The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part eight

TransConflict is pleased to present the eighth part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

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Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

The international community, distracted in part by the East European revolutions of 1989, the unification of Germany in the fall of 1990, and the First Iraq War in the spring of 1991, did not provide the worsening situation in the former Yugoslavia the aggressive attention that a worsening situation there might normally have called for [56] On the other hand, the new geopolitical situation encouraged the Europeans to feel themselves well positioned to assume responsibility for maintaining stability in the Balkans. As one European diplomat put it, “This is the Hour of Europe, not of America”[57] The United States, already beginning to look forward to a presidential election in 1992, agreed. It had no intention of getting involved in a messy situation in the Balkans where the costs were likely to be high and the payoff for American interests low. The Bush administration was perfectly willing to let the Europeans confront the worsening situation in Yugoslavia on their own.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the European Union had greatly refined the criteria it used to pass judgment on East European states aspiring to membership. When Yugoslavia was collapsing in the early 1990s, however, the European Community and NATO had little relevant experience dealing with the region, let alone with militant and recalcitrant nationalists. Hindered by widespread ignorance of Balkan affairs and hampered by the fact that NATO considered the Balkans “out of area” for military measures, European leaders imagined they could simply direct the unruly contestants to calm down and accept reasonable solutions to their minority problems.[58] Thus, when Serbian forces began to attack Croatian targets late in 1990 and when the violence escalated in 1991, the European Community equivocated. The first concerted action was the meeting that took place on Brioni shortly after Croatia and Slovenia declared “dissociation” from Yugoslavia. At this meeting it became clear that the head of the European delegation, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans Van den Broek, had little idea of the issues at stake. When Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Ante Marković sought to present proposals for keeping Yugoslavia together, thereby maintaining Yugoslavia’s system of eliding the minority issue, Van den Broek simply ignored him and “stormed out of the room muttering, in English, according to Slovenian president Milan Kučan, ‘What a people! What a country!’” [59] Without actually making a considered decision on the matter, the European negotiators from the first implicitly accepted the nationalists’ view that Yugoslavia was breaking up, thereby tacitly withdrawing support from the many Yugoslavs who wanted to keep the country together. The best the European negotiators could do at Brioni was to get Slovenia and Croatia to accept a 90-day moratorium on their declarations of independence. The Slovenian case proved relatively unproblematic because Slovenia lacked a significant Serb minority. Accordingly, Kučan was able to reach an agreement with Slobodan Milošević fairly quickly that permitted Slovenia to go its way. In fact, as Sabrina Ramet reports, as early as January 1991, “in exchange for Milošević’s assurances that Belgrade had no territorial pretensions vis-à-vis Slovenia, [Kučan] assured Milošević of his ‘understanding’ for Milošević’s interest in uniting all Serbs in a greater Serbia.”[60] Nevertheless, the Europeans took credit for the quick end of the hostilities in Slovenia, thus increasing their confidence in their ability to deal with the situation, although in fact European diplomacy had little to do with it.

Early in September 1991, as conditions deteriorated following the Brioni meeting, the EC convened a Conference on Yugoslavia and appointed Peter Lord Carrington as its chief negotiator. Despite constant meetings, occasional agreements, and many proposals, as the fall wore on Carrington found it difficult if not impossible to bring the negotiations to closure. A key moment came in October, when five of the six Yugoslav republics accepted, in principle at least, a plan that would reconstitute Yugoslavia as a federation or alliance of “sovereign and independent republics with international personality for those that wish it; a free association of the republics with an international personality, and comprehensive arrangements…for the protection of human rights and special status for certain groups and areas.”[61] The one republic that did not accept this proposal was Serbia. Invoking the principles that had been the norm in socialist Yugoslavia, Milošević argued that such an agreement would turn Serbs living in non-Serbian republics from a “nation” into a “national minority.” [62] He insisted that instead of national minorities, Serbs should be considered “sovereign” in those republics. Of course, he was not willing to grant the same sovereign status to the Albanians living in the province of Kosovo. Serb leaders saw nothing wrong with this illogical position. As Radovan Karadžić put it, “Serbs have a right to territory not only where they’re now living but also where they’re buried, since the earth they lie in was taken unjustly from them.” When asked if that meant Kosovars or Bosniaks should have the same right, he replied “Of course not, because Croats are fascists and Muslims are Islamic fanatics.”[63] The Conference on Yugoslavia gave the Serbs until November 5th to accept the plans for federation, which included “the principles of no unilateral change of borders, protection of human rights and rights of ethnic and national groups.” These “constitute universal, objective standards,” the Conference claimed, “which leave no room for compromise.” If that does not occur, the declaration continued, “the Conference will proceed with the cooperative republics to obtain a political solution, in the perspective of recognition of the independence of those republics wishing it…”[64] In other words, Serbia was informed that unless it gave up its demand for Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia to be “sovereign” and accepted their minority status, it could expect the European powers to recognize the independence of the other Yugoslav republics
without further attention to Serbian concerns.

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


56) For a detailed discussion of the international reaction to the dissolution of the SFRY, see chapter 5, “The International Community and the FRY/Belligerents, 1989-1997,” whose primary author is Matjaž Klemenčić. Dr. Klemenčić also made significant contributions to this chapter.

57) Quoted by John Gillingham, European Integration 1950-2003: Superstate or New Market Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 282. James Gow, Triumph of the Lack of Will: International Diplomacy and the Yugoslav War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), characterizes this statement as “much derided” (48).

58) Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, 150.

59) Silber and Little, Death of a Nation, 164-65; Woodward, Balkan Tragedy, 169.

60) Sabrina Ramet, interview with Milan Kučan, 6 September 1999, in “Competing Narratives of Resentment and Blame: Historical Memory, Revitalization, and the Causes of the Yugoslav Meltdown,” interim report to the Scholars’ Initiative Project, 31–32,
available at

61) “Peace Conference on Yugoslavia: Arrangements for General Settlement [The Socalled Carrington Draft Convention],” The Hague, 18 October 1991, in Yugoslavia Through Documents: From Its Creation to Its Dissolution, ed. Snežana Trifunovska
(Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1994), 357.

62) Note that according to the Constitution of Bosnia-Hercegovina adopted in December 1995 as part of the Dayton Accords, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs are all considered “constituent peoples (along with Others)” of the new state.

63) Zimmerman, Origins of a Catastrophe, 175.

64) “[EC] Declaration on the Situation in Yugoslavia,” Brussels, 28 October 1991, in Trifunovska 1994, 368-69.

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