs and weapons. The real conviction and vocation of all the leaders of the region was -and still is- crime.

16. The Kosovo conflict was a direct result of Serb suppression

In general, this is true. The Albanian population -especially the young and the educated- felt at a dead-end. But the direct trigger was the fact that the Dayton accords, which regulated the relationship between Yugoslavia (Serbia), Croatia and Bosnia, failed to mention Kosovo even once, let alone relate to its specific problems.

Pacifists and pro-Westerners like Ibrahim Rugova lost their clout and authority overnight. The resulting vacuum was filled by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) - a guerrilla-cum-drugs group which embarked upon the path of armed resistance by killing policemen and blowing up their police stations all over Kosovo. There is no doubt who started the Kosovo ball rolling, technically speaking.

But one must never forget that it was Serb oppression that led to the formation of the KLA in the first place. The Serbs retaliated by torturing and "disappearing" Albanian prisoners. Following an attack by the KLA in February 1998 (in which 4 officers died), the Serbs embarked on a scorched earth and ethnic cleansing policy. The rest is history.

17. The Rambouillet Accord

Not a myth this time. It called for Serb capitulation on various issues including free passage in Serbia of foreign soldiers and airborne vehicles and a referendum to decide the secession of Kosovo in three years' time.

Milošević could have never accepted this. The West knew it but believed that he would surrender to a threat of force - the same force used in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995.

The West was wrong.

Sam Vaknin, 24 April 2000

Click here to read part I of this series, The Myths of Yugoslavia

Click here to read part II of this series, More Myths of Yugoslavia

Also of interest:

The Myth of Greater Albania: Sam Vaknin debunks more Balkan misconceptions

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

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