Are they really all the same?

Erich Rathfelder

According to the international press "Serbs", "Croats" and "Moslems" are waging "civil war" in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This interpretation of the Balkan war is also the phrasing adopted in the "peace negotiations" and by the United Nations "peace keeping forces". But is the assumption correct? Is it not perhaps cause for the failure of both ventures? As will be seen from the following analysis, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is in fact not a "civil war".
How did the war in Yugoslavia come about? Since the death of Tito, founder of communist Yugoslavia, in 1980, the six Yugoslavian republics had been drifting apart. The communist leadership in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia (together with the autonomous regions of Voyvodina and Kosovo), Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were beginning more and more to put the interests of their own republics before those of the country as a whole. By the end of the 1980s some of the national differences could no longer be reconciled. In particular, it was the antagonism between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, which had erupted again shortly after Tito´s death in 1980 and led to both local resistance by the Albanian majority and harsh repression by Serbian government forces, that plunged Yugoslavia´s constitutional system into crisis. As early as 1988 the Serbian communist leadership started a campaign against the statutes granting autonomy to the mixed ethnic region of Voyvodina (Serbs, Magyars, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks etc.) and to Kosovo (90% Al-banians, the remainder Serbs and Roma). In 1988/89 the autonomous status of both regions was abolished and Serbian domination established by force.
In Slovenia and Croatia these events led to great mistrust of the Serbian leadership (headed since 1987 by Slobodan Milosevic, first as party leader and subsequently as president) and the Yugoslav army generals who, although drawn from all the Yugoslav nations, had aided and abetted the achievment of Serbian aims in Kosovo by force. The Yugoslavian Prime Minister, Ante Markovic, did indeed undertake a desperate attempt to open up a new way into the future for the country as a whole by means of democratization and economic reform in 1988/89 but was thwarted by the opposition of Milosevic to the holding of democratic elections throughout Yugoslavia. It is likely that such elections would have curtailed both Serbian influence in the state and that of the communists in Serbia itself. On 14th January 1990 the Slovenian delegates left the extraordinary congress of the "Communist Federation" and demanded a multi-party system. This was followed by the announcement of elections in Slovenia and Croatia for the coming April.
As early on as the foundation of the "Kingdom of Slovenes, Serbs and Croats" after the First World War the northern nations had demanded a federal constitution.
Serbian policy, on the other hand, had always favoured a centralized republic under Serb domination. In the late nineteen-eighties these demands dating from the twenties and thirties were revived. The presidents of Slovenia and Croatia, Kucan and Tudjman, proposed turning Yugoslavia into a federation with wide powers for the individual republics. Milosevic, however, clung to the model of a centralized state. The Yugoslavian army generals too ­ partly from self-interest and de-spite constitutional guarantees permitting any republic to leave the federation at will ­ wanted to preserve the integrity of the overall state and accordingly gave Milosevic military support.
Serbia´s élite had already formulated the intellectual basis for the Serb nationalist movement in a document drafted by the Academy of Science in 1986. This posed the question of what would happen to the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia if the centralist model could not be implemented and Yugoslavia would split up. Their answer was that borders would have to be changed and a bigger Serbia created. Soon after publication of parts of the memorandum Serbian nationalists began to fuel the anxieties of Serbs in North Bosnia and Croatia.
During the Second World War the Serbs of this region had been persecuted and subjected to atrocities by the Croatian Ustasha. By 1989 diffamation of the Croats´ strivings for an independent state as a plot to erect a new Ustasha dictatorship had succeeded in bringing about the military organization of the region´s Serbs. In an unprecedented campaign culminating in a mass rally in 1989 on the field of Serbia´s historic battle against the Turks (now in Kosovo) Serbian public opinion was mobilized for nationlist goals and prepared for war. Communist Slobodan Milosevic had established himself as leader of the nationalist move-ment and saved the "system".
The Yugoslavian army responded to the declaration of independence by the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia on the night of 25/26 June 1991 with a military operation against Slovenia. This put the Yugoslavian army which included Croats, Slovenes, Albanians and Muslims to a severe test. Even many Serb nationalists were sceptical about war with Slovenia where only a few Serbs lived. In Croatia, on the other hand, the Yugoslavian army - reduced in size by the desertion of many Croats, Slovenes and Albanians - and the Serbian partisans worked together in complete accord. A large part of Croatia, particularly but not exclusively the so-called "Serbian areas", was occupied in the course of the summer and autumn of 1991. Hundreds of villages and towns (Vukovar, Dubrovnik) were destroyed or shelled. As late as spring 1994 the coastal towns of Zadar and Sibenik and the surrounding areas were still coming under artillery fire. More than 400,000 Croats were driven from their home and have not yet been allowed to return. The war of Serbia against Croatia began already before Germany diplomatically recognized Croatia.
Up until autumn 1991 the European Community had staked on the preservation of a united Yugoslavia. Germany in particular supported Prime Minister Markovic and had stabilized the Yugoslavian dinar by linking it to the German mark in 1989. Only a few days prior to the Croatian and Slovenian declarations of independence the E.C. (and accordingly Germany too) granted Yugoslavia loans worth billions. The attack on Slovenia and Croatia by the military made this position increasingly untenable. The expulsion of the Croatian population made it clear that the Serb nationalists were aiming at the establishment of a Greater Serbia that was to swallow large slices of Croatia, including the Dalmatian coastline, rather than the "protection" of Serb minorities. Not least from fear of new waves of refugees, Austria and later Germany and Italy demanded diplomatic recognition for Croatia and Slovenia from August onwards.
In the face of this international resistance to his policies Milesovic proposed in November 1991 that U.N. troops be stationed in Croatia. On 3rd January 1992 the Vance plan was signed.
The war - with some exceptions - was frozen at the demarcation lines. In the winter of 1991/92 the Yugoslavian army began to withdraw from their positions in Croatian cities and retreat behind the frontline or to Bosnia-Herzegovina. After the Croatian parliament had passed laws guaranteeing autonomy and minority rights for the Croatian Serbs on 16th December 1991 the German Sekretary of Foreign affairs, Genscher, declared his readiness to commence diplomatic relations from 15th January 1992.
The majority of the E.C. member states followed his lead. The U.S.A. did not. (The positive alternative would have been withdrawing diplomatic recognition from Yugoslavia and granting it to the individual republics, as happened in the case of the successor states to the U.S.S.R. which were all officially recognized in late 1991.)
The assertion that the war in Croatia was triggered off or at least aggravated by the diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Slovenia is, in view of the facts, untenable. The fact of the matter is that resistance by the people of Croatia - the Croatian army was at that time still a people´s militia - together with the serious discussions taking place on diplomatic recognition for Croatia halted the Serbian advance and forced the Yugoslavian army to retreat. The negotiations conducted by U.N. envoy Cyrus Vance and the stationing of U.N. troops in the occupied zones of Croatia (just about 30% of the total surface area) in spring 1992 established the status quo. In addition to regions with a clear Serbian majority these zones include areas with a Serbian minority and, as in the case of Baranja, territories yielding strategically important natural resources (oil).
The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a civil war either. The political leaders of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina had attempted to act as mediators at the beginning of the Serb-Croat war. Remaining part of Yugoslavia meant that the Bosnian Muslims and Croats (44% and 18% of the population respectively) both had to help foot the bill for the war and to fight in the Yugoslavian army against Croatia; thus more and more voices began to be raised in favour of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, a large proportion of Bosnian Serbs (around 33% of the total population) and their political leaders supported Serbia´s attempts at empire-building. The Yugoslavian army troops pulled back from Croatia were moved to Bosnia. In the face of this concentration of military force it was difficult for the Bosnians to insist on their own political position. Bosnia´s government counted on the peace movement and the international community. Their expectations of solidarity from abroad were disappointed. In Germany, too, commitment was low and only a few activists found their way to Sarajevo in company with members of peace initiatives from other European countries in autumn 1991. The danger was simply not perceived. Demands were made for the Yugoslavian army to quit Bosnia. And the international institutions kept back.
By then it was already clear to everyone that a war in Bosnia-Herzegovina would be even more destructive than the one in Croatia. Nevertheless, when the independence of Slovenia and Croatia could no longer be put into reverse and it became plain that the role reserved for Bosnia in what remained of Yugoslavia was anything but that of an equal partner, parliament demanded independence on 14th October 1991.
In March 1992 the Bosnian government held a referendum. About 70% of the population voted for independence with the majority of the Bosnian Serbs voting against. The Serbs generally rated the referendum as a breach of the "trinational" principle of the Bosnian state, it having been agreed that fundamental decisions could only be made with the consent of the representatives of all three national groups. The referendum was accordingly not suitable to reduce tensions. Whether or not there was any alternative is open to doubt, as the Serb nationalists led by Radovan Karadzic had already proclaimed partition of the country on an ethnic basis even before the vote was taken. And the Serb nationalists had been armed since the end of 1989.
Looking back, the debate regarding breaches of the constitution by Bosnians and Croats has every appearance of a decoy manoeuvre to avert attention from the desire of the Serb nationalists to unite the Serb-controlled regions of Bosnia - and not only them - with Serbia. Tensions grew, especially as armed Serb extremists now openly patrolled the areas with Serb majorities.
Like the vast majority of the population at that time, the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, was still hoping that open war could be avoided. The Bosnian government refused to yield to demands by the population to create their own armed units. And the Muslim politicians also hoped that Bosnian Muslims´ clear decision in favour of the Croats would deflect Croatian intentions to divide up Bosnia with the Serbs. As early as spring 1991 the presidents of Croatia and Serbia, Tujdman and Milosevic, had met in Karadjordjevo and it was rumoured that they had reached agreement on the partition of Bosnia. That this took no account of the interests of the Bosnian Muslims was something they felt justified in assuming.
In spring 1992 the population of Bosnia began to feel the danger they were in. In the days preceding diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the European Community and the U.S.A. on 6th and 7th April 1992 there were large scale anti-war demonstrations in Sarajevo and most other Bosnian cities. Even small villages had their meetings urging peace.
It seemed inconceivable that the world community could remain indifferent to the attack on Sarajevo by Serb militia and units of the Yugoslavian army.
When the first shocking reports came in from Bjeljina and Foca, Banja Luka, Prijedor and Kosarac, when Sarajevo collapsed under a hail of bombs, public indignation throughout the world was indeed great. But it was clear even then that some European powers were averse to direct military intervention in the "conflict". France´s President Mitterand did visit Sarajevo in June 1992 but rejected the idea of direct military intervention to protect the victims of the aggression. However, he promised humanitarian aid for the besieged population. The UN troops were reinforced and ordered to protect the aid convoys. Dozens of aid organizations responded, transporting tens of thousands of tons of food to the emergency areas created by the war. Nevertheless, the international institutions kept back from taking sides in the war regardless of the fact that the Bosnian people had nothing but a few militiamen to pit against the extremely well-equipped Serb military machine.
The result of this unequal battle at the beginning of the war is well known. 70% of the country was occupied by Serb forces. Systematically and often with unimaginable cruelty more than 1.5 million non-Serbs were expelled from these areas, concentration camps were set up (Bjeljina, Prijedor, Omarska, Manjaca etc.), tens of thousands of women were raped and many of them murdered, more than 200.000 people died. And the survivors lost their worldly goods and their traditional home. This so-called "ethnic cleansing" was intended to eradicate the entire culture of the "others". More than 870 mosques and several dozen Catholic churches were destroyed. Where once irreplacable 15th century monuments stood there are now parking lots. Some areas have been entirely depopulated, the villages and cities razed to the ground.
From then on everything was decided by force of arms. After Milosevic had pensioned off the leaders of the Yugoslavian army it became a purely Serb domain. The units stationed in Bosnia were mostly absorbed together with their weapons and equipment in the Bosnian Serb army, which had also been reinforced by thousands of Serb partisans and volunteers from Russia, Rumania and the Ukraine. The political goal of the military offensive was clear: conquer territory, expel non-Serbs and annex the territory to Serbia. The right of Bosnia´s Muslims to exist had been disputed by radical right-wing Serbs even before the war. For these people the extermination of the Muslim population of Bosnia remains one of the objectives of the war to this day.
The Bosnian Serb extremists were not operating in a vacuum. They received logistic, financial and political support from Belgrade. It is striking that there were scarcely any skirmishes between the Croatian H.V.O. and Serb forces after the first few months of the war in 1992. Unlike the Bosnian government the Croatian leadership in West Herzegovina had made systematic preparations for the war. The H.V.O. troops had already been mustered and armed before April 1992. In the battle for Mostar in June 1992 the Croat and Muslim militia achieved the first successes against the Serbs. A counter-offensive in East Herzegovina was nevertheless prevented by Zagreb: a clear sign that Tudjman intended to keep to his agreement with Milosevic on the division of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. A further sign was the elimination of the H.O.S. militia, the military arm of the extreme right-wing "Party of Justice". However, in Central Bosnia this ideological group played no very significant part. Many Muslims joined this militia because H.O.S. clearly advocated a coalition between Croats and Muslims.
When the leaders of H.O.S. were murdered in September 1992 the H.V.O. was the only armed Croatian power left in Bosnia. As might have been expected, October 1992 saw the first tensions and incidents between the Bosnian militias which ended in open war by April 1993.
What remained of Bosnia was now completely cut off from the outside world. The Bosnian army, as yet in the process of building up to strength, now had to take on both the Croatian and the Serb armies. In the winter of 1993/94 starvation was used as a weapon. Aid convoys to Bosnia were obstructed and delayed by the H.V.O. and the Serbs.
The aim was to break the determination of the remaining Bosnians by a winter of famine. Moreover, in the summer of 1993, the Croatian extremists established concentration camps near Mostar (Heliodrom, Gabela, Dretelj). They also drove the Moslem population out of the areas under their control round Capiljina and Stolac. Mostar was razed to the ground and the Moslem population expelled to East Mostar, which was also under attack. The Mostar bridge was destroyed.
It is one of the wonders of this war that all of these offensives still did not break the resistance of the remaining population.
International military experts could scarcely believe that it was possible to defeat the Croatian H.V.O. in battle and to preserve the line of defence against the Serbo-Bosnian army, even though the territories of Srebenica and Gorazde were lost in East Bosnia. To all of this came the weapon embargo against the Bosnian army. Sarajevo became the symbol of resistance for the whole population.
Thus the Bosnian army became the most powerful guarantee for the survival of the population in the rest of Bosnia, as international powers could not bring themselves to protect these people through military action. Of course they maintained the weapon embargo against defending forces and the victims of the aggression. And the representatives of the E.G. and the U.N.O., Owen and Vance, later Owen and Stoltenberg, tried to present their plan for separation as a solution to the national problems. Only the greed of the Serbian nationalists prevented this plan from becoming reality. Because the Vance-Owen plan would have given the West-Herzegovian Croats control over large areas of central Bos-nia. The H.V.O. offensive in Spring 1993 in Central Bosnia was actually justified by the statement "We are only carrying out the Vance-Owen plan." The Bosnian government voiced the suspicion that the plan had encouraged the Croats to attack, but under internatio-nal pressures they had to sign the agreement.
Tension and political conflicts built up in international committees. Worst of all, the Americans criticised British and French politicians for their friendliness towards the Serbs: the ultimate result was the Sarajevo ultimatum. N.A.T.O. threatened with aerial attacks if the Serbs would not withdraw their heavy artillery behind a circle around Sarajevo of 40 km diameter. The Serbo-Bosnian leaders succumbed to the pressure, but enforced the occupation of the Sarajevo suburb of Grabvica by Russian U.N. troops. Supported by Germany, the U.S.A. compelled the Croatian government to stop this war within a war and to enter into a new coalition with the Bosnian government. Because of the military defeats of the H.V.O. which had been supported during the whole war within a war by regular Croatian troops, Tudjman was forced to submit. In addition, his agreement with Milosevic on Bosnian matters had no position effect on the Croatian territory occupied by Serbs. This was still one third of Croatia.
On this basis of a new federation between the West-Herzegovian government (Herzeg Bosna) and that of Bosnia a new agreement was drawn up for a division of Bosnia-Herzogovnia. With this, the contact group formed in Spring of 1994 (U.S.A., Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany) took Bosnian politics in hand. However the weaknesses of this plan are obvious: it makes no provision for the return of those driven out of their own territories, nor for the punishment of war criminals, as was promised by the Vance-Owen plan. In principle the results of the war were recognized, although Serbian nationals had to surrender territory. The plan has taken over the basic mistake which rests on the theory of the whole civil war. The belligerent parties are not ethnic groups, but Serbian and Croatian political interests.
The very fact that the war within a war was ended by Tudjman shows that the war comes from outside. Serbia must also be forced to retreat; then a genuine peace conference would be possible. The fact that international powers have accepted nationalistic claims makes them accomplices in the crime of this war. The realization of this (for the time being) last separation plan was only prevented by the excessiveness of Serbo-Bosnian extremist demands. The Bosnian population (at least 2.5 million people live in Bosnian controlled territory, 0.3 million in Croatian and 0.5 million in Serbian controlled territory), on the contrary, has the wish to restore the unity of their country: the Bosnian idea versus nationalism.
Nationalists who are engaged in the task of constructing ethnically pure states can obviously not accept that other completely different societies exist. Bosnian society in the area controlled by the Bosnian government, at present as in the past, supports the suggestion that all ethnic groups should live peacefully together. Bosnians stress that their culture and identity exists in just this. However some Bosnian Moslems complain that this insistence on union neglects the aspects of Moslem identity and Moslem national consciousness. Nevertheless it is a fact that Bosnian Moslems dominantly influence the tolerant behaviour and thus the unmistakeable character of Bosnian society. They are supported in this respect by the majority of Central Bosnian Croats and of the 200.000 Serbs who live in areas under Bosnian control. Thus it is these ethnic groups and the majority of Bosnian Moslems who on the basis of their past history strongly defend modern European and democratic principles. On the contrary, the nationalism of Serbian and Croatian extremists emerges as a nineteenth century way of thinking. It is an especial tragedy for the "Bosniacs" - perhaps one can best use this term for the proposed cohabitance in this way - that this concept is completely misunderstood by the rest of Europe. For many Bosniacs the war is a war against Facism. "What is the value of all the books about human rights, humanity, justice and democracy," asked Mustafa Ceric, the leader of the Bosnian Moslems, at the end of June, 1994, in Sarajevo, "if European democracies are not in a position to defend the European values they are always preaching, against the crimes being committed in our country?" The theft of territory, the expulsion of people from their homes and never-ending crime - now going on for more than two years - have made more than clear that no European organisation is willing to risk anything to defend these values. Worse still, for reasons of political power, some of these organisations have supported groups whose ideology resembles that of Nazism or Fascism.
The issue raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is vitally relevant to the basic understanding of our society. How are we reacting in the face of a new type of Totalitarianism, based on a fusion of Stalinistic communist structures and radical nationalistic movements. Is it possible that in Serbia and in Croatia there are supporters of those anti-social models which have already found their way into other societies of the decaying socialist empire? Will these impulses emanating from the politics of suppression, robbery and crime not also eventually reach our society? The acceptance of intolerance and nationalistic excesses in Bosnia-Herzegovina means courting these evils in our own society. In any case, the inclusion of the fascist party in the Italian government seems to point in this direction.
Even more astonishing is the indifference with which the Western world views Bosnia's fight for survival. It is in no way openly accepted that the Bosnian minority stands for the maintenance of European values. Mustafa Ceric certainly was right when he condemned the power politics of countries such as France and Great Britain and described German politics as inconsistent. In the same tone the Bosnian war is dealt with by many smaller countries as just "civil war".
There is a hide-your-eyes reaction which has helped the "civil war" theory towards success. If this theory wins acceptance, then the whole situation is very conveniently placed outside partiality (as happened in some countries during the Nazi regime). Then there is no need to register the dangers of the new totalitarism for the people directly influenced by it. But there is no real lack of knowledge of the actual causes of the war. This is no "civil war", but the logical consequence of a policy that comes from the outside. The war is therefore an act of aggression. Should Bosnia lose this war, or be divided with the aid of international organizations, the future of Europe will look gloomy.

Erich Rathfelder, Split, July 1994