Suicide In The Balkans

Osmija (Belgrade) – 24-12-1991

Written 12-12-1991 a few days after my return from Croatia and Hercegovina and five days before my prediction on ITN/Channel 4 TV news that Serbian and Croatian war objectives would inevitably lead to war and partition in Bosnia. This article was commissioned on the basis that any criticism of Belgrade should be 'coded' rather than overt. Osmija's commissioning editor, Branko Djurica, had guaranteed to translate the article faithfully and to publish it unabridged. Both undertakings were unfulfilled – as was the promised payment!

Long ago I came to the conclusion that my flat in London is probably Balkan territory. When I moved here I found that none of my tables and chairs stood firmly on the floor. I raised the matter with the previous owner, suggesting that the concrete floor was very uneven.

"No! Not at all," he said. "The trouble with antique furniture like yours is that it was never made properly in the first place. They didn't make the legs the same length. And anyway," he continued, "all you have to do is cut the legs to the right length and everything will be all right."

It didn't seem worthwhile to pursue the matter.

In the Serbo-Croatian war, it doesn't seem to be worth Europe's while to pursue the matter either.

Having spent many weeks in Zagreb, Dubrovnik and war zones in Central and Western Croatia, I've lost count of the number of times I have been asked by Croats and Serbs, "Why doesn't Europe do something?" And the answer has to be that Europe finds the prospect of intervention a little like sawing the legs off perfectly good furniture. Europe would prefer to make the floor level.

What mystifies the West and, I suspect, infuriates Lord Carrington and Cyrus Vance, is that no-one in what was Yugoslavia seems to face reality or measure the consequences of their actions. From a political point of view this is perhaps understandable. The West has learned long and hard that realpolitik was all that really stood between NATO and the Warsaw Pact forces. Long-term vision and short-term compromise is the only game the West understands. It doesn't look back. It doesn't study the manifest evils of Hitler, Mussolini, Pétain, Franco or Stalin. It isn't even frightfully concerned about the wretched Honeker, today languishing at the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. Yugoslavia, under Tito, removed itself from the Iron Curtain school of political reality and now finds itself, like so many non-aligned nations, naively playing C19th and early C20th games while the developed world makes the rules for a new game altogether which is called Europe 2000.

Europe would understand the 'Yugoslav' situation if it felt that someone had a plan, that they wanted something, that there was a vision (even if it were not a particularly pleasant vision) of the Balkans as it could be. Instead it sees nearly three-quarters of a million refugees, thousands dead, tens of thousands wounded, hundreds of cities, towns and villages destroyed and economies bankrupted. And all this, it seems to Europe, in order to show how things might have been, should have been – how they once were at 12.33 pm on May 13 in 1800-and-something.

What is less understandable and less forgivable in Western eyes is that 'Yugoslavia', of all countries, should have chosen such a suicidal, self-defeating and destructive solution to its own problems. Few countries have suffered and bled as those Balkan republics now involved or threatened by war have bled through past centuries and decades. No-one there can be unaware of the immense psychological damage suffered by Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians as a result of the last civil war. Few nations other than Czechoslovakia have seen flashes of light – 1968, 1970 and 1990 – which should have illuminated the path until dawn broke. Few countries have been so thoroughly surrounded by neighbours who have demonstrated peacefully, resolutely and with courage how to overthrow repressive regimes and achieve democracy. What's more, no country on earth should know better than 'Yugoslavia' how fruitless it is to allow primitive politicians to exploit their peoples with dinosaur words like 'Cetnik' or 'Ustache' in order to provoke precisely the state of insecurity and fear that will lead to a self-fulfilling need for military repression.

It's naive, in Western eyes.

* * *

Let me tell you more about my flat in London. Three weeks after I moved in I noticed there was damp in the wall near the front door. I rang the previous owner.

"Don't worry," he said, "I've got a guarantee from the builders. It's out of date, of course, but I'm sure we can change the date. You'll never notice it."

"I'm sure you can," I replied, "but I rather suspect the builder will know you've changed it."

"Ah, well, yes... I see what you mean," he said.

Margaret Thatcher issues guarantees. According to an obscure newspaper in Split, and an even more obscure journalist writing for it, Mrs Thatcher is alleged to have said that she would prefer to be crucified than see Croatia suffer any more. Mrs Thatcher has indeed expressed great sympathy for Croats and Croatia and having seen the dead, the dying and the suffering myself, and having been bombarded by the JNA in Dubrovnik, I share her sympathy. But when will Croatia and Serbia realise that Mrs Thatcher has as much relevance to European and world affairs as Mikhail Gorbachev. About a year ago Mrs Thatcher's own Conservative Party voted her out of office. Her cabinet colleagues had had enough of her. Her dictatorial style of leadership had led almost every one of her original supporters to resign in protest or to cringe in fear of her. European leaders found her almost impossible to deal with and breathed huge sighs of relief when at last she handed over the premiership to John Major with whom they can do business in a rational, polite and civilised manner.

In Britain, when a Prime Minister resigns or retires, he or she continues to be an MP just like the 600-odd others in the House of Commons in Westminster. Mrs Thatcher had about 48 hours to remove her furniture from 10 Downing Street and, in addition to her salary, her pension and a personal body-guard, all she has left are memories.

True, she has spent the past 12 months touring the world, collecting awards and medals from world leaders, and she has been busy raising millions of pounds in order to fund her Margaret Thatcher Institute which is a private trust dedicated to promoting her own political philosophies. But really, honestly, truly, neither Croatia nor Serbia are facing reality if they think that an elderly, retired politician who spends her time travelling in Concorde to collect old political debts from old rivals and building monuments to herself in her own lifetime will actually do anything for Serbo-Croatia.

This is just another example of the 'Yugoslav' inability to face facts. The more likely truth is that Mrs Thatcher is no more, and no less, appalled than the rest of the world by what the JNA and Serbian militias are doing in Croatia. Perhaps she even knows that by calling for recognition of Slovenia and Croatia she is embarrassing Mr Major and the British government. But does she realise that recognition of those two republics may well result in the war spreading to Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina? Perhaps it also gives her some satisfaction to see that, as she always predicted, Europe cannot agree on what it should do to stop the fighting and build a stable peace. The simple fact is that while Mrs Thatcher might appear to have all the 'strong man', 'war-lord' and despotic characteristics of the sorts of leaders who are so popular in the Balkans, her only function now is to demonstrate that countries get the leaders they deserve. And when a country decides it no longer deserves what it is getting (or what it is being made to do) then that is the day that democracy rules and heads are held high.

The only guarantees are the facts: the republics of what was Yugoslavia will have to deal with whatever political world leaders are in power regardless of their views on Balkan borders; that the war will not (and cannot) go for ever; that one day there will have to be a peace conference; that one day people will have to recognise the disputed regions within Croatia; that there was very little dispute between the villagers and citizens of Vukovar, Vinkovci, Knin, Karlovac and Osijek until the ghosts of the past were raised again; that it is the ordinary people of both sides who have suffered together; that one day there will be immense anger that they were cynically exploited by the political ambitions of a few; and that the longer the war continues the poorer Serbia will be. And money talks.

From a Western perspective, what is happening now is state suicide. When peace comes and the republics call for economic aid, credits and loans, the republics will have very little bargaining power. 'Where there are Serbs, there is Serbia' is the old saying. The longer and larger this war becomes the more likely it becomes that 'Where there are Serbs there will be a German banker'.

Three months later Serbia was involved in warfare on the territory of two of its neighbours – Croatia and Bosnia – having already retreated from military action in Slovenia. Four years later Serbia was a bankrupt and discredited state. Its population was deeply disillusioned: by the failed promises of its political and military leaders; a succession of military defeats in Bosnia; the expropriation of vast sums of money by well-placed profiteers; and the country's now marginalised status within Europe.
Having learnt nothing, it seemed, from this process, in 1998/99 Serbia then engaged in an almost identical and equally disastrous military adventure in Kosovo(a).

© (1991) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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