The Yugoslav Drama

318 pages,
ISBN: 0773512039

Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights

208 pages,
ISBN: 1550137204

Post Your Opinion
Genie Set Loose
by Fraser Sutherland

As Mihailo Crnobrnja points out, the former Yugoslavia had seven neighbours, six republics, two autonomous provinces, five nations, four languages, two alphabets, and three religions. Crnobrnja should know, since he was the Yugoslav ambassador to the European Community when the federation was beginning to self-destruct. Although The Yugoslav Drama is plodding, dullish, and awkwardly structured, its author is more even-handed than one might suppose. Moreover his opinions, like the former Yugoslavia, command some respect.
Long a darling of the West for its anti-Stalinism and an economic success story, at least compared to its Communist brethren, Yugoslavia was vulnerable after the death in 1980 of its strongman, Marshal Tito, and the break-up of the Soviet bloc during the next decade. The story Crnobrnja tells is of an obsolescent buffer-state beset by a baleful legacy of fiscal mismanagement and the world's most complicated constitution.
Into the power vacuum rushed many Communist apparatchiks, foremost among them a Serbian banker named Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic's Serbia-first nationalism set the pace for nascent chauvinists in the other republics. From his Communist and Serbian power-base, he did an end-run around the federal presidency, rabble-rousing the Serb minority in Kosovo, which is largely Albanian. After he had gotten the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina stripped of their autonomous status he was free to throw Serbia's considerable weight around.
Thuggish as Milosevic was and is, Crnobrnja makes clear that we are not talking here of firing squads and pogroms. The republics and regions in the former Yugoslavia had freedoms and prerogatives undreamed of in many countries, and scope for their own versions of Milosevic. (On moral grounds, there is little to choose between him and the cunning, anti-semitic Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's point man.) This may seem strange to Westerners, nursed as we are on media images of nobly self-determining Croatia, brave little Slovenia, and unselfish, multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Crnobrnja is less concerned with pointing a finger at politicians in Serbia and the breakaway republics than he is with identifying the defining evil as nationalism. He is especially good at showing how nationalism moves centripetally, from a small intellectual corps to a powerful, self-serving elite, then to the general public.
Nationalism fares well in Serbia. Serbs are often their own worst enemies, rivalling Israelis and Palestinians as champion grudge-bearers. They never tire of telling how they prevented the Islamization of Europe, in the Middle Ages generally accounted a bad thing. A brave and unsubduable people, they're fiercely proud of the enormous sacrifices Serbia and its small but distinctive brother Montenegro made in fighting the Austro-Hungarians and the Nazis in two world wars. But pride, going before a nationalistic fall, also accounts for colossal stupidities like the levelling of Vukovar and the shelling of Dubrovnik in Croatia, and the long, atrocious siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Crnobrnja usefully points out that the Serb minorities in Croatia and BiH (Bosna i Herzegovina) were by no means absolute proxies of Belgrade. Indeed, Milosevic has "become a prisoner of the nationalistic genie that he set loose." Call it a civil, ethnic, or tribal struggle, or the Third Balkan War, much death and destruction has been wrought, not just by the Bosnian Serb tag team of Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, but by undisciplined bands and local warlords on all sides-not to mention sometimes indistinguishable gangs of looters and extortioners.
Refreshingly, Crnobrnja has no truck with conspiracy theories, the dark mutterings one hears from Serbs that the big break-up was caused by the Vatican's espousal of the overwhelmingly Catholic Slovenia and Croatia, or by Germany's taking belated revenge over Yugoslavia's creation under the Treaty of Versailles. He does think that Germany was too quick off the Deutschmark to recognize Slovenia and Croatia. He also considers that the ineffectual European Community was naive to suppose a referendum in BiH was adequate grounds for diplomatic recognition. Casting their ballots en bloc, the Muslims and Croats inevitably would have outvoted the Serbs. (As it happened, the Serbs boycotted the whole process.) He regards the United Nations' deployment of forces in Croatia and BiH and its many missions and conferences to have been a gallant humanitarian success and a dismal political failure. At any rate, Croatia has won back lost territory and expelled virtually its entire Serb minority, NATO has bombed Bosnian Serb targets, the United States has landed troops, and we have the Dayton Peace Agreement.
But lovers of carnage will be pleased to know that two tinderboxes remain to be ignited. Some among the Albanian majority in Kosovo would dearly love sovereignty, even union with neighbouring Albania. This leads to nice internecine complications. Macedonia, which has an Albanian minority, had its sovereignty recognized by the United Nations in 1993 under the odd rubric "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia". Greece wants no part of an official Macedonia next to its own unofficial one. Bulgaria thinks of the Macedonians as Bulgars. Add Serbia and Montenegro, and the mix becomes explosive.
Given all the evidence, Crnobrnja's belief that the best possible outcome in the Balkans would be a reconstituted, much-reformed Yugoslavia is bound to raise guffaws. But he has valid historical reasons. In the infrequent intervals when it wasn't being trampled by the Venetian, Hungarian, Austrian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, the region had several trans-Balkan kingdoms. Yugoslavia was not an arbitrary or whimsical creation of the Treaty of Versailles but partly a culmination of a pan-Slavic movement, whose political proponents included prominent Croatians like the tolerant Catholic bishop, Josip Strossmayer. Before the twentieth century, the South Slav peoples fought their imperialist masters more than they fought each other, and Crnobrnja suggests that their current struggles may only echo the nationalistic throes Western Europe earlier underwent. Even the Second World War did not destroy the idea of a united if not unitary Yugoslavia. If Tito, who was a mixed Croat and Slovene, kept Yugoslavia together by replacing nationalism with socialist ideology and his own charisma, something in these ill-assorted republics made them want to stay together.
With this in mind, Crnobrnja is guardedly hopeful that last year's Dayton Agreement, which grandly called for a single multi-ethnic state under a central democratic government, may summon peace in BiH. The agreement divides the country into two regions, a Bosnian-Croat Federation and a Bosnian Serb Republic. Crnobrnja thinks that this curious arrangement just might succeed, provided it's considered to be temporary, and directed toward a wider affiliation. If the European Community expands eastward this, he thinks, could lend itself to Balkan unity. One useful step in Serbia would be a strong democratic opposition to Slobodan Milosevic. Most important, a war about collective borders must be transformed into a system concerned with individuals' rights.
As Crnobrnja says, the Dayton Agreement somewhat reflects "the reality on the ground". Elma Softic's Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights is that reality, not of agreements kept or broken, but of blood and splintered bone. Until 1992 the situation was quite different. Half-Muslim, half-Jewish (unusual, one assumes, even in multicultural Sarajevo), Softic had a happy home with her sister and parents, a good teaching job, and no lack of creature comforts. During the 1984 Winter Olympics she had skated in the closing ceremonies: "the Sarajevo Wolf stretched out his hand, to fanfare, to the Calgary Bear. What's the Calgary Bear up to now? He's certainly not trembling in fear of some bomb blowing him to pieces over the Canadian hills." With Mladic's big guns circling Sarajevo, she was plunged into:
"War. War. WAR. War in Sarajevo. Machine-gun fire, mortar shells. Death. Basement. Pillows against the windows. Dressers against the windows. Drawn blinds. Terror. Grief. Anticipation. Anxiety. Disappointment. Resignation. Misery. Humiliation. Fleeing. Weeping. Nerves. Humiliation. Humiliation. Humiliation!"
Thus begins Softic's and Sarajevo's three years of hell. In diaries and letters it's all here: the electrical blackouts, the scrounging for food and water, the destruction of beloved landmarks, the constant threat of death from a sniper's bullet and sprints to shelter while shells rained down, the decimation of relatives and friends. Heart-squeezing panic alternates with suffocating monotony. But Softic, spurning chances to escape, stuck it out with her family, fell in love, married, and became pregnant. Through all of this she was gutsy, resourceful, and resilient.
This is perhaps all that needs to be said. Yet one's admiration for Softic can't entirely extend to her book. Mostly, its contents were spirited out of Sarajevo and published in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, as Sarajevski Dani, Sarajevski Noci, but new and old material has been added. An Editor's Note says that "the decision to omit material was based solely on its repetitive or very personal nature, and no other considerations." There must have a lot of such material because almost every page is tantalizingly studded with ellipses.
Someone had the visually bright idea of interleaving newspaper headlines with the diary text, and this preposterously implies that Softic took time out from dodging bullets to paste in clippings from the New York Times and Washington Post. Equally misleading are the endpapers, which show a map of Sarajevo with Serb tanks dramatically ringing the helpless city but doesn't depict the positions of Bosnian defenders. The translation from Nada Conic (a Canadian with Serb and Slovene parents) reads smoothly but her notes are sometimes confusing. Conic notes that special city police units "became almost the sole armed defenders of Sarajevo" but a page later Softic speaks of the Bosnian Territorial Defence. How Bosnian Muslims, so obviously outgunned, managed to outlast their enemies is one of the unanswered questions of the war.
Perhaps the dominant emotion in Softic's book is rage, a running-mate to humiliation. She rages against Karadzic and Mladic, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, the ineffectual Western powers, the arms embargo, her own government, and God. She curses future historians:
"Fuck, the minute I even think that in some book of world history some asshole is going to write about this war as a conflict of national and religious interests located in the perpetually unstable region of the Balkans, which lasted from 1991 to whenever, I could just blow this whole planet to bits so that not a particle of it remains."
She jeers at the United Nations Protection Force, ostensibly unwilling to protect Bosnian Muslims, and bitterly rejoices when the Bosnian Serbs hold UNPROFOR soldiers hostage in 1994. She singles out Canadians for special abuse:
"Today I watched as the well-fed foreign soldiers on a truck going down the Street of the Defenders of the City (formerly Yugoslav National Army, don't you know) tossed to the children little packages of sweets. The children were running to catch them, the soldiers were having a great time. The kids who were lucky enough to grab a box of goodies shouted, `Mmmmmm, candy! Hvala ti, UNPROFOR! Tenkyu!' I found it hard to take. I felt demeaned and impoverished. I asked myself whether I was certain that no amount of poverty would ever drive me to sell myself to one of the ordinary little soldier-boys who have become here what they could never aspire to be back in their own home towns in Canada. Demigods."
The product of scarcely bearable stress, Softic's anger is understandable. The UN soldiers were well-fed and much safer than Sarajevo's citizens. A few of them behaved very badly in BiH. Yet Softic's heckling remains distasteful. A couple of these Serb-loving Canadians conveyed parts of her manuscript out of Sarajevo, and some of these soldier-boys, shipped to a murderous, faraway country, ended up being killed or maimed in their attempt to help the helpless.
Crnobrnja calls the Yugoslav conflict a war about borders, Softic calls it a war about names. Some of the names Softic uses suggests that she, no less than others in the Balkans, is caught in the rat-trap of history, history being both the rat and the trap. She often calls the Croatian opponents of the Bosnian government "Ustashas". The Serbs are "Chetniks". Ustashas were fanatical Croatian nationalists who helped the Nazis murder in World War II, and Chetniks were Serb royalists who fought both the Nazis and Tito's Communist partisans. World War II ended in 1945.

Fraser Sutherland recently spent ten days in Serbia. He has been called a Serb apologist.


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