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A mess made in the West

Recent developments reveal that Western intervention is the problem not the solution in Bosnia, says Joan Phillips

Almost everybody agrees that Western intervention is the only way to sort out the mess in Bosnia. The debate is about what form that intervention should take - sanctions, safe-havens, arming the Muslims, air-strikes or an army of occupation?

But the West has been intervening in Yugoslavia for the past two years-- and to catastrophic effect. Intervention has taken many forms, from diplomatic recognition for secessionist states such as Croatia to trade sanctions against Serbia. And the more the West has become involved the more the conflict has escalated.

Any further Western interference will make matters worse not better in Bosnia. The West cannot provide a solution to the war because it is at the heart of the problem.

Western intervention destabilised the delicate balance that existed in Yugoslavia. Every student of international relations knows that each region of the world depends upon a certain equilibrium. If that equilibrium is disturbed the fallout can be fatal.

Balance of power

Yugoslavia worked as long as a regional balance was maintained - a balance of power among the six republics which subscribed to a unified federal state, as well as a balance of rights and religions among the peoples intermingled throughout the republics.

That balance was already being strained in the late eighties and early nineties by the increasingly vocal claims made by some members of the federation, Slovenia and Croatia, for more autonomy. The resort to nationalism by politicians in all republics was also tipping the balance, instilling fear among communities such as the Serbs in Croatia and contributing to inter-communal tensions. But it took the intervention of outside powers to destroy the balance entirely, internationalising a regional conflict and fanning the flames of war.

The diplomatic backing given by Germany to the secessionists in Slovenia and Croatia was decisive. While publicly endorsing the EC policy of maintaining the integrity of Yugoslavia, behind the scenes the German foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, was urging the Croats to secede and declare independence. Bonn's support for the secessionist states polarised the situation inside Yugoslavia, and removed any possibility of a compromise solution along the lines of a looser confederation of republics.

All up for grabs

Once the internal balance had been destroyed by outside intervention it was inevitable that Yugoslavia would implode. First, Croatia itself disintegrated as the Serbs established their own autonomous areas inside the republic. The ensuing civil war in Croatia had the effect of polarising communities in Bosnia. And the moves towards secession in that republic accelerated fragmentary tendencies elsewhere. And so the splintering process went on.

By calling into question the old borders, the Western powers created a situation where everything was up for grabs. A good example of how Western meddling has created a process of destabilisation is in the one republic which everybody thought had escaped unscathed. Slovenia is now at loggerheads with both Italy and Croatia in separate disputes about borders. The Slovenian defence minister Janez Jansa, has threatened that the army will defend Slovenia's borders by force if necessary.

The forces of fragmentation unleashed by Western interference have had repercussions beyond Yugoslavia. Other Balkan states - from Albania and Greece to Bulgaria and Turkey - have become embroiled in the Yugoslav conflict. Apart from trying to cash in on the carve-up by pursuing irredentist claims, as Albania has done in Kosovo, neighbouring states are also seeking to improve their standing in the chancelleries of the West, as Turkey has demonstrated by its decision to send F-16 fighters to join Nato operations over Bosnia (antagonising the Greeks in the process).

Western intervention has also made the situation worse in Yugoslavia by encouraging a client mentality in a region with a history of weak states attaching themselves to great powers. German backing for Slovenia and Croatia acted as a green light to other republics to opt out of Yugoslavia and seek Western patronage.

Before the West began meddling in Yugoslavia, local politicians still publicly supported the integrity of Bosnia and its place in the Yugoslav federation. The Muslim leader, Alija Izetbegovic, and the Serbian leader, Radovan Karadzic, were agreed that as long as Yugoslavia was intact, Bosnia should not try to secede.

By June 1991, however, when it became clear that Germany supported the break-up of Yugoslavia, Izetbegovic began soliciting international support for an independent Bosnia. In October 1991, he pushed a declaration of sovereignty through the Bosnian parliament. In December 1991, after the EC had agreed to recognise Slovenia and Croatia, the Bosnian presidency requested recognition too, in the face of opposition from its Serbian members. This polarised the situation in Bosnia even further, and encouraged the Bosnian Serbs to declare themselves part of Yugoslavia.

Invitation to secede

At the same time as it recognised Slovenia and Croatia, the EC issued a virtual invitation to all the republics in Yugoslavia to apply for independence, saying that it would recognise those republics which met the required criteria. This was a recipe for trouble: given the choice of applying for a place in the Western-run world order or sticking it out in rump Yugoslavia, it was obvious which option any self-seeking politician would choose. After Bosnia, Macedonia was soon applying for independence, while Albanian politicians in the Serbian province of Kosovo began agitating for more Western support.

What has really inflamed the war are the fissures that have opened up in the Western alliance. Until July 1991, all the Western powers supported the unity of Yugoslavia. They also steered a more or less neutral course between Croatia and Serbia, taking neither one side nor the other in the conflict.

After July 1991, all this changed. In a reversal of previous policy, the EC endorsed the disintegration of Yugoslavia into independent states, and shifted from a neutral stand to condemn Serbia as the guilty party. This volte face was executed by Germany, which, in an unprecedented demonstration of its authority, demanded EC support for the secessionist states.

Power play

America responded to Germany's power play in Croatia by making a high-powered intervention in Bosnia. In a letter to EC heads of state in January 1992, US president George Bush still advocated the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and appealed to the EC not to recognise Slovenia and Croatia. In March, however, the USA suddenly changed tack, adopted a stridently anti-Serbian tone and led the campaign to recognise Bosnian independence.

What was going on? For Germany, breaking ranks and forcing through the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia was a way to establish its authority as an independent world power and master of Europe. For America, making an issue out of recognition for Bosnia, and turning the screws on the Serbs, was an attempt to get back in the saddle of the Western alliance and contain German influence.

Germany's intervention did more than polarise things inside Yugoslavia. It made Yugoslavia the focus of the internecine disputes among the Western powers, all of whom have used the conflict to bolster their authority. Intervention in Yugoslavia has become a game of one-upmanship by Western politicians desperate to establish their credentials as world leaders. Every time one statesman has urged the need for firm action in Bosnia, others have felt obliged to respond with another initiative, threatening the Serbs with war crimes trials, tougher sanctions or air-strikes.

A recent sordid example of Great Power politicking over Bosnia has been the row about who would be in charge of the forces implementing the Vance-Owen plan. While UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali insisted that the UN should have direct control of the troops, the USA insisted that the chain of command should run through to Nato's supreme commander in Europe, who also happens to be the commander of all US forces in Europe. The dispute brought into sharp focus the jockeying for position among the Western powers which has done so much to aggravate the conflict in Yugoslavia.

West against Serbs

The fact that bashing the Serbs has become the measure of every Western leader's authority has further inflamed the conflict. Western politicians and the media have presented a black-and-white picture of the conflict in Yugoslavia, vilifying the Serbian regime and the Serbs. They have been denounced as communists, fascists and rapists, and accused of atrocities as bad as the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Serbian victims of the war have been written out of the story. Set up as the sole guilty party, only the Serbs have been subject to sanctions and other Western punishments.

This one-sided intervention by the West has intensified and prolonged the fighting. For instance, early in the war in Croatia, German minister Genscher condemned the Serbs as aggressors and pledged that Germany would recognise Croatia if the fighting continued. Croatia then had a vested interest in prolonging the hostilities to gain international recognition.

Deadly propaganda

The same has been true in Bosnia, where the Muslims had an incentive to intensify the bloodshed in order to persuade the West to intervene militarily and pacify the Serbs. This has undoubtedly increased the death toll on all sides. It has resulted in horrendous atrocities, such as the bread queue massacre in Sarajevo, which a secret report prepared by UN officers concluded was carried out by Muslim forces as propaganda for Western consumption. At the time, the Serbs got the blame and the Western powers used the occasion to impose sanctions against Serbia.

It seems likely that that most of the ceasefire violations around Srebrenica and Zepa in early May were also the fault of Muslim forces. The Serbs were blamed for launching the attacks, but it would appear that Muslim forces were provoking them in order to keep up the pressure on the Western powers to intervene militarily against the Serbs.

There are other examples of how the West's biased intervention has made the fighting worse. In Srebrenica, for example, the Serbs were accused of all sorts of crimes; but when Serbian villages around Srebrenica were being burned down and Serbian civilians slaughtered last autumn, nobody was interested. It was hardly surprising that, in response to the recent accusations, enraged Serbs razed the mosques in the eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina.

It would seem that Western intervention did not simply cause the war in Yugoslavia: it has also polarised the belligerents, intensified the fighting and prolonged the hostilities. In this context, it is hard to understand why the prospect of further Western intervention in Bosnia, in the form of a proposed 70 000-strong UN force to police the imposition of the Vance-Owen plan, has been welcomed by so many people in Britain.

Call it colonialism

What would the implications of the Vance-Owen plan be for the people that Western intervention is supposed to help? The plan provides for the division of Bosnia into 10 'ethnic' cantons under UN supervision. This is taking the colonial tradition of partitioning other people's countries to absurd lengths. If the partition of Ireland into two states could not resolve the underlying problem, the splintering of Bosnia into 10 nonsensical cantons will surely solve nothing. Indeed, it entrenches communal divisions and guarantees a multiplicity of future conflicts.

The notion that all 10 'self-governing' cantons will submit to a central authority in Sarajevo is ridiculous. Any such body will be symbolic, as the authors of the plan concede: the real power in the land will be the UN. All kinds of sugary phrases, such as protectorate and trusteeship, have been used to describe the establishment of a UN authority in Bosnia. But we should insist on calling it by its proper name: colonialism.

Many supporters of Western intervention in Bosnia are also critics of the Vance-Own plan. Why the complaints? This is the only Western solution on the table. And it is also the inevitable consequence of the Western-sponsored process of secession from the Yugoslav federation which many of these same critics supported. The cantonisation of Bosnia under the auspices of a colonial administration brings home the sordid consequences of two years of Western intervention in Yugoslavia.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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