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Last Chance for Bosnia?

Unfinished Peace: Report of the International Commission on the Balkans

Aspen Institute Berlin/Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 197 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Just before World War I the Balkans erupted in two consecutive conflicts. In the first Balkan war in 1912, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro—all of which had won their independence from Turkey—joined to drive the Turks from Macedonia, the last Turkish foothold in the region. A year later, in 1913, the Serbian and Bulgarian victors fell out between themselves. In a short and savage war the Serbs defeated the Bulgarians and seized most of Macedonia as a virtual colonial dependency.

The violence of the two Balkan wars made a deep impression on the peace movements of Europe and North America, ignorant as they were of the much greater carnage that was about to engulf Europe. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then in its third year, appointed an international commission which would travel to the Balkans, dig out the facts, and present them to an inert Western public. The commission’s report was completed six months before the outbreak of World War I. In 1993, at the initiative of Morton Abramowitz, the current president of the Carnegie Endowment and a former US ambassador to Turkey, the report was republished in the midst of the Bosnian war. George Kennan, in a lucid preface to that later edition, tied the events of 1912 and 1913 to the Bosnian tragedy of today.1

The commission’s 1914 report has the sting of recognition. It describes atrocities in appalling detail—rape, genital mutilation, the roasting of corpses on spits, the slaughter of inhabitants of entire villages. It catalogues widespread ethnic cleansing and the wholesale production of refugees. It tallies the economic disaster visited on all sides by the wanton destruction, noting ironically that at least the Bulgarian economy was assisted by the opening of an artificial leg factory. The report’s grainy photographs of murdered soldiers, drowned civilians, and mourning women in black would fit easily into any current text on Bosnia.

The commission’s mandate was to gather facts, not to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, the perceptive and humane Frenchman who served as its president—Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, a politician active in the peace movement—had some sharp comments in his introduction to the report. He criticized the European powers for their dithering, and predicted that “all this horror will not cease to exist as long as Europe continues to ignore it.” He absolved the Balkan peoples—“not less good or less gifted than other people in Europe and America,…martyrs rather than culprits.” The “real culprits,” he charged, were the nationalist leaders, “those who mislead public opinion and take advantage of the people’s ignorance to raise disquieting rumors and sound the alarm bell, inciting their country and consequently other countries into enmity,” scoundrels “who by interest or inclination, declaring constantly that war is inevitable, end by making it so.” In concluding his account of the crimes and tragedies described by the commission, d’Estournelles wrote: “In reality there is no salvation, no way out either for small states or for great countries except by union and conciliation.”


Given the striking similarities between the Balkan wars at the beginning of the century and the Bosnian war at its end, it seemed natural to organize another Balkan commission. Abramowitz at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace joined with David Anderson, director of the Aspen Institute Berlin and a former US ambassador to Yugoslavia, to launch the project. The earlier commission included three politicians, three academics, and two journalists. The composition of the later one, which began its work in 1995, was similar—two politicians, two academics, a journalist, a lawyer, and an ex-diplomat.

If one were looking for independence of thought, fairness, and humane concern, one could hardly have improved on this commission. Its chairman was Leo Tindemans, a former prime minister of Belgium and a major figure in Europe’s integration over the past two decades. The members, in addition to Anderson, were Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor and long the conscience of the French political right; Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish historian and parliamentary leader who has been a major figure in Solidarity; Lloyd Cutler, a much respected Washington lawyer; Theo Sommer, publisher of the liberal German weekly Die Zeit; and John Roper, a prominent British foreign policy intellectual. The executive director and principal drafter of the report was Jacques Rupnik, a highly regarded political scientist who left Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring and now lives in France.

The 1996 report, published while Bosnia is not at war but hardly at peace, is more ambitious than its predecessor. It goes beyond the emphasis on Macedonia of the earlier report and covers the whole Balkan region. The commission was also asked, in Tindemans’s words, to formulate “long-term measures to contribute to the establishment of a durable peace” in the Balkans. It has produced a superlative document—an incisive analysis of the rise of nationalism and its contribution to the death of Yugoslavia and to the wars that followed, an unflattering account of the West’s failure to end the Bosnian war, a set of sensible recommendations for each country in the region, and imaginative proposals for the Balkans as a whole. Unfinished Peace, remarkably well written for a product of group-think, has a moral force which lifts its prescriptions far above the level of the normal policy institute paperback. Every comprehensive Western plan for the Balkans from now on would do well to draw on the clear analysis and informed good sense of this report.

Unfinished Peace echoes d’Estournelles’s diatribe against nationalists who mislead rather than lead. It rejects the view that the current Balkan tragedy was the result of great power ambitions and finds the causes of conflict within, not outside, the Balkans. The commissioners dismiss the contention of such local nationalists as Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that ancestral hatreds and cultural and religious incompatibilities lead inexorably to strife. The point is a crucial one; on it hangs the principal defense by Serbian and Croatian nationalists of their racist goals and their barbarous means for attaining them.

Tudjman came to power in 1990 saying that he was concerned that multi-ethnic Yu-goslavia could not be saved and was not worth saving; in fact his actions hastened its demise. When he met with the commissioners he gave an explanation of his views in a kind of geo-babble:

The Yugoslav experience showed that cultural and geopolitical divides turned out to be decisive…. The current fault-line overlaps with those of the Roman Empire (Theodosian line) between Rome, Byzantium, and Islam, as well as with the border between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires.

Karadzic, more picturesquely as befits a poet and psychiatrist, has said: “You can’t keep a dog and a cat in a box together. Either they would always be quarreling and fighting or they would have to stop being what they are.”

Of course, nobody could pretend that the numerous peoples of the Balkans have lived together peacefully. Still, the claims that their bloody past is unique are hardly convincing when one remembers the English civil wars (in which a king was beheaded), the French Revolution (ditto), and the American Civil War, not to mention the two calamitous world wars fought between major trading partners and, in the case of the first, between countries ruled by cousins. Moreover, the Balkan fault lines have not always divided ethnic groups in the ways that today’s nationalists pretend were the case. Karadzic’s Orthodox Serbian dogs and Catholic Croatian cats, now the main adversaries in the Balkans, had never fought before the twentieth century. On the other hand, the most vicious fighting in the second Balkan war of 1913 was between Orthodox Serbia and Orthodox Bulgaria. And Tudjman’s historical determinism has difficulty explaining why in 1918 Yugoslavia was the voluntary creation of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

The Bosnian Muslims are Slavs, ethnically indistinguishable from Serbs and Croats, who are themselves closely related ethnically. Lacking a strong ethnic argument for the incompatibility of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, the nationalist leaders tend to emphasize their religious differences—an explanation that does not sound convincing coming from men who are, for the most part, former Communists. Religion, like ethnicity, is part of the problem, but only a small part. The larger truth may be that it is the similarities, rather than the differences, among Balkan peoples that make them vulnerable to nationalist manipulation. Charles Dickens wrote of England during the Wars of the Roses: “When men unnaturally fight against their own countrymen, they are always observed to be more unnaturally cruel and filled with rage than they are against any other enemy.”2 And Konrad Lorenz argued that true aggression is possible only among members of the same species.

Sigmund Freud may have come closest to the heart of the Balkan problem when he wrote that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.” Freud saw this phenomenon, which he called “the narcissism of minor differences,” as a way for rulers to make cohesion easier between members of a community.3 The three men most responsible for the destruction of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed, Milosevic, Tudjman, and Karadzic, understood the efficacy of hate propaganda for creating cohesion among peoples who had grown too accustomed to living together.

In light of these factors, the authors of Unfinished Peace place responsibility for the Yugoslav and Bosnian tragedies precisely where it belongs—

with those post-communist politicians throughout Yugoslavia who have invoked the “ancient hatreds” to pursue their respective nationalist agendas and deliberately used their propaganda machines to justify the unjustifiable: the use of violence for territorial conquest, the expulsion of “other” peoples, and the perpetuation of authoritarian systems of power.


None of the most culpable ethnic leaders has suffered a serious reversal in the disasters they provoked. Milosevic’s Serbia lies economically prostrate, with a burden of over half a million Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia and with a per capita gross national product only half of what it was before the fighting began. But Milosevic himself seems secure in his dictatorial power; on November 3 his party won an election in which the opposition was largely muzzled. In Orwellian style Milosevic proclaims himself the peacemaker of a Bosnian war which he will admit no responsibility for starting; the state-run mass media ignore the terrible costs of the war and Milosevic’s role in instigating it.

Tudjman’s Croatia is better off, and its president revels in having rid his country of most of its Serbian minority in one of the most brutal examples of ethnic cleansing in the entire Bosnian war—the blitzkrieg attack and expulsion of the Serbs of the Krajina region of Croatia in August 1995. Tudjman continues his progress toward totalitarianism. He has refused to accept an elected opposition mayor of his capital city, Zagreb. Most recently he moved to close the last independent radio station in Croatia, even though it had given him air time in 1990 when he was an opposition candidate. In Bosnia, the militant Croats, with Tudjman’s support, have consolidated their hold on much of western Bosnia and, in violation of international commitments, are running it as if it were a part of Croatia.

  1. 1

    Kennan’s introduction was reprinted in The New York Review of July 5, 1993, p. 3.

  2. 2

    Charles Dickens, A Child’s History of England (Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 338.

  3. 3

    Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (Norton, 1961), p. 61.

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