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Vol 3, No 19
28 May 2001
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Sam Vaknin Macedonia Is
Not Bosnia

An interview with
Edward Joseph

Sam Vaknin

Edward Joseph's biography is a fair proxy to the history of the Balkans since 1992, the year he landed in Sarajevo, then the besieged capital of a crumbling Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was at all the flashpoints ever since: Knin, Mostar, Bihać, Tuzla, Zepa (where he oversaw the evacuation together with the infamous General Ratko Mladić). He held senior positions in the UN, NATO and OSCE.

In 1999, during the Kosovo war, working with Catholic Relief Services, he was the camp commander of the most media-hyped refugee camp in the world, Stenkovec-1 in Macedonia. He then became the Deputy Administrator of the hotly disputed Mitrovica area in Kosovo. In between these two assignments, he was an advisor to the arbitration panel for the hotly disputed town of Brcko, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is also a visiting scholar with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Central Europe Review : Albanians and Bosnians are lumped together as troublemaking Muslims by the media in many countries in the Balkans. Is there a "Muslim instability factor"?

Edward Joseph: The Muslims in Bosnia are different from the Albanians in Kosovo. The former largely refrained from exacting revenge following the end of the hostilities either toward Serbs or Croats.

Macedonia was also often heralded as proof that inter-ethnic, peaceful and tolerant co-existence is possible...

As far as Macedonia is concerned, Bosnia is a frightening precedent. In Bosnia, there were ethnic inter-marriages, close interaction, a common sense of being from "Bosnia" or "Herzegovina," economic ties—and then, suddenly, a bitter, prolonged war. When the war broke out, neighbours identified each other in the warring parties and shouted, for example: "Dejan, why are you shooting at us?"

In Macedonia, people should consider carefully if they even begin with the same degree of multiethnic understanding as in Bosnia. Further, they should understand that war has its own polarizing dynamic. As soon as there are any casualties or refugees, people become self-righteous and self-justifying. They tend to use stereotypes of "the other" and only consider their own victimization. And war quickly creates manifold opportunities for criminals, acting under the cover of "national patriotism," to exploit.

So, you are hearing distant echoes of Bosnia and Kosovo in Macedonia today?

Yes, I do. The tendency toward collective blame of "the other" is disturbingly reminiscent. There are stories of discrimination, self-righteousness, stereotypes, ludicrous characterizations. This is dangerous. I saw a window that was smashed by a rock in an Albanian bar here in Skopje after three Macedonian policemen were killed. And there is self-justifying rhetoric on both sides. The essential question, though, is the same as in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo: "Where do inequities end and national aspirations begin?" "Is it a struggle for national rights or national secession?"

Of course there are important differences with the other wars—the fact that the Serbs

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inherited the JNA's [Yugoslav army's] stock of heavy weapons and the spectre of NATO intervention were major factors influencing the conduct of the fighting these past ten years. This doesn't make the situation any more stable, however.

Isn't this a vindication of the "ancient ethnic hatreds" theory?

I reject this. Yes, in Bosnian villages especially there were some examples of long-standing "blood and vengeance," and Tito's Yugoslavia left every nation with some imagined, or real, grievance. But, overall, the traditions of interaction and co-existence were predominant. And we forget that some of the "warring factions," as we used to call them in Bosnia, had little history of outright feuding. Why did the Croats attack the Muslims in Bosnia? They were not traditional enemies. And in Bihać more Muslims were killed by Muslims than by any other ethnic group.

Lately, the Croats in Bosnia have declared their own autonomous mini-state, and Croat soldiers and policemen deserted in droves to join a new Croat army (the First Guard Corps). Are the Dayton Accords unravelling?

No, they are not, although we should rethink the Dayton asymmetry of dividing Bosnia into a largely autonomous Republika Srpska and a more inter-dependent Federation. Aside from that fundamental issue, we all know what it takes to achieve multiethnic co-existence: It requires political change, democracy, the rule of law, the return of refugees, economic growth and, most of all, international fortitude.

The problem is that no one of these is a panacea. We tend to focus on a "flavour of the month," trade for example, believing that it will solve all the problems... forgetting that the "warring factions" traded with each other throughout the war. As for the Croats, this is truly a defining moment for Bosnia. Observers have been speaking for years about going after the "power structures" of the nationalist regimes (HDZ, SDA and SDS). And now, in Herzegovina, we finally have crossed the last barrier and presented the HDZ leadership with a mortal threat. Having done this, we blink at our peril.

Who is going to do all this? The Bush administration has just withdrawn 800 soldiers from Bosnia and is looking more and more isolationist.

People of the Balkans, ever obsessed with conspiracy theories, tend to overlook the most enduring truth of US policy toward the region: its perceived lack of strategic importance. At the same time, they ignore that America's commitment—however reluctant in its formation—remains.

No one is willing to accept the consequences—on NATO, on US-European relations or even in plain human terms—of another catastrophe. In the case of Macedonia, with the potential for wider instability, the stakes are even higher. The consequences of failure in Macedonia are even more momentous than in Bosnia because of the potential for intra-NATO conflict between Greece and Turkey [both NATO members].

This was also a major reason for containing the Kosovo conflict, even militarily, as NATO did. Can the West ever cast Macedonia in the role of Milošević, who suppressed "his" Albanians in Kosovo?

The Yugoslav secession wars evolved into a "war against Milošević." Indeed, one of the many tragedies spawned by Milošević was that he, deliberately I believe, killed the chances that legitimate Serb grievances would ever get a fair hearing in the West. While Macedonian police tactics leave a lot to be desired, there is no way to compare the Macedonian government to the Miloševic regime.

But now the Serbs are back (albeit only into the narrow security zone bordering on Kosovo). Was "Operation Allied Force" for naught, a futile exercise?

This is an over-simplification. Serbs were allowed into a limited region on sufferance of NATO, subject to strict conditions and under strict limitations. Their posture is different; they are not brutalizing the population now. Their return actually proves that the Milošević tactics were unnecessary. Despite the restraint of the Serb forces, much of the area they are in is pacified.

It is another example of how brutality is not necessary, how it only breeds resistance. When repression results in expulsions and ethnic flight, the situation takes on a self-propelling dynamic. The newly displaced become cause for expulsion and discrimination.

And even after the war is over and people return to their homes, as in Kosovo, there is an enormous disturbance to the pre-existing social make-up. Villagers flock to the cities making minorities even more afraid and vulnerable. War ruins the social fabric. People feel disoriented and alienated. In the post-Milošević era throughout the region, it is extremism—not any politician or people— that is our common enemy. We must fight it—not each other.

Interview conducted by Sam Vaknin

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented by the author in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgments of the author.

Moving on:

After the Rain cover

After the Rain:
How the West Lost the East

Sam Vaknin's book on sale from CER as a print book and as an ebook

Moving on:



Shane Jacobs
Bulgaria's Pomaks

Sam Vaknin
Is Not Bosnia

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Safe Haven

Andrew Cave
Poland's Slow Politicians

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Summit

Elke de Wit
Karmakar's Manila

Andrew James Horton
Code inconnu

Bernhard Seliger
Estonia and Europe

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Czech Republic

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