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Balkan Report: April 22, 2005

22 April 2005, Volume 9, Number 13

SIXTY YEARS AFTER: THE LEGACY OF WORLD WAR II IN FORMER YUGOSLAVIA. The Axis occupation of former Yugoslavia and the domestic reaction to it present a complex picture. The legacy of these experiences has still not been completely overcome.

The German-led onslaught on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia began on 6 April 1941 and ended with that country's capitulation 11 days later. Known from 1918 to 1929 as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the Serbian-dominated state did not make a serious effort to remove the sources of its main domestic problem, namely Croatian discontent, until 1939. In that year, the Belgrade authorities cut a deal with Vlado Macek of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), which held the political loyalties of most Croats. That agreement, which gave Croatia wide autonomy, proved to be too little, too late to overcome Croatian distaste for the Yugoslav state, which was a factor in its rapid collapse.

Many Slovenes, however, regarded Yugoslavia as their guarantee against domination and assimilation by their German- and Italian-speaking neighbors, and Slovenian politicians held office in successive interwar Belgrade cabinets. Unlike the Slovenes, the Bosnian Muslims were not explicitly recognized as a distinct people separate from Serbs or Croats, but their politicians proved to be as good at coalition politics as were the Slovenes and were well represented in Belgrade cabinets. (The Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims would later display those same skills in communist Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito.)

The Macedonians and Montenegrins were simply regarded as Serbs, whether they liked it or not. There were large Hungarian and German minorities in Vojvodina and parts of eastern Slavonia, while Albanians lived in Kosova and western Macedonia. These three large non-Slavic minority groups were subject to pressures from Belgrade's policy of encouraging Serbian colonization in minority areas, which proceeded with varying degrees of success.

Interwar Yugoslavia's principal foreign-policy problems centered on fending off Italian claims on parts of Dalmatia, Bulgarian ambitions in Macedonia, and Hungarian aspirations in Vojvodina. The Italians' rivals in Dalmatia were Croats, but there were no real issues dividing Italians and Serbs.

All these chickens came home to roost after April 1941. Germany and the other Axis powers had three broad goals: to acquire territory and implement their respective ethnic or racial policies, to break the power of the Serbian state, and to exploit Yugoslavia's people and material resources for the war effort. Germany, Italy, and Hungary partitioned Slovenia between them. Croatia became the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH) after losing chunks of Dalmatia to Italy but acquiring Bosnia-Herzegovina. The NDH was led by Ante Pavelic of the fascist Ustasha (Insurgent) movement, which enjoyed Italian and Hungarian support as an emigre terrorist group before the war but which the Germans initially shunned in order to cut a deal with Macek. When he declined, the Nazis accepted Pavelic as the next best alternative.

The NDH was divided along a northwest to southeast line into German and Italian spheres of influence. The Germans and Italians were formally allies, but there were rivalries between them that the locals soon learned to manipulate. In particular, "Italian-held territory became a haven for Serbs," as Anglo-Serbian historian Stevan K. Pavlowitch has written.

Italy annexed Kosova and western Macedonia to Albania, which Benito Mussolini already controlled, and occupied Montenegro. Although the Germans had clear policy aims and a staff that included many former Austro-Hungarian Balkan experts, Rome's goals were vague beyond its territorial claims in Slovenia and Dalmatia. Hence the Italians sought to keep order by cultivating Montenegrin and Albanian nationalisms, with varying degrees of success.

Hungary acquired its slice of Slovenia and parts of Vojvodina, the rest of which went to Germany. Bulgaria took most of Macedonia and stretches of eastern Serbia, but the Germans reserved Belgrade and the Serbian heartland for themselves. They utilized the support of local Serbian fascists at times, but made it clear that Serbia was an occupied territory firmly under the Nazi heel, to be treated accordingly.

The Germans lost little time in implementing their racial policies, especially in Serbia and the NDH. Jews, Gypsies, political opponents of the Axis, and -- especially in the NDH -- Serbs were killed by the tens of thousands. The exact number remains a topic of dispute to this day, but there is no doubt about the occupiers' intentions and thoroughness. They were assisted by Ustasha zealots after elevating the Croats to Aryan racial status. Pavelic, in turn, solved the thorny problem of how to dominate Bosnia with its only roughly 20 percent Croatian population by taking the advice of the 19th-century Croatian nationalist politician Ante Starcevic and treating as Croats the Muslims, who made up over 40 percent of the total population.

In the end, however, Axis control in Bosnia was chiefly limited to population centers and communications lines. The resistance in Bosnia and elsewhere was often local in character and motivated primarily by survival. Sometimes tacit or negotiated understandings were arrived at between the Axis and the local resistance, particularly in the Italian zone. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the Ustasha and the two main resistance groups alike all had command-and-control problems over their often widely scattered followers.

Those two best-known resistance forces were the remnants of the royal Yugoslav Army under General Draza Mihailovic and the communist-led Partisans under Josip Broz Tito, who declared himself a marshal. Mihailovic was linked to the London-based exile government and headed what came to be known as the Ravna Gora Chetnik (member of an armed band) movement. His problems were that his forces were Serbian rather than Yugoslav in scope, and that fear of retribution under the Germans' policy of 100 Serbs killed for every German led his forces into inaction or collaboration. The collaboration became more pronounced as his other enemies, the Partisans, gained in strength, prompting some Chetniks to consider the Germans as the lesser of the two evils. For that reason, the Western Allies eventually broke with Mihailovic and switched their support to Tito, whom they considered the one leader who would fight the Axis.

Postwar communist propaganda would glorify the Partisans as wise, tough, and heroic, but they were often subject to the same pressures as Mihailovic. They did not, moreover, begin fighting until after Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 -- more than two months after the fall of Yugoslavia -- although they later tried to claim otherwise. They, too, were not beyond collaboration if the circumstances required it, as a famous photo of one of Tito's top aides leaving a German headquarters in Zagreb attests.

But the Partisans had a clear advantage over other resistance forces in that they were all-Yugoslav in character. They launched a political program for a federal socialist Yugoslavia, which appealed to many people of various nationalities. The communists recognized the Macedonians as a distinct people with a right to their own republic, which won the Partisans many adherents among those Macedonians who found that Bulgarian rule was no better than Serbian had been.

Four major international developments hastened the communist victory. One was the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, which brought the Partisans not only territory but a bonanza of Italian weapons and even some Italian communist volunteers. The second factor was the switch in late 1943 of Western Allied support from Mihailovic to Tito, which assured Tito of co-belligerent status as well as military supplies. (The Soviets provided little or no assistance until the Red Army arrived in late 1944). The third development was the gradual withdrawal of the Germans from the Balkans in 1944 as they sought to shore up the defense of Germany. This enabled the Partisans to consolidate their gains and turn on their internal foes. The fourth element was the arrival of the Red Army and the Partisans in Belgrade in October 1944, which took out much of the Germans' remaining punch.

The end of the war in Europe in May 1945 saw Tito's Partisans in control of most of Yugoslavia. While Tito is best remembered abroad for his relatively liberal communism from the 1950s onward, he began his rule as "Stalin's best pupil" and introduced time-honored Bolshevik methods of taking and consolidating power, killing tens of thousands of real or imagined enemies. Indeed, when Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc in 1948, it was not because Tito was soft or revisionist but because he insisted on making his own decisions based on what he saw as his own interests.

The Partisans exacted brutal retribution against the indigenous German, Italian, Hungarian, and Albanian populations. In the cases of the Germans and Italians in particular, most of those who were not killed by the Partisans or did not flee were expelled, including the "Schwaben" from Vojvodina and the Italians from Dalmatia and Istria, whose families had lived in those areas for centuries.

The troubled continuing legacy of World War II throughout former Yugoslavia stems from two interrelated problems. First, the conflict was often a classic civil war that pitched brother against brother, father against son, friend against friend, and neighbor against neighbor. Although the communists during their 45-year rule portrayed the war in heroic terms as a struggle of good against evil, in fact there were few cases of black or white but many shades of gray. In Slovenia and Croatia, for example, the communists branded as enemies and killed not only dedicated fascists but also young conscripts who had little choice but to don an Axis uniform. The killings were often carried out in summary fashion without any attempt to separate real enemies from confused conscripts or to properly treat the defeated forces as prisoners of war, even after the formal end of hostilities.

The second problem was that the communists tolerated no interpretation of the conflict and those involved in it other than their own. As a result, painful issues could not be put to rest by open discussion or independent investigation for over 45 years, if at all. Instead, accounts of what happened in specific cases were circulated privately among individual families or close friends, reinforcing pre-existing perceptions of the truth.

Only after the fall of communism could those on the losing side call for truth and justice and seek an investigation of communist atrocities. This was far from easy, because in societies divided by the war's legacies, many people -- particularly those with ties to the communists -- argued that there is no point in raising issues that would only polarize the nation. Slovenia is an excellent example of this, but scarcely the only one (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 August 2004 and 18 February 2005).

In the meantime, each person or family knows what the war meant to them. There is the Serbian professor from Herzegovina, who quietly told his American student in the 1970s: "I hid in a tree as a boy and watched how the Ustasha killed over 30 members of my family before my eyes. I then escaped to the Partisans, who took me as a messenger. They and that tree saved me." Or the Herzegovinian Croat shopkeeper who whispered to the same American: "You study history. Remember that it is always the victor who writes history." Or the 20-something Serb from Nis, who tearfully told that American only recently: "The communists systematically discriminated against my entire family for five decades just because my grandfather was one of Draza's Chetniks. We had nothing under the communists -- no right to study, no free access to medical care, no pensions. Can you imagine the poverty we knew? What I know as a result of all this is that my family are all Chetniks, and I am a Chetnik." (Patrick Moore)

MACEDONIAN OPPOSITION LEADER STARTS HOUSECLEANING. Macedonia's main conservative opposition party was bolstered by its strong showing in the recent local elections. It will need to restore some order in its own ranks, however, if it hopes to regain power in a general election.

The local elections, which took place in several rounds in March and April, confirmed the position of the conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) as the country's strongest opposition party. Its candidates won the mayoral races in 21 of the 84 administrative districts. In Skopje, the party and its allies successfully supported Trifun Kostovski, a wealthy businessman who ran as an independent candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, 23, and 25 March and 11 April 2005, End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 April 2005).

The VMRO-DPMNE thus upstaged its offshoot, the VMRO-People's Party (VMRO-NP), led by former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, which won the mayoral elections in only three districts. The split between Georgievski and VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Nikola Gruevski -- who served as finance minister in Georgievski's cabinet -- was mainly due to ideological differences. While Gruevski intended to turn the VMRO-DPMNE into a European-style, Christian-democratic conservative party, Georgievski favored a classic Balkan-style personalist party centered around a single strong leader, namely himself (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 July 2004 and 2 April 2005).

The long-standing differences between Georgievski and Gruevski and the subsequent founding of the VMRO-NP weakened Gruevski's position to a certain extent. But the real challenge to his leadership arose just before the local elections, when a number of prominent VMRO-DPMNE members declined to support Kostovski's candidacy for mayor of Skopje. After weeks of hesitation, Gruevski and his followers decided it was better for the party to support Kostovski than to nominate a candidate of its own. Among the possible candidates was VMRO-DPMNE Deputy Chairwoman Ganka Samoilovska-Cvetanova.

After the decision to support Kostovski, Samoilovska-Cvetanova largely stayed away from the election campaign and from meetings of the party leadership. For the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), her absence from the campaign trail provided a good opportunity to portray the VMRO-DPMNE as an internally divided party.

It is hard to say whether her opposition to Gruevski had any impact on the election results. But the relatively successful outcome of the local elections clearly strengthened his hand. Samoilovska-Cvetanova, for her part, decided to resign immediately after the last round of the elections.

In an open letter to Gruevski, she said on 11 April that his support for Kostovski was not the only reason for her resignation. "Over the past two years, I obviously lacked the influence as well as the power to contribute to improving certain situations," "Dnevnik" quoted her as saying. She also criticized the decision-making process within the party, noting a lack of transparency and consistency. She added that she was disturbed that a diversity of opinions on some issues within the party did not become a source of strength but rather of squabbles.

The former VMRO-DPMNE deputy chairwoman also commented on the cooperation with other political parties during the election campaign, saying it was unacceptable for her to be a part of a coalition with parties she considers ideologically incompatible.

Initial reports suggested that Samoilovska-Cvetanova might remain a member of the VMRO-DPMNE's Executive Committee. But Gruevski's followers reacted decisively. Instead of launching a minor reshuffle of the Executive Committee, the VMRO-DPMNE Central Committee decided on 12 April to dissolve the current Executive Committee altogether.

This gives Gruevski the chance to sideline not only Samoilovska-Cvetanova, but also another prominent member of the committee, Saso Kedev, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004. Media reports suggest that about half of the present members of the committee might be replaced.

But that was not Gruevski's only move to clean up his party. In an effort to purge the VMRO-DPMNE of members who are also members of other parties, especially of the rival VMRO-NP, Gruevski announced on 15 April a full review of the membership lists. During the six-week process, current members of the VMRO-DPMNE will have to prove that they are not members of any other party.

When the split between the VMRO-DPMNE and the VMRO-NP occurred, leading VMRO-NP members did not give up their VMRO-DPMNE membership -- not least because they wanted to keep the parliamentary seats they had won on the VMRO-DPMNE ticket.

The VMRO-NP does not object if its members also belong to other parties, as Gjorgji Trendafilov -- a member of the parliament -- pointed out. At the same time, Trendafilov taunted Gruevski by calling on him to pay special attention to possible dual party memberships of his closest colleagues in the VMRO-DPMNE leadership. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "We are being challenged by Islam these years -- globally as well as locally. It is a challenge we have to take seriously. We have let this issue float about for too long because we are tolerant and lazy.

"We have to show our opposition to Islam and we have to, at times, run the risk of having unflattering labels placed on us because there are some things for which we should display no tolerance." -- Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. Quoted in "The Daily Telegraph" of 15 April.

"The Anglo-Saxons' and the Americans' interest is, of course, to stop the European construction, which risks tomorrow to lead to a much [stronger] Europe." -- French President Jacques Chirac, quoted by Reuters in Paris on 14 April.

"Romania is a country which has respect for itself. France is one our main supporters, but at the same time we do not like these kind of declarations." -- Romanian President Traian Basescu, commenting on a remark by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier that Basescu lacks a "European reflex" because he wants close ties to Washington and London. Quoted in the "Financial Times" of 19 April.

"We are Serbs. Why is it so nationalistic if we show what we are? I have assured the [Kosovar] Albanians that their national interests are legitimate. But so are the Serbs' [interests]." -- Serbian President Boris Tadic in Berlin's "Die Welt" of 15 April. He was responding to criticism of his recent visit to Kosova, when he visited Serbian enclaves, declared "this is Serbia," and presented each community with a Serbian flag (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February 2005).