A Tale of Two Secessions

This year is the 150th anniversary of the misnamed American Civil War. In December 1860, South Carolina seceded in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Open warfare began in April 1861, when the new-formed Confederacy fired the first shot at the Federal convoy reinforcing Fort Sumter outside Charleston, SC — just as Lincoln intended. Over the four subsequent years, the war would claim some 625,000 lives, utterly devastate the Southern states, further poison the well of racial relations, and change the very nature of America, as "United States" became a singular noun, instead of plural.

Twenty years ago, on June 25, 1991, a secession crisis began in Yugoslavia. Two of its federal units, Slovenia and Croatia, declared independence. Federal forces trying to reinforce customs posts on the Austrian border were shot at by Slovenian militia. And that is where any resemblance to American history ends.

No Lincoln

In the mainstream American history, Abraham Lincoln is revered as a savior and enshrined in a monumental pagan temple in Washington, DC that draws millions of tourists. One has to wonder what mainstream American history would have made of the events in Yugoslavia, had Slobodan Milosevic — the designated villain — acted more like Lincoln. In other words, had he actually tried to hold Yugoslavia together by force, suppress the Slovenian and Croatian rebellion, and remake Yugoslavia to his vision. But he did not.

The American crisis happened against a very different historical backdrop. While the leading European powers — France and Britain — harbored some sympathies for the Confederacy (Russia supported Lincoln), they never recognized the government in Richmond. Yugoslavia’s demise, on the other hand, unfolded just after the end of the Cold War, as Germany reunited, the US sought a new purpose in the world, and the Soviet Union itself began to implode. So while Washington gave lip service to the notion of Yugoslav unity, it ruled out any use of force to achieve it. Meanwhile, old grudges drove several European governments to recognize the separatists.

Goals and Motivations

Slovenian communists, who reinvented themselves overnight as democrats, had at least some cause to claim they fought for independence. By accepting European mediation and signing the Brioni Declaration, both the crumbling federal government and the authorities in Serbia acknowledged that the principle of self-determination was no longer in question. Yet the Croatians still argue the conflict that began in 1991 was a struggle for independence. That is simply untrue. For better or for worse, no one disputed Croatia’s right to secede from Yugoslavia — only the manner in which it chose to do so, and the extent of territory it wanted to claim.

During WW2, the Nazi-allied Croatian state committed a genocide of Serbs and Jews. When the Communists took over, in 1945, they defined Croatia as a state of both Croats and Serbs, recognizing the Serbs’ suffering as well as their major role in the resistance. However, their doctrine of "brotherhood and unity" suppressed any meaningful discussion of the Ustasha atrocities, especially abroad.

One of the first things the Croatian government of Franjo Tudjman — elected partly due to support of the returning Ustasha sympathizers — did, in June 1990, was to change that provision of the constitution, relegating the Serbs to minority status. It was the Ustasha revival and the widespread persecution of Serbs that brought about the war in Croatia, not a desire to prevent its independence. But thanks to the Communist silence about WW2 crimes, few in the West knew of the Ustasha. Propaganda from Zagreb spun a story about freedom and democracy fighting against the evil Communist Serbs, and at that point in time, there were plenty of ears willing to listen.

The Great Whitewash

An interesting article in the Viennese daily Die Presse, published on June 25 this year, reveals that the Austrian foreign ministry aggressively pushed for the recognition of Yugoslavia’s separatist republics. Arguments offered by Foreign Minister Alois Mock — that recognition would prevent bloodshed — rang hollow then as they do now. Foreign support actually made the separatists less likely to negotiate and more likely to provoke a war, as they sought legitimacy through suffering. This was the case both with Croatia in 1991 and with Bosnia the following year.

While Austria’s interest in Slovenia and Croatia could be explained by historical attachment (having ruled the territories for centuries), that of Germany is more puzzling — but only at first glance. The conflict in Yugoslavia was an opportunity for many to find a new purpose at the "end of history," from Western liberal interventionists to Afghan jihadists. The newly united Germany used it to flex its newly acquired muscle, and redirect all its frustrations from decades of Nazi guilt onto a historical enemy. By labeling the Serbs as modern-day Nazis, Bonn and Berlin whitewashed their own history. By 1999, German soldiers once again went abroad to wage war, and the Luftwaffe was bombing again.

Austria may have pushed for it, but it was Germany that unilaterally recognized Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991. This effectively forced the hand of the other members of the EEC — soon to be the EU — as well as the International Conference on Yugoslavia, trying to mediate the crisis. In January 1991, European lawyers declared Yugoslavia "in dissolution", wiping the country off the map more efficiently than Hitler did in April 1941.

Empire, Then and Now

It did not take very long for Washington to get involved in the Yugoslav crisis, seeing the opportunity to reassert dominance over Europe, revive NATO and find new purpose in humanitarian imperialism. By late summer 1995, the American-trained Croatian Army obliterated the Serb enclaves, while NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs. In November that year, the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the Bosnian War.

In 1999, the U.S. launched a war on Serbia (then still part of a state called Yugoslavia) in support of an Albanian terrorist syndicate’s bid on the province of Kosovo. According to insiders, however, the actual purpose of the war was to crush "Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform" that the Empire sought to present as inevitable.

Yugoslavia was also where the Empire fully embraced the notion of perception management and reality manipulation. It was the first war in which cameras were more important than cannons. Propaganda leveraged weakness into victimhood. Atrocity porn did the rest. Few even bothered to ask how come there was no logic in Empire’s actions, only power.

What is going on in Libya now is simply Yugoslavia on fast-forward. First there were rumors of massacres, then the no-fly zone, then bombing for “regime change,” seasoned by wild claims of "mass rape" — all in the space of just months. There was even an indictment of the targeted country’s leader by a war crimes court… Why bother coming up with new propaganda, when the recycled stuff works just as well? When in doubt, escalate. Failure is not an option

Murder by Recognition

Cogent arguments have been made that Yugoslavia was a bad idea at the very beginning, back in 1918. Resurrecting the country’s corpse in 1945 and putting Communist make-up on it arguably made matters even worse. But even that reanimated corpse did not really decompose in 1991 — it was dismembered.

Albert Rohan, the Austrian diplomat who worked the Balkans desk in 1991, tried to argue that recognitions did not really fuel the wars. The wars were already over by then, he told Die Presse. While not technically true (for Croatia and Bosnia at least), it is true metaphorically: the recognitions pretty much decided the outcome of the wars. Even though they achieved independence by "erasing" (Slovenia) or disenfranchising, killing and expelling (Croatia, Bosnia) their "undesirables," the separatists would not be allowed to lose. So much for "human rights!"

Meanwhile, the Serbs were allowed no rights at all — not just the 2 million suddenly trapped in hostile new states, but those in Macedonia, Montenegro, and even Serbia itself. As the ultimate cruelty, the Empire now seeks to present them as its most faithful servants, spreading democratic revolutions worldwide.

Much has been said about the ugly precedent — no matter how hard Foggy Bottom claimed otherwise — of declaring the occupied Kosovo an independent state in 2008. But an even uglier precedent occurred in 1991, when Yugoslavia was simply written out of existence following the Austro-German murder-by-recognition.

In a world where the Empire has abandoned all pretense of principle, there is no telling when this terrible weapon could be used next, and against whom.

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 Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.