The Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies


Briefings - No End to History in the Balkans

By Ljubo Sirc, February 2000

The United States is in a difficult position. Due to the stands taken by President Reagan and then President Bush, the United States is the only remaining super-power in the world. This is a great success, but at the same time it is a position of supreme responsibility.

Throughout the difficult Cold War years - preceded by the years of Nazism - all democrats hoped that the United States, supported by Britain, would prevail. We know that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but we all trust that the United States is sufficiently resourceful to overcome the temptation to throw its weight around just for the sake of doing so.

It is, however, extremely difficult to find the right way through the maze of the present world, and even more so to restrain any two disputing parties. Doubtles the United States has made a number of mistakes, but being a civilised country it has found the way to equitable judgements in the past, and will doubtless do so again in the future.

In recent months America's actions over the former Yugoslavia have attracted particular criticism. For those familiar with the situation there, it was obvious that foreign intervention was based on promoting tolerance, moderation, and peaceful co-existence. There wre clashing nationalities, communism and anti-communism to cope with, together with communist leaders trying to use the nationalism as an escape. Furthermore, to add to the Balkan history, two murderous ideologies have pervaded the country - Nazism and communism. Under Hitler's protection, Croat fascists killed some 300,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, mostly in 1941 but also later in the war. At the same time communists were murdering their adversaries of all nations throughout the war, culminating in the mass murders of fleeing soldiers and civilans in May and June of 1945. Such examples of assassination by both fascists and communists must have had consequences in fostering people's ruthlessness.

Following the collapse of communism, the relationships in Yugoslavia became more fluid. Perhaps the reformed communists initially in power could have led the country into a loose confederation, or have made a peaceful dissolution possible. But Milosevic and his supporters would not allow such an outcome. By the time of dissolution, Milosevic was both an inveterate communist and a Serb chauvinist, the latter ensuring that non-communist Serbs remains loyal to his regime.

In 1989, Milosevic's government abolished the autonomy of Kosovo and thus deprived the majority Albanian population of all its rights. The next step was the gleichschaltung (a Nazi term for bringing into line) of Vojvodina, Montenegro and partsof Bosnia and Croatia. By then the Western Allies were involved in the region under the auspices of the OSCE, which had determined that there would be no change of borders in Europe. This was the worst prescription possible for the internal borders in Yugoslavia, where large stretches of land in the republics contained majority populations who were in fact in the minority in the overall national population. The most obvious examples of this problem were the Serb Krajina in Croatia along the Bosnian border, and the Kosovo Albanians within Serbia. Such a situation was only tenable as long as the republics were linked in some way. What is more, these minorities were afraid of the majority populations of their republics - for the most part, with good reason.

It is worth noting briefly the series of events from 1991 onwards. After a short war in Slovenia which the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army soon left, the Serbs then occupied not only Serb-settled areas in Croatia and Bosnia, but also the majority Bosnian-Muslim area on the Serb border. As a consequence, Croats and Bosnians fled Serb-occupied areas either out of fear or under pressure. Similarly, the Serbs left areas under the control of Bosnians and Croats. The Serb nationalists were incensed by the challenge to their positions and responded by committing atrocities, as at Vukovar and Srebenica, and with the bombardment of Sarajevo and Dubrovnic. Yet there were also clashes between Bosnians and Croats, exemplified by Mostar. The people most in evidence seem to have parted with their good sense, while moderates feared to open their mouths.

In 1995 the Croatians - under President Tudjman - swept some half a million Serbs from their homes in Krajina and parts of Bosnia. American observers within the country realised what was happening and demanded that the Serbs be allowed back. Respect for Tudjman started to wane. Even worse, Milosevic seemed quite content with the expulsion of the Serbs from Croatia, presumably hoping that in due course he would be able to expel Albanians from Kosovo in a similar manner.

Milosevic's pressure on Albanians in Kosovo increased. Naturally, they fought back. The situation became ever more complicated, since the fate of the Kosovo Albanians inevitably had an impact both on Albanis iteself and on the Albanians in Western Macedonia. One complicating factor was that since the Second World War, the Albanian birth rate had remained high, whereas amongst Macedonians, and in particular, Serbians, birth-rates had fallen, meaning that Albanians were becoming an ever-larger proportion of the population.

Whilst the West turned its attention to Kosovo from Bosnia, which was still in a disorganised state, Milosevic was continuing to play games, exasperating all concerned. It is difficult to know whether NATO bombing began before or after the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo had started. What is clear is that these expulsions must have been prepared well in advance to have worked so smoothly. At any rate, in spite of all these difficulties, bombardment in the end worked and Milosevic's Serb troops withdrew from Kosovo. There is enormous material damage in Serbia; civilian casualties were fortunately kept to a minimum, although any civilian casualities are deeply to be regretted.

While the conflict was underway, the cry went up that the United States and its NATO allies were violating the sovereignty of Serbia, that they were disregarding the United Nations, and that the consequences of their intervention were worse than the alleged abuses which had prompted it.

At the end of the 20th century, sovereignty is not an absolute principle - if, indeed, it ever has been. It is conditional on the consent of the population, and on a civilised way of treating the human beings within the borders of a state. To any dispassionate observer, the treatment of the Albanians - 90% of the Kosovo population - infringed the entire gamut of their human rights and could not be tolerated, especially as their expulsion has been discussed and prepared long before it was actually carried out.

Nor is the expulsion of between one and two million people into the neighbouring states a purely 'internal' matter. The United Nations should have been aware of this, and should have taken the necessary steps. But the United Nationa is hardly a reliable judge of such issues, if for no other reason than the facts that communist China is included in decision-making. How can a country still ruled by a party responsible for the murders of tens of millions of people take valid decisions on the protection of human rights?

So confusion reigns, and Milosevic with his communist supporters will do his best to raise the temperature, although doing so risks further nationalist clashes. Under the circumstances, it is of extreme impotance that the United States, and its European allies bend over backwards to show even-handedness towards all national groups involved, including the Serbs. Indeed, a simple gesture such as the act of rebuilding some of the bridges destroyed by bombing could also build bridges between nations, which is absolutely necessary to if communism is to be separated from normal patriotism.