The Reuters headline on February 23 reads: “Rice holds Serbia responsible for US embassy attack.”
Reading this I couldn’t help thinking about the ultimatum delivered to the Belgrade government in July 23, 1914 by representatives of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yes, I know it’s a stretch and we’re not in a similar crisis (yet), but I can’t help noticing even distant historical parallels.
Recall from high school history class that Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28 by Gavrilo Princep, a member of the Serbian minority in Bosnia. Bosnia’s mixed population of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslims had been under Austro-Hungarian administration since 1878.
In the Herzegovinian Rebellion of 1875 peasants—Serbian and Croatian serfs of Muslim beys or overlords—in what was then Ottoman Turkish territory rose up in protest of unbearable tax burdens. Serbia, technically still part of the Ottoman Empire but independent de facto since 1868, and the tiny Princedom of Montenegro intervened on the side of the rebels, and were soon joined by Russia, Romania and Bulgaria. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 Bosnia-Herzegovina was ceded to Vienna. The Ottoman Empire retained formal overlordship, but in 1908 Austria-Hungary (over considerable protest by Serbia and Russia) annexed the state outright.
Gavrilo Princep was a Pan-Slavist, a member of the secret Black Hand society committed to the ideal of a Yugoslavia or “state of southern Slavs:” Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrans, Slovenians. Perhaps he thought that killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia would abet that cause. If so, maybe he was right: just 18 million deaths and four years later, as one of the many outcomes of the “Great War,” the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes,” was proclaimed, renamed in “Kingdom of Yugoslavia” in 1929.
We need to remind ourselves that World War I started as a confrontation between Serbian nationalists, and imperialists delivering ultimatums while meddling in the Balkans.
The message from the Austro-Hungarians to Belgrade in July 1914 held the Serbia government responsible for the attack on their archduke:
“The Royal Serbian Government . . . has [since the annexation of 1908] tolerated the criminal machinations of various societies and associations directed against the [Austro-Hungarian] Monarchy, unrestrained language on the part of the press, glorification of the perpetrators of outrages, participation of officers and officials in subversive agitation, unwholesome propaganda in public education, in short tolerated all the manifestations of a nature to inculcate in the Serbian population hatred of the Monarchy and contempt for its institutions . . .”
Accusing the Serbian government of complicity in the assassination, hatched (it alleged) in Belgrade, the message then presents 10 demands. Most pertain to curbing “propaganda against the Monarchy” by Serbian journalists and officials, and demanding cooperation in prosecuting those responsible for hostile actions against Austria-Hungary. But the fifth (and most important) requires Serbia “[t]o accept the collaboration in Serbia of organs of [the Austro-Hungarian government] in the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy.”
Serbia then, in a generally reconciliatory message, denying any responsibility for the assassinations (“the crime”), offered to “hand over for trial any Serbian subject” that Vienna could prove was involved. To the fifth demand it responded:
“[The Serbian government does] not clearly grasp the meaning or the scope of the demand . . that Serbia shall undertake to accept the collaboration of the representatives of [Austria-Hungary], but they declare that they will admit such collaboration as agrees with the principle of international law, with criminal procedure, and with good neighborly relations.”
In other words, the Serbs rejected occupation. This rejection offered Austria-Hungary an excuse to invade.
Flash forward to March 1999, when Condoleezza Rice’s predecessor, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, offered Serbia another ultimatum. She ordered the Yugoslav army out of the Yugoslav “breakaway” province of Kosovo. The “Rambouillet Agreement” signed by U.S., British, and Kosovar Albanian separatists that month further demanded that NATO forces receive “free and unrestricted access throughout [Yugoslavia] including the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training and operations.”
Agree to that, Belgrade was told, or we will bomb you.
Yugoslavia, born out of World War I, had been falling apart for eight years. The dream of southern pan-Slavism had given way to long-dormant nationalisms and the nightmare of ethnic cleansing. The Serbs, with the largest member-state in the Yugoslav federation, had watched Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia secede. Now the U.S. and its allies were demanding that Belgrade give up Kosovo, the Serbian Jerusalem, the Serbian heartland.
Belgrade was willing to restore the autonomy, the de facto republic status Kosovo had enjoyed until 1989. It was willing to accept UN peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. It had the year before accepted unarmed Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) forces. But it was not willing to give NATO unbridled access to the roads and airspace of all that remained of Yugoslavia. The “scope of the demand” (to again cite the 1914 Serbian reply to Vienna) was such that no sovereign state could accept.
But the spin in the U.S. corporate press was well expressed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “Milosevic continues to thump his nose at the international community.” The U.S.-dictated “agreement,” rejected by Russia and Yugoslavia, was depicted as a reasonable international consensus. Belgrade, which had maintained neutrality between NATO and the Warsaw Pact for decades, naturally resisted an unlimited alliance presence in its territory. But the logic of this stance was obscured by the anti-Serbian propaganda relentlessly unleashed by the U.S. press and the statements of U.S. officials charging the Serbian state with responsibility for mass murder in Kosovo. It later became clear that the charges were wildly overblown, while attacks upon Serbs, their property and holy places were generally ignored by those demanding U.S. military action.
That action killed about 500 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. Since the bombing ended and NATO occupied Kosovo, thousands more have died in anti-Serbian pogroms. Between June 1999 and March 2004, by one estimate, over 3000 perished in ethnic-based violence in Kosovo. Over 200,000 Serb have fled their Kosovo homeland since 1999.
It’s taken all that infliction of suffering to finalize the humiliation of Yugoslavia, born in 1918. It’s taken all that to cut out its heart, the site of the Battle of Kosovo Polje against the Ottoman Turks in 1389. (Kosovo Polje by the way was also the site of a pogrom against Serbs that killed 28 people in March 2004. “Kristallnacht is under way in Kosovo,” declared a UN official at the time.) It’s hardly surprising that angry Serbian youth would attack the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, enraged at the speedy U.S. recognition of Kosovo independence.
In the wake of that expression of outrage the U.S. secretary of state issued a veiled threat to Belgrade. “They had an obligation to protect diplomatic missions,” fumes Rice (who has no problem raiding an Iranian consulate in Iraq), “and, from what we can tell, the police presence was either inadequate or unresponsive at the time. We do hold the Serb government responsible. We’ve made that very clear. We don’t expect that to happen again.”
But it probably will happen again. And anyway, if Rice can hold the Serbian government responsible for the attack on the U.S. embassy, the Serbs can surely hold the U.S. represented by that embassy responsible for multiple attacks on their country. Serbian security forces will demand to remain in the north of their Kosovo province. Albania, which hopes to join NATO this year, threatens to take action if Serbia attempts to partition Kosovo. There will probably be more violence, more blowback from the 1999 war, more fingers pointing blame, more imperialist ultimatums.
While Condi talks tough to Serbia, what does Serbia’s powerful ally, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, say (as it were) in reply?
“The precedent of Kosovo is a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries. [The Americans] have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face.”
This from a man who understands something of the history of the Slavs, the Balkans, the horrific wars twentieth-century wars in Europe, and the infinitely cruel potentialities of U.S. imperialism. I’m no Putin fan, but I think he’s assigned blame appropriately. He’s holding Washington responsible for what happens next. He might state (like Rice) that he doesn’t “expect it”—another provocation of NATO at his doorsteps—” to happen again.” But how can there not be follow-up since the Kosovar Serbs are going to refuse inclusion into what they see as a bastard state; the new government in Pristina is likely to challenge Serbian “secessionists” with force; and Albania threatens to de-recognize existing borders between itself, Serbia and Macedonia with its large Albanian minority? There will be hell to pay for this “dangerous precedent.”
* * *
On February 24, Reuters reports that Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, in what is perhaps a response to Rice, assigns responsibility for the embassy attack rather differently than the U.S. secretary of state. Paraphrased by Reuters, he suggests the “United States was to blame for this week’s attacks on foreign embassies in Belgrade”
Samardzic declares: “The U.S. is the major culprit for all troubles since Feb 17. The root of violence is the violation of international law. The Serbian government will continue to call on the U.S. to take responsibility for violating international law and taking away a piece of territory from Serbia.” Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica adds, according to AP: “If the United States sticks to its position that the fake state of Kosovo existsall responsibility in the future will be on the United States.”
Take responsibility, Rice demands of Serbia. Take responsibility, Serbia backed by Russia demands of the U.S. There’s a fundamental disconnect here between historical perceptions. The official American one is deeply distorted by the Clinton-era disinformation campaign used to justify the Kosovo War, and by the cultivated depiction of the U.S. as the virtuous victim of embassy attacks (most nobaly the Iranian “embassy hostage crisis” episode in 1979-81) and terrorist actions undertaken by people who supposedly “hate our freedoms.” No U.S. presidential candidate is going to challenge this misrepresentation of the origins of the current crisis. U.S. policy will be to stabilize Kosovo, draw it into the NATO fold alongside Albania, and maintain the massive Bondsteel military base it has established in Kosovo. But Serbian and Russian policy will try to thwart these objectives. History does not really repeat itself, and this is not 1914. But it’s a good time to revisit that history, consider the near-term possibilities, and organize opposition to further U.S. aggression in the Balkans.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org