The New York Times
Saturday, August 17, 1991

Think Before You Say, “Poor Croatia”

By Bob Djurdjevic

An OpEd piece published on Aug. 17, 1991

Croatian "Democracy" Forces Over 44,000 Serbs from Their Homes

A BLOODY DIVORCE THE BALKAN WAY (these were the original headlines; published segments of the piece are highlighted like this; italicized portions of the text were inserted by the New York Times editors).

 In Yugoslavia, two autocrats fan nationalist hatred (the published sub-heading)

 PHOENIX - More than 200 hundred years ago, Thomas Gray (1716-1771) wrote "where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise."  Ignorance has been pervasive in some Western media reports on the subject of the Yugoslav crisis.  Wisdom and common sense have not.  Futile as the effort may seem to Mr. Gray, I'll take a crack at wisdom; and at common sense...

What's happening in Yugoslavia is going through a divorce -- the Balkan way.  Which means a tragicomedy with plenty of blood, gore and noise.  And with loads of The drama has subplots, decep­tions and theatrics which would probably confound even Machiavelli.  No wonder the confused Western reporters were initially calling the Croatian neo-fascist government as "democratic," while describing the Serbian victims as terrorists. 

To complicate matters even more, there were more former Communists in the Croatian government than in that of any other Yugoslav republic. 

Take the two main rival protagonistsFranjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, the Croatian and the Serbian presidents and apparent adversaries, actually have probably in common. Each is a former Communist who served under Tito. the late Yugoslav dictator.  No wonder, therefore, that like Tito, each is cultivating an imperial style.  But unlike Tito's politics, theirs is very simple.  Each man's political platform has only one plank in it - the Serbian-Croatian hatred.  Their tactics are also very simple ("kill the bastards"), as are their negotiating skills (do it my way or I'll slit your throat")

An exaggeration?  Hardly.  In just over a year, these two generals of hate have managed to do something which seemed impossible.  They have caused a widespread civil war right at the doorstep of a united Europe.

Why did they do it?  First, because they didn't know better.  Communists or and fascists know only one way to "reason" -- down the barrel of a gun.  True, these presidents have verbally embraced democracy after seeing what had happened to their brethren in Romania.  But words are cheap.  Their actions have proven that in their hearts hey are still autocrats.  We can debate only which one is a dictator of the communist versus the fascist ilk.

The second reason they started the war was because they needed political instability in order to stay in power.  In a stable, civilized, democratic environment, political leaders are expected to show economic and management savvy; they are supposed to win the voters over with honey not threats; they have to learn the art of maneuvering amid political adversaries.  These two men, Mr. Tudjman and Mr. Milosevic probably know deep down that in such an environment they'd be quickly lost and forgotten.  So, back for the guns they reach...

There are, however, also many genuinely deep differences between Croatia and Serbia.  One of them is the fact that the "hardline Communist" Serbia, as some Western reporters describe it, is the only Yugoslav republic with a thriving (non-Communist) opposition.  Witness the massive anti-government demonstrations in Belgrade last March, for exam­ple, and the subsequent proliferation of the opposition press. 

On the other hand, the fact that former communists are thriving in the present neo-fascist Croatian government - a condition that should not be surprising considering a thin line which separates communism from fascism.  Unlike Serbia, a U.S. ally in the two world wars and a constitutional monarchy prior to 1918, Croatia has never known democracy.  The only period when Croatia was even an "independent state" was during WW II, when its Nazi-installed government committed genocide against killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews.  The recent wave of brutal killings of civilians by the current Croatian government has served as a grim reminder of its gruesome tradition.

For example, during the last week of July, fierce fighting broke out between the Croatian government's militiamen, and the local Serbs in and around the town of Glina.  The Serbian freedom fighters have vowed not to allow the repeat of what happened in 1941 in this little town near the Croatian capi­tal, Zagreb. 

According to eyewitnesses who survived the 1941 ordeal, the "ustashi" (the name the Croatian militiamen used at the time), rounded up and locked up in the Serbian Orthodox Church (in Glina) some 1,200 people -- mostly women, children and older people.  Then, a group of "ustashi" entered the church and started slitting peoples' throats.  The slaughter went on around the clock.  When one shift of "ustashi" got tired of their labor, another one would relieve them... "Blood was stream­ing down the church steps," an eyewitness recalled in a TV Belgrade interview.

Their job finished, the "ustashi" blew up the church, thus "burying" the victims and their crime.  So they thought.  But it was not to be.  A few people did survive.  To tell the world.  "God always sees to it there are some witnesses left," a former Belgrade university professor noted as he described the event.  After the war (WW II), a memorial was erected on the site.  "The Communists did not allow a new church to be built," the professor explains.

Memories of Croatian atrocities such as the one in Glina, are the reason the Serbs in Croatia (the Jews are now nearly extinct there) are fleeing en masse from such a "democracy."  According to the Red Cross figures as of Aug. 14, more than, 50,000 refugees - mostly Serbian women, children and the elderly -- had escaped from their homes in Croatia.  And the exodus is continuing. 

As for Croatia's secession from Yugoslavia, no reasonable person, most Yugoslav peoples included, would object to Croatia's leaving an unwanted marriage.  But, only if it did so peacefully, if it agreed to pay its share of the joint debts, and agreeing with Serbia on how to redraft the borders. (if it agreed with its "spouse" on how to divide the joint property equitably (read redraft the borders).

Thse are three big if's, considering the heat within the Yugoslav ethnic cauldron.  The State Department and our Western European allies did not think such a peaceful divorce was possible, hence their strong initial objections to secession.  The recent escalation of violence in Croatia has borne out the validity of such views.


Bob Djurdjevic is president of Annex Research, a computer consulting company in Phoenix.