Three Balkan lessons for friends of Ukraine.
When and how will the bloody war in Ukraine end? Few questions have so much importance and so little clarity. Experts, proffering their analyses and predictions, have failed – and still fail – at almost every stage of this conflict.
Perhaps the Balkan wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia may give them some clues.
Those wars lasted almost a decade, from Slovenia’s 10-Day War in 1991 until the uprising in what is now North Macedonia. And they, too, involved Slavs, massacres, nation building, and an autocrat, going wild.
The first lesson is that such wars seldom end quickly and the wounds take much longer to heal. Slovenia and Macedonia are the exceptions. Neither short-lived conflict saw major bloodshed, and they occurred at the start and in the aftermath of the Yugoslav breakup, when passions were either not yet hot or nearly extinguished.
The conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, at the opposite end of the scale, dragged on for years, with pauses, escalations, and countless victims. Blood calls for more blood, in a vicious circle of fighting, death, and revenge. The longer the conflict, the less the chance for compromise – and the more for nation building. When battle is raging, people choose identities and cement them. Later, their identities become cast in stone.
Unfortunately, Ukraine resembles the latter scenario rather than the former. Casualties in the hundreds of thousands, material damage running into the billions. On one side, Vladimir Putin’s aggression has consolidated Ukrainian identity even among the Russian speakers. On the other, Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine have been under de facto Russian occupation for almost nine years. Can these two parts live together, some sunny day in the future? The Balkan wars do not offer an optimistic answer.
A second lesson can be taken from the Yugoslav experience: as time goes by, the world’s attention wanes. “The empathy dries up, vanishes,” says Bojan Hadzihalilovic, a visual artist from Sarajevo whom I met in 1994 in the besieged capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina and again last summer. He had repainted one of his old Sarajevo posters with the colors of Ukraine and Kyiv: the ruins of the shelled city and Europe, posing as Sleeping Beauty.
“Once a story could run for seven days in the international media,” he told me. “Now, it ends within a day.”
I can attest that he has a point. According to my calculations, Sarajevo would be too small to host the entire foreign journalistic corps if the Bosnian War broke out today. And media multitude does not necessarily mean better awareness. Quite the opposite. In the world of post-truth, fake news, and social media’s echo bubbles, the war in Ukraine could gradually fade into banality. This is crucial for the support of Kyiv’s war effort. If public interest wanes, sending arms may become unpopular, with soaring energy prices adding fuel to the disappointment. Thus, Ukraine’s defenders may lose a key advantage.
You may say: the truth is so evident. So was it 30 years ago. However, the perpetrators of evil then, just as today, can always find support in some corners of the world and at the fringes of Western democracies. There, anti-Americanism easily obscures any detail on the terrain. Does he curse the U.S.? Well, he may have a point.
A last Balkan lesson may also shed light on the situation in Russia: dictators do not fall to internal uprisings in wartime. A major defeat on the battlefield needs to happen first.
Many in the West, including some knowledgeable about communism in what was the East Bloc, ask Russians, “Why don’t you topple Putin?” Some are even angry with Russian emigrants and Russian opposition media outlets for failing to organize a swift and successful revolt.
Yet it seldom happens this way. Serbia’s autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic, a chief culprit in the Yugoslav wars, fell in 2000 only after he had lost Kosovo. War is not a good time for a successful putsch, especially in dictatorships. Propaganda, mobilization, and simple fear leave no room for it.
To be frank, the Balkan lessons are somber. They may not work today, but better keep them in mind. Because Ukraine needs time, help, and victory. And the democratic world should find the way to provide them.
Boyko Vassilev is the moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.