For the record

Review of three books, as submitted to a semi-academic journal at the weekend.

The Three Yugoslavias: State-Building and Legitimation, 1918-2005, by Sabrina P. Ramet
Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style, by Elizabeth Pond
Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo, by Iain King and Whit Mason

The Balkans haven’t gone away, and the legacy of the wars of Yugoslav succession still troubles policymakers. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, sent to Bosnia in the hope that he might be able to cut it free of international tutelage, will return to Germany in mid-2007 having failed in his mission; while the EU is anxiously bracing itself to confront Russia, and perhaps even division among its own members, over the future fate of Kosovo. The three books considered here each report on different aspect of this policy puzzle.

Sabrina Ramet has produced a weighty and scholarly contribution to the historical debate around the South Slavic territories. Her historical account of how the interwar kingdom (first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and then Yugoslavia) was founded on a flawed constitution, and proceeded to lose its way through political oppression and royal dictatorship, is comprehensive and convincing, based on archival research and a full survey of the available literature. Democracy never took root in the interwar period, and it is therefore not so surprising that it has had trouble consolidating in Serbia since 2000.

Her account of the second world war will be unwelcome in some quarters. She clinically dissects the relationship between the Italian and German occupiers, the horrendous NDH regime in Croatia and Bosnia, the quisling Nedic government in Serbia, and the Chetniks and Partisans, finding little in favour of any (except perhaps the last named). She also examines the role of Archbishop Stepinac and the Catholic Church, and finds little evidence for their complicity in genocide; although it is clear that both helped the NDH leaders to flee once the war had been lost, and that of course individual Catholics, including clergy, ignored their leadership’s position against atrocity.

Her account of the Communist period is again detailed and thorough, looking at the efforts of Tito and his successors to impose a socialist system on the country, and to weather the requirements of economic reform and nationalist tension. She is particularly effective in describing the “Croatian spring” of 1968-71, but does not ignore developments in the other Yugoslav republics, and Kosovo, in that period. And her blow-by-blow account of Milosevic’s rise to power, and how Serbia’s leadership brought the federation to disintegration and war, is authoritative and comprehensive.

Unfortunately her account loses steam in its coverage of the ten years since the end of the Bosnian war. The final chapters, one on Kosovo and the other on Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, are almost perfunctory. Very little secondary literature has been used, the narrative appearing in some sections to be drawn entirely from online news archives, and there is not enough original analysis to make up the difference. In the chapter on Kosovo, not a single Kosovo Albanian source is cited, Ramet having relied instead on Belgrade media and the international press. She is too good a scholar for this to make her account a biased one, but it is very noticeably incomplete; the strength of the earlier sections of the book, its careful examination of first-hand sources in the language formerly known as Serbo-Croat, here becomes a weakness.

Ramet has chosen a provocative framing device for the historical narrative: she moors her analysis in a discussion of state legitimacy, rooted in principles of liberal universalism: that state structures can only survive if they enjoy political, moral and economic legitimacy. It is a thought-provoking approach, and she examines each of the three Yugoslavias – the inter-war kingdom, Tito’s state, and the Milosevic union from 1992 – in that light and finds each of them wanting. It is, however, notable that her examination of post-Dayton Bosnia takes a different tack, comparing the international administrators to either Kemal Ataturk or the politicians of Weimar Germany, without the same thorough evaluation of Dayton’s legitimacy in itself.

And while this theoretical framework is indeed attractive and on the whole convincing, it is a difficult one to apply to societies and states which are ethnically divided. At a couple of points, Ramet suggests that one of the fundamental problems was “ethnic politics”, by which she seems to mean the emergence of political parties which are representative of single ethnic groups. Leaving aside the question of how, precisely, this development might be avoided or reversed, I am not convinced that it is so important in itself. Tito’s Yugoslavia, and King Alexander’s earlier rearrangement of the country into banovinas, failed in part precisely because they attempted to ignore or minimize the ethnic dimension; meanwhile the former Yugoslavia’s neighbours, Romania and Bulgaria, appear to have achieved a certain level of stability despite having political parties which represent ethnic minority groups. Most ethnically heterogeneous societies need to develop a way for different ethnic groups to mobilize, and political parties are surely not to be excluded.

Ramet’s lack of reflection on the scholarship relating to the most recent period, and her too brief treatment of Kosovo, are remedied by the two other books reviewed here. Elizabeth Pond, in her survey of the Balkans and EU integration, considers not only the former Yugoslavia (sans Slovenia) but also its neighbourhood in her excellent survey of the state of scholarship on the entire region since the fall of communism. She has carefully sifted through the best political analyses available, and pulled them together country by country: Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. In each case she looks at the very country-specific problems of nation- and state-building, and the prospects for sustainable stability in the Euro-Atlantic context.

Pond’s book would make an excellent introduction to the region for, say, a newly appointed international official, or an interested student. Its one weakness is that, while the regional perspective is clearly and lucidly presented, there is rather less about the real policy debates in European capitals, and between the two sides of the Atlantic, which will set the terms of the Balkans’ integration. She also has no time for the sorts of conspiracy theorist who can be found on any internet site dealing with the Balkans, but this is less of a loss.

[This section heavily cut from here.] Iain King and Whitney Mason, themselves former employees of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), have written a damning indictment of the international efforts to put that territory back on its feet since the NATO campaign of 1999. From the very beginning, international officials conceded to thuggery on the ground, committed by both the ethnic Albanian majority and by the remaining ethnic Serbs. UN officials retreated into a colonialist mentality, failing to implement their mandate and questioning their own ability to do so. (Kosovo's electricity supplies now are in worse shape than they were before the conflict.) The highest ever per capita expenditure by the international community on post-conflict reconstruction has delivered indifferent results.

King and Mason have a list of prescriptions as to what could be done better in future. The two key points for me are, first, that any such international mission needs to move fast to establish the rule of law as a matter of extreme urgency; and second, that the end goal must be clear right from the beginning. The determination to put off deciding on Kosovo's future independence led directly to the discrediting of the UN mission within Kosovo and the violence of March 2004, and has exacerbated uncertainty in the wider region. I think this is the first book-length piece on the Kosovo protectorate, and it's a thorough analysis.

One thought on “For the record

Comments are closed.