As the war in the former Yugoslavia moves towards a denouement, Aleksa Djilas, son of the late dissident Milovan Djilas, disputes the view that it is a peculiarly Balkan horror. Instead, he argues, it is part of the unstoppable process of border formation and ethnic homogenisation already experienced throughout the rest of Europeby / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Many years ago I was discussing with a cousin The Mountain Wreath, an epic drama in verse written by Petar II Petrovic Njegos, a 19th century prince and Eastern Orthodox bishop of Montenegro. The drama-the “Paradise Lost” of Serbian literature- is about the early 18th century “ethnic cleansing” of Montenegrins who had converted to Islam.
As a ruler, Njegos did not pursue extreme anti-Muslim policies. But his poetry reverberates with profound enmity to Islam. He considers the struggle against it to be of cosmic significance, beyond considerations of ordinary morality. In macabre and beautiful verse, Njegos warns that the Christian and Muslim faiths will swim in blood; the faith which does not sink will have proved its superiority.
My cousin, who had recently arrived from Montenegro to study in Belgrade, was expressing his love of Njegos’s poetry when I asked: “How did the Muslims in your class react when they had to read The Mountain Wreath and learn parts of it by heart?” He could not answer. It had never crossed his mind to ask his Muslim classmates such a question-even though some of them were close friends. Clearly, he did not connect them with the Muslims against whom Njegos wrote.
My cousin, like most other Serbs and Montenegrins, had an ambivalent attitude towards Muslims. Because Muslims are indistinguishable by language and appearance from Serbs, Serbs generally considered them as “our people.” Friendships and intermarriages were common. Yet, at the same time, Serbs could not forget their history. This teaches that the Ottoman empire, which in the 15th century brought Islam to the Balkans, was an absolute evil. Ottoman rule was undoubtedly harsh and the Christians who lived under it benefited less from European civilisation than those in neighbouring Habsburg lands. Yet the Ottoman empire showed in some periods more religious tolerance than Catholic central Europe; it built roads and bridges and initiated urban life in the Balkans. It was a simplification to claim that “five centuries under the Turkish yoke” brought only violence and humiliation, cultural decline and political marginalisation.
Serb uprisings limited Ottoman power in Serbia in the first half of the 19th century, but Bosnia-Herzegovina was only freed from it in 1878-when the Congress of Berlin put the province under Austro-Hungarian administration. Under the Ottomans, many Slavs who converted to Islam enjoyed a privileged position. Serbians regarded these converts as traitors, although most of them had become Muslims as early as the 16th century and little is known about why they abandoned the Christianity. In the next centuries, they developed a distinct culture of their own.
Throughout their history, Serbs have seen themselves either as noble heroes or innocent victims. This characterisation appears repeatedly in history books, literature and art, as well as in school textbooks and newspapers. Serbian politicians have always aspired towards national expansion and Serbs have often fought for the “liberation” of territories which were in reality not Serbian. A narcissistic and self-pitying view of their history, combined with ambitious and belligerent national policies, was also characteristic of Croats and Muslims. Croats saw themselves as a “bastion of Christianity” which had protected Europe from the Ottoman Turks. They felt entitled to a Croatia which would include the whole of Bosnia and parts of Serbia and Montenegro. During the Second World War, the German and Italian occupiers of Yugoslavia gave almost all these territories to Croatian Fascists (the Ustashe). The Ustashe then attempted to “cleanse” Greater Croatia of Serbs-by massacres, expulsions and forced conversions from the Orthodox faith to Catholicism. The Muslims were proud of their heritage and of the Ottoman empire, on whose side their ancestors fought the Balkan and central European Christian states; they hated The Mountain Wreath. They aimed at predominance over Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and incorporation into it of parts of Serbia and Montenegro where there was a Muslim minority.
But Serbs, Croats and Muslims were not exceptional in central and eastern Europe. Since the end of the 19th century, similar passions and expansionary designs were to be found in most nations of the region. Germany was the most obvious case of a nation convinced it deserved more than history had allotted it. Its people were intent on proving they could be makers of Weltgeschichte. Poles also considered Poland-partitioned between Russia, Austria, and Prussia-to be a Christ among nations. They wanted to extend its borders from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Hungarians in the inter-war years lamented the “Calvary” their state underwent in the post-1918 peace settlements. During the Second World War they tried to claim back land, but non-Hungarians were in a majority on most of the territories they wanted back. Ukrainians and Romanians, Bulgarians and Greeks, even Macedonians-all had at different times felt exaggerated grievances and held megalomaniac ambitions.
During the 19th and 20th centuries the borders of central and eastern Europe have been frequently contested. Bloody and unstable, they have moved east and west, north and south. Intoxicated by an uncritical, pseudo-romantic view of history, nation has fought nation. Millions of people have been killed or expelled, while the minorities which survived were often forcibly assimilated.
West Europeans had also fought brutal wars. But their states were formed by strong dynasties which consolidated territories already (relatively) ethnically homogeneous. Old and continuous, these states generally had stable borders; violent eruptions were rare. By contrast, until comparatively recently many cities of central and eastern Europe were multi-ethnic-such as Sarajevo before the Bosnian war. For example, Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, ceased being predominantly Polish only after the Second World War. It was once a centre of Jewish culture and used to be called the “Jerusalem of the North.” Now, it is almost completely Lithuanian. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was a German trading centre and until 1848 the seat of the Hungarian parliament. Slovaks, its present majority, were less than one fifth of the population when the Habsburg monarchy disintegrated in 1918.
Even further south, (outside Europe geographically if not politically), Izmir, the most important city in Asia Minor after Ankara, had a similar destiny. As a result of the Turkish victory in the 1921-22 war with Greece, it changed its centuries-old European and Greek character and became a Turkish city. The war itself was accompanied by massacres and expulsions. So were the Balkan wars of 1912-13 (which began when Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece attempted to expel Ottoman Turkey from south eastern Europe), and the First and Second World Wars.
The Nazis all but emptied central and eastern Europe of its Jewish population. Because of its magnitude, irrationality, and systematic execution, this crime is universally known. But the full history of terror in central and eastern Europe has yet to be written. Many terrible deeds are virtually unknown. For example, not many people have heard of the murder of hundreds of thousands of Catholic Poles by Ukrainian nationalists. Between 1942-44 in the provinces of Galicia and Volynia the inhabitants of one village after another were hacked to death or locked into churches which were then set on fire.
In the early 19th century, before the rise of the modern nation state, central and eastern Europe was a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups. Minorities were so large that one could hardly tell which was the majority. But now central and eastern Europe consist of nation states with mostly homogeneous populations. Large minorities are an exception. If the fanaticism of the 16th and 17th century European wars of religion found its principle in cuius regio, eius religio, then the tenet of the no less fanatical modern nationalism could be “the ethnic group which wins gets the territory.”
The cultural and political leaders who erected the borders and brought about ethnic uniformity were guilty of creating profound human suffering and the destruction of cultural variety. Sometimes they were called “fascists” (and during the Second World War proudly labelled themselves thus), but what they did was more repugnant than anything Mussolini, Franco or Salazar ever accomplished.
Yet moral revulsion must not blind us to the tragic fact that all attempts at stopping the formation of homogeneous nation states have failed. Neither the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov nor Ottoman empires which once ruled central and eastern Europe, nor communist internationalism, could resist the force of modern nationalism. Nor has a realistic plan for reversing ethnic cleansing been devised. The expelled receive sympathy, but they never return.
Between 1918 and 1991, Yugoslavia, with its multi-national composition, was an honourable exception in central and eastern Europe. The Yugoslav civil war, which has been fought in Croatia since 1991 and in Bosnia since 1992, has been marked by great cruelty towards civilians, precisely because their expulsion from conquered territory was one of the main goals of all three groups. Muslims have been the most numerous victims, but hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Croats have suffered too. It is a little known fact in the west that there were about 600,000 refugees in Serbia, most of them Serbs expelled from Croatia and Bosnia, even before the arrival of a further 200,000 after the Croatian May and August offensives in western Slavonia and Krajina.
According to the 1991 census there were 581,663 Serbs in Croatia. Now there are only 130,000. The Krajina offensive was the conclusion of the “final solution”of the Serbian question in Croatia. This was started by the Ustashe in 1941 and recommenced when Franjo Tudjman came to power in May 1990. In 1995 Tudjman realised a century-old dream of Croatian militant nationalists to create an ethnically and religiously “pure” Croatia. The country is now over 90 per cent Croatian and Catholic.
Mass evictions have taken place not just at gunpoint; harassment and an atmosphere of fear have been enough to make people flee. Another cousin of mine, daughter of a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, was a manager in a Zagreb bank when Tudjman came to power. One day she found herself demoted without explanation. When the war in Croatia broke out, her colleagues stopped talking to her, and started calling her names. On her desk, she sometimes found newspaper articles about Serb atrocities. (This persecution would not attract a cnn crew or be debated at an international peace conference, but it was dramatic to her.) She left her job and her apartment and went to Belgrade with her husband, three daughters and as many belongings as would fit in a car. Some 40,000 Serbs from Zagreb, about two thirds of the Serbian population of Croatia’s capital, left for similar reasons. In the main they had not been beaten, raped, or directly threatened, but they were unable to lead a decent human life.
The same has been true for hundreds of thousands of Croats and Muslims. The Serbian majority in many Bosnian towns have been particularly brutal towards Muslims. By comparison, Belgrade has been tolerance itself. Yet many Muslims still felt threatened. Some left, others gave themselves Serbian names. A Muslim building contractor explained to me: “I do not want my company to lose deals worth hundreds of thousands of Deutsche Marks just because of my Muslim name.” These experiences have left an indelible mark. The chances of re-mixing the populations in Croatia and Bosnia, and of recreating Bosnia as a multi-ethnic state, are nil.
the civil war in Yugoslavia is part of the same terrifying process of border formation and ethnic homogenisation which the rest of Europe has already been through. What is happening is not Balkanisation, but Europeanisation, and it is irreversible. The international community has not been ready to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the former Yugoslavia, yet nothing less would suffice for its reintegration.
But could there not have been a force in the country strong enough to defeat the nationalists, to reunite the country and reverse ethnic cleansing? After all, the partisans, led by Tito and the communists, did exactly that towards the end of the Second World War, during which Croatian, Serbian, Muslim and other nationalists committed terrible crimes.
There are two reasons for the absence of a pro-Yugoslav movement. First, nationalism is more widespread today than during the Second World War. Then, only minorities were politically or militarily engaged. But the growth of literacy and education and the spread of the media have taken nationalism to the masses. Second, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims all have a strong sense of d?j? vu. The nationalistic conflicts during the Second World War far exceeded in horror those of the present war.
My late father, the dissident author and partisan leader Milovan Djilas, witnessed many atrocities. In July 1942 he travelled to Hurije, a Serbian village in Herzegovina, after its massacre by the Ustashe’s Black Legion. There were few survivors. Among corpses “crowded together as if piled by a storm” he found a “…mother, with her black lashes and eyebrows… reminiscent of a romantic painting of a slaughtered mother with child. But this was a real mother, still holding the unweaned baby at her breast.” Not for the first time in Serbian history, reality corresponded to romantic images of suffering. When censuring the Serbs for their aggressive self-pity, we must not forget that they have often been real victims-and at no time more so than during the Second World War at the hands of the Ustashe.
Serbian nationalists exaggerate when they put the number of Serbs killed by the Ustashe at a million or more. But even realistic estimates of 200,000-300,000 suggest an appalling death-toll. Not long ago I discussed Jasenovac, the largest Ustashe death camp, with a Serbian woman who had fought against the Ustashe as a partisan. If Nazi camps were death factories, Jasenovac was a medieval torture chamber. When I quoted demographic studies showing that Jasenovac could not have taken 700,000 Serbian lives, this otherwise non-nationalist woman exclaimed: “This camp was so horrible that any estimate of victims one gives is too small.”
During the Second World War, many Croats joined the partisans and fought the Ustashe as they fought the Germans and Italians. Tens of thousands of Croatian civilians perished-many of them victims of Chetniks (Serbian guerrillas who were nationalists, royalists and anti-communist). But after the war most Serbs were uninterested either in the Croatian anti-fascist struggle or in their losses. The Croats were simply villains.
These attitudes were only partially suppressed by 45 years of communism. So when, in 1990, Franjo Tudjman’s nationalistic Croatian Democratic Union won Croatia’s first post-war free election and put an end to communist rule, many Serbs feared the worst. Croatia moved towards secession as the position of its Serbs began to deteriorate. For many Serbs, this confirmed their prejudices: they concluded that, deep in their heart, Croats had always been Ustashe. Meanwhile, the Muslims had an equally strong sense that they were watching a movie they had seen before. For Croats and Muslims, the Serbian nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist party, and of most Serbian opposition parties, resembled either the bogus “Yugoslavism” of King Alexander’s dictatorship or the Chetniks’ extreme nationalism.
In 1929 Alexander had suspended parliamentary rule and tried to counter ethnic nationalism, in particular Croatian nationalism, by increasing centralism. He invoked “Yugoslavism”-the liberal democratic idea of Yugoslav cultural and political unity advocated by most Croatian and Serbian intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, he compromised the ideal by relying on a mainly Serbian political, military and bureaucratic elite to enforce it.
The Chetnik movement emerged among Serbian officers who had not surrendered to the Germans after Yugoslavia’s defeat in 1941. It put most of its energies into fighting the communist-led partisans, and often collaborated with the occupiers. Chetniks were militant Serbs who planned a Greater Serbia (today’s Serbia and Montenegro, plus Macedonia, Bosnia and parts of Croatia), and favoured expelling Croats and Muslims, as well as other minorities. In the Second World War most Muslim civilian losses stemmed from Chetnik massacres. Muslims lost about 10 per cent of their population-somewhat higher than the percentage of Serbian losses. However, if one compares the percentage of Muslim losses to that of the Bosnian Serbs, then the latter’s is almost twice as high. Nearly one in five Bosnian Serbs were killed-a relevant fact in understanding the causes of the present Bosnian war.
Bosnian Serbs blame the Ustashe for most of their Second World War civilian losses. But they insist that Muslims and not just Croats joined the Ustashe in 1941. In some regions, such as eastern Herzegovina, Muslims enrolled in considerable numbers. In eastern Bosnia during 1943-44, the Nazis created a Muslim SS division, Handzar, famous for its brutality. But most Muslims were passive during the war, and in its second half many joined the partisans.
Both Serbs and Muslims excuse their Second World War crimes against each other by claiming that they were “reactions.” Thus the Handzar division was a reaction to the Chetniks, and the Chetniks a reaction to the Muslims joining the Ustashe. These, in their turn, were put down to pre-war Serbian predominance in Bosnia. And so it goes, all the way back to the 15th and 16th century conversions to Islam. The excuses from the Croatian side follow much the same pattern.
General William Sherman, a kind of General Ratko Mladic of the American Civil War, burned Atlanta and a large part of the American south and objected little when his soldiers plundered and raped. Now his gold-painted bronze figure rides a bronze horse on the south side of New York’s Central Park, proving that the new world has a selective view of history too. In old age Sherman used to say: “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine… War is hell.”
After more than three years of war, most soldiers in Bosnia-Muslims, Serbs and Croats-would agree. The likelihood of creating a lasting peace in Bosnia now looks better than at any time since the war began. Serbian soldiers are battle-hardened and experienced, but some claim their discipline is near exhaustion. Muslim morale has suffered too. Although they represent 43 per cent of the pre-war Bosnian population, they hold only about 20 per cent of Bosnia’s territory, while the Serbs, with 31 per cent of the population, still hold almost two-thirds. The Muslims are well armed with light weapons, but lack tanks and artillery as well as properly trained officers. So their offensives have failed to bring any significant territorial gains. Croats-17 per cent of Bosnia’s population-hold almost all the territories they claim as their own.
One crucial step in the direction of peace has been the belated acceptance by the west, officially endorsed in Geneva in mid-September, that Bosnia must be partitioned. If the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia had been promised complete sovereignty soon after the beginning of the war in April 1992, they would have been much readier to return territories to Bosnian Muslims. And the Muslims, instead of dreaming that the west would help them militarily to reconquer the whole of Bosnia, would have taken about a third of it, including the industrial cities of Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica, and many mineral resources-a territory large and rich enough to form a viable state.
Now, at least, sense seems to have prevailed. Bosnia as a single entity exists in name alone. The Muslim-Croatian federation established as a result of the Washington accords in March 1994, is confederated with Croatia, and in August 1995 the Serbian part of Bosnia was finally promised confederation with Serbia. However, there is still a long way to go in the negotiations over borders and political forms.
Some difficulties are illustrated by the tensions in the Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia. Because the federation is meant to be a liberal democracy, all citizens have equal rights. But because it is incontestable that in Bosnia (and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia) citizens primarily vote for the representatives of their ethnic group, something had to be devised to prevent the predominance of the more numerous Muslims over Croats. The principle of consensus was therefore introduced, which gave each group a virtual veto over legislature. The paralysis of the political process was inevitable.
A more immediate threat to the peace process has been the concentration of the west’s military fire power against the Serbs. During the course of the civil war the 23,000 soldiers of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia have been surprisingly successful in distributing food and aid, and in keeping the combatants apart. But western public opinion has perceived the multi-national Unprofor as a failure. Although its task has been to manage a war, everyone is disappointed that it has not enforced peace. Also, since these “diplomats in uniforms” have been lightly armed and dispersed all over Bosnia, they are embarrassingly easy targets, and have often been taken as hostages. To protect Unprofor, the British, the French, and the Dutch sent a Rapid Reaction Force (rrf) of 12,500 heavily armed soldiers to Bosnia in August this year. The west did not want Unprofor to withdraw because this would exacerbate the war. It was also aware that a retreat would mean the whole Unprofor deployment would be seen as an expensive disaster.
Soon after their arrival the rrf’s carefully trained specialists went beyond their initial task of defending Unprofor. At the insistence of the newly activist Americans and the Bosnian government, they were edged towards military confrontation with the Serbs. Then on August 30th-after a mortar shell killed 37 civilians in Sarajevo-they started to bombard Serbian artillery positions around Sarajevo. The commanders of the rrf are not adventurers and do not promise easy victories. But the rrf is an assault formation and its military prowess a source of pride back home. So it arouses great expectations in the west, which has been cheering with Balkan passion against the Serbs. Its enthusiasm could still force the rrf into some serious fighting.
The rrf, the junior partner to Nato’s airforce, has had some tactical successes. It has already virtually lifted the Sarajevo siege, protected corridors and deterred offensives. The west has applauded. But will this bring peace to Bosnia? No. The rrf and Nato air force attacks on the Serbs could encourage more offensives by the Muslims and Croats. What would the rrf and Nato air force do then? It is very unlikely that they would try to stop the Muslims and Croats. After the events in Krajina, it seems the west, and especially the US, does not believe that attacks on the Serbs deserve serious punishment-something the Muslims and Croats are well aware of.
Another possibility is that the Serbs, seeing their military advantage disappear under the rrf and Nato shells, will start an all-out attack on the Muslims and defeat them. Alternatively, it is possible that the Serbs might start to perceive the rrf as the allies of the Muslims and Croats, and attack them. So instead of protecting Unprofor, the cool military professionals of the west might find themselves fighting against a passionate Balkan people’s army. The Bosnian Serbs would eventually be defeated, but the reconquest of their territories by Muslims and Croats would inevitably bring about the expulsion of Bosnian Serbs. Could Serbia afford a million new refugees? Would this not force Milosevic to send troops to Bosnia? And if he did, would this in turn not have serious consequences for peace in the Balkans in general, especially in the unstable Serbian-Albanian-Macedonian-Greek quadrangle?
The west knows that a just peace can be imposed on Bosnia by an outside force only by occupying the whole of it, and by disarming all three armies. But it also knows that even a force ten times larger than the rrf would not be big enough to do this. Because the west is not ready to make such a sacrifice, it is instead bombarding the Serbs in order to decrease the Serbs’ military advantage and put pressure on them to accept the peace proposals.
When the Bosnian war started in 1992, the west claimed that ethnic cleansing was so evil that no peace agreement which did not reverse it should be accepted. Subsequently, it has accepted that ethnic cleansing is irreversible, at least without a large and extremely costly western intervention. The peace proposals have now become much more sensible, and also defensible on moral grounds, because they include the provision that Muslims, the prime victims of ethnic cleansing, should get from the Serbs and Croats some of the territories they have lost. But after the Croatian Krajina offensive and recent rrf/Nato attacks on Serbs, the west seems to be accepting-perhaps even encouraging-a new round of ethnic cleansing. From moral outrage, through sensible realism, to nihilistic pragmatism-anything to get Bosnia off the agenda before the US presidential campaign begins.
Yet while on the verge of disaster, Bosnia is at the same time close to peace. Indeed, if the current anti-Serbian passions do not provoke a Muslim-Croatian attack, the three sides may within the next few months sign a peace treaty. It will be based on the revised version of the plan of the so-called Contact group. This plan, prepared in the summer of 1994 by representatives of the US, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, gave 51 per cent of Bosnia to Muslims and Croats, and 49 per cent to Serbs. It also promised self-rule to the Serbs, and implicitly accepted the partition of Bosnia. Its weakness was that it did not make partition explicit-Bosnia was always mentioned as a single state. Worse: it did not explicitly promise the Serbs confederation with Serbia, whereas the Muslim-Croatian federation had such links with Croatia. This was the main reason why Bosnian Serbs originally rejected the plan.
However, at the end of the summer, the plan was revised and Bosnian Serbs were explicitly offered a confederation with Serbia. This was sufficient to reassure the Serbs that they would not be placed under Muslim and Croatian rule. The political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs therefore agreed to enter peace negotiations as members of one delegation (with Serbia plus Montenegro), led by Slobodan Milosevic. He accepts the plan and has shown readiness to make compromises (including refusing to do anything to help the Krajina Serbs). That in itself is a important step towards the peace.
Serbia’s pressure on their compatriots in Bosnia, and the increased strength of Muslims and Croats after the Krajina offensive, have both helped move the Bosnian Serbs towards acceptance of the plan. Given these factors, it is not clear why it was also necessary to bombard and shell them the day after they had agreed to take part in a joint delegation with Milosevic as a leader. To offer a carrot, rather than a stick, might have been more appropriate, especially in the light of Croat behaviour in Krajina.
After doing too little for too long, the west (and especially the US) is trying to resolve the Bosnian crisis as quickly as possible. Because the Serbs were the main obstacle to previous peace efforts, the west has turned against them. If the Serbian defeat is the price of peace (the west concludes), so be it. But the west must remember that Serbs losing means Muslims and Croats winning. Such a victory will only bring new suffering.
When, finally, a peace agreement is negotiated and new borders erected, the different ethnic groups will feel safe behind them and their fears will dissipate. Then the re-unification of former Yugoslavia, and even of former Bosnia, will begin. That does not mean that a common Yugoslav or Bosnian state will be recreated in the near future. But proximity, a common language and many other similarities will make for intense trade and cultural exchanges between the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Inevitably, new and powerful bonds will be forged.