Controversy Over Confronting The Yugoslav Controversies – OpEd


The Scholars’ Initiative (SI) was launched in 1997 within the Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. In the beginning it was designed as a dialogue between Serbian and Western historians aimed at to help rebuilding the professional relationship that had been destroyed by the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia. But soon after it was decided to include historians and scholars from all other states emerged from the collapsed Yugoslavia.

Confronting the turbulent past was the crucial point for the SI in the process of reconciliation badly needed in the region of West Balkans. To that aim the SI has gathered an international consortium of renowned historians, social scientists, and legal experts to examine the magnitude of controversies that still divide the peoples of former Yugoslavia. Close to 200 persons have been included in the project.

The first edition of Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies, published in 2009, consisted of 11 topics, including The Dissolution of Yugoslavia, Ethnic Cleansing and War Crimes, The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Living Together or Hating Each Other?

Charles Ingrao and Thomas A. Emmert edited both editions. Charles Ingrao is a mastermind of the project.

The second edition, published by the end of 2012, does not distinguish significantly. The 12th chapter dealing with Montenegro has been added, including some “newly uncovered material documenting the Milosevic regime’s close direction of military operations in the Bosnian conflict.” I will elaborate this quotation later while trying to emphasize an anti-Serb slant permeating through this project.

My paper is mostly derived from marginalia, i.e., remarks written in the margins while reading the first edition of the book.

Certainly, it is not to say that the SI’s project was a complete failure, but in this paper I will bring into focus only parts of the book I considered controversial.

The year was 1453. Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II captured the Byzantine city of Constantinople – present-day Istanbul – changing the region forever. Practically since then rewriting of history became an obsession, and mostly following the ‘us vs. them’ pattern. Some earlier projects aimed at to produce a common history textbooks, e.g., that
of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), based in Thessaloniki, Greece, did a great job, just thanks to avoiding the ‘us vs. them’ matrix.

The SI’s project is focused on what was put in the title itself – Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies – clearly indicating that this project was territorially reduced to the countries of former Yugoslavia. However, as a general conclusion, it followed an official and prevailing Western ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ doctrine, originally devised and imposed by the United States, more precisely by the Clinton administration. Good guys were dominantly Bosniaks, and to a lesser extent Bosnian Croats, and bad guys were “barbarian Serbs”.

Here are some controversial lines.

“We have, for example, foregone any attempt to focus on the Yugoslav conflicts’ pre-Milosevic origins, which surely go back to World War II, and could be traced to 1389 or even to the medieval or ancient pedigree of the region’s peoples. We have also given only brief coverage to the Bosniak-Croat war, having judged – rightly or wrongly – that its legacy presents less formidable obstacles to reconciliation between those two groups than their respective conflicts with the Serbs.” (Introduction by Charles Ingrao, p. 4).

The phrase “pre-Milosevic origins” clearly suggests that Milosevic is the only culprit for the 1990s wars. Such thinking simply does not correspond with the facts on the ground. I am not a Milosevic fan, but he was desperately trying to preserve at least a rump Yugoslavia, but Franjo Tudjman, President of then self-proclaimed Croatia rejected it, and Alija Izetbegovic, President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, joined him in early 1992.

Giving “only brief coverage to the Bosniak-Croat war”, admitting “rightly or wrongly”, but claiming so Mr. Ingrao just demonstrates his implicit anti-Serb bias.

Speaking about inclusivity, impartiality and transparency and the need to include scholars from all Yugoslavia, Mr. Ingrao has emphasized a large number of scholars from Serbia, “which reflects both its higher population and the existence of a distinctly Serbian narrative for all eleven controversies.” (p.6).

This line also clearly suggests that a Serb mindset was decisive in unfolding of the Yugoslav crisis.

In chapter 1, The Dissolution of Yugoslavia, written by Andrew Wachtel and Christopher Bennett, there is an, at least, ambiguous paragraph, dealing with attempts to create a Yugoslav nation, which was by allegedly many non – Serbs regarded as “been nothing more than an attempt to Serbianize (my boldface) the country.” (p.16). This is a widespread stereotype aimed at to blame only Serbs for the collapse of the country by the end of 20th century.

Regarding frequently mentioned imbalance in redistribution of political positions, military and police structures to follow ethnic key, political nomenclature strictly respected ethnic background of incumbents, while Croats and to a lesser extent Slovenes simply were not willing to join military and police structures.

“Kardelj’s victory, however, as enshrined in the Yugoslav Constitution of 1974, was Pyrrhic.” (p.20).

Why Pyrrhic victory? Kardelj did finally realize what he was planning already for decades. Even in the early 1950s he said, paraphrased, that Yugoslavia is a provisional country, meaning by that that Slovenia and Croatia will join to the West, and the rest of the country will remain a backward entity.

Many scholars, historians, pundits and politicians both domestic and foreigners agree that the 1974 Constitution symbolizes a final nail in theYugoslav coffin.

Speaking about the Serb narrative lamenting over their “’sacrifices’ they had made in creating Yugoslavia after World War I and about their supposedly disadvantaged position in the Communist state … Serbian thinkers and writers created the image of Serbia as a martyr nation that was constantly being asked to spill its blood for the sake of others without receiving the benefits that should accrue for such heroism.” (p. 20 & 21).

Dobrica Cosic, a famous Serbian writer, former partisan and turned dissident in the mid of 1960s, encapsulated this martyrdom into saying: “Throughout of their history Serbs were winners in the wars and losers in the peacetime.”

In order to mitigate his saying, which was at that time echoing strongly, Communist rulers revived an old but very tricky Bolshevik slogan: “Weak Serbia – Strong Yugoslavia.” Not surprisingly, but many Serbs were buying it. This certainly contradicts to the image of Serbs as a martyrs.

Chapter 9, The War in Kosovo, 1998-1999, written by James Gow, can be generally judged as balanced. However, some important moments have been ignored or hushed.

Namely, today no one can deny that Racak incident on January 15, 1999, was fabricated by US diplomat William Walker. Casualties from a battle between KLA commandos and Serb police and military, were disguised as civilians. Racak was staged to help drafting the 1999 Rambouillet Ultimatum to Serbia. This ultimatum required Belgrade to allow a NATO-led forces unrestricted passage and access throughout the country. Rejecting ultimatum will result in punitive bombing raids on Serbia. The Rambouillet Ultimatum strikingly resembles to the Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia in 1914 (July 23).

As one observer noted, Racak was the Tonking Gulf lie that justified bombing Serbia.

Otherwise, the Racak fraudulence was an integral part of NATO media blunders, when tractors easily turn into tanks …

Chapter 10, The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, written by John B. Allcock, if judged by the space dedicated to this topic, represents a center part of this book.

Opening paragraph is a very indicative, naming three questions that summarized the concerns of this team: “To what extent is the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia) a political body?” To what extent is it impartial? To what extent is it anti-Serb?” (p.347).

The questions raised suggest that there is a room for speculation that the ICTY has the problem of bias. But this important aspect has been elegantly avoided.

True, in section VI. Summary and Conclusions, the perception of bias has been clarified as: “Errors of judgment, however, do not equate to deliberate bias, even if they might contribute to perceptions of unfairness.” (p. 379).

The ICTY never denied that it was preoccupied with to act on behalf of victims. “For us the victims are the most important”, said chief prosecutor Richard Goldstone in 1996, adding “The victims of the Yugoslav war want legal vengeance” The phrase “legal vengeance” has nothing to do with justice.

And what is troubling in particular that a hierarchy of victimhood has been created. It is quite clear from the ICTY’s track record, showing that some victims do not count as much as others.

The ICTY was obsessed with writing history. More precisely, its unwritten mandate was to write the official history of the break-up of Yugoslavia. It should be noted that it was not its original idea, but an order given by the US government, as its main sponsor.

With the history books in mind, the ICTY is co-opted to foreclosure historical debate. Or, as one observer noted, “International law is stealing ground from historians.”

From the very beginning the ICTY has been shaped by a reduced good vs. evil narrative of the Yugoslav wars.

Finally, a few words about the SI’s donors and sponsors.

United States Institute of Peace (USIP), is in fact co-publisher of both editions. Despite describing itself as “the independent, nonpartisan management center”, but admitting that it was created by the US Congress, USIP’s role and mandate, in general, should be regarded with a certain suspicion.

National Endowment for Democracy (NED), describes itself as “a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world”, but admitting that its projects were funded by the US Congress too. Frankly speaking, but the NED role in general is much more obscure if compared with that of the USIP. Even many American pundits, scholars, political analysts, former high ranking politicians claim that the NED is an active arm of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA.

I am not saying that the USIP and the NED were directly involved in this project, but some sort of supervision simply cannot be avoided, and that is bothersome, bearing in mind sensitive and very complex nature of this project.

My general impression, after reading these two books, is that the project’s authors, however reluctantly, but followed the Western matrix of the 1990s wars, in which good vs. bad guys doctrine overwhelmingly prevailed.

* Dusan Babic is a Sarajevo-based media and political analyst.

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