2017 was not all bad news.  In November Ratko Mladic – the “Butcher of Bosnia” – was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. While some would consider appropriate in Mladic’s case the words of Bishop Moriarty of Kerry in 1867, condemning the Manchester Martyrs, that Hell was not hot enough nor Eternity long enough a punishment, nevertheless the life sentence imposed on the 74 year old Mladic should suffice to ensure he will never set foot outside jail again. He joins his chief partner-in-crime, Radovan Karadzic, who is serving 40 years for similar crimes. Karadzic has lodged an appeal. The third major Serbian warmonger, former President Slobodan Milosevic, died in 2006, during his trial.

The Tribunal was wound up at the end of 2017, having successfully convicted and sentenced 90 of the 111 persons brought to trial. The court has been criticised on a number of grounds, including partiality and selectivity, but at the very least it succeeded in bringing the major surviving players to justice and permitting a certain measure of closure to the relatives of the victims. There are gaps of course – many minor killers were not pursued, Mladic was nailed over crimes in Bosnia alone rather than in Croatia, and what measure of closure can realistically be provided to the relatives of the 8000 plus men and boys massacred in Srebenica or to those killed in smaller massacres across Bosnia and Croatia?

Clearly also emotions still run high in the countries and among the communities and individuals concerned. Mladic rejected the Tribunal’s verdict and claimed throughout his actions were ultimately on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. Since he was able to evade capture without disguise for over fifteen years a lot of people in Serbia and Bosnia clearly agreed. Ditto with Karadzic, though he DID use disguises and aliases. And, in a curious development shortly after Mladic’ conviction, a Bosnian Croat, Slobodan Praljak, committed suicide by poisoning before the Tribunal’s judges when his appeal was rejected, proclaiming as he did so that he was not a war criminal. However heinous his crimes (chiefly around Mostar) they were minor compared to those of the other two. His death evoked considerable public sympathy in certain quarters among Croats and even Serbs, further proof, if any were needed, that significant numbers of Serbs and Croats continue convinced (still) of the justice of their cause.

While a line – of sorts – has been drawn under the four conflicts that raged across what had been Jugoslavia in the 1990s, the process of reconciliation, particularly in Bosnia, clearly still has a long distance to travel. The major players are either dead (Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, and Rugova ) or in jail (Karadic  and Mladic), two of the former republics, Slovenia and Croatia – significantly the two wealthiest – are in the EU, while Serbia ( the third richest) is negotiating for membership. The three less prosperous republics, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as Kosovo, which broke free from Serbia a decade ago, have aspirations only. The dead totalled at least 130,000, with estimates of 100,000 in Bosnia, 20,000 in Croatia and 13,000 in Kosovo. The numbers displaced internally or of refugees ran into millions, many of whom will never return. The wars popularised the term “ethnic cleansing,” reintroduced genocide as a parallel process, and in a grisly development, used rape, almost exclusively of Bosnian Muslim women, as a weapon of war.

There have been bloodier and more savage conflicts in the last quarter century, yet the Balkan wars continue to fascinate, especially for anyone who was there. And for Europe, where there has been ongoing soul-searching over the behaviour of the Dutch troops at Srebenica, and over the broader issue of the European Union’s role in the early stages of the conflicts.  In 1991, as the centrifugal forces that tore Jugoslavia apart were gathering strength and becoming apparent, Europe’s politicians, flushed with hubris following the collapse of Communism, blundered into involvement, best summed up in Luxembourg Foreign Minister Poos’ unfortunate statement that “the hour of Europe has dawned.”

At Brioni in early July, faced with how to respond to the imminent declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia, the EU, together with the principals, cobbled together an agreement for negotiations, hopefully to preserve Jugoslav unity, including establishing what became the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) to supervise de-escalation and disengagement. It proved a forlorn hope, with Europe’s leaders either unaware or at best only dimly aware, of the hatreds that festered.  Anyone with knowledge of recent Balkan history or even anyone familiar with the passions generated in the conflict in Northern Ireland, would have been sceptical. The immediate effect of the Brioni Agreement was to bind Europe to the escalating conflict.

It’s not as if Europe was kept in ignorance. All the major European countries had embassies in Belgrade, which presumably reported back regularly. In addition on 16 January 1991 Milosevic spoke at the traditional European Ambassadors’ lunch, where he painted in red his position, and that of Serbia. (What follows, and which smacks of authenticity, is reported in Honig and Both’s “Srebenica”). Were Jugoslavia to break up, Slovenia could go (there were no Serbs there) but the Serb inhabited areas in Croatia and Bosnia would remain part of a new federal “greater” Serbia. The existing internal borders were not sacrosanct but merely administrative.  This was Serbia’s ultimate compromise. If it was not obtainable peacefully, Serbia would be forced “to use the tools of power which we possess, and they do not.” It was the blueprint, ceteris paribus, for the bloodshed of the next five years.

Six months later European leaders recognised Croatian and Slovenian independence. By then the Slovenes had successfully repelled a half-hearted assault by the JNA. By then also the Serb areas of Croatia had been occupied (the Krajina), the Croatian town of Vukovar razed to the ground and other cities and towns (Dubrovnik, Osijek, Karlovac) heavily bombarded. There had been massacres, up to 20,000, overwhelmingly Croatians, killed and another half a million Croats ethnically cleansed.  Europe wanted out, its politicians without stomach for the bloodshed, with its unarmed white clad Monitors derided by both sides as “Ice Cream Men” (“I was that soldier”), and reduced to patching up partial local ceasefires and evacuating  JNA armour and artillery from Croatia into Bosnia to facilitate the conditions under which UN Peacekeepers could be introduced. The Serbs gave assurances the evacuated tanks and artillery would not be used against Croatia.

Those EU recognitions received considerable criticism as premature both then and later, but, on paper at least, Milosevic had got what he wanted. So had Croatia, and its EU champion Germany. I recall discussing the recognition at the time with a German diplomat in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. He posed the rhetorical question: what was Europe to do, faced with the aggression and crimes of the Serbs? Croatia was on its knees, with 20,000 dead, its land occupied, its economy ruined, and hamstrung by a UN Arms Embargo which rendered it militarily at the mercy of the Serbs. The die, in any event, was cast. No going back or thought, then, of Bosnia.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s