The challenges we failed – some lessons to be learnt

By Johan Galtung

Written erly in the 1990s, edited in 2006

Nothing good has come out of this conflict “over and in Yugoslavia”.  The conflict left not only B-i-H and Yugoslavia but also Europe and the world a poorer place. Of course, some kind of Yugoslavia will ultimately come together again, hopefully as a community, at most a loose confederation the third time. Yugoslav love-hatred dialectic is a good illustration of yin/yang:  if the love is overdone hatred comes up, if hatred is overdone, love comes up. It was like that in the past, no reason to believe otherwise.  First more division and separation, then – loosely please! – together.

But Europe will not easily come together for the simple reason that there is so little love across the two fault-lines into the heart of Slavic Orthodoxy and Islam. If Yugoslavia is micro-Europe, then Europe is macro-Yugoslavia with the difference due to scale. Sarajevo, B-i-H and Yugoslavia have much more training in living together than Western Europe with Russia and Turkey, and we know what happened. And yet, communication/transportation shrink Europe and the world.  They will have to relate to each other, and for that they better put into practice Pérez de Cuéllar’s advice: Go slow, have a long-term plan and listen to the parties!

However, the leading Western powers are likely to interpret what happened as a “success”, only that they should have intervened and mediated with muscle at an earlier stage. They are highly unlikely to admit that they made a catastrophic mistake that night between December 15 and 16, 1991 against the sound advice of a Peruvian Secretary General. Hopefully others will draw the opposite type of conclusions. What the present authors thinks would have worked much better is developed in another blog entry here – “What could be done: The politics of conflict-resolution”.  And it is not too late, a realistic process of peace-keeping, -making, -building can still be initiated, as opposed to a “realist” techno-orgy.

Modern society can be seen in terms of four components: State, Capital, Media and Civil Society.  There are people everywhere, but only few of us are running the first three.  Most people are in civil society, organized by kinship, vicinity and affinity.  Yugoslavia has suffered, hit by a Euro-quake of immense proportions.  How did the four stand up to this challenge?

The State-system failed. 
They made six immense errors: 1) interfering, pushing own interests, 2) recognizing countries where significant minorities did not want to live, 3) excluding one party from the state-system, 4) launching economic sanctions (a way of killing, slowly, the weak, the old, children) against one of them, 5) being hostile to conscientious objectors lest they may set an example, and 6) having gradually escalated and expanded a dangerous mega-conflict between Germanic/Latin Protestant/Catholic Europe (EU), Slavic/Orthodox Europe and Turko/Muslim Europe.  This could become the Euro-politics of the 21st century with the three using the other two as pretext for more armament and hostile action.

The state system has behaved the way one would expect of an old system that is generally secretive, authoritarian, arrogant, patriarchic, and in addition has weapons and often sees problems as military problems. This is more true for the bigger actors (USA and EU particularly). Democracy is less important since foreign and military politics have not been democratized so far anyhow, in any country except Switzerland, and continues to display the characteristics of patriarchy.

What could they have done?     
They could have updated their concept of peace-keeping.  If there had been serious training, in military matters, police techniques, nonviolence, conflict mediation; if 50% had been women and the total number had been much higher and deployed preventively, more productive result would have been expected.

They could have been less concerned with recognition and drawing borders, and more concerned with federal and con-federal structures with free flow of persons, goods/services and ideas. A federal Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, and a con-federal Bosnia-Herzegovina, con-federal ex-Yugoslavia, con-federal Balkans and a con-federal Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific, building on OSCE, with a Security Council for Europe (as suggested by Gorbachev) would have made much more sense.  Regionalization of the UN would reduce the power of extra-European states, left the matter in the hands of all Europeans, and more particularly in a dialogue (as opposed to divide and rule) among the three major European groupings indicated above.

Capital, the corporations, failed.
We have not found a way in which building peace can be profitable in the short run.  The longer run is obvious: the whole Roman pax concept was based on the correlation between peace and trade. Capital has to bear much of the brunt of economic sanctions, and often wants to come even by making money on war, and not only through arms trade, but also all the viciousness that follows in the wake of war (smuggling, drugs/alcohol, prostitution, crimes in general).  The argument that there will be fat contracts for reconstruction in the future could serve as a reason for destroying even more so there will be more to reconstruct.  And yet capital could have supported the type of suggestions given below.

What could have been done?
Capital could have taken some risks and organized a maximum of joint ventures across the borders between the communities.

The media failed. 
They focused on elites and violence (blood, drama), not on people and peace.  Their argument, that elites, that is where the power lies, disregards the other and softer forms of power, and the argument becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  On top of this comes the public relations manipulation by firms like Hill & Knowlton, of Gulf crisis fame, with the Croatia, Bosniaks and Kosovo-Albanians as clients.  Those who get their knowledge only from the media have been watching and reading virtual reality: public relations, ignorance, cultural bias and simple distortions.  Some of the people who were reading and watching were also members of the UN Security Council.

What could have been done? 
We need peace journalists who know what to look for, not only war reporters with bullet-proof vests, hoping for some prize.  Of course the war has to be reported, including the many side-effects that journalists often do not understand. But  much more emphasis should be given to the glimmers of peace, supporting peace initiatives by making them visible and audible through media magnification.  Courses for the systematic training of journalists in peace matters would be a minimum requirement since we cannot hope for schools of journalism to change within a reasonable time frame.

The civil society failed. 
Not for lack of trying, but being weak, too dispersed, to indecisive.

What could have been done?
First, the municipalities.  There is the expression of inter-municipal solidarity known as Cause Commune, Gemeinde gemeinsam, and the work of Council of Europe.  Multiplying municipal solidarity by ten, by hundred, by one thousand could have had a major impact, helping refugees and conscientious objectors, sending doctors and nurses, comforting the bereaved, healing the wounds.

Second, the countless NGOs, including the numerous organizations of peace activists.  So many good ideas have emerged from the countless conferences and experiences.  But they tend to remain invisible. In our electronic age it should have been possible to bring all these findings together at some central point so that they could have had more bearing on the process. One reason this did not happen is divisiveness in the peace activist camp and then struggling for consensus rather than depth.

Third, we have been given a process involving war-lords. A parallel, publicly visible, negotiation process among peace ladies is much overdue, and might have had some impact. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the “winners” (so far)  been  more decisive, less self-serving and more innovative and peaceful.

But we are left with one final reflection: Why, just why, was it so important to proceed so quickly, with so little knowledge and so few ideas, so that B-i-H will “continue as a sovereign state within its internationally recognized borders”? Even if we accept that Belgrade attacked, which we do not, then the West has tolerated Russian attacks on Georgia (Gamsakhurdia), on Chechnya (Dudayev), Syria’s attack on Lebanon, Egypt’s on Sudan 1993, etc. The answer probably divides into two.

First, it was significant because it happened in Europe, it might escalate, and above all, it might hit us. Moreover, this is a shame for a Europe that just came out of barbaric communism after having exited from barbaric Nazism.  Gives Europe a bad name.
Second, it is not significant, it is only the Balkans, and these people are like that anyhow. Just hit that naughty boy over the fingers, and he will keep quiet.  Till next time at least!

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