To place equal blame on the Serbs and Croats for the tragedy in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina appears to be an exercise in academic self-righteousness. On the international hit parade of bad guys, some Bosnian Serbs take the lead, followed, in the distance, by some Bosnian Croats—while the Bosnian Muslims are more or less exonerated from all evildoing. Some scholars and politicians have argued that the premature recognition of Croatia ignited the war, and some have even suggested that Croatia should never have been recognized as an independent state.
The root of the Balkan crisis lies not in the premature recognition of Croatia, but to a large extent in the excessive legalism of international organizations. For four years, the United Nations and the European Union were not able to find a common approach to the conflict in the heart of Europe. In 1991, when Yugoslavia began to fall apart, Croatia expected the European Community and the United Nations to accept its bid for independence, hoping that its recognition would stave off the threat from the Yugoslav Army. In the absence of prompt international recognition, and due to its lack of firepower, Croatia could not prevent a land grab by the Yugoslav Army. Croatia had to wait six long months before it was finally recognized in 1992 by the European Union, and several more months before it joined the United Nations. Meanwhile, it had lost territory and people, and suffered an estimated war damage of $27 billion.
Whether Croatia and neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina should have been recognized earlier, or not at all, is now academic. Clearly, centralistic-minded Serbia considered herself the best custodian of the Yugoslav “unity and integrity,” especially since it had the most to lose from Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Ironically, it was the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army, which, while trying to salvage the former Yugoslavia by force, also destroyed it by force.
While debating whether the recognition of Croatia led to unnecessary bloodshed in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, one might also raise the question whether the multiethnic Yugoslav state should have been created in the first place, in 1919, and recreated in 1945. The faked “brotherhood and unity,” which was imposed on the Yugoslav peoples by the communist elites, could hardly mask profound cultural differences among Yugoslavia’s diverse ethnic groups. Suffice it to say that in the former Yugoslavia each ethnic group secretly wondered how to part company and go its own separate way.
Now, as the war in the formerly occupied parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina seems to be over, some foreign diplomats are calling for the creation of a war crimes tribunal for those Balkan warlords suspected of committing war crimes. Ironically, while some Bosnian Serb warlords are being portrayed as “war criminals,” until recently they were urged by the international community to attend the United Nations-sponsored talks with their erstwhile victims. Small wonder that in such an ill-defined legal environment, some foreign journalists often resort to pejorative and false statements about “Balkan warring parties,” engaged in “civil war,” etc.
The legal options for Croatia, the first victim of the aggression, have been difficult since the day of the former Yugoslavia’s breakup. On the one hand, Croat President Franjo Tudjman has been pushed by the international community to negotiate with his Serbian counterparts; on the other, he has often been suspected by some in the foreign media of cutting secret deals with Serbia at the expense of the Bosnian state. This exercise in international “legal equidistance” may render difficult the implementation of peace in neighboring Bosnia, or for that matter, may be even the cause of another crisis in the Balkans. Moreover, it may seriously endanger the mission of the present NATO-led IFOR forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The war which began in 1991 as a war of aggression by the communist Yugoslav Army against unarmed Croatia was also prolonged by the lack of unanimity among superpowers. One may say that the lack of consensus among world powers prolonged the Balkans conflict. To now shrug off the war tragedy by lumping all “warring parties” in the same legal basket becomes an alibi for previous political indecision. It was to a great extent the “Balkanization” of the international community which accounted for the tragic consequences on the Bosnian killing fields.