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.

Karadzic has been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal and has renounced his candidacy for office and leadership of the Bosnian Serb party. But he continues to lead the Bosnian Serb nationalists and moves freely around his republic, while the NATO force looks the other way. The Dayton agreement of 1995 reduced Bosnian Serb territorial holdings to 49 percent of Bosnia—down from the 65 percent they controlled during the height of their aggression but considerably more than their pre-war proportion of the Bosnian population (31 percent) might have warranted. And Dayton awarded them their own republic (“Republika Srpska”), a gift no previous Western peace plan had conceded.

The Dayton outcome was probably the best the luckless Bosnian Muslims could have achieved without Western military intervention, which in any event came too late. They stood by their commitment to a multi-ethnic and tolerant Bosnia throughout most of the war. Now they are split over whether to maintain that position or to try to make Bosnia a Muslim state. The stronger faction based in President Alija Izetbegovic’s party seems headed down the Islamic path.

The commission’s report sets forth clear lessons from this melancholy outcome. First, the United Nations is too weak to organize timely and effective international action. In Bosnia the vacillations and disputes among its leading members denied the UN peacekeeping authority a political strategy. It was thus thrown back on disastrous rhetorical devices, such as creating “safe areas” without provisions for making them safe. Second, the United States and Europe must work together, instead of at cross purposes. And third, “diplomacy not backed by force is tantamount to hollow gesturing.” The commissioners’ bold emphasis on the need for force—a striking departure from the pacifist tone of the 1914 report—is perhaps their most impressive contribution to the current debate.

Unfinished Peace calls for a long-term security guarantee for a unified Bosnia requiring an international military presence (including US troops) for several more years. It urges that indicted war criminals be turned over to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and that they be tried in absentia if they cannot be delivered there. And it issues a warning to NATO that another outbreak in the Balkans could necessitate the early use of military force. The Bosnian war refuted the shibboleth that force should be used only as a last resort. Had force been used in the summer of 1992 instead of the summer of 1995, it might well have saved a hundred thousand lives and produced a fairer and more workable political settlement.

The commission thus advocates an active and deeply engaged approach to the region that may not be congenial either to the American public or even to a second Clinton administration finally unfettered by electoral considerations. There are risks in prolonging the so-far casualty-free American involvement in Bosnia, particularly if—as the commissioners recommend—the NATO force is given the intrusive missions of arresting indicted war criminals and guaranteeing the right of refugees to return safely to their homes. But a Western and American failure to follow through would be worse. It would ensure the almost certain loss of the entire stake the United States has put into Bosnia. The consequences of American lack of determination are predictable:

*Bosnia would be partitioned into Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim entities. A trend toward partition is already apparent, and there is a growing Western tendency to accept it as “reality.” But partition is almost sure to be accompanied by another outbreak of war. The disappearance of the Bosnian state would probably set the Bosnian Serbs and Muslims again to fighting—the Serbs to regain territory lost during the war, the Muslims to reverse the inequities of Dayton. In a renewed combat the Serbs would probably have the advantage, particularly if Milosevic’s Yugoslav army in Serbia resumed supplying the Bosnian Serb army and if Tudjman decided to join Milosevic in a Serb-Croat division of Bosnia, as he has often threatened to do. An agonizing reprise of the shelling of the civilian population of Sarajevo is one of the horrors to be expected in a recurrence of violence. Another is the possibility that next time the war may not be limited to Bosnia.

*Partition would probably force the Muslims into a small, poor, landlocked enclave. Authoritarian tendencies and Islamic inclinations would be reinforced; so would the Muslims’ dependence on such rogue states as Iran. It would be ironic indeed if three years of anti-Muslim aggression, combined with Western indifference, resulted in Europe’s first Islamic state. In circumstances of deep Muslim disillusion with the West, it would not be too much to imagine a Bosnian base being used for anti-Western terrorist attacks.

*Even without such a dangerous outcome, the partition of Bosnia would set in place three states based on the principle of apartheid, a first for post-Hitlerian Europe. As ethnic cleansing eliminated or marginalized ethnic minorities, political leaders would feel reduced pressures to exercise the moderation that a more complex ethnic picture demands. Those with the most blatantly racist platforms would be the best placed to win office. Thus, the fascist tendencies already visible in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia (and parts of the former Soviet Union) could become stronger. Not only would such political consequences be repugnant. They would also be unstable, for regimes based on racism are sure to covet territory held by other ethnic groups across their borders.

There is no guarantee that a resolute Western approach led by the United States can deter a descent into belligerent fascism. Enmities born of war and indoctrination by the mass media run deep. Just a few weeks ago, for example, Bosnian Serb officials blew up the homes of ninety-six Muslim families seeking permission to visit their native villages in Republika Srpska; and on November 13 fighting broke out between Muslims seeking to return to Serbian-held territory and Serbian security forces. But the situation is not hopeless. American power is greatly respected in the Balkans, particularly among Serbs. Arrest of the indicted Bosnian Serb leaders would send a powerful signal that the West has stopped coddling racism. After an initial period of trying to make martyrs of Karadzic and Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb political system would adjust to less fanatical leadership.

If the United States and its allies are consistent in rejecting apartheid and supporting multi-ethnic approaches, then the next major election in Bosnia in 1998 might be more about the future than the past—and might result in a more genuine assessment of people’s real interests. If such an election took place, an all-Bosnian constitutional structure based on tolerance and ethnically mixed leadership, now only a façade, would have a real chance. And the sharing of living space by different ethnic groups would again become possible. What is still unclear is how Bosnians of all ethnic groups weigh their national aspirations against their fear of more war. The West can help to tip that balance.


If the Balkan commissioners prescribe strong remedies, it is because they understand the malignant nature of the disease. They see that disease as affecting not just Bosnia and its environs but the Balkans as a whole. Recalling the Macedonian emphasis of their 1914 predecessors, they rightly concentrate on the Macedonia region, including Kosovo, Albania, and Greece, as a second major source of instability and potential violence. Macedonia itself, an ethnically mixed area (“macédoine” is a French word for fruit salad), is heading for crisis. Its humane and democratic president Kiro Gligorov was badly wounded in an assassination attempt in 1995 and is in any case in his late seventies. His successors will have to deal with a restive Albanian minority as well as potential challenges to Macedonia’s sovereignty from neighboring Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

An explosion in Kosovo, where Milosevic’s Serbia maintains colonial hegemony over a restive Albanian majority, could spread to the Albanian areas of Macedonia, as well as to Albania itself. Even if it did not, President Clinton has committed the United States more explicitly to protecting the Albanians in Kosovo than he ever did to protecting the Muslims in Bosnia—he has warned Milosevic that Serbian-inspired violence would bring American retaliation on Serbia itself. These interlocking crises and commitments give point to the commissioners’ insistence that the Balkans must be dealt with as a regional problem.

Their prescriptions for the region are sober, sensible, and—given the residue of ethnic hatred—necessarily long-term. Their aim is to reduce the dominance of ethnicity in political life and to build some semblance of civil society. They eschew such flashy ideas as international conferences and Balkan confederations. Their emphasis is on building confidence and cooperation from the bottom up, beginning with a network of regional commissions to deal with issues of potential conflict. They envisage economic reconstruction taking place on a small scale and recommend a free-trade area. They urge Western countries to make a long-term commitment to democracy, starting with an institute to coordinate the work of nongovernmental organizations and a center to promote democracy, both based in the Balkans.

The emphasis in Unfinished Peace on the methods by which nationalist demagogues envenom the minds of their citizens is of special value. The report criticizes the post-Yugoslav educational systems, especially textbooks written from nationalist perspectives. It chastises Milosevic, Tudjman, and others for their gross manipulation of the mass media in the interests of ethnic hatred, and proposes retaliatory measures if greater press independence is not permitted. It suggests ways to increase minority rights, including new constitutional measures, proportional representation in elections, and decentralization of political power in ethnically mixed areas.

The commissioners are not optimistic about chances for the success of their regional proposals. They recognize the local fears of recreating Yugoslavia, the mutual distrust fostered by war, the preference for bilateral ties, and the preoccupation with domestic needs. Tudjman even refuses to concede that Croatia is a Balkan country; he seems to think he has picked it up and moved it to Western or “Central” Europe. Yet the primitive state of democracy and civil rights in Croatia and the other Balkan states is exactly the reason why the commission’s regional approach to the building of civil society is the right one. It will be easier for a non-democratic Balkan country to accede to Western pressures if it knows it is not being singled out from the others. But the West has to be effectively engaged in the Balkans if the commission’s approach—or any other—is to have any chance of working.


The Balkans have given their name to a process in which larger regions are broken up into smaller and often hostile units. But balkanization is not limited to the Balkans. By some calculations, more than 99 percent of the world’s peoples live in states containing more than one ethnic group. The drive for ethnic self-determination, with its consequences for “balkanization,” is global. It affects Muslims in India, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda and Burundi, Christians in Sudan, Kurds in four different states, Chechens in Russia, Palestinians in the Middle East, French in Canada. Many of these peoples have legitimate grievances, and some may have a valid claim to independence. But to gratify every ethnic group’s desire for independence, however heartfelt and however confirmed by referendums, would multiply both the world’s unstable mini-states and its level of violence.

The reality imposed by the iron law of geography is that the world’s states are irretrievably multi-ethnic. Not even forced transfers of populations on a scale never before attempted can change that reality. Bosnia is an example of both the depravity and the difficulty of ethnic cleansing. The greatest lesson of Bosnia is that ethnic crises are better solved through tolerance and civility than through nationalism and separation. It is a lesson not confined to the Balkans. Even Americans, beneficiaries of the most successful multi-ethnic experiment in history, need to confront the dangers and consequences of creating a black underclass based on poverty and drugs and of eroding the rights of immigrants to our shores.

Nicholas Murray Butler, acting director of the Carnegie Endowment in 1914, began his preface to the first commission’s report with the following sentence: “The circumstances which attended the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 were of such character as to fix upon them the attention of the civilized world.” After the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War and the crimes of Hitler in the Second, Butler’s use of the word “civilized” sounds a bit condescending today. As it happened, the world to which Butler was referring was not as civilized as he thought, and the Balkans, relatively speaking, were not as uncivilized as he assumed. That is why Unfinished Peace deserves to be read not just by Balkan experts, but by anyone concerned about the human condition and the human character under stress.

November 14, 1996

This Issue

December 19, 1996