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The Good Guys

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Issue: 35 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Europe Yugoslavia Topics: Balkans War, public relations

March 20, 2006

The Good Guys

Part four in a five-part series on the former Yugoslavia

by Dru Oja Jay

[ Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five ]

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic meeting with officials at NATO headquarters in 1998. While demonizing Milosevic, media coverage has avoided discussing the NATO-supported leaders of the breakaway republics. photo: NATO
While a Milosevic-led Yugoslavia (consisting of Serbia, Montenegro and Vojvodina) was under sanctions that rendered it unable to hire its own western Public Relations firm, the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia and the Kosovo Liberation Army were receiving diplomatic, financial and military backing from the US and European powers. While Milosevic continues to receive thousands of column-inches of coverage that manage to avoid engaging with publicly available facts, his counterparts have received very little coverage, factual or otherwise.

Public Relations flak James Harff noted that mobilizing Jewish support for someone like Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was an impressive feat (see part 3). It also added a touch of irony to claims that Serbian forces were perpetrating a "new Nazism".

While those accusations were made, providing justification for a massive bombing campaign, Tudjman was busy perpetrating the old Nazism. In his 1989 book, Wasteland of Historical Truth, Tudjman wrote that "the establishment of Hitler's new European order can be justified by the need to be rid of the Jews."

"Genocide is not only permitted," Tudjman wrote, "it is recommended, even commanded by the word of the Almighty, whenever it is useful for the survival or the restoration of the kingdom of the chosen nation, or for the preservation and spreading of its one and only correct faith." Tudjman counted Pope John Paul II among supporters of Croatian secession under his party.

During WWII, Croatian forces slaughtered over 700,000 Serbs, 45,000 Jews and at least 26,000 Roma at the Jasenovac death camp. With few exceptions, Croatian war criminals were never brought to justice; thousands of Nazi collaborators, including 500 members of the Roman Catholic clergy, fled to Austria and Italy at the end of WWII. Tudjman hailed these as independence fighters, and appointed several former Nazi collaborators to government posts.

Upon Croatia's separation in 1991, the Serbian minority in the Croatian region of Krajina itself declared independence from Croatia. In a referendum, 99.7 per cent of the 500,000 Krajina Serbs voted to re-join Yugoslavia. During four years of fighting, tens of thousands of Muslims and Croats either left or were driven out of Serbian majority areas by Serbian paramilitary groups. (A chief accusation of Milosevic's Serbia is that they supported these expulsions and the attendant atrocities, including murder and torture.) In 1995, a revitalized, US-backed Croatian army went on the counterattack. "Operation Storm," carried out with US, German and French support and training, took over all of Serbian Krajina, displacing almost the entire Serbian population, and sending over 200,000 Serbian refugees fleeing into Bosnia. Though it was the largest such displacement of the conflict, this "ethnic cleansing" went largely unreported. None of the Croatian leaders or officers responsible have been charged with war crimes.

Meanwhile, non-Croats in Croatia--especially Serbs--were subject to a range of punitive measures and systematic discrimination. In To Kill a Nation, Michael Parenti provides an overview of the Croatian situation, including restrictions on media and "confiscatory property taxes," denial "of employment" and "any effective police protection." After the conflict, Croatian Serbs were denied aid to rebuild their homes and businesses. Discrimination against Croatia's Serbian minority continues today, and only a third of Croatia's estimated 300,000 Serbs have returned.

Another lesser-known recipient of western backing was Alija Izetbegovic, who spent part of his youth as a member of the Young Muslims, a fundamentalist group that recruited Muslim units for the Nazi SS during WWII. In his book, Muslim Declaration, he wrote:

There can be no peace or coexistence between Islamic faith and non-Islamic faith and institutions. The Islamic movement must and can take power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough, not only to destroy the non-Islamic power, but to build up a new Islamic one.

According to the New York Times, a senior CIA official told Congress in a secret deposition that "There is no question that the policy of getting arms into Bosnia was of great assistance in allowing the Iranians to dig in and create good relations with the Bosnian government." The official was referring to a plan that, according to sources quoted by the Los Angeles Times, Clinton signed off on that allowed Iran to provide Izetbegovic with arms.

Izetbegovic placed second in Bosnia's 1990 Presidential election, but took power through political maneuvering. Though Bosnia's constitution stipulates a rotating presidency, Izetbegovic refused to step down. Fikret Abdic, who had the most votes in the election and remained quite popular in Bosnia, was ousted from government by Izetbegovic and demonized in the state-run media.

In his book on the Dayton peace negotiations, American diplomat Richard Holbrooke expressed his dubious opinion of Izetbegovic. "Even if Milosevic makes more concessions," Holbrooke wrote, "the Bosnians will simply raise the ante." Nonetheless, the US continued to support Izetbegovic. George Kenney wrote that Izetbegovic's "intention seemed to be to pretend to go along with negotiations while continuing the war." During the war, Izetbegovic invaded areas of Bosnia inhabited primarily by Serbs, creating, Holbrooke admitted, over one hundred thousand refugees. Nonetheless, Izetbegovic remains outside the scope of media coverage of war crimes during the war.

Bosnia and its federated Serbian counterpart, Republika Srpska, are to this day under the authority of a UN "high representative", which has the authority to remove democratically elected officials or overturn laws. There has been considerable pressure placed on the governments to implement programs of privatization and to conform to IMF policy proscriptions. Elected President Nikola Poplasen of Republika Srpska was removed by the high representative after being elected in spite of a high level of foreign financial and material support for the incumbent president, who came into office after NATO ousted Karadzic, the previous elected president. Poplasen said that he had been pressured to "break off relations" with Yugoslavia, but refused.

In Kosovo, Western governments bypassed moderate separatists like the Kosovo Democratic League and non-separatist ethnic Albanian organizations to throw support behind the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Publicly, US officials were calling the KLA a "terrorist organization" as late as 1998. It appears, however, that the KLA were receiving US assistance long before. KLA members stand accused of assassinating moderate Albanians, drug dealing, collaborating with al-Qaeda, murderous attacks on Serbian villages intended to provoke retaliation, historical ties to Nazi collaborators.

Retired Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie wrote in the National Post in 2004 that "Those of us who warned that the West was being sucked in on the side of an extremist, militant, Kosovo-Albanian independence movement were dismissed as appeasers." The former peacekeeper noted that the KLA was "universally designated a terrorist organization and known to be receiving support from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda."

MacKenzie also commented on Canadian media coverage.

The recent dearth of news in the North American media regarding the increase in violence in Kosovo compared to the comprehensive coverage in the European press strongly suggests that we Canadians don't like to admit it when we are wrong. On the contrary, selected news clips on this side of the ocean continue to reinforce the popular spin that those dastardly Serbs are at it again.

Ironically, Slobodan Milosevic, who is frequently compared to Hitler, was among the few leaders in the war that did not have Nazi ties. Surely the media are sitting on damning evidence against him, given the monikers that have graced headlines announcing his death ("Butcher of the Balkans" is a favourite). Casual observers will have to wait until journalists decide it is time to show why Milosevic and the Serbs are guilty when NATO and the other leaders are not.

One hopes that such future explanations, though entirely hypothetical, will be forced to contend with the body of facts, including the fact that Western-funded opposition newspapers continued to operate in Belgrade while Milosevic was in office, and numerous demonstrations against him went unsuppressed. It is not accurate to say that Milosevic's government did not engage in political repression, as fighting against military forces and guerilla insurgencies is by definition a kind of political repression, a variety that countries like Canada proudly participate in today.

That said, available evidence indicates that freedom of speech was practiced by Serbian citizens of all nationalities, at least in cities like Belgrade. One Washington Post reporter found the democratically-elected Milosevic's tolerance of public criticism to be evidence of his cunning, writing that it helps "let off steam and mitigate threats to [Milosevic's] government."

In occupied Republika Srpska, by contrast, popular demonstrations against occupying NATO troops seizing radio stations were met with armed vehicles, tear gas, and warning shots. We "will not hesitate to take the necessary measures including the use of force against media inciting attacks on [NATO forces] or other international organizations," a NATO representative said. The meaning of "inciting attacks" was made clear when the television channel Kanal S was told to "immediately cease broadcasting" after playing a message from Sarajevo University students which invited viewers to "join a peaceful protest" against NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

To this day, US officials insist that the bombing of the National TV studios in Belgrade was justified. Their reasoning? It was a "ministry of lies."

No one can doubt that serious atrocities were committed by Serb forces during the war. That said, one does not need to be a supporter of Mr. Milosevic to wonder why coverage of Western-supported republics did not reach the level of scrutiny and wild speculation to which Serb actions were subject. Why are large swaths of the public record ignored, and why do the media not account for their circulation of what no one can deny were massively inflated figures and claims of mass graves with tens or hundreds of thousands of bodies? While it is possible that these exist, it is also true that they have yet to be found after a massive search.

The responsibility to provide minimal evidence for oft-repeated claims has not been met. News coverage citing the opinions of NATO leaders and their allies cannot substitute for evidence in the long term. Nonetheless, claims from government sources with an interest in the outcome of coverage are repeated, even after they are contradicted by evidence gathered by NATO or UN teams. (Evidence provided by the Yugoslavian government of NATO atrocities is, naturally, subject to the media's a priori dismissal.)

"Anyone that tries to describe what was going on [in Bosnia] in a rational manner is deemed to be some sort of pro-Serb, rather than pro-truth," says the former general MacKenzie. MacKenzie was defending former BC provincial NDP candidate Rollie Keith, who stepped down after his claim that he saw no evidence of genocide while serving as a UN observer in Kosovo received negative media attention.

"I was shocked that someone who had merely described what was going on in Kosovo, which he saw with his own eyes, that some people interpreted that [sic] as an apologist for Milosevic," added MacKenzie.

Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar of India, who headed the UN mission in Yugoslavia, wrote that "Portraying the Serbs as evil and everybody else as good was not only counterproductive but also dishonest."

"According to my experience," wrote Nambiar, "all sides were guilty but only the Serbs would admit that they were no angels while the others would insist that they were."

Further reading

» Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retired): The Fatal Flaws Underlying NATO'S Intervention in Yugoslavia

» Rollie Keith: Failure of Diplomacy

» Lewis MacKenzie: National Post article on Kosovo

» Global Research: Clinton Administration supported the "Militant Islamic Base"

» Wikipedia: Operation Storm

» Stephen Gowans: Was the US behind the single greatest act of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia?

» Nebojsa Malic: Review of Richard Holbrooke's To End a War

» CBC Vancouver: NDPer quits over Milosevic comments

» CBC Vancouver: Strong military support for former NDP candidate

» Amnesty International: Croatia

» BIRN: Serb Refugees Unmoved by Gotovina Trial

» Minorities at Risk: Assessment for Serbs in Croatia

» BBC: Serb struggles for Croatian home

» Human Rights Watch: Croatia Fails Serb Refugees

» Petar Makara and Jared Israel: The Croatian Ustashi

&raqo; Oliver Kamm: Examining claims between Izetbegovic and Nazi SS

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