Examining the crucial turning point in the Former Yugoslavia
By Merdina Ljekperic
For people in the United States, the term “Red Scare” denotes an era of paranoia and fear of communism, specifically from the Soviet Union. Moving much closer west, however, it was the very fall of communism that brought about a different type of red scare. The fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, brought about by rising ethnic, political and economic tension, erupted in the form of the Balkan Wars and later the Kosovo War. They resulted in the deaths of almost 200,000 and the displacement of more than 3.2 million, making them the bloodiest events in Europe since the Holocaust. The most chilling “red” in the Balkans is not its communist past, but the often overlooked bloody wars fraught with ethnic cleansing and genocide that followed.
Despite arriving far too late to prevent the deaths of thousands and displacement of millions, Western powers intervened in the Balkans through the negotiation of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which brought an end to the war in Bosnia, the NATO bombings during the Kosovo conflict, and post-conflict negotiations of the Kosovo state. The short-term solutions made by international powers have become a huge part of the problem, keeping the Balkans at a socioeconomic and political stalemate. Overlapping international, regional and domestic bodies have created a complex, patchwork bureaucratic web that has hindered any progress in the region.
As a result of the missing long-term solutions that the international community failed to address at the end of the wars, the region is now red again—but this time, it’s on red alert. With growing tension in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the disputed state of Kosovo and hopes for integration into the European community, the Balkans are at a huge turning point. Attention must be given, government institutions must be restructured, and negotiations must be brokered. Otherwise, the weak central government intuitions, flawed constitutions and the issues of corruption, poverty and organized crime that arise as a result will pull the final threads of the Balkan system apart, allowing this regrettably ignored region of Europe to fall into further disarray.
The Ethnicization of a Constitution
The two most pressing issues in the region lie in the two states that have been most affected by Western intervention: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The 1995 Dayton Agreement, signed by Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian leaders but brokered by Western powers, was not just a peace agreement: It set up the very constitution and structure of Bosnia. That same structure is now a great obstacle in the nation’s progress because it placed ethnic segregation at the heart of the constitution.
It split up the country into two autonomous entities divided by ethnicity: Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the Federation and Serbs in the Republika Srpska. It also established “entity voting,” which allows the Serbian parliamentary minority the power to veto almost anything in parliament they deem to be against their “entity’s interest.” In addition, it created the country’s tripartite presidency made up of a Croat, a Serb and a Bosnian, thus excluding any minority group from running for high office. The agreement solidified the role of nationalism by placing a real political interest behind it.
Florian Bieber, professor for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, said, “In Bosnia, you need to appeal to your ethnic group and that, of course, you do most easily by appealing to nationalism. That is a problem with the system. There is no incentive to appeal to more than one ethnic group, to try to be more accommodating or more moderate.”
Elections in Bosnia have reflected that to this day, where the vast majority only votes for candidates of the same ethnicity.
The Bureaucratic Overlap
As if the domestic government wasn’t cluttered enough, the agreement also created the Office of the High Representative, a foreign minister (who is currently Austrian), and the Peace Implementation Council comprised of 55 countries and agencies to oversee the civilian implementation of the agreement. Often considered to have the most clout in Bosnia, the OHR remains the decision-maker between the two entities to ensure peace. Because international and national administrative complexity isn’t enough, the role of regional groups in Bosnia, like the EUPM, EUFOR and OSCE, must also be noted.
This administrative complexity, where regional, national and international players share overlapping responsibilities, is not only an issue in Bosnia, but in Kosovo as well—the newest independent nation in the Balkans. UN Resolution 1244 put an end to the war in Kosovo, a former Serb entity that has a population made up of about 90 percent Albanians. Harking back to the institutional complexity of Bosnia, the resolution cut all Serbian authority over Kosovo and placed Kosovo indefinitely under the administration of external bodies like the UNMIK and KFOR. It is at this very moment that many feel the greatest error occurred.
“The West should have allowed Kosovo to declare independence right away after the Kosovo War,” said Ruben Avxhiu, editor-in-chief of Illyria, the only bilingual Albanian-American newspaper. It would have been easily accepted then by all the sides. We are left now with a long-term crisis that will take years to be fixed.”
Kosovo has since declared its independence in 2008 and, although the ICJ declared that declaration legal in 2010 and a number of countries have recognized the tiny nation, Serbia fervently denies its legitimacy, and no signs point to any change in that stance.
“In 1999, right after the war, Kosova* should have been recognized,” said Shirley Cloyes-DioGuardi, Balkan Affairs adviser to the Albanian American Civic League. “As a result, ever since, because we didn’t do that, we have this overlay of international structures, billions of dollars spent and very little to show for it in the end.”
Here again, the negative impact of that exact complex of international bodies is seen. In addition to the fixed structures created by the resolution, there’s also EULEX and the ICO, similar to the OHR in Bosnia, along with parallel structures of Serb minorities in the north and south and the Kosovo government.
The EU Roadmap
While it is clear that the international community has been part of the problem, there is still an appropriate role for them in the region. These nations all strive first and foremost for integration in the European community. The incentive for them to reform and to act according to the guidelines and standards of the Western community is vital. It is crucial, however, that the decisions made are their own—not those imposed by the West.
“You can’t impose a functioning system from outside,” Bieber said. “It has to come from within. … It has to be perceived by its citizens as being its own and not some external imposition. And part of the problem in Bosnia is that a good part of the population sees the institutions it has as not their own, but as something which was imposed by the internationals. … But you certainly need international, external systems to provide guidance and to provide assistance with making that possible.”
Noting the same issue in Kosovo, Avxhiu said, “It is also indispensable that the European Union itself manage to unify the support for the independent Kosovo and continue its role of helping the new state, but without being too intrusive. The Kosovars need to make their own mistakes and learn from them, instead of being continually instructed and babysat by foreign supervisors.”
Foreign guidelines also play a key role in limiting another significant Balkan problem, arguably the one that started it all: corrupt, elite politicians. In his book, The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s, Ithaca College Associate Professor Chip Gagnon said, “The violence of the Yugoslav wars […] was a part of the strategy […] used by conservative elites in Serbia and Croatia, not in order to mobilize people, but rather as a way to demobilize those who were pushing for changes.” Subsequently, they secured their positions and their newfound wealth in the new liberal economic system. Gagnon goes on to explain that the conservative elites took advantage of that violence to create those nationalist identities that didn’t exist before.
The opportunity for EU integration would keep in check conservative elites who have an interest in maintaining that group mentality. Because all Balkan citizens want integration, politicians must push for reforms whether it is in their interest or not. The elites pursue it only to appease the people. Too often, politics, organized crime, corruption and nationalism have overlapped in the former Yugoslavia, but setting a EU standard for democracy, human rights and more would prevent that.
Yet, with the likelihood of EU integration so far away, the region still deals with standing politicians who do not have long-term incentives and only seek to maintain their positions in government. Kosovo politicians have been under harsh fire as a result of their dependence on international players. Former congressman and founder of the Albanian-American Civic League Joe DioGuardi said Kosova politicians “position themselves as puppets to Washington in order to keep their power.”
Recognizing the Past to Ensure a Future
Despite the current Serbian stance on Kosovo, progression of talks and stability is still a possibility. Taking into account the current Serbian political perspective on Kosovo, it is futile to demand immediate Serbian recognition of the nation. Yet, an easing of tensions could begin with an “agree-to-disagree” truce. Serbia doesn’t have to recognize it at this very moment, but Serbia should not be able to interfere with Kosovo’s entrance into international organizations. This, however, would require an easing of tension and greater discussion of the region’s history, which has had a sluggish progression.
Although there have been sporadic public apologies made by politicians, they have done little to truly discuss the context of the crimes committed. Thus, the culture of denial, especially within Serbia, has become a key part of the region’s failure to make advances.
“As soon as the war ended, Serbia began its propaganda campaign to create a false parity between the victims and the perpetrators,” said Cloyes-DioGuardi. “If we can say we were all guilty in some way, then we’re all the same. As long as Serbia did not have to acknowledge what it did in the way that Germany was forced to in 1945, it never is going to come to terms with its genocidal past.”
While statistics have actually shown a declining knowledge in Serbia of the war crimes committed, it is important to recognize that this same reluctance to discuss the past is an issue throughout the Balkans. In order to truly move forward and eliminate this culture of denial, there needs to be a special emphasis on the awareness of the media and education systems in the region.
“The same is in Kosovo, the same is in Croatia,” Bieber said. “It’s just that the scale of the crimes committed in the name of Serbia in the 1990s is greater so the denial is greater. We need a process that goes beyond just what politicians say. It’s going to be something which requires the involvement of the educational system, of the media, which really has more of an impact on the social perception overall.”
“A nation refuses introspection for its own peril,” Avxhiu said. That stands correct not just for Serbia, not just for the Balkans as a whole, but for Western nations as well. Changing that is a crucial first step to creating long-term solutions in the Balkans.
Bieber said, “There’s certainly not enough awareness of the failure of the West to prevent the wars. There’s a great, shared responsibility of many Western countries enabling the violent disputes of Yugoslavia. Without the international context and the neglect externally, it would have never happened. … They could have probably prevented the war with very little effort. Maybe Yugoslavia couldn’t have been saved as a country, but certainly its dissolution would have been a lot less violent.”
The New Balkan Battlefield
This is the story of the Balkan Wars that Westerners have failed to tell. It is not too late, however, to avoid repeating past mistakes—such as ignoring the dynamic, tumultuous region. The Balkans are under threat again, but not of falling back into bloody conflict. The war is not being fought on the battlefield, but rather, on the political stage. The patchwork quilt of international, regional and domestic bodies sewn by the West for the Balkans has worn out—it is shredded and torn apart. Its failure has left the region exposed to corruption, economic downfall, organized crime and trafficking.
Western powers must accept their role as the ones who set the standards and create the incentives, guidelines and roadmaps for the Balkan nations to create their own long-term solutions. With the effective implementation of these solutions, they have the potential to become stable, integral members of the European community.
“A common future as Europeans is the only hope for both the sons of the tormentors and the sons of the victims,” said Avxhiu. “While many Serbs feel their land was stolen and many Albanians feel that the Serbs have avoided punishment for their crimes. We should not forget that letting go and forgiving are the ultimate sacrifices. And the people of the Balkans owe [those sacrifices] to their future generations.”
Merdina Ljekperic is a sophomore journalism and politics major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* “Kosovo is the Serbian name of the territory, while “Kosova” is the Albanian name. The author has chosen to use the Serbian name, “Kosovo,” that is standard in most English-language publications, but no quotations were altered.
This article has been modified since its original publication. Shirley Cloyes-DioGuardi was originally referenced as Balkan adviser to the Albanian American Civic League, but her position is Balkan Affairs adviser to the organization.