Guardian, May 10, 2010
Don't oversimplify the Bosnian war
Radovan Karadzic should pay the price for any crimes he committed. But let's not reduce the conflict to goodies v baddies.
Watching Radovan Karadzic's appearances at his ongoing war crimes trial at The Hague, I'm reminded of an absent-minded professor at an employment tribunal. At times he cuts a shambling, comedic figure, a bit like Kingsley Amis's "Lucky" Jim Dixon – a picture starkly at odds with the litany of atrocities he stands accused of, most notorious among them the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 and the siege of Sarajevo between April 1992 and February 1996.
Following the example of his old capo Slobodan Milosevic, Karadzic has elected to defend himself at the trial. His arguments are pure fantasy, of the sort broadcast on Serbian state TV throughout the early 1990s – the central themes being Serb victimisation and a Nato-backed Islamist conspiracy. The grist of the trial, away from Karadzic's posturing, is establishing firm culpability for individual events. Karadzic may have had overall command of the Bosnian Serb armed forces, but he was always primarily a politician, which makes it very difficult to sift what he personally ordered from what was carried out under the authority of those further down the ladder.
The way the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s will be remembered by future historians is still being established, however in the western media an overall impression is already starting to coagulate from the messy tangle that made up the reality of the conflict. This simplified narrative tends to cast Serbia as aggressors, Bosnian Muslims as victims, Nato as rescuing heroes and Croatia as bemused onlookers. Perhaps it's always the fate of the loser in a conflict to play the bad guy in the resulting film – that certainly seems to be the case with the Bosnian Serbs.
The US state department issued an old-fashioned "wanted" poster, casting the Serbian leadership in the popular imagination as the outlaws in a John Wayne film. The 2007 Richard Gere film The Hunting Party went one further, portraying the Karadzic character as an elusive evil genius, a Keyser Soze figure, complete with slow-motion-walk shots and a menacing audio signature.
As for the media treatment, at one end are News Corporation outlets that frequently refer to Karadzic as "Razorman" Karadzic or "The Beast of Bosnia". On the other, more subtle, end of the scale we find more efforts such as Adam LeBor's piece for Cif, in which he points to the UK government's "Serbophilic" decision to arrest former Bosnian president Ejup Ganic, a man accused of war crimes. In LeBor's account, the implication is that being Bosnian automatically equates to being innocent – this is entirely in keeping with the idea that the Bosnians were purely victims of the "evil" Serbs. However, in reality, the Bosnian political leadership made some very bullish moves which escalated the initial situation dramatically.
In March 1992, a referendum to decide independence from the Serbia-dominated rump of Yugoslavia was rushed by the Bosnian Muslim leaders before the debate about secession could unfold, and the cases for and against could be properly heard. This resulted in the Bosnian Serbs' disastrous knee-jerk decision to boycott the referendum, leaving them disenfranchised when the electorate resoundingly returned a vote in favour of secession.
Later that same month the Lisbon agreement was signed, setting up a framework for a multi-ethnic coalition government. The signatories were Radovan Karadzic for the Serbs (representing 31% of the population), Mate Boban for the Croats (14%) and Alija Izetbegovic for the Bosniaks (43%).
However two weeks later, Izetbegovic decided to withdraw his signature and the coalition government was abandoned, resulting in 45% of the population being disenfranchised from government, without any clear explanation as to the reasons why. This event was crucial in escalating an already tense situation into all-out war.
Another important factor which is often omitted from the growing popular consensus on what happened in Bosnia is the uncertain, anything-is-possible atmosphere when Yugoslavia dissolved. It was by no means clear-cut at the time that Bosnia would (or should) be entirely governed and dominated by Bosnian Muslims – it had always had an enormous ethnic Serb/Orthodox Christian presence and influence. When the region was a federal entity within Yugoslavia, this diversity did not lead to much friction, nor was there much of an imperative to define which ethnicity was dominant.
It's absolutely right that Karadzic pays the price for any crimes he is found guilty of. However in the rush to assign the simplified roles of aggressor and victim, crucial details are being sidelined – this was not a war of aggression but a civil war, with atrocities committed on all sides. Karadzic and Milosevic did not create the situation but harnessed it, and rode it like a wave. The genesis of the conflict was in the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the rise of aggressive nationalism in the vacuum created by the collapse of Tito's Brotherhood and Unity ideology.
If these nuances are left out of the popular accounts of the Bosnian conflict, then the true lessons of it will be lost on the general public. This is already in evidence with the disproportionate focus on a few Serb leaders, as if their capture and trial has somehow solved the problem – it has not. The cautionary tale Bosnia has to teach us is not about "evil" individuals but about the dangers of aggressive nationalism and factionalism, a lesson more relevant than ever in the constantly shrinking world we inhabit.
• Ivo Petkovski posts on Cif under the username OZKT29B