207. Yugoslavia Faces the Millennium: Conflict and Continuity

By
Charles Ingrao

A decade after the fall of Communism, there remains little discussion within the public sphere of the fundamental differences that separate the states and societies of Western and Eastern Europe. This oversight is regrettable not only because it limits our ability to resolve problems in the Balkans, but also because that region is far more representative of the world at large than is Western Europe.

A case in point is the region's multiethnic demography, for which there are many historical and current parallels the world over. The uncritical, century-long rush to adopt the West European nation-state model has resulted in a steady succession of secessions, civil wars, and partitions not only in Central Europe, but throughout the former Soviet Union, as well as in East Timor, Eritrea, and Palestine. Today, many statesmen, journalists and scholars advocate ethnic separation as the only solution, even though it would involve population exchanges. Will "peace through partition" become the final solution to ethnic conflict in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Chiapas, Cyprus, Kurdestan, Macedonia, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and western Sumatra?

For the most part, granting autonomy has acted as a "safety valve" in retarding centrifugal forces among concentrated ethnic minorities. The examples of Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Quebec, Republika Srpska, Slovakia, and the six republics of Tito=s Yugoslavia however, suggest that such a solution is never truly "permanent" since it simultaneously perpetuates separate identities and offers career opportunities to those politicians who choose to exploit nationalism as a populist tool for coming to power.

In seeking entry into the European Union, the Yugoslav and other Central European successor states need to accept not only multiethnicity in their own countries, but recognize its reemergence in Western Europe and the rest of the "post-industrial" world. The past century offers numerous examples of the triumph of ethnic coexistence, especially in places like the Bukovina, Srem, Vojvodina, and prewar Bosnia, where a balance of power between ethnic groups simultaneously allayed minority paranoia while encouraging all groups to cooperate with one another. Where no such balance exists, interethnic stability depends heavily on the perception of protection afforded minorities by the rule of law, supplemented by the majority group's willingness to be deferential toward their search for security and reassurance.

The east-west dichotomy is also evident in distinctive manifestations of nationalism and liberalism. Whereas western media and statesmen routinely attribute Serb atrocities to a carefully nurtured "persecution complex," few observers recognize the pervasive sense of a deprived manifest destiny that weighs on the historical consciousness of all of the successor nations of the former multiethnic Habsburg, Ottoman and Tsarist/Soviet empires. One consequence is a militant and intolerant brand of nationalism that has justified discrimination and, sometimes, violence against neighboring ethnic groups. Another consequence is the inclusion of a purely nationalist agenda in the basket of borrowed western Enlightenment ideas, adopted by East Europeans without the necessary region-specific modifications.

The unfortunate result has been the simplistic equation of democracy with majority rule, shorn of such indispensable attributes as the rule of law, freedom of thought and expression, individual rights and toleration, and the obligations of civic responsibility. Admittedly, the combined Ottoman and Communist heritage partly explains the political immaturity of Balkan liberalism. But foreign critics who scoff at what Robert Hayden terms "constitutional nationalism" and the inevitable tyrannies of the majority that it creates forget that Western Europe (and its North American progeny) never experienced a prolonged period of foreign oppression. This distinction suggests that much of the Yugoslav successor states and Eastern Europe's other newly independent states will need a prolonged period of national independence before they can purge the demons of their subjugation by foreign multiethnic empires. These states could perhaps obviate or minimize the need for this evolutionary step by demythologizing their own history, redefining nationality to include all citizens regardless of ethnicity, and enriching the public perception of "democracy" with those attributes and obligations that protect the rights of all citizens.

Mass Media and Visual Imagery

It takes considerable optimism to advocate remolding a society's mentality, in this case to conform with Western models of nationalism and liberalism; to force an entire region to do so requires equally heavy doses of ethnocentrism and arrogance. Yet, if Central Europe is keen on integrating with the West, then it is incumbent on the region's elites to go beyond their uncritical appropriation of the nation-state model to embrace those patently universal Enlightenment values that make nationhood and popular sovereignty palatable for ethnic minorities. Established elites and media have played a crucial role in fashioning modern mass culture over the past two centuries. Moreover, over the past decade, most regional leaders have striven to adopt requisite institutional standards for membership in the European Union and NATO. The leverage therefore, already exists; it remains only that Western policy planners fully realize and encourage the implementation of these international standards and modern mass culture through a combination of school instruction and visual public media.

Visual media has been proven the most effective means of transmitting information and molding people's minds; in head-to-head competition it consistently trumps both print media and radio, both because of its easier accessibility and the didactic power of visual imagery. To their credit, democratic leaders in Serbia and the rest of Central Europe have identified access to visual media as an indispensable element for creating a Western-style civil society. Unfortunately, their realization stems from first-hand experience with the effectiveness of the government-controlled visual media in an authoritarian regime, where the country's silent majority relies primarily - and usually exclusively - on what it sees on television.

Western policymakers however, have consistently dragged their feet in responding to appeals for a visual component to the existing radio "ring around Serbia." Thus, Yugoslavia's Crown Prince Alexander bemoans intermittent encounters with Tony Blair, in which the British Prime Minister reassures him that "We're working on it!" Another example is the misperception of the State Department earlier this year of the effectiveness of Voice of America's television broadcasts into Serbia; the Department was sublimely unaware that the Milosevic regime had long-since eliminated their access to every relay transmitter in the country. Even a high-ranking VOA staffer expressed surprise upon learning that its television broadcasts reached only a few miles into Serbia, courtesy of a single transmission tower in Bijeljina.

The Omnicompetent State

The struggle for control of mass media highlights a third structural reality to which world policymakers have been slow to adapt, namely the ability of modern authoritarian regimes to culturally manipulate and criminally assault their own people. The emergence of what Gale Stokes has termed the "omnicompetent state" represents only the latest stage in the centuries- long, state-building process. Nor is it the first time its evolution has challenged the conscience of the international community. During early modern times the aggressive behavior of the first "great powers" promoted systemic paranoia and almost continuous international conflict. To address this problem, over the past century, the international community has contemplated applying universal standards of behavior inside sovereign countries. Notwithstanding isolated cases of unilateral, third-party intervention in Uganda and Cambodia, NATO's air offensive against rump Yugoslavia in 1999 represents a watershed in the enforcement of internationally recognized norms of conduct (as prescribed by the UN charter) within the frontiers of a sovereign state.

Journalist Seymour Hirsch is doubtless correct in attributing the resulting "Clinton Doctrine" to the worldwide mediation of CNN and other global agents of visual media. Yet another factor has been "U.S. leadership" that combines contrived appeals to national self- interest with a very real sense of moral outrage. Whatever the motivations, policy planners should certainly contemplate and, hopefully reinforce, the prospect of appending the body of international law to facilitate such humanitarian interventions in order to meet this latest, twentieth-century challenge posed by the state-building process.

U.S. Hegemony

The pivotal role that the U.S. has played in Yugoslavia over the past five years underscores a fourth development that demands constant attention, especially by its own policymakers. The dissolution of the Soviet Union marked two potential watersheds in the history of international relations: an abrupt halt to the five-century-long European arms race that began with France's invasion of Italy in 1494, and the usurpation of the balance of power by U.S. hegemony. Whether these developments will become fixed structures or merely temporary "conjunctures" will depend on how the U.S. handles itself on the international stage, especially in matters that challenge the pretensions and perceived interests of countries like France, Russia, or China. In the past, competing states have capitalized on the arrogant unilateralism of momentary hegemons such as Charles V, Louis XIV, revolutionary France and Wilhelmine Germany to reestablish a new balance comprising a coalition of major powers. So far, the U.S. has defied this dynamic by sustaining an ostensibly multilateral foreign policy in the Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts, as well as in less strategically significant humanitarian interventions around the world. Forestalling the re-assembly of a new bi-polar balance of power however, will take constant vigilance so long as stress remains between the U.S. self-interest and that of other great powers. The fateful faux pas of past hegemons suggests that the U.S. should limit overtly self-seeking initiatives (such as contravening the ABM treaty), while helping to construct a universal legal framework to promote an international status quo that seals U.S. hegemony.

If international law is the first resort of the strong, it is also the last refuge of the weak. Hence the tremendous advantages that such a framework offers to the states and societies of the former Yugoslavia. Once the U.S. and its allies have established the requisite parameters for collaboration, they can leave it to each of the newly former Yugoslav republics to set its own pace for aid and integration with the New Europe.

Charles Ingrao spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on May 2, 2000

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