Nov
01
1991

Cold War Lives On in Yugoslavia Reporting

"A battle between hard-line communists and free-market democrats" (L.A. Times, 7/8/91). That's how much of the media presents the conflict in Yugoslavia between Serbia and Croatia. Even after the Cold War, the national press persisted in inaccurately forcing the Yugoslavian civil war into a black-and-white Cold War framework.

The press has portrayed the government of Serbia fairly accurately: As the Washington Post reported (8/27/91, Serbia's "authoritarian regime...combines hard-line communist centralization with radical Serbian nationalism." Croatia, on the other hand, has been described as "democratic" by leading papers like the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times: e.g., "Democratic republics like Slovenia and Croatia do not want to be ruled by a Communist central government" (L.A. Times, 7/3/91).

The reality in Croatia is quite different, as even the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia has acknowledged in an off-the-record speech given to the U.S.-Yugoslav Economic Council. (The text of this speech was reprinted on September 26, 1991 by one of the few trustworthy Yugoslav dailies, Borba.) "Croatia is a one-party state," Ambassador Warren Zimmerman said, referring to the dominant Croatian Democratic Union. "The electoral campaign of the leading party was anti-Serb and anti-Semitic.... The Croatian and Serbian nationalism have certain things in common, such as a quite suspicious relationship with democratic values, a strong control of the media, and a state controlled economy."

Croatia, which used its independence during World War II to massacre ethnic Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, began discriminating against the large Serb minority before seceding, In the Croatian police force, according to the human rights group Helsinki Watch, "Serbs are being excluded and dismissed because of their nationality."

The Croatian form of Serbo-Croatian was made the official language. In a rare acknowledgment of ethnic abuses, the Washington Post reported (7/14/91), "In March the Croatian government asked [ethnic Serbian] workers to sign loyalty oaths to the Croatian government. Most refused. Since then, whether because of ethnic identity, a failing economy or both, many Serbs from the villages have lost their jobs."

As is typical for places favored by the U.S. media, Croatia was praised for its capitalist orientation: As the Washington Post put it (6/26/91), "Serbia is a staunch opponent of country-wide free-market reforms that governments of Croatia and Slovenia both have endorsed." In fact, however, Croatia is moving toward greater state control of the economy, with an estimated 60 percent of property formerly owned by collectives becoming state-owned—an economic model rejected by Yugoslav Communists since 1953.

To point out the bias of the U.S. press in favor of Croatia is not to suggest that the press should tilt toward Serbia, whose government merits strong scrutiny and criticism, particularly for its conduct of the war. But it is undeniable that Serbs and Croatians are treated differently in the U.S. media.

The slant was made most apparent in a New York Times article on September 24, 1991. The piece was headlined, "Serbs and Croats: Seeing War in Different Prisms," implying that the view-points of both sides would be discussed. But here's how the two perspectives were described:

The Serbs are fighting for turf and sway over a weaker neighbor...[while] the Croats are fighting the underdog's campaign for sympathy and respect.... The Serbian quest for expansion and influence cannot be married to the Croatian demand for independence within the borders before June 25.

Reading like an article from the Croatian state-controlled press, the New York Times presented the official Croatian view and the Croatian view of the Serbian view.

Olga Kavran, a FAIR intern in 1991, was a member of the Forum of the Terazije Parliament, representing the pro-democracy student opposition in Serbia.