THE BALKAN "POWDERKEG"
The Balkans are a group of countries that cover a peninsula in the southeast corner of Europe. This region is called the "Powderkeg of Europe" because so many wars have begun there. It is currently living up to that name, specifically in the area formerly known as Yugoslavia.
When reading, listening to, or watching news reports, we are told of violent events occurring in places like: Bosnia-Herzegovina; Serbia; Croatia; Slovenia; Sarajevo; and Tuzla.
Many of us know very little about: (1) what kind of people live there; and (2) why they are killing each other.
Most of the residents of Yugoslavia come from a group known as "Slavs." Those who live in the Balkans more specifically are "South Slavs." They originally lived more than 5,000 years ago in a region that today forms part of northwestern Ukraine and southeastern Poland. They migrated south into the Balkan area sometime between the 3rd and 5th Centuries A.D. The Slavic groups who figure most prominently in today's Balkan conflict are: (1) Serbs; (2) Bosnians; (3) Croatians; and (4) Slovenians. What follows next is an account of events in the early history of these peoples.
7th Century A.D.--Slavic state of Samu was established by Slovenians. They gave allegiance to Avars (early Hungarians).
9th Century A.D.--Slavs established the Great Moravian Empire which united peoples of central Europe. Many were converted to Christianity at this time.
10th Century A.D.--The Great Moravian Empire was captured by the Magyars (ancestors of later Hungarians). The Croats established an independent kingdom.
11th Century A.D.--The Croats reached the peak of their power. Following a civil war, they were taken over by Hungary. About this same time, Slovenia also became part of Hungary.
12th Century A.D.--The first Serbian state was formed. During this same period, the Bosnians were controlled by Hungary, but local nobles called "bans" acted independently at times. Herzegovina was also controlled by Hungary, but some of its territory was taken over by the Serbs.
14th Century A.D.--The Bosnians' power reached its height during this century. Also, the Serbs fought off the Byzentine Empire forces and dominated the Balkan region. The Serb king, Stefan Dushan, was emperor of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania. At this time Herzegovina spent a number of years under the control of Bosnia. Later in this century the Serb emperor died, and their empire broke up after a 25-year reign. In 1389 the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks at Kosovo Polze, suffering a devastating loss; among others, the King of Serbia and Bosnia was killed. For several hundred years, there was no "Serbia" on any map.
15th Century A.D.--A local Bosnian ruler declared independence and gave himself the title of "herzeg" (duke). Austria controlled Slovenia, and Hungary controlled Croatia. Later, Bosnia was captured by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, as was Herzegovina. The Muslim religion was brought in by the conquerors, and some Slavs were converted.
16th Century A.D.--Most of Croatia came under control of the Ottoman Empire; the rest gave its allegiance to the King of Austria whose country had earlier been defeated by the Turks.
19th Century A.D.--In 1804 a Serbian peasant known as "Black George" led an uprising against the Turks. Eleven years later there was another Serbian peasant revolt. Those uprisings earned the Serbs some liberties. During this period the Austro-Hungarian Empire was established; Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia were included in it, as was much of the Balkans. Later Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire, and Serbia regained its independence while being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Bosnians and Serbs were constantly claiming each other's territory. Slovenia and Croatia were united for only a short time, but it inspired their people to work for independence in the future.
20th Century--In 1912 the First Balkan War began and lasted into 1913. The Serbs were able to gain control of a large share of the old Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1913 the Second Balkan War gave the Serbs increased prestige and encouraged other Slavic people to renew efforts for independence.
About this time there was much tension between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, both political strain and economic discord. In June, 1914 the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was murdered in Sarajevo by a Serbian patriot. This set off World War I, which began a month later when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia because they blamed the Serb government for the archduke's death. World War I lasted for four years. Austria-Hungary ended up on the losing side, so the South Slavs were free to go their own way.
The winners of the war, including Serbia, Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, in 1918 put together a "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes." It was a patchwork of states and territories in the Balkans, lifted from the ruins of two empires: Austria-Hungary and the Turks' Ottoman Empire. The new kingdom included the following: (1) Serbia; (2) Montenegro (both former kingdoms); (3) Bosnia-Herzegovina (previously administered by Austria and Hungary); (4) Croatia-Slovenia (previously a region of Hungary); (5) Dalmatia (previously administered by Austria). Czechoslovakia and Poland became independent nations at this time.
The new Kingdom's first monarch was Peter I of Serbia; he died in 1921. His son, Alexander I, succeeded him. Governing this kingdom was difficult. It consisted of many nationality groups who differed in such things as religion, language, and culture (even though they were all Slavs). The Croats thought the Serbs had too much power and wanted a federal state.
In 1929 Alexander assumed dictatorial powers. He changed the name of the country to Yugoslavia (meaning "Land of South Slavs"). He tried to create unity by forcing the use of one language: Serbo-Croatian. He re-drew the political boundary lines, ignoring ethnic groups and their history.
Relations between groups worsened. Alexander was murdered in 1934. His son, Peter II, was too young to assume power; so Alexander's cousin, Prince Paul, ruled in his place.
Yugoslavia tried to stay neutral in the first years of World War II. Prince Paul favored the Axis Powers (Germany and Italy) over the Allies (Great Britain and France), so he agreed--under pressure--to sign the Axis Pact on March 25, 1941. The Yugoslav army rebelled, overthrew Prince Paul's government, and put Peter on the throne at the age of 17.
On April 6 Germany invaded Yugoslavia, and they surrendered 11 days later. The Nazis proclaimed Croatia an independent state, but they controlled it as they did the rest of the country. The man they put in power and supported, Ante Pavelic (a Croat), ordered the killing of thousands of Jews and Serbs.
Two separate groups opposed the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, occasionally even fighting each other. The "Chetniks" supported King Peter's government (which had been moved to Great
Britain), while the "Partisans" favored a Communist government like the Soviet Union. The Partisan leader was Josef Broz Tito (TEE-toe) a Croat. United States' aid went to Tito because his Partisans were more effective in fighting the Nazis. By the end of the war in 1945 Tito and the Communist Party were in firm control of Yugoslavia.
A new constitution in 1946 officially organized the "Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia," a federal state in which each of six republics largely controlled its own affairs (with the "guidance" of Tito and the Communist Party). The six republics were: (1) Slovenia; (2) Croatia; (3) Bosnia-Herzegovina; (4) Serbia; (5) Montenegro; and (6) Macedonia. Kosovo and Vojvodine were made self-ruling provinces of Serbia. Tito became prime minister, and the government took charge of factories, farms, and other businesses.
Two years later Tito broke with the Soviet Union's bloc of countries, but he retained the Communist philosophy. He still believed in their ideals, but he didn't want the Soviet Union to control Yugoslavia. He followed a middle road which combined Communism's politics and overall economic policy with a little freedom in the arts, travel, and individual enterprise.
After the Soviet Union cut off all aid to Yugoslavia, the United States began helping them, hoping to keep Tito's favor; but he refused to take sides in the "Cold War" between Communist nations and western democracies. Under a revised constitution (1962), Tito became president for life.
Tension between ethnic groups existed from Yugoslavia's beginnings, especially between Serbs and Croats. During the 1960s some Croats and Slovenes called for independence. In the 1970s, conflict arose between developed republics (Croatia and Slovenia) and the less-developed republics (Macedonia and Montenegro).
Tito died in 1980. The presidency became a rotating office with eight men, one from each republic and province. This postponed (but couldn't prevent) clashes between Yugoslavia's many cultural groups. In the province of Kosovo, ethnic Albanians (90 percent of the population) wanted more freedom; the Serbian government responded with force against them.
In the late 1980s many Yugoslavian people asked for a multi-party system instead of the single Communist Party. Croats and Slovenes had complaints and demands: they believed that the national government took too much of their income; they also felt that the Serbs had too much influence in governing the republics.
In 1990 Yugoslavia's Communist Party voted to end their power monopoly. New parties were formed, and the first multi-party elections were held. In four of the six states, non-Communist candidates were winners. Only Serbia and Montenegro voted Communist (which had been changed to "Socialist") governments into power.
Then came 1991 when Communism around the world collapsed, and the Soviet Union broke apart. In the Balkans, events paralleled those elsewhere in the world. War erupted in June, after Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Government troops attacked both of them.
Their war ended in about a month, with less than 70 dead, when the Serbian-led Yugoslav army units withdrew in defeat.
There were 600,000 Serbs living there which is approximately 12.2 percent of the population. Fighting between those Serbs and Croatian troops had been going on even before the independence declaration. This Croatian war of secession (withdrawing) was fought by the Croats against Serb rebels backed by the Yugoslav army. It lasted six months, and 10,000 people were killed. A ceasefire was agreed to in January, 1992, after approximately 1/3 of the country had been seized by the Serb rebels. The Croatians want Serb-held territory back, but Serbs say they fear a repeat of the World War II Nazi "puppet" state which massacred thousands of Croats. A United Nations peacekeeping force was authorized in February, 1992.
They declared their independence in February, 1992 and were immediately recognized by the United Nations. Two months later, Bosnian Serbs (also referred to as rebel Serbs and nationalist Serbs) refused to accept Bosnia's independence and proclaimed their own state. Serbs made up approximately 31 percent of the Bosnian population.
The Serbs began a siege of Sarajevo in April, 1992. In May, the Yugoslav army gave up command of its 100,000 troops in Bosnia--effectively creating a Bosnian Serb army. Fighting has been going on between the Muslims who are the majority group there and the Serbs. It is the battle between the Bosnian government and those Bosnian Serbs which is the center of the war that continues today, a war that has so far caused approximately 200,000 casualties in four years.
Rumors of inhumane treatment of the Muslim population began to come out of Bosnia early in the fighting. Stories of tortures, murders, detention camps, and rapes circulated through the world's press. The term "ethnic cleansing" came into the vocabulary at the same time: Serbs were reportedly removing, under pressure, all non-Serbs from the Bosnian territory they claimed. This included Bosnian Muslims and Croats living there. (Reports of similar actions have come from Croatia, too.)
The Bosnian government wants to get back land occupied by the Serbs so they will once more be an independent, unified nation. The rebel Bosnian Serbs want a state of their own which could unite eventually with Serb-held territory in Croatia and with Serbia itself. At present the Serbs control about 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
ROLE OF THE UNITED NATIONS
Originally, United Nations' peacekeepers were to go to the former Yugoslavia to control the truce in Croatia. By the summer of 1992 their role had broadened to include humanitarian aid deliveries to millions of needy people, especially in Bosnia.
An arms embargo (order which stopped sale of all guns and weapons), put into place by the U. N. in 1991, was intended to keep the conflict from spreading. Its effect in practical terms froze in place the superiority of the Serbs. Even though they were outnumbered by their enemies, the Serbs had more firepower.
Since the summer of 1992, the U. N. Security Council has passed about 70 vague and often conflicting resolutions governing the peacekeepers' mission across the former Yugoslavia.
Approximately 23,000 U. N. peacekeepers are now in Bosnia and just over 12,000 in Croatia. There are another 12,000 people at Zagreb headquarters (Croatia) and scattered through the mission territory. Countries furnishing men for the peacekeeping force are Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Ukraine, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia.
A U. N. peace conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1993. A five-nation peace proposal which would have given the Serbs control of 49 percent of Bosnia was rejected by both parties.
The United Nations has been the primary deliverer of aid to Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbiaw where millions depend on it.
ROLE OF N. A. T. O.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has 16 member nations, all but one located in western Europe. (The exception is the United States.) They are responsible for patrolling the "no-fly zone" over Bosnia, designed to stop an air war.
Airstrikes have been called when U. N. commanders on the ground, their civilian chief, and N.A.T.O. commanders agree on them. Late in July, 1995 the U. N. Secretary-General gave authority to the U. N. commander in the area, meaning that now military men will decide whether to call in more vigorous airstrikes. In the past, N.A.T.O. has hesitated to conduct heavier raids because they fear retaliation against the U. N. troops on the ground.
N. A. T. O. has contingency plans (to be carried out if events call for them) to send up to 40,000 troops, tanks, warships, and airpower to rescue U. N. peacekeepers if they are overwhelmed.
Their plans also call for pinpoint missions by "Rapid Reaction" units to assist in the withdrawal of the most vulnerable U. N. units. These forces are made up of British, French, and Dutch troops, reportedly numbering 12,500 men. They are also being trained to conduct small attacks in specific situations.
UNITED STATES INTERESTS
A former U. S. diplomat was quoted as follows on the subject of our interest in the Balkan war: "... Our national interest is in preserving the whole concept of international law and basic standards...That's how society survives... (Nations) make commitments and stick to them..."
There are no American ground troops in Bosnia. Our country contributes about half of the warplanes and pilots used by N. A. T. O. air operations. The U. S. has pledged to commit up to 25,000 American troops to help cover a complete withdrawal, a perilous operation that could bring them under attack by the forces in Bosnia.
In 1993 the U. N. designated six Muslim enclaves (areas completely surrounded by rebel Serbs) which it promised to protect. Those six were: Sarajevo (capital of Bosnia); Tuzla in northcentral Bosnia; Bihac in northwest Bosnia; Gorazde, Zepa, and Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. Zepa and Srebrenica were overrun by the Serbs in 1995. The U. N. is considering replacing its peacekeepers at Gorazde with unarmed observers. Bosnia's government has condemned this move.
YUGOSLAVIA AS IT EXISTS TODAY
The republics of Serbia and Montenegro remain joined in the shrunken Yugoslav federation. Their army battled to control areas occupied by ethnic Serbs living in other states. Neither the United States or the European Community has officially recognized the new Yugoslavia, and the United Nations has dropped them from membership.
In addition to Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia has also declared its independence. It has not been recognized because of objections from Greece. In Macedonia the United Nations has about 1,000 peacekeepers--the first U. N. mission ever designed to prevent a conflict from beginning. There has been no fighting in Macedonia.
The Yugoslav army has never been "officially" involved in the Bosnian conflict. However, it provides air defense and other support to both Croatian and Bosnian Serb forces. It also pays the salaries of senior Serb generals in both places.
WHO GETS THE BLAME?
The Serbs are blamed by many for the current war in the Balkans. President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia is considered the instigator (one who stirs up trouble) of the fighting. He is said to have inspired Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia to rebel. His goal is to create a unified Serbian state in the Balkan peninsula, which would include parts of Bosnia and Croatia.
The Serbian people have retained, over hundreds of years, a national pride. To this day they celebrate as a national holiday the terrible defeat by the Turks at Kosovo Polje over 600 years ago. They intend to avenge that defeat by bringing Serbia back to its former position of power among Slavic nations.
A further understanding of the Serbs' motives and aggressiveness might be gained by the following statements:
"Their view of the world has been shaped by centuries of Turkish occupation. They have been isolated from Europe, and their closed society shaped ethical standards, living in a climate of hate and vendettas (acts of revenge)..."
"They have no concern for opinions of outsiders; in fact, they consider all outsiders as possible enemies. Through the centuries they have taken dominance (the top position) over other Slavic people for granted. They see such control as a 'natural state of affairs.' They brush aside Bosnia and Croatia as 'non-nations.' Their historic belief is that Serbs always represent 'national legitimacy' (lawful and established authority)."
The Serbs, as well as the Bosnians and the Croats, are fighting to re-draw their countries' borders to create areas where all residents have similar cultural backgrounds in common. They will be controlled by leaders who are devoted to the best interests of that group only.
Each Balkan nation wants its borders to be restored to what they were when their power was at its height, no matter how long ago that was. This would appear to be very difficult, if not impossible.
In May, 1995 Croatia launched a "blitz" against the Serbs. They recaptured some of the land that was occupied by the Serbs in 1991 and threatened to cross the border into Bosnia and join the conflict; but they bowed to world pressure and stopped their campaign.
But again in August Croatian forces moved against the Serbs in the Krajina region. They were able to recapture a number of towns. The numbers of Serb refugees leaving Croatia headed for Bosnia and Serbia mounted rapidly past the 40,000 mark and could reach 200,000.
Croatian forces crossed into Bosnia and continued their drive against the Serbs there (with the help of the Bosnian army). They attacked Serb forces in the northcentral part of the country. Both offensives were very successful. At this time the Serbs were at their lowest point since 1991.
The United Nations created a Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal (Court) and indicted (formally accused) several Serb leaders for genocide (planned destruction of an entire cultural group) and crimes against humanity.
The United States Congress voted to unilaterally (by itself) lift the arms embargo against Bosnia so they would be better able to defend themselves against the Serbs. President Clinton exercised his veto power (rejected the vote). Congress has the option of overriding his veto (putting it into effect despite his objections).
On August 19, three U. S. diplomats were killed in an accident just outside Sarajevo. Their vehicle slipped over the side of a muddy road, plunged 400 yards down a ravine, and exploded. The delegation was in Bosnia discussing a new peace plan, and they had just spent three days making presentations to leaders of Yugoslavia and Croatia. They were on their way to meet with Bosnia's president when the accident occurred.
According to media reports, some of the key points of the U. S. State Department plan are as follows:
(1) Serbs would get permanent control of 49% of Bosnia (presently they occupy 70%).
(2) Economic sanctions against Serb-held Yugoslavia could be lifted.
(3) An exchange might be made: the Bosnian Serbs would get Gorazde, now a "safe area" controlled by the Bosnian government, and a broader corridor to link their territory with Serbia. To balance these concessions, the Bosnian government would get more land around Sarajevo (now controlled by the Serbs). (4) International aid could be provided to rebuild the war damage in Bosnia. (5) To enforce unannounced provisions of the agreement, the plan would provide threats to the Bosnian Serbs: the arms embargo now in place could be lifted for the Bosnian government forces only; U. N. soldiers could be withdrawn and replaced by N.A.T.O. troops; and N.A.T.O. could provide air support for the Bosnian government army. (6) For the Bosnian government, the threats would be: the U.N. peacekeeping force could be withdrawn; and the arms embargo could be lifted for ALL parties in the conflict.
In late August, during a truce, Serb mortars fired into Sarajevo from their siege positions in the mountains. One target was a crowded marketplace. Thirty-seven people died, and 80 were injured.
In retribution for this attack, N.A.T.O. warplanes attacked Serb targets in Bosnia--a three-day campaign. It was the biggest assault in N.A.T.O. history.
When the air raids stopped, a new deadline was given to the Serbs: move 300 of their guns at least 12 1/2 miles away from Sarajevo. The Serbs refused to meet these conditions, so on September 6 air attacks were resumed. This time they lasted nine days.
Peace talks began in Geneva, Switzerland with United States representatives present. A tentative agreement was reached wherein Bosnia would be
divided: the Serbs would control 49% of the land while the Muslims and Croats would control 51%. However, there was no agreement on exact borders of these areas.
Serb military leaders agreed to move their weapons on September 14, so N.A.T.O. air strikes were stopped.
Russia, a traditional Serb ally, has strongly protested the air campaign, calling it "genocide" (killing an entire political or cultural group).
Bosnia has become one of the most dangerous areas on Earth. Roads, airports, and towns are subject to shelling and sniping. Casualties have been soldiers, civilians, United Nations peacekeepers, journalists, government officials, and diplomats.
There is no end in sight to the latest war in the Balkans. Centuries of religious and cultural conflict have created deep feelings of resentment, dislike, mistrust, and jealousy. At various times, Balkan people have fought the Turks, the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Nazis, and each other. It is entirely possible that the situation may never be completely resolved to the satisfaction of ALL groups. They remain skeptical of "neutral" outside intervention.