Yugoslavia - was it ever ethnic war?

Serbia and Kosovo are at it again. The fragmentation of ex-Yugoslavia appears to be a story without end. Serbia is rejecting US and EU demands to recognize the independence of Kosovo. Belgrade argues that historically Kosovo is a province of Serbia. The ethnic Albanian citizens insist on Kosovo being independent, walking in the footsteps of Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia.

When in 2008 the provisional government of Kosovo declared independence most NATO countries supported it. Spain didn’t because it feared for the precedent this would set for Catalonian and Basque separatists’ movements. Russia also refused to support the move. (Ironically, NATO scored an own goal, as later Russia used the Kosovo issue as a precedent for its own take-over of Crimea. Perhaps if there had been no recognition of Kosovo as Russia advocated at the time Moscow would have felt embarrassed about encouraging Crimea to secede from Ukraine. Maybe it wouldn’t have moved to take over Crimea.)

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. 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 quarterly, "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 of Serbia, 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 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, with an estimated 150,000 Serbian young men either emigrating or going underground. In Belgrade only 15% of the reservists reported for duty.

Once such a process is under way it is exceedingly difficult to control. The more moderate- and usually better educated- people emigrate away, either abroad or to safer places. The hooligan killers inevitably attract opportunists attracted 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.

Even in Rwanda, where the genocide was on a larger scale and much more thorough, it was a small minority that did the real killings. Hutu extremists 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 course of 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 were also a fair number who did hide or protect Tutsi neighbours and even sometimes strangers.

For all the horror of these recent cataclysms they 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 evil doers to do their bidding. In most, if not all, societies if such thugs were licensed, they could do similar deeds. Until quite recently it was entirely possible to imagine Northern Ireland descending into Bosnian-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.)

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 Macedonia and Slovenia stand out as places where legitimate political leaders have sought to calm ethnic tensions and to smooth rough edges.

Any other explanation cannot provide an answer to how it is that the overthrow of Slobovan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, came about. What was done was done non-violently- apart from some brutish behaviour at the radio and television station RTS. It 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 many years of the Yugoslavian conflicts. They had a too simple analysis- "ethnic war"- that ended up with simplistic conclusions- bombing- that worked only to consolidate Milosevic's power and, in the case of Kosovo, precipitated the ethnic cleansing they were supposedly trying to avoid.

Now the status of Kosovo, a left-over from the early Yugoslavian wars, has reared its head again. The simmering tensions between Serbia and Kosovo were re-charged at the beginning of August when the Kosovo government attempted to outlaw Serbian documents and car licence plates. Serbia reacted strongly and the drums of violent conflict started to beat again. For the moment, the US and the EU are leaning on Kosovo to quieten its aggressiveness, while continuing to push Belgrade to recognize the breakaway province as an independent country. Belgrade so far shows no willingness to agree. Last week American NATO troops were deployed along the main road linking Serbia with Kosovo.

The only good news is that policy in both Kosovo and Belgrade is being made, not by free-lance ethnic warriors recruited from football clubs led by unelected politicians, but by democratically elected governments which aspire to join the European Union. Both know that violence will set that cause back decades. Nevertheless, while things may not slip back into violence, the necessary steps forward to a peaceful settlement of this dispute appear to be as far away as ever.