First Tremors The collapse of the Soviet Union obviously had a massive consequence on the international system. One of the effects was surprising. A powerful Soviet Union and a powerful United States had actually stabilized the international system, creating a balance between super powers. This was particularly true along the frontier of the Soviet Union, where both sides were poised for war. Europe, for example, was frozen into place by the Cold War. The slightest movement could have led to war, so neither the Soviets nor Americans permitted such movement. What was most interesting about the Cold War was all the wars that didn’t happen.
Think of it as a giant tug of war in which one side suddenly weakened and let go of the rope. The side still holding the rope won, but lost their balance, and triumph was mixed with massive confusion and serious falling down. The rope, which had been locked into
place by the two sides, now came loose and started behaving in unpredictable ways. This was particularly true along the boundaries of the two blocs where nations had been frozen into place for decades. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the pressure was suddenly released, and geopolitics became undone.
Some changes were peaceful. Germany re-united, and the Baltic States re-emerged as did Ukraine and Belarus. Czechoslovakia had its velvet divorce, splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Other changes were violent. Romania underwent a violent internal revolution. But it was Yugoslavia that went completely to pieces.
Of all the countries, Yugoslavia was the most artificial. It was not a nation-state, but a region of hostile and diverse nations, ethnicities and religions. Invented by the victors of World War I, Yugoslavia was like a cage for some of the most vicious rivalries in Europe. The theory was that to avert a war in the Balkans, an entity should be created that made them all part of a single country. It was an interesting theory. Yugoslavia was an archaeological dig of fossilized nations left over from ancient conquests, still clinging to their distinct identities.
You see regions like Yugoslavia in rugged, mountainous areas that are strategic enough to have undergone numerous conquests. It is hard to conquer rugged terrain, particularly when you are just passing through on your way to somewhere else. Inhabitants withdraw from the conqueror’s path, getting out of his way to survive in the rugged backwaters of the region. In less rugged regions, these nations would be annihilated or would be assimilated by the conqueror. In these areas, they endure, if not prosper, paranoid and violent, all with good reason. Think of places like Afghanistan, the Caucasus or the Lebanese mountains and we can see the same phenomenon. Survival consists of digging in, waiting it out and getting even. These regions have their own little geopolitics that endure for many centuries, while great empires come and go.
Historically, the Balkans has been a flashpoint in Europe. This was the Romans’ road to the Middle East, the Turks’ road into Europe. World War I started in the Balkans. Each conqueror left behind a nation or a religion and each detested the other. Each warring group had committed atrocities against the other of monumental proportions. Every one of these atrocities was remembered as if it had happened yesterday. This is not a forgive-and-forget region.
Yugoslavia shattered during World War II with Croats siding with Germans and Serbs with the Allies. It was pulled together by the Communist League under Joseph Broz Tito. Yugoslavia was Marxist but anti-Soviet. It didn’t want to become a Soviet satellite and actually cooperated with the Americans. Caught in the force field between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia was held together.
The force field gave in 1991 and the pieces that made up Yugoslavia blew apart. It was as if a geological fault had given way to a massive earthquake. The ancient but submerged and frozen nationalities suddenly found themselves free to maneuver. Names that hadn’t been discussed since before World War I suddenly came to life: Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Slovenia. Within each of these nations, other ethnic minorities from a neighboring nation also came alive and wanted to secede and join another country. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
The Yugoslavian war has been misunderstood as simply a local phenomenon, an idiosyncratic event. It was much more than that. It was first and foremost a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Things that had been impossible for almost fifty years abruptly became possible again. Frozen boundaries became fluid. It was a local phenomenon made possible—and inevitable—by a global shift.
War in Yugoslavia was not an isolated phenomenon. It was just the first fault line to give—the northern extension of a fault line that ran all the way to the Hindu Kush, the mountains that dominate northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Yugoslavian explosion was the prelude to the major earthquake that erupted when the Soviet Union collapsed.