Here We Go Again

Misha Glenny on the coming Balkan war

The glistening heads of surface-to-surface missile systems are peeping out from behind their covers after three years of virtually uninterrupted hibernation. Their svelte nozzles are being tickled again by the Croatian/Krajina-Serb/ex-Yugoslav sun, whose dancing rays they would mask in an acrid haze. Their merry operators in smart khaki jackets wave and smile. Rhetoric is sharpening. Muscles are being flexed. Guns are being cleaned. Yes, that point in the historical cycle has come round again – a little earlier than expected. The Croats and Serbs are preparing to go to war. If it happens this time, however, the results will be catastrophic.

On 31 March the mandate of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) comes to an end in the Republic of Croatia. In fact, the mandate runs out every six months, but until now it has always been reluctantly renewed by the Croatian Government. In January, however, the Croatian Prime Minister, Nikica Valentic, casually let slip during an otherwise innocuous visit to China that his President, the supremely sagacious military historian Franjo Tudjman, had decided to give Unprofor its marching orders. Anton Tus and Karol Gorinsek, two of Croatia’s most experienced generals (both of whom have been pensioned off), have warned recently that an Unprofor withdrawal would be suicidal for Croatia. Wisely ignoring this cavalier advice, the perspicacious President decided to show the world just how tough and resolute the civilian population of all Croatia’s major cities can be when faced with the prospect of a sustained attack by those gleaming Krajina missiles. After all, what is another Dresden or two when your country is stiffened by the backbone of a thousand years of national mythology?

The slaughter witnessed inside the former Yugoslavia has been the product of a limited Serbo-Croat war. For the past three and a half years the two most numerous nations of the extinct federation have been attempting to define the borders of their new nation-states by force. The Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina, squeezed between the Serbs and the Croats in the most vital strategic territory of the northern Balkans, have been the main victims of this war. The decision of the Croatian Government not to renew the UN mandate threatens a conflict much bigger than anything seen so far – a war between the Serbs and the Croats in which the heaving mass of weaponry deployed in the former Yugoslavia will come into play.

The war between Croatia and its Serb minority backed by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the peripheral areas known as the Krajina was frozen with the implementation of the so-called Vance Plan in January 1991. Under this arrangement, 14,000 UN troops were stationed in the Krajina. Later they were moved into a front-line zone from which the Krajina and Croatian armies agreed to withdraw. It is here, in between some of the most committed warriors in the world, that the UN soldiers now watch the uneasy truce. The Vance Plan also contained provisions for a gradual negotiated settlement to the Croatian war. Economic agreements re-establishing communications and road and rail links were to be followed by the return of some 160,000 Croat refugees to their homes in the Krajina. Eventually, a deal restoring Croatian sovereignty was envisaged. The war in Bosnia, however, and the intransigence of both Serbs and Croats in Croatia has ensured that progress on the political aspects of the Vance Plan has been slow – very slow.

Nonetheless, over the past six months real advances have been made in the economic sphere. The Krajina Serbs have opened Croatia’s main motorway to Croat drivers at the point where the road runs through Serb-held territory. A crucial pipeline taking oil from Croatia’s Adriatic coast to Central Europe has started working again. Things were beginning to look unusually hopeful. Which, as experience has taught us in Yugoslavia, is generally the time when you start to think about running for cover. The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia are born of one of the most complex constitutional messes to visit Europe, even by this continent’s Byzantine standards. With the Yugoslav federation dissolved in violence, optimism has necessarily been overshadowed by extreme scepticism. Despite the apparent progress which the economic agreements suggested, Franjo Tudjman came under ever increasing pressure from the opposition in Croatia and from his own party, the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), to dispense with the UN’s peace-keeping services. The blue helmets, the argument ran, were cementing the Cyprusisation of the Krajina. The Croats feared the UN presence would guarantee the status quo while the stated aim of the Vance Plan, the integration of the Krajina into Croatia, would be quietly dispatched to never-never land.

Croatian concerns are understandable. Serb control of the Krajina means that the country is split in two, preventing Croatia from exploiting its most important foreign currency earner, the Dalmatian coast. The country’s economy still groans under the weight of nearly half a million refugees. Yet the recent success of the economic agreements between Knin (the self-proclaimed capital of the Krajina Serbs) and Zagreb disproves the claim that Croatia is analogous to Cyprus. After a relatively short interval, the Serbs of Knin were talking to Zagreb and a degree of trust was established. However frustrating the UN’s presence has been for the Croats, it is surely insane to discard this gentle rapprochement in exchange for another strong dose of carnage.

President Tudjman has assured the world that the withdrawal will not mean war. I think his bold claim deserves a little scrutiny. At the moment, along the entire front line of over a thousand kilometres from Drnis in the south-west of Croatia to Vukovar in the east, Serb and Croat forces are separated by between one and six kilometres. That space is patrolled and controlled by Unprofor, who liaise with groups of Croat and Krajina Serb policemen. When the good blue-helmeted soldiers leave, what are the troops of the Croatian Army and the Krajina Serbs going to do? This territory includes a myriad strategic points: observation posts, rivers, road junctions, high ground – the type of terrain that generals have wet dreams about. Already the daily average of ceasefire violations on this front line has almost tripled since the Tudjman announcement to about 160.

For Unprofor officers it is a matter not of if but of when a series of blazing firefights will erupt. Will the good warriors of Croatia and the Krajina, whose disregard for the Geneva Convention is legendary, wait politely until the blue helmets are out of harm’s way? Or will the rifles crack before the peace-keepers start packing their bags, leaving them in the midst of a lethal hailstorm? If the latter, then this will be a Nato-assisted pull-out. God may know what that means, but Nato planners are clueless and frightened.

To back his claim that the UN pull-out does not mean war, President Tudjman claims that Serbia and the Yugoslav Army are too weary and battered to fight on behalf of their Krajina brethren, who have caused Belgrade endless headaches already. Three problems with this one. First, while it is true that the Croatian Army has developed into a much more effective fighting force over the past three years, the Krajina Serbs are no pushover. Secondly, the Krajina Serbs will not be calling on the Yugoslav Army first of all but on the Bosnian Serb Army. The Croatian decision to end the UN mandate provoked a ferocious attack on the Bosnian Government enclave of Bihac by the Krajina Serbs, who have moved across the international border into Bosnia-Hercegovina. Together with Bosnian Serb forces they are pummelling the Bosnian 5th Army Corps into the ground. This is because the Krajina Serbs cannot afford to prepare for war with the Croats while they have a 70-kilometre frontline with Bosnian Government forces at their back. If Bihac falls or is neutralised, the Croatian Serbs will receive supplies and military support from the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA). Lest we forget, General Ratko Mladic, the notorious commander of the BSA, was formerly stationed in Knin, capital of the Croatian Serbs – a hop, skip and a jump away from Bosnian Serb territory once Bihac has been safely mangled. Thirdly, far from sounding sheepish and weary, Belgrade has issued a string of warnings indicating that if the Croatian Army were to register military successes against the Krajina Serbs, it would be forced to come to the Serbs’ aid. Belgrade was a signatory to the Vance Plan, which brought the UN into the Krajina in the first place. As far as President Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav Army are concerned, the Croatian decision to end the mandate is a breach of contract. As an afterthought, one might ask President Tudjman why, if war is not on the agenda, he has been deploying units of the Croatian Army in a horseshoe formation around Knin (including an illegal deployment inside Bosnia-Hercegovina), a manoeuvre which looks suspiciously like the preparation for a big offensive?

War, destruction, more wanton killings by both sides, more refugees, the end of the Bosnian peace process, the outbreak of a merciless three-way conflict between the peoples of the northern Balkans. This is what the Croatian decision means. Rumours to the effect that the UN pull-out is part of a Machiavellian strategy concocted by Tudjman and Milosevic, intended to result in a settlement after a limited, controlled war in the Krajina, can be discounted as fanciful hog wash.

So once again domestic political concerns (in this case Tudjman’s need to protect his arse inside the HDZ) have dictated the course of the war. This tactic has an especially rich history in the Yugoslav conflict. The master puppeteer, Slobodan Milosevic, started the practice as early as 1987 when he exploited a nationalist issue, the position of the Serbs and Montenegrins in Albanian-dominated Kosovo, in order to crush his political rivals in Belgrade. John Major’s Government chipped in with a contribution much later on. After resolutely opposing the premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia on the grounds that this would provoke the outbreak of war in Bosnia, the Major Government capitulated a day before the deadline was up. Why? Because Kohl offered Major an opt-out on the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty if Britain recognised the two republics. After all, what matters the fate of four million people inhabiting a far away country of which we know fuck all, if we can save a few bob for our ailing small businesses? Germany insisted on the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in early 1992 because the European Community was committed to the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, both of which affirm the right of self-determination. Very laudable. So why did not Germany et al recognise Macedonia? Because the Greeks warned that they would destroy Germany’s beloved common foreign policy if Bonn granted the right of self-determination (based of course on the immutable principles mentioned above) to Macedonia.

Almost every party, within and without the Balkans, has indulged in selling out the Balkans for short-term domestic gratification. Tudjman’s UN decision may have a peculiarly destructive impact, but in the morality stakes he enjoys the company of many thoroughbred stablemates from Milosevic through Hans Dietrich Genscher and on to President Clinton and Senator Dole.

Can anything be done before the cauldron bubbles over in April and May? For once, the main international players (Germany, France, Britain, Russia, the US and the UN) are trying to co-ordinate their game. They have created a plan which could theoretically work: Milosevic recognises Croatia and Bosnia. Tudjman agrees to Unprofor staying. Z4 (the so-called mini contact-group plan for the Krajina) becomes the basis for a negotiated settlement between Knin and Zagreb, ensuring autonomy for the Serbs within a Croat state. UN sanctions on the rump Yugoslavia are lifted. This means everybody having to give things up but also being offered face-saving compensation.

Nice idea this one but there are two problems. First: it is a diplomatic labyrinth – if you fail to find the way out on the first attempt, there are minotaurs waiting at the end of each cul-de-sac. One wrong turn and you are stuck in the maze for a long, bloody time. Secondly, the two cornerstones of the policy have already disintegrated into dust. With the backing of the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, President Milosevic has said that recognition is out of the question before Knin and Zagreb regulate their relations. At the same time, in Zagreb, Tudjman is remaining firm – Unprofor must go. Now there is one last chance. The Krajina Serbs have said they will accept a ‘cosmetic’ change to the Unprofor mandate. If the outside world can persuade Tudjman to agree to the same, Unprofor troops may just be allowed to stay where they are. Both sides are now taking this game right up to the wire.

This is another fine mess we have got ourselves into in the Balkans. But there is more. In the south of the former Yugoslavia, there is an obscure little country known throughout the world by the title, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). While the international community has been drowning in the constitutional quagmires of Bosnia and Croatia, the two main peoples of FYROM, the Slav Macedonians and the Albanians, have been staging a revival of the political stagnation first performed by the Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia in 1991.

In theory, FYROM is as weak a state as Bosnia-Hercegovina was when it was first born. Like Bosnia, it is also a land-locked state surrounded by neighbours whose attitude towards it veers from contempt to outright hostility. And finally, wouldn’t you know, it occupies the key strategic territory in the southern Balkans. The state which controls Bosnia dominates access to the Adriatic. The state (or states) which engulf FYROM determine whether the main communications route in the southern Balkans runs from north to south (from Belgrade in Serbia to Thessaloniki in Greece) or from east to west (from Durres in Albania to Istanbul). As the only territory where the Balkan mountains can be traversed north/south and east/west, FYROM is a juicy fruit indeed. If the northern Balkans goes up in flames, as looks increasingly likely, the pressure on FYROM, where tension between Albanians and Macedonians rises by the day, will increase still further. The bill for the dreadful wars of Yugoslav succession rises exponentially as European, Russian and American diplomacy persists with its catalogue of failures.