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Between 1991 and 1999, the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (population: approximately 23 million) disintegrated amid four successive wars. Although the violent end of federal Yugoslavia was not determined by its bloody origins, those origins should not be omitted from an account of its denouement, in part because they were deliberately evoked to mobilize support for war in 1991 and 1992.

World War II: 1941–1945

After the kingdom of Yugoslavia capitulated to Germany in April 1941, Hitler divided the country among the Axis states. Germany annexed most of Slovenia, occupied Serbia, and administrated eastern Vojvodina. Italy annexed or occupied much of the Croatian coastland, southern Slovenia, western Macedonia and Kosovo, and tried in vain to control Montenegro by means of an autonomous administration. Hungary annexed the remainder of the province of Vojvodina and eastern Slovenia. Bulgaria took Macedonia and a sliver of southeastern Serbia.

The occupiers established puppet regimes. Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina were put in the charge of a Croatian nationalist group, the fanatical Ustashas, whose leaders had spent the 1930s as Mussolini's clients and sometimes his prisoners. The poglavnik (equivalent to führer) of the self-styled Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, NDH) was Ante Pavelic. Its leaders were obsessed with eliminating the Serb Orthodox population, which was seen as the historic obstacle to Croatian sovereignty.

The NDH's population of 6.3 million included only 3.4 million Croats. The remainder were mostly Serb (1.9 million), Muslim (700,000), German (150,000) and Jewish (37,000). In line with Axis policy, the Ustashas deported and killed Jews and Roma. The Serb population was the strategic target, however, owing to its size and to Ustasha ideology. At least 20,000 Serbs were killed in pogroms during summer 1941. By 1945, in line with the Ustasha intention to eradicate the Serb Orthodox population by mass conversion, expulsion, and murder, enough death and destruction had been achieved to make the NDH the bloodiest regime in Europe after Germany itself.

In Serbia, the Nazis formed a "government of national salvation" under Milan Nedic, who saw himself as caretaking until the royalist government could return from exile in London. Pavelic's equivalent in Belgrade was Dimitrije Ljotic, who received limited German support for his Serbian fascist movement. Even without an ideology of genocide, Nazi mechanisms functioned efficiently and the situation for Jews and Roma was no better than in Croatia. Serbia was proclaimed Judenfrei (Free of Jews) in early 1942.

Some army officers took to the hills and formed a royalist resistance movement, the Chetniks, loyal to the royalist government but also to a Serbian nationalist program. Savage Nazi reprisals in Serbia in 1941 soon quieted this movement's anti-German actions, but it continued to commit atrocities against Croats and Muslims in the NDH. Proportionately, Muslim losses in the war were heavier than Serb or Croat losses.

Croatian and Serbian nationalist crimes strengthened the resistance movement launched in summer 1941 by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia under a shadowy figure called Josip Broz, later known as Tito, who was supported by the USSR. The engorged but Axis-occupied Croatian state became the principal battleground between the partisans and their pro-fascist or anti-communist opponents, with each side's armed forces numbering around 150,000 by 1943.

At least a million Yugoslavs (6% of the pre-war population) were killed between 1941 and 1945, mostly at their compatriots' hands. The killing continued after the war, as Tito's victorious forces took revenge on their real and perceived enemies. British forces in Austria turned back tens of thousands of fleeing Yugoslavs. Estimates range from 30,000 to 55,000 killed between spring and autumn 1945.

Native German and Hungarian communities, seen as complicit with wartime occupation, were brutally treated; tantamount in some cases to ethnic cleansing. The Volksdeutsch settlements of Vojvodina and Slavonia largely disappeared. Perhaps 100,000 people—half the ethnic German population in Yugoslavia—fled in 1945, and many who remained were compelled to do forced labor, murdered, or later ransomed by West Germany. Some 20,000 Hungarians of Vojvodina were killed in reprisals. Albanian rebellions in Kosovo were suppressed, with prisoners sent on death marches towards the coast. An estimated 170,000 ethnic Italians fled to Italy in the late 1940s and 1950s. (All of these figures are highly approximate.)

The partisans were not always ruthless to their wartime opponents. By contrast with Germany, however, the postwar order in Yugoslavia did not allow an impartial examination of the war years. Grief was made more bitter by the anger and vengefulness of those whose struggles and sufferings were officially distorted or denied. Tito's regime created an official celebratory myth about the "People's Liberation War," denying partisan atrocities and negotiations with Germans and exaggerating their role in defeating the Axis. While this helped to unify the traumatized nationalities in the wake of fascism's defeat, it could not silence the truths and counter-myths handed down within families throughout Yugoslavia and nursed among Serb and Croat émigrés. In particular, many Croats came to resent what they saw as excessive attention to the Ustasha regime and a corresponding exculpation of Serbian nationalist crimes. By the time Titoist orthodoxy relaxed and the archives yielded their secrets, in the 1980s—confirming that the partisans' black-and-white, epic version had concealed an unsurprising pattern of shifting allegiances and power—plays in which Tito's forces eventually bested their enemies—it was too late for reconciliation.

The Wars of Yugoslav Succession (1991–1999)

The wars of the 1990s—from Slovenia, to Croatia, then Bosnia and Herzegovina, and finally Kosovo—were the result of four factors:

  • the weakness of Yugoslavia's institutions of central government
  • the rise of aggressive nationalism in Serbia
  • the collapse of one-party communist systems in Europe around 1990—including in Yugoslavia
  • the Yugoslav People's Army's embrace of Serbian nationalism.

After Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia's federal system proved incapable of providing effective governance. Once each decade, Tito had rebalanced the system, effectively decentralizing power until Yugoslav unity rested on three pillars: Tito's own prestige; the coherence of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), as the communist party was called; and the Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska narodna armija, JNA). The first and second of these decayed over the 1980s; the third endured in deepening isolation from democratic change.

Political and economic competencies devolved to the six republics and two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. The federation became, in a vivid phrase coined by Croatian economist Branko Horvat, an alliance of regional oligarchies. The resultant instability encouraged restiveness among the republics and revived long-standing mutual grievances. In Serbia, one politician turned this situation to his advantage. Slobodan Milosevic (b. 1941) rose in the 1980s to head the Serbian League of Communists. Milosevic played upon the Serbs' bitterness over their status in Yugoslavia.

These feelings centered on the southern province of Kosovo, site of the mythologized 1389 battle against the Ottoman empire, and traditionally celebrated as the cradle of Serbian culture. With more than 20 percent of Serbia's population, Kosovo in the 1980s was more than 80 percent ethnic Albanian. Since the late 1960s, Albanians had ceased to be a second-class nationality in Kosovo. This evolution, formalized by Kosovo's federal status in the 1974 constitution, was felt as unacceptable by many Serbs. In 1986 Serbia's Academy of Sciences and Arts purported to speak for the nation when it alleged—with inflammatory intent—that Serbs in Kosovo were subject to "physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide."

Milosevic was the first senior politician to acknowledge Serbian anger over Kosovo as valid. With the help of media manipulation, staged rallies, and covert agitation, he seized the leadership of the Serbian communists in late 1987, then used the same techniques to abolish the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina. When he succeeded in changing the leadership in Montenegro (population 0.58 million), Milosevic controlled half the federal units.

Although public opinion was orchestrated, these early successes were enabled by an extraordinary groundswell of support. Journalists, intellectuals, and artists echoed the simple message that Serbia and the Serbs—some 36 percent of Yugoslavia's population—must be "united" at any cost. Even those who disliked Milosevic's methods believed that his "antibureaucratic revolution" was necessary. Dissenters were few and, thanks to the machinery of party-state power, easily marginalized.

Milosevic's wider ambition was to intimidate the other republics into letting Yugoslavia be re-centralized under Serbian hegemony. The international community, eager to see Yugoslavia restabilized, was vaguely sympathetic. But Serbia's strongman had not foreseen the collapse of European communism after November 1989. This reduced the strategic significance Yugoslavia had enjoyed during the cold war, poised between the Western and Eastern blocs. It also encouraged nascent pro-democratic groups in Yugoslavia, especially in the western republics of Slovenia and Croatia, where they found common cause with communists who were worried by Serbian revanchism.

Serbia's vaunting ambition had emboldened other republics. The last congress of the LCY, in January 1990, was suspended when the Slovenian delegation walked out after their reform proposals were jeeringly rejected. Slovenia and Croatia scheduled multiparty elections for the spring. Far from backing down at this reversal, Milosevic escalated his threats against other republics. If the political structures were too weak and the JNA was still too indecisive to give him the leverage he needed, he would use demography instead—the 25 percent of Yugoslavia's Serbs who lived outside Serbia.

Slovenia and Croatia

In the late 1980s, Slovenia's challenge to the federal system was as profound as Serbia's, but opposite in method and intention. With under two million inhabitants, abutting Italy and Austria, by 1990 Slovenia was "the most successful and modern economy in Central and Eastern Europe." Some two-fifths of export trade was with western Europe.

Milosevic's recentralizing drive spurred Slovenian nationalism. This took political form, in terms of resistance to the Serbian bloc in federal structures, and theoretical and cultural forms, in the unprecedented irreverence toward Titoist myths. With newly elected leaders, Slovenia declared sovereignty in July 1990. In late December, the result of a referendum allowed the leadership to announce that independence would be declared the following June. If Serbia supplied the main leverage to destroy Yugoslavia, the timetable was Slovenia's.

Determined not to be left behind, Croatia (population: 4.78 million) committed itself to secede alongside Slovenia, although Croatia's position vis-à-vis Serbia was incomparably worse. Milosevic was willing to let Slovenia go, but not Croatia. After Croatia's first multi-party elections in spring 1990, the Serbian media had conducted a frenzied campaign to instil fear and hatred of Croatian intentions. Cynically exploiting fears of an Ustasha revival, this campaign targeted Croatia's 580,000 Serbs, especially the compact Serb communities in the central highlands. Agents were sent to stir up discontent. Open rebellion started in autumn, with armed roadblocks around the town of Knin. The Yugoslav army and Serbian ministry of interior supplied the weapons.

Agitation was made easier by the nationalism of Franjo Tudjman (1922–1999). His election platform included two crucial claims: Croatia must have "selfdetermination in its natural and historic borders," and the NDH (1941–1945) "was not only a formation in the service of the [Nazi German-Fascist Italian] occupier, but also the expression of the historic aspirations of the Croatian people." The former claim disclosed Tudjman's covetous interest in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the latter—playing into the hands of Serbian propaganda—signaled a readiness to rehabilitate aspects of the Ustashas' record.

So pressing was the threat posed by Serbia and its local proxy forces in Knin that most Croatians—like most Serbians, though arguably with better reason—wanted a strong leader, whatever the price. In Tudjman's case, the price was an authoritarian kleptocracy and, less predictably, a habit of conspiring with his Serbian counterpart. Far from sharing his supporters' revulsion at Milosevic, Tudjman saw the other man as his natural partner for achieving a historic concordat that would settle the Serbs' and Croats' differences once and for all. In his vision, this required splitting Bosnia and Herzegovina, which he saw as an artificial construct, much of which belonged by historical right to Croatia, and whose majority Muslim inhabitants were descended from apostate Catholics, that is, Croats.

Tudjman sought opportunities to plot the dismemberment of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Milosevic, most notoriously at Karadjordjevo on March 25, 1991. At that meeting, he hoped to exploit the other man's vulnerability after the JNA chiefs of staff—aligning themselves ever more closely with Milosevic—had failed to panic the federal presidency into declaring a state of emergency. This was a critical misreading of the situation. Tudjman thought that a chastened Milosevic would cooperate over Bosnia and Herzegovina, whereas his recent setback actually hardened Milosevic's—and the JNA's—resolve to stop Croatia from escaping intact. On March 16, Milosevic met Serbia's district leaders. Proclaiming his readiness to "defend the interests of our republic and also the interests of the Serb people beyond Serbia," he told his audience that "borders, as you know, are always dictated by the strong and never by the weak" (Sell, 2002, p. 137).

Tudjman, however, trusted Milosevic crony Borisav Jovic's private assurances that Milosevic was uninterested in Croatia's Serbs or their ultimate fate. By this time, the Croatian Serb rebels, backed by the JNA, had proclaimed their own state—the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK)—and controlled key transport routes. Typically, Croatia held its referendum only a month before the date set for secession. When 93 percent of an 84 percent turn-out supported "sovereignty and independence," confrontation became unavoidable.

Independence and War

Slovenia prepared its 20,000-strong armed forces in high secrecy, readying itself to take over border crossings and resist army intervention. Slovenia's showdown with the JNA began on June 25, the day it declared independence. Local and international observers were surprised at the skill and determination of the Territorial Defence forces. JNA confidence—based on poor intelligence and anti-Slovenian prejudice—that the Slovenes would back down after a show of force was quickly dispelled. After ten days, the Slovenian side had suffered 13 dead and 112 wounded, compared with 39 dead and 139 wounded on the JNA side.

The JNA chiefs of staff—after long careers in a bubble of privilege and unaccountability—were angered by their humiliation. Under terms brokered by the European Community, some 22,000 JNA personnel were withdrawn, mostly to bases in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The chiefs of staff now shed the residual Yugoslavist loyalty which had deterred them from overthrowing the federal organs in March, and threw in their lot with Serbian nationalism.

The war in Croatia was less clear-cut and vastly more destructive of life and property. After incidents against and involving police forces in spring and early summer, the rebel forces, along with JNA regulars and Serbian paramilitaries, began to target large numbers of civilian Croats in and around the territory claimed by the self-styled RSK, killing many and driving away survivors. By November they controlled almost a third of the country. The worst fighting in this undeclared war was in the east, where Croat forces, unaided by forces from the Croatian capital of Zagreb, valiantly defended Vukovar until the city was rubble. After Serbian forces captured the city, more than 200 Croats were removed from the hospital and shot. This was the first indisputable war crime. By December, half a million people had been displaced in Croatia or fled as refugees. Damage was estimated at some $18.7 billion.

The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR)

The United Nations Security Council's first action in the war was to impose an arms embargo on all parties in September 1991. The fighting continued regardless. The attacks on Vukovar and Dubrovnik showed that real war could not be averted. After twelve cease-fires in Croatia collapsed, UN envoy Cyrus Vance succeeded in making the thirteenth stick: Milosevic compelled the leaders of the RSK to accept. The January 2, 1992, agreement (called the Vance Plan) provided for 10,000 (later 14,000) UN peacekeepers to stabilize the disputed territory while a political settlement was worked out.

Over the next several years, UNPROFOR failed to demilitarize the rebel areas or to create conditions for the return of refugees. Indeed, refugee numbers swelled as Serbs in government-controlled areas were attacked in retaliation for the crimes of the rebels. According to human rights activists, 11,000 Serb-owned homes were destroyed outside rebel areas during the year after the January 1992 cease-fire. Non-Serbs in RSK territory were killed and expelled under the eyes of UN peacekeepers. Illogically, the UN protected Serbs in Serb-controlled territory while it did nothing for those who remained in government-controlled territory, who were at much greater risk.

The so-called Republic of Serb Krajina was now a twilight land ruled by a paramilitary mafia, sustained by plunder, contraband and humanitarian aid. The mafiosi never believed that the Croatians could retake the territory. Their total intransigence played into Tudjman's hands: he appeared reasonable by comparison. As time passed, his barely concealed ambition of recovering the territory minus its Serb population appeared almost pragmatic.

Writing in a special edition of Globus news magazine (Zagreb, December 11, 1999) shortly after Tudjman's death, his former chef de cabinet, Hrvoje Sarinic, recalled the eve of Operation Storm in August 1995, when Croatia recaptured most of the Serb rebel-held territory: "All attempts at a peaceful solution (which, to tell the truth, we didn't even want) had failed. The military-police forces got the order to establish the constitutional and legal system." This attitude was obvious at the time, though not publicly acknowledged by the United Nations.

Despite its failures, the UN mission served Croatia's longer-term interests, stabilizing the country while it built up its forces. By late 1994, the Western powers were impatient with the stalemate. The turning point was a U.S.–Croatian memorandum on defense cooperation, signed in November 1994. This led to training and planning assistance which was put to use the following summer.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina (4.12 million) was the only Yugoslav republic without a titular nation, hence the only one that could not become a nation-state. Serb and Croat nationalists traditionally claimed part or all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as authority over the Muslim plurality (44% in 1991).

The first multiparty election in Bosnia and Herzegovina was effectively a national plebiscite, with results reflecting the region's ethnic balance (Serbs were 31% and Croats were 17% of the population). The main Muslim political party was led by Alija Izetbegović (1925–2003), a peaceable if erratic Islamic dissident who had been jailed in the 1980s by the republic's repressive communist structures. He tried to form a unity government with the main Serb and Croat parties. While the Croats were tactically cooperative, the Serbs—led by Radovan Karadzic, a colorful psychiatrist and poet—categorically resisted efforts to strengthen Bosnia and Herzegovina's sovereignty.

In spring and summer 1991, Serb-majority regions in the north and east formed "autonomous regions," which formed the territorial basis for a breakaway Serb entity. JNA garrisons supplied arms to nascent Serb forces and later encircled major cities with heavy weapons. Izetbegović could either capitulate to Serb pressure, tying Bosnia and Herzegovina unconditionally to Serbia and its satellite, Montenegro; or he could follow the path taken successfully by Slovenia and bloodily by Croatia. The first option was unacceptable to most Muslims and all Croats; the second was intolerable to the Serbs.

In mid-October 1991, the Serb delegates boycotted the Bosnia and Herzegovina parliament's vote on sovereignty. Before exiting the chamber to set up their own "Serb Assembly" (which at once appealed to the JNA for protection), Karadzic issued a warning. His words, and Izetbegović's response, are quoted in the book, Unfinished Peace: "Do not think that you will not lead Bosnia into hell, and do not think that you will not perhaps lead the Muslim people into annihilation, because the Muslims cannot defend themselves if there is war." Izetbegović replied: "His words and manner illustrate why others refuse to stay in Yugoslavia. Nobody else wants the kind of Yugoslavia that Mr. Karadzic wants anymore. Nobody except perhaps the Serbs" (Tindemans et al., 1996, p. 34).

Speculating that even war would be better than a future as Milosevic's vassals, the Muslim and Croat leaders sought international recognition for Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 1991. Such recognition had been preempted by a Bosnian Serb "plebiscite" on remaining in Yugoslavia in November. The European Community required a referendum. Held in early March, it was duly boycotted en masse by the Serbs, whose leaders had preemptively proclaimed a "Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina" in January 1992. The result was treated as valid ground for granting international recognition, but, incredibly, the Bosnia and Herzegovina government's requests for practical defensive aid, or merely for UN peacekeepers, were turned down. The local leaders' irresponsibility was abetted by the irresponsibility shown by the outside powers.

The JNA had prepared for Bosnia and Herzegovina's independence since December 1991 by transferring Bosnian Serb troops into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When international recognition came, on April 6–7, 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina had only a fractured police force, a nascent, Muslim-led Patriotic League, and a Croat militia to defend it. This lack of readiness was due partly to the difficulty of acquiring weapons. Unlike Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina's borders all lay within Yugoslavia. Lack of readiness can also, in part, be attributed to Izetbegović's refusal to accept that the JNA would target Muslims for their faith or national identity.

In May 1992, the JNA ostensibly withdrew some 14,000 JNA forces from Bosnia and Herzegovina, leaving behind some 75,000 who were allegedly Bosnians by origin. This remaining force, along with artillery, tanks, and fighter planes, became the Army of the Serb Republic, which operated in key respects as an extension of the JNA. When the Serb faction occupied a town, Muslim and Croat community leaders and intellectuals were shot or abducted. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were herded into unused industrial facilities, where they were starved, tortured, and even killed. By late summer, the Serb forces controlled 70 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and more than a million people had been displaced from their homes. The rump Bosnia and Herzegovina government quickly settled on a strategy of endurance, publicizing Serb and later Croat atrocities while clamoring for full-scale international intervention. The rag-tag forces enlisted by the government held some 10 percent of the country in the center and east. Croat forces controlled the remainder. Sarajevo's 400,000 inhabitants were helpless under bombardment.

Croat strategy was divided. Many Croat nationalists were convinced that compact Croat-majority areas in the southwest and northeast of the republic, as well as mixed areas in central Bosnia, should secede and join Croatia proper. A separate Bosnian Croat entity called Herzeg-Bosna was declared unilaterally, with Zagreb's support, in July 1992. On the other hand, an equal or greater number of Croats, living in mixed communities, regarded Bosnia and Herzegovina as their homeland, to be preserved intact.

Tudjman shared the nationalist view. He sent the Croatian Army over the border to fight the Serbs, but then switched in 1993 to attacking their nominal ally, the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its predominantly Muslim troops. The alliance collapsed in spring 1993 as the Croats, encouraged by international proposals for apportioning territory among the nationalities, made a bid to control their majority areas and parts of central Bosnia. They established concentration camps for Muslims. But early success turned sour when the Bosnia and Herzegovina Army fought back well, and also committed crimes against Croat civilians. The Western mediators' only significant peacemaking success came in early 1994, when they persuaded the Bosnian Croat forces to stop their war. The separatist ambitions of the Bosnian Croats went unchanged, however, and Western hopes that the reconstituted alliance would be able to reverse Serb gains were in vain.

Peace Plans

The first and best peace plan was presented by European mediator Lord Carrington in October 1991. This would have framed new relations between sovereign and independent Republics, with special status for minority areas. When, alone among the republic leaders, Milosevic rejected Carrington's plan with impunity, the chance of a unified solution was lost. For the next three-and-a-half years, the international community drifted.

Western leaders seemed unable to judge the significance of a regional conflict in southern Europe that threatened no vital interest except fundamental principles of international law, human rights, and acceptable interstate conduct. Having recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina without then letting its government defend itself, these leaders declared that these fundamental principles must be upheld. Envoys were tasked to design settlements that would reverse land grabs and vast refugee movements without any credible external coercion. The Vance-Owen Plan (January 1993) envisaged ten cantons, nominally mixed but each dominated by one nationality, with a weak central government. It was followed by the Owen-Stoltenberg plan (July 1993), which awarded 53 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina as contiguous territory to the Serbs. The Contact Group plan (July 1994) proposed to split the country between the Serbs (49%) and the Muslim-Croat Federation (51%), which U.S. diplomats brokered in February and March 1994. This was the ratio confirmed at Dayton.

Milosevic's attitude to these plans was pragmatic. He supported them all, but kept his options open by letting men, materiel, and fuel flow from Serbia to the Bosnia Serbs. By late 1994, about half of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was covered by air-to-ground missile systems, which had been imported from Serbia to deter NATO from overflying Bosnia and Herzegovina. No nationalist by conviction, and eager for economic sanctions (which had been imposed in 1992) to be lifted, he felt little loyalty to Serb rebel leaders—his partners in the "joint criminal enterprise." He was ready to bargain away their territory on terms which would not weaken him in Serbia, where his position was less secure than it appeared from outside. At home he faced runaway inflation (running at about 1% hourly by late 1993) and staples such as flour and oil were rationed.

By late November 1991, Milosevic wanted a truce in Croatia, which he eventually imposed on a reluctant Serb rebel leadership. A year later, Bosnian Serb conquests became a liability. Politically, however, he needed to make a show of being forced to renounce the concept of a "Greater Serbia," that most Serbian voters embraced, but with which he had only flirted. Intoxicated by their devastating early success, however, the rebel leaders refused realistic compromises. Impunity fed their hubris. Not until 1995 were the Western powers ready to use force on a wide enough scale to reassure Milosevic that he could abandon the rebels (in Croatia) or compel them to compromise (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) without opening himself to weighty charges of betrayal.

The moral nadir of international policy-making in Bosnia and Herzegovina was to be found, however, not so much in these failed plans as in Resolution 836 of the UN Security Council (June 1993). This resolution stated that six places unconquered by Serb forces were to be "safe areas. . . free from armed attacks and from any other hostile act." While seemingly promising to protect civilians in those areas, Britain and France ensured that this resolution only committed the UN to deter attacks on civilians. If deterrence failed, UN troops would use force, but only in self-defense. This diplomatic sleight helped to enable the mass slaughter at Srebrenica two years later.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has since accepted that "the United Nations hierarchy" made "errors of judgment . . . rooted in a philosophy of impartiality and non-violence wholly unsuited to the conflict in Bosnia." In his Report of the Secretary General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35 (1998): The Fall of Srebrenica, he wrote, "The provision of humanitarian aid" was not "a sufficient response to ethnic cleansing and to an attempted genocide." For, "a Member State of the United Nations, left largely defenseless as a result of an arms embargo imposed upon it by the United Nations, was being dismembered by forces committed to its destruction. This was not a problem with a humanitarian solution". Yet, whatever the mission leaders' failings, many staff did excellent practical work, delivering aid that sustained minority pockets in hostile areas.


By spring 1995, UNPROFOR had suffered almost 200 casualties. Frustration over these losses, and over the general stalemate led Western governments to allow the new UN commander in Bosnia and Herzegovia, Lt. Gen. (now Sir) Rupert Smith (U.K.), leading 31,000 peacekeeping troops, to be more assertive. When Smith ordered air strikes against unmanned military targets, following the sort of violation of safe areas that had rarely been punished before, the Bosnian Serb military chief, General Ratko Mladic, took more than 300 UN hostages, humiliated French troops in Sarajevo, and tried to capture the eastern "safe area" of Gorazde.

Although no hostages were harmed, Smith argued that UNPROFOR must reduce its vulnerability to allow the mandated use of force against the Serb side. Extra French and British troops were sent to Sarajevo as a rapid reaction force, capable of swift military response. Western commitment to the Muslim safe areas again wavered, but before any decision to extract UN troops from those enclaves could be taken, Mladic took the initiative. Having failed to take Gorazde, his men attacked two other safe areas in eastern Bosnia: Srebrenica and Zepa. As they closed in upon Srebrenica, Smith's civilian and military superiors in UNPROFOR refused to allow air-strikes. Dutch peacekeepers in the enclave yielded quietly to Mladic on July 11. Over 7,000 Muslim men and boys were separated from their families and executed.

This atrocity, the worst crime in Europe since 1945, sparked serious Western efforts to end the war. Smith was given authority to order air strikes in the event of further violations of safe areas. The principle of "proportionality" (counterstrikes calibrated to equal, but not exceed, the damage done by the attack that triggered them) was dropped. Thus, when mortar bombs hit a crowded Sarajevo marketplace on August 28, NATO launched a comprehensive air assault on Bosnian Serb arsenals and communications.

In early August, government forces—enhanced by U.S. technical support—recaptured most of the rebel territory in Croatia, leading to the immediate exodus of up to 150,000 Serbs and the murder over succeeding weeks of hundreds more, mostly elderly civilians who had stayed on in the recaptured areas. In 1991 there were 580,000 Serbs in Croatia. A decade later, the census found 201,600. Although the population has undoubtedly grown since then, the Serb community has probably lost a quarter of a million members as the price of pointless rebellion.

The success of Operation Storm opened the way for Croatian troops to push into Bosnia and Herzegovina from the west, justified by Mladic's effort to conquer the safe area of Bihac, while the Bosnia and Herzegovina Army made gains in central Bosnia. As Serb-held territory fell from 70 to around 50 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke gained broad acceptance of the principles for a settlement negotiated at an air force base in Dayton, Ohio. The "General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina" (known as the Dayton Accords) divided the country into two distinct "entities," the Serb Republic and the (Muslim-Croat) Federation. The weak "common institutions" (parliament, presidency and constitutional court) had power over foreign policy and trade, customs and monetary policy, inter-entity law, transport, and communications. Everything else—military, police, taxation, justice, education—was controlled by the entities, or by the ten sub-units known as "cantons" within the Federation. Ultimate authority was vested in a Peace Implementation Council, represented in Bosnia and Herzegovina by an international viceroy, the High Representative, and backed up by a NATO-led, multinational Implementation Force. At the outset, this force numbered 60,000 troops; by late 2003 its troop strength had been reduced to 7,000.

Dayton was a skillfully managed exercise in underachievement. Nominally civic but substantially ethnic, the Accords delivered an armed truce that has only slowly moved toward a self-sustaining peace and not yet toward a viable state. The international political and military resources mobilized in 1995 should have yielded a better solution for the peoples of the region. Misunderstanding Milosevic as a blood-and-soil nationalist, the international mediators conceded too much, recognizing the Republika Srpska, an entity forged by ethnic cleansing, and failing to impose a workable governance system.

When they realized what the Dayton Accords meant in practice, the Bosnian Serb leaders switched from being their harshest critics into their stoutest defenders. In effect, The power of the U.S. had been used to obtain a partitionist solution of the sort that Britain and France, with their "realist" (i.e., pro-Serb) policies, had pursued since 1993.

Toward War in Kosovo

After Milosevic's 1989 putsch, Kosovo's Albanians stuck to nonviolent strategies, ignoring Serbian political structures and developing a "parallel system" of basic education and healthcare. By 1996, this system was dilapidated. In the wake of Dayton, nobody believed any longer that nonviolence would win international backing against Serbia. Guerrilla bands calling themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) wanted confrontation with the Serbian police, which readily obliged. Fighting escalated in 1998; by August, some 200,000 Kosovars had fled into the hills and another 100,000 had left the province.

Threatened with NATO bombardment, Milosevic accepted an unarmed observer mission and a negotiating process. Predictably, this attempt to avert the worst met with failure. Milosevic had nowhere to fall back to from Kosovo, while the KLA was fighting for Kosovo's independence. With both sides playing for the highest stakes, the conflict duly resumed.

In Kosovo, as in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, international policy was atrocity-driven. The galvanizing role played earlier by the destruction of Vukovar and the slaughter at Srebrenica was now performed by the murder of 45 Albanians at Racak in January 1999. Milosevic and the Albanian leaders were given an ultimatum: accept an international settlement granting Kosovo the widest measure of autonomy, or face punishment by NATO missiles. The Albanians eventually saw their own interest and signed, isolating Milosevic. For him, defiance held more appeal than capitulation.

NATO leaders found themselves bombing Serbian military targets and civic infrastructure. Serbia responded by killing an estimated 11,000 Albanians and driving almost one million out of the province. This ethnic cleansing fortified the Western leaders' resolve to persevere. After 78 days, Milosevic agreed to pull out of Kosovo. A UN administration was established to oversee reconstruction and nurture self-government, with 42,000 NATO troops providing security.

No sooner had NATO occupied Kosovo and refugees flooded back than a reverse ethnic cleansing commenced. At least half the remaining Serb minority population was terrorized into fleeing northwards into Serbia. Despite its overwhelming troop strength, NATO was unwilling or unable to stop this exodus and, as had happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, some observers accused the U.S. of prioritizing the protection of its troops over the responsibility to protect civilians. Kosovo's suspended sovereignty gave Albanian extremists a political excuse to cleanse the Serbs from the territory. The wave of violence in March 2004, causing 19 deaths, was a grim reminder that Kosovo could not be stabilized without resolving its final political status.

Having played his last nationalist card, Milosevic could no longer rule by dividing his opponents. Yet he was equally unable to normalize his state without destroying his own party-state powerbase. He lasted until October 2000, eleven years longer than the Berlin Wall—a unique achievement among Europe's communist leaders.

The wars of Yugoslav sucession were fought for power over people and territory. National identities were used as labels for political constituencies. The escalatory logic of the terminal crisis consisted in the readiness of leaders on all sides to discover and pursue maximal goals, in essence daring their opponents to trump them. In this process, fathered by Milosevic and facilitated by Tudjman, legitimacy was pitted against coercive resources in a complex pattern, until trumping meant nothing short of war.

SEE ALSO Bosnia and Herzegovina; Croatia, Independent State of; Ethnic Cleansing; Humanitarian Intervention; Incitement; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; Izetbegović, Alija; Karadzic, Radovan; Kosovo; Massacres; Milosevic, Slobodan; Mladic, Ratko; Peacekeeping; Propaganda; Safe Zones; Tudjman, Franjo


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Mark Thompson