Henry Falconer writes
Between 1990 and 1995 over a quarter of a million people were killed in wars in the former Yugoslavia, with many more made homeless. This was not in some distant part of the world; Venice, Munich, Vienna and Budapest are all less than an hour’s flying time away. An aggressive Serb nationalism, personified by the Serb president Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leadership of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic (the butcher of some 7,000 Bosnian Muslim males at Srebrenica in July 1995) was held by most political and media outlets in the European Union and United States to bear the major responsibility for the carnage. And yet many Serbs, probably most (judging by recent election results), see themselves not as aggressors but as victims. I propose in this article to consider the reasons and the justification for this Serb sense of victimhood.
Let us first examine the reasons;
1) The territory of the former Yugoslavia is inhabited by a patchwork quilt of nationalities (Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Slovene, Macedonian, Albanian, Hungarian) spread across the country. Drawing boundaries along lines of nationality was therefore impossible without massive transfers of population (referred to euphemistically in the 1990s as “ethnic cleansing”). And as all the nationalities (except the Albanians and Hungarians) are Slav and speak languages, which are closely related to each other, a state uniting them seemed to make sense. Religious differences between Orthodox (Serb and Macedonian), Roman Catholic (Croat, Slovene and Hungarian) and Muslim (Bosniak and Albanian) seemed of limited relevance. Thus Yugoslavia was established in the aftermath of the First World War in 1919. Serbs, as the most numerous nationality (c36%) and the one which had done most to create the country, felt that they deserved a dominant position within it. Any challenge to this dominance would, in the eyes of Serb nationalists, result in Serbs becoming victims.
2)The mediaeval kingdom of Serbia (Orthodox in religion, owing allegiance not to Rome but to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch at Constantinople) was overrun by the Ottoman Turks (Muslim) in the late fourteenth century and remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century. Finally, after almost 500 years of foreign domination, a much smaller Serbia re-gained full independence in 1878. Many Serbs, however, lived outside its frontiers in the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires – so Serbs continued their national struggle. Finally, after major sacrifices in 3 wars between 1912 and 1919, Serbs were united together as the most numerous (c36percent) nationality in the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Yugoslavia. For Serb nationalists, this was the just fulfillment of their long-held aspirations – a reward for centuries of oppression and struggle.
3)When Nazi Germany attacked Yugoslavia, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria in 1941 it was quickly overrun. The Nazis carved up the country and established a puppet state of Croatia under the leadership of the Croat Fascist (Ustase) Ante Pavelic. The Serb minority in Croatia was viciously persecuted by the Ustase regime. Concentration camps were established (most notoriously at Jasenovac, 100km south-east of Zagreb) and massacres and forced conversions (from Orthodox to Roman Catholic) of Serbs took place. Estimates of the number of Serb victims vary from 60,000 (admitted by the Croats) to 1 million claimed by extremist Serbs – the closest neutral estimate is around 100,000. That carnage on this scale increased massively the Serb sense of victimhood is scarcely surprising. Any re-emergence of Croat nationalism was bound to be regarded with extreme suspicion by the Serbs.
4)After the defeat of the Nazis and their Ustase puppets in 1945, Yugoslavia was restored to its pre-war frontiers (plus gains in the north west at Italy’s expense) under the Communist Party of Marshal Tito, who had been the leader of the anti-Nazi resistance or the “partisans” as they were known. Tito was himself half-Croat and believed that if a united Yugoslavia were to have a long-term future there must be no return to the Serb domination of the inter-war period. He constructed a regime of checks and balances, playing off one nationality against another and ruthlessly suppressing any sign of nationalism. By the time of Tito`s death in 1980, Serb nationalists had come to regard him as an enemy of Serbs – denying them their rightful controlling position in Yugoslavia. Serb resentment concentrated in particular on the situation in Kosovo. This former heartland of Serb religion and culture (Kosovo is to Serbs what Jerusalem is to Jews) had an Albanian majority of c90% by 1980 and had been granted self-government within Yugoslavia by Tito. The 10% of Serbs felt isolated and persecuted. This situation was bitterly opposed by Serb nationalists, who by the late 1980s had found a champion in Slobodan Milosevic, head of the Communist Party of Serbia from 1987. When, in 1990, elections in Croatia resulted in victory for a Croat nationalist party led by Franjo Tudjman, this increased Serb suspicions still further – memories of the Ustase and what had happened to the Serbs in Croatia in the 1940s were well within living memory. Tudjman`s insensitivity towards the genuine fears of the Serb minority in Croatia made the tensions much worse. By 1992 a Muslim government was voted into power in Bosnia – again the Serb minority felt threatened by a tide of Muslim fundamentalism. Most Serbs therefore felt that Milosevic`s championing of the Serb cause in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia was fully justified.
But WAS Milosevic`s policy justified by the above reasons – particularly bearing in mind the ferocity and ruthlessness with which Serb aims were pursued in the early 1990s? An objective outside observer, although showing an understanding of Serb fears, would almost certainly answer in the negative. Why is this?
Milosevic and his supporters were aiming for a return to the pre-1941 period when Serbs dominated Yugoslavia. If this were to prove unobtainable because of the opposition of the other nationalities, Milosevic would attempt to create a “Greater Serbia” which would include all regions where Serbs lived, whether or not they were in a majority! This display of naked aggressive Serb nationalism naturally antagonised the other inhabitants of former Yugoslavia. Milosevic`s motive was to perpetuate the power and privileges of his Communist Party. By 1989, Communist regimes were crumbling all over Europe (e.g. the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “velvet revolution” in Prague, the murders of the Ceaucescus in Romania). Milosevic was keen not to allow this to happen in Serbia and so he played the nationalist card for all it was worth in the hope of whipping up popular support. Thus he used the alleged persecution of the Serb minority in Kosovo as a means of shoring up his own position in Serbia. By the autumn of 1990 he had extended this support to the Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia.
The Yugoslav army was dominated by Serbs, particularly in its higher echelons, and allowed itself to be used as an instrument of Serb policy. The leveling of the Croatian City of Vukovar in 1991 and the widespread massacres of the civilian population is perhaps the best-known example of Serb brutality in Croatia.
In 1992 the fighting spread to Bosnia. The Serb media whipped up popular fears of Moslem fundamentalism against the secular and moderate Moslem government in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. Milosevic made possible the subsequent siege and bombardment of Sarajevo which lasted for almost 3 years. The fighting in Bosnia culminated in the Srebrenica massacre already referred to.
The situation in Yugoslavia after Tito`s death in 1980 was bound to be volatile, but it need not have resulted in the worst wars experienced in Europe since 1945. After all, Sarajevo was sufficiently stable to have hosted the Winter Olympics (of Torvill and Dean fame) in 1984. Slobodan Milosevic`s cynical and opportunistic exploitation of Serb nationalism opened the floodgates and must therefore bear the major (but not the sole) burden of responsibility for the subsequent carnage.