Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

Historical context: The Fall of Yugoslavia

Sonja Biserko

president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia


Yugoslavia was a cosmos in miniature because it mixed together cultural, political, ethnic and civilizational differences that both the first and the second Yugoslavia tried to reduce to a format that ensured the co-existence of these differences.

The first Yugoslavia was a unitary state dominated by Serbs, and the birth of the second Yugoslavia was possible only on the basis of agreed equality of all peoples and the federal principle.

Therefore, the second Yugoslavia after World War II was also a centralist country. However, over time this centralism grew lax and there was an increasing tendency for decentralization and the self-management of these republics. There came a point when these republics became, in a way, states within Yugoslavia. The events that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia began long before its disintegration.

Already in the 1970s it was clear that the tendency towards decentralization was growing stronger and that it was supported by all the republics. At the same time, there was a tendency within the Serbian elite for recentralization. There are several aspects that logically led to disintegration.

The first was the amendments to the existing 1963 Constitution, known as the democratic constitution,
which announced the constitutional changes that were intended to define Yugoslavia as a kind of confederation.

In the early 70s all the Yugoslav republics supported this, including Serbia and its liberal leadership. However, there was resistance from the Yugoslav People’s Army, from the central federal state. Also, in Serbia the tendency against Yugoslav decentralization was stronger, and of course there was the strong influence of the Soviet Union.

Then the entire republican leadership was replaced. However, the spirit that prevailed in Yugoslavia as a whole at the time somehow triumphed and led to the changes in the 1974 Constitution which established Yugoslavia as a confederation.

The Serbian political elite, separate from the liberal elite replaced in 1972, began preparing for some sort of coup from that point on. As President Tito was by that time already a very old man, they decided to wait with the changes that were on the agenda, such as economic reform and democratization of the country, because at the time they were preparing for succeeding Tito, primarily in terms of recentralizing the country.

The period after Tito’s death was a period of intense activity of all the Serbian elites: political, intellectual, cultural, religious, military, state-security, academic and every other segment.

A kind of homogenization was reflected in a number of documents, which are very important for understanding this homogenization of the Serbian people.

There were protests in Kosovo, and in a way this turned into the opening of the Serbian question in Yugoslavia – not to keep Kosovo as a territory, but to homogenize the Serbian people.
Because the Kosovo myth is a deep, emotional rallying point, it was utilized for the homogenization of the Serbian people throughout Yugoslavia.

After this came the 8th Session of the League of Communists of Serbia, which brought down Ivan Stambolic and installed Slobodan Milosevic, who was chosen as someone capable of carrying out such a project of recentralization.

The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), or its conservative part – supported by the Serbian element in
the JNA - played a major part.

After this came the publication of the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, which is a kind of ideological document pointing out the direction in which Serbia should go, or how it should behave in this discussion, the discussion on Yugoslav reconstruction, or rearrangement.

Serbia’s first option was recentralization. The second option, which later emerged as the dominant one, was the unification of all Serbs or the preservation of all Serbs in one state.

Previously, that was Yugoslavia. Because Yugoslavia could not survive the way Serbia wanted, Serbia opted for this second option, the unification of all Serbs in one state.

The Yugoslav People’s Army took the same line, and its main objectives were the protection of socialism, ideological order and the recentralization of Yugoslavia, as the Yugoslav People’s Army was by definition conservative and  followed the state concept that Serbia advocated.

After Milosevic consolidated his power in Serbia, he set out to conquer Yugoslavia by overthrowing leaderships, primarily in Vojvodina and Kosovo.

First he wanted to centralize Serbia, as Serbia was composed of three parts – it was a federal unit with two autonomous provinces which belonged to Serbia and, at the same time, were also constituent parts of the federation. This meant they were virtually defined as republics.

This first stage of abolishing the autonomy of Vojvodina and Kosovo allowed Serbia to maintain control over those two votes on the federal government level, blocking federal institutions, the Parliament and every important ministry.

Milosevic also reached for Montenegro, where the leadership was replaced. Next he went for Slovenia and Croatia, but in this he failed. Then he went for the war option. There was a short war in Slovenia, lasting a couple of days. One could argue that this was a staged or prearranged war, given that Serbia had no interest in Slovenia remaining in Yugoslavia. I am not saying that there was an outright deal, but it did signify pushing Slovenia out of Yugoslavia, which they believed would help their relations with Croatia, because the plan was for Croatia to remain in the new Yugoslavia as advocated by Veljko Kadijevic, the defense minister at the time.

It soon became obvious that Croatia would not go along with this option. It rebelled and the war broke out in the spring in Plitvice, then in Borovo Selo, coming to a very dramatic ending in Dubrovnik, Zadar and Vukovar. These are three strategic points over which Serbia somehow brought Croatia to its knees, cutting off almost 30% of its territory. This territory was ethnically cleansed of all Croats and other non-Serbs. There emerged an ethnic territory which was subsequently put under UN protection, because in late November 1991 they reached out to the Yugoslav leadership, incomplete at that time, who appealed to the United Nations and asked for UN troops, which were supposed to protect the Serbs until an agreement was reached about the form in which Serbs and Croats would live. However, this was primarily so that Serbs could call a referendum and decide to live with, or unite with Serbia.

The same scenario was repeated in Bosnia. Once this first part of the war in Croatia ended, the Yugoslav People’s Army disintegrated. It broke into three armies: the Serbian Army of Krajina - the part in Croatia; the Army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia; and the Army of Yugoslavia, because Serbia retained the name, styling itself as a protector of Yugoslavia. That meant that another republic was necessary, and this was Montenegro.

It needs to be said that the international community, by which I mean America and the European Union, was actively engaged in mediation with the idea of preserving this Yugoslav framework, but it failed. A conference (on Yugoslavia) was held in The Hague in September and October 1991, with several sessions. At this conference, the European Union offered a document which was intended to preserve the Yugoslav framework, endorsing the idea of an association of states. This was a Slovenian proposal which Croatia later supported. The Slovenian proposal was published in "Nova revija 57" in 1987. It was supported by Croatia and later by other republics as well, because they were unable to find a modus vivendi with the Serbian narrative and offer, which was specifically related to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. However, both republics decided to side with Croatia and Slovenia.

Serbia refused to sign such a document, which was actually in line with keeping all Serbs under one state umbrella;  they refused to sign the document, claiming that the Serbs were not a minority anywhere, thinking of Serbs in Croatia and some other parts of the country. In fact, the main reason was that they did not want to recognize the status of Albanians in Kosovo because they always feared it could be a factor that would disturb their other plans.

Montenegro signed the document, but (Momir) Bulatovic was forced by Serbia to withdraw that signature, so what remained was this union - a rump Yugoslavia. As I said, they needed such a structure in order to present themselves as the protectors of Yugoslavia. The Badinter Committee was founded and it handed down 15 opinions. These opinions were actually crucial for defining the future states, among other things it was one of the most important criteria regarding the issue of national minorities. Each of these republics, after it met the criteria set by the Badinter Committee, was able to apply for recognition of independence, which is what all the republics did. Kosovo had also applied, but Kosovo was refused at that time. Successively, all other republics were, in a very short period of time, recognized as independent states. The moment that Bosnia was recognized as an independent state, Belgrade began its offensive and in a very short time, in several months, Serbian forces took more than 70% of Bosnian territory. In this surge, in the first few months, most of the Bosniak population was expelled from territory where they were in the majority, primarily in the Drina Valley and other places. So the Serbs controlled over 70% of the territory right up to the Dayton Agreement, or the Dayton negotiations.

The issue of the war in Bosnia is important in many ways, because the war in Bosnia was predominantly a war against Muslims. This for me is a very important aspect of the wars in former Yugoslavia - both in Kosovo and Bosnia. The war in Bosnia began in April 1992 with a creeping genocide and ended with the final act of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to which the international community reacted. At The Hague tribunal only Srebrenica was qualified as genocide. We will see what happens in the case of Mladic and Karadzic, who were charged with eight more municipalities in which the indictment alleges genocide also took place. So that would be a much broader notion.

The genocide in Srebrenica became a kind of symbol of all genocides in the world in the late 20th century to which the international community failed to respond adequately, especially that in Rwanda, and also in a way a very important moral touchstone for the international community, but also for us in the region, especially in Serbia. Serbia, of course, does not recognize this genocide. It recognized a war crime, because it is hard to deny the fact that it happened. Of course, the number of civilians is downplayed, they claim there were soldiers dressed in civilian clothes. This is a nightmare for the Serbian elite and I would say that this issue, denying this was genocide, is what most of the academic community is engaged in. There are numerous activities, researchers and all sorts of fraudsters who are doing their best to prove that this was a war crime. At the same time in Bratunac they erected a monument that is supposed to be a counterpart to the slaughter of Bosniaks in Srebrenica. These are the two places that carry the same weight in the memory of the Serbian people, because as soon as Srebrenica is mentioned, it is followed by Bratunac. There is an awareness that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and if we open it we would also open the entire story of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which then gets a completely different dimension.

Of course, the ruling of the International Court of Justice did not find Serbia responsible for the genocide, but that it was responsible for failing to prevent the genocide. Naturally, this ruling is based on all the trials of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and it implies Serbia’s great responsibility. However, the Serbian elite is pleased and happy that it was not found to be the main responsible party. At that time there were even some attempts by one section of the Serbian elite, and especially by the civil sector, to raise this question. In 2010 the Serbian National Assembly even passed a resolution on Srebrenica. The resolution does not explicitly say that it was genocide, but it does refer to the ruling of the International Court of Justice, which implies that it was. However, the ruling is today absolutely marginalized and today Srebrenica is not as widely discussed as ten years ago, in 2005 for example, when the Hague tribunal played that video of the execution of those kids in Trnovo. This was shocking news for Serbia. However, it very soon regained its composure and directed all its efforts towards relativizing the role of the Scorpions and trying to distance them from Serbia. There was a trial against the six Scorpions before the National War Crimes Court in Serbia, but the verdict states that they were part of this thing in Bosnia, that they acted in a civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that it had nothing to do with official Serbian institutions. Absolutely everything was done to disconnect them from Serbia, and all other trials before the National Court of Serbia are actually limited by that government strategy, which is to prevent any trial  from reaching the top levels of police, military or politics.

One important instrument for the return of this region to civilization is the Hague tribunal; whose goal was primarily to arrest all the principal actors of the war and those who committed war crimes. This was an important instrument of pressure on all regional governments. Naturally, the Hague tribunal was unable to deliver on everything that was stated in the Security Council’s founding resolution. Principally, there was talk of reconciliation. I do not think the Court was able to have this purpose, and that proved to be the case. However, it did have another important purpose, which is collection of all the evidence, documents, certificates, which will be crucial for future generations. Right now, one could argue that its moral effect on the region is limited.

Sonja Biserko, Serbia
Sonja Biserko, BA in Economics, Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade, graduated in 1970 and finished Diplomatic Course. She served as a diplomat for SFRJ until 1991. Since 1995 she is president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. One of the founders of the European Movement in Yugoslavia (1991), the Center for Anti-war Action (1991), the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (1994) and the Forum for International Relations (1996). Worked on a variety of civil and human rights programs (Helsinki Watch, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, UN Center for Human Rights, Mazowiecki's mission and the Tribunal in The Hague). Participated in a number of international conferences focused on regional crises and conflicts (Verona Forum, Search for Common Ground, Washington, D.C., etc.). Organized the first opposition meeting in the former Yugoslavia (Geneva. 1991).
Author of “Serbia in the Orient,” “Conspiracy Against Yugoslavia”, “Yugoslavia’s Implosion”, ”Serbia Lost in Transition”. Edited and prepared a number of books (e.g. “Srebrenica: From Denial to Confession,” “Milosevic vs. Yugoslavia,” “Bosnia: the Core of the Great Serbian Project”, “Yugoslavia: Collapse, War, Crimes”, “Vukovar Tragedy”, “Seselj’s Trial”; Edited with Slavija Stanojlovic “Yugoslavia’s Last Chance”; contributed articles to a variety of specialized and other magazines. Regular by liner of editorials carried by the Committee’s magazine, The Helsinki Charter.