Home Opinion The Last Ambassador: A Memoir of the Collapse of Yugoslavia

The Last Ambassador: A Memoir of the Collapse of Yugoslavia


In early 1989, shortly after I was confirmed as the new — and as it turned out the last — U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, I sought out Lawrence Eagleburger. Eagleburger had been named deputy secretary of state for the incoming Bush administration but had not yet been approved by the Senate. His temporary office was in the small back room adjoining the opulent deputy secretary’s office, and there he could be found inhaling a cigarette, which, as an asthma sufferer, he was not supposed to have.

Larry Eagleburger remains one of the foremost American experts on the Balkans. Like an unusually large number of Foreign Service officers — myself included — he served twice in Yugoslavia. He and I shared a love of the country and its people. As we talked, we discovered a mutual view that the traditional American approach to Yugoslavia no longer made sense, given the revolutionary changes sweeping Europe.

By 1989 the world had changed dramatically. The Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was breaking up. The East European countries had already slipped Moscow’s leash, and Poland and Hungary had achieved quasi-Western political systems, with Czechoslovakia soon to follow. In such circumstances, Eagleburger and I agreed that in my introductory calls in Belgrade and the republican capitals, I would deliver a new message: Yugoslavia no longer enjoyed the geopolitical importance that the United States had given it during the Cold War. Then, Marshal Josip Tito had made Yugoslavia a model for independence from the Soviet Union as well as for a brand of communism that was more open politically and less centralized economically.

Now Yugoslavia had been surpassed by both Poland and Hungary in economic and political openness. In addition, human rights had become a major element of U.S. policy, and Yugoslavia’s record on that issue was not good — particularly in the province of Kosovo, where an authoritarian Serbian regime was systematically depriving the Albanian majority of its basic civil liberties. Finally, I was to reassert the traditional mantra of U.S. support for Yugoslavia’s unity, independence, and territorial integrity. But I would add that the United States could only support unity in the context of democracy; it would strongly oppose unity imposed or preserved by force.

Thus equipped, my wife and I arrived in Belgrade on March 9, 1989, after an absence of 21 years. The city had not changed much from the dusty half-Slav, half-Turkish town we remembered. Everybody still talked politics in the outdoor cafes, shaded by splendid chestnut trees. Belgrade was an acquired taste, and I had acquired it. What had changed was the character of the Serbian politics that people were busy discussing. Slobodan Milošević, an ambitious and ruthless communist party official, had clawed his way to power several years before. In early 1989, his efforts were focused on Kosovo.

Kosovo is to Serbs what Jerusalem is to Jews — a sacred ancestral homeland. In the postwar period, the Albanians in Kosovo — about 90 percent of the population — had carved out a dominant position in the province. Milošević was intent on wresting back that control, and he had no qualms about doing it unconstitutionally. Working through the intimidating powers of the communist apparatus, he took over or suspended Kosovo’s governing bodies. He replaced bureaucratic and party incumbents with Serbs or pliant Albanians, one of whom, party chief Rahman Morina, sweated through his shirt during each of my meetings with him. Morina was later carried off prematurely by a heart attack brought on, no doubt, by stress.

On Kosovo, the message that Eagleburger and I had worked out was simple: if Yugoslavia wanted to continue its close relations with the United States, it would have to curb human rights abuses in the province. The point was naturally welcomed by the Albanians in Kosovo and also by Slovenia, an already democratic republic, which was proclaiming that Kosovo was the most egregious example of Milošević’s dictatorial rule. Milošević, on the other hand, took my criticism personally; he later cited it as the reason he waited nearly a year before agreeing to meet me.


Milošević’s Serbia was at the heart of the complex of issues that destroyed Yugoslavia. Serbs are a naturally talented and ebullient people with an instinctive liking for Americans that is based partly on a shared garrulity and partly on a military alliance spanning both world wars. Their tragic defect is an obsession with their own history; their hearts are in the past, not the future. In the Balkans, intellectuals tend to be the standard-bearers of nationalism; in Serbia, this is carried to fetishistic lengths.

A lugubrious, paranoid, and Serbocentric view of the past enables the Serbs to blame everyone but themselves for whatever goes wrong. They had a real grievance against Tito, in some measure justified, for creating a postwar Yugoslavia that denied them a role that they believed their large population (40 percent of the nation — similar to Russians in the old Soviet Union) and historical mission entitled them. When Tito died, leaving a Yugoslavia too decentralized for any ethnic group to dominate, it became inevitable that a Serbian nationalist would rise up to redress the perceived wrongs dealt his people. It was a tragedy for Serbia, its neighbors, and Europe as a whole that the nationalist turned out to be Slobodan Milošević.

After the year from the spring of 1989 to 1990 in which Milošević left me cooling my heels, I grew to know him well. We had many long conversations, all of them contentious but none of them shouting matches. “You see, Mr. Zimmermann,” he would say, “only we Serbs really believe in Yugoslavia. We’re not trying to secede like the Croats and Slovenes and we’re not trying to create an Islamic state like the Muslims in Bosnia. They all fought against you in World War II. We were your allies.” On Kosovo, Milošević painted a picture without shadings: “Kosovo has always been Serbian, except for a brief period during World War II. Yet we have given the Albanians their own government, their own parliament, their own national library, and their own schools [none of these assertions was true at the time he made them to me]. We have even given them their own academy of sciences. Have you Americans given your blacks their own academy of sciences?”

Milošević makes a stunning first impression on those who do not have the information to refute his often erroneous assertions. Many is the U.S. senator or congressman who has reeled out of his office exclaiming, “Why, he’s not nearly as bad as I expected!” One congressman even invited him to a White House prayer breakfast. Milošević knows how to act with Americans. He dresses in the Western style (he spent considerable time in New York in his banking days), drinks Scotch on the rocks, and smokes Italian cigarillos. His cherubic cheeks do not fit the strongman image; in fact, he has to work hard at looking tough for his public posters. His manner is affable and displays his light side. Unfortunately, the man is almost totally dominated by his dark side.

Milošević began his career as a communist apparatchik of extremely authoritarian mien, even for Serbia. He rose to the leadership of the Serbian party by betraying the man who gave him his chance in politics, Ivan Stambolić, whose purge Milošević organized. Milošević is an opportunist, not an ideologue, a man driven by power rather than nationalism. He has made a Faustian pact with nationalism as a way to gain and hold power.

He is a man of extraordinary coldness. I never saw him moved by an individual case of human suffering; for him, people are groups (Serbs, Muslims) or simply abstractions. Nor did I ever hear him say a charitable or generous word about any human being, not even a Serb. This chilling personality trait made it possible for Milošević to condone, encourage, and even organize the unspeakable atrocities committed by Serbian citizens in the Bosnian war. It also accounts for his habitual mendacity, as in his outrageous distortion of Serbian behavior in Kosovo. For Milošević, truth has only a relative value. If it serves his objectives, it is employed; if not, it can be discarded.

When the unity of Yugoslavia was threatened in the late 1980s by Slovenia — Yugoslavia’s only Serbless republic — Milošević cast himself as the apostle of unity. Not interested in unity per se, he wanted a unity that Serbia could dominate, working through the Yugoslav People’s Army, whose officer corps was over 50 percent Serbian. Milošević’s concept of unity did not extend to democracy or power-sharing with other national groups.

In fact, in his verbal attacks on Slovenia and Croatia and his subsequent trade sanctions against them, he became the major wrecker of Yugoslavia. When the Slovenian and Croatian independence movements, together with Milošević’s own disruptive actions in the name of unity, made the preservation of Yugoslavia impossible, he fell back on an even more aggressive approach. If Yugoslavia could not encompass all Serbs, then Serbia would. The Serbian populations of Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and possibly Macedonia would be incorporated — along with generous pieces of territory — into a Milošević-dominated Yugoslavia. His rallying cry was that all Serbs have the right to live in a single state — a doctrine that, if applied globally, would cause the disintegration of dozens of multinational states.


From the beginning of my ambassadorship in Yugoslavia, I pressed the talented and highly professional group of political and economic officers in the U.S. embassy in Belgrade and the consulate general in Zagreb, Croatia, to consider worst-case scenarios for Yugoslavia. The worst case we could think of was the breakup of the country. We reported to Washington that no breakup of Yugoslavia could happen peacefully. The ethnic hatred sown by Milošević and his ilk and the mixture of ethnic groups in every republic except Slovenia meant that Yugoslavia’s shattering would lead to extreme violence, perhaps even war. Thus we favored at least a loose unity while encouraging democratic development. The new Yugoslav prime minister, Ante Marković, a dynamic Croatian committed to economic reform and other Western policies, was pressing for both these objectives. The United States supported him and persuaded the West European governments to do so as well.

The U.S. policy of unity and democracy was not controversial within the Bush administration or initially in Western Europe. But it faced vehement criticism, led by Senator Robert Dole (R-Kans.), in the U.S. Congress. Critics of the policy charged that our efforts to hold together a country that was falling apart helped Milošević and hurt the democratic forces in Slovenia and Croatia. The critics did not understand that democratic unity favored Marković, not Milošević, who had no interest in unity on a democratic reformist basis. In the end, the dissolution of Yugoslavia did lead to war (and to Serbian territorial gains), and thus confirmed that unity and democracy were the Siamese twins of Yugoslavia’s fate. The loss of one meant that the other would die.

In January 1990, the communist party created by Tito breathed its last; a party congress split by quarreling was adjourned, never to meet again. Yugoslavia lurched into its first democratic elections. The two most anti-Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia, were the first to vote. By the end of the year the four southern republics had voted as well. Even the Serbian government held elections, despite Milošević’s occasional assertions to me that Serbia’s needs were much better met by a one-party system.

The republican elections turned out to be a disaster for those who hoped to keep Yugoslavia together in a democratic framework. People had no opportunity to vote on a Yugoslavia-wide level once Prime Minister Marković failed to win approval for federal elections. They vented their pent-up frustrations by voting for nationalists who hammered on ethnic themes. The elections became a test of ethnic loyalty. Ethnic parties won power in five of the six republics, all but Macedonia.


By bringing nationalism to power almost everywhere, the elections helped snuff out the very flame of democracy that they had kindled. Nationalism is by nature uncivil, antidemocratic, and separatist because it empowers one ethnic group over all others. If the elections weakened the democratic element so necessary for Yugoslavia, they also weakened the necessary unifying element. I visited all six republics to evaluate the new leaders. I found that not only was the country breaking up into different power centers, but each local region was developing a nationalist ideology, each different from the other. The age of naked nationalism had begun.

Slovenian nationalists, now in power, quickly broke almost all Slovenia’s remaining political and economic ties with the Yugoslav government. The Slovenes’ separatist nationalism was unique in Yugoslavia — it had no victims and no enemies; while the Slovenes hated Milošević, they built no ideology against him. They practiced a “Garbo nationalism” — they just wanted to be left alone. Their virtue was democracy and their vice was selfishness. In their drive to separate from Yugoslavia they simply ignored the 22 million Yugoslavs who were not Slovenes. They bear considerable responsibility for the bloodbath that followed their secession.

No Yugoslav republic was more transformed by the elections of 1990 than Croatia. The decisive victory of the Croatian Democratic Union in May brought to the presidency an implacable nationalist, Franjo Tudjman. I first met Tudjman in Zagreb on the morning of his victory; before then I had avoided him because of the extreme nature of some of his campaign statements. If Milošević recalls a slick con man, Tudjman resembles an inflexible schoolteacher. He is a former general and communist, expelled from the party under Tito and twice jailed for nationalism. Prim steel eyeglasses hang on a square face whose natural expression is a scowl. His mouth occasionally creases into a nervous chuckle or mirthless laugh. In our first meeting, he treated the colleagues who accompanied him with extreme disdain. Then, on the spot, he appointed two of them to high-ranking positions — to their surprise, since the venue for this solemn act was the breakfast table of the American consul general.

Tudjman’s temper flared when I asked him about his remark during the campaign that he was glad his wife was neither a Serb nor a Jew. He launched into a ten-minute defense of his ethnic humanity, claiming, among other things, that some of his best friends were Serbs. While he didn’t profess similar affinities with Jews (and his earlier writings had denigrated the Holocaust), he did promise to make restitution to the Zagreb Jewish community for the destruction of its synagogue by Croatian fascists during World War II. He kept that promise.

Unlike Milošević, who is driven by power, Tudjman is obsessed by nationalism. His devotion to Croatia is of the most narrow-minded sort, and he has never shown much understanding of or interest in democratic values. He presided over serious violations of the rights of Serbs, who made up 12 percent of the population of Croatia. They were dismissed from work, required to take loyalty oaths, and subjected to attacks on their homes and property. I have sat at Tudjman’s lunch table and listened to several of his ministers revile Serbs in the most racist terms. He didn’t join in, but he didn’t stop them either. He has also stifled the independence of the press as much as Milošević, and maybe even more.

Tudjman’s saving grace, which distinguishes him from Milošević, is that he really wants to be a Western statesman. He therefore listens to Western expressions of concern and criticism and often does something about them. For better or worse, Croatian nationalism is defined by Tudjman — intolerant, anti-Serb, and authoritarian. These attributes — together with an aura of wartime fascism, which Tudjman has done nothing to dispel — help explain why many Serbs in Croatia reject Croatian rule and why the core hostility in the former Yugoslavia is still between Serbs and Croats.

During 1990, Serbian nationalism under Milošević became even more aggressive. No longer was it enough for Serbs living outside Serbia to have their rights protected. They also had to own and control the territory they inhabited, regardless of prior sovereignty. These Serbian claims had no consistent principles behind them. Where Serbs were a minority, as in Kosovo, they asserted a historical, rather than a numerical, right to rule. Where no such historical right was plausible, as in the Krajina area of Croatia, they claimed self-determination on the majority principle. Revealingly, Milošević was unwilling to give the Albanians in Kosovo the same right of self-determination that he demanded for Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

In the Serbian elections of December 1990, Milošević made nationalism the litmus test: if you didn’t vote for him, you were not a good Serb. The Serbian opposition, overwhelmed by the superior organization of Milošević’s still-intact communist apparatus and a near-total media blackout, foundered on whether to play the nationalist game or reject it. Milošević won in a tainted but convincing landslide. The one-party system, beloved by the Serbian leader, survived. Milošević simply modernized it by giving it multiparty trimmings.

Albanian nationalism was, like Croatian nationalism, to some degree a reaction to Milošević’s aggressive tactics. As the Serbs pressed, the Albanians stiffened. They boycotted the Serbian elections, despite U.S. counsel that a determined parliamentary minority could wield much political leverage. Milošević’s strong-arm approach had launched the Albanians on a path of no return toward complete independence from the Serbs.

By December 1990, there were few Kosovo Albanians who did not insist either on an independent Kosovo or a Kosovo linked with Albania. The psychological break was complete. Any provocation launched by either side had the potential to blow the province apart. In these volatile circumstances, I urged Milošević to meet with the disciplined and impressive Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who was urging a policy of peaceful resistance. Rugova agreed. Milošević refused, saying of the leader of some two million Albanian subjects of Serbia, “Who does he represent?”

The most interesting opposition figure in Serbia was Vuk Drašković, a flamboyant and talented novelist, who leaped onto the political stage as a pro-Serbian extremist, complete with Old Testament beard, racist ideas, and the persona of a Serbian peasant. Once he found his political sea legs, however, Drašković turned into a staunch defender of an open political system and free press. On March 9, 1991, he used his talent for motivating people to stage a mass rally in Belgrade against Milošević’s control of the press. Clumsy handling by the police and the army led to two deaths — a demonstrator and a policeman — and to Drašković’s arrest and brief detention. Many observers felt that the rally, which has now entered Serbian folklore, came close to dethroning Milošević. While this is doubtful, the courage of nearly 100,000 spontaneous demonstrators was a moving tribute to the democratic vibrancy of many Serbs.

Many new opposition figures within the former republics of Yugoslavia took a clear stand against nationalism. In speaking out, they paid a price in ransacked offices, bombings, death threats, beatings, and arrests. With my strong support, Western human rights groups helped many opposition organizations and publications to survive. The investment, however long-term, will pay off one day. The people being helped, and those who will succeed them, are part of the “other Serbia” and the “other Croatia” — the core of the democratic revival that in time must replace the current nationalist hysteria.

Neither Milošević nor Tudjman could understand why we cared so much about people who were murdered, tortured, abused, or harassed. Milošević would listen patiently, then ask, “Why do you waste time on these individuals, who are mostly criminals anyway, when Serbs as a nation have been abused for years?” Tudjman would often erupt in fury when I had the temerity to suggest that Croatian authorities were not always model democrats. When it came to results, however, Milošević almost never delivered; Tudjman sometimes did.


The last year of Yugoslavia’s existence — 1991 — saw the unfolding of unilateral and conflicting nationalist strategies. Slovenia, where a December 1990 referendum showed overwhelming popular support for independence, announced its decision to secede in June 1991 if a loose confederal solution was not found. Wittingly making his republic a hostage to Slovenian policy, Tudjman said Croatia would do what Slovenia did. Milošević countered that the breakup of Yugoslavia would lead to Serbia’s incorporating all Serbs into a single state. Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegović argued that the survival of Yugoslavia in some form was essential to Bosnia’s survival as well.

Izetbegović was mild-mannered, deferential, and perpetually anxious; he wore the mantle of leadership with great discomfort. A devout Muslim but no extremist, he consistently advocated the preservation of a multinational Bosnia. Ironically, it was Milošević and Tudjman, in their professed desire for Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats to live apart from Muslims, who laid the philosophical groundwork for a separate Muslim entity. Bosnia had a strong multiethnic character and the highest percentage of ethnically mixed marriages of any republic. While its history since the fifteenth-century Turkish occupation was no more bloody than the history of England or France, Bosnia was the major Balkan killing ground during World War II. Izetbegović was succinct with me: “If Croatia goes independent, Bosnia will be destroyed.”

In early 1991, the supporters of a unified and democratic Yugoslavia were becoming marginalized. The leaders of the two republics with the most to lose from the breakup of Yugoslavia — Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia and Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia — proposed to hold it together in an even weaker configuration. Milošević gave their plan lip service; the Croats and Slovenes rejected it flatly for leaving too many powers with the central government.

During this period the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA in its Serbo-Croatian acronym) emerged as a major political player, an unusual role for a communist army. I met regularly with the defense minister, General Veljko Kadijević, a brooding, humorless officer who spoke with antipathy about Slovenes and Croats and with paranoia about Germans, whom he saw as bent on incorporating the Balkans into a Fourth Reich. The JNA enjoyed a proud tradition, with roots in Tito’s Partisan fighters, who stood up to the Germans in World War II. The fifth-largest army in Europe, well supplied by the Soviet Union and an enormous domestic arms industry, it was seen by many as the most important unifying institution in Yugoslavia. Its officer corps, however, had a Serbian majority who, when events forced them to choose, followed Milošević.

The JNA was soon on a collision course with the breakaway republics. Both Croatia and Slovenia were trying to create their own military forces by calling on their young men to desert the JNA and by weakening the JNA’s control over the republican Territorial Defense Forces, a sort of national guard. The JNA went berserk over this proliferation of armies. “How many armies does the United States have?” Kadijević stormed at me. In early 1991, the JNA tried to force the Yugoslav presidency — a comically weak, collective, eight-person chief of state — to declare a national emergency and authorize the army to disarm the Slovenian and Croatian militaries. This bid, which amounted to a military coup, was frustrated politically by the democratically inclined presidency members from Macedonia and Slovenia, Vasil Tupurkovski and Janez Drnvšek. The defeat led Milošević to use the four votes he controlled in the eight-member presidency to subvert the scheduled rotation of its “president” from a Serb to a Croat. I asked Milošević several days before the May 15 election by the presidency if he would block the accession of the Croat Stipe Mesić, even though it was called for by constitutional precedent. “Serbia will always act in the spirit of the highest democratic principles,” replied Milošević, who was always at his most mellifluous when expatiating on his devotion to democracy. “There will be a democratic vote in the presidency.”

“But are you going to accept a fair transition from a Serb to a Croat president?” I pursued. “Mr. Zimmermann,” he said, “you can tell your government that it has absolutely nothing to worry about.” I cabled Washington that Mesić was not a sure thing. Two days later Milošević’s allies on the presidency blocked Mesić’s ascension, throwing Yugoslavia into a constitutional crisis. When I accused Milošević later of lying to me, he asserted that he had not actually promised that Mesić would be named. The incident illustrated three important traits of Milošević’s character: his cynicism about Yugoslavia’s unity and institutions, his natural mendacity, and the pains he always took to avoid direct responsibility for aggressive actions. The third trait was to become particularly relevant to Milošević’s hidden hand in the Bosnia crisis.


It was in the context of Milošević’s move against the Yugoslav presidency and its Croatian president-designate, Croatian actions against the jobs and property of Serbs in Croatia, growing violence between Serbs and Croats, and the threat by both Slovenia and Croatia to withdraw from Yugoslavia at midyear that Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Belgrade on June 21, 1991.

During his one-day visit Baker had nine consecutive meetings: with the Albanian leaders from Kosovo, with all six republican leaders, and twice with Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Marković and Foreign Minister Budimir Lončar. Listening to Baker deal with these complex and irascible personalities, I felt that I had rarely, if ever, heard a secretary of state make a more skillful or reasonable presentation. Baker’s failure was due not to his message but to the fact that the different parts of Yugoslavia were on a collision course.

Baker expressed the American hope that Yugoslavia would hold together behind the reformist Marković, who by that time was seen increasingly as a figurehead or, even worse, a fig leaf. Baker said that it was up to the people of Yugoslavia to determine their future governing structures; the United States would support any arrangement on which they could peacefully agree. Baker told Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Slovene President Milan Kučan that the United States would not encourage or support unilateral secession; he hoped they would not secede, but if they had to leave, he urged them to leave by negotiated agreement. He argued that self-determination cannot be unilateral but must be pursued by dialogue and peaceful means. To Milošević and (indirectly) the army, Baker made clear that the United States strongly opposed any use of force, intimidation, or incitement to violence that would block democratic change. Yugoslavia could not be held together at gunpoint. In his encounter with Milošević — the most contentious of the nine meetings — Baker hammered the Serb leader on his human rights violations in Kosovo, urged his acquiescence to a looser constitutional arrangement for Yugoslavia, and pressed him to stop destabilizing the Yugoslav presidency.

Never was a green light given or implied to Milošević or the army to invade the seceding republics, as has since been alleged in some press accounts. But was there a red light? Not as such, because the United States had given no consideration to using force to stop a Serbian/JNA attack on Slovenia or Croatia. Nor, at that point, had a single member of Congress, as far as I know, advocated the introduction of American military power. Baker did, however, leave a strong political message. He said to Prime Minister Marković, a conduit to the army, “If you force the United States to choose between unity and democracy, we will always choose democracy.”

Baker’s message was the right one, but it came too late. If a mistake was made, it was that the secretary of state had not come six months earlier, a time that unfortunately coincided with the massive American preparations for the Persian Gulf War. By June 1991, Baker was making a last-ditch effort. Even so, it is not clear that an earlier visit by Baker would have made a difference. The aggressive nationalism emanating like noxious fumes from the leaders of Serbia and Croatia and their even more extreme advisers, officials, media manipulators, and allies had cast the die for disintegration and violence.

The breakup of Yugoslavia is a classic example of nationalism from the top down — a manipulated nationalism in a region where peace has historically prevailed more than war and in which a quarter of the population were in mixed marriages. The manipulators condoned and even provoked local ethnic violence in order to engender animosities that could then be magnified by the press, leading to further violence. Milošević l gave prime television time to fanatic nationalists like Vojislav Šešelj, who once said that the way to deal with the Kosovo Albanians was to kill them all. Tudjman also used his control of the media to sow hate. Nationalist “intellectuals,” wrapped in the mantle of august academies of sciences, expounded their pseudo-history of the victimization of Serbs (or Croats) through the ages. One of them seriously asserted to me that Serbs had committed no crimes or moral transgressions at any point in their long history. Worst of all, the media, under the thumb of most republican regimes, spewed an endless daily torrent of violence and enmity. As a reporter for Vreme, one of the few independent magazines left in the former Yugoslavia, said, “You Americans would become nationalists and racists too if your media were totally in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.”


In late June 1991, just a few days after Baker’s departure from Belgrade and almost exactly according to their timetable, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. Fighting began in Slovenia almost immediately. Contrary to the general view, it was the Slovenes who started the war. Their independence declaration, which had not been preceded by even the most token effort to negotiate, effectively put under their control all the border and customs posts between Slovenia and its two neighbors, Italy and Austria. This meant that Slovenia, the only international gateway between the West and Yugoslavia, had unilaterally appropriated the right to goods destined for other republics, as well as customs revenues estimated at some 75 percent of the Yugoslav federal budget. Even an army less primitive than the JNA would have reacted. Worst of all, the Slovenes’ understandable desire to be independent condemned the rest of Yugoslavia to war.

The Yugoslav generals, thinking they could intimidate the Slovenes, roared their tanks through peaceful Slovenian streets, slapping aside compact cars as they lumbered through. The Slovenes, trained by the JNA itself in territorial defense, fought back. After ten days, at Milošević’s direction or with his acquiescence, the JNA withdrew from Slovenia, leaving the republic effectively independent. Compared to the Croatian and Bosnian wars that followed, the casualty figures in Slovenia seem ludicrously small: 37 JNA and 12 Slovenes killed. They do not bear out the generally held assumption that the Yugoslav army waged an extermination campaign in Slovenia. In provoking war, the Slovenes won the support of the world’s television viewers and consolidated their entire population behind independence. Unlike the JNA, they welcomed foreign journalists, to whom they retailed the epic struggle of their tiny republic against the Yugoslav colossus. It was the most brilliant public relations coup in the history of Yugoslavia.

It was no surprise to me that Milošević was willing to let Slovenia go. His policy since 1989 provoked the Slovenes to secede by making it clear that he would not tolerate their liberal, independent ways. With Slovenia out of the game, he and the JNA were now free to take on a Croatia no longer able to count on Slovenia’s support.

The fighting in Croatia began with the illusion of evenhandedness. The Yugoslav army would step in to separate the Serbian and Croatian combatants. During the summer of 1991, however, it soon became clear that the JNA, while claiming neutrality, was in fact turning territory over to Serbs. The war in Croatia had become a war of aggression.

As the war grew more bitter through the summer of 1991, the European Community (EC) and the United Nations launched a joint effort to achieve a cease-fire and an agreement among all the Yugoslav republics. Special U.N. envoys Cyrus Vance and Lord Peter Carrington, two former foreign ministers and old friends, shared the Sisyphean task of achieving a peaceful outcome. The determined Vance won the trust of the JNA and succeeded on January 3, 1992, in producing a cease-fire that froze both the military and political status quo in Croatia. The fighting stopped, but the Serbs were left holding about a quarter of the republic. The freeze was unwittingly stabilized by U.N. peacekeepers who arrived in March 1992.

Carrington’s job was to get the feuding Yugoslav republics to define the relationship they were prepared to have with each other. He and Vance both argued — as did the U.S. government — that there should be no Western recognition of the independence of any Yugoslav republic until all had agreed on their mutual relationships. If this simple principle had been maintained, less blood would have been shed in Bosnia.

During the fall of 1991, while Vance and Carrington were launching their diplomatic efforts, the JNA shelled the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik, the first major war crimes in Yugoslavia since World War II. The pretty Croatian city of Vukovar, with a mixed population, of which over a third was Serb, first came under JNA shelling in August, apparently because of its location on the Danube River between Serbia and Croatia. For three months the army, shrinking from an attack that might have cost it casualties, sat outside the city and shelled it to pieces. The civilian population of the city — Serbs and Croats alike — huddled in cellars. Over 2,000 civilians were killed before the JNA finally “liberated” the city.

One of the employees in our embassy residence, a young Croatian woman named Danijela Hajnal, was from Vukovar; her mother was trapped in a cellar during the siege. During her stay with my wife and me after Vukovar fell, Danijela’s mother described the relations between Serbs and Croats during the attack: “There were a hundred people in that cellar,” she said, “half of us Croats and half Serbs. We were friends when we went into the cellar, and three months later when we came out, we were still friends.” About the same time I asked Danijela how many Serbs and Croats were in her high school class in Vukovar. She replied that she didn’t have the faintest idea. These vignettes, which could be multiplied thousands of times over, show how natural it was for Yugoslavs to get along with each other, despite the ranting of their leaders.

Notwithstanding solemn guarantees by General Kadijević, the JNA in October 1991 also shelled Dubrovnik from the hills and the sea. This medieval town, which glowed in the Adriatic like a piece of pink marble, had withstood the depredations of Turks, Venetians, and many other would-be conquerors. Now it was falling under the guns of an army whose constitutional duty was to defend it. Dubrovnik was not destroyed, but the damage inflicted by the Yugoslav army exceeded the best efforts of any previous marauder. Only Milošević pretended that there was any military objective in Dubrovnik. Denying, as usual, any personal responsibility for what the army did, he told me with a straight face that there were foreign mercenaries hiding in the city. Kadijević didn’t even pretend that Dubrovnik was a military target. “I give you my word,” he told me, “that the shelling of Dubrovnik was unauthorized. Those who did it will be punished.” My repeated requests for the details of their punishment went unanswered.

Shelling civilian populations is a war crime. Vukovar and Dubrovnik led directly to the merciless attacks on Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities. Yet no Western government at the time called on NATO’s military force to get the JNA to stop shelling Dubrovnik, although NATO’s supreme commander, General John Galvin, had prepared contingency plans for doing so. The use of force was simply too big a step to consider in late 1991. I did not recommend it myself — a major mistake. The JNA’s artillery on the hills surrounding Dubrovnik and its small craft on the water would have been easy targets. Not only would damage to the city have been averted, but the Serbs would have been taught a lesson about Western resolve that might have deterred at least some of their aggression against Bosnia. As it was, the Serbs learned another lesson — that there was no Western resolve, and that they could push about as far as their power could take them.


Secretary of State Baker’s failure to head off the Slovenian and Croatian declarations of independence cooled whatever ardor he may have had for projecting the United States into the Yugoslav imbroglio. During the summer of 1991, it had been fair enough to give the EC a chance to deal with what it called a “European problem.” But by autumn, the Serbian/JNA plan for taking over parts of Croatia had crystallized in the attacks on Vukovar and Dubrovnik. Threats to the integrity of Bosnia were growing, and the EC, under German cajoling, was stumbling toward recognition of the breakaway republics. Even without threatening force, the United States could have thrown more weight behind the effort to prevent greater violence. However, between July 1991 and March 1992, the United States was not a major factor in the Yugoslav crisis. In the fall of 1991, at a U.S. ambassadors’ meeting in Berlin, a friend from the State Department’s European Bureau told me that Yugoslavia had become a tar baby in Washington. Nobody wanted to touch it. With the American presidential election just a year away, it was seen as a loser.

Unfortunately, American immobility coincided with growing pressure on Bosnia. Neither Milošević nor Tudjman made any effort to conceal their designs on Bosnia from me. As a place where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had coexisted more or less peacefully for centuries, Bosnia was an affront and a challenge to these two ethnic supremacists.

At the end of a long meeting with me, Tudjman erupted into a diatribe against Izetbegović and the Muslims of Bosnia. “They’re dangerous fundamentalists,” he charged, “and they’re using Bosnia as a beachhead to spread their ideology throughout Europe and even to the United States. The civilized nations should join together to repel this threat. Bosnia has never had any real existence. It should be divided between Serbia and Croatia.”

I was flabbergasted at this outburst and got the impression that Tudjman’s aides who were present were equally surprised. With some heat I asked, “Mr. President, how can you expect the West to help you get back the parts of Croatia taken by the Serbs when you yourself are advancing naked and unsupported claims on a neighboring republic?” There was no answer. I added, “And how can you expect Milošević to respect a deal with you to divide Bosnia when he’s trying to annex part of Croatia?” Amazingly, Tudjman answered, “Because I can trust Milošević.” On the way down the stairs after this surreal discussion, I asked one of Tudjman’s aides if I had gotten too emotional in defending the integrity of Bosnia. “Oh no,” he said, “You were just fine.”

Milošević’s strategy for Bosnia, unlike Tudjman’s, was calculating rather than emotional. When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and stopped participating in the Yugoslav government, Milošević, notwithstanding all he had done to destroy Yugoslavia, now claimed to be its heir. He contended that all those who wanted to “remain” in Yugoslavia should have the right to do so. This included, of course, the Serbs of Croatia and the Serbs of Bosnia. As Milošević explained this to me, he added that while the Muslims in Bosnia tended to live in cities, the Serbs were a rural people living on 70 percent of the land, to which they therefore had a right. Thus, at least six months before the Bosnian Serb army and the irregulars from Serbia shattered the peace in Bosnia, Milošević was laying the groundwork for a Serbian claim. From that moment, in every conversation I had with him I emphasized the strong U.S. opposition to any Serbian power play in Bosnia.


When Croatia opted for independence in mid-1991, Bosnian President Izetbegović saw the writing on the wall for his republic. He scurried throughout Europe and the United States looking for ways to head off disaster. He pushed, without success, the dying Izetbegović-Gligorov plan for a loosely connected Yugoslavia. He asked for and got EC observers in Bosnia. He asked for, but did not get, U.N. peacekeepers there. Vance and the U.N. leadership in New York took the traditional if puzzling line that peacekeepers are used after a conflict, not before. The U.S. government did not support Izetbegović on the request for peacekeepers either. In a cable to Washington I urged this innovative step, but did not press for it as hard as I should have. As an unsatisfactory compromise, when the U.N. peacekeepers arrived in Croatia in March 1992, they set up their headquarters in Sarajevo.

In the fall of 1991, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher pressed his EC colleagues to recognize Slovenia and Croatia and to offer recognition to Bosnia and Macedonia. Izetbegović, briefed by the German ambassador to Yugoslavia on how to make his point with Genscher that EC recognition would bring violence to Bosnia, unaccountably failed to do so in his November meeting with the German foreign minister. The omission can only have led Genscher to assume that he had a green light from Izetbegović for recognition.

I was urging Washington to defer recognition, as the EC ambassadors in Belgrade were urging their governments. Although Washington was opposed to premature recognition, U.S. appeals to EC governments were perfunctory. On December 17, 1991, an EC summit decided to grant recognition. Carrington and Vance both complained loudly and publicly. The State Department’s statement, to avoid ruffling the EC, was nuanced. War in Bosnia, which had until then been probable, now became virtually inevitable.

A few days after the EC’s decision, I had lunch in Belgrade with Izetbegović’s deputy, Ejup Ganić, a Muslim hard-liner who had trained at MIT. I asked him, “Is Bosnia really going to ask for recognition in the face of all the dangers Izetbegović has repeatedly warned about? Wouldn’t it be better to tell the European Community that you need more time to work out the political issues involved?” Ganić looked at me as if I had just dropped out of the sky. He said, “Of course we’re going to move ahead on recognition. With Croatia and Slovenia now gone, we can’t consign Bosnia to a truncated Yugoslavia controlled by Serbia.”

I concluded from the abrupt change of tack by Ganić that Izetbegović was now playing a double game. With the European Community heading toward recognition, he thought he could get away with it under the guns of the Serbs. Perhaps he counted on Western military support, though nobody had promised him that. Whatever his motives, it was a disastrous political mistake. Serbia, Bosnia’s vastly more powerful neighbor, now had the pretext it needed to strike — the claim that 1.3 million Serbs were being taken out of “Yugoslavia” against their will. I believe that Milošević and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić had already decided to annex the majority of Bosnia by military force (Milošević had spoken to me of 70 percent). The EC’s irresponsibility, the United States’ passivity, and Izetbegović’s miscalculation made their job easier.

Events took their inexorable course following the EC’s recognition decision. Hardly anybody noticed the December 20 resignation of Marković, so powerless had Yugoslavia’s last prime minister become. Although defeated by an ad hoc cabal of nationalists, from the liberal Slovenes to the neo-communist Serbs, Marković still departed as a symbol of everything his country needed: a modern, stable economy, the rule of law, and ethnic tolerance. He had treated Yugoslavia like a patient with a serious cancer — nationalism. A semi-heroic, semi-tragic figure, Marković failed, but at least he had fought the cancer instead of adjusting to it. He had aspired to be Yugoslavia’s savior. Instead, he turned out to be the Yugoslavian equivalent of Russia’s last leader before the Bolshevik deluge, Aleksandr Kerensky. The war in Croatia, the impending war in Bosnia, and a future that promised a generation of violence in the Balkans were the results of Yugoslavia’s demise.


During the first few months of 1992, events in Bosnia careened down two parallel tracks. On one, the Izetbegović government, following the EC lead, prepared for independence. Its referendum on February 29 and March 1 produced predictable results. Practically all the Muslims and Croats voted for independence, yielding a 64-percent majority, while practically all the Serbs boycotted the election. On the other track, the leaders of the Serbian minority prepared for secession and war. Since the 1990 Bosnian election, I had paid periodic visits to Karadžić. The Bosnian Serb leader is a large man with flamboyant hair, an outwardly friendly manner, and the unlikely profession of psychiatry. In the great tradition of nationalists who do not come from their nation (Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin), Karadžić is from Montenegro, not Bosnia. I learned from experience that his outstanding characteristics were his stubbornness and deep-seated hostility to Muslims, Croats, and any other non-Serb ethnic group in his neighborhood.

I was startled to hear the extravagance of Karadžić’s claims on behalf of the Serbs. He told me that “Serbs have a right to territory not only where they’re now living but also where they’re buried, since the earth they lie in was taken unjustly from them.” When I asked whether he would accept parallel claims on behalf of Croats or Muslims, he answered, “No, because Croats are fascists and Muslims are Islamic fanatics.” His disdain for the truth was absolute; he insisted that “Sarajevo is a Serbian city,” which it has never been. His apartheid philosophy was as extreme as anything concocted in South Africa. He was the architect of massacres in the Muslim villages, ethnic cleansing, and artillery attacks on civilian populations. In his fanaticism, ruthlessness, and contempt for human values, he invites comparison with a monster from another generation, Heinrich Himmler.

Karadžić and Milošević both made an elaborate pretense to me of not knowing each other very well and having no operational contacts. Milošević always reacted with cherubic innocence when I accosted him over Bosnia. “But why do you come to me, Mr. Zimmermann? Serbia has nothing to do with Bosnia. It’s not our problem.” This fiction suited each leader — Milošević to escape responsibility for aggression, Karadžić to avoid the charge that he was a henchman of Milošević’s rather than a Serbian folk hero in his own right.

There is no doubt, however, that the two were partners in war crimes. Copying Milošević’s strategy in Croatia, Karadžić’s followers — beginning a year before the Bosnian war broke out — declared three “Serb Autonomous Regions” in Bosnia, began an arms supply relationship with the JNA, and accepted JNA intervention in September to define their borders. They established artillery positions around Sarajevo and other towns, created a “Bosnian Serb” army (effectively a branch of the JNA, commanded by a JNA general and using JNA-supplied heavy artillery, tanks, and air power), established their own parliament, and attempted a putsch in Sarajevo on March 2, 1992. In March 1992 — before any country had recognized the independence of Bosnia — they declared a “Serbian Republic.” These steps, particularly those involving the JNA, would not have been possible without Milošević’s direct involvement.

In response to the evidence of Serbian collusion and the results of the Bosnian referendum, and in hopes that recognition might deter a Serbian attack, the United States and other NATO countries recognized Bosnia in early April 1992. However, a few days before, Serbs had launched an attack from Serbia across the Drina River, which forms the border between Serbia and Bosnia. Milošević, Karadžić, and their spokesmen have asserted that the Western recognition of Bosnia had forced the Serbs to move. I doubt this. The two Serbian leaders already had a joint strategy for dividing Bosnia and they were going to carry it out, regardless of what the rest of the world did.

The attack on Bosnia showed that Milošević and Karadžić are apostles of the most aggressive form of nationalism. Milošević-style nationalism has proven singularly resistant to economic inducements, penalties, or any other pressures short of force. Unfortunately, neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration was willing to step up to the challenge of using force in Bosnia, despite significant American interests in the Balkans. Moreover, the two Serbian strongmen, behind their propaganda, espouse the doctrine of the single nation-state, a deeply uncivilized concept. Nation-states have nothing to unify them but their nationalism, and power within them will naturally gravitate to the most strident nationalists. Multinational states, a majority in the world, can be deeply conflicted, as Yugoslavia proves. But they can also be schools of tolerance, since the need to take account of minority interests moderates behavior. Yugoslavia had its democrats as well as its demagogues. The attackers across the Drina, however, were barbarians, pure and simple.

The Serbian attack was directed at towns with large Muslim majorities. Gangsters from Serbia proper, including the notorious Arkan, who had left a trail of murder and pillage during the Croatian war, were displayed on Belgrade television swaggering on the debris of Bijeljina and other Muslim towns. Those Serbia-based marauders accounted for the high volume of atrocities committed in the early days of the war — the gang rapes, ethnic cleansing, and wanton murder of Muslim villagers. The presence in Bosnia of irregulars from Serbia drained all credibility from Milošević’s assertion that Serbia had nothing to do with what was going on there.

During one of the meetings in which, on Washington’s instructions, I accused Milošević of aggression in Bosnia, he asserted, “There isn’t a single Serb from Serbia involved in the fighting in Bosnia.”

“But,” I said, “I saw Arkan on your own Belgrade television boasting about his capture of Bosnian villages.”

“Our television is free to broadcast whatever it wants,” said Milošević. “You shouldn’t take it so seriously. Besides, you needn’t worry about trouble in Bosnia. Serbs have no serious grievances in Bosnia; they’re not being abused there. This is a big difference with Serbs in Croatia.” Via this backhanded compliment to the Izetbegović government, Milošević reduced the Serbian argument for naked aggression to the assumption that Serbs had a right to murder, torture, and expel simply because they did not want to live under an independent multiethnic government that was not abusing them.


Just a few weeks before I was recalled in protest against the Serbian aggression in Bosnia, I had my last talk with Karadžić in Belgrade, where he was pretending not to see Milošević. He came to the U.S. embassy, bringing with him as usual his deputy and pilot fish, Nikola Koljević, a Bosnian Serb who had taught in the United States and was an expert on Shakespeare. Koljević’s specialty was sidling up to me after my meetings with Karadžić and portraying himself as the humane influence on Bosnian Serb policy. Several months after my departure from Belgrade, I saw a photograph of Koljević directing artillery fire on the civilian population of Sarajevo from a hill above the city.

Perhaps it was fitting that I should have one of my last meetings in doomed Yugoslavia with this macabre pair, the professor of English literature and the psychiatrist. At least Shakespeare and Freud would have understood the power of the irrational that provoked these and other madmen to destroy the human fabric of Yugoslavia.

Karadžić began the conversation by running down his usual litany of criticisms of the Europeans, attacks on Izetbegović’s character and ideology, and laments that the United States should be so blind as to abandon its traditional Serbian allies. He then launched into a stream-of-consciousness justification for everything he was doing. “You have to understand Serbs, Mr. Zimmermann. They have been betrayed for centuries. Today they cannot live with other nations. They must have their own separate existence. They are a warrior race and they can trust only themselves to take by force what is their due. But this doesn’t mean that Serbs can hate. Serbs are incapable of hatred.”

I sought to pin him down. “What sort of Bosnian Serb republic do you have in mind?” I asked. “Will it be a part of Serbia?”

“That will be for the Bosnian Serb people to decide,” he said. “But our first goal is independence, so we can live separately from others.”

“Where will your capital be?” I asked.

“Why, Sarajevo, of course.”

“But how can a city which is nearly 50 percent Muslim and only 30 percent Serb be the capital for the Serbs alone?”

Karadžić had a ready answer. “The city will be divided into Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian sections, so that no ethnic groups will have to live or work together.”

“Just how will it be divided?”

“By walls,” he said matter-of-factly. “Of course people will be able to pass from one part of the city to another, as long as they have permission and go through the checkpoints.”


Source: foreignaffairs

Author: Warren Zimmermann, Ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992. 


I thought of Sarajevo, which for centuries had been a moving symbol of the civility that comes from people of different ethnicities living in harmony. Then I thought of Berlin, where the wall, which had symbolized all the hatreds and divisions of the Cold War, had been torn down just over a year before.

“Do you mean,” I asked, “that Sarajevo will be like Berlin before the wall was destroyed?”

“Yes,” he answered, “our vision of Sarajevo is like Berlin when the wall was still standing.”


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