The West's cynical game is up: As ministers discuss the Yugoslav tangle yet again, Jonathan Eyal calls for realism after all the errors

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The Independent Online
No-fly zones, sanctions or protection areas: whatever palliative is ultimately applied to the former Yugoslavia, the reality is that the Western policy in the Balkans remains one of the most monumental foreign policy bungles since the end of the Second World War.

Yugoslavia's break-up was predicted by many with accuracy. As long as the conflict did not erupt, however, intervention was not considered necessary, and, when the battle was finally joined, it was deemed too late to make any difference. This attitude was fashioned by a propensity to regard the Balkans as a disease, rather than a geographical area. It was compounded by a history of viewing the region as part of a wider strategic equation, in which local realities accounted for little.

The West insisted that Yugoslavia's republics should remain united, mainly because of fear that their separation would encourage secessionist tendencies elsewhere. This was a doomed and crassly implemented policy. Slovenia and Croatia's quest for independence was an expression of their peoples' desires, rather than the whim of a few mischievous leaders. It was the product of democracy, which the West always claimed to respect.

Furthermore, the republics would not be able to reinvent the Yugoslav federation, even if they wanted to. The West urged new constitutional arrangements in an area that had more constitutions than churches. As the failure to preserve the Soviet empire and Czechoslovakia's unity show, the only durable constitutional arrangements are those that express a consensus reached from below. However eloquently drafted, constitutions imposed from above on people no longer willing to live together are worthless.

The West's biggest mistake was to assume that nationalist aspirations could be reasoned away. Nationalism remains potent and can be harnessed by every political ideology precisely because it is not a rational feeling. Pleas of economic necessity are useless, if only because nationalism feeds on the myth of triumph over adversity and sagas of epic struggles.

The West set out to make Yugoslavia a test case for handling other secessionist movements. But the hope that the Baltic republics, for example, would give up their claim for independence simply because Croatia was denied statehood was always ridiculous.

Given Serbia's determination, the Yugoslav tragedy was unavoidable. Yet the West, by sending the wrong signals to the warring parties, actually worsened the bloodshed. The determination to keep the country together encouraged Serbia's generals in the belief that they could use violence with impunity. Indeed, in the first phase of the conflict, the West regarded the Croats and Slovenes as the main culprits. As a result, the pious determination that force must not be allowed to pay in Europe had precisely the opposite effects.

Croatia and Slovenia will never forget that they owe their independence to a willingness to fight; because it lost a similar fight, Bosnia today is no more than a figment of Europe's imagination. The lesson: nothing succeeds like a victorious war, even in Europe.

Far from owning up to its misguided policies, the West heaped up more. Having tried to keep the country together, it suddenly recognised the independence of every republic. Nobody bothered to explain why Croats and Slovenes should enjoy the right to self-determination, but ethnic Serbs scattered elsewhere should not. Bosnia's independence was supposed to safeguard the republic's survival. In fact, it was a death warrant, but the belief in the healing properties of recognising independent republics continues today, in Macedonia.

Yet no error compares with the disastrous attempt of the European Community to handle the Yugoslav conflict. Stung by criticism that Europe's role in the Gulf war was overshadowed by the overwhelming US contribution, European states were determined to prove that they could handle a conflict nearer home. The EC rushed into Yugoslavia, not because it had any powers for dealing with the war, but because Brussels expected to acquire them as it went along. With a straight face, none other than Luxembourg told Yugoslavia's republics on behalf of the EC that they were too small to be 'viable' independent states.

Europe's other institutions were swiftly pushed aside: Nato was initially ignored because of its US component; the Council of Europe (which has done so much to handle minority issues in the West) was told that it had no role to play; and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe surrendered its mandate to the European Community.

Belgrade's generals rightly concluded that Jacques Delors' bureaucrats, despite their dire threats, had nothing but files for ammunition, and continued the war. Once it became clear that Yugoslavia was a public relations disaster, the Community neatly passed on the handling of conflict to others. In the scramble, no less than four different peace-keeping operations were concocted, but the former Yugoslavia still has no peace to keep.

Meanwhile, Western governments continue to play to public galleries at home. Never, they pledge, will they recognise Bosnia's carve-up, despite the fact that they intend to do nothing to reverse Serbian territorial gains. Public opinion requires a clear-cut, black-and-white picture, and it is offered one: within a year, the Serbs have changed from the original upholders of the Yugoslav federation into the biggest monsters on the Continent.

This cynical game must stop. Public opinion must not be offered palliatives such as no-fly zones, which do nothing to shift the Serbian occupation on the ground, or 'selective' strikes against Serbian positions, which merely expiate our guilty conscience. If no one is contemplating a massive military intervention for Bosnia's liberation, then it would be better to opt for the creation of a smaller, but viable, Muslim state, whose future protection could be guaranteed by a peace-keeping force.

Of course, this amounts to compromising the principle of not rewarding violence. But the alternative now on offer, which allows the West to uphold its principles, but leaves the Bosnians divided for ever, is far worse.

In return for an arrangement in Bosnia, the Serbs will have to forgo any claim on Croatia, and the ultimate status of Kosovo will have to be negotiated. Finally, Macedonia should be recognised as independent only after agreement has been reached with all its neighbours, particularly Greece.

When the war in Yugoslavia began, Jacques Poos, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister, asserted with enthusiasm that 'the hour of Europe' had arrived. The aim today is to stabilise a region, not to proclaim principles nobody wishes to uphold. If this is not done, Mr Poos could be proved right: Yugoslavia will turn out to be Europe's memento mori.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)