History lesson: the breakup of Yugoslavia

I’ve been listening to many political Youtube video clips recently and a recurring theme among the pro-Russian and anti-NATO speakers seems to be that NATO bombardment of Serbia was an act of vile aggression and the breakup of Yugoslavia was somehow American fault.

This motivates me to write my own personal account of the breakup of Yugoslavia from the position of someone who lived through this period, and whose family members were the refugees from the war; I think this makes me significantly more qualified than the guys who watched this all on TV somewhere in Europe or America.

One of the problems that I face in an attempt to convey my perception of the situation is the immense richness of history of this part of the world. In almost every village here in Croatia there’s a church that dates from at least the 15th century – that’s a hundred years before Isaac Newton. For instance, in a suburban village near Zagreb, where I live at the moment, the church was built in 1476th, and guess what, it was the new church, built on the spot of the older church from 1276th, which was built in place of an even older wooden chapel, dating all the way back to the year 1076. That’s 939 years of history of that one small village, which is not nearly the oldest thing here, because in Split, the Emperor Diocletian’s palace and the aqueducts are still in use, continually, since the Roman empire. There was never a discontinuity of history. People still use the Roman arena in Pula for purposes very similar to the original ones. The art festivals that took place during the times when the Republic of Dubrovnik was a medieval independent state still take place, the Alka of Sinj, established in medieval times to commemorate a battle with the Turks, still takes place. We have local customs so ancient in origin, they probably date all the way to the last ice age, or at least to early Holocene period. The ancient pre-Christian religion of this region is Vedic-Aryan in origin, and its religious topography was recycled by Christianity by building churches on the spots of the ancient temples. A thought crossed my mind – take a look at the Witcher series of videogames, the medieval-themed thing, or the Game of Thrones series, which is actually recorded in Croatia (guess why). People dressed like that, with spears and swords, believing in dragons and monsters, actually lived here, and Roman emperors were born and lived here, and even older Roman and Greek settlements exist here, on top of the stone age settlements, on top of the caves in which the Neanderthals lived. There is a continuity of 125 thousands of years of human habitation in this very area. Here, history spans across geological epochs, and some of it still exists in the most ancient of customs. The Vučedol culture is contemporary with the Sumer period of Mesopotamia and early dynastic period of Egypt. When I say we have history here, I mean we have history that is so old, that it’s among the oldest of any human culture or civilization, surpassed only by the Leakey findings in Olduvai Gorge, Africa. Essentially, this place doesn’t remember the times when people lived on the trees, but it remembers the times when they lived in caves, hunting a wooly rhinoceros.

Why am I making this lengthy introduction? Because to us, the Turks were on our borders and preparing an invasion of Vienna yesterday. The Roman emperors Trajan and Diocletian were here here day before yesterday, and somewhat earlier than that people were making human sacrifices to the Great Mother. On the edge of our known timeline, the Neanderthals were hiding from winter in Vindija cave. The Neanderthal genome project got their finest DNA sample from us. We are not a new people, a new country or a new nation. Our people were thrown to the lions by the Romans and we still remember their names. The chessboard shield decorates the medieval churches here. The chessboard shield was the constituent of the shield of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Empress Maria Theresia was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma. We are not some shitty little country created with the breakup of Yugoslavia, we are among the oldest on Earth, the cornerstone of European civilization. Europe might have forgotten this, but this is a normal part of life here, being surrounded by ruins and buildings so ancient, that Chinese tourists drool all over the place with their cameras, unable to believe that this all actually exists in reality and not only in some history-themed movie or a video game. I cannot start from the beginning, because our beginning goes back to the beginnings of human existence in Eurasia. I will have to start somewhere more recent: with the Turkish occupation of Serbia in 1389. This is where the serious trouble started, deeply marking the Serbian national identity to the point where nothing before or since matters to them. The Kosovo battle was a draw, but Serbia lost its entire army and the Turks just came back with a new one and overran them. The Turks impaled men and raped women. A significant part of the Serbian genome (20%) is Anatolian haplogroup. The Serbs had the misfortune of being close to Turkey, and were thus overran and raped as a nation; the Turks are still remembered as the worst of pests in these areas, something subhuman in its cruelty and viciousness. Unlike the Serbs, who were hit early, the Croatians, Romanians and Hungarians had time to prepare – especially the Croatians. The Turks still remember us as their most vicious enemies, and we gave them such scars they will never forget. In the process, the soldiers of the “military region” of Croatia, the “vojna krajina”, were the most vicious, best trained, most cruel military force on Earth during that time. Napoleon recruited the members of his personal guard among them, and they were the scourge of the Earth.

We saw the Serbs as a brotherly nation. We gave their refugees land in Lika and Mountain Shire (Gorski Kotar) to make their homes there. We protected them from the Turks, and celebrated their victories and eventual liberation as if it were our own. We did not see the Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosnians and Croatians as separate ethnicities, because that didn’t mean anything at the time. There were the Christians, and there were the Turks. Croatians were deeply sympathetic to Serbs and their suffering under the Turks, to the point where panslavism was extremely popular among the intellectual elites here in Zagreb, prior to the first world war, and, and when Serbia freed itself, they were dreaming of being “liberated” themselves, from the union with Austria and Hungary, which they perceived as stifling the Slavic identity of Croatia – essentially, they were planing a common state of all southern-Slavic nations, and this weird surge of nationalism and separatism actually contributed to the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Serbs, on their side, had a different agenda. Having liberated themselves from the Turks, they saw all Slavic Christians as Serbs that need to be incorporated into a Great Serbia, which is why they assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to the world war. When the war ended, the Croatian slavist intellectuals ran straight to the Serbs and proposed the formation of the new state of the Slovenians, Croatians and Serbs, which the Serbs accepted, but with completely different ideas in mind. Somehow, the Serbs got it into their heads that they “won” those territories in the war, and started treating them as conquered lands, gravely abusing the trust vested in them by the Croatian political elites. This went so far, that the vehemently pro-Slavic political trends in the Austro-Hungarian Croatia gave way to the genocidal anti-Serb policies of Ante Pavelić and his “Ustaše” movement, which eventually made an alliance with Hitler and committed great crimes against Serbs, Jews and all political misfits.

One needs to stop here and think how badly the Serbs must have fucked up in order to turn the Croatians from deep sympathy and compassion for the Serbs, to a vicious genocidal hate. But, the second world war started here, and the only organized opposition to the German and Italian occupying forces and their quislings was the communist party under Josip Broz Tito, which managed to hold its own during the war, and after the Nazis withdrew, together with their pathetic servants, they remained as the only force standing and proceeded to butcher the quislings and everyone else they didn’t particularly like. The crimes they committed against the civilian population after the war were at least as great as the crimes committed by the Ustaše and other quisling forces during the war, and the only righteous part of the population were the civilian victims of both criminal gangs in question. Tito rebuilt Yugoslavia as a communist state, first according to Stalin’s Soviet design, but later went his own way, parted with the Soviet model of government and created a state that was halfway between the Warsaw pact and NATO, in both way of life and political alignment. In fact, he and his foreign allies, Nasser, Nehru and Sukarno, formed the core of the non-aligned movement, which grew to include all the countries that were tired of the bloc policies of the cold war. In the early 1970s, the first signs of trouble started as some Croatian intellectuals started making waves about how Croatian culture and language were drowned under the Serbian-centric rule from Belgrade, and how money from Croatian tourism was unjustly distributed across Yugoslavia and didn’t sufficiently benefit Croatia. Tito resolved the matter by arresting all the troublemakers and throwing away the key, and then basically did everything they requested, at least formally. Zagreb was made the cultural and intellectual capital of Yugoslavia, while Belgrade remained the administrative and military center. The money continued to flow to Belgrade first.

After Tito’s death, inertia carried Yugoslavia along quite nicely, with only occasional stirrings of trouble. After all, Yugoslavia was rather well off, as communist states go. In science, technology and prosperity, it didn’t lag all that much behind the West, if at all, but the common themes of inefficient, ailing economy, and belligerent Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milošević became troubling. Serbia intended to promote centralization of everything under Serbian rule, which Croatia, as the second most powerful constituent opposed, because Croatians never really understood why they would let themselves be ruled by the Serbs, since they had more advanced industry, earned most of the federal budget by tourism, and had actually lead the communist resistance movement during the second world war; in fact, they liberated Serbia, not the other way around, and the Serbs really joined the partisan movement only when the war was already over.

I don’t know what exactly happened behind the curtains slightly before and during the year 1990, but it seems that the political elites in the Croatian communist party decided that Yugoslavia is doomed, that Milošević will ride the beast of Serbian national myths and basically transform Yugoslavia into the Great Serbia, and sought to form viable opposition to that trend on the Croatian side, choosing Franjo Tuđman as the most suitable candidate. He won the first democratic elections, and proceeded to transform Croatia into a viable state, with separate finances, army and all. What decided the course of events were, essentially, two things. First, Tito formed the Yugoslav People’s Army as a Serb-lead force, to appease the Serbian heroic myth, like he appeased the Croatian cultural myth by giving them control of the Yugoslav encyclopedic society and other important cultural institutions. Milošević quickly came to an agreement with the Serbian generals, who agreed to militarily quench the separatist movements in Slovenia and Croatia. Second, Lawrence Eagleburger, American secretary of state under Bush Sr., went to Belgrade and apparently gave the Serbs American blessing for their plan of quickly ending the separatist movement in the republics, and when the Yugoslav Army started its military activities, an arms embargo was imposed to “all sides”, which basically meant that the Serbs had all the weapons in the world except the nukes, and Croatians had what they could steal from the Serbs and buy on the black market. Still, Croatians managed to hold their own, losing only the part of the territory that was populated by the Serbs and held by the Army, and managed to lose only Vukovar while inflicting grave losses to the JNA. The Serbian failure to end the Croatian rebellion showed the “international community” that Yugoslavia was doomed and could not be healed, and the separatist republics were internationally recognized as sovereign states.

Serbia then proceeded to “ethnically cleanse” Bosnia, meaning, to draw some arbitrary line among the ethnicities and kill all the non-Serbs on the “Serbian” side. Croatians held their own well, but the Muslims were not prepared for the war, neither militarily nor psychologically, and had poor leadership. The “international community” continually misrepresented the conflict and mostly just encouraged the Serbs by their lack of decisive action or clear attitude, and most actually favored the Serbs, since all the Yugoslav diplomats were appointed from Belgrade and formed a positive attitude towards the Serbs and negative attitudes towards the Croatians in their host countries. This lead to the expectations that Croatians cannot match the Serbs militarily and allowed the Serbs to control most of the narrative, which slightly changed only as news of the slaughters of Vukovar, concentration camps in Bosnia and mass executions of Srebrenica leaked into the world, but matters changed significantly when Croatians, having used the hiatus to arm themselves, had enough of that shit and destroyed the Serbs militarily in Croatia and proceeded to hand them their ass in Bosnia. That’s when America finally intervened and brokered the Dayton accord, which allowed Croatia to retain its territorial integrity, while Bosnia was split into Serbian and Muslim-Croatian entities. Things would have ended there, but the Serbs apparently just needed to kill people to feel good about themselves, so they proceeded to exterminate the Albanians in their ancient historical province of Kosovo, and only when they made it apparent they would spill the conflict into Macedonia, which could then spill further, Americans decided that they had enough of Serbs and started bombing the shit out of them, until the Serbs finally admitted defeat. America turned Kosovo into their military base, Macedonia was unharmed and the Albanians proceeded to reproduce at a geometrical rate.

So, let’s finally get to the point I initially wanted to make. First, the dissolution of Yugoslavia was not the result of American meddling; however, the Serbian military aggression and an attempt to crush Croatian opposition and reform Yugoslavia as a Great Serbia was in fact directly caused by Eagleburger’s visit of encouragement to Belgrade, and by a huge reluctance in the international community to make it clear to Milošević that his actions are unacceptable. Had America made it clear to him that he’ll end up like Iraq if he tried to solve matters militarily, there never would have been a war here. The Croatians certainly weren’t in a position to wage one, nor did they have any intentions to harm the Serbs in any way; they were just sick of bleeding the tourism money to Belgrade and wanted to try something other than communism. Sure, some hooligans and football fan groups wanted to duke it out with the Serbs, but that would never go beyond minor fistfights. The Serbs started spreading paranoia about Croatians coming to kill them all and started an insurgency in parts of Croatia, but without the military support from Belgrade, that would have ended in a week, with minor casualties and a few arrested leaders. Essentially, what caused the war was the fact that America gave the Serbs a green light to go ahead with a military solution. The fact that America finally saw the light and decided to make it clear to Serbia that their bullshit won’t be tolerated was probably the only good thing they did here, but even that would not have been necessary if they only played it differently in the beginning. The states would have gone their separate ways, but soon would have joined again in some form of a free market union, because their economies were deeply interlinked. There would never have been a military conflict. All would be a part of the European Union by now.

So, essentially, thank you Lawrence Sidney Eagleburger, and thank you George H. W. Bush. Fuck you very, very much.

The problem is, this is not over. The Dayton accord had frozen Bosnia into something inherently ungovernable, and it progressed to degrade economically and culturally to the point where a rupture along at least one of the frozen fault-lines seems inevitable. Also, the Bosnian conflict served to transform the Muslim ethnicity into a more fundamentalist variety of Islam, which might yet end badly. The entire political elite of Bosnia is incompetent and corrupt, and the economy is almost nonexistent, which is bound to explode sooner or later. All former Yugoslav republic are economically crippled, mostly by a combination of transition from communism, loss of the common market, war and corruption, and although I fully supported Croatian independence at the time, I regret that Yugoslavia had to end in such a bad way, and not be reformed into something better by nonviolent means, without Serbs at the steering wheel. The thing with the Serbs is, they suck at governing. They want to rule, to show they are in charge, they want to own others, and that simply doesn’t work with Croatians, who had a history of giving very strong foes a bloody nose, and don’t like anyone to fuck with them. And the joke is, the Croatians didn’t even want to rule Yugoslavia or anything. They just reacted badly to Milošević and his bullshit, which makes me believe that the Serbs need to do some significant soul-searching and redefining of their own national identity before being able to peacefully coexist with others. The Russians see the Serbs as brothers – both Orthodox-Christians, both write in Cyrillic alphabet, stuff like that, but I think they fail to perceive the more profound differences. Russia, despite superficial differences, is more like Croatia in essence: inherently non-aggressive, but never, ever piss it off unless you have a death wish. The Serbs are still butt-sore from the Turkish occupation and appear to cultivate a myth of military strength in some strange inversion of history: the eternal military loser sees itself as the conqueror, who loses in peace but wins in war. Unless the Serbs get over this shit, they will remain a danger to their neighbors. They behave like someone who was butt-fucked in prison for years and then proceeds to act like a super-tough macho badass. The Croatians, however, have a different problem. They see the EU as the substitute for the long-lost beloved Austro-Hungarian empire, which they perceived as their own. Unfortunately, EU proved to be a bitch step-mother to Croatia, and a worthy successor to Yugoslavia in all that is bad.