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Ethnic Self-Determination Doesn't Deserve Support : Yugoslavia: Why legitimize separatism, at a time when Europe is burying its enmities?

June 30, 1991|JERRY F. HOUGH | Jerry F. Hough is director of Duke University's Center on East-West Trade, Investment and Communications, and a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution

Western countries, including the United States, have been unusually blunt in refusing to support the breakaway Yugoslavian republics of Slovenia and Croatia, even though they have traditionally been more Western than the Slavic, Soviet-oriented Serbians.

Part of the hostile Western response is instinctive. Statesmen remember that the ethnic and religious conflicts of the Balkans were the spark for World War I. The modern nightmare has been that the West might get involved on the Croatian-Slovenian side and the Soviet Union on the Serbian side. Today, however, few really think that Soviet Union, which abandoned communism in Eastern Europe, is going to intervene militarily in Yugoslavia, except perhaps in a U.N. peacekeeping force.

The factors driving Western policy are far deeper and entirely sensible.

One is the symbolic importance of Yugoslavia. The reconciliation going on between the Russians and the West is much more historic than phrases such as "the end of the postwar period" suggest. We really are in the process of ending 500 years of hostilities among the Europeans and 1,500 years of schism between the Byzantine-Orthodox and the Roman Catholic-Protestant wings of Christendom.

Yugoslavia has always been a symbol of the possibility that Orthodox Christians (most notably Serbs) and Western Christians (Roman Catholics are the majority in Slovenia and Croatia) could learn to live together in peace. For it to break up when the great powers of Europe are burying their ancient enmities has all the wrong connotations. (The same is true of the movement to separate Catholic Lithuania and Protestant Latvia and Estonia from the Russian Orthodox Slavs.)

Even more important are practical considerations. A major cause for the end of fratricidal conflicts among the Europeans is worry about the Third World in the 21st Century. Fascism was a powerful force in Europe as industrialization accelerated, and the experience of Iran and Iraq suggest that the Third World may repeat the pattern. We know that our current worries about nuclear weapons in tiny Iraq are nothing compared with what they would be if a fascist came to power in a huge Asian country that already had nuclear weapons.

Whatever we may think about national self-determination in a European context, it is a clear disaster in the Third World. Almost every Asian and African country is an ethnic mosaic; the major ethnic groups--the Kurds, for instance--are spread across a number of existing countries. We can cope with the breakup of Yugoslavia, if need be; the disintegration of India, by contrast, would be accompanied by horrendous domestic political developments and a strong possibility of nuclear war. It cannot be in our interest to legitimize that process.

In fact, multiethnic countries almost never break up except when they are defeated in war. When one ethnic group controls another outside its borders (what we call a colony), it always gives it up; when it controls another ethnic group inside its border, it almost never does so voluntarily. The only successful breakaway movement in the postwar period was Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, and there the intervention of the Indian army was decisive. The reactions of the Yugoslavian army are typical, and the only question is the amount of blood to be shed.

Today we have no reason to support the principle of national self-determination for ethnic groups, especially small ethnic groups. The Netherlands, within the European Community, is really not much more independent than Quebec within Canada. A "free" Slovenia, Estonia or Catalonia (in Spain) would find that sovereignty is not what it once was.

To emphasize the priority of self-determination is to emphasize the priority of the rights of a majority--one based on the emotional ties of "blood" and kinship. While we often now talk about "democratization," the American system was built on a fear of the tyranny of the majority. Our great achievement has been constitutional democracy, with its protection of the rights of the individual from both the government and from the majority.

Let us say that Croatians and Slovenians should be free as individuals, that Lithuanians and Moldavians should be free as individuals, and let us fight for that.

But let us also fight for the creation of a common European community that begins at Vladivostok and sweeps west to California. If 1 billion of us can live together in peace in a huge community with different languages and cultures, then we can perhaps inspire the Third World to avoid our mistakes of earlier decades and centuries. This is certainly not the time for the Yugoslavians to repeat those mistakes.

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