Fog of War
Author: The Times (London)
Uploaded: Friday, 23 November, 2012
Following the successful appeal by Croatian generals Gotovina and Markac at the ICTY, this editorial makes clear that, while all sides suffered in the Balkans in the 1990s, the main culprit was Milosevic
The greatest crimes in postwar Europe were committed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. One aspect of that terrible history has just been rewritten. Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, generals in the Croatian Army, were sentenced to long prison terms last year by a UN war crimes tribunal for atrocities against Serbs in a military offensive in 1995. But their convictions were overturned last week on appeal. The generals have since returned to Croatia to a euphoric welcome.
The verdict has been condemned in Serbia. Croatians of Serb nationality were indeed victims of war crimes. But the proper response of the Serbian government should be to accept the court’s decision as the final word on the conflict and to acknowledge that the origins of the break-up of Yugoslavia lay with decisions taken in Belgrade.
Croatia, along with Slovenia, sought independence in June 1991. Their leaders were fearful of the demagogy and ferocious nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president. Slovenia’s secession was accomplished after a ten-day war. But the Yugoslav National Army, under Milosevic’s malign influence, launched a seven-month assault on Croatia that killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and did immense damage to such cultural jewels as the city of Dubrovnik. Milosevic then turned his attention to attacking and dismembering the multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia, which had declared independence after a referendum in March 1992.
The Bosnian war lasted three years. It was a barely imaginable catastrophe. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, are now on trial at The Hague for war crimes, including the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. Their Svengali was Milosevic, gripped by a pitiless and fanatical aim of creating an ethnically ‘pure’ Greater Serbia.
Milosevic was assisted in a cynical division of Bosnia by Franjo Tudjman, his Croatian counterpart. But a military offensive by Croatian forces in August 1995, called Operation Storm, eventually rolled back Serb forces from the Krajina region, which had been under Serb control since 1991. During it, some 200,000 Serbs fled or were driven from their homes; around 150 were killed.
These were crimes. The UN tribunal did not dispute them, and there have been convictions in Croatian courts. The generals’ acquittal rested, rather, on the judgement that the Serbs’ expulsion was not the work of a criminal conspiracy. There was no plan for it. And Operation Storm proved crucial in restraining Milosevic, saving Bosnia from further suffering and securing a negotiated territorial settlement under the Dayton Accords.
President Nikolic of Serbia has remarked bitterly that the verdict is political and ‘will reopen old wounds’. In fact, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which heard the case, is an imperfect but noble attempt at justice.
All sides committed atrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but not all sides were equally culpable. The bloodshed was the handiwork of Milosevic. He was wrongly regarded by Western policymakers as a negotiating partner. A misguided attempt at neutrality, including a UN arms embargo that froze in place Serbian military dominance, ensured that civilian suffering persisted and intensified. Conciliation is vital. And it depends on accurate historical accounting.
This leading article appeared in The Times (London), 19 November 2012