Yugoslavia: Why was there a civil war?



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Yugoslavia: Why was there a civil war?

The civil war in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that took place from 1991-1995 was the only conflict of those proportions in Europe after the Second World War. Many journalists unquestionably described it as a flare of ancient hatred among Croats, Serbs and Muslims. However, that argument should not be taken as a leading explanation of the conflict. The goal of this research is to give more comprehensive theories of what caused the hostilities in Yugoslavia. To do that it compares explanations given by the most careful observers of this war (journalist, diplomats, historians and political science theorists), sorting and presenting them as three different approaches to the conflict. The first argument highlights the negative influence of Serbian history and pride on the existence of Yugoslavia. The second theory explains that the international actors did not always positively contribute to the development of events and adds that the political solutions given by the international diplomats who dealt with the question of Yugoslavia tended to make the situation worse at certain times. Finally, the last theory supports an understanding of the war as the struggle for power among the Yugoslavian leadership. Certainly there are more theories which could have been included in the analysis of the war in Yugoslavia. However, the three theories mentioned above give the most comprehensive answers to the conflict and for that reason this research focuses on them by giving detailed insight in advantages and flaws of these three approaches to. Lastly, the paper singles out one of these theories as the finest explanation of Yugoslavian war-the theory of political elites who led the country.

These days it looks like ex-Yugoslavian countries have found their own ways, looking forward, leaving the wars behind and trying to restore good relations among themselves. Slovenia has been a member of the European Union for almost a decade, Croatia joined this year. Belgrade and Pristina are negotiating over the rights of people in Kosovo while trying to meet the conditions for the EU membership. Although still very poor, Bosnia is definitely developing, every year new modern buildings, institutions and organizations sprout throughout the country. Life goes on and older generations seem to remember just the better times asking themselves why they needed the war. Younger generations are mostly in hurry to get their lives in order, find a job and place to live, rarely even mentioning what happen before.

However, the news on the war comes back every now and then to remind us of the dark ages of the 1990’s. A few months ago, the largest massive grave was discovered. It is believed that the bodies of about 1000 Bosniaks and Croats are lying in Tomasica.1 This news makes one rethink the war causalities. The war indeed created a huge number of displaced, killed and missing people. War in Croatia ended up with 200,000 refugees and 350,000 displaced people while the number of killed was approximately 20,000. Bosnia saw more than 70,000 dead people and 2 more million displaced just in the first two years of war.2 That is such a huge number without even counting those atrocities by the end of the war, like the one in Sarajevo marketplace or Srebrenica in 1995 when 8,000 Muslims were killed.3

However, it is not an ancient hatred or religious conflict that brought these terrible days. The more I read the more I understood that there are many people who, just like me, pass by those two theories without even taking them into consideration. Moreover, the number of those who see deeper causalities to war is substantial. In this paper I am going to present three theories, each of which explains the war in Yugoslavia differently focusing on many factors other than religion and long lasting hatred.

Tim Judah and Veljko Vujacic argued that the history and the collective memory of Serbians as the first problem. They explained that the way in which Serbian people saw themselves as liberators ever since the time of the Ottoman Empire made them use force to keep the country which they so bloodily fought to establish. Serbs are proud of their history and Serbian leaders knew how to use that sentiment to start the war and achieve their interests. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a professor of political science at Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Susan L. Woodward, argued that political and economic influence from the international stage was what made Yugoslavia vulnerable and the war so abiding. According to them, the fading role of Yugoslavia as a peacekeeper between west and east, not well thought decision of international community to recognize Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and the timing of that decision, as well as its negligence to undertake serious steps to stop the conflict were the factors that helped kindle the war.

The last theory that I am going to present is that of political elites and their hunger to grab power after Tito’s death. V. P. Gagnon, Marcus Tanner and Marko Zivkovic explained this theory, each from his own point of view. While Tanner focused his writing on Croatian elites and Zivkovic on Serbian, Gagnon strongly criticized both of them. The bottom line for all of them is that elites wanted to seize as much power as they could and the war was the perfect tool towards their goal. Political leaders played with their citizens manipulating and sending them to fight not for the interests of the republic but for themselves.

After explaining all three theories, I am going to argue for the third one, the argument that explains the war as the fault of the leadership in the ex-YU republics. It is true that Serbians are proud and it does not take a lot of effort to convince them that they were historically significant force in the Balkans, but that they did not get anything back for their sacrifice. It is also true that international community was not always just while solving the Balkan question and that it did not show much understanding when it came to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. However, the war would not have happened if the republics did not have leaders who were hungry for power. All of them, especially Milosevic and Tudjman, wanted to grab the position and rule. They knew that they needed to play the ethnicity card. They manipulated historic facts, laws and armies; they controlled media and lied to their voters, in order to get the presidency.

Before the theories are presented, it will be useful if we shortly observe the history of Yugoslavia from the end of the Second World War until the conflict in Slovenia started in 1990. During the war Tito’s policy of unity among the people was the most attractive. Unlike Mihajlovic who used the war as a chance to cleans Bosnians of Islamic religion or leaders of NDH that were loyal to Hitler and conducted policy to “convert a third, expel a third and kill a third”4 of Orthodox Serbs, Tito admitted all people to fight along Paritzans and with them managed to liberate Yugoslavia in its prewar borders. Internationally, by the end of the war Tito was strongly supported by the United Kingdom and Russia in his efforts to defeat Germans and Italians and set up Yugoslavia as a federation. After the war, Tito took history in his hands and kept the crimes of Ustasha (fascist organization of independent Croatia) and Chetniks (nationalistic Serbian group during the war) silent. He thought that counting victims would boost national question of Yugoslavia and cause a deep conflict.

Although many historical books marked Tito as an ally of Russians, the quarrels between Yugoslavian and Russian leadership started early, which resulted in Stalin despising Tito and accusing him of turning to the West. In 1948, Yugoslavian communists were expelled from the Communists Information Bureau, when Tito and his closest advisors started making a third way, so called “workers self-management” or Yugoslavian communism. This kind of ideology led Yugoslavia to be far more liberal than any Eastern European country, to recognize greater freedoms for its citizens and turn to the Western world for trading and financial help. Finally, it led to a good living standard, tolerance and strong relationships with many countries around the world.

After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia started experiencing problems. Slovenia and Croatia had six times bigger per capita income than that of Kosovo and the leadership was too weak to persuade those two countries to keep contributing to national economy.5 Additionally, changing the constitution in 1974, Tito recognized Kosovo as autonomous province and hugely expanded the rights of Albanians. After his death, Albanian nationalists from Kosovo started demanding even greater freedoms. Afraid that Albanians were looking for independence and unable to negotiate with them, Serbian leaders started repressing Kosovo Albanians which caused the uproar of the other republics that constituted Yugoslavia. In Croatia, leaders who led the movement against the Cyrillic alphabet in 1972 were out of the prison after Tito died and some of them came back to the political stage. One of the communists and Partizans who turned nationalist and returned to take up a position after being in prison is Franjo Tudjman, who later was one of the most responsible for the civil war of ‘90s. Those are only a few of the conflicts among the political leadership that Yugoslavian rulers could not manage in a peaceful manner after Tito died. Those led to many more conflicts which ended with republics and their leaders bypassing the constitutional provisions which finally resulted in civil war a decade after the death of Tito.

The history of Yugoslavia in ‘90s is the only period after the Second World War that Europe experienced atrocities like mass rapes, concentration camps and genocide. However, the international community showed very little interest in the conflict before the crimes against humanity were committed. After the war, international organizations and great powers suffered a lot of criticism because of their inaction. Because of the significance that this war represents the next section of this paper will present three different theories that are trying to explain why the war in Yugoslavia happened.

Serbian history explanation

After the war, people who studied political science were tempted to see Serbia as the only cause of the war. In media, Serbians were often described as predisposed to go to war. Taking Serbian history it is not hard to see why. At the first glance, it looks like their history was a history of wars. The first signs of stable Serbian state showed after despot Stefan Nemanja assumed the throne in 1166. Until 1380s when Ottoman Empire started attacking Serbia, Serbian history was marked by battles in which Serbia, as any other country at that time, wanted to conquer more territories. The end of the 14th Century marked the beginning of the Ottoman rule in Serbia which was going to last for five centuries. Here, it is very important to emphasize the Kosovo battle that took place in 1389. As many writers correctly notice, this battle has a lot of significance in building Serbian identity even today. History textbooks in Serbia give a lot of significance to this event since it was the one where Serbian knight, Milos Obilic, killed the Turkish sultan Murat I. Even today the battle of Kosovo is used by Serbian leaders as a great mean for the manipulation of Serbian people. With the help of other Balkan nations Serbs reconquered their territories in the First Balkan War (1912). Although united in the first war, Serbia and Bulgaria went to war against each other right after they defeated the Ottomans. Those two countries started fighting over the Macedonian territory in 1913. Next year, although just a trigger for the First World War, the assassination of Archduke of Austro-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, by Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, will always stay one of the greatest examples of Serbian pride, stubbornness and warlike behavior in the eyes of the world. After WWI, there was Second World War in which Serbia also fought to defend its interests. Finally, after the peaceful period of Tito’s rule, Serbians are regarded as ones who started the civil war in 90s.

Taking Serbian history like that, it is not surprising that once the civil war broke out the easiest explanation of the situation was that Serbs are people who are used to waging wars. Consequentially, the media was fast to accuse Serbs for continuing the history of killings and massacres. However, it is not Serbian history that one should look at when explaining the way Serbs as people behaved during the civil war. To understand the civil war one should focus on how Serbian leaders manipulated Serbian people emphasizing the instances of Serbian bravery in the past. Leaders also manipulated people by making them recall how they defended Europe from the Ottomans, put great effort to defeat Austrians, Germans and Italians, saved the Yugoslavian minorities from NDH leadership (Independent State of Croatia, Ustasha regime) and received nothing in return for their efforts. Moreover, in the rhetoric of Serbian leadership, Serbs were always sacrificed by other countries in Balkan and the international community and the interests of Serbs were always overlooked.

Scholars like Tim Judah and Veljko Vujacic would agree that when taking into account Serbian history to explain the civil war people should focus on how leadership used the history instead of how war-like behavior became a trait of Serbian people during their historical battles for great Serbia. In his book “The Serbs”, Tim Judah wanted to present those ordinary Serbs who were confused and who, in the time of hyperinflation did not have time to think about the problems of just war. The economy started to shake during 80s and it collapsed in 90s. By the end of July 1993 an annualized rate of inflation was 363 quadrillion percent (363,000,000,000,000,000) while the largest bank note printed was of a value of 50,000,000,000 dinars.6 The value of money was changing on an hourly basis making people run to the store to buy bread and milk right after they got some money.

While thinking of how they and their children were going to find some food, people were bombarded with leaders’ speeches which always included the picture of Serbian heroism through history, calling people to stand up against the enemy and the enemy was everyone-Croats, Bosnians, Albanians and the international community. It was very easy for leaders to spread the fear of Muslims and Croats. One thing that greatly helped was Serbian collective memory of the NDH and Ottoman regimes.

When we observe the casualties of WWII within the republic one can see that, aside from Serbs in Serbia and Croatian in Croatia, the biggest number of dead was that of Serbs in Bosnia (170,000) and Serbs in Croatia (137,000)7. Those numbers suggest that half of Serbs who died during WWII died on the territory of the Ustasha regime. Politicians started to talk about the casualties, picturing killings, rapes and tortures that Serbs went through because of the NDH leadership, and started using them through media to promote war. It was not hard to make ordinary Serbs afraid, especially those Serbs who constituted great minorities in Bosnia and Croatia. Moreover, the number of Serbs who died during the war is far greater compared to the other nationalities that were going to unite in Yugoslavia (530,000 Serbs comparing to 192,000 Croats and 103,000 Muslims)8. This fact helped Serbian leaders prove one more thing-that Serbs gave three to five times more lives than other nations to defend Yugoslavia as their national state. This fact was used by Serbian leaders to argue several points. First, that Serbs sacrificed the most for Yugoslavia and the national liberation. Second, that other countries were more likely to leave Yugoslavia without even trying to make it as strong as it was since they never tried as hard to rebuild it at the first place. Finally, those numbers served great when it comes to proving that Serbs gave the most while not getting anything in return.

When it comes to creating fear of Muslim people, it was repeated many times before and during the war that Bosnians are Ottomans who survived and that they were making a conspiracy to overtake Yugoslavia. When one compares the trail of Draza Mihailovic (leader of Serbian Chetniks during WWII) in 1946 and the one of Radislav Krstic (Chief of Staff of Drina Corps of the Army of Republika Srpska) at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, one can see that neither in 1940s nor in 1990s were Serbian leaders totally free of the prejudice against Muslim people although decades passed since the Ottomans were expelled from the Balkan Peninsula. Both of those men, Mihailovic and Krstic, led soldiers who killed around 8000 Muslims during a single attack in Bosnia. Draza did that in 1943, Krstic in 1995. During the trials both of them refused to recognize that they were involved in killings but did not deny that they ordered territory to be cleared up.9 While people of different ethnicity coexisted positively before WWII, as well as before the civil war, it seems that lack of confidence ruled among the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and those trials show that distrust and the desire for domination were always present in the heads of the leaders. Therefore, before and during the conflict leaders in Serbia, but also Croatia and Bosnia, were often playing with the peoples’ collective memory, using the past massacres to frighten people and lead them to take up arms.

Therefore, although the war was not happening on the territory of Serbia, Serbs lived in fear under Milosevic. Leaders’ speeches aimed at spreading confusion and fear and hyperinflation did not contribute positively on the way that they perceived themselves and “others”(Bosnians and Croats). Adding up to the story of Serbian heroism, they were bombarded with one more fact and that is that Serbs were sacrificed under communism when they were sent to work and live throughout Yugoslavia so that their numerical preponderance is diluted. The intended goal was achieved and Serbs were huge minorities in Bosnia and Croatia while this was not true for any other nation in any other republic of Yugoslavia.

Out of the whole republic’s population Serbs made up 32.2 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina and 11.6 percent of Croatia in 1981. On the other hand, that year there were only 2.3 percent of Muslims and 1.6 percent of Croats in Serbia.10 If the conflict started only Serbs would have many people in other republics that would not be given an opportunity to vote and decide whether they want to stay in Yugoslavia. Since they were minorities they would have to stay under the potential repression of the new governments.

On the other hand, Albanians were a substantial minority in Serbia that, at that time, had greater opportunity to decide on the matters in Serbian politics than the Serbs did on the problems and solutions in Kosovo. According to the 1974 constitution Kosovo as autonomous province had influence in matters of Serbian politics since the constitutional key was “one republic, one vote”. However, Serbs did not have any right to intervene in Kosovo (or any other republic’s or province’s) politics. This meant that politicians from Serbia could not plead for 42 percent of Serbian people who lived outside Serbia proper (Serbia without autonomous regions).11 It is not hard to see how Serbian politicians could present this situation as great unfairness that is done to Serbian people in the process of making the national state that was made mostly by Serbian efforts and sacrifices.

All of these arguments, that Serbs do not have equal rights to those of other minorities, that Muslims were about to overtake Yugoslavia and that Serbia suffered the most both economically and politically, were presented in “Memorandum”, a piece written by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. This document caused huge clamor among the Serbian people since the writers go as far as using the term genocide, to remind Serbian people what happened during the NDH regime and to call attention to conflict that was breaking out in Kosovo at the time (1986).

If nothing before that, the “Memorandum” made people draw a line between “we” and “them”, we being victimized Serbs and them being Croatians, Slovenians, Bosnians and Albanians by stating that:

“…the vindictive policy towards this republic [Serbia] has not lost any of its edge with the passing of time. On the contrary, encouraged by its own success, it has grown ever stronger, to the point of genocide. The discrimination against citizens of Serbia who, because of the representation of the republics on the principle of parity, have fewer federal posts open to them than others and fewer of their own delegates in the Federal Assembly is politically untenable, and the vote of citizens from Serbia carries less weight than the vote of citizens from any of the other republics or any of the provinces”12

This short paragraph contains three main points of Serbian leaderships’ manipulations. First,that the vindictive policy against Serbs lasted for a long time. Second, that Serbs are politically the only nation disadvantaged and third, that the politics of other republics towards Serbia took on the characteristics of genocide.

Describing the reasons for “Serbian exceptionalism” Veljko Vujacic argues that the abuse of Serbian common memory led to the civil war in Yugoslavia since Serbs were convinced by their leaders that they have to defend their national state. He writes that the problem of treating minorities and the talk about Serbian heroism cumulated into many speeches, news, articles, books and many other works by Serbian elite which subsequently had great influence on behavior of ordinary Serbian people during the war. Next to Memorandum, numerous works were published by prominent Serbian academics and politicians in which they glorify Serbian people and discuss how Serbs were sacrificed to the great extent instead of being rewarded for their bravery. Next to Memorandum, one of the most famous works was written by Vuk Draskovic, who organized democratic but nationalistic opposition to Milosevic. The book is named “Noz” (the Knife). Draskovic writes about the Serbian victims of NDH regime. Since talk about that topic was silenced during Tito regime and uncovered at the time of conflict and inflation, these facts stirred up negative, nationalistic emotions among Serbian people that served as a trigger for Serbian fighters. Some other well-known nationalistic pieces from that time are “Vreme Smrti” (Time of Death) and “Gresnik” (The Sinner) by Dobrica Cosic, Serbian writer who was to become president of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992.

After all the evidence presented one cannot disagree that the argument of Serbian history and the way it was used for manipulation is a strong one. Indeed, “leaders drew on the malign threads of their people’s history to bind them and pull them into the war… [and] if Serbian history had been different, today’s generations could not have been manipulated in the same way”13. However, it is not just the domestic politics that influenced the war. The next section of this research will focus on how the international stage made the situation worse at certain times.



International disinterest and misunderstanding explanation

Although the international community was not the initial cause of the war in Yugoslavia, the decisions made in Brussels and Washington and the events on the international stage were often those which influenced the Yugoslavian leadership to act in an aggressive manner. First off all, Russia started to fall apart which made Yugoslavia lose its strongest role that it had during the Cold War-being the bridge between East and West. While Yugoslavia was experiencing economic hardship during the ‘80s IMF and foreign creditors were pushing for liberalization which gave great advantage to those republics, Croatian and Slovenia, which were already much wealthier than the rest of the Yugoslavia. Secondly, when the conflict was about to start, great powers did not show much interests to stop it. Rather they tended to see the conflict as the matter of domestic politics long into the war. Like Secretary Madeleine Albright confessed, the war in Yugoslavia would not have taken on such deadly shapes if the international community was faster in deciding on use of threat of force to intimidate Yugoslavian leadership. Lastly, once the international community was involved in the conflict, the peace plans they made reflected misunderstanding of the situation on the ground and miscalculation of Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian leaders’ actions.

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