War in the Balkans splits Czech political opinion

Sarajevo in 1992, photo: Mikhail Evstafiev, CC 3.0 license

While the split of Czechoslovakia happened quietly and almost unnoticed, the situation in Yugoslavia could hardly have been more different. There had always been close links between the two countries, and Czechs and Slovaks were deeply shocked as Yugoslavia sank into civil war. In an interview for Radio Prague in 1993, the head of the Euro-Atlantic Section of the Czech Foreign Ministry, Ivan Bušniak, pointed to some of the two countries’ historical bonds:

“Yugoslavia was the only country - along with Romania - that strongly protested against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. It was Yugoslavia, through the territory of which quite a lot of citizens of the then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic emigrated to the West. It was a country that had strongly protested against the Munich Agreement of 1938, before being occupied herself by the Nazis. So from this point of view I think there is something common and very close between the two countries.”

During the series of Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, political opinion in the Czech Republic was starkly divided over what the international community should do. When Croatia and Slovenia broke away from the Yugoslav federation in 1991, Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister was Jiří Dienstbier. Unlike President Havel, he was a bitter opponent of the German-led initiative to recognize the two countries, as he told Radio Prague in an interview a couple of years later:

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: Kristýna Maková / archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
“I fought against it to the last moment, because, in my view, for the solution of Yugoslavia there was only one chance – to treat the Balkan question, the Yugoslav question, as a whole, in complete unity of the international community. It was the only chance. The moment some countries started to force the salami tactic, it was the beginning of the end, because a fight between Serbs and Croats was on a definable line, and it would be possible to send United Nations forces to set these clear territories. But the moment Croatia was recognized, I told them: If you recognize Croatia, you will blow up Bosnia and Herzegovina and it will be without end.”

By the time of that interview in October 1993, Bosnia and Herzegovina was in the midst of civil war. In the Czech Republic political differences remained over what the international community should do next. President Havel argued for the use of force against the Bosnian Serbs to prevent Bosnia being carved up. But the Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec shared the caution of his predecessor, Jiří Dienstbier. At the time, the ministry, here in the words of Ivan Bušniak, played down these differences:

“President Havel said some time ago that having the Bosnia case settled along the lines of the ethnically ‘clean’ three entities is not acceptable. I would say basically that this is an idea to which we subscribe too in the ministry, but we rather prefer to express it in more general terms, namely that we would agree to any non-military solution of the Bosnia problem, which is acceptable to all three parties concerned, and which, because of the consent of these three parties concerned has the qualities of being a really viable and lasting solution.”

But the war dragged on and no agreement between the three parties was in sight. In the end the Srebrenica massacre tipped international opinion in favour of the policy of intervention preferred by President Havel, and after NATO strikes against Bosnian Serb positions, a fragile peace was achieved in December 1995.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 12, 2009.

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