Why Yugoslavia Still Matters

This is part of a strategic dialogue on Yugoslavia. See Ed Herman’s opposing argument here, and their respective responses here.

Yugoslavia, though you cannot find it any longer on maps, is still very much with us. The wars and political turmoil that convulsed this multiethnic country in the 1990s continue to reverberate today. These aftershocks can be felt in the standoff around Kosovo’s independence, the political fragmentation in Bosnia, the conflict between Macedonia and Greece, and the failure of European integration to encompass most of what was once Eastern Europe’s most Western-leaning country.

The country held responsible for Yugoslavia’s disintegration and many of the ills that still affect the region is Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic, even after his death in 2006, remains a symbol of all that went wrong in that corner of southeastern Europe: corruption, militarism, ethnic cleansing. His four-year trial at the UN International Criminal Tribunal provided the world with a picture of a proud, self-serving, and mendacious figure desperate to rescue his legacy: the Richard Nixon of the Balkans.

It’s all too easy to pin the blame for Yugoslavia’s disintegration solely on Serbia and Milosevic. Other actors share responsibility for what took place in the 1990s, including the United States and NATO. The best writers on Yugoslavia have chronicled Croatia’s ethnic cleansing campaigns, Slovenia’s role in undoing Yugoslav federalism, and the war crimes of mujahideen fighters in Bosnia. They have challenged claims of genocide in Kosovo prior to NATO’s bombing in 1999, and they have detailed the crimes committed against ethnic Serbs.

Providing such a well-rounded picture of Yugoslavia is essential, particularly in order to move beyond the current stalemates in the region. But the crimes committed by Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic in particular shouldn’t disappear from all of this contextualizing. Unfortunately, for some writers on the left, providing a full context for understanding the disintegration of Yugoslavia requires just such a whitewashing. This revisionist history of Yugoslavia is even more one-sided than the mainstream media reporting that it criticizes. For every useful fact that the revisionists bring to the table there is a telling gap or historical distortion in their accounts.

The revisionists have disputed Milosevic’s guilt, the disproportionate role that Serbia played in the Balkan bloodshed, and even the genocide of Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in Srebrenica. It would be as if a group of analysts of World War II suddenly focused on the crimes of Hungarian, Romanian, and Ukrainian fascists in order to deny or diminish German responsibility for the Final Solution. The question is: Why are these revisionists fighting the Yugoslav wars all over again?

Serbian Nationalism

Anyone visiting Belgrade in the late 1980s without a cursory knowledge of Cyrillic might have mistaken all the signs and bumper stickers with hearts on them for a festival of love. In fact, the signs declared: I [Heart] Serbia. They frequently appeared next to pictures of the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Marooned in Belgrade in the summer of 1989 on my way to Dubrovnik, I was taken aback by this outpouring of affection for homeland and leader. I was still under the impression that Yugoslavia was an outpost of communist internationalism and that only post-war leader Marshal Tito merited a personality cult.

After doing a little research I discovered that Serbia was indeed experiencing a nationalist revival, which had been gathering steam since Tito’s death in 1980. An adherent of the formula “strong Yugoslavia, weak Serbia,” Tito had deliberately cut Serbia down to size by creating within the republic two autonomous regions — Kosovo and Vojvodina. Under Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia attempted to regain its past, mythic glory. From July 1988 to spring 1989, according to Robert Thomas in The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, Milosevic organized mass public rallies that featured nationalist songs and slogans — “In all the places where there are Serbian souls, that is the home and the hearth-place of my birth” — that mobilized 5 million Serbs. In spring 1989, on the heels of these rallies and just before my trip to Belgrade, Milosevic rescinded a 1974 compromise that had given Kosovo an even greater measure of autonomy from Belgrade. In March, ethnic Albanians demonstrated in Pristina, and riot police killed 24 demonstrators. The federal government cracked down, and Kosovo’s intifada began.

When I returned to the United States that fall, I gave various presentations on the situation in Eastern Europe in that miraculous year of 1989. At one presentation, however, several people in the audience took issue with my characterization of a Serbian nationalist resurgence. “There is no such thing,” they told me. “But I saw it with my own eyes,” I reported. “You are mistaken,” they told me. “Mihailo Markovic says that Milosevic is not a Serbian nationalist.”

Mihailo Markovic was an influential Yugoslav philosopher who helped found the critical-thinking Praxis group, which combined Marxism and humanism. He’d taught in the United States and had lost his teaching job in Belgrade because of his heretical views. More recently, though, he’d become a kind of presiding figure for a sliver of the U.S. left that believed, against much evidence to the contrary, that Slobodan Milosevic was Yugoslavia’s last, true socialist and internationalist.

Markovic appears in this guise as a witness for the defense in Milosevic’s trial in The Hague in Edward Herman and David Peterson’s revisionist essay The Dismantling of Yugoslavia. In this account, Markovic confirms Milosevic’s contention that there never was a plan for a Greater Serbia. This was the equivalent of Adolf Hitler calling Joseph Goebbels as a witness for his defense. What Herman and Peterson neglect to mention is that Markovic was a chief ideologue for Milosevic’s party and a defender of Milosevic’s push for Serbian expansion. In the mid-1980s, Markovic was one of the authors of a controversial memorandum that stoked the fires of Serb nationalism. “The SANU Memorandum laid the groundwork for all that is happening now, foreseeing as it did the coming together of all Serbs from Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and the ethnic borders, thus enabling a clash with the creators of the new world order,” Markovic wrote.

Milosevic was not by any means a blood-and-soil nationalist like his sometimes right-wing partner Vojislav Seselj. Milosevic used nationalism as a mechanism to seize power within the Yugoslav Socialist Party, to whip up political support by exploiting the Kosovo issue, and to mobilize Serbian fears in the conflict with Croatia. His instrumental devotion to a Greater Serbia is well-documented. As the country around him disintegrated, he used “Yugoslavia” as a code word for Serbian domination. “Either Yugoslavia’s various nations would accept Serbia’s vision of a ‘normal,’ unified state that served Serbian interests, or Serbs from all the republics would ‘join together’ and achieve their national unity by force,” writes Serbian peace activist Vesna Pesic.

Milosevic was willing to unleash the furies of nationalism to achieve his political goals. Long before his Kosovo campaign of the late 1990s — and NATO’s response — Milosevic set Yugoslavia on the road to disintegration: not because he desired that outcome but because he craved power above all.

Vukovar and Srebrenica

In their accounts of the wars that convulsed Yugoslavia, the revisionists often jump over the incidents that reflect most poorly on Milosevic and Serbian state policy. Consider the matter of Vukovar, the town in Croatia that the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) along with Serbian paramilitary forces leveled in fall 1991. As Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia, the Milosevic regime encouraged the Serb minority in Croatia to declare its independence in turn. The Serb minority had reason to be concerned about the clerical, authoritarian state that Franjo Tudjman was creating in Croatia, and it was within its rights to clamor for greater self-determination. But Milosevic wasn’t interested in asserting political principles. Through control of the national army and the secret police, Milosevic militarized the conflict.

The culmination of this strategy was the battle over the border town of Vukovar. Preceded by the killing and mutilation of Croatian policemen and the ethnic cleansing of several surrounding villages, Vukovar became the symbol of Serbian aggression. The siege of the town lasted for 87 days. The JNA won in the end, but sustained heavy losses. Tens of thousands of Croatians were expelled, an unknown number were executed. In the most notorious massacre, Serbian paramilitaries executed nearly 200 hospital patients. It wasn’t only the international community that turned against Serbia and Milosevic after Vukovar. Serbs themselves, disgusted by the war, expressed their disapproval by draft-dodging in large numbers, leaving the country, and supporting the Serbian peace movement.

When it comes to Srebrenica, the revisionists work hard to call into question the very notion that a massacre took place there in July 1995. The Internet is full of stories declaring the massacre a “hoax.” Diana Johnstone, in her book Fool’s Crusade, takes on the commonly cited figure of 8,000 Bosniak deaths. She points out that only 2,300 bodies were exhumed by 2001 and only 50 identified. “In an area where fighting had raged for years, some of the bodies were certainly of Serbs as well as of Muslims,” she writes.

Johnstone writes as though we have only forensic evidence. But there are countless eyewitness accounts, interviews with survivors, meticulously composed lists of missing persons, and even video footage taken by the Serbian Ministry of the Interior’s Skorpion unit involved in the massacre. In any case, her numbers are now out of date. More mass graves have been found in the last several years. The International Commission on Missing Persons has exhumed and identified more than 5,000 victims through DNA analysis. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague has convicted several of those responsible for the massacre. And the Bosnian Serb government itself has apologized after issuing a report acknowledging the responsibility of Bosnian Serb forces in killing more than 7,000 Bosniaks.

Serbs against Milosevic

Some of the strongest voices against Milosevic, against the Serb conduct in the Yugoslav wars, and against Serbian nationalism in general have come from Serbs themselves. These voices are largely absent from the revisionist accounts. Serbia under Milosevic was not Germany under Hitler. Thousands of Serbs protested against Milosevic; thousands dodged the draft and went AWOL; thousands joined the peace movement and the opposition. And, in 2000, they succeeded in a nonviolent democratic revolution to unseat Milosevic once and for all.

The Serbian left — Svetozar Stojanovic, also of the Praxis Group, Vesna Pesic of the anti-war movement, Sonja Licht formerly of the Open Society Fund — was particularly harsh in its criticism of Milosevic. Zoran Djindjic, who handed Milosevic over to the war crimes tribunal, spoke for many in Serbian society when he told Norwegian writer Asne Seierstad that Milosevic “built a web of wickedness. He manipulated us for 13 years. He starved the whole country with his madness for war, and turned the rest of the world against us.” Maja Miljkovic wrote: “Under the Milosevic regime the Serbian political elite succeeded in destroying the basis of the identity of the Serbian nation: its democratic structure, economy, and culture.”

Milosevic was able to secure a measure of popular support. Thanks to his manipulation of Serbian fears and his control of the media, he managed to win elections. His opposition was often more nationalist than he was. Even the democratic opposition took nationalist stands, particularly on the Kosovo issue. This, too, was Milosevic’s legacy: putting nationalism at the core of Serbian politics to such a degree that no candidate or party could easily resist its pull. Still, Milosevic did not represent all Serbian views. And when his project sputtered in Croatia and Bosnia — much as the imperial project of the Bush administration did in Iraq and Afghanistan — the people turned away from him.

Serbia has begun the difficult process of shouldering responsibility for the tragedies of the Balkan wars. In The Hague, 147 accused have appeared before the ICTY: 95 Serbs, 31 Croats, 14 Bosniaks, and seven Kosovar Albanians. Serbian government officials, sometimes under pressure but often as a result of evidence presented, have cooperated with the tribunal. Today, Serbia is a different place than it was during the Milosevic years, one with a thriving civil society and cultural scene. “Everything has changed in Serbia from the point of view of economy, of understanding difference, of intercultural discussion,” activist Andrej Nosov told me in Belgrade in 2007. “But in connection with Kosovo, nothing has changed.” So, this process of coming to terms with the past is still a vital part of Serbia’s present.

Why Revise?

The revisionist eagerness to rescue Milosevic’s reputation seems odd. He wasn’t an attractive or charismatic figure. He wasn’t committed to progressive politics. He was overthrown by his own people. He did, however, stand up to the United States. Under Milosevic, Serbia withstood the first ever military campaign by NATO. Herein seems to lie the revisionist motive. If Milosevic stood up to the U.S. imperium in 1999, then surely he must have been a worthy figure during the preceding wars.

This “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach has seduced the left in the past, prompting support of figures like Mao in China or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Just as we should be clear-eyed about U.S. military and economic power, we should be equally attentive to the motives, actions, and lies of authoritarian leaders who stand up to the United States.

The flip side of this softness for anti-American tyrants is the tendency to see the U.S. hand behind all the world’s ills. The revisionists focus on U.S. imposition of neoliberal economic reforms in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, relying a great deal on Susan Woodward’s arguments in the book Balkan Tragedy. As someone who made such arguments even before Woodward, I am sympathetic to this analysis. However, the application of shock therapy was part of the cookie-cutter approach that the United States and the International Monetary Fund brought to the region. I don’t believe that U.S. officials intended such measures to destroy Yugoslavia. The country wasn’t, after all, an enemy, and U.S. officials generally prefer predictability and stability.

This preference for stability carried through into the war years. George H.W. Bush’s administration was determined to stay out of the brewing conflict (“We have no dog in that fight,” Secretary of State James Baker famously said at the time). The Clinton administration was dragged kicking and screaming into involvement in the conflict, and U.S. negotiators like Richard Holbrooke showed a predilection for negotiating with Milosevic in the service of preserving some measure of status quo. Later, of course, the Clinton administration backed the Croatian army in its terrifying turning of the tables and bombed Belgrade to put an end to the Kosovo crisis. As a result of these actions, the United States indeed has much to answer for. But it would be a mistake to project this involvement back into the earlier stages of the war.

So, in the end, the revisionists are fighting the Yugoslav wars again for the same reason that the neoconservatives fight the Vietnam War over and over. Both want to repair the reputation of a statesman (Milosevic, Nixon), salve the wounds of the losers (Serbia, the United States), and explain the resolution of the conflict through reference to a conspiracy (U.S. malfeasance behind the scenes by the government in the first case and the peace movement in the second).

Serbia, like Vietnam, has moved on. It’s time for the revisionists to do likewise.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.