Twenty years ago today, the last Yugoslavian war ended, in Kosovo. It’s fitting that it ended with a peace deal that was comprehensively violated by the winners, as it contained no provision to create an independent Kosovo. And yet, we have an independent Kosovo today.
The country we used to called Yugoslavia was created in 1919 and would still survive after 1999, as a rump of itself, until yet another round of manipulation, deceit and treachery, through 2006. Reading Craig Nation’s comprehensive book about the Yugoslav wars, I was struck by the enormous influence that foreign forces had on the destruction of that country.
I wouldn’t want to absolve Yugoslav themselves from blame. Probably, the number one reason why the country doesn’t exist anymore is that Yugoslavs were unable to make the necessary compromises and arrangements to keep their federation, which was — in summary — a much superior concept to the tiny, powerless countries that we were left with. But my point is: scheming foreigners have a lot of responsibility for what happened.
Let’s take the moment in which the breakup of Yugoslavia is commonly understood to start: the Camp Kosovo speech by Slobodan Milosevic.
There actually were two such speeches, which has been a source of confusion for, literally, decades. I was in J-school in the 1990s, during the Yugoslavian war, and it was unusual to find a long story about the war that didn’t include a reference to the infamous “Milosevic speech in Kosovo” that supposedly drove these peaceful, socialist peoples to kill each other from that point on.
It’s worth pointing out that the very first Milosevic-in-Kosovo speech was in 1987. Milosevic was the top dog in Serbian politics since 1986, when he became the leader of the largest section of the Yugoslavian Communist party. In later years, he always claimed that he never favored Serbs, or Serbian nationalism, until 1989, and he was largely right: in his 1987 speech, that one can read here, there’s only Socialist platitudes and boilerplate.
The 1987 speech only became infamous in Serbia (and elsewhere in Yugoslavia) because of what happened after Milosevic spoke: he went to shake hands with locals, and some Serbs complained heatedly of harassment by Kosovo’s Albanian majority. Milosevic, caught in a bind, vowed to protect Kosovar Serbs. Scandal ensued (*).
In 1988, the U.S. had already decided that Yugoslavia was a goner. As Wayne Madsen wrote here, the U.S. intelligence community had by that very early time decided that the country was beyond salvation:
The planned US destruction of Yugoslavia is spelled out in an October 31, 1988, US National Intelligence Council memorandum titled «‘Sense of Community’ Report on Yugoslavia». Written by Marten van Heuven, the National Intelligence Officer for Europe, the formerly classified Secret memo conveyed the opinion of the US Intelligence Community that it was doubtful that Yugoslavia would survive from its form in 1988. Van Heuven was a product of the RAND Corporation, the Pentagon think tank that developed countless scenarios for nuclear war, including thermonuclear mega-deaths on a global scale.
Several European states (Germany, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, and the Holy See among others) were openly promoting secession by this time, sometimes pledging diplomatic support and arranging for illegal arms transfers to prepare the way for independence. Others waited a little longer.
By 1989, Milosevic had understood where the wind was blowing from. In his very well known “Gazimestan speech,” (his second Kosovo speech) he did embrace Serbian nationalism, ensuring power for himself for the next decade and a half. Working against Yugoslav politicians and military officers whose priority was to keep some sort of federation alive, Milosevic saw (correctly) that Yugoslavia was beyond salvation, given foreign-supported nationalist agitation especially in Slovenia and Croatia, and shifted his priorities towards ensuring Serbs would get as big a piece of the Yugoslavian pie as possible.
The stage was set for disaster by then, but the actors were not yet ready, and many things could have been done to try and stop it. Mostly, the opposite was done. The always interesting John Wight wrote in 2016, in Counterpunch, a brilliant essay on how the U.S. used NATO as battering ram to complete the destruction of Yugoslavia:
Fuelling the economic growth enjoyed by Yugoslavia during the ‘60s and ‘70s was its decision to borrow heavily from the West in order to invest in industry and the production of both export and consumer goods. This rendered the Yugoslav economy vulnerable to the fluctuations of global capitalism. And so it proved, when as a result of the world recession of the 1970s export markets contracted with the result that Yugoslavia’s export production dried up along with its ability to service its debts. In response the IMF demanded a restructuring of the state’s economy in order to prioritize debt repayment. Stuck between the hammer of indebtedness and the anvil of continued borrowing in order to subsidize its commitment to the provision of education, health care, housing and social security for its citizens, by the late 1980s the Yugoslav economy was in free fall.
It was at this point that central banks moved in at the behest of policy-makers in Washington, London and Bonn. Determined to break up the last socialist country in Europe, they threatened to institute an economic blockade unless the Yugoslav government agreed to hold separate elections in each of its six republics. The passing of the US Foreign Operations Appropriations law 101-513 in 1991 contained a section relating specifically to Yugoslavia, stipulating that all loans, aid and credits would be cut off within six months unless elections were held.
The most devastating provision of the law stipulated that only the forces within Yugoslavia deemed democratic by Washington would now receive loans from the US. Various right-wing factions in each of the six republics benefited directly from this provision and became the recipients of US largesse. In a climate of growing economic crisis it was a measure guaranteed to exacerbate ethnic tensions and give succor to centrifugal and separatist forces within SFRY.
Wight comes short here. The actual text of the Foreign Appropriations Law (passed in 1991, but first presented in October 1990) reads:
(The Law) Prohibits, six months after this Act’s enactment, the expenditure of funds made available pursuant to this Act to provide assistance to Yugoslavia. Directs the Secretary of the Treasury to instruct the U.S. executive directors to international financial institutions to oppose any assistance to Yugoslavia. Exempts from such prohibition assistance to support democratic parties or movements and emergency and humanitarian assistance. Makes such prohibition inapplicable if: (1) all the individual republics of Yugoslavia have held free and fair elections and are not engaged in a pattern of human rights violations; or (2) the Secretary of State certifies that Yugoslavia is making significant strides toward complying with the Helsinki Accords and is encouraging any republic which has not held free and fair elections to do so.
That is: Yugoslavia, all but bankrupt, cannot receive assistance. The wording leaves room for its constituent republics to receive assistance, but only as long as they hold elections that the U.S. finds free and fair. And, obviously, if they become independent, and thus not part of Yugoslavia. If this is not a direct invitation to secede, I don’t know what this is.
The objection here would be: but there were great majorities in favor of secession in Slovenia and Croatia: nothing could be done to stop such popular sentiment. Well, that may apply in the case of Slovenia, perhaps, but not in Croatia’s case. As late as 1990, the Croat nationalists of the HDZ party had only won just over 40% of votes in a local election there. This is not an overwhelming, unstoppable force.
Things were looking very hairy indeed but, as Wight reminds us, it was in November 1991 that the end stage of Yugoslavia’s murder was set in motion. And it was all directed by foreigners, again:
November 1991 is a month and year that will forever live in infamy when it comes to one of the most grievous crimes committed under the rubric of Western foreign policy, as it was on this month in this year that the break-up and destruction of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was set in train.
The Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on Yugoslavia was a body set up in 1991 by the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community (EEC) in response to the conflict that had broken out between separatists in Slovenia and Croatia and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) earlier that year. It was tasked with providing the peace conference with legal advice and on 21 November, in the first of its legal opinions on the crisis, it determined that Yugoslavia was “in the process of dissolution.”
It’s worth to savor these words. A foreign body created by the European Union’s forebear declared that Yugoslavia, a recognized member of the United Nations, was no more: “in the process of dissolution.”
(For a detailed summary of this Commission’s other decisions, check here)
Here, I must clarify again: I’m not saying that Yugoslavia was destroyed solely because of nefarious foreing conspirations. In fact, by the time this decision was made, serious military conflict was in motion all across Croatia. What I’m claiming here is that foreign powers were fueling the flames instead of trying to help extinguish the fire.
Germany recognized the secession of first Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991, whereupon civil war ensued. It lasted for the next eight years until a three-month NATO air war unleashed against the Serbs, who had refused to acquiesce in the break-up of the federal republic, brought it to an end.
Of course, we all know by heart the preferred Western narrative on the war. It’s been repeated non-stop, for years; as Wight summarizes:
In this narrative the Serbs – a people who numbered among the most of any single ethnic group killed by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Second World War – were summarily and disgracefully demonized to an extent unparalleled in the postwar period.
Richard Holbrooke, the top U.S. negotiator in Yugoslavia, provided in his memoirs a detailed account of the negotiations leading up to the Dayton Agreement, the 1995 deal that ended the Bosnian war after the NATO air bombing campaign.
He makes it clear that the Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) were the most obstinate party to the talks, and came closest to blowing up the negotiations for peace in Bosnia, while Serbia’s Milosevic made the most dramatic concessions. Holbrooke’s biographer, George Packer, concurs in his 2019 book “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century”:
Packer reveals that Holbrooke had all but given up towards the end of Dayton and it was Milosevic, desperate for a deal, who saved him by making last-minute concessions and selling out his Bosnian Serb allies.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. In 1992, in very publicized talks, Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic, for decades an Islamist opponent of Titoism, had foiled an earlier attempt to a treaty in Bosnia. The so-called “Lisbon Agreement,” a tri-ethnic solution partitioning the country into cantons, had been brokered by Portuguese diplomat José Cutileiro on behalf of the Conference of Europe.
The Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats signed the federalization scheme in Lisbon but, as this article ponts out, after meeting in Sarajevo with U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman, Izetbegovic reneged. He rightly concluded that time (and the U.S.) would deliver a better deal — even if it was only a slightly better deal.
“The Lisbon Agreement and the Dayton Accords are so similar,” observed Gordon Bardos, “the main difference is the death of over 100,000 people” between 1992 and 1995.
In 1999, the remaining rump of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was again on the receiving end of Western rage. Amid increasing tensions in Muslim-majority Kovoso (a region within the supposedly inviolable boundaries of Yugoslav republics), Belgrade was presented with the Rambouillet deal, a NATO plan that essentially represented a western takeover of the country.
Do you think I exaggerate? This is what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who nobody will mistake for a Serbian apologist (he ran for Slovenian president in 1991) wrote about Rambouillet in “From Myth to Symptom – The Case of Kosovo” (2013):
At the Rambouillet negotiations early in the Spring of 1999, the Western proposal put Yugoslavia in an untenable position, effectively stripping it of its sovereignty. It demanded that NATO have free access to the military facilities in ALL of Yugoslavia – not just in Kosovo – the free use of all transport facilities, exemption from being prosecuted by Yugoslav authorities for any crimes committed, etc.etc. In short, an effective occupation of Yugoslavia. Does this not raise the suspicion that, at least for the USA, the Rambouillet meeting was from the very beginning not considered a serious negotiation? It raises the idea that perhaps the goal was from, the very beginning, to place Serbs in a position of having to reject the non-negotiable Western proposal, thus providing latitude for the bombing, by putting the blame on the Milošević’s “stubborn rejection of the peace proposal”
Zizek not good enough? Here’s Henry Kissinger, writing in The Daily Telegraph (1998) about the same deal:
The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.
About 2,000 Serbs were killed in NATO’s “surgical strikes” over the next few months. Over 200,000 Serbs were expelled from their homes in Kosovo, never to return.
This not coincidental, have a quick look of any map of the former Yugoslavia, and find out the places where the population that was ethnically cleansed during the wars of 1991-99 has never been allowed back.
There are only two such regions: Krajina, the Serb-majority region east of Zagreb, the Croatian capital, from which Serbs were forever expelled in 1995(**); and almost all of Kosovo, except for the northern enclaves around (parts of) Mitrovica, from where Serbs were driven out in 1999 by the victorious, NATO-supported Albanians.
This makes perfect sense, considering that number one driver for foreign (German-led) hostility to the continued existence of Yugoslavia was anti-Serbian sentiment. Serbia, Czarist Russia’s closest ally for decades and a key reason for a series of wars that led to Germany losing its dominant position in Europe, had to be punished, and it was. Russia’s ally had to be shown how things stand now that Russia can’t protect you anymore.
Throughout Bosnia, where Muslims and Croats were often cleansed by Serbs, hundreds of thousands have been allowed to return to their former homes. In the Serbian Republic (the Serbian region of Bosnia) there are well over 100,000 Muslim residents as of the last census of 2013, out of a population of scarcely over one million. In Sarajevo, the Bosniak capital, finding beer in hotels and restaurants is becoming harder every day.
*The full exchange is shown at the very beginning of this wonderful, very comprehensive, four-and-a-half hour BBC documentary on the War in Yugoslavia.
**Serbs consistently represented well over 10% of Croatia’s population for centuries (17% of the population in 1900), and were 12% of the census in 1991; they are less than 5% now.