The Myths of YU

Debunking Balkan misconceptions

By Sam Vaknin

April 18, April 25, May 2, 2000

The Yugoslav war is a dispiriting tale about human solidarity. Very few people sympathized with the Slovenes when the war began, just as the Slovenes themselves unanimously closed the doors of their new state immediately after the war. The Croats showed no solidarity to anyone, just as few showed any to the Croats. The Serbs had no sympathy for anyone at all, and no one showed any understanding for the Serbs. Few people had ever shown solidarity with the Albanians, just as Albanians were deaf to other people's troubles. The Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic in The Culture of Lies (1998). Your land is here. Here are your houses, your fields, your gardens, your memories. You are not hoping to leave them, are you, because life is hard and because you are subjected to injustice and humiliation? It was never in the spirit of the Serb and the Montenegrin peoples to succumb before obstacles, to quit when one has to fight, to be demoralized in the face of hardship. Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo, 1987. "All those who are not prepared to 'defend the glory of the Serbian nation' had better lay down their arms and take off their uniforms," the general told them. And, incredibly, they all did, including their commanding officer... "They were standing there and I got furious and shouted at them to remove everything including their underpants, and with the exception of one man they all removed their military issue underpants and marched off completely naked. I was still hoping that they would change their mind, but they didn't." Serb general who wanted to shame conscripts into fighting in Croatia, quoted in Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant, (1999). NATO IN THE SKY, MILOsEVIc ON THE GROUND Graffiti in Belgrade, 1999. We oppose all those who want to divide your country because we are on the side of good and against evil. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein assuring Serbian envoy Dragan Tomic that Iraq was prepared to send troops to Serbia. The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his. US Army four-star General George S Patton. Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, [reference to them] must necessarily be rather summary. Vatican official Bishop Piero Marini, justifying the brevity of Pope John Paul II's plea for forgiveness of sins committed in the name of the Catholic church. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable, if they last long enough. Film director and actor John Huston playing Noah Cross, the corrupt magnate in Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

I have spent the last decade reading books and articles written about Yugoslavia by luminaries from East and West alike. I wonder if there ever was a subject so enshrouded by myths and inexactitudes, platitudes and wrongs, errors and omissions, lies and distortions. This is a list of the more common of these, organized in chronological order.

1. The Balkans was entirely under the domination of a crumbling and venal Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire was a well organized, highly structured and intricate urban bureaucracy which gradually diverged from Rome. The latter -the Western remnant of the former unified empire- did indeed crumble under the weight of internecine warfare, nepotism, cronyism, corruption and capriciously murderous dictatorships. Byzantium, though, continued to flourish for another millennium. In any case, only a part of the Balkans was incorporated into the Byzantine reign, and the border between Byzantium and Rome still exists today - it is the contemporary line demarcating Serbia from Croatia.

The Balkans were organized in a strictly feudal system, and the Slavic tribes that descended from the north during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries AD fit nicely into this hierarchical scheme. Still, feudalism was much less rigid than it was made out to be. Certain regions, such as Dalmatia and Slavonia in Croatia and Herzegovina in Bosnia, maintained a degree of autonomy comparable to that of Kosovo under the Tito-era constitution. Balkan feudalism, in other words, was not a replica of the Western variant. It was, rather, a "federal" approach, a compact between indigenous lords and their nominal superiors.

2. The Croats were always pro-Germanic

When Rome imploded, it left a black hole of stupendous proportions. Both Croatia and Slovenia hurried to declare their independence and to assume a growing degree of sovereignty. The "Croatia" and "Slovenia" of that time were not the modern nation-states they are today, but were the rough equivalents of fiefdoms, extended estates of local (and imported) aristocracy - feudal lots. The sovereignty of that era is equivalent to the autonomy enjoyed today by states within the United States of America.

Still, the unilateral actions of Croatia and Slovenia were at least evolutionary if, indeed, not revolutionary. They constituted a loosening and new exegesis of the feudal code. Asserting their new standing among other political units, both Croatia and Slovenia fought-off numerous invasions and attempted invasions by Magyar (Hungarian) tribes. It was only when the sustained pressure became unbearable, and further defense of the realms untenable, that they (very reluctantly) turned to the Germans - Charlemagne's Franks, at that time.

The Serbs -the contemporary epitome of ultra-nationalism- were the ones who, quiescently, accepted Byzantine rule, as did Bulgaria (which included today's Macedonia), Montenegro and Dalmatia. A few enclaves remained independent, but these were encouraged by Byzantine rulers, mainly for economic and trade reasons. Thus, Ragusa (later renamed Dubrovnik) continued, uninterrupted by the tectonic political shifts around it, to trade with Italy, becoming the "Hong Kong of the Balkans" for centuries after.

Inevitably, Slovenia and Croatia became Roman Catholic, while Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia became Eastern Orthodox; religion in the Balkans, as we shall see, is often a matter of expediency. Religious convictions were the result of granted concessions, economic prowess, brutal repression or political calculations. The right religion, like the right party affiliation years henceforth, guaranteed speedy access to the bureaucracy, a decent living, education and tolerable safety. Being political-economic juggernauts, all religions in the region were zealously missionary: they all proselytized in rich Dalmatia, for instance.

3. The Bosnians were good (Orthodox) Christians before they were forced to convert to Islam

Bosnia was always considered to be a lowly and primitive place by the other inhabitants of the Balkans - sort of the poor, always needy relative. Tucked between Croatia and Serbia, mountainous and endowed with a prelapsarian nature, Bosnia was almost psychedelic or surreal.

It was here that one of the most doctrinally severe heresies developed among Christians, as Bogomilism engulfed the entire destitute populace in no time. It was a powerful, populist and rebellious rhetoric, and the subversive Bogomil message threatened both the Church and the (feudal) state, bearing an uncanny resemblance to both the Reformation and Communism. It looked ominously unstoppable.

All Bosnians were officially branded "heretics" and Catholic powers were encouraged to exterminate them on sight. The Bogomils were largely the ones who later converted to Islam - mostly willingly and for reasons of convenience, as upon conversion they could buy land and obtain positions in the Ottoman administration. The rest of the population, having remained Catholic, joined forces with the predominantly Catholic Croats and, as centuries passed, these Bosniacs came to regard themselves as perfect Croats, just as Orthodox Bosniacs identified themselves as Serbs. Neither, however, were Croats or Serbs in the first instance.

During the 12th century, Rome was forced to collaborate with Hungary against the Bogomils, enhancing Hungary's stature considerably. Rome repaid Hungary's kindness with the territories of Croatia and Bosnia. Thus, Christian heretics in Bosnia "helped" introduce Hungary into the region as an uncontested superpower, though not for long. The Hungarians even supported a rump Serb kingdom following the apocalyptic defeat of the Serbs at the hands of the Turks in Kosovo in 1389, though the Serb kingdom lingered on for 70 more years before surrendering to the Ottomans.

The only ones to constantly, consistently and continuously rebel against the Hungarian occupation were Bosnian peasants (mostly Bogomils). The Ottomans assisted them in this worthy (from the Turkish point of view) endeavor and later, when the Bosnian forces were depleted, annexed the territory themselves. The first seeds of conflict were thus sown. The Bosnians welcomed the Turks, converted to Islam, joined their administration and owned land. True, they were Slavs but their religious heresy (first Bogomilism, then Islam) was further compounded by their national betrayal. The Serbs hated the Turks, and had no intention of remaining Turkish subjects for long.

4. The Serbs were never welcome in Croatia; they were always an alien body

There were almost no Serbs in Croatia until the Austrian occupation. The Austrians and the local Croat population were terrified by the possibility of a renewed Turkish invasion. To fend-off Turkish troops, Croatia called upon Serbs, mortal enemies of the Ottomans, to come and settle its border zones. The Serbs agreed, settling in today's Krajina, forming rather ferocious, well-armed paramilitary militias and declaring their settlements autonomous "(martial) camps or zones" within Croatia.

Their role was not only defensive, as they joined the Austrian army in its invasion of Ottoman-controlled regions, including Macedonia, in 1689. When the Austrians were defeated, Serbs throughout the Ottoman empire, by now considered traitors, fled. A sizable group of Serbs emigrated from the heartland of the ancient Serb Kingdom, a wind-swept plateau called "Kosovo". The Albanians, relegated to Albania's mountains by superior Serb forces three centuries earlier, hurried back. The Turks encouraged them to convert to Islam and they became close allies of the Ottoman administration (see Sam Vaknin's article The Myth of Greater Albania).

5. There is a religious and cultural affinity between the Greeks and the Serbs

It goes deeper than that. The Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians and Serbs collaborated in two Balkan Wars against the Ottoman Empire in an effort to re-carve the map of the Balkans.

The idea, in 1912 was to "liberate" Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania and to punish the collaborationist and separatist Albanians in Kosovo and Western Macedonia. This the invading Serbs did with a vengeance, burning villages and crops, looting and killing. This precipitated a nationalist movement in Albania proper. Fearful of being conquered and annexed by Serbia and Greece, the Albanians declared independence. The leaders of the independence movement were, inevitably, Muslim.

In the meantime, everyone ganged up on Bulgaria and, in the skirmish that ensued, Serbia won both Macedonia and Kosovo. With the Sick Man of Europe thoroughly defeated, the Serbs a regional superpower once again and Russian influence steadily growing, the Habsburgs, as the only remaining imperial power, became the next logical target.

6. Serbs were always anti-Western and the USA was first involved militarily in the Balkans during the Kosovo Crisis

The First World War pitted the most unlikely enemies against one another. Austria - Turkey's most avowed enemy - attacked Turkey's other mortal foe, Serbia. Bulgaria, which collaborated with Serbia, Russia and Greece against the Ottomans in the First Balkan War, joined the Turks against its former allies. The Albanians collaborated enthusiastically with Turkey's adversary, Austria, against the Serbs, and were rewarded handsomely. The Austrians made Albanian an official language and integrated Albanian nationals into their administration.

The United Kingdom and France supported Russia against the Ottoman Empire which, hitherto, they had done everything they could to heal and stabilize. The Croats and the Slovenes, as conscripts in an Austrian army they had regarded as an occupier, fought their Slav brethren, the Serbs. Actually, American forces joined Britain and France and landed in Greece to aid the Serb army against the German-Austrian-Bulgarian-Turkish axis.

The seeds of the Second World War were thus sown and the USA was inextricably intertwined in this intractable region. America intervened a second time in the Balkans when it sent troops to back up an Italian claim for the small enclave of Zara on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia in 1919.

7. Vojvodina is a Hungarian province that was given to Serbia as spoils of war

The rich and fertile region of Vojvodina did, indeed, form an administrative unit within Hungary, yet it always maintained a unique status. It was a duchy. It was always Serb. And its autonomy was granted by the Habsburg emperor himself (or herself). Thus, it answered directly to Vienna.

8. Yugoslavia has been in existence between 1918 and 1990

There is a very tenuous connection between the blatantly pro-Serb and anti-everyone-else dictatorship of King Alexandar and the Tito Federation. The first federation was a toned down version of the Serb Empire of yore. The national entities within Yugoslavia were abolished a decade after the country had been established, and the internal borders were redrawn to shatter the contiguity of other nationalities and to cohere Serb domination.

While the "First Yugoslavia" existed on paper until 1941, it had, in reality, ceased to function at least a decade before. The King was murdered by an Ustas (a member of the Croatian nationalist organization, the Ustasas) in 1934. Mussolini's Italy was in cahoots with the Ustasas, and had more influence in Croatia than Belgrade itself. The Regency council that replaced the assassinated monarch merely formalized reality by granting Croatia extensive autonomy. When the Regents signed a Stalinesque pact with Hitler, all hell broke loose in the form of a British sponsored coup. The Nazis invaded, bombed Belgrade and pacified the country. It was the death certificate for a long-festering corpse.

9. The Yugoslavs of all nationalities fought the Nazis tooth and nail

The truth, alas, is much less heroic. Pro-Nazi governments were installed in Serbia and Croatia. The Serb government was supported by the ancien regime and by a sizable part of the population. Fond stories of the Nazi occupation still abound in many of the republics of former Yugoslavia.

The Nazis were Germans, the living emblems of civilization, the blond, Aryan, chocolate- and gum-dispensing gods. In Croatia they were positively adored. Macedonians were patiently amused with them and with their Bulgarian proxies, although they grew impatient with Albanian collaborators. Serbs, ever pragmatic, collaborated. Vojvodina was happily reunited with Hungary.

Kosovars acted cruelly against their own in a Greater Albania within the framework of an Italian installed government with the ever-menacing Deva as Minister of the Interior. The Albanians were sufficiently grateful, though, to form militias and join the military effort - on behalf of the Axis, of course. So did the Bosnians, who even yielded an SS division of their own.

Death camps operated in Croatia in which Serbs, Jews and Roma were indiscriminately maltreated. Serbs, Bulgarians and Croats deported Jews, mostly to Auschwitz. Serb military formations of independent views were sent, by their own government, to German lagers.

Two isolated resistance movements operated in the areas of the First Yugoslavia. The Croat Partisans, a Communist guerrilla force, wanted to restore Yugoslavia to its former glory, while Serb Četniks wanted nothing to do with other Yugoslavs.

With the exception of a few months during 1941-2, everyone supported the Communists. The Četniks, therefore, joined forces with the Nazi and Fascist occupation forces against their "comrades," the Partisans. Thus, the end result was that Croat Ustasas and Serb Četniks fought -in the name of post-war separatism and self-definition- against Communist Partisans. History records that the latter emerged from the war so strengthened and victorious that they tried to annex Trieste from Italy. Only an intervention by the West prevented it.

But it didn't take long before Tito turned on his Soviet benefactors. Yugoslavia was the first country in the Soviet bloc to encourage foreign knowledge and foreign investment in some of its industries, including strategic defense. It was the first to implement an IMF austerity plan following years of IMF lending in the 1960s.

It was also the only one to keep its borders open, with its people free to come and go, while instituting a functioning market mechanism through the hybrid known as "social ownership" and "self-management." No wonder Stalin issued a contract hit on Tito's head.

Albania also went its own way with the reclusive and paranoid Hoxha - but Tito's strategy was not the result of a clear mental disorder.

10. The Serbs were discriminated against in the Croat Tito's federation

A pillar of Tito's strategy was to ruthlessly dismantle nationalist projects, replacing them with viable multi-ethnic alternatives.

Bosnia was the laboratory in which inter-ethnic marriage and economic collaboration were tested, while in Kosovo Tito encouraged the Albanian population to stay put or to move in. In Croatia, he devolved power to Serb municipalities.

Statistically, though, Serbs dominated the two most important power structures in Yugoslavia: the Communist Party and the JNA (Yugoslav National Army). The latter was Tito's only guarantee against Russian (and perhaps Western) invasion, as well as against the kind of disintegration that took place a decade after his death.

Bosnia became the largest defense industry centre in former Yugoslavia (quite contrary to its rustic image), and Slovenia and Croatia were transformed into civilian industrial centers and concentrations of heavy industry.

11. Yugoslavia was an open society and Tito succeeded in holding it together by the sheer power of his personality

Yugoslavs were the only ones in the East Bloc to carry their own passports and to travel abroad freely. Yet freedom of expression, especially concerning nationalistic matters, was very restricted.

Social unrest and nationalistic stirrings were very prevalent. The decade of the 1960s saw brutally suppressed demonstrations in both Belgrade and Pristina, and the early 70s witnessed the "Croat Spring," which led to mass detentions and the opening-up of Stalinist gulag camps throughout the country.

The pressure was so intense, that, in 1974 -clearly fearing disintegration- Tito purged the old guard, his onetime comrades in arms, and unveiled a new constitution. It granted limited autonomy to the republics and to Vojvodina and Kosovo, while a posthumous rotating federal presidency was supposed to assuage any feelings of bias and discrimination at the top.

This, evidently, was too little and too late. Kosovo continued to erupt periodically. In 1981, for example, the police killed 11 students and arrested thousands in one day of demonstrations. But the truth is that Yugoslavia was held together by the oldest glue of all - money. It borrowed USD 20 billion to finance its improbable transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one, and was among the IMF's heaviest borrowers during the 1960s.

When the IMF called its loans, Yugoslavia was exposed for what it was: a basket case. As long as all the republics shared the loot, there was little incentive for them to disengage. But the structural imbalances of contributions versus rewards pitted affluent Croatia and positively rich Slovenia against dirt-poor Macedonia and relatively poor Serbia and Montenegro. They simply refused to continue to cough-up the money.

At its beginning, protest was channeled to "safer" arenas: an anti-nuclear movement in Slovenia and a pacifist movement in Croatia, for instance. But not much later on, the masks fell and the true nationalist faces underneath were exposed.

The JNA was there to tackle precisely such a situation. Composed of all nationalities, but commanded by Serbs, it intervened.

12. The Disintegration Of Yugoslavia Was Inevitable

Slobodan Milosevic came to power (1987-9) on waves of popular support for his rabid nationalism and fake anti-establishment credentials. His first actions were directed at the Kosovo Albanians, as he revoked their autonomy by altering the constitution and proceeded to demolish the educational and legal infrastructure of the region.

He also applied bloody force to suppress street protests. Combined with the IMF's pressure to repay maturing loans, the other republics watched the phoenix of Serb dominion with horror and indignation. Kosovo was the undoing of Yugoslavia a few times over its long history - and it lived up to its historical reputation.

Hitherto fringe nationalist parties emerged as viable alternatives in both Slovenia and Croatia as a direct result of the suppression of Kosovo. The "shock therapy" of 1990 (composed of a wage freeze and a hike in the general price level), the cut-off of American aid pending republic-specific elections and the populist, grievances-orientated electoral campaigns that ensued -combined to seal Yugoslavia's fate.

When Franjo Tudjman, running on a neo-Ustasa platform with Ustasa symbology, won a two-thirds majority in the elections of April 1990 and a 94% vote in favor of independence in a May 1991 plebiscite, the Croatian Serbs prepared for war. Cordoning-off their regions and refusing to allow ballot boxes in, they began to arm (the JNA was helpful in this) and teamed up with Milosevic, who had his own Greater Serbia (and even greater personal profit) in mind.

The US - as it is wont to do - inadvertently stoked the flames by pleading with all parties to maintain "territorial integrity." This conflicted directly with both German views on the matter and with weighty German investments in the region, as Germany urged the EU to recognize the breakaway republics. It would not be the last time the West spoke in (at least) two voices.

Technically, though, the Serbs started the war everywhere.

The JNA invaded Slovenia immediately after it declared its independence, only to suffer heavy and disgracing losses at the hand of hastily organized Slovene militias. Next, following the Croatian declaration of independence, the Serbs in the Krajina expelled their Croat neighbors. The JNA then invaded eastern Croatia, as Serb artillery demolished Vukovar. These were undoubtedly the first acts of war.

But atrocities against both warriors and civilians were committed by all parties involved. Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosnians all engaged in mass expulsions, slaughters, rapes and executions with fervor, zeal and glee. The Serbs did so more visibly and their actions were, perhaps, more numerous, but the guilt is shared.

The demonization of the Serbs only served to alienate them further and enhanced their paranoiac siege mentality. It was not conducive to making peace and it may have prolonged the war unnecessarily.

13. The West Acted Too Late And Too Hesitantly

The West may have acted ignorantly once the war started- but definitely not too late or too hesitantly. The European Community held a peace conference in the Hague as early as September 1991, though it failed because Milosevic insisted on his dream of a Greater Serbia. With the entire might of the JNA behind him, he may have felt invincible.

Then, between October 1991 and February 1992, international mediators, both European and American, secured a total of 15 cease-fires, though admittedly none of them was too effective. The last one, organized by the eminence grise Cyrus Vance, involved UN troops. Unfortunately, these valiant efforts were coupled with some pretty dumb moves, such as recognizing Croatia in December 1991, thus incensing Serbia to insanity. This was German finesse at its apex.

In June 1992 this insult was coupled to the injury of a UN-imposed unilateral embargo on Serbia, though an arms embargo applied to all parties equally - thus preserving Serb superiority in weapons.

14. The Bosnians Were The Fiercest Enemies Of The Serbs, And Serbia Suffered Its Worst Defeat There

When it all began, the Bosnians actually opted to remain within a Yugoslav Federation. They were the only ones -together with the Macedonians - who seemed to have no design on independence. Negotiations commenced between Belgrade, and the local Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

These negotiations were interrupted by a referendum in which Muslim and Croat Bosnians voted for secession while the Serbs abstained en masse. The leadership of Bosnia did not want to hold the plebiscite, but was forced to do so in emulation of Croatia and Slovenia and in response to the growing rumble of street protest. The lines of the emerging war coalitions were already clearly visible.

Alija Izetbegovic's first post-election government actually included Serbs, but Milosevic was fanning the flames. He regarded Bosnia as easy prey and an integral part of Serbia, and he intended to use the local Serb populace as pawns on his ever more bloodied board. Izetbegovic's Muslim-nationalist past did not help.

The Serbs clearly won the ensuing war. The army of the emerging Republika Srpska incorporated JNA units, complete with their heavy armor, and were supported with food and supplies from Belgrade. At their height, they controlled an ethnically cleansed swathe of Bosnia equal to 70% of its surface area. Moreover, they linked to Serb-dominated zones in Croatia. The West (notably, President Bush) seemed to acquiesce despite Serb atrocities committed in dedicated rape camps and execution sites.

Even Mate Boban's Croat forces did not succeed in reversing this uninterrupted streak of luck and success. They fought a few successful but rather meaningless battles before the Vance-Owen partition peace plan was introduced and accepted by them and the Muslims. The Serbs rejected it in their makeshift parliament.

The Croats then turned on their Muslim collaborators in places like Mostar, hoping to secure a larger Croat space and the Serbs seemed to comply by standing aside. Conspiracy theories abounded among the Muslims, but the reality was a division of Bosnia between Serbs and Croats, even as fighting broke out between the compatriots of these new-found allies on Croatian soil.

15. The War Brought To Power The Most Extremist And Radical Leaders In Each Of The Countries Involved

Milosevic was not the most radical Serb politician. He was very often criticized by the likes of Vojislav Seselj for betraying the Serb cause. Extremist parties won handsomely in Serb elections and held many seats in the national parliament of Serbia.

The same can be said about Croatia. Franjo Tudjman - while an authoritarian Ustasa sympathizer- had nothing near the neo-Nazi nostalgia of Dobroslav Paraga.

Both seselj and Paraga had their own paramilitary formations which fought each other in Bosnia.

Izetbegovic, for this part, did publish an "Islamic Declaration," for which he was jailed in 1983, but he was no Muslim fanatic or fundamentalist.

All sides were bound by shady dealings in drugs and weapons. The real conviction and vocation of all the leaders of the region was -and still is- crime.

16. The Kosovo Conflict Was A Direct Result Of Serb Suppression

In general, this is true. The Albanian population -especially the young and the educated- felt at a dead-end. But the direct trigger was the fact that the Dayton accords, which regulated the relationship between Yugoslavia (Serbia), Croatia and Bosnia, failed to mention Kosovo even once, let alone relate to its specific problems.

Pacifists and pro-Westerners like Ibrahim Rugova lost their clout and authority overnight. The resulting vacuum was filled by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) - a guerrilla-cum-drugs group which embarked upon the path of armed resistance by killing policemen and blowing up their police stations all over Kosovo. There is no doubt who started the Kosovo ball rolling, technically speaking.

But one must never forget that it was Serb oppression that led to the formation of the KLA in the first place. The Serbs retaliated by torturing and "disappearing" Albanian prisoners. Following an attack by the KLA in February 1998 (in which 4 officers died), the Serbs embarked on a scorched earth and ethnic cleansing policy. The rest is history.

17. The Rambouillet Accord

Not a myth this time. It called for Serb capitulation on various issues including free passage in Serbia of foreign soldiers and airborne vehicles and a referendum to decide the secession of Kosovo in three years' time.

Milosevic could have never accepted this. The West knew it but believed that he would surrender to a threat of force - the same force used in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995.

The West was wrong.

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