Global Policy Forum

Seeing Yugoslavia Through a Dark Glass:


By Diana Johnstone

March 1998

Diana Johnstone was the European editor of In These Times from 1979 to 1990, and press officer of the Green group in the European Parliament from 1990 to 1996. She is the author of The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe in America's World (London/New York, Versa Schucken, 1984) and is currently working on a book on the former Yugoslavia. This article is an expanded version of a talk given on May 25, 1998, at an international conference on media held in Athens, Greece.

Years of experience in and out of both mainstream and alternative media have made me aware of the power of the dominant ideology to impose certain interpretations on international news. During the Cold War, most world news for American consumption had to be framed as part of the Soviet-U.S. contest. Since then, a new ideological bias frames the news. The way the violent fragmentation of Yugoslavia has been reported is the most stunning example.

I must admit that it took me some time to figure this out, even though I had a long-standing interest in and some knowledge of Yugoslavia. I spent time there as a student in 1953, living in a Belgrade dormitory and learning the language. In 1984, in a piece for "In These Times", I warned that extreme decentralization, conflicting economic interests between the richer and poorer regions, austerity policies imposed by the IMF, and the decline of universal ideals were threatening Yugoslavia with "re-Balkanization" in the wake of Tito's death and desanctification. "Local ethnic interests are reasserting themselves". I wrote, "The danger is that these rival local interests may become involved in the rivalries of outside powers. This is how the Balkans in the past were a powder keg of world war." Writing this took no special clairvoyance. The danger of Yugoslavia's disintegration was quite obvious to all serious observers well before Slobodan Milosevic arrived on the scene.

As the country was torn apart in the early nineties, I was unable to keep up with all that was happening. In those years, my job as press officer for the Greens in the European Parliament left me no time to investigate the situation myself. Aware that there were serious flaws in the way media and politicians were reacting. I wrote an article warning against combatting "nationalism" by taking sides for one nationalism against another, and against judging a complex situation by analogy with totally different times and places. "Every nationalism stimulates others". I noted, "Historical analogies should be drawn with caution and never allowed to obscure the facts." However, there was no stopping the tendency to judge the Balkans, about which most people knew virtually nothing, by analogy with Hitler Germany, about which people at least imagined they knew a lot, and which enabled analysis to be rapidly abandoned in favour of moral certitude and righteous indignation.

However, it was only later, when I was able to devote considerable time to my own research, that I realized the extent of the deception-which is in large part self-deception.

I mention all this to stress that I understand the immense difficulty of gaining a clear view of the complex situation in the Balkans. The history of the region and the interplay of internal political conflicts and external influences would be hard to grasp even without propaganda distortions. Nobody can be blamed for being confused. Moreover, by now, many people have invested so much emotion in a one-sided view of the situation that they are scarcely able to consider alternative interpretations.

It is not necessarily because particular journalists or media are "alternative' that they are free from the dominant interpretation and the dominant world view. In fact, in the case of the Yugoslav tragedy, the irony is that "alternative" or "left' activists and writers have - frequently taken the lead in likening the Serbs, the people who most wanted to continue to live in multicultural Yugoslavia, to Nazi racists, and in calling for military intervention on behalf of ethnically defined secessionist movements - all supposedly in the name of "multi-cultural Bosnia", a country which, unlike Yugoslavia, would have to be built from scratch by outsiders.

The Serbs and Yugoslavia

Like other Christian peoples in the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs were heavily taxed and denied ownership of property of political power reserved for Muslims. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Serb farmers led a revolt that spread to Greece. The century-long struggle put an end to the Ottoman Empire.

The Habsburg monarchy found it natural that when one empire receded, another should advance, and sought to gain control over the lands lost to the Ottoman Turks. Although Serbs had rallied to the Habsburgs in earlier wars against the Turks, Serbia soon appeared to Vienna as the main obstacle to its own expansion into the Balkans. By the end of the nineteenth century, Vienna was seeking to fragment the Serb-inhabited lands to prevent what it named "Greater Serbia", taking control of Bosnia-Herzegovina and fostering the birth of Albanian nationalism (as converts to Islam, Albanian feudal chieftains enjoyed privileges under the Ottoman Empire and combatted the Christian liberation movements).

Probably because they had been deprived of full citizens rights under the Ottoman Turks, and because their own society of farmers and traders was relatively egalitarian, Serb political leaders throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were extremely receptive to the progressive ideals of the French Revolution. While all the other liberated Balkan nations imported German princelings as their new kings, the Serbs promoted their own pig farmers into a dynasty, one of whose members translated John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty' into Serbian during his student days. Nowhere in the Balkans did Western progressive ideas exercise such attraction as in Serbia, no doubt due to the historic circumstances of the country's emergence from four hundred years of subjugation.

Meanwhile, intellectuals in Croatia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire increasingly rankling under subordination to the Hungarian nobility, initiated the Yugoslav movement for cultural, and eventually political, unification of the South Slav peoples, notably the Serbs and Croats, separated by history and religion (the Serbs having been converted to Christianity by the Greek Orthodox Church and the Croats by the Roman Catholic Church) but united by language. The idea of a "Southslavia" was largely inspired by the national unification of neighbouring Italy, occurring around the same time.

In 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire seized the pretext of the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand to declare war and crush Serbia once and for all. When Austria-Hungary lost the world war it had thus initiated, leaders in Slovenia and Croatia chose to unite with Serbia in a single kingdom. This decision enabled both Slovenia and Croatia to go from the losing to the winning side in World War 1, thereby avoiding war reparations and enlarging their territory, notably on the Adriatic coast, and the expense of Italy. The joint Kingdom was renamed "Jugoslavia" in 1929. The conflicts between Croats and Serbs that plagued what is called "the first Yugoslavia" were described by Rebecca West in her celebrated book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, first published in 1941.

In April 1941, Serb patriots in Belgrade led a revolt against an accord reached between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Nazi Germany. This led to Nazi bombing of Belgrade, a German invasion, creation of an independent fascist state of Croatia (including Bosnia Herzegovina), and attachment of much of the Serbian province of Kosovo to Albania, then a puppet of Mussolini's Italy. The Croatian Ustashe undertook a policy of genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies within the territory of their "Greater Croatia", while the Germans raised 55 divisions among the Muslims of Bosnia and Albania.

In Serbia itself, the German occupants announced that one hundred Serbian hostages would be executed for each German killed by resistance fighters. The threat was carried out. As a result, the royalist Serbian resistance (the first guerrilla resistance to Nazi occupation in Europe) led by Draza Mihailovic adopted a policy of holding off attacks on the Germans in expectation of an Allied invasion. The Partisans, led by Croatian communist Josip Broz Tito, adopted a more active strategy of armed resistance, which made considerable gains in the predominantly Serb border regions of Croatia and Bosnia and won support from Churchill for its effectiveness. A civil war developed between Mihailovic's "Chetniks" and Tito's Partisans which was also a civil war between Serbs, since Serbs were the most numerous among the Partisans. These divisions between Serbs - torn between Serbian and Yugoslav identity - have never been healed and help explain the deep confusion among Serbs during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

After World War 11, the new Communist Yugoslavia tried to build "brotherhood and unity" on the myth that all the peoples had contributed equally to liberation from fascism. Mihailovic was executed, and school children in post-war Yugoslavia learned more about the "fascist" nature of his Serbian nationalist Chetniks than they did about Albanian and Bosnian Muslims who had volunteered for the 55, or even about the killing of Serbs in the Jasenovac death camp run by Ustashe in Western Bosnia.

After the 1948 break with Moscow, the Yugoslav communist leadership emphasized its difference from the Soviet bloc by adopting a policy of "self-management', supposed to lead by fairly rapid stages to the "withering away of the State'. "Tito repeatedly revised the Constitution to strengthen local authorities, while retaining final decision-making power for himself. When he died in 1980, he thus left behind a hopelessly complicated system that could not work without his arbitration". Serbia in particular was unable to enact vitally necessary reforms because its territory had been divided up, with two "autonomous provinces," Vojvodina and Kosovo, able to veto measures taken by Serbia, while Serbia could not intervene in their affairs.

In the 1980's, the rise in interest rates and unfavourable world trade conditions dramatically increased the foreign debt Yugoslavia (like many "third world" countries) had been encouraged to run up thanks to its standing in the West as a socialist country not belonging to the Soviet bloc. The IMF arrived with its familiar austerity measures, which could only be taken by a central government. The leaders of the richer republics -Slovenia and Croatia - did not want to pay for the poorer ones. Moreover, in all former socialist countries, the big political question is privatization of State and Social property, and local communist leaders in Slovenia and Croatia could expect to get a greater share for themselves within the context of division of Yugoslavia into separate little states.

At that stage, a gradual, negotiated dismantling of Yugoslavia into smaller States was not impossible. It would have entailed reaching agreement on division of assets and liabilities, and numerous adjustments to take into account conflicting interests. If pursued openly, however, it might have encountered popular opposition after all, very many people, perhaps a majority, enjoyed being citizens of a large country with an enviable international reputation. What would have been the result of a national referendum on the question of preservation of Yugoslavia?

None was ever held. The first multiparty elections in postwar Yugoslavia were held in 1990, not nationwide in all of Yugoslavia, but separately by each Republic - a method which in itself reinforces separatist power elites. Sure of the active sympathy of Germany, Austria, and the Vatican, leaders in Slovenia and Croatia, prepared the fait accompli #2 of unilateral, unnegotiated secession, proclaimed in 1991. Such secession was illegal, under Yugoslav and international law, and was certain to precipitate civil war. The key role of German (and Vatican) support was to provide rapid international recognition of the new independent republics, in order to transform Yugoslavia into an "aggressor on its own territory".

Political Motives

The political motives that launched the antiSerb propaganda campaign are obvious enough. Claiming that it was impossible to stay in Yugoslavia because the Serbs were so oppressive was the pretext for the nationalist leaders in Slovenia and Croatia to set up their own little statelets which, thanks to early and strong German support, could "jump the queue" and get into the richmen's European club ahead of the rest of Yugoslavia.

The terrible paradox is that very many people, in the sincere desire to oppose racism and aggression, have in fact contributed to demonizing an entire people, the Serbs, thereby legitimizing both ethnic separatism and the new role of NATO as occupying power in the Balkans on behalf of a theoretical "international community".

Already in the 1980's, Croatian and ethnic ALBANIAN separatist lobbies had stepped up their efforts to win support abroad, notably in Germany and the United States, by claiming to be oppressed by Serbs, citing "evidence" that, insofar as it had any basis in truth, referred to the 1920-1941 Yugoslav Kingdom, not to the very different post-World War 11 Yugoslavia.

The current campaign to demonize the Serbs began in July 1991 with a virulent barrage of articles in the German media, led by the influential conservative newspaper, the "Frankfurter Allgerneine Zeitung" (FAZ). In almost daily columns, FAZ editor Johann Georg Reismuller justified the freshly, and illegally, declared "independence" of Slovenia and Croatia by describing "Yugo-Serbs" as essentially Oriental "militarist Bolsheviks" who have "no place in the European Community". Nineteen months after German reunification, and for the first time since Hitler's defeat in 1945, German media resounded with condemnation of an entire ethnic group reminiscent of the pre-war propaganda against the Jews".

This German propaganda binge was the signal that times had changed seriously. Only a few years earlier, a seemingly broad German peace movement had stressed the need to put an end to "enemy stereotypes" (Feindbilder). Yet the sudden ferocious emergence of the enemy stereotype of "the Serbs" did not shock liberal of left Germans, who were soon repeating it themselves. It might seem that the German peace movement had completed its historic mission once its contribution to altering the image of Germany had led Gorbachev to endorse reunification. The least one can say is that the previous efforts at reconciliation with peoples who suffered from Nazi invasion stopped short when it same to the Serbs.

In the Bundestag, German Green leader Joschka Fisher pressed for disavowal of "pacifism" in order to "combat Auschwitz', thereby equating Serbs with Nazis. In a heady mood of self-righteous indignation, German politicians across the board joined in using Germany's past guilt as a reason, not for restraint, as had been the logic up until reunification, but on the contrary, for "bearing their share of the military burden". In the name of human rights, the Federal Republic of Germany abolished its ban on military operations outside the NATO defensive area. Germany could once again be a "normal" military power - thanks to the "Serb threat'.

The near unanimity was all the more surprising in that the "enemy stereotype" of the Serb had been dredged up from the most belligerent German nationalism of the past. "Serbien muss sterbien" (a play on the word sterben, to die), meaning "Serbia must die" was a famous popular war cry of World War 1. Serbs had been singled out for slaughter during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. One would have thought that the younger generation of Germans, seemingly so sensitive to the victims of Germany's aggressive past, would have at least urged caution. Very few did.

On the contrary, what occurred in Germany was a strange sort of mass transfer of Nazi identity, and guilt, to the Serbs. In the case of the Germans, this can be seen as a comforting psychological projection which served to give Germans a fresh and welcome sense of innocence in the face of the new "criminal" people, the Serbs, But the hate campaign against Serbs, started in Germany, did not stop there. Elsewhere, the willingness to single out one of the Yugoslav peoples as the villain calls for other explanations.

Media Momentum

From the start, foreign reporters were better treated in Zagreb and in Ljubljana, whose secessionist leaders understood the prime importance of media images in gaining international support, than in Belgrade. The Albanian secessionists in Kosovo or "Kosovars"4, the Croatian secessionists and the Bosnian Muslims hired an American public relations firm, Ruder Finn, to advance their causes by demonizing the Serbs. Ruder Finn deliberately targeted certain publics, notably the American Jewish community, with a campaign likening Serbs to Nazis. Feminists were also clearly targeted by the Croatian nationalist campaign directed out of Zagreb to brand Serbs as rapists.

The Yugoslav story was complicated; anti-Serb stories had the advantage of being simple and available, and they provided an easy-to-use moral compass by designating the bad guys.

As the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina got under way in mid-1992, American journalists who repeated unconfirmed stories of Serbian atrocities could count on getting published with a chance of a Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize r for international reporting was shared between the two authors of the most sensational "Serb atrocity stories" of the year: Roy Gutman of "Newsday" and John Bums of the "New York Times". In both cases, the prize-winning articles were based on hearsay evidence of dubious credibility. Gutman's articles, mostly based on accounts by Muslim refugees in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, were collected in a book rather misleadingly entitled "A Witness to Genocide", although in fact he had been a "witness" to nothing of the sort, His allegations that Serbs were running "death camps" were picked up by Ruder Finn and widely diffused, notably to Jewish organizations. Burns's story was no more than an interview with a mentally deranged prisoner in a Sarajevo jail, who confessed to crimes some of which have been since proved never to have been committed.

On the other hand, there was no market for stories by a journalist who discovered that reported Serbian "rape camps" did not exist (German TV reporter Martin Lettmayer), or who included information about Muslim or Croat crimes against Serbs (Belgian journalist Georges Berghezan for one). It became increasingly impossible to challenge the dominant interpretation in major media. Editors naturally prefer to keep the story simple: one villain, and as much blood as possible. Moreover, after the German government forced the early recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence, other Western powers lined up opportunistically with the anti-Serb position. The United States soon moved aggressively into the game by picking its own client state - Muslim Bosnia - out of the ruins.

Foreign news has always ben much easier to distort than domestic news. Television coverage simply makes the distortion more convincing. TV crews sent into strange places about which they know next to nothing, send back images of violence that give millions of viewers the impression that "everybody knows what is happening". Such an impression is worse than plain ignorance.

Today, worldwide media such as CNN openly put pressure on governments to respond to the "public opinion" which the media themselves create. Christine Amanpour tells the U.S. and the European Union what they should be doing in Bosnia; to what extent this is coordinated with U.S. agencies is hard to tell. Indeed, the whole question of which tail wags the dog is wide open. Do media manipulate government, does government manipulate media, or are influential networks manipulating both?

Many officials of Western governments complain openly or privately of being forced into unwise policy decisions by "the pressure of public opinion", meaning the media. A particularly interesting testimony in this regard is that of Otto von Habsburg, the extremely active and influential octogenarian heir to the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a member of the European Parliament from Bavaria, who has taken a great and one might say paternal interest in the cause of Croatian independence. "if Germany recognized Slovenia and Croatia so rapidly", Habsburg told the Bonn correspondent of the French daily "Figaro"; "even against the will of (then German foreign minister) HansDietrich Genscher who did not want to take that step, its because the Bonn government was subjected to an almost irresistible pressure of public opinion. In this regard, the German press rendered a very great service, in particular the 'Frankfurter Allgerneine Zeitung' and Carl Gustav Strohm, that great German journalist who works for Die Welt'.

Still, the virtually universal acceptance of a one-sided view of Yugoslavia's collapse cannot be attributed solely to political designs or to sensationalist manipulation of the news by major media. It also owes a great deal to the ideological uniformity prevailing among educated liberals who have become the consensual moral conscience in Northwestern EuroAmerican society since the end of the Cold War.

Down with the State

This ideology is the expression in moralistic terms of the dominant project for reshaping the world since the United States emerged as sole superpower after the defeat of communism and collapse of the Soviet Union. United States foreign policy for over a century has been dictated by a single overriding concern: to open world markets to American capital and American enterprise. Today this project is triumphant as "economic globalization". Throughout the world, government policies are judged, approved or condemned decisively not by their populations but by "the markets" meaning the financial markets. Foreign investors, not domestic voters, decide policy.

The International Monetary Fund and other such agencies are there to help governments adjust their policies and their societies to market imperatives.

The shift of decision-making power away from elected governments, which is an essential aspect of this particular "economic globalization", is being accompanied by an ideological assault on the nation state as a political community exercising sovereignty over a defined territory. For all its shortcomings, the nation-state is still the political level most apt to protect citizens' welfare and the environment from the destructive expansion of global markets. Dismissing the nation-state as an anachronism, or condemning it as a mere expression of "nationalist' exclusivism, overlooks and undermines its long-standing legitimacy as the focal point of democratic development, in which citizens can organize to define and defend their interests.

The irony is that many well-intentioned idealists are unwittingly helping to advance this project by eagerly promoting its moralistic cover a theoretical global democracy that should replace attempts to strengthen democracy at the supposedly obsolete nation-state level.

Within the United States, the link between antination-state ideology and economic globalization is blurred by the double standard of U.S. leaders who do not hesitate to invoke the supremacy of U.S. "national interest' over the very international institutions they promote in order to advance economic globalization. This makes it seem that such international institutions are a serious obstacle to U.S. global power rather than its expression. However, the United States has the overall military and political power to design and control key international institutions (e.g., the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia), as well as to undermine those it dislikes (UNESCO when it was attempting to promote liberation of media from essentially American control) or to flout international law with impunity (notably in its Central American "backyard"). Given the present relationship of forces, weakening less powerful nation-states cannot strengthen international democracy, but simply tighten the grip of transnational capital and the criminal networks that flourish in an environment of lawless acquisition.

There is no real contradiction between asserting the primacy of U.S. interests and blasting the nation-state barriers that might allow some organized defense of the interests of other peoples. But impressed by the apparent contradiction, some American liberals are comforted in their belief that nationalism is the number one enemy of mankind, whereas anything that goes against it is progressive.

Indeed, an important asset of the anti-nation state ideology is its powerful appeal to many liberals and progressives whose internationalism has been disoriented by the collapse of any discernable socialist alternative to capitalism and by the disarray of liberation struggles in the South of the planet.

In the absence of any clear analysis of the contemporary world, the nation-state is readily identified as the cause of war, oppression, and violations of human rights. In short, the only existing context for institutionalized democracy is demonized as the mere expression of a negative, exclusive ideology, .'nationalism". This contemporary libertarian view overlooks both the persistence of war in the absence of strong States and the historic function of the nation state as framework for the social pact embodied in democratic forms of legislative decision-making.

Condemnation of the nation-state in a structuralist rather than historical perspective produces mechanical judgments. What is smaller than the nation state, or what transcends the nation-state, must be better. On the smaller scale, "identities" of all kinds, or "regions", generally undefined, are automatically considered more promising by much of the current generation. On the larger scale, the hope for democracy is being transferred to the European Union, or to international NGOs, or to theoretical institutions such as the proposed International Criminal Court. In the enthusiasm for an envisaged global utopia, certain crucial questions are being neglected, notably: who will pay for all this? How? Who will enforce which decisions? Until such practical matters are cleared up, brave new institutions such as the I.C.C. risk being no more than further instruments of selective intervention against weaker countries. But the illusion persists that structures of international democracy can be built over the heads of States that are not themselves genuinely supportive of such democracy. The simplistic interpretation of the Yugoslav crisis as Serbian "aggression" against peaceful multicultural Europe, is virtually unassailable, because it is not only credible according to this ideology but seems to confirm it.

It was this ideology that made it possible for the Croatian, Slovenian, and Albanian secessionists and their supporters in Germany and the United States in particular to portray the Yugoslav conflict as the struggle of "oppressed little nations" to free themselves from aggressive Serbian nationalism. In fact, those "little nations" were by no means oppressed in Yugoslavia. Nowhere in the world were and are the cultural rights of national minorities so extensively developed as in Yugoslavia (including the small Yugoslavia made up of Serbia and Montenegro). Politically, not only was Tito himself a Croat and his chief associate, Edvard Karde1j, a Slovene, but a "national key' quota system was rigorously applied to all top posts in the Federal Administration and Armed Forces. The famous "self-management socialism" gave effective control over economic enterprises to Slovenians in Slovenia, Croatians in Croatia, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The economic gap between the parts of Yugoslavia which had previously belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that is, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, on the one hand, and the parts whose development had been retarded by Ottoman rule (central Serbia, the Serbian province of Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia) continued to widen throughout both the first and second Yugoslavia. The secession movement in Slovenia was a typical "secession of the rich from the poor" (comparable to Umberto Bossi's attempt to detach rich northern Italy form the rest of the country, in order to avoid paying taxes for the poor South). In Croatia, this motivation was combined with the comeback of Ustashe elements which had gone into exile after World War 11.

The nationalist pretext of "oppression" is favoured by the economic troubles of the 1980's, which led leaders in each Republic to shun the others, and to overlook the benefits of the larger Federal market for all the Republics. The first and most virulent nationalist movements arose in Croatia and Kosovo, where separatism had been favoured by Axis occupation of the Balkans in World War 11. It is only in the 1980's that a much milder Serbian nationalist reaction to economic troubles provided the opportunity for all the others to pinpoint the universal scapegoat: Serbian nationalism. Western public opinion, knowing little of Yugoslavia and thinking in terms of analogies with more familiar situations, readily sympathized with Slovenian and Croatian demands for independence. In reality, international law interprets "self-determination" as the right to secede and form an independent State only in certain (mostly colonial) circumstances, none of which applied to Slovenia and Croatia7.

All these fact were ignored by international media. Appeals to the dominant anti-State ideology led to frivolous acceptance in the West of the very grave act of accepting the unnegotiated breakup of an existing nation, Yugoslavia, by interpreting ethnic secession as a proper form of "self-determination", which it is not. There is no parallel in recent diplomatic annals for such an irresponsible act, and as a precedent it can only promise endless bloody conflict around the world.

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