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THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR IN YUGOSLAVIA
Dr. Michael Stenton
[written in autumn 1994, lightly edited in 1996]
The 'Bosnian' war is a Yugoslav disaster and a European inconvenience.
At the European level it is a threat to the steady and painless evolution
of consensus. In 1914 the European powers wanted to disagree about Serbia;
today they want to agree. That is how most business is done these days.
Beneath the surface there are streams of disagreement, but the political
language remains that of agreement and the consensual judgment of violent
events. If there is no plausible solution to a problem indicated by the
consensual language about it, no solution will be attempted until and unless
reality breaks up normality. International discussion is crude. The simplest
element in a consensus -- the lowest common denominator -- is rhetorical
and frequently unrealistic.
A European consensus projected (and 'moralised') in the media is meant
to limit the scope for international dispute. The European powers say they
want to institutionalise consensus to avoid war with each other. But no
European state is interested in going to war for any reason now visible
The effective motive for the mind-numbing celebration of consensus is that
every leader wishes to be a sort of world senator with an entree to the
highest of High Councils whether they be EC, NATO or UN. Little countries
still count for little, but they do have votes which are not strictly worthless.
Danish and Belgian soldiers patrol hills once thought unworthy of the bones
of a single Pomeranian grenadier. The New Europe cannot agree on as much
as it pretends, but its political culture requires deference to majority
opinion. This makes a powerful force out of what may be called the lowest
There is little conviction and often no strategy in the words and votes
of European leaders, but they love the ceremony of international decision-making.
'They do not understand the music but they love the sound it makes'. They
are post-nationalist; they have a few real interests to defend; and they
think it foolish to isolate themselves by adopting eccentric opinions.
National leaders look for a consensus to join, and they repeat bits and
pieces of the consensus, the responses they dislike least, as their passwords
of membership. Although not an inviolable rule, this is what usually happens
on the international stage. When the rule is broken, passions rise and
reputations are risked; there are trials of strength, and there is an uncomfortable
sense of disruption as Power confronts the Unknown. Governments prefer
to celebrate communion, and they find it convenient to use the lowest common
denominator as their sacrament.
Serbia ought to resist this rule of pure convenience, as must every
country when its deepest interests are touched. The alternative is to accept,
first, that the Croats and Moslems have won the war and, second, that even
the Republic of Serbia will be revised (by diktat and on the previous pattern)
before the Serbs can be allowed to submit to European leadership and enter
the outer layer of the Common Germano-European House. That the existing
diplomatic consensus is constructed against the Serbs is beyond question.
How can one otherwise explain that Belgrade could give so much and be offered
so little in return? If the consensus is not broken it will crush the Serbs.
Yugoslavia must be disruptive or be defeated.
The Serbs need genuine compromise, but they can damage themselves beyond
measure by accepting a peace formula which they know to be an empty shell,
a mere preliminary to defeat. There must be negotiation, and perhaps a
final settlement can come soon, but it will not come at the initiative
of Belgrade determined, at all costs, to present itself as a 'factor of
peace'. The information 'new world order' is an neo-imperial force, but
it is not a strong force. It can be challenged, for the consensus it promotes
is confused. An awkward, stubborn Yugoslavia can save itself by creating
disagreement and recreating a European balance of power. Serious disagreement
is right and healthy; it is realistic; its expression and rational resolution
is the only stable and peaceful alternative to a neo-imperial peace that
will be neither healthy nor stable. The posture of virtual submission is
based on an unrealistic idea of the rewards available for co-operation.
The new Yugoslavia has, so far, tried to respect the European consensus
despite its anti- Serbian form. Indeed, it has chosen not to win the war
to partition former Yugoslavia. As the old changed to the new, Belgrade
decided to fight but not to win or, at least, not to win without explicit
European permission. The withdrawal of the JNA from Croatia and Bosnia
-- and the explicit withdrawal of Yugoslav sovereignty - glued the European
consensus to the wrong policy, the German policy of recognition. At the
first sign of German diplomatic success, Belgrade ran for cover -- as though
a debate which had scarcely begun was in fact concluded.
The Europeans were given no time to reconsider, no opportunity to discover
that they were mistaken and to learn from this and then disagree in public.
In effect, Belgrade confirmed the 'European' hypothesis that the sovereignty
and borders of the socialist republics were the inevitable basis for any
settlement. It was that confirmation, the Yugoslav confirmation, which
turned the hypothesis into a rigid rule. A European debate, which was just
beginning, was strangled at birth.
The Yugoslavs did not study the position carefully enough. The lowest
common denominator of European agreement -- recognition within unchanged
frontiers -- was never a policy. It was a consensual shift that made no
sense without consequences which have not been forthcoming; it was a political
arch without supporting columns; something made without design, something
destined to crash and break up into something else -- worse or better.
The Anglo-French cynics who let Bonn have its way at the end of 1991 knew
that 'recognition' was not a policy. They did not even wish it to produce
a policy. The Yugoslav retreat from Bosnia, and indeed from Croatia, was,
as a political gesture, premature. This is why it was not rewarded. It
preceded the compromise which staying in Bosnia might have made possible.
In one sense, Belgrade falsified the Anglo-French prediction the 'the
Serbs' would not tolerate Yugoslav partition on Croat and Muslim terms.
It is true that the Bosnian Serbs were sent into battle. But they were
left with the very difficult political task of arguing a case which Yugoslavia
itself, quite suddenly, refused to champion. It is a tribute to the underlying
strength of their case that some governments took them seriously, but this
was not enough. The lowest common diplomatic denominator, the damaging
rigidity of the international community over borders, was not weakened
but reinforced by Yugoslavia's abandonment of any formal claim to Greater
Serbia. Few of the foreign critics of President Milosevic could believe
that he honestly intended this concession, but this did not make it less
potent. The Bosnian and Krajina Serbs were, in legal and diplomatic sense,
left on their own. Belgrade defined them as citizens of a some foreign
state. Once dropped from 'Yugoslavia', they lost a strong position in international
law. 'They were redefined not as Yugoslav loyalists but as rebels against
Croatia and Bosnia. This was a vote, the most important of all, for the
lowest common denominator.
How could London and Paris secure for the Bosnian or Krajina Serbs what
'Yugoslavia' had already refused to impose on their behalf? The resistance
of the fighting Serbs might have been viewed with more sympathy if it had
happened differently -- without the Vukovar bequest and without the camps.
But the alienation of Western sympathy and the durable anti-Serbian hysteria
in the press and TV is not entirely a matter of sentiment. The commentators
knew that Belgrade had surrendered the cause for which the Serbs thought
they were fighting. How could the fighting Serbs plead patriotism when
the Yugoslav Government was refusing to claim an inch of 'Bosnian' territory?
"This is Serbia' said the wall-slogans in Zvornik and Banja Luka. 'No,
it is not', said Belgrade. This undermined the pragmatists in the West.
They neede pan-Serb patriotic intransigence as the argument to undermine
the consensual drift of EC and UN decisions.
The implications of the voluntary diminution of Yugoslav sovereignty
were not immediately understood because they were disguised by the Serbian
solidarity. But when Vance- Owen offered a compromise based on a set of
ill-designed cantons within a single Bosnia-Herzegovina, the original logic
of Belgrade's position surfaced quickly, just as it is restated today in
response to the quasi-settlement produced by the Contact Group. Belgrade,
after allowing Yugoslavia to shrink, now insists that the Serbs in Bosnia
and Croatia should try to end the war and then trust that the international
community will allow them to win functional borders and real independence
A time may come when American-European differences are so sharp, and
Anglo-French or Russian public promises so clear, that this policy might
be justified. But that time has not yet arrived. The decision to leave
the Republika Srpska with the whole burden of forcing the international
community into seriousness was a mistake. The blockade on the Drina redoubles
the error. Before the public break-up of the international consensus about
'the Serbs', the demand for a territorial settlement without a definite
constitutional settlement is extremely dangerous. It is a triumph of hope
The "international community" cannot stop insisting on the inviolability
of the borders of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina without a first-class
motive to abandon the sheer convenience of its lowest common denominator.
Those borders had been the only thing that the European Community -- and
hence the UN -- could agree on. It is true that some countries are willing
to accept political independence for the rebel Serbs. But this willingness
is not strong enough to be effective until it is turned against 'gunboat
liberalism' in Washington. No real concession to the Serbs will slip unnoticed
past their enemies there merely because a lot of diplomats would like this
to happen. Hints and understandings with secondary figures -- the Lord
Owens -- are of no use. They cannot deliver, because they are not ready
for a fight with the Friends of Alija in the U.S.
The pragmatic elements in the international community once seemed close
to success. There was only one reason for this. The Muslims were almost
ready to give up. After the Mount Igman battle they were mentally and physically
defeated. But the Serbs, whether in Pale or Belgrade, refused to win merely
because Clinton threatened retaliation -- a military gesture with no political
goal. Once the Muslims survived the Igman panic, they became more clever.
They understood that they had two cards to match the military advantages
in Serb hands: firstly, the Army of the Republic of Srpska (BSA)
was under orders not to win the war, and secondly, the associated
power of the lowest common denominator in the international community given
Belgrade's reluctance to be disruptive. (What else was America's ability
to block the hesitant European approval of repartition?) Despite all their
wailing about betrayal, the Muslims understood that Belgrade's adoption
of the consensual base-point of the international community made the nationalist
case for a wider Serbia exceptionally difficult. But if the Serbs could
not win, they must lose. Time was consequently on the Muslim side.
The Muslims also saw that the Anglo-French pragmatists trying to persuade
them to acknowledge their defeat were diplomats and soldiers, not politicians.
They understood that such people had only a limited power to punish them.
The pragmatists did not have permission to start an argument with the USA
and so they did not have permission to criticise the Muslims. If Anglo-
French diplomats could be ignored, their politicians would have to resume
the game from a different point, starting, of course, from the lowest common
denominator. The Anglo-French might be re-educated, or neutralised, by
an American-led logic of events and even learn to tolerate the reintegration
of Bosnia-Herzegovina by force. Owen had threatened that the Muslims would
be abandoned. Sarajevo called Lord Owen's bluff
Intransigence can be creative. Sarajevo understands this better than
Belgrade. There have been so many moments when the frail 'international
will to intervene' could have been deflected by a stronger line from Belgrade.
Anglo-French pragmatism needed strong arguments to overcome the reluctance
to challenge the lowest common denominator, and the strongest arguments
were Serb patriotism and the JNA. But Serb patriotism had been turned into
a folk song for ex-Yugoslavs, and the JNA had gone -- except for the embattled
and renamed fragment that fights under the command of General Mladic.
The recognition of the Yugoslav republics as separate states was the
start of a process not a conclusion. After the first stage, it was also
clear the Germany had over-strained her new authority and could not dictate
policy. Other European states could have been compelled to acknowledge,
and to negotiate with, a Yugoslavia that admitted its presence in the conflict
and maintained a principled claim. Given time and some encouragement, the
diplomatic experts of Britain, France and Russia, who accepted the Serbian
case in some measure, were capable of modifying the unstable German-led
Despite the tide of nationalist rhetoric inside Yugoslavia, the message
to the rest of the world was clear: the state which contains the majority
of Serbs did not claim the land of the Serbian nation. Words are often
as important as facts. The facts were favourable: the undoubted Serbian
resistance to Croatia and Islamic Bosnia; the unwillingness of European
states to send soldiers to fight. But the words spoke the other way. Belgrade
tried to escape sanctions by pleading innocence of a war in which it was
deeply involved. It was a diplomatic position difficult to respect or defend.
Such a Yugoslavia could not expect to have friends.
Belgrade is not wrong to want to compromise, but it made its compromises
too early. It is impossible not to wish to replay the cards in Yugoslavia's
hand in 1991. What if the JNA had never left Bosnia, and if Yugoslavia
had never withdrawn its claim to Bosnia? There would have been far, far
fewer victims. There would have been no Moslem army, aided and abetted
by Iran, in the heart of Europe. The Croats would have reached a deal with
Belgrade, based on the incorporation of Herceg-Bosna in Croatia. Conversely,
there would have been no credible Croat case against attaching Krajina
to Yugoslavia. The result would have been a united Serbian nation.
All these prizes were abandoned to save Belgrade from economic sanctions.
The determination to escape sanctions on trade has crippled the policy
of Yugoslavia. It has also failed. What Belgrade says about sanctions is
a tragic echo of what Washington wants to hear. This delights the Americans.
It makes them more ambitious and aggressive. The almost incomprehensible
Yugoslav claim not to be involved in the Bosnian war has made the patriotism
of the Serbs unintelligible to the outside world. It made Yugoslav assistance
for the fighting Serbs seem sinister and secretive rather than patriotic
The over-emphasis of Yugoslavia's role as a 'factor of peace' has indicated
a weakness which has now been exploited ruthlessly. Foreigners police the
Drina crossings, even though there has been no change in the trade sanctions.
Belgrade knows best what new threats it faced and what new sanctions have
been avoided. But it would be wrong to deny the damage that has been done
to the campaign to get the trade sanctions removed. The weakening of the
Yugoslav position has convinced hostile countries that the sanctions are
politically effective and must be continued. It has shifted the world perspective
on sanctions from the size of the international community's mistake to
the more satisfying question of how much to demand of Belgrade in return
for how little.
The obsession with sanctions is unfortunate in every way. It distorts
responsibility for the normal difficulties of a post-communist society.
It is a wonderful excuse for all ills. Yet it was not the UN sanctions
committee which made the old dinar worthless. If the trade sanctions are
lifted, there would be a useful though surely not dramatic improvement
in Serbia's trading position, but little else would happen for some time.
International banks would remain unwilling to supply Serbia's capital requirements
and all the structural problems would remain the same.
It is to be hoped that few people believe the preposterous financial
calculation of the billions Yugoslavia has lost through sanctions. The
figure could scarcely be more unrealistic if it were multiplied by the
number of years since 1389 and added to the ancient revenues of Ragusa.
No one can tell what would have happened without sanctions. It is unwise
to blame sanctions for anything beyond the most specific shortages of machinery
and materials which, absolutely, cannot be made in Yugoslavia. Are Bulgaria
and the Ukraine in a better position?
The economic decisions which had to be taken -- before and after 1991
-- were very difficult. They still outweigh the importance of sanctions.
There is no point in boasting what Serbia might have achieved given free
trade and a perfect policy. The policy would not have been perfect. The
opportunity for error has been so great in Eastern Europe and the descent
into criminality so general that it is almost certainly wrong and unwise
to blame economic distress on sanctions alone.
A proud people with land to plough. and long borders has many resources.
To undermine national pride by cultivating an obsession with sanctions
is more than merely damaging: it sets a false target for the nation. A
war economy, sustained by patriotic enthusiasm, always gives socialist
economic management special advantages and opportunities. But if the UN
sanctions are used as an excuse for economic conservatism rather
than as a cause for patriotic sacrifice, and if there is not the
will to break the inflexibility of the labour market inherited from the
era of bureaucratic mismanagement, then those opportunities count for little.
A wiser propaganda choice would have been to endure familiar hardships
more quietly, and to appeal to the nation to accept new hardships which
would be less endurable in time of peace.
Sanctions have not been insuperable. The struggle to get round them
is a struggle which Serbia should face with a public confidence based on
her record of success. It is doubtful if the USA can do much to oblige
Yugoslavia's neighbours to harm themselves further. No doubt Washington
can threaten to do so; but the Americans will be reluctant to expose their
weakness in the region by demanding more than they can obtain. It is very
unlikely that the Europeans would tolerate indefinitely a US policy designed
to turn the Balkans into a region of economic ruin as though it were Haiti
or Cuba. On this subject, it is possible to conclude that Yugoslavia has
paid more attention to threats than to realities.
Serbia's eventual re-integration in European trade, however desirable,
must bring serious risks as well as opportunities. When it has trained
more capitalists on a local basis, in the nursery of a very national economy,
Serbia will benefit more from international trade. The task does not await
the end of sanctions. It is to identify useful work and allocate labour
accordingly. There is so much work to do, and yet there is a vast workforce
which, within existing social enterprises, is effectively unemployed. Only
when a major re-allocation of labour is achieved, will the economy become
more resilient. Noone visiting today's Belgrade can believe that Serbia
is really fighting for its economic future.
All that can be said, on the positive side, is that the Serbs are not
accumulating foreign debt, not surrendering economic sovereignty, and not
importing plum brandy from Germany. There are Russian reformist idiocies
which are not being committed. Serbia has a patriotic context for economic
reform which is available in no other former communist country. The opportunity
can still be used. The sanctions are not fatal. Those who call them 'genocidal'
are reinforcing American policy.
The price the Serbian nation has paid to assist the Bosnian Serbs has
not been paid willingly by the Government of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia's political
obligations in Bosnia were abandoned for the very purpose of avoiding the
payment of that price. The reward for renouncing these prizes was precisely
nothing. The sanctions were imposed anyway. How could the international
community have behaved otherwise? Since the mere threat of sanctions had
won so much, why should not real sanctions win everything? If Yugoslavia
(or Serbia) had enforced Yugoslav (or Serb) claims on Bosnia, Yugoslavia
(or Serbia) would indeed have become a factor for peace. There was no serious
inclination anywhere to go to war with Yugoslavia. But to admit that
Bosnia was no longer Yugoslavia, and then to assist the rebellion of a
minority was asking, quite literally, for punishment.
A Belgrade-imposed settlement in 1992 would have looked irreversible.
The pragmatists in the West, despite their failures in 1991-92, have been
looking for powerful arguments ever since, but they cannot quite compensate
for what might be called the reckless defensiveness of Belgrade. A clear
partition of Bosnia would have been far safer for Belgrade than the sort
of Bosnian war that was the preferred option. There would, of course, have
been sanctions, though perhaps less comprehensive. In any case, external
opposition to a Yugoslav partition under a Yugoslav government would have
had no prospect of success. Even if protest-sanctions had lasted until
today, Yugoslavia would be in a much stronger position. Retrospective criticism
of the recognition policy would have been more relevant and hard-edged.
Sanctions would, today, look like an impossible policy, a doomed policy,
a romantic gesture which must collapse sooner or later. Instead, sanctions
appear, for the moment, to be a victorious policy which will yield political
profit for 'American leadership in Europe'.
The Russians will not help unless they have no alternative. They, like
the French, keep on glancing at a Germany that has no solutions. The British,
in their two-faced, cautious way, still want to help a bit. General Michael
Rose hoped to stop the war by stages, but, until very recently, he was
unable to criticise the Muslims. He still says (as, no doubt, instructed)
that the Muslims cannot win by force. Unfortunately, the Muslims have other
sources of advice and instruction. American policy is a monster with two
heads. One head wants a victory as complete as 'Desert Storm', and believes
that it will eventually become possible.
There is no Contact Group strategy. In July the Contact Group was running
around in circles to the undisguised contempt of commentators. It was about
to fall apart under the pressure of its own deadlines and ultimata. Instead,
it was saved from its imminent embarrassment, and anti- Serb assumptions
were given a new lease of life, by the renewed blockade on the Drina. Belgrade
reinforced the lowest common denominator theme that 'Serbs' are always
Belgrade has every right to an opinion, and half of Bosnia is perhaps
enough for the Republika Srpska. But was it necessary to accept an asset-stripped
territory with no true corridor from one side to another? Two requirements
stand out: the corridor at Brcko and complete clarity in the definition
of the independence of the Republika Srpska. Both things might have been
granted if Yugoslavia had dared to insist on them. Even without your voice,
they remain on the lip of the possible. If FRY did not pretend they are
yet on offer, they might become available.
Yugoslavia took the Contact Group too seriously. It was not a forum
for peace negotiations, it was rather an instrument for confronting the
Americans with the consequences of their own intransigence. It could not
be anything else while the anti-Serbs in Washington and Owen in Europe
insisted that Belgrade would 'deliver' the Republika Srpska. Owen's technique
is to tempt or provoke Belgrade into proving its power over Pale and so
ruin its negotiating position. The Yugoslavs should, on the contrary, state
their interests more clearly, and reserve their undoubted influence in
Pale until a true settlement is worked out in detail.
In the Contact Group context, the Russians and the British would not
demand American consent to a sensible map. The Russians are supine and,
for the moment, useless. They will sell their reputation as friends of
Serbia to the highest bidder until you make this so difficult that they
choose to do something else. The British knew that the Contact Group was
futile. American determination to make the map painful was only part of
the problem. The greater difficulty was that Clinton would not prepare
the political basis of peace. The anti-Serbs in Washington still held the
centre of the stage too strongly, and they have hitherto prevented any
serious pressure on the Muslims. Without evidence that such pressure would
be applied, one could be certain that negotiations would break down at
the constitutional stage even if the Serbs had damaged their position (and
demoralised their Army) by accepting the map. Whatever was said in June,
it is now obvious that the British and French never believed that the American
map would be accepted.
Yugoslavia can only compel the Bosnian Serbs to obey at the cost of
taking full responsibility for their fate. Given Belgrade's existing policy,
it is both unwise and unnecessary to do this without knowing, exactly,
the terms of a settlement, or without deciding, exactly, what terms it
would refuse. It is unhelpful to say that Belgrade will accept whatever
is negotiated in Bosnia. Only if no one else was interfering would this
make sense. While Yugoslavia refuses to define its interests or use its
voice, the chances of serious negotiation are poor. The 'world community'
is still evenly balanced between today's realism and yesterday's lowest
common denominator. The danger is that, even today, it will not bother
to compromise with a Serbian nation that dares not demand some sort of
Serbian union. The U.S. will continue to look for a very cheap victory;
the Russians will continue to sell their assistance to Herr Kohl; the Anglo-French
will not go far enough; the Germans will continue to dream.
Yugoslavia's placatory policy was too contradictory to work. It has
postponed a settlement by allowing unrealistic ideas to go unchallenged
and by fostering the idea that Belgrade is disoriented and desperate for
any settlement. It was a misunderstanding of the outside world. It assumed
that the international community was completely serious in its initial
choices, when, in fact, the EC and the UN and even the United States were
just doing what seemed easiest and least unpopular at the time. The placatory
approach has now been tested to destruction, while allowing the lowest
common denominator to persevere as a substitute for meaningful policy.