The Serbian Lincoln?

Two weeks ago, reporting on the violent arrest of a retired Serbian army colonel on war crimes charges raised by the Hague Inquisition, Reuters and other news media referred to the 1991 conflict as the “Croatian war of independence.” That term, however, is false.

Many defenders of Slobodan Milosevic see him as the Serbian Abraham Lincoln, standing against the illegal secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Milosevic’s own defense at the Inquisition centers on the claim that he fought to preserve Yugoslavia, not to destroy it. That argument is also false.

Oh, it is true enough that Milosevic was not Yugoslavia’s destroyer. Anyone in the Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim leadership, NATO, the European Community/Union, and the United States, had a much greater hand in dismembering the old SFRY.

But Milosevic did not fight to keep it together, either. Doing so would have meant denying the right of self-determination to Yugoslavia’s constituent peoples (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnian Muslims and Montenegrins), which did not happen. There was no Lincolnesque attempt to “save” the Yugoslav Union by force. Facts just don’t support such a claim.

Slovenia: No Fort Sumter

On June 27, 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) “invaded” Slovenia. Though Slovenian politicians and western media alike romanticized the next ten days as a “war,” in reality it was a well-organized ambush of unsuspecting federal troops. The General Staff had believed Slovenians would back off after a show of force, and sent in only lightly armed, unprepared recruits. They even informed the Slovenian leadership of the “invasion.” The ensuing massacre was far worse than the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s casus belli in 1861.

But Belgrade did not muster a Grand Army, or even launch a second “invasion,” vowing to crush the Slovenian “rebellion,” no: instead, the crumbling federal authorities accepted European mediation and signed the Brioni Declaration, essentially recognizing the secession of Slovenia. Ironically, the Serbian representative in the federal Presidency backed the YPA withdrawal, while Croatia’s representative Stipe Mesic objected.

Leaders of Yugoslav republics also attended the Brioni talks, reflecting the shifting focus of power away from the federal institutions. Among them was, of course, Slobodan Milosevic. After the Declaration was adopted, one of the European Community envoys, Hans Van den Broek, said:

“I am very pleased after hearing yesterday from Mr. Milosevic that he is in favor of the right to self-determination, that he accepts that too, and that, in time it could lead to the secession of certain republics from Yugoslavia. I was also very pleased to hear that he does not deny the principle of self-determination, but that he demands that such conclusion be based on negotiations or a dialogue…”

After Brioni, Federal troops began a retreat not only from Slovenia, but from most of Croatia as well. So much for invasion, then.

The Real Secession Dispute

It is important to realize that no faction in Yugoslavia had a principled view of secession. According to the prevalent Serb position, the Yugoslav constitution of 1974 allowed secession under a specific procedure, which Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina did not follow. That much is true. However, Serbia never challenged secession on those grounds, but supported instead a “counter-secession” of territories mostly inhabited by Serbs. Belgrade invoked the Yugoslav union as the context for secession, claiming that 2 million Serbs west of the Drina river have a right to self-determination as well.

On the other hand, the secessionist republics claimed the 1974 Constitution guaranteed their statehood and boundaries, arguing that self-determination did not apply to people (“narodi“), but only to administrative units (“republike“).

European lawyers’ arbitrary decision to legalize the secession of republics, not nations, led to the double standard in which over 2 million Serbs were overnight turned into second-class citizens, interlopers in their own towns, villages and homes. Having been victims of genocide at the hand of Croats and Muslims in World War Two, western Serbs were determined not to become their subjects again.

Croatia: War Begins

The Wars of Yugoslav Succession truly began on Easter 1991, with a firefight between Croatian state police and local Serb militia at the resort of Plitvice. Despite accusing Serbia and the YPA of “aggression,” the Croatian government actually fired the first shots. Within weeks, Serb-inhabited territories within Croatia’s administrative boundaries became battlefields.

In this first phase of the succession wars, the location of battlefields indicates the nature of the conflict: with only one exception (Dubrovnik), clashes occurred along Serb-inhabited areas. Had it been a “war of aggression” or an “invasion,” as alleged, there would have been a push by the YPA towards seizing key Croatian towns. Quite to the contrary, many YPA garrisons were caught off guard and besieged by Croatian militia.

The YPA was not fighting to preserve the integrity of the SFRY, or to prevent Croatia from declaring independence. Yugoslav defense minister, Army General Veljko Kadijevic, said as much in 1993.

By the end of 1991, the fighting in Croatia was suspended under the “Vance Plan,” a temporary arrangement placing Serb-held territories under protection of UN peacekeepers, and the YPA retreated again. Over the next few years, Croat forces launched limited attacks on Serb pockets, until the all-out offensive in the spring and summer of 1995.

Bosnia: The Sequel

In the spring of 1992, the war moved into Bosnia-Herzegovina. Responding to parliamentary abuses by the ruling Muslim and Croat parties, the ruling Serb party set up a separate republic and threatened secession in case of a unilateral declaration of independence. The declaration came on April 5, 1992, and so did the war.

By the end of April, the original chaotic melee between Muslim and Croat militias and Croatian regulars on one side, and Serb militias and the remnants of the YPA on the other, began taking an organized shape. Again, this belies the cries of “aggression” from Sarajevo, as all sides in the conflict suffered from an appalling lack of organization.

The conflict was certainly transformed by the proclamation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on April 27, 1992. The establishment of a new Yugoslav state was a clear recognition that the old has met its demise. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia were all implicitly recognized, even if their borders and governments specifically were not. But to Zagreb, Sarajevo, and the increasingly interested foreign governments, that made no difference whatsoever. The conflict dragged on for three years, stymied by Serb refusal to accept a unitary Bosnian state and the Muslim refusal to consider anything but.

Having initially supported the western Serbs in the Wars of Succession, by 1995 Slobodan Milosevic sold them down the river. Not only did he ignore the Croatian offensive which displaced over 400,000 people (all in all), but his negotiating tactic in Dayton consisted of appeasing both the Muslims and US envoy Richard Holbrooke. He wanted to be known as a peacemaker, but that desire would be shattered by the looming specter of Kosovo just three years ahead.

The Real Warmongers

Thanks to modern re-examination, contemporary information indicating that Lincoln and his lieutenants wanted war is resurfacing. But who was the Yugoslav warmonger? Again, Milosevic is universally blamed. Yet both Croat and Muslim leaders did not hide their desire for war.

“There would not have been a war had Croatia not wanted one,” said Franjo Tudjman said in a May 24, 1992 speech in Zagreb’s main square. “We decided that only through war could we win Croatia’s sovereignty. That is why we had a policy of negotiations while we established our armed forces.” The video of this speech was shown during the Milosevic “trial,” and mentioned in the cross-examination of Stipe Mesic, now president of Croatia.

And on February 27, 1991, Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic declared: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.” (Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, p.211)

Tudjman and Izetbegovic were well aware that their political goals were attainable only through war. Tudjman knew his vision of Croatia could not be put in place while some 600,000 Serbs resided within its boundaries. Less than 100,000 scattered, poor and elderly Serbs remain in Croatia today. Izetbegovic had a vision as well: Bosnia ruled by Islamic law, but he had little support for such an extreme program. By provoking a confrontation with the Serbs, Izetbegovic rallied Muslims to his cause and aimed to neutralize the Serbs as a political and military impediment to his vision.

Both leaders counted on foreign military intervention to aid their endeavors, and predicated their political and propaganda activities upon that assumption. Tudjman was eventually successful, while Izetbegovic found his goals somewhat disrupted by the constraints of Dayton.

No Lincoln

Joseph Sobran wrote recently that Abraham Lincoln’s style, in both law and politics, was to yield so many points as to seem reasonable, then insist on the issue crucial to him. He couched his intransigence in conciliatory language. Slobodan Milosevic was the exact opposite: he talked hard, but conceded everything. His record is that of surrender: Brioni (1991), the Vance Plan (1992), Vance-Owen and Owen-Stoltenberg plans (1993), the Contact Group (1994), Dayton (1995), the “Holbrooke Agreement” (1998) and finally Kumanovo (1999).

So, Slobodan Milosevic was definitely no Lincoln. Whether Milosevic should have been a Lincoln is another issue. Given Lincoln’s politics, definitely not. Furthermore, he would have failed even if he tried to be. The 1991 Yugoslavia did not resemble the 1861 United States in almost any regard. But that is a topic for another day. Ironically, Milosevic is accused of acting like Lincoln by some of Lincoln’s fiercest worshippers. Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, as the Romans would say.

If all this screams “revisionist history,” so be it. At a time when everything seems based on deception, the world needs all the revisionism it can get.

After all, truth liberates.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.