Hunkering down for a long, long war

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The Independent Online
As the Bosnian ceasefire expires and fighting erupts in Croatia, Michael Sheridan and Christopher Bellamy

see precious few options left for the UN peace-makers

The crescendo of gunfire around Sarajevo yesterday and a simultaneous armoured thrust by Croatian forces against their Serbian foes marked more than the breakdown of yet another Balkan ceasefire. These twin events may signify the transformation of the Yugoslav conflict into another of the 20th century's long wars.

Diplomats from a dozen countries and an array of UN officials were at hand yesterday with their usual chorus of futility. But the UN's failure to extend the threadbare cessation of hostilities in Bosnia means that to all practical purposes the peace-making diplomacy of the past three years is now exhausted.

"We have all gone at this thinking it could be solved by a rapid and sensible assessment of interests by all sides," observed a senior UN peace- keeping official. "Now we have to adapt to the fact that this is not the case."

The wars of succession to former Yugoslavia, which broke out in 1991, are comparable with the civil war in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka (from the early 1980s to the present), the war of independence in Algeria (1953-1962) and the Vietnam war (1946- 1975).

The lesson grimly being drawn in the foreign ministries of Europe is that wars of grievance, fuelled by race or religious hatred and fostered by outside powers, retain a capacity for endurance beyond logic or apparent self-interest.

The wars among the peoples of former Yugoslavia are anchored so deeply in history that Northern Ireland appears a juvenile squabble by comparison. Herbert Okun, a wily American diplomat who served Cyrus Vance in his ill- fated mediation, believes that Yugoslavia was still living out "the history of the long retreat of the Ottoman Turks out of Europe back to their current boundaries".

Three religions met in the Balkans and three imperial houses fought over the bleak spoils offered by the region. The Ottomans defended Islamic conquests that once lapped at the gates of Vienna. The Russian Orthodox Romanovs fought for the interests of Christianity in a holy alliance with Serbia. The Catholic Habsburgs reinforced the frontiers of modern Croatia. These empires may lie in the dust, but today's Muslims, Serbs and Croats are essentially fighting over territory delineated by their old masters. That was the paradox which Tito's federated Yugoslavia was designed to resolve.

"Talk to a Serb," recalled Mr Okun, "and he will say that the Serbs are the largest people and that much of Tito's policy was aimed at reducing the power of Serbia and the Serbs." The Croats complained that they suffered at the hands of a mainly Serbian Communist bureaucracy. The Slovenes said that they produced 25 per cent of the gross national product with only 8 per cent of the people. The Montenegrins gave off about land, the Macedonians claimed discrimination. The Muslims, saddest of all, proclaimed no organised nationalist cause but, through a birthrate higher than all the other groups, set off prejudice that would be converted into an attempt at genocide.

"The breakup of Yugoslavia is a classic example of nationalism from the top down," writes Warren Zimmerman, the last US ambassador to Yugoslavia, "a manipulated nationalism in a region where peace has historically prevailed more than war and in which a quarter of the population were in mixed marriages."

Mr Zimmerman, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that more could and should have been done to keep Tito's edifice intact when the Communist Party collapsed in 1990. He accuses Senator Bob Dole and other US critics of failing to understand that the democratic unity of Yugoslavia worked against an ethnic demagogue like Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

Instead it became an article of faith in some Western circles to encourage national aspirations, regardless of the quality of political leadership within each would-be state. As armed intervention followed secession, so Yugoslavia disintegrated. In Mr Zimmerman's assessment, democracy died with national unity.

The first generation of mediators, Britain's Lord Carrington and Cyrus Vance of the US, then argued in vain that there should be no Western recognition of any Yugoslav republic unless all had agreed on their mutual relationships.

"If this simple principle had been maintained," observes Mr Zimmerman, "less blood would have been shed in Bosnia." But it was not. Today's mediators are still wrestling with the consequences of that mistake. The last initiative from the Contact Group (Britain, France, the US, Russia and Germany) hopefully envisaged the mutual and simultaneous recognition of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia - four years after such a move would have made sense.

Not surprisingly, it has proved as unattractive to the ethnic warlords now as it might have done then. Coupling mutual recognition to a relaxation of sanctions on Serbia or complex constitutional arrangements for Bosnia has merely added excuses for one side or another to haggle at length.

The result, whispered in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, is that Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind would like to get British troops out before next winter if they can honourably do so. Beneath the veneer of diplomatic formality that continues to prevail in British dealings with Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia lies a mixture of weariness and loathing.

Every effort to compel or seduce the warring sides in former Yugoslavia into a settlement has foundered. The moral outrage of the Bosnian Muslims, the cruel paranoia of the Serbs or the ruthless nationalism of the Croats consistently combined to make impractical every solution not imposed by force.

"I have always said that you cannot have a peace settlement until all the sides in a conflict of this kind believe it is actually in their interests to make peace," maintained Lord Owen, who still pursues a Flying Dutchman existence of international mediation.

So what will the foreign ministers of the Contact Group be left contemplating when they meet, as planned, next week? The consequences of what Lord Owen has been heard to describe as "the worst set of foreign policy decisions since Munich", for one thing. The reality that three years of concerted international diplomacy have failed. The fact that Britain and other countries whose soldiers serve in the Balkans may need to adjust to a long war and a prolonged commitment - if they stay at all.

Perhaps the private secretary to each minister might care to place among his briefing papers an eloquent new publication by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a reprint of its contemporary report on the Second Balkan War of June-September 1913. Atrocities stain its pages, great power intrigues dominate its political narrative, ill-drawn boundaries define its horrors. There could be no more cautionary reminder that Europe has reverted to the confused diplomacy of 80 years ago. Its confusion was, of course, resolved by the shots at Sarajevo that ended the old world and started the Great War.