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Midnight in Belgrade, dusk in Brussels

Europe’s symbolic effort to prevent Yugoslavia’s breakup in mid-1991 has a lesson for the continent today, says Goran Fejic, then an advisor of Yugoslavia’s foreign minister.
Goran Fejic
12 July 2010

Almost two decades ago, the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia was about to begin and the then European Community was testing its emerging “soft power” by projecting onto the virulent nationalisms of the Balkans its own claimed values and principles.

Many of today’s “Yugonostalgics” are all too keen to blame Germany and its post-cold-war assertiveness for the dismembering of their former country via a “premature” recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. But Germany can hardly be held responsible for the country’s partition; and as for the European Community, all its initial efforts were geared towards supporting Yugoslavia’s democratic transition while preserving its integrity.

On 30 June 1991, Belgrade was receiving the “troika” of European foreign ministers (Gianni De Michelis of Italy, Jacques Poos of Luxembourg and Hans van den Broek of the Netherlands). The troika’s efforts to stop the emerging conflict - the group arrived three days into what was to be the “ten-day war” between Slovenia and the Yugoslav national army (JNA) - included raising the threat of economic sanctions and committing Slovenia and Croatia to a three-month suspension of their declarations on independence. The troika also tried, and temporarily succeeded, in putting the derailed federal state presidency back on track.

The latter attempt involved a small theatrical performance. The so-called “Serbian bloc” (composed of Serbia proper, its two “autonomous” regions Kosovo and Voivodina, as well as Montenegro) was refusing to work under the chairmanship of the Croat, Stipe Mesić, whose term had arrived as head of the rotating Yugoslav federal presidency. This meant that the constitutional continuity of the federal state was effectively blocked. The pro-European federal foreign minister Budimir Lončar (I was his advisor at the time and we both resigned shortly afterwards) took a daring decision: without prior notice, he invited the European troika to join the ongoing session of the federal presidency and encouraged the visitors to try to break the deadlock.

The clock marked midnight between 30 June and 1 July 1991. It was also the moment when the baton of the (then) twelve-member European Community’s own rotating six-month presidency was passing - from Luxembourg to the Netherlands. So, as the Belgrade meeting continued, Jacques Poos (who headed the troika) reflected the EC’s transition by calmly passing the floor to his Dutch colleague Hans Van den Broek. The latter briefly observed that “this is the way in which these things are being done in the European Community”. In other terms, presidential succession was a smooth and uneventful moment, no big deal, and why can’t you try acting in a similar way? I am not sure the warlords-to-be in the audience were impressed, but I was. Europe kept my hopes awake for another three to four months.

It was only after the devastating attacks of the JNA against the city of Vukovar, the absurd and criminal bombing of Dubrovnik and the rapidly spreading war in Croatia that the European Community changed its mind and came with a different proposal: if you can’t live together, well, go ahead and divorce! Its major mistake was to assume that the divorce could be peaceful in a region such as Bosnia where people of diverse affiliations shared territory, facilities, buildings - and indeed were often members of the same family.

A meeting halfway

After twenty years, vengeful nationalism still has its occasional hiccups in the western Balkans, but on the whole it is running out of steam. Intra-regional trade is flourishing, as are cultural exchange and tourism. Across the region, people’s aspirations are turned towards Europe. But meanwhile, Europe too  has changed: the European project seems to be running out of steam, as the insecurities associated with globalisation seed nationalism and xenophobia across the continent. When the rest of the western Balkans (following Slovenia’s accession in 2004) is eventually absorbed into what is now the European Union, it may well be an encounter halfway.

Indeed, a number of events and processes in Europe is all too reminiscent of the early stages of the Yugoslav crisis of 1990-91. The growing euroscepticism among the now twenty-seven member-states, their byzantine negotiations over the European presidency’s mandate and role under the Lisbon treaty, the competition among national economies seeking individual emergency-exits from recession, the near-permanent political crisis in Belgium (the heart of Europe), as well as rising prejudice and regressive forms of nationalism - raise discomforting echoes. So far, at least, the scales of the syndrome are not comparable; but in the absence of coherent leadership and direction in Europe, for how long will this remain the case?

At a moment when the siege of Sarajevo was raging (April 1992-February 1996), and the “international community” was at a loss as to what to do, the Sarajevo intellectual Zdravko Grebo said: “it is too late for Bosnia, but it may not be too late for Europe”.

When the moment arrives, which “troika” will come to rescue Europe?

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