In 1991 Western capitals were stunned by the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union. Above all they wanted someone to be legally responsible for the Soviet nuclear weapons stockpiles now situated in four supposedly independent new countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus) while these weapons were restored to Russian soil and control. So the only realistic option was to recognise those previous internal boundaries as new international frontiers, and get on with treating the new governments there as grown-ups.
However, Yugoslavia was collapsing in rancorous circumstances, rival demands for self-determination to the fore. The West looked at Slovenia (predominantly Slovene-populated, borders mainly not contested) and decided to have its cake and eat it. Slovenia handily ticked both boxes: internal borders as new international borders, plus self-determination for the Slovene people.
Which was fine for Slovenia. But not for Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia, the other five republics in communist Yugoslavia, each with its own ethnic/national identity tensions. And no-one was interested in the sizeable category of ‘Yugoslavs’ – people not identifying themselves with one ethnic community.
Urged on by Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, Serbs across Yugoslavia demanded to stay under one national roof. Other communities wanting to break from Yugoslavia would pay a price – and not take ‘Serbian lands’ with them.
You know the rest. Calamity in today’s tranquil Europe. War. Refugee columns. Ethnic cleansing. War crimes. The ICTY war crimes tribunal set up. NATO bombing. Dayton. Rambouillet. More NATO bombing. Kosovo run by the UN. Milosevic sent to ICTY and dies in prison. Kosovo declares independence from Serbia in 2008, but is still not recognised by the majority of either the world’s countries or its population.
Why is Kosovo not more widely recognised, even by all European Union members? For various reasons.
A feeling that regardless of the history of the matter Kosovo sets an unwise precedent too far for a region breaking away on its own terms. Unease about NATO’s intervention and underlying motives. Plus residual sympathy for Belgrade in many capitals who liked Tito’s communist-lite, allegedly non-aligned Yugoslavia.
Russia too has been angered. Moscow thought that when the Soviet Union broke up it had struck a Basic Deal with Western capitals over new borders in Europe, namely that any such problems would be dealt with in partnership with Moscow, not by confrontation.
Hence to me at least it was no surprise when Russia last year pounced as Georgia tried to resolve on its terms some long-running problems with separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia sent in troops to protect those territories from Georgia, and quickly recognised them as two new independent states.
Russia’s policy has been a total failure in winning wider international recognition for these territories as new states. But a pretty good success (so far) in terms of Moscow asserting that the former Soviet Union is a ‘space’ where its rules now prevail, with Western policy-makers warned to back off.
Plenty of other examples are bubbling away with more or less intensity. In Iraq, complex ethno-religious negotiations are needed to keep the country together, with the Kurds keen to get maximum autonomy over ‘their’ oil-fields. China and Tibet. Scotland. Belgium.
Recently I chatted to a NATO officer now in Bosnia. I gave my old line that in Bosnia with its three rival communities (Bosniacs/Muslims, Serbs, Croats) three different constitutional outcomes made theoretical sense:
* One country, one entity (checks and balances to stop any one community dominating)
* One country, three entities (each community gets ‘its’ space within a single polity)
* One country, 18 entities (ie radical decentralisation via cantons to help diffuse ethnic tensions)
What made no sense was what we had all agreed at Dayton: one country, two entities. That outcome flowed from unwise tactical decisions made in 1992/93 with no strategic eye on the eventual ethno-constitutional implications. As I had written in a telegram to London, Bosnia had started as an ethnic omelette – it was now three hard-boiled eggs. ‘What a refreshingly honest view’, replied the officer wistfully.
Diplomacy. Building on what exists (ie racial, ethnic, religious tensions going back centuries) and accepting that good fences make good neighbours, as appears to be the policy for the break-up of what remained of Yugoslavia into Serbia + Kosovo + Montenegro?
Or building towards what we outsiders insist has to exist, hoping to compel people to cooperate nicely within single state frameworks that they dislike and distrust, as we have done in Bosnia?
Two utterly different philosophies and policies, applied to places a few miles apart which for some 70 years were part of one country.
Foolish Consistency? Or Foolish Inconsistency?
From Westphalia to West failure?
Monday, September 21, 2009
From Diplomat Magazine: