Salience and emotion

Progress toward more effective management of regional disputes will be possible only if leaders emerge inside the region capable and willing to channel their own and their followers’ emotions toward negotiations everyone accepts from the outset will lead to painful sacrifices on everyone’s part.

By David B. Kanin

In a region burdened by frozen conflict, current events are reminding everyone involved of the dangers posed by contested sovereignty. Kosova’s ill-conceived decision to knuckle under to international pressure and accept the placement of an asterisk on its identity led Pristina to become aggressive in its demand that international overseers prevent Kosovar Serbs from holding local elections in conjunction with Serbia’s just-completed election. Various Serbian responded to Pristina’s rhetoric by warning darkly of possible violence against Serbs in Kosova. A few days after what proved to be relatively quiet elections – compared to what went on in France and Greece, Serbia appeared to be Europe’s island of political continuity, and not much at all went on inside Kosova – Kosovar interior minister, Bajram Rexhepi, still hinted at possible use of force north of the Ibar. At the same time, Serbian police arrested ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia as a part of Ivica Dacic’s campaign strategy – Dacic was accordingly rewarded at the ballot box.

The internationals’ diminution of Kosova’s status put into high relief continuing disarray over what to do in the Balkans; the US and others continue to fail to bring to heel five EU members who refuse to recognize the new state. Whether and how sputtering negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina resume depends on the outcome of the negotiations that will form the new government in Serbia on how Kosova decides to deal with its externally imposed diplomatic disadvantage.

Macedonia’s inter-communal condition is even more worrying. Early EU membership is off the table – much as this author would wish it otherwise. The “name” imbroglio with Greece ensures that the NATO summit in Chicago will be no more satisfying to Macedonia than was the Alliance’s poorly choreographed meeting in Bucharest in 2008. The arrest of allegedly radical Jihadists for the murder of five Macedonian fishermen tests the stability of a piece of former Yugoslavia so far spared the horrors of major fighting. The bombastic “Skopje 2014” project highlights ethnic Macedonian insecurity over their identity and reinforces ethnic Albanian irritation with being treated as less than a fully constituent political community.

It is worth remembering that Bosnia too remains a faltering Western enterprise. The central state is illegitimate (or irrelevant) to two of the country’s three major communities and is too weak to provide much value to the Bosnjak plurality – witness the trade of insults and accusations over the Dobrovoljacka Street commemoration.

None of this prevents international diplomatic, NGO, and academic figures from placing over-simple blame on nationalist entrepreneurs who allegedly do not represent the wishes of the majority of people in any ethnic group. No matter how many elections nationalists either win or come close, too many keepers of the multicultural flame brush aside ethnic hatred as a throwback doomed to eventual extinction once the locals finally absorb the education in civics offered them by helpful foreigners.

I recently heard a version of this orthodoxy inferred as part of a scholarly study underway on public attitudes. A researcher visited co-ethnics in a country neighboring her own to survey views on a wide range of topics. She noted that the locals at first took her for one of their own, and so mouthed the nationalist line they believed she wanted to hear. When they realized she was an outsider, they changed their tune to express acceptance of their status in what has become their political and personal home.

This story could lead to various inferences. One – reflected in questions and commentary from some in the audience – was that these people were conditioned to appear to support nationalism but are ready to become components of a civic society if its government serves their needs and constructive arrangements can be constructed among competing ethno-national communities. Alternatively, the instinct to mouth a nationalist line could reflect continuing active intimidation by nationalists and the passive intimidation involved in the fear of being labeled as traitors. Third, people in the Balkans might be so used to having their brains prodded by Western and local researchers that they have become adept at telling outsiders whatever they want to hear – so stated opinions do not necessarily reflect actual opinions.

Whatever the case, the results of public opinion research are of limited value in assessing communal salience. Since the opening stages of the collapse of the old Federation, inclusive rhetoric has masked the inability of Western teleologists and their local clients to mobilize a political movement capable of overawing nationalists, opportunists, and others with personal or patronal agendas. Even Serbia’s Tadic and other “liberals” continue to bend to the nationalist narrative on Kosova (while they simultaneously assure international notables of their commitment to civic progress). Economic problems and recent electoral results remind us that nationalism is not absent from other parts of Europe, of course, but the former Yugoslav space (and Albania) is the one region of Europe where the wars of the last century did not largely decide borders, patterns of settlement, and other physical and psychological aspects of national disputes. In addition, none of the protagonists in this area has yet produced a figure anywhere close to the stature of a Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, or Zhelyu Zhelev.

Roger Peterson has put his finger on part of the problem. His recent book (“Western Intervention in the Balkans: The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict”) challenges the standard “rational actor” approaches in political science with a model designed to demonstrate the relationship between emotions (specifically, anger, fear, hatred, contempt, and resentment) and inter-communal conflict. Peterson demonstrates that calculating public opinion or rational interest is at best an inadequate approach to understanding the sort of interactions inherent in areas of contested sovereignty and mutual communal disdain.

In my view, of particular interest is his assessment of the role of spite – the pathology (my term, not his) in which one’s desire to inflict pain on the adversary is so great that it trumps even the calculation of one’s own interest. Peterson demonstrates how spiteful people in the Balkans and elsewhere undermine imposed Western formulas in order to inflict that pain, even though the perpetrators also suffer because of their actions. You can witness such spite in the visceral exchanges among the more nasty personalities who attach comments to articles on this and similar websites.

Peterson’s book is a helpful corrective to more state-based, institutionalist approaches from the Western foreign policy establishment (for a recent example of the latter, see Charles Kupchan’s “How Enemies Become Friends”). Unfortunately, Peterson deals only with the emotional content of the locals’ decisions. By ignoring emotional underpinnings inherent in the behavior of Western viceroys and operatives, he permits his US and West European readers to retain an Olympian self-regard as they attempt to figure out what to do about recalcitrant Balkanites. I hope his future research takes into account the impact of the personal anger, fear, hatred, resentment, and contempt that informs the ambitions, rivalries, and frustrations affecting succeeding generations of Western diplomats and others attempting to enforce their writ on the Balkans and other areas.

Peterson also has some interesting blind spots. He is overoptimistic about inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia, which perhaps reflects a common “end of history” syndrome in which a writer assumes that, once made, progress toward a desired state will not be reversed. Charles Tilly’s analysis of democratization and de-democratization is a useful corrective to such thought patterns.

Peterson also constructs an odd, one-on-one comparison involving Bosnia and Montenegro. This apples-and-oranges pairing ignores the latter’s condition as a kleptocracy and inaccurately treats the Serbian-Montenegrin divide as if it is of the same inter-ethnic category as the relationship between, say, Serbs, and Albanians. Such basic errors compound the lack of conceptual parallels between these countries and do little to illuminate anything about Bosnia.

In any case, future rational actor-based proposals from outsiders on how to “solve” Balkan problems likely will prove as facile or otherwise inadequate as those that have preceded them over the past two decades. Progress toward more effective management of regional disputes will be possible only if leaders emerge inside the region capable and willing to channel their own and their followers’ emotions toward negotiations everyone accepts from the outset will lead to painful sacrifices on everyone’s part. In particular, anything constructive would depend on leaders’ ability to confront and stare down the spiteful behavior of those spoilers from their own communities who exist only to inflict pain on the other side – spite is mutually reinforcing, destructive, and forever.

One of the most difficult aspects of a constructive slog toward inter-communal engagement would be avoiding the temptation to lash out at the spoilers from other communities as they seek the pleasure of inflicting pointless pain. A corollary to this problem would be the issue of anticipating, thwarting, or – if unsuccessful in those efforts – managing the actions of those spiteful spoilers who react to concrete progress toward mutual respect by engaging in violence. Authorities unwilling to take on their own thugs are not leaders and do not deserve their perks and status – it is worth reading a book written by Ronald Heifetz some decades ago (“Leadership without Easy Answers”) that distinguishes clearly between the concepts of leadership and authority.

Despite the slogans of the international elite, in dealing with the kinds of disputes evident in the Balkans (like the Middle East), there is no shortcut to around difficult, long-term wrestling among erstwhile adversaries willing to ignore instructions and pressure from outside powers and become accountable for their own future. The only other proven approach – the one that created what now is called “Europe,” for example – is war, and a lot of it. Rather than go through that again, it would be better just to take a page from Cyprus and keep the conflicts frozen.

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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