Pop quiz time. Who said this about whom, and when did he say it? “He has never understood that the man who set Yugoslavia on fire will never put the fire out, that the lifeblood of the Serbian government is war.”
If your guess was Tony Blair, or Bill Clinton, talking about Boris Yeltsin or Pat Buchanan in the last month or so, try again. It was Serbian Renewal Movement politician Mihajlo Markovic. He was talking about European Community Balkan peace negotiator Lord David Owen. Markovic said this back in 1993, in the middle of one of a continuing series of crackdowns by Serbian (and later Yugoslav) President Slobodan Milosevic against opposition political forces.
In fact, that particular 1993 crackdown came first on Mihajlo Markovic’s head on June 1, 1993, when he was assaulted by a fellow member of parliament who belonged to Vojislav Seselj’s ultranationalist (and aptly named) Serbian Radical Party. After a protest of the beating, police raided the headquarters of the Serbian Renewal Movement and beat its leader Vuk Draskovic and his wife, who were then arrested. Draskovic was released more than a month later, when he was “pardoned” by Milosevic.
Six years beyond these brown-shirt politics in Belgrade, the international community is billions of dollars, thousands of troops and yet another Balkan war along from Markovic’s very clear formulation of the problem. We are also no closer to grasping basic lessons about the Balkans or its Serbs, even after unleashing our best military hardware against them.
Since 1993, the West has bungled a mass street movement to remove Milosevic and criminally neglected the only homegrown nonviolent resistance movement in the Balkans. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova and Veton Surroi, among many, Kosovo Albanians created parallel governmental structures to oppose Serbian oppression in the province. Lack of potent help for the Albanians’ nonviolent campaign led directly to frustrations that fueled the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, proving once again that the squeakiest (i.e., most violent) Balkan wheel gets the oil. In time and money and lives, our learning curve is off the chart.
This isn’t a simple case of repeating history ungrasped and unlearned, however. It’s a complex and intractable problem, more so even than solving the true aim of our latest Balkan adventure: removing Milosevic from power. We still don’t understand who the Serbs that we’ve bombed for the past three months are. We didn’t invade. We didn’t remove Milosevic. The Serbs, alas, are still there. There’s just a lot fewer of them in Kosovo.
Not that the Serbs aren’t difficult to understand. They are. The tremendous Serb media sophistication in the war’s first weeks (which lowered Western public support for the bombing campaign dramatically) is hard to square with the brute savagery that journalists are busily digging up in Kosovo’s fields and basements. Those mass graves, burnt bodies and torture instruments will continue the corrosion of the Serbian reputation, and make them seem even less deserving of any financial aid or a role in any new regional structure than they already appear to be after the leveling of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991, the massacres at Srebrenica in 1995 and the three years of terror that gutless Bosnian Serbs in the hills over Sarajevo inflicted on a civilian population with sniper fire and shells.
Even those most sympathetic to the Serb cause can’t help but agree that there is no defense for the role of Serbian politicians of all stripes in the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Indicted war criminals like Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and incompetent and inanely squabbling opposition leaders are all a part of the political and military structure that manufactured discontent in its own streets and exported conflict. Mihajlo Markovic was right: War has been the lifeblood of Serbian power.
Understanding those Serbian politics is crucial to finding regional solutions. What makes it so difficult is that if you pull at any thread of Serbian politics, you have no idea where it will end, or how long it may take. Robert Thomas’ new book, Serbia Under Milosevic, tricks out many of these threads, and the layers of deceit, betrayal, thuggery and opportunism he unravels damn almost anyone who’s ever played the Serbian political game. Vuk Draskovic has paraded as a potential opposing force in the post-Kosovo Serb politics for years, but Thomas points out his deep roots in the nationalist intellectual life and politics
that set the stage for war. Hard-line nationalist Vojislav Seselj, Thomas dryly notes, was best man at Draskovic’s wedding, and Seselj and Draskovic have also shared the experience of being jailed by Milosevic and included in his governments. Many other potential opposition leaders have similar track records of such muddled quality that they can scarcely be discerned clearly even by seasoned journalists.
The un-muddled and frightening Seselj, in fact, may be the politician best poised to pounce on any weakness in Milosevic’s hold on power. Allowed to keep his “promise” to leave Milosevic’s government if NATO troops entered Kosovo last week, Seselj’s party has also been “ordered” to stay as well. The odd balancing act has simultaneously forestalled new elections that might threaten Milosevic and given Seselj new credibility with his supporters.
How the body politic will vote in any Serbian election is another fascinating and potentially dangerous question. Whatever mood it is in, it will have a great number of refugees and former refugees in it. That can’t be considered a positive. The largest single ethnic cleansing of all the wars since Yugoslavia’s breakup—more than 150,000 ethnic Serbs cleansed from the Krajina section of Croatia in 1995—has resulted in few indictments by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. That cleansing
and its refugees (absorbed by a Yugoslavia almost continuously under economic sanctions) are barely mentioned in Western media, but they are at the forefront of Serbian consciousness, as are the new influx from Kosovo.
I e-mailed Srdja Trifkovic, a Balkan analyst and former adviser to Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, to ask him about his thoughts on the deal that ended the war. Trifkovic is stridently pro-Serb and against Western intervention in the Balkans,
and while much of his e-mail took that tack, his very first words were about the columns of refugees pouring out of Kosovo and headed north. “The Serbian minority in Kosovo are already leaving their homeland,” writes Trifkovic. “Even before NATO troops went in, civilians were leaving. They have endured eighteen months’ battle with the KLA and seventy days’ NATO bombardment. Their right to stay in Kosovo is as good as anybody else’s. Neither in history nor in law is Kosovo simply Albanian territory.”
Trifkovic notes that the lip service being paid to the desire of the West for Kosovo Serbs to stay is not enough. “Where the Serbs of Bosnia remained in their homes in 1995, it was because they had their policemen to reassure them. It is extremely
unlikely that soldiers alone—strangers speaking neither Albanian nor Serbian—can give security to Serbian civilians when the KLA return. Unless NATO creates from the very first a mixed civil police force, however temporary, the remaining Kosovo Serbs will be put on the road by their enemies.”
That’s not all that’s arriving in Belgrade from Kosovo. One Belgrade friend talked with me on the phone recently, and he sounded fine. He promised to send his “notes” from the bombing campaign. When they arrived, I saw how much terror and pain and tumult he was hiding from me in our phone conversation. One brief entry gives a pretty good dose of all three:
“A friend of my friend lost his job,” he writes. “At the moment he is dealing in cigarettes, petrol and gold. He says the price of gold has dropped in Belgrade. The illegal market is flooded with gold things. There are even gold teeth. A friend of my friend claims that he spent the whole morning separating gold from the teeth. Lots of gold allegedly came from Kosovo. The ethnic origin of gold is unknown.”
Another friend said it bluntly. “You must come see it,” she wrote. “This is not peace, it is hell.”
The aggrieved and damned Serbs, swelled by an influx of refugees from the shattered project of greater Serbia, seem anything but pacified by the end of the bombing campaign. They are confused, perhaps, or in shock. But there is a bubbling cauldron of discontent brewing in its streets and its towns, and it may not be inclined to the democratic side. With no credible opposition, no independent media, a destroyed economy infrastructure and Milosevic still in power, Serbia will remain a regional time bomb for the foreseeable future. It’s enough to ask just what this war has accomplished, aside from swapping Kosovo’s minority population for its majority population, particularly if the lofty principles of “resisting ethnic cleansing” are unevenly applied.
But more importantly, it makes finding what will secure that regional peace at once more problematic and absolutely indispensable.