The following speech was given by Srdja Trifkovic at the May 27th Lord Byron Foundation conference, “Unfinished Business in the Balkans”, which was held at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington D.C.
“Uniting” Bosnia: Smoking in the Arsenal
by Srdja Trifkovic
At a time when the U.S. power and authority are increasingly challenged around the world, the new team sees the Balkans as the last geopolitically significant area where they can assert their “credibility” by postulating a maximalist set of objectives as the only outcome acceptable to the United States, and duly insisting on their fulfillment. We have already seen this pattern with Kosovo, and now we see an attempt to stage its replay in Bosnia under the demand for constitutional reform, i.e. centralization.
The advocates of unitary Bosnia studiously ignore the fact that similar U.S. policies contributed to the war 17 years ago. In the spring of 1992 the late Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia before its breakup and civil war, materially contributed—probably more than any other single man—to the outbreak of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The facts of the case have been established beyond reasonable doubt and are no longer dosputed by experts.
Nine months earlier, in June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, a move that triggered off a short war in Slovenia and a sustained conflict in Croatia where the Serbs refused to accept Tudjman’s fait accompli. These events had profound consequences on Bosnia and Herzegovina, that “Yugoslavia in miniature.” The Serbs (34%) adamantly opposed the idea of Bosnian independence. The Croats (17%) predictably rejected any suggestion that Bosnia and Herzegovina remains within a Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia.
Alija Izetbegovic had decided a year earlier that Bosnia should also declare independence if Slovenia and Croatia secede. On 27 February 1991 he went a major step further: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.”
The process culminated with the referendum on independence (29 February 1992). The Serbs duly boycotted it; just 62 percent of voters opted for independence, Muslims and Croats; but even this figure was short of the two-thirds majority required by the constitution. This did not stop the rump government of Izetbegovic from declaring independence on 3 March.
Simultaneously one last attempt was under way to save peace. The Portuguese foreign minister Jose Cutileiro persuaded the three sides that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be independent but internally organized on the basis of ethnic regions or “cantons.” The breakthrough was due to the Bosnian Serbs’ acceptance of an independent Bosnia, provided that the Muslims give up their ambition of a centralized, unitary one. Izetbegovic appeared to accept it but when he returned from Lisbon, Zimmermann flew post haste from Belgrade to Sarajevo to tell him that it was a means to “a Serbian power grab” that could be prevented by internationalizing the problem. State Department subsequently admitted that the US policy “was to encourage Izetbegovic to break with the partition plan.” The New York Times (August 29, 1993) brought a revealing quote from the key player himself:
The embassy [in Belgrade] was for recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina from sometime in February on,” Mr. Zimmermann said of his policy recommendation from Belgrade. “Meaning me.” … Immediately after Mr. Izetbegovic returned from Lisbon, Mr. Zimmermann called on him in Sarajevo… “He said he didn’t like it; I told him, if he didn’t like it, why sign it?”
After that moment Izetbegovic had no motive to take the ongoing EC-brokered talks seriously, just as the Albanians had no motive to negotiate with Belgrade after President Bush declared in Tirana that it would become independent. After his encounter with Zimmermann Izetbegovic felt authorized to renege on tripartite accord: the U.S. would come to his assistance to enforce the independence of a unitary Bosnian state.
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The motives of Zimmermann and his political bosses in Washington were not rooted in the concern for the Muslims of Bosnia as such, or indeed any higher moral principle. Their policy had no basis in the law of nations, or in the notions of truth or justice. It was the end-result of the interaction of pressure groups within the American power structure. Thus the war in the Balkans evolved from a Yugoslav disaster and a European inconvenience into a major test of “U.S. leadership.” This was made possible by a bogus consensus which passed for Europe’s Balkan policy. This consensus, amplified in the media, limited the scope for meningful debate.
Just as Germany sought to paint its Maastricht Diktat on Croatia’s recognition in December 1991 as an expression of the “European consensus,” after Zimmermann’s intervention Washington’s fait accomplis were straightfacedly labeled as “the will of the international community.” Europe was resentful but helpless when the United States resorted to covert action to smuggle arms into Croatia and Bosnia in violation of U.N. resolutions. Zimmermann’s torpedoing of the EU Lisbon formula in 1992 started a trend that frustrated the Europeans, but they were helpless. Cutileiro was embittered by the US action and blamed Izetbegovic for reneging. Had the Muslims not done so, he recalled in 1995, “the Bosnian question might have been settled earlier, with less loss of life and land.” Cutileiro also noted that the decision to renege on the signed agreement was not only Izetbegovic’s, as he was encouraged to scupper that deal and to fight for a unitary Bosnian state by foreign mediators.”
THE SETTING – At the outset of the crisis in 1990-91 most inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not want to become “Bosnians” in any political sense; but they were unaware of the extent to which their future depended on events beyond their republic’s boundaries. The ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia literally disintegrated in the first months of 1990. The resulting power vacuum was felt in Bosnia-Herzegovina more keenly than in other republics because the Party rule there was more rigidly doctrinaire. When the first multi-party election since 1938 finally took place in November 1990, the voters overwhelmingly acted in accordance with their ethnic loyalties that proved more enduring than any ideological differences between them.
When the Bosnian election results were tallied, they effectively read like a census plain and simple. The overwhelming share of the vote—80 percent—went to the three parties that had grounded their appeal in the ethnic-national identity and issues. The apparent ability of the three “nationalist” parties to cooperate in the aftermath of the election was based on one thing they all had in common: the desire to break free from the Titoist straightjacket. Had Yugoslavia not been breaking up in 1991-92, this emphasis on traditional identities would have passed as a natural democratic readjustment to reality. The truth is that there was no internal, Bosnian threat to peace at the beginning of 1991: when it came the threat was from outside. The SDS and the SDA were not simply in coalition: they were natural allies while Bosnia remained at peace, although they would become just as natural enemies if Yugoslavia fell apart.
The Serbs of Bosnia wanted, overwhelmingly, to preserve the status quo. As they had no desire for the destruction of Yugoslavia, they were forced into reactive posture vis-à-vis those who willed the Federation’s disintegration. Their argument—even if seldom stated with simplicity and coherence—was clear when freed from rhetoric: they had lived in one state since 1918, when Yugoslavia came into being. They reluctantly accepted Tito’s arbitrarily determined internal boundaries between the six federal republics—which left one third of them outside Serbia-proper—on the grounds that the Yugoslav framework afforded them a measure of security from the repetition of the nightmare of 1941-1945; but they could not swallow an illegal ruse that aimed to turn them into minorities, overnight and by unconstitutional means, in their own land.
Even without the vividly remembered trauma of the Second World War, they reacted in 1991-1992 just as the Anglophone citizens of Texas or Arizona might do if they are outvoted, one day, in a referendum demanding those states’ incorporation into Mexico. They demanded the right that the territories, which the Serbs have inhabited as compact majorities long before the voyage of the Mayflower, not be subjected to the rule of their rivals. In the same vein the Protestant Ulstermen demanded — and were given — the right to stay apart from united Ireland when the nationalists opted for secession in 1921.
In the same vein the state of West Virginia was created in 1863, incorporating those counties of the Commonwealth of Virginia that refused to be forced into secession. The Loyalists of Ulster and the Unionists of West Virginia were just as guilty of a “Joint Criminal Enterprise” to break up Ireland, or the Old Dominion, as were the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina who did not want to be dragged into secession.
Yugoslavia was a flawed polity, and there could have been no rational objection to the striving of Croats, and even Bosnian Muslims, to create their own nation-states. But equally there could have been no justification for forcing over two million Serbs west of the Drina to be incorporated into those states against their will. Yugoslavia came together in 1918 as a union of South Slav peoples, and not of states, or territorial units. Its divorce should have been effected on the same basis; the boundaries of the republics should have been altered accordingly. This is, and has been, the real foundation of the Yugoslav conflict ever since the first shots were fired in the summer of 1991. Even someone as unsympathetic to the Serb point of view as Lord David Owen conceded that Josip Broz Tito’s internal administrative boundaries between Yugoslavia’s republics were grossly arbitrary, and that their redrawing should have been countenanced:
Incomprehensibly, the proposal to redraw the republics’ boundaries had been rejected by all eleven EC countries… [T]o rule out any discussion or opportunity for compromise in order to head off war was an extraordinary decision. My view has always been that to have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries of the six republics within the former Yugoslavia… as being those for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition itself.
Of the three ethnic-religious parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslim party—the SDA—was the most radical, in that it alone advocated a fundamental restructuring of the Bosnian society in accordance with divine revelation. It attempted to do so not on Bosnia’s own terms, not within the Republic’s own local paradigm, but within the terms of the global-historical process—as its leaders saw it—of the global Islamic renaissance. Many in the West have been in a state of denial for years about the nature of Alija Izetbegovic’s long-term program, preferring to believe their own assurances that Izetbegovic’s blueprint is not “Islamist” but “multicultural.”
Not unlike Islamist parties elsewhere—notably the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey—the SDA had a public, “secular” front, and an inner core of Islamic cadres that remained semi-conspiratorial in the early days. This is vividly described by one of the party’s founders who had previously made a successful business career in the West, Adil Zulfikarpašic. He was appalled by the “fascist” methods of the SDA and by its “conservative, religious, populist” orientation.
Izetbegovic was an advocate of Sharia law and a theorist of the Islamic Republic long before the first shots were fired. His early views were inspired by the teaching of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Al Husseini, who toured the German-occupied Europe preaching that the Third Reich and the Muslim world had a natural community of interests. Izetbegovic’s ideas subsequently matured into a comprehensive, programmatic statement in the Islamic Declaration — his de facto political platform:
The Islamic movement must, and can, take over power as soon as it is morally and numerically so strong that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic power, but also build up a new Islamic one… There is no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions.
This was a political program par excellence. The author’s contempt for Western values is evident in his dismissal of the Kemalist tradition: “Turkey as an Islamic country used to rule the world. Turkey as an imitation of Europe represents a third-rate country the like of which there is a hundred in the world.” Elsewhere, he accepts the “achievements of Euro-American civilization” but only in the area of “science and technology… we shall have to accept them if we wish to survive.” In a revealing sentence, Izetbegovic discusses the status of non-Muslims in countries with Muslim majorities: “The non-Muslim minorities within an Islamic state, on condition that they are loyal [emphasis added], enjoy religious freedom and all protection.” He advocates “the creation of a united Islamic community from Morocco to Indonesia.”
Izetbegovic’s views are unremarkable from a traditional Islamic point of view. The final objective is Dar al Islam, where Muslims dominate and infidels submit. That is the meaning of Izetbegovic’s apparent generosity to the non-Muslims, “provided that they are loyal”: the non-Muslims can be “protected persons” only if they submitted to Islamic domination.
In his daily political discourse Izetbegovic behaved throughout the 1990s as a de facto nationalist, fostering narrowly-defined Bosniak nationalist feeling and seeking to equate the emerging “Bosniak” identity with an imaginary supra-ethnic “Bosnia.” He was juxtaposing the construct with the two traditionally Christian communities—Serbs and Croats—whose loyalties were alleged to lie elsewhere, with Belgrade and Zagreb respectively. The two sides of Izetbegovic’s personality were not at odds, since within his terms of reference the Bosniak ethnicity was defined by religion. To have Alija Izetbegovic, with his record and his vision, as the head of a democratic, pluralist state anywhere in the world, is of course simply unthinkable. But for his peculiar vision to be applied in practice, Bosnia-Herzegovina had to be taken out of Yugoslavia and proclaimed independent and sovereign.
Izetbegovic’s chief concern was to find a pretext for the intended separation from Yugoslavia—any Yugoslavia—and to use the Croat tactical alliance in pursuit of that goal; the day of reckoning with the HDZ could come later. Izetbegovic was willing to risk the war. In the 1990 election campaign he said that the Muslims would “defend Bosnia with arms.” In February 1991 he declared in the Assembly: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.” By May Izetbegovic went even further, saying that the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina probably could not be avoided because “for a state to be created, for a nation to be forged, it has to endure this, it is some kind of fate, destiny.” This statement echoed his Islamic fatalism.
When the Bosnian Serbs took control of the Serb-majority areas and connecting corridors in 1992, they were well equipped and officered. But the numerical advantage lay with the Muslims, who hoped to win in the end with international help. Radavan Karadzic never understood that this was, indeed, Izetbegovic’s grand strategy, and that time was not on the side of the Serbs. In addition Karadzic personally and the Serbs collectively were severely damaged by the western media handling of their mistreatment of Muslim prisoners and the expulsion of non-Serb civilians in the summer of 1992. Similar atrocities by Croats and Muslims against Serbs and against each other, while no less common, were less conspicuous and deemed unworthy of Western attention.
The media call for intervention, launched in its early stage, made the Bosnian war the subject of international debate to an extent unknown since Vietnam. Many Europeans were inclined to support a compromise peace, a federalized Bosnia, and a real arms embargo; whereas the United States disliked European peace plans, broke the arms embargo starting in late 1993, and overtly supported the Muslims. Plus ca change!
The end of the war was the result of a transatlantic compromise: London and Paris reluctantly agreed to let NATO bomb the Serbs, while the United States reluctantly accepted the sort of settlement the Europeans had wanted in 1992-3. The chief outcome of the war was a transformed NATO, and the renewal of American leadership in Europe to an extent not seen since Kennedy. It established that America wanted to lead, and to be indispensable, in the process of European reorganization after 1989. In Bosnia itself the war took longer than it would have done but the settlement that followed Dayton is not unlike a plausible compromise that seemed within reach in Lisbon in April 1992.
Richard Holbrooke, the chief U.S. negotiator in 1995, boasted a year later: “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.” This “we” meant the United States, not “the West” or “the international community.” Indeed, no nation-state started and finished the Bosnian story as a political actor with an unchanged diplomatic personality. Each great power became a forum for the global debate for and against intervention, the debate for and against a certain kind NATO, and an associated, media-led international political process. The interventionists prevailed then, and their narrative dominates the public commentary on Karadzic’s arrest now.
The current clamoring for unitarization raises an old question that remains unanswered by the Bosnifiers: If the old Yugoslavia was untenable and eventually collapsed under the weight of the supposedly insurmountable differences among its constituent nations, how can Bosnia—the Yugoslav microcosm par excellence—develop and sustain the dynamics of a viable polity?
As for the charges that the RS is founded on war crimes, we need not hypothesize a pre-war “joint criminal enterprise” to ethnically cleanse and murder, to explain the events of 1992-5. The crimes and violations of human rights that followed were not the direct result of anyone’s nationalist project. These crime, as Susan Woodward notes, “were the results of the wars and their particular characteristics, not the causes.”
The effect of the legal intervention of the “international community” with its act of recognition was that a Yugoslav loyalty was made to look like a conspiratorial disloyalty to “Bosnia”—largely in the eyes of people who supposed ex hypothesi that if there is a “Bosnia” there must be a nation of “Bosnians.” In 1943-44 Tito was able to force the Anglo-Americans to pretend that his struggle was not communist revolution. In 1992-95 Izetbegovic forced the West to pretend that his jihad was the defense of “multi-ethnicity.” Both pretenses were absurd.
The campaign against the RS is detrimental to what America should stand for in the world. It seeks to give further credence to the myth of Muslim blameless victimhood, Serb viciousness, and Western indifference, and therefore weaken our resolve in the global struggle euphemistically known as “war on terrorism.” The former is a crime; the latter, a mistake. Yet there is no true debate in Washington on the ends and uses of American power, in the Balkans or anywhere else. The ideologues’ resistance to any external checks and balances on the exercise of that power is upheld. Obama’s team and Bush’s may differ in some shades of rhetoric, but they are one regime, identical in substance and consequence. Its leading lights will go on disputing the validity of the emerging balance-of-power system because they reject the legitimacy of any power in the world other than that of the United States, controlled and exercised by themselves. They will scoff at the warning of 1815, 1918, or 1945 as inapplicable in the post-history that they seek to construct. They will confront the argument that no vital American interest worthy of risking a major war is involved in Russia’s or China’s near-abroad with the claim that the whole world is America’s near-abroad.
It is vexing that the demand for rekindling the Bosnian crisis comes at a particularly dangerous period in world affairs: the return of asymmetrical multipolarity. Following a brief period of post-1991 full-spectrum dominance, for the first time after the Cold War the government of the United States is facing active resistance from one or more major powers. More important than the anatomy of the South Ossetian crisis last August, or the Taiwanese crisis three years from now, is the reactive powers’ refusal to accept the validity of Washington’s ideological assumptions or the legitimacy of its resulting geopolitical claims. At the same time, far from critically reconsidering the Bushies’ hegemonsitic assumptions and claims, the key decision-makers in the Obama Administration will continue to uphold them.
Their ambition, unlimited in principle, will remain unaffected by the ongoing financial crisis, just as Moscow’s Cold War expansionism was enhanced, rather than curtailed, by the evident shortcomings of the Soviet centrally planned economy. Come what may, they will not allow the reality of global politics to interfere with their world outlook, “neoliberal” or “neoconservative,” but hegemonic and irrational at all times.