Can Europe Make It?

Ukraine: lessons from the Balkans nightmare

One key driver of escalation in the Balkans in the early 1990s also poses a continuing risk as the Ukraine crisis unfolds. That is the contribution of ostensibly 'democratic' processes - elections, referenda, even constitution-making - to inflaming tensions.

Sumantra Bose
24 April 2014
Dayton Agreement. U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia. Public domain.

Dayton Agreement. U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia. Public domain.

A confrontation between neighbouring Slavic states with deep historic and cultural connections, and a shared political past in which both were members of a one-party communist federation. One of the states is significantly larger, more populous and militarily more powerful than the other. The bigger, more powerful state has a sizable population of co-nationals who live in the smaller state. This population constitutes a minority of the citizens of the smaller state, but are the local majority or plurality in extensive areas.

As the confrontation escalates, tensions mount and accusations and counter-accusations fly thick and fast. The government of the smaller state, and its influential supporters among western governments, accuse the government of the larger state of harbouring a revanchist agenda towards the territory of the smaller state, pursued by stoking separatist rebellion in the areas of the smaller state populated largely or partly by people whose national identity coincides with that of the larger state. The supreme leader of the larger state, a colourless communist official turned autocratic nationalist strongman, is singled out for particularly strong criticism in western capitals and compared to the vilest dictators of the twentieth century.

He however insists that his state and government have legitimate interests in the affairs of the neighbouring state, including protecting the rights of co-nationals residing there. The propaganda machine of his government claims that these co-nationals are at risk from the rise of fascism in the neighbouring state, where neo-Nazis have taken over the government. This stance is very popular in the larger state and fortifies his position there, while the smaller state's government and most of its population sees him as a ruthless and dangerous aggressor.

This could be a synopsis of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, but I am actually describing a strikingly similar scenario that unfolded in the Balkans two decades ago, during and after the implosion of Yugoslavia. The states were Serbia and Croatia, the two most populous units of the collapsed Yugoslav federation. The analogue to Vladimir Putin was Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia. The analogue to the government in Kiev, as it is depicted in the Russian media, was the government in Zagreb led by Franjo Tudjman, a Croatian nationalist whose party and government had a decidedly anti-Serb slant and harboured a sizeable cohort of far-right radicals.

The analogue to the 'separatists' of Crimea, and now of eastern Ukraine, were militant Serbs who organized in opposition to Tudjman's government - with the moral and practical support of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade - across the nearly one-third of Croatia where Serbs were either a local majority, a plurality, or a sizeable minority of the population. These areas of Croatia, distant from Zagreb, were adjacent to northwestern and western Bosnia (where Bosnian Serbs comprised the majority), with one area further east on Croatia's border with Serbia. The arc-shaped Bosnia-Croatia border zone is known by its historic name Krajina ('Frontier') as it was the frontier between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century; the term 'Ukraine' has the same linguistic root.

The crisis in Croatia took over a year to develop, between the spring of 1990 and the summer of 1991, but over that period it moved inexorably towards a violent denouement. In May 1990, as Yugoslav unity unravelled, Tudjman's nationalist party won multi-party elections in Croatia (where ethnic Croats were about 80 percent and ethnic Serbs about 14 percent of the population).  The rise to power in Zagreb of Croatian nationalists hostile to the Yugoslav principles of coexistence and equality of different nationalities was very disquieting to the Serbs of Croatia. They feared discrimination or worse from the new authorities in Zagreb, whose ranks included ultra-nationalists with openly anti-Serb views.

The Croatian Serbs' anxieties were rooted in historical memory. In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany and most of Croatia and almost all of Bosnia-Herzegovina then became a puppet  "Independent State of Croatia" nominally governed by a Croatian ultra-nationalist movement - the Ustashe  ('Insurgents') - allied to the Germans. The Ustashe murdered several hundred thousand Croatian and Bosnian Serbs over the next few years, in massacres in villages and towns and in concentration camps. To some of Croatia's Serbs - the more paranoid segments -Tudjman's government was a late twentieth century revival of that World War II entity.

It did not help that the new Croatian government was more or less openly against the continuation of the federal Yugoslav state, or that its chief international backers were in (newly reunified) Germany's political establishment. On assuming power, Tudjman's   government announced its intention to write a new constitution for Croatia. Ratified by the Croatian parliament in December 1990, this constitution declared Croatia - then still a unit of federal Yugoslavia - to be "the national state of the Croatian people" with equality guaranteed to Serbs and other national minorities. To an increasing number of Croatia's Serbs, this was confirmation of their fears.

The Croatian Serbs' revolt began in Knin, a small town with a rural hinterland located in the southern part of the Croatian Krajina. In the summer of 1990, Knin, which had a 90 percent Serb majority, emerged as the cradle of the revolt in a manner somewhat similar to Crimea in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Knin lies on the north-south highway connecting the interior of Croatia to its coast. Armed local Serbs blocked this vital artery using trunks of trees felled in the area's forests - the episode is famous as the "log revolution".

From the epicenter in Knin, the rebellion gradually spread northwards over the next months and by the spring of 1991 engulfed the entire Krajina on the Croatian side of the Croatia-Bosnia border. A small "Serb Autonomous Region of Krajina" (SAO Krajina) originally declared in the Knin area gradually expanded to cover the entire crescent-shaped belt across Croatia's geographic belly, populated predominantly by Serbs. Separate SAOs were proclaimed in the summer of 1991 in western Slavonia, an adjacent area with a very mixed population of Serbs and Croats, and in equally mixed eastern Slavonia, the area on Croatia's eastern border with Serbia. Flags bearing Serb national symbols and graffiti declaring, 'This is Serbia!' and 'Only Unity Saves Serbs!' appeared across these zones. Between the summer of 1990 and spring 1991, numerous stand-offs and shooting incidents occurred in these areas between Croatian police and special forces trying to uphold Zagreb's writ and armed Serb 'irregulars'. Casualties were fortunately few.

That changed dramatically in the summer of 1991. In May the Zagreb government organized a Croatia-wide referendum which produced an overwhelming majority in favour of separation from Yugoslavia and Croatia's independence. The referendum was boycotted by the vast majority of Croatia's Serbs. In late June the Zagreb government formally declared Croatia's independence, simultaneously with neighbouring Slovenia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

tank and destroyed property

Spent force: tank and property in Vukovar, 1991. Flickr/Peter Denton. Some rights reserved.

Over the next six months about 20,000 people - combatants and civilians - were killed as large-scale fighting engulfed a third of Croatia. Hundreds of thousands became refugees. The insurgent Serbs of Croatia had the better of this fighting as their militias were heavily supported by the firepower of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) - the army of socialist Yugoslavia but by then a largely Serb (and Montenegrin) force - against under-prepared and under-equipped Croatian forces. At the end of 1991, fighting stalemated and the Croatian Serb rebel leaders declared a "Republic of Serbian Krajina" (RSK), uniting the several SAOs, across about 27 percent of Croatia's territory. Until mid-1991 the areas that became the RSK had a slim Serb majority - about 52 percent - while Croats were about 36 percent. By 1992 the RSK areas were about 90 percent Serb, as all but a few thousand of the Croats had been forcibly expelled or had fled, while Serb refugees from other parts of Croatia had moved to the RSK. In early 1992 United Nations peacekeeping forces deployed in strength across Croatia's war zones to police a fragile ceasefire.

The RSK unravelled over the next few years. Its disparate parts were loosely connected and its top leaders were an incoherent collection of small-time thugs addicted to squabbling and personal enrichment, very much like the pro-Russia leaders emerging in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. As the RSK rotted away from within, the government of Croatia steadily built up its military's numbers and capabilities, with discreet support from the United States. In the summer of 1995 this vastly reorganized and strengthened military launched offensives against all the RSK areas except the eastern Slavonian zone on the Croatia-Serbia border.

The offensives swiftly overran all the targeted areas, steamrolling feeble resistance offered by rag-tag RSK forces, as the UN's blue helmets looked on helplessly. The VJ (Army of Yugoslavia, meaning the army of the then union of Serbia and Montenegro) did not intervene; Milosevic had decided to abandon the Croatian Serbs to their fate. Bosnian Serb forces, by then facing an increasingly adverse military situation in the Bosnian war, were in no position to help either. Some 200,000 RSK Serbs fled to Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina (and many from there to Serbia). Most never to return to their Croatian homeland. The remnant RSK zone on the Croatia-Serbia border - which included the town of Vukovar, the most famous battleground of the 1991 war - was reintegrated without bloodshed into Croatia under UN supervision by 1998.

Destroyed house

Balkans War 1991: Vukovar destroyed. Flickr/Peter Denton. Some rights reserved.

The unfolding crisis inside Ukraine eerily resembles the events in Croatia in 1990-1991, albeit on a much bigger international stage and with far greater implications for global geopolitics. That does not necessarily mean that escalation is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps it is precisely the much bigger international stakes and ramifications of this crisis that will prevent escalation.

Yet a key ingredient of escalation is present, the war of words of the contending protagonists in Ukraine and their international backers. Thus the authorities in Kiev are fascists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, while their opponents in eastern Ukraine are separatists, terrorists and Moscow's agents. These characterizations contain significant elements of truth, but are also dangerous caricatures of a complex situation. Tudjman's party and government in Croatia did have pronounced anti-Serb traits and tendencies, but it wasn't a rebirth of the genocidal Croatian fascists who slaughtered Serbs in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II. The Krajina Serbs were led by thugs and ultra-nationalists who received both moral and material backing from the Serbian regime of Milosevic. But the Serb community in Croatia did have legitimate apprehensions about the authorities in Zagreb, and their rebellion was driven by those factors: it wasn't simply a 'Made in Belgrade' conspiracy.

The other key driver of escalation in the Balkans in the early 1990s also poses a continuing risk as the Ukraine crisis unfolds. That is the contribution of ostensibly 'democratic' processes - elections, referenda, even constitution-making - to inflaming tensions. In a febrile environment, demagogues will have an advantage over moderates in competitive elections and that can make things worse, much worse. The narrow victory of Tudjman's nationalists over social-democratic moderates in Croatian multi-party elections in May 1990 was a crucial point in Croatia's - and the former Yugoslavia's - slide into war. The constitution framed by this government in December 1990 was another blow to prospects of peace, and its referendum on independence in May 1991 made the spiral of escalation unstoppable. The Krajina Serbs organized their own referenda in their self-declared "autonomous regions" to make their point. The polarization wrought by these rival expressions of popular will made dialogue to de-escalate tensions and bridge differences almost impossible.

The lesson of the Balkans nightmare of the 1990s for Ukraine in 2014 is obvious: Extremely fragile. Handle with utmost care.

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