bosnia report
New Series No: 36 October - December 2003
The Yugoslav wars: civil wars or Serbian aggression?
by Milenko Markovic


In the negotiations about re-defining the [former Yugoslav] federation, Milošević dealt in ultimata. He believed he had the right to dictate conditions. He felt superior for two reasons: Serb ethnic weight, and the support he enjoyed in the already Serbianized JNA. This is why he gave no ground in the inter-republican negotiations, rejecting all attempts by his co-nationals to save Yugoslavia in some form. He rejected for the same reasons the solution proposed by the 1991 Peace Conference at The Hague, which was Yugoslavia’s last chance. Serbia sent the message that it was to be either a federation of the Serbian regime’s devising or Greater Serbia.

This policy was motivated by the desire to ‘correct the mistake committed in 1918', when the chance for all Serbs to live in the same state was allegedly missed. The solution to the Serb question was to achieve a ‘state redesign of AVNOJ Yugoslavia’ (Dobrica Ćosić) by extending Serbia’s borders to include parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This historically anachronistic aim of solving the Serb question by creating a ‘nationally compact state’ was combined with an abuse of the right to self-determination, because the ‘Serb right’ meant the right to take over foreign territory. Milošević’s declaration that ‘the administrative borders cannot be proclaimed republican state borders, nor do they form the framework within which individual Yugoslav nations live’ indicated the direction in which he was moving. No euphemisms could hide the fact that he was actually declaring war against other Yugoslavs.

The startled world proved unable to fashion a correct approach to the Yugoslav crisis. It was concerned at the time with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its consequences. Milošević’s regime, which took no note of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the USSR’s break-up, skilfully used international preoccupation with these issues to conduct a blitzkrieg, in the hope of presenting the world with a fait accompli.

What, then, was the character of the Yugoslav wars? Were they wars of liberation or of conquest? In Serbia - and in much of the world - the tendency was to treat them as civil wars, though there was no evidence for this with regard either to those who waged them or to their aims. They were ‘civil’ only in the sense that they involved former Yugoslav citizens. These, however, were involved not as individuals but as members of their nations. This was not a case, therefore, of a conflict within a nation. The wars were not motivated by social or democratic aspirations, but by territorial expansion. Civil wars pit ideological opponents; expansionist wars target citizens of the opposing nation. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and so on were the chief features of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

The fact that Serb officials on both sides of the Drina prefer the ‘civil war’ definition is not accidental. It has served to hide the real aims of the war: the creation of a Greater Serbia. The international community’s initial acceptance of the ‘civil’ definition of the wars in the former Yugoslavia meant that they were treated as Yugoslavia’s internal affair, so that neither it nor the UN had to intervene. As a result the ‘internal aggressors’ were able to present themselves as parties in a civil war, while in reality conducting a classic war of territorial conquest. Milošević believed that he could use the concept of state sovereignty to do what he liked in the territory under his control. He succeeded in this for a long time, indeed was praised by the West as a ‘man of peace’. Encouraged in this way he tried to solve the Kosovo question too by the application of force.

While there were no innocents in these wars, one may safely say that it was Slobodan Milosević’s regime which decided the issue of war or peace in Yugoslavia. The regime had at least two possible options: peaceful separation or war. Had it decided in favour of a peaceful separation, as happened in the former Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union, no one else in the former Yugoslavia would have been in a position - or had any reason - to wage a war of this nature, despite the presence of warlike attitudes on all sides. Serbia’s choice of the instrument of war to solve the Yugoslav crisis, as is clear today, was the crucial cause of both the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Serb national catastrophe.

To sum up: in the years 1991-1995 the war in the former Yugoslavia was not a civil war but a war of territorial conquest, imposed by the Serbian regime with ardent support from Serbia’s leading intellectual circles and scientific, cultural and ecclesiastic institutions. Insofar as the war had any national-liberation charge, this was true only for the nations which, targeted by Serbian aggression, tried to defend themselves. The argument that the wars were waged to defend Serb national identity is just as false as is the belief that Serb interests can best be protected by hiding the true nature of the war. The lack of will to admit to the crimes has been shown by the efforts to sabotage displays of photographic material about the war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo - in places like Užice, Čačak, Kragujevac, etc. Even more worrying is the propensity on the part of Serbian politicians to equalize responsibility for the crimes committed during the past war, and their tacit acceptance of rehabilitation of the Chetniks who were responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing in an earlier war.

It is only when the broadest layers of Serbian society finally accept that this war of conquest conducted in the name of the Serbs was also the worst possible attack on their own identity, and that only by learning the full truth about the nature of this war will they be able to affirm their national and civic individuality - it is only then that one will see the beginning of a truly new history of Serbia and the Balkans.

Translated from a longer text in Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), September 2002


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