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Angered at Western support for Bosnian sovereignty, Belgrade tried to make the best of a bad situation. If Bosnia was now a foreign country, then Serbia hoped it could evade responsibility for Bosnian fighting. Belgrade thus tried its best to convince external critics that it was disengaging from its troubled neighbor, strengthening the frontier creation process initiated by international recognition of Bosnia's sovereignty.

In many ways, the situation and Belgrade's response to it represented a continuation of communist-era norms of republic mutual noninterference.[10] Decentralization had created strong inter-republican boundaries, with each maintaining its own communist party branch, central bank, governing agencies, and internal security services. Although federal agencies bore overall security responsibility, individual republics controlled events on their own turf. Serbian security services could operate in Bosnia only in violation of Yugoslav law and tacit domestic norms. When the Bosnian war began in April 1992, this noninterference norm was strengthened by international recognition.

In March 1992, Serbian officials signaled their intent to leave Bosnia to its own devices by announcing a plan to create a new Yugoslavia out of Serbia and Montenegro.[11] Throughout March, officials discussed the new country's constitution while studiously avoiding mention of Bosnian Serbs.[12] A new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) was officially created on April 27, and its leaders promised they harbored no irredentist aspirations.[13] By the end of May, Belgrade officials were explaining to UN officials that they had no jurisdiction in Bosnia, and no ability to affect Bosnian combatants.[14] On May 20, the day the UN Security Council imposed punitive sanctions, Serbia's ruling Socialist Party said it was

maintaining "full solidarity" with Bosnian Serbs but was also committed to avoiding any intervention in Bosnian affairs in an effort to preserve the "heart of the Serbian people."[15]

Belgrade officials regularly contrasted Serbia's putative ethnic harmony with Bosnia's vicious ethnic war. "National freedoms, equality and inter-ethnic tolerance are … the strategy of Serbia,"[16] one top official promised, and the new Yugoslav federal assembly vowed that minorities would enjoy vigorous human rights protections.[17] On May 20, remarkably, the Yugoslav presidency ended the official state of war declared twelve months before, saying that the country's national security problems had been resolved.[18] As accounts of Bosnian ethnic cleansing intensified, Serbian president Slobodan Milošević proudly noted that in Serbia proper, ethnic minorities were not being forced to flee, because "integrity and property [are] not endangered here."[19]

A third disengagement tactic included Serbian efforts to mark its new boundaries with Bosnia. Two weeks after Bosnian independence, the new federal Yugoslav customs agency designated official border crossings between Serbia and the new Bosnian state, noting that cross-border travelers would henceforth require passports or identity cards.[20] A week later, the agency announced it had established full customs control over Yugoslav territory and was restricting transportable items.[21] Travelers were warned by Borba, a popular Belgrade daily, that they could cross only at designated crossings, [22] while Politika, a pro-government paper, wrote that special federal border units would soon begin patrolling Yugoslavia's new boundaries.[23]

A fourth and crucial step was Belgrade's withdrawal of the Yugoslav federal army from Bosnia, dividing the force into a new Yugoslav army, composed of ethnic Serbs from Serbia and Montenegro, and a Bosnian Serb entity, consisting solely of ethnic Serbs from Bosnia. Earlier in 1992 the army had been reluctant to withdraw into Serbia or divide into two units, promising it would remain in Bosnia for as long as Bosnian Serbs so desired.[24] International pressure had forced a shift in policy, however, and on May 4, 1992, rump Yugoslavia announced it would complete its troop withdrawal within fifteen days.[25] The new FRY military, one leading official promised, had no further business in Bosnia.[26] In reality, some 80 percent of the old federal army's soldiers reportedly remained in Bosnia, since senior officers had mostly deployed Bosnian Serbs to the region early on.[27] As a result, officials explained they had not really left "the Serb people in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the mercy of the Croat-Muslim paramilitary formations."[28]


Fear of Western military strikes was a key reason for the army's withdrawal.[29] In April, the progovernment Serbian daily Politika warned of a Gulf War–style "Balkan Storm" aimed at pushing Serbia out of Bosnia, [30] while NIN, a popular Serbian weekly, observed that "official Belgrade, confused and frightened, is now displaying a desire to avoid any serious confrontation with America and its principal allies, at any cost."[31] The Yugoslav vice president said he feared a military attack, warning of air strikes rather than ground troops.[32] The Yugoslav air force commander anticipated attacks from NATO air bases in Italy and the Sixth Fleet, urging Serbs to fight back "to the last person" if necessary.[33] Military specialist James Gow, moreover, notes that in the spring of 1992 "it was widely believed both in Western Europe and in certain parts of Yugoslavia that an intervention force was under discussion … it was certainly taken as a real cause for fear [in Belgrade]." [34] Belgrade's decision to withdraw federal troops from Bosnia sought to reassure Western audiences that the new Yugoslavia would respect Bosnia's territorial integrity.

All this was entirely consistent with what Serbian officials had been publicly telling international diplomats all along. During negotiations over Bosnia in February and March 1992, Serbian officials told Western negotiators that while they opposed Bosnian sovereignty for fear of compromising Bosnian Serb rights, they would never intervene militarily to enforce their views. Serbia's role in the Bosnian crisis, Milošević assured a UN mediator, "can only be a constructive one, because our commonly known stand is that we support a peaceful solution of this crisis."[35] On another occasion Milošević promised that Serbia would cooperate with the UN, since Serbia was itself part of that "world organization" and wanted to abide by its rules.[36] Hoping to appear internationally cooperative and fully respectable, official Serbia consistently denied any intent to use force in creating a Greater Serbia.[37]

Serbian officials also denied encouraging or permitting cross-border paramilitary involvement in Bosnia. Irregular Serbian formations were entirely illegal, according to the Serbian prime minister, and the government was making every effort to prevent "armed individuals" from entering Bosnia.[38] The "occasional appearance of armed individuals and groups," another official said, is a "marginal phenomenon subject to strict control."[39] As reports of paramilitaries crossing into Bosnia escalated, Milošević emphatically stated that the Serbian republic was in full control of its territory and that it was effectively blocking all attempts by

would-be paramilitaries to cross the border into Bosnia.[40] This effort was even rhetorically supported both by ultranationalist Vojislav Šešelj, who vowed his followers were in no way involved in Bosnia, and by another key paramilitary leader, Željko Ražnatović, popularly known as Arkan.[41] Throughout the spring and summer of 1992, when Serbian cross-border paramilitary activism was at its height, Serbia repeatedly stressed its commitment to blocking irregular forces.[42]

Serbian officials even began to criticize Bosnian Serb leaders, especially their well-publicized shelling of Sarajevo.[43] On May 30, the Serbian government said those responsible for indiscriminately shelling Muslim neighborhoods should be punished, complaining that Bosnian Serb bombardments caused great bitterness in Serbia.[44] The Serbiandominated Yugoslav presidency protested Bosnian ethnic cleansing, [45] and two days after the UN imposed sanctions, demanded that Bosnian Serbs cease all bombardments of Sarajevo.[46] Shortly after, the rump Yugoslav assembly condemned all forms of ethnic cleansing and called on the Bosnian Serb leadership to rein in Serbian irregulars.[47]

Bosnian Serb leaders cooperated, telling observers they were fully independent of Serbia. In March 1992, Radovan Karadžić, leader of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), warned Serbia to keep out of Bosnian affairs since "accusing Serbia has become the fashion." Bosnian Serbs, he said, needed nothing more than Serbian moral support, noting that Milošević "does not even know about many of our actions."[48] Although Bosnian Serb leaders originally hoped to join Serbia and Montenegro in the new Yugoslavia, they soon backed off, realizing this was not possible in the short run. Instead, they called for an independent Bosnian Serb state.[49] Karadžić categorically denied planning to link Bosnian Serb lands with Serbia, saying the newly created borders between Bosnia and Serbia would remain unchanged.[50] As the fighting intensified, Karadžić rejected claims of Serbian involvement, saying he and his colleagues were "avoiding contacts" with Belgrade.[51] Asked whether Milošević might disown him because of Bosnian Serb actions, Karadžić replied that since he was not a member of the Serbian state, he could not be disowned. He was answerable, he said, to the Bosnian Serb people only.[52]

The Bosnian Serb leadership was thus willing to assume responsibility for the war and ethnic cleansing, refusing to publicly implicate Serbia. Although Western powers had forced Bosnian sovereignty on unwilling Serbs, political elites on both sides of the new border quickly gave way, publicly accepting the division between Serbia proper and Bosnian

Serbs. The result, however, was a clandestine, cross-border Serbian effort to bolster the Bosnian Serbs' military and political position.

During spring 1992, Bosnia slipped from formal Yugoslav (and de facto Serbian) control through a combination of its local and international efforts. Due in large part to Slovenia and Croatia's remarkable ability to gain Western support for their independence, Bosnian sovereignty became a very real possibility. A unique confluence of events had overturned the Western-dominated international community's typical aversion to changing international borders, and Bosnian requests for sovereignty were ultimately granted in April 1992. Although both Bosnian Serbs and Serbia proper were firmly opposed to Bosnian independence, they pursued very different policies, at least at the rhetorical and diplomatic level. Bosnian Serbs declared their intent to create their own mini-state on parts of the old Bosnian republic and went to war to secure territorial and military dominance. Serbia and its junior federal partner Montenegro, by contrast, expressed their willingness to accept international fiat. They claimed that they no longer were involved politically or militarily in Bosnia's affairs, and that they were determined to prevent the infiltration of Bosnia by Serbia-based nationalist paramilitaries. The border between the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Bosnia, Belgrade said, would be respected as a legitimate international boundary. Although Serbia had little intention of respecting that border in practice, its rhetorical commitment to Bosnian sovereignty confirmed the new country's exit from Serbia's official domain of control, creating conditions for a new, frontier-like setting vis-à-vis Serbia. Serbia and its junior federal partner, Montenegro, exercised substantial de facto influence over Bosnian events in 1992 and 1993 while simultaneously pursuing plausible deniability of that involvement vis-à-vis its own citizens and international observers.

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