The lessons for Europe two decades on from the war in Bosnia

For European countries, and for the United States, too, the shift from cold war to post-cold war had been too rapid for their thinking. Militarily their forces were still organised for a life-or-death struggle with the Warsaw Pact. Politically they could

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a largely forgotten conflict, the second Balkan war. This was a nasty affair that does not arouse much interest today. But it is worth looking back in the light of our own experience of the third Balkan war from 1991 to 1999 and from the perspective of what has happened in the past 20 years.
The first Balkan war began in October 1912 and ended in May 1913. It might be described as a war of self-determination. The countries of the region took advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman empire, exposed by Italy’s seizure of what is now Libya, to push the Ottomans almost out of the Balkan Peninsula. The fighting stopped at the gates of Constantinople. After a pause for breath, lasting not much more than a month, the victors – Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro – began a war among themselves over the division of the territory captured.
The second Balkan war was shorter than the first (six weeks rather than eight months) and, if anything, nastier. There were atrocities in both, as there are in all wars. But while the first Balkan war was mostly a military-tomilitary affair, in the second the target was often the civilian population. If you could establish that a piece of territory was inhabited by your people – Serbs, Bulgarians or Greeks, – then you could claim it as a part of your national territory. This was therefore a war about people as well as territory: whether a village was Serb or Bulgarian might decide whether its inhabitants lived or died.
There were not many eyewitness reports in the newspapers of the day. But such reports as there were alarmed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, established only three years earlier. It decided to pursue its founder’s aims by investigating what had happened and making it known. To do this it sent a small fact-finding team to the region, including a British journalist, Henry Brailsford (who wrote, inter alia, for the New Statesman), and the Russian historian Pavel Milyukov, both of whom had personal experience of the region.
Their report told a story that seems all too familiar today: a war that sometimes had for its objective “the complete extermination of an alien population”, in which villages were burned, rape was used as a weapon and streams of refugees and the wounded were left to fend for themselves, with many of them dying. The members of the fact-finding mission found that, to get anywhere, they had to work their way around official obstruction, and after that through a mass of exaggeration, distortion and lies. Many who were involved in the Balkans in the 1990s would recognise the experience.
Carnegie republished the report on the earlier Balkan wars in 1993, as historical background to the events going on at the time. The great American diplomat George Kennan contributed an introduction. The parallels between 1913 and 1993 were, as he pointed out, inescapable. Military technology had changed, and the revolution in communications made the events much more visible in 1993, but the objectives and methods of those fighting were the same. In many ways the war of the 1990s was worse: it was longer and the deaths were at least double those of the second Balkan war. Kennan was writing in 1993 and there were two more years of atrocities to come in Bosnia, followed by a bitter peace, and a further war over Kosovo.
Twenty years on, the similarities remain; but the differences are also striking. In his introduction to the original report the president of Carnegie’s Balkan commission, the Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, had written: “All this horror will not cease as long as Europe continues to ignore it.” Europe and everyone else made many mistakes but no one can say they ignored what was going on.
In many ways the Europe of 1913 knew better what to do. When the fighting stopped, the great powers – Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France and Britain – met in a conference convened by the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to arrange an orderly settlement of the new borders. Out of this, Albania was created – though it took the threat of Austrian intervention to persuade Serbia finally to withdraw from Albanian territory; and a large Albanian-speaking population was left inside Serbia’s borders in Kosovo. This was the last occasion before the Great War on which a concert of European powers played a constructive role. They did so because of their alarm that a quarrel in the Balkans could trigger a European war. A year later this fear proved well founded.
In 1913 war was part of the natural order of things; in the Balkans it was half expected, given the weakness of the Ottoman empire. In 1991, by contrast, the very fact of war on European soil was a shock. And the brutal nature of the war made it even more shocking. For 40 years after 1945, Europe had been at the centre of the cold war; there had been armed intervention in Warsaw Pact countries (and also in Cyprus); European troops had been involved in wars abroad. But this was the first war on European soil in four decades. It came, moreover, at the moment when an extraordinary and peaceful transition was taking place across the rest of central Europe. By the 1990s most people had come to assume that violent conflict in Europe was over for good.
Partly because of this, no one knew what to do. Of the great powers of 1913 only Russia was still a world-class power in 1991. The western European powers were not capable of intervening either individually or collectively in a European crisis without American leadership; perhaps they were no longer capable of thinking like major powers. The positive side of this coin was that they had lost the imperial urge and no longer saw each other as enemies. But if they had lost the desire to compete they had not yet acquired the ability to co-operate (and here they still have some way to go). The EU was divided in many ways by the crisis, but there was never any possibility that it could come to blows.
Among the old powers only the Soviet Union knew what it wanted: and that was not to be involved. It had washed its hands of Yugoslavia some years before; now it was washing its hands of the whole of eastern Europe, and by the end of the year the Soviet Union itself would be in dissolution.
For European countries, and for the United States, too, the shift from cold war to postcold war had been too rapid for their thinking. Militarily their forces were still organised for a life-or-death struggle with the Warsaw Pact, even though that was also in dissolution. Politically they could think in terms of national interests – as Britain had done ten years earlier in the Falklands – or of Allied interests; but the war in Bosnia did not fit into either of these categories. As such, the US decided this was none of its business and the Europeans, horrified at what was going on, fell back on a muddled mixture of diplomacy without muscle, monitoring without strategic purpose, UN peacekeeping without peace, and humanitarian action that was systematically manipulated by the combatants.
Looking from a distance, the 89-year-old Kennan’s view was clearer. In his introduction he wrote that a settlement was going to require outside mediation, “and in all probability outside force to bring the parties to accept and observe it”. The EU had tried the mediation but not the force. Two years later, in 1995, Jacques Chirac decided with John Major that enough was enough, and they put together a British/French rapid-reaction force that provided some of the backing for Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic push.
In 1993 the similarities with 1913 were striking. Today, 20 years on, we should be more conscious of the differences. As Kennan pointed out, the communications revolution played a big part in how things developed. Carnegie had the right idea but in 1913 it was the only body attempting to establish the facts. In the 1990s the media were present everywhere, together with humanitarian NGOs and EU/UN monitors. Although we complain about “the CNN effect” – which is indeed sometimes shallow and short-lived – it is a powerful force for action and sometimes that is right.
Europe began disunited, muddled and ineffective; but the process of continuous dialogue kept European tensions within bounds and led eventually to important contributions by the European Union. And even when Europe failed, it failed within a multilateral framework; and that is better than the 1913/1914 version.
As the crisis went on, both the European countries and the US got their act together better. Kosovo was a second American-led intervention; but it was at least more timely than Bosnia. In Macedonia in 2000 there was a further intervention by Nato but with European forces only, because the US did not want to be involved. This is now forgotten – because it succeeded. It was a preventative action and probably did prevent a further Slav- Albanian conflict. And with the military deployment came a diplomatic effort led by Javier Solana and supported by the Nato secretary general, George Robertson. This used the breathing space provided by Nato to find a political solution to the ethnic problems.
The most important European contribution was the realisation that a lasting peace would require the EU eventually to take the countries of the Balkans into the Union. Britain was one of the authors of this policy in the 1990s. It was agreed by the EU as a whole at the Thessaloníki Summit in 2003.
Twenty years is a short time and nothing is finished. Bosnia is not yet a functioning state, though there is no risk of a return to violence. Macedonia’s progress towards the EU and Nato remains obstructed by the unresolved question of its name, a legacy of the 1912/1913 conflicts. However, progress continues. Croatia – a part of the problem in the early 1990s – joined the EU this year, and can be part of the solution. Serbia will start the accession process next year, following a negotiation led by Catherine Ashton that has brought a measure of normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo is taking the first steps in the same direction in its own right.
This remains a policy with a number of health warnings. Slovenia seemed to be a model member of the EU until the question of Croatian membership came up and, suddenly, the Balkan gene kicked in. Corruption – the mixture of politics, economics and organised crime – is still a problem everywhere in the Balkans, as it is in much of central Europe.
It is vital for the EU that Croatia prove a trustworthy member. Kennan wrote that, in addition to a territorial settlement, a condition of peace would be “greater and more effective restraints on the behaviour of the states of the region”. In the end, the only effective restraint on sovereign states is self-restraint. The EU, if it functions well, should provide a framework for that. It will be difficult, and it could still go wrong; but 20 years after the third Balkan war the balance sheet doesn’t look bad – better than it did 20 years after the second.
Robert Cooper worked for Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton at the EU until last year. He is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations
Broken spoils of war: remains and personal effects of victims of the conflict at the city morgue in Visoko, Bosnia. Image: Ziyah Gafic

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.