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Dom Sandbrook © 2000


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The Balkan wars of the 1990s can fairly be said to have been our Spain. Nothing sums up better the political culture of our generation than the curious mixture of horror, apathy, indifference and confusion with which each successive atrocity was received in the complacent homes of the West. While the Spanish Civil War, and reactions to it, reflected the bold political cleavages of the 1930s, the wars of Yugoslav succession and the oscillation of the West between guilty inaction and reckless commitment reflected the political timidity and fuzziness of the post-Thatcher decade. The Balkan question seemed to defy partisan affiliation: for every Tory insisting that Slobodan Milosevic was a man we could do business with, there was a clear voice of the Left urging us to see through Western anti-Serb propaganda. The project of aiding Bosnia appealed equally strongly to other activists of the Left and to Margaret Thatcher. When NATO unleashed its brutal air assault on Serbia in the spring of 1999, the left seemed not so much paralysed as dumbstruck. How many voices that had savaged John Major for his unwillingness to challenge the Serbs in Bosnia now angrily turned on Tony Blair and New Labour's 'warmongers'? This is not to make a point about the morality or otherwise of the intervention in Kosovo, merely to point out that political affiliation seemed to play only a confused and confusing part in one's position on the Balkans. The fall of President Milosevic, which appeared to be the final act in the Serbian drama at least, was greeted with rare unanimity, but by now public understanding of events of the Balkans had been cheapened and abused by the intellectual whores of Downing Street spin and the exaggerations and clichés of the media. The Balkan wars, I think, offered a test for the so-called new Europe that was flunked with flying colours. The apathy, incomprehension and mental laziness of our response were perhaps predictable: the hallmarks of a society in which political commitment has been gradually eroded by the ideology of consumerism and supine consensus, of a Left characterised now by personal feuding and intellectual vapidity, and of a political culture debased by selfishness and indifference.

Understanding what happened and why in the Balkans during the collapse of the Yugoslav state is essential to an understanding of the problems facing eastern and central Europe in general, the nature of modern nationalism, and the potential for violence in so-called sophisticated Europe as much as elsewhere. I suppose the emphasis on Yugoslavia rather than, say, Rwanda, might lead to charges of Eurocentricity. It is hard to deny the accusation. Perhaps it is simply best to admit it, and offer in mitigation the unquestionable pull of parochialism: it is human nature to be more disturbed by a gun battle in Telford than one in Tashkent. So, for instance, the fall of Slobodan Milosevic aroused far, far more public interest than the falls of Suharto or Mobutu. Yet if an understanding of what happened in Yugoslavia is crucial, then it is also severely jeopardised by the incompetence and /or bias of the media. Take these three statements, for instance:

1. Milosevic was a brutal tyrant overthrown at last by the courage of the Serbian people.
2. Milosevic' fall marks the fall of the last Communist dictator in Eastern Europe.
3. Milosevic was a vicious nationalist who seduced his people into a series of bloody wars.

They represent the new orthodoxy regarding Serbia and its former president, but not one of them is correct.

Tony Blair's insistence on the righteousness of the bombing campaigns of 1999 and his vilification of Milosevic and Serbia probably did more good for the Serbian cause among the British left than any other event of the past decade. It is hardly surprising that the left should instinctively react against the overblown rhetoric of a man they believe to have betrayed the causes of socialism and radicalism. But we should be very careful not to head off too quickly in the opposite direction without thinking hard about the origins of the Yugoslav conflicts. What we have now, on the other hand, is a Serbia understandably desperate to rebuild itself with Western aid and a European Union greedy for the commercial profits that penetration of the Serbian market will inevitably provide: hence the conspiracy in amnesia that unites the two. Serbia, it seems, is to be the Austria of the Balkan wars: not a partner in crime, but the first victim of Milosevic's wickedness. We should not let Blair's rhetoric put us off: this is simply untrue. Milosevic did not 'create' Serb nationalism. If it was 'created', then it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by a group of Serbian intellectuals led by the novelist Dobrica Cosic, for example in the infamous Memorandum of the Serbian Academy in 1986. Serbian nationalism was not an isolated phenomenon either in the Balkans or in the rest of Soviet-controlled Europe. Croatian nationalism, for instance, flowered as a way of articulating opposition to Tito in the early 1970s. The Communist regimes in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all manipulated the iconography of nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s in order to maximise their public support and conceal their increasingly weak economies. In Bulgaria, for example, the Communist leader Todor Zhivkov used the country's ethnic Turks as a convenient enemy to attack in the 1980s as the economy sank into stagnation, and it is a credit to the people of Bulgaria that they rejected such crude appeals to division and hatred. In short, nationalism thrived in the 1980s as a vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with the existing regimes. No better basis could be found for a coalition opposed to Communism that united elements from all across the political spectrum. Indeed, both Hungary and Slovakia, particularly the latter, provide examples of the strength of nationalist politics during the early 1990s. In the confused, semi-devolved federal structure of Yugoslavia, nationalism became not only a way of opposing Communism post-Tito but also a way of protecting and strengthening regional power bases. In fact, both Slovenia and Croatia used the imagery and rhetoric of nationalism to justify their secession from the federal state in 1991. Nationalism was widespread in Serbia in the early 1990s and it did not need Milosevic to invent it.

Milosevic was not a dictator. He consistently called, and won, elections, first as president of Serbia and then as president of Yugoslavia. Even in the elections of 2000 he seems to have won at least a third of the vote. It is a tendency of the Western media to pretend that leaders it dislikes are vicious bullies imposed on their own people, but in Serbia this was quite clearly not the case. Millions of Serbians during the 1990s were quite happy not only to vote for Milosevic but to support and volunteer for his military adventures. Milosevic himself was neither a Communist nor a nationalist. (Awfully difficult to be both.) He certainly began life in the Serbian Communist Party but seems to have had no compunction in repudiating all it stood for at the end of the 1980s. It appears that he was not even a socialist, despite the name of his party: in 1996 he saw no problem in privatising the Serbian state utilities and companies, mainly to his own family and cronies. His nationalism was not something heartfelt and enduring like, say, that of Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, with whom he is often compared. Tudjman, for example, got into hot water in Yugoslavia in the 1970s by rewriting Croatian history to excuse the atrocities of the Second World War and as a party to the Croatian Spring fell victim to Tito's repression. He rose because of his nationalist appeal in the late 1980s, largely backed by émigré finance, and pursued a consistent policy of belligerent nationalism (a united and independent Croatia populated by ethnic Croats: no Serbs need apply) throughout his presidency. Selling out fellow Croats was never part of his plan. Milosevic spent the 1970s as a hard-working party apparatchik, jumped onto the Serb nationalist bandwagon in Kosovo in 1987, and used consecutive foreign adventures in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and the suppression of the Albanian majority in Kosovo to paint his domestic opponents as illegitimate and to maintain his own position as the courageous leader of an embattled people. No committed, romantic nationalist would have cheerfully abandoned the Serbs of the Krajina, Bosnia and Kosovo as did Milosevic. He wasn't interested in other Serbs: he was interested in Slobo. We now hear, in contrast, that his successor Vojislav Kostunica is 'a committed Serb nationalist'. It seems a little ludicrous to be writing him off already when every single politician of any weight in modern Serbia simply has to articulate the rhetoric of Serb nationalism to survive. Kostunica opposed the Dayton agreement because it sold out the Bosnian Serbs. But there isn't one Serbian politician who didn't back his pals in Bosnia: the pro-western kingmaker Zoran Djindjic, for example, was quite happy to stroll down to Pale to eat roasted ox with Radovan Karadzic while NATO was threatening air strikes in April 1995.

Milosevic did not drag his people, kicking and screaming, into the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, or the savage colonial repression of the Kosovo Albanians. As the best historian of modern Serbia, Tim Judah recently put it: 'There was no immutable law that said that the hundreds of thousand who came out on the streets on Thursday [5 October] had to sip coffee while Sarajevo burnt.' The average Belgrade coffee-drinker now thinks that Milosevic should be tried in Serbia, not The Hague, because nowhere did he cause more harm than in his own country and to his own people. Rubbish. The real 'victims' of Milosevic were the thousand raped and slaughtered in Bosnia and elsewhere, not a bunch of beret-wearing Belgrade poseurs whingeing about empty shelves and broken bridges. Of course, the Serbs aren't the only people in the Balkans with blood on their hands. Franjo Tudjman and his Croatian admirers were hardly blameless either and two of the most poignant acts of the decade, the destruction of the bridge at Mostar (a symbol of the peaceful diversity of Bosnia that had made it a model for the Balkans), and the destruction of the Serb community in the Krajina, can be laid at Tudjman's rather unpleasant door. Nor are there any grounds for admiration of the gangsters and killers of the KLA: they too are all for ethnic cleansing, as long as it is of Serbs. It has not been unknown to hear from some on the left that the real villains of the piece were the Ustase-fancying Croats and their German backers, or the CIA-backed Albanian gunmen of the KLA. Let me be quite clear. To exonerate Milosevic is no less trite and lazy than to paint him as the devil incarnate. Anyone who has followed the intricacies of the collapse of the Yugoslav state in the period c.1989-1992, for instance in the magisterial books by Viktor Meier or Laura Silber and Allan Little, knows that Milosevic not only welcomed war in Croatia in 1991 but also planned and aided the creation of paramilitary units in Bosnia well before Germany had recognised Croatian and Slovenian independence. Milosevic was entirely cynical, devoid of either emotional or political commitments, dedicated only to his own survival. It was at the hands of the Serbian army and Serbian paramilitary units that Europe saw its worst bloodshed for fifty years. Agreed, the other combatants were rarely blameless and often deserved bitter condemnation. But to defend Slobo and his cronies not only ignores the facts of history; it also betrays the commitments and principles of the British left.

If no parties to the Balkan bloodshed were entirely free of guilt, how does that affect our understanding of the place of this conflict in European history? In one sense the break-up of Yugoslavia represented the last phase of the collapse of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires in southeastern Europe. There is no need for any inflated rhetoric about 'cultural fault lines'. The collapse of the two empires was at every stage marked by violence and the massive transfer of populations, for example between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. This was assuredly not an exclusively Balkan phenomenon, but a historically inevitable part of the transformation of dynastic multi-national empires into ethnically homogenous nation-states. As Mark Mazower's book Dark Continent makes clear, it is becoming increasingly valid to regard European history in the twentieth century as a long and violent debate over the nature of the validity of the nation-state, and even after the Second World War the mystique of the nation was sufficiently strong for there to be an enormous, and enormously traumatic, process of forced population migration in Central Europe (Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and so on). The transformation of Yugoslavia from a multi-national federation into a number of small states trumpeting their ethnic 'purity' is therefore less distinctive than one might imagine and perhaps simply represents the most violent extreme of a process still affecting richer areas of Europe: Spain and Britain, for example. Another way to look at the modern Balkan wars is as merely the bloodiest expression of a generally violent adjustment from Communism to capitalism throughout Eastern Europe. In both Albania and Romania, for instance, the fall of Communist regimes was attended by virtual civil war, and the unpleasant Slovak strongman Vladimir Meciar, whose despotic tendencies were barely concealed by the fig leaf of democratic victory, was nothing if not reminiscent of Milosevic and Tudjman. To understand how ordinary people could be driven to support such bullies, and indeed to volunteer themselves for campaigns of alcohol-fuelled rape and pillage, one needs merely to gaze on the overcrowded, miserable suburbs of the cities of the southern Balkans. Never did I understand the misery and resentment that could lead to violence so well as when I drove through the dusty suburbs of Sofia one baking summer's day: the vast, ugly, keening tower blocks built after the Second World War to house the unprecedented influx of workers from the countryside, a world now of listlessness and unemployment, devoid of colour, imagination or hope; everywhere the sounds of abrasive Balkan heavy metal and the toxic rhetoric of nationalist television commentators, the heavy, cracked balconies sagging under the weight of mounds of laundry and grasping satellite dishes. As Mazower points out, Communism actually answered the problems of the post-war Balkans, promoting literacy, social welfare and industrialisation on a heroic scale and containing, sublimating nationalist rivalries. In much of the region it is rare to find ordinary citizens who would not now sacrifice a few personal freedoms to return to the relative economic security of the 1970s. In this climate of poverty, resentment and betrayal, the appeal of nationalism is not hard to understand.

What future for the Balkans, then, post-Milosevic? It seems probable that his passing marks the end of era of the strongman. Whereas in Russia power is more and more being concentrated in the centre, with a semi-authoritarian populist leader spreading a veneer of democratic respectability over the systematic rape of the state by cronies and oligarchs, in Croatia and Serbia the process seems thankfully to be being reversed. Both Slovenia and Croatia, the latter as a consequence of war and expulsions, are virtually homogenous nation states increasingly popular with Western corporations and tourists alike. Bosnia still remains split between a Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska, and despite the bitter memories of the appalling violence of the civil war, perhaps time and prosperity will bring reconciliation between the two entities and the country can thrive as a single multi-ethnic state. As for the rump Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica has already declared that he wants to ditch the name itself in preference for 'the Federation of Serbia and Montenegro' and that if the Montenegrins, under their affable gangster of a president, Milo Djukanovic, vote for independence, they will be allowed to depart in peace. Already the Montenegrin government is pushing the country as a tourist destination for the adventurous.

The real unanswered problems in the Balkans lie to the south. We do not have to accept the media gibberish about the danger of a wider war involving as many as five different countries to accept that Kosovo and Macedonia pose extremely difficult questions. It is quite clear that the West still has no idea what to do with Kosovo. Reintegration within Serbia is impossible given that most of the province's Serbian population have fled and the Albanians are totally opposed to any rapprochement with their erstwhile tormentors. Yet independence, or union with Albania, would be exceedingly dangerous. For just to the south, Macedonia faces its own 'Albanian problem', with a rapidly growing Albanian population, largely poor and unemployed, living uneasily alongside an ethnic Slav community that is still developing a separate 'Macedonian' identity. Should Kosovo win independence, it is likely that hotheads among Macedonia's Albanian community would demand the secession of the western half of the country, effectively declaring war on the idea of a single Macedonian state. Nationalities, and nationalism, sadly still matter in the southern Balkans. To return to the argument of my first paragraph, it is the responsibility of those Europeans who have little need to worry about unemployment and economic stagnation to attempt to blunt the appeal of Balkan nationalism. This can only surely only happen if all citizens of a given country ­ Macedonia, say ­ are convinced that they have an equal stake in its success, whatever their religion or ethnicity. Perceived ethnic differences have often been in fact religious, linguistic or economic ones: the Bosnian civil war was as much about the resentment of the impoverished and unemployed countryman (Serb or Herzegovinian Croat) towards the sophisticated Sarajevo city slicker (Bosniak Muslim) as it was about genuine religious hatred. If European co-operation, not to mention union, is to mean anything more than jobs for the boys, free trade for all and chubby Belgians mounting the gravy train, then western Europe should be spending large sums of money on rebuilding the shattered industries and economies of the east. That's 'rebuilding', not opening them up to rapacious multi-national predators or rushing helter-skelter into crazy privatisation regimes and spending cuts that send half the population into abject poverty. At the time of writing it appears that the new regime in Serbia is committed to wholesale change across the board ­ in the control of industry and the media, for example. Good. It would be foolish, though, to think that the Serbian people kicked Slobodan Milosevic out because he had offended Western sensibilities, or because they now repudiated his military excursions. The response to Serbian television's broadcast of a documentary on Serb war crimes in Bosnia demonstrates their unwillingness to abandon their fantasy of being embattled victims: hardly surprising when you have been bombed by the world's most powerful military alliance. The suspicion remains that we have not heard the last of Kosovo and the Albanian question in Balkan Europe, that there are still serious issues to be resolved. Moreover, we may not even have heard the last of Serbia itself and may yet hear more of other, lesser-known countries. Romania, Bulgaria and Albania are still being slowly squeezed in the grip of gangster capitalism, dragged down by the enrichment of the few and the impoverishment of the many. Milosevic may well be gone, podgy, awkward testimony to the banality of evil that he was. But he alone was not responsible for the misery of the region in the 1990s and those grim conditions in which nationalism was spawned are still extant. The left should be telling Blair and his friends that we need to be tough on the causes of Slobo as well as tough on Slobo himself. And it should be telling him that if all we have seen in Eastern Europe is the replacement of the Communist Party badge by the dodgy leather jacket, then that is both a poor and a dangerous bargain.




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