For many, the horrors of the Balkan civil wars came from their violence. But, what of the relationship of the key players to the power they suddenly acquired and what they did with it?
It would be easy to criticise "the international community" for its failings in trying to halt the bloodshed, as former Yugoslavia fell so violently apart. The United Nations, NATO, the European Union, all of these powerful, membership organisations failed (sometimes at the same time) to intervene in meaningful ways to halt the conflict.
Thus, 1992 saw the United Nations Vance Plan and the UN sanctions imposed on FYI Yugoslavia, then in 1994 the US arbitrated peace treaty between Bosniaks and Croats failed to stop the violence, as did 1995’s UN (indeed, NATO’s) actions to halt the Srebrenica massacre. In the same year, NATO airstrikes on Bosnian Serb artillery were largely ineffectual (though the Dayton Agreement had rather more success in curtailing the bloodshed), while 1999’s NATO military campaign in Kosovo, Operation Allied Force and the UN’s taking over control of Kosovo had more if mixed results.
It can also be argued that it was only the (perhaps initially hesitant) action taken by US president Bill Clinton that finally brought the bloodletting to an end, in 1999, with the [NATO implemented] bombing of Belgrade and who earlier, with the signing of the Daytona Agreement, which played the critical role in the ending of the war in Bosnia Herzegovina.
But, is such a reading of history either accurate or, perhaps, more importantly, fair on those political players, as above, who did attempt to intervene, but who ultimately failed to stop the fighting in former Yugoslavia, or, is it the case that the violence could only have been stopped once the forces of history were spent and the violent unfreezing of the country following the break-up of communist-dominated Eastern Europe had run its course?
There can be little doubt that the speed and ferociousness of the violence that erupted in Slovenia in 1991 shocked all those looking on, who wanted the fighting to come to an end. The battles over Dubrovnik, Karlovac and Osijek, followed by the struggle over Mostar and the siege of Sarajevo, revealed the inability of western diplomacy and collective military intervention, principled as both were on the lessons learned from 50 years of Cold War. But what is also the case, is that personalities matter in politics, then and now and as they did at the closing stages of the Balkan wars and at their beginning. For, without the determination of Slobodan Milošević to shape the unfolding events of the early 1990s, war would not have followed war in former Yugoslavia.
Individuals (and their followers) matter in shaping events, as much as markets and market forces.
Francis Fukuyama would talk in his book The End of History and the Last Man in 1992 of the end of history and, almost by association, the end of major political power players as they are brought to heel by the all-conquering forced of free-market capitalism and western liberalism.
About which he would be proved wrong in the furnace of former Yugoslavia.
Players matter in politics. As they do in war(s).