February Books 6) Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia

6) Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia, by Richard Caplan

Richard Caplan has featured here before. This is a good, brief (but very expensive!) book on all aspects of the European Community’s recognition of the successor states to the former Yugoslavia in 1991-93. It is particularly timely as just this last week (in a development so far ignored by the international press) the EU has been at it again, imposing dubious conditions on the forthcoming independence referendum in MontenegroYugoslav People’s Army in Slovenia and Croatia, though as it turned out that was a pale shadow of what was to come elsewhere. Europe’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in December actually came in December 1991, six months after the fighting started, so therefore cannot have caused it.

Indeed, there is a good case that the recognition of Croatia in particular helped to regularise the situation there and achieve a ceasefire that lasted for more than three years – a point first made to me way back before I got into the Balkans by the Norwegian scholar Asbjorn Eide, and repeated with convincing detail here. On the other hand, the ostensible purpose of the delay in recognising Croatia – ensuring a better minority rights regime for its Serbs – failed completely; they were already in open conflict with Zagreb and therefore not interested in the EC’s proffered constitutional bells and whistles.

Caplan does not make such a good case for the defence on Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he considers EC recognition to have been the spark that set the conflict going. In my own view, he fails to make a good case which is there to be made. Again the dates simply don’t check out; the fighting started in Bijeljina, a town I have since got to know rather well, in the first days of April and had spread to Sarajevo before the European recognition had been decided. To an extent, of course, this is pedantic; once Croatia and Slovenia had been recognised by the EU, the BiH leadership (of whom I am not a big fan) faced the choice of remaining in a federation dominated by Milošević, with the likelihood of a pro-Milošević coup before too long in Sarajevo as had already happened in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro, or else going for such international support as they could get as an independent state, despite the consequent risk of a civil war. There is much to criticise about the way Izetbegović handled the situation, and one could also argue that the EU’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia thus “caused” the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the fact is that the responsibility lies with Milošević, whose policies had driven Slovenia and Croatia to secede and who had overseen the arming and organisation of secessionist Serbs in BiH (a former acquaintance of mine features in this narrative), much more than with Izetbegović, still less the Europeans.

On Macedonia and Kosovo, Caplan makes the very good point that delaying recognition probably increased rather than decreasing ethnic tensions there, particularly as for Macedonia the delay was over an issue (the name of the country, of its largest ethnic group, and of their language) which was purely an irrational hang-up of the Greeks, but one which the other eleven states failed to confront properly (and have failed to this day). Kosovo is a slightly different matter; while I agree that the distinction between former autonomous provinces and former constituent republics is a rather spurious place to draw the limit for units of self-determination, the fact is that Kosovo (or at least Rugova’s government of the time) was much farther from satisfying one of the key criteria for international recognition: it did not have control over its own territory, even to the imperfect extent that Croatia and Bosnia did over theirs.

There’s a lot more in this book. Caplan makes a good argument overall that although the process may have appeared arbitrary and purely political, in fact by invoking international law the Europeans constrained their own freedom of action in significant ways, and their intentions were certainly to minimise the likelihood of present and future conflict. His discussion of the use and effectiveness of political conditionality in the last chapter is equally fascinating. Conditionality in general is much rarer than I had realised, and if it doesn’t always appear to be very effective, at least it doesn’t seem to be harmful. The conditions placed on the new Balkan states were heavier than those that were placed on Eritrea and Bangladesh, and (though Caplan doesn’t make this point) that was probably a good thing in the end.

Where conditionality fails, it is either a) because the local circumstances are unfavourable (though even then, if it can tie into the agenda of an opposition party that can be helpful) or b) because the international community does it unconvincingly. The Europeans’ attempts to use conditionality suffered more from the second problem than the first. Their refusal to contemplate even the slightest hint of the use of force basically concentrated negotiating power in the hands of those who did not have such scruples. Even deployment of the unarmed European Community Monitoring Mission to Bosnia in 1991 was considered to be too interventionist. Civilised and enlightened western statesmen are often squeamish about threatening the use of force, but you have to wave the stick as well as the carrot sometimes.

Finally, I was very struck by Caplan’s observation that conditional recognition actually has a long history in this part of the world: minority rights regimes in the new states were part of the treaty-making process after the first world war that led to the independence of Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; and it goes back still further, to the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, when Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro were recognised subject guarantees of the rights of minority religious communities. 128 years on, Montenegro is going through the same process all over again, as is Kosovo. I hope something has been learnt in the meantime; and I am more hopeful after reading this book.

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