The Yugoslav Labyrinth
E. A. Hammel
Department of Demography &
Department of Anthropology
University of California
Anthropology of East Europe Review 11(1, 2):39-47, 1993. Special Issue: War among the Yugoslavs.
Also published in H. Kreisler (ed.), Crisis in the Balkans. Institute of International Studies, U. C. Berkeley, pp. 1-33, 1993.
It has a title now that (presumptuously) calls up the closest historical analogy I can find, Gerald Brenan's classic on the similar situation in Spain. The title is peculiarly appropriate. Not only is the Yugoslav reality as twisted as the tunnels that held the Minotaur, but the observer keeps coming face to face with himself, seeing his own image spring out from what he thinks are the events of history, unable to separate projection from observation, fact from reflection, self from the other. Because this confusion cannot be resolved, I make no apology for it or for the personalism of the account. There is of course no lack of other accounts. I should also make clear my conviction that there are no clean hands in this conflict, there are no guys in white hats. The delicts range from the trivial to the horrendous, although they differ in their timing. Human frailty is everywhere evident, and in some quarters greed and savagery reign.
In this essay I first try to lay out my own biases and the limitations of my
experience. Then I try to give an objective account. Finally, I try to
I do not use this position of intermediacy to claim objectivity in the current crisis; I am not sure that objectivity exists. Only horror exists.
Like most Americans of centrist political orientation I had admiration for the construction of a Yugoslavia that was not based explicitly on the Germanic identity of Blut und Boden but that attempted to create a civil society on "objective" grounds, as that word is understood in the Marxist lexicon. But Marxist economics is in my view largely nonsense. Most Marxist states have also been totalitarian and repressive, including the Yugoslav state. One can attempt to tolerate voodoo economics and political repression until a functioning political entity is constructed, and of course the Marxists have words for that, too, in the `end justifying the means'. But the state, once established, never does wither away, although it may be blown up or simply collapse, as this one has. I must say that in the work I have done for human rights organizations, I was disturbed by evidence of abuse of those rights in Yugoslavia -- and the cases I had direct knowledge of were those of the repression of Serbs, not of Croats or Albanians or Macedonians, of which there were probably many more. The human rights record in Yugoslavia was a bad one, but for a long time I ignored it and avoided the issue. That the inhumanity and viciousness of personal repression have emerged in this region under regimes as different as the Ottoman, the Austrian, the Nazi, the Communist, and now, if I may use the expression, the democratic, invites analysis.
One of the reasons for my general support of the Yugoslav regime was that I detest ethnicity as a political force, favoring a multi-ethnic state with presumed equal rights for all, with individuals permitted to rise to the extent that their personal abilities permitted. I had in earlier years been disturbed by the obvious ethnic prejudice I saw directed in Yugoslavia at Gypsies and Albanians but put this down as redneck behavior. But one could not continue to excuse that behavior when it became an official attitude of the Serbian republic in Kosovo. That repression made the exclusion of the Chinese or the repatriation of Mexican immigrants in the U. S. seem benign. It was more like the view toward the Blacks that was enshrined in official segregation before the civil rights movement. You could see the definition of the Albanian as Nigger. Understanding the cultural and symbolic dilemma of the Serbian people as they saw their ancient heartland occupied by others, or their political discomfort under the efforts of the central Communist bureaucracy to displace them from it and to undermine their political influence as the chief competitor to the Party, does not persuade one to condone the repressive actions of their government . They could have done no better had they hired Ariel Sharon as Minister of Housing in Kosovo. The subsequent events in Bosnia in the summer and fall of 1992 make Kosovo look like a Sunday school picnic.
On the other side, I had had some misgivings at the phenomenon of the Croatian Spring, in which I saw more than the anti-imperialism that emerged in Prague but the potential for internecine strife. I thought the insistence, especially by Croats, on the separateness of the Croatian and Serbian languages to be divisive. The discussions of secession and later their implementation in Slovenia and Croatia were to me like playing with matches in an ammunition depot. Indeed, I felt the Slovene and Croatian actions to be distinctly provocative, a dangerous taunting with potentially enormous consequences. These trends recalled to me the insanity of VMRO, of Gavrilo Princip. I thought the "third Serbian uprising" in Knin in the 1990s distinctly less noble than those of 1804 and 1815 against the decaying Ottoman regime and just an example of the bandits coming out of the woods again. My vision of Yugoslavia was being violated. Yugoslavia, of course, has been the graveyard of American liberal ideas for a long time -- perhaps almost as much as Israel, or in an earlier period the Soviet Union. In these expectations and my frustration at their failures I have shown the usual error of technocrats, the assumption that a rational world is possible. It is no different in the United States, as a careful reading of its history shows. It is just that by accident of history we, with a few other European countries, happen to have constructed political institutions that diminish (but of course do not completely eliminate) the kinds of eruption of violence that we have seen in Croatia and now see repeated in Bosnia. The essence of good political institutions is that they make political idiocy more difficult (but not impossible) to achieve.
I can find but one encouraging feature of the current crisis, and that is the emergence of open political discussion. More than once, under the old regime, when I was engaged in vigorous discussion with a friend in Zagreb or Belgrade, I saw a look of alarm if an unexpected knock came at the door. More than once I heard contempt for the controlled media. For the past year I have been linked to electronic mail networks coming out of Zagreb and Belgrade. These networks bring news from Danas, Slobodna Dalmacija, and Vreme faster than I can get it from the BBC. One can only hope that they and their printed sources can survive the instincts of self-protective suppression that increasingly show themselves in the two capitals.
This flow of news, combined with my earlier experiences, has helped me to
develop a point of view that is more than just anger, frustration and failed
naiveté, although the first of these grows in me daily. The view will
very likely please no one who is involved in the current crisis. It has been my
observation of late that it is simple to tell the difference between a biased
and an unbiased account. If you give a biased account, either the Serbs or the
Croats are angry with you. If you give an unbaised one, they are both angry
with you. The most succinct
expression of my view came from an old Sephard from Serbia whom I met at the
time that hostilities were first beginning. He said, from the perspective of
the perpetually marginal, "Poludili su. se" "They have gone insane." He
was right. They have gone insane, but I here seek the logic in it.
The process began very late in the Balkans, and the standardization of centralist national languages is much more delayed than in other European regions (except in Scandinavia, where several separate dialects of North Germanic have been maintained as such by locating them in different nation-states). In the Balkans we see only the beginnings of centralist domination of tribal configurations, perhaps because they were for much longer under foreign imperial dominion.
If we can identify an original political landscape it is in the 10th and 11th centuries with the development of a feudal aristocracy in Croatia and Serbia, as well as in Bosnia and other areas. In the 12th and 13th centuries the Croatian aristocracy and their peasantry then came under the Hungarians about the same time that the Nemanjic dynasty was attempting to compete with and replace the decaying Byzantine Empire. But of course the Serbian Empire, along with Bosnia, fell to the Ottomans, beginning with the battle on the Marica in 1371, the famous defeat at Kosovo in 1389, the fall of the Serbian Despotate in 1459, and finally the loss of Belgrade in 1521. An important part of this story is that of the krajina, a kind of movable border, a no-man's-land pushed ahead of the Ottoman advance. It was peopled largely by the Vlachs of the Serbian Empire and later by other Christian, usually Orthodox, refugees from the Ottomans. These refugee streams had two consequences. First, they moved large numbers of Orthodox into areas that had been Catholic. Second, they extended the area of stokavian dialects deep into previously cakavian regions and of jekavian into ikavian regions. The northernmost limit of this expansion occurred in the Ottoman occupation of Slavonia after the battle of Mohacs in 1526, in which the Turks defeated the Hungarians and moved on toward Vienna. The direction was reversed after the Turkish defeat before Vienna in 1683 and the reoccupation of Slavonia by Hapsburg armies and their allies. But then the Austrian counteroffensive failed deep in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1689, and there was a resumption of the refugee movement under Arsenije. These movements, and of course the Croatian feudatories' invitation to Orthodox to serve as military colonists that had already begun by the time of Mohacs, established the tribal map of Yugoslavia up to 1914. Especially after the treaties of Karlovci (1699) and Pozarevac (1718), the movement of Serbs also established eastern ekavian as well as jekavian areas in Slavonia. Thus the stage was set by the scrambling of ethnicities for a centuries-long contest over the krajina, including the Slavonian krajina. See map of Yugoslav regions including the Military Border.
Mixtures of these tribal groups within and outside the krajina lived with few exceptions either under the Hapsburg or the Ottoman Empire. The Serbs were partially independent after 1804 and 1815 but not truly so until 1868. The Montenegrins never capitulated entirely, although they were surrounded and largely neutralized. Dubrovnik was similarly independent. The Croatians had some degree of local autonomy in the complex Austro-Hungarian politics after the Ausgleich of 1867. The Venetians played an imperial role along the Adriatic, and Dalmatia and some parts of the adjacent krajina had a complex history involving foreign domination by Venice, the Hapsburgs, and France. Ethnic mixture at the microlevel reached its peak in Bosnia, as did personal integration, at least among intellectuals.
The primary distinguishing characteristics in the Balkans are religion and language. Religion is a presumably discontinuous variable since people have to belong to a congregation or not belong to it. But there are degrees of membership and modifications to the discrete quality of identification. One is that the perceived distance between Muslims and either Orthodox or Catholics is greater on purely religious grounds than that between Orthodox and Catholics, even though on other cultural grounds the Orthodox Serbs and Muslims share more in attributes of the eastern Mediterranean. Under some circumstances (as currently in Bosnia) the Muslims and Catholics form a political bloc on the issue of independence. Under some other circumstances, the Orthodox and Catholics can be seen as sharing more in still other general cultural precepts of Mediterranean civilization. Another anomaly is that some persons who deny religious affiliation (such as Communists) can still classifiy themselves ethnically. They may do so on the grounds of earlier familial religious affiliation, or on grounds of language. Language is under some circumstances a discontinuous variable, as in the differences between Greeks, Albanians, Turks, and Slavs. But in much of the area the issue is mutual intelligibility along a dialect continuum, and at a finer level, whether other people sound like you yourself do, on scales of potentially very fine differentiation. Considerable effort has been expended by ethnic politicians to erect symbols of difference through linguistic usage, when speech was otherwise uniform. There is an apocryphal story about how to determine the ethnicity of prisoners during the civil war of 1941-45, by forcing them to recite the Lord's Prayer at gunpoint. Ethnic identification is, thus, essentially fluid, and the characteristics used in description are often not necessary and seldom sufficient. The difficulties of classification are even greater in historical context.
It is politics and politicians who clarify the criteria of ethnic assignment as a way of mobilizing support and allocating both demands and benefits. In the mediaeval Serbian state, the primary distinction among the common people was between serfs and Vlachs, and intermarriage between them was forbidden. Yet although Vlachs were a single category, some Vlachs may very well have been Catholic. In the mediaeval Croatian state and its Hungarian and Habsburg successors after 1102 and 1527 some Vlachs were Orthodox and some were Catholic. In Bosnia the Bogumil heretics may have been originally Catholic or originally Orthodox (and they were Orthodox when they began in Bulgaria) but escaped that particular schismatic conflict first by adopting Manichaean dualism and then by converting to Islam. (This is of course the same device used by the Khazars in converting to Judaism, and some Bosnian Muslims may have converted directly from adherence to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy.) It is not at all clear (to me at least) how to identify Serbs and Croats in the mediaeval period except in the core of their areas, yet politicians attempt this in efforts to justify claims to territory. The emergence of the modern standard classification that identifies Croats with Catholicism and Serbs with Orthodoxy came only with the absolutism of the Habsburgs in the 18th century. Ethnic classification in the Balkans is thus not strictly an endogenous process but either exogenously imposed or endogenously shaped in response to exogenous pressures. Of course one sees continuing political attempts to define the roots of emerging states as lying in the territory of others, on the grounds of ancient ethnic identities. Thus the Serbs insist on having all Serbs in a single political entity; they base their claims on the fullest dispersion at the height both of the Nemanjic expansion and the diaspora occasioned by the Turks, turning both victory and defeat into territory. The Croats draw their true southern boundary deep into Bosnia and Hercegovina, all of this on the grounds of mediaeval presence established on religious and etymological grounds, like the particular word for "king" (Ban). But it is of course an error to extrapolate the idea of ethnic nation states back into the Middle Ages, when feudal status was the defining social criterion.
We should appreciate the curious exercise of logic by such ethnic historians. They take a modern definition of an ethnic group in terms of the co-occurrence of a set of characteristics -- say, religion A and dialect B. Then they look back into the past and define territories as belonging to that ethnic group in terms of the sum of those characteristics -- say religion A or dialect B. Of course, turning the logical intersection into a logical union yields a larger territory.
The critical and determining political facts for the present political situation were established at Versailles. The Allies were determined to destroy the German and Habsburg Empires. The Serbs had been on the Allied side, the Croats on the German side. Critical to the destruction of these empires was the creation of independent (especially Slavic) nation states in the path of the Drang nach Osten, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. It is interesting that the Allies used ethnicity and language as the criteria for nationhood -- a German idea of the jus sanguinis to begin with, an idea that led to the linguistic reforms and national consciousness that we see in the efforts of Karadzic, Gaj, Reljkovic, and others. The Allies could have located the center of this new country in Zagreb, but Zagreb had been in enemy territory. On the other hand, Serbs were the largest ethnic group, Serbia was already an independent political entity, and the Allies accepted a definition of a state centered on Belgrade. The intellectual contributions of Cvijic to this process should not be underestimated; he was an advisor at Versailles and is the grandfather of the intellectual tradition that most recently culminated in the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy on the vision of a Greater Serbia.
The inevitable consequence of locating the center of this new state in Belgrade was that its natural direction was to establish Serbian hegemony and to begin the process of language standardization based on the ekavian of the sumadinci.26 The localization and autonomy of dialects envisaged by early reformers such as Karadzic fell victim to natural political processes. It is not hard to understand why the Serbs of the krajina would have welcomed this development, since from the time of Maria Theresa and before they had been under intense Austro-Catholic pressure to abandon Orthodoxy (for example as some there and others in other Slavic lands did submit in some degree by becoming Uniates), to abandon Cyrillic, to adopt German as their language. We should also not forget that this last uprising is one in a long series going back to the 16th century, in which the Orthodox under Austrian or Croatian control rebelled violently and were put down with equal violence. The emerging Serbian hegemony after 1918, for them, was a liberation from oppression. So in a curious sense, the best allies of the expanding Serbs of Serbia were their former enemies, the Germans, for they had created a population of Orthodox Bordermen eager to join with the motherland that now lay at the center of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and later Yugoslavia.
On the other hand the Croats, and I think especially the Dalmatian Croats, who had had a complex succession of foreign dominations, felt the heavy hand of occupation by a foreign power and a centralist autocracy no more benign than that of the Austrians or Hungarians. At least in the later stages of the Hapsburg Empire, after the Ausgleich and then the unification of the krajina with Civil Croatia in 1881, there had been some feeling of autonomy within the Triune Kingdom. You can see this in the relatively equal status of Croatian and German in many official documents and publications in the late 19th and early 20th century. These feelings of oppression began to emerge with the dictatorship of Alexander, the politics of the Croatian Peasant Party, and the events leading to World War II. The growth of Serbian hegemony was pushing the Croats back into the German camp despite the basic Croatian desire for autonomy from both Austrians and Hungarians, a desire that they pursued by attempting to reach a compromise with the Serbs on cultural union, essentially accepting the Karadzic linguistic standard. There is a strong parallel with Ukraine. The rise of centralist regimes has pushed minorities into the arms of the enemies of those same centralists. It is instructive to remember that the nationalist tendencies of the Croatian linguistic reformers were restrained, and their acceptance of linguistic commonality with the Serbs was driven principally by the threat of Germanic or Hungarian domination rather than by pan-Slavic conviction, and despite the temporary exhilaration of French rationalist influences after the Napoleonic Wars. The Croats were between two millstones, one German, one Serbian.
When World War II opened, the Germans were seen by some Croats as liberators. Just the same phenomenon occurred in Ukraine. It is also very clear, for example, that for the same reasons there was a strong pro-German movement in Ireland and in the islands of the English Channel, and to some extent in Brittany and southern France. There was of course some similar inclination among the Muslims of Yugoslavia, adroitly exploited by the Nazis. And so from this came the "other" uprising leading to the puppet Independent State of Croatia. Out of these events comes the butchery of which the Ustase stand rightly accused, despite Tudjman's attempts to place genocide in historical perspective. This genocide by the Ustase is particularly disturbing to a liberal student of the Balkans because it reveals not only an ethnic hatred of the Serbs but a strong underlying anti-Semitism in Austrian and Croatian culture, one that is also shared in Russian culture. This is an important point because the immediate comparison point for Tudjman's book is the similar downplaying of the Holocaust. On the other hand we must remember that the Serbian record under Nedic is not outstanding, and that the Orthodox church did not distinguish itself any more than the Catholic church by its humanity.
The viciousness of World War II in Yugoslavia has its parallel in the Spanish Civil War, but I see a difference. In the Spanish Civil War, giants fought, the great forces of fascism and communism were at sword point: this was the drama of our age in microcosm, to be played out later on a larger stage. It also gave rise to a great literature of Lorca, of Hemingway and others, so that it has become mythic; it has the proportions that one finds in the Dinaric epics. I fail to see that epic quality in the First Yugoslav Civil War of 1941-45. It seems to me that that First Yugoslav Civil War was more like that of Lebanon: the snarling of local warlords, a battle fought by ideological dwarfs. There is some failure of objectivity in this view, for the events in Spain were in fact as vicious (especially as far as the Communists were concerned, perhaps especially in Catalonia), and in fact there were some great figures and men of conviction like Tito, who like Lenin, Mao, Roosevelt, Ben Gurion, and others had some general goals that transcended mere hatred and personal ambition (of which they doubtless had no lack). But nowhere is that intellectual and moral dwarfism more intense than in the current crisis, in which either sheep are led by fools or wolves by devils.
A notable feature of the first civil war was the kind of genocide that occurred. Genocide was of course in the air; it was not new in history, as Tudjman has pointed out in his book, nor was it restricted to a few perpetrating groups or a few victim groups. The definition of traitor or potential traitor on ethnic grounds had its history in the United States, with the actions against Germans in World War I, and the incarceration of the Japanese in California in World War II. But few places outside of direct Nazi control reached the excesses of Jasenovac under the Ustase or the massacres elsewhere, for example of Muslims by Chetniks or of krajina Serbs by Croats and Muslims. At the end of the war and the victory of the Partisans there occurred other massacres of the losers. In order not to focus too closely on the immediate combatants, it is worthwhile to remember the role of the British, who turned back the fleeing anti-Communists at the Austrian border to the tender mercies of the Partisans.
The situation has parallels to that in China, in which a guerrilla resistance and a bloody civil war were fought at the same time. In China, the Communists won, and their opponents were driven into a new political state in Taiwan. The Yugoslav situation is more complicated because there were four major players: the occupiers, the Communists, the Chetniks, and the Ustase, while in China there were three: the occupiers, the Communists, and the Nationalists. And of course it is great mistake to assume an identity of Croats with Ustase, of Serbs with Chetniks. It is likely that a greater proportion of Serbs and Croats fought and died with the Partisans fighting the Germans than with either the Chetniks or the Ustase fighting each other. Of course there were the interminable arguments about who were the true "first fighters" for Communism and the independence of the Slavs from the Germans.
But I do not want to lose the point. We are not just talking about ethnicity as a kind of social or personal characteristic, or of a warrior mentality, or about some kind of romantic tribalism; we are talking about ethnicity with a specific political history and subject to political manipulation in a context of the collapse of civil order. It is exactly the consciousness of the need to maintain a civil order in the presence of ethnic strife that has led to the totalitarian excesses seen under the Hapsburgs, under the Ottomans, under the Nazis, and indeed under Alexander (of Serbia, but for all we know, perhaps also of Macedon). For the Germans, the Ustase were a convenient source of reliable, cheap police, just as the Scots-Irish Protestants were and are a source of reliable, cheap force for the English to keep the Catholic Irish contained. I recall even from my own field work in Peru how the white hacienda owners would use the descendants of Black slaves as foremen to manage the Indian laborers, exploiting ethnicity as a tool of control. I continue to wonder that the Serbs and the Croats cannot see this manipulation. Does it take the gobbledygook of Marxism to communicate a broader view of exploitation? Is it possible that the only natural resource the people of the South Slavic lands have in short supply is political intelligence?
Concurrent with hegemonic centralization was an increasing domination of the Yugoslav organs of government and especially of the police and the armed forces by the Serbs and Montenegrins. In considerable degree this was a matter of ethnic cultural preference; Slovenes and Croats do not pursue glory as much as money. We find a similar phenomenon in our own country where the officer corps of the armed forces is dominated by southern Whites. But the outcome of this process of serbianization of the organs of power and control simply pressed home to the Croats their view that they were once again under the control of a foreign occupier.
As the economic situation in Yugoslavia worsened through the 1970s and 1980s, partly because of failures to achieve economic reform, partly because of debt burden, partly because of the decline in the western European economies that diminished opportunities for working abroad, the perceived burden for the Slovenes and Croats became not only heavier but symbolically more important. They rebelled. They had the impending collapse of the Communist system before their eyes, not only from internal evidence but from the Soviet Union. If the USSR had been strong, the fear of Russian intervention might once more have solidified Yugoslavia; Tito used that threat often enough. It seems unlikely that a Communist Yugoslav federation had any chance of continuance, given the implosion of the economy and the collapse of the world's principal example of a Communist empire. The Slovenes and Croats could not mentally disentangle federalism from communism from Serbian hegemony. Unfortunately, the political mechanisms for a smooth transfer of power were not in place; they seldom are after a period of totalitarian control. If democracy is to flourish, it must do so from the beginning of a revolution, not after a centralist government has achieved stability. The question became not how this Communist Yugoslav entity could be preserved but how it could be deconstructed in the most constructive way. American foreign policy pinned its hopes on a stable federation, not understanding the centrifugal forces, and hoping that continuance would provide a beacon for the disintegrating USSR. European policy was no less naive, imagining that a graceful divorce was in the offing, and the Germanic members saw no more than the restoration of ancient influence. No one imagined how rapidly the body of the state would collapse when the crutches of raw force and Party domination had splintered under the weight of events. No one thought to offer the bait of E.C. membership on the conditions of stability and civil rights for minorities.
The idea of secession first put forth by the Slovenes and the Croatians, and later joined by the other republics was a direct threat not only to the legitimacy of the Yugoslav government and its army, it was also a direct threat to the positions and pensions of the bureaucrats and professional military. Most of the latter by this time were Serbs and Montenegrins, who were at least nominal Communists, and whose support consumed as much as three quarters of the national budget. They saw looming the breakup of a state whose preservation was their profession, and they acted against that dissolution. The military coup that failed in the Soviet Union almost succeeded in Yugoslavia. It failed because the Serbian agenda within the armed forces had funneled arms to Serbian irregulars, to guerrillas the Army found later it could not control. The command structure collapsed; even regular local commanders became locked in isolated local battles, unresponsive to general directives. Finally, the senior hierarchy was purged by junior officers, and the Army is retreating into its Serbian cave, leaving well armed remnants behind under the control of co-ethnic bandit warlords.
The popular idea that the major issue in this Yugoslav civil war was the safety and civil rights of the krajina Serbs is like the idea that the major issue in the American Civil War of the 1860s was slavery. Slavery was the issue to the Blacks and to the abolitionists. The civil rights of the krajina Serbs is the issue to them and to ultra-nationalists in Serbia. Just the same issues arise now with the Bosnian Serbs. The overriding issue in both the American and Balkan instances is and was political and economic domination and the politics of centralism. This conflict has all the appearances of a revolution in a banana republic; the players change but the roles do not. The royalists put on Red clothes for a time and are now wrapping themselves in the flag.
The Serbs of Serbia, apart from their membership in the organs of power, came to play a role under the guidance of their President, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic's principal competition for the maintenance of his job were the Croatian and other Communists, and the same kind of rotation of power and privilege that had achieved stability among the apparatchiki for over four decades could have continued. But as the Slovenes and Croatians began to press for independence, Milosevic found himself threatened by Serbian nationalists such as Draskovic and others even more extreme, such as Seselj. His position as a crypto-advocate of the Great Serbian position under the guise of a Communist federation had to become a more direct advocacy of Serbian hegemony in order to maintain his political base. He had to move to the right.
Part of this pressure was created by the virtually complete albanization of Kosovo, a process that began in the 14th century under Turkish direction but which certainly accelerated during and after World War II, partly because of the higher Albanian birth rate, partly because of continual emigration out of Albania, and partly because of the politics of the Communist Party and its attempts to reduce Serbian influence and balance ethnicities in a way that left the Party as the real holder of power. The issue of Serbian-Albanian relations in Kosovo was the vehicle Milosevic rode to power. The uprising of krajina Serbs in Knin was convenient for central Serbian policy and as consequential as the shot fired at Fort Sumter in 1860. Milan Babic was a useful tool, but as he becomes less useful and indeed an embarassment because the EC and the UN bring more pressure to bear, he is being discarded). The same fate awaits Radovan Karadzic as international pressure mounts against Serbian and Army aggression in Bosnia.
I do not try to account for Slovene behavior except to observe the much longer and more profound Germanization of that region . The Slovenes, perhaps not remembering what it means to be Windisch, seem to prefer to be at the bottom of the Austrian (or Italian) ladder than at the top of the Yugoslav one. With the failure of the Yugoslav Army to subdue Slovenia, and with the acknowledgement that Slovenia could not be held in a Yugoslavia, the Croats were fatally exposed. The Army could concentrate on them especially, and did.
In Croatia the old thirst for independence re-emerged. The practical rationality of this striving is obscure. It is hard to see how, in the absence of firm guarantees of incorporation into the EC trading network, the tiny internal markets of Slovenia and Croatia could be expected to survive. It was difficult enough when these two republics had the assured markets to the east and south. Their expectations seem economic idiocy. The standard bait that to be democratic meant to be capitalist meant to be rich was swallowed hook, line, and sinker. What will these mini-states do, take in each other's washing?
With these developments Franjo Tudjman emerged as leader of the Croatian
Democratic Union. He was described in a recent letter to the editor of the NY
Times to be a moderate. He is of course a moderate in the same sense as
Milosevic, namely that there is someone to the right of him. Let us grant
Tudjman the legitimacy of the struggle for Croatian independence even if only
in the spirit of recognizing a fait accompli; the issue is now not the
maintenance of a Yugoslavia but the management of its dismemberment. No
sensible observer of the Yugoslav scene could have failed to anticipate the
reaction of the krajina Serbs to the Croat declaration of independence,
accompanied as it was by erosion of Serbian cultural privileges and autonomy.
Some more clever diplomacy and symbolic management might have prevented the
outbreak of vigilante violence that occurred in Knin. This confrontation of
ethnic identities reached a symbolic flash point through the necrophiliac
exercises of exhumation of the bones of martyred ancestors from the pigeon
caves. By offering immediate
concessions and reassurance to the krajina Serbs, Tudjman would have
lost some political support to Paraga and others to his right. His base was
weak; he was still emerging. But guarantees of local autonomy, which would have
cost nothing to the left even if something to the right, might have prevented
the uprising at Knin, the bandits on the roads, the killing at Borovo Selo, and what followed as the
Serbian-controlled Army swept in to rescue their brethren. Those guarantees
have in fact now been made -- if not too little, certainly too late. Tudjman's
book was no help. His public gratitude that his wife was neither Serb nor Jew
was no help. His expressed willingness to divide up Bosnia was no help. His
comment that there were Jews among the Ustase was no better. His supporters claim that he was
misinterpreted, but these remarks were extremely ill-advised.
Indeed, one can take the profoundly cynical view that Tudjman knew exactly what was going to happen as he steered closer to starboard. He could have known that until enough Croatian blood was spilled he could not neutralize Paraga and unite the Croatians behind him. Most of all he could by this gambit of blood force the Yugoslav Army and the Serbs into excesses that would brand them before the world as the aggressors they truly were. It is not the first time that radicals have incited the police to riot in order to turn pleading hands to the world. In this game, Tudjman could hope that the pawn of Croatia would lure out the Army knight and Serbian rook from the other side, so that checkmate would be achieved by the bishops of the EC and the UN.
It is not the first time that a Balkan people will have called on surrounding great powers to solve by imposition what should have been arranged by local negotiation in the first place. Even now some Croats are calling for a "Desert Storm" operation to drive the occupiers from their soil, followed by the Bosnians who want air strikes on Serbian gunners and an end to the arms embargo that limits their capacity to fight the Serbs. It is also not the first time that intellectuals have vaporized, to be replaced by patriots. It is this sense of inevitability, of course, that politicians must have. They must create crisis so that the choice is to be loyal or disloyal, to be patriot or traitor, in order to achieve their own ends.
So much unwelcome attention to Tudjman is certainly not to praise Milosevic, whose behavior has been disastrous to the interests of peace and of Serbia. He shows signs of turning from a bull into a lamb as the other nations of Europe show disgust with his posturing and intransigence. A recent joke relates that with a little more help from Radio-TV Belgrade he could probably turn into Mother Teresa. A more bitter one, after he was involved in a serious automobile accident, was that his driver was the only man who could save Serbia. His style is clear. It is the style of Yitzhak Shamir, of Saddam Hussein, and toughing it out may carry him a long way against the impotence of the West.
It will be a blessing if the horror of this civil war will not simply advance the cycle of death in the tradition of Balkan blood feud, leaving us, regardless of the formal political solution, with another Northern Ireland, another Lebanon. It will be a blessing if the costs will quickly become so great that the contestants will stop, and come exhausted to the negotiating table, having advanced their politics and their territory as far as they can. That seems to have been the EC strategy, and almost surely the strategy of the U.S. It has a bitter justice even if a horrendous human cost. No externally imposed solution will work; centuries of failed imperialism have proved that. The first mistake was to keep treating Yugoslavia as though it were a functioning entity and to impose sanctions without distinction, even when that same policy identified one side as the primary aggressor. There is a second error intrinsic to the views of those accustomed to well-ordered polities - the presumption of coherent authority. The West knows how to deal with multiparty constitutional democracies and with dictatorships, but it does not know how to deal with political chaos. Chaos is what it confronts, and the price is more often paid by innocents. Did the West think that the collapse of empire and the emergence of democracy in the Balkans would bring automatic peace? The justice and the bitterness of the confused Western response are echoed in the line, Gorak je vijenac pelina.50 Nothing in my experience matches the deliberate destruction of symbols of Croatian cultural identity, such as churches and museums, by the Army and the Serb irregulars, no doubt in retaliation for what the krajina Serbs saw as a reduction of their own cultural heritage. Nothing matches the insane butchery that is occurring in Bosnia, the systematic destruction of jewels like Sarajevo in a vengeful fit of of peasants against an urban world they have never understood and always hated. Has there in fact been only one Yugoslav Civil War, briefly interrupted by the Communist regime?
As I write, the computer networks and BBC news tell us that the latest cease-fire in Bosnia is collapsing and that the UN monitors and even the Red Cross have come under fire. The UN troops are in Croatia, even as shells continue to fall in Zadar and Osijek, as Dubrovnik is shelled once more, even as Muslims and Serbs gun each other down in Sarajevo, as Croat troops in Hercegovina destroy Orthodox monasteries, as the Serbs occupy Visegrad, the city that Andric gave the world as an example of negotiated interethnic accommodation. Tudjman is moving to center stage now as a peacemaker, although his henchmen have cut a deal to divide Bosnia with the Serbs. Milosevic is isolated politically within Serbia, and Serbia is moving toward isolation from Europe. Even the Greeks may desert, despite the dangers to them of an independent Macedonia. Izetbegovic has played until now a role of wise forebearance, and he will need all the help that Allah can give him; certainly he is getting nothing from George Bush. The Bosnian drive for independence, once manifested in the Bogumil heresy, later in conversion to Islam, now comes to the fore again. The Serbs of the krajina are bitter; they have been abandoned by those who used them, as Hitler used the Volksdeutsche in the Sudetenland, to gain territory. Just this same fate may await the Serbs of Bosnia. The Army has disgraced itself as a professional force, not only in Slovenia, not only in openly arming and supporting the irregulars in the krajina and Bosnia, but even in shooting down the EC helicopter and later taking Izetbegovic hostage in Sarajevo. The irregulars (should we call them Provisionals?) are consumed by fratricidal hate, and what was Yugoslavia now looks like Lebanon, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kashmir. The role of criminal elements in terrorizing the civilian population, especially in Bosnia, shows us that in many areas there is no civil order but only gang warfare. Pressure in the UN has resulted in economic sanctions, and there are even calls for military intervention.
In the end, it may be Serbia that is destroyed by the idiocy of its own politicians; they may do more damage than the Ottomans ever did. Where is the civilized Serbia, of literature, of art, of the family of nations? Cosmopolitan intellectuals in Serbia are overwhelmed and largely neutralized, as demogogues mobilize segments of the working class and peasantry, as the Orthodox Church attempts to play its accustomed role as the defender and spokesman for the ethnically defined nation. As world opinion has shifted to favor recognition of the Croats and Slovenes, impeded only by fear of a new German hegemony, and as Milosevic is forced to backpedal, the krajina Serbs under Babic look more and more like the freebooters that Maria Teresa and Joseph II, like other rulers before them, put down with the sword. The Serb irregulars of Bosnia have distinguished themsevles by their inhumanity. More and more, the EC and the UN begin to look like external agents determining the fate of minorities that their political ancestors enticed or resettled into zones of border, mixture, and strife. The golden apple of the collapse of communism, so long sought by the West and especially by the U.S., has a worm in it.
Could it have been different; were there really choices? It is not clear that the urge to overthrow the Party would have admitted the idea of a confederation of equals, as emerged for example in Switzerland after ethnic-religious struggles as bitter as those of Yugoslavia, or in the Netherlands, where Hapsburg hegemony and religious wars also played a role. It is likely that in the actual context of local politics within Croatia and within Serbia neither Tudjman nor Milosevic had any maneuvering room, even if they had had more confederational goals. Why was the Army unable to play the often ugly but professional role that armies sometimes play in restraining local political disruption? Why did Serbian ethnic identity overcome any professional instincts of the officer corps? Was it because the Yugoslav Army had already become a Serbian Army? Instead what we have seen is the collapse of civil order and coherent military discipline, with poorly controlled units of a Praetorian Guard fighting for its supremacy, aided by the mob and tempted by the extremists. An outstanding feature of the catastrophe was the speed with which criminal elements came to play a role, running guns, looting (often with the assistance of the Army), and feathering their nests with black market profits. Only history will reveal the depth of the sleaze, the intricacy of connections between politicians, military officers, Western participants, and the scum of the marketplace.
If we look back, can we see in hindsight what triggered the catastrophe, how it might have been prevented? The Balkans are like a hand grenade. The Slovenes pulled the pin. In those first tumultuous weeks, with Serbian anxiety reaching fever pitch, the Croats could have smothered it. What was needed was the construction of a civil society and ironclad guarantees of civil rights, especially to ethnic minorities. The E.C. could have offered aid and some status to secessionist and non-secessionist republics on condition of civil order; such bait was laid before the crumbling USSR and taken. But the West dithered, and the Germans slammed the door on compromise by precipitous recognition. Now there is nothing left but economic blockade and smart bombs.
Where will it go from here? Checkmate is beyond either side, and stalemate is now being achieved not by a wisdom that could have prevailed from the beginning but by the price in blood, which Serb and Montenegrin conscripts were unwilling to pay. If anyone will "win" this war, it will be the boys and their mothers who refused. It will be like the American war in Vietnam or the Russian one in Afghanistan, it will leave a taste of ashes in the mouth, but it will be over. The alternative is for the cowardice and emerging divisions in the West to give us another Munich, a scenario in which the Serbs will hang tough, the humanitarian aid to cities under siege will only fatten their inhabitants for slaughter, and the insistence on bland diplomacy will constitute de facto recognition of whatever territorial gains the Serbs are able to make and hold.
It is for Serbia that one can feel an ultimate grief. For a thousand years she has been assailed. The Byzantines, the Turks, the Austrians, and on two recent occasions the Germans failed to destroy her. Only the Serbians have succeeded. Now they will withdraw within an ethnic shell like the Jews of Likud, hoping perhaps that history will make them the chosen defenders of the faith, glorying in their ability to eat leaves in the forest. One can only marvel in disbelief at a leap forward that lands a country in the Middle Ages, at another nation so trapped by the honey of its mythic past, so ready for a renewal that is its destruction.
This conflict has showed an alarming but expectable pattern of escalation. It was virtually bloodless in Slovenia, vicious in Croatia, and has been horrible in Bosnia. What will it look like as it spreads to Kosovo and ultimately to Macedonia? Will the Serbs, having collected the Yugoslav Army as their own, try to drive the Kosovo Albanians into an already devastated Albania, forcing Italy into an unwanted role? Will a repetition of the Balkan Wars pull the Greeks, the Bulgarians, and perhaps the Turks into the fray? At that point NATO itself will be threatened, and with it the whole structure of European security.
The apparent (although ineffectual) consolidation of European opinion on the side of the Croats and Slovenes and now the Muslims is a strange one. It violates old alliances and historic enmities; it pits the French, the British, and the Germans together against the Serbs. Can these changes survive the new Germany, and can it survive them? Will an expanding German economic role in Eastern Europe have the same political outcomes that it did after 1938? Let us not forget that the flabbiness of Islamic muscle that characterized the declining Ottoman Empire is regaining its tone with the emergence of fundamentalism, and the ayatollahs are looking for an opening. Is the West letting the Bosnian ground lie fallow so that that plant can take root? Will we have Muslim refugee camps in Europe, ready for an intifada? The Turks have claimed they will not stand by if the treasures of Sarajevo are touched, if Muslims are attacked. Will they follow rhetoric with action now that mortar shells are falling on the Bascarsija, or will the Kurds nipping at their tail keep them busy? Albania and Kosovo wait for a messiah with a green flag.
The most disturbing scenario is that the West will play Hamlet, and that Bosnia will fall to the wolves and be partitioned. An unbuffered divide between Serbia and Croatia will set the stage for further war as soon as Croatia has re-armed sufficiently, with Western aid, to attack the former Yugoslav army that will take refuge in Serbia. Only if Bosnia is preserved undominated can there be at least a stalemate. Otherwise the stage is set to put Serbia with its face against Islam and its back to the Germans, recreating the ancient Despotate and inviting its fate, paving the road for the return of some Eugene of Savoy to grasp at Pec, preparing again for the boundary between Islam and the West to roll to the Sava. Thus again we stare into the distant mirror.
What do we see in it? We see children and the aged driven across minefields as Army trucks loot their homes. We see the psychopaths incited to violence by ethnic demagogues while others plead from their cellars that ethnic differences were unimportant to their lives as neighbors. We see the Muslim veterinarian in Zvornik machine-gunned before his wife and child on a street I once trod, while a Serbian girl has her throat cut for protesting mistreatment of the Muslims. We see the conflagration of hate aid only those politicians who have no substantive message but require the adulation of rabid mobs -- the Hitlers, the David Dukes. We are drawn into a pit of mediaeval violence, from which the only exit seems to be in a flux of blood.
Would that the people themselves might see the abyss and turn away before the Western policy of letting them starve in their tiny economic barnyards pushes them even deeper into the misery of the Third World. How else can they avoid national suicide? If they had posed a more obvious danger to world peace because they possessed nuclear weapons, or if they had had strategic resources like oil, the West would have taken earlier and more positive action, as it did in the USSR or in Iraq. But the western countries have been slow off the mark, and their populations will soon become infuriated with the costs to them induced by the comic opera antics of politicians and the savagery of bandit warlords in countries whose names they cannot even pronounce. Other demands weigh heavy on potential heroes - the needs of the former GDR, of the CIS, the backlash of ethnic nationalism against unification even in Western Europe, the cities and the underclass in the USA. Shall our sons again die in fires lit by those who play with ethnic matches? There are no Galahads to ride to the rescue. Just as it has been only the Serbs who can destroy Serbia, so also it is only the Serbs who can save her, and perhaps also the rest of us, as they did on the front at Salonika, but it will take even greater courage than it did then, in a simpler time. Pomozi Bog! You will need it, as Milosevic and his stooges join Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, as Serbia becomes the new Iraq, as the foul ghosts of Hitler and Stalin face off across the Drina. And democracy dies before our eyes.