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

TransConflict is pleased to present the sixth 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

Gojko Mišković, one of the collaborators in the Scholars’ Initiative, testifies how thoroughly Karadžić’s hostile approach had penetrated the discourse in Bosnia by mid-1991. In August of that year, Mišković participated in a meeting of representatives of twenty political parties from around Yugoslavia. The meeting was organized by his party, the Democratic Party [of Serbia], and took place in the Hotel Ilidža near Sarajevo. Here is how he describes the meeting:

The entire atmosphere of the meeting was electric, like before a major storm on the open sea. . . . [After the meeting came to order about thirty minutes late],Velibor Ostojić, head of the delegation of the Serbian Democratic Party of Bosnia and Hercegovina (SDS), was the first to speak. Even the delay in the opening of the meeting drew his vehement and contentious rhetoric. Probably unnerved by the fact that he had to make a presentation, he made it clear in a raised voice that the SDS and the Serb people would not accept any concessions or compromises, because they were on their own turf (svoji na svome). As the strongest and the most prepared they were in a position to thwart plans for the independence of Bosnia and Hercegovina. While he was speaking, the delegations of the Serbian Socialist Party . . . and the Communist Union of Montenegro showed their support by nodding their heads. Immediately Ostojić’s “dearest enemies” [the representatives of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Hercegovina—HDZ BiH—and of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action—SDA] responded in the same contentious way, after which [others] refined and supplemented the argument. The news we heard the next morning from a tearful Dr. Gordana Hajduković (SDP Hrvatske) that the JNA and Serbian territorial troops had shelled her native Osijek dealt the final blow to efforts to conduct calm discussions. The next round of talks three weekends later was a complete fiasco and total failure.[42]

“The main reason that predetermined the failure of the discussions,” Mišković believes today, “was the hostile and contentious tone of the representatives of the SDS, which had the character of a war cry from Serbian heroic epics: either get out, or submit (il’ se skloni, il’ mi se pokloni).” Surely not by coincidence, a telephone conversation between Milošević and Karadžić taped at about

the same time as the party meeting in Sarajevo confirms that the Serbs had already decided to use force in Bosnia. “You’ll get everything, don’t worry. We are the strongest,” Milošević tells Karadžić. “Don’t worry. As long as we have the army, nobody can do anything to us.”[43] Some in the West originally believed that Karadžić and the other Serb leaders were “rational people with whom one could argue, negotiate, compromise, and agree. In fact, they respected only force or an unambiguous and credible threat to use it.”[44] As Edward P. Joseph put it, “No degree of assurance to the Serb minority in either Croatia or Bosnia could likely have deterred Milošević from deploying the arsenal of Yugoslavia for his aims.”[45]

Franjo Tudjman, while on some occasions more willing to listen to admonitions and advice from the Western powers than Karadžić, was almost the equal of Karadžić in his nationalism, but of course on behalf of Croats. “He has one purpose in life,” remarked Lord Owen, “to control all the territory that he believes historically belongs to Croatia—and to that end he will use any means.”[46] At the first meeting of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), Tudjman said ominously, “The NDH [Independent State of Croatia during World War II] was not simply a quisling creation and a fascist crime; it was also an expression
of the historical aspirations of the Croatian people.”[47] In the months from the time of that statement until the election of 1990 brought Tudjman to power, one of the most notable features of public life in Croatia was the vitriolic nature of Tudjman’s campaign.[48] Susan Woodward notes that this was important not because it was unique—Milošević achieved his power by similar outbursts against Kosovar Albanians—but because it played a role in defining how far in the direction of inflammatory prejudice it was permissible to go. Shortly after his election, Tudjman moved to rehabilitate those who served the fascist regime of the Independent State of Croatia; streets and squares were renamed in honor of supporters of that regime; and purges of Serbs from Croatian police forces spread even to the dismissal of Serbs in commercial ventures. Larger questions of how to approach the transition that Croatia was undergoing in its social, economic, or ethnic dimensions never became the focus of his regime. Neither did Tudjman see cooperation with educated urban Serbs who might have stood as a counterweight to the Krajina Serbs as worthy of interest, thus leaving moderate Croatian Serbs in no-man’s land between Milošević’s nationalism and Tudjman’s narrow
vision of Croatia’s future.

The contrast of these moves with Izetbegović’s efforts to mediate is almost as great as the contrast between Izetbegović and Karadžić. Indeed, Tudjman never really accepted Bosnia as a state. Instead he maintained a hope that it be divided with Serbia, with at best a small Muslim enclave around Sarajevo. In other words, Tudjman’s nationalist agenda seemed to consist of two goals typical of a nationalizing regime: first, to replace Serbs in positions of authority or of economic power with Croats; and two, to expand the borders of Croatia if possible. He succeeded in the first, but at the expense of alienating even moderate Serbs in Croatia, and he failed in the second, although he and Milošević had discussions that Tudjman hoped would lead to the partition of Bosnia. Beyond his national goals, Tudjman had ambitions to be recognized as a European leader. But his nationalist policies, as well as his bombastic style and love of pomp and circumstance, gave the impression to many of a comic opera ruler rather than a leader of substance. This reputation and appearance did not prevent him from providing hard-edged leadership for the Croats until his death in 1999.

‘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.


42) Mišković email to Stokes, November 30, 2004.

43) Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 96. See also Josip Glaurdić, “Inside the Serbian War Machine: The Milošević Telephone Intercepts, 1991-1992,” East European Politics and Society 23, no. 1 (2009): 86-104.

44) Richard Holbrooke, To End a War, rev. ed. (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 152.

45) Edward P. Joseph, “Back to the Balkans,” Foreign Affairs 84, no. 1 (2005): 118. Joseph continues: “It is hard to overestimate how essential the minority-treatment principle is for the Balkans.”

46) David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (London: Victor Gollanz, 1995), 74.

47) Quoted by Ejub Štitkovac, “Croatia: The First War,” in Udovički and Ridgeway 2000, 156.

48) Susan Woodward characterizes Tudjman’s campaign as full of “anti-Semitic and -Serb vitriol” in Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1995), 133.

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?