Yesterday, the Washington Times (yes, the Moonie cult founded newspaper) ran an absurd editorial by Jeffrey T. Kuhner defending Croatian military leader Ante Gotovina, and decrying the ICTY for its prosecution of him. Kuhner seems to be of the belief that Croatia was a victim of Serb nationalism, that Slobodan Milosevic would have destroyed said country if left unchecked, and that the only individuals who deserve punishment for the events of the Wars of Yugoslav Secession are Serbs. His view doesn’t much differ from that of the average American, who being fed a steady 90′s diet of CNN and the New York Times, sees the Serbs as the bloodthirsty butchers of Europe, heir to the legacy of brutality once associated with Adolph Hitler. But, such a belief has little basis in the facts.
To properly understand the events of the Wars of Yugoslav Secession, we must understand Yugoslav history, which begins with the defeat of the Central Powers during WWI. In the post-war settlement, the Western allies sought to create a number of independent states in East-Central Europe that would be powerful enough to prevent the resurgence of Germany and Austria, and counterbalance the dominance of the USSR, while still weak and conflict-ridden enough that international intervention by way of the League of Nations would be necessary. To that end, the nations created were not borne out of plebiscites, despite the grandiose rhetoric championing self-determination and democratic governance. Rather, states were shaped to ensure conflict.
As the enlarged version of the above map should make clear, the borders drawn were bound to cause problems. For example, Danzig was left to the Germans, but was geographically isolated from the rest of said country, as all the intermediate territory was awarded to Poland. Similarly, a large portion of Silesia was awarded to the Czechs, much to the dismay of both the Germans and the Poles. Perhaps most famously, the Sudatenland went to Czechoslovakia, which was appropriate, since Germans made up less than 25% of the population, but which all the same enraged Germany. Territorial disputes aside, the new map of Europe broke up empires, and restored historic states such as Poland, which had died out in 1795 when Russia, Austria, and Germany (then still known as Prussia) partitioned it.
Yugoslavia however, was unique. Never before had a Yugoslav state existed. As I’ve written about before, there is a well-established history of a Serb state, which included Kosovo, Montengro, Bosnia, and much of Macedonia. It even included portions of Croatia. However, the historic record is not replete with evidence of Serb rule over the collective Croat community, whose independence before World War II is a contested historical matter. And it certainly never included Slovenia. As historian Joseph Rothschild notes quite clearly in East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars, the Serbs wanted their monarchy to cover historic territory, and had no interest in being co-nationals with the Croats and Slovenes. Likewise, because the monarchy of Yugoslavia would be Serbian, neither the Croats or the Slovenes cared for such an arrangement. Lacking any sense of national unity, the country quickly fell apart when faced with a second world war.
For its part, following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, the Croats jumped at the prospect of an alliance with Hitler, whilst their Serb brethren mounted two major resistance movements (the Partisans and the Chetniks). As soon as the invasion was complete, they installed Ante Pavelic, who had been under the protection of Mussolini following the French indictment against him for the double assassination of Yugoslavian King Alexander I and French foreign minister Louis Barthou, as dictator. As Avro Manhattan noted in his groundbreaking word The Vatican’s Holocaust:
The Nazis had records of massacres of their own second to none. Yet the horrors committed by Pavelic’s Ustashi troops proved to be of such bestiality as to shock even them: a most crushing evidence that the Ustashi massacres had surpassed anything experienced even by the Germany of Hitler. The magnitude of the butchery can best be gauged by the fact that within the first three months, from April to June, 1941, 120,000 people perished thus. Proportionately to its duration and the smallness of the territory, it had been the greatest massacre to take place anywhere in the West prior to, during, or after that greatest of cataclysms, the Second World War.
Pg 54 (1986, Ozark Books)
As the previously linked Jerusalem Post article makes clear, this brutality was not the mere result of cold, machine-like efficiency, but driven by demented competition:
On August 29, 1942, a friar from the monastery of Siroki Brijeg, named Petar Brzica, won first place for killing the most Serbs in the shortest time, boasting 1,350 throats slit in one night.
The Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) have almost as revolting a track record, but I shall avoid extensive discussion of the matter, as it is somewhat tangential to the subject at hand. What I hope the above illustrates is that the first Yugoslav confederation, known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, was doomed to fail, because it grouped enemy peoples under one government, who were happy to fracture as soon as the opportunity presented itself, with catastrophic results thereafter.
After World War II, the Western allies once again re-built Yugoslavia, this time replacing a Serb-led monarchy with a Communist dictatorship. Leading this unfortunate entity was Josip Broz Tito, a Croat by birth who led the Yugoslav Partisans (which was, in the early days, was largely comprised of Serbs from Montengro and Bosnia). It was his wartime actions which left him in power for decades thereafter. But, it is vital to note, that the only reason the Partisans became the dominant force is because Churchill betrayed the Chetniks, seemingly due to faulty intelligence passed on by highly-placed Soviet moles. A regime under his command was commensurate with the Yalta “percentages agreement” reached between Churchill and Stalin to divide influence in the new Yugoslav state evenly, as Tito was a communist, but not loyal to Stalin.
Of course, World War II hadn’t changed anything, except that now the hostility between Serbs and Croats was greater than ever, and the government had replaced monarchy with communism. With the death of Yugoslavia’s master manipulator, who routinely re-wrote the national constitution and shifted the internal borders to dilute the influence of Serbs displeased with his leadership (and in so doing empowering many of the groups who would agitate for war soon thereafter) it was all but assured that the state would fail not long after his death.
It is here where we can begin to discuss Milosevic, and the allegations of Serb brutality during the Wars of Yugoslav Secession. Kuhner echoes the dominant Silber and Little thesis, made famous in the undeservedly popular Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, which portrays the collapse as a necessary and blameless reaction by non-Serbs to extreme Serb nationalism as anchored by Slobodan Milosevic. To dispel such nonsense, we must look at Milosevic’s rhetoric, rise to power, and actions once in power.
Milosevic first became a recognizable figure within the Serb community on April 24, 1987, when he spoke before a crowd of 15,000 Serbs in Kosovo Polje. Tensions were high, as the continued influx of Albanian immigrants under Titoist policy had given the group a super-majority, which threatened the political and safety rights of the ever-dwindling Serbian minority population, already subject to mass violence. Accordingly, the Serbs in Kosovo clamored for intervention by the Federal government on their behalf, which had not yet happened. As an empty gesture designed more to pacify the crowd of angry Serbs than to facilitate a redress of grievances or study the situation to determine an appropriate course of action, Milosevic had been “dispatched from Belgrade (as documented by Louis Sell in “Slobodan Milosevic: A Political Biography,” which ran in Problems of Post-Communism 46.6 Nov/Dec 1999).” This is particularly important to understand as it makes clear Milosevic went to Polje not with an agenda that would end with his seizure of power, but because his superiors ordered he go there and give a party-approved speech devoid of any proposals for a change in policy that would give Serbs equal protection in Kosovo. In other words, he was sent in as a pawn with no nationalist aims.
His statements acknowledged the importance of Kosovo, though not in radically nationalist terms. Speaking of the situation, Milosevic described it as “the weightiest problem during a difficult economic crisis, when standards have fallen drastically, when prices have climbed, when there are more unemployed,” thereby attempting to frame his case in the prism of communism that so defined his policy. In the speech, he specifically cautioned against degenerating into nationalist conflict, saying “I believe that those who carry the spirit of brotherhood and unity, equal rights and progressiveness can be and must be the only working class of Kosovo, because those that are unified have identical interests, and the least reason to divide into nationalism.” Only through willful misinterpretation of his words can sentiments of Serb nationalism be found in his words. Lines such as “It was never in the spirit of the Serbian and Montenegrin nation to bow before adversity, to demobilize when they need to fight, to demoralize when times are tough. You need to stay here because of your forefathers and because of your descendants. You would shame your forefathers and disappoint your descendants,” must be understood in context. He was not concerned so much with asserting Serb control over Kosovo as he was interested in ensuring that Serbs and Montenegrins not be “pressured by crime and humiliation” to give up their land, and that Kosovo have a sufficient ethnic balance that the Albanians could not achieve their secessionist aims. This is particularly well evidenced by his concluding statement that “Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo! Yugoslavia and Serbia will never give up Kosovo!” The mention of Serbia is expected because Kosovo, though largely autonomous, was (and technically speaking still is) a province of Serbia. But that is of relatively little consequence, for he focuses chiefly on Yugoslav unity, speaking to the need for action in Kosovo based on its integral role in preserving Yugoslavia.
Many cite his 1989 speech marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo as evidence of his nationalist vision for Serbia. Indeed, his rhetoric was more firebrand than before, and one so motivated could pick out individual statements that seem somewhat damning. Yet the overall tone is again moderate. “Yugoslavia is a multinational community and it can survive only under the conditions of full equality for all nations that live in it,” he said. And even when speaking of Serbia itself, Milosevic noted that “Serbia has never had only Serbs living in it. Today, more than in the past, members of other peoples and nationalities also live in it. This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I am truly convinced that it is its advantage.”
Certainly, this does not sound like the rhetoric of an ardent Serb nationalist. Compare these statements against the words of his Bosniak and Croat counterparts, and it becomes apparent just how moderate Milosevic’s words were. Of course, politicians throughout history have said one thing and done another. So, we must ask, is Kuhner’s claim reasonable? Did Milosevic really aim to “unite the truncated parts of Croatia with the nearly 70 percent of territory his forces had carved out in neighboring Bosnia,” and in so doing, engage in “state-building through genocidal partition?”
Useful in understanding the Croatia situation is the story of Slovene independence, as it fought for independence at the same time Croatia did. The wealthiest of the Yugoslav states, Slovenia was often the odd republic out, having few bonds with the other peoples of Yugoslavia, except for the Yugoslav national identity pushed by the state. Thus, on December 23, 1990, Slovenia held a referendum for independence, with only 5% voting to remain a part of Yugoslavia. In one of the least bloody conflicts in regional history, Slovenia won independence in the Ten Day War, which claimed a mere 62 lives. Neither Milosevic nor the Serbian military leadership supported the Federal plan for a full scale invasion, defending Slovenia’s exit from Yugoslavia. It was not that he saw the disintegration of Yugoslavia as a positive, but that their independence was not a profound threat to the Serbs. Slovenia was (and remains) the most ethnically homogeneous former Yugoslav republic. It had very few Serbs, and would not present major territorial dispute issues for Yugoslavia moving forward.
Croatian independence was an entirely different matter. Before Operation Storm, which ethnically cleansed the region, Krajina had an estimated 430,000 Serbs. Moreover, an independent Croatia would fight with the slowly collapsing Yugoslav state for control of Bosnia, which contained more than 1.3 million Serbs. No neat borders could be drawn, and neither territory was prepared to allow their Serb minority to remain with Yugoslavia. Given the all too recent history of World War II, the Serb minorities in each had profound reason to fear for their safety. This is made especially true by the fact that both the Bosniaks and the Croats quickly returned to their Nazi-era habits. As Djilas notes in the linked Croatian article, almost immediately after the democratic election of Croat leader Franjo Tudjman (an infamous Holocaust denier), the government restored to prominence of the pro-Nazi Ustashe regime and adopted its flag, currency, and anthem. Further, under his direction, Croatia dropped the official use of the Cyrillic script favored by the Serbs, fired many government-employed Serbs, and significantly reduced Serbian parliamentary representation.
Yet, as willing as the Croats were to threaten the Serbs, Milosevic provided little support to his ethnic kin in the rebel republics. The greatest evidence of this is in his handling of Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs were at war with Croats and Bosniaks for control of their shared homeland. Following the Bosnian Serb rejection of the Vance-Owen Plan, which would have involved the surrender of substantial territory to Herzog-Bosnia (Croatian Bosnia), Milosevic imposed a blockade on the Drina in 1993, cutting off the availability of weapons and other critical resources to the VRS (Bosnian Serb Army). It is worth noting here that NATO did not first bomb Serb territory until 1995, so there was no military pressure for Milosevic to betray his own. As to the Krajina Serbs in particular, Srdja Trifkovic notes in The Krajina Chronicle: A History of Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia, “In Serbia however, [the Republic of Serbian Krajina] was seen as an unwanted economic and burden by Milosevic. To his frustration, the Krajina Serb assembly continued to reject his demands to settle the conflict by accepting the principle of Croatian sovereignty (pgs 217-18).”
Categorically therefore, we can conclude that Milosevic was not a hardliner bent on creating a Greater Serbia. Both his actions and his rhetoric evidence as much. On those grounds alone, one should be prepared to disregard the Kuhner article. If not, his outright hypocrisy should do the trick. Whereas he trivially asserts that Operation Storm, which essentially led to an exodus of all Krajina Serbs not killed in the initial attack, as a proper rebuff against the Serbs, he laments supposedly similar actions taken by the Serbs. Action which he fails to fully explain, and which are not well grounded in history. And, while he faults the HDZ as “fundamentally treasonous” and hopes to see them replaced with “a new conservative party – one that will provide voters with a real patriotic-populist option,” he makes certain to describe Tomislav Nikolic and his Progressive Party (an offshoot of the Radical Party) as “odious,” and their popular support as troubling. More profoundly, he insists that Croatia cease its participation in the ICTY, but never indicates that other countries should do the same, implying that the Serbs should still bow before the court’s authority.
In truth, there is only one phrase in Kuhner’s article which the facts support. Namely, he is correct in describing the ICTY as “a kangaroo court.” Where he is once again in error is in insisting that it is subordinate to the whims of Serb nationalists, and has made a substantial effort to prosecute non-Serbs. The numbers tell a rather different story, as does the fact that Western forces that bombed the Serbs repeatedly (and allied themselves with the Croats, Bosniaks, and Kosovo Albanians) are not being held to account for violation of the same rules of warfare the Serbs are said to have ignored.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy these recent articles: