The Old Yugoslavia Re-visited: A Conversation

Patricia Albanese, Slobodan Drakulic, And Andrew Ignatieff, 24 January 1997 In Toronto.

By Metta Spencer (moderator) | 1997-03-01 12:00:00

A Visitor To The Muslim-Croat Federation And Republika Srpska

In the beginning of January of this year, Andrew Ignatieff spent 12 days in Sarajevo, some Croat and Muslim areas of Central Bosnia, and in Banja Luka in Republika Srpska. He was there as a UNICEF official, working on a global immunization program and psycho-social programs for children who are victims of war or physically and mentally disabled. He knows Yugoslavia well, having lived there as a child with his parents, Alison and George Ignatieff, when his father was the Canadian ambassador. Andrew was in Bosnia in March 1996, when he also traveled to Serbia and Kosovo.

Visitors To Serbia

Patricia Albanese was in Serbia from December 9-30, 1996, interviewing sociologists, feminists, and activists as research for her Ph.D. dissertation in sociology at the University of Toronto. Focusing on the situation of women in wartime, she visited a safe house where women were staying with their children. She interviewed sociologists, feminists, and activists, and marched through Belgrade with the members of the student protest movement.

Slobodan Drakulic was born in Croatia and lived there through most of his young adulthood. He was also in Serbia for three weeks in December, conducting research on the peace movement in Yugoslavia, and is co-authoring a book with sociologist Sonja Licht. He took part in the street demonstrations in Belgrade and visited the political opposition, talking to people he had known for years.


"Republika Srpska" is the name of the Serbian republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina which occupies 49 percent of that former Yugoslav republic's territory. "Serbia" refers to Serbia alone or, more loosely, to the post-1992 Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia, its two provinces, and Montenegro). The "Muslim-Croat Federation" administers the 51 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina-including Sarajevo-allocated to it by the Dayton Peace Agreement. The three-member presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina is supposed to represent both Republika Srpska and the Federation, though in practice the two entities are governed separately. The flow of refugees and migrants from one side to the other (a continuation of the wartime ethnic cleansing) has continued despite the Dayton guarantees for minorities.

ANDREW IGNATIEFF: When I was in Republika Srpska last year, the Dayton Accord was just beginning to be implemented, and there was a tremendous sense of change and activism. This time there isn't any such enthusiasm. People are obsessed by what is happening in Belgrade. Belgrade seems far away now for them, now that it is in another country, but they watch TV and that's all they talk about. There was a lot of coverage of the opposition demonstrations and the speeches of Vuk Draskovic [leader of the Serbian Renewal Party] and Zoran Djindjic [who leads the Serbian Democratic Party]. The Serbian movement fills the Bosnians of the Muslim-Croat Federation with fear. There is still tremendous apprehension in Sarajevo about what happens in Belgrade. They hate Milosevic and everything he stands for, but at least they know how he works, while they don't have a clear sense of what may happen in the demonstrations. They want the demonstrations to reach some logical solution. These people grew up in fifty years of stability. Instability makes them nervous.

Also, it's a time of tremendous uncertainty in Bosnia. Nobody thinks that the war is over. The crisis in Serbia is being presented in the West as a great democratic movement, the end of the war, and the collapse of the last communist dictator in Europe. I don't see that so clearly. Nor do the people I spoke to in Sarajevo.

PATRICIA ALBANESE: The same six men who helped tear the country apart [the presidents of the six republics of the former Yugoslavia] are still in power today.

IGNATIEFF: The Serbian national myth is "despite what the Austria-Hungarians or the Ottomans did to us, we've survived. We are cunning and we will overcome." When I was there in 1994, even in opposition circles there was a sense that things were happening. But now in Serbia and Republika Srpska, there is a sense that things are over. "We didn't pull it off this time." And in defeat people become vengeful.

ALBANESE: But some people benefited, even with the sanctions. In Belgrade flashy marble homes are being built. War profiteers won this war. There is misery everywhere else. The poverty of old people is shocking. There are about fifty soup kitchens in Belgrade, whereas Yugoslavia never had soup kitchens before.

But people say they will get by. They even joke about it. We visited one professor's home. They told us that in 1993, his monthly salary was one Deutschmark. When his wife got his paycheque she was able to buy a kilo of green apples. Her husband was disappointed because he hates green apples. They kept bills as souvenirs with twelve zeroes on them.

IGNATIEFF: I went to a conference at the Metropol Hotel in Belgrade, where diplomats used to go dancing when my parents lived there. I remembered being there with other kids, all in our national dress, me as an Eskimo. Anyway, in the Metropol bar there was a wall covered with photos of Tito with different people. Tito with Gina Lollobrigida, Tito with Nasser, Tito with Haile Selassie. Today every single one of the faces of Tito has been defaced. In Bosnia, on the other hand, streets are still named Ulica Marshala Tita and you still see busts of him.

SLOBODAN DRAKULIC: They are trying to change the name of the Tito Square in downtown Zagreb as well. Let's face it. This is a right-wing showdown with communism in the former Yugoslavia; it's not a democratic showdown with communism. Milosovic and Tudjman are not democrats. Alija Izetbegovic [the Muslim member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia Herzegovina] is not a democrat either; he's a dangerous chauvinist. The only president you might perhaps call a democrat is Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia, who ironically is the only one someone tried to kill. Today, people identify Tito with communism and Yugoslavism. So, today's anti-communists or anti-Yugoslavists have to turn against Tito.

ALBANESE: Also, he's dead and therefore easier to oppose. But his successors are still there. The six leaders and their cronies can deface his pictures and change his street names rather than assuming any responsibility for the mess they made of the former Yugoslavia.

IGNATIEFF: Tito had a pact with the society. He said, you want cars? You got cars. You want middle-class ski vacations? We'll give you ski vacations. Just shut up. No freedom of expression and no freedom of association, but anything else you want, Daddy will give you. Now when you go to one of those ski resorts you find that people have completely demolished it. There had been something deeply wrong for them.

One morning last March I got up early in Zagreb and went for a walk in a charming baroque street with old lamps. At the top of the hill two women were standing and looking up at the third floor window and listening to some music. It was the Horst Wessel Song, being played at full volume-the Nazi marching song. And these sweet little grannies said to me in Croatian: "That's a German Nazi song." I walked on and when I turned around, they were laughing at me.

DRAKULIC: The Croatian president [Franjo Tudjman] is a revisionist historian with certain neo-Nazi sympathies. Serbian nationalists, on the other hand, revive the heritage of World War II Chetniks, some of whom also harbored Nazi fascist sympathies. One could therefore say that Both Croatian and Serbian nationalisms of today often have more to do with neo-Nazi and neo-fascist tendencies than with democracy. The former Yugoslav republics in fact never went from communism to democracy, but from a fake socialism to a fake democracy.

IGNATIEFF: In the 1991-95 round of nationalist wars the Serbs called the shots. They are going to sit out this next round, so the real concern is the frustrated nation- alism of the Muslims and the Croats. When I was there I made some derisory remark about "Herceg-Bosna" [the Croatian name for the state they established in those parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina bordering on the Croatian province of Dalmatia]. I said, "At least things have simplified without Herceg-Bosna on the map." And they said, "Oh no, it's not over!" The Bosnian Croats think they can stand on their own with Mostar as their capital. They won the war in their region. They may collaborate with the Croats but I don't think they would automatically join Croatia.

What concerns me is the tremendous sense of frustration on the part of the Bosnian Muslims over being abandoned by the European powers. If the Croats try any adventurism, the Muslim leadership will just go back onto the battlefield, but more powerfully. The worst nightmare of the Serbs and the Croats is coming true: Sarajevo is much more a Muslim city than before. There are no Serbs left and the Croats are leaving. Unlike last year, now you hear the call to prayer all day in Sarajevo. Increasing numbers of women wear the veil and long coats. The mosques are jammed. And the very minute that the SFOR is withdrawn, armed conflict will start, without a doubt. [SFOR stands for "stabilization force." It replaced IFOR when the IFOR mandate expired in December 1996.]

When you go through the no-fire zones into Republika Srpska, you sense that the Serbs have withdrawn. Behind their lines they are setting up their own little republic with their Cyrillic license plates and Cyrillic everything. The only people they can communicate with on their computers are the Russians, who have Cyrillic on their computers. Even in Serbia they are converting to the Latin alphabet.

In the Republika Srpska there are seven regions. In the Muslim-Croat Federation there are ten cantons: three Muslim cantons, three Croatian cantons, and four mixed cantons. And when you're in the mixed cantons, half of the license plates have Croatian flags on them and half have B-H flags. There is no compromise. You are driving through another mixed canton, Tuzla, and suddenly in the middle of Bosnia there are election portraits of Tudjman, and Croatian flags and statues of the Virgin everywhere. You say, "It's not over." For those people, there needs to be another round to resolve this question.

ALBANESE: What would you do?

IGNATIEFF: Whatever you think of Dayton, it shows what can be done when the great powers put their mind to it. Milosevic said, "Serbia will never betray its own people." [Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State] Dick Holbrooke walked in with a 72 ounce bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label and said, "I'm going to sit here until you sign the goddamn agreement." They drank the bottle together. At the end, Milosevic was dead drunk and he signed the thing. After a war in which 250,000 people have died, in which people are clearly fingered as war criminals, the only person who is actually being tried is a Croatian bar owner in Prijedor. We must set up a process in which we say, okay, we've captured the private. Now let's go for the corporal, let's work our way all the way up the chain of command and get those guys. They can be exposed by their own evidence.

ALBANESE: This happens wherever there's an independent press. Nobody in Belgrade supports Milosevic. His only support exists where there is no access to a radio station or TV that criticizes him.

DRAKULIC: Milosevic and Tudjman are a species of political siblings. One cannot be held to account without the other. Some people say, if you don't vote for Tudjman or Milosevic, you might get something worse. But that should not be an issue at all. Western powers that were strong enough to impose their vision of the post-Yugoslav order upon the Balkans should be powerful enough to say, "No, you don't have to vote for such people. You're not passing the exam until you produce a government at least as good as the one, say, in Portugal." There are many decent Croats, Serbs, Muslims, and others in the former Yugoslavia. There are even decent nationalists on all sides. But the guys who are in power now are for the most part neither decent nor democratic, and we had better wake up and say that they are unacceptable to Western democracies, instead of supporting a bunch of chauvinists against another bunch of the same kind.

IGNATIEFF: In Bosnia now, people just want to get on with their lives, but I'm convinced that the only way that people will make peace with their souls is through a process of national reflection. Whether it is imprisonment of war criminals or something gentler, such as the truth process in South Africa. Milosevic must go on national TV and say, yes, in fact, I did order the following events. In late 1995 he and the other war criminals who caused this war were on their knees and the great powers could have laid down the law. They should have been much tougher with them. These people still must be called to account in a public forum. One of the many reasons for this conflict is that, after what happened in 1941-45, there was never a moment when people sat down and said, "This is what happened. This is who did it. This is how it happened. And this is the impact that it had on our national life." They just said, "Okay, we're now brothers in national unity and let's industrialize."

ALBANESE: For fifty years the whole thing was put on hold. You were not allowed to say, "I hate your guts, neighbor." No, you were supposed to love your neighbor, marry their kid, and so on.

IGNATIEFF: In South Africa, Botha was shown on television and everybody saw it. He was cornered like a rat. You have to have some moment in which this happens. All such countries must pass through a process of reflection and healing. I'm not saying that they have to embrace and love each other, but the people of the former Yugoslavia do have to live side by side in one small section of the world. The only way to do so is to say, "This is exactly what happened."

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1997

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1997, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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