Selected Longer Reviews

Balkan Tragedy

By Woodward, Susan

Brookings Institute, Washington DC, 1995, 536 pages,
Price: 15.16 US Dollars
Shelf mark: 949.702'4

Apologists for Communism and Western Cold Warriors, though from opposing trenches, tended to agree on one point at least. They saw a complete dichotomy between a-national Communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR and the national-democratic (or bourgeois-reactionary) socio-political orders that had gone before. The events of 1989-91 in this view represented a sharp break: a victory for liberal democracy and/or reactionary nationalism over Communism. In the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, in particular, this break was accompanied by bloody wars of succession, and former Cold War antagonists in the West have often joined in lamenting the passing of the "Communist man’s burden" whereby authoritarian but impartial Marxism-Leninism "kept the lid on ethnic conflict". From here it is only a short step to support for the attempts of the imperial centres, Moscow and Belgrade, to "restore order" among the tribes. Thus Walter Laqueur, in his vitriolic anti-Communist polemic against even the most vaguely pro-soviet intellectuals and historians (The Dream that Failed, Oxford, 1994), did not think it odd simultaneously to praise the Soviet regime’s murderous occupation of the Azerbaijani capital of Baku in 1990, stating baldly that "the intention of Russian forces was to restore law and order".

The ideological strait-jacket of the Cold War has been a particular barrier to efforts to understand the break-up of Yugoslavia. Those who have bothered to look at its history during World War II know well that Tito’s Partisans, who brought the Communists to power in Yugoslavia, constituted a heterogeneous force if ever there were one, including Croats fighting for Croatian sovereignty, Serbs fighting to unite all Serbs within a single state and Bosnians fighting for Bosnian statehood. Alongside the original anti-fascist patriots, the Partisan ranks came to include by the end of the war former Ustashe, Chetniks and Muslim SS recruits. Yet post-war historians consistently mistook form for content, seeing in Communism the negation, rather than the uneasy reconciliation, of Yugoslavia’s conflicting national projects. Since 1991, a wealth of books have appeared arguing that, once the undemocratic but antinational Communist order began to break down in the 1980’s under the impact of an economic crisis, its antithesis spontaneously and inevitably re-emerged: irrational but popular "rival nationalisms" that plunged Yugoslavia into war. Since the war was caused by the "collapse of Communism", it followed that it could have been avoided if only elements of the Communist Yugoslav old order had been propped up, such as those represented by Yugoslavia’s reformist and centralist last Prime Minister, Ante Markovic or, more ominously, by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) seen here as a force of "law and order". The secession of Slovenia and Croatia, and their subsequent recognition by the EC, are regularly presented as the actions most responsible for the outbreak and prolongation of war. Although the principles of Croatian and Slovenian sovereignty were integral elements of Yugoslav constitutionalism, and although the JNA in 1991 was hardly an impartial defender of the "brotherhood and unity" of the Yugoslav nations, writers of this ilk have persisted in viewing the crumbling Yugoslav state, stained as it already was with the blood of thousands of its own citizens, as the only bulwark against "rival nationalisms" analysed with equal vagueness (form once again being confused with content, so that Serbian nationalism appears as just one nationalism among many, and not necessarily the worst.

Susan Woodward’s book is the most extensive version to date of this approach. Writing as a one-time advisor to UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi, her thesis is familiar enough: economic and constitutional collapse coupled with widespread social despair created a void that the rival leaders of the Yugoslav national groups sought to fill through mutually exclusive national projects. She writes euphemistically that "fundamental disputes" concerned "the locus of sovereignty and of new borders that had been created by the break-up of the state"(p.13) - in rather the same way, she might have reminded us, that the 1939 dispute between Germany and Poland over the "locus of sovereignty and of new borders" was created by the collapse of the Versailles settlement.

Woodward’s book shows how easy the passage is from identification with the centralized Yugoslav state and Army to support for Serbian nationalism. Criticism of republican autonomy vis-a-vis the Federal centre is a frequent theme, seamlessly extended to opposition to the overwhelmingly Albanian province of Kosova’s autonomy vis-a-vis the republic of Serbia. Describing "Milosevic’s objective" as "to restore the constitutional integrity of the republic of Serbia by ending the extensive autonomy granted Kosovo and Vojvodina by the 1974 Constitution" (p..94), she dismisses Albanian claims to self-determination on the grounds that "their constitutional classification" - by that same 1974 constitution, presumably - "as a nationality rather than a constituent nation made them ineligible for such rights" (p.106). She subsequently criticizes the EC’s call for the restoration of Kosova’s autonomy in 1991, "which was the very problem of the 1974 Constitution that Serbia had spent the 1980s attempting to reverse" (p.182). This contrasts sharply with her treatment of the Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia and, by implication, Croatia’s and Bosnia’s own claims to "constitutional integrity". She writes for instance, that in the summer of 1990 the "Serbs in the krajina (border) region of Croatia and Bosnia were beginning to arm in self-defence" (p.148). And again, referring without comment to the wholly bogus claim that Serbs owned 65% of landholdings in Bosnia, she writes that "the Bosnian Serb army under General Mladic pushed instead to fill in the patchwork quilt of these landholdings to make contiguous, statelike territory", which was "intended to ensure the survival of the Serbs as a nation in this area" (p.269). Woodward is particularly ready to defend the JNA, which in the course of 1991 had "come to the defence, not only of the Yugoslav border, but also of civil order and of minorities during violent clashes between Croats and Serbs in Croatia in the spring" (p. 165), and which "continuing into September 1991" had been attempting "to provide such a neutral buffer between Serbs and Croats, particularly in eastern Croatia, so as to dampen the fighting and create cease-fires" (p. 257). She neglects to mention that this "neutral buffer" had been arming Serb extremists within Croatia since the summer of 1990, since its true intention, as Yugoslavia’s last Minister of Defence General Kadijevic has publicly admitted, was to establish new borders for an expanded, Greater Serbia.

Woodward’s apologies for the Serbian side contrast with her treatment of Croatia and Slovenia. One of her favourite arguments is that Milosevic’s claim to be the "protector of Serbs wherever they lived was the logical equivalent" of the "identification of Slovene sovereignty and the defence of Slovene human rights" and was "based on an equally legitimate but alternative concept of a nation" (p. 133). Indeed Radovan Karadzic’s political project simply involved "transferring the Slovene precedent (of the right of nations to form states within a state and, if they wish, to secede) from the republic to the constituent nations of federal Yugoslavia. His aim was to legitimize the sovereignty of Bosnian Serbs within Bosnia" (p.211). Elsewhere, Woodward claims that Slovenia "was not a state" (p.164), and that in recognizing the independence of Slovenia and Croatia the EC was "not only creating new states but dissolving an old one - Yugoslavia" (p.250). Quite apart from whitewashing the Serbian aggressive campaign, such statements reveal an extraordinary ignorance on the parts of this self-proclaimed expert on the nature of federations in general and the Yugoslav federation in particular. In fact Yugoslavia, identified by Woodward solely with the central state and army based on Belgrade, was specifically a federation of six republics and two provinces; within it Slovenia and Croatia functioned as sovereign nation-states, with the right of veto over the central bodies" decisions.

Woodward not only defends Serb nationalism’s aspirations in principle, but repeats some of its most grotesque claims: "The effect in Bosnia-Hercegovina of demographic changes and emigration in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, was to complete the process begun with the genocidal campaign in 1941-44 of reducing the Serb population from a majority to a minority" (p.213); "From the mid-1980s on, both Austria and the Vatican had pursued a strategy to increase their sphere of economic and spiritual influence in central and eastern Europe, respectively" (pp.148-9). Indeed, Austrian and German support for the Republic of Croatia’s independence was "an extension o the German idea of citizenship through blood alone (jus sanguinis) and the impossibility of ethnically heterogeneous states - ideas that had been at the core of fascist ideology" (p.206), as if Milosevic’s "alternative concept of a nation", Karadzic’s quest for "the sovereignty of Bosnian Serbs within Bosnia" and General Mladic’s work on "filling in the patchwork quilt" were not precisely driven by the ideology of blood and soil.

By contrast with Germany’s and Austria’s evil intentions, Russia’s view on the Yugoslav issue had little to do with pro-Serbian bias, "but grew instead from its understanding of the issues at stake as a result of its more similar experiences in the twentieth century and contemporaneously in dealing with the national question" (p.205): presumably Woodward is referring here to Russia’s "similar experiences" with the Chechens and Crimean Tartars. Despite the enormous wealth of scholarly works cited and almost a hundred pages of notes, Woodward repeats Serb-nationalist falsehoods that no serious scholar would entertain for a moment. One prime example is her claim that the HDZ regime in Croatia "adopted the historical symbols of Croatian statehood (coat of arms and flag) that had last been used by the fascist state in 1940-45" (p.120): as every student of Croatian history knows, the redcornered chequerboard that adorns the Croatian flag today was used by the Socialist Republic of Croatia within Yugoslavia, but not by the Ustashe. Another is her allegation (p.236) that Serbian attacks on hospitals were provoked by the Bosnians and Croatians themselves, in order to win international sympathy - a serious charge for which she neglects to provide any sources.

Susan Woodward has written a long, turgid and repetitive work whose seemingly scholarly style and pretence of objectivity mask effective acquiescence in Serbian war aims and a dislike of Germany, Austria and Croatia that borders on hatred. Another main dimension of Woodward’s thesis concerns the way in which the Germans and Americans in turn supposedly sabotaged international attempts to resolve the conflict. This line of argument presents few surprises for anyone familiar with the similar themes emanating from British and French official sources throughout the wars of succession in former Yugoslavia. What makes this book unique, however is its revelation of the degree of ideological sympathy for Serbian nationalist aspirations in the highest echelons of the UN operation in the very countries suffering the effects of Serbian aggression. No wonder that, during her time as adviser to Akashi, she was nicknamed "Mrs Mladic" by members of the UNHCR working in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Attila Hoare

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