End of ethnic empires in Europe?
Optimists see Kosovo war setting stable borders and civil societies.
NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, now entering its fourth week, is only the latest chapter in the tumultuous history of the Balkans.Skip to next paragraph
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But now, many say, this chapter may put the region at a historic crossroads.
The weeks ahead may well determine the direction of the Balkan nations within Europe - depending on what the American-led NATO countries do. Will the "ethnic idea" of peoples and states grow stronger, with its attendant wars and hatreds? Or will NATO's intervention plant the seeds for a civil society and the rule of law?
Optimists here feel that NATO countries have decided to end, once and for all, the 19th-century passion for nationalist-based empire. Pessimists, however, see a different scenario: of NATO only coming up with partial measures that will push the problem of the Balkans down the road yet again.
In the optimists' scenario, a Marshall Plan for the Balkans would seal the current borders in concrete and end empire-like aspirations for "Greater" countries - Greater Serbia, Albania, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, or Bulgaria. Strikingly, optimists speak of a military protectorate in Kosovo as if it were a foregone conclusion, almost as if it has already happened. For them, the sunny uplands of democracy, or at least the NATO policemen, are not so far away.
"We are going to see the replacement of the Milosevic regime in Serbia; that is obviously the strategy," says Ljubomir Frckoski, the former foreign minister of Macedonia. "Otherwise, we are just playing at childish games."
Pessimists see a vastly different scenario in which NATO hesitates. The future looks more Darwinian, redder in tooth and claw - a time of further disintegration, fragmentation, uncontrolled mafias, border disputes, and brutal domination of ethnic minorities. For pessimists, the Wild Wild East of Europe will get wilder.
"What I see is a continued slide into chaos, with Europe and the US doing just enough to hold or contain the line," says a senior United Nations official who has served in the former Yugoslavia for several years. "The ongoing scenario for this part of the world looks like breakup and ethnic domination."
Such conflicting visions are not just intellectual or theoretical exercises in this part of the world. They will shape the lives, values, and attitudes of peoples and governments in very pragmatic ways.
Continuing breakup of Yugoslavia
What happens next in the former Yugoslavia may be uncertain. But the crude ore of history is still in abundance here. Western attention spans are often quite short, compared with the political pace in the Balkans. But one thing is now clear, experts say: The last 10 years brought the breakup of Yugoslavia, and it is still not over.
In one sense, the war in Slovenia, then Croatia, then Bosnia, and now Kosovo is all one war. What's new this time is that the figure of Slobodan Milosevic has emerged as the central architect of all these conflicts. Before, Mr. Milosevic was in the background: He sat in shadows while the Yugoslav Army pursued the wars in Slovenia and Croatia under his influence. He was partly masked in Bosnia by what many now call his front men, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and Gen. Ratko Mladic. Now he is more openly playing his cards, and many here in the Balkans who have watched him outfox the West for a decade are worried that he has a stronger hand than the NATO countries realize.