The Balkans enjoy a false peace Catastrophe: The former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia is afraid Washington will wash its hands of the Balkans.

Sun Journal

September 25, 1996|By DAN FESPERMAN

Warren Zimmermann, the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992, recently wrote "Origins of a Catastrophe," his version of what went wrong as the country dissolved into war beginning in 1991. Zimmermann chiefly blames Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for his exploitation of nationalist fears and passions.

In his public statements while ambassador, Zimmermann seemed to be optimistic as late as February 1990 that Yugoslavia would remain united and at peace, although he says now he was intentionally playing down his pessimism to boost the standing of more moderate leaders who might have averted war.

With Bosnia's first postwar elections just completed and NATO's peacekeeping mission approaching the end of its one-year mandate, Zimmermann spoke with Sun staff writer Dan Fesperman. These are excerpts from that interview.

In hindsight, what if anything could have been done to prevent the collapse of Yugoslavia?

I have to say that there is no imaginable action that I can think of that the West could have taken to have prevented Yugoslavia from breaking up. The nationalist hostilities were so great that the wrong people had come to the top, people who simply wanted to break away from the whole concept of a multiethnic society.

That doesn't mean the West didn't make a lot of mistakes. For one thing, I think we should have helped the then-prime minister of Yugoslavia, [Ante] Markovic, who was doing the best he could to produce economic reform and a democratic society.

Once the breakup began, fighting broke out in Slovenia and then more severely in Croatia. A year later it spread to Bosnia. Could the West have prevented any of those developments?

With regard to the war in Bosnia, I think the West could have made a difference. The West could have shortened that war and saved on the order of 100,000 lives if it had moved sooner, and with force, to force a negotiation in the summer of 1992.

With what level of force?

I think air power would have done it, as it did do it in 1995. In fact I think it would have had a better chance of doing it in 1992, because at that point the Bosnian Serbs were not at all sure how far they would be allowed to go. They were trying us on, and we proved to be weak, so they pushed further.

The counter to that argument is that in '95 you also had a stronger Croatian army, which provided the military counterbalance needed to drive the Serbs to the bargaining table.

Well, the difference is that in '92, until we showed them, the Serbs didn't know that the West was weak.

In your book you have some telling anecdotes about the Serbian obsession with history, even among otherwise reasonable people. Despite the old saw about those who forget history being condemned to repeat it, it sometimes seems that people in the Balkans would benefit from a collective case of amnesia.

It's certainly true that in the Balkans you have peoples who are obsessed with their past and not their future, and I think it's maybe one of the major differences between the successful Western societies of Europe and North America and the societies that grew up out of the ashes of empires.

I think the real task is to try to convince people in the Balkans and many other parts of the world that if they focus on the future and forget about all of the animosities of the past, then they'll be a lot better off.

This is a long process, obviously. But I have at least some confidence that even in a place like former Yugoslavia you can do it. After all, World War II was something like a civil war in Yugoslavia, in that over half a million Yugoslavs were killed by other Yugoslavs. And yet, Yugoslavia enjoyed 45 years of peace and indeed a relative prosperity before this whole thing started again.

Of course when Serbs, Croats and Muslims look back at that era, they talk about how Tito bottled up all expressions of nationalism.

I think what Tito failed to do -- and this makes him one of those responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia -- is he failed to produce even a quasi-democratic society that could have acted as a filter for some of these nationalist tensions. People did feel bottled up, and so when Tito died and left a very weak central government it was almost inevitable that nationalism would arise in its most hostile and radical form.

You have to do what Tito didn't do, which is bring the process of the democracy to these areas. They have very little experience with democracy. They went through one so-called democratic election in 1990 which produced a lot of the nationalism that caused the wars. There's this other election in Bosnia this month which is certainly not a democratic election. One can only hope that it will be the first of a number of elections which will become increasingly freer.

Does the long-discussed possibility of a carve-up of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia still lurk in the future?

I think it is very much a presence. Unfortunately, the way the trend lines are going with the Dayton agreement makes it even more of a presence.

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