A Book Review of ‘Origins of a Catastrophe’
I have just finished a book I had found at the Pikes Peak Library District called “Origins of a Catastrophe.” The book was written by the last ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman. In it I have learned a great deal, and had some thoughts about it and its message, along with what it could mean to the future.
The big lesson out of this was exactly how Yugoslavia broke apart and why, along with with actors responsible for it. The biggest actor in terms of responsibility was Milosevic. A duplicitous, double talking slime, he publicly pushed for a united Yugoslavia, while at the same time disenfranchising and marginalizing non-Serbians.
As for the initial cause of the spiral out of control, it would ironically be the last part of the fallout solved, Kosovo. Kosovo had been unstable for some time, having never found a good equilibrium point during the existence of Yugoslavia, shifting between Anti-Serb sentiments to Anti-Albanian sentiments a few times during the Cold War. However, Milosevic took it to heights unheard of in the region since the Albanian Genocide in 1913. That particular incident resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, possibly over 100,000, and the loss of over half of Albania to Serbia and Greece, along with predation against Albanians by those two that continued to the present day (Continued hostility against Albanians in Kosovo and the Presevo Valley in Serbia’s case, and a continued push for disproportionate rights for ethnic Greeks in Albania by Greece), along with the retaliatory antagonism against Montenegro in the form of a joint Albanian-Croat venture of having a Nuclear Reactor at the Albanian-Montenegrin Border.
However, to get back on track, Milosevic was not the only player in this tragedy. In addition, we have the governments of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. Slovenia is guilty in terms of getting the ball rolling. In the paraphrased words of Zimmerman, a self-absorption on the part of the Slovenian Government in becoming independent and totally in line with the west left the other 20 million Yugoslavians on a road through hell that continues today. Croatia, largely thanks to Tudjman, become obsessed about imposing ethnic dominance over all areas of Serbia, and taking the parts of Bosnia dominated by Croatians. And Serbia got wrapped up in the Greater Serbia Project, in essence wanting to unify all Serbians in the region under one state.
It should be noted that, for all the antagonism between Milosevic and Tudgman, they have several traits in common. For one, they made a plan to split Bosnia between themselves, making the accusation the Muslims were fanatical Islamists who would created a haven for terror, and must not be allowed self-determination. Most of you have heard this argument before. In fact, this argument is today now used by US Republicans about Muslims in the US at large. I will get back to this later. In addition, I think an argument could be made to Milosevic and Tudjman to be classified literally as fascists, as defined by promotion of Hyper-Nationalism and loyalty to the state, in addition to actions that were Nazi-esque.
This tragedy also has some good guys, albeit they were simply underpowered considering the demagogues they were facing. For example, we have the last Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, Ante Markovic, an ethnic Croat and a reformer looking to both westernize Yugoslavia and keep it together. In the end, the actions of Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia stymied his efforts to the point of failure. You also had the Presidents of both Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kiro Gligorov and Alija Izetbegovic. The Presidents of these two republics became activists for the continuation of the Yugoslavian experiment, largely as a result of knowing how much they stood to lose.
While Gligorov has a largely clean record, Izetbegovic is largely rougher. During WWII, he was part of the Young Muslims group in Bosnia, which later divided between the SS Handschar Division, and the Tito’s Partisans. Izetbegovic served 3 years in prison as a result of this after the War. There is a Social Context to this. First off, the Nazis exploited a completely real and justified feeling among Bosnians of being constantly persecuted. It should also be noted that the Nazi’s recruiting goals fell well short among the Bosnians, and were forced to allow in a large number of Croats to fill out the division. In addition, the Unit had an extraordinary attrition rate, as people defected or mutinied, especially in a very notable case while in training in the town of Villefranche-de-Rouergue in the South of France. In addition, Izetbegovic put on a treatise in regards to Islam and the State in 1970, which was highly controversial in its pan-Islamism and assertion that Islamic Institutions must hold power in the Muslim World.
While he certainly went too far in calling for what sounds like a hyper-conservative Caliphate to unite the entire Muslim World (something that hasn’t happened since the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE), he seemed to be greatly different in dealing with Bosnia itself, and with the neighbors in Western Europe and North America. For one, he had a deep appreciation for Christian Culture, and only reluctantly went for Independence when the seccession of Croatia and Slovenia would cause Bosnia to go to the un-tender mercies of a thuggish Serbia. In the following war however, we did get a proper view of the man when forced to enact policies, rather than commentate. During the War, he and is party acted very competently and tolerantly, being quite willing to take a compromise that left the Bosnians very little land, giving concessions to the Croatian faction, and holding the distinction of being the least dirty faction of the very, very dirty Bosnian War. In fact, the dominant party at the time, his party, the Party of Democratic Action, have the distinction of not having major organized persecution of Croats and Serbs, in addition to continuing protection of Serbian Orthodox and Catholic Churches within their domain, as compared the destruction of a staggering 800+ mosques at the hands of the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. In addition, Bosnia at the time made serious efforts to reign in the mujaheddin supporting them doing investigations into war crimes committed by them, along with stripping mujaheddin of citizenship they obtained during the war in the decade following it. Bosnia was in summary, the only reasonably good actor in the Bosnian War, between the fascist Serbia and Croatia.
However, the US, and especially Europe, hold some responsibility in regards to the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the wars thereafter. The US was not nearly as forceful to getting people to the negotiating table to keep the multi-ethnic state together, and Germany outright pushed for the fragmentation, though the neighboring Netherlands attempted to support Markovic and his reforms as much as possible. A ceasefire was later obtained within a year or so for the Croatian War of Independence, with led to the Republic of Serbian Krajina, which would later be liquidated, along with most of the Serbs, in Operation Storm in 1995. However, Europe and the US were much more reticent to aid Bosnia, though the UN, for its incompetence, did remarkably well in making sure that the many indigent and homeless Bosnians did not die as a result of the elements, if not being able to protect them from the barbaric mass murder and organized mass rape of the Serbs. Part of this reticence was likely a result of prejudice. While we came forward for Croatia reasonably quickly, we did not for Bosnia. It took 3 years for a US-led intervention to occur. In Zimmerman’s estimation at the time, this cost an extra 100,000 lives. I would posit that Europe and the US felt more cultural affinity for the Catholic Croatians than the Muslim Bosnians. In addition, there was something of a moral cowardice in terms of action from the Bush and Clinton Administrations, and the Pentagon. All were afraid of potential casualties from an intervention, and the Pentagon frequently shot down proposals for support. In fact, this would cause Zimmerman to retire in 1994, after frustration with the Government. There were however, actors in favor of intervention. The 2 that come most to mind are Senators Dole and Biden. In the end, they would manage to gradually change the game, and intervention would later occur, though much too late.
In regards to Kosovo, unlike Bosnia, their had been not history of inter-ethnic co-operation, namely as a result of the Serbian aggression at the beginning of the last century. This resulted in a see-saw of discrimination between the Albanians and the Serbs. By 80’s, as stated earlier, the discrimination was heavily against the Albanians. However, contrary to propaganda, they did not start violent. That would not happen until 1998. Until then, they were led by a peaceful, gandhi-esque figure named Ibrahim Rugova, who abhorred violence, and would go on to become Kosovo’s first President. An odd fellow, he was known to give out samples from his rock collection as gifts, with size of the crystal serving as an indicator of how Rugova felt about the outcome of the meeting. This led to the odd circumstance of Diplomats comparing the size of their stones.
But I digress. By 1998 however, militants became more prominent, and started attacks. Milosevic would use this as a pretense for a final solution, to push the Albanians out of Kosovo by Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide. The world was much quicker to deal with the problem this time, and only 10,000 died, and most Albanian Kosovars were able to return within a few years. This would rupture any chance of reconciliation. Kosovo would become independent in 2008.
Which leads us to today. What will the next several years hold for this region. For one, many of the neighbors of Serbia will likely join NATO, with Albania and Croatia only being the first 2. This will likely serve to isolate the Serbian State. However, their is trouble on the horizon. For one, the government of Serbia is now less by Serbian Radical Party, which is radical nationalist and promotes the fusion of Republika Srpska and Serbia. This is compounded by the fact that Ethnic Croats and Ethnic Bosnians can not return to the areas they were purged from by the Republika Srpska in 1990’s. There have been a very large number of attacks against those attempting to return, with no attempt by the Serb Democratic Party to stop this. In addition, the Serb Democratic Party is still spewing anti-Muslim crud nearly 20 years on from the war. In addition, a recent crisis has started in Vojvodina, with the autonomous province under the control of another party rather than the Serbian Radical Party. As a result, just like in the 80’s the Serbian Government is claiming persecution, and trying to yank away as much of the autonomy as possible.
To be blunt, we are likely to have another spate of Balkan Wars in my lifetime. It will likely revolve around the continued existence of the Serbian Puppet Republika Srpska and Vojvodina’s continued autonomy. As a result, the US does need to prepare for this. For one, the US and the NATO needs to push for the abolition of Republika Srpska, and the repatriation of the ethnically cleansed and their descendants to these areas. We must also prepare for the fact that any war will likely have to be much harsher. The US and its allies must prepare for the coming follow-up to this.
And now you wonder, “how does this affect Syria?” Well, this is a little involved. Syria has now been in Civil War for 2 years, claiming the lives of at least 120,000 Syrians, plus 528 foreign nationals, including Palestinians. There is a very real threat that the different groups will attempt Ethnic Cleansing, namely Al-Qaeda influenced fanatics cleansing and murdering secular and moderate Sunnis, and Alawites and Christians in general. In addition, the Alawites may attempt to form a little state-let in the Latakia region, pushing out Sunnis. This also affects Iraq, largely because of a recent revolt by some Sunnis in Iraq against attempts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take as much power from the Sunnis as possible. If we aren’t careful, the entire region of the Bilād ash-Shām (the area between the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iran) could turn into an inferno. Any intervention here will have to go big or go home. Unlike Libya, there are no outright good guys to support, with the exception of the runt of the litter, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. To be very explicit on this, an intervention in Syria will look a lot less like Bosnia and Libya, and more like Kosovo and Iraq. But, given the consequences of not intervening, this poison pill may be less costly in the long run. It may be worth considering reconsidering having a Greater Syrian State under Jordan.
And as for the disturbing anti-Muslim rhetoric now coming out of the Republican Party, it bears some distinct similarities to the rhetoric used formerly by Milosevic and Tudjman. Namely, they both made the assertion that all Muslims are extremist, and that they need to be denied a voice, along with trying to promote persecution (both there and here under the guise of anti-terrorism), and among those like Bachmann and Gellar, outright trying to get physical persecution as well. The Republican Party is trying to turn the US into Serbia, with the requisite persecution of Muslims included. This must be resisted, for the sake of the 7-10 million Muslims in the US, including myself and major number of converts.