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Ukrainian crises and the Balkan Wars: So similar, yet so different

Ukraine - Milutin Malisic (C), a member of a Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group, and armed members of a local self-defence unit man a checkpoint on the highway between Simferopol and Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsular March 13, 2014
The Ukraine crisis and the outbreak of the Balkan wars in the ‘90s share 10 disturbing similarities and one drastic difference.

More and more colleagues, who know me from wartime Sarajevo, have asked me recently to draw parallels between Bosnia then and Ukraine now. There are striking similarities.

First: ordinary Ukrainians are as desperate for peace as Bosnians were 22 years ago. They demonstrate for peace on the streets, but they face a type of violence familiar from the outset of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On April 5, 1992, during a demonstration for peace, two women were killed, a 24 -year-old medicine student, Suada Dilberovic, and a 34 -year-old secretary, Olga Sucic.

A sniper shot them as they walked on a bridge and their murders began three and a half years of terror, in which murders of the innocent, including women and children, became a daily part of an unimaginable reality—day-to-day life often led to death.

Second: heavily armed and masked paramilitaries are seen at barricades and check points around Ukrainian towns. They present themselves as self-organized local groups, but by their equipment, military training and ruthlessness they are reminiscent of the militia that was armed, trained and directly aided by the Yugoslav army and that carried out the terror and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These groups in Ukraine occupy institutions and dismiss elected Ukrainian authorities with ease. It was the same with those who “liberated” Foca, Zvornik, Prijedor and Sanski Most in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And, the Russian government, in claiming that they have nothing to do with these groups, echo what the Serbian government said about the paramilitaries who ethnically cleansed parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Third: communications facilities. Some Ukrainian TV transmitters were taken over in the early stages of the crisis there. It was a page from the Bosnia book, when Serb paramilitaries took over transmitters on Mrakovica near Prijedor and on Vlasic Mountain in Central Bosnia in an effort to create a one-sided version of events that manufactured justification for seizure of territories and provoke “ethnic cleansing.”
Fourth: the language is often that of hate and exclusion.

In Ukraine, even in the early stages of the Crimean uprising, political opponents were labeled as “fascists” and there were warnings that this would lead to “genocide.” In Yugoslavia’s breakup, there was a prescribed catalogue of derogatory terms for “others.” Albanians were labeled “Shipstars,” Bosnian Muslims “Turks” or “balije,” Croats “Ustasha” and Serbs “Chetniks,” labels that could incite people to hate and even to kill.

Fifth: solutions are largely limited to redrawing of borders. Ukraine is offered only solutions that include designation of territory as "pro-Russian" or "pro-European." Such solutions require formation of new, often hostile governments and include open unilateral annexation as in the case of Crimea.

In the case of Bosnia, as mediators kept offering new sets of maps designating areas as Muslim, Serb or Croat, every new proposal led only to new waves of “ethnic cleansing” of territories—by those maps.

Sixth: diplomacy is limited. When an agreement with Moscow on "de-escalation of the crisis" was announced recently, the situation on the ground deteriorated, leading to further violent occupation of Ukrainian institutions.

Such was the case in Sarajevo: City Hall was burned on the day of a London agreement and, when U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that there would be no military intervention to stop the war, Serb forces fired a record number of shells- more than 3,000–in just one day and Zetra Olympic Hall was burned.

Seventh: observers are humiliated. The attempt to introduce "observers" in Ukraine ended in abduction of the group by the pro-Russian militia. In the same way, European observers in Bosnia and Herzegovina were abused, and UN soldiers even tied to strategic objects as human shields against a threatened bombardment of the "Serbian territory."

Eighth: the United Nations is helpless. In the UN, the Russian incitement of violence in Ukraine was denounced as a gross violation of international law, but -- because Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – that denunciation will result in little, if any, action. It was the same in BiH, when there was no effective UN initiative during the three- and-a-half-year-long war.

Ninth: Europe dithers between rhetoric and action. Today, the EU is more institutionally organized than it was in the nineties to deal with international issues, but its economic and market interests are tied closely with Russia, leaving many European corporations fearful of angering Russia by too strong a stance on Ukraine. In the case of the Balkans, Europe had just started defining its own political identity and for those reasons was divided and useless in dealing with the crisis.

Tenth: insensitivity is shown to the fate of civilians. For the first few weeks of the crisis in Ukraine, armed formations blocked entire cities; shops and schools were closed, radio and television stations were broadcasting conflicting versions of events, all with a worrying prospect of deterioration. In BiH, snipers took aim at office workers, markets and breadlines were shelled.

Now, the obvious difference. Ukraine is 10 times more populous than Bosnia and Herzegovina -- more than 45 million people as opposed to an estimated 4.3 million -- and Russia, unlike Milosevic’s Serbia, is a world power. In the Balkan case world leaders showed a capacity to stop the violence easily and without major losses when they eventually achieved consensus on the use of "diplomacy backed by force.”

In the case of the Ukraine, no one is even thinking about a military option and there won’t be a cavalry coming to its rescue. The only hope is a cocktail of diplomacy and sanctions that would prevent worsening of the conflict.