GEORGE SZAMUELY: THE YUGOSLAV CRISIS – ORIGINS AND THE BEGINNING

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“Nobody has done that since Hitler”

Slobodan Milošević

 

The disastrous consequences of the West’s intervention in Yugoslavia stemmed from its willful misunderstanding of the nature of the country’s crisis.

The wars in Yugoslavia were triggered by the insistence of first, Croatia and Slovenia, then Bosnia, then Kosovo to seek independence without bothering to go through the formality of negotiating the terms of their exit. Since there was no way that six-nation, six-republic Yugoslavia could break up without war, and therefore without the atrocities that are inseparable from war, responsibility for the subsequent humanitarian crises rested with those who insisted on secession at all costs, and those who, willfully and recklessly, served as the secessionists’ enablers. War was inevitable once the European Union and the United States accepted – or more accurately, encouraged – the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the face of fierce opposition from at least 40% of its population – the Serbs – and probably from a substantial majority of Yugoslavs.

 

ORIGINS OF THE CRISIS

 

The origins of the crisis in the Balkans in the late 1980s lie further back than the secessions of 1991: not in the alleged aspiration of Serbia’s leaders to create a Greater Serbia, but in the massive economic crisis triggered by the inability of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) to repay an international debt it had run up in the 1970s. To avoid defaulting, the SFRY was forced to accept the stewardship of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s familiar deflationary remedies had the familiar disastrous effects: cuts in wages, cuts in payroll, cuts in social benefits, shutdowns of supposedly uneconomic factories, and cuts in imports. Living standards plummeted. Resentful at having to shoulder a growing economic burden, the more prosperous regions of Yugoslavia responded much as the more prosperous regions of Italy did in the early 1990s and the Flemish regions of Belgium a little later: they decided they wanted out.

Interestingly, the most forceful opposition to such separatist movements came initially from the International Monetary Fund. As Susan Woodward put it in Balkan Tragedy:

            Despite years of pushing decentralization in Yugoslavia, the IMF advisers and economic liberals now attributed the lack of monetary discipline to excessive decentralization of the banking and foreign exchange systems. In their view, the central bank had long ago lost the capacity to discipline its member banks and control the money supply. The dispersed authority over money, credit, and foreign exchange made it impossible to have any effective monetary and effective exchange rate policy, let alone effective industrial and foreign trade policy. Global integration now required a unified domestic market, which meant reintegration of the segmented economies of the republics, and the free movement of labor, capital, and goods across local and republican borders.

The IMF is the global agency tasked with debt collection on behalf of creditor nations. Disdainful of Yugoslavia’s self-management-style socialism, the IMF focused its criticism on the “virtual stalemate in federal decision-making due to republican and provincial autonomy.” To repay its debts, Yugoslavia would have to undertake drastic changes: no more decentralization, no more selfmanagement and no more political consensus among the republics. Federal institutions and the central bank would have to make decisions on the basis of majority voting, not consensus.

The IMF’s re-centralization program provoked strong resistance, the fiercest coming from those, Woodward said, “who stood to lose economic power and privilege. Wealthier republican and provincial governments felt their control over the flow of labor, capital, and goods in and out of their territories threatened by instruments for internal marketization.” As the Soviet bloc was collapsing during the late 1980s, Western commentators presented the attendant political struggles as clashes pitting reformers against conservatives or liberals against nationalists. But these simple-minded categories, inadequate as they were to explain what was going on in the Soviet Union, were absurdly inappropriate when applied to Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia, unlike in the Soviet Union, “it was not the central government or the poorer areas that had political and economic privileges to protect, but rather the republican politicians, especially those in the wealthier and more western regions. Those whose views might seem more liberal and Western were, in fact, the most conservative about change, the most antireform, and the most nationalistic.”

The most vehement opponents of reform were Western favorites Slovenia and Croatia. As Diana Johnstone described it, “Rather than fostering democratic free enterprise, the IMF reforms encouraged clannishness, nepotism and unfair mutual recriminations between social groups – which in multinational Yugoslavia meant national groups … One of the reactions of Yugoslavs to the economic stress of the 1980s was to blame other national groups – and in particular, to blame the Serbs, by reviving the old belief that Serbs ran the government.”

The IMF not only urged limits on independent decision-making by Yugoslavia’s republics. It also wanted Serbia to put its house in order and address the problem of its two autonomous provinces. Serbia, unlike any other republic in the SFRY, comprised three separate political entities: Serbia proper and two autonomous provinces – Kosovo and Metohija and Vojvodina. All three had seats on the federal presidency. Kosovo and Vojvodina had been listed as autonomous provinces of Serbia in the 1946, 1963, and 1974 constitutions. The scope of Kosovo’s autonomy increased substantially after 1974, not so much because of any change in its constitutional status but because of the policy of decentralization encouraged by Tito. The same decentralizing constitution that had helped loosen the republics’ ties to the SFRY had also encouraged Serbia’s provinces effectively to govern themselves.

The growing autonomy of the provinces was to prove a real problem for Serbia because, as Woodward explained, it was increasingly “deprived of resources that had previously been channeled through Belgrade … The governments of Vojvodina and Kosovo could veto any policy from Belgrade that applied to the entire territory, while Serbia proper had no equivalent power over decisions within the two provinces.” The IMF wanted reduced autonomy in the provinces and less independence in the republics.

The status of Kosovo and Vojvodina was not unlike that of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom between 1921 and 1972. While Northern Ireland mps in Westminster could vote on every issue pertaining to U.K. matters and could even determine whether a Conservative or a Labor government would be formed in London, Westminster had no comparable say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Kosovo representatives would sit in the Serbian assembly, in the Yugoslav federal assembly, and in the Yugoslav presidency, but Serbs from Serbia proper did not sit in the Kosovo assembly. Worse, the decisions of the courts in Kosovo were not reviewable by the courts of Serbia. While Serbia could not change its constitution without the approval of the assemblies of the autonomous provinces, the Serbian assembly’s approval was not needed for changes to the constitutions of the provinces.

Moreover, during the 1980s, Serbs living in Kosovo continually complained of persecution and discrimination. In November 1987, long before ideological and moralistic posturing took over all discussion of Yugoslavia, a New York Times report described in detail the hardships the Serbs in Kosovo faced:

            Ethnic Albanians in the Government have manipulated public funds and regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs … Slavic Orthodox churches have been attacked, and flags have been torn down. Wells have been poisoned and crops burned. Slavic boys have been knifed, and some young ethnic Albanians have been told by their elders to rape Serbian girls … As Slavs flee the protracted violence, Kosovo is becoming what ethnic Albanian nationalists have been demanding for years, and especially strongly since the bloody rioting by ethnic Albanians in Pristina in 1981 – an “ethnically pure” Albanian region, a “Republic of Kosovo” in all but name.

Furthermore, the Times reporter pointed out that “Ethnic Albanians already control almost every phase of life in the autonomous province of Kosovo, including the police, judiciary, civil service, schools and factories. Non-Albanian visitors almost immediately feel the independence – and suspicion – of the ethnic Albanian authorities.” This account diverges starkly from subsequent oft-told tales of the horrors and indignities the Kosovo Albanians had had to endure in Yugoslavia.

Inevitably, just as London eventually grew tired of the peculiar Northern Ireland arrangement and, in 1972, brought it to an end, so Serbia was bound to seek resolution of the Kosovo problem and to bring its constitutional arrangement into conformity with that of the other republics.

The issue grew in salience as the Kosovo Albanian representatives as well as the Vojvodina representatives were among the fiercest of opponents of the reform programs of the late 1980s. Kosovo, which, as Woodward points out, had been “the recipient of the greatest amount of federal funds,” was not surprisingly the most loath to contemplate the shutting down of uneconomic plants and smokestack industries. “By granting effective veto power to Serbia’s autonomous provinces,” Johnstone writes, “the 1974 Constitution made it impossible for Serbia to carry out serious reform. Kosovo’s local leaders, predominantly Albanian, were most reluctant to accept reforms.” Through their voting, they had made reform in Serbia impossible.

Serbia’s reduction of the autonomy of its provinces in the late 1980s was an integral part of the IMF-sanctioned reformist, centralizing agenda. Reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia paralleled the IMF-urged reintegration of the economies of the individual republics into the economy of Yugoslavia.

In changing its constitution in 1989, Serbia acted in accordance with the federal constitution of Yugoslavia. The other five republics all duly approved Serbia’s move. Moreover, Serbia’s constitutional amendments were in line with amendments to the Yugoslav federal constitution that were enacted in 1988.

However, the Serbs did not abolish the Kosovo assembly; nor did they dictate the manner in which a government of Kosovo would be formed, nor its composition. The Serbs did not reduce Kosovo’s representation in Serbia’s parliament or in any of the federal institutions. The new, 1990 Serbian constitution continued to refer to the “Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija.” Something did change, however, something that was bound to provoke the fury of Kosovo’s Albanian population. Serbia’s reassertion of sovereignty halted the province’s gradual slide toward republican status or independence. Without doubt, this was a blow to Albanian national aspirations. But there had been no loss of autonomy. And there was no ban on the use of the Albanian language. In fact, the 1989 constitutional amendments changed very little. They made explicit what had been implicit in previous constitutions: republican institutions would take precedence over provincial institutions.

That Kosovo had slipped away from Serbia’s control in the decades leading up to 1989 was due more to the indifference of Yugoslav and Serbian Communist leaders than to anything sanctioned by the 1974 constitution. Subsequent mythology had it that the 1974 constitution made Kosovo a republic in all but name. This is not true. Article 228, for example, stated that, “Provincial laws and other regulations … must be in harmony with a republican law.” Article 229 said that if a provincial law was not in accord with a republican law, “republican law shall apply pending a decision by the Constitutional Court of Serbia.” Article 230 allowed the government of Serbia to ask Serbia’s constitutional court to “suspend the implementation of a regulation or other enactment of the executive council of the assembly of an autonomous province or a provincial administrative organ which is not in accordance with” either the constitution of Serbia or a republican law.

Furthermore, according to Article 410, once Serbia’s constitutional court establishes that a provincial law is not “in conformity with a republican law applicable throughout the territory of the Republic,” the provincial assembly was duty-bound to harmonize that provincial law either with Serbia’s constitution or with the republican law within six months. If the provincial assembly failed to meet this specific deadline, the provisions of the law “shall cease to be valid.”

Thus, the 1974 constitution did not challenge Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo or the precedence of republican over provincial institutions. The 1989 constitutional amendments formally changed very little in Kosovo. Amendment xxix, for example, stipulated:

            When the Assembly of the SR of Serbia establishes on the basis of the opinion of the Constitutional Court of Serbia that some provisions of the constitution of the autonomous province are in contravention of the Constitution of the SR of Serbia, it shall inform the assembly of the autonomous province about it. Unless the assembly of the autonomous province removes this contravention within one year, these provisions of the constitution of the autonomous province may not be applied.

This wasn’t all that different from the 1974 constitution.

Moreover, Serbia’s assertion of sovereignty over Kosovo was by no means absolute. For example, Amendment xlvi said that only on the “basis of prior approval by the assemblies of the autonomous provinces” could the “Assembly of the SR Serbia … pass laws which apply universally throughout the territory of the Republic.” Thus, if “either of the assemblies of the autonomous provinces withhold its approval, the law shall not be applied in the territory of the autonomous province in question.”

Kosovo’s Albanians responded to the amendments by boycotting not only all republican and federal political institutions but also all social and economic institutions. They set up their own education system and health service. Needless to say, the bodies were severely underfinanced and far inferior in quality to Yugoslavia’s very good health, education, and welfare system. Visiting observers in Kosovo took these threadbare services as evidence of the existence of some kind of an apartheid system in Serbia, with the Serbs playing the role of whites to the Albanians’ blacks. There was a crucial difference between Serbia and South Africa, though. Separation was a choice made by the Albanians, not the Serbs.

On July 2, 1990, the Kosovo assembly declared that Kosovo was an independent and equal unit of the Yugoslav federation. The assembly also announced that Albanians, “being the majority and one of the largest people in Yugoslavia, are to be considered, like the Serbs and other nations living in Kosovo, a nation and not a national minority.” This assertion was bound to infuriate the Serbs. The Serbs considered themselves to be one of the founding and constituent nations of Yugoslavia. Albanians, like Hungarians or Turks, were not a nation of Yugoslavia but a national minority since their nationhood had already found expression in an existing nation-state that was not Yugoslavia.

The Albanians based their claim on demography. Albanians exceeded Montenegrins, Macedonians, perhaps even Slovenes in numbers; yet these nations all had republics of their own. Yugoslavia’s constitutional court explained the difference in its dismissal of Kosovo’s claim to equal status. On February 19, 1991, the court ruled that:

            The Albanians in Kosovo are a nationality and cannot avail themselves of the right to self-determination and proclaim the SAP [Socialist Autonomous Province] of Kosovo a federal unit like the republics. To wit, under the constitution of the SFRY, only the peoples of Yugoslavia, and not the nationalities, have the right to self-determination.

Accepting Kosovo’s proclamation would mean “altering the borders of the SR of Serbia, of which the sap of Kosovo is a part, without its approval, which is not in accordance with the provisions of Article 5 of the Constitution of the SFRY, which establish that the territory and borders of a republic cannot be altered without its approval.”5 Whether one considers this ruling fair or not, it was nonetheless the decision of Yugoslavia’s highest court, the membership of which was divided equally between the republics. It was not the diktat of the Serbs.

 

TARGETING THE YUGOSLAV FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

 

The problems of Kosovo, one of the poorest regions of Yugoslavia despite years of federal funding, were the opposite of those of Slovenia and Croatia. The two republics, the most prosperous regions of Yugoslavia, resented having to fund regions such as Kosovo. All three, in effect, embarked on a course of making sure that federal institutions were unable to function. “While reformers and the IMF insisted on a more effective federal government,” Woodward writes, “the specific victories of the republics were draining what little power the existing federal institutions had … In March 1987 [the Slovenes] refused to implement the wage restrictions of the federal incomes policy. In the first six months of 1986, all republics and provinces except Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina failed to pay their obligatory portion of the federal budget.” By the late 1980s, the IMF was “conditioning new credits on constitutional change: a strengthened federal administration and a change in the voting rules in the central bank from consensus to majority.”

Rejection of the federal budgetary obligations went together with nationalist revivals in the republics. Republican political leaders mobilized popular support for their fight against the federal government by exploiting national resentments. Croatia, for example, launched a campaign to rehabilitate Archbishop Stepinac, the archbishop of Zagreb during World War II, who had been convicted of collaborating with the Fascist Ustaša regime in Croatia. Meanwhile, right-wing Fascist sympathizers and Ustaša supporters began returning to Croatia. One issue ripe for exploitation was the reluctance of young men to perform their military service in any republic but their own. Refusal to serve in the Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – JNA) led to complaints about Serbian overrepresentation, then to the nationalist cry that this Serbian army was an occupying army.

In 1990, Yugoslavia held its first multiparty elections. Or rather, the individual republics held multiparty elections. There were no federal elections. Plucky, pro-Western, “democratic” Slovenia had prevented the holding of allYugoslav elections. This served to ensure that no all-Yugoslav vote would ever be held on the issue of the preservation of Yugoslavia.

Nationalist parties or parties running on nationalist platforms won in most of the republics and, within a year, Yugoslavia was no more. Triumphant in Croatia was the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica – HDZ), the party led by Franjo Tudjman, who had been imprisoned during the 1970s for nationalist agitation and who had written a book minimizing the crimes of the Ustaša regime. In Bosnia, the three parties representing each of the three dominant ethnic or religious groups – the Muslims, the Croats, and the Serbs – triumphed.

In Serbia, however, it was the anti-nationalist reform Communists led by Slobodan Milošević who prevailed. The nationalist party led by Vojislav Šešelj was overwhelmingly defeated. The failure of the nationalists in Serbia wasn’t surprising. Serbia was the one republic that was not seeking separation but, to the contrary, the continued existence of Yugoslavia. Slovenia’s Milan Kučan and Croatia’s Tudjman were, like Milošević, former Communists, but, unlike the Serbian leader, were now running as anti-Communists. Milošević’s party, however, not only called itself socialist but proclaimed itself to be the successor party to the Serbian League of Communists. In 1987, the New York Times had even quoted Milošević as declaring, “We will go up against anti-Socialist forces, even if they call us Stalinists.” The horrified Times reporter added, “That a Yugoslav politician would invite someone to call him a Stalinist even four decades after Tito’s epochal break with Stalin, is a measure of the state into which Serbian politics have fallen.”

The West had no problems with Slovenian and Croatian ex-communists, or Bosnian Serb and Muslim non-communists, gaining popularity by embracing nationalism. What it couldn’t countenance was an open socialist gaining popularity and winning elections.

 

PLAYING TO THE WESTERN AUDIENCE

 

The fight within the SFRY over centralization and decentralization had little to do with Serbia. Croatia and Slovenia’s problems were with the SFRY government of Prime Minister Ante Marković. Slavishly following IMF diktat, Marković’s government was busy eliminating everything Washington found abhorrent about Yugoslav socialism – limits on foreign ownership; profit repatriation and the holding and sale of land; job security; restrictions on managers’ ability to hire and fire; and government obligation to consult workers’ councils on wages and economic policy. The newly elected nationalist governments quickly discovered that, in order to get a sympathetic hearing in Western capitals, their best strategy was to blame everything on the Serbs.

Germans had harbored a long-standing animus toward Serbs dating back to the pre-World War i era. The Americans were only too ready to vent their fury against any nation believed to be Communist, pro-Russian, or, as in the case of Serbia, apparently both. Furthermore, in the United States, the alluring sound of coins dropping into campaign coffers holds politicians in thrall. Ethnic Croat and Albanian groups were highly effective lobbyists. A key figure was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., Republican Party presidential nominee in 1996 and, throughout the 1990s, one of the fiercest advocates of U.S. military intervention in the Balkans. In June 1986, long before anyone in the United States had ever heard of Slobodan Milošević, Dole introduced a resolution in the Senate stating that Congress was “deeply concerned over the political and economic conditions of ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia and over the failure of the Yugoslav Government to fully protect their political and economic rights.” From the late 1980s until his retirement from the Senate, his “closest staff person, and one of his closest advisers” (in the words of the New York Times) was the fanatically anti-Serb Mira Baratta, a Croatian American whose family was actively involved in Croatian émigré politics. According to the Guardian, “Her grandfather fought with Croatian Ustashe forces in the second world war, and her father emigrated to California, where he ran a weekly Croat-language radio show which supported Croatian nationalism and independence.” Apparently, her father, Petar Radielovic, did a little more than that. He was also “a leading backer of Croatian nationalist causes in the U.S. and a public defender of alleged Croatian war criminals.” Subsequently a vice president of Freedom House, a think tank with close ties to the U.S. government, Baratta was appointed deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia in the administration of George W. Bush.

Moreover, following the fall of the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, hitherto the object of Western flattery, took on the appearance of a potential threat. Here was a Communist government, the survival of which could not be ascribed to the threat of Soviet invasion. To the contrary, not only had Yugoslavia defied Stalin when he was at the height of his reputation, it had developed its own distinct brand of Communism, characterized by decentralization, multi-nationalism, and workers’ control. In addition, Yugoslavia had been one of the founders and leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement – a continual source of annoyance to the United States during the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall thus did not necessarily mean the end of Yugoslav Communism. Indeed, there was a real possibility that it might emerge as an attractive alternative to the shock therapy regime that was being put into effect in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The Marković government’s attack on Yugoslavia’s system of social protections played into the hands of the republican separatists, who now accused the federal government of inflicting hardships on their republics. “This is characteristic of the ‘globalization’ process. Outside powers dictate policies, and local authorities take the blame for the consequences,” Johnstone writes. While Marković was energetically dismantling Yugoslav socialism, the newly elected nationalist governments in the Yugoslav republics, particularly the ones in Croatia and Slovenia, were busily planning their secession.

A sympathetic hearing in the West would be a key ingredient in their campaign. Though the would-be secessionists issued chilling warnings of a Yugoslavia supposedly under threat of Serb subjugation, it was they who were flagrantly interfering in the internal affairs of Serbia. The issue was Kosovo. In 1989, Kosovo’s coal miners went on strike. They objected to the reform socialist program of eliminating smokestack industries. Slovenia came out in support of the Kosovo miners. Since Slovenia had been the republic most vociferous in complaining about subsidizing the poorer regions of Yugoslavia, its laments about the plight of the province’s miners was naturally seen by Serbs as rank hypocrisy, a cynical maneuver to mobilize hostility toward Serbia both within Yugoslavia and abroad.

In the capitals of the West, the republican resistance to the policies of the Marković government was presented as a struggle against Serbian domination, a fight between democracy and human rights in one corner and Communism and Serbian nationalism in the other. Overnight, Ante Marković, the Croat federal prime minister – faithful executor of the IMF program and a favorite of the Bush administration – went from admired reformer to servant of Serb interests.

In October 1989, Marković went to Washington seeking $4 billion in aid. He was to be sorely disappointed. Though U.S. policymakers lavished fulsome praise on his market reform programs, they didn’t offer a penny. There wasn’t even an offer to roll over Yugoslavia’s debt. To the contrary: the U.S. government paid for nothing during his visit. As Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, put it, “In fact, the only meal for which Marković didn’t have to pick up the tab was a breakfast roundtable … It certainly showed him that Yugoslavia was not in the center of Washington’s universe.” On the other hand, Zimmerman went on without a trace of irony, Marković “did get a taste of the importance of the Kosovo issue for the Congress. Several members blamed his government for the iniquities of the Serbian position.”

Here was Washington at its bizarre best: market reforms were crucial, but not crucial enough for the United States to lift a finger to help. The fate of Yugoslavia – population 24 million – wasn’t of any great significance because the Soviet Union no longer loomed large. On the other hand, Kosovo, a tiny, impoverished corner of Yugoslavia – population 2 million – was of immense importance.

 

SLOVENIA AND CROATIA MAKE THEIR MOVE

 

In 1989, Slovenia took its first steps toward independence. The republic adopted a series of amendments to its constitution, declaring Slovenia’s laws as taking precedence over the laws of the SFRY. Federal laws that were contrary to the laws and constitution of Slovenia would no longer apply in Slovenia. Furthermore, only Slovenia’s authorities had the right to declare a state of emergency.

Yugoslavia’s constitutional court ruled the amendments out of order. The court’s ruling was unexceptionable: “[F]ederal laws and other acts cannot be conditioned by their consonance with the republican constitution and laws. According to the federal constitution, federal laws and other federal acts are obligatory on the whole territory of the SFRY.” The territory of Slovenia constituted part of the single territory of the SFRY. In dealing with threats to the territory of the SFRY, the federal presidency could not be restricted by the need to seek prior approval from the Slovenian assembly. Thus, a state of emergency in any republic comes under the purview of the federal government. The “SFRY Presidency has the right and duty to proclaim a state of emergency on the territory of ” Slovenia, the court said, because “a threat to the existence of one republic or its constitutional order … represents a threat to the existence of the [SFRY] and its constitutional order.”

The constitutional court also warned Slovenia that matters pertaining to self-determination and secession could be addressed only by the SFRY constitution, not by the republican constitution. The right to secession could be “decided only jointly, with the consensus of all socialist republics and autonomous provinces.” This was “because the regulation of the questions and procedures in fulfilling the right to self-determination, including the right to secession, requires the regulation of questions and procedures which affect not only one people or one socialist republic but all of them together in the [SFRY] as their common state.” Fulfillment of the “right to self-determination, including the right to secession, cannot be settled unilaterally … but in the manner set out in the SFRY Constitution.”

The ruling could hardly be described as extraordinary. The federal government is responsible for the external borders of the common state. No state allows a province within which mines or oil wells happen to be located or that serves as a popular tourist resort simply to make its way for the exit, while keeping all of its resources and pocketing all of the revenue stemming from them. Since the entire country had invested in the development of a region now enjoying prosperity, the entire country should have some say in the distribution of its income. Anti-Communist, free-market ideologues who had eagerly embraced the cause of Croatian independence claimed that the republic’s prosperity was due to the Croats’ innate entrepreneurial talents, proving that they were far more Western-leaning than their fellow Yugoslavs and thus deserving of the embrace of the freedom-loving nations. The reality was very different. Yugoslavia’s Communist government had invested heavily in the development of the republic’s tourist industry – a crucial source of foreign currency. Many parts of Yugoslavia had had to go without funds for years so that Croatia’s Adriatic coast could become a popular European tourist destination.

Fairness wasn’t the only issue. While Washington obsessed about Milošević’s supposed nationalism, Croatia’s move to restore the symbols of the wartime Ustaša state scarcely elicited a murmur. The appalling record of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska or NDH) is well known. The Ustaše, headed by Ante Pavelić, were appointed by the German Nazis to run the puppet wartime state. As their first order of business, the Ustaše resolved to deal with Croatia’s Serbs once and for all. The plan was simple enough: a third of the Serbs were to be exterminated, a third deported, and a third converted to Catholicism. According to one standard history of Yugoslavia, the Ustaša regime “declared that one of its chief objectives was to ‘purify’ Croatia of alien elements, especially the Serbs … The process of extermination, which was later judged at Nuremburg to have amounted to genocide, started at once in the areas of Croatia where Serbs were concentrated … The exact number of Serbs who were killed in the NDH is not known. Serbian estimates put it at 750,000; German, at 350,000.” Ustaša policy toward the Jews and gypsies was no less savage. But the behavior of the Ustaše was so appalling that even the ss was shocked. According to a 1942 German security police report, “the ustaša units have carried out their atrocities not only against Orthodox males of a military age, but in particular in the most bestial fashion, against unarmed old men, women and children … innumerable Orthodox have fled to rump Serbia, and their reports have roused the Serbian population to great indignation.” Yet in 1990, Franjo Tudjman, the presidential candidate of the Croatian Democratic Union, felt no compunction about defending the wartime state. The NDH, he said, “was not simply a Quisling creation and a fascist crime, it was also an expression of the historical aspirations of the Croatian people.”

Upon coming to power, the Croatian nationalists set about rewriting Croatia’s constitution to reflect their state’s projected mono-ethnic character. In contrast, the allegedly rabidly nationalist Serbs sought to preserve multiethnic Yugoslavia. For example, Croatia’s 1990 constitution stated that Croatia was to be a “national state of the Croatian people and a state of members of other nations and minorities who are its citizens: Serbs, Muslims, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews and others, who are guaranteed equality with citizens of Croatian nationality.” By contrast, Serbia’s 1990 constitution was a model of modern democratic, non-national, non-ethnic statehood: “The Republic of Serbia is a democratic State of all citizens living within it, founded upon the freedoms and rights of man and citizen, the rule of law, and social justice.”

Croatia’s new constitution differed sharply, then, from the 1963 and 1974 constitutions, which had deemed the Serbs and Croats co-equal constituent nations of Croatia. According to Article 1 of those constitutions, Croatia had been established “in common struggle with the Serbian nation and the nationalities of Croatia and with the other nations and nationalities in Yugoslavia.” Overnight, then, the new constitution had relegated the Serbs of Croatia from constituent nation to national minority. Not only that, Croatia began to restore the symbols of the Ustaša regime, including the red-and-white checkerboard flag. Croatia reintroduced the kuna, the currency of the Fascist Ante Pavelić regime. The language of Croatia was proclaimed to be Croatian, not Serbo-Croat. The Cyrillic alphabet was banned. Serbs were required to swear allegiance to the Croatian state. This was followed by mass firings of Serbs and armed attacks by Croatian gangs on Serbs and Serb property.

The Serbs, persecuted and exterminated by the World War II fascist Croatian regime, responded with alarm. Assurances that Serb rights in Croatia would be protected “were at odds with the nationalist and anti-Serb rhetoric frequently adopted by Tudjman and certain quarters of his party’s leadership,” according to one not especially pro-Serb author. Indeed, Tudjman scarcely troubled to conceal his racism when he spoke about the Serbs. As he explained to an interviewer,

            Croats belong to a different culture – a different civilization from the Serbs. Croats are part of Western Europe, part of the Mediterranean tradition … The Serbs belong to the East. They are Eastern peoples, like the Turks and Albanians. They belong to the Byzantine culture … Despite similarities in language we cannot be together.

The West responded with indifference. While the “Never again” slogan pervades contemporary culture, its use is restricted to the Jewish Holocaust. By contrast, the murder of tens of thousands of Serbs at the hands of the Ustaša regime, or the deaths of millions of Russians in World War II, elicits little sympathetic understanding. Israel may bomb Lebanon or the West Bank; the mere mention of the Holocaust suffices to still most criticism. However, when Serbs refer to Jasenovac, to Ante Pavelić, to their fears of a repetition of the horrors of World War II, they are condemned for rehashing ancient grievances, for rabid nationalism and for indulging their victim complex.

The late Nora Beloff, a long-standing observer of Balkan politics, was one of the few who did not share the generally benevolent view of the new Croatia:

            By the time I first met [Tudjman] in 1980, he was already pathologically antiSerb. He has allowed himself to be surrounded by Ustasha sympathizers, many of them returning from Canada and Australia. Tudjman armed his followers, and though they were unable to break into the all-Serb regions, which were ferociously defended, in areas of Croat majority they made life for the Serbs impossible. With jobs denied and homes burnt down, tens of thousands fled long before the federal army and the international community intervened. On a smaller scale, the Serbs retaliated. In Dubrovnik, one year ago, a young Croat girl running her own travel agency described the ravages of the Tudjman regime. To her horror, this little Venice was being transformed into a nationalist stronghold, and she found herself ostracized by her fellow-citizens for rejecting ethnic hatreds which she felt were ruining the country.

Most commentators refused to see any of this. As they saw it, with the Soviet Union gone, the continued existence of Communist Yugoslavia was highly undesirable. Therefore, Western political support needed to be thrown behind those who were seeking to break up Yugoslavia, whatever their political predilections might be. During a meeting with Zimmermann and Peter Hall, Britain’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, Milošević pointed out that Tudjman was arming his own party. “Nobody has done that since Hitler,” Milošević said. “You Americans and British totally misunderstand the nature of Tudjman’s regime, because you’re obsessed with black and white distinctions between ‘communists’ and ‘democrats.’ For you Milošević is bad, and Marković and Tudjman are good.” Milošević evidently understood his interlocutors far better than they did him.

Tudjman, who had been imprisoned by Tito for nationalist activities, had his fan club in the West, one of the most vocal of whom was Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister. She saw in Tudjman the reincarnation of the spirit of Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel. She lauded Tudjman for having “understood that there could be no future for Croatia within a Yugoslavia that had become a prison with brutal Serb jailers.” Oblivious to facts, Thatcher seemed blissfully unaware that in June 1991, when Croatia seceded, the “brutal Serb jailers” included the president of Yugoslavia, Stjepan Mesić (a Croat); the prime minister, Ante Marković (a Croat); the foreign minister, Budimir Lončar (a Croat); the finance minister, Branimir Zekan (a Croat); and the defense minister, Veljko Kadijević (Croatian mother, Serbian father).

Thatcher’s extraordinarily ignorant interventions in the debates over Yugoslavia (she was one of the earliest to argue that the solution to the problem of Yugoslavia entailed nothing more complicated than bombing the Serbs) not only helped substitute hysteria for analysis, but made racist hatred and, eventually, violence directed at Serbs respectable. She even wrote a blurb for a bizarre book, Serbia’s Secret War by Philip J. Cohen, which argued that it was Serbia, not Croatia, which was aligned with Hitler in World War II. Though Cohen’s book hadn’t been endorsed by a single reputable historian, Thatcher felt able to claim that it was a “useful counter to current myths about Serbia’s history during the Second World War. By detailing the reality of past Serbian national socialism and anti-Semitism, [it] allows us to understand more clearly the mentality which has been at work in Belgrade, and so the roots of today’s Yugoslavian tragedy.”

Talk of “Serbian national socialism and anti-Semitism” was music to the ears of the Ustaše alumni gathering in Croatia. Western commentators dismissed Serb concerns by pointing to Tudjman’s wartime service in the Partisans. But the significance of the activities of a 20-year-old was vastly overstated. As David Owen pointed out, Tudjman’s Partisan service was long ago and far away. By 1990, Tudjman had become an ardent Croatian nationalist. In fact, his support depended “on much of Pavelić’s indigenous support.” Fighting Pavelić was for Tudjman

            the indiscretion of youth. Far from using his Partisan past to bind up the wounds between Croats and Serbs living in Croatia, he prefers to speak with pride of having been arrested and sentenced by Tito’s regime … to play up his part in the “Croatian Spring” unrest … His political development probably started while he was a senior figure in JNA intelligence, watching over the very Croatians living in exile who later became some of his most fervent supporters.

As Croats and Slovenes moved toward independence, held referendums, and clandestinely armed themselves, Croatia’s Serbs also took up arms and held a referendum. On July 25, 1990, the Croatian Serb assembly proclaimed the Serbian nation within Croatia to be a sovereign nation. “In the process of establishing new relations in Yugoslavia,” the proclamation said, “the Serbian nation in SR Croatia is fully entitled to opt for a federate or confederate system of state government, either jointly with the Croatian nation, or independently … Nobody else has the historic right to determine the fate of the Serbian nation, which has inhabited these areas for centuries, even before the Croatian state was created.”

The Serbs’ declaration warned of the possible consequences of Croatia’s moving toward independence. If Zagreb insisted on secession from Yugoslavia, the Serbs might “seek political autonomy.” If Zagreb opted not to secede and the Yugoslav federation continued to exist, the “areas in Croatia having a Serbian majority would need to have only the rights necessary for cultural autonomy.” The Serbs would be content with unlimited usage of the Serbian literary language, the Cyrillic script, and municipal self-government.

The Serbs scheduled a referendum on the issue of autonomy for August 1990. Tudjman threatened to use force to suppress the referendum and announced the formation of special police detachments. Anticipating the arrival of the special police units, the Serbs put up log barricades on the approach roads leading to the Serb areas. This came to be known as the “log revolution.”

Fearing JNA intervention, Tudjman backed off and the referendum went ahead as planned. As expected, Croatia’s Serbs overwhelmingly endorsed the autonomy declaration.

The Serbs’ rejection of the authority of Zagreb is invariably ascribed to Milošević’s machinations or to the extreme nationalist propaganda emanating from Belgrade. However, Croatia’s Serbs were responding to the policies of Tudjman, Mesić, and their allies. Serb fears may or may not have been justified (subsequent events showed that there was a reasonable foundation for them), but it is disingenuous to suggest that, were it not for Belgrade, Croatia’s Serbs would have peacefully accepted becoming a national minority in Tudjman’s Croatia. The Serbs were protesting the impending loss of Yugoslav citizenship and reduction to minority status within an independent Croatia. For understandable reasons, Croatia’s supporters in the West presented this conflict as one pitting democratic Croatia against Communist Serbia.

On December 21, 1990, the Serbs in the Krajina of Croatia proclaimed the formation of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina. The Serbs established two other autonomous districts: an autonomous district of Slavonia, Baranya, and Western Srem; and an autonomous district of Western Slavonia. These autonomous districts proclaimed themselves as belonging to Yugoslavia, not Serbia.

These Serb actions were entirely in accord with both international law and Yugoslav constitutional law. National self-determination inheres in nations and not in territories. Yugoslavia comprised six nations (under its original name – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – it comprised only three) each of which was theoretically free to leave the federation. However, there could be no change to external borders without the consent of all six nations. “It is not our intention to prevent the Croats or any other nation from leaving Yugoslavia,” Milošević told Belgrade University professors on March 21, 1991, “but we are not going to allow anybody to drag the Serbs out with them against their will.”

Milošević’s position was not that of the Yugoslav National Army. The JNA believed its mission to be defense of the territorial integrity of the SFRY. Milošević, however, was coming under pressure from within Serbia and from Serbs living in the other republics to do something to protect the Serbs in the face of the impending secessions. Borislav Jović, at that time Serbia’s representative on the federal presidency, described the situation:

            The Serbs in Croatia are exerting pressure, by way of Slobodan, for military protection. Slobodan conveys this to me. Veljko [Kadijević, Yugoslavia’s defense minister] stubbornly refuses, saying that there is a danger that the military will come to be seen as “Serb,” something that he cannot allow. Anyway, nothing can be done without a decision by the Presidency. Slobodan insists on a Presidency decision. I schedule one for the afternoon and ask Veljko for a report on the situation and a proposal. His proposal is “that the military be ready to take action if necessary but only after it is authorized to do so (by the Presidency).”

Croatia and Slovenia had a clear strategy. They didn’t intend to take on the JNA directly; rather, they planned to proclaim independence, follow that up with a blockade of the federal Yugoslav army barracks, and follow that up with a heart-rending appeal to the rest of the world. It was Hungary 1956 or Czechoslovakia 1968 all over again: a small, independent-minded democracy was under attack from the Red Army, or its latest manifestation, the JNA. The blockade of the JNA garrisons was no act of self-defense. To the contrary, the objective was seizure of JNA weaponry. As General Anton Tus, chief of staff of the Croatian army in 1991, was to explain later:

            It was because of the timely and complete blockade that the first attempt of the [JNA] to break out of the garrisons failed … In that way, we captured 230 tanks, more than 400 heavy artillery pieces, coastal artillery, several warships and a large amount of light weapons. In Zagreb alone, we captured 38,000 guns and 20 million rounds of ammunition, which made it possible to establish 11 Zagreb brigades, and much of this was sent to Vukovar and other crisis areas.

A sympathetic response was virtually guaranteed. On March 13, 1991, three months before the independence declarations, the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that “the constituent republics and autonomous provinces of Yugoslavia must have the right freely to determine their own future in a peaceful and democratic manner and on the basis of recognized international and internal borders.”23 This statement, resonant with standard Western pieties, had nothing whatever to do with the reality of what was taking place in Yugoslavia. The Europeans confused Yugoslavia’s republics with its constituent nations and bestowed the mantle of freedom and democracy on nationalists who were even then illegally arming themselves. The Europeans’ intervention ensured that the federal authorities would have little stomach for halting the country’s slide toward disintegration.

In the meantime, Tudjman’s government continued to receive enormous quantities of arms from Germany and Austria via Hungary. Croatia “used the network of Croatian nationalists abroad to fund and organize gun-running operations. Arms were brought in by ferry, by truck, and, in countless small consignments, by private car.”

On January 9, 1991, the federal presidency finally got fed up and issued an ultimatum to the paramilitaries to disarm within 10 days or face forcible disarmament. Croatia and Slovenia rejected the call and adopted a variety of maneuvers to avoid disarming its paramilitaries. Details of some of these contrivances emerged in the Milošević trial during the testimony of prosecution witness General Aleksandar Vasiljević, head of JNA’s counterintelligence at the time.

Tudjman’s HDZ, he recounted, announced that members of its illegal military organization would henceforth be considered members of Croatia’s reserve police forces. In order to avoid returning weapons, Croatia’s authorities carried out a clandestine scheme. “They printed over 50,000 ids for the reserve force of the MUP [Ministry of Interior police] and then distributed these ids to members of the HDZ so that they could justify the fact that they had weapons in their possession.”

 

This text is an excerpt, prepared by milosevic.co with the kind permission of the author, from the first chapter of the book:

Bombs for Peace: NATO’s Humanitarian War on Yugoslavia, by George Szamuely,

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013, Pp. 611.

https://www.amazon.com/Bombs-Peace-NATOs-Humanitarian-Yugoslavia/dp/9089645632

 

 

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