The Yugoslav conflict formation – 14 issues

By Johan Galtung

Written 1996, edited 2006

What did we typically learn from the media and what not during the 1990s? Here is one way of answering that question:


In the right column are a number of narratives, stories waiting to be told.  They are all important in any effort to understand what went on. But the media over-selected the narratives to the left at the expense of the narratives to the right.  The argument is not that what is to the left should not be covered, but that what is to the right should also have been given a clear voice, a ‘glasnost’. Thus, the role as “war correspondent” is classical and honored; peace journalism hardly even exists as a concept in violence-hungry Western media.

As a consequence the image created was that all bad events, with no history, just “nationalism”, happen in Yugoslavia. The idea of “ethnic conflict”, with no context in time or space, serves that purpose well. Outside actors are only spectators, trying their best to help in a noble way. This lack of historical context is what Professor Svetozar Stojanovic refers to as “presentism”. Good media would reflect all three, past, present and future (implications, consequences).

The base-line narrative is Serbian atrocities, omitting that the first shots fired were by Slovenes against Serbian border guards, and the discrimination against Serbs in Croatia. “Greater Serbia” is played up, Greater Croatia not, nor Bosniak visions. The suspicion of Russia is given ample space, possibly dubious acts by the West not.

As an example a personal experience in July 1995, a panel in the Katholische Akademie, München:  On the podium were the Generalinspekteur of the German army, the chief editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung as moderator, and the present author. With a couple of hundred witnesses I handed the chief editor a copy of the fateful letters exchanged between the UN Secretary-General and the German Foreign Minister with the former warning in strong terms against the premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia out of Yugoslavia without any plans for the rest. It is a correspondence I have not seen published in any German media and it is crucial to understanding the events that followed, namely the wars in Bosnia and Krajina/Slavonia. Of course it was not published; in fact, all efforts to publish this type of revealing documents in the – free – German press in the crucial summer of 1995 were in vain.

The conflict is seen in terms of nations, no attention is given to class and generation, some to gender.  All good initiatives are seen as coming from outside elites, not from inside Yugoslavia, nor from people in general. Regrettably, it is a self-serving, totally inadequate, Western story,32 as we could expect when the underlying script is already written by the underlying assumptions.

In this light, here is a summary of the conflict formation as 14 issues:

[1]  Aggression issues:
Slovenia/JNA; Croatia/JNA; Macedonia/JNA; Serbs/Croats/Bosniaks;
Croats/Bosniaks; IFOR-NATO/Serbs; Serbs/Kosovars; UCK/JNA

[2]  Security issues:
Escalation to all of Yugoslavia; Escalation to all of Balkan; Escalation to all of Europe; Escalation to world level

[3]  Occupation issues:

[4]  Statehood (recognition) issues:
Slovenia; Croatia; B-i-H; Republika Srpska; Kosovo; Macedonia, Montenegro

[5]  Border issues:
Croatia/B-i-H; Croatia/Slovenia; Macedonia; Albania/Serbia(?)

[6]  Penetration issues:
Vatican/Slovenia-Croatia; Germany/Slovenia-Croatia-B-i-H-Kosovo/a;
Russia/Serbia; Turkey-Iran-Saudi Arabia/B-i-H-Kosovo/a

[7]  Hegemony issues:
Serbia/YU; Bosniaks/B-i-H; Kosovars/Kosovo/a; EU-USA/YU; USA/EU/UN

[8]  Economic issues, resources:
Serbia/Kosovo minerals, Croatia/Serbia coal and oil

[9]  Economic issue, tourism:
Croatia/rest of Yugoslavia

[10] Economic domination issues:
Serbia-Croatia/rest-Yugoslavia; Bosniaks/B-i-h; Germany/Yugoslavia

[11] Economic indebtedness issues:
EU/reparation business ($40 billion)

[12]  Chosenness issues:
Albanians as Indigenous; Serbs as Protector against Islam; Croats as West; Muslims as Higher; EU as Europe hegemon; US as world hegemon; Turkey-Iran-Saudi Arabia as Muslim hegemons; UN above them all

[13]  Glory issues:
Serbs as ancient Kingdom; Croatia as West; B-i-H as Muslim

[14] Trauma issues:
All 3 traumatized by each other and by occupations; Austria by World War I; Germany by World War II; USA by Viêt Nam-Iran-Somalia; Russia by end of Empire/Cold War; Turkey by end of Empire.

So, what was the basic issue? A heavy history with unprocessed conflicts? Cynical leaders instrumentalizing unprocessed conflicts from the past?  Cynical outsiders instrumentalizing those cynical leaders? All three into one, they are not mutually exclusive.

That is the Yugoslav conflict formation in its shortest form – and immensely more complex and multi-dimensional than the generalized political and media image of it outside itself.

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