Last year the Serbs had a very good practical demonstration of how the world community defends oppressed minorities. Serbs imposed their power on the Albanians of Kosovo, a minority with a clear democratic right to autonomy, perhaps independence. And no one did anything of consequence. A vast military power was assembled for the sake of Kuwait, but few people really minded what happened to Albanians.
[This actually lasted till the end of the disastrous conflict in Bosnia. It in 1998 it was then suddenly ‘discovered’ that the Kosovo Albanians had been treated monstrously. They had begun fighting in 1995, probably assured they would get help eventually.]
This year, the Serbs of the Republic of Croatia saw the possibility of being in the same position as the Albanians of Kosovo. Or rather they foresaw a very much worse situation – the Serbs have never shown any signs of wanting to physically wipe out the Albanians within their state, but the Croats did just that in World War Two, and present-day Croat nationalism seems to be proud to claim continuity with such people. Naturally, this Serb minority had no wish to be left at the mercy of the Croat majority in a sovereign Croat state. They knew full well that all of the rhetoric about “protection of human rights” is just rhetoric. Sovereign states that massacre large numbers of their own citizens are liable to be told publicly that they’ve been very very naughty – that’s as far as it goes.
The Balkans are an area where power politics has always taken precedence over national rights and international law. Britain intentionally preserved the Turkish Ottoman Empire long after it was ready to fall, because the British Foreign Office felt that the “national interest” required it as a counter-weight to Russia. This policy was not only cynical and corrupt – it was also stupid and disastrous, in as much as in the First World War, Turkey was the enemy and Russia the ally.
No serious international law has ever been applied to the Balkans; everything has always been decided by violence and power. No one in the recent crisis has been willing to say either that the Serbs of Croatia have their own right to autonomy, or that they do not. The talk is all of ‘establishing peace’. But peace can only come when the basic points at issue have been resolved. Until the Serbian minority stop resisting Croatia, or until Croatia agrees to let them go, all talk of peace is empty rhetoric.
The rhetoric remains empty because no outside force is willing to use the sort of military power that might make one side or the other lose the will to defend what it sees as legitimate national rights. The Iraqis have yet to be convinced that they did anything wrong in grabbing Kuwait or building weapons of mass destruction, so why should Serbs or Croats be more compliant? And unlike the Iraqis, they are Christian, white and European – factors that would make no difference if international law actually existed, but do make a very big difference within the framework of corrupt power politics that we actually have. No one is likely to do anything very much, and we are likely to get another Cyprus or Kashmir, with cease-fire lines hardening into de facto frontiers. No doubt the British Foreign Office will see it as yet another bit of unreasonable behaviour by “lesser breeds without the law”.
This is from Newsnotes for November 1991.