The dance of intimate enemies

Settlements in Bosnia and Kosovo (the former is no more “settled” than the latter) are possible only if local contestants – who know each other so well – expel international mavens from their discussions and take each other on directly.

By David B. Kanin

Za tekst na srpskom jeziku, pogledajte ovde

The next round of international efforts to convince Balkan antagonists to arrange their relations according to Western fantasies is supposed to begin now. An EU viceroy will supervise talks between Serbs and Kosovars supposedly designed to move these adversaries toward an agreement about sovereignty, territory, and good-neighborly relations. The results will fall short of anyone’s mark, but the outsiders will declare them a constructive demonstration of their own leadership. The locals, long familiar with this game but satisfied to play it endlessly, will continue their inertial efforts to discredit each other personally and communally while feuding among themselves over which patronage boss cum politician deserves pride of place.

This has been going on, in various forms, since at least the final century of Ottoman rule. Most of the time it works pretty well. Local elites exchange insults and manipulate powerful and naïve outsiders, all the while talking and trading with each other under the table. As long as the overall security cap – Ottoman, Fascist, Communist, or Cold War (in the local context it does not really matter) – stays in place, everyone knows how current rules mesh with longer-standing power patterns. When something shatters that cap, leading to the collapse or exhaustion of the day’s supervisory powers, than many in the region die and the rest are disoriented until the next batch of Great and self-important powers find themselves supervising the region.

The various antagonists in the former Yugoslav space are familiar enough with each other to think they know those Others pretty well. There is a certain complacency about this; each Balkan party is content to measure its own worth by the failings of its neighbors while insisting that larger powers – which the locals find hapless, brutal, or uninformed – nevertheless take responsibility for the region’s direction. This way the locals themselves never really have to do the work it would take to be accountable for their own future.

Whether in Bosnia or Kosovo or regarding Macedonia’s “name” issue there will be no end to this unless those who live in the region exclude US, EU, Russian, and all other big power diplomats and take each other on for keeps. (A clever Slovene exit strategy and not so clever but eventually decisive wars in Croatia settled things in former Habsburg lands.) The outsider big shots have too much else on their minds to be of much help. “Europe” has been failing to manage its Balkan backyard since 1990 and cares mainly to prove it still matters in the world. The US, itself in a gradual glide path of global decline, uses every crisis everywhere to declare it still “leads” while lacking any clue about how actually to manage these problems or its own deteriorating economic and strategic status.

With the Powers pushed out the locals – assuming they actually want to settle their disputes – could then grapple with the choreography of dispute reduction. The first step would be to commit internally – but openly – to construct permanent solutions absolutely certain to anger many of their own constituents. This would not involve substantive discussion of “final status” (none exists south of the Sava). Rather, all parties and paladins would agree to deputize a group empowered to do whatever it takes to swap territory, settle debts, guarantee holy and cultural sites, and negotiate whatever else it would take to forge a mutually acceptable new arrangement.

The hardest part of this would be for each protagonist to decide how to handle their own spoilers. This must be done in advance. The usual approach (and not just in the Balkans) is for devious, disgruntled and ideologically obsessed players to hang back until negotiators have done their work. Then these Heroes engage in the political Turkey Shoot of expressing horror in their negotiators’ alleged treachery and stupidity and destroying whatever has been worked out. Even if the agreement stands, its adversaries use disappointment over terms and frustration with future events to bring down their political rivals and undermine the deal. There is no hope of any settlement among communities in Bosnia or Kosovo unless all parties decide in advance how they are going to deal with ultra-nationalists and anyone else determined to prevent anything other than total, zero-sum “victory.”

  • Something like this has happened so far in the bi-communal arrangements in Macedonia (granted that each side has made plenty of mistakes along the way). It would be a great tragedy if the current tone deaf politics of Prime Minister Gruevski and growing impatience among opponents to ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti brings no-holds barred inter-communal conflict to one shard of former Yugoslavia so far able to avoid it.

With their internal houses in some kind of order the delegations then could knuckle down to the hard work of arguing with each other. They should avoid both diplomatic niceties and public grandstanding; the only chance for a lasting deal is for them to deal with each other as the intimate enemies they are. It would be important for no one to hide behind the Helsinki Final Act, UN Security Council Resolution 1244, or other such relics – the “Balkans” of this context are no more durable than those crafted at the Congress of Berlin, Versailles Peace Conference, or the 1995 meetings in Dayton, Ohio. Everything should be up for grabs. Each delegation would keep its public and government informed as to the blow-by-blow of proposals and reactions – but would not engage in defending their performance or in castigating the behavior of the other side.

During the negotiations the protagonists should not pay attention to the internationals. The EU and US would make a lot of noise and Moscow would look to do whatever it takes to look smarter and stronger than Washington. In the final analysis, (unless they are very stupid indeed) the big powers would accept anything the locals work out if the deal promises to keep a chronically dangerous region quiet. If the foreigners want to help, after the deal is struck they could provide an international military presence – but only for a short, indelibly defined time – to mitigate the danger of fatal violence that would emerge from whatever partition or boundary changes the parties agree on.

  • A deal should include a specified time from during which people finding themselves on the “wrong” side of the new lines can decide whether to move or stay put. Once that deadline ends those remaining as a minority in the altered states should be under no illusions of any support from their now foreign homelands.

There is no denying this would be no panacea and would come about only after much enormously hard work, likely engaged in over a considerable amount of time. Nevertheless, the current status quo likely is no more durable than its predecessors and – like those – will last only as long as the current overarching international security arrangement. “Jaw-Jaw” may indeed be preferable to “war-war,” as Churchill suggested, but unless the working jaws are those directly involved in the argument there will be more fighting somewhere down the line.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

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