The International Community and the Disintegration of Yugoslavia: 25 Years Later

Photo by Tom | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Tom | CC BY 2.0


January 15th will mark the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Community’s recognition of the independence of the Republic of Croatia. This event has become a notable point of contention amongst those seeking to understand and explain the international community’s involvement in and response to the break-up of Yugoslavia, and to decide what, if any, blame lies with the international community for the savagery the people of that land endured between 1991 and 1995.

A common theme running through the commentary of those who advocated military intervention in Yugoslavia, particularly those who have come to be known as “liberal interventionists”, is that the international community stood by and did nothing. This allowed the largest republic of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia, to enact a programme of naked aggression and expansionism. According to this narrative, Serbia aimed to achieve, by force, a new “Greater Serbia”, whereby all Serbs could live under one state. They argue that, in a total dereliction of duty, the United States and the EEC nations, Britain in particular, pursued a policy of appeasement towards the Serbian government and its President, Slobodan Milošević. John Major’s government insisted on seeing the violence in Croatia as a civil war, rather than Serb aggression, until it was too late, seeking to settle things at the negotiating table rather than with air strikes. This resulted in tens of thousands dead and the phrase “ethnic cleansing” lodged firmly in the public lexicon and consciousness. Emboldened by his position as a credible international negotiating partner,  Milošević moved his attentions towards Bosnia, unleashing unimaginable carnage before the international community was finally shamed into a proper, violent response by the horror of Srebrenica.

As a recent reminder of humankind’s capacity for inhumanity towards our neighbours there is none starker or more effective, which is why the memory of Bosnia, and Srebrenica in particular, is so commonly invoked by liberal interventionists today. We saw it when intervention was called for against Gaddafi in Libya and the perceived threat of a Srebrenica-esque massacre against civilians in rebel-held territories was deemed serious enough to justify risking turning Libya into a failed state. We saw it when Assad’s troops closed in on Eastern Aleppo in Syria. One Srebrenica survivor wrote a piece for The Guardian reminding us that it was said such things could never be allowed to happen again, as he believed was imminent in Aleppo. In this narrative, the failure by peacekeepers to protect the UN safe area at Srebrenica is a microcosm of the general reluctance to engage with the Yugoslav problem at all.

The problem with this narrative is that it’s inaccurate in various crucial aspects. The international community did not merely stand by and do nothing as an inferno of ethno-nationalist slaughter raged around the people of the former Yugoslav republics, it was in fact an active agent in the political manoeuvring that variously fed and suffocated the fire. The actions it took sometimes reduced the intensity of the fighting and the slaughter and sometimes made it worse. Sometimes legitimate moves towards peace were instigated by the international community and sometimes they were blocked. Perhaps no country had a greater impact on the direction of the wars in the early stages than Germany, and perhaps no individual had a greater impact than Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor of West Germany and later the reunified state.

Genscher, who died last year, spoke years after the wars about Germany’s initial desire to keep Yugoslavia together.1 This is not an altogether incredible claim. While its non-threatening position as a non-aligned communist state, so attractive to the West during the Cold War, became obsolete after the demise of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was not a threat to any obvious European ambitions per se. A common perception on the left is that Milošević’s resistance to external economic control was the motive for hostility from the EEC countries. It is certainly the case that, unlike President Tuđman of Croatia and President Izetbegović of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milošević did not run on an avowedly nationalist platform when multi-party elections came to Yugoslavia. This is perhaps ironic given that he is credited with sparking the nationalist revival in Yugoslavia

While promoting Serbian strength and doing much work behind the scenes to ensure friendly figures attained high office in the other Republics, Milošević advocated Yugoslav unity, which meant Yugoslavia following Serbia’s lead. The leaders of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia advocated national sovereignty for their republics, freer trade and closer ties to western Europe, while Milošević governed as leader of a nominally socialist party. 20Th century history being littered with examples of socialist states being crushed by the US and its allies, a simple neo-colonialist reading of the demise of Yugoslavia has been tempting for some, but it’s not entirely supported by the behaviour of the other European nations. Germany has specific cultural ties to Croatia. Political Catholicism is strong in Germany, stronger still in Croatia and a large number of Germany’s gastarbeiters or “guest workers” were Croats. Sympathy in Germany for Croatia’s cause was high in the crucial early stages of the war. When Croatia’s declaration of independence became an inevitability, there was obvious political capital to be gained for Genscher and Germany by fervently supporting it. After reunification, Germany was the obvious candidate to take over the leading role in European geopolitics and here was a chance to define itself as the defender of national sovereignty, self-determination, the sanctity of historical borders (particularly relevant to the interests of Germans at this time for obvious reasons). Genscher and Kohl argued that “preventative” recognition would halt the violence in Croatia and discourage it in Bosnia. All that stood in the way of Genscher adopting the role of Croatia’s knight was the rest of the European community.

Key to this lack of enthusiasm on the part of the rest of Europe for Croatia’s independence declaration was that it simply did not satisfy many of the most crucial conditions for statehood, namely, a strong government in control of all of the territory it claimed and a commitment to ensuring the rights of minorities. By the Autumn of 1991, when Germany was stepping up its encouragement for the recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence, the Croatian Serbs controlled around a quarter or more of Croatian territory, and a political settlement seemed unlikely to be hastened by provoking the Serbs. Genscher’s claim that recognition was necessary to bring about peace seemed implausible. Furthermore, President Tuđman’s personal habit of committing racist gaffes in public, and allowing his local party officials to dismiss Serbs from their jobs without cause, made claims of respecting minority rights hard to take seriously.

Lord Carrington, former Secretary General of NATO and the chair of the European Community’s Yugoslav Peace Conference, argued that premature recognition would hinder any lasting agreement between the Croats and the Serbs and “might well be the spark that sets Bosnia-Herzegovina alight”.2 Croatia would have what it wanted, independence, without having to make any concessions at all, including on minority rights, and the Croatian Serbs would feel that, abandoned by the world, they had no option but to defend themselves by force. Further to this, there was a very real concern about the impact recognition might have on Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was the republic most primed for an explosive internecine ethnic conflict, due to its unusual demographic make-up and political climate.

Whereas the overwhelming majority of Croatian citizens in 1991 were ethnic Croats, with the Serbs comprising a minority of 12.2%, Bosnia had no ethnic majority at all. In 1991, 43.5% of Bosnians belonged to the Muslim ethnic group (hereafter referred to by the more modern term “Bosniaks”, for simplicity’s sake). 31.2% of the population were Serbs and 17.4% were Croats. A further 5.5% defined themselves as “Yugoslavs” in that year’s census. That the nascent political parties had divided themselves along national lines in 1990 when the federal communist party was dissolved did not bode well for the future. When Alija Izetbegović was appointed chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he ran on the ticket of an ethnic nationalist party committed to the interests of an ethnic group to which well over half of Bosnians didn’t belong. This is not mentioned as a criticism specific to Izetbegović or the Bosniak leadership – the Serbs and Croats had their own nationalist parties too – it merely serves to illustrate the willingness of Bosnia’s political leaders to place its people in the most precarious position at the worst possible moment.

Recognising this danger, albeit late, Izetbegović joined the cautious European countries in arguing against premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. Cyrus Vance, the US special envoy to Croatia, told the US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman, “”My friend Genscher is out of control on this. What he’s doing is madness.”3 As a result of this opposition, and with US backing, the EEC members set up an arbitration commission, chaired by Robert Badinter, to issue legal opinions on some of the most pressing issues regarding Yugoslavia. The commission was to conclude that only Slovenia and Macedonia met the conditions necessary for international recognition, as Bosnia had not yet put the decision to declare independence to a referendum and Croatia had not dealt with concerns over minority rights.

Before these opinions could even be issued, Germany unilaterally broke with the other states and declared its unconditional recognition of Croatia and Slovenia on December 23rd. Germany refused to recognise Macedonia, which met all stated conditions and which Badinter specifically recommended for recognition, because of Greek objections to a nation of Slavs using the name which they historically claimed as Hellenic. This was the clearest evidence that the German push for recognition of Croatia was not about the sacred right to self-determination. The other major European nations withheld recognition of Macedonia for the same reason. President Tuđman promised to pass a constitutional law protecting minority rights as soon as possible. Perhaps not unreasonably, the Serbs were not placated, but Germany continued to apply pressure for European recognition, notably offering Britain an opt-out of the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. For the Major government, this was a great boon, as the nation was still in the grip of Thatcherism and a Conservative Prime Minister forced to accept European directives ordering member states to protect workers’ rights and support society’s most vulnerable was likely to be viewed as a traitor within his own party. In capitulating to Germany over recognition, Major effectively betrayed British workers, ordinary Croatian Serbs, the citizens of Macedonia and, above all, the people of Bosnia. Chancellor Kohl and Genscher made similar encouragements to the other states. With this in mind, the other EEC states, and the United States, duly recognised Croatia and Slovenia on January 15th.

The effect of this was more or less immediate. Fighting did die down in Croatia, as a result of the Vance plan, an agreement to allow UN peacekeepers to observe the key conflict one, rather than as a result of recognition. Genscher’s theory that recognition would hasten, rather than hinder a resolution to the political issue was disproved when Croatia breached the ceasefire in 1993. The real impact of the EEC’s actions was felt in Bosnia. With Croatia and Slovenia gone, and Macedonia likely to follow as soon as the naming issue was resolved to the satisfaction of Greece, President Izetbegović felt obliged to follow suit and scheduled a referendum on seeking independence from what remained of Yugoslavia. Without a political settlement in place for the large Bosnian Serb and Croat minorities, this was a recipe for disaster. As the BBC’s Misha Glenny said at the time:

“Once Croatia and Slovenia had been granted international recognition, Izetbegović had no option but to seek the same, as to remain in Yugoslavia dominated by Milošević and Belgrade would have been unacceptable to all Muslims and Croats in BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina]. Izetbegović was thus forced by German-led EC policy into the same mistake that Tuđman has made voluntarily – he embarked upon secession from Yugoslavia without securing prior agreement from the Serbs.”4

There has been much debate in the West over whether such an agreement could ever have been achieved or whether the Bosnian Serb forces were determined, by hook or by crook, to murder and rape their way across those parts of Bosnia which they believed were theirs by right. To view political objectives and military conduct as essentially interchangeable is a tempting trap to fall into, but where evidence to the contrary exists it must be avoided. What evidence there is suggests that a political settlement prior to recognition was not quite as unattainable as Germany’s enthusiasm seemed to suggest. The first attempt to formulate a peace plan between the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats of Bosnia came soon after the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, but before the recognition of Bosnia, in March of 1992.

The proposal, drawn up in Lisbon by Lord Carrington and José Cutileiro, divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into cantons, each of which would have a degree of devolution to the ethnic group to which they were assigned, while administration at the federal level would be comprised of a power-sharing system which also included each of the three main ethnic groups. The plan was far from perfect, every canton was assigned solely to one of the ethnic groups regardless of whether it had a dominant ethnic majority, and Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was particularly unhappy, knowing that the Serbs could get more territory militarily, but after much negotiation and several redrafts, the leaders of all three sides signed the agreement. Lisbon was the last, best hope for peace in Bosnia.

One week after signing, allegedly on the encouragement of ambassador Warren Zimmerman, President Izetbegović withdrew his signature from the agreement. Mate Boban, the Bosnian Croat representative, promptly did the same. The Lisbon maps were very similar to those put forward by the Vance-Owen peace plan in 1993, which Izetbegović happily signed and which was torpedoed by the Bosnian Serb Assembly to widespread international condemnation. Yet in early 1992, the Bosniaks, and apparently the United States, felt they could get a better deal, despite the looking spectre of war. Widely perceived by the Serbs as proof that not only did the Bosniaks intend to dominate an independent Bosnia but that they would do so with international support, the collapse of the Lisbon agreement did indeed light the touchpaper for violence in Bosnia. The EEC and the US recognised Bosnian independence on April 7th. Already in the process of arming and mobilising by this point, and having declared their own autonomous region, later to be known as Republika Srpska, in anticipation of such an eventuality, the Serbs were ready to take by force what they felt had been denied to them at the negotiating table.

By the end of March the first massacre of civilians, carried out against Serbs by combined Bosniak and Croat forces, occurred in the village of Sijekovac. Among the exhumed bodies were some 18 children. A week later the infamous Serb Volunteer Guard under the command of Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović, a Serb career criminal and businessman who led the organised supporters of Belgrade’s Red Star football club, swept into the town of Bijeljina and reportedly embarked on a spree of murder, rape and looting against the Bosniak population, for which no member of Arkan’s paramilitaries has yet been prosecuted. It was hard to see, at this early stage, how Genscher’s principle of preventative recognition had achieved any of its aims. The cycle of slaughter had begun.

Three years later, the massacre of thousands of Bosniak civilians in the UN safe area of Srebrenica by the army of Republika Srpska and Serb paramilitaries finally convinced the international community that a serious, fair, negotiated settlement, rather than the air strikes which had begun in 1994, was necessary to end the killing. When the Presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia descended on a US military airbase in Dayton, Ohio in November 1995 to thrash out the terms of what would become a lasting peace agreement, those who had been present at the negotiations for the Lisbon agreement might have been forgiven for thinking they were experiencing déjà vu. The terms of Dayton were not so very different from those initially agreed upon by Izetbegović, Karadžić and Boban three years earlier, yet the cost of revisiting these terms in Dayton included over 100,000 lives lost and the inflicting of deep community-damaging wounds that may never fully heal.

Neither the international community as a whole nor any one foreign state directly caused the Yugoslav wars. Nor is it as easy as sometimes claimed to apportion blame within the former Yugoslavia. The causes are so many and so complex that pinning all of the blame on individuals or ascribing simplistic motives to them seems only to provide an emotional solution to comprehending the sheer horror of the events. Granted, it seems fair to say that selfish, vain, power hungry leaders from each of the largest Yugoslav republics did more than any other individuals to create the conditions where fear of close neighbours festered and the vague memories of former political defeats and humiliations were brought to the fore again. Yet, when exasperated by the harsh, difficult realities of dealing with such issues, the willingness of those from outside the former Yugoslavia to divide the main players up into the forces of good and evil made it much easier for those inside the maelstrom to do the same.

One of the traits which outsiders, even those who view them as bloodthirsty aggressors, have found so odd about the Serbs in particular is their tendency to honour their great defeats, not the victories, and to portray themselves as victims of their history, not the heroic masters of their own destiny. Whether believing this is a distortion of history or not, whether their politicians have twisted facts to present them as the innocent victims of history and innocent bystanders of events in the 1990s or not, on an individual level the psychology of people who feel this way must be understood in these terms. In Misha Glenny’s book, The Fall of Yugoslavia, he observes that many of the worst atrocities during the Bosnian war, particularly those committed by Serb forces, took place in the same areas where atrocities were committed against Serbs by Croats and Bosniak allies of the Germans during the second world war, most notably in Prijedor5. Nobody reading Glenny’s book could mistake him for an apologist for Greater Serb expansionism, much less an apologist for the atrocities committed by Serb forces during the wars, which he describes in gruesome detail, yet he hints at what Genscher, Kohl and the European leaders who followed them failed to acknowledge or contend with; that fear is the mother of hatred, and can incite the most terrible acts even if, and especially when, it is misplaced and exaggerated. Dismissing the deeply-held fears of others merely heightens them.

In the latter half of 1991, the only place for realpolitik was in the negotiating rooms where the Yugoslav leaders met to work out ways to avoid or halt the fighting. That it found its way so fatefully into the policy of Europe’s leaders for reasons that had nothing to do with respecting national sovereignty and self-determination (proven by the hypocrisy shown towards Macedonia) should be seen as a cautionary tale a quarter of a century later. A cursory glance at any newspaper reveals the same hypocrisy leading to the same mistakes now. We should echo the calls of “Never Again”, but we should know what we are calling for.


1 “Recognizing Slovenia, Croatia brought peace, Genscher says”

2    Susan L. Woodward, “Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War” (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1995), p. 184

3    Metta Spencer, “Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration” (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998)., p. 176

4    Misha Glenny. “The Fall of Yugoslavia” (London, Penguin Books, 2nd Edition 1993), p. 164

5    Ibid p. 206

Jamie Davidson writes about politics and history. He studied neither of those fields at Goldsmiths, University of London and now lives and works in Shropshire, England. He can be reached at and @JW_Davidson