Greater Serbia: Myth or Plan?

Greater Serbia: Myth or Plan?

Cedomir Popov, retired history professor at Novi Sad University and former member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU), was the second history expert to testify for Slobodan Milosevic at his trial on war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. His focus was on the 18th to 20th Centuries, specifically the concept of a Greater Serbia. In a confidential motion, the Prosecution had challenged him for bias, as it did Dr. Slavenko Terzic, the history expert before him. The Trial Chamber denied the motions, stating the appropriate way for the Prosecution to challenge bias was through cross examination.

Popov's thesis is that the concept of Greater Serbia is a myth put forward by the Great Powers to conceal their aspirations for conquest. It was propagated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, Great Britain, France, Italy, and other European national states beginning in the second half of the 19th Century and continuing to the present time with the U.S. goal of a New World Order, he testified. To the extent the Serbs had expansionist goals, they were related to unifying South Slavs and emancipating them from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. Others in the Balkans also had expansionist goals that were far more 'ambitious, expansionist and aggressive than the Serb national program, which limited itself to the lands where Serbs were the majority population,' the Professor testified. The Serbs did not seek to denationalize other ethnic groups, he said.

The only case where 'we can say Serbs through pressure removed a part of a population' was in 1878, when local Serbs rose up in Southern Serbia and retaliated against Albanians who had helped the Turkish Army, the witness testified. However, Popov claimed that it was Serbs who were subjected to 'genocidal actions' beginning in 1914 in Celebici, Bosnia, where 84 Serb civilians were shot, followed by mass arrests of the Serb population. Mass arrests also occurred in Vojvodina and people were taken to 'concentration camps,' he said. These crimes were apparently perpetrated by soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army. While the Prosecutor later challenged the Professor for his immoderate language in other instances, he didn't choose to question how the killing of 84 people, however reprehensible, constitutes a 'genocidal act.'

While the idea of unity among Serbs, Slovenes and Croats originated with Croats, after the Serbs embraced it they became its greatest defenders, according to the Professor.
During the Balkan Wars and WWI, the Serbs took up arms to defend their homeland and also to emancipate brother Slavs from Austro-Hungarian rule. At the end of WWI, when the Great Powers offered Serbia additional lands, Serbia turned them down in favor of a voluntary union with Croats and Slovenes, thereby saving the two Slav peoples from the fate of defeated nations, Popov told the Court.

During WWII, as well, it was the Serb people who mobilized to save Yugoslavia, Popov testified. 'Until 1943/44, 80% of the National Liberation Army were Serbs who opted for a Yugoslav solution.' Serb support for Yugoslavia continued into the 1990's, he said, since it was the only way for Serbs to remain together in one state.

In answer to Judge Robinson, Popov explained there had been ideas of Greater Serbia but they were always marginal with one exception. In the 1912 Balkan wars, Serbia wanted Kosovo and Albania in order to obtain an outlet to the sea. However, the Great Powers wouldn't allow it. In WWII, the Chetniks adopted a Greater Serbia concept, with a homogenous population, but the plan came to nothing after the Chetniks were defeated, he said.

Presented with various maps depicting enlarged Serbian territory, the professor insisted they did not form part of official Serbian policy. As for the Cutileiro Plan and the Vance-Owen Plan which sought to resolve the 1990's Bosnian war, Popov distinguished between Bosnian Serbs and Serbia proper. Territory proposed for the Serbs in Bosnia had nothing to do with Serbia, he said, and did not expand Serbia's territory.

As for Serbian politicians, such as Vuk Draskovic and Vojislav Seselj, who called for greater Serbian hegemony, Popov dismissed their statements as rhetorical and propaganda, adding that they did not advocate war. Later, he admitted that both of them, as well as Arkan, supported paramilitary fighters who went to help fellow Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia when the government would not.

Characterizing Professor Popov's apparent historical view of Serbia, Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice asked if he was saying that 'Serbia has been a victim nation and state for hundreds of years,' rather than pursuing a hegemonic agenda. 'That is right,' the Professor answered.

Nice challenged his scientific objectivity by confronting Professor Popov with his accusations that the work of James Gow, Elie Wiesel, Audrey Budding, Noel Malcolm and others was 'pseudo-scientific murkiness.' It was originally mistranslated as 'pseudo-scientific dregs,' prompting Nice to ask if it was appropriate for a serious academic to describe Audrey Budding, a fellow academic, as 'a pseudo-scientific dreg.' The Professor said he referred to her work, not to her, and stood by his criticism. When Nice asked for specifics, however, he faulted Budding's treatment of medieval Serbian history. In fact, Nice informed him, she didn't testify about that. Her testimony and report were focused on 20th Century Serbian history.

Nice also confronted the witness with a Declaration he signed demanding that the ICTY drop charges against Radovan Karadzic. The Prosecutor challenged Popov for putting his name and reputation to a document which included unsubstantiated facts. Asked about Srebrenica, for example, Popov insisted the numbers of those killed had been manipulated to support charging Milosevic with genocide, to support Bosnia seeking war reparations from Serbia and for the Serbian people to be characterized as a criminal nation. 'That is true manipulation,' he pronounced. When pressed by the Prosecutor, the Professor indicated he did not believe such large numbers had been killed at Srebrenica. 'Had 9,000 people been killed, who would have buried them in just a few days?' he asked rhetorically.

Despite the witness's often firm positions, Nice secured several important concessions. Questioned about the Nacertanije (Plan), the mid-19th Century program outlined by Serbian Foreign Minister Ilija Garasanin, Popov agreed it spoke of unification of ethnic Serb territories with Serbia, as well as promoting a unity of nationalities under the principality of Serbia as the natural protector of all Slavs. At the time the Nacertanije was written, Serbia had won a degree of independence from the Ottoman Empire.

The Professor also accepted that Garasanin's ideas were adopted by others with a more violent bent in the early 1900's. Following the assassination of King Aleksandar Obrenovic by a group of army officers in 1903, the group 'Unification or Death' and its paramilitary unit, the Black Hand, came onto the scene. The assassins of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 were members of the Black Hand. However, Popov would not agree with Nice's further suggestion that the association of securing Greater Serbia through violence forced the ideology underground, making it unacceptable for people to espouse it publicly into the 1990's. Greater Serbia was only a myth, he insisted.

Popov agreed that Serbs always favored a unitary, centralized state with other Slavs. He even agreed that all governments formed in the first unitary state (Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) until King Aleksandar declared a dictatorship in 1929 were Serb-dominated. But he refused the rest of Nice's thesis, that Serbs only wanted a federal state when they had control. Popov identified the 1960's as the beginning of decentralization with the aim of breaking-up of Yugoslavia. With autonomy granted Kosovo and Vojvodina, provinces within Serbia, Serbia saw itself as unequal among the republics. 'It is precisely in this type of climate that Greater Serbia was likely to rise again and did,' Nice suggested, but without getting Popov's assent.

At one point Judge Robinson intervened with a question: 'You say unification of Serb lands around Serbia was not Greater Serbia. What do you describe it as?' Popov: 'Serbia.' Nice followed up with his own question: 'Unifying Serbs around Serbia with Serbia makes for a Serbia that is a bit bigger?' he queried, getting the Professor to answer, 'Yes. Somewhat. Yes.'

The Court appears to be wearying of Milosevic's historical witnesses. To date, Milosevic has successfully defended them on the grounds that the Prosecution has alleged he participated in a joint criminal enterprise with the goal of creating a Greater Serbia. As the Prosecutor reminded the Court today, he has not used the term Greater Serbia, though it was mentioned in an earlier, superceded indictment. The current indictments speak of a joint criminal enterprise to forcibly remove non-Serbs from parts of Bosnia and Croatia (and all of Kosovo) and to attach those parts to Serbia. In effect, that would create an enlarged Serbia. To that extent, Popov's evidence was relevant to the charges. The question is how much evidence of this kind the Court will want to hear.

Apart from issues of relevance and repetition, the more important question is the quality of the experts Milosevic has called so far. While they obviously know their subjects and are well-credentialed, they uniformly present a narrow, biased perspective. They either have not considered expert views that differ from their own or appear to dismiss them out of hand. At least to the extent presented in court, their work does not seriously assess positions that differ from a rigid view of Serbs as a persecuted and victimized people, who never harmed anyone in their long history. The other side of this simplistic world view presents their enemies as all bad or invisible, as Slavenko Terzic did with Albanians. While ordinary witnesses might be forgiven such bias (though it might diminish their credibility), its predominance among experts does not serve Milosevic well. To be credible, an expert must not only be knowledgeable, but also objective. Milosevic would do well to look farther afield than the hallowed halls of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences for future experts.
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