The tragedy of 20 years ago makes the case for actionby Oliver Kamm / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Sarajevo remembers: each red chair signifies a civilian killed during the siege
One Friday in April, 11,541 red plastic chairs were laid out along Sarajevo’s main street. Each commemorated a civilian killed in the Serb siege of the city 20 years previously. That assault lasted longer than the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The Bosnian war of 1992-95 killed almost 100,000 people in a country the size of Scotland. Its anniversary sparked media commentary but not much introspection. The war was a human catastrophe for Bosnians and a disaster for European and transatlantic diplomacy.
Intervention in foreign conflicts is always risky. In Bosnia, western states decided in advance against it and thereby showed the costs of ideological inflexibility masquerading as realism. Not intervening did not mean that nothing happened. It meant that an aggressor was enabled to commit genocide.
Because the violence accompanied the dissolution of the old Yugoslav federation, western policymakers assumed that this was an intractable conflict born of ancient hatreds. In reality, the politics were simpler. This was a racist war of aggression by one state against a smaller neighbour. It is a truism that atrocities were committed on all sides. But overwhelming responsibility lay with Slobodan Miloševi´c, the Serbian President, and his plenipotentiaries Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladic, now on trial at The Hague.
The European Union and United States granted diplomatic recognition to Bosnian independence in April 1992. They hoped to stabilise the rapidly dissolving Yugoslavia. The policy was not wrong but it was futile, because it reckoned without the character of Miloševic, a thuggish and intellectually limited apparatchik with a penchant for ballot-rigging, whose only true friend was his unstable and equally fanatical wife.
Miloševic’s intentions were hardly obscure. He signalled them with an inflammatory speech in 1989 on the 600th anniversary of the Serbian defeat in Kosovo by the Turks. He envisaged an ethnically “pure” Greater Serbia and initiated a campaign of expulsion, torture, mass rape and murder. With his similarly unsanitary counterpart in Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, he engineered a cynical division of Bosnia.
Miloševic judged that the member states of the EU and Nato would give rhetorical support to Bosnian independence but recoil from any wider commitment. He was right. Western policy could scarcely have been better calculated to ease his way.
An international arms embargo preserved a gross disparity in force. The tanks and heavy artillery with which Bosnian Serb forces pounded…