Selected Longer Reviews

Origins of a Catastrophe

By Zimmerman, Warren

Times Books, New York, 1996, 269 pages,
Price: 25.00 US Dollars
Shelf mark: 949.703

Warren Zimmermann arrived in Belgrade on 9 March 1989, a few months after Serbia had seized direct control of three of Yugoslavia’s eight federal territories (Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro) destroying the country’s constitutional framework in the process. Yugoslavia was visibly falling apart; with the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in January 1992 it would finally cease to exist, though the official certificate of death - symbolized by its removal from the United Nations - has thus far been withheld. By the time Zimmermann was recalled home on 12 May 1992, the JNA had attacked and retreated from Slovenia, Serbia had occupied a quarter of Croatia, and Milosevic’s armies were conducting a genocidal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In January 1994 Zimmermann resigned from the State Department, citing its passivity in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its personnel policy. Origins of a Catastrophe, which appeared after the Dayton Agreement had been signed, describes the three years he spent in Yugoslavia and offers his views on why it fell apart.

The approach of the Bush administration, which Zimmermann took with him to Belgrade, was encapsulated in the formula "unity and democracy". In its original formulation, "unity" was made conditional upon "democracy": "we could only support the country’s unity in the context of progress towards democracy; we would be strongly opposed to unity imposed and maintained by force". In late 1989, however, the emphasis was modified: "unity without democracy meant Serbian or military dictatorship; democracy without unity meant war. Democracy and unity were inseparable Siamese twins of Yugoslavia’s fate. The loss of one meant the other would perish". In its new formulation, this was not so much a policy as a puzzle, since it contained no answer to the real problem: how was Yugoslavia to be democratized while Belgrade was preparing for war? In the absence of a counter-force capable of stopping Serbia’s unfolding aggression, the policy of keeping Yugoslavia together while at the same time encouraging its democratization became mission impossible. In the event, by pursuing Yugoslavia’s unity rather than supporting Slovenia and Croatia in their demands for either the country’s confederal transformation or its peaceful dissolution, the United States helped ensure its violent break-up.

Zimmermann implies that this policy change was made on his advice. Soon after his arrival he sent a cable cautioning Washington "not to equate decentralization with democracy or centralism with authoritarianism. These equations might have described the Soviet Union, a ruthless dictatorship from the centre. But they did not describe Yugoslavia".

The Real Equations

What equations did describe Yugoslavia at this point in time? Zimmermann knew that, unlike the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was a polycentric state - that it functioned as a real federation, and in some important respects as a confederation. What he never understood, however, was that its comparatively higher degree of democracy derived precisely from the fact that political power never condensed in Belgrade - in the central bodies of the Federation - as was the case with the Soviet Union. Like so many ambassadors before him, he viewed Yugoslavia through the spectacles of the capital city. Wrong at all times, this was a particularly grave handicap in the second half of the 1980s, when that city was transformed into the bastion of an aggressive Serbian nationalism. Zimmermann’s error, in fact, was uncritically to accept the view then prevalent in Belgrade - not just in the freshly purged League of Communists of Serbia, but also among the latter’s domestic critics - that Yugoslavia’s problems derived from the weakness of the Federal bodies; and that the constitutional empowerment of the provinces and republics (other than Serbia: Zimmermann registers no complaints about the extension of Serbian power into Kosovo, Vojvodina or Montenegro), far from being a precondition of Yugoslavia’s stability and democracy, was little more than a capitulation to ethnic nationalism. The premise that Yugoslavia was destroyed by republican nationalism forms the central message of Zimmermann’s book. It stands, however, in sharp contrast to another - and far better established - theme: that it was Milosevic backed by the JNA who, in seeking to dominate Yugoslavia, ended up by destroying it. For indeed, Yugoslavia’s grave-digger was not rampant nationalism as such, but the unchecked armed power of Yugoslavia’s largest republic.

Zimmermann’s other, equally serious, failure was to register the extent to which Milosevic’s assault upon the constitution had made the Federal bodies illegitimate and inoperative. At the level of the State Presidency, which was also commander-in-chief of Yugoslavia’s armed forces, Serbia now had four votes in place of its earlier one. It was four times more powerful than any other republic, indeed as powerful as all the other republics put together. And it was backed by the Army. These were the real equations describing Yugoslavia at this point in time, and they erased the whole preceding period from 1945 on: the Yugoslavia which Zimmermann had known during an earlier posting no longer existed. It was this sudden redistribution of power within Yugoslavia that plunged the country into crisis, rendered it unstable and placed its survival in question. Zimmermann, however, never mentions this seminal moment in Yugoslavia’s break-up. He writes that "the Slovenian and Croatian declarations of independence [in June 1991] cast Yugoslavia into a political and constitutional limbo". whereas the country had already entered such a limbo in 1989, with the forcible closure of the Kosovo assembly. No return to constitutional order - to the status quo ante Kosovo - could be achieved without a confrontation with Milosevic. If the other republics shied away from this, it was because of his support in the JNA, which at the time of Zimmermann’s assumption of ambassadorial office was already policing Kosovo on Serbia’s behalf. In this situation, seeking greater autonomy from Belgrade was a logical choice and an essentially democratic one.

For reasons that remain unclear, Washington was ready to accept the redistribution of power in Serbia’s favour. Rather than insisting that the state of emergency in Kosovo be lifted, it reduced the problem to its human-rights dimension. Zimmermann headed the US delegation to the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe where Yugoslavia - criticized, on account of Kosovo, as the country with the worst human-rights record outside the Soviet Union - "had gotten off lightly" thanks to the Americans. As ambassador, he was irritated by the efforts which US Congressmen Robert Dole and Tom Lantos were making on Kosovo’s behalf, leading to the Congress’s adoption in November 1990 of a resolution to withhold financial assistance to Yugoslavia until its treatment of the Albanian population improved. Zimmermann protests in his book that this largely symbolic act made life harder for the Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic, but the book shows that his dissent went much deeper; for he accepted one of the central tenets of Serb nationalism, that Serbia had special rights in Kosovo. He writes, quite inaccurately, that Kosovo is to Serbia what Jerusalem is to Israel and that "the Kosovo issue [. . .] may have to be settled one day by some sort of partition". Rebecca West, whom Zimmermann greatly admires, may be responsible for this. Reading Zimmermann’s book, one is struck by how little he knew or sympathized with other Yugoslav republics and nations, in comparison with Serbia and the Serbs.

Kosovo and Democracy

Yet Kosovo’s fate was not a sui generis problem. The state of emergency which the Yugoslav army had imposed in Kosovo was emblematic of the whole new mood in Belgrade. A year before Zimmermann came to Belgrade, a self-appointed "Military Council" made up of the JNA’s high command, meeting in secret, had concluded that Slovenia’s precocious democracy amounted to a counter-revolution. The Army’s subsequent arrest and trial, in defiance of the Slovene leadership, of several young journalists was a provocation: the JNA was testing the waters for a military takeover. When, in February 1989, practically all of Slovenia, including its Communist leadership, publicly protested against the state of emergency in Kosovo, it was in the knowledge that Slovenia could be next in line for "Kosovization". Kosovo also provoked the first demand that Slovene soldiers should leave the JNA: the Slovenes did not wish to be associated with what one of the arrested journalists described as "state terrorism in Kosovo". Yet Zimmermann, talking to Milan Kucan soon after his arrival, found himself bewildered by the Slovene leader’s concern with Kosovo.

In the Yugoslavia being forcibly remodelled by Milosevic, democracy demanded decentralization if it were to avoid break-up. Unity and democracy, far from marching in harmony, were heading in opposite directions, and the US ambassador was left clutching at straws. "In the seething cauldron of ethnic rivalries, Yugoslavia needed a leader who could deal with the growing economic crisis and at the same time appeal to Yugoslavs to stay together and build a democratic society. Amazingly, a man who represented all these qualities found himself the new prime minister of Yugoslavia in March 1989". Although Zimmermann knew that the post of Yugoslav prime minister in fact wielded little authority, "we in the embassy worked as hard as we could on Markovic’s behalf and did achieve a high public level of US political support for the embattled prime minister". Financial assistance, on the other hand, was not forthcoming: "Yugoslavia did not look like a good bet", indeed "Yugoslavia looked like a loser". Markovic’s room for manoeuvre was strictly circumscribed by Milosevic.

When, in late 1989, Milosevic imposed an economic embargo against Slovenia because of its stand on Kosovo, Zimmermann told Washington that "the odds against Prime Minister Markovic’s success were lengthening". And although the State Department’s estimate was that Markovic was more likely to fail than not, the US ambassador continued to encourage him until the ambitious prime minister, instead of supporting Slovenia’s and Croatia’s calls for confederation, came to believe that, by calling for countrywide elections for the Federal Assembly on the basis of one-person-one-vote, he could strengthen the authority of his office and thus save Yugoslavia. Both Zimmermann and Milosevic gave him support in this, but it was only logical that Slovenia and Croatia would block a constitutional innovation that was little more than grist to Milosevic’s mill. When Zimmermann writes that, as a result, "Yugoslavia perished without its citizens ever being permitted to cast their votes as Yugoslavs", he only shows his profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Yugoslav federation. Sounding a surprisingly Marxist-Leninist note, he blames the abysmal electoral performance of Markovic’s Alliance of Reform Forces on its inability "to tap into the sympathetic reserve, reflected in the polls, among workers and peasants". Later, however, after he had given up on both Markovic and the Yugoslavs, he admitted that "tragically, Yugoslavs never saw themselves as a nation". Yugoslavia had "congenital defects": "it was a state, not a nation. Few felt much loyalty to Yugoslavia itself". To judge by this book, Zimmermann never quite managed to work out whether the Yugoslavs were just born nationalists, or whether in 1990 they were simply deluded by their leaders - or even tricked by a small and secretive bunch of extremists.

Yet, if the Yugoslavs had a chance to vote for Markovic at all, this was due to democratic change in Slovenia and Croatia. Their leaders’ decision to let people choose their government was part of their strategy of national self-defence: they responded to the JNA threat by reaching for the powerful weapon of democratic legitimation. Zimmermann writes that the Croatian Communists hurried into elections because they feared a popular overthrow on the Czech model, but this is not true. In Croatia, popular wrath grew almost exclusively in reaction to the Croatian leaders’ passivity in the face of Serbia’s aggressive interference in Croatia. Zimmermann informed Washington that Milosevic was driving the Slovenes towards separatism and the Croatians towards nationalism, but in his book he omits to say that the choice which the leaders of those republics faced at the end of 1989 was between being removed by their own people or by Milosevic (in a repetition of the model applied earlier in Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro). Indeed, well before the elections Serbia was engaged in destabilizing the governments in Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia, using the tried and tested formula. In the middle of 1990, a few months after the elections, this yielded its first result when the main communication link between northern Croatia and Dalmatia was cut at Knin by men armed and trained by the JNA. In the plans that the JNA made in early 1990 for the overthrow of the now non-Communist governments, the same methods were to be applied in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in conjunction with outright military subjugation of Slovenia and Croatia. By declaring itself neutral in the conflict between Serbia and Slovenia-Croatia, Washington effectively aided the forces of aggression and war.

Unity or War

On the eve of the Slovenian and Croatian elections of April 1990, the State Department sent a cable to its ambassadors in Europe stating that it was up to the citizens of Yugoslavia to decide their form of government. This is precisely what the citizens went on to do. In reality, however, their choice had been rejected in advance, since Washington’s preference for Yugoslav unity far outweighed its commitment to democracy. The "instruction cable" contained also a warning to European governments that "the elections might bring to power those advocating confederation and even dissolution", and that they should "avoid actions that could encourage secession". The maxim that democracy in Yugoslavia was welcome only if it served unity ensured that the electoral results first in Slovenia and Croatia and later in the rest of Yugoslavia would be qualified as anti-democratic and denounced as "nationalism". "In bringing nationalism to power, the elections helped snuff out the very flame of democracy they had kindled", writes Zimmermann. Again: "The paradox of the Yugoslav elections in 1990 [was that], in bringing democracy to birth, they helped to strangle it in its cradle". In reality, of course, there was no paradox: it was not the elections that strangled Yugoslav democracy, but the JNA’s use of force against democratically elected non-Communist governments. Zimmermann’s description of Washington’s warning as "prophetic" would be much more credible if the cable had contained also information on the Army’s intention to go to war. He omits to say that at the end of April 1990 the JNA high command had sent a secret order (unknown to all but the Serbian leaders) to the commanders of the military districts to disarm all the Yugoslav republics except for Serbia and Montenegro, by seizing their Territorial Defence weapons.

Following Markovic’s debacle, the United States was left with no other policy but, as Zimmermann writes, to wait for Armageddon. And whereas it may be true that Washington never actually condoned the use of force against Slovenia and Croatia, its public and persistent disapproval of their moves towards independence, including the imposition in May 1991 of a unilateral US arms embargo, served only to confuse the Yugoslav actors. Each of them believed that the West had given them a mandate of sorts. The hapless Markovic, entrusted by the West with saving Yugoslavia, realized after the elections that this could be achieved only by force; but when he sought to make a deal with the JNA, he was warned by James Baker that: "if [he] resorted to force, Markovic’s support in the West would be threatened", since the JNA was "not to be trusted". Slovenia and Croatia, relying on Western advocacy of democracy, claimed their countries’ independence in the name of a clearly expressed popular will. The JNA attacked them on the assumption that Washington’s preference for Yugoslavia’s unity gave it a green light. Serbia, whose armed expansion into Kosovo had been accepted and whose arming of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had provoked no international outcry, had no reason to think that, with the might of the JNA on its side, Greater Serbia was an unrealistic proposition. When Baker came to Belgrade "armed with a statement committing all thirty-three countries [of the OSCE] to unity, reform, human rights, and a peaceful solution of the crisis" but nothing else, the Yugoslavs were left in no doubt that the United States would not use force to stop Serbia and the Army. The republics were left to fend for themselves as best as they might.

Aggression and Self-Defence

Of the three republics attacked, the ones which fared better were those that managed to raise an army to fight the aggression. These forces had to be created in secret, under embargo, and practically overnight. Bosnia was the last to take such a course, and only after the aggression against it had begun. Zimmermann notes coolly that "Izetbegovic, unlike Tudjman, had done almost nothing to build a Bosnian military force". Indeed, Izetbegovic went on believing almost to the end that he could rely on the Army, although "he and I knew that the JNA was unlikely to accept his civilian authority since it didn’t accept Bosnia’s independence". The Americans knew as early as May 1991 that the JNA was arming Radovan Karadzic, but not only did they do nothing about it, they did not even warn Izetbegovic. In early 1992 the US ambassador "detected no inkling on [Izetbegovic’s] part of the massive aggression that the JNA, together with Milosevic and Karadzic, was mounting against him".

Zimmermann also omits to mention just how much the United States, through the medium of Cyrus Vance, had contributed to the firepower of that aggression. Vance arrived in Croatia in late 1991 to negotiate a permanent cease-fire as part of the "Vance Plan". Finding the Croatians laying siege to JNA barracks, in order to prevent the Army’s guns being used against their cities, he told Zimmermann of being "appalled by this shabby treatment of professional soldiers" - this even though the JNA had been targeting mainly civilians and conducting ethnic cleansing, had totally destroyed Vukovar and was now busy shelling Dubrovnik. During the negotiations Vance insisted on "treating the JNA with the same degree of respect that he treated the Croatian government", despite knowing full well that the JNA was by now an instrument of Greater Serbia. One consequence of Vance’s respect for this army was that, in addition to being permitted to remain in control of one quarter of Croatian territory, it was allowed to withdraw from the rest of Croatia with the bulk of its weapons. From Yugoslavia’s only jet refitting facility, located in Zagreb, the JNA took 42 aircraft, 32 aircraft engines, and 3,500 tons of equipment. The evacuation of the JNA base at Sibenik alone involved 2,100 vehicles carrying 12,000 tons of materiel. Altogether, the JNA took from Croatia 300 tanks, 280 APCs and 210 aircraft, as well as tens of thousands of tons of equipment and supplies. Some of these weapons were immediately turned against the Croatians, some were left in the areas under Serbian occupation, some were taken to Serbia. The great bulk, however, was transferred to Bosnia, together with "professional soldiers" freshly released from Croatia (one of these soldiers was Ratko Mladic). This military power was used in Bosnia to devastating effect. It should be recalled, also, that this transfer of weapons to Serbian control took place in the context of an arms embargo imposed by the Security Council in September 1991. No wonder Zimmermann found General Veljko Kadijevic singing the praises of Cyrus Vance in early January 1992, a few months before the JNA moved against Bosnia. "There are two roads", Kadijevic told the American. "You can follow the road of Germany with its early recognition policy: that road leads to bloodshed. Or you can follow the Vance road, in search of a comprehensive political solution: that road leads to peace". Appalled by this transfer of weapons to Bosnia’s enemies, Izetbegovic asked that UN peacekeepers be sent to Bosnia as well, but the United States refused to support this request. Zimmermann, to his credit, did so - but, as he admits, not as hard as he should have.

Sympathy for the JNA

Unprepared for the war, Bosnia was to be mercilessly laid to waste, the bulk of its population turned into refugees and the Muslim component exposed to genocide, its territory partitioned. In view of what happened to Bosnia and Zimmermann’s own anguish over the US response, you would think that Origins of a Catastrophe would include some reflections on the value of organized self-defence. Far from it: much of Zimmerman’s passion is devoted to castigating Slovenia and Croatia for attempting to raise their own armies in order to withstand the coming attack. Thus in late June 1991, when the JNA was already busy truncating Croatia, Zimmermann complained that the Croatian president "was itching to use his growing Croatian army against rebellious Serbs. [I] warned Tudjman that the United States would give no support to the militarization of his republic. Democracy would be the best guarantee of Croatian security". Despite these protestations, he knew that Croatia was militarily not ready to take on the JNA, for he also warned Tudjman that independence could cost him territory. In his book he draws a lurid and wholly inaccurate picture of Croatia’s military readiness on the eve of the JNA attack. Its government, he writes, was "dominated by people whose inclination and expertise were in clandestine and military affairs", while "Croatia’s police and military probably did add up to an army larger than the armies of Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria, or Sweden". And when the Croatian government tried belatedly to defend its cities and population by laying siege to Army barracks and military depots, Zimmermann joined Vance in defending the aggressor: "Despite its depredations [such as committing war crimes on a large scale], the Yugoslav army remained a proud institution that the Croats were trying to humiliate".

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary and inverting cause and effect, Zimmermann argues that the Army had "lost its bearings with the 1990 elections", and that it was the "rise of Slovenian and Croatian nationalism and separatism" that led it to abandon its "firm opposition to nationalism" and become the military arm of Serbian nationalism. His sympathy for the JNA derives, it seems, from his perception of it as a "constitutional protector of Yugoslavia". Yet the Yugoslav constitution, while obliging the Army to defend Yugoslavia against external enemies, specifically prohibited it from interfering in internal political disputes, except by consensus of all eight federal partners - which was never reached. His book is peppered with various bogus claims for the legitimacy of JNA action in Slovenia and Croatia. "The JNA’s concerns", he writes of the time when the Yugoslav army was threatening those two republics, without approval from any legitimate Yugoslav body, "were not imaginary. Yugoslavia was still one country, with one constitutionally approved army. Federal law was on the JNA’s side. Moreover, the growing republican armies gave every indication of being hostile.[...] The Yugoslav Army had a point in its desire to prevent the proliferation of armies in the still-sovereign state of Yugoslavia".

The operational plan which the JNA drew up for its action against Slovenia involved 400 tanks and 25,000 soldiers; its aim was, after sealing the country’s borders, to take control of Ljubljana prior to installing a new Communist government run from Belgrade by Milosevic. In Zimmermann’s view, however, it was Slovenia and not the Army that initiated the war, by taking control of customs posts on its western borders - though this act involved no violence at all. Echoing Kadijevic, he treats Slovenia’s assertion of control over its borders as an attack on Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity: "in a lightning manoeuvre the Slovenes had in a few hours moved the borders of Yugoslavia, stable for half a century, a hundred miles to the east". "It wasn’t accurate", he writes, springing to the defence of an army now in free fall, "to talk about a JNA "invasion" of Slovenia, since the JNA was in its own country. Its troops were, quite normally, stationed in camps in every Yugoslav republic". The JNA was, if anything, the victim: "The not very heroic Slovenian (and later Croatian) tactic was not to take on the JNA directly, but to lay siege to JNA barracks and try to starve the soldiers out". And, to complete the picture, Slovenia’s resistance was in fact not democratically validated at all: "the most extreme faction in a coalition [with a majority in the Slovene parliament] provoked a war by stealth without even informing key Slovene leaders". The Slovenian resistance - which would pass any democratic test in terms of popular mobilization and the modalities of its organization - Zimmermann dismisses outright as "[Slovene Minister of Defence Janez] Jansa’s war": "Jansa’s war had alienated the Slovenes permanently from Yugoslavia". In his book Pomaci (Moves), Jansa writes how, on 26 June 1991 when Slovenia was celebrating its independence and awaiting the JNA attack, "the American military attache arrived incognito in Ljubljana so that he could be directly present at "the show"".

Playing with Recognition

Slovenia’s and Croatia’s declarations of independence were a moment of truth not for Yugoslavia, which was already gone, but for the West. Zimmermann takes some of the credit for the State Department’s next cardinal error: "I had backed, and in fact helped to create, the US policy of non recognition of Slovenia and Croatia". Even though by abandoning Slovenia the JNA had given up on Yugoslavia, even though the Federal government and presidency were no longer functioning and even though the JNA had become a purely Serbian force and was engaged in a dirty war in Croatia, Washington stuck by the failed policy. Zimmermann strongly disapproved of the decision of Carrington’s commission in the autumn of 1991 to treat Yugoslavia as non-existent, and of the growing trend in Europe - especially in Germany - towards recognition of the six republics. Instead, while urging the European Community to defer recognition, "the State Department encouraged my proddings of republican leaders to find a formula for living together". When, in late December 1991, the European Community decided to recognize Slovenia and Croatia, the US embassy in Belgrade continued "carrying out the full range of diplomatic business while being officially accredited to nobody".

The "diplomatic business" involved, among other things, encouraging the Bosnian president to go to Bonn to plead against recognition of Croatia. For Bosnia this would have been a grave strategic error, since recognition of Croatia’s borders amounted also to recognition of two thirds of Bosnia’s borders. Although, on meeting Genscher, Izetbegovic failed to raise the subject, this did not prevent Tudjman from using Izetbegovic’s stance on Croatian recognition against prominent Bosnian Croats and domestic critics protesting his intent to divide Bosnia with Serbia. The old erroneous argument that recognition would bring about war (when, in fact, war had preceded recognition in Slovenia and Croatia) was again trotted out, this time against Bosnian independence. On learning in late December 1991 that Bosnia too would seek international recognition, Zimmermann’s comment was: "This premature push for independence was a disastrous political mistake, since Serbia, Bosnia’s vastly more powerful neighbour, now had the pretext it needed to strike." Given, however, that (as he himself writes): "Milosevic and Karadzic had been embarked for nearly a year on a comprehensive strategy to tear away two-thirds of Bosnia and incorporate it into Serbia", there was in reality little for Bosnia to gain by waiting.

And so the US diplomatic gyre went on, describing ever smaller circles. Gone was the insistence on unity and democracy, on democracy for its own sake, or on the evils of nationalism. The Americans now backed the Lisbon conference, at which Bosnia’ ethnic partition was for the first time endorsed as a solution nobody knew to what. Though the plan was rejected by the Bosnian assembly, Zimmermann encouraged Izetbegovic to accept anything the European Community was ready to endorse. Only after Karadzic had rejected the Cutileiro plan and declared his own republic, when all easy options were gone and Bosnia was sliding unprepared into a bloody war, did Zimmermann recommend to Washington that Bosnia be recognized: "Now the EC had recognized Croatia and Slovenia, Izetbegovic’ Bosnia was threatened with isolation in a Milosevic-dominated "Serbo-slavia"." This was March 1992, three months after the EC’ decision. The argument that recognition meant war seemingly no longer applied: "Western recognition did not provoke that aggressive strategy, nor would the lack of Western recognition have deterred it". On the contrary: "early Western recognition, right after the expected referendum majority for independence, might present Milosevic and Karadzic with a fait accompli difficult for them to overturn." And in case Milosevic were tempted nevertheless, "we could offer him that recognition [i.e. of Serbia Montenegro as the sole successor to Yugoslavia] in exchange for his recognition of the territorial integrity of the four other republics, including Bosnia."

And this is just about how far things have got: Serbia has recognized the territorial integrity of the other four republics (of Bosnia only conditionally), while believing that it will inherit Yugoslavia’s seat in the United Nations. Between the US recognition of Bosnia and Serbia’s recognition of Bosnia, however, lay the genocide.

Western Failure

"For three years of the Bosnian war", writes Zimmermann, "the Western countries had attempted to rebuff the Serbian aggressors, bloated by their use of force, without making them fear that force would be used against them. Western diplomacy was reduced to a kind of cynical theatre, a pretence of useful activity, a way of disguising a lack of will. Diplomacy without force became an unloaded weapon, impotent and ridiculous." He himself came out in favour of air strikes against Serb targets in Bosnia in July 1992.: "My view was that the Serbs were acting in the belief that NATO wouldn’t react. Indeed, no other conclusion could be drawn from the West’s past actions." And he now believes that NATO should have used force already at the end of 1991, to stop the JNA shelling Dubrovnik; even, in retrospect, that it might have been better to have supported Yugoslavia becoming a confederation, albeit this would probably not have saved it in the end. Zimmermann thus deserves credit at least for his readiness to concede that he and his superiors made mistakes.

But the real charge to be levelled against the West is not that it was unwilling to use force against the Serbian aggressors. As the history of the Yugoslav wars of succession shows, Slovenia and Croatia proved perfectly able - despite Western disapproval - to defend themselves. They lacked weapons at first, but soon equipped themselves by taking them from the JNA or purchasing them abroad. The arms embargo made things more difficult, but - unlike in Bosnia - in the end made little difference. A multinational conscript army, the JNA started to fall apart as soon as it attacked Slovenia. Slovene, Croat, Albanian, Muslim, Macedonian and even Serb and Montenegrin recruits deserted, surrendered or simply refused to be drafted. Slovene and Croat officers joined their republics" defence and most other non-Serbs left as well. Macedonia and Bosnia stopped sending fresh recruits into the army. The war was unpopular in Serbia and Montenegro, and became more so as Serb and Montenegrin casualties began to mount. The break-up of the JNA wiped out Serbia’s military superiority. Slovenia and Croatia, with tacit Bosnian support, achieved this without a shot being fired by NATO. And although Serbia remained superior in military hardware, the two republics had the winning advantage of their troops’ high morale: they were fighting on home ground.

The problem lay not in Western reluctance to use force, but in the fact that the United States essentially took the Serbian side from the start. Whatever Zimmermann may claim, the threat to Yugoslavia and to regional stability came not from the democratic demands of Kosovo, Slovenia or Croatia, but from the undemocratic and militaristic regime in Belgrade. Rather than invest in democracy, however, Washington chose to appease that regime. In 1989, it bowed to the Serbian threat of war and supported Yugoslavia’s unity unconditionally. Two years later, instead of breaking the political impasse by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia, it allowed Belgrade to do so by recourse to war. Rather than being punished, Serbia was rewarded for its attack on Slovenia with half the weapons held in that republic by the JNA. Six months later, when Serbia faced military defeat in Croatia, the West intervened to save it by offering Croatia international recognition in return for acceptance of the Vance Plan. Since human and material destruction was greater in Croatia than in Slovenia, Serbia’s reward was proportionately greater: it got most of the weapons held by the former JNA in Croatia, and swathes of Croatian territory adjacent to the Bosnian border. The Vance Plan - whose first step was highly appropriately initialled in Sarajevo - greatly facilitated Serbian military preparations for the assault on Bosnia. By opening the issue of Croatia’s borders, it sent the message that Bosnian territory too was up for grabs. In the subsequent negotiations between Tudjman and Milosevic on how to divide Bosnia, Croatia’s occupied territory was one of the bargaining chips. In the late summer of 1992 Serbia did indeed give back to Croatia the southern portion of the latter’s coast, in return for Croatian-controlled northern Bosnia - with more barter to come. True, Zagreb and Belgrade had begun to haggle over Bosnia three months before the outbreak of the war; but the actual business of Bosnia’s violent dismemberment proceeded only after the Vance arrangement was in place in Croatia. Had Serbia been defeated and disarmed in Croatia, the nascent "Republika Srpska", which was no more than a military outpost of Serbia, would have collapsed. The resulting new balance of power in the former Yugoslav area would have provided the basis for a just settlement and lasting peace. Western policy ensured, however, that the war, rather than ending in early 1992, would continue for another four years - and end in a settlement that was not just and could not bring durable peace.

Serbia was rewarded for its aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina even more generously than it had been in Croatia, in proportion to the scale of destruction and the genocide committed. The United States supported every proposal for Bosnia’s ethnic partition from first to last, dissenting occasionally only on details. Unlike with Slovenia and Croatia, whose geopolitical locations had allowed them to break the ban on import of weapons, in the case of Bosnia US support for the arms embargo and persistent disapproval of all Bosnian efforts to organize self-defence contributed positively to the dismemberment of the republic’s territory and people. Disarmed and then kept unarmed, Bosnia was hardly in any position to bargain. Its outright partition was prevented only by the fact that, despite the embargo and with little diplomatic support (one should not forget here the valiant efforts of the US Congress to provide some) - i.e. under the most terrible conditions that any country has ever faced - it managed to create an army. The Washington Agreement was a direct result not so much of US diplomacy, as Zimmermann claims, as of this army’s defeat of Croatian forces (which showed little will to fight outside Croatia). But when the new balance thus created led at the end of 1995 to a fresh threat of military defeat for Serbia, Washington again stepped in to prevent it. The Bosnian government was now threatened with total diplomatic disapprobation and political, economic and military isolation if it did not recognize a "Republika Srpska" covering half of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The themes that dominate Zimmermann’s book - inter-Yugoslav disputes; the role of nationalism in the country’s break-up; nationalism’s nefarious effect on democracy; the treacherous and dishonest behaviour of local leaders; the excellency of the US diplomatic service; UN and US humanitarian efforts; the relevance of the NATO use of force in Bosnia - are in themselves of limited importance. The only thing that ever mattered was which side Washington would take in the political and military dispute between Milosevic’s Serbia and the rest of Yugoslavia. Zimmermann’s book allows a glimpse into the reasoning that produced the original decision to appease Belgrade, with all its fateful consequences. Had Washington supported democracy instead, the war would probably not have started; or, if it had, it would have ended long ago. Bosnia-Herzegovina would have emerged from Yugoslavia’s break-up "uncleansed" and territorially intact. The aggression designed to redraw old political and ethnic borders did originate from within Yugoslavia, but it succeeded only because it had the permission of the greatest power on earth. Herein lies the the true origin of the Yugoslav - and the Bosnian - catastrophe.

Branka Magas

1. Warren Zimmerman, Origins of a Catastrophe, Times Books, New York 1996, 270pp.

2. However, General Kadijevic told his staff prior to the intervention in Slovenia that the Army had the support of the United States and Soviet Union and "real support" from Britain and France (a summary of the speech is given in Janez Jansa, Pomaci, Zagreb 1993, pp 128-9). General Marijan Cad, whose 4th Corps based on Rijeka took part in the operation, claims they were told it had been "agreed between General Kadijevic, prime minister Markovic and American secretary of state James Baker." Globus, Zagreb, 19.12.1993.

3. Norman Cigar, "Croatia’s War of Independence: The Parameters of War Termination". Journal of Slavic Military Studies (forthcoming).

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