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Tracing Causes Of Today's Balkan Crisis

By Robert Marquand. Robert Marquand reported from the Balkans for the Monitor and is writing a book on US foreign policy there. / March 28, 1996



YUGOSLAVIA: DEATH OF A NATION

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By Laura Silber and Allan Little

Penguin, 374 pp. $24.95

BALKAN ODYSSEY

By David Owen,

Harcourt Brace & Co,. 367 pp. $25

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR

By Peter Maass,

Knopf, 295 pp., $25

The wisest heads on Yugoslavia date the modern genocide there not to the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, but to publication of a 70-page tract in Belgrade in 1986.

Titled "The Memorandum" and penned by five Serb nationalists, it set out the intellectual program for a "Greater Serbia" - a state where Serbs would live in unity, free from the meddling of a variety of lesser peoples: Muslims, Croats, Germans, the Vatican, Albanians, Slovenes, and so on.

The tract, used later to excuse ethnic cleansing, hit multiethnic Yugoslavia like a "political bombshell," write Laura Silber and Allan Little in Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation.

The book, which opens with the infamous Memorandum, is an impressive achievement. Strong on characters, regional nuances, and the "inner" diplomatic game, "Yugoslavia" is a work of depth and breadth that will be hard to eclipse. It answers many perplexities left from five years of Balkan intrigues and war.

Silber was the Financial Times correspondent in Belgrade for 10 years; Little covered Bosnia for the BBC. They bring the simplicity of focus that comes with a genuine understanding of the basic impulses and dynamics, deeply and often secretly held, that drove events: that killed 300,000; forced 1.5 million out of their homes; destroyed historic mosques and monuments; poisoned the new world order of 1989; soured transatlantic relations; reintroduced fascist terror in Europe; sent 20,000 US troops overseas; and dealt "a mortal blow to many of the key moral certainties of our age."

The authors skillfully separate what is important from what is not. Most useful is a relentless lifting of the fog spread for five years by claims of Western diplomats and Balkan leaders: that the breakup resulted from "ancient feuds" that erupted like some blameless natural disaster. That argument often excuses the tragedy.

As Silber and Little document, it is not quite true. They point instead, as does Peter Maass in his intelligent and passionate new account, Love Thy Neighbor, to the calculated "genius" of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic and his masterful manipulation of both Serb nationalism and Western politicians.

While "Yugoslavia" does not focus on Milosevic alone (it vividly chronicles the key breakup points), the focus always returns to him.

He guides events - from a 1991 agreement with Croat leader Franjo Tudjman to divide Bosnia, to last fall's Dayton accord which he negotiated for Bosnian Serbs.

The story begins in 1986 with Milosevic as a gray apparatchik. But in 1988 he plays the ethnic card during a speech in Kosovo, heartland of Serb heroism - and the crowd swoons. It's as if Milosevic discovers supernatural powers, which he uses to ignite two horrific wars before reinventing himself as a "peacemaker" with the West.

Conventional wisdom has Yugoslavia collapsing when Slovenia and Croatia secede in 1991. Silber and Little show otherwise: "under Milosevic's stewardship the Serbs were, from the beginning, ... the key secessionists." No one wanted to live in a "Serboslavia." The chapter on Slovenia's departure is brilliant. Milosevic plays a "double game," telling Slovenes he won't oppose their independence, while telling the Yugoslav Army it must defend Yugoslavia. When Slovenia and Croatia leave, a 10-day Slovene war erupts. The die is cast.

Western diplomats seem baffled by Balkan politics. While the Yugoslavs play chess, they play checkers. US Secretary of State James Baker goes to Belgrade on the eve of war and supports unity. The first European mediator, Lord Carrington, "divides his time between the Dutch capitol and the gilded opulence of Christie's auction rooms in London's West End." The Croat city of Vukovar is reduced to rubble as mediators insist on a "negotiated settlement."