The following is an interview I conducted earlier this year with Dr. Nikola Koljevic, a well-known Shakespearean scholar and the current Vice President of the Bosnian Serbs. Dr. Koljevic has been a professor at the University of Sarajevo, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, In 1990, he was elected to the Bosnian parliament (one of the two Serbian representatives), and since 1992 has been the vice president of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia. The interview took place in Pale, Bosnia (an area controlled by the Bosnian Serbs).
Q: What is your opinion about the coverage of the war by the Western media?
A: Everybody knows that the coverage, in terms of quantity, is amazing. It is so large that one naturally asks the question “Why?” Why has Bosnia’s crisis been on the front pages of European and, especially, American newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post for the past three years? Second, it was obvious from the beginning that the coverage was biased against the Serbs. It’s been so biased that Peter Brock wrote in Strategic Policy and Defense that the range of false reporting and prejudice spans from the simple, like a picture of a Serbian woman presented as a Croat, to the sophisticated, such as failing to point out that Serbs in Bosnia had not just come from Serbia but have lived here for centuries. This is how they succeed in presenting the Serbs as aggressors. It is much easier for the general public to swallow the idea that the Serbs were the aggressors if they thought that the Serbs had just invaded Bosnia from the other side of the river Drina. So, we can see that just by the lack of simple information you can build a negative image.
Q: So, you think this was an organized Dr. Nikola Koljevic, vice president of the Bosnian Serbs media campaign?
A: Yes, I think that it was a very visible campaign against the Serbs. First of all, it is quite obvious that public relations and image making—that’s an American specialty, something that Americans are much more skillful at than Europeans— played a very important role. The campaign was designed on the emotional basis of what really touches the people. They first presented us as the enemies. They then hid the fact that the war did not start in Sarajevo but in Kuprec and Bosadina, where the first massacre of the Serbs occurred in the river Sava. So, if you combine the notion that the Serbs began the war with the notion that the Serbs are the aggressors, you have started on the road toward making Serbs into the bad guys in a simple, moralistic division —the bad guys versus the good guys—a simplistic division especially attractive to Americans.
The next step of this campaign was to make up stories about the so-called concentration camps. Yes, we have prisoner camps, as do the Croats and the Muslims. In fact, in the early days of the war, when there was great pressure on us, we unilaterally released 6,000 prisoners, as a gesture of good will, which backfired on us militarily because many of these people reappeared to face us again on the battlefield.
The third stage was the story about “ethnic cleansing.” What the press ignored is that many civilians, Serbs and Muslims, just did not want to fight and therefore left the area, as happens in any war. And those who left were treated well. However, “ethnic cleansing” was a very emotional symbol because it showed that people could not live where they want, which is a basic human freedom. What is interesting about the ethnic cleansing accusations is that the American press did not mention the number of Serbian refugees—and there were more Serbian refugees in Yugoslavia than Muslim refugees in Europe. More interesting still is that Serbs in Sarajevo did not have freedom of movement. The 50,000 Serbs in Sarajevo, 29,000 Serbs in Zenica, and 25,000 in Tuzla were ethnic hostages. They were not able to leave these places. And if you compare the situation of someone who is not free to relocate—this was the situation of my brother, who could not leave Sarajevo for eight months—with the situation of a refugee, as I was during World War II, the latter is easier. I do not mean that it is good or desirable, but it is easier than being an ethnic hostage. You can go where you want, you can get humanitarian aid, you can leave the battlefield. However, we have not seen any coverage of the Serbian hostages, which is propaganda in the sense that the other side is not shown.
The fourth stage was the rape accusations. Media and p.r. firms well know human psychology and the emotional triggers of the average, middle-class American, who is more sensitive to rape because of the power of the women’s rights movement. The media circulated figures given to them by the Muslims, but they did not take into consideration the official Red Cross, U.N., and Amnesty International figures.
The final stage concerned the ill and the young, how they had been denied medical help and had to be transported by air to European and American hospitals. Of course, the press would not show any wounded Serbian children, as if they did not exist.
So, all of this contributes to the idea that one side is good and the other is bad. And the really grotesque thing is that when the Muslims realized the power of these images, they started to victimize themselves, as in the staged massacre of Markala. David Bynder, an American journalist, had to wait four months to publish an article about this staged massacre.
Q: So you believe p.r. agencies have been able to manipulate the press. However, many Western journalists are here, in Bosnia. How do you explain the fact that almost all of them are—in your opinion—prejudiced against the Serbs?
A: I think that there are several reasons. First, there arc more American journalists in Muslim areas than in Serbian areas. Most of them only occasionally come to us and, therefore, receive most of their information from Muslim or Croatian sources. Moreover, the editorial departments play an important role. I had a long interview with John Burns that was never published. When I asked him why it never saw print, he told me that it was the editorial board’s decision and not his. Some other journalists also told me that they wrote accurate reports, but that their editors said “No, we do not want this, we want something else.” So I cannot blame all the journalists, although there are some who have been biased from the beginning.
Q: Do you plan to use p.r. techniques in order to change your image?
A: No, we do not. It is too late for us, and it costs a lot. We do not have the money of the Islamic world. What we are trying to do is to organize the Serbs of the Diaspora. Letter writing campaigns can greatly help. Our philosophy is the following: we know that TV is the most powerful medium. It has a strong emotional effect, but it does not last long. After the first impression, people start asking questions and want more information, facts, reasons. That is why I think that the written and spoken word will help us reveal the truth. Publishing books and articles also helps, despite the fact that we are unable, at this point, to penetrate Western libraries.
Q: Do you believe that this is a cultural, religious, or a nationalist war?
A: The simplest description of this war would be a civil war. However, all the three things you mentioned are interrelated. Let me explain. All people have a basic need for identity. The most mature form of group identity is the nation. So these different groups, Croats and Serbs, felt that they belonged in different groups. Muslims are a different case because they were Slavs who converted to Islam. All these groups wanted to have equal rights. And before the war, Dr. Karadjie and I suggested the creation of a Council for National Equality, because very important questions—like independence—can only be solved by consensus. If the Croats and Muslims had accepted this proposal, the war would never have occurred. In this sense, it is an ethnic war. Three ethnic groups are fighting each other. On the other hand, after years of studying Shakespeare, I realized that every culture has its cult, that every culture is based on a certain religious system. For example, Protestants emphasize personal purity, while the Orthodox stress brotherhood. So, in this respect, this war is also a religious one.
Q: What about the maps, and the effect territorial divisions have on the prospects for peace?
A: The division of land is not so big a problem that it could not be overcome. If we stop the war, if we try to identify the important strategic interests of each side, it will be easier to draw a satisfactory map. Let me give you an example. We know that the Muslims need access to the sea, a connection with the rest of the world. We understand this interest and are willing to negotiate. They should likewise understand our interest in the Breko corridor, because we need to have compact territory that connects us with Serbia proper. Their interest in the area is only to prevent our interest. So, we need to identify the strategic interests of each side and try to turn each political entity—the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and the Bosnian Federation—into a viable state. The problem we have now is that our state is not viable economically in terms of communications, energy, and infrastructure.
Q: Let us assume that the war is over and a loose federation is created. Would the Bosnian Serbs be satisfied with this or would they try to become a part of Serbia?
A: It is quite natural that we will be connected with Serbia, when the peace comes, because we belong in the same nation. The natural inclination will be for the Serbs to come together into one state. It does not have to be a Greater Serbia, a term that the Western press insists on. After all, we have lived here for hundreds of years. We have not “recently” occupied these territories. If we have peace, then we can use democratic means. We can ask the people of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia if they want to have a confederation with Serbia or with the Bosnian Federation.
Q: There is a lot of discussion about lifting the arms embargo. What do the Bosnian Serbs think about this?
A: I think this would be a real catastrophe. People who argue about this, especially United States Senator Bob Dole, are not aware of the consequences. The war will escalate not only in Bosnia but throughout the Balkans. I don’t think that those people who support the lifting of the arms embargo are geographically and historically aware of the region’s problems. They are 3,000 miles away, and it is easy for them to talk about it in a rather irresponsible way. On the other hand, I see that Europe is strongly against the American proposal because Europeans are aware of the consequences. There is another positive sign: the speed of political negotiations in Bosnia. It shows that Europeans are very keen to have peace in Bosnia before the whole thing blows up in the United States Congress. This is the positive side of the American proposal.
Q: My last question is about the accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Could you comment on this?
A: Of course atrocities take place in any war. What has been hidden in this war is that atrocities have been committed by all sides. It was only when 10,000 Croats were forced [by Muslims] to leave Central Bosnia in 1993—and we helped them—that the world had to admit that the Serbs were not the only ones who were doing terrible things. I think that crimes have to be investigated in a democratic and legal way.
Q: What about the international community establishing a war crimes tribunal?
A: What is strange about this tribunal is that it looks more like political pressure than legal justice. The most modern aspect of Western thought is the idea of human rights, and this idea can be manipulated like all other ideas. But justice has to be done in a legal way, within the countries, perhaps with an international presence. Otherwise, it is an external pressure to the sovereignty and independence of our countries, hi a Western democracy, we do not have the idea that someone outside the country can judge the guilt or innocence of a Serb, Muslim, American, or German. The idea of an outside judge is a very dangerous notion, because it means that the world order has a boss who is going to decide what this order will be. This contradicts the basic ideas of self-determination and sovereignty of a state. So, I think that the whole process needs to stay within national boundaries. Otherwise, should the world not also judge those who killed civilians in, say, the Persian Gulf War? What about Vietnam, Rwanda, Afghanistan? Why were international tribunals not established for these wars?