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Balkan Report: December 14, 1999

14 December 1999, Volume 3, Number 54

Petritsch Looks For Visions. What can be done to promote a sound future for the Balkans? Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has suggested that the region is so plagued by "ancient hatreds" that all the rest of the world can do is isolate it and leave it to its own devices. At a recent conference in Bavaria, one of the best-known German-language journalists specializing in the Balkans suggested that Serbia is completely beyond hope and that most of the rest of the western Balkans is little better off. He added that he is at a loss for any recommendations for solutions.

This remark prompted a response from the audience that if one gives up hope, one might as well build a wall around the region and disband all projects and institutions dealing with it. One might begin by building a wall just beyond Vienna's proverbial Ringstrasse.

Such an isolation of the region is obviously not an option, especially in the age of modern communications. For one, Europe's land links to Turkey and the Middle East have always gone through the former Yugoslavia. Recent experiences have suggested that alternative routes through Romania and Bulgaria really are no alternative, given problems that include the existence of only one bridge connecting the two countries across the Danube.

More serious approaches than the containment theory were raised in the 4 December issue of Vienna's "Die Presse" by Wolfgang Petritsch. This veteran Balkan expert (who belongs to Austria's Slovenian minority) is now the international community's chief representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He wrote his article not only with Bosnia in mind but also in reference to Kosova. Petritsch sees similar problems present in both areas and calls for learning from experiences in each of the two regions in dealing with similar issues in the other.

One of the main problems that he notes is that the international community has had a lack of vision or imagination in dealing with the Balkans. He stresses that one must always keep in mind that one is dealing with real people and not with some computer simulation, but adds that the international as a unique opportunity in Bosnia and Kosova to contribute to regional development.

Petritsch notes that one approach has centered on economic development as the key to jump-starting the construction or reconstruction of war-torn areas of the former Yugoslavia and neighboring countries. "Balkan Report," for its part, has long argued that getting people working and earning is central to diverting energies into constructive channels and removing the environment in which nationalists and demagogues can thrive.

Petritsch agrees that economic development is important, but adds that promoting stability also calls for emphasis on regional integration. This must begin first and foremost with Bosnia, he argues, because of its geopolitically central position in the western Balkans. He concedes that both in Bosnia and in Kosova, it will take long years before local elites and broader publics will have the political maturity and sophistication to develop democratic institutions and seek integration. But here he raises two positive points. First, a kind of "Euro-region" can be developed in the Balkans as a first step on a very long road to EU membership. Second, he notes that throughout the Balkans one finds that the "European idea" is popular.

One may, of course, raise some caveats to Petritsch's arguments. First, there is great impatience in the Balkans (and elsewhere in Eastern Europe) to "join Europe." Political elites throughout the region want definite timetables for the various stages leading to their full membership in the EU. They are suspicious when they meet with delays and vague platitudes instead. They are also concerned that they will be forever confined to the margins of the modern world unless they seize a historic opportunity for European integration that may never come again. Many also fear that any "Euro-regions" or the like are nothing but half-way houses to which the richer half of the continent will confine Eastern Europe indefinitely.

Second, one may perhaps be a bit skeptical in asking exactly what the elites of the region understand by "joining Europe." They certainly seek a role in decision-making processes that affect the entire continent, on the principle of "nothing about us without us." But one also sometimes gets the impression that what is sought is a Western European standard of living--with little thought as to what political, social, legal, and economic development countries like Germany, Belgium, or Spain had to go through to get where they are today. There are no magic formulas or quick-fix timetables. In speaking to members of the elites in some parts of the region, one sometimes gets the impression that this point has not been sufficiently grasped.

But what is to be done in developing political institutions? Both Kosova and Bosnia are politically virgin territory for the international community, Petritsch argues. In Bosnia, the issue is implementing the 1995 Dayton agreement. The international community did not have or use all the powers necessary to dislodge the nationalist leaderships in all three areas of that country, with the result that progress has been lacking in key areas even four years after the treaty was signed. In Kosova, the international community has not repeated that mistake. It has, in fact, made Kosova a de facto international protectorate. But in both cases, the danger is very present that the foreigners could unwillingly foster a "culture of dependency" among the Bosnians and Kosovars, with the result that these people could remain unable or unwilling to manage their own affairs.

Petritsch sees at least a partial way out in Bosnia by "constructing legal parameters" in which the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats can manage their own futures without foreign supervision. He notes that he and his predecessor have made liberal use of their right to fire the worst of the obstructionist, nationalist officials and show that the international community means business. He is less clear as to how he expects Bosnian officials to continue their good behavior once the last foreign administrator and SFOR soldier leave.

In any event, Petritsch sees two key issues that he is now dealing with: enabling refugees to return and unseating nationalist political leaders. First, in order for the refugees to be able to go home--especially to areas now controlled by an ethnic group different from their own--they need clear property laws confirming their right to land and buildings that were theirs before the fled or were driven out. Petritsch announced such measures in October.

Not unrelated to this issue is that of the nationalist power barons. Part of the reason they wield the authority they do is their control over local wealth--legitimate and otherwise--including property. Ethnic cleansing made this possible. They stayed in power after the war because the political climate and election laws encouraged voters to cast their ballots for slates of only one nationality--namely their own--and often for the most die-hard nationalists.

Petritsch plans to change all that. A new, complex election law package is expected to go onto the books in late February, in time for fall elections. The new rules will force candidates to run as individuals and not only as party creatures. They will, moreover, have to win at least some of their votes from people belonging to ethnic groups other than their own. Finally, a system of proportional representation will break the winner-take-all power of the big nationalist parties and favor smaller ones, where the moderates are more likely to be found.

Of course, Petritsch does not see this as a complete solution. He notes that it will take a long time to build up a political culture conducive to the growth and development of democratic institutions and a civil society. But he is confident that the attraction of "joining Europe" will be strong enough to attract the peoples of the region.

Petritsch unfortunately ends his article with a point that is not one of his stronger ones. He suggests that the Europeans--by which he presumably means the EU--have a closer cultural affinity to the peoples of the former Yugoslavia than do the Americans. He adds that reconstructing--or constructing--the Balkans is therefore something perhaps best suited to the EU rather than to those on the other side of "the Atlantic divide."

One is reminded of the famous and ill-fated remark of Luxembourg's Jacques Poos in 1991--when Yugoslavia began to break up--that "the hour of Europe had come." The bitter truth is that at no time in the ongoing post-Yugoslav imbroglio since then have either the former Yugoslavs or the EU proven able to manage their serious crises in the Balkans without intervention from the United States.

In any event, both Europe and the U.S. will need to show a long-term, serious commitment to helping solve the problems of the Balkans. Perhaps, as Petritsch suggests, the Europeans' own recent experiences in this century place them in a much better position than the Americans to help the peoples of the former Yugoslavia deal with one of their most fundamental difficulties: a misunderstanding of history and its role in political life in the modern world. (Patrick Moore)

Albania Ends The Death Penalty. The Constitutional Court ruled on 9 December to abolish the death penalty, dpa reported. The Council of Europe has threatened to expel Albania unless it ends capital punishment. The legal status of the death penalty has been ambiguous for some time. The 1998 constitution forbids it, but the Criminal Code provides for it for 15 crimes, including murder. Supporters of the death penalty claim that it is necessary because of the high crime rate. They also argue that abolition of capital punishment would encourage families of murder victims to take matters into their own hands in a country where the traditional code of honor demands blood for blood.

In Rome on 11 December, supporters of a Vatican-backed, world-wide movement to abolish the death penalty turned on a special set of lights at the Colisseum to mark Tirana's abolition of capital punishment. The lights will remain on for 48 hours and will come on again each time officials of any country abolish the death penalty or commute a capital sentence, Vatican Radio reported. A spokeswoman for the movement said that she hopes that the lights can go on for Turkey in the not too distant future. (Patrick Moore)

Quotations Of The Week. "The United States has been steadfast in condemning the proceedings against [Kosovar human rights activist] Dr. Brovina. This action is an example of the bankruptcy that faces the Serbian state and the rule of law in Serbia. We understand that the court proceedings in and of themselves were severely flawed. We urge Belgrade to reconsider this conviction." -- James Dobbins, U.S. special adviser for Kosova and Dayton implementation, in Washington on 9 December. Quoted by Reuters. A Serbian court had just sentenced her to 12 years in prison.

"One funeral is worth 1,000 election rallies." -- Croatian opposition spokesman Tihomir Ladisic to Reuters on 12 December, after the death of President Franjo Tudjman the previous Friday night. Parliamentary elections are slated for 3 January.

"I salute the memory of this statesman who led Croatia on the road to independence. I hope that the country...continues to build its future by maintaining what he has established in promoting peace, justice, unity, and dialogue in the heart of the national community and in the region." -- Pope John Paul II in his message of condolence to Acting President Vlatko Pavletic, on 11 December. As reported by Vatican Radio.