Could the Yugoslav Wars Have Been Avoided?

06/19/2015 09:30 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

When I traveled through Yugoslavia in 1990, a number of people confessed their fears to me. They were worried about the rise of nationalism, particularly in Serbia with Slobodan Milosevic. They were concerned about the economic situation -- the high level of national debt, the overall stagnation, the persistent gap between the more prosperous northern republics and the less prosperous south. And they feared that the federal structure of the country could not withstand these centrifugal forces.

When I met political scientist Mitja Zagar in Slovenia, he provided the most chilling prediction. "I believe that the only way of dismantling Yugoslavia without creating any kind of new links or forms of common living would be if there is a war in some parts, maybe Kosovo-Serbia, maybe Croatia," he told me. "But I think the most dangerous spot is Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Yugoslavia did not come up with new linkages or ways of common living. Instead, as Zagar presciently told me, war indeed came to Yugoslavia, first very briefly in Slovenia, then between Serbia and Croatia. The most dangerous spot did turn out to be Bosnia, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks all collided in a horrifying bloodbath. And, finally at the end of the 1990s, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo flared up. Could those conflicts have been avoided? Or, at least, could their violence have been considerably minimized?

I caught up again with Zagar in August 2013, where he graciously interrupted his vacation in Vrsar, along the Istrian coast in Croatia, to sit down for a return interview and answer those questions, among others.

"The international community could have reduced the amount of violence substantially," he told me over lunch.

I don't think it could have eliminated it completely. The international community was constantly sending mixed signals. On the one hand, they defended the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

The U.S. administration at the time saw Yugoslavia as a precedent for what would happen in the Soviet Union. What they really feared at the time was the uncontrolled disintegration of the Soviet Union and what might happen to the nuclear arsenal.

For all the costs, they wanted to preserve Yugoslavia as it was as a lesson for the Soviet Union -- and the United States would do everything to achieve this. It was also a signal to the Yugoslav leadership.

At the same time, there was another policy, which was to support the political opposition to the previous regime and support democratization. This was one of the largest miscalculations, and it still continues today.

The mixed signals that the international community was sending to Yugoslavia turned out to be quite dangerous. "The federal authorities, particularly the army, considered this as carte blanche to do whatever they needed to do to maintain the territorial integrity of the federal state," Zagar continued.

From Washington's point of view, it was fine if the regime fell apart and was replaced by a democratic government. But what the United States truly wanted was to preserve territorial integrity so long as the Soviet Union didn't disintegrate.

But people in Yugoslavia would have made different calculations if they knew that they didn't have 100 percent backing. The United States or the international community could have said:

'If you do something violent, we will make sure you are prosecuted in front of an international court for all your misdoings, atrocities, and crimes.' If they'd done that, the generals would have been, if nothing else, more careful.

In addition to issuing a stern warning to the Yugoslav political and military elite, the international community could have considered intervention at the first sign of conflict with UN peacekeeping forces.

"If they did that, already in Slovenia, they could have prevented large-scale conflicts in other parts," Zagar explained. "They probably couldn't have entirely prevented the civil war in Bosnia, but the intensity would have been reduced and the ethnic makeup would not have been changed to the extent it was."

This was not just a missed opportunity to avoid greater bloodshed in Yugoslavia and to redefine sovereignty in the post-Cold War period. It was a missed opportunity, Zagar concluded:

For the reestablishment of human rights as the basis of international law. International law is still the law of states and the international community. In this case, we could have had two equally strong foundations for international law.

One would be the law of nations. And the other one would be human rights as the basis of international law. This opportunity was missed, and I'm afraid that it is missed for at least 50 years if not more.

The problem then was that the George H.W. Bush administration did have a vision of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but it didn't have the vision of what to do after. And the only circle that was actually considering those options was the U.S. administration at that time.

They were thinking, 'We will consider the possibility of fire and we will discuss that possibility all the time. But we won't establish the rules of procedure and the activities and the equipment needed to evacuate a building when it's on fire and then to put the fire out.'

They were only talking about the possibility of fire and what to do if a fire happens.

In addition to talking about the fate of Yugoslavia, we had a wide-ranging discussion about the persistence of bureaucracy, what virtual games can tell us about the global economy, and the future of sustainable development.

The Interview

One of the arguments made very frequently is that the major reason for the breakup of Yugoslavia was the resentment of Slovenians and to a lesser extent Croatians about the money redistributed to the south. I'm curious how that argument sounds these days.

We hear it at the level of the European Union these days.

First as tragedy then as comedy.

You might remember that we discussed this as well 23 years ago. Then I told you that the problem in Yugoslavia was that everyone felt exploited. This is exactly what is happening today in the EU. Then, people in the south felt exploited by people in Slovenia, who were much better off than they were in the south. Slovenes felt exploited by the south because Slovenia paid huge amounts for the underdeveloped regions and had no influence over their spending. Slovenians didn't resent contributing to less developed regions -- they resented not having influence. Even by Slovene standards, it was not spent very rationally.

What you had in addition then was nationalism. Republic leaderships were becoming more and more nationalistic. They only took care of their own republic dominions. Occasionally nationalists can make deals at the expense of third parties. But there were actually five such regimes without a scapegoat at whose expense they could do deals. Nationalism uses economics and culture to promote its goals and conditions. If we look at nationalism from the instrumentalist and functionalist point of view, it's just a means to achieve certain ends. Politically it is very practical because it is relatively easy to mobilize people, particularly in a society with no political infrastructure.

Speaking of the old Yugoslavia, I was lucky enough to have traveled to all parts of the former country, several times. I used to speak or at least understand all the national languages and even the minority languages. At one point I was visiting a small village in the southeast of Kosovo at the Serbian and Macedonian border. There, in the small village, they were growing cotton. This was the first time in my life I saw how cotton was being picked. The whole village gathered and everyone was picking cotton. They were singing and talking. They told me that the village was multiethnic -- there were Albanians, Serbs, Macedonians, Turks, and people who called themselves Catholics but later declared themselves Croats. They all lived in the same village, and they didn't intermarry much. However, when a couple from one community married, godfathers came from other communities. So they were all connected.

I asked them how it functioned. They told me: quite well. Everybody spoke Serbian. Serbs usually didn't speak much of the other languages. Macedonians spoke Serbian and a few words of Albanian. Albanians spoke Serbian and Macedonian and a few words of Turkish. The other community well integrated into the villages was the Roma. And the Roma spoke all the languages. When they were singing, they also sang Roma songs. So, even though they did not speak the language, everyone knew a few Roma songs to sing while picking cotton. Then I asked an older Roma man about the situation of Roma. "We are somewhat marginalized but we are well off here," he said. "They consider us their Gypsies and take care of us. And you know what. We Roma are the ones who are illiterate in all the languages."

I asked how it functioned during World War II. This was already during the period of unrest in the 1980s. He told me that when Albanians came, the local Albanians protected them. During World War II, when the Ballists came, local Albanians protected Serbs and everyone else, saying "Look, these are our Serbs and our Macedonians, leave them alone." When the Chetniks came, Serbs did exactly the same with all the others. When the Partisans came, they all collaborated from 1943-44 with the movement. The local Orthodox priest and the local mullah were actually also collaborating, and both collaborated with the national resistance, which I found quite amazing.

That shows you something that is actually to a large extent forgotten. The Balkans were not just a place of millennial warfare and killing. There used to be quite a good level of coexistence. That's not to say there were no conflicts or killings. They happened, as they happen everywhere you have a plural environment. But the level of accommodation in the Balkans was amazing. People tend to forget that when the Jewish pogroms took place in Spain in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the last wave of Jewish refuges found refuge in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Where they brought priceless copies of the Talmud.

It's also why in addition to Yiddish you had the Sephardic language there. That's why in Sarajevo, the lingua franca among Jewish population was Hebrew. It was used not just for religious purposes as was normally the case but as a functional language. It had the same function as Arabic in Islamic countries.

So, what happened to that village after the conflict in the 1990s? I hadn't been back to the village, but I talked to some people from there. And they told me that the first to emigrate from there, the ones actually pushed out, were the Gypsies. The Turks left for Turkey. The Catholics left for Croatia. So predominately there are Albanian families and a few Serb families. But the fabric is gone forever.

Those folks are never going to move back. But if it hadn't been war, the inevitable movement from countryside to city would have destroyed that fabric.

But not that quickly. And if the countryside is doing well, particularly at a time of economic crisis, these processes are not that extreme. Definitely the village would change, but the dynamics of change would be difficult to predict. Already at that time, the majority of the people in the village were elderly. I didn't see many youth.

In terms of the reasons for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, you described the variety of resentments that people had in the republics at the time. Do you think the resentments could have been handled in a democratic way -- for instance, if the democratic Left party had won the elections at the republic level?

I don't think it ever had a chance.

Because Milosevic and Tudjman already had a degree of support and status?

The point of return was reached in 1988 when Milosevic consolidated his power. It's not to say that Milosevic is the only one to blame. But there is no doubt in my mind that he was the most responsible. What people did not realize at the time was that there wasn't a multiparty infrastructure in place in former Yugoslavia. A multiparty democracy was introduced in an environment with very limited or no multiparty democratic tradition. There was some tradition pre-World War II but even that was limited because of the dictatorship. So when people speak of Yugoslav and Polish democratic experiences in the first half of the 20th century, I usually tell them that they should reread the documents rather than the official histories of those countries. Of course official interpretations were different from reality. But we all know what the Yugoslav and Polish regimes were like.

Already in the 1980s, when the economic crisis was deepening, political parties were introduced into an environment without party infrastructure -- without membership, structure, or ideology. They picked up their names from Western parties. They usually didn't even understand the ideology behind the parties. Then they needed to mobilize the voters. And there was only one way: ethnicity. It was present, and it had a certain impact on policy and politics before. Partially as a choice and partially as the last resort in all environments, political parties resorted to nationalism because they all saw it as a potential mobilizer of voters. The Slovene Left party at the time, the United Left Democrats as they called themselves, wanted to avoid this situation but had no grounds for mobilizing the voters.

You then had two situations. In one situation, two nationalists, who believed what they were doing, competed against each other. In another case populists, former Communists or whatever, actually tried to use nationalism. They weren't aware that once they used nationalism they were trapped by it. Even the nationalists were not aware of the fact that when you have nationalistic policy, in order to be a successful nationalist, you have to be more and more radical all the time. Even some of the true nationalists overlooked that fact. I spoke to some of them. They said, "We had our intentions, and they were not that radical. But once we rode the horse of nationalism, there was no way out. If we were no longer radical, we were no longer heard. Because everyone used that rhetoric."

Slovenia, to a certain extent, escaped that situation. That was the situation in Croatia and Serbia. But in Slovenia --

To read the rest of the interview, click here.