Collapsing Pluralism: The Bosnian War Three Decades Later

“Yugoslavs have a blurred conception of themselves,” the Serbian journalist and native Yugoslavian Dusko Doder wrote in 1978. “In ethnic terms, there is no such thing as a Yugoslav.”[1] Rather Yugoslavia was a nation of Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Macedonians, and others. Born from the tumult and tragedy of World War I, “it was a problem child from the start” — the nation, as constructed, sutured together a collection of peoples divided by language, religion, culture, and geography.

Tito’s mission of unifying the South Slavs, opposition to the USSR, and devotion to a loose communist theory, all drove Yugoslavia’s persistence after WWII. Yet, by the early 1990s, things had changed. Tito died in 1980, and Communism followed about a decade later; whatever bonds had held South Slavs together frayed. [2] Yugoslavia dismembered itself in the carnage that followed, but the nation’s demise was set into motion decades earlier.   

In Eastern Europe, a region haunted by empire, history drives not only the current struggle in Ukraine, but also in Bosnia. Over 30 years ago in Bosnia (from April 1992 to November 1995), a war broke out that journalist Misha Glenny pronounced “the end of the twentieth century.”[3] A complex history and antagonistic ethnic politics played a central role in both fueling the conflict and preventing intervention. While Yugoslavia remains a unique and tragic case of national dissolution, the contributing factors to its collapse, and the international responses it generated, remain relevant, even pressing issues today. The weaponized deployment — and often distortion — of history, the growing antipathy between city and country, economic downturns that fuel ethnic rivalries and the spread of nationalism, are all central to the story then, and are at play in the current moment.

Map of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groupings, Ministry of Defense United Kingdom, 1990, Micahel Getler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Yugoslavia, Nationalism, and the Credibility Trap

Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic “is not Hitler, he’s not trying to conquer Europe,” a veteran foreign service official, Jim Hooper, told New York Times journalist Anthony Lewis in 1993. “No, but he’s creating a climate hospitable to extreme nationalism.” For Hooper, Bosnia was “the big picture.”

According to Lewis’ notes, Hooper, the former deputy director of the Office of East Europe and Yugoslavia Affairs in the State Department’s European Bureau (1989-1991), argued that American inaction eroded its international goals of extending democracy and free markets. Serb nationalism threatened to feed the same in Russia, in which if it were to take hold, could result in a potential “disaster … far more dangerous than Soviet communism.” The Soviets might have been expansionist, but “there was an inherent caution.” A Russia with imperialist ambitions, “cannot be a democratic Russia,” he told Lewis.[4]

The truth as then-NYT correspondent Stephen Kinzer conveyed to Lewis in an unpublished 1993 article, was that the conflict stemmed from the intersection of history with modern politics, “Its causes are as remote as the Middle Ages and as recent as the collapse of communism.” The responsible parties? “[N]ot only the reckless Serbs and Croats, but also European and American strategists who had the power but not the vision to prevent it.”[5]

Lewis was considered one of the most prominent voices on the conflict at the time and wrote over 30 columns between December 1991 and December 1993, applying an intense focus on the situation in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. In nearly all of his pieces, he encouraged U.S. and NATO intervention during both the Bush and Clinton administrations.

For U.S. policymakers and officials encouraging intervention, the “credibility trap” was a popular argument. Then-Senators Joe Biden and Bob Dole advocated for the U.S. to intercede. Time and Newsweek ran stories fretting about presidential and national weakness.[6] By not intervening, they suggested, the U.S., not only lost stature internationally but undermined its efforts to spread democracy and free market capitalism, while emboldening autocrats around the world.  

U.S. officials had long feared Yugoslavia’s dissolution. In 1972, Lewis interviewed influential foreign policy expert George Ball, who outlined this very concern by asserting that the KGB had been ginning up separatism among Macedonians, Croats, Slovenes and so forth. “After Tito’s death, a separatist movement could declare sovereignty [and] ask for Soviet help,” he told Lewis.[7] As it happened, Soviet influence wasn’t required, and when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991, the Bosnian War followed soon after.

The Bush administration signaled early it would not intervene. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell openly opposed any involvement. The State Department believed political leadership in Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia to be “inflexible” and, however bad Milosevic was, they believed Croatian leader Franco Tudjman to be equally fanatical and untrustworthy. It largely adopted a pox on all your houses approach. The administration imposed economic and diplomatic measures “designed to isolate the Belgrade regime,” notes Samantha Powers, but these efforts ultimately failed to curb Milosevic.[8] What followed were a series of brutal human rights-denying conflicts that were as much about forcing migration of peoples into a collection of ethno-states and creating a “Greater Serbia” as maintaining a unified nation.

Clinton had criticized the Bush administration for inaction but then followed a similar course when in office. The debacle in Somalia influenced the president’s trepidation, and NATO forces didn’t begin bombing Serbian targets until late August 1995.  Lewis, who had been critical of Bush and largely supported intervention, expressed his frustration regularly in correspondence: “I honestly believe that if Clinton listens to the wimps around him, he will have destroyed his presidency.”[9] Morton Abramowitz, a career State Department official and former ambassador to Turkey (1989-1991), felt similarly. “Every time [Clinton] gets up he sounds like Mr. Loophole … saying I want to do it but I can’t because of Europeans, Cong[ress], the Pent[agon]…”[10]

Framing Yugoslavia’s History: WWII and Vietnam

Lewis eschewed narratives about “ancient hatreds” that populated many Western observations about the war, though he too deployed history in his discussion of the conflict. Watching Sarajevo residents “huddling in fear” as Serbian mortars exploded all around them left the New York Times columnist fearful that “civilization had not advanced since Nazi bombs fell on Rotterdam.”[11] He drew comparisons to Neville Chamberlain’s yielding “to Hitler in Munich” and the concentration camps of World War II. “Nazi’s transporting Jews in 1942? No, Serbs transporting Muslim Bosnians in 1992: one glimpse of the worst racial and religious bestiality Europe has known since World War II.”[12] Lewis  also made occasional references to genocidal regimes in Cambodia and East Timor, but generally stuck to his WWII analogies, a habit that over the years some critics found infuriating.[13]

World War II proved an apt analogy. Yugoslavia’s own experience during the war continued to plague it. Atrocities were undoubtedly committed against Serbians by Croatian officials under the fascist Utashe government that governed Croatia during the war. Washington Post foreign correspondent Dusko Doder, who emigrated to the U.S. from Yugoslavia in 1956, suggested that Yugoslavians — Croats and Serbs alike — fought off the Nazis, but they also spent most of the war killing each other. “Although some 1,700,000 Yugoslavs died in the war, only about 300,000 were killed by Germans. The rest were victims of fratricidal warfare – among Tito’s Partisans, Draza Mihailovic’s Chetniks, Croatian fascists and others.”[14] The number of Serbs killed at the hands of Croatian fascists remains a moving number; Croatian nationalists admit to 60,000 while Serbian nationalists assert 300,000.[15] American officials estimated 100,000.[16]

Few Yugoslavs ever truly reconciled with the events that unfolded during World War II. Croatia, for example, never accounted for the atrocities committed by its wartime government. “Nowhere in Europe is the legacy of the Nazi war crimes so unresolved as in Croatia,” notes historian Robert Kaplan.[17] Kaplan argues that Croatian nationalism was tragically perverted, coalescing at the same moment that fascism ascended to European dominance, thus becoming infected by Nazism. Though Croatian nationalism was not new in the 1930s, it had existed when the nation was cobbled together in the ruins of World War I, as Croatian intellectuals chafed at Serbian dominance of the new state. Doder ascribes the “exclusivist character” of Croat nationalists to the fact that its advocates largely operated from “the realm of intellectual opposition” rather than from a position of political power.[18]

Landing place and cathedral, Belgrade, Serbia, between 1890 and 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While religious differences between the largely Catholic Croatia and the mainly Orthodox Christian Serbia undoubtedly contributed to the violence between the two, Jews and Muslims arguably experienced the worst of it from both Croats and Serbs.

During the Bosnian War, Serbian officials and historians embraced “collective guilt” for Croatians and “collective innocence” for Serbs, portraying the fascist Utashe government as an “independent” natural outgrowth of Croatian sympathies while depicting the Serbian government during the war as imposed, an occupier and in contradistinction to Serbian beliefs.[19]

Looking to exploit Croatia’s particularly nasty World War II history, Serbia sanitized its own past regarding Yugoslavian Jews by white washing its own atrocities. According to Philip J. Cohen, 94 percent of Serbia’s Jewish community was “exterminated” with help from nearly every quarter of society, including the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian State Guard, the Serbian Police, and the Serbian general public.

For Muslims, the Second World War in Yugoslavia was also terrible. The Chetniks, the Serbian resistance force during the war, contributed to the deaths of between 86,000 and 103,000 Muslims during the same period.[20] During the Bosnian War, Muslims were probably victimized more than any other group in Yugoslavia.

While plenty of Americans drew analogies to World War II, another conflict also served as a frame for the Bosnian conflagration: the Vietnam War. During an appearance on Nightline, Ted Koppel pressed State Department official, Richard Holbrooke on the comparison between U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia and that which was being debated regarding Yugoslavia. Holbrooke, who later played a critical role in negotiating the Dayton Accords peace agreement in 1995 that ended the war, dismissed such analogies.

Prime Minister Josip Broz Tito and others at zoo, looking at bear in cage, possibly in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, photograph by Warren K. Laffler, September 23, 1959, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Afterward with the cameras off, Koppel pushed Holbrooke on the issue. Holbrooke responded that the Vietcong were ideologues, dedicated to long-term struggle, but the Serbians? “These guys are just murderous assholes.” Koppel, not missing a beat responded sarcastically, “Oh, thank you … that’s very reassuring. I’ll feel much better sending my son or daughter over there knowing the Serbs are just assholes.”[21] Even if Holbrooke thought such juxtapositions inaccurate, the analogy came up frequently. American audiences were left veering between allusions to the Holocaust and the failure of American intervention in Vietnam.

Late Stage Tito: Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s

During his rule, Tito had established the “myth of brotherhood,” the idea that Yugoslavs of all ethnicities lived happily and equally. Whatever the myth, the reality was that for many citizens before Tito, “Yugoslavism” served as cover for Serb political dominance, but the Communist ruler managed to strip it largely of its ethnic associations. It became a broad, if not deep, ideal shared across the culture [22]

Tito’s ability to quell conflict between Yugoslavians after they collectively experienced “the bloodiest imaginable civil conflict” between ethnic groups during World War II deserves acknowledgment. He brought stability to a nation beset by wartime catastrophe and improved economic conditions for the majority of Yugoslavs under his rule.

Not everyone agrees. Kaplan asserts that Tito managed the economy poorly, forcing Yugoslavians into “45 years of systematized poverty” which kept ethnic “wounds fresh.”[23] Perhaps, but correspondence between journalists working in the former Yugoslavia during the 1970s suggests a more nuanced appraisal.

Contact sheet with photos of views from the apartment of Malcolm and Le Lieu Browne on  Lole Ribara Street, photograph by Le Lieu Browne, between 1973-1977, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

Malcolm Browne, a Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times used Belgrade as his homebase during his service as Bureau Chief for the Balkans from 1973-1977. Residing in a “large flat on Lole Ribara Street,” Brown lived near famed dissident and former Tito confidante, Milovan Dijas.[24]

According to Browne, Belgrade and Sarajevo of the mid-1970s suffered from horrible pollution. The country’s roads, among the worst and most dangerous in the world, were “uniformly rotten.” Browne dismissed the Serbian capital frequently in correspondence, comparing it to “a 19th century Midlands industrial slum” and believing it “little more than an “overgrown village in the middle of the Serbian plains … which, against all advice, has been rebuilt every time it was sacked.”[25]

Yet, Browne also noted that western goods were available in greater abundance than some other Eastern bloc nations and even Belgrade had nighttime attractions. “There is a super-active, swinging night life, parties every night, opera, concerts, the works,” he wrote to friends in early 1974.[26] Nevertheless, Browne favored “the forests and mountains” of Bosnia, its “surging green Neretva River and the strange Ottoman atmosphere” of its capital, Sarajevo.[27]

Street scene in Belgrade, photograph by Le Lieu Browne, 1977, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

By 1978, Tito had guided the nation through three decades of peace, lowering illiteracy to 15 percent, and expanded the average Yugoslavian’s access to consumer goods. Between 1963 and 1973, purchases of cars, washing machines, and televisions increased by 100 percent over the two previous decades.[28] When Dusko Doder returned to Belgrade on assignment for the Washington Post in the 1970s, he compared the city to St. Louis.[29] Yet, it’s unclear how much more advanced the Yugoslavian economy was compared to those under Soviet control, since by the mid-1970s, most citizens of Eastern bloc nations could “fairly easily own a car, TV, washing machine, etc” noted Browne. [30]

The nationalism wielded by Tito’s successors, notably Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franco Tudjman, during the 1980s and 1990s, differed greatly from Tito’s own deployment of the same. During the 1990s, Croatia did not have concentration camps and overall, probably committed far fewer atrocities, but Tudjman and others deployed racist policies and numerous Croatian leaders committed war crimes. [31] Mass media broadcasts from the Serbian and Croatian capitals poured fuel on ethnic fires. “We called Belgrade and Zagreb TV the worst war criminals,” Misha Glenny told a 1994 panel on the conflict.[32]

Even if his use of nationalism was not as overt or racist, Tito’s rule further contributed to these 1990s developments. His frequent pitting of one ethnicity against another in an attempt to neutralize one or both of them, along with other methods of division while not new, undoubtedly fed such ethnocentric habits.[33] In retrospect, under Tito, the infrastructure for genocide was unwittingly constructed.

During the 1970s in particular, Tito targeted Croatian and Slovenian nationalists. Protesting what they perceived as discrimination by Serbians, a small minority of Croatian nationalists engaged in armed insurgency and assassinations inside Yugoslavia and terrorist high jackings outside of it.[34] Muslim Yugoslavs also complained about discrimination and harassment.[35]

One complicating factor for Yugoslav leaders was that unlike other Eastern bloc nations, Yugoslavs frequently travelled abroad for work. By the late 1970s, nearly one million Yugoslav workers were spread across Western Europe often laboring in jobs that their more prosperous European counterparts avoided.[36] While this may have created political tensions internally and externally, it also proved lucrative. Remittances amounted to $1 billion annually by the late 1970s, the nation’s then-largest source of hard currency.[37]

Street scene Belgrade with member of Yugoslavian secret police following, photograph by Le Lieu Browne, between 1973-1977, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Judging from Browne’s letters and news reports, diasporas in America, Canada, and Australia were also established, and some in open support of Croatian nationalism.[38] Yugoslav security and intelligence forces surveilled these populations and sometimes carried out assassinations of Croatian nationalists abroad. Tito, a Croatian by birth, had forged ties during World War II with Serbian leaders and he clearly saw the targeting of Croatians, and those abroad in particular, as one means to undermine their standing and douse nationalist fervor.

During his rule, in an effort to dilute Serbian political power, Tito also took parts of Serbia and added them to Croatia and Bosnia. He also declared Kosovo an autonomous province despite its centrality to Serbian life, historically and religiously. Milosevic built his nationalist appeal on the return of these regions. In 1987, Milosevic traveled to Kosovo on the anniversary of the Field of Blackbirds, where Serbian Tsar Lazar was defeated and killed by the Ottomans, a military loss riven deep with nationalist and religious symbolism.[39] The Serbian leader stoked nationalist fires in a famous speech. “They’ll never do this to you again. Never again will anyone defeat you,” he told the audience to loud cheers.[40]

Finally, on a more bureaucratic level, Tito also utilized the “three key system” which basically amounted to rotating political promotions between the three most dominant groups: Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. If a Serbian was promoted in a government agency, so too would a Croat and Muslim be advanced. It also operated in a negative way. If authorities arrested a Serb for “political offenses,” the same followed for a Muslim and Croat as well.[41]

Taken individually and collectively, one can see how these various structures worked to simultaneously douse nationalist fervor while also allowing it to simmer dangerously just below the surface. “Tito had driven Serbian and Croatian nationalism underground. When they emerged from hibernation in the late 1980s, they had lost their modernizing and liberal characteristics,” notes Glenny.[42]

Economic downturns and restructuring began to exacerbate ethnic tensions around the same time. Increasingly the richer northern, more industrialized sections of Yugoslavia complained they were “being milked of their hard earned income” which was being used to “prop up inefficient and lazy southerners,” while those in the South complained that their crops and natural resources were being sold at cut rate prices to the North.[43]

During earlier decades these criticisms remained couched in economics, but in 1983, observers noted “darker mutterings of national bitterness.”[44] The liberalization efforts of the mid-1960s and 1970s only increased competition between Serbia and the nation’s other republics. During the 1970s, Yugoslavia also borrowed a great deal of money and by 1982, the country’s debt equaled $18.5 billion, which resulted in the imposition of austerity measures by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and further primed the fragile nation for collapse.[45]

In the face of such economic factors, the best-case scenario Dijas told Kaplan in 1989 was that the former Yugoslavia would evolve into a British system where the republics existed as “a loose federation of trading nations … but first, I am afraid, there will be national wars and rebellions. There is such strong hate here.”[46]

Few leaders valued the power of myth like Tito, and his tale of national unity fooled some Yugoslavs themselves. On the eve of war, Bosnians, much like Ukrainians whose ties to Russia throughout history and intermarriage run deep, found it hard to  perceive Serbia as a true threat. “Because the national story in Tito’s era was one of ‘brotherhood and unity’ in which ethnic identity was discounted and even disparaged, and because the communities had lived intermingled or in neighboring villages for so many years,” writes Powers, “many found it even harder to take serious the threat from their neighbors.” Doder encountered this himself, when trying to convince his brother and his family to leave for the U.S. in February 1992. “You must realize war here is impossible,” his sibling told him. “Look, my best friends are Muslim. Do you realize that one third of all marriages in Bosnia are mixed.” Six weeks later the Bosnian war began on April 6, 1992. [47]

For some, it wasn’t about denying the possibility of war, but rather denying its reality: a Yugoslavian war would be unyielding and savage. As one Sarajevo publisher put it to Glenny: if it were to happen, massacres would follow, an idea too cruel to consider. “What you are doing with your logic is leaving me with no hope,” the publisher told Glenny, “And you cannot take away my hope.”[48]

Ethnic Brotherhood Versus Ancient Hatreds

The “myth of brotherhood” ran parallel to a steady discourse emphasizing the role of centuries-old ethnic hatreds – naturalized by the media and officials. “It’s tragic but the Balkans have been a hotbed of conflict for centuries,” Bush administration Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told CNN.[49] The Clinton Administration’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters that the resentment between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims was “almost terrifying and it’s [centuries] old … [The United States] simply doesn’t have the means to make people in that region of the world like each other.”[50] European leaders parroted a similar message. “They need to fight. They want to fight. They have hated each other for centuries,” blurted out one French diplomat to New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb in early 1993.[51]

Historians sometimes utilized similar lines of argument. “Bosnia is rural, isolated, and full of suspicions and hatreds to a degree that the sophisticated Croats of Zagreb could barely imagine,” Kaplan argued in his 2005 book Balkan Ghosts. In Sarajevo, pluralism had existed in “reasonable harmony,” but the surrounding villages were “full of savage hatreds, leavened by poverty and alcoholism.”[52]

Some Yugoslavs echoed the same.  Doder, Browne’s Washington Post counterpart in Belgrade during the 1970s, described Croatians as “urbane and self-possessed” but holding “nationalist passions” beyond what most observers realize. Serbs were little different, but arguably more insufferable “because they are the only groups of South Slavs” who managed to throw off foreign rule. The Catholic Church influenced Croatians while the Greek Orthodox Church did the same for Serbian society, producing “speculative thought that has left the Serbs without much notion of democratic procedures ….” Why did Serbians predominate in the police, army and bureaucracy? “It is not that they love freedom less, but that they love order more,” argued Doder.[53]

How does one assess such observations? Perhaps David Rieff captured it best in late 1992: “If there is a place in the world that can purge one of even the most vestigial habit of thinking in ethnic categories, it is former Yugoslavia. But if there were any place where such thinking is inescapable, even for people who were and remain its victims, that place is also former Yugoslavia.”[54]

Urban v. Rural and the Yugoslavia of the Early 1990s

From Slovenian and Croatian Wars of Independence, Bosnia and the subsequent military conflicts that washed over the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, an emerging urban/rural divide also fueled division. During the 1970s and 80s, “mutual antipathy” grew between the two as hundreds of thousands of peasants moved to the nation’s cities. Adding to this tension was the fact that as this demographic migration unfolded, the nation’s economics leaned toward town rather than country. “Yugoslavia did not deteriorate suddenly,” writes Kaplan, “but gradually and methodically, step by step, through the 1980s, becoming poorer and meaner and more hate-filled by the year.”[55]

During the 1970s, Yugoslavia also served as the “key intellectual entrepôt between East and West.” Philosophers and intellectuals orbited around the journal Praxis, “the only legal Yugoslav publication that had been permitted a certain degree of political criticism” under Tito.[56] Praxis members invited colleagues from “Warsaw Pact and NATO countries to exchange critiques of Stalinism and capitalism over meals on the sunny Adriatic island of Korcula.” This sort of thing lent itself to the development of an urban cosmopolitanism, heralded in part by these same Western visitors who saw in Yugoslavia “a balmy communism” that they could support in good conscience. However, such developments only widened the social gap between town and country.[57] When the 1990s arrived, the rising nationalism and political confidence of Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovo Albanians, and the Macedonians added to frictions.

While academics debated Marxism by the sea, soldiers from poor peasant backgrounds filed into the military where, over time, significant portions of the senior leadership and officer corps of the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) hailed from these more remote, economically backward, rural areas. Officers were forced to move from city to city over the course of their career, stationed in barracks, living in the city but not of it. As one military leader told Glenny, “They grew to hate cities and the people who lived in them.”[58]

Similar examples can be found among Serb leaders in Bosnia, such as Radovan Karadžic.  Karadžic believed his own career in psychiatry had been blunted by less qualified Muslim doctors. When he became president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, he shelled his former hospital. A Serbian who had moved to Sarajevo, Karadžic represented a general thrust among others of his milieu.[59]

For many urban residents, peaceful interactions between ethnic groups proved the norm, a point native Bosnian and former Sarajevo resident Emira Brankovic made to Lewis: “We lived in Sarajevo among all the other ethnic groups, which we never considered to be any different or worse than us. Now we are told that we hated each other for generations and that we must be divided along ethnic and religious lines.” Browne made a similar point during his stay in Belgrade two decades earlier, noting “Zillions of nice people of many nationalities.”[60]

Whatever the quality of pluralism enjoyed by Yugoslavia’s urban dwellers, policymakers across the ideological spectrum continually ignored or underestimated the corrosive impact of nationalism, which as Yugoslav Minister of Justice Tibor Varady told Kinzer in 1993, had been misunderstood across Europe. “Nationalism has been underestimated by all ideologies in Europe, capitalist and Communist alike.” The future he argued was in “smaller, ethnically based” states.[61]

Intellectuals, unsurprisingly, were as susceptible to nationalist fervor and rhetoric as much as any other class of people. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell drew Lewis’s attention to the sharp nationalist divergence taken by Praxis in April 1993. One of Bell’s former students, a Slovenian professor at Lublijana University, informed Bell that the dissident Marxist group was using its “strong moral standing” in Yugoslavia to support Milosevic. “I don’t know how to explain it other than nationalist passions,” he wrote to Lewis.[62] 

Praxis had hosted folks like Jurgen Habermas, Seyla Benhabib, and Norman Birnbaum at its international summer schools in previous decades. It had even been briefly banned by Tito in 1975 for its dissident commentary, but by the early 1990s, many members had swung solidly behind Serbian nationalist ambitions and Milosevic.

Mihajlo Markovic, a former Ivy League professor and Praxis leader, acknowledged Serbia’s practice of ethnic cleansing but then accused Muslims and Croats of doing the same, comparing Milosevic to Abraham Lincoln and pointing to America’s own history of genocide. “The U.S. was founded on ethnic cleansing … the takeover of Indian lands was a terrible thing, but it was ethnic cleansing. Germany engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Slavs. History does not follow the same rhythm everywhere: here phenomena are occurring that took place in the rest of Europe in the 19th century.” Anti-nationalist and Serbian intellectual Bogdan Bogdanović, who eventually fled to Paris in exile, argued that the Serbian Academy of Sciences’ embrace of nationalism was “even more dangerous than the bourgeois nationalism of the 19th century; a new mutant virus just as lethal as AIDS.”[63]

Not Yugoslavia

The Bosnian War ended with the negotiation of the Dayton Accords in late 1995. NATO airstrikes that commenced in August possibly forced Serbian officials to the negotiation table, though evidence suggests that Bosnian Serbs were moving in that direction before the bombing campaign.[64] Still, in 1993 Morton Abramowitz asserted to Anthony Lewis that the secret was to “act at the beginning.” Perhaps a bombing campaign in 1992 could have reduced suffering, but whether or not it would have produced a more cohesive Bosnia remains questionable.

Today, according to a 2021 report by Carl Bildt, Bosnia “is significantly more divided now than was the case before the war.”[65] The constitutional settlement privileged ethnic groupings over individual rights. One’s religious identity determines entire lives. The Dayton system, argues Alexander Clapp, recreates and even institutionalizes ethnic divisions, penalizes moderation, undermines political accountability and rewards extremism.[66]

Obviously, the United States is not Yugoslavia, but it is a nation struggling with pluralism and some of the same issues that buffeted the former Eastern Bloc country as it descended into chaos. The Bosnian War and Yugoslavia’s dissolution stand as bright, flashing warning signs. Divisions between citizens, aggressive ethno-nationalism, economic downturns, and distrust in institutions and government all plagued Yugoslavia during the 1990s.Thirty years later they are on display in the United States.


[1] Dusko Doder, “Yugoslavia: A Land without a Country,” Wilson Quarterly (Spring 1978): 81.

[2] Dusko Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 86-87.

[3] Misha Glenny, Session One: Humanitas Conference on Former Yugoslavia, Leeds Castle, Kent, February 25-27, 1994, Anthony Lewis Papers,  Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Jim Hooper, interview notes by Anthony Lewis, September 28, 1993, , Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Jim Hooper, interview notes by Anthony Lewis, December 16, 1993, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Stephen Kinzer, Unpublished article on the Yugoslavia conflict, 1993, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Eric Alterman, “Bosnia and the Credibility Trap,” New York Times, May 13, 1993.

[7] George Ball, Anthony Lewis interview notes, September 23, 1972,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Samantha Powers, The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 261-263.

[9] Anthony Lewis to Daniel Bell, April 28, 1993,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] Morton Abramowitz, interview notes by Anthony Lewis, September 28, 1993,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11] Anthony Lewis, “The New World Order,” New York Times, May 17, 1992,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] Anthony Lewis, “Weakness and Shame,” New York Times, June 14, 1992, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

; Anthony Lewis, “Yesterday’s Man,” New York Times, August 3, 1992,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Anthony Lewis, “Humanity Won’t Wait,” New York Times, November 13, 1992, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[14] Dusko Doder, “Yugoslavia: A Land without a Country,” Wilson Quarterly (Spring 1978): 87.

[15] Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History, (New York: Picador, 2005), 5-6.

[16] Malcolm Browne, “Croatian Exiles and Tito’s Police Fight Clandestine War Worldwide,” New York Times, September 12, 1976.

[17] Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 20, 6.

[18] Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 85-87

[19] Philip J. Cohen, “Desecrating the Holocaust: Serbia’s Exploitation of Holocaust as Propaganda,” 1993, 13,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[20] Philip J. Cohen, “Desecrating the Holocaust: Serbia’s Exploitation of Holocaust as Propaganda,” 1993, 9-10,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[21] Michael Kelly, “The Negotiator,” The New Yorker, November 6, 1995,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[22] David Rieff, “Letter from Bosnia: Original Virtue, Original Sin,” The New Yorker, November 23, 1992.

[23] Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 5.

[24] Malcolm Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Sock’s: A Reporter’s Life (New York: Times Books, 1993), 304.

[25] Browne to Rudy and Blanche, March 4, 1975, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Malcolm Browne to Jim Doherty, December 3, 1975, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Malcolm Browne to Bruce Palling, March 10, 1974, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Browne, Muddy Boots, 309.Malcolm Browne to Dorothy and Dan, December 3, 1975, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[26] Malcolm Browne to Chris and Eileen, January 26, 1974, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[27] Malcolm Browne to Dorothy and Dan, December 3, 1975, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[28] Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 92.

[29] Dusko Doder and Louise Brandon, The Inconvenient Journalist: A Memoir, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021), 65.

[30] Malcolm Browne to Thomas E. Mullaney, October 4, 1974, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[31] Samantha Power to Anthony Lewis, email, October 4, 1995,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[32] Misha Glenny, Session One: Humanitas Conference on Former Yugoslavia, Leeds Castle, Kent, February 25-27, 1994,  Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[33] Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, (New York: Penguin, 1999), 574.

[34] Malcolm Browne, “Croats in Yugoslavia Charge Discrimination,” New York Times, September 28, 1976; Malcolm Browne, “Croatian Exiles and Tito’s Police Fight Clandestine War Worldwide,” New York Times, September 12, 1976; Malcolm Browne, “Yugoslavia Cracks Down on Slovenes Who Urge More Political Freedom,” New York Times, September 29, 1976.

[35] Malcolm Browne, “Yugoslavia Chiding her Moslems for Nationalism of Their Own,” New York Times, April 8, 1974.

[36] Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 92.

[37] Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 94.

[38] Julienne Busic to Malcolm Browne, June 23, 1976,  Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Bogdan Raditsa to Malcolm Browne, October 24, 1974,  Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Bogdan Raditsa to Malcolm Browne, February 23, 1976,  Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[39] Doder and Brandon, The Inconvenient Journalis, 213.

[40] Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 39.

[41] Glenny, The Balkans, 642-643.

[42] Glenny, The Balkans, 590-591.

[43] F.B. Singleton, “Yugoslavia: Economic Grievances and Cultural Nationalism,” The World Today vol. 39, no. 7/8 (July-August, 1983): 288.

[44] Singleton, “Yugoslavia,” 288.

[45] Alexander Clapp, “The Bosnia Myth,” The National Interest no. 151 (September/October 2017): 54; Glenny, The Balkans, 623.

[46] Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 76.

[47] Samantha Powers, The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 256; Doder and Louise Brandon, The Inconvenient, 216-217.

[48] Glenny, The Balkans, 642.

[49] Powers, “A Problem from Hell,” 282.

[50] Anthony Lewis, “No Place to Hide,” New York Times, April 9, 1993.

[51] Leslie H. Gelb, “Euro-Bosnia Games,” New York Times, January 31, 1993.

[52] Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 22.

[53] Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 86-87.

[54] Rieff, “Letter from Bosnia,” 92.

[55] Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 7.

[56] Malcolm Browne, “Yugoslavs Spur Drive against Dissent,” New York Times, January 22, 1976.

[57] Glenny, The Balkans, 588.

[58] Glenny, The Balkans, 629.

[59]Glenny, The Balkans, 643.

[60] Emira Brankovic to Anthony Lewis, February 8, 1993, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Malcom Browne to Chris and Eileen, January 26, 1974, Malcolm Browne Papers, Manuscript Division.

[61] Stephen Kinzer, Unpublished article on the Yugoslavia conflict, 1993, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[62] Daniel Bell to Anthony Lewis, April 27, 1993, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[63] Dusko Doder, “Thorns Outgun Petals in Serbian Rose Garden,” European, March 25-28, 1993, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Doder, “Yugoslavia,” 89-90.

[64] Carl Bildt, “Bosnia to War, to Dayton, and to Its Slow Peace,” European Council on Foreign Relations, 2021, 13.

[65] Carl Bildt, “Bosnia to War …” 15.

[66] Clapp, “The Bosnia Myth,” 54-55.