The International Community’s Response to the Yugoslav Crisis: 1989-1995 Matjaž Klemencic is Professor of History at the University of Maribor and President of the Board of Advisors at the Institute for Ethnic Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on January 11, 2006. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 320. What role did the international community play in the Yugoslav crisis in the first half of the 1990s? Could the bloody demise of Yugoslavia have been prevented, if the international community had reacted sooner? On the basis of current literature, the role of international organizations (the UN, NATO, OSCE, EC/EU, WEU), key world powers (USA, Germany, Soviet Union/Russia, Great Britain, France), the standpoints of the non-aligned countries, smaller countries of EC/EU (especially Greece) and other neighboring countries of former Yugoslavia will be considered here.
After Tito’s split with Stalin in 1948, the question surfaced in the early 1950s as to how much foreign aid Yugoslavia should receive from the West. One American economic analyst answered in terms of billions of U.S. dollars, and then one of the highest-ranking American administration officials replied that it was important just to “keep Tito afloat.” By the end of the 1980s, when Ante Markovic tried to keep his economic program going, only a few politicians in the West understood the importance of its implementation. The citizens of Yugoslavia were in desperate need of a unifying symbol after the economic failure of self-managed socialism and the collapse of the nonaligned movement. That symbol could have been the convertible dinar, for which Markovic fought through his economic program, but that plan could not succeed without economic aid from the West.
In the late 1980s, the international community attempted to perpetuate the ancien régime instead of seeking to facilitate a peaceful transformation of Yugoslavia. Therefore, the international community bears considerable responsibility for the violence and insecurity that followed. Both the United States and Russia, along with other states, ignored the truth that no state, whatever its origins, can survive without the support and at least the passive allegiance of its citizenry. Different authors have different views on what were the actual intentions of the world powers in Yugoslavia. Some, including almost all pro-Miloševic Serb politicians, are of the opinion that the break up of Yugoslavia was the final goal of the West. Indeed, Slobodan Miloševic began his defense in the Hague by blaming foreign powers for the break up of Yugoslavia. Miloševic, acting as his own defense at his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), said: “the international community was the main force for the destruction of Yugoslavia, accusing Germany, Austria, USA and Vatican…. There is a fundamental historical fact that one should proceed from the beginning when seeking to understand what led to everything that happened in Yugoslavia …..from 1991 until today, and that is the violent destruction of a European state, Yugoslavia, which originated from the statehood of Serbia, the only ally of the democratic world in that part of the world over the past two centuries.”
Despite Miloševic’s strong words, it is unlikely that any policy by the international community could have kept Yugoslavia in one piece. Nevertheless, it is possible that the dissolution process might have been more peaceful if the superpowers had acted differently and if they were less ignorant. For instance, United States policy towards Yugoslavia was inconsistent from the very beginning. There were three phases of U.S. policy. The U.S. initially did not want to interfere in a primarily European problem—much as it did not during the wars of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Then the US started to interfere in their capacity as a superpower to end the fighting, first through diplomacy and, ultimately, through a military intervention.
U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia was also determined by domestic public opinion. The role of the U.S. Congress in the Yugoslav crisis cannot be ignored, particularly the role of émigré groups from the territories of the former Yugoslavia that lobbied members of Congress and Senators, as well as the ethnicity of the members of Congress and Senators themselves. While some politicians had a personal stake in the Yugoslav crisis, others were hardly aware of the situation in Yugoslavia or did not want to be aware of it. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, often said: “We don’t have a dog in this fight,” and President George Bush, Sr. asked U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft: “Tell me again what this is all about.”
An October 1990 CIA forecast, which stated that Yugoslavia would cease to function within one year and would probably dissolve within two, argued that economic reform would not prevent the dissolution. The agency predicted that Serbia would block Slovenian and Croatian attempts to secede from the Yugoslav confederation, that there would be a protracted armed uprising by the Albanians in Kosovo, and that Serbia would foment uprisings by Serbian minorities in Croatia and Bosnia. The CIA noted the danger of a slide from ethnic violence to organized civil war between republics, but considered it unlikely. It concluded flatly that there was nothing the United States or its European allies could do to preserve unity and that Yugoslavs would see such efforts as contradictory to the advance of democracy and self-determination.
From a historian’s point of view, this report is a relatively good analysis of the situation. CIA analysts wrote that neither the Communist Party nor the Yugoslav National Army would be able to hold the federation together. The report correctly stated that the Party was in shambles and that the army had lost prestige because of its strong ties to the Communist Party and because much of the country considered it to be a Serb-dominated institution. The report also stated that no all-Yugoslav political movement had emerged to fill the void left by the collapse of the Titoist vision of a Yugoslav state, and that it was unlikely that any would. The discussion on the historical background, the status of the economy as well as maps and tables, all of which accompanied the CIA report, were accurate and correct. The high quality of the report is important historically because of the controversy surrounding the level of knowledge about what led up to the crisis in Yugoslavia at the highest official level in the U.S.
In response to this information, the U.S. initially did not want to interfere and let the EU take the lead. The controversy today is whether EU diplomats were capable to handle the situation alone. Although U.S. diplomats closely followed the situation, including the building crisis in Kosovo, in the 1980s, their concerns were not heard within the State Department. James Baker’s visit to Yugoslavia in June 1991 was seen very differently by the various ethnicities within the former Yugoslavia. It was important to the Slovenes and the Croats, for example, that they become members of the European Community as soon as possible as Slovenes and as Croats, not as Yugoslavs. Both the Yugoslav government and Slovene and Croatian politicians had been actively seeking explicit support from European institutions and governments for their national programs and EC/EU countries for a very long time did not have a united standpoint towards this issue. The European Parliament passed a resolution in March 1991 declaring “that the constituent republics and autonomous provinces of Yugoslavia must have the right freely to determine their own future in a peaceful and democratic manner and on the basis of recognized international and internal borders.” It is interesting to note that Otto von Habsburg played quite an important role in passing this resolution and all the subsequent resolutions in European Parliament supporting the principle of self-determination. At the same time, most European governments continued to support the Yugoslav government and to insisted that Yugoslavia remain intact.
Germany’s decision to support the breakup of Yugoslavia became an historical turning point. While most analysts agree that before late autumn 1991 Germany did not intend to support the breakup, others believe that this was the intention of Germany from the very beginning of the crisis. By contrast, the Soviet Union supported the preservation of Yugoslavia. Its support was based on the historical friendship between the Russians and the Serbs, as well as the Orthodox religion that bonded the Russians and the Serbs. Moreover, the Soviet Union was under a similar threat of dissolution, given that it had several independence movements in its constituent republics, some of which had made open declarations of independence. However, this support stopped short of direct military assistance by the Soviet Union to the Yugoslav National Army.
Yugoslavia’s neighbors, with the exception of Austria, did not support the breakup either. The historical ties between these countries and certain nations within Yugoslavia, coupled with worries about what the destiny would be of their ethnic minorities residing in the territory of Yugoslavia, persuaded most of these countries to support the status quo. Support for Yugoslavia came from countries with historical ties to Serbia, such as Great Britain and France. Moreover, the party affiliation of leading politicians in some cases determined whether or not a country would support national self-determination, which was especially evident in the case of Greece.
The competing narratives surrounding Yugoslavia’s dissolution—from the Slovene “Ten-day War” to the Croatian war—influenced European public opinion and thus also the successive European and U.S. initiatives in Croatia and Bosnia. The Vance Plan, the Cutileiro Plan, the Vance-Owen Plan, the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan, and the Z4 Plan, were all ready to compromise the principle of republican sovereignty in one way or another and raised the issue of international recognition of the constituent parts of Yugoslavia, including the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” This ultimately led to the gradual, sporadic recognition by the EU, the U.S. and other countries of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and later Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had a clear impact on how the crisis in Yugoslavia developed in the period between 1992 and 1995, and the lead-up to the Bosnian crisis. The history of the coexistence of the three ethnic groupings in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is another subject of controversy. In one view, BiH was a model of multiculturalism, while others saw it as a land of mutual terror.
The great number of countries, organizations and bureaucrats dealing with the Yugoslav crisis made it impossible to coordinate their work, which led to more chaos. The neutrality of UNPROFOR, which was demanded by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, ultimately slowed down the reaction time of the UN, leading to inaction. Countries that contributed soldiers to UNPROFOR opposed any serious military intervention, especially against the Serbs, because “blue helmets,” who carried only light arms, would be unable to resist a Serbian attack. By opposing air strikes on Serbian targets and due to his determination to keep calm and keep talking objectively, Boutros-Ghali unwittingly helped the cause of the Bosnian Serbs. Bosniaks accused Boutros-Ghali of being too friendly with Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic and at an international conference in Kuala Lumpur, Alija Izetbegovic said that from more than 30 UN Security Council resolutions on BiH, only the one that forbade Bosniaks from be armed was passed and implemented. Boutros-Ghali justified this policy by saying that a NATO attack would be more dangerous for UN troops on the ground than for the Serbs. Boutros-Ghali, as former Egyptian foreign minister during the Tito period, suffered from “Yugo-nostalgia” and continued to recognize the existence of Yugoslavia far longer than he should have. UNPROFOR commanders opposed his policy because they knew the situation on the ground and could not bear the fact that they could not intervene in spite of the many war crimes they witnessed. Therefore it is not surprising that there were many quarrels inside the UN mission in BiH, especially between civilians and soldiers.
In the end, it seems that the UN intervention did more harm than good, considering that UN forces were complicit in the assassination of Bosnian Prime Minister Hakija Turajlic; they were complicit in upholding the siege of Sarajevo; UN commanders, such as General Lewis Mackenzie and Michael Rose, were deeply hostile to the Bosnians; and UN sources making false claims about the Bosnians shelling themselves. The truth was further marred by the so-called “CNN effect,” i.e., the direction of public opinion provoked by television reporting on the events in the Balkans.
The defining characteristic of the international community’s response to the Yugoslav crisis was hesitation, as it spent a large amount of time before deciding on any action. There were many reasons for the foot-dragging. Among the most important is the fact that the international community, including the United States, did not have a clear strategy on what to do with Yugoslavia when the fighting began. The problem was complicated by states that had their own strategic interests, which often depended on historical sympathies (e.g., between Serbia and Russia) or historical animosities (e.g., between Serbia and Germany). The people of the former Yugoslavia paid the price for this hesitation—it will never be known how many lives might have been saved if the international community had acted differently.