Aims and perspectives of this blog

By Johan Galtung, Jan Oberg and Håkan Wiberg
September 2, 2014

Introductory note by Jan Oberg

Exactly 23 years ago, on September 3, 1991,  TFF’s conflict-mitigation drove from Zagreb to the war zone of Osijek in Eastern Slavonia, close to Vukovar. We had negotiated our way through at a local para-military checkpoint outside the town where the less-than-reliable looking soldiers advised us: Sit on your flak jackets, there are mines here. Drive as fast as you can, no belt on and don’t lock your doors, you may need to get out fast.

Later in the desolate centre we met with the “Gandhi of Croatia”, Mayor Kramaric, who like we was unable to believe that it could get much worse than it already was. Thereafter, visiting shelters where refugees had gathered, all ages.

In the clear, cold September night we drove back toward Zagreb, passing St. Peter’s Cathedral in Djakovo where mass was held for those already killed. Intense atmosphere, deeply moving, forever unforgettable.

Drove high-speed in the night on the ‘Autoput’ to Zagreb. Hotel Dubrovnik in the city centre filled with Croatian soldiers and paramilitaries watching propaganda movies and news. Everywhere converted to a war zone, including the mind.

The next morning the main news reported that local Serbs had cut off traffic on the ‘Autoput’ and confiscated the cars and whatever people had in them. About half an hour after we had passed. That was the end, in more than one sense, of the relations between Zagreb and Belgrade. Yugoslavia had broken up. And we’d been lucky. Very very lucky.

It was the first of some 70 peace missions to all parts of former Yugoslavia, 3000+ interviews with all conflict parties and at all levels – courses, seminars, peace plans, press conferences, co-operation with all UN missions in the region, and more.

What could justify yet another publication about former Yugoslavia and its dissolution processes? Probably only that it offers a systematically different angle and differs in a number of respects from most other publications on this subject. This blog does exactly that since it:

• Uses a conflict-analytical and peace policy-approach, based on modern systematic theorising; most other books take a historical, strategic, political science, international relations, anthropological, journalistic, or travel book approach – and combinations of some of them;

• Focuses on the conflicts in a long-term perspective rather than on the violence in a short-term perspective and, thus, does not begin its analysis around 1990 because the underlying conflicts began much earlier than the violence;

• Treats the conflicts in Yugoslavia in a macro-perspective: in the perspective of regional-European and global-US-Cold War conflict formations and does not believe that what happened can be explained by reference to inner-Yugoslav dynamics alone;

• Builds on the view that everything is related to everything else – inside Yugoslavia as well as between it and the international so-called community;

• Disputes the view that this international community has played the role of an impartial, historically innocent, goodwill actor that tried only to help the Yugoslav peoples to make peace; rather, we treat the international community as a number of active participants to the conflicts and wars, i.e. as part of the overall conflict formation;

• Refuses to take the side of any nation or republic. Our analysis may appear pro-Serb to some, particularly those who are predominantly informed by mainstream Western media and discourse, but it isn’t. Rather, it is less apologetically pro-West and less uncritically, less biased, pro-Croatian, pro-Bosniak and pro-Albanian than most; and therefore less black and white;

• Takes a structural perspective and refuse to accept at least two types of reductionisms, namely a) that conflicts can be reduced to what (more or less demonised or embellished) top individuals do, and b) that it is all a matter of only two parties (one all black and one all white) pitted against each other. We know of no conflict anywhere in which there are only two parties and have never seen a conflict actor in which all members were only white or only black;

• Does not deal with blame and apportioning guilt but with understanding issues; it is, if you will, soft on people and hard on structures and underlying paradigms – as well as the stuff the conflicts in this drama are made of;

• Is both analytical and critical but also constructive; it has a historical perspective but maintains an emphasis on what could have been done differently or better and what can still be done. Admittedly such a counter-factual history writing is a risky and disputable project, but we aim to try it at least for pedagogical, heuristic and illustrative purposes. Not trying it means bowing down to the equally, if not more, disputable position that the decisions and course taken throughout the Yugoslav crisis and wars were the only one possible;

• It emphasizes that it is time to say something about the whole process including the end game around Serbia/Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, perhaps Bosnia-Hercegovina too.

Many books have been written prematurely before even the midst of this Yugoslav Shakespeare-cum-Beckett-like drama had unfolded. Perhaps immodestly, we are aiming at the whole drama in time and space as well as arguing that the drama could have been written and performed in different ways, with better outcomes.

Each of the authors has a rather long relationship with what is now former Yugoslavia. Galtung and Wiberg began travelling and working there in the 1950s and 1960s and have been in and out of the region ever since – interviews, seminars, teaching, lecturing, having numerous friends everywhere. Oberg came as a student to the Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik in 1974 at the time when Galtung was its director and Wiberg a frequent lecturer.

Quite early, we became well acquainted with Yugoslavia’s overwhelming complexities. For instance, 1974 was the year in which heated discussions among intellectuals, including dissidents, from all republics concerning the new Constitution would stretch into the wee hours of the morning. It would not be far fetched to argue that 1974 marked one possible beginning of the contemporary drama, the cracking of the conflict formation that – through the violence it finally lead to in 1990 – caused the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Our organisations, TFF and TRANSCEND, have conducted way over 100 missions since 1991 – fact-finding, analysis, mitigation, mediation, peace-plan production, training, education and media work. Oberg alone has conducted more than 3.000 interviews/conversations in all republics as one of several TFF team members.

In total, the authors have more than 130 man years of accumulated experience with what was once Yugoslavia.

We happily admit that Yugoslavia – its peoples, natural beauty, cultural richness and tremendous variety – has been and remains an important, fascinating part of our professional and private lives.

In this we do not differ from other “internationals” who have been present for an extended period of time there (such as many UN staff) and perceived reality with an open mind and ability to listen and learn. The place and the people – and its broader-than-many spectrum of life manifestations – indeed its existential drama gets under your skin, challenges and transforms you. Yugoslavia offered joy and pain, it absorbed and took you – but it also gave a lot to any visitor and to the global community from the Second World War onwards.

This book represents nothing of what that pesky term “Yugo nostalgia” implies. Indeed, the first TFF report from Yugoslavia, published in October 1991 carried the title, After Yugoslavia – What?

The authors were well, but painfully, aware that old Yugoslavia had come to an end, somewhat like a long marriage in which the parties have successively lost the inspiration and attraction. (And in that perspective it had neither a professional lawyer nor a social-psychologist to turn to for advice).

We also do not believe that the parts of Yugoslavia will again come together as one country; but we do believe that:

a) the old Yugoslavia had certain qualities and a bold vision that should not have been thrown over board that easily – for instance the civilisational value of trying to live together with a higher common identity and purpose while preserving impressive diversity locally; and

b) that there is still a natural opportunity and so many and different resources, energies and capacities in this space that its people and republics can come together, work together, prosper together in new ways – if given a chance by the international community to freely be and become what they want to.

While EU and NATO integration is a reality for some and in the cards for others, the former Yugoslav republics, like the rest of the East European countries, have not exactly been offered any real choice or any other options. But there is nothing standing in the way of building regional strength through regional co-operation, security structures, trade, etc. as part of that.

It would be bizarre to assume that a farmer in Croatia or Montenegro has more in common with a Swede or a bureaucrat in Brussels than with the people in his/her own republic and the neighbouring republics. So, we build upon the hypothesis that there should be – indeed also is – choice, and that the future is about making such choices instead of believing in no-choice and submit to Western directives if not dictates.

Democracy and democratization means choice, not only elections in which people can only vote yes/no to one issue decided in advance by elites, and foreign elites at that.

But there is one major precondition for practising choice: that the peoples in former Yugoslavia rise again from the humiliation of each other and from the humiliation they have felt from one or more actors in the international community.

The keys to this will be a) trans-ethnic and trans-republican co-operation, b) young people in particular coming together, c) a widespread endeavour at reconciliation and d) a systematic and widespread effort at public education including new history books and the introduction of peace education throughout the school system in all republics. Finally, it would be facilitated greatly by e) more peace and reconciliation journalism – both there and in the rest of the West. Holding on to past atrocities may be understandable but they can’t function as guidelines towards a better future.

During the last few years, the authors have experienced time and again an attitude in the region expressed this way: “we are way behind, we are primitive, look what we have done to our country, we are far behind European/Western standards and, thus we have no choice.”

While perhaps psychologically understandable as a kind of post-war fatigue and feeling of individual shame, we allow ourselves to consider this factually false. It re-enforces the slightly racist attitude (covering up the lack of will to understand complexities) found up through the 1990s in European capitals and in Washington. It surfaced consistently in the more or less explicitly expressed statements to the effect that the peoples of the Balkans were primitive, that their violence is century-old and more or less permanent and that they must become civilised, i.e. civilised by us. And should they not listen and obey, the civilized West’s mission is to speak to them in capital letters! In short, that they must become our grateful clients and say yes to what we ever so altruistically generously offer.

Such self-effacing attitudes among peoples in former Yugoslavia will lead nowhere but to further submission vis-à-vis new masters converging on Brussels and Washington in particular. And much of the tragedy of former Yugoslavia was, everything said and done, about some wanting to get rid of certain masters, some avoiding getting new masters and all attempting to master their own affairs.

Therefore, we have decided to not only look back but also look into possible futures for the former Yugoslav region. We believe that that is the most urgent and, fortunately, quite compatible with our own respect and admiration for the strength of peoples and cultures in that region.

We feel that we owe it to them to be constructive for all they have taught us over the last few decades. Indeed, Europe and the rest of the world has a lot to benefit from Yugoslav identities being restored and flourish creatively anew.

In principle, this culturally rich and history-intensive part of Europe is a gift to the rest of us. Isn’t the “modern” European Union, EU, idea and building project full of basically the same values and bridge-building among different nations that old Yugoslavia was imbued with? Has the EU not been a post-war construction recognizing the need to make war inside unthinkable – as in Yugoslavia 1945-1990? How could anyone in Europe consider the originality of the Balkans archaic, backward, irrelevant or of no genuine value when former Yugoslavia was a kind of smaller regional European Union for almost half a century – and much better and creatively integrated than the EU is even today?

Few, if any, things are more important these years than to intensify unity in diversity worldwide. So far the European Union and its Constitution text aims overwhelmingly in the direction of unity in uniformity. So does the – hopefully short – historical post-Cold War period in which we live marked by a surprisingly immodest and naïve Western/U.S. triumphalism that seems to believe that there is only one way in which any and all societies should develop and only one way to make them secure for the future.

In a sense, the Yugoslav drama was useful in reminding the turbo-techno Westerners that life is not so easy and simple; undoubtedly what the West did in a macro-historical perspective came back as a boomerang in the 1980s and 1990s and is still with us. And the conflict-management failures of the U.S. and Europe – think war on terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya – in those 20 plus years is likely to boomerang back on the West in the future; that is, unless Western decision-makers stop to think and attempt just a tiny self-criticism of its policies in that region and elsewhere.

Western conflict-management has failed miserably in the Balkans, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya and in the larger Middle East. There isn’t anything a professional would call peace. And wasn’t that exactly what the suffering people in these lands were promised in exchange for obeying and accepting the destruction-cum-conflict management? Wasn’t it what the rest of the world was promised as the result of what was called humanitarian intervention, stabilisation, conflict prevention and peace-making policies?

Be this as it may, we believe that a Europe that does not see and respect the will to experiment with ways of living together and the cultural creativity that characterised the former Yugoslav space is a Europe doomed to fail sooner rather than later. Essentially, it is time that Europe and the U.S. learn from their past conflict-management failures (whether intentional or not) in that region and let the people there move forward and contribute to the global community in new ways but in their ways. We are totally convinced that we need them as much as they need us.

Alfaz del Pi, Spain and Lund, Sweden, December 2006, 2010 and 2014.


  1. It would be bizarre to assume that a farmer in Croatia or Montenegro has more in common with a Swede or a bureaucrat in Brussels than with the people in his/her own republic and the neighbouring republics. So, we build upon the hypothesis that there should be – indeed also is – choice, and that the future is about making such choices instead of believing in no-choice and submit to Western directives if not dictates – That – and UNITY IN DIVERSITY – – Yes EU has failed and together with USA MISERABLY.

  2. Once I initially commented I clicked the Notify me when new feedback are added checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you possibly can remove me from that service? Thanks! gbegdefgccce

    • Dear Johnf5 – I have no other idea than that it is because you clickled Notify me… just unclick that. Otherwise consult WordPress support, I am no technician. If yu get 4 identical mails you should contact them for that reason alone; that’s not how it should be!

  3. “Refuses to take the side of any nation or republic. Our analysis may appear pro-Serb to some, particularly those who are predominantly informed by mainstream Western media and discourse, but it isn’t. Rather, it is less apologetically pro-West and less uncritically, less biased, pro-Croatian, pro-Bosniak and pro-Albanian than most; and therefore less black and white;”

    It is less, but it is still ? Or not at all ?

    • You’ll find the answer inside. In terms of interpretation, that sort of formulation is always tricky. If we had written that it is not pro- this and that, most (at least Western) readers would have interpreted that to mean “anti”. We believe that our analyses cannot be categorised as either/or – another Western domain assumption. But as I said, read and enjoy. It’s big enough (about 2000 A4 pages) for you enjoy at least some of it. – Jan Oberg

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