Disintegration before integration

Evan Kraft and Jill Benderly

January 08, 1992|By Evan Kraft and Jill Benderly

SHOULD family members who solve their problems by shooting one another stay together? The U.S. State Department seems to think so in the case of Yugoslavia.

Others demur. Led by Germany, the European Community promised to recognize by Jan. 15 any of the six former Yugoslav republics that could meet basic conditions regarding human rights, particularly the rights of minorities.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has doggedly opposed all proposals to recognize any of the breakaway states. American diplomats have argued that keeping Yugoslavia together is necessary for stability in the region.

In June, just before the civil war broke out, Secretary of State James Baker visited Yugoslavia to lecture on the "dangers of disintegration" and insist on "territorial integrity." Baker unwittingly gave diplomatic ammunition to the

Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army, which moved first against Slovenia -- which fought off the army in seven days -- and then against Croatia, where the war has claimed over 10,000 lives in six months.

U.S. policy-makers stressed that they wished to give the Europeans a chance to solve a European problem. Fair enough. But their distant attitude makes one wonder whether Foggy Bottom didn't want the Europeans to fail, and whether the main issue for Washington isn't opposing German ambitions in southeastern Europe.

Yugoslavia is a noble idea, conceived by Croatian nationalists in 1835, but one that has never functioned well. Not as a Serbian-ruled monarchy after World War I. Nor as a communist federation after World War II.

The mid-1980s spurred hope that the failure of communism might usher in a democratic solution in Yugoslavia. The Slovene communists lifted censorship and tolerated dissent and alternative movements. It looked as if the rest of the federation might follow.

But in 1987, Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Serbia by playing the national card to the hilt, to reassert Serbian control over its "autonomous regions" of Kosovo and Vojvodina. His appeal was visceral for Serbs. Stories of Albanian terror and rapes of Serbs in Kosovo, the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox religion, galvanized a public frustrated by political powerlessness. Milosevic's tight grip on the media allowed him to create a nationalist frenzy that made reasoned debate impossible. In 1988, Milosevic-inspired movements deposed the governments of Vojvodian and Montenegro. Soon, Serbia had a majority in federal bodies, with the army as a key ally.

Only in 1990 did Serbian politicians turn their attention to Croatia. Ethnic Serbs played a disproportionate role in the Croatian police force and Communist Party, which had been purged of "Croatian chauvinists" after the nationalist mass movement of 1970. Thus the end of communism in Croatia was automatically a setback for Serbs living there.

In the 1990 election victory of the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), Croatian President Franjo Tudjman spoke openly of redrawing Yugoslavia's borders to annex ethnically Croatian parts of Bosnia and demanded Croatian sovereignty within a confederal Yugoslavia. Tudjman failed to address the fears of the Serb minority in his republic.

Immediately after the CDU's victory, a cluster of Serb communities in Croatia amalgamated and proclaimed themselves the autonomous region of Krajina. Serbs had lived in Croatian territory for almost 300 years, having been recruited by the Austrian empire to create a military border against the Turks. To the Krajina Serbs, the CDU, by resurrecting old symbols and bTC postures, recalled the Croatian Ustashe fascists who exterminated large numbers of Serbs in World War II.

The CDU avoided military force, but did nothing to achieve a political settlement with Croatia's Serbian 16 percent. When Slovenia prepared to leave the Yugoslav federation, Croatian bolted, facing the fact that it would be perpetually outvoted by Serbia.

Certainly, all sides in this conflict -- with the exception of committed peace movements in each republic -- have stubbornly pursued national interests and missed many opportunities for compromise. But now, after six months of fighting and thousands of deaths, is there any sense in trying to preserve the Yugoslav federation? Slovenia -- a state that is virtually ethnically homogeneous and has a GNP greater than that of Portugal -- has become independent de facto. The Yugoslav army has withdrawn from Slovene territory. Slovenia now has its own currency.

Recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Bosnia and Macedonia, now seems to offer the best hope for peace and democracy. Even the Greeks, who until now backed the Serbs for fear of their own problems with ethnic Macedonians, have gone along with EC recognition. The EC conditions for recognition address human rights for minorities. Croatia has indicated its willingness to abide by these conditions.

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