Study Guide

Balkan Odyssey

by David Owen

Balkan Odyssey Analysis

Balkan Odyssey (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

David Owen, a member of the British Parliament from 1966 to 1992 and the holder of several Cabinet positions (notably as Minister of the Navy and Foreign Secretary), joined in 1992 with former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to create a plan for peace in the former Yugoslavia: Approximately 51 percent of a new Bosnia would be given to the Croats and Muslims and 49 percent to the Serbs. It would be one country based on a loose confederation of three separate entities for the Croats, Muslims, and Serbs.

Soon it became clear that the United States would not support the plan. Indeed, the United States advised the Muslims to hold out for more territory, and it resisted Owen’s position that a peace plan had to be imposed on all parties. If a country as powerful as the United States favored one of the parties in the dispute, then no peace was possible, Owen concluded.

Owen is quite resentful that it took the United States so long to come to a realistic settlement in the former Yugoslavia. Peace in reality meant virtually a partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina into separate ethnic enclaves—in effect, a ratification of ethnic cleansing that went way beyond what was contemplated in the Vance-Owen plan.

Owen suggests that the United States has a virtual veto over European foreign policy, and Europeans must consult closely with the United States whether they wish to or not. It is almost beside the point to criticize Europeans for not solving their own problems when the warring factions of Bosnia, for example, looked to the United States to help solve their problems.

Owen’s book may put off some readers because of its relentless accounts of meetings, timetables, redrawn maps, and passages studded with acronyms. Yet as an insight into the workings of international diplomacy and an account of how personalities and policies clash and sometimes cohere, Owen’s book is indispensable.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. March 28, 1996, p. B2.

The Economist. CCCXXXVII, December 16, 1995, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 18, 1996, p. 10.

The New Republic. CCXIV, March 11, 1996, p. 34.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, December 8, 1995, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, February 29, 1996, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, January 21, 1996, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 11, 1995, p. 64.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 28, 1996, Section 10, p. 1.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 24, 1995, p. 10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 10, 1996, p. 1.

Balkan Odyssey (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

David Owen, a member of the British Parliament from 1966 to 1992 and the holder of several cabinet positions (notably as minister of the navy and foreign secretary), joined in 1992 with former American secretary of state Cyrus Vance to create a plan for peace in the former Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav republic of Slovenia had declared its independence. Then Croatia also declared itself a sovereign nation, and a war with Serbia ensued. The Serb minority in Croatia feared for its life in an independent Croatia, remembering the Croatian Ustashas (Fascists) massacres of Serbs during World War II. Serbs also distrusted the plans of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, who they suspected of attempting to create a “greater Croatia.” Croatia was equally concerned about the fate of Croats in Serb-dominated parts of the former Yugoslavia and were fearful that Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic (in alliance with Croatian and Bosnian Serbs) was seeking to create a “greater Serbia.” To complicate matters further, both Serbs and Croats fought over the disposition of land in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Muslims formed the majority population in Bosnia but significant minorities of Serbs and Croats threatened the polyglot and multicultural existence of Bosnia and its central city, Sarajevo. If Bosnia were to become a separate country, whose country would it be? The Muslim majority was vulnerable and could not secure the whole of Bosnia- Herzegovina either by the people’s consent or by military force. When war spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the complexity and contradictoriness of the civil war was increased enormously: Serbs attacked Croats and Muslims, Muslims attacked Serbs and Croats, and Croats attacked Serbs and Muslims. Cyrus Vance and David Owen were charged by the European Community to form a peace plan that (it was hoped) would also draw full support from the United States and the United Nations.

When Owen joined Vance, he took a position close to what the United States would maintain throughout his tenure as cochairman of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. He believed that pressure (economic sanctions and air strikes) should be brought to bear on the main aggressor, Serbia. Of all the armies fighting in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian was the best equipped and most destructive. It engaged in what came to be called “ethnic cleansing,” the process of pushing out (and often killing) Croat and Muslim populations and replacing them with Serbs. It is generally acknowledged that Croats and Muslims also engaged in such atrocities, but their culpability has been deemed minimal compared to what many critics called the Serbian genocide of Croats and Muslims. The evil genius behind the Serbian depredations was thought to be Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, who was brutally assisted by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Serb general Ratko Mladic.

Owen soon saw his dilemma if he demonized the Serbs. The single most powerful figure in the former Yugoslavia was Milosevic. If Owen and Vance did not deal with him, the war would continue—with both the Croats and the Muslims fighting until they had regained the ground lost to the Serbs or exhausted themselves—in the process killing thousands and thousands of innocent people. It seemed unlikely that either the Muslims or the Croats could roll back the Serb advance very far, especially since attempts to unify Muslim and Croat forces kept breaking down and resulting in battles between themselves.

Owen discovered that compared to Karadzic and Mladic, Milosevic seemed reasonable and willing to strike a deal with Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. Owen’s view is that Milosevic was never truly a Serbian nationalist, but only used nationalist feelings to secure his power base. In person, Milosevic (who had lived in the United States) seemed to Owen far more sophisticated and more responsible than Karadzic, who in Owen’s book is represented as a craven war criminal capitulating to the worst instincts of his followers. Owen had no illusions about Milosevic as humanitarian; rather he suspected that the economic sanctions against Serbia and its isolation in the international community had persuaded Milosevic that the Serbs could gain nothing more from military activity.

With the support of presidents Tudjman and Milosevic, and the grudging cooperation of the Muslim side led by Alija Izetbegovic, Vance and Owen developed a map for a new Bosnia that gave approximately 51 percent to the Croats and Muslims and 49 percent to the Serbs. It would be one country based on a loose confederation of three separate entities for the Croats, Muslims, and Serbs. The plan would rectify the worst excesses of ethnic cleansing, although it could not reverse all the Serb gains. Yet then Vance and Owen were certain that no strategy could be devised that would return Bosnia to its former state. Besides, Vance and Owen recognized that however blameworthy the Serbs might be,...

(The entire section is 2036 words.)