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

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

Suggested Reading

Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

Almost all observers agree that the international community handled the breakup of Yugoslavia poorly. John Gillingham, for example, has called it “a running diplomatic fiasco.”[89] The Europeans had difficulty dealing with the situation, first because they were divided among themselves not only in their ability to coordinate national foreign policies but also in the overlapping and sometimes conflicting international organizations that became involved. The United States, NATO, the United Nations, the CSCE, the European Union, and many NGOs all played their parts, not always in a coordinated way. The Badinter Commission, consisting of constitutional experts whose job was to deal with legal and technical issues in a volatile and rapidly developing situation, provided the rationales that supported a de facto policy of accepting the breakup of Yugoslavia, and especially by conceding the right of Serbs in Bosnia to define themselves as a constituent people rather than a minority. The West also was unwilling to use force where it might have been effective. In October 1991, when Serbian and Montenegrin forces began shelling Dubrovnik, a strike by NATO forces on the Serbian artillery positions and a rag-tag supporting fleet in the Adriatic would have sent a clear message that aggression would be met by force. The failure to do so only confirmed the conclusion already reached by the Serbian military, on the basis of its study of the First Gulf War, that overt Western, particularly American and NATO, military intervention in Yugoslavia, was highly unlikely.[90] When a military intervention did occur, with the arrival of a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), it did not come to prevent aggression or conquest, but rather to enforce a ceasefire between the Serbs and Croats, a ceasefire that temporarily left 30 percent of Croatia in Serbian hands and freed up Serb forces in Bosnia. In short, the Europeans proved inexperienced in dealing with committed, intransigent parties in an area they considered less civilized than themselves. But at least the Europeans became involved. The United States, whose participation would prove essential in the end, stayed on the sidelines. By dithering and lack of firmness, the international community ended up by exacerbating the tensions that lay at the root of the conflict.

It is vital to recognize, however, that Europe did not create those tensions and was not responsible for the acts of those who instigated or carried out the wars, or for the ethnic cleansings, atrocities, and mutilations that characterized them. For a while, it was a pastime of those involved to find the ultimate blame. Not surprisingly, each ethnic group blamed one or more of the others. In unresolved situations, such as the one in Kosovo, that continues to be the case. Of the main leaders, it seems clear that Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and those around them bear the largest measure of responsibility for turning a difficult situation into a bloody and destructive war. In this they were abetted by Franjo Tudjman’s nationalism and lust for territory, the ineptitude of the European governments, and the passivity of the United States. And yet, one should not overlook the larger context in which these events took place. Most of the countries now members of the European Union themselves went through bloody and violent upheavals before the map of imperial Europe as it stood in about 1850 was fully redrawn into a map of more or less ethnically homogeneous states. The Yugoslavs were left behind in this process. The historian Holm Sundhaussen has called the short twentieth century from 1914 to 1989 “the lost century” for the Balkans.[91] While the rest of Europe was fighting a great civil war (1914-1945) that eventually cleared the decks for an entirely new and original structure of international interaction, the Balkan states were enmeshed in the difficult problems of establishing new states. After World War II they found themselves suffocated within the Soviet sphere, or in the case of Yugoslavia, under a dictatorship that seemed liberal only in comparison to the Soviet model. Consequently, when communism collapsed, none of the Yugoslav peoples had been through the difficult and complex process of negotiation and change that created the European Union. Instead, leaders such as Milošević and Tudjman, as well as their followers, retained ideas of national security and dignity that were at least two, and probably more, generations out of date. Milošević in particular believed he could use the issue of minority rights in a way that was consistent with the manner in which that issue was used for aggressive purposes by Germany during the interwar years.[92] But Europe had changed. Power based primarily on the seizure of territory was now considered illegitimate.

Clearly the kind of leadership that the Serbs and Croats received made a difficult situation not only worse, but much worse. The unwillingness of Europe and the United States to take forceful action early also played an important role in permitting a dangerous situation to careen out of control, at least until 1995. On the other hand, considering that the international system grants its legitimacy and authenticity primarily to nation-states, and given that human and minority rights have become a central tenet of that system, it is difficult to see how any leadership could have saved socialist Yugoslavia or reconstituted its republics into new states without serious conflict.

‘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.

Previous parts of the chapter ‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ are available through the following links:


89) Gillingham, European Integration, 281.

90) Gow, The Serbian Project, 102-13.

91) Holm Sundhaussen, “Das zwanzigste Jahrhundert als verlorenes Jahrhundert: Der Balkan und Europa,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte und Kultur Südosteuropas 3 (2001): 11-26.

92) This statement will raise a red flag with many readers who will accuse the author of comparing Milošević to Hitler. Milošević was several rungs below Hitler in his impact, his racism, and his cold brutality. However, even in the 1920s, German governments
justified their aggressive policies toward East Central Europe by claiming that they were protecting German minorities. Carole Fink writes, “Between 1926 and 1933, Germany [was] . . . the foremost champion of minority rights” in Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 295. These arguments, as well as the ones used by the Nazis in the Sudetenland and Danzig, are functionally equivalent to those made by Serbia regarding Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s.

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