Tracing Causes Of Today's Balkan Crisis


By Laura Silber and Allan Little

Penguin, 374 pp. $24.95


By David Owen,

Harcourt Brace & Co,. 367 pp. $25


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."

Slovenia's brief fight, the authors say, "taught Europe a lesson the peace mediators never once took on board ... that war is sometimes ... a profoundly rational path to take.... Despite this, successive peace-makers continued to close their eyes to the balance of forces in former Yugoslavia and behaved as though all that was necessary for peace to prevail was to persuade the belligerents of the folly of war."

The Vance Plan to put the UN in Croatia freed the Army to enter Bosnia; Milosevic issued secret orders transferring Bosnian Serb Army officers back home.

Bosnia's agony accelerated when Germany willfully recognized Croatia. Bonn thought the act would awe Belgrade. But it forced Bosnia to choose between seeking recognition as an independent country or living under Serb rule. Bosnia is a story of systematic Serb extermination of Muslims - and systematic diplomacy to block NATO intervention and treat all sides as equal.

The 1992 London Conference, convened after Serb death camps came to light, was a Belgrade victory, since it put Serbs on the international stage as "reasonable" men trying to negotiate "peace."

European mediator Lord David Owen privately offered Milosevic terms allowing a Serb takeover of Bosnian land; but it was not at all the plan the Bosnian government thought it signed. And on and on.

Lord Owen's own self-serving Balkan Odyssey is a tough read. Since Owen never grasps the central dynamic of the war he mediated, the account is instructive mainly as a psychological guide to Euro-defeatism on Bosnia, particularly the British policy of Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, whose appeasement of "Greater Serbia" lies unstated behind Owen's view.

Of course Owen, a British gentleman, is not personally to blame. He is part of a script written elsewhere. One imagines the horse-laughs in Belgrade each time the door closed on another Owen peace mission. Owen may feel his plan to carve Bosnia into cantons was best, and that Washington and the Bosnians are to blame for its failure. There's some truth here. But the larger truth is, the Serbs never signed the plan, no one believed they would give up land seized by killing Muslims, and the West would not use force. Checkmate.

Less forgivable are efforts to cast Bosnians as equally guilty and untrustworthy. (This book makes a Muslim distrust of Owen seem quite sane.) Not included is a speech I heard Owen give last June that absolved the UN of responsibility for safe areas in Bosnia. Thirty days later, Serbs slaughtered 7,000 Muslims from the "safe" area of Srebrenica. If one must buy this book, wait for the paperback.

"Love Thy Neighbor," by Maass of the Washington Post, is worth the hard-cover cost. Like many reporters, Maass finds it farcical to be "objective" in the middle of genocide. Like David Rieff's "Slaughterhouse," he finds a hypocrisy-laden UN "humanitarian" mission in Bosnia. Like Silber, Maass holds Milosevic, whom he interviews, as the cause of the war: "He looked me in the eye for 90 minutes and told one lie after another ... with utter sincerity."

But mainly this artful, vigorous meditation is Maass' wrestling with his witnessing of what seems a new epoch - a post-modern epoch of "the wild beast." His young American sensibility confronts a war south of Austria where snipers shoot 10-year-old girls in the street with high-powered rifles as CNN films and where "day by day, the UN betrayed almost every principle that my generation hoped it stood for."

Maass at first "can't believe" the stories he hears from refugees; but after visiting prison camps he does. He interviews a doctor who performs operations without anesthesia - then watches in disgust as President Clinton speaks at the Holocaust Memorial. Finally he leaves, feeling his reporting doesn't matter: "...the Muslims of Bosnia ... made two fatal mistakes. They thought being a minority group no longer mattered in civilized Europe, and they thought the wild beast had been tamed. The wild beast is out there, and the ground no longer feels so steady under my feet."

In 1993, Clinton nearly launched air strikes and armed Bosnia. He was deterred by Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts," a two-dimensional tale of ethnic feuds among south Slavs. Sadly, "Yugoslavia" and "Love Thy Neighbor" weren't available. Now that they are, how strange to find that their central villain is America's new partner.

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