Kossovo Poem

There was a battle long ago,
Before America was dreamed and found
A battle fought and lost on Serbian ground
And known as Kossovo.

There was a Serbian king, Lazar,
Who, when offered earth or heaven by the Lord,
Led Serbians against the Turkish horde.
Chose an undying star.

Kossovo for five hundred years,
Was a battle never finished, till at last,
The mountains free, agony seemed to have passed
The place of skulls and tears.

But no, not yet may freedom go Redeemed.
Once more the Turks and heathen come
Across the broken bridge of Christendom
On the day of Kossovo.

Once more the hero calls to his men
And to unimagined armies from afar
And, by his death and by the undying star
Oh heaven, signals again.

And all the free have now one foe
And every freeman is a freeman’s friend
We come Lazar, to fight and win and end
Your battle, Kosovo.*

Witter Bynner

* Kossovo Day was widely celebrated in the West during the First World War.

Kosovo day

The Western powers and the collapse of Yugoslavia

The forces eager to see the break-up of Yugoslavia through independence for Slovenia and Croatia were the Vatican, Austria, Hungary, Germany and, more ambivalently, Italy. Since the mid-1980s, the Vatican and Austria had started an active campaign in East Central and Eastern Europe to rebuild their influence there and by 1989-90 the Vatican was openly championing independence for Slovenia and Croatia. By 1990 Austria’s government was equally open. In the words of a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Austria had “a remarkably open and sometimes brazen policy aimed at helping Slovenia and Croatia in their efforts to leave the [Yugoslav] Federation.”  The Austrian media denounced what they called ‘Panzer Communism’ in Yugoslavia and ‘primitive Serbs’ while the Austrian government went so far as to include the Slovenian Minister for External Affairs, Dmitri Rupel, in Austria’s own delegation to a CSCE meeting in Berlin. Although Austria presented its drive for Slovenian and Croatian independence in terms of ‘democracy’ and the ‘democratic rights’ of the Slovenians and Croatians, such concerns were hardly uppermost in the Austrian state, given the fact that for decades Austria had, according to Zemetica, “been striving to assimilate the Slovene minority in the Klagenfurt Basin and the Croats in Burgenland” and “had been flagrantly and consistently brushing aside its obligations towards minorities under the 1955 State Treaty.”

The real goal of Austrian policy was to expand Austria’s regional influence since it “saw the Yugoslav crisis as an auspicious moment for self-assertion” In the summer of 1991 the EC was finally prompted to warn Austria that if it continued its energetic efforts to break up Yugoslavia it would be excluded from eventual EC membership but even that threat did not stop Austrian efforts.

The Hungarian government of Jozef Antall, elected in the Spring of 1990, adopted a policy very much in line with that of Austria, but with additional Hungarian goals vis a vis Serbia’s Voivodina Province. As Zametica explains, the Hungarian government, during the Yugoslav crisis, consistently favoured and covertly aided the secessionist struggle of Slovenia and, particularly, Croatia. The Kalashnikov affair of early 1991 revealed that wide sections of Hungary’s officialdom were implicated in the illegal and large scale supply of weapons to Croatia.

Hungary was secretly supplying automatic assault rifles to Croatia in late 1990. And in July 1991, at the very height of the crisis between Serbia and Croatia, the Hungarian  Prime Minister declared that the international treaties designating Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and in particular with Voivodina were treaties made only with Yugoslavia. This, he said, was an ‘historical fact’ which ‘must be kept in view’. And, referring to the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Antal spelt out just why Hungary was so vigorously supporting Croatia’s secession: “We gave Vojvodina to Yugoslavia. If there is no more Yugoslavia, then we should get it back.”

These manoeuvres by Austria and Hungary to break up Yugoslavia were, of course, then overshadowed by the German government’s drive to derecognise Yugoslavia through giving recognition to Slovenia and Croatia. The German government’s open championing of Yugoslavia’s break-up did not occur until the late Spring of 1991, but long before that both Slovenia and Croatia were getting encouragement from Bonn for their efforts. The German campaign has usually been explained by Kohl’s domestic electoral interests. But the weakness of this explanation lies in the fact that it was Foreign Minister Genscher – not a Christian Democrat – who seems to have been the driving force behind the German policy. And there was thus a focused and co-ordinated coalition involving Austria, Germany, Hungary and the Vatican all pushing for the same goal: Yugoslavia’s break up.

In 1990 the CIA was warning the Bush administration that Yugoslavia was heading for civil war within 18 months. The dilemma was well brought out by a journalist at a press conference given by Secretary of State Baker on 5 July 1990 in Washington. The journalist asked: “I noticed in the remarks that you made today that were distributed to us, you expressed some concerns about the situation in Yugoslavia. Now, how does conditionality apply to the kind of problem that you have described in Yugoslavia, which is less to do with the central government and more to do with the different republics. It is not clear whether Belgrade could deliver some of the things that you want. How will that be judged?”

Baker, normally laconic, replied with some feeling but more evasion: “The question you raised is a very, very good question. There will have to be some serious thought given to the degree to which you look at the republic level as opposed to looking at the central government level. And you are quite right. There are some things in some countries with respect to which the central government can deliver on; and in other countries that cannot be done.”

But the US government as a whole opted for the priority of the Shock Therapy programme over Yugoslav cohesion.  Thus was the internal dynamic towards the Yugoslav collapse into civil war decisively accelerated. The only European states which did have a strategic interest in the Yugoslav theatre tended to want to break it up.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that there were no other, specifically Yugoslav, structural flaws which helped to generate the collapse. Many would argue that the decentralised Market Socialism was a disastrous experiment for a state in Yugoslavia’s geopolitical situation. The 1974 Constitution, though better for the Kosovar Albanians, gave too much to the republics, crippling the institutional and material power of the Federal government. Tito’s authority substituted for this weakness until his death in 1980, after which the state and Communist Party became increasingly paralysed and thrown into crisis. But if the Western powers had been remotely interested in putting the interests of the Yugoslav people first, they had adequate levers to play a decisive role, alongside Yugoslavia’s federal government, in maintaining the country’s integrity. Instead, the Western powers most interested in Yugoslav developments actually assisted, politically and materially, in bringing about the collapse.

In 1991 the Western powers, led by Germany, gave their answer on the question of the Serb population in Croatia. They said Croatia should be entitled to independence on grounds of self-determination and within the boundaries of republican Croatia established within post-war Yugoslavia. Self-determination was established by the fact that a referendum of the Croatian nation had voted for independence. This was a formula for war between the Croatian nationalist government and Croatia’s Serb population because it violated the principles for handling the national question established in the post-war Yugoslav constitution: it denied the Serbs in Croatia their sovereign national rights.

Under that constitution the will of a republican majority could not override the equally valid will of a constituent nation. Thus the vote of the Croatian majority for independence could not override the rights of the Serb population which had to be equally respected. The political leaders of the Serbian population in Croatia organised a referendum on whether to remain within  an independent Croatia and the result was an overwhelming rejection. According to the Yugoslav principles Croatian independence should have been dependent upon a prior resolution of that conflict of rights and democratic wills.

But the EC states during 1991 ignored this, rejecting the Yugoslav idea that the Serb nation had rights equal to the Croatian republican will. Instead the majority of EC states adopted the view that the Serb population of Croatia should accept their status as a national minority within an independent Croatia. This approach should, of course, have implied that CSCE principles for protecting minority rights must be guaranteed before Croatian independence was recognised. But the Croatian government rejected the granting of such CSCE rights.

And the German government decided to brush this CSCE principle aside and recognised Croatia without any prior commitment by the Croatian government to adequate minority rights for Croatia’s Serbian population. This German position thus involved a double betrayal of Croatia’s Serbs: a betrayal of the Yugoslav principles concerning their rights and a betrayal of the CSCE principles concerning their rights. It was bound to drive the Croatian Serb population towards war under the leadership of Serb nationalism. And it led the American mediator Cyrus Vance to call the resulting war ‘Genscher’s war’, referring to the German Foreign Minister. This may be an exaggeration: it was also Tudjman’s and Milosevic’s. But it was Genscher who made it clear to the Croatian Serbs that they had nobody to depend on for their rights but the force of their own arms and those of Serbia.

As to why the German government took this stand is an issue which remains obscure. The line of German diplomats that it was driven by domestic pressures is not convincing since the Auswärtiges Amt [foreign office] led the whole drive. As we shall see, there were other interpretations at the time. But equally important is the question as to why the other EC powers were prepared to accept the German line.

Peter Gowan

The Twisted Road to Kosovo (1999)

The Twisted Road to Kosovo

The political origins of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia
Introduction. The Yugoslav Anvil for Forging the New Europe (available in Aggression on Serbia, where Gowan predicted the Ukrainian crisis.)
Part I. National Rights and International Powers in Yugoslavia’s Dismemberment
Part II. The Euro-Atlantic Origins of NATO’s Attack on Yugoslavia
1. Introduction
2. Explaining Intra-NATO Policies
3. NATOland Programmes and Power Politics after the Collapse
4. Key Phases of the American Campaign
5. From Compromise to Kosovo
6. Conclusion

The Twisted Road to Kosovo I

The Twisted Road to Kosovo II