The West, Milosevic and the collapse of Yugoslavia – a response to David B. Kanin

Josip Glaurdic responds to a review of his new book, ‘The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia’, by David B. Kanin, whose own response is also presented below.

By Josip Glaurdic

The twentieth anniversary of Yugoslavia’s breakup came and went without nearly the attention it warranted in the West. Perhaps that is fitting for the crisis which was originally allowed to simmer and boil over by the neglect of the Western powers. My book, ‘The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia (Yale University Press, 2011)’, was an attempt to change that trend of indifference, so I am particularly grateful to Prof. Kanin for “lending me a hand” with his thoughtful and knowledgeable review. I am also grateful for his praise, but – in the good tradition of review responses – I have decided to move straight to his substantive critique. After all, that is the best way we can build a constructive dialogue and learn from each other.

It would perhaps be most useful to begin with Prof. Kanin’s suggestion that my analysis lacks “an assessment of why whatever forces – whether military, liberal, or ideologically ‘Yugoslav’ – failed to coalesce as events spun downward.” This is a very good question, which we can answer only after answering two related questions – which (credible) forces are we talking about and when?

If we are talking about the period between the decision of Slobodan Milosevic to marry his brand of socialism with Serbian nationalism sometime in mid-1987 and the collapse of the League(s) of Communists and its/their various defeats at the polls in 1990 – then my book answers that question at least implicitly because it deals extensively with the only credible force that could have stopped Milosevic’s march: the League of Communists itself. The book, thus, discusses the reasons why the rest of the Communist elite failed to collectively respond to Milosevic’s ousting of Ivan Stambolic (they did not want to meddle in Serbia’s internal affairs and they thought Milosevic was just a grey, controllable bureaucrat); it explains why nothing was done once the rallies of the “anti-bureaucratic revolution” started in Serbia (again, because it would have been meddling in the internal affairs of Serbia, because all republican Communist elites used their own nationalisms for the purposes of mobilization, and ultimately because some of them – like the JNA and Macedonia, for example – actually agreed with Milosevic); it suggests a set of plausible explanations for why what was done was done once the “anti-bureaucratic revolution” started to spill over beyond the borders of Serbia (new and weak Communist leaderships in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, miscalculations and spinelessness on the federal level, etc.).

Ultimately, however, the main point is that the Yugoslav Communists were deeply divided over what really constituted a “Yugoslav” platform and, besides, they derived their legitimacy from within their republics. For, say, the Croatian Communist leaders of 1989 – who were all of clearly Yugoslavist orientation – to reach out to someone beyond the borders of their republic in order to build an anti-Milosevic coalition, they would have needed courage, enough likeminded partners, an institutional pathway to oust Milosevic, and real payoffs for such a move in the form of increased legitimacy of their rule. They had none of that. As my book demonstrates, their feeble – but still clearly Yugoslavist – response to Milosevic’s campaign was actually the reason for their electoral defeat.

If, on the other hand, Prof. Kanin’s question is referring to the period between the downfall of the League of Communists in early 1990 and the breakup of the country and war in the second half of 1991 – then the answer is slightly different, partly because we are dealing with different actors, and partly because of increased importance of international signals to the Yugoslav players. As my book argues, the only scenario for a possible survival of the Yugoslav state during this period was dependent on the success of the federal government of Ante Markovic, which commenced its program of shock therapy in December 1989, and the success of the plan for the Yugoslav confederation officially proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in the fall of 1990. Since Prof. Kanin devotes some attention to my treatment of both Markovic and the confederal proposal, it may be useful if I answer his aforementioned question by responding to his critique of how these two episodes were dealt with in my book.

Prof. Kanin suggests that I am minimizing the role Ante Markovic played during this period, that I am ignoring his popularity, devaluing the success of his reforms, and taking him to task for “joining Milosevic in condemning Slovene and Croat movements toward independence after the disastrous Congress of Yugoslavia’s League of Communists in January 1990.” However, none of those suggestions are correct. Ante Markovic gets an extensive treatment in my book, from his appointment in early 1989 and the creation of his economic program (pp. 61-66), to his failure to get Western support (pp. 67-69, 80-81, 121-122), his participation in the elections of 1990 (pp. 102, 115), or his role in the war in Slovenia (pp. 169-170, 173, 177-178, 191-192). I also explicitly mention the level of his popular support (p. 120, p. 344n3). And I treat his reforms fairly, in light of their actual success as measured by a variety of economic indicators (presented in Table 5.1 on p. 122) and in light of the response they garnered in the West. Interestingly, I am not the one who termed Markovic’s reforms “illusory”, as Prof. Kanin suggests. It was the CIA, whose National Intelligence Estimate from October 1990 (and which I quote on p. 109) claimed that the reform achievements of Markovic’s government were “mostly illusory”.

As far as taking Ante Markovic to task is concerned, I take Yugoslavia’s last prime minister to task for three things: for harbouring irrational hopes throughout the crisis that the West would bail him out (p. 68), for aiding and abetting the Yugoslavist wing of the JNA in the war in Slovenia, and for the obstructive role his government played in early Western diplomatic efforts during the war in Croatia (as, for example, in the efforts of the CSCE, p. 187). Those criticisms aside, however, I clearly acknowledge the federal prime minister as “the only political actor who presented a pan-Yugoslav alternative to Milosevic” at the turn of the decade and as someone who may have had a chance to neutralize the Serbian leader (p.69). The problem for Markovic, however – and here lies the answer to Prof. Kanin’s question of why pro-Yugoslav forces did not coalesce around the federal prime minister – is that his reforms were doomed to fail without real financial assistance from the West – assistance Markovic never received.

One could also take Ante Markovic to task – though I do not do that in my book – for failing to support the confederal proposal of Slovenia and Croatia, which was officially presented in October 1990. Prof. Kanin suggests that the confederal proposal was not a truly workable plan, but merely a “slogan” which fooled some Westerners. He also suggests that the Slovenes were not intent on reforming Yugoslavia into a confederation, but were only interested in keeping their money. Moreover, Prof. Kanin questions not only whether the Slovene Communist leadership was committed to the idea of a Yugoslav confederation, but also whether it was committed to the idea of liberal democratization, and he asserts I provide no evidence for such claims in my book.

It is certainly true that the bulk of national/nationalist mobilization in Slovenia in the late 1980s, which was condoned and even fostered by the republic’s Communist leadership, was centred on Ljubljana’s financial contributions to the federal budget. This is hardly surprising, considering the economic environment of extreme austerity akin, perhaps, to what Greece has to go through today. To say, however, that the Slovenes wanted to keep more of their money and that they were committed to the idea or reforming Yugoslavia along confederal lines is not mutually exclusive. On the contrary: the confederation was exactly the institutional device which was – among other things – to allow the Slovenes to keep more of their earnings at home. Whether the confederal proposal of October 1990 was practicable or, as Prof. Kanin suggests, “there is no evidence the Slovenes or anyone else actually considered how such a construction would work” is debatable. The proposal was modelled on the European Community and contained a number of different options which were ultimately to be agreed upon in peaceful negotiations of all six republics. The main point is that this platform for negotiations did not “fool” any Westerners, as Prof. Kanin suggests. As my book demonstrates, the confederal proposal was met with basically uniform derision and disregard from the West in late 1990 and early 1991 (pp. 123-124, 137). Only after the Belgrade protests of March 1991 and the violence in Croatia later that April and May, did the Western governments begin to signal their possible acceptance of a confederal reformation of Yugoslavia, but by that time it was too late. It is rather ironic that a number of provisions of the confederal plan found their way into the proposals of the Carrington Conference in the fall of 1991 – after thousands of dead and wounded, and several hundred thousand refugees in the war in Croatia. Had the confederal plan received Western backing and diplomatic involvement in the fall of 1990 when it needed it, it is entirely possible that war could have been avoided, and that some semblance of a common Yugoslav structure could have been preserved.

When it comes to the question of evidence of Slovenia’s commitment to liberal democracy and to Yugoslavia’s confederal future, I can only recommend that Prof. Kanin re-reads the relevant chapters of my book. Is the fact that the leaders of the Slovenian League of Communists took Mladina’s side in its clash with the JNA in 1988 (pp. 27-29) not evidence of their clear choice to defend that quintessentially liberal idea of the freedom of the press? Are the Slovenian constitutional amendments of 1989, which abandoned the Party’s leading role in society and extended the rights of Slovenian citizens in areas such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, right to privacy, and freedom for organized participation in politics (pp. 54-56), also not evidence of a commitment to a liberal-democratic transformation? Is the fact that the Slovenian state-run media and the still ruling League of Communists supported Markovic’s reform program in spite of, as the Ljubljana daily Delo put it, the federal prime minister’s “inability to resist the discreet charms of centralization” (p. 65), not evidence of Slovenia’s commitment to a common Yugoslav future? Is the official platform of the League of Communists of Slovenia for the Fourteenth Congress of the federal Party organization, which – in the words of Milan Kucan – was the platform “undoubtedly for Yugoslavia: a voluntary state of equal republics, free and equal nations, a democratic community of free citizens which measures its socialist content and existence by the criteria of a European quality of life… not a Yugoslavia as an extended Serbia to which – according to its wishes – others can be joined” (p. 70) – is this platform not evidence of a still-present commitment to Slovenia’s future in a reformed and democratized Yugoslavia? Are the proposals put forward by the Slovene delegation at the Fourteenth Congress, which included a series of human rights amendments such as the ban on political trials and torture, and which were defeated by Milosevic’s sizeable bloc in the Party (p. 71), not a sign of the commitment of Slovenia’s Communists to liberal democratization? Last, but not least, is the fact that Slovenia was the first republic to call and hold democratic elections, after which the ruling Communists peacefully surrendered their political offices, not evidence of a commitment to liberal democratization? Prof. Kanin is certainly correct in stating that the Slovenes used their financial upper hand in an attempt to negotiate a better deal with the federal centre and that they had used it for years. They were, however, hardly alone in employing such methods.

The case of Slovenian liberalization and democratization is a good introduction to my response to another important critique by Prof. Kanin – the one regarding my supposed inaccurate use of the term Realpolitik to describe the policies of the Western powers. Prof. Kanin uses the example of Bismarck and his ability to mould the European order according to Prussia’s interests to draw a distinction with the Western leaders of the 1980s and 1990s who were operating “in the thrall of inertia”. None of them, as Prof. Kanin argues, deserve the same label of Realpolitiker that belonged to a statesman such as Bismarck.

It is interesting that Prof. Kanin uses Bismarck’s example to challenge my use of the term Realpolitik, because it was exactly the old Chancellor who was often quoted by the Western anti-interventionists who argued – as he did a century earlier – that “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” This quote indeed captures the essence of Western Realpolitik when it comes to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Political realism in international relations is primarily concerned with power (derived from military or economic capacity) and the pursuit of stability. It has no place for ethical or ideological concerns. So, what would the quintessential Realpolitiker have done, had he been in some position of power in the West and confronted with the Yugoslav crisis? Well, he would most likely have noted the dwindling importance of Yugoslavia in the European geopolitical system of the late 1980s and he would have wanted it to remain quiet in order to devote his attention to more pressing interests further up north. He would have had little understanding for the liberalization and democratization agenda of Yugoslavia’s north-western republics, or for the clamouring for human rights by the Kosovo Albanians. He would, on the other hand, most likely have supported those who claimed to be fighting for the country’s preservation and centralization, especially since they happened to be wielding the biggest stick.

As my book repeatedly demonstrates, that was exactly the policy pursued by the Western powers until real war broke out in the summer of 1991. Inertia did play a large role, as Prof. Kanin rightly points out, but it was not the only, or even the most important, factor explaining Western policy. To get back to the case of Slovenian liberalization and democratization – inertia alone obviously cannot explain the fact that the Yugoslav Army received Western signals of support for its possible (and contemplated) intervention in Slovenia at the peak of the Mladina affair in 1988 (p. 28-29), as well as during the crisis with the Slovenian constitutional amendments in 1989 (p. 60). Just as inertia alone could not explain a host of other Western policies toward Yugoslavia during the period covered in my book: from the lack of real Western condemnation of the violence against the Kosovo Albanians in early 1989 (with the notable exception of the US Congress) (pp. 39-42); to Cutileiro’s and Carrington’s blackmail of Alija Izetbegovic with the military might of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, and with the withholding of the international recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in March 1992 (pp. 294-300).

The important thing to note is that the foreign policy apparatuses of all Western powers – including Germany – subscribed to this rationale until real war broke out in the summer of 1991. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung may have been making a clear distinction between Yugoslavia’s “democratic northwest” and “Communist Belgrade” (as did a number of other press houses elsewhere in the West), but such distinctions did not have any real effect on Germany’s policy toward Yugoslavia. What changed Bonn’s outlook on the crisis were the extreme violence and the clear aggression, first of the JNA on Slovenia, and then of Serbia on Croatia. As I argue in the concluding chapter of my book (p. 307),

The nature and the aims of the Serbian aggression galvanized some of the most deeply ingrained principled ideas within the German foreign policy community: the idea of peaceful self-determination (which had been the basis for Germany’s reunification), the idea of strong anti-expansionism and anti-irredentism (which stemmed from Germany’s own World War II traumas), and the idea of a strong commitment to the growing capability of European multilateral institutions (which was the foundation of Germany’s post–World War II foreign policy). It was Milosevic’s challenge to these three principled ideas which shifted the spotlight of German foreign policy makers away from their material interests in the continuing existence of Yugoslavia – and if any country had real material interests in the perpetuation of the Yugoslav federation, it was Germany – to the moral interests of self-determination for Yugoslavia’s republics and Europe’s strong resistance to Serbia’s expansionism.

The point is that Germany’s policy shift cannot be, as Prof. Kanin does, viewed outside the context of the extreme violence which was unleashed on Croatia and was threatened to be unleashed on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prof. Kanin’s suggestion that Germany pursued the policy of recognition of Slovenia and Croatia without consideration for what would happen for the rest of the federation is false. As my book shows, Germany had a clear preference for the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Slovenia and Croatia, but was forced to take a back seat due to the intense criticism it was subjected to, primarily by Britain and France. Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, the Western diplomatic, humanitarian, and military effort in Bosnia and Herzegovina thus reverted back to the very same mistakes which marred its inglorious beginnings in Slovenia and Croatia. Had my book been longer than the already lengthy 432 pages, and had it continued into the Bosnian war, the analysis would have not only shown Milosevic repeatedly hoodwinking the Westerners, as Prof. Kanin suggests. It would have shown a long record of ultimately unsuccessful Western struggles to shake off their impulses of Realpolitik and appeasement – impulses which culminated with what Prof. Kanin rightfully labels the needless mistake of Dayton.

Dr. Josip Glaurdic is Junior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge. He earned his PhD in Political Science in 2009 at Yale University.

An immediate response by David B. Kanin:


Thank you very much for taking the time to consider my review and respond to it. I am just about to get on a plane to Istanbul and then other places, so I hope you will not be offended by this very quick response.

First, you mischaracterize just a bit my comments on your treatment of Ante Markovic. In fact, I believe you gave him the right amount of attention and only would quibble with minor points of what you say about him. In fact, I meant to use your appropriate consideration of his shortcomings and failures to take a shot at those who have built up a mythology that he was a would-be liberal alternative to Milosevic and the others who brought Yugoslavia down.

When it comes to Slovenia, the issue is not whether its leaders were sincere about a society more open than Milosevic’s Serbia. The issue is whether – even before Milosevic came to power – they were sincere in their commitment to maintaining Yugoslavia at all. I believe they were not – they knew no re-tinkered “confederation” would hold together and prepared the ground carefully and over time to get out. You believe otherwise – I look forward to more exchanges with you on this point. In my view, part of the problem here is – as I wrote in my review – your narrow focus (1987-1992) just does not cover enough ground to consider the context and follow-on impact of your spot-on assessment of Western disarray and contradictory policies.

As to Bismarck – I agree he knew little about the Balkans, which is why he kept his country out of the region and worried about the implications of how Russia and Austro-Hungary played out their rivalry in the region. I must confess a little disappointment that your comments focused on Bismarck more than my critique of your treatment of Genscher and German policy in 1990-2.

On the later issue, I agree with you entirely that Germany’s policy shift cannot be considered separately from the context of the violence unleashed on Croatia (but not just Croatia). I disagree with your book’s contention that the Germans put the same priority on Bosnia’s independence as on Croatia’s – if that were the case they would not have been ready to drop the issue in reaction to the chaos in the policies of other Europeans until the Americans belatedly stepped in.

These are details, albeit not all minor ones. I want to stress again how valuable I believe your book is – I very much look forward to learning from the fruits of your future research. If I can ever be of any assistance to you, please let me know.

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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