Good Fences

As the Iraqi occupation continues, with a heavy toll in lives and sanity, so does the desperate search for a solution. One was offered Tuesday by Ivan Eland:

“…what can the United States do to dampen the insurgency and avoid a potential civil war? Something that the Bush administration and the Washington foreign policy establishment have avoided like the plague: rapid U.S. troop withdrawal and genuine and complete self-determination for Iraqis.”

Though at first glance similar to the call for partition fist sounded in November 2003 by Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations in the New York Times, it is nothing of the sort. While Gelb advocated a US-imposed partition, something similar to the British establishment of Iraq to begin with, Eland suggests the US should not oppose partition if it comes to pass. And while Gelb argues for carving up Iraq by invoking the oh-so-successful carve-up of Yugoslavia, Eland invokes a lesson not learned in that fiasco:

“Had the Clinton administration allowed the partitioning of multi-ethnic Bosnia, the United States and other nations would probably not be saddled with the task of keeping the peace in this continuing tinderbox nine years after the Dayton Accords were signed. If the peacekeepers withdrew today, the fighting among Bosnia’s ethnic groups would probably resume.”

Indeed. But insisting on Bosnia’s integrity has been part and parcel of the Imperial policy of intervention that eventually led to Baghdad. That alone makes it worth further examination.

Destroying Yugoslavia

Before there was Bosnia, there was the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). This is an inconvenient fact for the Empire, and thus often forgotten. Certainly, Yugoslavia may have been put together wrong – twice, no less – and its collapse was as inevitable as anything in history. But the way that collapse took place was tantamount to murder, and the perpetrator was no other than the currently purported “savior” of the western Balkans – the young EU.

After World War Two, Yugoslavia’s Communist government reorganized the previously unitary kingdom into Soviet-style “republics.” Unlike in the USSR, they eventually overpowered the central government and in 1990 held separate democratic elections. When two of these republics, Croatia and Slovenia, declared independence in the summer of 1991, the federal government was unable to stop them. The half-baked effort by the military (sometimes referred to as the “Ten-Day War“) failed miserably.

Slovenia, a peripheral and ethnically homogenous republic, was let go. Croatia, stretching halfway across the Yugoslav federation and encompassing territories historically inhabited by ethnic Serbs (who had reasons to oppose rule by an independent Croatia), was a different story. As fighting erupted between Croatian and Serb militias, the European Community butted in. In August 1991, it established a Peace Conference on Yugoslavia and an Arbitration Commission, “comprising five Presidents from among the various Constitutional Courts of the EC countries,” (per Roland Rich) which came to be known as the Badinter Commission. It was this EU intervention that shaped Yugoslavia’s destruction.

The Badinter Decisions

While the Badinter Commission’s Opinions (as its decisions were known) are well worth reading in detail, what they essentially did is define the Yugoslav crisis in a way that could only lead to bloodshed. In November 1991, when pressed to decide whether the main issue in Yugoslavia was that of secession from the federation (as it clearly was), the Commission declared that “the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is in the process of dissolution” instead. And just like that, Yugoslavia ceased to exist once again, its carcass free for the taking.

While logic would dictate that a country that “dissolved” would be replaced outright by successor states, in this case too, Yugoslavia was to be an exception. The Commission issued Opinions 2-6 in January 1992, the second ruling that only republics had the right to leave the “dissolved” Yugoslavia, not peoples, as it had been guaranteed in the Yugoslav Constitution and customary in international practice. This left some two million Serbs in what were to become Croatia and Bosnia out in the cold, and they would have none of it. Their revolt ignited the 1991-95 Succession Wars.

Moreover, based on the Commission’s first decision, all republics were required to apply for recognition. Serbia and Montenegro refused, having been recognized as independent back in 1878. In April 1992, they established a new federation and claimed sole succession to the SFRY. This followed the Soviet precedent, which must have shaped second Opinion: the USSR split along the “republic” lines as well, but Russia was recognized as its sole heir. But as the first Opinion already declared Yugoslavia had simply “dissolved,” the EU would have none of it. Not only was the right of self-determination denied to two million Serbs outside Serbia, it was denied to Serbia itself. In the end, the puppet government that deposed Milosevic in 2000 eventually accepted the Badinter diktat and reapplied for recognition.

Rothbard’s Wisdom

It is a cruel irony that Serbs had accepted the Badinter decision on the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and did not question the secession of either Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Instead, they tried to counter-secede, and ran afoul of Badinter’s Paradox (Opinion 2): only republics were allowed to do so! In both instances, the EU/US insistence on sanctity of arbitrary “republic” borders (and complete disregard for both old Yugoslav borders and national self-determination) thwarted the efforts of Serbs (and also Croats in Bosnia) to counter-secede. So tens of thousands died, millions were displaced, countless property was damaged, ethnic relations were poisoned for generations to come, Bosnia came under international occupation, yet the basic issue of the war – self-determination – remained unresolved.

If only the EU meddlers had listened to the great libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard, who in his August 1990 essay “The Nationalities Question” endorsed secession and the partition of both Yugoslavia and its constituent entities, noting:

“In the first place, it must be recognized that there are no just national boundaries per se; that real justice can only be founded on the property rights of individuals… National boundaries are only just insofar as they are based on voluntary consent and the property rights of their members or citizens. Just national boundaries are, then, at best derivative…”

Urging against the US intervention in Bosnia in 1993, Rothbard argued:

“…the only hope of genuine peace and justice is to destroy – Bosnia – and to allow this non-country to be divided completely into its constituent parts.”

Since the other solutions, imposed at first by the EU then by the US, appear to have failed abysmally, perhaps it is time to give Rothbard’s well-reasoned argument a try?

Then There Is Kosovo…

Ever since 1991, there has been a persistent effort to address the aspirations of Albanians in Serbia and Macedonia and maybe even Montenegro as the last chapter of Yugoslavia’s “dissolution,” creating an independent state of Kosovo which would then annex the neighboring Albanian-inhabited areas. The problem with this approach, aside from its obviously aggressive character, is that it both appeals to the Badinter decision and contradicts it. On one hand, Albanians and their partisans claim that Kosovo’s status in the former Yugoslavia gave it a legitimate right to demand recognition. On the other, they also base their claim on population figures (“90 percent of Kosovo”) and ethnic self-determination, something clearly denied to Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, for example. They also claim uti possidetis: the right to keep what they seized by force of (NATO’s) arms in 1999. But Badinter Commission’s Opinion 2 notes that uti possidetis applies to the inviolability of borders of Yugoslav republics, one of which happens to be Serbia.

Obviously, invoking mutually contradictory principles to justify something gained through aggression isn’t a problem either for Kosovo Albanians or their Western helpers. Law and logic are not their strong point: violence is – whether in form of NATO’s original invasion, or the ongoing pogroms.

Quit Meddling!

The story of the Balkans wars of the 1990s – and of Iraq today, one would venture – is the same as the story of every people, everywhere. Where there is humanity, there will always be deceit and coercion. But in the modern world, these are institutionalized in the government, their destructiveness amplified. While history, circumstances and the nature of their dispute all predisposed the Yugoslavs of 1990 towards violence, it was the way the EU and the US institutionalized that conflict that led to its horrifying escalation. Whether through the Badinter rulings of the paradoxical Dayton Agreement, outside meddling made the Yugoslav conflicts more intractable and their solution that much farther away.

Arbitrary as it was, the initial Balkans meddling of the nascent EU and the American Empire at least tried to hide under a veneer of legitimacy, while the late-stage interventions (Kosovo, Macedonia) were simply naked aggression and extortion, respectively. The fact that no one was either willing or able to oppose them by force does not make them legitimate – merely temporarily successful.

It has been plain to just about everyone in the world that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal, an act of naked aggression justified by allegations abjectly lacking veracity. The impotence of resistance to this aggression in Kosovo made Iraq possible. It should not make one ounce of difference that the Iraqi occupation – or that in Kosovo, or Bosnia – isn’t going as planned; the US should withdraw from Iraq – and Kosovo, and Bosnia, and Macedonia – not because these interventions weren’t successful, but because they were wrong.

And if some see this as a blow to America’s asserted total global dominance in matters military and political, why should it be? Why should people fear America, instead of respecting it? Surely the United States of America stands for freedom and honor, not fear and violence?


Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.