How long before the next Yugoslavia?

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'HISTORY is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes,' wrote Voltaire in 1767. Looking at events in Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1989, many would agree. The fall of Communism generated an optimism that proved as short-lived as it was misplaced. In the East, there are wars and tensions with the potential to expand into more wars. In the West, there are disagreements over the correct response to these conflicts; and, some would argue, internal crises centred on the role of traditional political parties, the powers of central governments over regions, and management of emotive issues such as unemployment and immigration.

Yet there is another school of thought. Its adherents contend that certain European disputes, which might in some circumstances have degenerated into war, or at least a breakdown of the processes of negotiation and compromise, have been successfully contained over the past four years. In the East, for all their arguments over nuclear weapons, ownership of the Black Sea fleet and role of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia and Ukraine appear to understand that there is a limit beyond which it would be reckless to take their quarrels. In central Europe, the Czechs and Slovaks have demonstrated that two nations can peacefully dismantle a state. In the West, Italy is displaying an encouraging ability to reconstruct a state riddled by corruption from bottom to top; and Spain's Catalan and Basque regionalist movements are exercising restraint, despite the temptation to make secession a central issue of the present general election campaign.

In short, events could have turned out even more horribly in Europe than they have done. If this view is well-founded, then it may be that the Yugoslav wars have been partly responsible. They have been ugly, destructive and an affront to conscience. They have exposed ignorance and divisions in western Europe's political classes.

However, the argument runs, the wars have also brought home the reality of what awaits those who allow free rein to their territorial and political ambitions. Can any national objective be worth the purging of communities, the devastation of industry and agriculture and the poisoning of public life that have been all too evident in former Yugoslavia?

Perhaps this explains why, in spite of predictions, Macedonia has not yet gone up in flames: Serbs, Slav Macedonians, Albanians, Greeks and Bulgarians have each in their own way drawn cautionary lessons from the wars to the north. Perhaps it also explains why, aside from a few outbreaks of violence since 1990, tensions between Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania have not boiled over into full-scale conflict. Conservative Russian nationalists, and indeed politicians in Moscow who wear a liberal tag, such as Boris Yeltsin, often growl about the status of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia. But the growling stops short of aggression, and former Soviet troops continue gradually to withdraw from the two Baltic states.

There are several difficulties with this argument. One is that every dispute in Europe and the former Soviet Union has its own causes. Irrespective of developments in the Balkans, a war is still raging between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a variety of conflicts is going on in Georgia, and another war halted only recently in Moldova. Czechoslovakia's break-up has been peaceful, but that owes less to the influence of the Yugoslav wars than to the lack of a tradition of violent conflict between Czechs and Slovaks. And even if other flashpoints remain relatively quiet, underlying sources of hostility have not gone. It would be unwise, for example, to be complacent about Serb-Albanian tensions in the Serbian province of Kosovo and their likely spillover effect. There is also a strong risk of ethnic conflict in Crimea, a strategically vital peninsula where the Russian majority, backed by powerful politicians in Moscow, is challenging Ukrainian control.

For the post-Communist states of the East, the Yugoslav wars are not just proof of the dangers of irresponsible national leadership but also a test of Western political resolve. If the European Community, in particular, fails this test, and its peace initiatives are washed away in tides of blood, then no central or eastern European country will feel safe. Each will conclude that the EC is either too weak, divided or reluctant to stabilise this area. Each will be correspondingly vulnerable to domestic turmoil.

Geza Jeszenszky, Hungary's foreign minister, said: 'The collapse of Communism has enabled the West to move its frontier farther into the East than ever before, but I see a growing danger that this unique political and economic opportunity may be lost because the present Community is divided over and bogged down by the technical details of 'deepening' itself, while the dark forces of dictatorship and intolerance regroup in its immediate vicinity.

'The danger to stability inherent in the difficulties of the transition from a command economy to a market economy is not confined to the former Communist countries. Intolerance towards national and ethnic groups is growing. The alternatives are clear: homogeneous nation states attained through ruthless 'ethnic cleansing', or the survival of hitherto endangered minorities through local rights, democracy, government and autonomy. Looking at Bosnia, some ask whether south-eastern Europe will once again become the battleground where our Western civilisation has to face fanaticism and savagery.'

Poland's prime minister, Hanna Suchocka, is not among those who seek to draw too much comfort from events since the peaceful anti-Communist revolutions of 1989. 'Even though only a few years have passed, the mood has changed radically, both in the East and in the West,' she said.

'The euphoria, optimism, belief in the triumph of freedom and democracy, seem all to have been replaced by prevailing feelings of concern, uncertainty and pessimism. In both parts of Europe people are debating about the sources, strength and development of national and ethnic separatism and about the influence of populism. They are trying to find out why civic solidarity loses in the conflict with aggressive nationalism.'

The removal of Communism awakened national, class and religious rivalries that had slumbered for four decades in what Lawrence Eagleburger, former US Secretary of State, calls 'the stability of the graveyard'. The result, in the Balkans and borderlands of the defunct Soviet state, has been outright war. But the change in the world order also presented Europe's democracies with the challenge of looking beyond their internal preoccupations and establishing economic and security mechanisms to stabilise their neighbours. Few would argue they have risen successfully to this challenge. Unless the democracies try harder, and move faster, the grim lessons of the Yugoslav wars will not be sufficient to prevent other tragedies.