Yugoslavia on fire

By Andrew Pakula | 1991-11-01 12:00:00

Yugoslavia is on fire. Since early summer a vicious and violent war has been fought between the forces of the break-away Croatian republic and Serbian guerrillas supported to at least some extent by the Serbian dominated Yugoslav national army. As this is being written in the middle of September, the Croatian forces, faced with a far better armed opponent, are in retreat and approximately one third of the break-away republic's territory is under Serbian control. In addition to resulting in many deaths and injuries, enormous property destruction, damage to the economy of the region, and more than 100,000 refugees, the war has divided families, destroyed friendships, and caused formerly peaceful neighbours to take up arms against each other. In spite of world-wide appeals for peace and several initiatives by the European Community the armed conflict continues to escalate and threatens to spread to other regions in Yugoslavia and possibly across its borders.

While the conflict between Serbia and Croatia is the most dangerous and the most violent, there are other regions in Yugoslavia where ethnic tensions threaten to explode into armed confrontation. Indeed, the longer the current war goes on and the more violent it becomes, the more likely it is to spread to other regions in this beleaguered country. Perhaps the danger of armed conflict is greatest in the autonomous province of Kosovo within the Serbian republic. Although the population of Kosovo is more than 80% Albanian, many Serbs consider it the birthplace of their nation. Kosovo's Albanians, whose basic human rights have been systematically violated by the authoritarian Serbian government during recent years, have been increasingly restless and defiant. There is a strong possibility that in the near future the Albanians of Kosovo, supported by the military forces of the Albanian state, will stage an armed insurrection against the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities.

The citizens of the republic of Macedonia recently voted overwhelmingly for independence to be accomplished gradually and in the context of a future loose association with the Yugoslav state. Given the history of Macedonia, its significant minority of ethnic Albanians, and the fact that Bulgaria and Greece have made claims to portions of its territory, the possibility of armed conflict cannot be excluded. The population of the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina includes large minorities of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, all with different and mutually incompatible claims, and could easily become involved in the conflict between Serbia and Croatia or in other ethnic conflicts rooted in a long history of grievances and wars.

Eastern and Central Europe, including the Balkan peninsula as well as the Soviet Union, are inhabited by a large number of national groups and burdened with a long violent history of war, ethnic strife, imperialism and totalitarianism. Under communism, nationalism served as a counter-force to central authoritarian control. Following the collapse of communism across Eastern and Central Europe and the recent failed coup in the Soviet Union, authoritarian, chauvinistic nationalism is by far the greatest danger for the region. Given the enormous social, political, cultural, and economic damage caused by war and totalitarianism, the road to democracy will be extremely challenging.

In this context, the implications of the conflict in Yugoslavia go far beyond the borders of this troubled country. Other areas in Eastern and Central Europe and in the Soviet Union are suffering from ethnic strife and violence which are likely to escalate in the future. In Romania, chauvinism and xenophobia are ascendant and expressed by growing hatred towards the Hungarian, Gypsy, and Jewish minorities. The following statements from a manifesto by Vatra Romaneasca, an extremist nationalistic organization and likely the most powerful political force in the country, are an example:

"...this holy Romanian land is still soiled by the Asiatic hordes of Huns, Gypsies and other garbage...We want a cleansed and pure Greater Romania! Do not be afraid to fight and spill their filthy blood. ...it will become inevitable for the Holy Romanian land to be purified of its shameful blots through the emigration of these elements. Afterwards, those remaining behind will be annihilated through the most effective means."

(W. Keeler, Letter to the Editor, PEACE, Sept/Oct 1991, p.6)

In Slovakia, negative attitudes towards Czechs, Hungarians, Gypsies and Jews are on the rise. In recent weeks most of the Soviet republics have moved towards independence. Due to Stalin's policy of russification and other factors, all of the republics have national minorities, both large and small. A violent war is being fought between Armenians and Azeris about the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The nationalistic government of Georgia is at war with the Ossetian minority. There are many other areas in Eastern and Central Europe and in the Soviet Union where ethnic strife is escalating.

The current conflict has brought bloodshed, violence, destruction, and stress to the people of Yugoslavia. It is doing enormous damage to the prospects for democratization and economic renewal following decades of totalitarianism. Everything possible must be done to effect a peaceful resolution. Further, the Yugoslav crisis offers a forewarning of the ethnic conflicts that will likely plague Eastern-Central Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union in the foreseeable future. In order to contribute to the prevention and peaceful resolution of such conflicts, their causes and dynamics must be carefully considered.

In what follows, general political, cultural, social, sociological, and psychological factors that are contributing to the escalating war in Yugoslavia will be briefly considered. It should be noted that a complete treatment of the complexities of the situation would be well beyond the scope of a short article. Rather, the emphasis will be on a schematic representation of the most critical factors. In the final section, the conditions which led to the current war between Serbia and Croatia will be reviewed with a focus on ideas relevant to peaceful and constructive resolution. Although the emphasis will be on the Serb-Croat conflict, many of the conclusions and themes can be applied to other ethnic conflicts in the region, both present and future.

Factors Contributing to Escalation

The main mechanism of the conflict between Serbia and Croatia, rooted primarily in the region's violent history, is the positive feedback, the self-escalating cycle of fear, ethnic hatred, violence, leading to more fear, ethnic hatred, and violence, and so on. A number of factors render this pathological pattern of interaction very strong, and contribute to its escalation.

One major factor is the manipulation of people and demogoguery by nationalist political elites for whom such action represents a critical means of preserving power. Further, media reporting, particularly in the state of real or perceived crisis, tends to be one-sided, biased, state-controlled, and characterized by disinformation and misinformation. The effectiveness of such forces of influence is further enhanced by the lack of education, ignorance, apathy and confusion of the people, as well as by the lack of accountability, democratic institutions, and community structures, all caused by decades of totalitarian rule.

Given this overall context and the resulting vacuum of self-reference, it is not surprising that the identification with national groups and nationalistic symbols is dominant as is its corollary the devaluation of the other. These are further fuelled by historical myths, exaggerations, untruths, and diabolical enemy images born at least in part because historical truths have been suppressed and the resulting vacuum bred extremist mythologies. A further relevant historical consideration is that the two antagonists in the conflict, Serbia and Croatia, were divided by history, being parts of two mutually hostile empires, the Ottoman and the Habsburg, on different sides in both world wars, and divided as well as by religion, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic respectively.

The complex geographic distribution and mix of Yugoslavia's several different nationalities greatly contribute to the ongoing conflicts. In addition to enclaves, there are many ethnically divided villages, towns, areas, and regions. Also, factors external to Yugoslavia assume some importance, including biased one-sided reporting in European and other media, oversimplified analyses, sales of arms to the warring factions, as well as political mingling related to realpolitik and nostalgia.

Another factor contributing to the escalation of conflict is stress both individual and societal, clearly visible in the faces of people of Yugoslavia. Stress tends to engender primitive and often violent psychological responses. Next, there is the militarization of the economy which leads to the reduction of living standards, with the latter further reduced by losses in productivity and foreign investment. These economic losses also tend to promote primitive political and social responses, and fuel primitive nationalistic passions.

The emerging pattern is self-escalating and extremely difficult to break. Given the growing danger in Yugoslavia, it is critical to understand the conflict and to consider factors that can inhibit the accelerating spiral of violence and facilitate constructive and peaceful resolution.

Towards peaceful resolution

As fighting continues all across Croatia, including the capital city of Zagreb, and yet another cease-fire was violated just a few hours after it was signed, the war may be reaching a point of no return. With every new victim peaceful resolution becomes more difficult. On both sides, the government and the military are fully engaged in the war, while the vast majority of the population appears resigned to its inevitability. What needs to be done to slow down the momentum towards escalating violence? What is the agenda for peace?

Diabolical enemy images, both within the warring republics and to a great extent in external media coverage, are critical in contributing to the escalation of the conflict. Each side presents itself as perfectly virtuous and the other as the devil incarnate. This makes both communication and peaceful resolution extremely difficult. Such "good versus evil" images are quite typical in destructive conflict. As reality is rarely that simple, truth is a casualty. And without truth and realistic understanding there is little hope for peace.

In an attempt to understand the truth, let us briefly consider the two sides and their positions in the current conflict. Serbia, the most populous republic and dominant in the Yugoslav army, is led by the communist government of Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic came to power by inciting and exploiting Serbian nationalism. During its tenure, the communist government, renamed as the Socialists, put forth the notion of domination of all territories in Yugoslavia where Serbs are living. This was expressed through serious violations of the basic rights of Kosovo's Albanian majority, through interference in the republic of Montenegro and in Serbia's autonomous province of Vojvodina, and through encouraging both fear and nationalism in the Serbian minority of 600,000 in Croatia.

In the latter case, the appeal is rooted in the historical truth that during World War II the Ustasa fascist regime in Croatia was responsible for the genocide of about 400,000 Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies. During the current crisis, gruesome images of the remains of the victims of the notorious concentration camp of Jasenovac are being frequently shown on Serbian television. It is undoubtedly true that the majority of Serbs in Croatia would be afraid and unwilling to live in an independent Croatian state and many have taken up arms to prevent this from happening. There are elements in Serbia more extreme in their nationalism than the government, including the Chetniks, a recently revitalized organization of Serbian monarchists who during World War II fought both Tito's communists and Croatian Ustasa forces. Although the Chetniks likely have very little real power, their extremist positions have been fuelling the fires of war. Recently, their leader called for Serbs to "cut the throats of the Croats with rusty spoons."

The Socialists won the last election partly because of their nationalistic platform and partly because they had nearly total control of the Serbian media. When the students in Belgrade staged a peaceful demonstration in March against the republic's authoritarian regime, tanks were brought into the streets but withdrawn at the last minute in consideration of world opinion. As the Milosevic government has a large majority in the parliament, the political opposition is marginal. Most of the Serbian media are government controlled, but some have maintained a degree of independence. Given Croatia's declaration of independence on June 26, the Milosevic government's position is that the break-away republic's borders have to be redrawn so that the Serbian minority can join Serbia proper. The claims that the Yugoslav army has been impartial in the fighting between the Croats and the Serbian minority in Croatia are simply not credible.

Croatia's governing party HDZ (Croatian Democratic Communion) came to power on the platform of nationalism and anti-communism. According to a peace organization in Slovenia the move away from communism in Croatia was: "a change of elites rather than a democratic transformation. ...granting almost unrestricted power to President Tudjman. ...the underrepresentation of the opposition parties in decision making and lack of effective, established, independent press meant there were no checks and balances to Tudjman's policy. ...(While) Serbia is communist and anti-democratic, Croatia is anti-communist and undemocratic."(The Movement for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Understanding the "War" in Yugoslavia. August, 1991.)

Through its emphasis on Croatian nationalism, the government frightened and alienated the Serbian minority, particularly given Croatia's declaration of independence in June. Some extremist elements in Croatia have minimized or denied the Ustasa atrocities, and even expressed nostalgia for the quisling regime. An extremist nationalist member of the legislature recently ended his speech with a Nazi salute. The new Croatian constitution refers to racial purity. All these factors, further fuelled by the Serbian government, have driven the Serbs in Croatia to take up arms in their defence. The official Croatian position on the current conflict is that border changes are not acceptable and that Serbia, together with the Yugoslav army, is attempting to take control of most of Yugoslav territory and create Greater Serbia.

It is clear that neither side in the conflict can make legitimate claims of democracy, and righteousness, while presenting the other as the sole villain. It is true that Serbia, more populous and supported by the well armed and powerful Yugoslav army, may be considered the aggressor, and Croatia the underdog. But it is equally true that the fears of the Serbian minority in Croatia are legitimate and justified by past and present realities. The Western press, particularly in Germany and Austria, has been taking the side of Croatia by at least implicitly suggesting that the situation is similar to, say, the invasion of Hungary in 1956 by the Soviet communist army. While there is some validity to this image, particularly given the Yugoslav army's brief and unsuccessful attack on Slovenia following its recent declaration of independence, the reality of the current conflict between Serbia and Croatia is far more complex and less clear-cut. Indeed, while Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence at the same time, their situations, although typically presented as similar in the media, are quite different. In comparison to Croatia, Slovenia is more de ocratic, more homogeneous in population, and far less burdened with a violent history.

The enemy, "good versus evil" images of the situation have contributed greatly to the war and strengthened extreme authoritarian, nationalistic elements on both sides. The fact that Serbia tends to be presented as the sole villain contributes to feelings of isolation and paranoia and strengthens the hand of the Milosevic government and its resolve to continue military action. The current war is not between Serbian and Croatian people. Indeed, they are its victims. The conflict is between the forces of authoritarianism, chauvinism and violence in both Serbia and Croatia on one side and the forces of peace, democracy and reason on the other side. Peaceful resolution needs to be built on a foundation of truth not propaganda, and must involve guaranteed protection of human rights, particularly the rights of minorities.

Let us consider some other factors that may contribute to a peaceful resolution of the escalating war between Serbia and Croatia. The horrors of war and violence are still vivid in the minds of individuals and in the collective memory of people in Yugoslavia. Such memories and, more generally, the understanding of the evil and destructiveness of war have contributed to pro-peace and anti-war activities all across the country. In both Serbia and Croatia and elsewhere in Yugoslavia, opposition politicians and other groups as well as individuals have been speaking up against the war. The peace movements are still quite small and somewhat hampered by the social tendency to non-involvement, as well as by the lack of experience in organizing and community development, qualities which were undermined during totalitarian rule. Nevertheless, aided to some extent by activists from abroad, the peace movement in Yugoslavia has grown impressively in recent months. Those opposing the war must be given as much external support as possible.

Another set of factors that has the potential of reducing tensions in Yugoslavia has to do with outside influence. So far the influence of third parties, particularly the European Community (EC), has been unsuccessful . However, it is possible that as the events continue to escalate, organizations such as the EC, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) or the United Nations can be brought in to contribute to a peaceful nonviolent resolution of Yugoslavia's problems through peacekeeping forces or impartial third parties in negotiations, or perhaps through economic pressure. And, as discussed earlier, balanced, unbiased media coverage would be very helpful.

Deteriorating economic factors, while contributing to the attitudes that fuel war, can also act to inhibit it. The militarization of economies acts to reduce the standard of living and quality of life for most citizens, and, in time, people may simply get fed up with paying the costs of war and come to reject the symbols and images that are fuelling it. While democratic choice of national self-determination has to be respected, it should be realized that the accomplishment of sovereignty in the context of war and hostility would preclude healthy economic relations. Thus, assuming independence would be accomplished by Yugoslavia's constituent parts, the new small nation states would have grave difficulties in getting supplies and trading their relatively low-quality goods. On the other hand, independence achieved through dialogue and reason would be more likely to lead to economic cooperation and development.

With each passing day the violent confrontation in Croatia continues to escalate and threatens to evolve into an all-out war. It is absolutely essential that all efforts, in Yugoslavia and across the world, be focused on stopping the violence and reaching a peaceful resolution. Undoubtedly, in important ways the present conflict is a prototype of present and future ethnic wars in Central-Eastern Europe and in the vast region that was formerly the Soviet Union. In the task of preventing and resolving such ethnic conflicts, even-handed analyses and realistic under-standing, rooted in the values of truth, democracy, human rights, and nonviolence, are of critical importance.

Andrew Pakula is a management consultant, psychologist and peace activist based in Toronto. He spent two months this year in Yugoslavia.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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