Balkan Tragedy


“A MAN to do business with.” UN envoy Cyrus Vance meets Milosevic in 1993

"THE REAL origin of the Yugoslav conflict is the disintegration of governmental authority and the breakdown of a political and civil order. More than a decade of austerity and declining living standards corroded the social fabric and the rights and securities that individuals and families had come to rely on." These words are from a book published by the ultra-moderate and respectable Brookings Institution in the US.

Either the US's foreign policy analysts have not read Susan Woodward's Balkan Tragedy or they have not understood it. For Woodward attacks those who talk of "rogue states" headed by "new Hitlers". Instead she provides a devastating analysis that is invaluable for anyone seeking to understand why the former Yugoslavia imploded.

Of all the countries of the so called Eastern bloc making the transition to the market after the collapse of the Soviet Union Yugoslavia was the most favourably positioned to succeed, she says. It was regarded relatively favourably by Western eyes for its early implementation of free market reforms.

The strength of Woodward's book is that it shows the way economic collapse underpinned the political collapse. A decade of economic hardship, IMF programmes and restructuring of debt between 1979 and 1989 were bad enough. Woodward says, "Inflation rose by 50 percent a year, and by more after 1984. Those years were followed by more "shock therapy" of economic reform enthusiastically promoted by both Western creditors and pro-market Yugoslav economists. This not only devastated people's lives, it undermined the Yugoslav state politically.

The free market reforms exerted contradictory pressures. The IMF insisted on a strong and effective federal government to implement the strategy. But the consequences of the reforms tore at the federal government. The leaders of the wealthier republics felt threatened because they stood to lose power and privilege. They wanted to be able to control their transition to the market. For the poorer states of Yugoslavia the reforms were an economic disaster. As economic fragmentation intensified, the rulers of the different republics fought over resources and lashed out at the federal government. Each argument, and each defeat inflicted on the federal government, undermined further the terms that held the federal Yugoslavia together and encouraged nationalist demands.

A dangerous chain was set in motion, but Woodward argues that collapse was not inevitable. There were workers' strikes and the emergence of civil liberties groups. Woodward says these groups could have provided an alternative leadership arguing for a multi-ethnic and democratic Yugoslavia. But the old Communist Party machine was more concerned with repressing these new forces than the virulent nationalists who were also emerging.

In Serbia, Communist Party boss and former banker Milosevic allied with these nationalists to undermine workers' resistance. Western governments were not concerned when he took over. On the contrary, Woodward reminds us how "Western banks and governments supported him because he appeared to be an economic liberal who might have greater authority to implement the reform." Once the train was set in motion, collapse was rapid. The war over Slovenian independence lasted only ten days. It was nothing compared to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia that quickly followed.

Competing nationalisms and constitutional quarrels became wars over territory and borders. Here Woodward shows how political and military intervention by Western governments was as disastrous as their economic intervention. The European Community quickly recognised Slovenian and Croatian independence, thus fuelling others demands for independence. But what would recognition of Croatia mean for the Serbs inside Croatia or Croats who protested against Tudjman's Croatian nationalism? What about the Serbs who protested against Milosevic or the Serbs and Croats who saw themselves primarily as Bosnians and did not want to take sides? European governments knew the devastating consequences that would follow for these groups, but were more concerned with using the negotiations over Slovenian and Croatian independence to horsetrade over the terms of the Maastricht treaty!

Woodward's analysis is excellent for showing how competing nationalisms fuelled each other and how atrocities were committed on all sides. It also shows how Western military intervention was disastrous and unable to resolve the conflict. A spokesman for Carlos Westendorp, the man overseeing the implementation of the Dayton agreement which ended the Bosnian war, spelt out the reality of "peacekeeping" last week. "To hell with post-colonial sensitivities," he says. "You can't make any agreement stick unless you have complete power." The Kosovo parties will have to be told that it "doesn't belong to either of you. It's ours. It's the new empire. It's the new colonialism done in the name of the international community."