The war in the former Yugoslavia: a federalist analysis

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, and Croatia President Franjo Tudjman sign the Balkan Peace Agreement at the Quai d’Orsay (Foreign Ministry) in Paris, 14 December 1995: (Picture William J Clinton Presidential Library)
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, and Croatia President Franjo Tudjman sign the Balkan Peace Agreement at the Quai d’Orsay (Foreign Ministry) in Paris, 14 December 1995: (Picture William J Clinton Presidential Library)

To find a solution for the war in the former Yugoslavia, we must first understand how and why it started.

By Richard Laming


The war in the Yugoslavia has thrown western European political life into turmoil.  It has challenged the basic assumptions of political movements.  It has turned them upside down.

For example, we have recently witnessed calls from some groups on the left for “surgical strikes” by NATO against the Bosnian Serbs.  These are the same groups that, ten years ago, were calling for the abolition of NATO and the withdrawal of American military power from Europe.  When that military power was used to raid Libya in 1986, this was taken by these groups as proof that “surgical strikes” did not in fact work.  So much has changed.

In fact, I write this shortly after a vote in the Bundestag approved the deployment of German military aircraft for use in the Balkans, a proposal even supported by some deputies from Die Grünen.

In the light of this upheaval within European political thought, what has happened to the federalists?  Have they somehow been immune from this reappraisal of the war?  The answer is that they haven’t.  The collapse of Yugoslavia has forced the federalist movement to look again its own beliefs in the same way that every other organisation has had to.

However, I believe that federalism has come out of this process in rather better shape than most other political trends.  And that is, I think, because of what federalism is.

What is so different about federalism?

The important difference between the federalism and other attempts to explain the causes and nature of the war in the former Yugoslavia is that federalism has identified what it is opposed to, namely nationalism.  Discussion by federalists of the Yugoslav crisis always centres on the role played by nationalist groups in creating, exploiting and now prolonging it.

It is worth here looking back at the origins of federalism.  They lie in the realisation that wars between states can only be prevented by supranational authorities with real and effective powers.  The collapse of Yugoslavia and the war that followed between its successor states is very good evidence of this.

The next stage in federalist thought is the question of what makes that supranational authority legitimate.  By what right may it overrule the decisions of national governments?  The pioneers in the 1940s came up with the answer: democracy.  If democratic national governments are to be restricted in their actions in the interests of their citizens, the quality of democracy must not be reduced.  The new supranational authorities must be just as democratic as the national ones they are, in part, replacing.

The former Yugoslav government was Communist and not in any meaningful sense democratic.  As we have seen, this means that it could not be legitimate.  This fact was demonstrated for all to see by the overwhelming support for independence in Slovenia and Croatia in referenda; and also by the failure of the Yugoslav government to reimpose its rule on those two countries.

I should mention that federalist thought has not stood still in past fifty years, and new ideas – openness, citizenship – have been developed.  The Communist government of Yugoslavia failed these tests too.

It is clear, therefore, on one level what the response of the federalist movement was.  It was to blame nationalism.  However, more than that was needed to produce a really effective response.  That response sadly was harder to find.

The reaction of the federalist movement

At the time of the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, the federalist movement was divided on its response.

One part looked to the original concept of supranational authority as existing in opposition to nationalism, identified the secessionist moves in Slovenia and Croatia as nationalist and therefore supported the existing Yugoslavia.  An example of this thinking may be found in the letter of 25 March 1992 from Francesco Rossolillo, president of the UEF, addressed to, among others, Slobodan Milosevic.

Another part of the federalist movement identified the secessionist movements in Slovenia and Croatia as democratic, and supported them.  The need for supranational authority was not denied, but emphasis was placed on the Yugoslav government’s evident lack of legitimacy.

Developing the logic of this argument further would lead to calls for military support to be provided to the newly independent republics if they needed it.  Such calls were indeed made, but very quietly.

In the absence of any explicit agreement about what to do, the federalist movement did very little.  Regrettably, this is something the federalist movement can be very good at.

The response of the European Community

For its part, the European Community followed neither of the policy proposals made by the federalists.  Instead it chose a middle course which, I shall argue, contributed directly to the crisis that we face now.

At first, the EC hoped that Yugoslavia would not break up.  Its public statements were directed to trying to persuade Slovenia and Croatia not to secede.  However, these statements failed completely to address the main reason why secession was becoming more likely, namely the perceived increasing dominance of the Serbian government in Yugoslavia as a whole.  Worse, the confidence that the Serbian government drew from these statements probably made secession more likely, not less.

There are, I think, three reasons why the EC adopted this policy.

The first was its support for the economic policies of Ante Markovic, the Yugoslav prime minister at the time.  It is easy to dismiss this as short-sighted, but we have to put it in the context of central and eastern Europe in 1991.

All across the former Communist bloc, new governments were struggling to find ways to reform their economies against a backdrop of economic disaster.  Their economic systems had been living on borrowed time, and the moment of truth had arrived.  Hungary, for example, had generally been thought of as the most “western” of the Warsaw Pact countries because it had adopted more far-reaching economic reforms than elsewhere.  The hope at the time was that Yugoslavia could tread the same path.

Secondly, the EC’s policy was based on the concept of the state.  This was something that existed in international law and, according to the states themselves, should be preserved.  I was in Scotland the day that Slovenia and Croatia declared independence.  There was great excitement at the idea that a country could become independent simply by declaring this to be the case.  This would strike at the very heart of statehood.  Not surprisingly, the states that made up the EC sought to prevent this from happening.

Finally, even if the EC had wanted to act in a different way, it would have almost impossible.  The EC’s foreign policy-making apparatus at the time was dependent on unanimity.  Doing anything decisive would have required a degree of consensus which simply was not there.

As a result, the Yugoslav National Army was able to attack Slovenia and Croatia without attracting any resistance from the outside world.  The nationalist government in Belgrade was encouraged to believe that its efforts to build a Greater Serbia would not be opposed.  The consequences of this we can all see today.  The absence of effective supranational institutions meant that war could not be prevented.

The failure of federalism

As I mentioned earlier, of the two analyses produced by the federalist movement of what ought to happen, neither in fact did.

The first, I think, because it was unrealistic.  By that I mean I think it was wrong.  The Yugoslav state had failed its non-Serb inhabitants – it was unable in the end to guarantee their rights in the face of economic collapse – and had no future.  Croatia and Slovenia sought to become European countries in the same way that the Netherlands and Belgium are European countries.  No-one said that the Belgian revolution of 1830 should be undone and that the two countries should re-unite.

The second analysis failed because those with the power to act had neither the means nor the will to do so.  Some people say that an effective mechanism for making foreign policy would of itself have made a difference.  I disagree.  The governments of the EC member states were unclear what to do – some were more willing to see Yugoslavia break-up than others, all were wedded to the concept of statehood – and, in the absence of any clear vision, would have done nothing.

The lesson is this.  Integration within the European Union will not automatically lead to progress.  It merely creates an environment in which progress is possible.  In short, federal institutions are not a substitute for politics; they are not a substitute for federalism.

So, where are we now?  The war in Croatia has come to a halt, which all too probably is only temporary.  The war in Bosnia rages on as ever.  Against this background, what should federalists be recommending?

The value of federalism

The first thing to do when thinking about the future is to forget about the past.

By that rather shocking statement, what I mean is this.  Too much time in debates on Bosnia is devoted to attributing blame.  The important task always seems to be to decide which of the guilty parties is the most guilty.  As far as I am concerned, that approach is mistaken.

We have already identified nationalism as the heart of the problem.  It follows that countering nationalism is an integral part of the solution.  Most attempts to apportion blame are simply exercises in nationalism, anyway.  We may find that our search for a solution leads to our naming the guilty, but that isn’t the initial purpose of the exercise.

Now we need the concept of legitimacy introduced earlier.

At its simplest, the problem might be described like this.  The governments in Zagreb and Sarajevo lack legitimacy.  The task is to restore that legitimacy.  In which case, we have to ask why they lack legitimacy now.

Right from the start, the creation of independent Bosnia and Croatia was beset with problems.  The referenda were overwhelmingly in favour, but in both countries, the Serb minority was opposed.  The constitution of the newly independent state of Croatia, for example, reduced Serbs from an equal partnership with Croats to being a minority in the Croat state.  To the Serb leaders in Croatia, that mattered.

This is where you’ll appreciate the wisdom of my advice not to look for blame.  There are justice and fault to be found on both sides.

In Bosnia, the position is in essence very similar, except there are three sides involved.

It is fashionable to blame the Serbs for the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia.  But ask yourself this question.  Are the governments of Croatia and Bosnia any less nationalist than that of Serbia?  Only the Serbian government has the “problem” of having its people spread across more than one country.  If Croats were similarly spread, would the Croatian government behave any differently?

These are not easy questions.  But the value of federalism is that we know how to interpret the answers.

For our objectives and desires are clear.  We are committed to a solution based on decentralisation and democracy.  We are determined to see rights enshrined for all.  We do not pretend that what has been done can be undone; we know how everyone will have to learn to live with it.  But we also know, learning from federalism, that it can be done.

We do not accept that peace requires the destruction of homes and communities.  We know that every new line on a map creates its own new minorities.  The ethnic patchwork that you find in Bosnia – and everywhere else on earth – cannot be wished away.  The challenge is to find new ways of uniting the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and not new ways of dividing them.

With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves what should be done.

Some questions for the future

Having established the values for which we stand and the direction in which we believe that a solution lies, we need to examine some of the questions we will face.

It would not be proper for me here to attempt to answer all of them in detail.  This article is, after all, a federalist analysis and not a federalist answer.

First, many of the political leaders in the former Yugoslavia reject fundamentally the values for which we stand.  If a solution is to be based on those values, what is to happen to those leaders? Some of them are, for better or worse, popular.  Somehow, a way will have to be found either of changing their minds or, more likely, of changing them altogether.  The solution, after all, must involve the decisive defeat of nationalism.

Secondly, we have to realise that some of the political leaders are not only nationalists, but also alleged criminals.  Many war crimes have been traced back to the policies and even direct orders of some of the leaders, particularly of the Bosnian Serbs.

How are we to deal with the fact that the agreement of these people may be necessary to reaching a solution?  Are we to accept this, and grant some form of amnesty?  Are we to insist that justice be seen to be done, even at the price of delaying or even preventing a peace settlement?

This is a problem that has many resonances in other parts of Europe, including, in my own country, Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, our vision of the future of the European Union includes its expanded membership to the whole of the continent.  How can we use this process to assist a settlement in the former Yugoslavia?  At things stand, it would not be surprising if the existing member states were to be reluctant to accept Croatia as a member, even if its economic situation were to be good enough.

Should the countries of the former Yugoslavia be “punished” in this way?  Or should the promise of EU membership be used creatively to encourage the different sides involved to find a solution?  If so, how?

Fourthly, a consistent feature of the attempts so far to end the war has been the marriage of fighting with negotiation.  The different groups have been encouraged to come to the negotiating table, even though their supporters have been killing each other out in the hills.

This process has been accused of prolonging the war.  Each side can sit and talk, but at any moment that it thinks it is winning on the battlefield it can simply break whatever agreement has been reached.  It is certainly true that the history of the Bosnian war has been littered with broken cease-fires.  Should we insist that fighting is renounced before talking can start?  Or will this only make reaching a settlement more difficult?

Fifthly, I have mentioned the concept of legitimacy, and suggested that the political arrangements of Croatia and Bosnia will need to be rebuilt in order to restore their legitimacy.

What sort of arrangements will be necessary to achieve this?  Or is it, as the nationalists believe, going to prove impossible?

Finally, there is the question of Serbia.  Its ruling party has staked its future on the success of its Greater Serbia policy.  In return, Serbia has been the subject of extensive economic sanctions by the rest of the world.  Were there to be outside military intervention, this feeling of Serbia against the world would become even stronger.

When a peace solution is reached, it will have to include the Serbians.  Are they to get any special treatment or aid in recognition of the sanctions which they, but not for example the Croatians, have suffered?  How widespread in Serbian life is the desire for a Greater Serbia?  What is to replace this objective?

So many questions, and so few answers.  They are for federalists to debate and discuss in the days and months ahead.

Some answers for the future

What is certain about the future of the former Yugoslavia?  Not much.

It is clear that there will be no solution without the restoration (or perhaps the creation) of legitimate government in Croatia and Bosnia.  Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder, that is to say that institutions are not legitimate by right but because the people respect them.  This requires that they are democratic, but there is more to it than that.  The voices of the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs – who are Croatian and Bosnian citizens, after all – must be heard in the new Croatia and the new Bosnia in a way in which they were not before.

Secondly, it can be predicted with confidence that permitting borders to be changed by force now will lead only to more problems in the future in other parts of Europe.  The motivation to demand changes in the borders has come from nationalism.  It is highly dangerous and must resisted.  In any case, it would not account for ethnic minorities but would simply create new ones.

Thirdly, any solution must demonstrate the decisive defeat of nationalism, whoever promotes it.  At some point, the peoples of the former Yugoslavia are going to have to learn to live with other.  The sooner they are able to start this process, the easier it will be.

The word “easier” in the previous paragraph was perhaps mis-judged.  For it will not be easy.  Not in any sense of the word.  This is the final point.

After all that the people of the former Yugoslavia have gone through, after all the suffering and war, there will be no easy solution.  Anyone who promises an easy solution is either stupid or lying.  The process will inevitably be difficult.  It will depend most of all upon the people of the former Yugoslavia themselves, as they search for a solution.

But as federalists, we know what form that solution will take.

Based on a talk given at the JEF seminar “Volcano Balkan”, Würzburg, 6 June 1995.

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