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From the Film and Media column in the October 1999 Perspectives

Dilemmas of Documenting Current History--A Review of Yugoslavia: The Death of a Nation

David MacKenzie, October 1999

Yugoslavia: The Death of a Nation. Produced by Laura Reimers for Discovery Channel. 2 hours 45 minutes. 1999. Videocassette.

This four-part documentary film about the collapse of Yugoslavia is outstanding in many respects and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the troubled history of the Balkan Peninsula in the 20th century. After briefly treating the Tito regime, the production stresses—correctly, I believe—that virulent nationalism was the basic cause of Yugoslavia's collapse and the ensuing horrors in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Unfortunately, however, the film virtually ignores the region's complex, bloody, and disputed history that separated and alienated its chief component peoples: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians.

For roughly four centuries beginning about A.D. 1400, the Ottoman Turks ruled the regions of Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, and Albania. During that time most Albanians and many Bosnians converted to the Muslim faith whereas Serbs in Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and defiant Montenegro retained their Greek Orthodox religion, which enabled them to preserve sometimes-glorious medieval traditions. In the northwestern Balkans, Croats and Slovenes came under the rule of the Austrian Habsburg monarchy, were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in religion, and became part of Europe culturally.

During the 19th century, Serbia achieved first autonomy, then independence from Turkish rule and developed the goal of unifying all Serbs and, if possible, other South Slavs—Croats, Slovenes, and Montenegrins—under the rule of Belgrade. Serbia achieved that goal at the end of World War I when the defeated Habsburg and Ottoman empires collapsed. However, the resulting Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia (1918–41) left the less numerous Slavic peoples dissatisfied. As a result, this Yugoslavia quickly disintegrated before the Nazi onslaught of April 1941. German and Italian forces occupied Serbia while Croatia was ruled by a brutal fascist (Ustase) regime that murdered hundreds of thousands of the Serbian minority.

By the end of World War II the Communist-led partisans of Marshal Tito had won a civil war against the Chetniks, loyal to the royalist exile government in London. Tito created a second Yugoslavia as a Communist dictatorship that suppressed national and religious rivalries until his death in 1980. The federal Yugoslavia that followed began a decade of disintegration as the old rivalries and hatreds resurfaced. In the interest of focusing on current events, this crucial background is slighted in the film.

The documentary narrative begins in the late stages of the Tito regime, which was becoming gradually less dictatorial under the overly optimistic and misleading slogan "Brotherhood and Unity." The film uses a series of excellent maps to show the fragmentation that was taking place in Yugoslavia.

The film also does a good job of presenting and clearly identifying the chief actors in the Yugoslav drama, from the late Tito era to the present. Yugoslav leaders are shown mostly speaking in interviews and at rallies in Serbo-Croatian with subtitles or simultaneous translations. Slobodan Milosevic is clearly the most important single figure depicted in the period covered by the film (and to the present). This banker turned politician became chairman of the Serbian Communist Party in 1986, then turned against his former mentor, Serbian president Ivan Stambolic, and took over his position in 1987. Sometimes Milosevic is depicted speaking the fluent English he learned as a student in the United States, but mostly he is shown speaking emotionally in Serbian. His devious maneuvers, deceptions, and sudden reversals of policy—all designed to keep him in power and to promote intolerant Serbian nationalism—are revealed and explained throughout the film.

The film contends that Yugoslavia's collapse began when Milosevic replaced Stambolic, who was seeking to keep the country together. Stambolic questioned Milosevic's exclusive stress on Greater Serbian nationalism, asking, "And what will be left of Yugoslavia?" Stambolic's point is reinforced in the film by clips of Milosevic's fiery 1989 speech, in which he arbitrarily revoked the autonomy of the overwhelmingly Albanian province of Kosovo—autonomy granted only recently by Marshal Tito. Milosevic argued that the site of the epic Battle of Kosovo of 1389 against invading Turks comprised the heart of Serbian history. At the time, the Serbs were celebrating the 600th anniversary of their heroic and glorious defeat in that battle. Milosevic exploited the Kosovo problem to win the support of Serbs in autonomous Vojvodina in order to bring to power his own partisans there and in Montenegro. The film also shows the general strike of Kosovar Albanians in response to their loss of autonomy, which comprised a root cause of the Kosovo crisis of 1999. As this summary suggests, political and territorial issues are presented as larger causes of the Kosovo tragedy than religious disputes between Albanian Muslims and Serbian-Orthodox believers.

The film correctly cites rival Serbian and Croatian nationalisms as a major cause of Yugoslavia's disintegration in 1990–91. The second portion of the film deals with the successful struggle for independence by Croatia and Slovenia, the two most developed and prosperous portions of Communist Yugoslavia. The Slovenes under their president, Milan Kucan, acted boldly to defy Belgrade and assert their independence. Lacking a significant Serbian minority, Slovenia was allowed to leave the Yugoslav federation without much bloodshed. The film shows Yugoslavia's defense minister advocating a massive invasion of Slovenia by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), but Milosevic opposed such a war and ordered Yugoslav forces withdrawn from Slovenia. President Kucan's hastily mobilized army overcame the small number of JNA forces in the province. The film graphically depicts the mournful reaction of one Serbian military officer, a Yugoslav commander in Slovenia for many years, who found it incomprehensible that Slovenia would opt to leave Yugoslavia.

The film briefly shows the summit conference of European leaders in Luxembourg, which sought to induce Croatian and Slovene leaders to back down in exchange for international recognition of their independence. However, the Europeans failed to significantly influence decisions reached by the contending Yugoslav groups.

The ensuing bloody conflict between Serbs and Croats began with a revolt of local Serbs in the Croatian city of Knin in August 1990. The Yugoslav army supported the revolt while the Croats acted to form their own army. The film depicts the massive demonstration of March 1991 in Belgrade that turned violent as extremists sought to bring the JNA into the streets. Milosevic responded by deploying JNA troops in Croatia to support Serb rebels. When other European countries objected, the Serbs of Belgrade—as they had often done in the past—turned to Russia for support and received assurances from Moscow that Belgrade could safely defy European objections. Weeks later, when Croatia—with Germany's support—openly proclaimed its independence, a Serbo-Croat war, instigated by Milosevic, broke out. As the war progressed, the JNA became increasingly subservient to Milosevic under the command of Colonel Ratko Mladic, one of his loyal followers, who sought to pound the Croats into submission. As Croatian towns and villages were destroyed, the JNA raised the Yugoslav flag over them, as the film graphically shows in the terrible devastation in Vukovar.

Once again, Europe intervened to forestall a major intra-Yugoslav war. European leaders summoned representatives of all six former Yugoslav republics to a conference in The Hague. A significant part of this segment details the resulting peace plan drafted by Lord Carrington of Britain, which would have confirmed the independence of all Yugoslav republics, and Milosevic's ambivalence and ultimate rejection of that plan. At first, declaring that the Carrington Plan would give the Serbs most of what they wanted, Milosevic vetoed a proposal by JNA generals for the military conquest of Croatia. For Milosevic, Yugoslavia's continued existence was essential to retain the Serbs living in its various parts to build his Greater Serbia. Thus Milosevic objected to the part of the plan that insisted all Yugoslav republics become independent. When the presidents of the other republics accepted the Carrington Plan, Yugoslavia appeared to be shrinking rapidly. An angry Milosevic stormed out of the meeting, asserting that the Carrington Plan would split the Serbs irrevocably. Milosevic then continued his war in Croatia—ordering a final assault on Vukovar, and bringing roughly one-third of Croatia under the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army.

The third segment of the film deals with Bosnia-Hercegovina and the 1992–94 conflict there, particularly in Sarajevo. That city's multiethnic population, practicing three major religions, had lived together peacefully with much intermarriage of the various groups before Yugoslavia's collapse. Whereas Milosevic claimed that the war in Bosnia was a civil conflict for which he was not responsible, others maintain that he ordered Serbian military intervention. Bosnian Muslims feared Belgrade's intervention, and their president, Alija Izetbegovic, explains in the film why Bosnian Muslims opposed remaining within Yugoslavia.

The twin foci of this segment are the city of Sarajevo and the travail of President Izetbegovic, who in March 1992 had won a democratic referendum favoring Bosnian independence. Despite the referendum, the Bosnian Serbs demanded that the Muslims avoid seeking international recognition. As the film demonstrates, the situation quickly descended into chaos. Rival militias battled for control of Sarajevo's streets. President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia reached an agreement with the Serbs to divide up Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic sought Belgrade's support, maintaining they could take over much of Bosnia by force. Milosevic responded by sending Karadzic some 80,000 troops. The important role in this campaign played by the paramilitary leader and fanatical Serbian nationalist Vojislav seselj is also depicted.

In April 1992 the Bosnian Serbs captured nearly all of Sarajevo in three days. Even though the Bosnian Muslims quickly regained control of the city, President Izetbegovic was captured by the Serbian army. The film shows the significant role of Britain's General MacKenzie in seeking Izetbegovic's release, but it was Izetbegovic's own courage and persistence, as described in the film that finally secured his release. A considerable segment is then devoted to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, assaulted by Bosnian Serbs who conducted a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. Then to show that the Serbs were not the only ones responsible for brutal acts, the film depicts the forcible expulsion in 1995 of the Serbian minority of over half a million persons from Croatia, where they had lived for centuries. Thus President Tudjman ruthlessly achieved a Croatia virtually purged of Serbs to make a homogeneous country like Slovenia.

The film's final segment describes the extremely difficult and complex negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, which led to the peace accords for Bosnia that remain in force today. Largely through U.S. pressure and the guiding role of its forceful diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the Dayton Peace Accords were drawn up under United Nations auspices. The accords created a Bosnian state divided almost equally between Serbian and Muslim-Croat territories. This solution has worked fairly well so that currently NATO is reducing its military forces in Bosnia. As the film ends, it shows Albanian Kosovars once again fleeing their native Kosovo under Serbian pressure. Amazingly, most of these refugees have since returned to a partly devastated land.

This objective and accurate film makes it evident that all groups involved bear a share of responsibility for the violence and bloodshed following Yugoslavia's dissolution. However, the Serbs, under their ruthless dictator Milosevic, bear primary guilt for these atrocities. While some of the scenes depicted in the film may confuse the uninformed viewer, all in all the history is well presented and the documentary deserves to be seen widely and repeatedly. The film indicates how difficult it will be to work out an acceptable and permanent solution for the troubled region of Yugoslavia even with the assistance of NATO and the United Nations.

The film's chief villain is unquestionably Serbian President Milosevic, who was recently indicted as a war criminal for his orders and actions. But as the film makes clear, President Tudjman of Croatia also deserves condemnation for his ethnic cleansing of the Serbs in Croatia. The film depicts no individual hero, although President Izetbegovic displays heroic qualities for his courageous actions in Sarajevo. While no biases are evident in the film, Serbian partisans will surely complain that it is fundamentally anti-Serbian. As to how the Balkan tragedy began, the film emphasizes that the rivalries and hatreds existed for centuries, especially between Serbs and Croats, partly because of different religious and cultural influences but more importantly over territory and political influence. Milosevic and Tudjman further complicated these matters by their arbitrary decisions. The film suggests indirectly that the West—meaning the NATO powers, including the United States—bears a considerable responsibility for the failure to work out a compromise in 1991 that would have provided a peaceful solution to Balkan problems.

This film mainly depicts current, rather than historical, events. For the most part it does not go back very far into the Balkan past and perhaps does not do enough to describe the bases and reasons for the conflicts of the 1990s. The filmmakers might have done more with the era of World War II when both Serbs and Croats committed terrible atrocities that would be repeated during the 1990s. Nonetheless, as a clear narrative that explains the recent sequence of events in Yugoslavia, this film is quite exceptional.

—David MacKenzie teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.