John Shattuck and Richard Goldstone have published with an article in the Boston Globe in which they conclude after a recent visit that four truths are arising in former Yugoslavia about what went wrong and what should be done:
- the war was caused by bad — often criminal — leadership
- enduring peace cannot be imposed from the outside
- when genocide and crimes against humanity have been committed there can be no peace without justice
- change occurs when there is pressure from civil society
I leave it to the reader to read the article him- or herself. Instead I want to write about the West that in my opinion that carries in my opinion most blame.
At the end of the 1980s the dominant vision in the West about the communist world was a very simplicistic one: the people there were oppressed and given a chance they would vote for freedom. I will call it the RFERL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) view.
I think this was a gross overvaluation of freedom. In my opinion people primarily look at their wallet and are prepared to accept quite a few restrictions in exchange for money. Hitler is a good example of a politician who stayed popular despite a lot of terror.
It is also an underestimation of how free the communist world in the 1980s really was. The 1940s and 1950s had been cruel with thousands of executions. But in the 1980s the climate had become much milder and it were mostly deliberate "dissidents" who got into trouble. It was only a little worse than the West where at that moment "political correctness" was the norm and you could get in quite serious trouble if you didn't follow that ideology. In fact the main appeal of "pro-Western" parties in the East was not about freedom but about bringing the wealth of the West. The RFERL view also ignored the nationalist anti-Russian aspect of those parties.
When the Iron Curtain fell in Poland and Czecheslovia the anti-communists (Solidarnosc and Havel) rose to power and this seemed to confirm the RFERL view. Then came Milosevic who didn't give up his communist heritage completely and became popular despite that. The RFERL view blamed him for being nationalist. In fact in most new democracies nationalism plays an important role. And as Yugoslavia didn't have Russian troops nationalism focussed on internal divisions.
In democracies ethnic divisions are a subject of permanent re-negotiations. Usually richer provinces are capable of aquiring more autonomy than poorer ones, but cultural awareness plays also a role. Periods of more and less autonomy tend to alternate. But instead of encouraging such negotiations and creating a climate for them the West did everything to turn the situation in an unsolvable conflict. Yugoslavia's republics got independence after a much too short process - breaking off ongoing negotiations. And by assigning them absolute "territorial integrity" any negotiation on autonomy or border changes was cut short.
As a consequence of this RFERL view the West encouraged separatism in the other Yugoslav republics - a major crime in international relations. It also encouraged the rise of politicians there who - except for being openly anti-communist - were not much better and in some respects even worse than Milosevic.
Many see Milosevic as the symbol of evil. I see him as a rather typical cynical politician. Unfortunately cynical politicians are rather common and when I heard for example Bush carelessly talk about civilian deaths in Iraq it was hard to tell the difference. Milosevic's main weakness was not his cynicism but his lack of diplomatic insight that made him time and again make the wrong bets in a time of turbulence. Normal Western diplomacy might have solved this by doing some handholding. But as the West had chosen to treat Milosevic as an adversary they were usually incapable to do so - with the exception of Dayton.