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War in the Balkans, 1991-2002

War in the Balkans, 1991-2002 - Cover

Authored by Dr. R. Craig Nation.

August 2003

404 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author writes a comprehensive history of the Balkan wars which were provoked by the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation in 1991. These wars, and the instability that they have provoked, became preoccupations for international security management through the 1990s. After an initial phase of distancing and hesitation, Balkan conflict drew the United States and its most important European allies into an open-ended commitment to peace enforcement, conflict management, and peace-building in the region, importantly supported by the U.S. Army. These efforts are still underway, and significant tensions and potential flashpoints remain in place within former Yugoslavia and the entire Southeastern European area. The lessons learned from the new Balkan wars, and the successes and failures of U.S. and international engagement, will be a significant foundation for future efforts to manage intractable regional conflict.

The Balkan conflict of the 1990s, as a case study in state failure and medium intensity warfare, international conflict management and intervention, and U.S. military engagement, provides an excellent framework for asking basic questions about the dynamic of international security at the dawn of a new millennium. War in the Balkans, 1991-2002 is intended to provide a foundation for addressing such questions by surveying events in both contemporary and larger historical perspectives and posing preliminary conclusions concerning their larger meaning. There will, regretfully, be other situations comparable in broad outline to the violent decline and fall of socialist Yugoslavia. The policies of the international community in the Yugoslav imbroglio have been criticized widely as ineffective. However, in the end, after years of futility, the conflict could be contained only by a significant international military intervention spearheaded by the United States, and a long-term, multilateral commitment to post-conflict peace-building.


Armed conflict on the territory of the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 2001 claimed over 200,000 lives, gave rise to atrocities unseen in Europe since the Second World War, and left behind a terrible legacy of physical ruin and psychological devastation. Unfolding against the background of the end of cold war bipolarity, the new Balkan wars sounded a discordant counterpoint to efforts to construct a more harmonious European order, were a major embarrassment for the international institutions deemed responsible for conflict management, and became a preoccupation for the powers concerned with restoring regional stability. After more than a decade of intermittent hostilities the conflict has been contained, but only as a result of significant external interventions and the establishment of a series of de facto international protectorates, patrolled by UN, NATO, and EU sponsored peacekeepers with open-ended mandates.

The 1990s saw numerous regional conflicts— Haiti, Colombia, Tajikistan, the Caucasus, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Sierre Leone, Congo— that were comparable to or, in some cases, more destructive than the Balkan war. Few of these contests have received anything like the intense scrutiny devoted to the Balkans, for reasons good and bad. The Balkans is a part of Europe, and therefore more accessible to scrutiny by the international media, and engagement by external powers, than conflicts waged in less developed and approachable regions. The atrocities committed in the Balkans were no more or less lamentable than those carried out in parallel conflicts in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, but they were prominently displayed and extensively discussed on televised news reports. The resulting impact on elite and public opinion made the Balkan conflict politically compelling—it was a war that could not be ignored. The Balkans has been an object of international political competition for centuries, and many of the great European and Eurasian powers have long-standing interests in the region. Once the stasis of the cold war system was broken, traditional perceptions of interest were quick to reemerge, perhaps to the surprise of the contending parties themselves. From the outset, therefore, the Balkan war was shaped by great power intervention—whether in support of local allies, in the name of conflict resolution, or with an eye to the long-term benefits to be derived from geopolitical realignment in what was still regarded as a strategically relevant world region. The Balkan conflict was a part of the generic phenomenon of post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe as a whole, a dynamic with major implications for international relations. It has likewise, and correctly, been perceived as a kind of testing ground for international conflict management efforts in the post-cold war era.

The Balkan war also posed world order concerns. The root cause of the conflict was the destruction of the multinational Yugoslav federation as a result of the rise of an intolerant and exclusionary nationalism among its constituent nations. How can the explosive demands of a politics of identity be contained in a world where the ideal of the ethnically pure nation-state is largely a myth, and agendas for self-determination retain a tremendous destructive potential? The collapse of Yugoslavia gave rise to political violence that local actors proved incapable of managing. What, if anything, is the responsibility of the international community faced with the chaos engendered by failed states and regional instability, and what international institutions are best adapted to confront such responsibilities? The Balkan conflict provided familiar examples of the ethical challenges posed by modern war—lack of restraint in poorly controlled civil conflicts with a powerful ethnic or civilizational component, systematic violence against non-combatants elevated to the status of a strategy for waging war, and the moral and legal dilemmas of effective intervention in cases where the great powers are not in accord and clear cut choices between “good guys and bad guys” are simply not available. Does the premise of humanitarian intervention justify preemptive action in such cases, even without a mandate from valid international instances? Has international humanitarian law evolved to the point where standards of conduct can effectively be enforced by vested supranational authorities, and should such standards be imposed upon intervening parties as well? The economic consequences of armed conflict in the impoverished Balkans, for the belligerents themselves and for their immediate neighbors, have been particularly heavy. How can an agenda for peace building, including reconciliation and economic recovery, be forwarded in historically marginalized areas that confront a large and widening developmental gap? Such questions are not unique to the region under consideration, but the ways in which they are addressed in the Balkan case will set precedents with global reverberations.

The Balkan conflict has become the subject of a small library of journalistic reflection and scholarly analysis. The present study is nonetheless one of only a few recent interpretations that seek to look at the war as a whole. It rests upon several basic assumptions about the nature of the conflict and the way in which it should be interpreted.

First, the war is considered as a single, protracted contest with a consistent strategic logic—the redistribution of peoples and terrain within the collapsing Yugoslav federation. Though it was always a contested country, Yugoslavia had for many years served as a source of stability in the Balkans by providing a framework for positive cohabitation between diverse ethnic groups and an alternative to self-destructive nationalism. From the prelude in Slovenia in 1991, through the more destructive conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, and Kosovo between 1992 and 1999, to the epilogue in Macedonia in 2000-2001, what I prefer to call the War of Yugoslav Succession has been about efforts to assert sovereignty over territory in the absence of any kind of agreement concerning how the collapsing federation might have been reorganized, or disassembled, short of a resort to force. Slobodan Milošević has been singled out for special censure for his blatant manipulation of Serbian nationalism in order to secure a hold on power, and willingness to resort to blood and iron in order to carve a greater Serbia from the body of former Yugoslavia, but Milošević was only one of a generation of post-Tito leaders who opted to play the nationalist card in their respective republics in despite of the interests of the peoples of Yugoslavia as a whole. Though waged in the name of competing sovereignties, the War of Yugoslav Succession was essentially a civil war, with fellow citizens set at one another’s throats at the behest of ruthless and unprincipled leaders engaged in a struggle for power and dominion. It has truly been a war without victors.

Second, although fighting was contained within the territory of the former Yugoslav federation, the impact of the conflict was not. The war had a significant regional dimension, both within the southeastern European region of which Yugoslavia was for so long an integral part, and in Europe as a whole. The War of Yugoslav Succession created a crisis of regional order, and gave rise to what might be described as a new Eastern Question, with the Balkans once again transformed into a zone of chronic instability. It was also a crisis of European order, the first major armed conflict on the continent since 1945 including abuses that most believed would “never again” be allowed to occur, and a challenge for which institutional Europe was painfully unprepared. America’s belated involvement was in many ways a product of residual cold war dynamics that institutionalized European dependency upon U.S. leadership, as well as Europe’s own chronic division and ineffectiveness as an international actor. At the present juncture precipitous U.S. disengagement would not be a positive option, but in the long-term the Balkan crisis will only be resolved when the American role is reduced, and a more self-confident and unified Europe embraces the region, and its problems, as its own. This study makes frequent reference to European perspectives on the conflict, which is portrayed as in essence a European dilemma demanding European solutions.

Third, the international dimension of the war is considered to be essential. The end of the cold war system from 1989 onward seemed to open up new prospects for great power activism, and the Yugoslav disaster provided a convenient opportunity to test long dormant mechanisms for international crisis management. From the first days of combat operations in Slovenia, the activist role of the international community contributed importantly to shaping outcomes. Even had a will to intervene not been so clearly manifest, the dynamic of the conflict itself made some degree of international engagement an imperative. The option to “let them fight it out among themselves” was never quite as attractive in practice as some have perceived it to be in retrospect. The incapacity of local actors to resolve their differences short of a resort to arms was revealed early on, and the conflict posed numerous issues with larger significance, including the integrity of Europe, the future of the UN and UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations, the viability of NATO, relations with the new Russian Federation, the role of militant Islam and relations between the West and the Islamic world, and the postcold war responsibilities of the American superpower. Much was at stake, and the elevation during the conflict of provincial backwaters such as Vukovar, Knin, Srebrenica, or Račak to the status of focal points for international diplomacy was not incongruous. This study examines the dynamic of international conflict management, analyzes the international community’s successes and failures, and attempts to specify lessons learned.

Finally, although the present work is not intended as a military history, considerable attention is directed toward the specifically military and strategic dimensions of the conflict. The particular complexity of strategic rivalry within former Yugoslavia, with its overlapping nationalities, historically conditioned ethnic rivalries, and multiple adversaries, has led analysts towards an unavoidable concentration upon sorting out ethnographic detail. But the War of Yugoslav Succession was also an armed conflict of a specific type, perhaps best characterized by General Wesley Clark with the ambiguous designation “modern war.”

The ideologically charged division that defined so many of the regional conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s, driven forward by guerrilla organizations with varying kinds of Marxist-Leninist inspiration, and therefore neatly subsumable within the global logic of the Cold War, had by 1989 become a thing of the past. Whether the War of Yugoslav Succession is best characterized as an “ethnic” conflict generated by intolerant nationalism, or as a campaign inspired by unprincipled opportunists for a division of spoils in the wake of state failure, it posed entirely new kinds of challenges. As a medium intensity conflict, fought out in an economically troubled and politically marginalized area, between belligerents whose military capacity did not allow them to become strategically significant actors, the issues at stake were no longer self-evidently vital from a great power standpoint. In theater, the incapacity of hastily assembled, sometimes ill-disciplined, often poorly motivated, and nearly always inadequately equipped local forces to impose strategic decision was a recipe for military stalemate. Traditional UN peacekeeping proved inadequate to the demands of a conflict where only robust peace enforcement measures promised results, but the motivation (in the case of the U.S.) and the means (in the case of Europe) for decisive intervention was lacking. Though some degree of great power involvement was inevitable, the extent of engagement that was appropriate, and specifically the relevance of military intervention, quickly became hotly contested issues, and have remained so. For the United States, as the only world power with truly global power projection capacity, and for the NATO alliance, Europe’s only militarily competent security forum, the strategic dilemma posed by the Balkan conflict was considerable. NATO could not simply ignore the Balkans, but like other European and Euro-Atlantic institutions it was “woefully unprepared” for post-cold war problems, and its tentative engagement and preference for partial or symbolic measures designed to contain the fighting at low risk proved no more effective than UN peacekeeping. In the end, it was only when the international community’s inability to bring an end to the conflict came to be seen as politically damaging in Washington that an agenda for decisive military action was prepared. The issues posed by these events are significant, and they are by no means limited to the case of former Yugoslavia. Employing military means to manage regional conflict in the chaotic circumstances of the 21st century is likely to be a recurrent security problem for some time to come.

The Balkans is often described as a grim backwater, a “no man’s land of world politics” in the words of a post-World War II study “foredoomed to conflict springing from heterogeneity.” The stereotype is false, but it has been distressingly influential in shaping perceptions of the Balkan conflict and its origin. By encouraging pessimism about prospects for recovery, it may also make it more difficult to sustain commitments to post conflict peace building. This book seeks to refute simplistic “ancient hatreds” explanations by looking carefully at the sources and dynamics of the Balkan conflict in all of its dimensions. Chapter One attempts to define the Balkans as a region and specify the kinds of historical trends that led to its marginalization in the modern period. Chapter Two looks at the evolution of the region during Eric Hobsbawm’s short twentieth century, with special emphasis upon the strengths and weaknesses of the Yugoslav idea and post-World War II projects for an enlarged Balkan federation. Chapter Three turns to the long crisis of Yugoslav federalism following the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980, culminating with the wars of secession in Slovenia and Croatia. Chapters Four and Five analyze the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo with an eye to the problematic nature of the resolutions imposed by international intervention. The sixth chapter steps outside the confines of former Yugoslavia to focus on Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus question, regarded as particularly significant pieces of the Balkan regional puzzle, and as critical issues in any longterm program for recasting regional order. In Chapter Seven the aftermath of the conflicts of the 1990s is examined, with an analysis of the flare up of ethnic violence in Macedonia during 2000-2001 added to the mix. Though this is essentially a political history arranged as a chronological narrative, I attempt to place the conflict in the broadest possible context, with attention drawn to historical, cultural, political, and strategic variables. This is, I would assert, the most appropriate way to come to terms with the war’s specific character and historical weight.

The Research and Publications Board of the U.S. Army War College provided a generous Temporal Research Grant allowing time off from teaching responsibilities in order for me to concentrate on the research and writing that made this work possible. I particularly thank the former Commandant of the College, General Robert Scales, and Director of the Department of National Security and Strategy, Colonel Joseph Cerami, for their support for scholarship as an integral part of senior military education and the discipline of strategic studies. The Institute for National Security Studies of the U.S. Air Force offered additional support for fieldwork in the region. I am indebted to Stefano Bianchini and my colleagues in the Europe and the Balkans International Network and Center for East Central European and Balkan Studies at the University of Bologna, with whom I struggled to understand Balkan issues during the entire duration of the war, and from whose insights I have benefited immeasurably whether or not I have agreed with them. Special thanks are due to my colleagues Colonels Alan Stolberg and Raymond Millen, for their careful and expert commentary on an earlier version of the manuscript. The conclusions offered in the book do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. They represent a personal attempt to make sense of a great contemporary tragedy.

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