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A Pavane for Bosnia, Review of Noel Malcolm's Bosnia: A Short History

September 1, 1994 Topics: Society Regions: Balkan PeninsulaEurope Tags: Bosnian WarYugoslavia

A Pavane for Bosnia, Review of Noel Malcolm's Bosnia: A Short History

Mini Teaser: Noel Malcolm, in his extraordinary book--the best available in English on the background of the Bosnian war--refutes dozens of misconceptions about the country's history.

by Author(s): Warren Zimmerman

Review of Noel Malcolm's Bosnia: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

As is well known, Bosnia is a largely artificial creation, the product of a long history of Turkish oppression and ancient ethnic hatreds. Yugoslav communism, whatever its other contributions, did manage to exert a valuable discipline over these seething enmities, until the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia unleashed them anew. The Bosnian war that followed was an inevitable consequence of these factors; it is thus a classical civil war, deriving its dynamic from elements within Bosnia. While the Serbs bear considerable responsibility for the numerous atrocities, the Croats and especially the Muslims deserve a large share of the guilt. Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, through a policy of population growth and Islamic fundamentalism, has tried to turn Bosnia into a Muslim state. His declaration of independence in the spring of 1992 was the first major attempt to challenge the Bosnian status quo, stranding Serbs and Croats alike in a hostile, oppressive environment and leaving them no recourse except force.

The above observations, several of which have been made by such statesmen as John Major, Lord Carrington, and Bill Clinton, have one thing in common. They are all totally wrong. Noel Malcolm, in his extraordinary book--the best available in English on the background of the Bosnian war--nails every one of them, and dozens of other shibboleths besides. One must hope that Malcolm subjects himself to the rigors of the talk shows. This can only generate more light, if not less heat, in the American debate on Bosnia.

The charge made by Serbs, Croats, and even Western "experts" that Bosnia is an artificial creation with "administrative borders" (whatever those are) is the first to fall to Malcolm's incisive analysis. He finds a twelfth century chronicler who refers to the Drina River as the frontier between Bosnia and Serbia. The Drina, it will be recalled, is the river crossed by Serb irregulars in April l992 to "reclaim" villages populated largely by Muslims. That same twelfth-century chronicler had this to say about the Bosnian people: "Bosnia does not obey the Grand Zupan of the Serbs; it is a neighboring people with its own customs and government." As for Bosnia as a whole, its borders go back as far as the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

The Turkish occupation, which in Bosnia ran from 1463 to 1878, was hardly tender. Still, it was not the decadent, oppressive yoke denigrated in Serbian song and story. (In the 1960s, when I was a young diplomat in Belgrade, there was a Serbian black joke that ran as follows: "No wonder the Turks are so decadent. You would be too if you had to spend five hundred years oppressing the Serbs.") The Ottomans were surprisingly tolerant of other religions and races. There were few forced conversions; in fact, Malcolm shows that Christianity was very weak before the Turks arrived. It was not until the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century that the Muslims became a majority in Bosnia.
Interestingly, despite the historical fulminations of the current Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the Orthodox Serbs seem to have fared better under Turkish rule than the Catholic Croats. Even the Jews were welcomed; a large number settled in Sarajevo after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Nor were there major economic strictures against non-Muslims, although there were some. Malcolm claims that it wasn't necessary to be a Muslim to become rich. As for the "ancient hatreds" among Bosnia's three peoples, Bosnia from the Turkish conquest on was more at peace than at war. It compares favorably with England, which went through the Wars of the Roses and the Civil Wars, and with France, which endured the Religious Wars and the Revolution. Malcolm draws the important conclusion that most of the dangers visited on Bosnia through the centuries came not from internal tensions but from the ambitions of larger powers and neighboring states--a point as true for the present as for the fifteenth century.

Malcolm blames Yugoslav communism for manipulating nationalisms in Bosnia and making them more virulent. Here he could be more charitable. Josip Broz Tito, the father of post-World War II Bosnia and the man who in l968 recognized the Bosnians as a nation on a par with the Serbs and Croats, did his best to shield Bosnia from the rapacious nationalism of its neighbors. Tito was an anti-nationalist, which is why he is today so unpopular among nationalists in Serbia and Croatia and so revered among Bosnians. His sin, a grave one, was that he didn't lay the groundwork for democracy. When the lid came off multi-ethnic Yugoslavia after Tito's death in 1980, there were no democratic filters to prevent the most virulent nationalists from rising to the top. If one compares the subsequent histories of Tito's Yugoslavia and Franco's Spain, which had strikingly similar ethnic and economic problems in the 1960s, one can see the difference democracy can make.

With the background Malcolm provides, it becomes possible to take a rigorous look at the current war in Bosnia. Douglas Hurd has called it a civil war; Lord Carrington, the former European Community negotiator, has said that "everybody is to blame." Of course there are elements of a civil war: Bosnians are fighting Bosnians. But this simple-minded analysis ignores the very essence of the war. It is a calculated effort, planned well in advance by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb henchman Karadzic, to incorporate into Serbia the Serbs who live outside it. This strategy for creating a "Greater Serbia" began to unfold in 1991 when the Yugoslav Army helped the Croatian Serbs in the southern and eastern parts of Croatia. The result was the occupation of a quarter of Croatia, an area which has never belonged to Serbia.

Whatever Milosevic's pretext for attacking Croatia--he had at least the argument, if not the justification, that Serbs in Croatia were being discriminated against--there was no pretext at all for moving against Bosnia. The Bosnian leader Izetbegovic had gone to great lengths to preserve the multi-ethnic character of Bosnia. He insisted on keeping Serbs in the Bosnian government, rejecting Croatian urgings that they be expelled. Many Serbs, particularly in Sarajevo and other urban areas, remained loyal to the government, thus submitting themselves to the artillery barrages of their compatriots.

Before I was withdrawn with the other Western ambassadors in May 1992 in protest against the Serbian aggression, I had several talks with Milosevic. He admitted that, in distinction from Croatia, the Serbs of Bosnia had no grievance, that they were not being mistreated. It takes no great imagination to picture how the Bosnian Serbs would have treated the Muslims if they had held the Bosnian presidency and disposed of 44 percent of the population instead of the 31 percent they actually had.

Izetbegovic's ecumenical approach to governing forced the Serbian nationalists to find other arguments to justify aggression. There was the old standby of the population weapon, used habitually to explain why Kosovo, the Serbian Jerusalem, is now 90 percent populated by Albanians. For Bosnia the argument had to be adapted somewhat since the Muslims were not a majority there. They would be a majority, however, because Izetbegovic was secretly encouraging large families. When that day arrived, he would introduce all the oppressions of Islamic fundamentalism. His failure to do so up to now was explained by the fact that he could afford to wait.

The charge of fundamentalism goes back to a book Izetbegovic wrote in l970, entitled Islamic Declaration. Malcolm effectively counters any legitimate fear that it could be a danger to anyone, although it did turn out to be a danger to Izetbegovic himself: he was sentenced to fourteen years in jail (he served five) for Muslim nationalism. A somewhat dreamy treatise about the state of Islam in the world, Islamic Declaration doesn't call for making Bosnia pure, in fact doesn't mention Bosnia at all, and actually refers to nationalism as a divisive force. In a later book Izetbegovic treats Islam as a kind of spiritual and intellectual synthesis which draws on the values of Western Europe.

I had plenty of opportunities to observe Izetbegovic's political and social inclinations. He has a gracious, almost deferential, manner. He doesn't drink, but he serves wine to his guests--something not every Western teetotaller, not to mention mullahs or ayatollahs, would do. Shortly after his assumption of the presidency, he launched a compromise bid to save Yugoslavia, acting with Kiro Gligorov, a communist reformer from Macedonia. The effort failed, but it established Izetbegovic's anti-nationalist stripes. He gives the impression of a man who would never dream of telling others how to behave. This may translate into weakness of will. In fact, when Izetbegovic was negotiating with the Serbs, Croats, and European Community over the future of Bosnia, he would often defer to their views, then return to Sarajevo to be talked out of what he'd agreed to by his colleagues. Difficult as it is to demonize this decent, inoffensive, and somewhat over-his-head politician, the Serbs are still doing it.

The Serbs have used one other argument to justify their military aggression in Bosnia. They charged that Izetbegovic was trying to take Bosnia out of Yugoslavia, where since the creation of Yugoslavia after World War I all Serbs were able to live in a single state. The doctrine that all Serbs should have the right to live in one state is a curious one, since such a right is denied to French, Germans, Dutch, Italians, Swedes, and--closer to home--Hungarians, Croats, and Muslims. Moreover, Serbian "historians" never draw the obvious parallel--if the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia have the right to live in a state of their own, why don't the Hungarians, Albanians, and other Muslims who live in Serbia have the same right? Logic has never been the strong suit of Balkan nationalists.

It is, however, accurate that Izetbegovic in early 1992 did make a bid for Bosnia's independence. This was a major switch in his position and, as it turned out, a disastrous one. Izetbegovic had always understood what Tito had understood--that multi-ethnic Bosnia was a microcosm of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. If the latter fractured, as it did in World War II, the former would not survive either. Izetbegovic, in many conversations with me, was clear on this point: he repeatedly argued that if Croatia became independent, then Bosnia would be plunged into war. He said this forcefully to Secretary of State Baker, who visited Yugoslavia in June l991, just a few days before Croatia and Slovenia proclaimed their independence. Unfortunately Malcolm, no friend of Yugoslavia's unity, doesn't understand, or at least doesn't accept, the connection between Yugoslavia's unity and Bosnia's survival.

Why, then, did Izetbegovic change? Because, under German pressure, the European Community voted in December 1991 to recognize Croatia and Slovenia and to offer recognition to Bosnia and Macedonia. Even though negotiations were going on among the three Bosnian parties under Lord Carrington's overall supervision, Izetbegovic chose to press the recognition issue, arguing correctly that the only alternative was to be relegated to a Milosevic-dominated Yugoslavia. His timing was atrocious, however, since his much more powerful neighbor was girding for an armed encounter and Izetbegovic's rush to recognition gave the Serbs the pretext they were looking for. Had Izetbegovic pleaded for time to allow the Bosnian parties to work out their mutual relationships, he might have achieved a territorial settlement better than any he could now get, and he might have avoided a war. Even this is not certain, because Milosevic and Karadzdic had made careful plans for a major takeover of Bosnia. In detailing these preparations--the smoking gun of Serbian aggression--Malcolm is at his very best.

Milosevic and Karadzic played a kind of vaudeville routine with Bosnia. Milosevic was the innocent bystander. He kept asking me why I always wanted to talk about Bosnia since it wasn't his concern. Karadzic was the heavy, arguing that Bosnian Serbs had the right to live totally apart from all other ethnic groups and that Sarajevo should be divided by walls like Walter Ulbricht's Berlin. Both Milosevic and Karadzic went to elaborate lengths to pretend that they barely knew each other. Malcolm explodes all this pretense to great effect, showing that the Bosnian pattern was an exact copy of the Serb-engineered division of Croatia.

As early as May l991, Karadzic's party, the SDS (same name as its Croatian counterpart) declared three areas of Bosnia as "Serb Autonomous Regions," following the Croatian pattern. In August a tape was leaked of a telephone conversation between Milosevic and Karadzic in which the Serbian leader discusses the delivery of arms to the SDS by the Yugoslav Army. In September the Yugoslav Army intervened to "protect" the "Serb Autonomous Regions," in effect defining their borders. Artillery positions were established around Sarajevo and other towns. In October the Serbs set up their own parliament, withdrawing their deputies from the Bosnian parliament. The winding down of the Croatian war in early l992 released more federal troops for Bosnia. The Army confiscated arms in the hands of Izetbegovic's Bosnian territorial defense forces (national guard); it had been the Slovenes' refusal to turn similar weapons over to the Yugoslav Army that made their victory and independence possible. On March 2, l992, just following the referendum in which 64 percent of the Bosnian population voted for independence (most Serbs boycotted), Serb paramilitary forces attempted a putsch in Sarajevo, but were foiled when masses of unarmed civilians took the streets on behalf of Bosnia's unity. Finally, in March l992--before any country had recognized the independence of Bosnia--the Bosnian Serbs declared a "Serbian Republic."

In early April 1992 the actual aggression began with irregulars from Serbia pouring across the Drina--that twelfth-century boundary between Serbia and Bosnia--and shooting up the riverine Muslim towns. The worst atrocities of the war were committed by these thugs from Serbia, not by Serbs from Bosnia, although they have plenty to answer for as well. During this period, Milosevic would sip his Scotch, puff his cigarillo, and assure me that absolutely no Serbs from Serbia were in combat in Bosnia. This assertion--typical for Milosevic, whose mendacity is unmatched in the Balkans--lost some of its credibility when Arkan, the most notorious of the Serbian brigands, was photographed on Milosevic-controlled Belgrade television strutting around the Bosnian Muslim town of Bijeljina. If this pictorial evidence of complicity were not enough, there is the fact that the Yugoslav Army simply turned over to the Bosnian Serbs a significant part of its forces, with all their equipment. The Yugoslav Army, based in Serbia, has been supplying fuel to the Serb forces in Bosnia since the very beginning of the war.

Malcolm blames the Serbian nationalist leaders, not their people, for the war and its attendant horrors. I think he is right in this, and his explanation of why the Serbian people have supported, or at least tolerated, such primitive leadership is important. The first step was to radicalize the Serb population with the most graphic misinformation about Croatian, and later Muslim, crimes. I doubt if controlled television has ever been used to such malevolent purpose. The next step, borrowed from the Viet Cong, was to stage incidents which were designed to create an escalating violence--assassinating village leaders and the like. The third step was to get the Yugoslav Army to "restore order," in reality to establish and consolidate Serbian territorial gains. In both Croatia and Bosnia, the result was a polarized population. But the origin was nationalism from the top down, not some ancient ethnic hatred.

Malcolm castigates the West for its behavior during the Bosnian war. It's hard to disagree with him. Certainly an early NATO military response--for example, air strikes on the Serb artillery shelling Sarajevo and on other military targets--would probably have caused the Serbs to reconsider their aggression. They were not, after all, engaged in a liberation struggle--the Bosnian Serbs had nothing to be liberated from. They were on an adventure, and could have been pulled up short by a strong show of Western resolve. Unfortunately, the Europeans had no stomach for even a limited use of force, and used the presence of their peacekeepers in Bosnia as an argument against it. The United States produced neither peacekeepers nor leadership. With the Bush administration the reluctance to consider force was anchored in Vietnam; with the Clinton team there was a general uneasiness about the use of military power as an instrument of policy.

Malcolm has contempt for the West's failure to lift the arms embargo imposed on all of then-Yugoslavia in the fall of l99l. I see this as a closer call than he does. State Department analysts believed that lifting the arms embargo would simply have brought the Serbian strategic reserve out of Serbia and into Bosnia with a net military loss for the Bosnians. Moreover, there was little reason to think that the Bosnians, by fighting, could recover the 20 percent (or more) territory that was available to them by negotiation. There would also be problems of delivering the heavy artillery and tanks to the Bosnians (either through Serbian lines or over Serbian SAM missiles) and ensuring that the Bosnians wouldn't come under attack while they were training on the new weapons. These factors made the lifting of the embargo much less than the decisive, cost-free move which many, including in the U.S. Congress, believed it to be.

Even so, Malcolm's main point is right--that the Bosnians have a right to the weapons needed to defend themselves.

Malcolm's book is a pavane for a people who have suffered much and contributed much. Their greatest contribution is a tradition of tolerance and civility. As a mostly successful multi-ethnic society, they have been a challenge to the nationalist warlords on their borders. That's why Bosnia had to be broken up; it was a living refutation of the terrible simplifiers of nationalism. The Milosevics and Karadzics of this world have their analogues in other countries which have made the surprisingly easy passage from communism to nationalism. While the next generation may belong to such people, I can't believe that the whole future does. There are almost no countries in the world comprised of only one ethnic group, and no amount of ethnic cleansing is going to change that picture much. With the exception of Japan, all the most prosperous countries on the globe are multi-ethnic. The time of the nation-state is ending; the time of the successful multi-ethnic state is already here. When that realization sinks in, it will be possible to look at Bosnia, not only as a cautionary tale, but also as an inspiration.

Essay Types: Book Review