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.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 18 No. 3 · 8 February 1996
It seems principled of Misha Glenny (LRB, 4 January) to heap praise on The Death of Yugoslavia by Allan Little and Laura Silber, for their book’s argument runs strongly counter to Glenny’s own views of the war.
Silber and Little state their ‘single core thesis’ at the outset: ‘under Milosevic’s stewardship, the Serbs were, from the beginning of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, the key secessionists.’ Glenny, by contrast, has often underlined Croatia’s responsibility, and Bosnia’s too, for what has happened. He recently told a Croatian paper, Arkzin, that if Croatia had yielded to the local Serb leaders’ initial demand for cultural rights, there would have been no war at all. Surely this is naive: without denying any of the Croatian regime’s vindictive chauvinism or likely ambitions, we may doubt that the Serb question in Croatia could have been resolved locally, despite Serbia’s interest in raising national tensions in Croatia, and its incomparable resources for achieving this, not least the Yugoslav People’s Army.
I have long supposed that Glenny translates a disgust at Croatian nationalism into an exaggerated assessment of Croatia’s part in the final crisis and war. Hence the gem of his review is its judgment of Croatia’s President Tudjman. When Tudjman announced a year ago that Croatia would refuse a further extension of the UN peacekeeping mandate, Glenny’s response was to dismiss the decision as brinkmanship (LRB, 9 March 1995). Now it turns out Tudjman has been uniquely far-sighted, ‘by far the most skilful politician in the former Yugoslavia’. Milosevic, on the other hand, has failed because he ‘completely ignored the international factor’, and ‘realised too late’ that the Great Powers would dictate a settlement.
This perverse analysis is disproved by Milosevic’s adroit handling of international mediation since 1991. As for Tudjman, he has been efficient enough, in his repugnant way, but until quite recently he seemed to have little going for him except international recognition of Croatia and its borders. Paradoxically, his two best assets were the much maligned Unprofor, which stabilised the country while giving the Great Powers a bad conscience, and Serb intransigence in Croatia and Bosnia, which blocked any solution acceptable to other parties. Tudjman’s boldness a year ago turned these burdens into the levers of a solution. Otherwise, he has been outstanding only for devotion to a primitive and vicious programme of national homogenisation (exercised against Serbs and Muslims, though also against Croats who dissent or live in the wrong part of Bosnia). He hung on long enough to benefit greatly from the US peace initiative fronted by Richard Holbrooke, itself born of frustration at local Serb leaders’ rejection of peace plans which were pro-Serb anyway. Who except Tudjman could have been used to beat the Bosnian Serbs to the point that they would accept the tabled deal? The Bosnian Government was never up to the task. Against the grain of earlier experience, in 1995 Tudjman turned out to be in the right place at the right time. And Croatian Serbs paid the price.
Glenny’s about-turn on Tudjman is predicated on a fundamental error. Like so many Western policy-makers (including Holbrooke himself), Glenny supposes Milosevic really was motivated by an agenda of pan-Serb national interests, involving sturdy defence of Serbs outside Serbia or even a scheme of unification. Now this agenda has been trashed in Croatia and damaged in Bosnia. So Glenny describes Milosevic as having gone ‘wrong’ and Tudjman as having superior gifts.
‘The Serbs lose,’ says Glenny, but which Serbs? Dayton confirmed near-victory in Bosnia for both Serb and Croat national agendas. Whether the margins of defeat will prove wide enough to subvert the worst intentions on all sides will probably become clear this year. Meanwhile the apartheid principle wins; the self-styled Republika Srpska, a polity founded on genocide, is recognised as ruler of half the land; and Glenny’s commotion over Serb loss is misplaced, not to say scandalous.
The record shows that Milosevic was always too realistic to believe a pan-Serb agenda, was ready to betray it from early on, indeed expected to have to do so as pressure mounted, but could hardly run that risk unless ‘forced’. As early as August 1992, the London Conference indicated that he need fear no hostile intervention in Bosnia. The Vance-Owen Plan confirmed this. Milosevic backed the plan and its successors, distancing himself from the Bosnian Serb mafia, who were forever drunk on the early gains which he had bestowed.
The West kept thinking confrontation with Milosevic was still at issue when secret collaboration was the name of the game. We were so loath to give him a solid pretext for treachery that in August 1994, he showed the way and broke with the mafia. We played our part, with a strategy of Nato in the sky plus local forces on the ground that might have worked in 1992 in service of a far better settlement. Fascinated as he is by cardboard quarry – Clinton’s ‘brainless’ team, ‘fatuous’ critiques of the UN, Tudjman’s foresight – Glenny ignores this abyss of deceit. It is clear that Milosevic never urged a rational strategy on Serbs outside Serbia, and consistently opposed the unification of ‘Serb lands’ across state borders. Beset by political crisis, he expediently promoted a war; when he finally gets us to stop it, four years later, on his terms, the world is grateful and his domestic opposition is in shreds. Following his masterful performance at Dayton, and his appearance in Paris at Clinton’s side, how many politicians must wish they could be as ‘crass’ as Milosevic!