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Sovereignty and Self-Determination

Collective Guilt and the Fate of Kosovo


In "Rape, Genocide, and Women’s Human Rights," a 1994 essay in the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, the feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon takes sides in the Bosnian war on squarely gender-based grounds: Serbia is a man, and Bosnia and Croatia are getting raped.

Over the course of many years MacKinnon has developed a forceful argument that human rights, as commonly understood, are not women’s rights. "Rights that human beings have by virtue of being human have not been rights to which women have had access." What happens to men also happens to women, but the fact it happens to women "is not registered in the record of human atrocity." Victims of atrocities are Argentine or Rwandan, not male or female. When, correlatively, ‘human’ atrocities are not underway, women are still victims of ‘normal’, sub rosa hostility from the men in their lives; they are "the desapericidos of everyday life." Thus "[w]hat is done to women is either too specific to women to be seen as human or too generic to human beings to be seen as specific to women."

In MacKinnon’s 1994 article, the wars then raging in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina offered a superb illustration of this general theory. On her view, the world was witnessing there a "campaign of extermination, which began with the Serbian invasion of Croatia in 1991 and exploded in the Serbian aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992." The war against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and their partial occupation, she wrote, "is being carried out by Serbian forces in collaboration with the Serbian regime in Belgrade, governing what remains of Yugoslavia." For MacKinnon, this was unambiguously an international war. All the involved state parties, she notes, "have adopted relevant laws of nations that prohibit these acts." She sees mass rape not as a side effect of the Serbian military campaign, but indeed as an integral part of it. She concludes: "In this war, the fact of Serbian aggression is beyond question, just as the fact of male aggression against women is beyond question, here as in everyday life." MacKinnon elaborates further on this analogy:

"[T]his war of aggression –once admitted to exist at all– has repeatedly been construed as bilateral, as a civil war or an ethnic conflict, to the accompaniment of much international head-scratching about why people cannot seem to get along and a lot of pious clucking about the human rights violations of ‘all sides’ as if they were comparable. This three pronged maneuver is familiar to those who work with the issue of rape: blame women for getting ourselves raped by men we know, chastise us for not liking them very well afterward, and then criticize our lack of neutrality in not considering rapes of men to be a comparable emergency."

Fourteen years on, we will do well to ask whether MacKinnon’s analogy ever really mapped onto the complex situation of the Yugoslav wars. To do so may help us to understand what is at stake in Serbia’s ongoing effort to construct a post-Miloševi? national identity; and perhaps more urgently, it may also help us to gain some clarity on the complex issue of Kosovo’s recent independence.

Nobody wants to blame the victim. But ethnic factions are not people –and vice versa–, and MacKinnon’s bold comparison has the effect of reducing subtle, multifactorial analysis of the causes of a war to an effort that, by its association with rape-denial, is strictly morally untenable. Her article, of course, was never in itself terribly influential, yet it continues to represent an extreme version of a fairly diffuse attitude about collective guilt in the Balkan wars, an attitude that clearly influenced deliberations about the status of Kosovo. This attitude has it that, rather than promoting political self-determination for all parties in the Balkans, and rather than setting benchmarks that will provide a stimulus for both democratization and interethnic reconciliation, the international community should see to it that Serbia not have control of anything at all.

A revealing but common slip was made in a New York Times article shortly after Miloševi?’s death, which reported "fears of Serbs using [Miloševi?'s funeral] to try to regain power." In the international press, "Serbs" continues to stand in for "Miloševi?’s allies," and the suitable purgation of past crimes continues to be –and not just in MacKinnon’s eyes– collective castration. A very different understanding of the legacy of these wars, however, one that I hope to portray here, may be had from listening to leading figures in the diverse peace movements from all around the former Yugoslavia.

* * *

It is certainly true that the Yugoslav wars stemmed from the desire of those in power to hold Yugoslavia together. If Serbia was generally the aggressor, this is because Serbia, and ethnic Serbs, were the power base of the federal republic. 80% of the Yugoslav National Army’s (JNA) higher command was ethnically Serbian. Power was unevenly distributed among the republics, but does this mean, as MacKinnon maintained, that holding the union together –a most noble goal, when pursued, e.g., by Abraham Lincoln– amounts to interstate aggression? One important element that MacKinnon’s analysis leaves out is the fact that many Croatians and Bosnians from the progressive left, particularly those who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, were decidedly pro-Yugoslav without for that being apologists for Serbian domination.
Alas, the voice of their generation has been largely squelched by those who came of age during the wars of separation and who, particularly outside of Serbia, have little awareness of any love lost. On a visit to Zagreb in June of last year, I had occasion to speak with a number of Croatian university students about the legacy of the wars of the 1990s. The trial of a suspected war criminal, the Croatian lieutenant general Ante Gotovina, had just been reopened at the War Crimes tribunal of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Gotovina, a former bodyguard for the French leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had been rendered to the court after years of protection from –among other useful networks– a Franciscan order in Spain. He was accused of authorizing war crimes during the 1995 Operation Storm at the end of the Croatian war in the heavily Serbian Krajina region of southern Croatia.

Without exception, the students I spoke with insisted that Gotovina’s trial was a symptom of The Hague’s "political correctness," since it was by definition, they said, impossible for a Croatian to have committed atrocities in the war against Serbia. The students seemed convinced of two things, in fact: the innocence of Gotovina, and the worthiness of Dennis Kucinich, a Croatian-American, for the office of president of the United States. Catholic fascism and green pacifism are not so incompatible after all, when national pride is at stake.

Surveys show that a large majority of Croatians remain convinced of Gotovina’s innocence. In December of 2005, a poll by the leading Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List showed that a full 77% of Croatians believed that he was either fully or mostly innocent of the charges against him. He is glorified in popular culture, by, for instance, the right-wing rock musician Marko Perkovi?, who performs under the name "Thompson" (some kind of gun reference, I gather). Perkovi? is an open admirer of the pro-Nazi Ustaša regime in Croatia during World War II, is greeted by Hitler salutes at his concerts, and has been banned from Canada and the Netherlands for hate speech.

A sharp contrast with this public opinion –more extreme in the instance of Thompson only to the extent that he avows openly the historical continuity between the Ustaša and Gotovina– is offered by ?arko Puhovski, a political science professor at the University of Zagreb who came of age in an era when many Croatian leftist intellectuals were committed to the idea of Yugoslavia while at the same time defending some degree of Croatian distinctness as well as full intellectual freedom at the university. Puhovski, a revealing anecdote has it, could not make it to an appearance of Tito in Zagreb in the mid-1970s, as he was busy teaching a seminar on John Rawls. He studied philosophy in Germany in 1967 and ’68, and returned to Zagreb in 1971, becoming one of the youngest members of the so-called Praxis group of Marxist humanists (whose activities were suppressed by Tito’s regime in 1975).

For Puhovski and others of his generation, there is an important distinction between the call for autonomy and cultural recognition that occurred during the Croatian Spring of the early 1970s, and the nationalism of post-Yugoslav Croatian youth. The activists of the Croatian Spring advocated greater recognition of Croatian cultural distinctness with Yugoslavia, and a more just distribution of the huge sums of money that foreign tourists were spending on trips to the Dalmatian coast. They were not separatists.

When, after Tito’s death, the fault lines between the republics began quickly to appear, Puhovski’s instinct as a veteran of the Croatian Spring, and as a disciple of Habermas, was to promote interethnic communication. Throughout the 1980s Puhovski was active in organizing meetings in Belgrade between political factions in the different republics, and more broadly in creating an alternative political movement based on the principles of deliberative democracy. Apparently, all were welcome to join in the dialogue. In 1987 Puhovski organized a meeting at which the ultranationalist Serbian politician Vojislav Šešelj spoke (and openly proclaimed himself a chetnik). The Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova spoke. The Croatian president Franjo Tudjman spoke. The pursuit of this ideal of communication, Puhovski now complains, so different from the Titoist suppression of ethnic issues, may have unwittingly helped along the emergence of nationalism.

In 1993 Puhovski founded the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, and throughout the Balkan wars remained sharply critical of the general tendency among NGO’s, as a condition for operating in a given region at all, to accept a political role. He left the Helsinki Committee when it became clear that it had become wholly subservient to the Croatian Liberal Party. In Puhovski’s view, an NGO has no democratic legitimation, and therefore cannot operate ‘politically’. If the group’s mandate is the defense of human rights, then it must defend them without regard for the partisan or national affiliation of the person in question, let alone for the moral quality of the individual.

Puhovski’s sphere of civic activity still extends as far as Belgrade. The day I met with him, he had just finished a phone conference with Boris Tadi?, the pro-Western president of Serbia, and Croatian president Stjepan Mesi?, whom he has known since 1970. Puhovski told me that Mesi? had recently been imploring Tadi? to just let this Kosovo thing go. This was in the summer of 2007.

* * *

That summer, everywhere the walls of Belgrade bore the same spray-painted message: Ne dam Kosovo. We will not give Kosovo up. This phrase was often scrawled, in the very same handwriting, next to another ubiquitous imperative: Pishi kirillitsa!, i.e., ‘Write with the Cyrillic alphabet!’ In Serbian, unlike Russian or Ukrainian, one has a choice of alphabets, but the Latin is generally associated with noncommital cosmopolitanism, commerce, or, worse, Croat Catholicism, while the Cyrillic is seen as the exclusive, properly Serbian way of writing.

Why should the Serbs not just give up? Is it the 10% Serbian minority in Kosovo that makes the majority of Serbians believe it is properly Serbian territory? Is it the deep-rootedness of Serbian history in Kosovo, including the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Turks, and the Serbian churches and monasteries that make this territory not just politically valuable but ‘spiritually’ impossible to give up? Or is it just, as the Russians in Chechnya have demonstrated at such obscene cost, that any loss of turf is politically unacceptable?

Whatever the reason, those 10% are a legitimate human-rights concern, notwithstanding MacKinnon’s a priori conviction that the aggression only goes one way. In 2003, Amnesty International released a report expressing grave concern for the human rights of ethnic minorities, including Serbs, within Kosovo, condemning UNMIK (the UN peace-keeping forces), for their utter failure to stave off retaliatory kidnappings and other interethnic violence in the wake of the NATO military campaign of 1999. Is this concern tantamount to crying that men get raped too? Or is it rather true to the prime directive of NGOs, as outlined by the Croatian Puhovski?

Daša Duha?ek is the founder of the Belgrade Women’s Studies Center, and teaches in the political science department of the University of Belgrade. She has been active in coordinating meetings between Serbian, Kosovar, and Croatian peace activists. When I met her in Belgrade, she had just returned from such a meeting in Dubrovnik, on the Croatian coast.

Serbian citizenship has yet to be constructed, Duha?ek told me. This is a harder project than the parallel one undertaken in Croatia, where the University of Zagreb can smoothly announce a new major in ‘Croatology’ without raising too many eyebrows (a parallel program of ‘Serbological studies’ at the University of Belgrade remains entirely unthinkable). It is harder because so much of Serbian identity has been wrapped up in holding Yugoslavia or whatever’s left of it together. Indeed, even today Serbian nationalism and Yugoslavism are hard to disentangle. Witness for example the Austrian novelist and vocal anti-NATO, pro-Miloševi? activist, Peter Handke, who stuck out the 1999 bombing campaign in Belgrade, and who believes, as did Miloševi?, that the international criminal court lacks any legitimate authority. Handke’s response to the claim that Yugoslavia never existed is that no civic entity ever exists in some timeless a priori way. Civic entities are always constructed, and Yugoslavia was well on its way to constructing one until ethnic tribalists convinced a gullible international community of the illegitimacy, and of the essentially Serbian character, of the federal republic they sought to exit.

It is undeniable that there was massive popular support for ‘preserving the union’ among ethnic Serbians. In 2000, a million people demonstrated in Belgrade for the ouster of Miloševi?. This was the end of his era, and the first appearance of Koštunica’s name in the international press. It is Koštunica who would eventually agree to turn Miloševi? over to The Hague. What has not been emphasized about these popular demonstrations, Duha?ek tells me, is that half of the people were out there not out of opposition to the wars Miloševi? had unnecessarily started. They were there because Miloševi? had started these wars and lost.

* * *

In early 2007 the Serbian prime minister Koštunica told the Belgrade newspaper Politika: "[UN special envoy] Ahtisaari is proposing to rob Serbia of 15 percent of its territory and wants to change internationally recognised borders against the will of the Serbian State." He adds that this would be "a gross violation of the integrity of a democratic European state." In February, 2008, the Russian prime minister Sergei Ivanov warned the European Union that the recognition of Kosovo’s independence would open a "Pandora’s box." Ivanov likely had in mind new EU member states as much as problematic, breakaway regions of Russia.

The two newest states in the European Union, Bulgaria and Romania, would split over the issue of Kosovo, the one for, the other against. Romania’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence stemmed not from any desire to make party-line decisions in agreement with Russia; indeed, these days Romania would sooner go out of its way to do such a thing. Romania refused to recognize Kosovo in part out of a sense of fraternity with fellow Orthodox neighbors, and in part out of fear of the infectiousness of Balkan irredentism. There has long been a multi-ethnic region of the Balkans that has been remarkably stable, and that Romania is keen to keep stable, namely, Transylvania, which has a very significant Hungarian minority in a territory ceded to Romania only with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarians in Budapest might speak of a ‘larger Hungary’ that contains Timi?oara and Baia Mare, but since the collapse of Ceau?escu’s regime in 1989 –in contrast with the collapse of Tito’s in 1980– no one in Romania or Hungary had previously had any serious expectation that the maps might be re-drawn. But since Kosovo’s independence, Ivanov’s prediction seems to be gaining confirmation. As reported in the New York Times of April 7, 2008, the vice-president of the Romanian Szekler National Council, announced: "Kosovo is an example, and a very clear one, that if the community wants to live under self-government, we have to declare very loudly our will."

It is certainly not news that a lot of boundaries could be redrawn if every ethnic enclave in Southeastern Europe had its way. It is in view of this uncomfortable reality that Jean-Arnauld Dérens wrote recently in Le Monde Diplomatique: "the endeavour to regulate problems in the Balkans by introducing new territorial divisions would be dangerous for the whole of Europe." Condoleezza Rice for her part has insisted that there would not be a wave of similar irredentist revisions following upon the recognition of Kosovo, that this recognition was a hapax legomenon based on exceptional historical circumstances. But no one has ever spelled out what the criteria for exceptionalness of this sort are. Many other petits peuples in Europe could make some claim to have been shafted in some exceptional way. Whether Rice wants to admit it or not, recognition sets a precedent.

While MacKinnon speaks of the Balkan Wars as a clear-cut case of one state’s agression against others, one prevailing interpretation of the causes of the wars of the 1990s is that they arose as a sort of domino effect flowing from Helmut Kohl’s unilateral recognition of the independence of Slovenia. Surely one could not make the case that as of 1991 the various Yugoslav republics were sovereign states, and that sending JNA troops to put down secession was an act of interstate aggression. In order for an act of secession to make any sense at all, both the secessionist region and the larger body it hopes to leave must recognize that, at the outset, there is only one state. In the event, the JNA quickly discerned that attempting to hold onto Yugoslavia’s most distant, Alpine republic was a lost cause, and very few lives were lost directly as a result of Slovenia’s succession, but by this example Croatia was emboldened. This is of course not to regret Croatia’s independence, but only to insist that, wherever there is a large ethnic minority population, as in Croatia, Bosnia, and now Kosovo, the international community must be very cautious about recognizing claims to state sovereignty on the part of the ethnic majority.

Eventually, the world will be forced to go along with the US and the majority of European states in recognizing Kosovo. It will be important as this process unfolds not to allow the memory of the past to descend into a mere tallying of moral blameworthiness on the various sides. Serbia must be given benchmarks for accession to the European Union, and burgeoning irredentist movements in the Balkans or elsewhere must be shown how to hope for membership in a transnational union in which –as is now happening in Scotland or Catalonia– the encompassing state is just one of many levels at which the ethnically distinct province is represented. Rather than pushing for state sovereignty wherever a nation is found, why not push for a world, or at least a region, in which state sovereignty ceases to be the only viable means of a community’s political self-determination?

Justin Erik Halldór Smith is an Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy at Concordia University, Montréal, Canada.