Yugoslavia in Retrospect
Drnovsek, Janez, Harvard International Review
Lessons from the War
By now, it is almost a truism to say that, during the 1990s, developments in Europe and the world were significantly influenced by the Balkans--more precisely, by the Yugoslav wars. These corrosive crises not only tested but also forced a rethinking of Western security policies in the post-Cold War era. Attempts to resolve the crises led to many misjudgments and mistakes, but also to some positive achievements.
One of the most important questions that has lingered concerns the ability of the international community to have prevented the Yugoslav conflicts. Could some combination of decisive moves have averted these wars, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives? A close examination of the conflict reveals that while a window of opportunity existed for the international community to take action, the likelihood of its actually doing so was slim.
Caught off Guard
From 1989 to 1990 the attention of the West was largely focused on an immense drama unfolding within the Soviet Union and its satellite states, a system that was quite literally coming apart. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist Warsaw Pact regimes absorbed most of the policy-making abilities and political energies of the Western democracies. At the same time, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in late 1990 sapped the political energy and attention of the West even further. Against this background, Yugoslavia was largely ignored. Although some warned of the possibility of civil war--most notably the US Central Intelligence Agency--the demise of Soviet power and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait eliminated the opportunity for Western politicians to seriously contemplate the consequences of a Yugoslav implosion, let alone the need for preventive actions.
Of course, some lip service was paid to the conflict: for example, the West called for the territorial integrity and further democratization of the Yugoslav Republic. Although the Yugoslav Federation was an artificial formation, encompassing nations with very different cultures and historical experiences, its dissolution was obviously not a very convenient or desirable option within the context of rigid, post-Cold War European structures.
With other international distractions going on, the West accepted the so-called defenders of the territorial integrity of the Yugoslav federation. The most outspoken defender was Slobodan Milosevic. It took many years before the West finally realized that Milosevic's rhetoric about Yugoslav unity strategically cloaked the real nature of the Serbian regime and its true objectives. Thus, for many years, Slovenes and Croats heard accusations that their secession from the Republic had ignited the Yugoslav wars.
The truth is just the opposite. If there was any chance at all to prevent the Yugoslav wars (a slim prospect indeed), it would have been by checking the aggressive nationalistic policies of the Milosevic regime early on or by preventing his military machine from going into action under the pretext of defending Yugoslavia. In reality, Milosevic was attempting to create a Greater Serbia, and many people died before that attempt ultimately failed.
1989: A Turning Point
I happened to be the president of the Yugoslav Presidency from May 1989 through May 1990--a year critical to the future of Tito's socialist Yugoslavia. In my many meetings with Western leaders during this period, I warned of the real possibility of civil war. An impending collision between the forces of aggressive nationalism and peaceful democratization was clearly imminent. Despite these warnings, few expected a credible response from the West. Since Yugoslavia was at that time a sovereign state with fully functioning federal institutions, it would have been unrealistic to hope for some kind of external intervention to stop Milosevic. What was desired, however, was something less tangible, but potentially just as critical: publicly stated political and moral support from the Western powers backing our endeavors to democratize the country. …