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Srdja Trifkovic, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace


(Published as a Hoover Working Paper in October 1991 by The Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010)


The crisis in Yugoslavia presents the democratic community of nations in general, and the United States in particular, with a difficult dilemma: whether to “do something” or, in the words of a British official, to “allow the fire to burn itself out”? Since the Yugoslav flame is more likely to spread than to die out, inactivity is not feasible. So what to do? This dilemma contains both a challenge and an opportunity. America’s challenge is to devise a “Yugoslav” policy based upon a coherent, thorough analysis of the issues involved. Such a policy should seek to articulate U.S. national interest in the area, while taking due account of the respect for democracy, justice, and human rights. The opportunity is to pursue this policy - once defined - consistently and fairly, in concert with our European partners, in order to help defuse the hotbed of conflict in a strategically crucial part of the Old Continent.

So far, Europe has failed to cope successfully with the Yugoslav problem. There is a general agreement in Brussels that the present crisis in Yugoslavia is a matter of concern and legitimate interest to the international community. There is also a consensus that an eventual solution should be based upon the repudiation of violence and respect for the institutions of conflict resolution by the disputing parties. However, not all Euro-partners are equally mindful of the need to analyze the Yugoslav situation in all of its historical, legal, moral, and political aspects. Germany in particular has displayed an unnerving tendency to push for “solutions” which may be in line with Herr Genscher’s perception of his country’s particular geopolitical interests, but which do not reflect an European consensus and are not likely to result in a permanent settlement in the Balkans. This has caused some unease in Paris, London and Rome, indicating for the second time, a year after the Gulf Crisis, that the Community still does not have a single voice on foreign policy.

Some U.S. media and politicians have erred in debates over Yugoslavia for different reasons. Apparently overwhelmed by the multi-layered complexity of the Yugoslav problem, they were prone to look for simplified explanations and instant formulae. There was a tendency to decide who were the “good guys” and who were the “bad” ones, where neither black nor white can be found - only different shades of gray prevail. Propaganda was too often accepted as fact, even though “facts” are a scarce commodity on Yugoslavia’s battleground today. People on all sides there have a tendency not to allow facts to stand in the way of their particular “truth.”

An eventual settlement may come about only as the result of peaceful negotiation among the disputing parties. As a first step, however, the outside world ought to take an active role in defining the framework and terms of this debate. This role may be fulfilled only if other countries maintain their credibility as bona fide impartial mediators. They must avoid any appearance of accepting facile, ready-made solutions, and - like good jurors - they should deliberately reject preconceived notions about who has done what to whom and what should be the final solution. […]

People outside Yugoslavia may have some difficulty comprehending the unwavering determination of Serbs not to live under a sovereign Croat government. Those Serbs, it should be remembered, have [a] genocide within living memory as a salient feature of their outlook. Hundreds of thousands perished, and there is hardly a Serb in Croatia who does not have a family member or an ancestor among the victims. The Serbs’ fears are certainly not allayed by the people who rule Croatia today, uncompromising nationalists who not only minimize the number of victims, or even deny that atrocities have taken place, but who also readily admit that the Quisling-ruled Croatia “reflected those centuries-old aspirations of the Croat people” (Croatia’s President Franjo Tudjman, 1990). It is worthy of mention that this so-called Independent State of Croatia declared war on the United States and Great Britain in December 1941, and that thousands of its volunteers took an active part in the struggle for Hitler’s “New Europe” in places as far apart as Stalingrad and Trieste.

The roots of Yugoslavia's current crisis are primarily to be found in the legacy of Marshal Josip Broz Tito's autocratic brand of communism. Mistakenly hailed by the West for decades as a "different" kind of communist, Tito had devised in his lifetime a political system designed to perpetuate his personal power by keeping Yugoslavia's national Party hierarchies permanently at odds with each other. […] The most pernicious practical aspect of Tito's legacy concerns internal boundaries. To be precise, the problem concerns the discrepancy between administrative boundaries of federal units within Yugoslavia, and ethnic demarcation lines between the constituent nations of Yugoslavia. Internal boundaries between Yugoslav federal units were arbitrarily established by the Partisan leadership in 1943, at a meeting of the communist-run provisional legislature organized by Tito. The decision was presented to this forum in a ready-made form, not open to questions and debate. It received its final touches in 1945, in an equally "democratic" manner. Those boundaries are still in force today. While national communist parties of Croatia and Slovenia were duly represented at the 1943 gathering, the Serbs fighting on Tito's side - the only group denied the "privilege" of having a national communist party at that time - were not. It is far from certain whether even pro-communist Serbs would have agreed to Tito's project of the territorial division of Yugoslavia, were it not for his assurances that the boundaries were irrelevant anyway. It was claimed that they would be treated merely as administrative lines between federal units, under the same state roof.

It was thus that the boundaries between the six republics were subsequently presented to the public at large. Of course, no debate was ever allowed, although some questions could be legitimately asked. For instance, just over one percent of all inhabitants of the Republic of Serbia are Croatian, while in 1948 - even after the Ustasa genocide - the Serbs accounted for 17 percent of the population of the Republic of Croatia. Ethnically senseless, those boundaries have no basis in history either, even less in law. They have never been subjected to a popular plebiscite, let alone to the due process of negotiation, signature and ratification by the democratically elected representatives of the peoples affected by them.

One consequence of Tito's project was to split the Serbs into four federal units, leaving one-third of them outside the confines of "Serbia-proper." Furthermore, within Serbia itself, two autonomous provinces were created, thus diminishing that republic's coherence even further. No other federal republic in Yugoslavia had autonomous provinces carved out of its land, although the same set of ethnic, historical, cultural, and geographic principles would have dictated the granting of the same autonomous status to Istria with Quarnero and Dalmatia, to name but two obvious candidates. Subsequently, Tito’s peculiar brand of federalism was enthroned. It was inherently unstable: Serbs, with 40 percent of the total population, had one- eighth influence. This provided the basis for an eventual resurrection of Serbian nationalism, which came in the late 1980's with Slobodan Milosevic. For all his demagoguery and populism, Milosevic could not have succeeded had he not relied on a deep, well-grounded sense of dissatisfaction and Angst present among a majority of Serbs of all social classes. It is now becoming obvious that they have never accepted the legitimacy of these boundaries, even as administrative lines. Any attempt to turn them into international frontiers would eliminate the grounds for a constructive dialogue with them, or for a peaceful and just resolution of the Yugoslav crisis. […] The shape of Yugoslavia s eventual divorce ought to reflect the nature of its marriage in 1915. Yugoslavia came into being with the approval of the international community 25 a voluntary union of its three ‘constituent peoples’: Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Prior to 1918, only Serbia and Montenegro were sovereign states: the rest of today's Yugoslavia (including the two secessionist republics of Slovenia and Croatia) were fully incorporated into Austria-Hungary. They joined Serbia in union as peoples, not as states. The right to secession remains vested in the constituent peoples of Yugoslavia (as distinct from national minorities), and evidently not in some self-proclaimed states which came into being over seventy years later.

Ideally, the will of the constituent peoples would be expressed validly by the convening of a constituent assembly of all Yugoslavs, where the shape of the future relationship among the founder-nations could be resolved. Elections to this body would need to be supervised by international observers. The problem just might be reduced to the status of a clean slate, and - it is hoped - a constructive new beginning.

From all of the above, it follows that no recognition of the unilaterally proclaimed “states” within Yugoslavia should be contemplated by the democratic community of nations. Besides other arguments, in the particular case of Croatia, some basic requirements of the Stimson Doctrine are not satisfied: effective control of the "would-be" state's territory, absence of outstanding territorial disputes, and consensus regarding recognition among the majority of the community of nations. Furthermore, recognition of Croatia on the basis of the territoriality of Yugoslavia's old administrative units would imply a denial of the right of Serbs and others within Yugoslavia to devise a new kind of union in those parts of the country where they have a clear majority. Such action would also ignore or deny international legal criteria, precedents, and principles. It would give comfort to the perpetrators of unilateral policy of faits accomplis, who evidently have reason to fear a genuinely democratic solution of the Yugoslav imbroglio.

Such a solution must be based on a comprehensive application of the Helsinki Accords and the Hague Conventions, both in terms of borders and respect for individual and collective rights. Yugoslavia's external borders are not an issue. A solution must proceed from the reality that a majority of Croats and Slovenes wish to secede, and that a majority of Macedonians seek at least a nominal sovereignty within a loose Yugoslav framework.

There is no obstacle to the Slovenes’ wish for self-determination, or to the Macedonians’ desire to determine their own future. As for Croatia, the preceding arguments indicate that the community of nations has to approach the issue with patience and readiness to confront intransigence on both sides. Even from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, apart from any legal, historical, or moral arguments, it is not in the best interest of this or any other well-meaning government to follow the clarion call of separatist lobbies for unilateral recognition of Croatia's independence. Such a move would create grave new problems without resolving any of the old ones. The optimal solution would dictate a cooling-down period, followed by the convening of a constituent assembly of all Yugoslavs, to be freely elected under international supervision. If no election to the constituent assembly could be realistically arranged, then at least there ought to be an internationally supervised plebiscite on who wants to stay with whom. It should take the local borough as the smallest collective entity. All sides ought to declare in advance their adherence to the principle that the democratically expressed will of the people would be inviolable; but even this course requires the acceptance of a flexible attitude towards Yugoslavia’s internal boundaries as conditio sine qua non of any peaceful solution. […] The chief interest of the democratic community of nations, and of the United States in particular, is to promote and maintain stability in the area of Central and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of communism’s collapse. An unconsolidated, conflict-ridden hot spot in the Balkans does not serve such an interest. Quite apart from the intrinsic moral, legal and historical aspects of the problem, a pragmatically perceived American interest dictates a solution that would take due account of every Yugoslav nation's aspirations.

In this country's media and government circles there is a perceptible imbalance to the Serbs’ detriment. This is the result of incomplete information and superficial analysis; it should be supplanted by a comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the Yugoslav crisis. Even from a purely pragmatic point, caution is needed: more numerous than Croats, Kosovo Albanians, and Slovenes put together, the Serbs are an unavoidable factor in any Balkan equation. If a solution were to be imposed on them that would amputate large chunks of their territory and leave millions of their co-nationals under uncertain and hostile foreign rule, the world would have to face a new time bomb and instability in the Balkans for generations to come.

Leaders of nations come and go, but nations are here to stay. If our or any other government was not happy with the election of Dr. Kurt Waldheim as Austria’s president, it nevertheless refrained from identifying Austrians as such with him, or calling them "neo-Nazi." In the same vein, if we dislike Serbia's president Milosevic, it would be irresponsible and short-sighted to allow such antipathy to determine our policy towards the entire Serb nation. That nation had been a faithful ally of the United States and the freedom-loving nations in both world wars; it cannot and should not be wished away. A Yugoslav policy of the U.S. Government needs to be devised that would be principled, coherent, and consistent. Then it would not be easily swayed by lobbies and groups whose primary allegiance is with other nations and other causes. […] The first step for all Yugoslavs on the long road to a united Europe is to seek satisfaction of the greatest part of legitimate aspirations of the greatest number of Yugoslavs. This would imply acceptance of the following guiding principles:

(a) The rights of both Serbs and Croats can be respected if the right to self-determination of the constituent peoples of Yugoslavia is upheld by all parties. This includes the right of the Croatian (or any other constituent) nation to leave Yugoslavia, and the right of Serbs (and others) to remain, if they so wish.

(b) There must be a flexible attitude towards the question of existing administrative boundaries among constituent federal units.

(c) A mechanism should be put in place to ensure the protection of the civil, national, and other rights of all Yugoslavs, including those who acquire minority status after final settlement (if this settlement entails separation).

Once these objectives are defined and agreed upon, a set of treaties regulating future relations between the new states on the one hand, and Yugoslavia on the other, can be worked out, with international supervision and guarantees. One can only hope that this would mark the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia’s “heart of darkness” in the heart of today’s Europe.


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