Dispel Balkan Myths, Demand Minority Rights

THE war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has poisoned our discourse and perverted our objectivity. By uncritically accepting the bloody conflict as an uncompromising struggle between all Serbs, Muslims, and Croats, a legion of commentators have become unwitting accomplices in perpetuating divisive stereotypes. Several dangerous myths have been propagated during the Bosnian butchery that could further diminish hopes of ending the carnage by playing into the hands of chauvinists and warmongers.

First is the "barbarism myth." This assumes the Balkan crisis is due exclusively to deeply rooted communal hatreds and impenetrable ethnic divisions. The Orthodox Serbs, Croatian Catholics, and Bosnian Muslims simply cannot live together because of their religious differences and their intolerance of diversity.

In fact, prior to World War II there were no large-scale wars between the three groups and no instances of mass butchery. Of course, communal antagonisms existed, as anywhere in Europe, and were either pacified or exacerbated by the occupying powers (Ottoman and Habsburg). Even after the brutal civil war (1941-1945), in which extremist politicians manipulated religious divisions to perpetrate mass murders, the three groups reached a modus vivendi. Tito's Communists eliminated nationalist militancy, but c oexistence sprouted from below as thousands intermarried and millions formed friendships, served in the army together, and worked alongside each other.

The larger Bosnian cities such as Sarajevo and Tuzla had a deserved reputation for tolerance and multiculturalism. Various grievances existed on the eve of the Bosnian war. But these are found in any multi-ethnic society, including the US. To assume the inevitability of intercommunal conflict simply strengthens the hand of those trying to manipulate such an outcome.

Second is the "collectivism myth." The chief culprits of aggression must be pinpointed. But Serbs cannot be held collectively responsible for all murder, rape, and mayhem. These crimes have been perpetrated in the name of the Serbs by a minority of thugs aided by the Milosevic regime in Belgrade. The guilty must be distinguished from the innocent. Otherwise the term "Serb" will be synonymous with pillage, rape, and child murdering.

This is not the same as concluding that "all sides" are equally guilty for the slaughters. Clearly, Serb guerrillas have conducted the most systematic atrocities. But the mass of ordinary Serbs must not suffer for the crimes of their self-appointed spokesmen. Not all Germans were responsible for Nazism, or Russians for Bolshevism. Two dangers stem from such simplifications. First, Serb civilians will become justifiable targets for Muslim and Croat revenge. Second, Serbs will be further alienated and beli eve the propaganda Belgrade puts out about a "world conspiracy" against them.

Third is the "isolationism myth." This assumes the Balkans are unimportant for Western security and should be left alone to fester, however tragically. Aside from its callousness, this myth ignores the real danger that the Bosnian war could escalate to Kosovo and Macedonia and embroil Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. The side effects would be devastating: terrorism, refugees, a new arms race, nuclear proliferation, and a reversal of democratic reforms throughout the post-communist world.

RACISM and religious intolerance are spreading in the Balkans and could spill outside the region. Aside from applying political, economic, and military pressures against aggressors, the West must focus on the root causes of conflict: the intricate question of "minority rights." A series of measures can be promptly undertaken to undercut further destructive disputes.

First, governments seeking economic aid and political legitimacy must ensure the full array of internationally sanctioned human rights, including nondiscrimination on ethnic, religious, or racial grounds. Minorities must also be allowed to participate fully in the country's political system. One cannot dictate the precise form of minority representation, but agreements must be pursued that satisfy minority aspirations and reassure the majority that their rights will not diminish. An absence of such provi sions, and the exclusion of minorities from administrative and legislative work, will simply heighten calls for self-determination and separatism.

Second, minority leaders must also abide by specific obligations to the state. They have to recognize its constitutionality and integrity where minority interests are represented regardless of the precise administrative structure. Indeed, they will have sounder justifications for opposition and autonomy in a nondemocratic polity than in a country that guarantees basic individual and collective rights. In such cases, they would have recourse to international mediation as a means to compel governments to e nshrine minority rights in appropriate legal documents. Although such measures will not eliminate all conflict, they can provide a basis for dialogue and compromise.

The international community must ensure that states and minorities interact peacefully. Each government needs to conclude bilateral agreements with neighbors, mutually guaranteeing the rights of resident minorities and renouncing all territorial pretensions. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe must take steps toward forging a "Minority Rights Charter," an international agreement that could begin to codify the obligations of states and minorities. This can be reinforced by the creation of

a committee of international legal experts and minority rights observers who will monitor the observance of Charter provisions.

The early and consistent involvement of international institutions could directly assist the democratization process, help move each country toward accepted international standards, and mitigate against destructive ethnic polarization.

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