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Yugoslavia: Former U.S. Ambassador -- Leaders Destroyed The Country

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 2 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In his book entitled "Origins of a Catastrophe" updated as recently as May 1999, Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, presents his thesis that Yugoslav leaders destroyed their country "from the top down."

Their methods, he writes, were those of Josip Broz Tito, the dictator who preceded them: co-option, intimidation, circumvention, and elimination of all opposition to what Zimmermann condemns as the nationalist leaders' "demagogic designs." He still mourns what he calls "the catastrophe" of Yugoslavia's collapse. But he does not distribute the blame equally.

Now a professor of diplomacy at Columbia University in New York City, veteran diplomat Zimmerman first served in the U.S. embassy in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and returned as ambassador for the crucial years between 1989 and 1992. On May 12, 1992 then Secretary of State James Baker recalled him to protest Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Within a few days, most of the ambassadors from European Community states followed, in a traditional gesture which, Zimmermann acknowledges, made no impact on the strategy, worked out by Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and the Yugoslav army, to seize most of Bosnia.

Zimmermann in his book approved the recall as signaling that "there would be no longer even the pretense of normal relations with Serbia." He termed the Western move "modest but the right thing to do."

Throughout the book, which relies on his diary and reports, Zimmermann is a staunch advocate of Yugoslav unity and the country's gradual democratization, but he is equally firm on championing human rights and privatizing the economy.

Unmistakably, he was -- and is -- a friend of Yugoslavia and a student of Balkan history. He is also fluent in Serbo-Croatian.

Thoughtful, considerate, and sensitive, Zimmermann expected Yugoslavs or at least their moderate leaders to be similar or, at a minimum, evolving in that direction. Early on during his tenure a Westernized Serbian intellectual, an art historian, told him that the solution to the problem of Kosovo Albanians was simple: "Just line them up against a wall and shoot them." The ambassador was shocked and dismayed. But he did not seem to believe that Serbs would actually do that. He saw it as his duty to speak out for tolerance and ethnic harmony.

However, Zimmermann has a diplomatic way of sandpapering the rough edges of the recent past. For instance, in detailing Tito's career, he writes about Tito "carrying out purges for Stalin in the 1930s." Not a word about the bloodiness of the executions Tito ordered and the reputation for ruthlessness he acquired; nor is there a mention of the massacres targeting various Yugoslav ethnic groups following the victory of his partisans. Instead, the ambassador's emphasis is on the postwar Titoist slogan of "brotherhood and unity," which he acknowledges was repeated ad nauseam.

Zimmermann learned to detest Milosevic, then president of Serbia, who said he was too busy to meet with the new U.S. envoy well known for his criticism of Serbian suppression of Kosovo Albanians. It took 10 months for Milosevic to invite Zimmermann for a meeting that showed what Zimmermann calls Milosevic's two sides: amiability and hostility.

What Zimmermann refers to as Milosevic's "ugly side" came out in his presentation of fallacious statistics and other facts, his putdown of the Slovenes as "Bolsheviks" for advocating multiparty democracy, and his unyielding position on Kosovo.

Talking about Albanians, he spewed invectives, and he had no answer to the ambassador's tactful question: What is your strategy for winning Albanian support? Zimmermann remembers asking himself: "Was Milosevic an unhinged fanatic or a clever manipulator?" At the time Zimmermann was not sure. But now he is sure: a manipulator.

Among those Zimmermann identifies as the gravediggers of Yugoslavia are Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia, but "the one who stands out" is Milosevic, whom he describes as "one of the most duplicitous politicians the Balkans have ever produced."

In an uncharacteristic fit of anger, Zimmermann writes that if Milosevic's parents had committed suicide before his birth rather than after, Yugoslavia would not have died.

Although Zimmermann traveled extensively in Yugoslavia and met many political and intellectual leaders, he appears not to have been impressed with the persistent presence of intense ethnic hatreds that continued to smolder underneath the vast expanses of the concrete Tito laid across the political landscape. Or, to switch metaphors, the staccato rhythms of the region's violent history remained alien to him and unlikely to be repeated.

He minimized the Serbs' insistence on living in the past, relishing their victimization, and taking pleasure in their international isolation. Dutifully, Zimmermann noted briefly that Serbs identify themselves as little appreciated for their historic achievements in defending European Christian civilization against the Muslim Turk, mounting the most effective military resistance against Hitler's juggernaut, and putting up the only successful challenge to Stalinist Russia's overwhelming political power.

But he does not connect Tito's championship of the nonaligned bloc to the South Slav penchant for heroically standing alone, at that time defying both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Zimmermann stressed the positive and tried to build on it, and he shunned the grandiose, the way a sober man avoids a drunk at a party.

Though Zimmermann acknowledges mistakes in American policy, he still believes it was right to promote federative unity and territorial integrity rather than to support what he calls secession and nationalism. He regrets deeply that Yugoslavia, as a country and as an idea, has few mourners.