How Tudjman won the war

Misha Glenny

  • The Death of Yugoslavia by Allan Little and Laura Silber
    Penguin, 400 pp, £6.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 14 024904 4

Medals and mementoes from a successful Gulf War adorn almost every corridor and room at the headquarters of the US Army’s First Armoured Division in Bad Kreuznach, a charming little spa town in Rheinland Pfalz. Considered one of the toughest and most effective branches of the American military, the ‘Old Ironsides’ excelled itself in the deserts of Kuwait. Yet from Major-General William Nash, the commanding officer, down through the ranks, there is little appetite for testing this reputation in the mud and slush of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

President Clinton has not yet convinced the soldiers of the mission’s purpose. Indeed, President Clinton himself is probably rather unsure as to the mission’s purpose – aside from its comprising an essential plank of his re-election campaign. But General Nash and his soldiers would not dream of defying their Commander-in-Chief, and so controlled chaos governs the massive task of decamping from Bad Kreuznach to Tuzla. Nash will be running the American sector of Ifor (the Implementation Force), an area which includes one of the most fiercely contested territories of the Bosnian war, the Posavina Corridor. The General’s operational bible is the first part of the Military Annex of the Dayton Agreement. In contrast to the absurd mountain of contradictory UN Security Council Resolutions which made up the mandate of Unprofor, the United Nations Protection Force, the Military Annex is curt and precise. Ifor is to establish the ceasefire line between the Bosnian-Croatian Federation and the Serbian Republic (RS), the two entities into which Dayton divides Bosnia-Hercegovina. Ifor will then police a zone of separation which extends two kilometres either side of the ceasefire line. The Nato-led forces will be at liberty to respond to any incursion into the zone by either the Federation or the Bosnian Serb Army with as much force as it deems fit from land or air. Ifor will also supervise the exchange of territory from the Federation to the RS and vice versa. Finally, it will ensure the exchange of POWs, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from front lines and the demobilisation of troops now active in the three indigenous armies in Bosnia.

This is a very difficult goal, but achievable nonetheless. Yet the provisions of the Dayton Agreement as a whole go well beyond the aims of the Military Annex. General Nash is deeply concerned that the complex political mechanisms born of the Agreement will demand a de facto extension of Ifor’s mandate. The American contingent in Ifor is under a strict deadline. They must leave in 12 months, a sufficient period to ensure that Bosnia calms down in time for President Clinton to face up to his Republican opponent in November’s Presidential election. But if Dayton is to work, this means that an inordinate amount of political progress has to be made in Bosnia in a ludicrously short time. If the constitutional status of Bosnia-Hercegovina remains unclear at the end of Ifor’s mandate, then there is a good chance of the country sliding back into war when the Nato troops leave.

In aspiration, the Dayton Agreement is spectacular: what it has in mind is an entirely novel constitutional model in Europe. It includes a constitution whose human rights provisions go well beyond anything seen not just in the former Communist countries in Eastern Europe but in almost all West European countries as well. It allows an unprecedented degree of autonomy for the two national entities (which because of divisions between the Muslim and Croat communities inside the Federation amount to three entities), and yet retains the symbolism and some concrete attributes of a coherent unitary state.

The Constitution was drawn up by experts from the State Department. The political structure of the country is virtually identical to the model which contributed to the seizure of the Bosnian Republic in 1991, ensuring that war would break out in 1992. Leaving that awkward reality aside, the Constitution is for the most part a document which members of Charter 88 can only fantasise about. However, it leaves one issue open, as does the rest of the Dayton Agreement. So wide open, in fact, that it may swallow up all the remaining good intentions contained in the deal. Nowhere is it established who will be responsible for the security or armed forces of Bosnia-Hercegovina and its two entities – nowhere, that is, except in the second part of the Military Annex, entitled ‘Regional Stabilisation’. ‘This states explicitly that the two (a.k.a. three) entities will be able to maintain a defensive capability which the entities will either agree on with the help of international mediation or which, failing such an agreement, will be set at levels already specified in Dayton. Bosnia-Hercegovina (pre-war population 4.2 million) will have three constitutions, two national entities and two/three armies. And, of course, the most advanced guarantees of human rights in the whole of Europe. In constitutional terms, this is nothing if not innovative.

General Nash and his British and French counterparts are charged with creating a stable security climate to allow the civilian authorities, under the guidance of the EU mediator Carl Bildt, to establish the new constitutional order in Bosnia. A literal interpretation of Dayton means that refugees must be able to return to their homes whence they were driven. What happens if a Muslim family from Banja Luka requests the restoration of its property only to find that some Serbs driven out of the Croatian Krajina are now living there? Should the United Nations High Commission for Refugees insist that Croatia accept the Serbs into their old house, which is now inhabited by Croats who were expelled from Zenica by the Muslims? Would the UNHCR appeal to General Nash and his colleagues to ensure the safe return of the refugees (bearing in mind that Dayton does not specify the right of Croatian Serbs to return home)?

The Dayton Agreement is probably the only way out of the current mess. But the very novelty of this peace deal means Europe must remain extremely cautious about the possibility of it succeeding. How did our continent allow itself to sink into such a mire of pessimism and confusion?

The latest attempt at an answer to this question is offered by Allan Little and Laura Silber, whose book, The Death of Yugoslavia, is published as an accompaniment to the BBC TV series of the same name. Laura Silber of the Financial Times has the deepest understanding of the former Yugoslavia’s political culture of all English-speaking journalists who have covered this war. Allan Little was already regarded as one of the foremost BBC radio reporters before he produced dispatch after electrifying dispatch from Yugoslavia, notably from Bosnia-Hercegovina. In addition, the two had access to thousands of hours of interviews with the main protagonists of the war, conducted by the director and producers of the BBC films.

Parts of this book are of inestimable value to the student of this European tragedy. The text repeatedly grabs the fruits held out so tantalisingly by the television series. No other book yet published on the conflict has been so meticulously documented, with almost every fact or date checked time and again. As such it will become invaluable as the standard reference work on the internal development of the crisis since 1986. Little and Silber’s dissection of the conspiracy concocted by the leaderships of Slovenia and Serbia to throttle the Yugoslav Federation is a masterpiece of contemporary political writing. Serbia’s violent duplicity towards the Federation, a relatively honourable political construct which President Milosevic pretended to uphold but in reality sought to undermine, could not have succeeded without the connivance of Slovene particularism. The authors argue with unbreachable logic that the Slovene leadership was quite prepared to countenance the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in exchange for an easy departure from the Federation. Ljubljana does not, of course, bear the moral responsibility for what followed, but Little and Silber have proved beyond doubt that the Slovenes played a shabby and contemptible political game.

Some myths are laid to rest here. Most commentators consider it axiomatic that Milosevic’s conversion to nationalism as the decisive political instrument in the struggle for Yugoslavia occurred spontaneously on 24 April 1986. On this day, thousands of Kosovo Serbs fought a pitched battle with police in front of a Communist Party meeting attended by Milosevic, who seized the opportunity to denounce the action of the police. ‘No one should dare beat you!’ he promised the demonstrators. In fact, the whole performance was a carefully planned charade, designed to excite Serbian nationalist passion and intimidate the remaining nationalities.

Some tiny errors creep into the book but only one is of significance. The authors note that after the outbreak of fighting in Croatia ‘the Croats retaliated. In several cities there was a systematic campaign of terror as Croatia began to lose the war. One night in late September Croatian militia rounded up and killed 20 Serbs – a professor, judges in Gospic – loyal Serbs who had decided to stay in Croatia. There were also incidents in Zagreb, Sisak and Karlovac.’ In fact, 120 Serbs were killed that night in Gospic, including women and children, whose bodies were then slung onto the backs of trucks before being driven off to an unknown grave. Multiple killings of Serbs were recorded in many other towns in addition to the four mentioned, while by the Croatian authorities’ own admission, tens of thousands of Serbian houses in Croat-controlled areas were dynamited to ensure their occupants would never return. Countless Serbs were sacked from their jobs. This harassment began before the outbreak of war – not, as the authors state, after Croatia perceived it was losing the war. Little and Silber tend to portray Croatian nationalism as merely reactive, lacking intrinsic dynamism. The exodus of over 100,000 Croatian Serbs from urban areas in 1991 amounts to one of the largest single examples of ethnic cleansing during these wars, yet it is consistently ignored in studies of the conflict.

Little and Silber show that the Muslims are the principal victims of what is in essence a Serbo-Croat war, but the book appears to accept the premise that whereas Slovene and Croatian nationalism was built in part on genuine grievances, Serbian nationalism was an artifice and by implication somehow illegitimate. It is undeniable that Serbian control of heavy weaponry needed to be countered by support for the other national movements seeking greater autonomy; but the uncritical backing offered by the bulk of the intelligentsia of Western Europe and the US for a Wilsonian concept of self-determination has been disastrous.

Little and Silber are justly more sympathetic in their assessment of the 1993 Vance-Owen peace plan than most British commentators. Many British and American journalists, politicians and historians were withering in their criticism of Lord Owen at the time, denouncing him as an appeaser of Greater Serbian interests. Little and Silber spell out what was obvious then and what no deal of ranting can cover up: the Vance-Owen plan denied the central war aims of the Bosnian Serbs. As Owen has detailed in his latest book, Balkan Odyssey,[*] it was an unwitting (yet still unholy) alliance between a brainless Presidential team in the US and the Bosnian Serb President, Radovan Karadzic, that killed off the plan, which was clearly more advantageous to the Muslims than Dayton. As the joke goes: what is the difference between Vance-Owen and Dayton? Answer: nothing except the mass graves. I can think of no greater testimony to David Owen’s efforts as a mediator than that he is denounced with equal vigour by Norman Stone and Nora Beloff, resolute supporters of Croat and Serb interests respectively.

A simple calculation of population size and relative military strength of the national forces inside Yugoslavia underpins the analysis in The Death of Yugoslavia. The Serb leadership assumed with overweening arrogance that its superiority in numbers and force would ensure victory in this conflict. Milosevic and his rotating gallery of henchmen were wrong because they made one crass miscalculation – they completely ignored the international factor. In this respect, the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, has proved himself by far the most skilful politician in the former Yugoslavia. Tudjman understood at the outset that if war were to break out it would quickly attract the competing interests of more powerful countries, within and without Europe. He realised that the only way to compensate for Serbia’s numerical and military superiority was to gain the unflinching support of a strong international ally. Germany was willing to fill this role.

In 1990 and 1991, Milosevic was given over to a cocky isolationism. His only attempt to curry favour abroad was to link up with the hardliners of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During the coup of August 1991, indeed, he immediately gave his support to the putschists, guaranteeing inter alia the undying hatred of Boris Yeltsin. Germany’s persistent defence of Croatia internationally ensured that sanctions were never imposed on the country even when it was obviously complicit in the violation of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Dayton Agreement was prefaced by active American and tacit German support for the assault on the Croatian Krajina. This was the first time in the conflict that international powers actually approved of an act of cleansing. Until then all had been resolute in their denunciation of such atrocities, whomever they were being committed by. But the Americans explained that the growth of Croatian military power created a necessary counterbalance to Serbian might, thereby paving the way for the Dayton Agreement – which screws the Muslims and the Serbs but as part of an overall settlement rewards Croatia. A detailed study of the international response to the Yugoslav crisis, one which goes beyond the fatuous critique of the UN so beloved of many journalists, is desperately needed.

It is not coincidental that the Constitution of Bosnia-Hercegovina was written by the State Department. Ever since modern nationalism made its first tentative appearance during the First Serbian Uprising in 1804 and the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, political settlements in the Balkans have been dictated by the Great Powers. The Dayton Agreement is no different. Croatia wins because Tudjman understood this. The Serbs lose because Milosevic realised too late. And the Muslims have been eviscerated because they have nothing to offer the outside world except, perhaps, to keep its guilty conscience warm. We should all know, however, that guilty consciences do not make policy.

[*] Gollancz, 394 pp., £20, 6 November, 0 575 06251 7.