Mailvox: on balkanization

An informative email from someone who witnessed the most recent Balkan wars from the front row:

I am writing you because whenever somebody talks about war in Yugoslavia or I hear balkanization, I think people misuse the term. So I would like to tell my view on the subject. I am a Croat, and I was a teenager during the war.

Balkan and balkanization as a term is specific of its geography where there are lots of small valleys, and a history of Ottoman rule, which together produced clannish behavior in Balkans. Croatia has roughly third of the country that can be considered balkanized and Bosnia and Hercegovina is epitome of the term. Thus war in Croatia was regular army vs clans in valleys, and war in Bosnia was clans free for all. Clans were excellent in defending their valleys (knowledge of the terrain and faith in fellow clansmen) against other clansmen. Croatian regulars which started with no weapons, when armed easily defeated clan-people in full frontal attack over wide front. Bosnia was a mess where Croats owned half of the land (17% of people) and were supplied from Croatia, Serbs (31%) had the most guns but little land and Muslims had 43% of the people and lived in cities and near a river bordering Serbia. Since you cannot hold occupied territory without removing original inhabitants, Serbs cleared Croats from north of the Bosnia and Muslims from the river bordering Serbia and populate those areas with Serbs who fled from Croatia.

Two main things influenced Balkans: geography and Ottoman rule. Geography is very important because most of the Balkans consists of small valleys trapped by high mountains. Ottoman ruled over most of Balkans for some 300 years. Ottoman reach can be roughly correlated with Hajal line. This had consequences on characteristics of its people. Geography and Ottoman rule made people clannish, i.e. most important allegiance was to 5-20 thousands people who live in the valley. Funny enough these people referred to each other as “zemljaci”, derivative of “zemlja” which means both country and soil. Up until WWII there was not a lot of movement between areas so these characteristics were preserved.

After WWII Yugoslavia embraced a toned down form of socialism and government companies and government itself grew at accelerated pace. Clannish behavior demands that if somebody of the clan gets any managerial position he is required to employ its “zemljaci” foremost. Since this was going on for some 40 years most of the people in the police, military, and other government positions were from the other side of the Hajal line. The problem was clearly evident in Croatia because roughly the third of Croatia is east of Hajal line and most of those people were Serbs (in numbers Serbs were 12% in Croatia and majority in the areas east of Hajal line). It was no wonder that Serbs participated in police and government disproportionally to their population. When socialism fell these Serbs rightly thought that if Croatia gained independence their share in government will be reduced to their population share. Sprinkle a little incentive from Milošević and support from Yugoslav army and you have a recipe for a war.

War in Croatia was vastly different than war in Bosnia. Croatia was a functioning, Catholic, almost western country albeit without any armament (one year before the fall of socialism, Croatian government gave up its weapons to Yugoslav army, as opposed to Slovenia whose socialist leaders were not traitors). Serbs were 12% of population but in defendable valleys with ample weapons and ammunition. It took several years for Croatia to rearm itself and take over Serb-controlled areas. In the final battle, evacuation corridors were established so all Serbs that felt the need to flee can leave. Proportion of Serbs in Croatia went down from 12% to 5%. After siege of Vukovar and Dubrovnik the end result was never in question, only question was will reintegration be peacefully or not.

Siege of Dubrovnik is excellent example of the war. It was a turning point in the war after which Serbs never won another battle. The crucial battle was battle for Srđ, which was a battle for a Napoleon fort overlooking Dubrovnik. Numbers are interesting: there were 880 people defending Dubrovnik (some 50 000 civilians), forces in siege had 30 000 people and 100 tanks (hard terrain meant the tanks were of no use, and most of the soldiers were forced recruits). Actual battle for the fort started on Dec 6, 1991. 600 people and two tanks were stationed to attack the fort, but only 40 soldiers of the Yugoslav army special forces were directly involved in fighting. 42 people defended the fort. After a lot of artillery on the fort, two groups advanced to the fort. The advancing tanks were quickly neutralized, but after some fighting fort was overrun, defenders were out of bullets so a broken arrow order was given. After artillery died down defenders started to sing patriotic songs so attackers were in disarray, several wounded, without knowing who shot the mortar on them. Attack was broken and attackers retreated. Fort was resupplied by carrying ammo up the 600m hill on foot and the battle was over at sunset.

War in Bosnia was different because, especially in the beginning, there were not a lot of official armies and usually there were no established frontline but each valley established paramilitary and defended itself. This is very consistent with clan theory and defenders were very efficient in defending their valleys, because they knew the terrain, they trusted their flanks, and if they did not defend they would be slaughtered like in Srebrenica valley. When it was evident that the war in Croatia was over USA gave a go-ahead to defeat Srbs in Bosnia as well, but then stopped the attack after Croatian army swept some 40km of territory in one day, fearing flight of all Serbs from Bosnia.

Key takeaways: The number of soldiers in active fighting was low on any side. Clans are best in defending their territory but ineffective in attack. If you occupy a territory you cannot hold it unless people originally there leave or die. Trust that your flanks won’t desert their position is crucial, which would mean that homogeneous nation is essential for a successful recruit army, especially for defense.

We can draw a parallel with western Europe where ghettos can be equated to valleys and people in ghettos show similar characteristics to clansmen. Croatian victory shows the path, coordinated attack on all valleys at once and established corridors for retreat of the civilians.