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Source: CERES Newsletter, April 1996

Symposium: The Struggle for Bosnia

Tuesday, March 19, 1996

Hon. Warren Zimmerman, Former US Ambassador to Yugoslavia
Dr. Bogdan Denitch, Professor of Sociology, City University of New York

On March 19th, CERES and the Center for German and European Studies
co-hosted a forum entitled "The Struggle for Bosnia." Dr. Lawrence Orton,
Associate Director of CERES, acted as mediator. The forum's guests included
Warren Zimmerman, who served as ambassador to Yugoslavia prior to and during
the country's dissolution and who is currently at the School of Advanced
International Studies of Johns Hopkins University; and Bogdan Denitch,
Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York and Director of
the Center for Transition to Democracy based in Zagreb, Split, and Tuzla.
Ambassador Zimmerman discussed the concept of nation-state and the impact it
had on the former Yugoslavia. The most important element of the nation-state
concept is ethnic homogeneity; but this is an elusive quality, Zimmerman
says. Only 0.5% of the people in the world live in an ethnically homogeneous
state, and the more practical solution to the problem of state creation
therefore lies in the direction of the multi-ethnic.

Two major multi-ethnic states have collapsed in the recent past, Zimmerman
said: the USSR and Yugoslavia. He argued that the USSR should have
collapsed, as it was based on a centralized Leninist dictatorship and
Russian colonialism. Yugoslavia, however, was an experiment based on the
hope that it was possible to create a state based on liberal communism which
brought together many nationalities, at least two of which had fought each
other as recently as World War II. Tito had not suppressed the existence of
the ethnic groups within Yugoslavia-- he had in fact maintained them--but
tried also to maintain a federal balance and distribution of power among the
various ethnicities.

Ambassador Zimmerman went on to profile the various nationalisms at the
beginning of the 1990s. Slovenia was very Western, the most developed, and
wanted very little to do with the rest of Yugoslavia. Its population perhaps
felt that as part of Yugoslavia, its aspirations towards democracy (and,
more importantly, towards capitalism) were being stifled. Slovenia's leaders
especially disliked Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic, who they thought would
keep Yugoslavia--and Slovenia as part of Yugoslavia--out of the European
Union. Their nationalism was, however, benign; he described it as a
Gabor-style "I want to be left alone" nationalism. Slovenia's June 1991
secession provided the necessary spark for the conflict.

Serbia's nationalism during this period was defined by Milosevic, who
considered the Slovenes a threat and tried very hard to destabilize their
government prior to secession. He was also quite hostile toward Croatia,
especially after Franjo Tudjman's rise to power; and he behaved as an
"imperial ruler" toward the Muslims and the ethnic Albanians in the former
Yugoslavia. At the time of the breakup Milosevic adhered to the maxim: "All
Serbs have the right to live in one state." There were very few Serbs in
Slovenia, but when Croatia decided also to secede, this gave Serbia the
"right" to annex the portions of Croatia which had Serbian populations. In
the summer of 1991 the Croat-Serb war saw 25-30% of Croatia fall to the (at
that point) Yugoslav Army. Later, in Bosnia, the "Bosnian Serb Army" would
take 65-70% of the country, arguing that the Serbs there, although only 33%
of the population, were rural, and needed more land than the local Muslims,
who were considered to be city dwellers.

Croatian nationalism rose in response to Serbian nationalism; almost
immediately a myth of Croatia's long-standing statehood began to circulate,
and Tudjman deliberately used World War II Ustase symbols to inflame his

Ambassador Zimmerman spoke briefly about the 2 million ethnic Albanians in
Kosovo, which has remained part of Serbia. They have been in Kosovo for 1000
years, and 90% of the population of the Kosovo region is Albanian. Milosevic
started his political climb by claiming that Serbs in this area were being
deprived, and eventually Kosovo Albanians had many of their civil rights
taken away. They have chosen what Zimmerman called the "Gandhi" approach,
resisting passively, which does not preclude the possibility that underneath
the volatility of the situation has not died down.

Bosnia became a battleground, of course; but Zimmerman also described it as
a testing ground of the nation-state. Initially, its president, Izetbegovic,
was extremely devoted to the idea of a multi-ethnic state, and believed
strongly that all ethnicities had to be part of the citizenry. Propaganda
coming from Belgrade and from Zagreb made non-Muslims in Bosnia fear that
they were to be thrown out of their homes, and Izetbegovic was accused of
wanting to create a Muslim nation-state in Europe (of all places). Milosevic
and Tudjman were, Zimmerman believes, the real progenitors of the Muslim
nation-state in Bosnia, as the pieces that they did not annex for Croatia
and Serbia would be allowed to be Muslim.

Ambassador Zimmerman next discussed the Dayton accords. They are a strange
ungainly mixture of the concepts of the multi-ethnic state and of the
nation-state. The negotiators knew that they couldn't make things as they
had been before, but wanted to preserve a multi-ethnic state of some sort.
However, he believes that the tripartite division of Bosnia is merely an
invitation to extreme nationalism. He does have some hope that the NATO
military presence in the area will help people consider other possibilities.

Zimmerman then offered solutions to rising nationalism in the Balkans. He
first called for a limit on the principle of self-determination: it must be
seen restrictively, in light of whether it will infringe upon the right of
one's neighbors. He argued next that it was very important to instill the
idea that nations should not be built upon race, and he made the point that
the democratic state is larger than a nation. Third, he called for
proportional representation and a coalition government. Finally, he exhorted
the international community to take a restrictive view of the right to
self-determination, encouraged deliberately a intrusive human rights
monitoring effort, and continued support for NATO enforcement.

He also condemned the international community's treatment of the United
Nations and its work in the Balkans; rather than trashing the UN, the
international community needs to rework it so that its abilities to keep,
make, and enforce peace are strengthened to a practical level. The
continuous tongue-lashing that the UN has received from the US Congress and
administration these last several years has been worse than

Bogdan Denitch took a less optimistic view of the prospects for peace than
Ambassador Zimmerman. He believes that if the regimes in Zagreb and Belgrade
remain nationalist and continue to feed off one another, then there will be
no peace.

Denitch holds Slobodan Milosevic most responsible for the break-up of
Yugoslavia; his demands from 1986 onward were ever more restrictive and
centralizing, and this contributed most to the other ethnic areas' desire to
leave the union. However, the international community is also to blame,
Denitch argued: if they had dedicated a tiny fraction of the energy they are
spending now to keep peace towards the "loosening up" of Yugoslavia, it
would still be multi-ethnic, and war- and troop-free.

He debunked the argument for greater Serbia as "silly medieval notions,"
pointing out that Yugoslavia was not majority Serb, but that Serbians were
the largest minority in Yugoslavia. He revealed the double standard that the
West seems to have created solely for Yugoslavia: had they applied the same
notion of ethnic nation equaling governmental state to all questions of
statehood, even in the twentieth century, there would be many more countries
than there currently are, and most of them would not be countries we know.
Denitch called the idea of unilateral secession ridiculous; only the
Slovenes and the Macedonians were truly ready in any cultural sense to
secede. Germany's recognition of Croatia was clumsily assertive, a result of
misinformation. However, the United States also does not have clean hands:
in Eastern Europe, nationalism was encouraged as an alternative to

There was a great deal of brutality in the ensuing war, and Denitch made it
clear that the world press took a propagandistic turn, painting the Croats
as virtuous and the Serbs as villainous, although this was not particularly
true. This propaganda seems to have been directed particularly at the
American audience, or rather, the story was presented differently--in a more
balanced fashion--to other audiences: Denitch revealed that a recent
Canadian edition of Time magazine contained an article entitled "The Crimes
of Croatia" which was absent from the American edition of the same magazine.

Denitch called Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic war criminals,
and acknowledged the need to bring them to trial for their crimes, but he
also called Franjo Tudjman a war criminal. If there were to be war crimes
trials--and he believes they need to take place--for every hundred people
tried, 65 would be Serbs, 10-15 would be Croats, and the remainder would be
mercenaries. He believes that it is ultimately futile to discuss procedures
for free elections in Bosnia when the most recent elections in Serbia and
Croatia have seen massive violations. The situation in Bosnia is, in his
view, quite fragile, and linked to the situations in Croatia and Serbia. The
entity called the "Praetorian guard" is made up of Herzegovinian Croats, and
is organically linked to Tudjman. The Bosnian Serbs are not such a bonus to
Slobodan Milosevic, and are in fact currently the friends of his enemies,
and an obstacle to the lifting of sanctions on Serbia and his regaining
respect in the international community. The Sarajevo government is flexible;
but the entire idea of two entities in Bosnia, the Muslim-Croat Federation
and the Serbian Federation, is false. The Muslims and Croats are not
willingly federating, and Mostar (a city with only Muslims and Croats) is
the least integrated city in Bosnia. The Croats in Bosnia are in effect
already part of Croatia: they use the same postal system, the same stamps,
and can pass back and forth between the two countries without any
difficulty. They do not want to be in a state with 2.5 million Muslims: "why
should I be a minority in your country when you can be a minority in mine?"
Denitch stated that some Croats view Croatia as the last line of defense
against Islam in Europe.

Denitch also worried that NATO is experiencing, or may begin to run into,
the same difficulties as the United Nations mission to Bosnia, although NATO
is more "robust." He believes Bosnia to be salvageable with energetic
pressure from the United States and Europe.

Denitch briefly discussed the situation in Eastern Slavonia, where there is
still a Serb minority which should, under the Dayton agreement, be allowed
to integrate into Croatia. The Croats say they are going to examine this
population very carefully, as they do not want any "war criminals" to remain
within their borders. Denitch called on the West to become very serious
about this situation.

Denitch pointed out that the nationalist leaders of Croatia and Serbia have
perpetrated huge demographic crimes on their own ethnic populations in their
tacit agreement to execute a population exchange. He urged the West to stop
treating the leaders in Belgrade and Zagreb as legitimate leaders, as they
had not come to their posts by legitimate elections, and to begin making
resources available to democratic groups in the former Yugoslavia which, up
to this point, have been very poor.

During the question and answer period, a student raised the issue of the
distribution of economic aid to democratic groups in the former Yugoslavia.
Denitch replied matter-of-factly that it is naive to treat these governments
as if they will distribute property fairly. The West must make clear to the
Sarajevo government that, unless there is equal distribution and
cooperation, there will be no aid. Ambassador Zimmerman added that the
inheritance of Communist tactics and personnel makes fair conduct more
difficult, as that system was held together by a certain amount of
corruption. Denitch mentioned that the Soros Foundation had just been banned
in Serbia, and without their help there would be no democratic organizations

Ambassador Zimmerman briefly mentioned the transformation of the Yugoslav
Army in 1991. Prior to the failed August coup in Moscow, the USSR had an
alliance with the Yugoslav Army which allowed it to retain its Communist
aspect rather than emphasizing the Serbian aspect of it. When the alliance
with Moscow ended, the Yugoslav Army conducted a massive purge of non-Serbs
in its ranks.

Another student addressed two questions to Warren Zimmerman. In the first,
he wondered why the West was so surprised by the war, and in the second he
brought up the possibility that the Dayton Accord was only creating a union
similar to the one which existed prior to 1991, which would place the
ethnicities in a similar opposition and end in a similar manner. Zimmerman
replied that the State Department had known that sooner or later Serbia and
Croatia would go to war with one another, and they decided to try to hold
Yugoslavia together for as long as possible in order to stave off this
occurrence. He did not believe that the war in Bosnia had been inevitable,
and stated that the use of airstrikes in 1992 would have stopped it just as
it did in 1995. In reply to the second question, Zimmerman simply stated a
hope that the people would come to a realization that they must live in
relative harmony with one another.

Another member of the audience raised the question of the Ottoman and
Communist legacies, and challenged both Denitch's and Zimmerman's analyses
of the situation as ignoring these legacies. He then asked how they could
conceive of deepening the West's commitment to the region. Ambassador
Zimmerman replied to the first question that he did not wish to avoid the
issue of the of the Ottoman and Communist legacies; however, he said that
those examining the situation must resist the temptation to wash their hands
of it because of centuries of warfare, especially as the Serbs and Croats
had only fought one another in World War II. He then stated that he believed
the West's continuing commitment to the region was an important moral issue
above all else.

A member of the audience raised a question about the West's alliance with
Franjo Tudjman. In the Croatian Army's attack on the Krajina, there were
several human rights abuses. Zimmerman replied that Tudjman was indeed an
unsavory character, but that his attack on the Krajina had helped to create
an opportunity to reopen the peace process.

A Hungarian woman asked about the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina, in
Serbia. Denitch replied that, although the celebration of Serbdom has turned
Vojvodina into contested terrain, and every non-Serb has been harrassed, the
Hungarian population has been less so than the Croat, Muslim, and Albanian

A final question dealt with the morbid fear of encroaching Islam. Zimmerman
noted that Milosevic had projected aggressive instincts onto the Muslims,
but that when asked about actual instances of mistreatment of Serbs by
Muslims he couldn't think of any. Denitch mentioned that the Muslims were,
of all Yugoslav citizens, the most pro-Yugoslav until the dissolution of the
state, because Yugoslavia was a state which would encompass all Muslims
(just as it would have encompassed all Serbs and all Croats).

Cindy Neil
First-Year CERES M.A. and Government Ph.D. Candidate