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Vol 3, No 13
2 April 2001
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Hot spotsStaggering from
Crisis to Crisis

Magarditsch Hatschikjan

The political instability in the Balkans has dominated the headlines for more than a decade now, with many debates questioning why and how it all started. Magarditsch Hatschikjan, an expert on Southeast Europe affairs at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Bonn, Germany, argues that the EU must develop a long-term strategy if it is to have any success in bringing stability to the region. By questioning the aims of Europe's reaction to the events in the Balkans, Magarditsch Hatschikjan unleashes a number of concerns about the EU's handling of its relations with its Balkan neighbours. (ed)

Values before interests

What were the aims and interests behind the Balkan policy of the most influential West European states over the past ten years? To bring about the disintegration of Yugoslavia? To allow the emergence of a still undetermined number of new states? To launch a short and a not-so-short period of airstrikes in an act of war? To transform Bosnia and Hercegovina, as well as Kosovo, into NATO protectorates? To ensure long-term military presence in the region? To weaken Serbia? To expand the influence of Albania? To cause the internal stability of Macedonia to falter? To lead Montenegro to the brink of independence? To make Russia feel its impotence and demonstrate its weakness to the entire world?

Only those who believe in the absolute predictability and feasibility of history would ever claim that all these events were part of the original programme, or even that the entire development had been set in motion with strategic foresight. It is precisely the undeniable consequences of these events that bring about the perpetuation of a major political problem. In cases such as these, it is advisable to subject the strategic aims, the means deployed, the distribution of these means and, last but not least, the choice of regional allies to a careful examination.

Two important objections could be raised against this approach. Number one: the choice of starting point is wrong. A misleading evaluation had invested the political-strategic aspects with too much, and the politically ideal (not to say ideological) perspectives with too little meaning. The real proportions are not these, but should, in fact, be reversed: the values ought to come first and the interests should follow.

If this were true, the first question should, in fact, have been asked differently: which ideals did the Balkan policy of the most influential West European states pledge allegiance to? But how would one prove compliance with the declaration of allegiance? This takes us back to the issue of undeniable consequences—therefore, see the considerations above.

The second objection, often to be heard when the negative aspects are brought to debate, is that the original intention had actually been quite different, but one was ultimately defeated by the limits of feasibility. Grant you, these limits are not easily known beforehand—but even in this case the main question should not focus primarily on the obstacles themselves but rather on the ability to overcome them.

Seeking structure—avoiding strategy

In 1990, the largest West European states were not just any old extras relegated to the periphery of the political stage when it came to deciding European policy. Rather, they were—and still are—the second most-important actor and made the second-largest contribution to the script and the design of the set after, besides and together with their leading ally. They were, therefore, by no means objects of these European events; they were leading subjects, and their responsibility must be evaluated correspondingly.

It is no secret that the allied powers in the First World War had avoided setting their sights on the dissolution of Austria-Hungary for a long time. In 1914, none of the representatives of these powers considered, however remotely, the possibility of mentioning "self-determination" in conjecture with the rights of nationalities in multiethnic states. Only during 1918 did they perform a necessary about-turn.

But the turn towards embracing the principle of national self-determination was not entirely a consequence of self-determined motives. The slogan threatened to become a spiritual weapon in the hands of the Bolsheviks, who had begun to use it immediately after the October Revolution. To counter their efforts, they picked up this weapon—but they did it very carefully and limited its deployment as a matter of further reassurance. In any case, however, it became obvious for all the powers involved that one had to turn tackling these questions into a priority: What is to happen in the region once Austria-Hungary ceases to exist? What structures are best suited to guarantee stability?

25 years later, one was ready once more to embrace a New European Order. The situation of the political landscape of the East European states seemed simpler at the time: the matter at hand was primarily one of reconstruction. In the Southeast, it even was almost exclusively one of restoring the pre-war status quo. The fundamental questions were, at their core, the same as they had been at the end of the First World War—asked slightly differently to allow for the change in circumstances: What is to happen after Hitler? What structures are best suited to guarantee stability?

In light of this experience, one could or, rather, one had to expect, as Yugoslavia began to rush towards its demise, that the European heads of state would consider the questions: What is to happen after Yugoslavia? What structures are best suited to guarantee the stability and security of the region? What inner, and what outer safety features are necessary? These questions, however, seem not to have been properly raised even once during the entire duration of the 1990s, never mind them playing an important role.

Even Mitterand, who came closest to asking them, came to an obvious stop and did not cross that threshold. In the decisive situations of 1991, he talks again and again about the problem of borders, urges the passing of an international resolution and the taking of joined West-European action—but remains remarkably silent when it comes to facing those decisive questions of prime strategic importance. More than once he says, in autumn 1991, that, as far as Yugoslavia is concerned, "We cannot do anything."

Maastricht and the Union have absolute priority, the differences between him on the one hand and Kohl and Genscher on the other, in matters pertaining to the best Yugoslav policy, should not be allowed to endanger the masterwork. Miterrand's main stance is voiced by Foreign Minister Roland Dumas: "The breaking apart of Yugoslavia is a drama, but the breaking apart of the Union would be a catastrophe." From this point onwards, Mitterand will only undertake exercises in damage control.

Elsewhere, the problem triggers either a loud silence, or more optimistic estimates. In Genscher's memoirs—which dedicate, after all, no less than 41 pages to the Yugoslav conflicts—the strategic questions are simply not asked. Helmut Kohl, nevertheless, takes Mitterand's fears quite seriously and sees the need to appease him as a matter of utmost importance. In his discussions with a number of French interlocutors, he rattles purposefully on about his stern reprimand of Tuđman when the latter stretched out the map to give a vivid explanation of the outlines of his dream of a Greater Croatia.

But even if the Chancellor remains sensitive to the concerns of his friend and neighbour, he does not seem to share them. In any case, he reads the conflict differently and, in the course of those important disagreements over the best Yugoslav policy with Mitterand in the second half of 1991, he argues from a different standpoint. The President talks of unclear borders, the Chancellor of national self-determination. And when Mitterand keeps bringing up the possible consequences of recognition, Kohl answers by alluding to the pressure of the public opinion, which was, allegedly, placing him under serious duress.

Jekylls or Hydes?

The most constant feature throughout the entire decade, however, remains the fluctuation between Realpolitik judgements and missionary views. In the end, the oscillation between the two was almost erratic—leading sometimes to agreements with Belgrade and the dispatch of international observers, sometimes to threats with the worst, and sometimes to both at the same time; after that, to a new sway towards the independence of Kosovo, followed by half a sway back and then, shortly afterwards, by a war not-declared—actually declared to be a non-war.

This was followed first by a move towards the independence of Kosovo, perhaps also of Montenegro (seen, occasionally, as a potential main launching pad for future changes in Serbia), then by hitting the brakes again and going in reverse for a while. And then, at the start of October 2000, the central strategic significance of Serbia was suddenly discovered by all sides.

Like the policy, so the choice of regional allies. In Kosovo, it was at first no one, then Rugova, then Thaçi, then Thaçi to a lesser degree, then to a greater degree Rugova. Montenegro's Đukanović would be treated sometimes as ultra-democratic shining light and sometimes as an obscure mini-Godfather. UÇK leader Thaçi was first described as a terrorist, then as a freedom fighter, then almost as a statesman, before one setoff slowly on the reverse route.

Tuđman started off as a democrat, then moulted temporarily into an incarnation of the Right (regarding national self-determination); his image as a patriot was, nevertheless, good enough to allow him to get away with the mass expulsion of Serbs form Krajna—but then he mutated into a nationalist as he would not take the Federation and his Muslim ally in Bosnia and Hercegovina seriously at all.

The greatest trick, however, was pulled off once more by Milošević. He was able to be Hitler and a guarantor of peace all rolled into one. This achievement surpassed even Stevenson's imagination: in Milošević, Jekyll and Hyde were manifesting themselves simultaneously, and that with no need for a potion.

Relativity in war

However, two very important aspects remained unchanged: the one-sided and misleading (to say the least) perception of the conflict and the attempt to compensate for the lack of strategy through an excess of ideology. Both reinforced the temptation to interpret the events from an ethnic perspective. The wars were seen either as Serb aggressions against legitimate entities, or as civil wars in the mould of old ethnic conflicts handed down from generation to generation. Often, the two lines of interpretation would be woven into one—using the name of Milošević as a helpful opportunity for simplification when it came to presenting the affairs to the public.

This version of events swept aside all other aspects. Its biggest flaw was that it ignored the reality of the most important structural factors that have prepared the terrain for the breaking apart of the federation and for the ensuing violence: the economic decline and the disintegration of the authority of the ruling bodies, which, in turn, led to the collapse of both the political and the civil order. Inevitably, the problem split into a combination of ethnic and ethical aspects that obviously de-politicised the entire debate.

In the absence of any visible strategy, one consequently filed away even more at the ideological components, which then revealed ethnicising tendencies of their own. What first started as a conflict between the desire for autonomy on the one hand and Serb centralism on the other, turned into a clash between (Slovene, Croat) democracy and (Serb) dictatorship, then, primarily, into a fight for "national self-determination" (which incidentally not everybody had the right to pursue) and, finally, into a military operation in the name of human rights (by which one obviously meant the rights of a number of chosen ethnic groups to the exclusion of all others).

The majority of the Western states thus assumed the position of certain parties involved in the conflict when attempting to define its causes, and this was the basis from which they intervened. They were not able, however, to apply the ideological stamp they had brought in their luggage to the actual course of the conflict, and they could not have been.

For the more the combatants they had chosen to support helped themselves to the standard empty phrases used to describe the situation, the less were the real issues standing in the foreground; at stake here was not a set of principles one was trying to defend, but having physical and political control over a territory. The combatants interpreted the support of the West not in the language of their supporters, but in the framework of their own actions—and therefore as support for their own cause.

In any case, the structural results are devastating. South Europe is thoroughly atomised. The paradoxes are becoming more and more intense each day. On the one hand, we have a policy which operates with great claims and great concepts, a policy which promotes integrative thinking, global trade and multiethnic cohabitation; on the other, we have a reality from which the very opposite emerges reinforced.

The ethno-political demarcation lines have deepened, the ethnically-driven forces have further reinforced their positions, nationalism grew constantly stronger at the cost of weakening societies. Areas that had multiethnic settlements for centuries have obviously been homogenised in the long run: this is the case of Krajna, a considerable part of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Kosovo.

The state structure in the ex-Yugoslav space resembles a chaotically arranged general store. Two NATO protectorates, one of which is, at least on paper, a state (Bosnia and Hercegovina) that houses two state-like constructs (the Muslim-Croat federation and the Republika Srpska) and the other (Kosovo), an entity belonging de jure to Yugoslavia. Serbia, whose overwhelming majority desires independence; a skeleton of a federation (Yugoslavia) from which not only Kosovo, but the political leadership and a considerable part of the population of Montenegro as well are striving to escape.

Two states (Albania first of all, but this is also true of Croatia) devote particular attention to their co-nationals living outside their borders. One state (Macedonia) which, owing to the almost complete separation between Macedonians of Slav and Albanian origin, is a state whose future is still not guaranteed.

Humanitarian intervention

It may be that all changes in direction and all hesitations can be traced back to initial miscalculations and mistakes. But what if this constant fluctuation, undesirable as it may be, is, nevertheless, an inevitable consequence of the prevailing political and spiritual approaches in the past few years? Perhaps the undeniably real aim of "humanitarian interventionism" needs the permanent flexibility of these constellations of power; perhaps it needs not to be constant when determining who and what its opponents, its allies and its aims are.

There is a certain logic to the practice of supporting the next opponent in this war. But this logic does not take us far. One does, indeed, establish a number of rather temporary connections, but, in doing so, one creates many more enduring oppositions.

A small percentage of the resulting disadvantages can be compensated for through ideological verve, but this does not take us too far either. For, no matter what views one holds in the privacy of one's own home, outside serious doubts are cast over the moral high ground of the "humanitarian interventionism" that is in question. Ultimately, our gifts are not meant to be to distributed equally. Here, one is incensed upon hearing of ethnic cleansing and mass evictions, one threatens, passes sentence, makes war; there, one reacts to the same things with a loud, deliberate silence.

And the sense of mission, the conviction one stands for the most outstanding achievements of human civilisation, somehow manages to not always and not entirely come across as justified. In any case, there has been no indication so far that the majority of people in Southeast Europe perceived any of the statements by officials and intellectuals during the war against Yugoslavia to represent the embodiment of a worthier political culture or an expression of a superior civil society.

Questions, questions...

What is to follow the decade of war in the wake of the dissolution of Yugoslavia? What constellations will the participating factors arrange themselves in, what structures are best suited to guarantee the stability and security of Southeast Europe? What internal, and what external safety features are necessary?

Same as before, the New Order in the heartland of ex-Yugoslavia—ie the setting up of a number of structures that would promote long-term security—represents the turning point and the crucial issue of the main political-strategic task. Of all questions related to the issue of state structures, six are currently of particular importance, as the very act of answering these questions, rather than the actual answers themselves, will have significant effects upon future development. Counting from North to South:

The Croatian Question. At its centre lies Croatia's behaviour towards Croats living in Bosnia and Hercegovina (in particular towards those living in Hercegovina proper) and, in close connection, towards the Muslim-Croat federation. Besides these Croats, this question also affects a number of Serbs—those who remained in Croatia, those settled in Slovenia, first of all, as well as those who fled, or, rather, were driven away from Krajna in 1995. From an ethnic point of view, the question has considerable direct effects on Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, and, in terms of state politics, it directly involves Bosnia-Hercegovina as well as Serbia.

The Bosnian Question. In essence, this question boils down to the matter of (real, and not only documentary) state independence for Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bosnian Muslims are the only group taking an active interest in this matter, while the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Serbs choose to declare and nurture their special relationships to their titular states. Croats and Serbs, Croatia and Serbia, are, therefore, directly involved as well.

The Serb Question: From a historical perspective, this question focuses on finding a way to unite the scattered Serb settlements, or, rather, a way to reunite them into a common state. On the Serbian side, this question has been answered, for the most part, in a manner that showed little understanding of the interests of other peoples and states and which consequently brought the distrust and opposition of those affected.

Yugoslavia as reconstructed by Tito had always worked quite deliberately against them; then, during the 1990s, the ethno-structural circumstances experienced a fundamental change. The number of Serbs and that of the settlement areas with a majority Serb population outside of Serbia shrunk considerably, while Serbia proper registered the influx of a little under 600,000 refugees and evictees from Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Kosovo. This influx has transformed an ethno-political question into a primarily social one—for the foreseeable future, at least.

The complex issues generated by the return of Serbs living abroad to their native country have, nevertheless, a significant influence over the structural elements of the state. No matter who ends up winning the upper hand in the Serbian question, there is little doubt that their actions will touch directly upon a number of peoples, a number of sates (Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Macedonia, Albania) and a number of current Yugoslav entities with a yet undecided status (Montenegro, Kosovo, the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, and Vojvodina).

The Montenegrin Question: The political conflict centred on the state independence of Montenegro affects first and foremost the republic's relationship to Serbs and Serbia. Apart from them, two further ethnic groups in Montenegro are directly involved in the ensuing argument: the Albanians (percentage of the population in 1991: 6.6 per cent) and the Muslims (percentage in 1991: 14.6 per cent) who live primarily in the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, an area divided between Serbia and Montenegro. This question, therefore, has direct effects on a number of entities inside Serbia (Kosovo, the Sandžak of Novi Pazar), on Serbia as a whole and on Albania, as well as indirect ones on Macedonia.

The Macedonian Question: Here as well a fundamental change occurred during the 1990s. In modern history, the region of Macedonia had been the object of competing claims by Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. In 1991, when the Republic of Macedonia gained its independence, it turned out, however, that its stability was endangered primarily not by external factors, but by internal ones.

The main strain on the cohesion of the state stems from the complicated relationship between Macedonians of Slav and, respectively, Albanian origin (the percentage of the latter being somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent)—especially as the tendencies to divide society along ethnic demarcation lines received a strong boost as a result of the developments in Kosovo.

The Macedonian Question, therefore, is now closely tied to the Albanian Question. Furthermore, its influence also extends over the constellations in Serbia and has a direct effect upon them—and it indirectly touches Bulgaria and Greece as well.

The Albanian Question: Just like in the case of Serbia, a considerable number of Albanians live outside the borders of the Albanian state; the difference in this particular case is that their areas of settlement are not spread out, but are rather concentrated in the direct vicinity of the Albanian national state. The larger groups live in Kosovo, in two districts of Southern Serbia which border on Kosovo (as well as on Macedonia ) and which see ongoing violent clashes, primarily in the Preševo Valley, that are sparked by both sides, in the west and northwest of Macedonia, in the south of Montenegro and, according to Albanian statements, in the northwest of Greece.

There is total consensus among the groups representing the interests of the ethnic Albanians in the region that the creation of the currently recognised borders of Albania by the dominant powers in 1913 and their confirmation following both World Wars have been highly unfair.

In any case, the existing structural elements, as well as the prevalent tendencies in the international politics of the past decades, have fostered an intensification of the relationship between Albania and the Albanians who live outside Albania's border on the one hand, and their organisations on the other. It is easy to see which neighbours would be directly affected by further developments along this line: Serbia and Macedonia, first of all—and possibly Montenegro beside them as well.

What is the main point brought in to focus by this list? None of the major questions can be answered to the complete satisfaction of all those involved. Every complete solution in favour of one side would inflict substantial losses to more than one neighbour, or have serious consequences for them. In other words: it is not advisable to focus on solving the questions; instead, one must tame them and bind them, where possible, into a corporate approach based on regional co-operation.

A Balkan Locarno

There are two key issues with an extraordinary impact upon the structural integrity of the ex-Yugoslav space and, by extension, upon the entire region as well: in the north and in the centre, the relationship between Serbia and Croatia and, in the south, the one between Serbia and Albania.

Which structures would be really meaningful, which safety features necessary? We basically have three options at our disposal:

a) a solution focused primarily on the regional forces at work in the Balkans; its main buttress would be the existence of strong regional co-operation between the Balkan states achieved though the deployment of a comprehensive integrative apparatus, a kind of Balkan Union;

b) an option based primarily on external cohesive factors, the basis for which would be the EU and its determination to completely integrate the entire region into the European Union;

c) a conglomerate of external and internal cohesive factors and safety features.

Both the first and the second approach fall through, for the time being, following a closer objective examination. For the foreseeable future, none of them has serious prospects for development. Therefore, the third possibility presents itself as the only solution in the short term.

This certainly does not mean that all components of the unachievable alternatives are to be shoved aside. It would be better to integrate a number of these elements into the third variant if this variant is to succeed. This is true for elements pertaining to the regional unification of the Balkan states, as well as for the offer of complete integration into the EU. There is a need here for an unalterable linkage to be created and respected by both sides.

The second most important prerequisite for such an approach to grow into a promising undertaking consists in the creation of a comprehensive bundle of long-term
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contractual arrangements between all parties involved. After both World Wars, the peace treaties set in place the scaffolding which provided the general framework. Nothing similar happened after 1990. There is an urgent need for a substitute—for an interlocking system of bi- and multi-lateral basic treaties among the Balkan states on the one hand and between these states and the EU on the other. In other words: it is high time for a Balkan Locarno.

The EU must undertake the role of formal guarantor—and not only in the classical sense but also in the sense of guaranteeing the integration of Balkan states, no matter what the form of this integration is.

The most important prerequisite is the existence of political will, in the West and particularly in the EU. For its existence is of ultimate importance for the ability to answer our question whether such an approach has even the slightest chance of proving itself. Unfortunately, previous experience does not encourage a particularly optimistic prognosis. And, at first sight, one cannot avoid the impression that the proposal asks much, far too much of the EU. This may be so, especially when "Europe" is thought of and experienced as a set of narrowly limited interests and in a short-term perspective.

But one day the EU will also have to make a decision. Does it want to become a union of the richer and more powerful part of Europe with the purpose of protecting its vested rights, which then would stagger from crisis to crisis in the Balkans and from crisis management to crisis management? Or does it choose to strive towards a truly "European project"? In the short-term, the first variant may be tempting; in the long-term, it is the second that will bring rewards.

Magarditsch Hatschikjan, 2 April 2001

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