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Balkans Breakdown | The Nation

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Balkans Breakdown

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With former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic finally under arrest, the time is right for a wider look at the Balkans. George W. Bush should seize the moment to deal expeditiously with the many outstanding Balkan problems he inherited from the Clinton Administration. The 1995 Dayton agreement, which ended the Bosnia war, is effectively dead. Montenegro, encouraged to seek independence as a way to undermine Milosevic, may now attempt to do just that, which in turn could touch off another ethnic war. The Kosovo problem remains unresolved. Most troubling, another war has started in Macedonia.

The explosive potential of Macedonia should not be underestimated. It is arguably the most fragile country in Europe, as Bush's father recognized in the last days of his presidency. He warned Milosevic that the United States would intervene militarily against Serbia "in the event of a conflict caused by Serbian action" in Kosovo. His real concern was that a Kosovo conflict could spill into Macedonia, involving Greece and Turkey. At the time, Albanians in Kosovo had set up a parallel government, as well as education and health systems, in response to Milosevic's repression. A similar attempt by the Albanians in western Macedonia was crushed by the Slav Macedonian majority. But the dream was that there they would unite with Albania in a Greater Albania.

Macedonia's instability involved more than its ethnic mix (two-thirds Slav Macedonian, one-third Albanian). None of Macedonia's neighbors wanted it to exist. Bulgaria claimed that Macedonians were ethnic Bulgarians; Serbia insisted they were "southern Serbs"; Greece argued long and loudly that they had stolen the name of an ancient Greek state. All could be drawn into a war if the Macedonian state were to collapse.

To give the Macedonian Slavs their due, they've tried in recent years to include the Albanians in the political process and have made some concessions. But their collective insecurity has made their gestures only grudging. Few Albanians have ever been given responsible positions in the police or the army, and educational opportunities in the Albanian language are limited.

Bush has said he doesn't want US troops used as peacekeepers. The fact is that US forces are currently doing just that in three Balkan countries, and it would be impossible to withdraw them without triggering more wars. Perhaps the only viable idea is to convene an international conference. With the fall of Milosevic, all the Balkan countries are now ruled by representative governments. They are all economically exhausted, and they badly need the engagement of the outside powers. General satisfaction with the shape of Balkan borders is, of course, impossible to achieve. But some adjustments and compromises are possible. Some suggestions:

§ In Bosnia, an adjustment could be made to help that unhappy land survive as a viable state with the capital Sarajevo an open city belonging to all three communities, rather than a Muslim-controlled city, as it is today.

§ Macedonia could become a civil state belonging to all its citizens--not just the Slavs, as now. Perhaps it could adopt a language policy like Canada's, requiring that anyone holding a government job speak both Macedonian and Albanian.

§ Montenegro and Serbia could make a constitutional arrangement satisfactory to both. But this means the end of Clinton's ally, President Milo Djukanovic of Montenegro, whose pro-independence government has been financed by Washington.

§ The most difficult problem remains Kosovo, and here small adjustments may not be acceptable so soon after a bloody war. Why not divide the territory, giving a larger chunk to Albania and a small northern portion to Serbia? The idea has long been debated by both sides, even though neither is prepared to propose it. At least it should be presented to the government of Serbia and to Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo.

Steps like these are doable, especially if taken at an international conference, and would offer face-saving protection for the politicians. But Europeans have to come to the conference table with some big carrots. One of them is the prospect of European integration. EU membership, with its restraining power, would ease security concerns. Some sort of associate membership with a timetable and rules and regulations could first be required, imposing more discipline in the region and making borders more porous.

The United States would have to play the role of honest broker rather than taking sides, as it has tended to do. Washington should also take part in the economic reconstruction of the Balkans, not least because US bombs have destroyed much of the infrastructure in Serbia and Kosovo. In the long run this could well be cheaper than the current peacekeeping and aid expenditures. Who knows? It just might work.

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