bosnia report
New Series No. 9/10 April - July 1999
Kosova and regional stability
by Branka Magas

For almost a decade now the area of former Yugoslavia has been at war. All the region's nations have suffered, though not all in equal measure. All, however, want the war to end and peace to return: not peace merely in the sense of a protracted cease-fire, but long-lasting, stable peace. But stable peace is inconceivable without the states inhabiting the region becoming fully democratic. States that can be run only by force and that are inherently unable to evolve a democratic system of government are generators of instability. This was true of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary at the start of the century; it proved true of Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941 and again at the end of the1980s; and it is true of what goes under the name of FRY today.

Lessons of history

Up to 1918 the West was committed to the survival of Austria-Hungary for the sake of European stability, despite the empire's evident and growing instability. This instability derived from its internal organisation, which precluded it from becoming a democratic state. In 1914 its ruling elite chose to go to war in or der to save an unworkable political system, but the war only hastened its disso lution: Czechs and Slovaks left to form Czechoslovakia, Poles to join a restored Poland, and Slovenes, Croats and Serbs to form the first Yugoslavia. All the non-Serb nations incorporated within this latter creation found themselves disappointed, especially those Albanians who against their will ended up in Yu goslavia.

The first Yugoslavia was even more unstable than Austria-Hungary had been, due to its relative novelty, its greater internal incoherence, and the higher aspirations - and consequent sharper disappointment - of its constituent nation alities. By supporting Serbian domination within it, Britain and France greatly contributed to the first Yugoslavia's inability to produce a viable democracy, hence also to its break-up in 1941.

The second - post-1945 - Yugoslavia unlike the first was organised as a federal state, in which each of the constituent nationalities was able to run its own affairs. Kosova too emerged as a separate and eventually self-governing politi cal subject. This Yugoslavia was consequently much more stable: so stable, in deed, that the Communist government felt able to open the country's borders, play an active international role, and considerably relax the centralism typical of Communist systems. Its growing democratisation was resisted, however, especially in the 1980s, by two anti-democratic forces: orthodox Communists, strong especially in the JNA high command, and Great Serb nationalists (in other words, the same Red-Brown coalition that in Russia today dreams of restoring the Russian-dominated Soviet Empire). This anti-democratic coalition, bent on re-centralising Yugoslavia, found its representative in Slobodan Milosevic. Belgrade's determination to rule Yugoslavia against the will of its constituent parts led to the country's break-up in 1991.

A new Europe

In the momentous flood of change which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of new states emerged in Europe quite peacefully. Some were more and some less multinational, some were more and some less respectful of national minority rights, but all were recognised by the West within their existing borders. This rebirth of Europe was undoubtedly made possible by the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. If one is to look for an explanation of why this proved impossible in the case of Yugoslavia, one must take into account the different respective attitudes the West adopted towards the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Whereas the West, and the United States in particular, invested considerable ef forts in bringing an end to the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe even if this meant the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, in the case of Yugoslavia it was more preoccupied with keeping the country together than with encouraging its internal democratisation. Yugoslavia as a result escaped the full blast of `hu man rights' propaganda during the vital decade of the 1980s. It was never ex posed to the scrutiny of the Helsinki Accords in the sphere of human rights, even when massive repression against Kosovar Albanians accelerated, leading to the forcible removal of Kosova's autonomy. Serbia was allowed to annex Kosova without any protest from the West, although in doing so it abolished one of the fundamental principles of stability in the Yugoslav area: the principle of inviolability of the existing borders. Those who wish to refresh their memories should look back at the way the British press covered Milosevic's rise to power against the background of this annexation. He was hailed as a `new Tito' - i.e. someone who could keep Yugoslavia together!

The West thus repeated the error committed by Britain and France in the inter- war period. It once again banked on Serbia to hold Yugoslavia together. It assumed that Yugoslavia's survival - not the quality of its political and constitutional settlement - would guarantee regional stability. But what was possible in the 1919-39 period had become impossible by the end of the 1980s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it was no longer possible to keep the nations of Yugoslavia under Belgrade's rule against their will. Instead of securing Yu goslavia's peaceful dissolution, however, the West permitted Serbia to start waging wars of domination and wagered on its victory. Appeasement - not punish ment - of Milosevic became the chief feature of Western policy throughout the 1990s, with what results we know. The main generator of instability and war was courted as the chief factor of stability and peace. The West directly connived with Serbia in destabilising the region, by accepting two basic tenets of its policy:

  1. that existing borders can be changed by force;
  2. that the new political borders should be based on ethnicity.
This led it to accept in practice genocide as a deplorable yet legitimate instrument of war: legitimate in the sense that the West proved ready at differ ent times not only to accept it by default, but to formalise its results in in ternational treaties. The ethnically-cleansed Republika Srpska Krajina, which was created under UN auspices within the UNPA zones of Croatia, would have re mained Serbia's westernmost outpost if Zagreb had not had recourse to military action. The ethnically-cleansed Republika Srpska, created by Belgrade, was le gitimised at Dayton. Western insistence that Kosova was and must remain part of Serbia permitted Belgrade to organise and execute the displacement of a million and a half Albanians from their homes and their own country. Western policy in the area of former Yugoslavia directly contributed, in other words, to war and instability in the Balkan region.

Inability to learn from the past

The compromise peace now brokered for Kosova displays yet again Western inabil ity to learn from the past. If the history of the Yugoslav wars has taught us anything it is that each time a compromise peace has been achieved in one part of the former Yugoslav region, the war has spread to another. In 1992 the ar rival of UN troops in Croatia allowed Serbia to attack Bosnia. In 1995 the Day ton peace brought a NATO-led international force to Bosnia in order, among other things, to secure the continued existence of Republika Srpska, permitting Milosevic to turn his attention to Kosova. The compromise peace of Rambouillet was followed by Belgrade's attack on Kosova. The latest compromise has once again needed Milosevic's consent, despite the fact that in the meantime he has been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal for crimes against human ity. As in Bosnia so also in Kosova, an international peace-keeping presence may bring an end to war, but it will not establish a stable peace.

Stable peace can be achieved only by democratic states. Democracy in Serbia, however, is inconceivable so long as Serbia is permitted to retain Kosova, be it only nominally; just as it is inconceivable that Kosova can develop self-sustaining democratic institutions unless it is allowed to do so freely and of its own people's will. We have seen how in Bosnia a compromise peace has led to an unworkable state structure, and consequently to a fatal abrogation of the principle of responsible government which lies at the foundation of all democ racy. The compromise deal that the West has struck with Belgrade today contains a very real danger that Belgrade's colonial rule in Kosova will be replaced by an unworkable international tutelage, in view not only of UN Security Council divisions but also of the promised return of a Serbian state presence to a country whose human and material substance Serbia has done so much to destroy.

The war and destruction visited upon Kosova and Serbia could have been avoided, if the West had decided to respect the political settlement embodied in the Yugoslav constitution of 1974 - a constitution which bestowed effective sovereignty to its eight constituent parts, one of which was Kosova. But instead of accepting in 1991 the fact that Yugoslavia's dissolution had severed all legal ties between Serbia and Kosova, the West simply replaced its previous stubborn defence of Yugoslavia's integrity - maintained even after the country had fallen apart - by an equally stubborn defence of the integrity of FRY. This handed to Milosevic his strongest propaganda weapon, and directly impeded any clean break with the chimera of a Greater Serbia: a break that is absolutely vital for Serbia's future.

Yet it is perfectly obvious that FRY is an artificial state: an inherently unstable construction - far more so than the former Yugoslavia ever was - which will never be able to develop a democratic system of government. It was created and has been held together by a regime that has kept going only by making war and fomenting instability. If stability is to return to the Balkans, then this generator of instability must be switched off. Unless the process of dissolution of Yugoslavia is allowed to be completed and FRY dissolved into its component parts, thus setting Kosova on a path to independence, it will be impossible to build a peaceful and democratic state system in southeastern Europe.

Based on a talk given at the monthly forum of The Bosnian Institute in London, 10 May 1999


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