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Recognition brought peace

June 25, 2011

Despite thinking Yugoslavia needed to be preserved at all costs, former West German Foreign Minister Genscher became a prominent advocate of Croatian and Slovenian independence. He tells DW what changed his mind.

map of Croatia and Slovenia
The futures of Croatia and Slovenia lies in EU membership, Genscher saysImage: DW

Veteran West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, one of the most prominent advocates of Croatian and Slovenian independence, spoke to Deutsche Welle about the events in the former Yugoslavia 20 years ago.

DW: Several villages and towns in Croatia have a Genscher Street or a Genscher Square. On the island of Brac, residents are squabbling over which Genscher bust is more beautiful – the marble one or the one made of bronze. Does all this attention make you proud?

Hans-Dietrich Genscher: I certainly regard it as recognition of the stance Germany had at the time. Back then, the decisions we had to make were not easy.

What was Germany's relationship to Yugoslavia while you were foreign minister?

I was of the opinion that we had to do everything in our power to preserve Yugoslavia. As Germans, we had especially close ties with Yugoslavia.

One reason was that very many Yugoslavs, mainly Slovenians and Croats, lived and worked in Germany. And on the other hand, Yugoslavia was a holiday destination for Germans. The people had gotten to know each other after World War II and its terrible events. A very friendly relationship evolved. German foreign policies regarded Yugoslavia as a factor of independence. It was very important that a European country should participate in the anti-colonial movement of the nonaligned states. That made it clear that it wasn't about an anti-European movement but an anti-colonial movement. So Yugoslavia had a special position in our policies and within the European Community we advocated for closer cooperation with Yugoslavia.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher
Hans-Dietrich Genscher was Germany's foreign minister from 1974-1992Image: DW

You have gone down in history as the most important advocate of Slovenian and Croatian independence. But in early 1991, you were still hoping to preserve Yugoslavia. What happened to change your mind?

It was becoming increasingly clear that Milosevic was claiming power. Yugoslavia [under Tito] wanted to preserve its independence from the Soviet Union. But after the reformers, that is Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, had taken over responsibility there, that solidarity evaporated in Yugoslavia.

We honestly saw signs of a trend towards a Greater Serbia. The speech on the Field of Blackbirds played a large role. Stopping rotation in Yugoslavia's state presidium, as well as cancelling autonomy in Kosovo and Vojvodina, showed that Milosevic wanted a different Yugoslavia - namely one that was dominated by Serbia. That made it clear that Croatian and Slovenian efforts toward independence were justified.

Do you believe the Yugoslav armed forces' invasion in Dubrovnik and Vukovar could have been prevented if the conflict had been realized at an earlier stage by the international community, or if Croatia and Slovenia had been recognized more quickly?

I believe that a more decisive stance by the international community might have been able to prevent, or at least limit, the developments we unfortunately had to witness. We discussed these issues within the European Community again and again. The Badinter-Herzog commission was formed, which was supposed to define the preconditions for the recognition of independent states. That was proof that the question of recognition wasn't something that just the Germans were pondering, the entire European Community was seriously involved and was coming up with regulations as to how such independence can be recognized. During the second half of 1991, it became clear that Milosevic was playing along, holding talks with everyone who was interested, but that in the end he did not want a Yugoslavia that corresponded with the fundamental ideas of the federation.

Dubrovnik is a favorite destination for GermansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany is often accused of having gone it alone. On December 23, 1991, Germany recognized Croatia. On January 15, 1992, Germany established diplomatic relations, just like all the other EU nations. So was this a solo attempt or wasn't it?

We had a European Community meeting on December 17, at which we decided to recognize Croatia and Slovenia as independent states with effect from January 15, 1992. I told the meeting that of course we would adhere to that and would take no steps without a European Community decision. And we did adhere to the decision concerning this issue. We made the decision to recognize the states on December 23, but it didn't go into effect until January 15, 1992. At that time, all the other European Community member states recognized the two states, too. From the start, Germany said it would not go it alone. And, as I've said, the decision was unanimous. And it brought peace. As a result of the conflict becoming more international, in early January 1992 Milosevic declared the war to be over - the war he himself had started against the two republics. So that shows it was a decision that brought peace.

Even though the decision was unanimous, not everyone was enthusiastic about recognizing Croatia and Slovenia. Some members would have preferred to wait a bit longer.

Yes, that is usually the case in such a group that one will welcome a decision more than the other. But what is important is that there was a unanimous decision and no solo action.

Did concerns about Bosnia fade into the background somewhat in the course of recognizing Croatia and Slovenia? Couldn't people guess what would later happen in Bosnia?

The war in Slovenia and Croatia showed that the situation in Bosnia was highly explosive. A continuation of the war against Slovenia and Croatia would have undobutedly set the war in Bosnia in motion at a much earlier date.

Why then wasn't Bosnia's independence recognized right away?

Developments hadn't reached that point yet. And I am convinced it was important to focus first on Slovenia and Croatia where a war was raging.

The Badinter-Herzog commission said Macedonia also fulfilled the conditions for recognition. Why wasn't Macedonia recognized at the same time as Croatia and Slovenia?

At the meeting on December 17, 1991, there wasn't a single country that proposed recognizing Macedonia at that time. We didn't, either.

Mladic in court
Former Bosnian Serb General Mladic faces the UN's Yugoslav war crimes tribunalImage: dapd

It just didn't come up?

Let's just say that it wasn't an issue at that point.

Today, 20 years later, Slovenia is a member of the EU and Croatia is to join in two years. Back then, you said recognition was a sign of considerable trust. Have Croatia and Slovenia disappointed you or have they proven to be worthy of that trust?

They have deserved my trust. It wasn't an easy path for the countries concerned, but they went ahead with great determination.

Another country is currently knocking at the doors of the EU: Serbia. The country removed a major hurdle when it extradited Ratko Mladic. Should Serbia be the next nation to join the EU?

Certainly, Serbia has removed an important obstacle. Then and now, I never doubted that, if it fulfils all the preconditions, Serbia has the same entitlement to become an EU member. I've always said that the future of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia lies in EU membership. One day - the sooner, the better - they will be reunited as equal members in the EU.

Interview: Rayna Breuer, Zoran Arbutina (db)

Editor: Susan Houlton