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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 44


For A Comprehensive Approach To The Problems of The West Balkans

Saturday 25 October 2008, by Branislav Gosovic


The following article, being carried in two parts, is based on the author’s remarks at the conference “Human Security and Reconciliation” organised by the European Centre for Peace and Development (ECPD), Belgrade, October 27-28, 2006. The article was first published in Inter-Ethnic Reconciliation, Religious Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans, Proceedings of the Second ECPD International Conference, (eds.) T. Togo, J. Levett, N.P. Ostojic, Belgrade, 2007. It is being published here with the author’s permission. The first part of this article appeared in Mainstream, October 11, 2008. This is the second and concluding part.

V. Two Decades Later: A Balance-sheet Needed

TWO decades have passed since Yugoslavia began to fissure. The question needs to be posed whether the break-up of Yugoslavia was functional and whether the same or better outcomes for all concerned could have been obtained without human, material, social and economic sacrifices and costs that were incurred because of its dissolution.

Indeed, in every area of political, social and economic life, including the highly prized membership of the EU, much more could have been achieved through a peaceful process and cooperation, however difficult and complex this may have been. Inter alia, one would have avoided war, aggression, and great loss of human life, the rise of nationalism and related hate agendas that poison and mortgage the future, a massive destruction and dislocation of society and the economy, a two-decades-long interruption of the development process, economic and social crises, and historical and socio-political retrogression brought about by the break-up of Yugoslavia. It would have also preserved an important and influential country, that played a role regionally and on the global scene, and that would have been in a better position and on more equal terms to cope with the challenges of transition and pressures than the states that resulted from its disintegration.

One of the original underlying causes of the break-up was the desire by some constituent members of the federation to ascertain and gain their sovereignty. While they have become states, their sovereignty and independence remain ever illusive and distant goals, as they have fallen under the political and economic tutelage of foreign powers. Indeed, with the new states eventually becoming members of the European Union, for them this in a number of ways will imply the reconstitution of the old Yugoslav space in a broader EU framework (which, incidentally, bears some similarity with the premises of the Yugoslav federation). Joining the Union also means that the states issued out of Yugoslavia will have to accept the myriad new requirements, including formal and strict limits on their national sovereignty, emanating and administered from the remote centre in Brussels.

This will happen, moreover, in a situation where they will find themselves individually at the very tail end of the group of EU member-states in terms of bargaining power, political and economic importance, and influence. Had Yugoslavia survived, its constituent republics, as a collectivity, would have been in a better position to bargain and exert influence and, with an important head start and experience, would have been probably the first among the candidate states to join the EU.

Was the dismantling of Yugoslavia and the related developments beneficial and if so for whom?

In the geo-political sense, the Western powers and their military arm embodied in NATO, which is now being upgraded and retooled for an expanding, global role, are the obvious and major beneficiaries. In addition to helping open up a new chapter in the conduct of international relations by providing ideological justification for and legitimising militarism and the use of force, an important, strategic part of Europe’s real-estate, the traditional gateway to Asia, where land routes to the Middle East and beyond merge and pass, has come under their influence and control, economically, politically, militarily and culturally. Instead of being a neutral peace-zone free of foreign military presence, the West Balkans is becoming part of the front line of the expanding Western military bloc and alliance, with the likelihood, given unlimited access and transit and military bases already on the ground or to be erected, of nuclear and other sophisticated weaponry being introduced into the region.

Undoubtedly, advances are in progress or have been made, and have been amply publicised, for example, beneficial and necessary reforms in given spheres of political life, democratisation of the political process, the introduction of certain aspects of Western consumer society, including wider choice of imported consumer and luxury goods, the availability of foreign-bank credits and services, some improvements and modernisation in services and infrastructure, and greater simplicity in dealing with problems in new smaller state entities, without having to negotiate and argue, as they had to earlier, with other republics or with the Yugoslav federation. However, most of these could and would have been achieved in the framework of Yugoslavia anyway, on better terms and much sooner, and without the massive collateral damage to society, social order and the economy caused by the wars and turmoil, and international sanctions which impacted in a number of profound and negative ways much of the country and its societal fabric.

In the symbolic and emotional sphere, the six states and six capitals, with all the trappings and symbolism that go along with statehood, represent for many a supreme achievement and fulfilment of centuries-old dreams that compensates for all the hardships experienced and losses incurred. The local politicians, bureaucrats and administration officials, who were catapulted into the governments of the new states that gained international recognition, together with other newly formed elites, no doubt enjoy and cherish their own new status and importance.

The multiparty system has livened up and diversified the political process and discourse and has enabled many interest groups and political groupings to form their own parties and thus identify and advance their political agendas and specific interests.

A limited stratum of the population, in particular those involved in business and financial activities, as well as a number of enterprising individuals with the skills, temperament and character (often with few scruples and with rather flexible moral and ethical standards) required in situations of transition, social turmoil, and “free-for-all” competition, have seen their positions improve markedly, with some acquiring virtually overnight significant material wealth and key societal positions of influence as an emerging “new (capitalist or businessmen’s) class” of entrepreneurs, managers, investors and merchants, that has filled part of the vacuum created by the dismantling of the public sector and the weakening of the state.

While the pluses of the balance-sheet have been amply publicised and fully covered, the negative side is not given adequate attention; especially from the perspective of the West Balkans, or ex-Yugoslavia as an integrated region, and from the point of view of the common citizenry and working people, who represent the overwhelming majority of people living there, who have borne the brunt of events and of the negative fallout of the imposed changes, and have not participated in sharing the tangible benefits generated by the new situation.

Many advances achieved during decades of efforts to be self-reliant, to develop, modernise and to industrialise were judged as failures and pronounced as inappropriate ways to develop, a goal, which, it was argued, could be achieved best by becoming “European” and moving into the Western camp. The structural adjustments were done at a very high cost, with important development advances, social progress and acquisitions being reversed or given up, often on spurious or ideological grounds and usually without being aware of or ignoring practical lessons from other countries that have applied similar prescriptions.

Trying hard to become a member of the “high society” from a position of weakness and/or ignorance, often an underlying inferiority complex, and eagerness to transform automatically and overnight through an uncritical and quasi-religious embracing of the neo-liberal globalisation prescriptions and, the often savage transition process of privatisation and the introduction of a radical free market economy, has brought about far-reaching, abrupt social transformations and change. These have affected unfavourably large strata of the population, in particular the working classes, those in educational and health services and in general in the public sector, as well as pensioners. They have accentuated social conflict, instability and individual insecurity and, have undermined the strength, diversity and resilience of national economies, magnifying their dependence on outside factors and capital.

It is revealing to draw an illustrative, non-structured laundry list of items that could be included on the debit side of the ledger, representing costs and losses and structural retrogression that the West Balkans and its peoples have experienced as a result of the disappearance of Yugoslavia and of the conflicts and wars that ensued. Most of them have had to confront these challenges from positions of weakness, economic crisis and internal strife and disunity, without alternative views or a clear development project and, with little or no bargaining power vis-à-vis outside pressures and demands. A checklist follows. Many of the points on this checklist would have occurred anyway even had Yugoslavia’s integrity been preserved, and are a result of neo-liberal globalisation and the nature of the transition process in the former socialist countries. However, Yugoslavia, as a single, relatively large country, would have been in a better position to manage the changes and steer the transition than the small states issued out of its disintegration, a task for which it was much better prepared and positioned than its East European neighbours.

• War and widespread destruction in regions of conflict, massive loss of human life, atrocities and war crimes, ethnic cleansing, displaced and exiled persons and refugees, coupled with untold property, social and personal losses and countless family and individual tragedies, and a trauma for many caused by the sudden disappearance of one’s own country.

• A two-decades-long interruption of the development process and the resulting regression of economies, societies and living standards, de-industrialisation and degradation of infrastructure, with major social transformations, growing unemployment, loss of livelihoods, personal and job insecurity, and in a general decline in the quality of life.

• Costly reconfiguring of the national economies of the new states, no longer able to rely on the larger Yugoslav economic and geographic space, and serious imbalances in different spheres of the economy (for example energy supply, importation of consumer goods, balance of payments), lack of sufficiently large national markets for domestic products and services, selling off of national capital goods and natural assets, including valuable real estate along the Adriatic Coast (which has become a favoured destination for foreign speculative investment, including with laundered funds) at very low, give-away prices relative to their real and especially potential value, often used to offset the current balance of payments deficit and to service growing external debt.

• Multiplication of national borders, which originally were administrative borders of the republics within the same country, has created many practical problems and irrational situations, in addition to attendant costs and difficulties in travel, communication, shared natural-resources management, administration, and in some cases border disputes.

• The emergence of new political and economic elites and oligarchies, often linked with organised crime, strongly influencing or dominating political parties, governments and economies.

• A forced privatisation process, with a highly conflictive economic, political and social fallout, providing opportunities for corruption and enrichment of some and for the massive transfer of public goods and public space into domestic and foreign private hands, the concentration of economic power and wealth in a few individuals and families (the so-called “tycoonisation”) and the acquisition or grab by them of economic and social goods, including large complexes of agricultural land and the related infrastructure, which had belonged to and were created by the community.

• The immiseration and widespread impoverishment, pronounced in particular among workers and pensioners and those who have lost employment, where bare existence and survival have become their preoccupations; manifestations of urban poverty similar to those in Third World countries, including the appearance of soup kitchens and the homeless; the revival of classic forms of exploitation of working people by domestic and foreign capital; marked stratification and polarisation of society; generalised insecurity, loss of decent livelihood and social dignity; massive job cuts in government, public services, industry and the economy and, growing unemployment, especially among the young.

• The marginalisation of labour and its no longer enjoying the influential and respected position that it used to have in society, and the general rolling-back of social and political advances and achievements, including the sense of egalitarianism and participation, made during the previous decades.

• The takeover of banking and of critical industries by foreign interests, the emergence of private monopolies, and the disappearance of national productive capacities and capabilities, including in a number of key and strategic economic domains and basic industries, for lack of domestic capital, and the vulnerability and insolvency of many local enterprises in conditions of newly opened markets.

• A decline in social and health indicators, the erosion of social security entitlements, the weakening of health and educational systems and their privatisation, and reduced accessibility for common people of modest means to quality medical and educational services, which now have to be paid for.

• A demographic decline in a situation of economic and social crises and growing social insecurity, in part as a consequence of political-system change that brought about the erosion of the rights and social entitlements of mother and child, including the disappearance of free facilities for daycare that facilitated working women having and raising their families.

• A massive emigration of skilled strata of the population and a brain drain of talented people and highly-qualified professional cadres, fuelled by the now widespread desire of the young to leave their countries when reaching adulthood and seek opportunities elsewhere and, by the high demand for them in some developed countries, including through the organised recruitment of university graduates.

• The ascendance of personal and group interests, disregard for societal standards, the dominance of money and private goods in all spheres, the spread of crass materialism and the survival of the fittest mentality, the erosion of solidarity and social cohesion and the loss of ethical values, the weakening of morality and a widespread impression that everything and everyone is for sale in a market economy, where everything goes and those who know how to cope and have money fare the best, while honest hard work and education do not pay.

• The denial of cultural diversity, pluralism and coexistence in a traditionally multicultural space, which has severely shrunk and has been parcelled up in an artificial manner.

• An increase in organised crime, including trafficking in humans, arms and narcotics.

• Young generations that have been taught religious, national, and ethnic intolerance or hatred in their families, schools, peer groups, media, literature, arts and religious institu-tions, creating an outlook and basic attitude unlikely to change later in life, thus creating a permanent residual pool for Right-wing nationalist forces and for sustaining “Balkani-sation”.

• The rise to positions of political influence and societal pre-eminence of reactionary religions, which flaunt religious and nationalist symbols knowing full well that these carry a historical legacy and contribute to nationalist divisions and tensions especially in sensitive areas.

• The submission of government, administration and political parties to instruction and direction by major powers, including through their highly visible local representatives, some of whom consider it their right and entitlement to interfere, including openly and publicly, in domestic affairs, political processes and economic decisions, including the appointments to key government posts.

• Abandoning of the non-aligned status and neutrality and incorporation into the defensive/offensive Western military alliance with global aims and objectives, the establishment of foreign military and naval bases, the right to unlimited passage and immunity for the alliance’s troops on the soil of new states, and the weakening or surrendering of autonomous national defence capacity.

• The growing dependence of the economy on foreign direct investment, its preferences and availability, in combination with instructions emanating from multilateral financial institutions, bilateral aid agencies and the EU, largely determining the direction, nature and content of national development.

• The increasing influence of foreign money and investors in the economy, finance, monetary spheres, political posture and orientation, and even administrative policy, with them having assumed control of large swathes of strategic sectors of the economy, in particular banking and communications, industry, energy and mining, a situation perceived by many locals as one of being economically (re)colonised.

• Military aggression and unilateral war by NATO against the rump of Yugoslavia, inter alia providing yet another opportunity in the West Balkans to test advanced weapons systems and strategies, including remote-control military capabilities, dropping tens of thousands of tons of bombs including depleted uranium ones with long term health and environmental consequences, causing serious social trauma for the population, economic damage to infrastructure and loss of life, in a continuing and still unfinished process of dismembering the former Yugoslav space and its population, always for a good and just cause, of course, as well as applying the new doctrine and setting a precedent for actions of this kind in other parts of the world, such as shortly thereafter in Iraq.

• Selective justice and the use of double standards in international tribunals dealing with war crimes, run and stage-managed by the Western countries, yet without reference to or recognition of the key roles, responsibility and accountability of these same countries and their leaders in the break-up of the country and in the events that occurred in and continue to affect the West Balkans.

• In an effort to be identified as “Europeans” and as belonging to the Western camp, deliberate distancing from and the severing of links with the South, G-77 and NAM (except for one new state with close ties with Islamic developing countries), and the resulting erosion and loss of political capital and economic credibility in the markets that had been enjoyed by Yugoslavia in the developing countries (including in the rising economies of China and India), where its experts, civil engineering, technology transfer and exports were welcomed, established and appreciated.

• The loss of reputation, prestige and influence that Yugoslavia enjoyed in the world arena, where the successor states’ image leaves a lot to be desired, in part because of the events, actions and behaviour of the 1990s and, also because of their deliberate and explicit efforts to distance themselves from Yugoslavia’s heritage. Their roles on the global stage and in the UN are marginal now and they are often seen to fall into the category of “banana republics”, having little or nothing of general interest or value to offer or say and with no political weight.

This general and tentative enumeration of “minuses” should also refer to the broader, international context. The destruction of Yugoslavia was not merely a loss for the international community of a unique multicultural country and a meeting- point and a crossroads of civilisations, it was also the loss of a country that had provided a degree of stability in this sensitive region, where so many interests and influences intertwine and collide.

The fact that post-World War II Yugoslavia is no longer present on the global scene is no doubt felt in the United Nations, and represents a loss for the Group of 77 and NAM which were deprived of one of their more active and influential members, with a solid diplomatic service that could hold its own at all levels of discourse and negotiations in international affairs. Interestingly, the academic/political analyses challenging the reason for and continuing existence of Yugoslavia coincided in time with similar challenges to the Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement, as well as to UNCTAD, UNIDO and some of the UN’s regional economic commissions. This was not a mere coincidence as such and similar initiatives are part of the same mindset and strategic vision that all have their origins in the same intellectual nursery.

The events in Yugoslavia-cum-West Balkans were a forerunner of developments on the world scene that in a number of ways also embody a contemporary version of paradigms, worldviews, strategies and conceptual frameworks seen and applied in earlier historical epochs, including during the decades that led to World War I. They mark a resurrection of realpolitik and the arrogance of unchecked power exercised by the concert of self-appointed nations, mutual deal-making and trading with human lives, resources and territories belonging to other countries and their populations, including their very existence and destinies. A “commodification” of countries as merchandise to be acquired, traded away and exchanged has reemerged as an element of the unipolar world

In this context a historical judgment of their responsibility awaits the key North players who had a direct role in the break-up of Yugoslavia, and/or who did not want to play a proactive role and prevent its break-up, even though this was within their collective power.

It remains an unfinished task for the international community to focus more inclusively on responsibilities for the outbreak of wars, the original sin and the fundamental crime——a mega or structural war crime at the macro level—and to fill the missing blanks in the Yugoslavia story. The issue of war crimes, tangible crimes that took place at the ground- or micro-level and were made possible only once the crisis was allowed or made to escalate out of control, and the armed conflicts and wars were unleashed, can today be approached in an historically objective and comprehensive manner only if the collective war crime of the major countries involved, that is, that of contributing to and/or allowing the wars to happen, is also recognised, key actors identified and responsibilities determined.

VI. Piecing together the Yugo-Balkans Neighbourhood

AN English saying goes that it is too late to cry over spilt milk (or beans). One also hears the argument, made emphatically by nationalists, by many who are disillusioned or discouraged by the events and mood in these lands, or by those from abroad who favoured and are pleased with the demise and dismemberment of Yugoslavia, that, like Humpty Dumpty who fell off the wall, it is impossible to bring back the Yugo-Balkans following the events that swept this area in the 1990s and the processes that have taken place since.

However, it is neither too late nor unrealistic to start purposefully rebuilding and recreating this space. The West Balkans is and remains a geographic, economic, socio-cultural, historical and environmental entity, where geopolitical tectonic plates overlap and meet. The peoples inhabiting this area will inevitably have to continue to live together, coexist, cooperate and share as they did in the past. Indeed, their improved economic, social and individual well-being will depend on such cooperation. This is a reality that no one can escape, much as some may wish or try to do so, including by continuing systematically to erect walls that separate—material, administrative, cultural, language, conceptual and attitudinal. These efforts are at odds with the mainstream processes taking place in Europe, the Europe that these same wall-builders are trying to join and become part of.

Nor is it too late to recognise and revive, as appropriate and in contemporary forms, the best of what Yugoslavia stood for and aspired to. Indeed a situation may be maturing to open a new chapter and move in this positive direction, with public apologies made by some leaders opening the way for reconciliation and cooperation.

A few years back and in a very short period, benefiting from and harnessing for their purposes the global economic and political changes, certain political forces and actors were successful in destroying the precious foundations built by living together peacefully for 45 years of the post-World War II period, reversing the time machine back to the old fashioned Balkans and in reviving “Balkanisation” in its most pejorative and tragic forms. This was done with the participation or consent of the then political leaders who were in power and who were supposed to protect the legacy of a country forged through the four years of armed struggle of all the Yugoslav peoples during World War II not only against foreign aggressors, but also against their local collaborators and their nationalist agendas. It was assisted by a vitriolic, divisive political discourse, and the manipulation of public opinion and by appealing, systematically and in a premeditated manner, to basic instincts, fears and hatreds widespread and easily aroused among common people. The revival of the ghosts from the past, manufacturing a “consensus”, stage-managing events, falsification and exaggeration were part of a massive brainwashing perpetrated through the media and especially TV, with vital assistance from important segments of nationalistically oriented personalities from public life, who provided the intellectual and emotional fodder for the impending disaster.

The above was done in a situation of grave domestic economic and social crisis, and global geopolitical turmoil and discontinuity. Would it not be feasible to try to reverse the situation, this time by fast-forwarding the time machine, and by reeducating and reshaping public opinion, with particular emphasis on channeling the young and upcoming generations into a positive direction, benefiting from improved local and external conditions and the lessons learned?

Were “de-Balkanisation” to become the new, politically correct and desirable outlook for the whole region of the West Balkans, properly explained and argued, sponsored and tangibly supported by the international community and directed at public opinion and especially the common people, it is probable that it would be embraced and followed by the majority of the population that is tired of antagonisms, negative rhetoric and invective and, according to various public opinion surveys, often disillusioned with many of the changes that have taken place and miss the former country and the characteristic quality of life that it offered. It should be recalled that while homo balcanicus is supposedly vindictive and reacts to violence and perceived injustice aggressively or defensively, he is also known for responding with generosity, kindness and forgiveness to solidarity, goodwill and friendliness. Moreover, he is known for political caution and adaptability to signals from power centres—taught by bitter experiences over the centuries—and thus likely to follow the “new” line were it to become an officially sanctioned one.

Various forms of mutually beneficial economic cooperation, secularism as an overarching value to neutralise the divisive effects of local religions, cultural obscurantism and rising fundamentalisms, and creating channels of communication and opportunities for contact, including at the level of individuals and of local communities, would be essential.

Some Western media, which are in the habit of reporting only about divisions and conflicts, have published lately sporadic articles on links among the populations (music, books, theatre, TV programmes, films, trade etc.). This lukewarm acknowledgment of the existence of the common Yugoslav space should be welcomed, for this neighbourhood continues to exist and live in spite of the new frontiers and artificial divisions.

This recognition should be elevated into a formal one, to be backed by a sustained effort through the media to advocate (or “sell” which is more in tune with the market economy) the idea of a common space and community. A new positive outlook among the general public in all of the West Balkans should be formed by shifting the focus to what binds the new states and their populations, by highlighting what their commonalities and shared interests in their diversity are, and by showing that ethnic and religious identities are not threatened by stronger cooperation and links.

One character trait that was common to the history of all peoples that lived in Yugoslavia is their aspiration and struggle for autonomy and independence. Significant setbacks vis-à-vis the outside world had been experienced in this quest. The challenge now is to rebuild sufficient and respectable policy space for autonomous policies, action and thinking. This is not a mission impossible. It can be pursued successfully through mutual cooperation, a common agenda, as an association of states and peoples that have issued out of Yugoslavia.

Rebuilding the old Yugoslav space should become easier and possible, indeed a conditionality, in the framework of the EU, where the remaining states are likely to be admitted soon, ideally at the same time and as part of the same package. The progressive political forces that are influential in some key EU member-countries should link up with the still to be energised and organised progressive political forces in the West Balkans— where at present the Left remains marginal and has little or no political visibility and importance on the local political scene—and lead this effort, for it is primarily the progressive political outlook, free of reactionary nationalist instincts, that accommodates such vision and cooperation.

Rebuilding this space, however, is not exclusively a local or Northern affair. It is also a matter of general, global interest, for at its root it has to do with the continuing challenges of development and North-South (and also East-West) relations that extend beyond the European Union, NATO and the West Balkans. It is thus of special interest to the developing countries and to the economies in transition. It should be pursued therefore also in the universal framework and under the authority of the democratic, global forum of the United Nations. The UN’s mission is to promote peace, development, international cooperation, the democratisation of world society and, as a priority, to deal with and remove multiple structural and other underlying causes of conflicts and tensions that endanger peace and burden the international community and peoples of the world. These same issues were at the very heart of Yugoslavia’s family drama.

The world community, represented by the United Nations General Assembly, could declare a “UN decade for rebuilding the West Balkans neighbourhood” as one of its global peace-building and development initiatives, of symbolic value and strategic and practical importance. Elaborating the content of and implementing such a decade could become a truly innovative, political and practical “development and peace”, “dialogue of civilisations” undertaking oriented to the future and 21st century, with the involvement and participation of all countries and their peoples.

The UN General Assembly could request the developed countries to redirect part or most of the massive resources that are spent on military and policing objectives in some areas to the strategy for the region as a whole. Some resources could be earmarked for building physical and other bridges; facilitating, channelling and broadening cooperation; reviving and diversifying links between the new states, including by establishing common region-wide premier institutions of higher and specialised learning for educating new generations of professionals that will lead and guide their countries into the future; and in general for building up a political constituency for living together.

While hoping for this to happen, there are signs that some of those same exogenous actors and forces that contributed to the dismantling of Yugoslavia, having achieved most of their goals of regional geopolitical control and socio-economic system and regime change, and possibly having become wiser through experience, are now moving in the direction of reassembling the pieces again.

Thus, they are tacitly recognising that the situation in the West Balkans is similar to that of the countries of the European Community and now the Union, which have provided an institutional framework for the solutions to Europe’s historical and current problems, and in this manner they are de facto admitting that Yugoslavia provided solutions to the many problems and challenges that continue to haunt the mountainous lands and plains of the West Balkans, problems which instead of being managed and overcome, have been aggravated and revived by its dissolution. Thus, once in the EU, and when the local, anachronistic nationalisms are tempered in the broader setting provided by the Union, the former Yugoslav republics may realise that they continue to have a lot in common and that they will need to cooperate very closely and to depend on each other again.


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