West Must Correct Its Mistakes in Yugoslavia


The disgusting brutality of the Serbian campaign in Bosnia makes it easy to view the whole Bosnian tragedy as the fault of the Serbs. Yet the Bosnian war, and Serbian campaign itself, are in large measure the result of diplomatic errors by the Europeans and Americans.

If the war is to be stopped, its causes must be addressed. To do so will require recognition of these errors.

The most fundamental error was to accept the disintegration of Yugoslavia. It was always clear that the country would not fall apart cleanly because of the complex intermingling of nationalities there.

There was a basic error of logic: If Yugoslavia could not exist as a multiethnic state, how could the various republics do so?

At the level of cynical Realpolitik, the answer was simple. In the newly independent republics, state chauvinism would replace state socialism, with the majority in each state permitted to discriminate systematically against the largest scapegoat minority under a pious cover of "democracy." This cynical solution has been applied in Slovenia and Croatia and in the Baltic republics of the former Soviet Union. However, there was a flaw in the reasoning. What if the hated scapegoat minority rose up in arms and rebelled?

With the collapse of Yugoslavia, the most vulnerable minorities in Croatia and Bosnia were the Serbs. In both regions, Serbs were already sensitive because of the ghastly civil war of 1941-45. The then fascist "Independent State of Croatia," which included Bosnia, implemented a policy of genocide against the Serbs. In Bosnia itself, allied Croat and Muslim forces massacred Serbs, who responded by killing Muslims.

Viewed in this historical context then, Serb fears of oppression and worse were understandable. They were hardly reassured by a Croatian government that today belittles the wartime genocide or by a coalition of Muslims and Croats to separate Bosnia's Serbs from Yugoslavia.

In this context of fear, the European Community and U.S. insistence on the inviolability of borders put the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia in the unenviable position of the Kurds in Iraq. Their rejection of the borders was to be expected, even as the brutality of their resistance can only be condemned. But this was the first blunder: to ratify the destruction of Yugoslavia without redrawing borders.

The second blunder was the premature recognition of Bosnia before a political solution could be reached. Bosnian Serbs had clearly shown that they rejected such a state unless they could have political autonomy amounting to virtual independence. It was clear to all who knew anything about Yugoslavia that the recognition of an independent Bosnia in these circumstances would ignite a civil war. Lord Carrington, the EC special representative to Yugoslavia, Cyrus Vance, the former U.S. Secretary of State, and Warren Zimmerman, U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, had counseled against it. Unfortunately, they were right.

Despite the simplistic war cries of that odd couple, Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton, the Bosnian tragedy cannot be solved by military action. While America tries to treat the Bosnian war as an international conflict, it is in fact a civil war. The Serbs fighting the Bosnian government are Bosnian Serbs -- albeit supported by Serbia -- who have been incorporated into a "sovereign" Bosnia against their own will. They boycotted the referendum on Bosnian independence and did not want to secede from Yugoslavia.

Any attempt to defend the territorial integrity of Bosnia will require a long war of conquest against these Bosnian Serbs. Military action would be as tough as fighting the Viet Cong. Nor would action against Serbia help Bosnia. The United States could destroy Serbia, but to do so would impoverish another 10 million people, most of whom oppose the war. It would also crate a few million more refugees. It will not force Bosnia's Serbs to submit to a Muslim-Croat coalition government.

At this stage, any attempt to preserve Bosnia will lead to a longer, bloodier, more horrible war. A better approach would be to accept that the recognition of Bosnia with its existing boundaries was a gross error and to draw new borders, presumably accompanied by transfers of population, a "solution" patterned after the partition of India in 1947.

To save face, the United States and EC may be able to insist on the fiction of a Bosnian "state" which is actually a confederation of autonomous cantons, a temporary solution that would probably soon lead to the secession of the Serbian and Croatian cantons and their attachment to the mother republics.

Patterning the division of Bosnia on the partition of India is hardly a completely satisfactory solution. As that experience shows, such a solution is itself grotesque and will lead only to permanent armed hostility in what used to be Yugoslavia. Yet an unhappy result was foreordained once the EC and the United States gave in to Germany's insistence on the destruction of the Yugoslavia that had been created after the German defeat in World War I and reconstituted after the German defeat in World War II. Having rejected multinational Yugoslavia, the EC and the United States cannot create a multinational Bosnia. To attempt to do so will enlarge the Balkans tragedy.

Robert M. Hayden, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, has done extensive research in Yugoslavia and India.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad