Magazine article World Affairs

Self-Determination and International Recognition Policy: An Alternative Interpretation of Why Yugoslavia Disintegrated

Magazine article World Affairs

Self-Determination and International Recognition Policy: An Alternative Interpretation of Why Yugoslavia Disintegrated

Article excerpt


The coming apart of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1992 has been referred to variously as the "fall," the "disintegration," the "collapse," and the "tragedy" of Yugoslavia. In reality, Yugoslavia was dismembered through a selective and prejudicial international recognition policy of its internal "republics." Yugoslavia's creation and destruction were fundamentally different from those of the Soviet Union, a legacy of the czarist empire that fell apart because of Gorbachev's liberalizing policies, specifically from the failed military coup of 1991. Yugoslavia was a state created voluntarily in 1918 by its various nationalities and destroyed in 1991-92 by the West's ad hoc recognition policy.

Donald Horowitz, a leading American specialist on nationalism and ethnic conflict, noted appropriately that the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia followed the violent patterns of state dissolution elsewhere. He pointed out that states with no history of independence, such as Bosnia, were swiftly recognized without considering the consequences. "Led by Germany, European and American recognition of the former Yugoslav republics was accomplished in disregard of international law doctrine forbidding recognition of secessionist units whose establishment is being resisted forcibly by a central government."(1)

This thesis rejects the current widespread argument that Yugoslavia fell apart because of domestic struggles and militant, Milosevic-led Serbian nationalism, although these were significant contributing factors. The Tudjman-led and diaspora-supported Croatian nationalism was just as bad as, if not worse than, Serbian domestic nationalism. However, neither Serbian nor Croatian nationalism was sufficient to destroy Yugoslavia. Such domestic competing nationalisms were not unique to Yugoslavia. The dissolution of Yugoslavia had much more to do with the political intrusions of the Western powers, especially Germany and the United States, in support of their favored ethnic groups and to advance their own national policy agendas.(2) More specifically, the key individual actors responsible were German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher and the last American ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann.

Referring to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia through international recognition policy, a foreign service officer of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs assessed the problem succinctly: "If we [India] were a small country like Yugoslavia, they [the Western powers] would probably have done it to us also."(3) Unilateral declarations of independence by Muslim Kashmir, Sikh Khalistan, or Hindu Assam and swift international recognition would have caused India to unravel, leading to large-scale massacres, ethnic cleansing, and nightmarish refugee flows. In 1994, when I posed the question of what India would do if the West recognized Kashmir and Khalistan (as they did with Slovenia and Croatia) against India's objections, an Indian security analyst in New Delhi told me: "We would have one hundred nuclear bombs ready by tomorrow morning."

Countries with secessionist problems, such as China (with Tibet), India (with Kashmir), and Indonesia (with East Timor) are big countries. These states would not tolerate such intervention and destruction of their territorial integrity. Therefore, the Western powers dare not recognize the independence of Tibet, Kashmir, and East Timor, territories that these giant Asian states consider part of their sovereign state, right or wrong. Apart from peaceful or violent decolonization movements for independence--and except for the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the violent but successful movements for independence by Bangladesh in 1971 and Eritea in 1993--virtually all secessionist movements have been prevented through massive force by central government forces or have simply dissipated over time. …

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