from the book "Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers--America's Last Ambassador Tells What Happened and Why" By Warren Zimmerman
© Copyright 1996. Permission to reprint granted by Random House, Inc.
12 MAY 92
FM AMEMBASSY BELGRADE
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE
FROM WARREN ZIMMERMANN
SUBJ.: WHO KILLED YUGOSLAVIA?
With U.S. recognition of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and the proclamation of
a new "Yugoslavia" by Serbia and Montenegro, the old Yugoslavia we knew is
dead. Before we move into a world of five new Balkan states--communist and
noncommunist, turbulent and calm, authoritarian and democratic, militant and
moderate, viable and hopeless--it might be worth a final glance at what has
been destroyed and why.
"Who killed Cock Robin?"
"I," said the sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow.
I killed Cock Robin."
It was nationalism that put an arrow in the heart of Yugoslavia. While the
antecedents go back centuries, the nationalism that spawned
the process of Yugoslavia's destruction began in 1987 in Kosovo, when Slobodan
Milosevic, the young leader of the League of
Communists of Serbia, listened throughout one long night to the Serbs told him
of mistreatment by Albanians . That experience gave Milosevic
the issue that brought him his power and charisma. Brandishing the issue of
Serbian nationalism, he abolished the autonomy of Kosovo,
then of Vojvodina, purged all opposition in Serbia itself, and finally turned
his nationalist aggressions on his neighbors.
Ironically, it was Slovenia, the only republic containing no Serbian minority,
which Milosevic first attacked. Serbia and Slovenia have always been natural
allies, and Milosevic's enmity toward Slovenia was ideological rather than
ethnic. What Slovenia, even back in the late 1980s, stood for was democracy, a
decentralized Yugoslavia, and a freer market--just the kind of Yugoslavia
Milosevic despised and feared. In December 1989 Milosevic tried to displace the
Slovenian government by a hostile mass rally of Serbs in Ljubljana, then
followed that failure by declaring an economic boycott against Slovenia. These
were the first shots in the nationalist war that led to the destruction of
Yugoslavia. Croatia became Milosevic's next target, a fat one. Franjo Tudjman's
victory in the May 1990 Croatian elections brought to power a narrow-minded,
crypto-racist regime hostile to Serbia and to the Yugoslavia that it
erroneously believed Serbia controlled. Both Milosevic and Tudjman had a strong
interest in Satanizing each other; given their characters, the job was not
difficult. With the ancient enmities of Serbian and Croatian nationalism now
pitted against each other, the odds of preserving and developing a Yugoslavia
along the progressive Hungarian or Czechoslovak model plummeted. Violence
became probable. As Vladimir Seks, a prominent militant in Tudjman's party,
said of one of the ethnically mixed areas of Croatia: "If we win, there will be
no more Serbs; if they win, no more Croatians." With people like that in
charge, there could no longer be much hope for a country whose very name--"Land
of the South Slavs"--symbolized ethnic tolerance. As Milovan Djilas, the last
great Yugoslav, said to me the other day, Yugoslavia could not survive
conflict between Serbs and Croats for they are its defining nations.
"Who saw him die?"
"I," said the fly,
"With my little eye,
I saw him die."
The death of Yugoslavia had many witnesses. The most prominent signatures of
the coroner's report are those of the European Community and the United States.
Both Western Europe and American were long-time friends of the deceased,
midwifing its birth in the aftermath of one war and helping it through another,
protecting it against its rapacious Soviet neighbor, paying the bills for its
profligacy, and encouraging it on the path to democracy. In Yugoslavia's
terminal ilness the Western countries did what they could to nurse the patient
back to health. The Europeans, in the person of Jacques Delors, offered an
enormous economic carrot condition on the country's staying together, while the
Dutch, in the EC presidency, played the role of hectoring father-confessor,
urging the invalid to become a better European in order to save its soul. The
United States brought to bear the weight of its traditionally good relations,
its great power status, and its moral authority to keep the country on the
united and democratic path so hopefully begun by Markovic government in 1989.
All in the end was to no avail; like everyone else, the Western countries were
no more than witnesses at Yugoslavia's funeral.
Could it have been different? Were there things the West could have done to
avoid the breakup and the bloodshed? Conversely, should we have seen earlier
that Yugoslavia was finished and tried to provide a peaceful burial? Don't
look for objectivity from me on these questions. I was part of our policy; I
believed, and still believe, that it was the right one. I leave it to the Ph.D.
candidates to argue the details. In a general sense, I am convinced the
failures do not lie with the Western witnesses to Yugoslavia's death. The
failures lie within the corpse itself.
U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia was simple and consistent from the very beginning
of the nationalist period heralded by Milosevic's rise. We were for unity but
not unity imposed by force. The Markovic government represented the two
interlocking qualities of unity and democracy. We were right to support it,
weak as it was. The alternatives to Markovic were Milosevic's kind of unity,
which meant dictatorship, or Tudjman's kind of separatism, which meant war.
Nearly two years before the Croatian war began, this embassy stressed, and
continued to stress, that the breakup of Yugoslavia could not be accomplished
without massive violence. Much of the criticism of U.S. policy toward
Yugoslavia is based on the assumption that we were blind to the pressures for
independence and therefore failed to get on the bandwagon. We weren't blind; we
just saw that the bandwagon was headed for Armageddon. Nationalism polarizes;
in Yugoslavia, with the collapse of the Markovic experiment, there was no
middle ground between Tudjman and Milosevic for the West to cultivate.
Markovic's Yugoslavia tended toward democracy, Milosevic's Yugoslavia away from
it. That's why the U.S. and the EC were simply present at the destruction
instead of contributors to the creation.
"Who'll dig the grave?"
"I," said the owl,
"With my little trowel,
I'll dig the grave."
There were many gravediggers of Yugoslavia, including the unusual suspects
Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. But there is one who stands out. Slobodan
Milosevic, one of the most duplicitous politicians the Balkans have ever
produced, is duplicitous in this as well. Milosevic poses as the protector and
savior of Yugoslavia. Just two weeks ago he wrapped himself in the Yugoslav
flag (with the red star cut out, of course) and renewed the Yugoslav national
anthem. "Yugoslavia exists" has been his war cry ever since the secessionist
rumblings began. It's all bunk. Milosevic is not a Yugoslav; he is a Serbian
imperialist. His maximum aim of three years ago was to dominate all of
Yugoslavia; hence his effort to overthrow the democratic-leaning government of
Slovenia and bring the Croats to heel. When that failed, he gave up on Slovenia
and went to war to keep Croatia in Yugoslavia. Thwarted again, he tried to
force Bosnia and Macedonia into a "Little Yugoslavia" controlled by Serbia.
Finally he has fallen back on the "Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" which
disclaims territorial pretensions but has a provision in its constitution for
admitting parts of other states. He is currently pursuing actively a civil war
in Bosnia designed to deliver two-thirds of its territory to the Serb minority
there and is collaborating in the expulsion of non-Serbs in mixed areas of
Croatia with the aim of making those areas ethnically clean.
Since his assumption of power, Milosevic's crimes against Yugoslavia include
Violating the Yugoslav constitution by removing the autonomy
of Kosovo and Vojvodina;
Imposing trade boycotts on Slovenia and Croatia (an act akin to Massachusetts
shutting off trade with Maine and Vermont);
Stealing $1.8 billion from the National Bank of Yugoslavia before
independence, and arrogating to Serbia all of Yugoslavia's hard currency
reserves and other assets after independence;
Trying to destroy the Yugoslav presidency, first by preventing the normal
presidential rotation to Croatia in May 1991, and
then by trying to pull the Serbian members off the presidency altogether;
Waging an unceasing battle against Markovic and all he stood for: a
Yugoslav-wide market economy, an overall standard of human rights, and an
electoral mechanism that emphasized Yugoslav elements and downplayed national
Pursuing an aggressive war (together with the army) in Croatia across a
And finally, expanding the war into Bosnia through his proxy Karadzic, with
help from thugs like Arkan and the collusion of the JNA.
Milosevic could never have succeeded in, or even attempted, his destruction of
Yugoslavia without an essential accomplice-- the JNA. The army's betrayal of
Yugoslavia was nearly as egregious as Milosevic's. Ostensibly the bulwark of
"brotherhood and unity," the JNA allowed itself to be turned into a killing
machine on behalf of one national group. It is true that the JNA was provoked
in both Slovenia and Croatia, though it is also true that with Croatia the
original provocations came from the JNA itself in its pre-war "anti-fascist"
efforts to destabilize Tudjman. In any case, the bombardment of Dubrovnik and
the destruction of Vukovar were criminal assaults against, in the one case,
Yugoslavia's most famous town and, in the other, a peaceful ethnically mixed
city. Moreover, the JNA's collusion in the Serbian takeover bid (in Bosnia) was
prompted by no hostile actions at all from the plurality Muslim population. The
JNA's proud Yugoslav partisan tradition is now buried forever in the rubble of
The bill of particulars against Milosevic is not meant to imply that his
enemies and rivals were pro- Yugoslav. On the contrary, Slovenia and Croatia
seceded from Yugoslavia without even serious efforts to reconcile their
differences with Belgrade. But even here Milosevic was the prime catalyst for
Slovenia would almost certainly have tried to stay in Yugoslavia if Serbia had
had a less aggressive leader; as recently as two years ago Milan Kucan won
election as Slovene president on a proYugoslav platform. Tudjman, anti-Yugoslav
as he is, was floating proposals for a Yugoslav confederation even after the
war broke out, and Milosevic was torpedoing them one after another. As the EC
stepped in, Milosevic bobbed and weaved, blocking political agreements and
bringing Montenegro to heel when [its president] Bulatovic wavered. Innocent
bystanders like Gligorov and Izetbegovic, who sought doggedly to broker a
Yugoslav settlement, never had a chance against Milosevic's combination of
aggressiveness and intransigence. Historians can argue about the role of the
individual in history. I have no doubt that if Milosevic's parents had
committed suicide before his birth rather than after, I would not be writing a
cable about the death of Yugoslavia. Milosevic, more than anyone else, is its
"Who'll be chief mourner?"
"I," said the dove,
"I'll mourn for my love,
I'll be chief mourner."
Yugoslavia has few mourners today. It deserves more. Yugoslavs fought bravely
by our side in World War II against our common enemy. Hitler's decision to
destroy Belgrade in April 1941 caused him to delay his invasion of the Soviet
Union and perhaps cost him Moscow. Tito later tied up German divisions that
would otherwise have been available against the allies on the Western front.
After the war Tito was the only Eastern European leader with the guts to stand
up to Stalin, thus giving impetus to national communism and indirectly to the
movements toward independence in Eastern Europe. He also created--or, more
accurately, tolerated--a more open communist society than existed anywhere in
the world. Economic management was decentralized and borders were open--a
feature on which Khrushchev in his memoirs commented with envy. As one who has
lived in all three countries, I can attest that the quality of life in
Yugoslavia in the Tito period was a lot closer to Spain's than to the Soviet
Union's. Tito left a country that was in fact ripe for economic and political
reform, a country far ahead of the others in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately,
Tito also left two poison gifts that were to destroy Yugoslavia--dictatorship
While Tito was no nationalist, his methods ironically made the rise of virulent
nationalism inevitable. Both elements of Tito's "brotherhood and unity" were
enforced with a police state apparatus. Nationalists routinely went to jail;
Tudjman and Izetbegovic, now the presidents of independent republics, both did
time in Tito's prisons. In the decentralized and weak Yugoslavia bequeathed by
Tito after his death, nationalism, suppressed since the war, awoke like a
militant Rip Van Winkle. Unfortunately, it awoke in a Yugoslavia which had not
had enough democracy to blunt nationalism's antidemocratic character. Moreover,
the people who used nationalism most aggressively--Milosevic and Tudjman--had
both been schooled in Tito's communist authoritarianism. In distinction from
the less militant nationalism of Izetbegovic and Kucan, they took readily to
all the techniques of communist control--mass parties, control of the press,
centralization of the economy, and the like. In sum, Tito bears no less
responsibility for the destruction of Yugoslavia than for its re-creation in
the ashes of World War II.
There is a lesson here, not only for the Balkans but for all the ex-communist
countries of Europe. The lesson is that there is more in common between
communism and nationalism than might seem the case. Both dogmas are rigidly
collectivist--the individual counts for nothing in comparison with the
collective. And both are militantly exclusivist--whoever doesn't belong is an
enemy to be exterminated. The battlefields of Bosnia, no less than those of
Nagorno-Karabakh, are a warning to the world that if the rights of the
individual are not given primacy, then they will surely be destroyed.
There have been two Yugoslavias so far--the pre-war Yugoslavia of the
Karadjordjevic's and the post-war Yugoslavia of Tito. Just created is a third
Yugoslavia--Milosevic's. As noted, it is no more than a disguised Serbia and a
platform for Milosevic's claims on other states containing Serbs. It is
surrounded by unstable neighbors whose trust Milosevic has lost, and it is
eaten from within by minorities whose hatred Milosevic has earned. Thanks to
Milosevic, Serbia--with a stronger democratic tradition than most other Balkan
republics--is now consumed by nationalist frenzy; and the many decent, talented
Serbs, appalled by the bloodletting, are marginalized. Instability has become a
cliche and a permanent condition in and around Milosevic's Yugoslavia. I fear
that the crisis now visited upon the fragments of Yugoslavia may last a whole
generation--a 20-years' crisis. Nationalism, the Balkan killer, will have to
run its span. During this process, one can hope, people will begin to realize
that their national passions haven't brought them welfare, or peace, or
happiness. They may remember that they once lived together, and pretty well,
and that their relations with each other were marked by civility and tolerance.
They may also recall that the Yugoslavia they lived in, while not free, was
certainly freer than the internecine jungle they inherited, and that it had a
more civilized and broad-minded view of the world outside as well. One day they
might talk about restoring economic ties and then gradually about creating a
political framework. It will all make perfectly good sense since, after all,
most of their mini-states are not really viable on their own, their ethnic
groups are still inextricably mixed together, and they're condemned by
geography to be neighbors forever. Somebody--it will take a great democratic
leader, probably from Bosnia--might suggest forming a state. It won't be called
Yugoslavia, but it will have historical antecedents. As part of its
inauguration ceremonies, I would like to imagine that somebody will leave a
rose, just one, on the tomb of the Yugoslavia that has just perished.
All the birds in the air
Fell a-sighin' and a-sobbin'
When they heard of the death
Of poor Cock Robin,
When they heard of the death
Of poor Cock Robin.