In an example of synchronicity, I picked this up from my parents’ house the day before the news broke of Ratko Mladic’s arrest. Although the book is now in, I think, a revised third edition, the version I read is the first edition, completed not long after the conflict broke out in the former Yugoslavian states, and war between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia seemed inevitable.
Glenny was at the time (1990-1992) the BBC’s Central Europe correspondent, and – initially – was able to travel relatively freely around Yugoslavia. Speaking Serbo-Croat he was also able to interview many people – those who were willing to speak to journalists, anyway – including leading figures in the various governments, including Mladic, Milosevic, and others. It was also clear to him that war would be bloody and prolonged since the outsiders – primarily the EU and the UN, who were trying to broker ceasefires and peace deals – had no idea how deep resentments between the different groups within Yugoslavia had gone, nor how the secession of states from a federal Yugoslavia was likely to affect the others left in it.
Yugoslavia was a construct of the twentieth century, made up of several states who had been subject to long domination by outside forces – the Austro-Hungarian empire to the north and the Ottoman empire to the east. Apart from Slovenia, in the north-west, most of the other states had substantial minorities of other national groups or those with different religious affiliations. Animosities between the different groups was exacerbated by the Second World War, which saw exceptionally bitter fighting between largely Croatian Fascists and largely Serbian Partizans. Under Communist federal rule, however, these tensions remained below the surface.
Slovenia’s declaration of independence was relatively straightforward, since it had no significant minority population, and was readily recognised by the EU and other countries. However, a declaration of independence by Croatia was less straightforward: it had a significant population of Serbs, in particular, many of whom were unceremoniously sacked by the Government from public sector jobs (Serbs under Communist rule had previously dominated the administration everywhere in Yugoslavia). Serbia under Milosevic represented itself as the representative of a united Yugoslavia, but, perhaps not unnaturally, wanted to protect Serbs in Croatia – Croats in Serbia were sacked from their jobs, and the distrust escalated. Croatian independence was seen as a German backed plan to reinstate fascism, and the Croatian government did little to dispel this myth. Not to mention there was the problem of the Albanians in Kosovo and the Muslim minority in Bosnia; and strong Greek resistance to the idea of Macedonian independence.
Glenny painted a gloomy picture of the conditions, and the likely outcomes. He travelled widely across Yugoslavia, visiting Sarajevo under siege and Dubrovnik under bombardment, trying to pick out the lies from the truth, and trying to find out what was happening. It wasn’t a safe existence: all sides, he noted, showed no respect towards journalists and many were killed. Brutality was the norm, and reprisals were swift. Confusion reigned. Soldiers in the Yugoslav army were left in the position of, perhaps, fighting their countrymen, and many deserted.
Because the book was written rapidly and as a sort of eye-witness account, Glenny drops the reader into the narrative without any introduction. However, he does explain quite clearly and conveys simply the tensions and enmities, even if he is left aghast and saddened by the unthinking, blinkered viewpoints of many ordinary people, and the awful violence which resulted. He’s a thoughtful writer, too, as well as an insightful one.
This is not a history of the Yugoslavian war, which went on for several years after the publication of Glenny’s book, but a guide – as the title makes clear – to the collapse of Yugoslavia as an individual country.