Michael Benson on Fri, 6 Oct 2000 15:52:25 +0200


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Syndicate: Some thoughts on Belgrade


[also to nettime]
 
1. Listening to Kustunica's lengthy interview on TV Serbia last night, I suddenly realized that extent to which the madness of the last decade -- a madness that consumed an entire country and took hundreds of thousands of lives -- was the extension of the pathologies of one diseased, brilliantly cunning, and utterly ruthless man. The question arises of whether there even would have been armed conflict anywhere in the former Yugoslavia if he hadn't stabbed his mentor Stambolic in the back in 1987, and seized control of the Serbian socialist party. Would Yugoslavia still exist? Or if not, would it have been an amicable divorce, as with the Czechs and Slovaks? I think more likely the latter -- and in that maybe I underestimate the Balkans (always a dangerous move). But I remember very clearly the mood in Slovenia in 1989 and '90. The majority of Slovenes thought it was too risky to go the way of a separate state. Then Milosevic's group seized two thirds of the entire federal budget of Yugoslavia during the course of one weekend -- and I could almost palpably hear a majority of Slovenians click over to the other side as they came to a simultaneous realization that it would always and forever be impossible to work with a Serbia under the control of that man.
 
As for Croatia, I very much doubt that things would have come to war if it hadn't been for the constant and consistent moves by the Serbian side to relentlessly fan the ashes of nationalism. After Milosevic consciously started that fire in Kosovo in '88. Tudjman was always reactive, not active. But that's another discussion.
 
Kostunica's moderation, obvious intelligence, and most of all, repeated emphasis on legality and the rule of law (and what's permissible constitutionally -- he is after all a constitutional lawyer) is like a window opening in a room that has grown exceedingly stuffy over the course of a decade and a half. Not to mention the blood on the floor. Even if I disagree with him on the issue of the Hague. 
 
2. Watching corpulent Eagleburger, the former US Secretary of State and one-time ambassador to Yugoslavia, on TV last night, I could feel my gorge rise. (Great name, b.t.w., for an ambassador, isn't it? Not to mention a secretary of state?) This is a man who, under Bush, was more than ready to declare to the world that the massacres that were taking place in the former Yugoslavia were an internal matter, or Europe's business, and in any case the US wasn't at all interested in getting involved. (I believe his actual phrase was "this is a swamp into which we shouldn't wander", or some such.) Now here he is on TV delivering himself of the opinion that we should look the other way while Milosevic is given asylum somewhere, presumably in some country like Belarus -- and this at a time when it was already clear that Milosevic seems to have lost all ability to fight back, and is therefore at the mercy of what the opposition wants to do with him! Eagleburger belongs to the Kissengerian school of realpolitic, in which moral considerations are scorned as the territory for wimpy liberals, presumably because K qualifies as one himself (something rarely mentioned during the course of that Pinochet-in-London episode last year). The presupposition that Milosevic retains some possibility to fight is supposedly the rationale for letting him get away -- but there's no evidence that he has that ability. Which just goes to show that Eagleburger is either getting increasingly inept in his old age, or simply thinks that apprehending war criminals is a bad idea.
 
3. Kostunica paints the Hague tribunal as being a US puppet court, even though the US has consistently refused to hand over the results of its high-tech spying on Bosnian Serb military communications over the last few years (and despite the US resistance to setting up a permanent international war crimes tribunal, which would have the possibility of trying US war criminals as well. Let's not forget that Kissinger's still alive...) On the other hand, CNN's guy Alessio Vinci says that Kostunica isn't making it a "high priority" that Milosevic be handed over to the Hague -- which makes it seem like he's only holding his cards close to his chest while M remains at large, and might consider it. My strong view is that Serbia will never recover its balance and the possibility of returning to something like normality unless it hands of Mladic, Karadzic, Milosevic, and the other mass murderers (Seselj, for example). It would be too much to hope that they could be tried in Serbia. It would also be interesting if TV Serbia opens its airwaves, for example, to a program like the BBC's "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" (Allen Little and Laura Silber). But it will take a long time to undo the damage done by 13 years of relentless nationalist propaganda (see point 1).
 
4. If Kosovo came up in the Kostunica interview, I didn't hear it because CNN cut away early. But clearly this is bad news to the Kosovo Albanians (sorry, I can't bring myself to use one of those politically-correct "Kosov@" spellings). I'm afraid that the West, pushed by the French (who don't want their collaboration with Karadzic brought into an open court) will now move rapidly to forgive and forget the Bosnian butchery and decade-plus of apartheid crimes in Kosovo. Part of this will involve a re-think of the status of Kosovo, which in any case is in a kind of bureaucratic purgatorio state, with the jury out on if they will be ushered back to hell or allowed a shot at self-government. My own view is that the Serbs gave up any right to Kosovo with their behavior there since 1988. Not to mention the demographics -- even before the war last year.
 
5. I happened to be in Belgrade, waiting for two months for a Soviet visa, when Milosevic seized power in '87. I'll always remember the panicky atmosphere in the city at that time -- not because of Milosevic, but because the inflation was so radical that you could clock the dive of the dinar by the hour. There were long lines at every store as people desperately tried to amass basic staple foods before the prices doubled or tripled during the course of a single day. Now we're at the other end of the story, but the economy is if anything much worse. If he is really well and truly gone, Serbia will still have to be in a kind of intensive care ward for years. Having spent quite a bit of time in Croatia recently, I saw for myself how ravaged the Croatian economy and sense of self is after Tudjman -- and in Serbia, as I said, it's much more grim. If this guy really did spend his ninth life, clearly it's cause for celebration. But Serbia will never really recover until it becomes candid with itself about the extent of its willing complicity in his madness. In that sense, it's a similar situation to the one facing Germany in 1945 -- only the Serbs are already in a better position, because they got rid of him themselves. Or are they? It took the victorious allies who imposed "de-nazification". Who will do that in Serbia?
 
6. Meanwhile, whatever happens, a celebration's definitely in order.
 
Cheers, MB