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Causes Of The Wars In Former Yugoslavia Politics Essay

Causes Of The Wars In Former Yugoslavia Politics Essay

Yugoslavia was forged together after World War Two as a coalition of the South Slavic people. In order to prevent the country from falling apart the communist government swiftly moved to suppress any signs of the violent nationalism that had been active during the war. The strategy worked for forty years until the early 1990s, when the country rapidly descended into a civil war marked for its bloody ethnic violence. What factors had contributed towards Yugoslavia’s brutal demise?

I was very doubtful of a common explanation; that ancient ethnic hatreds, which had been buried during Tito’s reign, had simply boiled over. Most Yugoslav’s has grown up under the banner of ‘Brother and Unity’, and had never experienced virulent nationalism themselves.

With the classroom knowledge that Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević had first provoked Serb nationalism during his visit to Kosovo, and that most conflicts have roots in economics, I began my investigation to unearth the truth. Thanks to the librarians at the city library, I was able to find a wide range of books – with a wide range of different viewpoints – on the topic. The internet also provided valuable help – especially with finding transcripts from the trial of MiloÅ¡ević himself and discovering more literature sources.

After many hours of comparing and compiling various sources, I was able to reach my own conclusion. Ancient hatreds themselves did not directly cause the wars. The country’s dire economic straits, caused by enormous foreign debt resulted in huge dissatisfaction within Yugoslavia. MiloÅ¡ević used this situation, convincing the financially exhausted and desperate Serbs that they were in fact oozing ethnic superiority. Fear of Serb domination led to the election of nationalist politicians throughout Yugoslavia and later the secession of several republics, and the West’s misguided attempts to stop the ensuing conflict only increased the body count.

I. Introduction

Srebrenica was typical of most small towns in Yugoslavia during the early 1980s. Situated in the central republic of Bosnia, the town’s ethnic composition was 68% Bosniak Muslims and 28% Serbs, [1] and like the rest of Yugoslavia, the two ethnic groups seemed happily integrated with one another. Yet just over ten years later one of the most notorious modern acts of genocide took place in Srebrenica. Bosnian Serb militias slaughtered thousands of Muslim men and boys as young as 12 en masse in warehouses, schools and fields, or hunted them down in the forests. The number of dead is estimated at around 8000 [2] , murdered by their former neighbours and friends.

What factors contributed towards the breakup of Yugoslavia? I struggled to comprehend how a country whose very motto was ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ could split so rapidly into rival factions. Most people today would consider a modern European country descending into civil war almost inconceivable, but the fact it happened only twenty years ago is extremely frightening. This is why I choose to investigate the causes of Yugoslavia’s demise; to determine if it was it a regional problem, or one that was caused by outside factors. If it was the latter, the implications are massive. If Western leaders claims the conflict was driven by ‘ancient hatreds’ weren’t true, lessons should have be learned on how the West prevents domestic conflicts in troubled nations around the globe.

II. Supposed Ancient Hatreds.

US Vice President Al Gore, in 1995, attempted to explain Yugoslavia’s break up as “a tragedy that has been unfolding for a long time, some would say for five hundred years” [3] . British Prime Minister John Major, speaking to the House of Commons in June 1993 explained the collapse “as the result of the lid on ancient hatreds being lifted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union”. [4] Their implication was that the authoritarian nature of the Communist Party had simply forced nationalism underground, rather than extinguishing it altogether, and following the collapse of Communism in the rest of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavs felt the time was right to finally express how they truly felt.

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However, there seems to be no evidence that these ‘ancient hatreds’ were active during Tito’s reign. No random outbursts of fighting between ethnic groups have been recorded [5] , as would have been expected. In fact, relations in Yugoslavia during the four decades following World War Two were largely ‘cooperative and peaceful’ [6] , despite the Croatian genocide of Serbs that had taken place merely years before. It hardly seems likely that Serbs, Muslims, Croats, Macedonians and Montenegrins, who had lived, shopped and went about their lives together for decades, all secretly hated each other the whole time. What, then, was to blame for the years of carnage that accompanied the demise of Yugoslavia?

III. Root of the Crisis: Economic Collapse

Since its creation, Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito, had used its status as the only communist country in Europe not aligned with the Soviet Union to prop up its economy. Following World War II, Tito’s relationship with Stalin soured, and Yugoslavia turned to the United States to help rebuild its shattered infrastructure. At the time, the threat of a full Soviet invasion of Europe was viewed as a real possibly, and the US saw Yugoslavia as ‘a bulwark against the spread of Soviet power’ [7] . Along with substantial military aid, the US granted large amounts of money to support the rapidly growing economy and later on, handed them large International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. With the exception of a short recession in the mid-1960s, the country’s economy prospered. Unemployment was low and the education level of the working force steadily increased.

Dissatisfaction, however, was brewing between the republics. The enormous differences in wealth between the economically sophisticated northern republics of Slovenia and Croatia, and the ‘developing-world conditions’ [8] present in Kosovo, Macedonia and parts of Serbia had to be rectified by enormous state control of the economy. This led to great dissatisfaction in the north, ‘the fruits of whose productivity were transferred to the dusty climates of the south where they rotted in sun.’ [9] This frustration had already boiled over in 1971 when thousands of Zagreb students protested on the streets for greater Croatian autonomy. Although Tito imprisoned many of those involved, he went on to drastically de-centralise Yugoslavia’s economy in his 1974 constitution. However, discontent re-emerged a few years later as the Yugoslav economy began to decline.

In order to support foreign expansion, the government took on a number of International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and by 1988, national debt totalled $33 billion USD. [10] The gap in wealth between the two northern republics and the rest of Yugoslavia was slowly widening. In the late 1980s, unemployment rates rose slightly to 5 and 7 per cent in Slovenia and Croatia respectively, but the rate had leapt to 15 per cent in Serbia and over 40 per cent in Kosovo. [11] Inflation, which had averaged around 200 per cent through the late 1980s, soared to 1300 per cent by 1989. [12] The dinar, in effect, ‘had become worthless’ [13] , and Yugoslavia had practically ceased to be a single economy, since only a third of national output and a fifth of capital movements now circulated between the republics [14] .

Throughout the 1980s, living conditions in Yugoslavia, which had been the envy of Eastern Europe, went backwards. In order to renegotiate foreign debt, the government introduced severe austerity measures. Petrol was limited to only 40 litres per month, citizens now had to pay to leave the country and long power cuts throughout the dry summers were common. Further austerity measures introduced in 1988 called for a 30% reduction in wages at a time when 80% of manufacturers had announced price hikes for their products. [15]

In April 1988, an accord was reached between Yugoslavia and the IMF, which promised to ease the country’s debt and combat inflation. They required increased exports, reduced government spending, lessoned control of the economy and the privatisation of state utilities. Demand was repressed in an attempt to reduce inflation, which only further reduced competitiveness and further increased unemployment [16] .

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Furthermore, the end of the Cold War in 1989 signalled a change in the United States’ foreign policy. The US no longer considered Yugoslavia as a necessary ally against the Warsaw pact nations and offers of financial aid, which the IMF had promised to Prime Minister Ante Markovic, were withdrawn. Markovic had depended on the money to carry out necessary financial reforms to cut back debt. [17]

The clumsy attempt by the IMF to transform Yugoslavia from a socialist economy to a market economy created a hopeless situation. Susan Woodward writes:

A critical element of this [Yugoslavia’s] failure was economic decline caused largely by a program intended to resolve a foreign debt crisis. More than a decade of austerity and declining living standards corroded the social fabric and the rights and securities that individuals and families had come to rely on. [18]

I agree with this statement entirely. In the late 1970s, even with the economy under-performing, most Yugoslavs would never have imagined how dire the situation was to be in ten years’ time. Yugoslavia’s version of a socialist economy was working. However, by taking out so many IMF loans, they found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. The IMF were able to force the Yugoslav government to ‘westernize’ the economy, resulting in low living standards, high unemployment, a worthless currency and a population who were unsatisfied. The whole situation was a throwback to Weimar Germany. In a country where inflation was astronomical, the population, whose way of life has been thrown into doubt, begin to believe that radical change was the only way to better their situation. All Yugoslavia now needed was its own Hitler.

IV. Reviving Nationalism: Slobodan Milošević

Ethnic hatreds had existed in Yugoslavia; however they were slowly dying out. The older generation, who had witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by the fascist Croats UstaÅ¡e against Serbs during World War II, would still have harboured resentment. The younger generation, brought up following Tito’s slogan of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’, to a large degree identified themselves as Yugoslav, rather than any particular ethnicity. Inter-marriage, for example, was extremely common. How was it then that within the space of a few years, they would turn on each other so suddenly? Were it not for the political ambition of a Serb politician named Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević, the country’s break up would never have been so violent and destructive.

MiloÅ¡ević is an enigmatic figure. The man who spurred on the revival of Serb nationalism was never truly a nationalist himself. Warren Zimmerman recalls that he would never “say a charitable or generous word about any human being, not even a Serb.” [19] I speculate that he was driven by a simple lust for power, rather than any particular ethnic affiliation; however his reasons are un-important. It was the methods MiloÅ¡ević used to attain this power that premeditated the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

In 1986, when the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts first appeared in the Serbian press, it was a political bombshell. The document was the first prominent airing of nationalistic views in decades. Its authors claimed that since Yugoslavia’s creation, Serbs had been “systematically and deliberately” injured by the “revanchist policies” of an “anti-Serbian coalition”. [20] Official condemnation of the document was swift; MiloÅ¡ević, who at the time was the Serbian Communist Party Leader, condemned its publication himself, proclaiming it ‘represented nothing but the darkest nationalism’. [21]

MiloÅ¡ević, a ‘brutal and cunning’ [22] politician, had realized how well the memorandum was received amongst the economically-drained Serb people, and recognized how adopting the rhetoric of the document could further his political career. The Belgrade media had all-of-a-sudden began covering the plight of Serbs living in Kosovo because of the memorandums claim that ‘the physical, political, legal and cultural genocide of the Serbian population in Kosovo … is a worse defeat than any experienced in the liberation wars waged by Serbia…’ [23] . This was, in reality, far from the truth; in 1981, when Albanian youths demonstrated in favour of Kosovo becoming a republic, Serb police cracked down and killed perhaps upwards of a hundred protesters [24] . However, MiloÅ¡ević used the situation in Kosovo as a whipping stick to gain popular support.

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MiloÅ¡ević travelled to Kosovo on April 24, 1987, to meet with regional leaders and discuss ways of stopping the ever-growing Serb protests in the country. As MiloÅ¡ević entered the House of Culture in Kosovo Polje, thousands of local Serbs pressed forward, screaming about Albanian oppression. When the police drove them backward with batons, the crowd screamed “murderers” and “we are Tito’s, Tito is ours” [25] , and began hurling rocks at the policemen. Upon hearing the commotion outside, MiloÅ¡ević re-emerged from the hall to address the crowd. When he bellowed “no one should dare to beat you” [26] , the mood of the crowd instantly transformed and they began chanting “Slobo, Slobo” [27] The Belgrade media were quick to latch on, replaying MiloÅ¡ević’s promise over and over.

MiloÅ¡ević’s sudden ‘conversion’ to nationalism was not as spontaneous as it seemed. In fact, he visited Kosovo several days earlier to meet Communist officials and was accused by local leaders of not addressing their complaints. [28] He returned to Belgrade knowing exactly what the crowd wanted to hear, and the first visit was conveniently forgotten about.

MiloÅ¡ević’s political manoeuvring at the Eighth Session of the League of Communists of Serbia eventually forced the resignation of his close friend and Serbian president, Ivan Stambolic in December 1987. Surprisingly, reaction from the other republics, who believed MiloÅ¡ević was a ‘grey bureaucrat’ who could be controlled, was positive. MiloÅ¡ević assumed the position of Serbian President in March 1989.

MiloÅ¡ević aimed to dominate Yugoslavia within its constitution. In Vojvodina 100,000 supporters gathered outside the Communist Party headquarters in Novi Sad on 6 October 1988, demanding the resignation of the provincial government, who opposed MiloÅ¡ević’s policy. Protests such as this, dubbed the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, eventually forced the leaders of Kosovo and Vojvodina to step down. Organisers claimed the protest was ‘grassroots’, yet Slovene president Milan Kučan said, “none of us believed in Slovenia that these were spontaneous meetings and rallies” [29] . MiloÅ¡ević realized the power of a large crowd, and the Serbian government had encouraged the rallies, and in some cases paid unemployed young men were even paid to take part [30] . Montenegrin leadership was later overthrown this way, with all three regions being replaced by MiloÅ¡ević loyalists, giving the Serbs four of the eight votes in the Yugoslav federation. He then revoked the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina, massively altering the balance of power in Yugoslavia in Serbia’s favour.

MiloÅ¡ević’s actions provoked intense fear in the other Republics. MiloÅ¡ević had almost set out a challenge for them; accept Serbia’s dominance of Yugoslavia or establish a nationalistic agenda of your own. One can imagine why they felt threatened; Serbs were dancing in the streets of Zagreb proclaiming ‘this is Serbia’ and television was broadcasting vast rallies ‘teeming with Serbian imagery and symbolism of domination’ [31] . Meanwhile, a feud between hardliners and reformers in the Communist Party had left it paralyzed. In December 1989, the multi-party elections were called to break the deadlock. In Croatia especially, the sudden swelling of national pride was seized upon by nationalist politicians. Like MiloÅ¡ević, Franjo Tudjman, the leader of the recently formed Croatian Democratic Union Party (HDZ), built his support by mobilizing the masses. In the run-up to elections, his pledge to deliver Croatian statehood resounded well with a population fearful of Serbian domination and his party went on to gain 205 of the parliament’s 356 seats.

According to the 1974 constitution, the position of federal president was to be chosen every year by a different Yugoslav republic. In 1991 Croatia selected Stipe Mesic, a moderate, non-communist for their representative. Serbia’s representative, Borisav Jović, refused to stand down, an action which tore apart the federation. The Croatians responded by declaring their independence at the end of June 1991, followed by the Slovenes several hours later. The following day, the 26 June, the Yugoslav Army, rolled into Slovenia, beginning the first of three wars that would rage for the next four years.

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Slobodan Milošević is an enigma. Why would a man who had never been a nationalist provoke a nationalist movement that would tear is country apart? Whatever the reason, his speech at Kosovo Polje caused a reawakening of Serb nationalism, which in turn prompted the return of nationalism in the other republics after decades of peace under Tito. Misha Glenny sums up the situation, writing:

In Yugoslavia, the revival of violent, intolerant nationalism ha d begun before the collapse of communism had been predicted elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Without question, it was MiloÅ¡ević who had wilfully allowed the genie out of the bottle, knowing that the consequences might be dramatic and even bloody.’ [32]

This violent nationalism had all but died out during forty years of peaceful co-existence under Tito. It was power-obsessed Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević who convinced the Serbs that all that time; it was inside them, yearning to be let out. Doing so transformed Yugoslavia from a ‘sleepy backwater’ back to the ‘pathologically unstable region that it was for the first half of the twentieth century.’ [33]

V. Help or Hindrance: Western Intervention

In July 1991, Germany’s foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher began pressuring European Community nations to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia and on August 24, Genscher warned the Yugoslav ambassador that unless the Yugoslav National Army ceased its actions in Croatia, Germany would recognize the breakaway republics [34] . In Serbia the press reported that ‘the Germans were using Croatia as the vanguard with which to establish the Fourth Reich’ [35] , which did nothing to calm shaky Serb nerves. While this theory was clearly nonsense, Germany’s interference in the region was largely out of ‘self-interest’ [36] . The fact Germany later dismissed Macedonia’s desire for independence, despite the fact it reached the EC requirements for recognition, demonstrates that Germany wasn’t interested in ‘freeing’ the South-Slavic people on principle alone. Genscher, in fact, had promised Greece it wouldn’t recognize Macedonia, if Athens agreed to recognize Croatia. [37]

What exactly drove Germany to so zealously push for recognition of the republics? It appears to be driven by two factors. First was simple economics. Despite the economic quagmire Yugoslavia still festered in, Germany was acutely aware of the ‘economic potential if the regional decline could be reversed’ [38] . Opening up of these countries to further trade would be of particular benefit to the rapidly expanding German manufacturing sector. And secondly, there was a belief amongst the German leadership that Germany should begin throwing its significant political weight around when it came to international affairs, and that they had the right to do so. Declaring the unification of Germany, Chancellor Kohl promised that ‘With its national unity restored, our country will serve peace in the world…but…at the same time, we stand by the moral and legal obligations resulting from history’. [39] Croatia’s attempts to project an image of itself ‘as an integral part of civilized, Catholic, central European culture’, which had been stifled for decades by its ‘barbaric, despotic’ [40] neighbour Serbia had succeeded. Germany, deciding the situation justified these ‘moral and legal obligations’, had found a perfect ‘first litmus test of German diplomatic muscle’ [41] . Chancellor Kohl had gained British Prime Minister John Major’s backing by guaranteeing the United Kingdom’s exemption from the Maastricht Treaty social clauses and from adopting the Euro, for example [42] . Whatever its motives, Germany succeeded, and on 15 January 1992 the European Union voted unanimously to recognize Croatia and Slovenia.

Germany’s official reason for promoting the legitimization of the republics was that it ‘would halt Belgrade’s military advance through Croatia’ [43] , when in fact, the opposite ended up happening. Following Germany’s announcement it would recognize Croatia and Slovenia unilaterally, an upsurge in fighting occurred [44] . From September to November 1991, thirteen EC negotiated ceasefires had been agreed to then broken by both sides. It is unsurprising that the Serbs, fearing genocide awaited the Serb minority in a country over which they no longer had any legal control, escalated their war efforts. Not only did legitimizing Croatia ‘torpedo’ [45] peace efforts in the country, it would have much further reaching consequences. EC Envoy Lord Carrington recalls:

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…if they recognized Croatia and Slovenia then they would have to ask all the others whether they wanted their independence. And if they asked the Bosnians whether they wanted their independence, they inevitably would have to say yes, and this would mean a civil war [in Bosnia]. [46]

Misha Glenny echoes this view, saying recognition ‘increased the strain on Bosnia-Herzegovina enormously’ [47] . In a meeting with US ambassador Warren Zimmerman, Bosnian’s Deputy President Ejup Canic, in an apparent change of heart, remarked:

Of course we’re going to move ahead on independence. With Croatia and Slovenia now gone, Bosnia can’t survive in a ‘Yugoslavia’ controlled by Serbia. We’ve had plenty of time to see how MiloÅ¡ević deals with minorities in Serbia: the Hungarians, the Muslims, and the Albanians. We’d be crazy to make ourselves vulnerable to that kind of oppression [48] .

It was clear by now the Bosnians wanted out of Yugoslavia. The Carrington-Cutileiro peace plan, hammered out in February 1992 at the EC Peace conference is Lisbon, was an attempt to do so with the least possible bloodshed. It proposed ethnic power-sharing for administration, and the devolution of the central government to local ethnic communities, even when neither Croats, Serbs or Muslims were in majority. The plan received United Nations backing, and after all three sides agreed to the plan, President Izetbegović all-of-a-sudden pulled out. As soon as Izetbegović returned from the talks, Zimmerman had called on him. Former State Department official George Kenny recalls: ‘Zimmerman told Izetbegović . . . [the United States will] recognize you and help you out. So don’t go ahead with the Lisbon agreement.’ [49] Bosnia declared independence on 5 April. The move was automatically rejected by the Bosnian Serbs, who on the same day fired upon a march through the centre of Sarajevo and began shelling the city. The war on Bosnia had begun.

Why would America encourage a decision that quite clearly started the war in Bosnia? Diane Johnstone claims America wanted to appear supportive of the Bosnian Muslims in order to somehow persuade the Islamic world it ‘did not only support Jews. [50] ‘. Given America’s dependence on Arab oil, and their still heavy presence in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War, it seems likely this could be a factor. Michael Barrett Brown, claims the fact the plan gave Germany and the European Union all major influence in the region was a factor behind the decision [51] . Marie-Janine Calic cites an unwillingness to contribute toward the ‘50,000’ troops needed to enforce the plan as America’s motive [52] .

In any case, it seems both America and Germany’s keenness on recognizing the Yugoslav Republics was largely self-serving. Their greatest consideration when making decisions was how their countries would benefit from a fragmented Yugoslavia. While it is clear Germany’s recognition of Croatia and Slovenia did not exactly start those wars (fighting had begun prior), the declaration left Bosnian alone in a Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia. American pressure to reject the Lisbon plan finally spurred Izetbegović in declaring independence, the action that started the war in Bosnia, a war which wouldn’t have happened, or at least not in such a violent and destructive way, if it weren’t for the West’s interference.

VI. Conclusion

Various factors contributed to the collapse of Yugoslavia. Xenophobic violence was a trademark of the wars in former Yugoslavia, a country where ten years previous, expressing nationalist views was unheard of. What had caused nationalism to re-emerge? Yugoslavia’s enormous foreign debt and the IMF’s attempts to control the economy had resulted in skyrocketing unemployment, huge inflation and a population who’d lost faith in their government. Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević revived nationalism in Serbia by playing on the discontent of Serbs in Kosovo; and the other republics, fearing for their safety, elected to do the same. The newly elected nationalist leaders of the northern Yugoslav republics attempts to escape from the increasingly Serb-dominated federation were endorsed by Germany, whose push to recognize Slovenia and Croatia’s independence left Bosnia in a situation where independence was really the only option. American’s attempts to derail the peaceful partition plans ensured the ensuing war was

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