The Magazine

Balkan Lessons

Only Putin learned them.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Serbia, according to Milosevic and his clique, could not forget the crimes enacted against Serbs in Croatia a half-century before. Those horrors warranted vengeance on all Croats, including the great-grandchildren of those alive during the Ustasha period. Correspondingly, Putin smears the Ukrainians as “ideological heirs of [Ukrainian nationalist Stepan] Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.” In reality, Croatia has no anti-Jewish party or newspaper today, but was delayed in its admission to the European Union while Romania, where Jew-hatred remains a visible force, was welcomed into membership. Analogous accusations against the Ukrainian revolutionaries remain unsubstantiated.

Putin in Crimea employed “irregulars” out of uniform as a preliminary strike force, as Milosevic summoned Serbian guerrillas in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to kill and expel non-Serbian residents. 

Above all, Putin disdains recollection of the events in 1987-97 in Kosovo that led to the NATO intervention. The Kosovar Albanians were thrown out of their jobs, as well as the education and health systems, by Milosevic beginning in 1989. The Kosovars pursued a campaign of nonviolent resistance until 1997, under the leadership of a conservative philosopher, Ibrahim Rugova. They organized unofficial schools and medical services, paid for by parents and patients, and kept themselves fed thanks to the hard work of peasants, most of whom had family members living in towns.

In 1997, Albanian patience ran out. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) challenged Serbian police and military tyranny. Putin lies when he says NATO intervention in Kosovo was carried out without “any permission from [Serbia’s] central authorities.” In 1998-99, the Kosovo Verification Mission and two prior iterations, subsidized by the West, attempted to settle the Kosovo disaster. The KLA went to Rambouillet in France to negotiate with Serbia. Belgrade rebuffed these efforts.

Serbia had massacred Kosovar civilians, and it continued large-scale killings. Only then, fearing a flood of refugees into Greece and Italy, did the West act on a promise made by president George H.W. Bush in 1992, when he warned Milosevic that crossing a “red line” by attacking Kosovo violently could bring about unilateral American military action. Serbia attempted the expulsion of the whole Kosovar Albanian population to neighboring Macedonia and Albania. 

No Russians ever pursued a nonviolent alternative to Ukrainian governance in Crimea, and no Russians have been threatened with mass homicide by Ukrainians. Yet Putin claims impudently the right to “save” Russians in Crimea and elsewhere inside the borders of Ukraine and, it would seem, anywhere else Russians are to be found, including in the pseudo-state of Transnistria, carved away from Moldova. Agitation about local Russian grievances is already heard in Latvia, a NATO member. 

There is a correlation between Russian conduct today and the Balkan wars, but it doesn’t have to do with Kosovo. Rather, it is the adventurism of Milosevic and that of Putin that are analogous, the vocabulary and political habits of both autocrats, and the threatened partition of Ukraine and that of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was made permanent by the unfortunate Dayton Accords of 1995. The leader of the “Republic of Serbs” inside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, supports Putin. At the same time, Serbian “parallel structures” like those that appeared in Crimea have pushed since 1999 to lop off northern Kosovo as a “Serbian Republic.” 

Unfortunately, the most significant commonalities between Russian aggression against Ukraine and the Balkan wars are found in the venality of Western apologists for Putin, and in the debility of the West in standing up to him. 

Slovenia and Croatia beat Milosevic because they had economic assets and unity that Ukraine lacks. His reverses in those countries did not discourage Milosevic from proceeding to devastate Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. We may presume Putin will repeat such a course. And finally, Ukraine loves Europe the way Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo love Europe. But the European Union, the United Nations, and the international agencies responsible for administration of these wounded lands, except for the U.S. forces in the NATO contingents, have grossly disappointed the Bosnians and Kosovars. 

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