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
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
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
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.
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.
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