Balkans Still Fragile, Even After Milosevic Arrest

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

April 7, 2001

Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, is now in prison. He may have special privileges—his own toilet facilities and access to television—but he is behind bars and will likely remain there for many years to come. His arrest ends a sad chapter in history. No person bears more responsibility for the carnage in the former Yugoslavia during the past ten years, from the destruction of Vukovar, the bombing of Dubrovnik, the shelling of Sarajevo, and the pillaging of Pristina to the ethnic cleansing of Prijedor, the concentration camps in Omarska, the unspeakable horrors of Srebrenica, and the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from Kosovo, than the butcher of Belgrade.

But if Milosevic was a major part of the problem, his removal from power, arrest, and likely future transfer to the Hague to stand trial on these and other alleged crimes are only part of the solution for the Balkans. To be sure, neither justice nor stability was possible so long as Milosevic remained in power or lived openly in Yugoslavia’s presidential residence. But his arrest, likely conviction, and eventual extradition to the Hague are only a beginning—a necessary one—but a beginning nonetheless.

Even without Milosevic, many problems remain. Most immediately, Milosevic himself needs to be tried for the war crimes of which he stands accused—and he needs to be accompanied in the dock by fellow indictees, including Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who bear the most responsibility for the bloodletting in Bosnia. Serbia and its neighbors also face an arduous economic transition, involving not only reconstructing war-shattered infrastructure but also the inevitable pain of transforming a state-run to a market-based economy.

These tasks would be hard enough by themselves, but they are likely to be complicated—and possibly delayed—by the unresolved political questions in the region. Among these, three stand out: the uncertain status of the Yugoslav federation, the Albanian question, and the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If further conflict in the Balkans is to be avoided, the outside world will have to give each of these problems the same degree of urgent and sustained attention it gave to ending the wars that Milosevic’s rule wrought.

Of all the states in southeastern Europe, Yugoslavia has the most uncertain future. Montenegro, one of the country’s two constituent republics, seems bent on secession. Parliamentary elections this April will determine whether the current governing majority favoring independence remains in power, which seems likely. A referendum in June would then confirm that a majority of Montenegrins—albeit a slim one—favors independence. Serb and Yugoslav political leaders have indicated they would abide by the expressed will of the people, even though they would prefer Montenegro remains part of Yugoslavia.

Although no country supports Montenegrin independence, if accomplished peacefully and with Serbia’s consent, Europe will have little choice but to accept another mini-state in its midst. That, however, is not likely to be the end of it. Once Montenegro leaves Yugoslavia, the pressure in Kosovo for independence will likely become irresistible. No Kosovar Albanian will accept a future within Serbia. Moreover, Kosovo’s legal status itself will be uncertain, since the UN resolution governing Kosovo’s current status only refers to the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, not of Serbia. When—and how—Kosovo becomes independent, and what its relation will be with Serbia, remain questions that the international community will find increasingly hard to avoid.

A similarly difficult issue is the unresolved Albanian question. Ethnic Albanians live in a contiguous territory that extends from Albania into Greece, Macedonia and Yugoslavia and may extend to three more if Yugoslavia breaks apart. In each of these states, with the exception of Albania and Kosovo (should it become independent), ethnic Albanians constitute a minority. Although dreams of a greater Albania or greater Kosovo are no more likely to be realized than Milosevic’s attempt to create a greater Serbia, that last attempt demonstrates the grave instabilities that such dreams can cause. Unfortunately, there is no ready answer to Albanian aspirations—except to offer all minorities, including Albanians, a major stake in their respective states . That is why it is so important that the political dialogue in Macedonia among all political parties, which has just started, quickly bears results.

Finally, five-and-a-half years after the fighting finally ended in Bosnia, much of the country remains in a state of disarray. To be sure, the absence of war is real and gratifying. There has been major reconstruction. Many of those displaced by war have been returning. And for the first time in the country’s short history, a national government was formed by parties other than the nationalist parties that have dominated Bosnian politics for years.

But the deep-seated ethnic fears and hatreds persist. The Bosnian Serb entity is ruled by unreconstructed, nationalist Serbs. Nationalist Croats have left all political institutions and begun to set up their own in Herzegovina. The Federation army has split between its Croat and Muslim parts. Rather than two entities within a single state, as called for in Dayton, Bosnia is in fact divided among three distinct communities held together only by the international community.

In short, the Dayton experiment has failed. Partition is not a solution, but neither is forced integration. A new political framework is needed, one that abandons the ethnic-based politics of the Dayton constitution and focuses instead on local control, perhaps at the cantonal rather than entity level. That may require a constitutional convention, which many have so far resisted for fear that Dayton—and Bosnia with it—would unravel. But Dayton has unraveled and the time has come to stitch Bosnia together in a more durable way.

These are significant political challenges. They require immediate and sustained attention by the international community. With a new administration in Washington that is neither much interested in the region nor steeped in its affairs, the burden will fall on Europe to take the diplomatic lead. It is an appropriate challenge for the new Europe, now more unified and presumably better able to handle it, than was a very different Europe a decade ago when Milosevic first challenged the world over Yugoslavia.