The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part seven

TransConflict is pleased to present the seventh part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

Suggested Reading

Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

Surely the most complex of the main players in the Wars of Yugoslav Succession was Slobodan Milošević. Subtler in his political sensibilities than Karadžić, better prepared for negotiations and discussions than Tudjman, willing to turn on a dime when maintaining his political position required betraying a friend or an ally, and personally charming when he chose, Milošević was not known in his early career for any special advocacy of nationalism, as Tudjman had been over the course of his career. But in the spring of 1987 he realized that he could mobilize broad and enthusiastic support by stressing Serbian victimhood, especially in Kosovo. From the time he seized power later that year, he perfected a vigorous nationalist agenda that served what many believe was his main goal: to achieve and maintain himself in power. His ability to generate massive public displays of support for his policy of consolidating Serbian control over Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro led him to think that perhaps he could achieve control over all of Yugoslavia. When that failed, he turned to a policy of uniting all Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, such as those in Bosnia and Krajina, under his control. In this process he demonstrated far more political horse sense than any other political figure. He knew how to coerce, how to generate public outcry suitable to his plans, and how to present bald faced lies with a straight face. At the same time he knew how to negotiate, how to promise while simultaneously taking away, and how to keep his antagonists guessing.[49]

Milošević reached the peak of his power in Serbia at the moment communism was collapsing elsewhere in Europe. As socialism weakened and Milošević, excited by his discovery of the power of Serbian nationalism, strengthened, other republics in the SFRY became increasingly unwilling to play second fiddle to Serb interests. It is not clear whether Milošević understood clearly what was going to happen, but by 1990 he had mobilized Serbian society in such a way that it was not willing to countenance cooperation with the other republics in a state based on mutual accommodation. He achieved this in part by extending his control over Serbian media. Whereas smaller independent voices, such as the news magazine Vreme, the TV station Studio-B, and the radio station B-92, survived in Belgrade, by 1991 the Milošević-controlled RTV Belgrade had become the primary source of political information not only in Serbia, but also in those areas of Croatia and Bosnia controlled by Serbian forces. In fact, one of the first things that Serbian forces did when they seized a territory was to remove the television responders linked to Sarajevo or Zagreb and replace them with ones that could only receive RTV Belgrade. During the time of the most heated conflicts, over 60 percent of the population of Serbia watched the principal news program from RTV Belgrade, whereas only 2 percent were reading newspapers.[50] In 1989, when Franjo Tudjman, by profession a historian, published a book entitled Wastelands of Historical Reality that provided significantly lower estimates of both Serb losses in World War II and Croatian atrocities than those accepted in Belgrade, the Belgrade media launched into what it called a “demystification of history.”[51] Graves of World War II victims were opened and their remains shown, including explicit descriptions and pictures of mutilations and atrocities. Tudjman was referred to as “genocidal,” “fascistoid,” “heir of Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić,” and “neo-Ustasha Croatian viceroy.” Milošević, on the other hand was “wise,” “decisive,” ‘unwavering,” and the “man restoring the national dignity of the Serbian people.” Of course, the Croatian media, controlled in Zagreb by Tudjman’s people, reacted accordingly, characterizing Milošević as “Stalin’s bastard,” and “a bank robber,” while Tudjman was “dignified,” and “a wise statesman.” [52] When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the Muslim forces became “jihad fanatics,” “Muhadjedin,” and “terrorists.” All sides used these destabilizing tactics, but as Mark Thompson, the historian of the media wars that forged the actual wars, put it, “Serbia set the pace.”[53]

Given the misrepresentation of Izetbegović’s views and the despicable media campaigns conducted by Serbian television (matched in Croatia), it would be easy to argue that the fears felt by the Serbian minorities in Croatia and Bosnia were manufactured out of whole cloth. However, this would not be entirely correct. During the socialist period, the consciousness of national differences appears to have declined, but a good deal of awareness of difference continued to exist under the surface. One ethnic relationship in particular had never changed, and that was the hostility between Serbs and Muslims, in particular between Serbs and the Albanians of Kosovo. This hostility had a long history that the ease of self-identification through religion, language, names, and dress exacerbated.[54] In Belgrade, for example, the traditional occupations held by Albanians—nighttime street washers and deliverers of coal to basement bins—clearly suggested that even more highly educated urban Serbs held Kosovars in low esteem.[55] This explains in part why Milošević was able to rouse Serbs over the question of Kosovo. His tactics tapped a deep-seated racial chord in the minds of many Serbs. This same sense also helped Karadžić to make Serbs in Bosnia believe the worst about Izetbegović and the Muslims. Antagonism between Serbs and Croats, while not as deep seated as that between Serbs and Muslim, also had a long history, but it had decreased in saliency in socialist Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, there remained a sufficient residue of distrust that it could be prodded back to life by political leaders for their own purposes with relative ease. For this, Milošević, Tudjman, and Karadžić bear a heavy burden of responsibility.

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


49) For an excellent discussion of the personality of Milošević and his family, especially of Mira Marković, the wife who had such an influence on him, see Louis Sell, Slobodan M Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 169-94. Sell believes Milošević was a “malignant narcissist,” that is, an emotionally frigid individual who was so strongly self-centered that he believed his own wants and visions to be the truth, whatever the facts. See also Slavoljub Djukić, Milošević and Marković: A Lust for Power (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001).

50) Slightly modified from Eric D. Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 33.

51) A revised and updated English version appeared in 1996: Franjo Tudjman, Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy (New York: M. Evans, 1996).

52) Milan Milošević, “The Media Wars,” in Udovički and Ridgeway 2000, 113.

53) Mark Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina (Luton, UK: University of Luton Press, 1999), substantially revised from its initial publication in 1994. “Serbia Sets the Pace” is the title of chapter 4. See also, David Bruce MacDonald, Balkan Holocausts? Serbian and Croatian Victim-Centered Propaganda and the War in Yugoslavia (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).

54) Bojan Aleksov argues, for example, that Serbian historiography has consistently mythologized the emergence of Islam in the Balkans as being a result of the devşirme and of coercion, rather than a complex and genuine phenomenon. In the 1990s, he writes,
this tradition produced “a flood of press articles spreading hatred depic[ting] Muslims as an imminent danger.” From “Perceptions of Islamisation in the Serbian National Discourse” (paper presented at the Nationalism, Society and Culture in Post-Ottoman
South East Europe conference, St. Peter’s College, Oxford, 29-30 May 2004), 12.

55) A survey conducted in 2001 showed that Serbs ranked Kosovar Albanians lowest in trust among eleven ethnic groups, and Bosnia Muslims next lowest. Both were ranked lower than Roma. See Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, “Milošević’s Voters: Explaining Grassroots Nationalism in Postcommunist Europe,” in Nationalism after Communism: Lessons Learned, ed. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Ivan Krastev (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004), 53.

If you are interested in writing for TransConflict, please do not hesitate to contact us with your ideas and suggestions!

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



6 Responses

  1. Pingback : The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part twelve | TransConflict

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons