• U.S.

Why Do They Keep on Killing?

8 minute read
Jill Smolowe

“I PROCLAIM THE FEDERAL REpublic of Yugoslavia,” intoned Bogdana Levakov, leader of the parliament in Belgrade, as a new flag was hoisted minus the red star of the old communist Yugoslavia. The star was not all that was gone: this Yugoslavia consists of just two republics, Serbia and Montenegro, with less than half the territory and less than half the 23.9 million people that constituted the nation of six republics a year ago. Only a handful of other countries sent representatives to honor the launch of the self-proclaimed new Yugoslavia.

Even as the old Yugoslavia is cut apart, blood continues to flow. For 10 months now, this has been no tranquil subdivision but a vicious battle among ethnic and religious groups in which principles of self-determination conflict with respect for territorial integrity. And as the relentless loss of lives and the destruction of old and lovely cities continue, the U.S. and its European allies wonder who is to blame and what it will take to stop the killing.

The ill-attended ceremony in Belgrade symbolized the diplomatic isolation that the U.S. and other powers are trying to impose on Serbia. Their intent is to force the fiercely nationalistic leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to stop what looks to most of the world like aggression against the breakaway republics of the old federation. But moral suasion, coupled with the explicit threat of economic sanctions, has as yet achieved nothing. Instead, the warfare among Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Slavic Muslims has given the world a lesson in the true — and terrible — meaning of the often loosely used term Balkanization. If the proprietors of the new world order regard this as a test case of their ability to defuse ethnic warfare anywhere, they have so far resoundingly failed.

Any hopes that the proclamation of a shrunken Yugoslavia might prove a key to peace died within days. In the name of protecting the Serb minority in Bosnia, predominantly Serb army troops and local militia poured artillery shells into towns and fought pitched battles with Croats and Slavic Muslims in the capital, Sarajevo. The recent fighting in Bosnia has added at least 300 deaths to the 10,000 killed — the bulk of them in Croatia — since Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence last spring. The federal army has withdrawn from Slovenia, and in Croatia the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force has helped reinforce the sense of a shaky peace. But fighting still flares occasionally, and political talks have failed to produce even a glimmer of a lasting peace. Throughout the former republics, the warfare has driven a million refugees from their homes, including 400,000 Bosnians who have fled in the past month.

Most Western observers put primary blame for the desperate situation on Milosevic and his Serb followers. By this reading, their incessant attempts to dominate the other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia caused every erstwhile republic but tiny Montenegro to secede. Then Milosevic sought to salvage a kind of Greater Serbia from the wreckage by encouraging Serb-populated regions of the breakaway republics to resist secession — and providing the crude military means to do so. Around U.N. headquarters in New York City, some diplomats are reminded of the way Hitler used the supposed need to protect German minorities in Czechoslovakia as an excuse to subjugate those countries.

Lord Carrington, the European Community’s designated mediator, is not alone, however, when he insists that Milosevic bears most, but by no means all, of the blame. The Serb leader may have summoned the nationalist genie, but it was a spirit just waiting to be uncorked from its tightly capped bottle. Throughout a 74-year existence, Yugoslavia has been a powder keg of ethnic, national and religious hatreds that go back for centuries. The country that is now vanishing was an artificial creation of conflicting cultures, patched together in the wake of two world wars. Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Slavs were held in check only by strongman Josip Broz Tito’s centralized communist system. By the time of his death in 1980, the country was already unraveling. Political power had decentralized, the relatively prosperous economy was faltering, and old tensions began to rise. The richer republics of the northwest, Slovenia and Croatia, felt their development was hampered by the poorer republics of Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Serbia was hated by the rest for dominating the government and the army; in turn it saw preserving unity at all costs as a mission, given weight by fears that Serbs in other republics were threatened by emerging nationalist regimes.

Slovenia departed first, and the federal government’s attempt to hold it by , force was cut short by a feisty military defense and the fact that Slovenia had no Serb minority to justify Belgrade’s interference. That successful bid for freedom emboldened Croatia, where Serbs are a widely dispersed minority. President Franjo Tudjman’s inflammatory and nationalistic rhetoric also stirred Serb fears of a reprise of the genocidal campaign against them by Croat fascists during World War II. Now Bosnia, largely Muslim and Croat but with a 1.4 million Serb ethnic component, has seceded, and Serbia sees the pattern repeating. Once again Serbs feel themselves victimized by an uncaring world. Mihailo Markovic, vice president of the Socialist Party of Serbia, asks, “How can the world accept the reunification of Germany and want to disintegrate the unity of Serbs?”

The answer is that Yugoslavia’s disintegration is internally driven; international onlookers are merely going along for the ride. Centuries of simmering ethnic hatreds are now so fully aroused that each embattled group is convinced that its opponents — many of whom were friendly neighbors up until a few months ago — are guilty of unbounded perfidy. In Bosnia, where Croats, Serbs and Muslims have lived peaceably side by side for decades, the Serbs have already forced Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic to agree to a tripartite division of the newly independent country into ethnic regions. The absurdity of it all is on display in Bosnia’s schools, where children not old enough to shave sport Serb, Croat or Muslim badges and tattoos.

What has the West done in response? The kindest statement might be that thus far, the Western allies have failed to get their act together. The E.C., which seems best placed to handle the problem, has been divided from the start over whether to push confederation on the feuding republics or embrace independence for each. Only a determined nudge from Germany brought such recognition. Peacemaking efforts, while persistent and well-intentioned, have proved largely ineffectual as all but one of the 15 Community-orchestrated cease- fires have come and gone over the past six months.

The U.N. has taken a hand with its deployment of peacekeeping troops to Croatia — 8,000 of the authorized 14,000 are already in place. But now hand- wringing has begun over whether, given the human and financial costs, to put such a force in Bosnia. Some observers caution that Croatia is a poor example: however unintended, the presence of the Blue Helmets in that country has served to safeguard Serbian conquests. &

The Western allies’ failure to concur on a policy is partly a refraction of concerns that they might only inflame or, worse, get bogged down in Yugoslavia’s mess. Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions against Serbia have not yet been pursued with any seriousness because no one knows if such hardball tactics will scare Milosevic — or merely strengthen his territorial ambitions. At the moment, there is widespread agreement that recognition of the new Yugoslavia is undesirable until Serbia removes its army from Bosnia. It is a tactic that might have some effect: without recognition, Yugoslavia stands to lose its U.N. seat, as well as its membership in the IMF and other international bodies.

The West can prod, but only the leaders of former Yugoslavia can decide on a course. For now,they seem bent on further anarchy. “Too many people, too often and too fast, are prepared to resort to the use of the gun and the bayonet,” says Lawrence Eagleburger, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. As Lebanon demonstrated through 16 years of misery and chaos, no outside force can impose peace on a country — or leaders — bent on war. Perhaps the West can only sit back and wait until the ethnic groups feel they have no more blood to give. Then, when they come for help, the West should be prepared to step in with peacekeeping troops, negotiators and lots of encouragement.

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