To the editors:

Ivo Banac’s defense of Bosnia-Hercegovina (Boston Review, February/March 1994) rests on two premises which should not be, but are, controversial: the country’s historic individuality and the democratic mandate that led to its independence. To anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the area’s history, it has been an unwelcome surprise to see the claims of the butchers of Bosnia — that this state is essentially illegitimate and that its disappearance, deplorable as the concomitant human suffering may be, is historically rational and thus inevitable — gaining currency in western media. This achievement, of which Goebbels would have been proud, has undoubtedly been facilitated by widespread ignorance of this part of Europe. The easy dismissal of the democratic stakes in Bosnia, however, is far more difficult to understand. This alone should send alarm bells ringing. The plain truth is that international recognition of Bosnia-Hercegovina came in acknowledgment of the wish of its population. The popular will was expressed through a referendum in which two-thirds of the country’s citizens voted in favor of independence. The referendum was carried out at the request of the European Community, which also supervised its organization. It should be stressed — for this is frequently omitted to Bosnia’s detriment — that the terms for recognition applied by the EC to Bosnia-Hercegovina were exactly the same as those applied to all other republics of Yugoslavia (and even more rigorous than those set for the republics of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia): existence of a democratically constituted government, conduct of a referendum to test the will of the people, constitutional protection of minorities and human rights. Bosnia-Hercegovina fulfilled all these conditions.

Contrary to the claims of Milosevic and his followers, the referendum was not invalidated by the fact that his armies had prevented a substantial number of Bosnian Serbs from taking part in it, because it was the will of citizens rather than of any particular ethnic group that was being ascertained. Given that Bosnian Muslims form only 44% of the country’s population, it would in any case have been impossible to gain a two-thirds majority had not substantial numbers of Bosnian Serbs and Croats also voted in favor of independence. The EC, USA, and UN all knew parts of Bosnia-Hercegovina were under occupation when they accepted the result of the referendum. International recognition, moreover, involved respecting not only a democratically expressed popular will, but also the sanctity of Bosnia’s borders and the exclusive right of the government in Sarajevo to represent the country at home and abroad.

The fact that western governments — keen for peace at any price, provided it be paid by Bosnians alone — subsequently reneged on their earlier policy, endorsed ethnic partition against which the Bosnians had voted en masse, accepted annexation of vast tracts of the country by neighboring states, sought to reduce the government to its Muslim component, and adopted the new-speak of “warring factions” and “centuries of ethnic warfare” in order to avoid explaining their volte face, does not alter these facts one little bit. It does mean, however, that a far more powerful propaganda machine than Serbia could ever muster has been set in train to sell falsity for truth.

To claim, as supporters of Milo[[caron]]sevi’c and the propagandists of this wretched western sell-out (A.M. Rosenthal, Misha Glenny and others of that ilk) do, that Bosnia’s proclamation of independence was little more than a Bosnian Muslim trick, involves jettisoning truth in favor of a lie and historical reality in favor of a reactionary myth: that Bosnian Muslims are an invented nation, Bosnia not a proper state, and its society essentially unviable because ethnically and culturally diverse. It involves, at bottom, a cowardly surrender of democracy in favor of fascism. That this polarity — democracy versus fascism — is what the whole thing is about can be shown by comparing the inter-ethnic solidarity and cultural effervescence that survives in Sarajevo, seat of an allegedly Muslim and perhaps even fundamentalist government, after two years of heavy shelling, ten thousand dead, and one hundred thousand wounded, with Karadzie-controlled Banjaluka, an ethnically-cleansed, culturally-erased, terrorized city even though it has never been touched by military action. Herein lies the difference between what Bosnia was (and remains) and what the proponents of racial purity are trying to turn it into.

The obvious stares us in the face. If Bosnia-Hercegovina was only a semblance of a state and society, then why does it still survive? Why, despite the ferocity of the onslaught and the continued military advantage that the UN arms embargo has ensured for its enemies, has Bosnia not surrendered? Myth and reality here stand visibly at odds with one another, not for the first time. It is right and proper to make a few historical comparisons here. The present regime in Belgrade boasts of the Serbs’ alleged single-handed resistance to German fascism in 1941-45; yet the truth is that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia surrendered within days of being attacked, serious resistance was left to multi-ethnic Partisans and in 1945 Serbia itself was liberated from outside. For the British Foreign Office, the Bosnian refusal to surrender is now the major irritant; but where would its little gray men be today if the United States had not ensured a steady flow of food and weapons to Great Britain in the early 1940s?

The solidity of Bosnia’s historical integrity and democratic legitimacy, recognized by Tito’s Yugoslavia and validated in 1992 by a democratic vote of its citizens, can be scientifically measured against the quantity of violence to which Belgrade — subsequently flanked by a suicidal Zagreb — has subjected it over the past two years. Unlike those of Britain, France, or indeed the Soviet Union in World War Two, Bosnia’s resistance is underpinned by no powerful or wealthy ally. What is shameful is that this country is fighting its lonely war not just against a superior military power, but also against an equally destructive force of racially-inspired mythmaking on which western states have relied to provide an excuse in the eyes of their own citizens for evading their international responsibilities.

The reason the issue of Bosnia-Hercegovina has become so intensely politicized is precisely because it poses a very simple question to everyone: are you in favor of democracy or fascism? In this debate between proponents of democracy and appeasers of fascism, it is not the future of Bosnia alone that is being decided today.

Branka Magas

To the editors:

Ivo Banac is right to say that Serb aggression and terrorism caused the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. He is also right that when western leaders speak of a “blood feud,” they are merely trying to slink away from their responsibility. But I think Banac ducks the most interesting question: How should the world have responded in the spring of 1992 when the terror began in earnest? Notwithstanding the diplomatic errors of 1991, when the siege of Sarajevo began, everyone could see what was happening, and there was no further excuse for delay. Banac skates through Bosnia’s history but falls through the soft ice: the question of Bosnia’s viability as a “unitary” state. That it had been recognized by the UN does not mean it was viable. Banac more or less admits this: “How does one keep a complicated entity . . . together?” he asks. He answers that the task is “extremely complex,” “immensely more difficult” given the agendas of neighboring Croats and Serbs. He says that short of a “change of heart in the neighborhood,” it would have required an international rescue. And then he declines to acknowledge the form that rescue would have had to take.

True, a forceful European response in 1991 at the time of Vukova and Dubrovnik and the downing of the EC helicopter might have frozen matters for a time. But soon after the shelling of Sarajevo began, unitary Bosnia was finished. Once the Serbs tested the waters of ethnic terror and the West did nothing but open the airport, partition became inevitable within weeks.

The West’s moral failure was not only in tolerating the terror shelling of a great, cosmopolitan city, but also in failing to bite the bullet on the necessity (if they weren’t going to intervene) of partition. Partition and population transfers would have been a bad precedent and a great embarrassment for the leaders of Europe and the United States, but not nearly as bad as what happened while they tsk-tsked and diddled. (Clinton’s first mistake in office was to undercut the Vance-Owen partition plan. He had no right to do that unless he was willing to contribute a US contingent to a UN/NATO roll-back force.)

I agree with Banac that “safe havens” — if that means eleventh hour endorsement of shattered, shrinking enclaves, like Gorazde and Srebrenica — are a travesty. But I reject his concept of “international action.” Standing back and dumping weapons into a conflict, although an American art form, is a rotten idea. Instead of stopping the dying it would have incalculably fueled wider war.

The real alternative was not gunrunning but taking responsibility for delineating a minimally fair partition. That means protecting, economically supporting, and defensively arming a viable safe haven (singular) of contiguous territory in central Bosnia. And accepting the need to stick around for some years of trusteeship.

I think Misha Glenny’s position was distorted by Lifschultz, the questioner, as well as by Banac. Glenny opposed the use of force “if the aim is blurred.” An assertive protectorate over a viable Bosnian rump state (as opposed to leopard-spot Gazas) was a clear objective. In any case, it has been my objective.

Randolph Ryan
The Boston Globe

Ivo Banac replies:

Mr. Ryan wants me to acknowledge that the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina, accompanied by population transfers (the “humane transfers” of the sort that hapless Bene[[caron]]s
talked about in 1945), is a bad and an embarrassing idea whose time has come. I am afraid that I cannot agree. As often happens, time has overcome Mr. Ryan’s embarrassing bit of humanitarianism. The Croats were brought to abandon the bad idea of partition and Mr. Tudjman is trying to convince everybody that he was always embarrassed by humane transfers. A further bit of pressure will not only lift the siege of Sarajevo, it just might make a convinced anti-partitionist of Mr. Milo[[caron]]sevi’c and his sidekick Dr. Karad[[caron]]zi’c. What is the point of all of this? Humanitarians of the Ryan and Glenny type will never grasp that “corrections of history” are not only bad and embarrassing, but hopelessly stupid, provocative, and inhumane. Mr. Milo[[caron]]sevi’c learned a lot more history from the Potsdam signers and their concept of “humane transfers” than is generally recognized. Good fences and “viable safe havens” (read: apartheid patchworks) do not make good neighbors. Only a sense of common history makes good neighbors. That is not only a thought for Bosnia, but also for Boston.

Lawrence Lifschultz and Rabia Ali reply:

In an age when some of us are still striving to resist apartheid and its variants or the concept of an “ethnically pure” state, Randolph Ryan’s letter is an extraordinary document. Ryan on essential matters stands alongside Misha Glenny who has aptly been described by Ivo Banac as a “representative of all the good partisans of civil rights who find resistance to national inequality more distasteful than the causes.” We are told by Mr. Ryan of The Boston Globe that “once the West did nothing” then Bosnia’s “partition became inevitable within weeks.” What Ryan does not acknowledge or apparently grasp is that the form of intervention which Europe and the United States selected as their own denied Bosnia the means to resist territorial aggression. In Ryan’s vocabulary, Article 51 of the UN Charter which guarantees a member state the right of self-defense is reduced to a matter of “gun running.” He is more concerned with the prospects of a “wider war” than the consequences a new “containment doctrine” has had for a largely unarmed and defenseless population. By denying the Bosnians weapons of self-defense the war has imploded upon them. Despite Ryan’s sense of historical inevitability, a determined resistance in Bosnia continues to the various forms of partition which European, American, and UN diplomats passed about as a solution. There are thousands of Bosnians fighting against a system which Kemal Kurspahic has called “enforced apartheid,” and they will not settle easily for any agreement which tries to impose such an arrangement upon them.

Instead, Ryan offers a romantic nostalgia for the divisive Vance-Owen proposals which even Vance disavowed as Owen took the proposal toward a form of partition which would validate the territorial gains of ethnic cleansing. One can only wonder what Ryan’s reaction would be if the Bosnian Army ever gained sufficient strength to retake areas which had been ethnically cleansed and was able to provide security for peoples of all nationalities in Bosnia to live as equal citizens. It is impossible to detect in Ryan’s position any proposal which might free the Bosnians from existing international shackles so that they can become their own defenders.

Ryan claims we have distorted Glenny’s position. May I suggest that he read Glenny’s piece in The Nation of July 12, 1993. “Let’s get a few things straight about the lifting of the embargo,” wrote Glenny. “First, it is the quickest way to guarantee the total liquidation of Bosnia’s Muslim population. The Serbs and Croats are both bitterly opposed to it.” Horrors! If Radovan Karadzic’s Serbian followers and Mate Boban’s Croatian disciples (who have distinguished themselves by rehabilitating that earlier European innovation, the concentration camp) oppose lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, then by all means let us not offend these men. Indeed, let them get on with their deadly business. Perhaps we might even adopt their proposals for partition like Owen did last June!

But Ryan is a charitable man. Once “a minimally fair partition” has been delineated he is prepared to establish a protectorate and he accepts that the international community may “need to stick around for some years of trusteeship.” He tells us nothing about what would be “minimally fair.” He fails to note that in Bosnia a majority of the electorate voted in 1990 for parties who are opposed to partition and that with good reason they may not consider any partition to be “fair.” But once a partition is somehow arrived at Ryan would at that late hour agree to “defensively arming a viable safe haven (singular) of continguous territory in central Bosnia.” He has “fairly” given eastern Bosnia to Greater Serbia in the style Sudetanland was once “given.” Let us hope the people of Bosnia will one day be in a position to reject the charitable concerns of men like Ryan.

Originally published in the April/May 1994 issue of Boston Review