Victims of European diplomacy: As tens of thousands of refugees flee the fighting, Tony Barber condemns the EC for failing to anticipate the Balkans crisis and putting unity before positive action

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Close to the mosque in Zagreb, groups of Bosnian Muslim children stand at street corners, hands outstretched for charity from passers-by. They often receive short shrift. At the mosque itself, the children's parents put up makeshift tents, their first semi-decent shelter in weeks. Policemen order them down, fearing the growth of a 'tent city' in the Croatian capital.

About 20,000 Muslims have passed through the mosque since the civil war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina last April. They represent a mere 3 per cent of all the war refugees in Croatia. Some have been sent to schools and sports halls in Zagreb; others have gone to camps on the Adriatic coast. Now everywhere is full. The best bet for a new arrival may be an empty train compartment.

Last Sunday, Croatia's patience snapped. In a letter to world leaders, President Franjo Tudjman wrote: 'Due to the most recent avalanche of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina that was set in motion on 11 July 1992, the Republic of Croatia is now facing insurmountable difficulties in its effort to provide shelter and food for these people. Only in the course of the last 24 hours, over 20,700 refugees crossed the Croatian border.

'The extent to which these people are panic-stricken is best illustrated by the fact that many of them - even women and children - swim across the Sava River, seeking shelter on the Croatian side. The total number of refugees currently being provided for in the Republic of Croatia has surpassed 650,000. About 361,500 are from Bosnia-Herzegovina.'

The letter was a signal that Croatia was about to take a drastic step. Sure enough, the government said on Monday that it was 'on the verge of social and economic collapse'; it could not accept a single new refugee from Bosnia. Instead, anyone fleeing the Bosnian war would be sent immediately to Hungary, Slovenia or Italy.

The three neighbours were, to say the least, dismayed. None wants to turn away the hungry, penniless multitudes; but each - particularly Hungary, which says it has already accepted up to 100,000 refugees - senses that the problem is about to expand to unmanageable proportions. Across Central Europe, half a dozen countries fear they will be filled with refugees from what was Yugoslavia until well into the next century.

Clearly, a new and more desperate chapter has opened in the worst European refugee crisis since the Forties. A year ago, Yugoslavia had a population of 23.5 million; now, about one in ten is a refugee. The whirlwind is fiercest in Bosnia, where 1.7 million people, or more than one in three citizens, have been displaced. Even if the war ends, it will prove impossible to return many refugees to their homes; the delicate ethnic patterns of the old Bosnia are gone.

At one level, the crisis reflects the savagery of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. This means not just atrocities such as massacres, executions and mutilations of civilians (although these are now well- documented) but, above all, the sinister practice of 'ethnic cleansing'. This is a process by which one ethnic group systematically expels members of another from their homes and resettles the area with its own people. The clearest examples have appeared in eastern Croatia and Muslim regions of northern and eastern Bosnia, from where Serbian forces have driven out hundreds of thousands of non- Serb inhabitants. But Croatian forces are not entirely innocent, either; Serbia itself has had to accept several hundred thousand Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia in the last year.

At another level, the crisis is a grave indictment of the European Community's diplomacy in the Balkans and its ambitions to pursue a common foreign policy. If those are ever to mean anything in practice, then the EC must show itself capable of organising a response to the refugee problem. International achievements so far leave much to be desired: there has been a belated attempt to give succour to the people of Sarajevo but precious little effort devoted to solving the equally serious problems in other parts of Bosnia, as well as Croatia and Serbia.

The main reason for the EC's inaction, it appears, is that the Twelve have frequently been divided over what steps to take in order to end the civil wars themselves. France and Britain have never felt entirely comfortable with the German argument that Serbia is the evil Communist monster and Croatia its innocent victim. They have been sceptical of German (and Austrian) calls for some form of intervention on Croatia's side, not least because Germany's Constitution bans the use of German forces outside the Nato area. The French have come closest to launching a large-scale initiative but were warned by the United Nations last week not to send helicopters to Sarajevo airport because it might endanger UN peacekeepers stationed there.

As a result, time and again in the past 15 months, the Community has shown itself unequal to the task in the Balkans. Either because of its shallow understanding of the region's problems, or because of internal bickerings that have been complicated by the bullheaded determination to achieve a common foreign policy, the EC has consistently succeeded in making matters worse.

To anyone with reasonable knowledge of the Balkans, it was clear as early as 1989 that Yugoslavia was heading for a break- up that could turn violent. The challenge for Western Europe was not to prevent that split but to keep it peaceful and, above all, to recognise that the crucial problem of the future would be how to ensure fair treatment of ethnic minorities in the successor states. Instead, the EC placed its faith in the Communist government of Ante Markovic, a man committed to holding Yugoslavia together but who was despised by each of its six republics.

The result was that when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991, the EC found itself in the curious position of appearing to condone the use of force by the Serbian-led Yugoslav army against two democratically elected governments. Having acknowledged its mistake - and having seen Serbian forces conquer one-third of Croatia's territory - the Community then changed course and recognised Slovenia and Croatia last January.

It did so, however, despite a warning from its own legal experts that Croatia did not meet required standards on the protection of ethnic minorities - that is, the 600,000 Serbs who made up 12 per cent of Croatia's population. The EC hurried into that decision mainly because everyone feared that Germany would go ahead and recognise Croatia on its own. Better to commit one error together, it seemed, than to give the impression of disunity.

So desperate are the Twelve to maintain the facade of a common foreign policy that they have also bowed to Greek pressure and delayed recognition of Macedonia - again, contrary to the advice of their own experts. This means that the EC has swallowed the absurd Greek argument that Macedonia, a tiny, landlocked country that has been brought to its knees this year by a Greek-Serbian economic blockade, is hell-bent on annexing a chunk of northern Greece.

Once war had started in Croatia, fighting in Bosnia became all but inevitable. The fact remains, however, that the EC dictated the timing of its outbreak by forcing Bosnia to hold a referendum on independence last March. Only a blind man could have failed to see that the vote would split on ethnic lines and lead directly to war: heavily armed Muslims and Croats for independence, even more heavily armed Serbs against. Did the EC really think that Bosnia's Serbian minority - in particular, those belonging to Yugoslav army units - would simply sit back and accept the result of the referendum?

The result has been ethnic cleansing, the destruction of Sarajevo, at least 7,500 dead, the de facto carve-up of Bosnia by Serbian and Croatian forces and a refugee crisis for which no preparations have been made. Notwithstanding the bloodthirstiness of the combatants in the Bosnian war, the EC has a lot to answer for.

The Twelve would also do well to ask themselves why there is an ever deeper gulf between their rhetoric about building 'a new Europe' and the reality of war and turmoil in the eastern half of the Continent. For the two million and more refugees of the former Yugoslavia, there is every reason to be sceptical of a Europe that talks in ideals, but is too feeble to restore a modicum of dignity to their wrecked and desperate lives.

(Photograph omitted)