The West, Milosevic and the collapse of Yugoslavia

Josip Glaurdic’s ‘The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia’ makes an extremely important contribution to the understanding not only of the period he covers, but also of the more general problem of how the United States and European Union behave toward the rest of the world.

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By David B. Kanin

I am getting old; things I worked on when I was at CIA happened long enough ago that information that once was classified now is not. A couple of years ago, the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson Center, in cooperation with a group at CIA that studies the history of Intelligence, published a bound set of declassified National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Yugoslavia originally crafted between 1945 and 1990. And now, Josip Glaurdic has made good use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain State Department documents and Intelligence analyses for use as primary sources in his ‘The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia’ (Yale University Press, 2011). This book stands out in a crowded field as a very important contribution to the understanding not only of the period he covers, but also of the more general problem of how the United States and European Union behave toward the rest of the world.

The first thing to say about this book – as pointed out in all previous reviews of it I have read – is that its use of these primary sources sets it apart from virtually everything else so far in print. There is an important distinction to be made between Glaurdic’s research project and memoirs by participants or observers who lived through (or contributed to) the cascade of Balkan horrors in the 1980s and 1990s. The many official, NGO and academic observers of these events brought their own experiences to the page. The best of these combined insight and emotion, but even these contained the skew that naturally accompanies the emotional content of frustrations, personal rivalries, and the impact of the horrors. Glaurdic’s is the first work in the field that offers a stand-back examination of primary sources by a professional researcher in place of the searing memories of personal experiences or the overuse (and, often, poor analysis) of public opinion polls and other less than decisive measures of the meaning and trajectories of events.

Glaurdic makes his main points up front. First, the collapse of Yugoslavia cannot be analyzed properly without considering it in the context of the events going on around it – not just the disappearance of the Soviet Empire but also the problematic process of forming what is now the European Union. Maastricht was taking shape as Yugoslavia was falling apart. “Europe” was a mythical invention that could not be perceived to fail in the Balkans. Meanwhile, British and French attitudes toward the region were affected centrally by their fear of the renewed power of a reunified Germany.

Second, the European powers and the United States actively cooperated with whatever politicians or military figures that they believed might hold Yugoslavia together – no matter that Slobodan Milosevic and the other reeds the West leaned on behaved in ways inimical to the values those same powers so solemnly claimed to uphold. At the same time, standard rhetoric obscured the fact – clearly demonstrated by Glaurdic – that Western governments were chronically at odds over Yugoslavia (and a lot of other things). Disarray, not unity, is the more common condition in NATO and the EU.

Glaurdic has no patience with the notion that Yugoslavia’s collapse involved a series of tragic events the West could do nothing about, or the belief that Western leaders did not have advance warning that the Federation was falling apart. He makes a compelling case that on both counts the opposite was true. US and West European leaders stuck to the idea that Yugoslavia must remain united (and some said democratic!), and were quite willing to enable the aggressive, destructive behavior of Slobodan Milosevic if that would keep the place “stable.”

Third, Slovenia and, to a much lesser extent, Croatia pursued the path of openness, liberalization, and democratization. Therefore, fourth, the demand by a unifying Germany that the West recognize Slovenia and Croatia (no matter what that meant for the rest of the Federation) was a constructive and reasonable alternative to the realpolitik-based miscalculation and dithering in Washington and other West European capitals. Glaurdic presents interesting evidence that policies usually credited to – or blamed on – Hans Dietrich Genscher actually originated with the opposition Social Democrats. These emerged in the context of efforts by politicians of all flavors to get a handle on a reunification process that erupted from below. As in Poland, Hungary, what then was Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the German people on both sides of the Wall, not their leaders, recognized the exhilarating fact that that the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev marked the end of the Communist era.

What supports these judgments is a blow-by-blow recitation of the largely cooperative relationship between Milosevic and the West between 1987 and 1992, as the former cynically undermined the rickety post-Tito Federation, pandered to a Serbian nationalism useful to him only as a tool for accumulating personal power, and struck deals with Tudjman – but also with the sainted Slovenes – that destroyed Yugoslavia. Glaurdic identifies specific villains as well as heroes. British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, comes off as an appeaser akin to Neville Chamberlain. US secretary of state, James Baker, is less interested in Yugoslavia than in using European failure to manage its demise as a means of knocking America’s erstwhile Allies down a peg. Lawrence Eagleburger, deputy secretary of state and former US Ambassador to Yugoslavia, greatly overestimates his expertise and acts as if Milosevic will bring stability to the Federation he is tearing apart.

It is in this context that Glaurdic rehearses the incidents and decisions that led to Yugoslavia’s collapse. He occasionally notes the existence of Ante Markovic, but does not assign to him anywhere near the importance some observers have – Glaurdic terms his reforms “illusory” (page 109) and takes him to task for joining Milosevic in condemning Slovene and Croat movement toward independence after the disastrous Congress of Yugoslavia’s League of Communists in January 1990. Glaurdic virtually ignores Markovic’s popularity (according to public opinion polls), a proper treatment given his inability to mobilize anything close to the popular movements so decisive elsewhere in the Eastern Europe of 1989 and 1990.

One thing Glaurdic’s analysis lacks is an assessment of why whatever forces – whether military, liberal, or ideologically “Yugoslav” – failed to coalesce as events spun downward. Was Milosevic that smart? Were other leaders that dumb (or weak)? Tito’s Yugoslavia prided itself on intellectual and cultural fermentation and on its status as a leader of the Third World. And yet, as the system collapsed the public intellectuals, artists, students and other putative heroes disappeared from view – some repackaged themselves as heroes or victims after the damage already had been done.

Glaurdic does provide some hint of the problems faced by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), which some thought was the one corporate body capable of holding things together (if only in a “kinetic” manner). He portrays Milosevic as urging military leaders on but not as having a particular strategy for them to follow – aside from using their firepower to kill, root out or intimidate non-Serbs living on lands identified as part either of a Milosevic-controlled Yugoslavia or greater Serbia.

It is clear from Glaurdic’s narrative that Milosevic would use the military as a tool, but then would undercut it by making side deals with the Slovenes (to acquiesce in their independence), Tudjman (regarding the Croatian and Bosnia Krajinas and the putative, overall partition of Bosnia), and Western interlocutors. More than once, he left befuddled generals without any idea what they should do – absent guidance from him they had no clue. No matter occasional Western hopes or expectations that the JNA would hold Yugoslavia together, its commanders lacked political acumen, a capacity for strategic thinking or even ambitions to take power. In this way, the JNA leadership resembled that of the Red Army; none of whom sought to place themselves on top of their political heap, no matter how bad things got (again, despite occasional Western overestimation of the political clout of Soviet generals).

As good as this book is, in my view there are three related problems with Glaurdic’s approach. First, his scope is much too narrow. He does not explain why he limits his analysis to the years between 1987 and 1992, except to suggest that Milosevic’s rise to power marked the beginning of the process of dissolution. In this one way he falls short of previous authors who have had something to say about the structural, personal and contextual dangers everyone in the Federation recognized existed as Tito’s rule was coming to an end.

More central to the message of this book is Glaurdic’s failure to consider broader evidence of Western disunity on Yugoslavia and other things. Glaurdic’s use of the term realpolitik to categorize the Western approach is inaccurate. Bismarck, the quintessential realpolitiker, engineered enormous changes in European security and creatively constructed a system that, for a while, revolved around him. No one in the contemporary West deserves to share a label with such a leader. The West operated – and operates – largely in the thrall of inertia. Formulaic rhetoric, built around ritual teleologies of democracy, multi-culturalism and rule of law, mask a lack of strategic vision. Authorities in Washington gradually are expending wealth and power accumulated in previous generations, while the Europeans presume to tell others to obey notions of wisdom and humanity they embrace now that they no longer have the clout to force people to do what they demand.

A reading of the intelligence record in the declassified NIEs will demonstrate that government analysts were thinking about dangers in Yugoslavia well before 1987. Indeed, a meeting of Permanent Representatives at NATO on January 21, 1980 laid out the basic direction of Alliance policy toward Yugoslavia.(1) The Allies expressed their confidence in Yugoslavia’s “ability to retain national unity and territorial integrity during (the) short-medium period post-Tito transition” and said they would support the country politically. At the same time they expressed “due caution to avoid complicating Yugoslavia’s efforts to underline its independence.” Although in 1980 NATO was concerned largely with whether Yugoslavia would maintain its independence from the Soviet Union after Tito died, the West’s focus already was on preserving the country’s stability and – as Glaurdic demonstrates – that would remain the case even when destructive politicians took charge and things began to fall apart. This stress on keeping things quiet, on preventing rather than guiding change, would condition Western leaders to avoid the work it would have taken to get ahead of the events their intelligence agencies told them was coming.

Glaurdic also should not have stopped before the Bosnian War. His penetrating analysis of Western failure provides a context for what happened at Dayton in 1995. Milosevic once more worked the magic Glaurdic documents so often, hoodwinking Western partners at a cost to everyone else. The Dayton agreement was a deal between Milosevic and US envoy Richard Holbrooke – Tudjman may have asked for Banja Luka, but he already had gained what he really wanted by expelling the Krajina Serbs (typically, with Milosevic’s acquiescence) and ensuring that Bosnjak forces would not be able to carve out a contiguous territory for their community. The deal was imposed on the Bosnjaks.

It is ironic that Holbrooke wrote the preface for Margaret MacMillan’s history of the 1919 Peace Conference – in not forcing the Serbs to acknowledge military defeat he made the same mistake as the victors in the First World War regarding Germany (Marshall Foch and others recognized this immediately). Worse, Holbrooke’s deal not only needlessly maintained a 51-49 split between the Bosnjak-Croat Federation and Serb Republic that should have been overtaken by military events, but did so by reinserting Serbs in the Western “anvil” area, thus reinforcing Tudjman’s goal of preventing a contiguous Bosnjak area of settlement. It is a shame Glaurdic does not include in his book an assessment of the diplomatic and intelligence trail that led to Dayton and its untenable Bosnian construction. Continuing his analysis at least through 1995 would have strengthened Glaurdic’s assessment that Milosevic routinely hoodwinked willing Western partners. Like other dictators before and since, Milosevic’s only error was complacency – the ease with which he toyed with successive Western partners made him think he could manipulate everyone forever.

This problem of temporal scope affects the second problem, Glaurdic’s lionizing of the Slovenes. He asserts without evidence (in contrast to his careful sourcing of arguments about Milosevic and the West) that Slovenia was working toward liberal democracy and hoped to reform Yugoslavia into a confederation. By starting only in 1987, Glaurdic fails to consider the fact that Slovenia already had begun to make its contribution to killing a Federation it had grown tired of subsidizing. In 1984 – long before Milosevic was even a minor nightmare – Ljubljana already had threatened the Federation’s stability by refusing to approve the country’s budget. Milka Planinc and most of her cabinet flew to the Slovene capital and convinced them to change their minds, but the Slovenes had laid down their marker. Two other groups of Slovenes also were weakening a Yugoslav idea that – as many have pointed out – did have some public resonance. First, Slovene technocrats attached to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) – the country’s cabinet – were telling US and European contacts that Yugoslavia was making material progress and was on the way to a modern, European economy. Therefore, when Eagleburger, successive US Ambassadors to Yugoslavia, and others clung to the idea that it would hold together long after it was clear it would not, they could quote local “experts” they could say were better versed in their country’s prospects than analysts based in Washington. Despite Glaurdic’s pro-Slovene sentiment, Ljubljana was the principal beneficiary when the Badinter Commission declared Yugoslavia to be in a state of dissolution.

In addition, the students and comical wags of Mladina and other “cool’’ Slovene media and rock bands that Glaurdic praises actually had a corrosive impact on everyone around them. Jokes about Milosevic and Yugoslavia were easy to make up, but their impact was to undermine public confidence in an already fragile political and security order. This phenomenon was somewhat similar to what Simon Schama identified as the impact upper class disrespect for traditional fashions and court rituals had as 18th century France’s ancien regime began to move toward its violent climax. Mladina’s irreverence fed an atmosphere in which Milan Kucan and other liberals could use Milosevic’s ad hoc destructiveness to accomplish the separation Ljubljana already had threatened. I am no fan of Ante Markovic, but his condemnation of Slovenia and Croatia made more sense than Glaurdic gives him credit for.

Glaurdic’s analytical blinders concerning the Slovenes bring me back to his notion that Kucan and the Slovene liberals wanted to preserve Yugoslavia as a Confederation. Slovenia’s behavior demonstrates instead that their main concern was to stop sending their resources to the central coffers. If they could get away with that, so could Croatia and Vojvodina, which had similar interests (Croatia in addition could then slough off the considerable portion of the Federal debt it had incurred in the 1960s and 1970s). There is no evidence the Slovenes or anyone else actually considered how such a construction would work. “Confederation” was a slogan; Milosevic was not the only actor able to fool Westerners.

Therefore, Glaurdic’s praise of German demands that the West recognize Slovenia and Croatia without considering the impact on the rest of Yugoslavia is misplaced. Genscher was exerting German muscle, much as the British and French feared (Milosevic and Karadzic would use that fear when they dealt with their soldiers and diplomats). In fact, as things turned out the Germans got their wish. Slovenia and Croatia are in the EU; the rest will not be for years, at best. The result is simmering tensions and – south of the Sava – frustration and Tito-nostalgia.

So Glaurdic’s book is not definitive – how many books are? It nevertheless is an important work, and marks a real turning point in the study of tragic events that still are playing out. Western policies and disagreements today have no more strategic sense than they did during the period Glaurdic analyzes, and, south of the Sava, no final statuses have emerged to replace what was once called “Yugoslavia. “ His analysis may have more legs than even he is aware; a recent article (2) analyzes EU policies toward the Middle East in a manner very similar to Glaurdic’s work on the Balkans.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


1. Cable from the US Mission to NATO to Washington, January 21, 1980, US Department of State Declassification Case # 200702763, Document #E332. This piece of diplomatic traffic is part of a tranche of material declassified at my request regarding a research project unrelated to the collapse of Yugoslavia.

2. Rosemary Hollis, “Europe’s Role in the Arab Spring, International Affairs (Chatham House, London), January 2012.

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