Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I’ve written about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans before. I keep coming back to it, I suppose, because I’m engaged in a writing project that touches upon this recent episode in history. More generally, though, I find this descent into savagery and evil intrinsically fascinating.  We're not talking about an event in the Dark Ages, nor are we referring to an impoverished thugocracy in sub-Saharan Africa.  Only fifteen years ago Europe experienced the worst act of genocide since World War II.  The disintegration of Yugoslavia just after the Cold War reminds us that barbarity and ethnic hatred can easily break through the veneer of civilization when the conditions are "right."

European statesmen created Yugoslavia after World War I. It means “Land of the Southern Slavs” and refers to the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and a host of other groups. These groups are Southern Slavs, as opposed to the Western Slavs (Czechs, Poles, Slovaks) and Eastern Slavs (Russians and Ukrainians). The southern Slavs have a grim history of ethnic hatred, interrupted at times with periods of peaceful coexistence; the cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo in Bosnia has exceptionally been a tranquil melting pot of Balkan cultures.

World War II once again unleashed these bestial animosities. Serbs formed military units like the notorious Chetniks to fight the Nazis. Croat forces under a dictatorial government formed the Ustashe. Finally, some Bosnian Muslims came together in a Yugoslav SS unit. The legacy of these violent years would lie dormant during the 40-odd year rule of Marshall Tito who, thanks to his secret police and cult of personality, managed to put a lid on the ethnic hatreds. By 1990, a decade after Tito’s death and immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall, things started to unravel, helped in no small part by Slobodan Milosevic, a communist bureaucrat who saw which way the wind was blowing and therefore exchanged his socialist clothing for Serbian nationalist garb. Serbs remembered the atrocities of the Ustashe; Croats and Muslims never forgot the crimes of the Chetniks. The Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić, a war criminal still hiding somewhere in Serbia, lost his father in World War II.  He's pictured below in uniform sitting next to former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadžić.

The term “ethnic cleansing” is a euphemism referring to the violent removal of a people from a region. Though it emerged in the context of Bosnia, it’s technically not quite apt. The Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are of the same ethnicity; they’re all of Slavic, or Slavonic, descent. What differentiates them is their cultural and religious differences: Serbs are largely Eastern Orthodox Christian, Croats and Roman Catholic, and Bosniaks are Muslim.

Pundits and historians at the time (and since) have talked about “ancient tribal hatreds” as a background to the violence. This centuries-long problems in the region give us important background, provided one should does not exaggerate the long-term causes at the expense of more recent political events. At the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 Ottoman Turk forces defeated Serbs and began to take over parts of the Balkans. Some Slavic groups converted to Islam in the 14th and 15th centuries (Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims), while others remained Christian (Serbs, Croats). This battle is kind of like the Alamo in U.S. history. Though a defeat, the conflict serves as a symbolic confrontation between virtuous Serbs and evil Muslims. Moreover, the “cult of Serbian victimhood” arose at this time. Serbs have often defined themselves as the victims of history. One can’t blame them too much for feeling this way; after all, various empires—Ottoman, Habsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Nazi, and Russian—had controlled their fate. Nonetheless, one could legitimately argue that they have exaggerated their victimhood—a “victimhood” that has led to the deaths and torture of other groups. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Serbs had aspired to create a Greater Serbia that would unite the far-flung Serbians throughout the Balkan Peninsula. Slobodan Milosevic, or Slobo, as some affectionately called him, was the latest Serb demagogue to promote this agenda.

The Bosnian War (1992-1995) involved three different groups fighting each other at different times: (1) the Muslims (sometimes referred to as Bosniaks or even Bosnians); (2) Bosnian Serbs (that is, ethnic Serbs who lived in Bosnia but had cultural ties to Serbia, the motherland, on the eastern border); (3) Croats or Croatians (or more precisely Bosnian Croats, who were ethnic Croats living in Bosnia and likewise had cultural affinities with the mother country, Croatia). For a while, the Croats fought the Serbs. Then they both teamed up against the Muslims. Then, the Muslims and Croats teamed up against the Serbs. In the course of the mid Nineties these groups fought a war, committed mass rape, tortured prisoners, drove people from their homes, and confiscated property and wealth. Who’s to blame? We would be doing an injustice to say, simply, that they’re all equally to blame. Indeed, we would be committing the fallacy of moral symmetry. The Serbs were the principle aggressors. Moreover, they had unfair advantage: the resources of the Yugoslav Army were largely in the hands of the Serbs. After all, Belgrade in Serbia was the federal capital of Yugoslavia. To make matters worse, the international community (i.e., the United Nations, United States, European Union) put a ban on weapons imports. This act hindered the Bosnians (i.e., Muslims) who had few weapons and resources against the well-armed Serbs. (Both Bosnian Serbs and Serbs from Serbia proper participated in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia.)

An American general once said: “Dealing with Bosnia is a little bit like dealing with three serial killers—one has killed 15, one has killed 10, one has killed five. Do we help the one that’s only killed five?” True enough. I like the quote because it conveys the moral dilemma. No-one was immune from committing atrocities. Nonetheless, we should distinguish between those who instigated the violence and produced most of it (Serbs) from those who acted largely in defensive actions (Bosnians, and to a lesser extent the Croats).