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Book Review: Ana S. Trbovich. A Legal Geography of Yugoslavia's Disintegration

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  • Balkan Academic News
    Ana S. Trbovich. A Legal Geography of Yugoslavia s Disintegration. Oxford Oxford University Press, 2008. xiv + 522 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-533343-5.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 29, 2009
      Ana S. Trbovich. A Legal Geography of Yugoslavia's Disintegration.
      Oxford Oxford University Press, 2008. xiv + 522 pp. $80.00
      (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-533343-5.

      Reviewed by Daphne Winland (Anthropology Department, York University)
      Published on H-Soyuz (July, 2009)
      Commissioned by Johanna K. Bockman

      The Disillusion of Yugoslavia: And the Beat Goes On

      Ana S. Trbovich's _A Legal Geography of Yugoslavia's Disintegration_
      is a valuable intervention in the long running and, at times,
      torturous debate over the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The book
      provides a richly detailed, if not exhaustive, interpretation of the
      legal constitutional landscape of the region and its history. The
      author's academic and political credentials, most recently as
      director of the Center for European Integration and Management of
      Public Administration at the University of Singidunum in Belgrade, as
      well as her service as assistant minister of International Economic
      Relations for the government of Serbia, is reflected in her extensive
      knowledge and experience in the intricacies and nuances of political
      decision making. Trbovich chronicles the complex national state
      administrative and political incarnations of Yugoslavia, focusing
      primarily on post-1914 Yugoslavia. To this end, she carefully maps
      out the complex legal and political terrain--the "legal
      geography"--of the former Yugoslavia. The evolution of Yugoslavia as
      a state is meticulously researched, evidenced in extensive footnotes
      and citations, including scholarly work, a host of relevant legal
      statutes, resolutions, and reports. The list of maps as well as an
      extensive bibliography containing primary and secondary sources are
      excellent resources for those interested in both international law
      and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).

      The purpose of the book becomes clear early on, and that is to make a
      case for what the author argues was the complicity of the
      international community in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and
      the illegal use of force in 1999 against the FRY by NATO forces. Most
      important though is Trbovich's analysis of what she argues is "an
      almost complete reversal" of international practice of respect for
      the territorial and constitutional integrity of sovereign states (p.
      1). To this end, the author carefully lays out the legal, juridical,
      and constitutional grounds for intervention in the internal affairs
      of states by citing contexts where such action has been used not only
      legitimately but also in concert with international law and
      principles of sovereignty, as well as with respect for the integrity
      of state legal and constitutional structures_. _Trbovich begins her
      analysis with an examination of the problematic and selective
      interpretation of two pivotal international legal
      principles--self-determination and secession--and how, in the case of
      Yugoslavia, misguided assessments on the part of the international
      community led to the demise of Yugoslavia and the bloody wars of
      secession that followed. She demonstrates how policy decisions based
      on the protection of minority and human rights--ubiquitous and, some
      argue, hegemonic concepts for which there are no consensual
      definitions--undermine the credibility and force of international
      law. Thus, for example, when does a minority become a "people"
      deserving of the political right of self-determination? The dubious
      viability of particular (minority) rights regimes (and here the
      author cites the case of Kosovar Albanians) raises questions about
      the legality of claims for self-determination that often serve to
      undermine the integrity of a state's constitution. According to
      Trbovich, discussion and debate is better served by a focus on
      constitutional and legal provisions and precedents than by appeals to
      universal moral principles.

      The author charts the historical development of the Yugoslav
      federation beginning in 1918 when Serbian, Croatian, and, to a lesser
      extent, Slovenian and other national movements were solidifying the
      ideological foundations of what would later become demands for
      self-determination and, eventually, secession in 1991. Throughout the
      book, Yugoslav regimes after 1918 all receive positive valuation
      relative to those of other states in the region. This is attributed
      to a history of democratic governance and recognition of the rights
      of Yugoslavia's constituent nations. The histories of Kosovo i
      Metohija (the name enshrined in the Socialist Federal Republic of
      Yugoslavia constitution, dropped by Josip Broz Tito in 1974, and then
      reinstated by Slobodan Milošević in 1989), Croatia, Slovenia, and
      the other Yugoslav republics and provinces are examined with
      particular emphasis on the challenges they have posed to the
      legitimacy of Yugoslav federal administrative borders and to the
      state itself.[1] Among the historical examples the author uses to
      bolster her analysis, World War II comes under particular scrutiny as
      a period when Croatia aligned itself with the fascist Axis powers in
      1941 and perpetrated atrocities against Serbs, Jews, and others.
      According to Trbovich, the actions of the fascist Ustasha state
      against Serbs amounted to genocide. While debates about the roles and
      responsibilities of Croats, Serbs, and others during this period, and
      charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing rage on, the author focuses
      mainly on the claim that Serbs were the primary victims of Croatian
      genocide. The fascist taint of Croatia during World War II is
      extended to the 1990s in reference to Croatia's offensive in Krayina
      (Krajina). The choice of language is significant: "Thus while Serbs
      are admonished for _expelling_ Croats ... the _cleansing _of numerous
      Serbs ... occurred unnoticed" (p. 302, emphasis mine).

      The tendency to present evidence to support one's arguments to the
      neglect of that which may cast doubt is not unusual in the
      scholarship on Yugoslavia, but it is somewhat troublesome given the
      lengths to which Trbovich has gone to present a comprehensive,
      extensively researched, and balanced perspective on the region and
      its history. For example, the omission of highly respected
      scholarship on Kosovo and Bosnia, such as Noel Malcolm's _Kosovo: A
      Short History_ (1998) and _Bosnia: A Short History_ (1994), and Julie
      Mertus's _Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War_ (1999) is
      curious at best, as is that on Serbia, such as Robert Thomas's _The
      Politics of Serbia in the 1990s_ (1999), and Jasminka Udovički and
      James Ridgeway's _Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of
      Yugoslavia _(2000). The book also, at times, betrays a certain degree
      of hostility toward Croats, claiming ultimately that the foundations
      of Croatia's grievances against Yugoslavia amount to historical
      revisionism. While few would deny the brutality of Croatia's WWII
      fascist past and their actions in Operations Storm and Flash,
      Trbovich seems compelled to exonerate Serbs of any wrongdoing,
      reflected in frequent allusions to the "conciliatory" nature and
      peaceful intentions of FRY and their continuous willingness to
      compromise (p. 298). For example, the Yugoslav National Army is
      deemed to have "acted only in self defence" in responding to the
      "illegal use of force by secessionists" (p. 283). Scant attention is
      devoted to the culpability of the Milošević regime and of Bosnian
      Serbs for the brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (including the
      four-year siege of Sarajevo), the massacre at Srebrenica, the
      destruction of Vukovar, and, more generally, the central role of
      extreme nationalism during the 1990s. If the author's intention is to
      present a balanced argument that focuses mainly on the constitutional
      and legal grounds of intervention in the affairs of sovereign states,
      then greater care should have been taken to present an evenhanded
      treatment of all parties to the conflict. The use of value-laden
      terms, such as "pogrom" in relation to Serbs only, as well as
      accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Albanians and
      Croats to the exclusion of Serbs, is deeply problematic and
      diminishes the persuasiveness of Trbovich's analysis, especially in
      the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (pp. 355, 406).

      Trbovich's analysis of the events leading up to and during the NATO
      bombing of Belgrade represents more careful and balanced analysis of
      the role of international bodies in intervention. Although the author
      mainly identifies discrimination of Serbs at the hands of Albanians
      in Kosovo (even though the reverse is well documented), Trbovich
      makes a compelling case against the controversial series of decisions
      that led to NATO's air campaign against FRY in 1999. The rush to
      respond resulted not only in devastating consequences for those
      caught on the ground, but also serious repercussions for the process
      by which claims for self-determination are assessed and acted on by
      the international community. Trbovich makes a strong case for her
      assertion that NATO's actions in FRY have compromised the principles
      on which international laws and precedents concerning state
      sovereignty are built. For example, Trbovich invokes the rules of
      _ius ad bellum_ (law governing the right to go to war) and_ ius in
      bello_ (conduct of war once it has begun) embedded in the UN Charter,
      to underscore her contention that NATO actions were a direct
      violation of the UN Security Council process to which it was
      accountable and that diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict
      peacefully were not exhausted. The justification that followed the
      NATO campaign--humanitarian intervention--is thus flawed on both
      moral and legal grounds. Trbovich's argument is ever more urgent
      given the troubling spate of interventions by the West since 2001 in
      Iraq and Afghanistan and the looming threat of more to come. Her
      analysis confirms the critiques of many legal scholars who argue that
      debates concerning intervention in Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina
      are increasingly difficult to evaluate, given that they often appeal
      to realist, relativist, and/or moral principles. Exceptions to
      prescriptive legal statutes and conventions, not to mention
      _realpolitik_, are becoming the norm in international affairs.

      The final two chapters of the book thus provide some useful lessons
      for thinking about conditions under which international intervention
      is necessary and/or legitimate. Although in hindsight it is perhaps
      easy to say that the political fates of both Kosovo and Bosnia and
      Herzegovina remain precarious, Trbovich argues convincingly for the
      need for greater commitment to early diplomacy in reaching negotiated
      solutions and cautions against the increasingly problematic trend
      toward the enforcement of democratic governance and the compromising
      of territorial sovereignty. This, according to the author, ultimately
      represents an abrogation of our collective duty to respect the
      integrity of state constitutions, sovereignty, and international law.
      While readers may find some observations, analogies, and/or
      conclusions drawn by the author objectionable, her contribution to
      the debates over the uses and abuses of international treaties, and
      laws around intervention in the context of human and minority rights,
      is a welcome and necessary one.


      [1]. The transliteration of Serbian names to phonetic English will be
      confusing to those who, particularly in the past fifteen to twenty
      years, have grown accustomed to reading script (sometimes with
      diacritics) in the Roman alphabet. Thus, a commonly cited name such
      as Milošević appears as Miloshevich.

      Citation: Daphne Winland. Review of Trbovich, Ana S., _A Legal
      Geography of Yugoslavia's Disintegration_. H-Soyuz, H-Net Reviews.
      July, 2009.
      URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=22791

      This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
      Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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