Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Force of Balkan History Has Overtaken My Weblog

I'm genuinely torn about how to respond to the latest comment from Croatia's (probably sole) representative at this blog, found at ''The Gauntlet is Thrown Down.'' On the one hand, I think I've probably stirred a pot I didn't mean to, and I don't want to say anything I couldn't take back later. On the other, it seems like letting the whole exchange end without further input would be a little lazy and unfair of me. This is part of why I set up this blog, although I didn't think it would take quite this form: I like political discussion, and I'm glad to have one on my front page. That having been said, this is a little more serious than ''Republicans are greedy'' or ''Why don't Democrats have any ideas about health care reform?'' This is literally a man's, and a country's, ruined past we're talking about. It would almost be flippant of me to say I'm in over my head a little.

So let me go forward with some trepidation. This started when I wrote about Ante Gotovina being arrested and irresponsibly called his supporters ''bloodthirsty millions,'' which I would like to apologize for and retract. Croatians of the early 1990s have a legitimate claim to being victims of an aggressor with superior numbers and a relative unconcern for the laws of war, and I don't want to suggest any ultimate moral equivalence between Serb and Croat behavior during that period. I think I've stayed fairly well on the side of reason in my commentary so far, however, when it comes to describing Croatian President Tudjman's outlook on the ''Serb question,'' on which he was unapologetically nationalist and exclusionary. This is primarily where I take my cues when it comes to deciding what I think Ante Gotovina was told to do during Operation Storm -- that is, not only ''retake the region'' for Croatia but to burn out every ethnic Serb in sight. I admit I could be wrong. But Tudjman does most of my arguing for me (see his quote from the previous post) and I think the burden is on the defense here to show me where I'm wrong. You could fairly argue that Gotovina isn't responsible for the words of his superiors and that he acted more honorably than his leaders' attitudes would suggest, which remains to be seen at trial, but my point is that the commenter returns again and again to what happened to Croatia during those years, which was undeniably an atrocity (a fact spelled out in a book I cited in one of my first few posts on this blog, several months ago, which I have read and highly recommend), and I want to keep the focus on Gotovina's direct responsibilities. As I tried to suggest by mentioning the case of those three Kosovar defendants, everyone is capable of war crimes, even if they didn't start the war or want to fight it. I realize Croatia suffered under Milosevic, and under the communists before him. I realize, as the commenter has told me, that he experienced the sort of ugliness, warfare and heartbreak I can only imagine. There's no denying the gap in stature here. But I don't believe that means I have nothing to offer to the discussion. The commenter has kept a fairly tight lid on his emotions, having not told me to go to hell, and I thank him. I don't like the feeling that he thinks I have it easy, sitting here in the U.S. sniping away at people I know nothing about, while he has to live with memories I don't even want to consider. So I am going to continue with the provisional understanding that he thinks it's worth it to consider the evidence, whether or not I'm the source.

The only link the commenter provided in English -- the rest are in Croatian and are unavailable to me, since I don't know anyone who could translate them -- was the article I linked to as an ''apologist.'' Written by Jeffrey Kuhner, an editor at the extremely conservative Washington Times, owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, it lays out a scenario in which Bill Clinton could be indicted for war crimes because of Operation Storm, and argues that Gen. Gotovina helped American interests by stopping Milosevic. This is one of the main arguments I tried to address earlier: Operation Storm did not help stop Milosevic and was not about the broader war effort, to my understanding. It was about getting rid of ethnic Serbs who had lived in Croatia for a long time. Here is a report on what happened during and after Operation Storm that relies on news articles and UN/EU field analysis, which, if even half true, puts the lie to claims that Croatians did nothing wrong in Krajina. The footnotes include some work done by Chris Hedges, former war correspondent for the New York Times and author of a short but powerful book on what his career did to his soul. (I should note that although I could have cobbled the same sources together and written my own very similar article, if given a few weeks with nothing else to do and no employer wondering where the hell I was, this link comes from The Emperor's New Clothes, a site with some deeply embarrassing pro-Milosevic leanings. Take it with a grain of salt, if you like, but in this case the evidence speaks for itself even if the messenger is unreliable.) Again, there's no comparison when it comes to Milosevic and his crimes lined up against the Croatian ''crime'' of response and retaliation. Overall, the Serbs were the bad guys, and they should face their past. But, despite the fact that I was not there, I can say with certainty that none of this excuses the conduct of Operation Storm. Nothing I have read about it does not include the words ''burned-out homes,'' ''civilian deaths'' and ''thousands evicted.'' Was this all justifiable from a military point of view? I don't know what the commenter believes and I won't speak for him. My answer is no.

A little about Serbian Krajina is probably in order. (Click here to read the Wikipedia take on it, which seems to conform to the well-known facts and the fairness of which is not in dispute, which is more than a lot of articles can say.) Its history is as confused and complicated as most of the Balkans, with the usual amount of third-party meddling. In the relatively recent past, it was part of Yugoslavia after being used as a military buffer territory by the Austrians against the Ottoman Empire. During the Nazi period the pro-German Croatian government (the Ustashe) took the opportunity to kill a lot of ethnic Serbs, which led to widespread mistrust and ethnic resentment during the Cold War years. Milosevic used this sentiment, against the Croatians and pretty much every other group, to gain support during his runup to power. He in turn started killing Croatians, Bosnians, Kosovar Albanians and anyone else he could blame, and each national government found itself at war with its neighbor. Into this mix were thrown ethnic _______s (take your pick: Albanians, Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovenes) living outside their ethnic country of origin -- these were often seen as potential spies and were treated harshly, sometimes with some justification, usually not. Operation Storm was based on the idea that the Krajina Serbs, who had gained independence from Croatia with help and arms from their big brother Serb government partners, were going to help Milosevic wipe out the rest of Croatia. This is where history becomes personal, and where it stops being quite so academically clear-cut. Milosevic said roughly the same thing about the Kosovars who wanted independence from his criminal rule: that they were opposed to Mother Serbia and would undermine the whole country unless they were stopped. We in America tend to think they had every right to independence, since he was such a thug. The Krajina Serbs can be thought of in somewhat the same vein, as Croatia's Kosovars -- members of a historically persecuted ethnic minority who saw an opportunity to leave Croatia and join with Serbia. At first they tried referendums on independence, which passed because voting was coordinated by and confined to ethnic Serbs (but was opposed by the rest of Croatia), but after Milosevic stepped in they became very hardline and started their own ethnic cleansing campaign to drive non-Serbs out of Krajina. The Croats responded in kind. This paragraph from Wikipedia tells it best:

Although it was less violent and so attracted much less attention from the international media, a parallel process of ethnic cleansing took place in the Croatian-held parts of the Krajina and in other parts of Croatia. Thousands of Serbs were forced to leave their homes through fear of reprisals, pressure from Croatian nationalists and paramilitary actions. Many took refuge in the Serbian Krajina, occupying homes vacated by Croats. Similarly, exiled Krajina Croats moved into homes vacated by Serbs elsewhere in Croatia.
Everyone, in other words, took ethnic sides and started shooting at their neighbors.

Operation Storm happened in 1995, well after these events in 1991. The Croatian government, under Tudjman's leadership, decided to retake those parts of Serb Krajina that had belonged to it. (The intervening years consisted of a Croat vs. Krajina Serb war followed by three uneasy years of ceasefire, during which Serb Krajina was acknowledged as independent from Croatia for the time being but never recognized politically by most countries.) The Krajina Serbs were economically devastated, reliant on a corrupt leadership in Belgrade and politically split between two rival leaders. Croatia attacked and succeeded in winning the territory back. The commenter is of course correct that Serb Krajina, at its height, accounted for about one third of Croatia. It is understandable that the government wanted it back. That's not what the dispute is about. The dispute is about how they went about getting it back. According to Wikipedia,

Prosecutors have indicated that, had he not died, President Tuđman probably would have faced indictment for his actions in the expulsion of the Krajina Serbs.

The trial will determine, I believe fairly, whether Gotovina led an overly aggressive ethnic cleansing campaign in the course of that operation or whether, as the commenter and others suggest, he and his troops were exercising their legitimate military imperatives in a time of war. Everyone recognizes that Croats killed innocent Serbs during Operation Storm. The question is whether that was official policy, i.e. whether Gotovina knew about it or could do anything about it. I haven't seen the prosecutor's notes, and the commenter hasn't seen the defense team's notes. We can't really prosecute this case on my blog. So, as a way of saying ''I don't know what else to say,'' I'd like to close this discussion by thanking the commenter for calling me on some uncalled-for language, for making me re-examine the evidence, for reacquainting me with a period of history we all tend to forget about and for being a worthy opponent. If he has anything else to say, I invite him to do so, with the caveat that I may not respond again in this format.


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