Winners and losers in the Balkans wars – lessons for Ukraine and the Levant

Absent genuine geopolitical interest in another country’s conflicts, the West should stay out of others’ civil wars lest it risks exacerbating them and contributing to chaos through elicitation of false hopes.

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Conflict Background


By Matthew Parish

Almost fifteen years after the end of the final Balkan war, the landscape of the Western Balkans has changed dramatically. Two of the countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia – Slovenia and Croatia – are now members of the European Union. Two more – Bosnia and Kosovo – persist in conditions of perennial political chaos. Minnow Montenegro is close to EU membership, while Serbia and Macedonia remain in conditions of tolerable political stability despite widespread poverty. In the late 1990s, as the post-Yugoslav political geography of the region was imposed through massive US political pressure, the future of the region remained uncertain. Now the more permanent political consequences of the events of that era have become clearer. This may be an appropriate juncture to reflect upon the medium-term successes and failures of those wars, and the legacy of conflict.

Slovenia was the principal beneficiary of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. It escaped the clutches of the Socialist Federal Republic relatively unscathed, in large part due to its ethnic homogeneity and geographical distance from Belgrade, the centre of federal power. With hindsight, the other success story has been Croatia. Although contemporary Croatia is poor, its prospects are relatively bright. In 1991 the nascent breakaway nation went to war with Serbia, a state with massive military superiority. Large swathes of its territory were annexed by Serb forces, that verged on rendering an independent Croatia untenable. Yet Croatia’s then President, Franjo Tudjman, played his limited cards with care. He watched calmly the international horror that erupted with media observation of atrocities in the Bosnian war; persuaded the Americans that supporting his cause was the best way of bringing the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table; initiated Operation Storm with American backing, to expel Serbs from Croatia’s secessionist regions; and secured Croatia’s territorial integrity and relative ethnic purity by the time the December 1995 Dayton Peace Accords fixed the region’s borders. With ethnic confrontation removed from the Croatian political equation, the country could gradually evolve into a mature democracy. With EU pressure, corruption is being combatted and old Yugoslav habits are gradually eliminated in favour of the norms characteristic of a modern European nation.

Bosnia was not so fortunate, because there was more to fight for. In 1991, the Serb population of Bosnia was perhaps 1.35 million people: far more than the number of Serbs who lived in Croatia. Hence Serb armed forces fought far harder to prevent Bosnia’s secession. The most multi-ethnic of Yugoslavia’s republics, the war there degenerated into militia massacres and murder of neighbours. It need not have been so, but early European plans for peaceful cantonal partition were scuttled by inept western diplomacy. After massive population expulsions and almost four years of senseless violence, the republic’s multi-ethnic polity could not be resurrected. The Serbs were largely held to blame by the international community for what had happened. Whatever the merits of that assessment, its consequences for Serbia were catastrophic. The country suffered from long-term isolation, international military attack in 1999 to suppress its civil conflict in Kosovo, dismemberment with the independence of Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008), and intervening economic rot.

Kosovo has remained perhaps the most dysfunctional country in the region, but the reasons are more long-standing. Low-level civil war had existed between Serbs and Albanians since at latest the 1980s and arguably much earlier. The region had always been lawless; despite the theoretical advantage of relative ethnic purity (over 90% of the population is Albanian), the area has lacked effective institutions due to neglect during the socialist period and remains a near-anarchy. Macedonia managed its ethnic conflicts more effectively but remains impoverished, as during the Yugoslav period.

Slovenia (and possibly Croatia) aside, a contemporary snapshot of the countries formerly comprising Yugoslavia is not attractive. The region appears at least a decade behind a number of its Eastern European neighbours, despite its reputation for relative affluence and openness during the Communist era. Can this contemporary malaise be attributed solely to the consequences of civil war? Arguably the answer is no. Part of the reason why the modern current Southern Slavic states are unsuccessful is not just ethnic tensions (Hungary and Slovakia have their own nationalist problems) but because communism in Socialist Yugoslavia was perceived by the populace as a successful political model. Tito’s Yugoslavia was a far more benign place to live in than the Eastern European sovereign Soviet satellite states. The urge towards democracy, and the politics of compromise this entails, was all the more difficult for the Yugoslavs to embrace because their prior system apparently work well.

We now know this was a fiction. Socialist Yugoslavia lived on loans, proffered by both sides in the Cold War. Its non-aligned status was imperilled fatally when the Cold War was lost and won. Its capacity to trade off competing bribes from East and West was diminished, and the underlying economic malaise was laid bare. The artificiality of a country created from the ruins of Empire at the end of the First World War was revealed; similar languages were insufficient to sustain political unity where ethnic animosities had proven themselves historically ingrained. Economic deterioration and the collapse of elitist communist power structures in favour of populist democracy reinvigorated ethnic frictions in the country’s politics.

The international community spotted and reacted to this too late. By the time they took any sort of action, tens of thousands of people had died and millions had been displaced. By the time international community pressure was brought properly to bear to end civil war in the summer of 1995, the political consequences of military action were irreversible. Croatia become a wholly independent ethnic Croat state because it had successfully expelled its minorities. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a series of internal political divisions based upon ethnic cleansing and informal local government structures became permanent, enshrined in the Dayton Peace Accords. Those division have proven irreversible, notwithstanding subsequent international oversight and diplomatic pressure. After ethnic civil wars, the facts on the ground cannot be reversed unless an international power is prepared to resort to the same grizzly tactics as the competing sides in a civil war. There is a reason why ethnic cleansing is prevalent in civil wars: it is the most effective tool in permanently altering the political landscape. Once it begins, there is virtually nothing the international community can do to reverse it.

These lessons should be born in mind in the evolving contemporary civil wars, but often they are not. In Ukraine, Crimea has been annexed by Russia. That military fact is irreversible, absent the use by the west of military force against the Russian army. That will not happen because the Russian military is too powerful. Hence diplomatic and economic sanctions are valueless; any western intervention is already too late. If sanctions could not force the Bosnians to comply with the West’s wishes, they are unlikely to make much of an impact upon the Russians who have incomparably greater military and economic resources. For the same reason, contemporary interference in Eastern and Southern Ukraine by Russian special forces, supporting splinter groups seeking secession or devolution of power from Kiev, is unlikely to be tempered by crude economic sanctions. If a country has an existential policy goal, as Russia does in dividing or weakening the Ukrainian state to ensure it cannot join NATO or forge a closer alliance with the European Union, sanctions are likely to be of little effect. At the time of writing western nations are engaged in interminable debate about how to deal with Russia’s campaign to destabilise the Ukrainian polity. But the west has no strategic interest in Ukraine’s future, whereas Russia does. Long fearing invasion from its west, Russia is determined that Ukraine will not fall into a western orbit, and needs to keep control over factories in eastern Ukraine that service its nuclear arsenal. Russia’s steps in destabilising Ukraine, to achieve these strategic goals, have therefore been decisive and effective.

The western response has been inefficacious and will continue to be so, because the principal relationship the west has with Russia is economic and not one of territorial competition. Effective sanctions would cause damage to western countries that trade with and invest in Russia. Russian interference in Ukraine has no discernible economic consequences for the west, because Ukraine is poor. Hence the country’s future will lie at the mercy of Moscow. Western policy on Ukraine was half-heartedly intervention: to support revolution in Kiev against a distasteful but democratically elected President in favour of a western-leaning regime, without harbouring a strategic interest in the future of the country. Intervention without strategic interests is unwise, as the recent history of the Balkan wars shows. Whatever political changes Russia manages to wreak upon Ukraine, including annexation of territory and dramatic decentralisation of power in favour of Moscow-leaning regions, those changes will be irreversible. Only the presence of western armed forces at an early stage could have prevented Russian military intervention with all the permanent consequences that entails. No western country was ever going to send those troops, because Ukraine does not matter to the west.

The civil war in Syria, which now appears to be reaching its final stages, exhibits a parallel pattern. The Ba’athist government’s allies, Russia and Iran, always had a far stronger interest in the country’s future than the foreign allies of the Sunni opposition. For Iran it is a matter of existential struggle against Sunni Islam, and maintaining a route to supplying the Shia Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. For Russia, Syria remains its sole military foothold in the Mediterranean and one of the few Middle Eastern countries that Russia considers an ally. By contrast the international opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus regime, although numerous, had competing agendas and could never coordinate. Qatar funded religious conservatives; Saudi Arabia funded comparative moderates. Turkey wanted merely to keep its own borders secure and to prevent inflammation of tensions with its Kurdish minority (many of whom live in proximity to the Syrian border); the west had no interest of substance in Syria, because like Ukraine and Bosnia the country is poor and its internal ethno-religious conflicts make no difference to them.

None of these countries had any substantial economic or political connections with Syria. Their participation in the Syrian Civil War had more to do with a Great Game scenario, in which rival powers compete for influence just for the sake of it, than participating in a conflict for the sake of some identifiable and valuable strategic goal. Accordingly the Syrian civil war persisted in earnest only for so long as countries with a mixture of competing and half-hearted agendas meddled in a contradictory and half-hearted fashion. Al-Assad’s regime counted upon this. Although initially it lost large swathes of territory to different rebel forces, in the longer run Damascus appreciated that its military and financial backers would outlast those of its opponents. The Syrian civil war has been a one-sided proxy war in which Russia and Iran outlasted their proxy opponents. This was not difficult, because substantially more was at stake for them.

Proxy wars are a common cause of ethnic conflict. Serbia stoked foment in Bosnia and Croatia, as part of a vision for an enlarged Serbia-dominated territory. Russia is intervening by proxy in Ukraine, through support for the militia of a so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk. The Syrian Civil War was a proxy war between Shia’s and their allies, started by the Sunnis and their allies as an escalation from Arab Spring political demonstrations. The suffering caused by proxy state aggravation of ethnic hostility is immense. Nevertheless the international policymaker must be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved through intervention. Ethnic hostilities, whether between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, Russians and Ukrainians, or Sunni and Shi’a, once evoked become phenomenally hard to quell. In time the inter-ethnic violence they engender precipitates permanent political changes.Hand-wringing and ineffective western foreign policy instruments, such as sanctions and diplomatic isolation, matter little when weighed against the strategic goals mandated by the Realpolitik of the countries with real interests in the dispute.

This, at its heart, is the most compelling argument against western humanitarian intervention. Humanitarianism is a laudable motive, but no substitute for raw strategic interests. Absent genuine geopolitical interest in another country’s conflicts, the West should stay out of others’ civil wars lest it risks exacerbating them and contributing to chaos through elicitation of false hopes. This may be the most important lesson from the Balkan wars of the 1990s for the ethnic conflicts and civil wars infecting the world in 2014.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and was formerly an international civil servant based in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is a frequent writer and commentator upon both international law and international relations. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, and Bilan magazine named him as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. His third book, Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law, will be published later this year.

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