Stability and ethnic cleansing

by Giorgos Kapopoulos

(“Kathimerini”, 7 September, 2001)

Ten years of conflict in the former Yugoslavia have confirmed the distance separating reality and the ‘politically correct’ rhetoric of the post-Cold War era; all the measures imposed by the international community rest on the de facto recognition of enforced ethnic homogenization.

If one takes a more dispassionate look at recent European history, excessive sensitivity to the issue of ethnic cleansing appears paradoxical. The regions in Central and Eastern Europe characterized by stability during the post-Cold War era are those where in the wake of the 2nd World War the victors imposed an unprecedented enforced ethnic homogenization: nine million Germans were expelled from the territory conceded to Poland under the Treaty of Potsdam, while at the same time Czechoslovakia began the expulsion of three million Germans. The problem of the coexistence alongside the majority population group within a sovereign state of populations of different ethnic origin, with protected minority rights, appeared in the aftermath of the 1st World War in 1918. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the issues left unresolved by the end of the Ottoman presence in the Balkans, and the former Russian territories not included in the new USSR, all together constituted a challenge to the stability which the Treaty of Versailles had sought to establish in 1919.

The establishment on the territory of the multi-ethnic empires of national states wishing to emulate the western European model of the nation state, which had evolved mainly during the 19th century, was in itself a challenge to the European stability newly being sought at that time. The whole range of minority rights described in the Treaties of 1919-1920, responsibility for the respect of which was assumed immediately afterwards by the League of Nations, were from the beginning regarded by the new national states as a threat to their integrity and sovereignty. The fact that the Potsdam conference decided on the mass movement of German populations in the name of stability was in effect a confession of the bankruptcy of the measures introduced in the years following 1919. With the exception of the Greek-Turkish exchange of populations in 1923, which established the necessary conditions for stability, Central and Eastern Europe were afflicted by minority-irredentist fever long before the rise to power of Hitler in January 1933. Any guarantee of the rights to peaceful coexistence of the ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia appeared impossible following the recognition of the dissolution of the Federation in 1991 by the then European Community. The expectation that in Bosnia there was a chance of saving what it had proved impossible to save throughout the Federation as a whole was the inspiration behind the international intervention, and served to render more complicated and to prolong the conflict. The Treaty of Dayton in December 1995 ended the illusion that in the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia enclaves of multi-ethnic cohabitation could survive.

Where do minority rights end and where does the defense of national integrity and sovereignty begin? During the Cold War the question was overshadowed by the crushing logic of the bipolar tension between the two blocs. In the decade which ensued after the years 1989-90 the distance between the rhetoric and the practice of the international community in the Balkans exacerbated the problem.


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