Containing Ethnic Conflict:
A Mediator's Efforts in Yugoslavia, 1991-1996

April 30, 2003 // 12:00pm1:30pm

Staff-prepared summary of the East European Studies discussion with Geert Ahrens, Ambassador, Former Head of the OSCE Presence in Albania, and Wilson Center Fellow.

As the title of his book in progress indicates, "Containing Ethnic Conflict: A Mediator's Efforts in Yugoslavia, 1991-1996," Ambassador Ahrens concentrated his remarks on establishing an effective intellectual and political framework for understanding the problems of the former Yugoslavia resulting from the wars of the 1990s and the continuing efforts to confront the underlying causes of these issues. He broke down the heart of his talk into the three components contained in his title: 1) "containing the conflict," 2) the ethnic basis of these conflicts; and, 3) the actual nature of these conflicts.

Amb. Ahrens emphasized that ongoing efforts at peacekeeping and mediation have resulted only in partial success in that conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia have been contained but not solved. He noted that resolving these conflicts, despite progress made in virtually all these areas, continued to be a long-term process – perhaps even generational – and needed the continued efforts, attention and resources of the international community.

Secondly, Amb. Ahrens noted that the conflicts that broke out upon the dissolution of Yugoslavia were fundamentally ethnic in nature. These ethnic disputes had two different dimensions. There was the intra/Slav context of Croatia and Bosnia in which the Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) are all Slavic peoples speaking more or less the same language but have been divided by religion and historical experience. Juxtaposed to this are the Slav/Albanian conflicts, which have marked the festering problems in Kosovo and Macedonia, and have pitted Serb against Albanians in Kosovo and Slav Macedonians against ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. The Albanians of both regions represent a very distinct ethnicity and language from their Slav neighbors, reinforced by the fact that most Albanians in this region are also Muslim.

Amb. Ahrens noted in this regard the ongoing debate about the role of "ancient hatreds" in analyzing the issue of ethnic conflict. He dismissed the ancient hatred argument as being overblown and inaccurate, but suggested that the term "historical animosities" could better describe the underlying problems. Explaining the difficulties from his personal experiences in helping to mediate the crises in Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia, in particular, Amb. Ahrens emphasized that these were all efforts made after conflict had already taken place. He stressed that the international community had never tried to hold the old Yugoslavia together after 1991 despite abundant indications that it was falling apart. Early efforts by the European Community to head off the conflicts led by former British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington were doomed from the beginning because not just Serbian President Milosevic but the entire Serbian intellectual and political leadership desired to retain a close-knit federation led by Serbia, which was opposed by all the other republics. So in this sense, dissolution could not be avoided and war was the inevitable consequence of circumstances at the time.

Amb. Ahrens explained in depth the energetic and persistent efforts of mediators in all the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia to keep talks going and to encourage compromise. This was not possible in all cases, especially in Croatia, but persistent efforts at international mediation appear to have been successful in heading off a major civil war in Macedonia.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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