The conflict in the Balkans is interesting because for years, reporters and politicians have touted it as being the result of ancient ethnic hatred but that isn't the case. The people of the region lived together peacefully for centuries and any conflicts that have arose among people were based not on ethnic origin but other things like class, ruling party, etc. In fact, any problems that have arose in the former Yugoslavia have more to do with the issues raised by nationalism that developed during World War II and not centuries of three different peoples living together.
This paper will explore the history of the conflict in the Balkans from the time shortly after Josip Tito passed away until just before the Dayton Accords. Additionally, it will be shown that at each of the three distinct points of the conflict, the international community and the United States had it within their power to stop the violence. The three distinct phases are Kosovo, secession, and Bosnia and at each point, the lack of action or overreaction of the international community failed to solve the problem.
The first phase of Yugoslavian disintegration can be attributed to the conditions of the people living in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Yugoslavia. In 1981, the socioeconomic conditions in Kosovo were far worse than those in the other republics of Yugoslavia. Poverty was rampant and unemployment was around twenty percent as compared to about two percent in Slovenia that same year. The standard of living in Kosovo was deplorable and whatever aid that was given to the province by the federal government was mismanaged (Samary, 65).
Another significant problem with this particular province was that while the Serbs claimed the province as the "Cradle of Serbian Empire" because of a legendary battle and defeat that happened at Kosovo in 1389, the Albanians constituted approximately eighty percent of the population of Kosovo. In reality, Kosovo could be claimed more by the Albanian majority than by the Serb minority. Many of the valiant warriors who fought and died at the Battle of Kosovo were in fact Albanian warriors, a fact seldom acknowledged by the Serb leadership. Furthermore, historical evidence suggests that Illyrians, the ancestors of Albanians, formed their first communities in Kosovo.
The "Serb Empire" was not as grand and powerful as modern Serbia would contend. Relations between Albanians and Serbs were good in the Middle Ages because of the many reasons that tensions exist today between nation states i.e. customs, trade, immigration, and so on (Samary, 36). Kosovo, by nearly all accounts but the Serb interpretation of the Battle of Kosovo, is an Albanian area.
Albanians were given majority rule of Kosovo in the 1960's by Tito in order to act as a hegemon to the power of Serbia. Under independent rule, the region was able to make available an Albanian curriculum and Albanian culture grew in importance. Economically, however, Kosovo was still suffering since whatever gains the economy made were outdone by the gains in population made by the Albanian Muslims who averaged six to eight children per family. The power in Kosovo was vested in a small group of elite Albanians who did well at advancing national identity and improving education and other public works but who were poor at managing and maintaining a functional economy. Whenever federal funds were given to the province, those elites at the top either wasted the money on grandiose projects and ornate buildings or on their new and privileged lifestyles (Bennett, 88)
On March 11, 1981, the students of Pristina University, in Kosovo, organized a protest against the deplorable living conditions on the campus. At the protest, they voiced their malcontent with the poverty and unemployment if life in Kosovo. They then marched to the provincial League of Communists only to have the demonstration halted by the police. The leadership of the League of Communists demanded that the leaders of the protests be brought into custody fearing that if the leadership of the protests remained, the protests would continue. The police complied and in a moment of solidarity with the student leaders, students poured into the streets demanding that their classmates be released from custody. The unrest was escalated by excessive police brutality and on April 3, 1981, Belgrade imposed martial law (Bennett, 89).
It is suggested that this particular time in the history of Yugoslavia is when the disintegration of Yugoslavia occurred. Tito had died less than a year before the incident in Kosovo and the Yugoslav Army (JNA) was pointing their weapons at fellow Yugoslavians. For the first time in Tito's Yugoslavia, the federal government had sided with one ethnic group over another and because of this change in policy toward Kosovo, Serbia was able to acquire control once more over the province with the help of the JNA. Sixteen hundred Albanian college students, secondary school students, and adults were taken into custody and handed a heavy prison sentence (Bennett, 90).
In the late 1980's, Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia. His first actions were directed against Kosovo Albanian dominance in the province. He removed virtually all of the Albanian's rights, their leadership role in government, their party, and their parliament. He further removed their control of their Albanian-language library and the administration of their school system. This was the classic case of human rights violations. Milosevic took away their right to govern themselves and as a result, he gained the attention of the United States Congress. A pro-Albanian coalition formed among those who had ethnic Albanian constituents (Alphonse D'Amato), of those who habitually cultivated the support of ethnic groups (Bob Dole), and of those who saw Kosovo as a human rights problem (Representative Tom Lantos).
Annual human rights reports submitted to the White House by the Department of State read like a prison record when it came to Serbian abuses of the people of Kosovo. Unfortunately, Congress was not in agreement with how to treat the reports of the abuses in Kosovo. The Bush administration was more interested in keeping Yugoslavia together and concerned more about the breakup of the Soviet Union and the potential tragedy that such a thing might cause. Therefore, Kosovo, in the words of Warren Zimmerman, "remained a part of Serbia, albeit a much-abused one (Zimmerman, 3)."
In my estimation, the problems of Kosovo were not viewed as important or of any interest to the national security or economic prosperity of the United States therefore no action was needed. I disagree with the stand that the Bush administration took on Kosovo. The State Department catalogued massive human rights violations by the Serbian leadership in Kosovo yet the Bush Administration did nothing.
Little was said about what was going on in the region and even less was said by the American press because of the instability in the former Soviet Union.
Up until this point, the official party line in Washington, DC was that the Bush administration would continue to support a united, territorially strong, and independent Yugoslavia. It would seem that history had yet another crossroads in Yugoslavia. The strategic importance of Yugoslavia was lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The movement towards more democratic government was creating an air of instability and uncertainty in the region. Finally, the inter-ethnic conflicts between Serbs and Croats, people of Kosovo and Serbs, Slovenes and the rest of Yugoslavia added to the unstableness of the situation (Zimmerman, 4).
While the political unity of Yugoslavia was paramount for the White House any financial aid that would be given to Eastern Europe would be based on that particular nation's ability to move toward democracy and a free market economy. Because of this commitment to a movement toward democracy, the United States eagerly awaited the results of the election in 1990. These elections, however, brought into power nationalists of many colors. In Slovenia and Croatia, the election brought to power two leaders who advocated the secession of their respective republics from federal Yugoslavia. Additionally, the reelection of Milosevic in Serbia aroused fears that Yugoslavia would be dominated by a Greater Serbia. The future of Yugoslavia was uncertain and finally became an issue of importance in the State Department and the White House.
Yugoslavia's existence itself was at stake and the State Department had to ask itself two questions. One, what are the chances that Yugoslavia will disintegrate? Two, what will disintegration mean? The Central Intelligence Agency was the first to predict the breakup of Yugoslavia in September of 1990. This breakup, as examined by experts in the embassy in Belgrade and in Washington, was certainly seen as potentially violent and leading to war. The State Department did make attempts to alert the Western Allies in NATO of the potential for armed conflict but it fell upon deaf ears (Zimmerman, 5). One of the fundamental problems with United States policy in Yugoslavia was that democracy and unity seemed to contradict each other. A democratic movement in Croatia and Slovenia elected separatist governments. The United States wanted a united Yugoslavia but Croatia and Slovenia were flirting with independence and if the rest of Yugoslavia were to order the JNA into those republics to quell the violence, would the United States support this action. Clearly, the objective of keeping a united Yugoslavia would be obtained but human rights violations as well as continuing armed conflict in defense of the separatist governments meant that peace in the Balkans would be lost.
At this point, the United States should have chose either unity or democracy. Clearly, both were not what Yugoslavia was headed for. A united Yugoslavia meant a strong central government controlled from Belgrade while a free and democratic Yugoslavia meant the potential for disintegration. By the end of 1991, United States policy shifted toward support for democratization and a free market economy and away from its former support of continues unity. On May 23, 1991, Secretary of State, James Baker, issued a statement of five principles of interest in Yugoslavia by the united states. First was democracy and last was unity. Finally, the United States had actually set some sort of priority on their objectives.
On June 21, 1991, Slovenia declared independence. Slovenia's discontent with the rest of the Yugoslav federation can be traced back to the 1970's when during the oil crisis that took the entire world by storm, Slovenians returned home from their then non-existent Western European jobs. Slovenia's per capita income was twice that of the rest of Yugoslavia with zero unemployment making the republic a popular place for migrant Serbs and Albanians from Kosovo. This migration in the 1970's was not welcomed because after Tito's death, Serbs throughout the Federation attempted to usurped the educational institutions of Slovenia and to institute a single, unified "Yugoslav" curriculum. The Slovenes saw this as an attempt to eliminate their national identity and because of this rejected it flatly. As a result of the attempts of the communists in Yugoslavia to reform the education system of Slovenia, the republic's government undertook a massive campaign, mostly television advertising, to raise national awareness of the issues and to attempt to build support for a nationalist movement. It worked. Throughout Slovenia, one could find tee-shirts with "Slovenia my Homeland" silk screened on them. The campaign for national pride had worked.
The Yugoslav communists attempted a media campaign as well and had the economy not taken a nose-dive in the mid 1980's they might have been successful. However, the Slovene media touted the economic recession as the fault of the other, poorer republics. The politicians argued that Slovenia was suffering not because of the recession but because they had to subsidize the other, less developed republics. What arose from this stage of the game was the beginnings of an intense nationalism would later propel Slovenia out of the Yugoslav federation and into an independence movement.
As a result of this tension between what apparently had become Milosevic (in control of Serbia, Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro) and Kucan of Slovenia, the Slovene people made their way toward independence. It started with the youth movement. Mladina, a Slovene political weekly, began and ran stories about the JNA, Yugoslavia, Milosevic, and others who were basically labeled enemies of the Slovene people. A new artist movement caught the attention of many in Europe through art, literature and music. This movement began with a group of teenagers looking for an alternative to mandatory military service and ended with an alternative to continued federation with Yugoslavia.
On May 31, 1988, the attacks that the JNA had received from Mladina were avenged with the arrest of Janez Jasna, the military correspondent for Mladina and a candidate for the presidency of Slovenia's Youth Organization. The charge was leaking military secrets. Later, three other people were indicated in this conspiracy when documents were discovered in the offices of Mladina. These documents were believed to be the plans for a takeover of Slovenia by the JNA although the JNA and the Yugoslav government never confirmed the suspicions. The people of Slovenia and its leadership viewed this attack on Mladina and its youth as an attack on Slovenian sovereignty.
With Kosovo now under the control of Serbia, the time had come to turn the attention of the JNA and the government towards Slovenia which was, at this time, still teetering on the issue of independence.
In typical fashion, Milosevic turned his propaganda machine on the Slovenes blaming them for everything from the price of clothing in Serbia to the price of tea in China. At approximately the same time, Milosevic attempted to cripple the economy of Slovenia by boycotting Slovenian goods and services in Serbia, Vojvodina, and Kosovo. What Milosevic managed to do was not to punish Slovenes for their insurrection but instead punish the Serbs who were dependent on Slovene goods and services. The economy of Serbia was in a downward spiral. Hopeful to raise a billion dollars in investments, Milosevic asked Serbs from all over the globe to contribute to his reconstruction and revitalization fund. Out of the billion dollars that he was expecting and counting on, Milosevic managed to get a whopping twenty-five million dollars... hardly enough to solve the economic woes that inflation, poor quality, and over employment were causing (Bennett, 108).
Obviously, Milosevic was killing himself and Serbia with these sanctions and other economic activities. In his zeal for a nationalist movement, Milosevic managed to forget that one needs an economy for a nation to exist and he was systematically destroying his. In Kosovo alone, police operations costs amounted to about half of all of Yugoslavia's military budget and Milosevic's refusal to let anyone outside of Serbia to handle the situation further crippled any hope for a unified Yugoslavia. Serbia's actions in Kosovo were one of the key factors in Slovenia, and shortly thereafter, Croatia's decision to leave Yugoslavia. Had Serbia not treated the people of Kosovo as second class citizens within a now, new Greater Serbia, the Slovenes and the Croats would not have feared them as much. As it stood, however, the Serbs had seemingly made it clear that no Yugoslavia would exist without a Serb holding the reigns.
Therefore, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the federal government. Slovenia was scheduled to declare independence on June 26, 1991 but late in the afternoon on the previous day, Croatia declared independence from federal Yugoslavia. Croatia had seceded without tackling one, very critical question. What was the status of Serbs living in Croatia. Throughout history, Serbs had been moved into the Krijina region of southern Croatia to defend the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Ottomans to the south. By the time that Croatia declared it's independence, however, Serbs had lived in those regions for generations and came to think of it as their homeland. The Croats, however, failed to recognize the Serbs and give them citizenship in the new Croatian state.
Serbs on Croatia had considered themselves equal to Croats living next door yet it appeared that every chance Franjo Tudjman got, he took the opportunity to elevate the Croat while lowing the status of the Serb. The Croat flag was altered so that the checkerboard, a long time symbol of Croats and, unfortunately, of the Ustasha, was emblazoned onto the flag. Serb travel had been restricted, Serb participation in government was becoming limited and the military began taking strategic positions with Serb majority areas (Glenny, 93). Clearly, with so many tanks, guns, and soldiers, the stage was set for armed conflict.
The armed conflict in these Serb pockets of population came to a head in Knin, where Croats were a minority while Serbs maintained a majority. Milosevic saw these Serbs as an opportunity to, if not save Yugoslavia as it was, then to at least expand what remained of Yugoslavia as much as possible. Milosevic, with the help of Jovan Raskovic, began to stir trouble in the city of Knin. They reminded the Serbs living in Croatia of the atrocities that the Ustasha inflicted upon the Serbs who had lived there during the Second World War and that the same thing was happening again to the Serbs at the hands of Croat fascists. Serb media told tales of the new nationalist regime in Croatia coming to wipe out anything not Croat.
The Serbs in Croatia reacted to their treatment by holding a referendum which was declared null and void by Tudjman. However, Serb areas voted to leave Croatia. Theoretically, the Croats should have been able to quell the rebellion. This was not the case because when the Croatian police sent three helicopters to the area to take control and stop the protests, they were met with two MiG aircraft from the JNA and threatened to be shot down if they failed to turn around.
Obviously, at this point, the situation is getting tenuous enough for the international community to take an interest in what is going on. Two, armed aircraft from the Yugoslav Army confronted three helicopters from Croatia. By this time, the international community had recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia upon the lead from Germany but they were still allowing the remainder of Yugoslavia, essentially the Serbs, to engage in warfare with Croatia.
So, why didn't the United States intervene at this point? Several answers are viable. The first and foremost reason for a lack of intervention has to do with our newly emerging relationship with Russia. Russians had been closely aligned with Serbs during World War II and this relationship continues onward even until today. Telling the Serbs that the United States was going to enter Yugoslavia and stop the violence was to say that the United States was going to go into Yugoslavia and crush the Serbs, who controlled the government and the JNA. We were trying desperately to form close, personal ties with Russia to support their efforts toward a market economy and democracy to prevent the Russian government and their nuclear weapons to fall into the wrong hands. To offend the Serbs, and thus the Russians, would have been political suicide.
Second, what exactly did Yugoslavia mean to the United States.
As stated above, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was over. We no longer needed to nurture ties between Eastern European states in order to head off the spread of Communism. Yugoslavia didn't have an impressive economy where American business interested could invest and reap massive dividends. Much like most of the Eastern and especially Southeastern European nations, the economy was lackluster and uninviting to foreign investment.
The third reason that the United States chose not to interfere and perhaps the most important is that intervening would imply a long term commitment of men, equipment, and supplies. The recent Gulf War had devoured many of the resources that would have been needed to complete an operation in Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the terrain of the area was as inhospitable as Viet Nam's was in the 1960's and 1970's. Engaging the military in an operation in Yugoslavia would offer the same challenges that Viet Nam offered. There was no popular support for either side of the conflict in the United States. What monetary or economic gain could be made by intervention? Finally, who really cared? I know that last one seems particularly cruel but if we examine the conflict, the people of Yugoslavia and those people alone seemed to be the only ones feeling the effects of the battles. The fighting was primarily in Croatia... not in Greece... not in Hungary... and not in Italy. Perhaps the e! xecutive branch of the United States considered this to be a rather internal problem and not the concern of the international community.
Germany didn't help matters either by jumping the gun and recognizing Croatia before it met the standards set by the European Community. Under the EC plan, Croatia would have to make a constitutional provision recognizing Serbs living in Croatia as citizens of Croatia and protecting them with equal status. Germany, eager to stop the armed conflicts within Croatia, officially recognized Croatia's independence and thus, forced the rest of the EC to do so as well.
The third phase of the disintegration of Yugoslavia is marked by a decidedly different approach to the Balkans by the international community. The European Community, lead almost unwillingly by Germany, offers to recognize Croatia and Slovenia as independent in January of 1992. By March of 1992, Bosnia itself had attained the standards that the EC set for recognition of independence. Sixty-four percent of the population voted in a referendum for independence while most of the Serbs abstained. By this time as well, it had become apparent that Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic had planned to take over about two-thirds of Bosnia. The United States and other allies considered recognizing the sovereignty of Bosnia as a way to avert the impending military action.
In March of 1992, the United States pushed for the independence of all four of the breakaway republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Macedonia). On April 6 and 7, the United States recognized Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia (Macedonia was left off the list due to pressure from Greece.) This recognition of sovereignty was a few days too late. Several days earlier, the Serbs had begun their attacks. They were better equipped, better trained, and in better position. The Bosnian army had been overwhelmed (Zimmerman, 9).
What was the United States' position on the Serb attacks? The American government announced that it intended to withdraw it's ambassador from Belgrade. This was merely symbolic since the embassy itself was still intact and under the control of a chargé d'affaires.
On May 30, the United Nations, at the request of the United States imposed an economic embargo against Serbia. This embargo was similar to that imposed upon Iraq during and after the Gulf War.
President Bush, however, refused to use military force in the region and to some degree, I agree with his reasoning. There are three main reasons that kept a military reaction at bay. The first is that no matter how small the initial action, a continued, expanded operation was expected. Much like Viet Nam, the Bosnian conflict offered obstacles to a quick, speedy, and painless process. The second reason is that there were no clear objectives in the region and no commitment to leaving. The problems that caused the conflict would not have gone away by simply rolling a tank down main street of Sarajevo. Finally, the third reason -- politics. Had Bush committed troops to the war in Bosnia, a wave of potentially unpopular criticism may have took the sails out of his campaign. How would Bush have explained to his electorate that he was responsible for sending young American boys to their death? He couldn't take the chance. So, the war in Bosnia continued. The United States and other allies toyed with the idea of airlifting food and medical supplies to the regions cut off from direct aid coming in to Sarajevo but the military, without clear objectives and a plan of attack, failed to support those missions as well. Bush lost the election in 1992 and left office. Clinton entered the situation late and because of it, was left with Bush's legacy of inaction. The Serbs had taken control of over seventy percent of Bosnia (Zimmerman, 11) and had consolidated their control of the region before Clinton could find his way to the bathroom in the White House.
Eventually, the Clinton Administration did raise a stronger voice but this was short lived because of the Europeans' unwillingness to cooperate in a plan to lift the arms embargo and to hit Serb strongholds with air strikes. After this plan failed to win popular support in Europe, the United States continued on it's course of rhetoric and apathy. Why did the Clinton administration choose to abandon such an aggressive posture? Again, the answer is political. As Zimmerman agues in his piece, Bill Clinton could not disagree with the Pentagon for various reasons. He had no military record and was seen as a draft dodger to most of the brass at the Department of Defense who had more than likely served in Viet Nam. Second, he took on the military establishment by trying to get homosexuals into the military. Finally, the Clinton administration's position with all matters of international conflict for the next two years seemed to be rather distasteful of using the military to solve the problem. Clinton's approach was to negotiate a peace... not enforce it.
The Clinton administration as well as the Congress and American press clearly identified the Serbs as the aggressors and the Bosnians as the victims. After all, it was the Bosnian Serbs lead by Karadzic who claimed sections of Bosnia to be Serb territory and to withdraw Serb members of the Bosnian government and form a new government. Additionally, it was the Serbs who began the ethnic cleansing of the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia. The Serbs were the ones supplying the Bosnian Serb army and the Yugoslav army which was beating the Bosnian army into the ground. Still, the use of force was not a serious option.
The goal of the international community, the EC. and the United States was to solve the conflicts in the Balkans through peaceful means yet everything that they did seemed to cause more conflict. One plan that was do "cantonize" the various regions in Bosnia along ethnic lines. However, the EC insisted that whatever plan was reached had to be put on the ballot for a referendum. The Serbs argued that the Croats and Muslims would naturally outvote the Serbs in favor of a unified, independent Bosnia. In February of 1992, the EC and United States sponsored a summit in Lisbon where the partitioning of Bosnia was agreed upon even though no lines were actually drawn.
Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia and a Muslim, seemed to be for the plan at the summit but once he returned home, quickly changed his mind. Several factors contributed to this change of heart. Izetbegovic knew that if the west did not intervene militarily, Serbs would surely take over the country and the Muslim population would be decimated. Furthermore, if he agreed to a partition of Bosnia, at least a Bosnia would still exist. Bosnia itself would have to be large enough to show up on a map or it would most certainly be absorbed by either Croatia or by Serbia (Yugoslavia). However, when Izetbegovic returned home to Sarajevo, he found that there was little to no support for the plan and that it was in his best interests to abandon it (Bennett, 236-239). What good would a division of Bosnia do? It obviously rewards the Serbs for being the aggressors and punishes the Bosnian Muslims for wanting an independence that the United States and European Community had already to recognize. Furthermore, partitioning Bosnia would have broken up the state into microstates with little to no cohesion. Pockets of Serbs would be living among pockets of Croats and pockets of Muslims. What kind of country would that be? There is no clear majority in Bosnia therefore, the government would be in a constant state of gridlock with nothing getting accomplished because each canton could be voting along ethnic lines.
However, Serbs had control of most of the country. While in control, they sought to consolidate their hold on lands in eastern Bosnia as well as a section of northwestern Bosnia where large Serb populations lived. The also selected as their target a narrow corridor of land that connected the two regions of Bosnia that they controlled. Once in control, they began campaigns to rid their targeted regions of other ethnic groups. Murder and assault were some of the options but the Serbs also relied on rape as a means of ethnic cleansing (Donia and Fine, 247).