Avoiding Srebrenica Redux

Twenty years ago, the United States and Europe failed the people of Bosnia. Here’s how they can do better this time in Ukraine.

(FOREIGN POLICY 15 MAR 14) … Paul Hockenos

The situation in Crimea is looking dicier by the day. Plans for a divisive March 16 referendum are plowing ahead, despite U.S. and EU pleas. The Russian military is amassing thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. And, in a hint of what may be yet to come, hundreds of pro-Russia protesters clashed with pro-Kiev crowds in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, leaving several people dead. The crisis in the Ukraine shows every sign of escalating.

Nevertheless, those indulging in the hyperbole about the Ukraine-Crimea crisis being Europe’s “most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall” in 1989, as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it, have short historical memories. The gravest episode in the aftermath of communism’s demise remains the succession wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, where 150,000 Europeans lost their lives, where an army committed genocide, and when millions of refugees streamed into continental Europe and beyond. Twenty years down the road, Kosovo and Bosnia remain costly, unstable international protectorates with no end in sight. Things in Ukraine may look bad; they are not yet this bad.

And yet, anyone who followed the unfolding of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo is surely horrified today by the dynamics between Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian leadership, the people of Crimea, and citizens in the rest of Ukraine. The similarities to the Balkans of the 1990s are, in many ways, striking: Just as Serbia and Croatia cynically exploited the presence of their compatriots outside the borders of their republics, so too is Putin manipulating the welfare of the Russophone Crimeans as justification for cross-border military operations, the seizure of territory, and a phoney referendum. As in the Balkans, the media has been turned into the mouthpiece of extreme nationalists. Once again, there’s inadequate security architecture to defuse tensions; and then there’s the radicalization of nationalism which, when fanned so fiercely, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and, in the Balkans, led to Europe’s worst bloodshed since World War II.

Certainly, there are also key differences between the Balkans of the 1990s and today’s crisis in Eastern Europe. The Ukraine, for example, is nowhere as ethnically mixed as Bosnia was before the war. Both Ukrainians and Russia also have two decades of democracy, imperfect as it may be, under their belts, unlike the citizens of socialist Yugoslavia. Another difference: Russia is a superpower, unlike Milosevic’s Serbia. While the West vastly overestimated the might of the Serbian war machine, Russia’s arsenal, including nuclear weapons, is in another league entirely.

Even though the West has been caught flat-footed again, there are lessons from Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse that can prevent Ukraine from going the way of Bosnia – an absolute worst-case scenario.

Lesson 1: Don’t mistake political power plays for ethnic nationalism.

At the root of the wars in former Yugoslavia was not long-standing ethnic hatreds, as was repeated ad nauseum, but rather the agendas of political elites in Serbia and Croatia. Both Belgrade and Zagreb had their sights set on greater states: a Serbia carved out of the corpse of Tito’s Yugoslavia and a Croatian state from the Adriatic Sea to the Drina River. The justification that they were protecting kinsmen was a ruse that Western negotiators bought into – ultimately to the peril of exactly those kinsmen, most of whom lost their homes and livelihoods in the end.

By understanding the disintegration of Yugoslavia as first and foremost an ethnic conflict, the West played directly into the hands of nationalist leaders. All of the peace plans for Bosnia, including the Dayton Accords, accepted the logic of ethnic division to one degree or another. Serbs and Muslims were like “cats and dogs” was the claim of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, which the international powers implicitly acknowledged by recognizing Republika Srpska, the Serbs’ ethnically cleansed, wartime creation.

In fact, the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina existed harmoniously side-by-side for long periods of history. During the socialist decades, there were high rates of mixed marriages in cities like Banja Luka, Zenica, and Sarajevo. The real interests of Bosnians – decent jobs, democratic societies, European lifestyles – weren’t that different from one another, as indeed those of Crimeans and all other Ukrainians aren’t. Both of the latter are living in the same society – one plagued by corruption, failed transition policies, and de-industrialization. Whether the motives behind Putin’s power play are territory, warding off NATO and the EU, or externalizing domestic political and economic problems, we don’t know for certain. But the rights of Russophone Ukrainians are no more his primary concern than were the plights of Kosovar, Croatian, or Bosnian Serbs for Milosevic.

Lesson 2: Watch out for the triggers of ethnic violence.

When leaders like Milosevic and Putin in authoritarian states beat the nationalist drums, it can create the fears and mistrust that make ethnic violence more likely. We have to recognize and react to the mechanisms of ethnic cleansing from the onset. In a relatively short period of time, the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina – all of the same ethnicity – were set against one another by nationalist leaderships that had the media at their service.

It’s not the case that most minorities in Bosnia were routed from their homes at the point of an AK-47. Rather, the local media, politicos, priests, roving paramilitaries, and neighborhood thugs created a climate of fear and intimidation that made any sensible Bosnian family flee. In Ukraine, roughly the same elements – take recent events in Donetsk and Kharkiv for example – seem to be driving the radicalization of the crisis today.

Lesson 3: Beware the World War II parallels.

It is, of course, impossible to understand either the conflict in the Crimea, or those in former Yugoslavia, without reference to history – and the echoes of the 20th-century’s horrors are nowhere more relevant than in the Balkan bloodlands. But it was not the case, as many Yugoslavs were made to believe, that all of a sudden in 1990 Serbian royalists, Bosnian SS, and Croatian Ustashe picked up where their forefathers left off 50 years previously.

The same is true of the Ukrainian far right, which Russia has done its best to demonize, warning of anti-Semitic pogroms, as if the Ukrainian rightists were the incarnation of Stepan Bandera’s wartime units, which massacred Jews and Russians. The far-right elements in Ukraine should be taken seriously, understood as the dangerous, destabilizing threat they are, but the comparisons are overblown provocations. This kind of misuse of history can only happen in places where there’s been no Geschichtsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past – indeed, as was the case in Yugoslavia and is today in Ukraine and Russia.

Lesson 4: Avoid overblown generalizations about peoples and nations.

In the early 1990s, the Western media reported about “Serbs,” Muslims,” and “Croats” as if everyone in the region fit neatly into one of these categories, and was of one mind with his or her compatriots. Yet, in Bosnia, even at the height of the war, there were many people who shunned the nationalist categories of wartime radicals. These Bosnians, who wanted a multiethnic country, were a majority in cities like Sarajevo and Tuzla. Another example: Central Bosnia’s Catholics, who had long coexisted peacefully with their neighbors of diverse religions and ethnicities, had starkly different interests and identity than Western Herzegovina’s hyper-patriotic ethnic Croats. As for Serbia, it was the internal Serbian opposition led by the Otpor youth movement that ultimately brought down Milosevic. The same kind of generalizations are being applied today, for instance, in the discussions of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers. The Russophones of Crimea and those elsewhere in the country’s south and east, for example, view the conflict and their options differently.

Lesson 5: Speak with one voice and mean it.

The Europeans among themselves, and together with the Americans, have to act resolutely according to a shared strategy. In 1991 and 1992, when the wars in Croatia and Bosnia broke out, the foreign policy mechanisms of the EU were far less developed than they are today. Germany, France, and Britain took stands at odds with one another, often based on inaccurate readings of the events on the ground, their own short-term interests, and historical sympathies that were no longer relevant. France and Britain, for example, seemed to side with the Serbs, while Germany sympathized with Croatia. Milosevic was thus able to play one country off against the other, in the process making a mockery of the West’s efforts. Moreover, there was a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the willingness of the international powers, including the U.N., to back words with actions.

As for the United States, it took the path of least resistance for years before getting serious. Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker notoriously claimed, “We got no dog in this fight,” after his failed 1991 diplomatic mission to the region. While Washington’s eventual engagement helped end the war, at times it also complicated international diplomacy by competing with the EU, for example, by failing to back the Europeans’ early peace plans.

In the Ukraine-Crimea crisis, the EU can and must take the lead in a conflict on its borders. One of the lessons the Europeans took home from Bosnia was the need for permanent foreign-policy instruments, which they now have. The United States has to accept this, and remain fully engaged in step with the EU. This is not a role Washington is used to, though so far the Obama administration has kept ranks with Europe, which is also – thus far – unified. Yet the NSA spying scandal has seriously shaken transatlantic relations, and there is vast daylight between the United States and Europe when it comes to the importance of trade with Russia. Moreover, congressional Republicans in the United States could put pressure on Obama to act more hawkishly, perhaps even militarizing the conflict, to the peril of transatlantic cooperation.

Lesson 6: Act expediently.

Diplomacy, including sanctions, has to move fast to nip escalation in the bud, before nationalism spirals out of control. By the time the international community became seriously engaged in the Balkans in the 1990s, the region was already in flames. It was always steps behind events on the ground, for example, tolerating ethnic cleansing in Bosnia for over three years before finally reacting with force in the wake of the Srebrenica massacre in summer 1995. It’s playing catch-up now in Crimea, too, having ignored the warning signals coming from Russia for years.

While there are relevant analogies between the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Crimea crisis, there are also instances where it falls short. Putin has compared the sovereignty wishes of some of the Russophone Crimeans to Kosovo’s bid for independence. But the two situations are different in essential ways: Kosovo was a 90-percent ethnic-Albanian region where the Albanians had suffered for decades at the hands of Serbian overlords. The region’s autonomy had been stripped in 1990, its majority excluded from governance, and its population in 1998-1999 was at the mercy of a marauding Serbian army. There is no comparison to the situation of the Russophone Crimeans, who until just recently lived peaceably in their autonomous province.

At the moment, there’s a window for a diplomatic solution, even though it’s shrinking in size by the day – Russia’s massing of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, for instance, certainly bodes ill. I can well recall back in 1990, when I was told by I-can’t-remember-how-many Yugoslavs that there could never be a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It happened anyway.

Paul Hockenos is a U.S.-American journalist. . He served in the international postwar missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

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