The Merits and Pitfalls of Comparison: Ukraine, Crimea and the Yugoslav references

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source: pic.twitter.com/6aETLmP0fA

International crisis, like the one in Ukraine and Crimea always lead to a scramble for expertise and historical precedent. Actors themselves might model their actions on earlier experience (Putin copying his intervention in Georgia 2008) or refer to what they consider relevant precedents (such as the decision of the Crimean parliament in its declaration of independence to explicitly refer to the Kosovo declaration of independence). Analysts and scholars might refer to previous conflicts to illustrate particular risks or recommend certain lessons (see here or for an insightful and positive example, see the interview with Josip Glaurdić). It is easy to dismiss historical analogies, the context differs, the country and the actors are others, and the comparison might only be useful to serve a particular stand point (reminiscent of the US debates over intervention in Bosnia where the conflict was either viewed as a repetition of Vietnam–hopeless and fare away with no good sides–or the Holocaust–with one side guilty of genocidal crimes and all others victims). Yet comparisons are useful and should have a place in the analysis of crises such as the one in Ukraine. However, for comparisons to be useful, they need to move away from a simplistic ‘this is just like that’.

Comparisons are not just about identifying what is similar, but also what is different. This might sound banal for a social scientist, but much of the comparisons in media are driven by findings similarities rather than both difference and similarities and are also often dismissed on these grounds. Instead, comparisons are done by all observers intuitively, based on personal experience or knowledge of certain conflicts or events and thus, it is better to make these visible and explicit. Furthermore, comparisons help us avoid the fetish of the unique–country A or conflict B is so special and particular, it cannot be compared with anything else. Such an approach is neither helpful, nor correctly reflects any particular place or conflict.

So where can a comparison with the conflicts over the dissolution of Yugoslavia offer some insights?

On Facebook and Twitter a photo of the five or so Serbian Četniks in Crimea circulated with word bubbles (see above) suggesting that they confused Ukraine (Ukrajina) with the Krajina region in Croatia (both names deriving from the word for border. Indeed, the conflict in the Krajina region might be the most telling episode of the Yugoslav wars in this context. The log revolution in 1990 was the preparation for the war to come in the following year. The Serb Democratic Party took power in several municipalities in the Dalmatian hinterland, the Lika and Kordun region, as well as in Slavonia and declared so-called Serb Autonomous Regions (SAOs) that claimed autonomy from Croatia. The clumsy nationalist policies of the Tudjman regime, such as reducing the status of Serbs in the new Croat constitution provided ample munition to these nationalist entrepreneurs. As Mark Thompson in his book on the media wars documents, Serbian TV was re-broadcast in these regions (and in neighboring Bosnia), which spewed out a constant diet of half-truths, lies and propaganda. A referendum with a suspiciously high turnout then ratified the autonomy and later independence from Croatia and provided the justification for the intervention by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

There are a number of striking parallels with the current efforts of Russia to take control of Crimea—here are key differences: In 1990/1 it was not clear that border changes within Yugoslavia or once republics left the federation would not be possible. It was only later that the principle of uti possidetis was transferred from decolonization to the post-communist context. Thus, while insurgent Serbs in 1990/1 could have a realistic hope of achieving recognition for their project, this seems unlikely today. However, the durability of frozen conflicts with territories with long-term uncertain international status in the post-Soviet space (unlike the post-Yugoslav space) suggest that Crimea can exist in international limbo like Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

A parallel is the role of Putin’s Russia to that of Serbia under Milosevic: (Semi-)Authoritarian regimes use the conflict to bolster domestic legitimacy and are able to unify (at least briefly and publicly) the population behind a nationalist project. The claim that local authorities act autonomously were proven wrong in the Croat case through the ICTY and scholarship, and the limited information available in Crimea similarly suggests that the initiative comes from Moscow, not Crimea itself—which of course can feed of local grievances.

Finally, the weak response and lack of a clear strategy encourages such strategies to change the status quo by force. The weak response of the EU throughout the protests and in the aftermath the overthrow of Yanukovich only emboldened Putin, just like the weak EC and US response in the early 1990s encouraged the policies of Milošević.

What conclusions can we draw from these, arguably sketchy points of comparison? First, it is crucial for international actors to be engaged in crucial moments of revolution. Had there been stronger international engagement, it might have been possible to discourage the Ukrainian parliament from revoking the language law (the decision was vetoed by the president) that gave official status to Russian—irrespective of the substantive discussion one can have on it—the change of the law created real anxieties and also was a useful pretext. Second, the conflict will not go away by itself. There was nearly a year-long lull between the “log revolution” in 1990 and the full scale war in 1991. Similarly, the referendum in Crimea might lead to some new status quo that appears stabile, yet provides for a significant risk of escalation and also as a pivot for nationalist mobilization in both Russia and Ukraine. Third, in moments of confrontation it is easy to overlook the pluralism with countries, but it is important not think in absolutes: While Russia might appear to be a more unitary actor than the Ukraine, it would be wrong to take this as given or permanent (as it would suit Putin). In the Ukraine the success of protests can easily be jeopardized by the Crimea crisis. Nothing is as poisonous for democratization as a festering territorial dispute. Here the EU and the US would be well advised to act strongly and forcefully to help the new government move towards democracy and rule of law rather than dithering and then lamenting the failure of the new government. One concrete step for the EU would be to commit itself to the EU perspective for the Ukraine. This might seem ridiculously remote and undesirable for the EU now, but this is in fact already the case. A democratic Ukraine that fulfills the membership criteria can join, its location on the European continent is no doubt. Stating this clearly that, if it so desired, it can become a member, can provide for a strong incentive for change within and would be an appropriate acknowledgement of the risks the protestors took in recent months in Kiev and elsewhere.

A history of Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe according to some of my students

Click here on a post on the recent press coverage of the text below.

A history of Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia as you might not know it. From exams 2006-2010 at the University of Kent:

The History of Yugoslavia

There have been many different countries/empires which have been huge and have had a range of different cultures but have managed to stay as one country. A very important example in term of Yugoslavia is the Ottoman Empire which oversaw some of that region. It was a huge empire with millions of servants who were of different race, religion, customs and beliefs. The empire managed to stay together regardless of this issue.

Furthermore, this can be debated as Yugoslavia never really had any enemy in ancient times…

The Creation of Yugoslavia

The formation of Yugoslavia was ‘man made’ rather than inherent and formed through the same values and cultures.

Yugoslavia ….was forced together by the Ottomens and meinteined by leaders such as Tito.

After Yugoslavia was formed three dominant groups fought for power on the left the fascist Usteche who used aggressive ethnic cleansing techniques to drive non-Serbians from the land.

Yugoslavia was formed in 1929 out of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Cheks

Communist Yugoslavia

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Communist leaders took and expanded the idea of a united Yugoslavia.

It is true to say that Yugoslavia was a young state, before the second WW the area consisted of several kingdoms…. After Tito removed Yugoslavia from the Soviet Union & pioneered the non-aligned movements during WW2, Yugoslavia entered relative calm.

Communist rule in Yugoslavia defind the nation until 1948 and when the region detached itself from Commuism it scrambled to find an identity.

Tito was already emerging as the glue that binds this group of autonomous provinces.

Tito was almost the puppeter of Yugoslavia pulling its strings.

In the years before Tito’s death, when he was forgetful and sported a terrible wig…

In 1980, President Tito of Yugoslavia died, having ruled the state for over 10 years…

When Tito died the emperror died with him.

There were two bodies that led Yugoslavia right before it disintegrated, Tito Braz and Slobodan Milosevic.

Tito had maintained a Yugoslavia with a federal government system: again, not a typical feature of countries…if Milosevic had succeded would have made Yugoslavia a less artificial country.

The provinces of Yugoslavia include Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, , Yugoveada and others…

It consisted of eight republics and of the eight two were provinces: Kosovo and Vojvonec.

Kosovo was 95% Algerian.

Yugoslavia had been in a terrible economic climate–following the 1930 global depression and the 1973 Yugoslavian oil crisis…

…Slovenia housed a large amount of institutions that Serbia used.

The Rise of Milosevic

When right wing Serbs were making their voices heard in Kosovo Ivan Stambolic sent Milosevic to sort out the situation. Tito would have never considered this. He would have sent an armed force and destroyed them.

Yugoslavia was powerful before Slobodan Milosevic, because it wasn’t just about Serbs but it was about other places as well such as Bosnea, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.

Milosevic attempted to mobilize the people by lighting a fire under their growing concerns for nationalism.

Milosevic attempted to keep the state as cohesived as possible by introducing the masses into politics.Unfortunately, all the masses had very strong views which was one of the factores led to its demise.

Milosevic was a gruel rotten apple.

His ambitions would not stop him from attempting to take the capital of Croatia Dubronik which as 90% Croat in which he failed.

Although Kosovo had been an independent nation for over 600 years, Serbia…had pulled the nation under Serbian rule

As both Croatia and Serbia were Orthodox believers that were majority.

While Serbia is Orthodox, Croatia and Bosnia are Muslim

War and International Intervention

The international community had viewed the situation in the Balkans as a bit of a ‘so what?’ scenario.

[In 1991] NATO was a relatively new organization and was busy with the USSR… and the UN was happy to observe the looming conflict yet unwilling to act.

The EC also felt under pressure to act because of ethnic ties that they had to ‘Yugoslavians’

The Baltic States are built on blood stains, and for the UN to go in, assuming it could achieve what it set out to was naive and demonstrated it’s lack of cultural understanding.

The declaration of independence infuriated Serbia. That is why today Serbia has rejected the acknowledgement of Serbia as a nation-state, it fears for the Serbians inside Kosovo.

With Germany independently supporting Serbia and the rest of Europe condemning its actions.

Bosnians soon rose up against the Muslims …forcing them to flee.

The Baltic States have always been at least troublesome…It’s a conflict hotspot teaming with ethnic tension and racial prejudice that has built up over centuries and passed down over generations

During the 1990s Yugoslvia and most of the Baltic region witnessed some of the worst atrocities and widespread genocide the area had ever seen.

The Kosovo Rambouillet plan succeeded in invading the conflict in former Yugoslavia, but failed in the short term with the loss of lives in the war.

Communism in Eastern Europe

More than 4 centuries of Communist rule has aggravated the economic situation and the competitiveness to the West.

Eastern Europe has been under the influence of five religions, three of which are branches of Catholicism.

A case example can be seen between Afghanistan and Armenia between 1918 and 1926. Between and much throughout the interwar period, the CPSU had problems with Afghanistan.

The cold war ended in 1950 when the US and the USSR signed a treaty of peace in Yalta

The appeal of Communism was that people would no longer work for the rich, but for each other.

The richest elite in a communist society tends to be the leader. As according to Karl Marx the buorgeoisie and the ruling class in a society tend to rule and keep the state in good order.

They created what was called Goulash communism–goulash being a Hungarian dish compiled with unlikely ingredients.

Gorbachev and 1989

Gorbachev not only talked the talk but walked the walk

Gorbachev made discussions and relations to the Western states about the plan to collapse the Communist regime…The United States president then Regan also accepted his plan…

Gorbachev was the ‘golden eye’ and the hero of east Europe helping to collapse communism and began his plan since the earlier 1990s.

It seems that the madness that took hold of the people of East and Central Europe in that momentous year of 1989, was one that had been inevitable forming like a thunderous cloud on the horizon, bringing with it the winds of change.

The claim that short term …factors are key to explain Communism’s collapse in 1989 is rather reactionary and ill-judged….Long term factors are key to explaining communism collapse in 1989 as one can assess the fall of communism or its demise started from a while ago.

there was a multi-party election carried out in Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Bosnia for a more decentralized east Europe.

Countries with a single party system run the risk of slipping back into a type of authoritarian regime.

…there is still the block mentality in Eastern Europe, showing it hasn’t integrated that greatly, this is made most apparent in the Eurovision Song Contest where the East European Countries will all vote for each other. This was seen this year when the Serbian entry won, despite how crap it was, because the Eastern Europe will vote for it’s own.

What is all means for Britain

Britain now is a coalition government, the icon of the West now using democratic practices most commonly fund (found?) in Eastern Europe…

Britain looked at the whole idea [EU] of the scheme as a waste of time…under Margeret Thatcher…but [she] was eventually removed and Britain joined… after Britain had been in a huge recession and were the 3rd poorest country in Europe.

The copyright to these statements lies exclusively with the students who wrote this.

Diffusion of Madness

If you think that the suggestion of Igor Panarin, the director of the Russian diplomatic academy, that the United States is going to disintegrate any time now is lunacy, consider the pieces it will disintegrate into: He suggests that the Northeast (which has a  “totally different ethnos and mentality”) will ‘join’ the EU with Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina (!). And talks about the Indians in the middle of the USA wanting to secede (“May I remind you that five central states where the Indians live had announced their independence.”).  Such analytical brilliance, probably based on considerable field work is reminiscent of other recent brilliant analyses, such as by Mohammed Saïd al-Sahaf (“There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad”) and Goran Matic (“CIA instructors are working not only with NIN”): I see a pattern of lunacy diffusion emerging (thanks to Holly for this). Madness seems to be the best response of dictators (and their spokespersons) to the threats of democracy. Matic, al-Sahaf and Panarin seem to share some features on their analysis:

a) they ascribe to others what happens to themselves (or they do to others)

b) they confuse wish and reality

c) their governments don’t end well (at least for the first two, the jury is out for the third).

Elections in Bosnia and foreign leaders

If you are in Bosnia these days and are not following what’s going on, you might be mistaken to think that presidential elections are occurring.

Candidate 1: Sarajevo, last weekend

Candidate 2: Banja Luka, last weekend
The good news is that there are no elections looming and neither Sanader nor Putin are running in them.

The bad news is that once more some are looking outside the country for help from other outsiders ruling the country.

In fact, the hysteria in RS and Serbia over Miroslav Ljacak’s imposition is out of proportion when reading the decision and actually remembering that in the past year more often than not, decisions were not taken in the Council of Minister of Bosnia due to the boycott of Bosniak members.

Never before have RS officials and Serbia react so hostile to any OHR decision over the past 12 years, suggesting that it is not really about the decision, but rather something to do with Kosovo.
See more here

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