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History of the Conflict in the Balkans


 The conflict in the Balkans is interesting because for years, 
reporters and politicians have touted it as being the result of 
ancient ethnic hatred but that isn't the case. The people of the 
region lived together peacefully for centuries and any conflicts that 
have arose among people were based not on ethnic origin but other 
things like class, ruling party, etc. In fact, any problems that have 
arose in the former Yugoslavia have more to do with the issues raised 
by nationalism that developed during World War II and not centuries of 
three different peoples living together.
 This paper will explore the history of the conflict in the 
Balkans from the time shortly after Josip Tito passed away until just 
before the Dayton Accords. Additionally, it will be shown that at 
each of the three distinct points of the conflict, the international 
community and the United States had it within their power to stop the 
violence. The three distinct phases are Kosovo, secession, and Bosnia 
and at each point, the lack of action or overreaction of the 
international community failed to solve the problem.
 The first phase of Yugoslavian disintegration can be 
attributed to the conditions of the people living in Kosovo, an 
autonomous province of Yugoslavia. In 1981, the socioeconomic 
conditions in Kosovo were far worse than those in the other republics 
of Yugoslavia. Poverty was rampant and unemployment was around twenty 
percent as compared to about two percent in Slovenia that same year. 
The standard of living in Kosovo was deplorable and whatever aid that 
was given to the province by the federal government was mismanaged 
(Samary, 65).
 Another significant problem with this particular province was 
that while the Serbs claimed the province as the "Cradle of Serbian 
Empire" because of a legendary battle and defeat that happened at 
Kosovo in 1389, the Albanians constituted approximately eighty percent 
of the population of Kosovo. In reality, Kosovo could be claimed more 
by the Albanian majority than by the Serb minority. Many of the 
valiant warriors who fought and died at the Battle of Kosovo were in 
fact Albanian warriors, a fact seldom acknowledged by the Serb 
leadership. Furthermore, historical evidence suggests that Illyrians, 
the ancestors of Albanians, formed their first communities in Kosovo. 
 The "Serb Empire" was not as grand and powerful as modern Serbia 
would contend. Relations between Albanians and Serbs were good in the 
Middle Ages because of the many reasons that tensions exist today 
between nation states i.e. customs, trade, immigration, and so on 
(Samary, 36). Kosovo, by nearly all accounts but the Serb 
interpretation of the Battle of Kosovo, is an Albanian area.
 Albanians were given majority rule of Kosovo in the 1960's by 
Tito in order to act as a hegemon to the power of Serbia. Under 
independent rule, the region was able to make available an Albanian 
curriculum and Albanian culture grew in importance. Economically, 
however, Kosovo was still suffering since whatever gains the economy 
made were outdone by the gains in population made by the Albanian 
Muslims who averaged six to eight children per family. The power in 
Kosovo was vested in a small group of elite Albanians who did well at 
advancing national identity and improving education and other public 
works but who were poor at managing and maintaining a functional 
economy. Whenever federal funds were given to the province, those 
elites at the top either wasted the money on grandiose projects and 
ornate buildings or on their new and privileged lifestyles (Bennett, 
 On March 11, 1981, the students of Pristina University, in 
Kosovo, organized a protest against the deplorable living conditions 
on the campus. At the protest, they voiced their malcontent with the 
poverty and unemployment if life in Kosovo. They then marched to the 
provincial League of Communists only to have the demonstration halted 
by the police. The leadership of the League of Communists demanded 
that the leaders of the protests be brought into custody fearing that 
if the leadership of the protests remained, the protests would 
continue. The police complied and in a moment of solidarity with the 
student leaders, students poured into the streets demanding that their 
classmates be released from custody. The unrest was escalated by 
excessive police brutality and on April 3, 1981, Belgrade imposed 
martial law (Bennett, 89).
 It is suggested that this particular time in the history of 
Yugoslavia is when the disintegration of Yugoslavia occurred. Tito 
had died less than a year before the incident in Kosovo and the 
Yugoslav Army (JNA) was pointing their weapons at fellow Yugoslavians. 
 For the first time in Tito's Yugoslavia, the federal government had 
sided with one ethnic group over another and because of this change in 
policy toward Kosovo, Serbia was able to acquire control once more 
over the province with the help of the JNA. Sixteen hundred Albanian 
college students, secondary school students, and adults were taken 
into custody and handed a heavy prison sentence (Bennett, 90).
 In the late 1980's, Slobodan Milosevic came to power in 
Serbia. His first actions were directed against Kosovo Albanian 
dominance in the province. He removed virtually all of the Albanian's 
rights, their leadership role in government, their party, and their 
parliament. He further removed their control of their 
Albanian-language library and the administration of their school 
system. This was the classic case of human rights violations. 
Milosevic took away their right to govern themselves and as a result, 
he gained the attention of the United States Congress. A pro-Albanian 
coalition formed among those who had ethnic Albanian constituents 
(Alphonse D'Amato), of those who habitually cultivated the support of 
ethnic groups (Bob Dole), and of those who saw Kosovo as a human 
rights problem (Representative Tom Lantos). 
 Annual human rights reports submitted to the White House by 
the Department of State read like a prison record when it came to 
Serbian abuses of the people of Kosovo. Unfortunately, Congress was 
not in agreement with how to treat the reports of the abuses in 
Kosovo. The Bush administration was more interested in keeping 
Yugoslavia together and concerned more about the breakup of the Soviet 
Union and the potential tragedy that such a thing might cause. 
Therefore, Kosovo, in the words of Warren Zimmerman, "remained a part 
of Serbia, albeit a much-abused one (Zimmerman, 3)."
 In my estimation, the problems of Kosovo were not viewed as 
important or of any interest to the national security or economic 
prosperity of the United States therefore no action was needed. I 
disagree with the stand that the Bush administration took on Kosovo. 
The State Department catalogued massive human rights violations by the 
Serbian leadership in Kosovo yet the Bush Administration did nothing. 
 Little was said about what was going on in the region and even less 
was said by the American press because of the instability in the 
former Soviet Union. 
 Up until this point, the official party line in Washington, DC 
was that the Bush administration would continue to support a united, 
territorially strong, and independent Yugoslavia. It would seem that 
history had yet another crossroads in Yugoslavia. The strategic 
importance of Yugoslavia was lost with the breakup of the Soviet 
Union. The movement towards more democratic government was creating 
an air of instability and uncertainty in the region. Finally, the 
inter-ethnic conflicts between Serbs and Croats, people of Kosovo and 
Serbs, Slovenes and the rest of Yugoslavia added to the unstableness 
of the situation (Zimmerman, 4).
 While the political unity of Yugoslavia was paramount for the 
White House any financial aid that would be given to Eastern Europe 
would be based on that particular nation's ability to move toward 
democracy and a free market economy. Because of this commitment to a 
movement toward democracy, the United States eagerly awaited the 
results of the election in 1990. These elections, however, brought 
into power nationalists of many colors. In Slovenia and Croatia, the 
election brought to power two leaders who advocated the secession of 
their respective republics from federal Yugoslavia. Additionally, the 
reelection of Milosevic in Serbia aroused fears that Yugoslavia would 
be dominated by a Greater Serbia. The future of Yugoslavia was 
uncertain and finally became an issue of importance in the State 
Department and the White House.
 Yugoslavia's existence itself was at stake and the State 
Department had to ask itself two questions. One, what are the chances 
that Yugoslavia will disintegrate? Two, what will disintegration 
mean? The Central Intelligence Agency was the first to predict the 
breakup of Yugoslavia in September of 1990. This breakup, as examined 
by experts in the embassy in Belgrade and in Washington, was certainly 
seen as potentially violent and leading to war. The State Department 
did make attempts to alert the Western Allies in NATO of the potential 
for armed conflict but it fell upon deaf ears (Zimmerman, 5).
 One of the fundamental problems with United States policy in 
Yugoslavia was that democracy and unity seemed to contradict each 
other. A democratic movement in Croatia and Slovenia elected 
separatist governments. The United States wanted a united Yugoslavia 
but Croatia and Slovenia were flirting with independence and if the 
rest of Yugoslavia were to order the JNA into those republics to quell 
the violence, would the United States support this action. Clearly, 
the objective of keeping a united Yugoslavia would be obtained but 
human rights violations as well as continuing armed conflict in 
defense of the separatist governments meant that peace in the Balkans 
would be lost.
 At this point, the United States should have chose either 
unity or democracy. Clearly, both were not what Yugoslavia was headed 
for. A united Yugoslavia meant a strong central government controlled 
from Belgrade while a free and democratic Yugoslavia meant the 
potential for disintegration. By the end of 1991, United States 
policy shifted toward support for democratization and a free market 
economy and away from its former support of continues unity. On May 
23, 1991, Secretary of State, James Baker, issued a statement of five 
principles of interest in Yugoslavia by the united states. First was 
democracy and last was unity. Finally, the United States had actually 
set some sort of priority on their objectives.
 On June 21, 1991, Slovenia declared independence. Slovenia's 
discontent with the rest of the Yugoslav federation can be traced back 
to the 1970's when during the oil crisis that took the entire world by 
storm, Slovenians returned home from their then non-existent Western 
European jobs. Slovenia's per capita income was twice that of the 
rest of Yugoslavia with zero unemployment making the republic a 
popular place for migrant Serbs and Albanians from Kosovo. This 
migration in the 1970's was not welcomed because after Tito's death, 
Serbs throughout the Federation attempted to usurped the educational 
institutions of Slovenia and to institute a single, unified "Yugoslav" 
curriculum. The Slovenes saw this as an attempt to eliminate their 
national identity and because of this rejected it flatly.
 As a result of the attempts of the communists in Yugoslavia to 
reform the education system of Slovenia, the republic's government 
undertook a massive campaign, mostly television advertising, to raise 
national awareness of the issues and to attempt to build support for a 
nationalist movement. It worked. Throughout Slovenia, one could find 
tee-shirts with "Slovenia my Homeland" silk screened on them. The 
campaign for national pride had worked.
 The Yugoslav communists attempted a media campaign as well and 
had the economy not taken a nose-dive in the mid 1980's they might 
have been successful. However, the Slovene media touted the economic 
recession as the fault of the other, poorer republics. The 
politicians argued that Slovenia was suffering not because of the 
recession but because they had to subsidize the other, less developed 
republics. What arose from this stage of the game was the beginnings 
of an intense nationalism would later propel Slovenia out of the 
Yugoslav federation and into an independence movement.
 As a result of this tension between what apparently had become 
Milosevic (in control of Serbia, Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro) 
and Kucan of Slovenia, the Slovene people made their way toward 
independence. It started with the youth movement. Mladina, a Slovene 
political weekly, began and ran stories about the JNA, Yugoslavia, 
Milosevic, and others who were basically labeled enemies of the 
Slovene people. A new artist movement caught the attention of many in 
Europe through art, literature and music. This movement began with a 
group of teenagers looking for an alternative to mandatory military 
service and ended with an alternative to continued federation with 
 On May 31, 1988, the attacks that the JNA had received from 
Mladina were avenged with the arrest of Janez Jasna, the military 
correspondent for Mladina and a candidate for the presidency of 
Slovenia's Youth Organization. The charge was leaking military 
secrets. Later, three other people were indicated in this conspiracy 
when documents were discovered in the offices of Mladina. These 
documents were believed to be the plans for a takeover of Slovenia by 
the JNA although the JNA and the Yugoslav government never confirmed 
the suspicions. The people of Slovenia and its leadership viewed this 
attack on Mladina and its youth as an attack on Slovenian sovereignty.
 With Kosovo now under the control of Serbia, the time had come 
to turn the attention of the JNA and the government towards Slovenia 
which was, at this time, still teetering on the issue of independence. 
 In typical fashion, Milosevic turned his propaganda machine on the 
Slovenes blaming them for everything from the price of clothing in 
Serbia to the price of tea in China. At approximately the same time, 
Milosevic attempted to cripple the economy of Slovenia by boycotting 
Slovenian goods and services in Serbia, Vojvodina, and Kosovo. What 
Milosevic managed to do was not to punish Slovenes for their 
insurrection but instead punish the Serbs who were dependent on 
Slovene goods and services. The economy of Serbia was in a downward 
spiral. Hopeful to raise a billion dollars in investments, Milosevic 
asked Serbs from all over the globe to contribute to his 
reconstruction and revitalization fund. Out of the billion dollars 
that he was expecting and counting on, Milosevic managed to get a 
whopping twenty-five million dollars... hardly enough to solve the 
economic woes that inflation, poor quality, and over employment were 
causing (Bennett, 108).
 Obviously, Milosevic was killing himself and Serbia with these 
sanctions and other economic activities. In his zeal for a 
nationalist movement, Milosevic managed to forget that one needs an 
economy for a nation to exist and he was systematically destroying 
his. In Kosovo alone, police operations costs amounted to about half 
of all of Yugoslavia's military budget and Milosevic's refusal to let 
anyone outside of Serbia to handle the situation further crippled any 
hope for a unified Yugoslavia. Serbia's actions in Kosovo were one of 
the key factors in Slovenia, and shortly thereafter, Croatia's 
decision to leave Yugoslavia. Had Serbia not treated the people of 
Kosovo as second class citizens within a now, new Greater Serbia, the 
Slovenes and the Croats would not have feared them as much. As it 
stood, however, the Serbs had seemingly made it clear that no 
Yugoslavia would exist without a Serb holding the reigns.
 Therefore, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the federal 
government. Slovenia was scheduled to declare independence on June 
26, 1991 but late in the afternoon on the previous day, Croatia 
declared independence from federal Yugoslavia. Croatia had seceded 
without tackling one, very critical question. What was the status of 
Serbs living in Croatia. Throughout history, Serbs had been moved 
into the Krijina region of southern Croatia to defend the 
Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Ottomans to the south. By the 
time that Croatia declared it's independence, however, Serbs had lived 
in those regions for generations and came to think of it as their 
homeland. The Croats, however, failed to recognize the Serbs and give 
them citizenship in the new Croatian state. 
 Serbs on Croatia had considered themselves equal to Croats 
living next door yet it appeared that every chance Franjo Tudjman got, 
he took the opportunity to elevate the Croat while lowing the status 
of the Serb. The Croat flag was altered so that the checkerboard, a 
long time symbol of Croats and, unfortunately, of the Ustasha, was 
emblazoned onto the flag. Serb travel had been restricted, Serb 
participation in government was becoming limited and the military 
began taking strategic positions with Serb majority areas (Glenny, 
93). Clearly, with so many tanks, guns, and soldiers, the stage was 
set for armed conflict. 
 The armed conflict in these Serb pockets of population came to 
a head in Knin, where Croats were a minority while Serbs maintained a 
majority. Milosevic saw these Serbs as an opportunity to, if not 
save Yugoslavia as it was, then to at least expand what remained of 
Yugoslavia as much as possible. Milosevic, with the help of Jovan 
Raskovic, began to stir trouble in the city of Knin. They reminded 
the Serbs living in Croatia of the atrocities that the Ustasha 
inflicted upon the Serbs who had lived there during the Second World 
War and that the same thing was happening again to the Serbs at the 
hands of Croat fascists. Serb media told tales of the new nationalist 
regime in Croatia coming to wipe out anything not Croat. 
 The Serbs in Croatia reacted to their treatment by holding a 
referendum which was declared null and void by Tudjman. However, Serb 
areas voted to leave Croatia. Theoretically, the Croats should have 
been able to quell the rebellion. This was not the case because when 
the Croatian police sent three helicopters to the area to take control 
and stop the protests, they were met with two MiG aircraft from the 
JNA and threatened to be shot down if they failed to turn around.
 Obviously, at this point, the situation is getting tenuous 
enough for the international community to take an interest in what is 
going on. Two, armed aircraft from the Yugoslav Army confronted three 
helicopters from Croatia. By this time, the international community 
had recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia upon the lead 
from Germany but they were still allowing the remainder of Yugoslavia, 
essentially the Serbs, to engage in warfare with Croatia. 
 So, why didn't the United States intervene at this point? 
Several answers are viable. The first and foremost reason for a lack 
of intervention has to do with our newly emerging relationship with 
Russia. Russians had been closely aligned with Serbs during World War 
II and this relationship continues onward even until today. Telling 
the Serbs that the United States was going to enter Yugoslavia and 
stop the violence was to say that the United States was going to go 
into Yugoslavia and crush the Serbs, who controlled the government and 
the JNA. We were trying desperately to form close, personal ties with 
Russia to support their efforts toward a market economy and democracy 
to prevent the Russian government and their nuclear weapons to fall 
into the wrong hands. To offend the Serbs, and thus the Russians, 
would have been political suicide.
 Second, what exactly did Yugoslavia mean to the United States. 
 As stated above, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Cold War 
was over. We no longer needed to nurture ties between Eastern 
European states in order to head off the spread of Communism. 
Yugoslavia didn't have an impressive economy where American business 
interested could invest and reap massive dividends. Much like most of 
the Eastern and especially Southeastern European nations, the economy 
was lackluster and uninviting to foreign investment. 
 The third reason that the United States chose not to interfere 
and perhaps the most important is that intervening would imply a long 
term commitment of men, equipment, and supplies. The recent Gulf War 
had devoured many of the resources that would have been needed to 
complete an operation in Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the terrain of the 
area was as inhospitable as Viet Nam's was in the 1960's and 1970's. 
Engaging the military in an operation in Yugoslavia would offer the 
same challenges that Viet Nam offered. There was no popular support 
for either side of the conflict in the United States. What monetary 
or economic gain could be made by intervention? Finally, who really 
cared? I know that last one seems particularly cruel but if we 
examine the conflict, the people of Yugoslavia and those people alone 
seemed to be the only ones feeling the effects of the battles. The 
fighting was primarily in Croatia... not in Greece... not in 
Hungary... and not in Italy. Perhaps the e!
xecutive branch of the United States considered this to be a rather 
internal problem and not the concern of the international community.
 Germany didn't help matters either by jumping the gun and 
recognizing Croatia before it met the standards set by the European 
Community. Under the EC plan, Croatia would have to make a 
constitutional provision recognizing Serbs living in Croatia as 
citizens of Croatia and protecting them with equal status. Germany, 
eager to stop the armed conflicts within Croatia, officially 
recognized Croatia's independence and thus, forced the rest of the EC 
to do so as well. 
 The third phase of the disintegration of Yugoslavia is marked 
by a decidedly different approach to the Balkans by the international 
community. The European Community, lead almost unwillingly by 
Germany, offers to recognize Croatia and Slovenia as independent in 
January of 1992. By March of 1992, Bosnia itself had attained the 
standards that the EC set for recognition of independence. Sixty-four 
percent of the population voted in a referendum for independence while 
most of the Serbs abstained. By this time as well, it had become 
apparent that Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic had planned to take over 
about two-thirds of Bosnia. The United States and other allies 
considered recognizing the sovereignty of Bosnia as a way to avert the 
impending military action.
 In March of 1992, the United States pushed for the 
independence of all four of the breakaway republics (Croatia, 
Slovenia, Bosnia, and Macedonia). On April 6 and 7, the United States 
recognized Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia (Macedonia was left off the 
list due to pressure from Greece.) This recognition of sovereignty 
was a few days too late. Several days earlier, the Serbs had begun 
their attacks. They were better equipped, better trained, and in 
better position. The Bosnian army had been overwhelmed (Zimmerman, 
 What was the United States' position on the Serb attacks? The 
American government announced that it intended to withdraw it's 
ambassador from Belgrade. This was merely symbolic since the embassy 
itself was still intact and under the control of a chargé d'affaires. 
 On May 30, the United Nations, at the request of the United States 
imposed an economic embargo against Serbia. This embargo was similar 
to that imposed upon Iraq during and after the Gulf War. 
 President Bush, however, refused to use military force in the 
region and to some degree, I agree with his reasoning. There are 
three main reasons that kept a military reaction at bay. The first is 
that no matter how small the initial action, a continued, expanded 
operation was expected. Much like Viet Nam, the Bosnian conflict 
offered obstacles to a quick, speedy, and painless process. The 
second reason is that there were no clear objectives in the region and 
no commitment to leaving. The problems that caused the conflict would 
not have gone away by simply rolling a tank down main street of 
Sarajevo. Finally, the third reason -- politics. Had Bush committed 
troops to the war in Bosnia, a wave of potentially unpopular criticism 
may have took the sails out of his campaign. How would Bush have 
explained to his electorate that he was responsible for sending young 
American boys to their death? He couldn't take the chance.
 So, the war in Bosnia continued. The United States and other 
allies toyed with the idea of airlifting food and medical supplies to 
the regions cut off from direct aid coming in to Sarajevo but the 
military, without clear objectives and a plan of attack, failed to 
support those missions as well. Bush lost the election in 1992 and 
left office. Clinton entered the situation late and because of it, 
was left with Bush's legacy of inaction. The Serbs had taken control 
of over seventy percent of Bosnia (Zimmerman, 11) and had consolidated 
their control of the region before Clinton could find his way to the 
bathroom in the White House. 
 Eventually, the Clinton Administration did raise a stronger 
voice but this was short lived because of the Europeans' unwillingness 
to cooperate in a plan to lift the arms embargo and to hit Serb 
strongholds with air strikes. After this plan failed to win popular 
support in Europe, the United States continued on it's course of 
rhetoric and apathy. Why did the Clinton administration choose to 
abandon such an aggressive posture? Again, the answer is political. 
As Zimmerman agues in his piece, Bill Clinton could not disagree with 
the Pentagon for various reasons. He had no military record and was 
seen as a draft dodger to most of the brass at the Department of 
Defense who had more than likely served in Viet Nam. Second, he took 
on the military establishment by trying to get homosexuals into the 
military. Finally, the Clinton administration's position with all 
matters of international conflict for the next two years seemed to be 
rather distasteful of using the military to solve the problem. 
Clinton's approach was to negotiate a peace... not enforce it.
 The Clinton administration as well as the Congress and 
American press clearly identified the Serbs as the aggressors and the 
Bosnians as the victims. After all, it was the Bosnian Serbs lead by 
Karadzic who claimed sections of Bosnia to be Serb territory and to 
withdraw Serb members of the Bosnian government and form a new 
government. Additionally, it was the Serbs who began the ethnic 
cleansing of the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia. The Serbs were the 
ones supplying the Bosnian Serb army and the Yugoslav army which was 
beating the Bosnian army into the ground. Still, the use of force was 
not a serious option.
 The goal of the international community, the EC. and the 
United States was to solve the conflicts in the Balkans through 
peaceful means yet everything that they did seemed to cause more 
conflict. One plan that was do "cantonize" the various regions in 
Bosnia along ethnic lines. However, the EC insisted that whatever 
plan was reached had to be put on the ballot for a referendum. The 
Serbs argued that the Croats and Muslims would naturally outvote the 
Serbs in favor of a unified, independent Bosnia. In February of 1992, 
the EC and United States sponsored a summit in Lisbon where the 
partitioning of Bosnia was agreed upon even though no lines were 
actually drawn.
 Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia and a Muslim, 
seemed to be for the plan at the summit but once he returned home, 
quickly changed his mind. Several factors contributed to this change 
of heart. Izetbegovic knew that if the west did not intervene 
militarily, Serbs would surely take over the country and the Muslim 
population would be decimated. Furthermore, if he agreed to a 
partition of Bosnia, at least a Bosnia would still exist. Bosnia 
itself would have to be large enough to show up on a map or it would 
most certainly be absorbed by either Croatia or by Serbia 
(Yugoslavia). However, when Izetbegovic returned home to Sarajevo, he 
found that there was little to no support for the plan and that it was 
in his best interests to abandon it (Bennett, 236-239).
 What good would a division of Bosnia do? It obviously rewards 
the Serbs for being the aggressors and punishes the Bosnian Muslims 
for wanting an independence that the United States and European 
Community had already to recognize. Furthermore, partitioning Bosnia 
would have broken up the state into microstates with little to no 
cohesion. Pockets of Serbs would be living among pockets of Croats 
and pockets of Muslims. What kind of country would that be? There is 
no clear majority in Bosnia therefore, the government would be in a 
constant state of gridlock with nothing getting accomplished because 
each canton could be voting along ethnic lines. 
 However, Serbs had control of most of the country. While in 
control, they sought to consolidate their hold on lands in eastern 
Bosnia as well as a section of northwestern Bosnia where large Serb 
populations lived. The also selected as their target a narrow 
corridor of land that connected the two regions of Bosnia that they 
controlled. Once in control, they began campaigns to rid their 
targeted regions of other ethnic groups. Murder and assault were some 
of the options but the Serbs also relied on rape as a means of ethnic 
cleansing (Donia and Fine, 247).



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