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"Soft" Ethnic Cleansing

As we saw in Chapter 3, the Bosnian Serb crisis committees operated quite differently than the Belgrade-based paramilitaries. The latter were external actors loyal to national Serbian figures, functioning outside the normal structures of state and municipal authority. Paramilitaries used violence of the most direct kind, displaying little interest in local laws, regulations, or other bureaucratic tools. The crisis committees, by contrast, emerged from existing local authorities, relying on mechanisms of local administration and governance to enforce ethnic cleansing. Whereas the Sandžak town of Pljevlja had experienced a failed paramilitary coup, Vojvodina's Hrtkovci village was home to an aborted nationalist crisis committee.

Hrtkovci's crisis committee experience was created when the head of the local Radical Party branch, Ostoja Sibinčić, was elected chief of the local council in 1992 with the help of Serb refugees from Croatia. Local councils were on an administrative tier below municipalities, encompassing either neighborhoods or villages. After Šešelj's May 1992 demonstration, Sibinčić organized a new vote for council leadership and was elected its leader, granting him substantial administrative power. "The local police were either cooperating with him or were scared of

him," recalled Father Sreten, a local Catholic priest.[59] "He did what he wanted, said what he wanted, and no one could stop him." What Sibinčić desired above all was to force out Hrtkovci's Croat population and to move Serb refugees into those homes. According to the Novi Sad priest, Father Dejan, Sibinčić was "one of many fingers belonging to one hand in the region," that of Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj. "In every village with Croats there was a kind of Sibinčić. In one village, it was the chief of police. In another, it was head of the local council. In each place, another person carried out the plan of ethnic cleansing."[60] In July 1992, Sibinčić changed Hrtkovci's name to Srboslavci, or Serbian Glory, and his supporters sprayed anti-Croat slogans and broke windows in Croat homes.

Surprisingly, however, Sibinčić's activities triggered a substantial degree of resistance from some ethnic Serbs. Hrtkovci was a relatively large village and enjoyed close ties to Novi Sad, the provincial capital; as anti-Croat measures escalated, a Hrtkovci member of the nationalist but anti-Milošević Serbian Renewal Movement contacted the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats in Novi Sad, pleading for support against Sibinčić's campaign. The Social Democrats had earlier polled some 20 percent of Vojvodina's votes, and therefore constituted a local political force of some note. "We sent faxes to Western embassies, newspapers, Belgrade antiwar organizations, and talked with government authorities," recalled Stanimir, the Social Democrat politician in nearby Novi Sad.[61] Croats and anti-nationalist Serbs from Hrtkovci, in other words, used Vojvodina's League of Social Democrats to trigger international human rights scrutiny, just as Muslim activists had done in the Sandžak. Sovereignty for Vojvodina was not on the international agenda, but human rights monitoring was.

International human rights reflexes were swift. In summer 1992, Western reporters descended on Hrtkovci, writing a flurry of articles on the impending spread of ethnic cleansing to Vojvodina.[62] The Serbian press then picked up on the story. First, the Serbian daily Borba published several lengthy articles, and then other mainstream media followed suit, prompting a delegation of Belgrade intellectuals to mobilize and meet with federal officials and visit Hrtkovci, where they spoke with Sibinčić, local police, and residents. Most importantly, perhaps, longtime Serb residents of Hrtkovci joined the protests, publicly defending their Croat neighbors and blaming Sibinčić and the recent Serb refugees from Croatia for the troubles.[63]

In August 1992, the combined pressures bore fruit. Serbian police officers

arrested Sibinčić and four Serb refugees from Croatia, charging them with illegal firearm possession and disturbing the peace. On May 5, 1993, Sibinčić received a six-month suspended sentence. Another nationalist received a three-month suspended sentence, while three others were cleared of all charges. The sentences were light, but they sent a message to Sibinčić and his colleagues in Vojvodina, warning them to tone their methods down. Yet while Sibinčić's most blatant intimidation efforts subsided, his harassment campaign ultimately worked. By the end of 1992, most of Hrtkovci's Croat population had fled.

Still, though Sibinčić and his allies had pushed many Croats from Vojvodina, the modalities of their displacement were quite different than in Bosnia. Only a handful of persons died in the process, and the eviction campaign was not accompanied by Bosnia-style atrocities. There were no concentration camps in Vojvodina, no large-scale murders, rapes, or torture. Hrtkovci's Croats did experience physical and psychological threats that prompted them to flee, but it was "soft" ethnic cleansing, as Nataša Kandić, director of Belgrade's Humanitarian Law Center, termed events.[64]

Serbian repertoires of violence shifted from Bosnia-style violence to "soft" ethnic cleansing as a result of Vojvodina's institutional setting. Vojvodina, like Sandžak, was part of the Serbian core, and no major international actor claimed otherwise. Vojvodina residents did not mount an armed rebellion, unlike their Kosovo counterparts in 1998–99, appealing instead to international human rights monitors. As a result, Sibinčić and his fellow Serbian radicals knew they could not count on state support if they initiated a wave of Bosnia-style violence. Once his threats against Croats were publicly condemned, moreover, Sibinčić's freedom of maneuver was further reduced. Opponents of Sibinčić's ad hoc crisis committee discovered opportunities for meaningful political protest, since they lived in a country then eager to project a clean-hands image to the world and its citizenry. Protestors could approach the press, officials, and foreign embassies and complain about Sibinčić's actions, and it was in the state's interests to respond, at least partially. As a result, ethnic harassment, rather than ethnic cleansing, was Vojvodina's dominant repertoire of violence.

The potential for Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing in the Sandžak and Vojvodina endured throughout 1992 and 1993. During those years, paramilitaries from Serbia proper repeatedly crossed from Serbia into Bosnia and back, unleashing a wave of death and deportation against Bosnia's

non-Serbs. Within Serbia and Montenegro proper, however, these same men acted quite differently. Whereas the Serbian state secretly encouraged ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, it prevented similar efforts within the Serbian core itself. There, Serbian officials did not eliminate nationalist violence altogether, but did reshape its contours dramatically, pushing it toward ethnic harassment, a pernicious but quite different phenomenon from ethnic cleansing.

Why did the Serbian state differentiate so sharply between Serbia proper (and Montenegro), on the one hand, and Bosnia, on the other? Had Serbia tolerated ethnic cleansing within its own internationally recognized territory, it would have risked its domestic credibility and claim to international legitimacy. Serbia would have had to openly acknowledge it had lost its monopoly over violence to private actors, or would have had to publicly acknowledge its use of ethnic cleansing on its own behalf, violating both domestic laws and international norms. In either case, important institutional rules would have been violated, compromising the state's claims to legitimacy at home and abroad. In 1992 and 1993, Serbia still cared deeply for its image. By 1998–99, as the next chapter demonstrates, issues of international image became less salient for Serbia due to serious challenges in Kosovo. In the early 1990s, however, Serbia was still hoping for integration into the Western-dominated international community, and was still genuinely concerned with avoiding responsibility for ethnic cleansing in its own territory.

Conclusive proof will have to await opening of Serbian state archives or interviews with key officials, but it is likely that many Serbian efforts to cap nationalist violence at ethnic harassment were produced by deliberate, conscious policy choices. There must have been discussions in the ruling Socialist Party, the Serbian interior ministry, and elsewhere, in which the costs and benefits of allowing private notionalists to operate inside Serbia were discussed and weighed. At the same time, however, it is likely that the Serbian state often reacted instinctively to subdue the nationalists. As paramilitaries or homegrown crisis committees emerged within the Serbian core, state bureaucrats mobilized the police, judiciary, and other law enforcement agencies to suppress nationalist freelancers, to project a law-and-order image, and to transform repertoires of nationalist violence.

Public protests and the media played a key role in triggering these mechanisms for defending the institutional integrity of Serbia's core. Had the Štrpci kidnappings or Hrtkovci expulsions never been publicized, Serbian officials are not likely to have mobilized the police, army, and judicial

system to divert the nationalists. This was perhaps clearest in Vojvodina, where two isolated villages with no outside political support—Slankamen and Beška—were quickly and quietly cleansed by Radical Party activists. It was only when Sibinčić began his activities in Hrtkovci that tolerance for outright violence stopped. Some Hrtkovci residents had allies among opposition parties in Vojvodina's capital, Novi Sad, and these politicians took courageous actions that helped trigger international and domestic scrutiny of the Hrtkovci events.

The push toward ethnic harassment did not always require political struggle, however. Unlike their counterparts in Bosnia, it seems unlikely that Serbian Radical Party activists inside Serbia ever seriously contemplated creating concentration camps in Vojvodina. And while paramilitary leaders such as čeko Dačević may have considered massacring Muslims in Sandžak's border towns, there is no indication that he, or any other paramilitary leader, ever seriously considered doing the same in the rest of the Sandžak region, in areas further from the Bosnian border. Thus the logic of what was possible and appropriate in the Serbian core was also determined through deeply internalized, taken-for-granted operating routines.

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