Comment: Closing Another Balkan Chapter

On the eve of the closure of the United Nations' smallest peacekeeping operation, its first political officer explains why it lasted so long.

Comment: Closing Another Balkan Chapter

On the eve of the closure of the United Nations' smallest peacekeeping operation, its first political officer explains why it lasted so long.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

In the United Nations' Department of Peacekeeping Operations, DPKO, the military observer mission on the Croatia-Montenegro border has long been viewed as some light relief amid the Balkan gloom, and the softest of postings.


The United Nations Mission of Observers in Prevlaka, UNMOP, is the smallest of DPKO's sixteen missions and the only one to have suffered no casualties.


For on Prevlaka, the southernmost tip of Croatia which projects across the Bay of Kotor - that spectacular fjord that otherwise lies within Montenegro - the daily "sit rep" (situation report) always says "calm and stable".


Although sunburn and overeating are constant hazards, the 27 military observers are by no means idle.


They patrol the mission area, which is a demilitarised zone that extends from the Adriatic Sea to Bosnia, and covers five km on either side of the 20-km border. They also maintain a 24-hour presence on the Prevlaka peninsula itself.


But now the United Nations has terminated the mission, in effect unconditionally. On October 8, Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced his "assessment that the closure of another chapter in the tumultuous recent history of the Balkans is within reach". Three days later, the United Nations Security Council ruled that UNMOP will end on December 15.


The writing has been on the wall for some time. Crucially, the Croat and Yugoslav foreign ministers wrote jointly to the Security Council last April, confirming their mutual confidence that they can resolve what they call "the disputed issue of Prevlaka".


What the dispute lacks in drama is made up in intricacy. Prevlaka was the last portion of Croatian territory under Yugoslav military occupation. Belgrade's condition for pulling out, exactly a decade ago, was a bilateral demilitarisation agreement with Zagreb, which was monitored by the UN.


Belgrade suggested that the border should be shifted a few km to put Prevlaka inside Montenegro, arguing that the Bay of Kotor would otherwise never be secure for the Yugoslav navy or other shipping.


Zagreb denounced this claim while keeping the door open for a deal to trade Prevlaka for a strip of territory behind Dubrovnik, which was then controlled by the Bosnian Serbs.


In this way, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman sought to widen his power in Herzegovina, while Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic would get a corridor to the sea. They even persuaded the European Union's negotiator, Lord Owen, that a viable peace for Bosnia could be achieved by agreeing to their expansionist wishes.


Then the 1995 Dayton Agreement changed everything, and international guarantees of Bosnian sovereignty put paid to fantasies of land swaps. Realising this, Zagreb decided that mutual recognition of the existing border was the only solution, sugared perhaps for the Yugoslavs by local demilitarisation.


Belgrade, by contrast, stuck to its absurd claim. Given that the security of Kotor actually depended on maintaining good relations with Croatia, why did Yugoslavia continue to dig itself deeper into a hole?


The main answer takes us back to the dark days of autumn 1991, when Montenegro - then controlled by Milosevic's stooge Momir Bulatovic - joined the Yugoslav army in an attack on southern Croatia.


They justified their campaign with noisy propaganda that claimed Croatian forces were preparing to swarm over the border.


To abandon the claim to Prevlaka would have exposed 1991's Montenegrin - and Serbian - aggression for what it was.


Apart from this, it would have been against Milosevic's principles to voluntarily close an issue that could be exploited later to gain leverage against Croatia. For its part, Zagreb was confident of getting control of Prevlaka eventually, so it did not push.


So the dispute stayed open, and nobody tried to close it - least of all, it sometimes seemed, the UN. The Security Council was not interested, and the secretariat was content with the status quo.


UNMOP was cheap, after all, and nobody was complaining about it.


As the mission's political officer in 1997, I tried to interest my bosses in nudging Zagreb and Belgrade towards a solution.


Didn't the UN have a duty to do more than passively monitor the situation? Obviously neither side would start a fight for Prevlaka, where no lives or usable infrastructure were at stake. However, my bosses advised me to relax and enjoy the sunshine.


The secretariat would not budge - choosing to stick to the flawed concept of impartiality that had already cost it so dearly in the Balkans. To this day, the UN misleadingly describes Prevlaka as a sort of no-man's land - "a strategic area disputed by Croatia and Yugoslavia".


That said, the essential obstacle to resolving the dispute was indifference in western capitals. The Security Council discussed Prevlaka for about three minutes twice a year, and we used to joke in UNMOP that Richard Holbrooke's robust diplomacy would settle the matter in half an hour.


Now, in the spirit of downsizing and perhaps of re-evaluation after the September 11 attacks, UNMOP is correctly - if belatedly - judged as surplus to requirements.


To cap it all, Montenegro's former foreign minister Nikola Samardzic was testifying at Slobodan Milosevic's trial in The Hague on the same day that Annan made his announcement in New York.


Samardzic claimed that Milosevic and Bulatovic were behind the imperialistic attack on southern Croatia and Dubrovnik, and that the claims of self-defence against Ustasha hordes were false.


The Croatian media, forgetting Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic's apology to the country in June 2000, hailed this as the first official mea culpa from the Yugoslav side.


This pleasing coincidence adds to the sense of events coming full circle.


Belgrade accepts the existing land frontier and will recognise it, if not by the time the mission closes in mid-December. Demarcating the maritime border will take longer, and may need international arbitration.


But however long it takes - and even if the Croats march onto the peninsula on December 16 with brass bands - the outlook for Prevlaka remains "calm and stable".


Mark Thompson's latest book, co-edited with Monroe E. Price, is "Forging Peace. Intervention, Human Rights and the Management of Media Space" (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).


Support our journalists