grb Urad predsednika Republike Slovenije

Dr Janez Drnovšek: Riding the Tiger - The Dissolution of Yugoslavia

World Policy Journal, Volume XVII, No. 1, Spring 2000, World Policy Institute, New School University, New York (članek je v angleškem jeziku)

This article was published in a slightly altered form by World Policy Journal.

A decade is drawing to a close in which the most radical changes imaginable took place on the territory of what was once Yugoslavia. In light of these changes, I think it worthwhile, perhaps even instructive, to look back at the beginning of this decade-long cycle. I'm referring to a specific period when many of the terrible events that subsequently transpired the Balkans could conceivably have been avoided. Of course, it was not avoided; and last year the drama returned, with a kind of historical inevitability, to a small place on the map where it all begun -- Kosovo.

It might be useful to start with two diametrically opposite examples of nations that emerged from the former Yugoslavia: Serbia and Slovenia. Today, the former is at one of the lowest points of its long history. Its economy is destroyed, it suffers international isolation, and it's seemingly without any prospects to offer either present or future generations. A decade of Serbian-sponsored wars - conflicts characterized by their mercilessness and barbarity - has resulted in a noticible dearth of international sympathy for Serbia (something which was not necessarily the case in the early 1990's). And yet, as is probably clear to all by now, Slobodan Milosevic`s concept of a Greater Serbia brought devastation not just to other ethnicities within the former Yugoslavia, but also to the Serbs themselves. Large areas of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo where Serbian populations used to live were lost; Montenegro, the last republic left within Yugoslavia apart from Serbia, will probably break away, too. And yet, against all odds Milosevic holds on to power.

The contrast with Slovenia is dramatic. Today Slovenia is a prosperous, successful country with a stable democratic system and a transparent legal system. Various indicators make it clear that our economy leads that of the other formerly socialist states, and we are well on our way to full membership in the European Union and in NATO. Slovenia enjoys good and productive relations with its neighbors, we have established a rich network of diplomatic, commercial and cultural ties with countries worldwide, and we are solidly committed to our democratic path.

How could such disparate outcomes have resulted from the Yugoslav split of 1991? After all, both countries were once component parts of a common state. In order to answer the question it's useful to get into some detail about the situation a decade ago, when two concepts existed in a kind of uneasy juxtaposition within the former Yugoslavia. These ideas progressively became more and more irreconcilable. On the one hand there was a democratic concept advocated by the Slovenes and some others. Apart from all the verities of democracy (free and fair elections, the rule of law, and all the rites and rituals of a multi-party system - which by 1990 weren't just distant possibilities in Slovenia but were suddenly something actual), this concept of how to run the affairs of state placed a high primacy on negotiation, compromise, and a peaceful settling of differences.

The contrasting concept, as we have seen, was far more authoritarian; it was also clearly nationalistic and ethnocentric. In this counter-methodology of how to run a state, force was not necessarily seen as a last resort, centralized control was viewed as a prerequisite, and concepts such as negotiation and compromise were perceived as being synonymous with weakness, not strength. This second model of state mangement was as characteristic of the Serbian regime then as it is now. By 1990 it was clear that the Milosevic regime had convinced itself (and just as importantly, its people) that it had been denied its correct status, and its rightful size, within the arrangements of that vanished country. It was this idea, as we have seen, which was directly responsible for setting into motion the historical events which made a devastating, and very bloody, march across the rest of the decade.

Where It All Began

And this is where the decade cycles back to its beginning and perhaps (at least for the Western powers) knows itself for the first time: Kosovo. Because Yugoslavia began to fragment starting with the Kosovo crises of 1989 and 90. The first target of the nationalistic idea of a Greater Serbia was Kosovo. The fate of that region therefore represented a kind of litmus test for whether a multiethnic Yugoslavia could be democratically transformed. Many countervailing forces were still at play then, and many attempts to keep the country together and to reorganise it on democratic principles were made in those years. But when an authoritarian and nationalistic concept prevailed in solving the Kosovo problem ten years ago, it became clear to many of those opting for democratic change that they would be unable to achieve their goals within Yugoslavia. Kosovo, then, was when the dissolution of the country became inevitable - just as this year's Kosovo crisis will probably appear in history as the definitive moment when Serbian policies were revealed as an unambiguous failure.

As the president of Yugoslavia's collective presidency for a one year period during this earlier Kosovo struggle, I took steps to oppose Slobodan Milosevic`s concepts by advocating ideas of dialogue, tolerance, European integration, economic efficiency and prosperity. Such an approach could have been perceived as naive at the time. The authoritarian methodology on the opposing side may have seemed more powerful, more realistic and not least, more potentially victorious.

The late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had created an intricate structure of weights and balances to try to satisfy the constituent parts of that multinational country. Yugoslavia was formally a decentralized federation with significant autonomy granted, at least on paper, to its six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia) - but also to two autonomous provinces which existed within the framework of Serbia. These were Vojvodina, with its sizable Hungarian population, and Kosovo, with a majority Albanian population. When Tito was still firmly in power, however, the sovereignty of the federal republics and autonomous regions was actually limited in practice. But after the Tito´s death in 1980, central power gradually started to devolve, and the communist party itself became more and more decentralized. At the end of that decade, with winds of change blowing unmistakably through Eastern Europe, some republics - notably Slovenia and Croatia - intensified this ongoing process of political change. Differences between the republics increased largely because of these different speeds of democratization. It could be said that Slovenia was leading the process and that Serbia, under Milosevic's rule, was heading in a very different direction.

Slobodan Milosevic first became the leader of the Serbian communist party in 1987. In what is by now a well-known story, his political breakthrough took place in Kosovo, and it was specifically due to his nationalistic hard-line approach. Having seen the political value of harnessing populist anger, Milosevic self-consciously profiled himself as the defender of the Serbs in Kosovo against the "Albanian danger", and claimed that the Serbs deserved more power than they had been allotted in Tito´s Yugoslavia. Milosevic wanted to change the political and ethnic balance in the country.

Well before war broke out, however, Milosevic took his first steps in that direction, and managed to install Serbian-controlled puppet regimes in the Republic of Montenegro, as well as in the two autonomous regions of Vojvodina and Kosovo. He did this by organizing big mass-media campaigns and by threatening large public demonstrations (the so-called "yogurt revolutions" of 1988 - well-documented in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere). Understandably enough, the majority Albanian population in Kosovo protested in massive numbers when the Serbian regime eliminated their autonomous status. Police responded, and there were a considerable number of deaths in the demonstrations. As a consequence, the federal presidency introduced martial law in Kosovo. By the beginning of 1989, the whole Yugoslav picture had become more and more gloomy and frightening.

Experimenting with Democracy

This was when I personally came into the story. Partly in response to the extreme events in the southern part of the common state, the Slovene political leadership was already experimenting with democracy. Viewed in one way, one could say that the authoritarianism in the south had reinvigorated its opposite - a phenomenon not uncommon in history. For the first time in the former Yugoslavia, free elections were carried out for the Slovene member of the Yugoslav presidency. (Under the existing political system, the representatives of the constituent republics and the autonomous regions were members of Yugoslavia-s collective leadership, each in turn becoming the president of the country for a one-year term.) Much to the surprise of the political establishment, an independent candidate - myself-defeated the representative of the Communist Party and was elected to this body.

In keeping with the democratic means by which I was elected, what I brought to the Yugoslav presidency were the general feelings of the Slovene people. A desire for more economic efficiency, increased democratization, and European integration. But I also brought fears. Due to the increasingly hard-line nature of the Belgrade regime, Slovenians were afraid that something terrible would happen in the country. There were fears of "yogurt revolutions"; of civil wars; of military takeovers; of economic chaos.

It should be said, however, that despite these fears at first the Slovenian demand for independence was not explicit. Too many risks were involved. At the time, people would have simply preferred an improvement in their living conditions and their security. Only gradually, as events proceeded on their inexorable course in Serbia, did people become alarmed and realize that compromise was looking less and less likely - and was finally impossible. It became increasingly clear that the only way to proceed was for Slovenia to escape into independence. Directly to the west of us, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Europe was integrating. Slovenia gradually developed the idea of joining this process. I myself experienced a similar evolutionary conversion. Meanwhile, I tried to do my job as the Yugoslav president in the best possible way. I tried to reconcile Serbs and Albanians, and I tried to organize a constructive dialogue between Milosevic and the opposition Albanian leaders.

Riding the Tiger

In the year when I was president of the collective presidency of Yugoslavia - from May 15th 1989 to May 15th 1990 - I tried patiently, step by step, to diminish the escalating tensions. Gradually I succeeded in freeing the Albanian political prisoners - several hundred of them - and to eliminate the Serbian-sponsored martial law in Kosovo that was limiting communications and the free movement of people, as well as imposing very strict police controls. However, my efforts to bring the Albanians and Serbs to the negotiating table brought no results. The Serbs relied only on force, refusing dialogue. Both in formal meetings of the presidency and also in informal talks, I tried to bring the two sides to the table. Milosevic could be a charming person to talk to about many issues, but when discussing Kosovo he hardened and it was impossible to find compromises.

When I managed to get a majority in the federal presidency and free the Kosovo political prisoners - including the Kosovo Albanian freedom fighter Adem Demaci, who had spent 28 years in prison - Milosevic was furious. And because of my efforts to establish a dialogue leading to a solution of the Kosovo problem, I was often accused in Serbia's controlled media of being a traitor to federal Yugoslavia and to Serbia. But in fact this was the last real effort to help the country avoid disaster. I once said to Milosevic: "Your policy is like riding a tiger. While you ride it you probably feel very powerful. But sooner or later you'll have to come down and the tiger will eat you." Alas, I did not succeed in changing his politics or his behavior.

During this whole process - in a procedure which would later become familiar to a long succession of diplomatic emissaries to Belgrade - I tried to charm the Serbs. I advocated tolerance, compromise, discussion. I attempted to inject a tone of reasonableness, and I tried not to be only a Slovene in the presidency but to improve the climate for everybody. I introduced the intention of joining the Council of Europe and later the European Community; I did so not only to the presidency of Yugoslavia but also to European leaders. When I met with the latter, I explained that a race was going on between a wild nationalism and a more rational, tolerant and democratic concept.

Unfortunately, as history has recorded, the process of destruction was faster than the process of democratic consolidation. Sometimes I wonder if the democratic option really had a chance at all. It would have demanded tolerant and responsible politicians in all the Yugoslav republics - but particularly in Serbia and Croatia. (People in Bosnia and Herzegovina were afraid of the nationalistic pressures coming from Serbia and Croatia. They felt premonitions of disaster.) Still, it must be said that during my one year term as president I had a lot of public support. People felt that this would be the right way to go. For a short time it even looked as though I might succeed. But this was only an illusion - the calm before the storm.

That storm hit not long after I stepped down as president. When my term came to an end, the Serbian member of Yugoslavia's rotating presidency replaced me. He immediately introduced very different rhetoric - followed very closely by action: repression against Albanian separatists must be instituted, he said, and the interests of the Serbs wherever they live must be protected. I had barely left office when the Serbian regime dissolved the Kosovo parliament and police repression revived. In a secret meeting of their assembly, the Albanians of Kosovo responded by declaring their own republic..

From then on no more attempts were made to find a peaceful and democratic solution in Kosovo. The Albanians organized parallel informal institutions, including schools. For almost this entire decade the Kosovo Albanian community, to their great credit, followed Ibrahim Rugova's policy of passive resistance. They awaited the outcome of the Yugoslav destruction; more than anything else, they hoped for the fall of the Milosevic regime. But Milosevic survived. His military and police forces remained practically untouched throughout the Yugoslav wars. And in the end the Albanians saw no alternative but armed resistance.

Demands for Independence

Meanwhile at the other end of the country, in April 1990 - just before the end of my term as Yugoslav president - free parliamentary elections were held for the first time in Slovenia and Croatia. New political groupings won that were clearly on the path of democratization. They focused on issues of national identity and sovereignty - although still within the framework of a federative or confederative Yugoslavia. But Serbia's uncompromising pressure to change the structure of power in the former Yugoslavia gave a real push to Slovenian and Croatian demands for independence. There were clearly precious few perspectives left within Yugoslavia. After Serbia terminated the autonomy of Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro, the picture had become very threatening to the other republics. Suddenly Serbia, previously equal, spoke with four votes in the federal presidency - four out of eight. And this was particularly important because the federal presidency held formal command of the Yugoslav army.

At the end of 1990 and during the first months of 1990, Milosevic tried to obtain a majority vote in the presidency and to get that army to move towards Croatia and Slovenia - all under the pretext of defending Yugoslav sovereignty. At the time there was much speculation that the army would intervene directly in the political scene. However the generals didn't want to act without the formal approval of the presidency, and the presidency blocked such attempts several times.

One thing not commonly recalled when considering this period is that in 1990, Slovenia and Croatia were still willing to negotiate a new, looser confederation. But they were confronted with the Serbian idea of a centralized federation. Since such a federation would have meant that Milosevic would rule Yugoslavia, he had very good reasons for blocking the Slovenian and Croatian proposals. In the ensuing deadlock, the momentum of the Slovenian and Croatian independence movements grew in the second half of that year (compounded by the popular reaction to the brutalities unfolding in Kosovo). I can't say that it wouldn't have developed anyway - especially in Croatia. But as a consequence of these events this move towards independence could be seen as inexorable, and directly attributable to Serbian pressure.

In December 1990, Slovenia and Croatia took the fateful step of announcing their intention to become independent. However, they concurrently proposed a six month period to negotiate relations between the republics peacefully and to establish the new political situation. In light of all these facts, I certainly can't agree that Slovenia and Croatia forced their independence, and that they are somehow the culprits in Yugoslavia's break-up (a view still espoused by Belgrade, predictably enough). By now it should be more than clear: the Yugoslav split began in Kosovo in 1989 and 1990.

A Nonexistent Yugoslavia

Given the path chosen by the Belgrade leadership, what the rest of the world still saw as a unitary state went through some very tense times in first half of 1991. An explosion seemed possible at any moment. In a referendum at the end of December 1990, a large majority of Slovenes decided on independence. Within the federal presidency and with the presidents of the republics, we negotiated the non-existent political future of the former Yugoslavia. In keeping with the democratically verified wishes of my country - but also true to my own convictions - my own goal by now was to achieve at least a peaceful dissolution of the country.

But Slovenia is ethnically homogenous and could establish independence without too many problems. Croatia was more difficult; a large Serbian minority lived there. And Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most complicated situation of all: Serbs, Croats and Muslims were all mixed together. While very serious attempts were made, it was almost impossible to find a solution to this situation. We had different proposals on the table. One was that Slovenia could become independent and Croatia would maintain some loose link with the rest of federation, in order to satisfy the Serb minority. Sometimes it seemed as if we were very close to a solution, but when I look back today I can see that the Serbian regime was already working on a military answer. They were simply waiting for Slovenia and Croatia to proclaim independence.

On May 15th 1991, the day the Serbian term as president of the federal presidency expired - one year after I left office - Belgrade blocked that succession by not accepting the Croatian member as president. The result was that the Yugoslav presidency ceased to function as the supreme commander of the army. When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence on June 25th 1991, the Yugoslav army intervened in Slovenia. It was a catastrophic decision. Not necessarily for Slovenia, which was able to defend itself and achieved independence, but for the rest of Yugoslavia, which remained in chaos and war for the rest of the decade. The military moves on Slovenia were the first crucial steps from negotiations to politics conducted "by other means": i.e., outright war. At the time of the decision to intervene in Slovenia, the Yugoslav army was still a federal body. But it soon became clear that the Croats, Macedonians, Bosnians, and Albanians caught in uniform didn't want to fight the Slovenes. They knew that tomorrow this could happen to their own people.

Slovenia had made its decision and stood firm, and during the 10-day war the old multiethnic Yugoslav army disintegrated, soon to be replaced by what was effectively a Serbian army. After a cease-fire, negotiations followed: the so-called Brioni agreement was reached between the federation and Slovenia, with the EU as a mediator. This was the first and I think the only successful European attempt in managing the Yugoslav crisis. The agreement was not very clear, however. It was written with what we could call a kind of constructive ambiguity. Slovenia and Croatia had to accept a three month moratorium on their sovereignty, and I was supposed to return to the federal presidency for three months. It was not clear what would happen after that.

What did happen was that developments came thick and fast. In the first session of the Yugoslav presidency we agreed that the Yugoslav army would retreat completely from Slovenia: and so my country was able to establish complete control over its territory. At first the international community was reluctant to recognize the new state, but in the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992 the first international diplomatic recognition came. Slovenia had become independent; it had actually managed to escape the growing Yugoslav disaster.

The war soon spread to Croatia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina before events came full circle back to Kosovo. The modus operandi of the Serbian regime was to opt for force whenever it appeared that they could achieve more that way than with negotiations. Their concept was unambiguous - even if skillfully hidden behind rhetorical smoke-screens: to establish control over the whole Yugoslav federation if possible; if this was not possible, to let Slovenia and part of Croatia go, and to establish control of Serbia's ethnic borders. Either way, they would have materialized the idea of a Greater Serbia.

Looking Back

Slovenia's experience with the Serbs in 1991 - that they would readily resort to force if it was to their advantage to do so-was repeated later, in the war in Bosnia. Unfortunately, the international community was slow to realize that it was not dealing with a tolerant and democratic regime in Belgrade, and it was only too willing to take what the Serbs said at face value.

As a result of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, hundreds of thousands were killed. Millions more became refugees. I always advocated an early international military intervention in order to stop the atrocities. Unfortunately, events unfolded in a different way. The international community tried to mediate in other ways, without much to show for it. Neither UN resolutions, nor EU-observers, nor a UN "peace-keeping" force could stop the fighting. Only in 1995, when the Americans decided to bomb the Serbian positions in Bosnia, did the conflict wind down. Together with increasing Croatian military pressure, this brought an end to the war. The Dayton agreements which followed finally established a measure of peace and relative order in an exhausted Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Clearly, military intervention in 1992 could have prevented many atrocities. It would have been easier to protect the multiethnic structure of that republic. Now, after years of killings, it is much more difficult to rebuild the necessary confidence and to normalize life in the multiethnic state. Without a strong and long-lasting international presence, this is impossible. With it, it's still very, very difficult. And it requires a lot of patience and resources. Further, the agreement only went half-way. On the one hand aggressive nationalistic politics were not rewarded: no Greater Serbia or greater Croatia was accepted. On the other, the same politics and politicians remained. And the Kosovo problem was left unresolved.

The Gray Zone

This last point is a crucial one. The fact that the international community had left Kosovo under Serbian martial law made Ibrahim Rugova's policies of non-violent resistance to Serbian domination less and less tenable. When in 1998 the Kosovo Albanians started a more organized armed resistance - with what became known as the Kosovo Liberation Army - Milosevic responded with police and paramilitary terror. In what had by now become a wearisome routine, the international community attempted to reason with Belgrade and new interim agreements were reached.

But the violence continued, and in February 1999 the so-called contact group (consisting of the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia) organized the Rambouillet conference. Serbs and Kosovo Albanians were asked to meet and discuss a peace plan which was prepared in advance.

The Rambouillet plan, which presented a transitional form to resolve the Kosovo problem, would have provided autonomy for Kosovo even if it would still formally have been within the framework of Serbia and Yugoslavia. A substantial international force would have insured peace. The Kosovo Albanians didn't get a sovereign state - and this was understandable. There was already an Albania, and also a large Albanian minority in Macedonia. Would they all join and form a Greater Albania? Why would a Greater Albania be any better than a Greater Serbia?

These "negotiations" were a bit different from the dictionary definition of the term. In what has been described as a take it or leave it approach, both sides quickly discovered that they weren't supposed to change the plan or really negotiate. If the Serbs didn't accept the Rambouillet proposal, they were informed, NATO would bomb Serbia. If the Kosovo Albanians refused, they would lose the support of the international community. It wasn't easy to convince the Albanians to accept the terms of the Rambouillet agreement - but after a two week break, they actually managed it. For their part the Serbs refused outright, and it took this year's large-scale NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to convince them.

There has been much discussion about the seemingly draconian nature of the Rambouillet talks. American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was criticized for delivering what was in effect an ultimatum on both sides. Under normal circumstances, I might agree with such views. However, the circumstances in this case were not conventionally "normal" - as should have been clear after a decade of consistent behavior on the part of the Belgrade regime. After a decade of experience with Milosevic and his politics, after many agreements that were not respected, this was a strong and credible response by the international community. The Americans and the Europeans acted correctly at Rambouillet.

In the end, of course, the western doctrine was successfully supported by military means, and the "bad guys" were defeated. And so what began in Kosovo ten years ago seemingly ended in Kosovo. But is it really over? Serbian politics haven't changed. Milosevic remains in control of a shrunken Yugoslavia - a dystopian state he himself has created. And Kosovo is in a kind of ambiguous gray-zone - an international protectorate with its future political status unclear. Montenegro, the last remaining republic of Yugoslavia other than Serbia, is clearly tired of the self-destructive nature of the Belgrade regime and will try to secede if there are no substantial political changes in Serbia. So, while the story of this balkanized decade may be at its end, simply due to the calendar, the larger canvas of Yugoslavia's dissolution is not finished yet.