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April 27, 2000

Strobe Talbott lecture honors retiring UCIS research professor

There was nothing preordained about the orgy of ethnic cleansing, genocide, rape and bombing that tore apart Yugoslavia during the 1990s, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in a lecture here April 20.

"I realize that's not the conventional wisdom, but I think the conventional wisdom is wrong," Talbott argued. "For years, we've been hearing that the violent breakup of Yugoslavia was the inevitable result of ancient ethnic hatreds which undermined a so-called artificial state.

"That's nonsense. Over the centuries, the south Slavic ethnic groups spent a lot more time building inclusive and harmonious communities than they did slitting each others' throats."

Yugoslavia was no less legitimate than any other multi-ethnic, religiously diverse nation, Talbott said. Even if the country's constituent republics — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia — insisted on going their own way after the fall of Soviet Communism, they could have followed the examples of Czechoslovakia and the U.S.S.R. itself in splitting up peacefully along existing internal boundaries, according to Talbott.

But Yugoslavia was cursed with four deadly "isms," he said:

* Facism, including occupation by German Nazis and the divisive legacy of Croatia's homegrown Ustache.

* Communism. While the regime of Josip Broz Tito was less repressive than the old Soviet government, it did not foster mature consideration of ethnic grievances. "The old man still dealt harshly with those who challenged his authority," Talbott said, adding half-admiringly that Tito "was most inclined to crack heads when the challenge was militant, atavistic, divisive ethnic politics."

* Chauvinistic nationalism. "But even nationalism, in and of itself, did not necessarily doom Yugoslavia," Talbott said.

* The utter cynicism of Yugoslav leaders during the post-Tito era. "Tito's power was such that his death in May 1980 left a vacuum of the kind that nature, and particularly human nature, abhors," Talbott said. "This led to a free-for-all, a jockeying for power and privilege among local potentates and demagogues…. They preyed on their constituents' fears and insecurities, they played one region's fortunes off against others and, last but not least, they picked at the scabs of old wounds."

Talbott visited Pitt last week in honor of the retirement of his friend Dennison Rusinow, research professor at the University Center for International Studies and adjunct professor in the history department. Talbott and Rusinow met in Belgrade in 1971, when Talbott moved there as Time Magazine's Eastern European correspondent. Rusinow was there reporting on current affairs in Yugoslavia for the American Universities Field Staff (later the Universities Field Staff International).

Talbott said Rusinow and his wife, Mary, took him under their wing — advising Talbott on Balkan politics, helping him with his "fractured" Serbian, treating him to Sunday morning waffles. After 21 years with Time, Talbott left journalism for a job in the State Department. He has been deputy secretary since February 1994.

Early on, Rusinow divined a rat in Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Talbott recalled.

"It was Denny who called my attention to the meteoric rise of this Titoist turned businessman, turned Serb jingoist and populist. Long before Milosevic was a household word, Denny had him pegged as a snakeoil salesman, peddling an especially noxious brew of national pride and paranoia.

"At the same time, Denny also cautioned that we must not regard repressive, regressive nationalism as inherently, exclusively or even mainly a Serbian condition. Rather than demonizing the Serbs, he helped us to understand how and why the Yugoslavian experiment went disastrously wrong and who was to blame."

From 1965 on, Rusinow warned — through American Universities Field Staff reports, media commentaries and other writings — of a potential bloodbath in Kosovo, Talbott noted, adding that Rusinow condemned extreme Albanian nationalism in that province as well as the Serbian brand.

* To a large extent, Talbott maintained, "Yugoslavia was allowed to die by a short-sighted, indecisive and distracted international community, and that includes the United States."

Distracted during the early 1990s with the Gulf War and the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, the Western democracies failed to see the dangers of a Yugoslav meltdown, Talbott said. "We should have marshaled our leverage, which was considerable, if not to keep the old Yugoslavia intact, then at least to increase the chance that its breakup might occur peacefully.

"If the center of a post-Communist state cannot hold, better it should come apart by mutual agreement that converts old inter-republic boundaries into new international ones. That's what happened with the Czechoslovak 'velvet divorce' and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union."

When Slovenia and Croatia first made clear their determination to gain independence, the West should have withheld recognition and support until those states ensured protection of minority rights and respect for new national borders, Talbott said. "But instead of setting conditions, we said 'yes' first and asked questions later. And we're still answering those questions today."

* During the question-and-answer session following Talbott's lecture, Pitt political science professor Jonathan Harris took issue with Talbott's equation of the breakups of Czechoslovakia (where Czechs and Slovaks were concentrated in separate regions) and Yugoslavia (where ethnic groups intermingled throughout the country).

Talbott agreed that carving new nations out of Yugoslavia was more complicated than in Czechoslovakia. But he contrasted Yugoslavia's bloodshed to the comparatively peaceful division of the U.S.S.R., whose leaders "made the very wise, far-sighted decision to let the [former Soviet] republic boundaries be the new national boundaries" despite overlapping ethnic populations.

For example, large numbers of ethnic Russians live in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the three Baltic states — an ongoing source of tension — yet those countries and Russia have not resorted to state-sponsored violence to resolve the problem, Talbott said. Otherwise, "you would have had what happened in Yugoslavia stretched out over 11 time zones in a land where there are 30,000 nuclear weapons," he pointed out.

Asked by another audience member whether the NATO destruction of Serbia's infrastructure "made sense," Talbott replied: "Yes, it made sense. It was only because NATO was prepared to use force and keep using force that Milosevic and his forces finally agreed to withdraw from Kosovo, let the [1.4 million Albanian] refugees come back, and let the international community come in."

Talbott said diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis elicited only "cynicism, tactical wile and stubbornness" from Milosevic. "He was determined to complete what he had begun 10 years before and particularly at the beginning of last year, and that was a campaign of ethnic cleansing and the utter suppression of the Albanian majority in Kosovo.

"I can tell you, having worked very closely with both our political leadership and our military leadership, that every effort was made to minimize the harm and damage to innocent civilians. Nonetheless, there was damage, and people were killed. But our attitude, our intentions, our practices during the conduct of that military operation were exactly the opposite of Milosevic's. His purpose was to maximize the damage and pain and suffering of innocent civilians."

American troops likely will have to remain in Kosovo "for quite some time to come," Talbott said.

"It's an open question, whether the people who live there are ever going to grow comfortable with the notion of some sort of self-governing autonomy short of total independence. The answer is going to depend in large measure on how much longer Serbia itself will be under the sway of the tyranny and barbarism personified by Milosevic."

* In brief concluding comments, Rusinow said: "I suppose I must thank Strobe Talbott for embarrassing me with personal remarks that, believe me, grossly exaggerate my really very modest contributions to this place, my discipline or disciplines, and certainly to [Talbott's] understanding of the area" of the Balkans.

"I'm sure he was dishing out a number of things as my thoughts that were really his thoughts, in being nice to me today."

Rusinow joined the Pitt faculty in September 1988. He reported on current affairs in east-central and Balkan Europe for the American Universities Field Staff (later the Universities Field Staff International) from Belgrade, Zagreb and Vienna from 1963 to 1988.

In addition to 76 AUFS/UFSI reports published between 1963 and 1991, Rusinow is the author of "The Yugoslav Experiment," "Italy's Austrian Heritage" and numerous contributions to collective works, journals and newspapers.

— Bruce Steele

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