Robert Thomas. The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xx + 443 pp. $18.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-11380-9.
Reviewed by Robert Whealey (Department of History, Ohio University)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2001)
If journalists advocating American intervention in the Yugoslavi- an civil wars at The New York Times and The Washington Post had owned a detailed book like this in 1992, much debate within the State Department about Yugoslavian conditions might have been avoided. Why did the U.S. take military action in that lengthy crisis from 1991 to 1999?
President Slobodan Milosevic, as portrayed by Robert Thomas, is a narrow-minded patriot born in rural Serbia, raised by an Orthodox priest, who repudiated the multi-ethnic internationalist Yugoslavia created by Josip Tito. Milosevic, although educated in a Titoist, so-called socialist system, became a banker and state capitalist. Before the 1991 Yugoslav explosion, he even worked for a year in the American banking system learning his trade.
Inheriting a bureaucracy which wavered between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, Milosevic allowed, after 1989, a disorganized, diverse opposition to contest half a dozen elections. The Serbian opposition could also propound ideas hostile to the future integrity of Yugoslavia. But in the end, Milosevic's "Socialist Party," i.e. the bureaucracy, counted the votes. Dominating the secret police and the mass media, he manipulated elections and demonstrations from 1990-2000, thereby maintaining himself in power.
Nevertheless, Yugoslavia evolved, rather slowly, toward a fledgling democracy. This book focuses on how Milosevic's great power Serbia first consolidated and then declined. British author Thomas is the great historian in English of party poli in Belgrade 1987 to April 1998 (his cut-off date, not the end of the conflict.) His major sources are some 35 Serbian periodicals that flourished after 1989. The usefulness of Thomas lies in revealing the specifics of obscure Serbian politics to an
Anglo-American readership. The American press viewed Yugoslavia 1991 to 1998 through the lens of "communist" or "nationalist" stereotypes, whereas Thomas thought Yugoslavia was suffering from too many intellectuals trying to set up too many political parties.
Thomas describes well Serbia's political factionalism, which resembles 18th century Britain or 19th century Spain. Like Italy in 1921, Germany in 1932, or Spain in 1936, good ideas were being rejected because the state was hit by economic hardship and political factionalism.
Thomas concentrates on six egos: Milosevic, Vojislav Seslj, Zoran Djindjic, Vuk Draskovic, Vesna Pesic, and "Arkan" aka Zeljko Raznatovic. "Arkan" was some kind of professional criminal before the civil wars, and like the other four aspired to replace Milosevic. Thomas does not show how these oppositionists could have done better than the incumbent authoritarian.
The new Serb President, Vojislav Kostunica, suddenly burst into the American press in September 2000. Thomas relates quite a bit about Kostunica's unsuccessful early efforts to lead the Serbs to his version of democracy. From 1992 to September 2000, Kostunica ran one of Serbia's smaller parties, and was just as patriotic and nationalist as Milosevic and the other major con- tenders for power.
It is not clear why twenty some odd leaders formed and reformed parties in Serbia. They made and then broke alliances both with each other and with Milosevic. Serbs seemed unclear about differences among a democratic party, a pressure group, a movement, a patriot, an imperialist, a journalist, or a bureaucrat.
If Milosevic had been a flexible Titoist, he might have rescued the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from disintegration. But eventually he put his faith in an exclusive, smaller Serbia rather than a big Yugoslavia. To maintain power, he made constitutional changes to parry and divide his opposition. He called himself a socialist, but Thomas provides no evidence that Milosevic understood Karl Marx or even contemporary socialists like Tony Benn of the British Labour Party. Instead, Milosevic's promotion of Serbian nationalism led Slovenian, Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Bosnian and Albanian nationalists to continue to demand decentralization from Belgrade. His sin was narrow-mindedness, not genocide or ethnic cleansing. Retention of Kosovo was apparently his number one priority from 1987 on. Eventually Serb military occupation of Kosovo unleashed the destructive US bombing and refugee flight of 1999, after Thomas's account ends.
This history of the "home front" is missing a clear picture of cause and effect. Foreign political and economic pressures on Belgrade help explain the gradual decline of Milosevic's power and the rise of political opposition. The resurgence of nationalism was encouraged by NATO leaders. Brussels chose favorites within Yugoslavia, and tended to dismiss the Serbs as the enemy. Milosevic's attitude toward the disintegrating USSR remains a mystery. Of course Milosevic can not avoid responsibility for his blindness and inability to compromise. But he was not, in the opinion of Thomas, public enemy number one, as he was portrayed in the American press.
Milosevic's opponents were just as confused as he about the differences between nationalism and democracy. They also wanted to fight the Muslims and Croats for control of Bosnia and Kosovo. Some of the diverse opposition appealed for symbolism to a Serbian hero of the 1940s, the monarchist General Drasa Mihailovic and his Cetnik guerrillas, who battled Tito. How deeply they believed in monarchy or Orthodoxy remains mysterious. But those symbols were hardly helpful for the 1990s when the four Yugoslavian civil wars provided the background to the rhetoric of the political campaigners inside Serbia. Paradoxically the Belgrade government could embrace the idea of a united Yugoslavia only by becoming less Serbian.
The US media publicized "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia from 1991-99, accusing Serbs for most of it. But the crimes were committed at the village, neighborhood and camp level. The atrocities cannot be blamed solely on three or four top Serb leaders, including Milosevic.
Thomas sheds some light on the initial break up of the SFRY in 1991. The siege of Vukovar, June to November 1991 on the Croatian-Serbian border, was more the responsibility of paramilitary volunteers encouraged by Radical Party leader Vojislav Seslj (born in Sarajevo) and "Arkan" or Zeljko Raznatovic (born in Slovenia) than Milosevic (pp. 94-95, 97, 99). Vuk Draskovic, self-proclaimed democrat and leader of demonstrations against Milosevic in the winter of 1996-1997, was a leading Serbian interventionist in the Croatian War 1991-1992 (pp. 99-100).
For the most part, U.S. pressures on Belgrade are missing from this account. Thomas has relatively little to say about Yugoslav foreign affairs or the international economic pressures on the Milosevic regime from 1991 to April 1998, when Thomas's account ends. But he does make a few interesting revelations which show that the strong man of Belgrade was willing to make peace. Milosevic accepted the UN-EU, Vance-Owen peace plan as early as May 1993 (p. 148), while President Clinton and the Bosnian Serbs headquartered in Pale did not. From March-July 1994, Milosevic was pressing Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic to compromise with the Americans to end the Bosnian war (pp. 199- 201). Furthermore Milosevic, to keep NATO's military away from Belgrade, announced an economic embargo on the so-called Pale government. Together with the American bombing, this eventually led to the Dayton truce of November 1995.
Thomas implies that the regular Serbian Army in Belgrade was neutral in the Bosnian civil war. In contrast, Seslj, Draskovic and Washington's newly found democrat, Vojislav Kostunica, at times encouraged para-military volunteers to aid their Serbian brothers in Bosnia, across the Drina River from old Serbia (pp. 178-180, 199-200, 208). Bosnian Serb General Mladic, apparently sanctioned by Milosevic, attacked the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995 (p. 238). This provided Paris, Bonn, London, New York and Washington with their biggest atrocity story of the war. The Krajina Serbs, expelled the next month from their cantons in Croatia, regarded the do-nothing Milosevic as their betrayer (pp. 238-39). The factions of men like Seslj, Draskovic and Kostunica vacillated back and forth with Milosevic's party, both for power in Belgrade, and in intermittent commitment to the aggressive Bosnian Serbs, the old line communists, the re-discovered Cetniks and the Orthodox Church.
One chapter (out of thirty) focuses on the Albanian Kosovars as rather an afterthought. The Kosova Liberation Army's (KLA) battles in April 1998 had just started when the book went to press. As debating went on, some bureaucrats in Milosevic's own party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), defected to the opposition in the provinces.
Serb factionalism made Serbia more like Somalia than like Hitler's Reich, but the accusation of "ethnic cleansing" hid this from the American public. To his credit, Thomas does not use the term. He also has nothing to say about the war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
Milosevic's chauvinism made him a poor diplomat. But Milosevic was no Hitler, no Mussolini and no Stalin. He wanted Serb domination of Yugoslavia to continue, but without understanding the rationale for the state, created in 1918-1919 and reorganized by Tito in 1945 with a constitution modeled after the Soviet constitution of 1922. Those constitutions assumed that nationalities like the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs would compromise their national aspirations. However, the mood of 1991 everywhere was for nationalities to reassert sovereignty. Like everybody else, Milosevic was surprised by the collapse of the Soviet Union 1987- 1991. The subsequent expansion of NATO into Yugoslavia's internal affairs also was not expected by Belgrade.
Meanwhile, the State Department, The New York Times and The Washington Post were trapped with the ghosts of the anti- communist past. It is surprising that so many in the State Department and at the Times and Post joined in an anti-Serb crusade. Belgrade had little of value economically that was worth the billions of dollars of aircraft and naval expenditures. Once committed to military intervention, the NATO powers would not back off from their anti-Milosevic propaganda. The idea of "dump Milosevic" was not well thought out, any more than "dump Ngo Dinh Diem" had been carefully considered at Saigon in 1963. In both cases, American political scientists seemed chained to the concept of "pluralism" as a good thing. They could not distinguish between chauvinism and liberal nationalism. It was illogical for the United States to advocate national self- determination for Muslim Bosnians while denying it for Serbs. Yet that is exactly what the State Department argued during Clinton's administration. Probably less than 2% of the American voters cared a fig for the whole affair.
This well-documented work uses a Rankian historical methodology, although Thomas probably got a degree in what in the United Kingdom is called "political studies." The author, who is extraordinarily well-informed, may have been employed by some intelligence agency. He served as an official monitor for the OSCE in the Serbian elections of 1998.
Historians can only praise Thomas for being a "political scientist" who employs a narrative approach to history. On the other hand, Thomas does not treat economics thoroughly enough, although he has two fine, well-organized chapters on Yugoslavia's domestic industry and foreign trade and investment problems. Future scholars will want to know even more about the regular economic problems Milosevic faced. How did the Belgrade regime survive NATO's oil embargo? What were the export and import figures with Macedonia? Proper statistics have publication dates, revealing information that can be related to political decisions. Every politician must meet a budget. Also, in a history department of twenty historians, perhaps only two of them understand classic economists Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman. Although their economic principles differed, these four all understood historical reasoning.
The book lacks a preface but has an introduction. Thomas acknowledges few people. The best known is the Serbian intellectual Aleksa Djilas, now in exile, the son of the famous Marxist dissident Milovan Djilas. A useful chronology lists events from April 1987 to April 1998. Forty-four organizations, mostly parties, are identified, with their leaders. A shortcoming is that the Thomas book lacks any maps. The index is good on persons, places, and parties, but omits general terms like "elections," "foreign trade," and "privatization of state corporations." Robert Thomas is sometimes difficult to follow because of his reference work. Thomas has some major themes, but they tend to get buried in a text chock full of information about Serbian personalities who are mostly obscure to the American reader.
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Robert Whealey. Review of Thomas, Robert, The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s.
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