Thirty years since Bosnia, another tyrant massacres Europe’s people

Before Putin, Milošević showed how nationalist delusion can inspire heinous crimes

March 31, 2022
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War criminal: Slobodan Miloševi?. Photo: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The western democracies did not anticipate Russia’s barbarous assault on Ukraine. They might have done better had they considered the Putin regime’s threats in the context of a catastrophic conflict in Europe that began 30 years ago. The war in Bosnia cost the lives of almost 100,000 people in a country the size of Scotland. Half the population were displaced from their homes. The depravities of the war included genocide, internment camps, mass rapes and the deliberate destruction of historic sites and cultural treasures. The siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, lasted longer than the Nazi siege of Leningrad and killed more than 11,000 civilians.

For most of the war’s duration, from April 1992 to December 1995, the western democracies studiously practised non-intervention for fear of becoming committed to a fight in which they had no stake. The ferocious violence appeared to policymakers and diplomats to stem from a clash of intractable and ancient communal hatreds.

This was a profound misreading that has had baneful consequences for Bosnia and Europe to this day. The explanation for war was simpler: one side was bent on the annihilation of the other, which lacked the means to adequately defend itself. Slobodan Miloševi, the Serbian president, had a fanatical plan to create an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia.” His vision was founded on a historical myth as bogus, xenophobic and incendiary as Vladimir Putin’s notion that Ukraine is not a real country and that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.”  And its prosecution was a warning of planned aggression.

Miloševi was an apparatchik of limited imagination and ability, who saw his chance for power in the post-communist era by appealing to a virulent nationalism. Addressing a mass rally in June 1989, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, he said that Serbia could not rule out a strategy of violence. And he meant it. His threats had already prompted three Yugoslav republics to leave the federation before Bosnia declared independence in 1992. This became the pretext, though not the cause, of a pitiless Serb campaign of destruction.

The European Union and the United States recognised the new state. A conspiracy theory hence speedily emerged on the far left and the far right that this was all done to further the cause of imperialism against plucky Belgrade, and that the west was using radical Islam as a tool to that end. Bosnia was and remains a multi-ethnic state, whose Muslim population is an integral part of Europe’s history and culture. Yet a campaign of xenophobic lies depicted Bosnia instead as a citadel for jihadism.

It was all nonsense, yet it has its counterpart in the propaganda of the same malign tendency, and sometimes literally the same people, more recently. In waging war against a captive Syrian population since 2011, latterly with Russian military support, the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Its western apologists, encompassing anti-Muslim right-wingers and purportedly anti-imperialist leftists, charge that these atrocities are in reality the work of jihadists who are covertly supported by the US and its allies.

In the real world, the Obama administration strove to avoid entanglement in Syria's civil war, just as the Clinton administration had initially hoped to stay out of the Bosnian conflict. The decision of the western powers to recognise Bosnian independence was not part of some colonial masterplan to dismember Yugoslavia. They merely hoped that by doing so they would stabilise a break-up that was already well advanced. Serb propaganda then and since has portrayed Alija Izetbegovi, the Bosnian president, as a separatist bent on establishing an Islamic republic, but this is a preposterous misrepresentation. Izetbegovi championed religious pluralism and accepted only reluctantly the case for Bosnian independence. He was fully aware that Bosnia lacked armed forces of its own and would be acutely vulnerable in the event of Serb attack, yet Miloševi's threats forced his hand. It was hoped that a declaration of independence would secure international support and thereby protect Bosnians. Tragically, while the support did come, it was limited to little more than rhetoric.

Miloševi directed the war tacitly but with an unmistakable trail of evidence, including phone transcripts. His plenipotentiaries in this evil were Radovan Karadži, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Ratko Mladi, the military commander, both of whom are now serving life sentences for genocide and war crimes. A no-fly zone, established in response to a UN Security Council resolution, and an arms embargo merely froze in place a huge imbalance in force between the Serbs (who had appropriated the weaponry of the former Yugoslav armed forces) and the constitutional government in Sarajevo. Only in 1995, after the genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, did Nato air power scatter Serb divisions and create the preconditions for a negotiated settlement.

That negotiation, however, has had immense costs. It produced the Dayton Accords, signed at an air base in Ohio. Miloševi came out of it stronger than when he went in. International sanctions were biting as the war had turned against him, and he wanted relief. He also gained a little under half the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina and recognition of the rump Serb statelet known as Republika Srpska (RS). A tripartite presidency of Bosnia was established.

It was a fateful deal that sowed the seeds for further discord. Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite presidency, is now proposing to withdraw RS from Bosnia’s central state institutions. It is in effect a bid for secession. And it is fuelled by a campaign of lies by Dodik and his supporters to the effect that the Srebrenica genocide never happened. If Bosnia’s fabric is sundered once more, the humanitarian costs will be immense and it will represent a triumph for the Putin regime in Europe, even as it encounters heroic resistance from Ukrainian forces. For Russia, the horrors of renewed ethnic conflict would have the countervailing benefit of preventing any prospect of Bosnian accession to the EU and Nato.

The seductions of nationalism are potent and deadly. Such blandishments are invariably offered by demagogues and despots. The western democracies have no option but to stand against them and alongside constitutional governments and threatened populations. The costs are only deadlier if this choice is postponed or evaded.