News / Europe

Worries Grow Over Ukraine ‘Yugoslav Scenario’

A pro-Russian armed man guards a barricade in Slaviansk, Ukraine. The sticker on his rifle reads "Republic of Donetsk." April 28, 2014.
A pro-Russian armed man guards a barricade in Slaviansk, Ukraine. The sticker on his rifle reads "Republic of Donetsk." April 28, 2014.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin reclaimed Crimea for Moscow, he called the territory “inseparable” from the motherland.
Putin justified the annexation by asserting the right to protect “millions [of Russians who] went to bed in one country and woke up abroad, overnight becoming minorities in the former Soviet republics.”
If the refrain sounds familiar, think back 20 years ago to the Yugoslav breakup.
Moscow’s moves have raised fears that Ukraine could plunge into the cycle of bloodshed and vengeance that killed more than 200,000 people and drove 3.5 million from their homes in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
“Putin and the people in Russia who are talking about reuniting Russians, how they are artificially divided, and how this is a legitimate aim, are raising the questions that [late Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic raised when he was talking about Bosnia and some other places. I think that’s very dangerous,” said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Both conflicts date back to the 1991 collapse of two multi-national, federal, communist states, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Large numbers of Russians and Serbs – the dominant nationalities in those federations – found themselves spread among newly independent countries, notably Ukraine, Bosnia and Croatia.
Now, analysts say, an eerily similar script is unfolding to that which fueled Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup.
Nationalism and perception
After Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, was chased from power in February, nationalists in parliament attempted to repeal a controversial law that allowed the official use of Russian and other “regional languages” in areas where they are predominantly spoken.
The law’s passage in 2012 had triggered violent street rallies and even a brawl among legislators.
FILE - Riot police separate opposition supporters from members of the pro-Yanukovich Regions Party during a June 2012 rally against a draft language law in Kiev.FILE - Riot police separate opposition supporters from members of the pro-Yanukovich Regions Party during a June 2012 rally against a draft language law in Kiev.
FILE - Riot police separate opposition supporters from members of the pro-Yanukovich Regions Party during a June 2012 rally against a draft language law in Kiev.
FILE - Riot police separate opposition supporters from members of the pro-Yanukovich Regions Party during a June 2012 rally against a draft language law in Kiev.
In a conciliatory gesture, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the repeal bill. Along with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, he has since pledged to strengthen the rights of Russian-speakers.
“The Ukrainian government is ready to conduct full-fledged constitutional reform which will strengthen the powers of the regions,” Yatsenyuk said last month in a televised address.
Similar tensions had simmered in Croatia following the victory of conservative nationalists in the 1990 elections, after which the right-wing government only slowly granted concessions to minorities.
By 1991, Croatian Serb uprisings – organized and armed by Belgrade – had turned into full-blown civil war.
As in Croatia, Yatsenyuk’s attempts to distance his administration from the nationalist fringe appear to have fallen flat among anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine. They mistrust Kyiv and the pro-Western revolution known as Maidan that began there.
“Whatever really happened in Maidan, people in the east believed it was a return to what they’d seen in 2005-09 [when former pro-Western President Viktor] Yushchenko moved to ‘Ukrainianize’ the east and south,” said Vladislav Zubok, a Russian Cold War expert teaching at the London School of Economics.
During that period, monuments to World War II partisan Stepan Bandera were erected and those of Soviet soldiers taken down. Bandera is seen in western Ukraine as a nationalist hero but reviled in the east and by Russia, Poland and Jewish groups as a Nazi puppet.
“The issue resurfaced [in 2013-14] and was magnified by [Russian] propaganda, so people in the east reacted to the Maidan heroes as fascists. It’s a highly divisive issue that goes beyond even economic interests. Rhetoric is hugely important,” Zubok said.
Greater Serbia and ‘Novorossiya’
In Yugoslavia, Milosevic’s moves to defend Serbs purportedly under threat would land him in The Hague. He faced charges of masterminding a plan to purge non-Serbs from key areas of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
“What [Milosevic] was interested in was a 'Greater Serbia' that would be created on the ruins of Yugoslavia," former Croatian President Stjepan Mesic told the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2002.

FILE - Bosniak refugees being evacuated from besieged Srebrenica in 1993 as part of a negotiated agreement.FILE - Bosniak refugees being evacuated from besieged Srebrenica in 1993 as part of a negotiated agreement.
FILE - Bosniak refugees being evacuated from besieged Srebrenica in 1993 as part of a negotiated agreement.
FILE - Bosniak refugees being evacuated from besieged Srebrenica in 1993 as part of a negotiated agreement.
​Although Serbs eventually overthrew him, Milosevic skillfully played the nationalist card to attain soaring short-run popularity, a tactic, analysts say, Putin has utilized in full.
The Russian leader in March denounced Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising as a foreign-supported coup carried out by “neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites,” saying it justified Moscow’s efforts to protect the population of Crimea.
It’s an area he described as representing “Russian military glory and valor.”
“In terms of symbolic value for Russian national pride, Crimea – Sevastopol in particular – beats everything else hands down,” Zubok said.
A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month found Putin’s approval ratings have shot up to 83 percent.
Shortly after the annexation, Putin began referring to the arc of mostly Russian-speakers stretching from Moldova’s Transnistria to southeastern Ukraine as ‘Novorossiya,’ or New Russia, picking up on an expression used after the territory was captured from the Ottomans in czarist times.
Anti-government protesters rioting last month in eastern Ukraine chanted the term and activists in Odessa proclaimed the Republic of Novorossiya as an independent state.
“Russia’s endgame in Ukraine is very unclear,” said former U.S. diplomat Daniel Serwer, now a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If it’s merely broader decentralization of the Ukrainian government, that’s not unreasonable.”
“But if they’re trying to form a kind of Novorossiya, comparable to Republika Srpska in Bosnia, I think that’s something people would resist very strongly,” he said.
“There’s no question [Putin] is funding and encouraging paramilitaries to make trouble and using that as an excuse for intervention. It’s an ugly situation when you see an [elected] Russian leader pursuing the same techniques Milosevic used to dismantle neighboring states,” Serwer added.
But while pro-Russian separatists control some urban centers in eastern Ukraine, their grip on the area may be tenuous. Repeated public opinion surveys have shown that only about one-quarter of the population there wants to join Russia.
The Soviet east
Another facet of the crisis in Ukraine is the use of nationalism to cloak regional economic and social differences that cut across ethnic lines.
According to Yevhen Hlibovytsky, a Kyiv-based consultant, the rebellion in the east “is not a genuinely pro-Russian movement that is ethnically based or has much to do with language rights and separatism.”
“That’s just rhetoric [masking] a sophisticated social problem that none of Ukraine’s leaders – under any administration, including that of former president Yanukovych, who is from the area – has been willing to tackle,” he said.
In Yugoslavia, the two westernmost republics, Croatia and Slovenia, were the most economically developed and best prepared for western integration. That created tension within a country where wealth had been redistributed to poorer regions like Serbia and Kosovo.
A similar division exists in Ukraine, analysts say.
Production has plummeted in the eastern industrial heartland, as orders dry up and factories are forced to cut their workforce.
“In eastern Ukraine, a large majority of people [are unable to] become socially mobile, earn more or find jobs,” Hlibovytsky said. “That creates a culture of poverty and they aren’t happy about it. It’s an area of Ukraine that has remained very Soviet.”
All this worries observers such as Zubok, who see the crisis as a proxy war between Kyiv and Moscow that could easily slip out of control.
“If a Yugoslav scenario emerges in eastern Ukraine, everyone would have to play a different game, the stakes would change,” Zubok said. “If blood begins to flow, rational, pragmatic, cautious people will lose their voices. It’s a worst-case scenario, but we must discuss it now to try to avoid it.”

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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Comment Sorting
by: Robert from: USA
May 24, 2014 7:49 PM
I'm an American and let me make the requisite statement that I don't agree with Putin's annexation of Crimea, re-writing borders in Europe by force, or his continued efforts to stir up Eastern Ukraine.

However, I am utterly fed up with the Western media's absolute refusal to present a perspective from outside the establishment view, which is essentially that Ukrainians rose up and overthrew Yanokuvych on their own volition, that Putin is responsible for all that is happening in Ukraine, and that this is another great reason to further expand NATO around Russia's borders.

There is, I think, pretty solid evidence that Ukraine is another instance of America's recent policy of supporting popular coups against governments around the world, ONLY if those governments are unfriendly to the US.

(We are not supporting an uprising in Saudi Arabia for example.)

When the US acts provocatively on Russia's borders (expanding NATO, participating in the overthrow democratically-elected and Russia-friendly leaders), it clearly creates a response on the part of Russia, and is IMO destabilizing and certainly not worth any results.

I liken it to when Russia supported a Cuban regime on OUR borders that was not friendly to the United States, and eventually also tried to project its military might by installing ballistic missiles in Cuba.

You know what we did when an unfriendly regime was on OUR borders? We INVADED.

America needs to stop this almost impulsive (I'm assuming) neoconservative aim to overthrow unfriendly governments around the world.

It is destabilizing, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was, and hasn't even led to positive results in almost any instance, so far.

In Response

by: Taj from: Ukraine
May 25, 2014 2:43 AM
Stop making hasty generalizations here,you are making assumptions without any proof to your claims.American did not help remove the corrupt Yanukovich government,the ukrainian people did,because they were tired and fed up of the government,if your claims are correct still it's ok,Ukrainians needed to be free from the claws of that dictator who was a clear thief,let's focus on the main issues now,today Ukrainians are taking their destinies back by voting again,pray for the country and stop going back to the past.

by: Popsiq from: Buganda
May 23, 2014 11:39 AM
There was no such political animal as "Bosnia" until Tito re-formed it in 1945. The Yugoslav experience was, like the current Ukrainian one, a contrivance for the economic benefit of the EU and the World Bank.

Breaking-up he Ukraine holds no similar benefit. So perhaps that's why the emphasis is on keeping it 'united'. In fact the Ukraine, other than as a base for offensive military operations , should they be necessary, is a liability for Europe and no use to America.

by: Goldingen from: Greece
May 23, 2014 10:54 AM
"Millons of Russians went in bed in one country and woke up in another" wrong. It was the same country, the USSR. The Tatars, Greeks, Germans etc went in bed in Crimea und woke up in Kazahstan in the forties.

by: Tibor from: Germany
May 23, 2014 9:41 AM
Such a manipulative article... It directly supports the nonsense that Kosovo "was an entirely different matter", but arguing that "Ukraine is on the path of the former Yugoslavia"...Paradox and misleading. Ukraine suffers from one thing only: Mongering from outside...and more from the West than from the East.

by: severina from: Pittsburgh, PA
May 23, 2014 9:40 AM
Excellent analysis! However, you present one factual inaccuracy. Redistribution payments in Yugoslavia were based on if a republic was below per capita GDP. Serbia never received benefits from this. Payees were: Slovenia, Croatia, Vojvodina, and Serbia. Recipients were: Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

by: Anonymous
May 23, 2014 9:38 AM
Outstanding article... it's nice to see some objectivity in coverage of Ukraine.

by: Esther Simpson from: Moscow
May 23, 2014 9:30 AM
Vlad Putin makes Slobodon Milosevic look like Howdy Doody in comparison.

Putin is the real Stalin, the real deal. A very bad man.

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