Frozen Borders Could Chill Balkan War Fever


December 21, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Budapest. -- I want to make an outrageous proposal. It is that NATO make a formal guarantee of existing frontiers in Eastern and Balkan Europe. I would like to see NATO announce that in furtherance of the United Nations Charter objective of maintaining international peace and security, it guarantees these frontiers against aggression and against any other change that is not the result of peaceful agreement between the parties concerned, sanctioned by the United Nations.

I do not think such a guarantee should or could extend to the Soviet successor states. Matters there are beyond NATO's established area of concern. However, the stabilization produced by an East European and Balkan guarantee might have a stabilizing influence on the difficult trans-Caucasian situation as well.

There are two reasons for this guarantee. The first is to stop the Yugoslav war from spreading. The guarantee would have to apply to the Greek-Macedonian, Bulgarian-Macedonian, and Albanian-Kosovo frontiers. The second reason, of great importance in the longer run, is to influence the conduct and perceptions of national minorities in the region, as well those of their governments.

I have just spent several days with representatives of some of the region's ethnic minorities, as well as with government officials from several countries concerned with ethnic relations. They were brought together by the Project on Ethnic Relations, an American initiative funded mainly by the Carnegie Corporation, which is attempting to head off new outbreaks of the kind of ethnic conflict responsible for the war in the former Yugoslavia.

I must, however, emphasize that my proposal has no connection with the Project on Ethnic Relations and has not been mentioned to its leaders or members, or to the participants in this gathering last weekend in Budapest. It is my personal reaction to what went on at that meeting.

I am aware that the idea has complex ramifications, and poses a risk of enlarging certain conflicts rather than halting them. It involves commitments about the future, which NATO and its member governments will be reluctant to assume. I nonetheless would argue that the merits of the proposal outweigh the risks. Had such a guarantee existed two years ago there would have been no war in Yugoslavia, and no new Balkan war would be awaiting us in 1993.

The principal cause of ethnic or national tension throughout the region is the fear of the majority that the minority's demands for group rights and special status implies eventual secession, the breakup of their state as it exists, with the prospect of annexation of the disputed community and region by another state.

NATO is the undisputed power in Europe. The East Europeans have mostly wanted to join it exactly because of the national vulnerabilities they feel and the security NATO could provide. Full membership for them is not practical. Guarantees to them are. These would not be simple guarantees of the status quo. Peacefully negotiated change would remain possible. For example, if Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina freely negotiated redrawn borders to accommodate the ethnic distribution of their populations, this could -- with these guarantees -- take place in circumstances free of threat.

A NATO guarantee of the stability of frontiers would assure that any change that does come will come lawfully, through negotiation, with the free agreement of the parties. It would enforce international law at a moment when it threatens to break down. It is possible -- and simple -- to do, would probably be effective even without enforcement, but if it had to be enforced, that too could be done. The present outlook in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is bad. This is something that can be done to head off trouble while there still is time. But it had better be done fast.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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