A review of ”The Yugoslav Wars Of The 1990s” by Catherine Baker before I return to the Balkans

Baker is Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull and her book is one of a series called Studies In European History published by Macmillan Education. It is, therefore, aimed at history students and consequently it is brief (164 pages) and balanced and it is written in an academic style with a considerable number of references (some 424 works). Helpfully it has an eight-page timeline (1980-2000) and a list of abbreviations (53 of them), but it would have been very helpful if there was a map.

Between 1991 and 1999, the violent destruction of a nation of 23 million people resulted in three wars – in order: first, the secession of Slovenia, with just minor border conflicts, and of Croatia, with full-scale war; second, the assault on Bosnia-Herzegovina with a three-year siege of Sarajevo and a massacre of 8,000 at Srebrenica; and third, Kosovo’s break-away from Serbia in which, after Serbian forces had killed up to 12,000 Albanian civilians, NATO involvement compelled the withdrawal of the Serb military. These wars caused the death of approximately 140,000 people, 100,000 (mainly Bosniaks) in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

In fact, Baker only devotes half of her book (four out of eight chapters) to a narrative of the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the resultant wars.

Before this material, she sets out a very brief history of the seven large-scale wars between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires in 1526-1791 and the experience of the royalist Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes from 1918 and the socialist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia from 1946. Once Tito died, was the break-up of Yugoslavia inevitable`? Then, following examination of the conflicts, she devotes three final chapters to peacebuilding, reconciliation and reconstruction, the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the role of language and culture during and after the wars. 

So who was to blame? The Tribunal existed to try individuals not organisations or states and its role was to collect evidence to sustain indictments not to produce a definitive account of the wars.

Baker herself is cautious about declaring opinions, but she points out that “The SANU [Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts] Memorandum is a key item of evidence in arguments that Yugoslavia was deliberately destroyed according to a Serb nationalist programme” and that “Slightly more than two-thirds of inductees [at the ICTY] were Serbs”. She opines that “While the post-Yugoslav conflicts were wars about ethno-political separation, they were also wars of opportunism and control” and argues that “In these conflicts, nationalism was more an instrument than a cause”.


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