A Solution for South-Eastern Europe: the Cantonal Model

Posted in Europe | 31-Mar-04 | Author: Géza Jeszenszky

The world keeps changing and that requires new answers to its problems. In the Balkans practically all the parties are unhappy with the present stalemate. The international community, too, is tired of maintaining the truce at great costs, but is too timid to move beyond the present, admittedly temporary, arrangements.

There is no denying that in the Balkans the international community, led by the U.S., has achieved a lot. The large-scale abuse of human rights, “ethnic cleansing,” mass rape and other war crimes have come to an end, and the major culprits face trial. The Dayton Accord stopped the war, but on the longer run it has failed to placate any of the three peoples inhabiting Bosnia. In Kosovo neither the Albanians nor the remaining Serbs are satisfied, and the world is at a loss how to end the international protectorate and what status the province should have. The citizens of Montenegro are divided about the union with Serbia. The Albanians of the Presovo valley revolted. Macedonia as a unitary state is finished. The present Balkan truce is inherent not only with internal dangers but also with external ones. The fluid status of Kosovo is helping the radicals who (erroneously) believe that by destabilizing both the province and its neighbors, they will achieve the recognition of their aims, the foreign troops will be withdrawn and the Albanians will be left in control of the province. Islam in the Balkans is not radical and fundamentalist (the best proof of it is that its followers do drink alcohol) but the Kosovar radicals can easily find support in the Islamic countries bent on making trouble in Europe. Organized international crime finds the present disorder ideal.

The conflict in Macedonia may have been the direct result of emboldened Albanians on both sides of the border between Kosovo and Macedonia trying to create a fait accompli by force. But the real cause is the artificial border drawn by the powers in 1913, which brought predominantly Albanian territories under the rule of Serbia. In 1992 the Albanians living in Macedonia and Kosovo found themselves separated by an international border, the first time in their history. Unfortunately the Macedonian Slavs failed to give real autonomy to their Albanian minority. Thus the country was a time bomb. It could have been defused by writing a different Macedonian constitution and with a different attitude shown by the Slavs to the non-Slavs there.

The way out lies in realizing the failure of the nation state in a region where the borders are relatively new, do not reflect ethnic divisions, and the ideal of the non-national multiethnic state has no tradition or appeal. In the long run the future must lie in European integration, where there will be no highly visible borders, there will be a common currency and the free movement of goods and people will have no obstacles. But how to bring about one of the preconditions of that happy state of affairs, internal peace between the many ethnic groups who live within the existing state borders?

Today all Europeans swear by the principles of democracy, and most live accordingly. But one cannot speak of democracy when one national community is constantly bullied and oppressed by another. The cause of the wars of the last 150 years in South-Eastern Europe was the real or presumed mistreatment of national minorities, the efforts to assimilate or expel them, the futile hope that the ethnically heterogeneous population of a state can be “homogenized” and thus the nominal nation states can become real nation states. All these attempts failed and are bound to fail in the future, too. The smaller states that emerged out of the ruins of the large multinational empires after World War I all denied the right of their national minorities to run their own affairs, to have a decisive say over the allocation of taxes collected from them, to have their own educational system in their mother tongue, to have officials and policemen who understand and speak their own language. The Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe in general is not a melting pot, the present national minorities emerged not by people crossing borders but by borders crossing people. Any attempt at turning this region into a melting pot turns it into a powder keg, as older and most recent history amply testifies.

Instead of pursuing the illusion of the multiethnic state (which, in the real world of South-Eastern Europe, has no chance, since the majorities always make sure that the state is dominated by one, their own national group) the Swiss cantonal model should be adopted and supported by the international community. Older history and the events of the last ten years show that the way to achieve and preserve ethnic peace lies not in mixing peoples that speak different languages, follow different religions and even use different alphabets, but by allowing each national group autonomy, self-government, which is the foundation of genuine democracy. In most cases this autonomy can have a territorial basis, not necessarily in a contiguous territory but in mosaic-like patches, cantons. Whereas most cantons could be based on one national/religious group, there could be a few ethnically mixed cantons, like Wallis and Graubünden in Switzerland. The inevitably remaining minorities should enjoy cultural autonomy, like the various denominations have in ecclesiastic matters. Already a hundred years ago that was proposed and partly realized in the Habsburg Monarchy.

How to proceed? An international conference should be convened with the intention of applying the rules of democracy to the ethnic mosaic of the Balkans. The new guiding principle should be self-government along the line of primary loyalty, which is nationality. The overall aim need not be the drawing of new borders along national lines (although this is not as difficult as many think) but allowing the people a genuine choice not only over which party to support (“ballots rather than bullets,” as Lord Robertson likes to say), but also what national unit, country or canton, they would like to belong to.

Yugoslavia might be reconstituted as a confederation of Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and the Sanjak. Kosovo and Macedonia may join it or could be allowed independence, in line with the will of the people. Minor border rectifications should not be ruled out: why should the Albanians of the Presovo valley remain with Serbia and the Serbs of Mitrovica remain with the Albanians in Kosovo? Macedonia has already offered an exchange of territory with Albania, based on ethnic realities. Why opposing such sensible solutions, why forcing people to sit on bayonets?

But instead of a major redrawing of the political map of the Balkans a genuine effort should be made to reconstitute it along the Swiss cantonal model. Autonomy has been found working not only in Switzerland, but also in Italy (South Tyrol), in Spain (Catalonia), and in the Aland Islands. An “Eastern Switzerland” in the Danubian Basin was a dream once, advocated by many. South-Eastern Europe, composed of countries made up by autonomous Kantons can find not only peace but eventually also unity within the framework of European integration.

This proposal is based on internal self-determination. That was the principle which guided President Wilson in 1918, but he failed to carry it out in face of the schemes of the victorious Anglo-French Entente. It is again the U.S. that should take the lead over the reluctant Europeans. This is the way to reduce the military and other commitment of the U.S. to the Balkan tangle, and the real way to let the Europeans, that is the local Europeans, run their own affairs.