A Fool’s Account: Diana Johnstone, Yugoslavia and Her Delusion

by Jasmin Mujanovic

Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jasmin Mujanovic is an activist currently based out of Vancouver, Canada. A proud Wobbly, his research interests include anarchist theory and practice, radical anthropology and, more recently, the history of anti-nationalism and anti-authoritarianism in the Balkans. He holds a Masters of Political Science from York University.

“If, in 1990, there had been a national referendum on the subject,” begins Diana Johnstone in a recent interview on New Left Project, (“Breaking Yugoslavia”, March 3rd), “I have little doubt that an overwhelming majority of Yugoslavs would have voted to maintain the [Yugoslav] federation. But elections were held only within the various republics, enabling the bureaucracies of Croatia and Slovenia to promote their secessionist projects.” 1

This is how Johnstone’s short history of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia begins. Implicit in this account is a simple narrative: Yugoslavia was a union undone by the nationalist projects of the Slovenes and the Croats, and later the Bosnian Muslim and Kosovar Albanians, who, aided by the West, managed to destroy a unique experiment that, for all its flaws, offered great hope for the possibility of a democratic, worker’s controlled, “actually existing” instance of socialism. Yugoslavia was betrayed by the machinations of Western powers and the quisling support of local nationalist bureaucracies.

Notably absent in this account is any sort of assessment of the role of largest member of the Yugoslav federation, Serbia, and any sort of assessment of its role during the critical period between 1980 and the beginning of the 1990s. This is not an accidental omission; Johnstone’s scholarship has been marked by a consistent policy of obfuscation and misinformation—the high water mark of which came in the form of her 2003 text “Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions.”

What follows is as concise as possible an account of the actual process of the Yugoslav dissolution—or perhaps rather, the half of it which Johnstone refuses to acknowledge. 

Let us be clear about the chief contention in Johnstone’s work: namely, that the West played a significant role in the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. This is a readily apparent fact. As early as 1982, the Reagan administration had begun to implement a policy which aimed at “expanded efforts to promote ‘a quiet revolution’ to overthrow Communist governments while reintegrating the countries of Eastern Europe into a market-oriented economy.”2 By the late 80s, with Yugoslavia’s economy in freefall, the country had become a near-wholly owned subsidiary of the IMF. The Fund’s “restructuring” programs meant that it became increasingly difficult for the central government in Belgrade to provide for basic social provisions. By the early 90s it was becoming increasingly obvious that “Yugoslavia” as a functioning economic and political union had all but ceased to exist.3

The aggressive “liberalization” policies of the West, however, were merely half of the equation. The internal fragmentation of the country along nationalist lines, while to a certain key extent sponsored and exacerbated by the West, was a largely independent phenomenon and a function of the internal dynamics of the Yugoslav space that had its roots in the late 19th century. In one sense, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of the Austro-Hungarians represented the true arrival of ideas of “nationalism” in the region, as Robert Donia and John Fine chronicled in their 1994 text “Bosnia-Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed.”4 Even in gaining popularity, however, such ideas were unable to dislodge the evident reality of Yugoslav unity: that despite the presence of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam and even Judaism alongside the myriad respective “national” cultures and minorities, the peoples of the region had by and large a shared history.

While the 20th century marked a period of “national awakening” amongst the Catholics and Orthodox of Bosnia, who increasingly viewed themselves as Croats and Serbs respectively, the fact did not prevent the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed Yugoslavia, from emerging in 1918. Though ultimately the first Yugoslavia ceased to exist because of the Nazi invasion and occupation (1941-1945), the union had been steadily coming apart at the seams as early as the 1920s. While ostensibly a union of equal wholes, the country was united under the Serbian monarchy and when in 1929 King Alexander dissolved Parliament and declared a dictatorship, Yugoslavia became an increasingly centralized, Serb-dominated state. When the Nazis invaded, they found a responsive audience particularly amongst nationalist Croats who, feeling wronged by the events of the past decade, took out their frustrations with unbelievable brutality on local populations of Serbs, Roma and Jews. In Serbia, the Nazis established another quisling government—much of it composed of the remnants of the Serbian leadership in the first Yugoslavia.

When Tito came to power, this history was not lost on him as it appears to be lost on Johnstone, even as she celebrates his accomplishments. Tito’s Yugoslavia, in one respect, was a marked effort on the part of the regime to avoid repeating the Serbian-domination of the preceding decades. Vojvodina and Kosovo were established as autonomous regions within the federation, which while remaining “attached” to Serbia proper enjoyed a status nearly wholly equal to that of the other republics. Likewise, the preservation of the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina (little changed since about the 14th century, despite the claims of certain nationalist chauvinists that Bosnia was a “creation” of the Communist or current Western regime) was a pointed effort at keeping this republic an independent balance to both the nationalist aspirations of certain elements within the Croatian and Serbian establishment respectively. In addition, Tito attempted repeatedly, through a process of “affirmative action”, to rid the Yugoslav National Army’s (YNA) officer corps of its distinctly Serbian character. It was to this end that the Territorial Defense Forces were created—independent military bodies in each of the respective republics that were meant to serve as a balance to the central administration of YNA. 5

All of this it seems is lost on Johnstone. Indeed, while repudiating the nationalist policies of the Tudjman regime in Croatia, for instance, she is all but oblivious to the events in Serbia which predated these policies. Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power, from 1987 onwards in particular, was a tightly executed effort at rolling back all of the Titoist policies towards creating an equitable, and truly “Yugoslav” union. Having clearly understood the political implications of the 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which would come to enjoy the status of a Serbian nationalist policy agenda for the next fifteen years, Milosevic set about acting on all the fears and myths promulgated therein. The Serbs were a persecuted people all over Yugoslavia, the Serbian state was being systematically robbed of its revenues by Slovenia and Croatia, the “Serbian Question” within Yugoslavia could only be resolved by the incorporation of all Serbs within the territories of an expanded, greater Serbian state and so on.6 Anyone familiar with Milosevic’s pronouncements and policies during the 90s should readily recognize these talking points.

Milosevic was a shrewd strategist and used the vacuum of power left by Tito’s death, as well the economic crisis of the 80s, to elevate himself to power by playing on the fears of Serbian Yugoslavs. Staged demonstrations and conflicts in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro resulted in the ousting of the respective governments of those regions and the installation of Milosevic loyalists (under the guise of an “anti-bureaucratic revolution).7 As the events of 1990-92 took their course, Milosevic took his: the YNA was purged of its non-Serbian leadership, Serbian extremists in Croatia and Bosnia were armed, similar movements mobilized in Serbia (i.e. Seselj and his men), the Territorial Defense Forces in Bosnia, in particular, were almost completely demobilized, while his grip on the media increasingly tightened. Vojvodina and Kosovo were incorporated into Serbia proper, and Milosevic moved to eliminate internal dissent with calculated brutality—persecuting national minorities, such as the Albanians in Kosovo, and assassinating political opponents. By the time the war in Bosnia had begun, with the YNA and “volunteers” from Serbia wholly involved, Milosevic openly met and discussed with his Croatian counterpart the partition of Bosnia along Serb-Croat lines. The Bosniaks would be expelled, exterminated or provided with a “rump” Bosnia that would shortly be incorporated by one of the larger wholes anyway.8

It was a wholesale reversal of everything that Tito’s Yugoslav had been predicated upon. Johnstone may be right that even in 1990 most Yugoslavs would have preferred to keep the country intact; what she doesn’t address, however, is whether that Yugoslavia would have had any resemblance whatsoever to its Titoist precedent. When the first democratic elections were held in 1990, they brought to power in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina parties that were explicitly predicated on, above all, resisting the Milosevic-regime in Serbia. For all their faults, the critics of the Milosevic regime were proved ultimately correct by the Milosevic sponsored wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo: the regime had become a Serbian-nationalist enterprise intent on using violence to advance its goals. 

There is no one reason for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It was not entirely the result of Western intervention nor was it entirely the fault of Milosevic and his followers. After all, neither could have succeeded without the existence of the other and both were predicated upon the historical legacies and contradictions of the broader Yugoslav experience. However, it is also true that the nationalist establishment within Serbia, in particular, followed a path that was qualitatively different from even that pursued by the regime in Zagreb.

Milosevic’s rise to power in the 80s and 90s demonstrated that his policies were no mere reactions. There was a concentrated effort both towards his consolidation of power within Serbia and the subsequent horrors inflicted upon the former Yugoslavia as a whole, and Bosnia in particular. At present, the international community only recognizes the events in Srebrenica as an act of genocide. But Srebrenica did not occur in a vacuum. Genocidal intent and practice was clearly evident in the systemic rape of Bosniak women of all ages, the expulsion and extermination of Bosniaks and Croats from all over the occupied Serbian territories in Eastern Bosnia and the Krajina region in Croatia, the detention camps, and the purposeful targeting of civilian, humanitarian and cultural institutions in besieged cities like Sarajevo, Gorazde and Tuzla. Both the Genocide Studies Program at Yale9 and the internationally funded Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo 10 have made available their exhaustive findings on the genocidal nature of the Serbian campaign in Bosnia.

Political expediency has meant that the international community has “officially limited” the genocide label to Srebrenica, even though every ounce of exhumed and recorded evidence has clearly demonstrated a wider campaign. The nature of the Serbian campaign in Bosnia bears a demonstrable “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” the Bosniak community, in particular. At least four of the five demarcations of genocide under the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (a, b, c, and d)11 were systematically employed. These facts are readily apparent and require no great research to be established conclusively. 

In assessing this collected body of evidence it is clear the Bosnian genocide was by no means isolated to Srebrenica. Yet Johnstone denies that even Srebrenica was an example of genocide on the part of the Milosevic-sponsored Bosnian Serb forces. Johnstone expresses dread of an “Orwellian future [which] bans free historical inquiry,” while in the same breath denying historical reality by failing to acknowledge the genocidal nature of these events. Any doubt that may have existed as to what Milosevic’s intention had been in the 80s was absolutely dispelled by the 90s, as it became clear that his policies were synonymous with genocide and extermination,much as Johnstone’s scholarship has become synonymous with omission and historical revisionism.

When NATO finally intervened in both Bosnia and later Kosovo and Serbia, it was a tragic end to an even more tragic experience as a whole. NATO did not topple a proud regime defending its people, it merely tipped over a rotting carcass. Milosevic had ambitions of a nationalist Serbian “Yugoslavia”—in the end he left the people of the whole region destitute, violated and vengeful. And, perhaps worst of all, his policies ensured that the whole Yugoslav space was once again under the yoke of foreign occupation. Johnstone may agree that the Balkans are now colonial holdings but she completely misrepresents the reasons for this reality; she celebrates its chief architect as an icon of Greek tragedy and dismisses the suffering of his victims as the inventions of Western propaganda. Her work is no great expose; it is historical revisionism of a particularly vile and misinformed sort. 


1) Johnstone, Diane, “Breaking Yugoslavia”, New Left Project: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/breaking_yugoslavia/
2) “U.S. Policy Toward Eastern Europe”, National Security Decision Directives: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-054.htm
3) Liotta, P.H., “Paradigm Lost :Yugoslav Self-Management and the Economics of Disaster”, http://balkanologie.revues.org/index681.html
4) Donia, Robert J. & Fine, John V.A., “Bosnia-Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed”, pg. 71-136, Columbia University Press: New York, 1994.
Online copy: http://books.google.com/books?id=stOIQ5GXIDgC&pg=PP1&dq=Bosnia-Hercegovina:+A+Tradition+Betrayed%E2%80%9D,&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false
5) Ibid., pg. 157-194.
6) “Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences Memorandum”, 1986: http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/Kosovo/Kosovo-Background17.htm
7) Magas, Branka, “The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-Up, 1980-92”, pg. 166-174, London: Verso, 1993; Vladisavljevi?, Nebojša, “Serbia’s Antibureaucratic Revolution: Miloševi?, the Fall of Communism and Nationalist Mobilization”, Palgrave Macmillan: 2008. 
Online copy: (http://books.google.com/books?id=d5np99Vgc0YC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+destruction+of+Yugoslavia:+tracking+the+break-up+1980-92&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false)
8) Donia & Fine, pg. 220-280.
9) Schimmer, Russell & Kiernan, Russell “Conflict & Genocide in Former Yugoslavia, 1991-1995,” Genocide Studies Program Working Paper no. 30, 2007, Yale University, http://www.yale.edu/gsp/former_yugoslavia/ge_index.html
. 10) “Bosnian Atlas of War Crimes,” Research and Documentation Center Sarajevo, http://www.idc.org.ba/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=112&Itemid=144&lang=bs
11) “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”, Article 2, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html


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First published: 19 April, 2010

Category: Foreign policy

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4 Comments on "A Fool’s Account: Diana Johnstone, Yugoslavia and Her Delusion"

By Alex Doherty, on 22 April 2010 - 05:05 |

The following email was sent to us in response by Diana Johnstone:

To New Left Project

The April 19 attack on my interview by Jasmin Mujanovic illustrates the extreme difficulty of achieving genuine peace and reconciliation among the peoples of former Yugoslavia.

Any attempt to stray from the one-sided, NATO-backed version of events is met with a barrage of vituperation, distortion and outright insult from activists of the Muslim cause in Bosnia, intent on representing the tragic breakup of Yugoslavia as a Manichean struggle led by one evil man against an array of innocent victims of “genocide”.

Balkan history is sufficiently rich and complex to allow multiple selections of facts and various interpretations thereof.  Rather than honestly debating interpretations, Jasmin Mujanovic, while wrongly accusing me of denying “facts”, himself omits certain facts, such as the role of Islamic warriors brought into Bosnia by Alija Izetbegovic’s party from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, whose well-documented atrocities against Serbs are ignored by the NATO-connected International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Vengeful over-reaction to those atrocities offers the most plausible explanation for brutal Serb treatment of Muslim men in Srebrenica. The insistence on “genocide” is certain to keep alive the cycle of vengeance. Mujanovic goes even farther than the usual exaggerations, by insisting that the whole disastrous series of events that tore apart Yugoslavia was the result of a deliberate plan for genocide.

Behind this smoke screen of moral indignation is a political purpose: to reopen the whole peace settlement in Bosnia negotiated at Dayton in late 1995. By stigmatizing the Serbs as “genocidal”, certain leaders of the Muslim party hope to gain international support for dissolution of the Serbian part of the federal Bosnian state (Republika Srpska), and by centralizing the state, put all of it under Muslim control.

It is extremely doubtful that such a state would be run by “proud Wobblies” or any other sort of anarchists.

Diana Johnstone

By Jasmin Mujanovic, on 22 April 2010 - 19:36 |

In response to Diane Johnstone’s own comments on my piece:

Allow me to begin by pointing out that Johnstone’s response is little more than accusation. Accusation without any sort of supporting evidence. She is welcome to continue putting the term genocide in quotation marks but this won’t change the reality of history, nor will it lift the great moral stain from her own conscience or record.

I find it personally insulting to be referred to as an “activist of the Muslim cause” in Bosnia when there was absolutely no indication within my piece of my having advanced any sort of Islamist political agenda.

For one thing, the effort to make synonymous the government or the cause of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina with “Muslims” is nothing more than a smear. The chief commander of the forces of the nascent Bosnian Republic was a Serb. The effective second in command, before being assassinated by nationalist Croats, was a Croat. The cabinet was composed of Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and even Jews (Sven Alkalaj). The constitution of the Republic of Bosnia was mirrored on the Yugoslav constitution—as in multi-ethnic. Has Ms. Johnstone taken the time to glance at the internal discussion within the Republika Srpska (published by the ICTY) where they openly discuss their vision for the entity and its borders? Or perhaps, even glanced the original constitution on the RS or the stated aims of its government? As a professed expert in the field, I invite her to make use of these documents, particularly the discussion on pages 6 through 8. (Source: http://hague.bard.edu/reports/Donia-pt1.pdf)

Secondly, as it pertains to Islamic warriors in Bosnia: they were indeed there. As the case against Rasim Delic indicated, however, they were largely beyond the control of the government in Sarajevo—not that this is in any way an excuse for their atrocities, and Izetbegovic bears full responsibilities for this fact much as he bears full responsibility for having turned over the arms of the Territorial Defense Forces of Bosnia to the Serb-dominated YNA at a moment at which it had become perfectly clear what was in store for Bosnia at the behest of the government in Belgrade. 

However, let us also be clear about the role of the Islamic fighters. The most in-depth study that has been done of the presence of these units in Bosnia, indicated that they numbered around approximately 400 individuals. This study, it should be stated, was conducted by Radio Free Europe. That number, however, needs to be placed within context: “381 Serbs, 436 Croats and 69 other non-Muslims/Bosniaks died as Bosnian Army soldiers – nearly 3% of overall Bosnian Army losses (the figures do not include foreign volunteers from outside of Bosnia, such as the foreign mujahedin). The role of Serb and Croat soldiers in the Bosnian Army was more significant than the role of the foreign mujahedin, though this is not often admitted by those who like to highlight the role of the latter.” Those being individuals like Ms. Johnstone who once again illustrates her habitual practice of omission. (Source: http://www.slobodnaevropa.org/specials/al_kaida/index.htm & http://greatersurbiton.wordpress.com/2008/01/04/what-do-the-figures-for-the-bosnian-war-dead-tell-us/)

Moreover, the idea that Srebrenica was “retribution” for similar “Muslim” atrocities in the region has already been conclusively dismissed. The internationally funded and recognized Research and Documentation Center, which I have already cited in my article as well as in my response, has flatly dismissed such claims: “The RDC’s figures show that 81.06% of all war deaths from the Podrinje region – where Srebrenica and the surrounding Serb villages are located -during the whole of the war were Muslims (a total of 16,940 civilians and 7,177 soldiers) while 18.73% were Serbs (870 civilians and 4,703) soldiers. The RDC’s figures show that 10,333 people from the Podrinje region were killed during 1995; that over 93% of these were Muslims; and that 9,328 out of the 10,333 were killed during the single month of July. Conversely, the RDC has specifically investigated the Serb death-toll in the Bratunac municipality, where the bulk of Bosnian Army killings in the Srebrenica region are alleged to have taken place, and concluded that 119 Serb civilians and 448 Serb soldiers were killed there during the whole of the war.” (Source: http://greatersurbiton.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/edward-s-herman-and-david-peterson-humiliate-themselves/)

I will agree with Ms. Johnstone on one count, however, that there was obviously a political motivation behind my piece. I attempted to focus, as I stated from the onset, on a portion of the story which I felt Ms. Johnstone has purposefully omitted. I hope that my response here will indicate that, unlike her, I have no problems whatsoever with confronting the reality of the conflict in Bosnia and the myriad of crimes that took place on all sides. I harbour neither respect nor admiration for Izetbegovic, not even of the supposedly reserved sort which grants to Milosevic.

My political project, however, has nothing to do with a “centralized,” “Muslim dominated state.” I absolutely maintain that the existence of the Republika Srpska is fundamentally premised on genocide—this fact is readily apparent to anyone who has seriously investigated the conflict of the 90s. Likewise, the continued policies of the government of Milorad Dodik further demonstrate that supporters of this entity must fundamentally base their politics on racist and xenophobic principles. 

However, it is more pertinent to comment that the entire structure of the contemporary Bosnian state is premised on a colonial framework which has marshalled local nationalists and war profiteers in an effort to continue the further subjugation and exploitation of all of Bosnia’s peoples. It is not accident that the IMF has continued to play a central role in Bosnian affairs and whose policy there can be summarised as little more than advancing the cause of privatization and dispossession. The apartheid structure of the Bosnian-state has allowed this process to advance seamlessly, while advancing the myth of a state on the verge of collapse. Bosnia is operating precisely as its quisling nationalist politicians and their Western backers intended it.

It is a state of private fiefdoms based on apartheid-like structure that has institutionalized racism and nationalism as a means of controlling a population that has a centuries-long historical tradition of multi-ethnic co-habitation and intermingling. My politics are entirely premised on rejuvenating this tradition: they are anti-colonial, anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist. 

I invite Ms. Johnstone to detail her vision for the Bosnian people. As it stands right now, readers understand her as an active genocide-denier and continued supporter of an apartheid regime which has institutionalized in Bosnia a system of discrimination, revisionism, racism and, most of all, dispossession. I would certainly hope that she has more to offer the Bosnians than the provisions for comfort of their persecutors, exterminators and plunderers. 

Jasmin Mujanovic

By rosemerry, on 20 July 2011 - 20:48 |

I have just read Diana Johnstone’s book, and found it well researched and explaining so much which is ignored by the MSM. The article by Jasmin Mujanovic brings back all the tired old arguments, never mentioning the Muslim influence, and demonising Milosovic and the Serbs, which Johnstone was trying to balance with facts. I find Diana Johnstone’s presentation, as in other works of hers, to be fair and balanced, ready to look for the good and bad on each side. This is the opposite to the fawning over NATO and its successes in “humanitarian intervention”, which can be seen even now by so many writers in a copy of the Yugoslavian adventure now in Libya.

By Sandy, on 07 November 2011 - 05:32 |

I have read Diana J. book too, and near 40 books on the subject by various authors, not to mention documents and articles. My conclusion is that Diana J. is a revisionist, engaged in negation and apologia for Serbian project and its results.
@rosemerry and her unbelievable comment
When it comes to history there are no “fair and balanced” answers/explanations, only FACTS !

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