The American reader or (more often) viewer of these events is still puzzled over what's really caused them to happen. The accepted model is that a leader of the largest ethnic group in former Yugoslavia (Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia) gathered his supporters and co-conspirators in the national army around an inflammatory nationalist rage against other Yugoslav ethnic groups, in order to impose himself as a dictator over entire territory. This spawned nationalist leaders in the other Republics who countered Milosevic's power play. The rest we know from CNN.
But very little is known about the mechanisms used by nationalist leaders in former Yugoslavia to condition and prepare their populations which (forget the murky medieval-sounding legends about ancient hatreds) had lived and produced together for fifty years peacefully to hate each other enough to be able to remorselessly massacre each other's kids and elderly.
It is true that fifty years of "Yugoslav peace" was enforced on the people by the threat of imprisonment for even the faintest sign of nationalism. I had a friend who in 1986 was confined to three years in a maximum security prison for having hung a picture on his living room wall of what would in 1990 become the Croatian state flag. This kind of "peace" had to vanish once communism lost the stamina to enforce it. And there was little or no political will among the Party nomenclature to change the old ways. However, Yugoslavia was not inherently unsustainable. Generations born in the '60s or later (i.e. my generation) were, if not content with living in Yugoslavia (we would rather be living in the U.S. or Amsterdam), at least acquiescing to Yugoslavia as *their* country. We fought each other in soccer stadiums, listened basically to the same music (British), watched the same movies (American), hated the same system (communist). Rock bands from Serbia and Bosnia were filling stadiums in Croatia and Slovenia, and vice versa.
This natural bonding among youth was discouraged by the top brass, who considered rock'n'roll too western, too American, too decadent. But, abruptly abandoning their anti-nationalist policies, which they ruthlessly and relentlessly enforced for fifty years, Yugoslav politicians in the late 1980s just grabbed the ancient nationalist flags, smooching them shamelessly all over, learned to mumble some basic Christian prayers and a few words of the popular nationalist songs (mostly left over from the Nazi period), and became NEW leaders. They came up with their simple, no-fine-print, ostensibly anti-bureaucracy populist "Contract With (fill in the name of the state)" programs, promising to deconstruct communism and offering us national salvation if we agree to blame the "other side" for their failure to stop the headlong dive of the national currency and the rise of an enormous national deficit. In those last years of Yugoslavia, interest on the national debt consumed even more of the GNP than the defense spending. Ustashe (Croatian Nazis) and Chetnitsi (Serbian Nazis), whose memory was used by the Party to scare us throughout our formative years, meanwhile became amicable national heroes.
The 1974 Yugoslav constitution designed to allow greater autonomy for the Republics proved disastrous to the one-party regime: since there was only one political party and six republics, disagreements would run along national instead of political lines. Serbian and Slovenian party leadership were at odds with each other since 1986, and Serbia initiated a trade boycott against Slovenia.
The key in their success in making this war possible is communication or, more precisely, lack of it. Yugoslavia was a country without national television and almost without major national dailies. Benefiting from the 1974 Constitution, each republic had its own major media, which were controlled by the local (republic) party nomenclature. Once the leadership of different republics turned against each other, they started a vicious propaganda war through the media they controlled.
Independent, alternative media (weeklies, magazines, low-power FM stations) were rarely distributed nationally. When they were, they were promptly confiscated by the police as the Slovenian (Mladina, a youth anti-militarist paper) was when it appeared on the streets of Belgrade in 1988. Major party-controlled media never tried to cross republic lines: they had their target audience precisely defined.
In the early '90s, as the conflict grew uglier, reading newspapers from other republics came to be viewed as unpatriotic. Finally, just before the war started, the Serbian and Croatian governments shut down ALL communication between Serbia and Croatia, and directed their media to paint a picture-perfect enemy of the "other" side. With the start of open warfare in Croatia normal communications were disrupted. Not only did travel by train or road between Croatia and Serbia become impossible but the destruction of many telephone connections caused an overload of the existing lines. Telephone calls between Zagreb and Belgrad, for example, became almost impossible. The few telephone lines which existed to Bosnia-Herzegovina were destroyed when the war started in Bosnia. The disruption of the postal system meant an almost total breakdown of communication, especially those working on opposite sides of the fighting.
The war was then executed out of fear by mostly panicking folks not able to double check the information they received over government-controlled media.
Links to other Sarajevo and Bosnia related sites
PoMoWar MediaFilter CovertAction Shadow Artists on MediaFilter CHAOS ZTN