The Truth About the Serbo-Croatian Conflict

Yugoslavia is on fire. Since early summer a vicious war has been fought between the forces of the break-away Croatian republic and Serbian guerillas supported by the Serbian dominated Yugoslav army. The Croatian forces, faced with a far better armed opponent, are in retreat and approximately one third of the break-away republic’s territory is under Serbian control. Yet another cease-fire negotiated by the European Community is being broken by sporadic fighting. In addition to resulting in many deaths and injuries, enormous economic damage, and more than 100,000 refugees, the war has divided families and caused formerly peaceful neighbours to take up arms against each other. The armed conflict continues to escalate and threatens to spread to other regions of Yugoslavia and possibly cross its borders.

The conflict between Serbia and Croatia reflects a vicious escalating cycle of fear, ethnic hatred and violence. For reasons related to past and present realities, the 600,000 Serbs living in Croatia are afraid of an independent Croatian state. The Croats are afraid because the other side is more powerful and better armed. On both sides, these fears are manipulated and exploited by nationalist political elites for whom such actions represent a critical means of preserving power. State-controlled media reporting is one-sided and biased. These forces of influence are particularly strong given the lack of education, apathy and confusion of the people, as well as the lack of accountability, democratic institutions, and community structures, all caused by decades of totalitarian rule.

The conflict is rooted in the complex geographic distribution of the different nationalities in the region and in its violent history. Serbia and Croatia were parts of two mutually hostile empires, the Ottoman and the Habsburg, and fought on different sides in both World Wars. As well, they are divided by religion, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic respectively. These divisions are further fuelled by historical untruths, exaggerations and diabolical enemy images born at least in part because historical truths have been suppressed and the resulting vacuum bred extremist mythologies.

Both within-the warring republics and to a great extent in external media coverage and public opinion, ‘good versus evil’ images are critical in contributing to the escalation of the conflict. Each side presents itself as perfectly virtuous and the other as the devil incarnate. As reality is rarely that simple, truth is a casualty. And without truth and realistic understanding there is little hope for peace.

In an attempt to understand the truth, let us consider the two sides and their positions in the conflict. Serbia, the most populous republic and dominant in the Yugoslav army, is led by the communist government of President Slobodan Milosevic, recently renamed as the socialists. Milosevic came to power by inciting and exploiting Serbian nationalism. During its tenure, the government put forth the notion of aggressively protecting the rights of all Serbs wherever they may live in Yugoslavia. This was expressed through serious violations of the basic rights of Kosovo’s Albanian majority, through interference in the republic of Montenegro and in the autonomous province of Vojvodina, and through encouraging both fear and nationalism in the Serbian minority in Croatia.

In the latter case the appeal is rooted in both past and present realities. It is a historical fact that during World War II the Ustasha fascist regime in Croatia was responsible for the genocide of about 400,000 Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies. In recent months, gruesome images of the remains of the victims of the notorious concentration camp of Jasenovac are being frequently shown on Serbian television.

Through its emphasis on nationalism, the Croatian government frightened and alienated the Serbian minority, particularly given Croatia’s declaration of independence of June. Croatian and other human rights organizations have documented many cases of abuse against members of the Serbian minority. Some extremist elements in Croatia have minimized or denied the Ustasha atrocities, and even expressed nostalgia and support for the quisling regime. It is undoubtedly true that the Serbs in Croatia have legitimate reason to be afraid and are unwilling to live in an independent Croatian state and many have taken up arms to prevent this from happening.

The socialists won the last election in Serbia partly because of their nationalistic platform and partly because they had nearly total control of the media. When the students in Belgrade staged a peaceful demonstration in March against the authoritarian regime, tanks were brought into the streets but withdrawn at the last minute in consideration of world opinion. As the Milosevic government has a large majority in the parliament, the political opposition is marginal. Given Croatia’s declaration of independence on June 26, the Milosevic government’s position is that the break-away republic’s borders would have to be redrawn so that the Serbian minority can join Serbia. The claims that the Yugoslav army has been impartial in the fighting between the Croats and the Serbian minority in Croatia are simply not credible.

Croatia’s governing party HDZ (Croatian Democratic Communion), led by President Franjo Tudjman, came to power on the platform of nationalism and anti-communism. The move away from communism in Croatia represented a change of elites rather than a democratic transformation, giving almost unlimited power to the president. With only a marginal opposition and mostly state-controlled media, there are almost no checks and balances to the government’s power. While Serbia may be characterized as anti-democratic, the present regime in Croatia is certainly undemocratic. The official Croatian position on the current conflict is that border changes are not acceptable and that Serbia, together with the Yugoslav army, is attempting to take control of most of Yugoslav territory and create Greater Serbia.

There are elements on both sides more extreme in their nationalism than their respective governments. In Serbia they are the Chetniks, a recently revitalized organization of Serbian monarchists who during World War II fought both Tito’s communists and Croatian Ustasha forces. Although it is not clear whether the Chetniks have real power or are just being used by the Milosevic government, their extremist positions have been fuelling the fires of war. Recently, their leader called for Serbs to ‘cut the throats of the Croats with rusty spoons.’

An extremist nationalist member of the Croatian legislature recently ended his speech with a Nazi salute. The new Croatian constitution makes references to racial, national purity. In a statement often quoted in the West, Tudjman thanked God that his wife was neither Serbian nor Jewish. There is a growing nostalgia for the Ustasha regime and tendency to deny the atrocities they committed. All these factors, further fuelled by the Serbian government, have driven the Serbs in Croatia to take up arms in their defence.

It is clear that neither side in the conflict can make legitimate claims of democracy, virtuosity and righteousness, while presenting the other as the sole villain. It is true that Serbia, more populous and supported by the powerful Yugoslav army, may be considered the aggressor, and Croatia the underdog. But it is equally true that the fears of the Serbian minority in Croatia are entirely legitimate and justified by past and present realities.

The Western press has mostly been taking the side of Croatia, at least implicitly comparing the situation, to say, the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. While there is some validity to this image, particularly given the Yugoslav army’s unsuccessful attack on Slovenia following its recent declaration of independence, the reality of the conflict between Serbia and Croatia is far more complex and less clear-cut. Indeed, while Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence at the same time, their situations, although typically presented as similar in the media, are quite different. In comparison to Croatia, Slovenia is more democratic, more homogeneous in population, and far less burdened with a violent history.

The ‘good versus evil’ images of the situation have contributed greatly to the war and strengthened extreme authoritarian, nationalistic elements on both sides. The fact that Serbia tends to be presented as the sole villain contributes to their feelings of isolation and paranoia and strengthens the hand of the Milosevic government and its resolve to continue military action.

The current war is not between Serbian and Croatian people. Indeed, they are its victims. The conflict is between the forces of authoritarianism, chauvinism, and violence in both Serbia and Croatia on one side and the forces of peace, democracy and reason on the other side. Peaceful resolution needs to be built on a foundation of truth not propaganda, and must involve guaranteed protection of minority rights. In the task of resolving this violent conflict, even-handed analysis and realistic understanding, rooted in the values of truth, democracy, human rights and non-violence, are of critical importance.

Andrew Pakula is a management consultant, psychologist and peace activist based in Toronto. During the summer he spent five weeks in Yugoslavia.