Two quotes to begin. The first by Parnell in 1885: “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation. No man has the right to say to his country: Thus far shalt thou go and no further.” The second attributed to Croesus, King of the Lydians, somewhere around 546 B.C.. When asked by his conqueror, Cyrus the Great, why he had chosen to wage war, Croesus responded ruefully that it had been arrogance and went on: “Nobody is mad enough to choose war whilst there is peace. During times of peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war it is the fathers who bury their sons.”
The sentiments expressed, from bombastic nationalism to the sadder and wiser reflections of a leader confronted with the grim reality of defeat in war, embrace and encompass the experience of the Bosniak political leadership over the course of the War. Hindsight is wonderful. But what led Izetbegovic and the his colleagues to back out of the Lisbon Agreement and declare independence, with every likelihood that war would follow, given the clearly articulated threats and military potential of the Bosnian Serbs ? People do not always act rationally yet the realities on the ground were fairly clear.
The situation facing the Bosniak (predominantly Muslim) leadership in March 1992 was by no means unique. Bosnia was sliding towards civil war, something many governments over the ages have faced. The American Civil War, the Civil War in the 1640’s in England, and, more recently, the Russian and Spanish Civil Wars together with those in Finland and Ireland, are just a few that come to mind. All ended with a decisive victory, usually for the Government, which in the longer run could bring greater material resources to bear. The exception was the Spanish Civil War, where the rebels, under Franco, prevailed after a bloody struggle, with outside forces on both sides playing important supporting roles. The lesson from Spain, though, was surely that the side with overwhelming military superiority would prevail.
There can have been few in Bosnia at the time who did not recognise the huge military superiority of the Bosnian Serbs. The lesson from the war in Croatia, moreover,was stark. In the space of several months the JNA, with its superior weaponry, had brushed aside its Croatian opponents, occupied over a quarter of the country and ethnically cleansed upwards of half a million Croatians. The dead during those few months exceeded 10,000, the bulk of them Croatians. There were several notable massacres and the city of Vukovar had been virtually razed to the ground. The JNA had halted its progress having achieved Belgrade’s territorial objectives.
Belgrade had then extracted most of its besieged armour and men from unoccupied Croatia, chaperoned by European Monitors such as myself, and lodged the bulk of them in Bosnia, accessible to the Bosnian Serbs. There were further warning signs as the JNA moved to transfer Bosnian Serbs to forces serving in Bosnia, creating in effect an army in waiting. War fever was rampant.
The European Community, which had fooled in to the developing crisis, continued to thrash about searching for some form of solution. Eventually, and not without misgivings in some quarters, the EC had recognised Croatia’s independence, coaxed and prodded by Germany, very much Croatia’s champion. I can recall the euphoria in Zagreb at the time. The popular feeling certainly was that, with international recognition and the promise of a UN Peacekeeping Force, Croatia’s separate independent status was assured and the nightmare risk of the JNA crushing the separatists and re-imposing Jugoslav unity avoided.
Warren Zimmermann, the last US Ambassador to the Federal Republic, wrote a lengthy Memoir for “Foreign Affairs” in April 1995 on Yugoslavia’s break-up. It is downloadable and makes for a very interesting read. He quotes Izetbegovic’s Deputy, Ganic, as commenting after Croatian independence was recognised that “Of course we’re going to press ahead on recognition. With Croatia and Slovenia now gone, we can’t consign Bosnia to a truncated Yugoslavia controlled by Serbia.” Zimmermann surmises that with the EC “heading toward recognition”, Izetbegovic “thought he could get away with it under the guns of the Serbs. Whatever his motives, it was a disastrous political mistake.”
A couple of points on Zimmermann’s piece. It was written before the outcome of the war was known, and of course the narrative ends with his recall in 1992. It could not have anticipated Srebenica, though there had been massacres a plenty since 1992. Elsewhere he ponders why there was no decision or resolve to introduce UN Peacekeepers before rather than after a conflict. This is rather disingenuous. UN Peacekeeping has normally “worked” in situations where both sides have accepted the principle of their presence and some form of equilibrium exists on the ground. Whatever about Croatia, where Belgrade was satisfied and the die had been cast on letting Croatia go, this was hardly the case in Bosnia!
Whether agreement could have been secured for a mandate for the insertion of UN troops for a peace enforcement role in a “hot“ situation and sufficient countries found willing to commit their troops for such a hazardous mission is questionable. The saga of the UN in Bosnia is not a happy one, culminating as it did in the Srebenica massacre. Whether overall the UN “presence” was beneficial and helped stave off even more atrocities, is debateable. This was not a good period for UN Peacekeeping. Even as Bosnia was being played out, the UN force in Rwanda in 1994 proved incapable of stopping the genocide there, the lesson from both situations being that UN peacekeeping efforts can be hamstrung when faced with determined and aggressive hostiles. In the end it took heavy and sustained bombing to bring the Serbs to the table and two decades to mete out justice to their leaders.
Zimmermann does not mention his meeting with Izetbegovic on 28 March 1992 after which he pulled out of the Lisbon Agreement he had signed up to ten days before, rendering war all but inevitable. Zimmermann has been criticised for having possibly misled Izetbegovic into believing that diplomatic recognition by the USA and the EC would suffice to deter the Serbs. Yet could Izetbegovic really have been so naïve as to believe this and not to have perceived the different factors which applied in Croatia’s case? Perhaps, as has been suggested, the Bosniak leadership thought they had little or no choice and coupled this with a vague belief that diplomacy would generate some acceptable deal and somehow draw in the international community. We know how that turned out!
Should they have stuck with Lisbon? I think some violence would have occurred in any event but whether on the scale of the carnage that occurred is another matter. What it would have done would have been to enmesh the EC and the USA, and probably the UN, in the process, which is the way the situation in Bosnia is now. Quite probably inter community relations would be better. We know from our experience on this island that reconciliation and confidence building is a slow and painstaking business. In Bosnia the process is still on hold, frozen.