As I watch the news and images from Crimea, I can’t help but feel a sense of deja vu. It’s as if I am reliving the 1992 break-up of Yugoslavia and the beginning of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
When Russia’s propaganda machine claims the unmarked troops in Crimea are spontaneously organized self-defense forces comprising concerned citizens, I am reminded of similarly “self-organized” armed groups setting up barricades in Sarajevo in March 1992.
Just like in Crimea, these troops lacked recognizable insignia. What they did have were brand new Kalashnikovs, impeccably organized communication, and military discipline. The similarity is eerie and ominous for anyone who was in Sarajevo at that time.
What’s the difference between Vladimir Putin and Slobodan Milosevic? About 22 years.
They are one man with two shadows; one modus operandi separated by a little more than two decades.
In fact, if Milosevic were alive today, he could probably sue Putin for plagiarism.
The Russian president calls the armed men in Crimea “volunteers” protecting the rights of ethnic Russians. In the 1990s, Milosevic used the exact same word to describe similar groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which he claimed were protecting ethnic Serbs.
Putin claims that Ukraine’s sovereignty should be respected, even as he does everything in his power to undermine it. Likewise, Milosevic paid lip service to Bosnia’s territorial integrity, while troops at his command worked to partition it and end its fledgling statehood.
Both leaders use religion to fuel their respective conflicts and justify intervention. Russian media recently reported — incorrectly — that the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv had been damaged. Serbian media in 1992 likewise claimed — inaccurately — Serb churches and monasteries had been damaged.
Putin is testing the West’s reaction and counting on divisions between Europe and the United States to hobble any coherent and coordinated response, just as Milosevic did 22 years ago.
The eerie similarities extend beyond Putin and Milosevic’s rhetoric.
When demonstrators in Kyiv came under sniper fire, few from Bosnia could fail to recall April 6, 1992 — the day demonstrators in Sarajevo came under sniper fire and the siege of the city began.
Russian media’s coverage of the sniper attacks was also a cut-and-paste job from their Serbian counterparts two decades ago: citizens of Kyiv — like those in Sarajevo — were shooting at each other.
Russian media has also reported an alleged “refugee crisis,” with some 650,000 pouring over the border into Russia. When the Bosnian war began, Serbian media also raised the alarm about refugees pouring over the border.
In both cases, the United Nations debunked the reports. But never mind.
Mobilizing To Hate
Both Serbian and Russian media also relied on false images to illustrate and bolster their claims. Russian media used footage of the heavily traveled border crossing between Poland and Ukraine. Serbian media in 1992 used actual footage of refugees fleeing — it’s just that they were running away from Milosevic’s forces.
The politically and emotionally loaded language Russian media has used to describe the new authorities in Kyiv, dubbing them “fascists” and “anti-Semites,” is also reminiscent of Serbia’s characterization of its opponents. Croats were characterized as “ustashi” and Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, as “mujahadeen.”
This is how wars begin. This is how societies are mobilized to hate. Ordinary citizens are subjected to fear and propaganda eventually eroding the trust in other ethnic groups, other nationalities.
In 1992 Serbs were led to believe that Milosevic was defending and saving their beleaguered nation by “gaining territories and conquering cities.” LIkewise, recent polls show that a majority in Russia believe their military is saving Crimea’s Russians by annexing the territory.
It is far easier to believe than to ask questions.
There is also an eerie similarity in Putin and Milosevic’s respective paths to power.
Both were initially not elected. Putin was named prime minister in September 1999 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who also dubbed him his chosen successor. When Yeltsin resigned months later, Putin became acting president.
Likewise, Milosevic’s political rise began in 1986 when he was appointed head of the Serbian Communist Party.
The early tenure of each leader was marked by exploitation of an ethnic conflict: in Milosevic’s case, Kosovo; in Putin’s, Chechnya.
Both established pseudo democracies with tightly controlled state media and fake opposition parties. Both bolstered their legitimacy with mass, “spontaneous” pro-regime rallies. Both used “patriotic” youth organizations — the “young Socialists” for Milosevic and “Nashi” for Putin — to harass opponents.
Putin and Milosevic both also ruled societies in which institutions were weak, corruption rife, the rule of law absent, and the security services politically empowered.
But while the parallels between Putin and Milosevic are undeniable, this does not necessarily extend to the way their respective stories will end.
Milosevic was able to pursue his military adventures for “only” eight years, before NATO united against him in Kosovo in 1999 and he was overthrown by a popular revolution a year later.
But Putin enjoys an advantage that Milosevic lacked. Russia, unlike Serbia, is a major geopolitical player with a seat on the UN Security Council, a nuclear power, and a crucial supplier of energy to Europe.
If, without assets like these, Milosevic managed to menace his neighbors for eight years, how long will Putin be able to do so?