Five steps into the quagmire

BOSNIA A three-page special report Chronology/ the road to conflict
Click to follow
The Independent Online
PHASE ONE June 1991, the declarations of independence

Yugoslavia was threatened with disintegration long before Slovenia and Croatia, two of its six republics, declared independence on 25 June 1991. But it was their secession that broke up the federation and touched off successive wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Public pressure for independence was rising in Slovenia and Croatia from the late 1980s. The fall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989, and the rise of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic, encouraged new, non-Communist governments to make the decisive break.

Serbia was able reluctantly to accept Slovenian independence since, uniquely among the six republics, Slovenia had almost no Serb or other ethnic minorities.

Croatia was a different matter. Ethnic Serbs made up about 12 per cent of Croatia's 4.6 million people, and many had vivid memories of the slaughter of Serbs perpetrated by the Nazi-backed Croatian puppet state of the Second World War.

An ethnic Serb rebellion against Croatia's nationalist rulers was in progress even before the Croatian declaration of independence, and the rebels were armed, funded and advised from Belgrade. From July 1991, the Yugoslav army actively supported the rebels, who six months later controlled about 30 per cent of Croatia's territory.

The Serb rebels established a state called "the Republic of Serbian Krajina", whose capital was the remote and inhospitable town of Knin. The ultimate aim of the Knin separatists was Greater Serbia - the unification of their state with Serbia, Montenegro and Serb areas of Bosnia - and, at this stage, there seemed little doubt that President Milosevic supported this project.


January-April 1992, the EU's failure

The EU took on the burden of trying to broker ceasefires in the Yugoslav wars and quickly realised that most promises of the combatants were not worth the paper they were written on. The United States kept a low profile for most of 1991, arguing the conflicts were a European problem best handled by Europeans.

However, the EU did not prove up to the task of containing the crisis. Divisions within its own ranks were exposed when Germany broke ranks in mid-December and announced it would recognise Croatian and Slovenian independence no later than Christmas Day.

A hasty compromise was reached under which an EU judicial commission would judge whether individual republics protected democracy and ethnic minority rights well enough to deserve independence. No republic was to be recognised before 15 January 1992.

But Germany broke ranks again and recognised Slovenia and Croatia on 18 December. Other EU countries followed suit. Lord Carrington, the EU mediator, said later the German strategy destroyed his chances of brokering a proper ceasefire, because the Serbs no longer regarded the EU as neutral.

Immense consequences flowed from the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. Most important, it left Yugoslavia as a Serbian-dominated rump state of four republics. This was an intolerable situation for the Muslims of Bosnia, who had co-existed amicably with Bosnian Serbs and Croats for 40 years, and whose ideal state was a multi-national Yugoslavia, but who now faced becoming a vulnerable minority in a state ruled by Serbian nationalists.

Egged on by the US, the Muslims and Croats held a referendum on Bosnian independence in February 1992. The Bosnian Serbs boycotted it, for they had no interest in belonging to a state in which they would be legally separated from their brethren in Serbia.

Since the Muslims (44 per cent) and the Croats (17 per cent) made up a majority of Bosnia's population, the referendum produced an overwhelming "yes" vote. But all the vote really proved was that there was a dangerous political split between Bosnia's ethnic groups.

None the less, the EU and US recognised Bosnia's independence in April. Immediately, full-scale war broke out. It was precisely the outcome the West had tried to avoid. Even worse, the West had made no preparations for defending the Muslims against Serb attack.


August 1992, ethnic 'cleansing' and detention camps

Bosnian Serb forces, Bosnia-based units of the Yugoslav army, and Serbian paramilitaries such as the notorious Arkan, had been gearing up for an onslaught on the Muslims since 1991. But when the storm came, its ferocity shocked the world.

Along the Drina Valley, which forms the border between Bosnia and Serbia, and up in northern Bosnia, Serb forces smashed their way into virtually unarmed Muslim communities and began a systematic campaign of killings and forced expulsions. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of Muslims were pouring out of Bosnia into Croatia and more distant parts of Europe. It was Europe's largest refugee movement since the aftermath of the Second World War.

The horror was symbolised by television pictures, which reached the outside world in August 1992, of Serb detention camps in which Muslim prisoners looked as terrified and emaciated as Jewish inmates in the Nazi camps. These images prompted the creation of a UN War Crimes Tribunal, which held its first hearing this year.

Meanwhile a new war was brewing in central and southern Bosnia between Muslims and Croats. The Bosnian Croats set up their own state, Herzeg- Bosnia, to match the self-styled Bosnian Serb state, the "Republika Srpska". At times it looked as if Serbia, Croatia and their respective client states were colluding in the partition of Bosnia, an outcome in which the losers would be the Muslims.

Holding Mr Milosevic primarily responsible for the Bosnian war, the UN imposed severe economic sanctions on Serbia in May 1992. But Western countries did not send peace-keeping forces under the UN flag into Bosnia until the war was well under way and the Bosnian Serbs had already conquered two-thirds of the republic.

In Croatia, UN forces were patrolling a Serb-Croat ceasefire line agreed in January 1992, but the Zagreb government complained that the end effect was merely to freeze the territorial gains of the rebel Serbs.


February 1994, Nato and the UN in crisis

The fundamental weakness of the West's Bosnian policy was exposed in a series of events leading up to Nato's momentous intervention in the war in February last year. The essential problem was that no Western country was willing to fight a ground war on behalf of the Muslims, yet all agreed the Muslims were the main victims.

The Bosnian Serbs proved adept at exploiting differences between the principal Western countries. To British and French alarm, the US wanted to lift the UN arms embargo on the Muslim-led Bosnian government. Later, it wanted to assist the government with air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs.

Germany sympathised with the US approach. But the British and French, with the largest UN troop contingents, felt that the US was being hypocritical in advocating a tough approach when it refused to deploy its own soldiers in Bosnia.

Eventually, the Western powers and Russia came up with a compromise in May 1993 which created six UN-protected "safe areas" for Muslims - Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac and three small enclaves in eastern Bosnia. Muslim leaders derided this as an attempt to pen their people in reservations like animals.

A turning-point in the war came in February 1994, when a shell landed in a Sarajevo marketplace and killed 68 people. It caused such outrage that Nato, acting under UN authority, issued a warning to the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw or hand over their heavy weapons around Sarajevo. If they refused, they would be attacked from the air.

Although the Bosnian Serbs largely complied with Nato's demand, they gained compensation in the form of Boris Yeltsin's unexpected dispatch of Russian troops to Sarajevo. This made clear Moscow was not prepared to allow the West a free hand in former Yugoslavia. Russia gained a place in a five-nation Contact Group mediating in the war, a position it has exploited to defend Serbian and, ultimately, Russian interests.

It was on 28 February last year that Nato fired its first shots in anger since the alliance was formed in 1949. Nato planes destroyed four Bosnian Serb planes in a UN "no-fly zone". From that moment, the Bosnian war has been not just a local conflict but a struggle bearing directly on Nato's prestige.


May 1995, the hostage drama

Since 1991, several peace proposals have been put forward for Bosnia, ranging from the Cyrus Vance-Lord Owen plan to divide the republic into 10 mainly ethnically based provinces to the latest Contact Group proposal, which would allocate 51 per cent of Bosnia to a Muslim-Croat federation and 49 per cent to the Bosnian Serbs. All except the Bosnian Serbs now accept the 51:49 plan.

The key question has been how to make the Bosnian Serbs change their minds. Nato conducted five more air strikes after February last year, the last of which, on 25 and 26 May, prompted the Bosnian Serbs to seize nearly 400 UN hostages.

The seizure of the hostages placed the West in the uncomfortable position of either having to pull out of Bosnia, undermining the credibility of Nato and the UN, or having to pursue a more forceful policy, with the danger that this could suck the West into a wider war. The risks remain immense - as was demonstrated on Friday when a Nato plane was shot down over Bosnia. Having gone in deeper, the West cannot be sure it will be able to extricate itself any more easily. The potential for a bigger war, spilling beyond the Balkans, remains alarmingly high.