“Wir werden weiter marschieren / We march on” – the beginning of the chorus of the song Es zittern die morschen Knochen / The bones of the world shake (1932) by Nazi poet Hans Baumann
The explanation for, first, the annexation of Donbas, and, second, for the occupation of the whole of Ukraine, if that happens, is or will be that the rights of the Russian minority or majority, depending on the point of view, are endangered. I will assume that we are talking about the minority because anything I say applies to both. The comparison with Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is obvious, so I will start from there.
Let’s assume that up to 15 percent of the Croatian population was of Serbian nationality. Other minorities and mixed marriages should also be added to this, but, anyhow, let’s say that 15 percent of the population of any country belongs to some national minority. And let’s assume that that country is democratic. The latter means that people, voters, are guided by their needs when electing representatives in government. Let’s assume that minorities are denied rights or are, de facto if not de jure, unequal with the majority in rights. “Croatia is the state of the Croatian people and all its citizens” or “Serbia is the state of the Serbian people and all its citizens,” and so on for every case, for example the case of Ukraine and the Russians.
This inequality of rights in a country with democratic elections and government would lead to the minority being guided by the defense of equality of rights, and the members of the majority each by the defense of their own interests. Under normal circumstances, this would mean that a minority with 15 percent of the vote would have a significantly greater influence, as it would inevitably be a part of the ruling coalition, in any election outcome, regardless of whether it would be represented by one or several parties. This outcome would not depend on the electoral system, even if it were a two-party system.
Before the disintegration of Yugoslavia, nationalists were focused on the territorial approach, not democratic one. If we are the majority on one territory, then democracy suits us because we will always be the majority and, thus, in power. So, they advocated for the centralization of the government. Without mentioning individual conspirators, it is sufficient to say that the infamous SANU Memorandum was based on this assumption. Others were guided by the same understanding, so everyone was searching for the territory where they could form a desirable national majority.
Now let’s look at Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even if everyone behaved as if they were a minority, and, therefore, cared more about ethnic rights than particular interests, as a coalition is needed to form a common government, it would be in everyone’s interest to have the decision-making power on the country level and not on the level of their own ethnic territories, because any combination would be possible in a majority coalition, even without political pluralism within the ethnic groups. In fact, the Croatian community, although the smallest, would have more influence because it would be an indispensable part of any ruling coalition. Again, pluralism within all ethnic groups does not change anything, because the relationship between the rights and interests is what determines the change of government and the legal and political decisions that are made.
Now let’s look at the countries or territories where ethnic rights are being defended, regardless of whether they are really endangered or not. This is the state of affairs in most of the countries of former Yugoslavia. It is easy to see that parties defending the ethnic rights, even when it comes to ethnically homogeneous territories, will have an advantage over those that represent the interests of individual voters. So, the demands for ethnic territories are policies by which nationalist parties will gain a lasting advantage. Or they are a means of giving up on democratization and establishing autocratic government, which is not a phenomenon unique to Serbia.
Let’s look at Ukraine now. The Russian minority is not small. They make up about 20 percent of the population, less than there are Serbs in Montenegro, but comparable. The similarity is that Russia, i.e. the Russian authorities, sees Ukrainians as a minority, which they would be if Ukraine were part of Russia. Similar to Montenegro and Serbia. Democratically speaking, however, the Russian minority in Ukraine have a very large influence on the government. And that is completely independent of whether they would advocate for equal rights or, in conditions when equality of rights already exists, Russian voters would be primarily motivated by their own interests.
One can think, as was the case with Yugoslavia, that there is no democracy if there is no state, meaning the full control of the territory or (internal and external) sovereignty. In other words, democracy is not a state-building tool. At the same time, Russian policy is making a mistake that was also made by Serbia during the 1980s and 1990s.
The mistake is the freezing of conflicts outside one’s own territory. It is about the use of force without a clear political goal. This is obvious if the political goal is utopian. Like the restoration of Russian tsarist territories. It is not only unclear, but also impossible. The consequences of this are evident in current Russian politics. Russia has the power to create frozen conflicts on foreign territories and “people’s republics” that are recognized by no one, but there is no, as they say, exit strategy, no political solution that these conflicts serve. Occupying Ukraine will only create another huge frozen conflict. This is the use of force, but not as a political tool. It is not necessary to be Clausewitz to see the mistake being made.
Therefore, nothing will change if they occupy the whole of Ukraine, because while it is possible to secure internal sovereignty by force, external sovereignty can’t be secured this way. This is also true for other frozen conflicts maintained by Russia (two in Georgia and one in Moldova). There is simply no political solution. In order for it to happen, something like the Munich Agreement, according to which Czechoslovakia was dismembered, will need to happen. That “Munich moment” is right here and, for now, there are no indications that an agreement that would hand over Ukraine to Russia in the new European order could be reached.
If Russia were a democratic country, however would there be unsolvable disputes in its relations with Ukraine? The Russians in Ukraine, again if Ukraine were a democratic country, would have enough influence to protect their rights, even by constitutional means, if necessary. That is the difference between a democratic and a territorial solution. And the same is true for Serbia and the Serbian world, as well as for others that are currently trying to determine their worlds territorially, whether they be Croatian or Bulgarian or Hungarian or Albanian.
Translated by Marijana Simic