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Dissolution of Yugoslavia as a warning to those in charge of European security

Ukraine -- A woman holds up balloons and ribbons of Ukrainian national colours during a pro-Ukrainian rally in Luhansk, April 17, 2014
There is a significant connection between the current crisis in Ukraine and the Balkan conflicts in 1990s. It mostly refers to ethnic divisions which ended with conflict in the region of the former Yugoslavia, but also the tendency of the most powerful country in the region to use the weaknesses of neighboring states to control them.

According to historian Serbo Rastoder, both conflicts are the consequences of living in a joint state, and the division of society when it comes to identity.

“It would be an exaggeration to draw direct analogies between Russia’s current role in the Ukrainian crisis and the role of Serbia in the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. But we cannot ignore one significant fact, which is that both Russia and Serbia have been a hedgehog in the stomach of other countries, and want to keep everything under their control,” says Rastoder, stressing:

“It became obvious that the hedgehog in the stomach of the other country is that part of the population that felt close to Russia, or Serbia in the case of Yugoslavia, in a national, cultural or some other sense. In that context, Montenegro found itself in a hotspot which forced it to make different moves, from alliance with Serbia and Milosevic to the later fight for independence. That is a consequence of living in a joint state, as well as a divided society.”

“In the territory of Soviet Union there are many unresolved issues with ethnic and national problems at their core, which is a similarity to the former Yugoslavia,” says historian Dragutin Papovic who stresses that ethnic issues are present throughout Europe, citing the most recent examples – a referendum in Scotland, Catalonian and Basque tendencies toward secession from Spain, and Belgium’s frequently dysfunctional political system as a result of internal divisions.

However, in comparison to eastern European countries, the western ones tend to resolve their conflicts in recent times through dialogue, says Papovic:

“What is happening in Ukraine and what was happening in Yugoslavia some 20 years ago, is not exclusively characteristic of eastern and southeastern parts of Europe; it is characteristic of Europe as a whole where there are strong national and ethnic oppositions. The specificity of Ukraine or of the former Yugoslavia lies in the fact that those issues are being resolved through armed conflict. In Ukraine, fortunately, it has not come to the situation we had in the former Yugoslavia, but they are on the brink of a civil war in the opinion of most observers.

“The point is that in eastern and southeastern Europe there is no democratic tradition of conflict resolution. In Belgium, Great Britain or Spain, it is being resolved through state institutions. Ethnic conflicts, national confrontations, dysfunctionality of state political elites are being resolved through negotiations and deals. That is rather difficult, but that is the point – the way they are being resolved,” believes Papovic.
The way conflicts are being resolved in Ukraine is reminiscent of a lot of events from the early 1990’s in the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

“We can see that in Ukraine it is being resolved outside institutions. We have self-proclaimed republics formed, parallel institutions and parallel security forces. That is what connects the Ukrainian and Yugoslavian scenarios. If a problem cannot be resolved, it is being dealt with by outside institutions. Also, we usually have leaders from a neighboring political center interested in the future of that country. In this case it is Russia,”
says Papovic.

A key similarity between Montenegro’s situation and that of Ukraine is a division of identity, which brings its own consequences.

“A connection between Ukraine and Montenegro lies in the fact that Ukrainian society is obviously a divided one, just as Montenegro, in which there is someone from the outside increasing those divisions in an attempt to politicize it for their own gain,” says Rastoder.

In comparison to the Balkan crisis from 1990’s, the Ukrainian crisis has an additional dimension, because there is a dispute over one of the most important strategic points in the history of diplomacy and conflicts, and that is Crimea. That is why the Ukrainian crisis has much bigger and global significance.

In the case of Yugoslavia, just as today’s in Ukraine, the international community is acting in an identical manner, failing to understand the essence, character, and dynamics of changes, stresses Rastoder:

“In the case of Yugoslavia, the Badinter Commission, which guaranteed the right of secession to former Yugoslav republics, later altered its stance and did not firmly stand behind it, which led to the catastrophic and very painful dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation. In the case of Ukraine, energy resources are being used by Russians as a potent weapon in alleviating negative opinion toward the Ukrainian issue. In the end, the whole international policy is reduced to attempts to alleviate negative consequences of the Ukrainian crisis when it comes to its status and economy.”

The best solution for a country in conflict is to resolve the problems with internal dialogue, and the worst solution is international arbitrage, according to Papovic.

“Divisions in Ukraine are becoming so deep that unfortunately a solution is impossible without arbitrage. I hope that the experience from the former Yugoslavia will be a warning to all those deciding about security on the European continent and, if they learned some lessons from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, they should implement them in Ukraine to prevent an even bigger conflict,” concludes Papovic.