Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, goes into a sort of hibernation during the long summer months, its denizens heading to the coast for their typically long European-style vacations. As they return to their jobs and their classes in the autumn, the city is transformed. Once deserted streets again hum with traffic, both automobile and pedestrian. A new freshness in the air coaxes vendors selling roasted chestnuts back onto corners, where they will remain until spring. Cafés and restaurants overflow noisily onto the sidewalks as locals and straggler tourists enjoy the last few weeks of pleasant weather before the overcast, blustery and snowy hues of winter roll in.
This year, however, the autumn mood was uncharacteristically surly. The newspapers, usually obsessing over the summer’s tourism statistics, were awash in recriminations. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had handed down judgment on three mid-level Serbian officers of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) for crimes committed in Vukovar in 1991 during the war in Croatia. One was declared innocent; another got only five years. The third’s sentence of twenty years read more like a punishment for criminal negligence than the pre-meditated murder of which he is accused. Politicians stepped over each other to condemn the judgment as biased and unfair, while the President and Prime Minister contributed an unseemly public back-and-forth about who should get to go to the United Nations to vent the country’s anger with the Court.
Why such discontent over a tribunal verdict? To put it most simply, Vukovar is Croatia’s Stalingrad. A beautiful baroque town located on the Danube, Vukovar was shelled for 86 days in 1991 by the Yugoslav Army. The city was reduced to rubble, and around 3,000 died. For Croats, “Vukovar” represents an heroic and desperate stand against the invading Serbian force, and has become emblematic of Croatia’s struggle for independence. Though the Croats ended up losing the city, they managed to stall the Serbian assault to the extent that the JNA failed to reach Zagreb and topple the government as the Serbian leadership had planned.
Vukovar’s 1,800 Croatian National Guards (about 1,000 of which were local volunteers) were surrounded by a force vastly superior in both numbers and armaments. The Yugoslav Army, fighting alongside Serbian paramilitaries, is estimated to have numbered around 36,000 at the height of the battle. A modern mechanized force, it had at its disposal hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces, and regularly called in air strikes. As is usually the case, however, urban warfare created asymmetries favorable to the defenders. The majority of the National Guard were fighting literally for their own homes, while the besieging army was largely made up of conscripts. This helps explain why it took the JNA so long to prevail.
Several early attempts to take the city using armor and infantry led to decisive routs of the JNA. During one particularly fierce engagement in September 1991, Croatian forces managed to destroy some sixty tanks and armored personnel carriers while taking only light casualties themselves. Euphoria briefly filled Vukovar’s hard-pressed citizens, tantalizing them with dreams of a modern-day David and Goliath confrontation. But the lessons were not lost on the JNA, which proceeded to pull back and shell the city from a distance. By the end of October, Croatian lines of resistance began to falter as the JNA launched a multi-pronged offensive. By November 18, after more than two weeks of pitched fighting amid the rubble of Vukovar, the Croats had surrendered.
What followed became the model for Serbian behavior as an occupier for the next four years. Soldiers and paramilitaries were set loose on the local populace, randomly beating and executing people to spread an atmosphere of fear. Men of military age were then separated from women and the elderly. The former were put in buses and taken to various prison camps; the latter were ordered at gunpoint to leave the town. Amidst all this activity (soon known as “ethnic cleansing”), 264 patients, mostly wounded defenders, were taken from the Vukovar hospital to the village of Ovcara, where they were summarily shot and thrown into mass graves. It is for this crime that the three Serbian officers were tried—and the verdict, widely regarded as lenient, has not only outraged the Croatian public; it has also helped convince a majority in the country that politics is trumping justice.
The Balkan wars of the 1990s—best called the Wars of Yugoslav Succession—are the subject of much confusion, even for the well informed. Though the most memorable outrages of the war in Bosnia (the shelling of the marketplace in Sarajevo in 1994, the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995) were perpetrated by the Serbs, reports of Croats fighting Muslims around Mostar and Vitez in 1993, as well as of “reverse ethnic cleansing” by the Croat-Muslim Federation as it pushed back against the Serbs in 1995, have all contributed to muddying the waters for many. Feelings of hopelessness, fatigue and disgust with the peoples of the Balkans overcame war correspondents and policymakers alike.
Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, President George H.W. Bush’s adviser on the former Yugoslavia, summed up the sentiment best: “Until the Bosnians, the Serbs and the Croats decide to stop killing each other, there is nothing the outside world can do about it.” And the sentiment was not unique to the first Bush presidency: Richard Holbrooke, who as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe in the Clinton Administration was instrumental in securing the Dayton Accords, found people at the highest levels disturbingly passive. As Holbrooke put it, the meme of “ancient hatreds” conveniently stood in “for history too complicated (or trivial) for outsiders to master”, and served as an excuse for those unable or unwilling to tackle the region’s problems.
What is most pernicious about this meme, however, is not that it kept America uncommitted for so long, but rather that it prevented people from seeing the conflict for what it really was: a one-sided war of aggression by the Serbian regime against the republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. To someone accustomed to thinking in terms of “ancient hatreds”, this explanation may seem far-fetched or, at best, biased against the Serbs. Nevertheless, it is largely supported by both events as they played out and by a fair amount of documentary evidence, as well.
After the death of President Josip Broz Tito in 1980, Serbia began attempting to dominate Yugoslavia. As early as 1981, prominent Serbian politicians were calling for the reassertion of Serbian control over the autonomous province of Kosovo, a territory that held historic significance for Serbs but hadn’t had a Serbian majority population since the 1680s. By the middle of the decade, extremist rhetoric advocating the creation of a Greater Serbia was finding expression in an ever-widening array of venues. A 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, leaked and widely circulated around Yugoslavia, alleged that Serbs living in other republics were under threat and argued for the unification of all territories with Serbian majorities in a new Serb republic. Though no evidence of discrimination was ever provided, the republics had been put on notice. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power on similar themes, stoking groundless paranoia among Serbs all across Yugoslavia.
Making use of a deft mix of populism and intimidation, by 1989 Milosevic had installed leaders loyal to him in the republic of Montenegro, the autonomous territory of Vojvodina and even in restive Kosovo. Fearing similar fates for themselves, first Slovenia and then Croatia called for free elections in their republics, and by 1990, both republics had elected nationalist governments that strongly favored not secession but a loose confederal system for Yugoslavia. Seeing his political avenues of consolidating power closed off, Milosevic turned to Plan B: consolidation by force.
The Serbian goal throughout the Balkan wars was old-fashioned territorial aggrandizement. Milosevic knew he could not reasonably hold on to Slovenia, but hoped to annex all of Bosnia and most of Croatia. His plan was shocking in its cynicism: First get the sizable Serbian minorities in the republics to start a revolt; next, when the republics’ authorities try to reassert control over their territories, send in the Yugoslav Army to “protect” the Serbs; and finally, when the republics are provoked sufficiently to declare independence, prosecute a war to claim as much land as possible, in the process driving all non-Serb populations out so as to create facts on the ground that make legal annexation feasible. This script played out nearly identically in both Croatia and Bosnia.
Though most modern histories of the Balkan wars reflect the fact that the breakup of Yugoslavia was orchestrated from Belgrade, this understanding does not seem to have filtered down to the policy level. Seeing the conflict as tribal in nature leads one to the conclusion that the road to stability lies in freezing hostilities and then forcing reconciliation from outside. Indeed, it was under these premises that Dayton was hammered out. Implicit in Dayton, for example, is the idea that the Croatian-Bosnian joint offensive against the Serbs was just more of the same useless bloodshed prolonging the war. Yet as Paul Wolfowitz noted in 1998 in The National Interest, “it is legitimate to ask whether some continuation of the fighting might have produced a different kind of agreement that would have been more stable in the long run.” Dayton ended up rewarding Serbian aggression by granting it 49 percent of Bosnia’s territory in the form of an almost fully autonomous entity known as Republika Srpska.
After Dayton, the international community turned its attention to prosecuting war crimes as a further means of forcing reconciliation. Again, the underlying assumption was that all sides were guilty; Serbia was perhaps quantitatively, but not qualitatively, more guilty than the other parties, but this was not important for practical purposes. For example, the fact that Serb civilians, fearing retribution, were fleeing in front of advancing Croatian and Bosnian armies was also viewed as “ethnic cleansing”, even though the Croats and Bosnians were not engaged in the methodical slaughter of innocents and forced deportations perfected by their Serbian adversaries over the years. In Croatia’s Operation Storm and Operation Medak Pocket, a total of 180 civilians were allegedly killed, according to the ICTY. This figure covers the entire front, over the course of two years. No distinction is typically made between the defensive nature of the Croatian and Bosnian initiatives and the wholly aggressive nature of the forgoing Serbian action.
The extent of Croatian angst over the Vukovar rulings is easier to understand in this context. Between 2001 and 2004, the ICTY handed down indictments of Croatia’s top generals who presided over the liberation of Croatia from Serbian occupation for not exercising adequate “command responsibility.” The same court named several heads of the JNA in a “Joint Criminal Enterprise” with Slobodan Milosevic (as part of Milosevic’s indictment). Two people mentioned in the Milosevic indictment, Borislav Jovic, the last President of Yugoslavia, and General Veljko Kadijevic, the Yugoslav Minister of Defense, have even admitted publicly to using the JNA to further Serbian territorial ambitions. But despite this and other evidence, none of the highest-ranking JNA officers were ever indicted. The ICTY declared in 2005 that no further indictments would be issued, so these men will remain free.
The only JNA indictees in connection with Vukovar have been the mid-level officers responsible for Ovcara, and ICTY’s ruling was worded in such a way as to minimize their active participation in that crime. According to the ICTY, Mile Mrksic, the JNA colonel sentenced to twenty years, “rendered substantial practical assistance to the TO [Serbian Territorial Defense] and paramilitary forces at Ovcara who were determined to have revenge on the prisoners”, but did not order the prisoners murdered. “Command responsibility” is nowhere to be found.
Indeed, it is becoming apparent that there is no appetite for punishing Serbia further for its role in the war. In February 2007, the International Court of Justice found Serbia not guilty of genocide against Bosnia in Srebrenica, despite finding that the massacre at Srebrenica was an act of genocide. It argued that genocide was perpetrated only by Bosnian Serbs, despite ample evidence of direct JNA involvement under Belgrade’s command. One can only speculate as to why this is happening. Apart from an institutional blindness to the true nature of the conflict, geopolitics is probably also having an impact. Perhaps Serbia is being appeased in hopes of extracting concessions from Belgrade during future negotiations over Kosovo. Perhaps there is a fear of pushing Serbia out of the orbit of the European Union and into the arms of the Russians.
Whatever the reasons, the Court’s policy is ill-conceived. It has cost the West credibility in the region. Serbia has already interpreted the West’s lack of resolve as a fundamental weakness and will likely attempt to extract maximum advantage over Kosovo. After all, Serbia rejected the Rambouillet agreement in 1999 and commenced cleansing Albanians from Kosovo in large part because a similar strategy in Bosnia was ultimately vindicated at Dayton. Furthermore, the question of Republika Srpska within the framework of Bosnia still remains an open sore. Serbia’s determination to eventually annex the territory is not likely to wane. It has already thumbed its nose at the West by threatening to call for a referendum on national self-determination within Bosnia.
As for Croatia, by the time you’re reading this, parliamentary elections will have taken place. All of the major parties agree that Croatia’s future lies in the European Union, and none of the fringe rejectionist parties seem to be gaining much ground in the polls. But once the actual trials of Croatia’s generals get under way, the same grievances will likely re-emerge, greatly amplified.
For an America buffeted by crises in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the politics of a region supposedly pacified more than seven years ago may seem unimportant. Nevertheless, America will play a leading role in the settlement of the Kosovo question, and it likely will be called on to resolve Bosnia when the Dayton agreements finally unravel—probably within the next decade. As it picks its course, the next U.S. administration, if not the present one, should re-examine its approach to the region and honestly appraise the successes and failures of policy outcomes it has helped create. As Bosnian President Haris Silajdzic recently remarked, “Appeasement of the radicals in Belgrade never brought change.” Milosevic may be dead, but his project lives on.