Yugoslavia and Rwanda - was it ever ethnic war?

The divisions and tensions in some parts of ex-Yugoslavia appear to be boiling up again. The leadership of the Serbian ministate, Srpska, which comprises 49% of Bosnia’s territory, appears to be challenging the governing entity of Bosnia, founded at the end of the civil wars that raged in ex-Yugoslavia, 1991-2001. In a peculiar compromise, this sliver of Serbian territory was confirmed as part of Bosnia, but with its own self-government at the local level. Twenty-seven years later its hard-line leaders are set on joining up with Serbia proper.

Last month the US sanctioned the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodick for “destabilizing activities”. The US Treasury, said, “His divisive ethno-nationalistic rhetoric reflects his efforts to advance these political goals and distract attention from his corrupt activities”.

Some of us have been moved by a new film, “Quo Vadis, Aida”, directed by a Bosnian woman, Jasmila Zbanic, which portrays some of the events during the Bosnian war.

When last month the European Film Academy gave her the award of best director and selected “Quo Vadis, Aida?” as Europe’s best film of the year, a few Bosnian politicians congratulated her on their personal Facebook pages, but there were no official celebrations of the kind held whenever Bosnian athletes triumph abroad. “I didn't even get any flowers,” she said.

Ms. Zbanic has for years kept her distance from Bosnia’s dominant and male-dominated political force, the Party of Democratic Action, or S.D.A., a Bosnian nationalist group. Like Serb parties on the other side of the ethnic divide, the S.D.A. now wins votes by stirring animosity toward, and fear of, Serbs.

“Ms. Zbanic’s unwavering belief that the guilt for the atrocities, committed as the former Yugoslavia split apart, belongs to individuals, not whole ethnic groups, has made her a difficult cultural icon for some in her own community of Bosnian Muslims to embrace”, reported The New York Times a few days ago.

It would be perhaps expecting too much for the world to learn one thing from the Yugoslavian imbroglio - that its ethnic wars were a figment of the political imagination, as Ms Zbanic suggests. The Balkans is not, as Robert Kaplan famously put it, " a region of pure memory" where "each individual sensation and memory affects the grand movement of clashing peoples" and where the processes of history were "kept on hold" by communism for forty-five years, "thereby creating a multiplier effect for violence."

If ethnic war is when "ancient hatreds" lead one ethnic group to become the ardent, murderous, and dedicated opponent of everyone in another group, this was not it. It was, as Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University has written in Harvard University’s "International Security", a situation in which "a mass of essentially mild, ordinary people unwillingly and in considerable bewilderment came under the vicious and arbitrary control of small groups of armed thugs". The murderous core of the supporters of President Slobodan Milosevic, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and the Croatian leader, Franjo Tudjman, were not by and large ordinary citizens incited into violence against their neighbours and even their families- intermarriage especially in the communist era was a widespread phenomenon- but thugs, soccer hooligans and street gangs, even criminals released from jail for the purpose. They were recruited by the politicians, first and foremost by the Serb president, Milosevic, to pursue a nationalist agenda that he believed could keep him in power at a time when it became obvious that the Yugoslav army was disintegrating in the early days of the first war with Croatia.

Once such a process is under way it is exceedingly difficult to control. The more moderate- and usually better educated- people emigrate away. The hooligan killers inevitably attract opportunists seduced by the fruits of war- the looting, raping and binge drinking that is their daily fare. Vladan Vasilijevic, an expert in organised crime, says that most of the well-documented atrocities in Bosnia were committed by men with long criminal records. In the absence of alternative political leadership rank and file citizens fall in behind them- or at least tolerate them- especially as revenge killings from the other side begin to take their toll. Both Milosevic and Tudjman, were adept at using their secret police to direct and coordinate the killings in the pursuit of ethnic cleansing.

Some of these groups evolved into semi-coherent paramilitary groups like Arkan's Tigers and Vojislav Seselj's Chetniks. Arkan, one of the most feared war criminals of the whole war, had been the leader of Delije, the official fan club of Belgrade's Red Star soccer team. Once Arkan and Seselj had established their murderous reputations it was enough to announce they were on their way for a village to empty of its non-Serb residents. Yet the core of Arkan's forces never numbered more than 200 men and at its height he never attracted more than a thousand followers.

A similar story occurred in Rwanda. The genocide was on a larger scale than in Yugoslavia and much more thorough. It was a small minority that did the real killings. Hutu extremists, determinedly anti the minority Tutsi people, were substantially in charge of the ruling party, the government bureaucracy, and the police. Yet even if one accepts there were as many as 50,000 hard core killers and that if each of these killed one person a week during the 100-day holocaust, then the 700,000 who died were killed by some 2% of the Hutu male population. In other words, 98% of the Hutus did not kill. Of course, many just closed the door and didn't want to know but there was also a fair number who did hide or protect Tutsi neighbours and even sometimes strangers.

For all the horror of these cataclysms, Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia were not Hobbesian wars of all against all and neighbour against neighbour. They were stirred by unscrupulous politicians who relied on relatively small numbers of evildoers to do their bidding. In most, if not all, societies if such thugs were licensed, they could do similar deeds. Until fairly recently it was entirely possible to imagine Northern Ireland descending into Bosnian or Rwandan-like chaos if the British authorities had not been prepared for the long haul of patient policing and political accommodation. And even there it would have been a quicker process if the local elected politicians hadn't turned a blind eye when rank and file thugs did their dirty work and if the British had been more determined at an earlier stage to root out those within the police and security services who worked hand in glove with the paramilitaries. (The killing of innocents by British soldiers fifty years ago- “Bloody Sunday”- now admitted by the government- has just been commemorated in Catholic neighbourhoods and the centre of Belfast. The new movie “Belfast” is an accurate reproduction of the events at that time.)

One only has to look at ex-Yugoslavia's Balkan neighbours, Bulgaria and Romania, to see how ethnic violence can be avoided when politicians are committed to sound, non-confrontational, political policies. Even within the former Yugoslavia the example of the countries Macedonia and Slovenia stands out as places where political leaders have sought to calm ethnic tensions and to smooth rough edges.

Against this backcloth it was quite amazing how the overthrow of Milosevic came about. What was done was done non-violently- apart from some brutish behaviour at the radio and television station, RTS- and achieved in 24 hours what 78 days of Nato bombing could not. It was people power- the essentially good, silent majority, who were prepared to first vote, and second demonstrate when they saw that it stood a chance of success. These people have existed all along- as they did in Poland, the land of Solidarity, Czechoslovakia, home of the "Velvet Revolution" and the Soviet Union where eventually Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, determined not to shed blood.

As for the Western nations, it is time for soul-searching on the methods they have used over the ten years of the Yugoslavian conflict. They had a too simple analysis- "ethnic war"- that ended up with simplistic conclusions- bombing- that hit everybody, good and bad, worked only to consolidate Milosevic's power and, in the case of Kosovo, precipitated the ethnic cleansing they were supposedly trying to avoid.

If Bosnia does erupt into communal clashes once again, will the European Union send in a military force, perhaps also bombing, or use European peacekeepers to arrest the leaders and their acolytes, the fringe football club supporters, freed prisoners and other thugs, or just stand idly by? Let’s hope that Europe makes better choices than last time. Let’s hope there are enough Bosnians, including those from Srpska, prepared to step forward and lead their neighbours into non-violent action.