Serb(ian) paramilitaries in the breakup of Yugoslavia

The bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, lasting almost a decade after 1991, resulted in over 100 000 deaths in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo (Tabeau 2009). Many of them were victims of violence perpetrated by different paramilitary units, deployed to disputed territory in order to gain control over it, and expel unwanted populations. Warring parties relied upon paramilitaries in an effort to seize territory, and none more so than Slobodan Milošević’s regime in Belgrade and his allies, local Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bassiouni 1994). Crimes were a key part of the strategy to seize territory, and not merely a spontaneous bi-product of war (Gow 2003).

One of the reasons why states use paramilitaries is plausible deniability, and the ability units provide for officials to distance themselves from illegitimate and illegal violence, thus evading or minimizing scrutiny and possible negative consequences (Alvarez 2006; Campbell 2000). However, research shows that there is great variety between various units, and that their relationships with government institutions and other relevant actors are very dynamic (Haer 2016; Ahram 2016; Zohar 2016). Borders are often key factors influencing the behavior of units, whereby violence that is ‘permitted’ on one side of the border will not be tolerated on the other (Ron 2003).

The research questions this study answers concern select paramilitaries during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, particularly those tied to Slobodan Milošević’s regime and its institutions in Serbia in the 1990s. It analyzes the prominent role and elusive function of paramilitaries, the circumstances of their emergence, their nature and functioning, and the violence in which they engaged. Furthermore, the study investigates the impact of the regime collaborating with units on the state itself, and the consequences those relationships had on Serbia, even after the fall of Milošević.

To answer those questions, the paper draws on the vast archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Since 1993, the ICTY has indicted 161 individuals, high and low-ranking civilians, military and paramilitary members. Given that almost all trials have been completed, records can be used to study the units and how they were established; how they functioned; and the nature of paramilitary violence. Sources include military and police reports, witness statements by victims and insiders, intercepts of telephone conversations, and excerpts from diaries such as that of Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić. Those sources relate to hundreds of instances in which paramilitary units engaged in violence targeting civilians.

Court proceedings and records have previously been used to study perpetrators of mass violence, and the value they bring for researching history has been recognized (Wilson 2011). These records are a result of choices made by prosecutors about whom to indict and based on what evidence (and whether that person stands trial) and the legal determinations concerning admissibility. The evidence admitted in public session is largely available in the ICTY Court Records Database. There are two main challenges to doing research in ICTY archives: the enormity of the record and the inaccessibility of some important parts of it. For example, the Milošević trial record is over a million pages in total (Boas 2007; Armatta 2010, Tromp 2016), and much material in cases like that of Serbian State Security officials Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović remains confidential.

Importantly, as a study of history, the research is in no way bound by the outcomes of any particular case. What is relevant here is evidence, not judicial reasoning or arguments. Furthermore, the research uses some of the records of trials conducted in local courts in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. These records and relevant evidence are not as easily accessible as the material at the ICTY, but what is available does provide important insights as in the case of the trials for crimes related to the violence in Vukovar, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Višegrad, Podujevo, etc. In many of those proceedings, paramilitary members or their close collaborators testified, laying bare the intricacies of a system of units, diverse yet in sync, working towards a broadly shared goal of a reinvented and enlarged Serb-dominated state.