The Agony of Bosnia

The accords signed in Dayton, Ohio, this past November, are unlikely to mark the end of the Bosnian phase of what can be termed the wars of the Yugoslav succession. Indeed, the agreements initialled by all parties to the conflict, Serbia, Croatia, the Bosnian government, and - after several days - the Bosnian Serbs, contain within their own provisions the seeds of new conflicts which await the 60,000 NATO troops to Bosnia (more than 20,000 of whom will be American), as a de facto army of occupation, marks a new stage in the wars of the Yugoslav succession, which erupted when the Titoist state disintegreated in 1991. In addition to indicating those factors which are likely to make the Bosnian peace a shortlived one, we want to analyse the strategic and geo-political framework within which the whole conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia has unfolded. Finally, we also want to show why the calls for Western intervention on the part of the left, from Paris to New York, have actually exacerbated the orgy of mass muurder and ethnic cleansing which has become a hallmark of the wars of the Yugoslav succession.

We will proceed by first situating the Dayton accords within their broader geo-political context. We will then focus on the ways in which Western intervention, far from halting the atrocities, has only expanded the scope of ethnic cleansing. Finally, we will look at the factors which make the peace agreements, imposed on the warring parties by the US, inherently unstable.

As long as the Cold War divided Europe between the US and Russia, the existence and viability of the Yugoslav state, re-established by Tito in the wake of the defeat of Germany in World War Two, was assured. From the moment of the Tito-Stalin break in 1948, Yugoslavia, through the alliance it concluded with Greece and Turkey, became a de facto associate of NATO; its military armed and supplied by the US, its economy firmly linked to that of Western Europe. Strategically, Yugoslavia blocked Russian access to the Adriatic, and the Eastern Mediterranean; and in case of war, the Yugoslavian army was charged with slowing the advance of the Warsaw Pact forces into northern Italy (which posed the danger of turning NATO’s vulnerable southern flank) and southward towards the Adriatic and the Mediterranean.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, meant that the integrity of the Yugoslav state was no longer vital to the West. While Germany, seeking to bolster its economic prospects in Central Europe, provided support for the independence of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, neither the US, nor its British and French allies, recognised the real strategic danger that the breakup of Yugoslavia posed. As a result, the Germans prevailed on the European Union to grant recognition to Slovenia and Croatia, a move the Americans quickly seconded, despite their misgivings. The breakup of Yugoslavia then became unstoppable, and two weak and unviable states, Macedonia in the south and Bosnia in the north, declared their own independence rather than remain in a Yugoslav state that was little more than a facade for a greater Serbia. The West, having acquiesced to Slovene and Croat independence, had little choice but to accept the birth of a Macedonian and a Bosnian state which the geo-political situation consigned to becoming wards ot the West as the only viable alternative to being carved up by their neighbours, in particular the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, which was determined to finally create the greater Serbia of which Serb nationalists had dreamed since 1914.

As the Serbs manoevered to create their greater Serbia, they waged a murderous war in eastern Slavonia (which was a part of Croatia) and seized the Karjina region of Croatia (one third of the country) where Serbs had been a majority since the 17th Century as well as creating a Bosnian Serb republic, beginning the savage process of ethnic cleansing which has become the quintessential feature of the wars of the Yugoslav succession and undertaking the murderous siege of Sarajevo, where Serb, Croat, Muslim, and Jew had for centuries lived side by side. What outraged the ruling class in London, Paris and Washington was not the bruality of the Serbs, not the orgy of mass murder in which they engaged, but the geo-political danger that a wider Balkan war would constitute. Were the Serbs to succeed in forging a greater Serbia through the annexation of eastern Slovenia, the Krajina, and the 70% of Bosnia which they claimed (including Sarajevo), not only would this have made newly independent Croatia unviable (with more than a third of its territory in Serb hands, and the country virtually cut in half by the Serb occupation of the Krajina), but the Serbs would then have turned to ethnic cleansing in the Vojvodina (against the Hungarians), in the Sandzak (against the Muslim Slavs), and in Kosovo (against the Albanians), as well as to a probable invasion of Macedonia with the Serbs dividing it between themselves and the Greeks. Such an outcome was fraught with danger for the West: in addition to widening the war to include Hungary and Albania, which threatened to intervene to protect their co-nationals in the face of Serbian attacks, the Bulgarians had territorial claims fo their own in Macedonia (whose Slav population Sofia considers to be ethnic Bulgarian), while the Turks had already made it clear that they would protect Albanians and Muslims, thereby raising the prospect not just of a wider war, embroiling the whole of the Balkans, but of a Turkish-Greek conflict that would turn the eastern Mediterranean into a war zone.

The strategic interests of the West demanded that the war not be widened; which is to say that the claims of Belgrade, and the Milosoevic regime, to constitute a greater Serbia had to be thwarted. Whatever differences there were (and are) between Germany, Britain, France and the US in the Balkans (and there are many), there was, and is, fundamental agreement on the need to oppose the creation of a greater Serbia which threatens to fatally destabilise a region close to the economic heart of Europe, and close to the already unstable Near East. Having failed to prevent the breakup of Yugoslavia in the first place, the West was not prepared to directly confront the Serbs on the ground in Bosnia. Such an attempt, in the first flush of Serb victories, with a still intact and well supplied (i.e. Serb) army to back the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs, would have entailed not merely upwards of 80,000 NATO troops, but the near certainty of a bitter ground war (short though it might have been) and subsequent guerrilla warfare, for which the Western (and, in particular, the American) public had not been ideologically prepared or mobilised by their ruling classes. Therefore the West preferred the indirect approach of first containing the war, and only later putting a more definitive end to Belgrade’s pretensions to constitute a greater Serbia. To that end, the US guaranteed the frontiers of Macedonia, and sent American military units to patrol its borders. To that end, too, French, British and Dutch troops were sent to enforce the Western-sponsored UN declaration that Muslim cities such as Sarajevo, Gorazde, Zepa and Srebrenica (the last three being the remaining Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia) were ‘safe havens’. The same goal led NATO to impose a no-fly rule on the Serbs in Bosnia. And it was to that same end that the West had economic sanctions imposed on the Milosevic regime by the UN. If the West’s strategy failed to prevent the death of several hundred thousand non-combatants (most of them victims of mass murder or the deliberate killing civilians), and the creation of a mass of several million refugees, it accomplished its goal of containing the war and preventing the realisation of a greater Serbia. Moreover, this strategy also severely weakened the Belgrade regime by its sanctions, which - together with the cost of the war - have bankrupted Serbia, and brought about an economic collapse, even while sapping the will of the Serbian population to sacrifice in the service of the patriotic ideal of a greater Serb homeland.

This past year saw the zenith of Serb power, with the fall of Srebenica and Zepa, which the Blue Helmets were incapable of preventing, the resultant mass murder of thousands of Muslim civilians, and what seemed like the beginning of a final assault on Sarajevo. Yet 1995 ended with the Serbs having suffered probably fatal reverses on the ground, and the humiliation of signing a peace treaty which turns over to NATO occupation even the now much diminished territory of the Bosnian Serb republic itself. The policy of containment of the wars of the Yugoslavian succession, pursued for the past four years has now given way to direct NATO intervention - under American auspices and command - in the ex-Yugoslavia, with the aquiescence of the Milosevic regime itself.

This dramatic turn of events began over the summer with the unleashing of the Croatian blitzkreig in the Krajina, carefully planned and prepared by ‘retired’ American generals on loan to the Zagreb regime, utilising the mountain of sophisticated American military equipment, and the specialised training, provided to the Croats over the past several years. In a matter of just a few days, the Croat army had completely cleared the Krajina of the Serbs who had militarily occupied it since 1991, and - as we will see - engaged in a wave of ethnic cleansing that has virtually eliminated the Serb civilian population for whom the Krajina has been home since the 17th Century.

This was quickly followed by the NATO decision to attack Serb military targets throughout Bosnia, in response to the Serb assaults on the safe havens, and the renewed Serb shelling of Sarajevo. The virtual destruction of the Serbian ground control and communications network, as well as considerable military hardware, prepared the way for a Croat-Muslim ground offensive in Bosnia which in the course of just a few weeks changed the battle lines such that the Muslims and Croats now controlled more than half the country (whereas just a few weeks earlier the Serbs controlled more than 70%), and the loss of the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka (and with it virtually all of northern Bosnia) seemed imminent.

It was at that moment that the US, taking advantage of its patient diplomacy with the Milosevic regime, and holding out the carrot of an end to economic sanctions, and a deal that still left the Serbs with nearly half of Bosnia, brokered a ceasefire. That led straight to Dayton, and to the American plan for a Bosnian peace treaty, which the US would impose on all of the waring parties, though it satisfied none of them.

While the Dayton accords preserve the fiction of a single Bosnian state - with a group presidency, a legislature and a central bank - there is a de facto partition of the country into a Muslim-Croat federation, and a Bosnian Serb republic, each with its own president and legislature. It is there that real power will be found; indeed, the Muslim-Croat federation is itself, in fact divided into what are now effectively two separate, Muslim and Croat politico-military entities, and it remains to be seen if the US can forge them into a single functioning state. What the Serbs have gained is international recognition of their Bosnian Serb republic, with nearly half the territory of Bosnia, and the prospect that this entity can forge its own links with Serbia proper, and even effect an Anschluss in a year or two. What the Croats have gained is far more territory than their numbers would warrant, as well as Serb aquiescence to a phased withdrawal from eastern Slavonia (in an American orchestrated accord that preceeded the Dayton treaty). What the Muslims (or Bosniaks have gained is recognition of their sole control over Sarajevo, the turning over of key Serb suburbs of Sarajevo to the Muslim government, and a corridor to the Muslim enclave of Gorazde. These latter two provisions obligate the Serbs to turn over a considerable swathe of of territory to the Muslims, territory whose civilian inhabitants are Serbs loyal to the Bosnian Serb republic and committed to a greater Serbia; and therein lies the danger which the NATO forces will face as they attempt to enforce the accords on a recalcitrant, and well-armed, populace.

However, before exploring the risks of an outbreak of new fighting, this time directly involving NATO ground forces, we need to first see how the ‘humanitarian’ appeals of an Anthony Lewis or Bernard-Henri Levy for NATO intervention in Bosnia, for a NATO riposte to Serb atrocities, has itself prepared the way for some of the worst ethnic cleansing, and mass murder, in the wars of the Yugoslav succession. While the ‘selling’ of the accords, and of the need for NATO (including American) troops to enforce them, proceeds through appeals to the people of the West to put an end to the indiscriminate killing, rape and mutilation of civilians, the Western ruling classes who have undertaken this media blitz had themselves planned, and organised, the Croat offensive which involved a campaign of ethnic cleansing that in a matter of a few weeks this past summer made the Krajina virtually Serb-free, culminating in the systematic murder and mutilation, by the Croat military, of those remaining Serb peasants too old to flee their homes. Again, when Croat and Muslim troops, backed by Western air power, and equipped with Western arms, occupied Serb lands in north-western Bosnia this past fall, a new round of vicious ethnic cleansing began; and when the Dayton accords gave back to the Serbs some of this territory, Croat troops began the systematic burning of villages rather than return them in habitable form to Serb civilians.

Indeed, behind this Western tolerance for ethnic cleansing when it is in the service of its own strategic goals, there is the recognition that a Pax Americana in the ex-Yugoslavia requires the existence of of ethnically homogeneous states, with a compact territory from which minorities have been forcibly excluded. To the Croat and Serb demands for a state based on blood and soil (whatever that means in a population which has historically spoken the same language, and inhabited the same land, for centuries), must be added the effort to forge a Bosniak nation, and a Bosnian language, in a land where such an ‘identity’ and such a tongue, was non-existent five years ago. Ethnic cleansing is a pre-requisite for such an outcome, which abhors the mix of people and cultures, and the tolerance which accompanied it, which characterized Sarajevo or Tuzlan before the outbreak of war. Indeed, Tuzla provides an excellent example of the xenophobic outcome of the war in Bosnia, and its culmination in the attempt to forge a Bosniak nation or ethnos. Before the war, Tuzla was 55% Muslim, and the only Muslim city which did not vote for the Muslim leader, Izetbegovic’s, political party, the SDA. Today, most of the Serbs are gone from Tuzla, replaced by Muslim refugees from eastern Bosnia (now in Serb hands), and the town is over 90% Muslim, a veritable Bosniak stronghold ideologically speaking. And that is why, though the Western media may wring its hands over ethnic cleansing in the abstract, the governments of the West will only construct their ‘peace’ on the bases of the results which ethnic cleansing brings.

It is precisely for that reason that the prospects for a durable peace in the ex-Yugoslavia are so dim. There still remains a large Serb minority in Zagreb, which challenges the Croat demand for ethnic purity. In eastern Slavonia, the accords signed by the Croat and Serb regimes guarantee the rights of the Serb inhabitants after the return of the region to Croat rule. The probability, though, is that the Serb population of the region will be either expelled by the Croats, or that it will fight to preserve the Serb ‘race’ in places such as Vukovar where the ethnic cleansing of Croats first occurred in 1991; and a new round of warfare between Croatia and Serbia will explode. The Dayton accords, to be enforced by NATO, guarantee that the exclusively Serb population of Sarajevo suburbs such as Illidza, Vogosca, and Grbavica - which the Bosnian Serb militia has held in the face of determined Muslim offensives aimed at relieving the siege of Sarajevo - will be allowed to remain, even while their militia is disarmed and these neighborhoods are handed over to the authority of the Muslim government and its army. Indeed, in the case of the suburbs of Sarajevo, the demands for ethnic purity had to be sacrificed for the short term in the interests of achieving a viable land bridge to Sarajevo for the Bosniak regime. However, the future of the the Serb population of these towns is doubtful in a Bosniak state. Meanwhile, it will be left to the French troops occupying Sarajevo, and the persuasive powers of Milosevic, to disarm the Serb militia, and deliver these suburbs to their new Bosniak masters. Beyond Croatia and Bosnia, there remains the ethnically diverse populations of the Vojvodina, the Sandzak, Kosovo and Macedonia - so many powder kegs waiting to explode.

If the Dayton accords do not presage a durable peace in the Balkans, or even in Bosnia, it is not because of bitter, and intractable, rivalries between American, German, French, and British imperialism. The unity of the West, under American leadership, which the Dayton accords, and the deployment of 60,000 NATO troops in Bosnia, has demonstrated, while surely not permanent nor free of real tensions, is nonetheless the determinate factor in the unfolding of the wars of the Yugoslav succession. What fatally undermines the prospects for a Western imposed peace, for a Pax Americana, in the region, however, is the contradiction between capital’s need for ethnically homogeneous states, with their xenophobic ideologies, as a basis for its political rule, and the existence of still multi-ethnic populations, the legacy of the multi-national empires which still dominated the regions of central and south-eastern Europe before 1914. Two world wars, with their legacy of mass murder and genocide, have still not produced the ethnically pure states which best assure the rule of capital on its peripheries. The killing fields of Srebrenica and Banja Luka, and those still to come, are necessary to complete the process whose culminating point was symbolised by the smoke stacks of Auschwitz. Yet, the very ferocity of these wars - in a region so close to the industrial heart of the West - threatens to escalate, and escape the control of the great powers, drawing them into its vortex. It is this dilemma that NATO faces as it undertakes its first ever engagement beyond the frontiers of its own member nations.

Mac Intosh
November 28, 1995

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