A Look Back: Thoughts About Yugoslavia, Sovereignty, and Western Inaction

March 29, 2014
July 13, 2016

Amidst the discussion of Russian actions in the Crimea, there have been a few halting references to earlier secessions. Mostly cited by Russian apologists, comparisons with Kosovo and earlier the breakup of Yugoslavia have generally been dismissed for that reason. It is a tragedy that it has been left to some of the more unsavory elements in the media, or in the case of Nick Cohen at the Nation, controversial, to ask whether or not John Kerry, when he protests that the upcoming referendum in the Crimea is a “violation of the Ukrainian Constitution” and against “international law” is being a bit disingenuous.

It’s being disingenuous because the West has implicitly backed secession movements throughout Europe for the last two decades, if not by embracing the principle of secession than by adopting the position that central governments should not be permitted to use force “against their own people” in order to prevent it. It was this principle, utilized in the cases of Croatia and Slovenia, and later in Kosovo, that is not being asserted in the Crimea. The West claiming that the Crimean referendum violates the Ukrainian Constitution is consistent with past precedent; the West asserting that the Ukrainian government has the right to roll in the tanks to stop it unless its conducted under the terms of the federal constitution, is less so.

By way of analogy, imagine if in 1860 in the midst of the secession crisis that would lead to the US Civil War, Britain and France offered to mediate, and then, while maintaining that secession was undesirable and illegal, they insisted that  the use of force by the Lincoln government against the South would be unproductive, unacceptable, and prompt intervention. Both governments might well have favored a settlement which would keep the Union together, and neither might have much sympathy for the Confederate cause. Nonetheless, the effect of their actions would be to ensure southern independence. Their opposition to the use of force by Lincoln would have removed the only incentive for the South to compromise, weakening the position of moderates there, and thereby ensured either the outbreak of war or recognition of Southern independence.

If the above sequence of events sounds familiar it should. It basically outlines European, or at least German policy in both Croatia/Slovenia in 1990, and in Kosovo in 1999. In both cases the West assumed a position of neutrality, ostensibly preserving a settlement that maintained the unity of federal states. In practice, the West would provide the aspiring secessionists a veto over any compromise, while themselves exerting a veto over the use of force of coercive force. With the central governments not allowed to use coercive pressure, and the West unwilling to use it, predictably efforts at compromise failed with consequence state breakup.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990.

Yugoslavia, a Case Study in Active Inaction

In June of 1991, the Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia proclaimed independence from the Yugoslav Federation. Almost immediately forces of the Federal Yugoslav People’s Army invaded, before, after eleven days withdrawing. Slovenia got off lightly; the YPA withdrew into Croatia and Bosnia, from whence it would wage war against the secessionist republics for the next three years. In that war, the West would express its sympathy for the secessionist republics, both moral and eventually military. The West would also go further however by recognizing them not just as independent states, but as independent states within their Yugoslav borders, in effect taking in a side in a conflict which was less about whether the Croats and Slovenes were going to leave, but what they were going to take with them.

Croatia and Slovenia cited a litany of grievances as causes for their secession. The Yugoslav Federation was dysfunctional; to the extent it functioned at all it was increasingly dominated by Serbian nationalists led by Slobodan Milosevic; that its economic structure was holding them back. All of these claims had truth to them, but to many observers there was another set of motivations that played as large a role. Much of Slovenia had been part of Austria and Italy prior to 1945, while Catholic Croatia had belonged to the Hapsburgs for centuries. Both felt themselves part of the “West” not the “East” and there substantial sentiment against remaining in a nation with Orthodox Serbs. Arguments in favor of the “Western” Slovenes and Croatians would have resonance in the West, and expatriates in America and Europe largely bankrolled the nationalist parties in 1990-1991. These parties would then conspire to create the very problems both nations would cite in their justification for secession.

The Yugoslav Constitution of 1974 as designed by Tito had created a substantially decentralized state in which the Federal institutions outside of the army were weak. The Presidency was a collective body whose leadership rotated between republics. The Prime Minister was responsible to the National Assembly, but rather than being elected in nationwide elections, the membership of that assembly were appointed by the republican Communist parties, not the Yugoslav league of Communist. This would prove critical in the 1980s, when economic decline, the need to pay interests on the debts run-up during the oil boom of the 1970s, and declining foreign aid donations collided with the inflexibility of the political system. A series of reforming Prime Ministers were stymied by republican opposition to austerity, even as the IMF forced them to embark on polices that spread discontent throughout the republic.

In 1989, Ante Markovic, a Croatian businessman was appointed Prime Minister with a mandate to move the Yugoslav Federation on democratic lines. His problem, however, was that Croatia and Slovenia, the two richest republics refused any reform that would limit their autonomy over economic matters, while Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia was threatening the constitutional system in his own domain. Markovic ideally would have liked to break this impasse by calling all-Yugoslav national elections; opinion polls in 1990 showed the vast majority of Yugoslavs wanted a democratic, united Yugoslavia, but the Croatians and Slovenians insisted that democratic elections be held on a republican level first, and vetoed his efforts. When those elections produced narrow margins of victory for nationalists, 42% of the vote in Croatia, 44% in Slovenia, the new governments saw no reason to keep their end of the bargain. After all they were leaving, why should they take part in, or help manage, elections for a country they no longer intended to belong to. Their parting shots over 1990-1991 were therefore to block democratic elections at the federal level, or even Markovic’s efforts to hold a nationwide referendum on Yugoslav unity.

Where was the West at this time? The EU nominally backed the Federal Yugoslav government, but from 1990 onwards treated the “Yugoslav” crisis as one between the republics rather than between the republics and the federation; the EU made aid to Belgrade conditional on reaching an agreement with Croatia and Slovenia, giving the two republics a veto over whether or not the government would receive loan guarantees. Unsurprisingly EU efforts at constitutional compromise failed.  Not only did they fail, they removed whatever coercive power Markovic had to hold national elections.

 The Bush Administration in theory backed Markovic through the summer of 1991, and as late as January of 1992 would express public frustration with the speed with which Germany recognized Slovenia an Croatia. But even the United States had trouble providing more than moral opposition to secession. During a 1989 visit to Belgrade, Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger met with a number of leading political figures and was asked by a Slovenian nationalist what the US response would be to Slovenian moves towards independence. Eagleburger responded that the US dearly hoped that Slovenia would not leave, but it would do nothing to stop them. As the US was clearly not prepared to allow Belgrade to use force to keep Slovenia inside the federation, Eagleburger’s concession committed the United States to backing Slovenian secession if it were to occur.

With the US and EU committed either to support for secession, or to preventing the Yugoslav army from preventing it, there was no reason for the Slovenes or Croatians to attempt a compromise. It’s now become standard for historians to assert that no such compromise was possible, that Milosevic was already too powerful. But had Markovic been allowed to call national elections in 1990, a new federal government could have been formed with the legitimacy needed to control the army. With the republics electing their own governments, the federal government, based on the communist-era one-party assembly simply faded away, leaving the Army without a master. It found one with the strongest of the successors.

A similar pattern was followed in Kosovo. The West favored an agreement on autonomy, but the Albanians, who had rejected any such compromises in the past and had in fact strengthened Milosevic against his domestic foes by boycotting Serbian elections in the province and throwing its seats to the  Serbian leader, understood that the West would not tolerate a Serbian crackdown. Hence they systematically escalated the conflict, knowing that in the end such an escalation would force the West to intervene, and that once the West had intervened against the Serbian military, it would be impossible for them to then allow the Serbian forces to use coercive force again after. In effect, the West was, as Richard Holbrooke later reflected, forced into a position of fighting to establish Kosovo as independent state by the intransigence of the parties and the fact that the only plausible resolution that would end the crisis was independence. Leaving the province in the hands of Belgrade promised eternal conflict.

The Legacy of History

Putin’s actions in the Crimea are far more direct than those the West took in Yugoslavia. Rather than nominally supporting Ukrainian unity while neutralizing any effort by Kiev to use force through the threat of intervention, he has chosen to organize an election at gunpoint. Nonetheless, the Western position, that Crimea can only secede with the full consent of Kiev, goes against nearly two decades of tradition.

Perhaps the West has learned. One can hope so. Its actions in Yugoslavia were counterproductive, and in Kosovo it allowed itself to be trapped into adopting a partisan position in a clash between two unsavory parties. Equally likely however, the West, in following a 1990s tradition of backing any nationalism except Russian nationalism, has allowed itself to be out-maneuvered into a position where all that is required for Russia to win and the Crimea to leave is its inaction, whereas positive action would be required to stop either event. The only possible end of the “Crimean crisis” appears to be annexation, any alternative a temporary delay before a second round.

It may be too late in the day to avoid this outcome. It’s not too late for the West to consider cause and effect. Compromise occasionally requires pressure to be placed on both parties. In the absence, compromises like that reached between the Ukrainian opposition and government two weeks ago collapse.


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