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Opinions Archive 1999

A European Vision For The Balkans

NATO miscalculated badly, but it got one thing right: the ideology of Belgrade must be confronted. The West needs a comprehensive strategy to get out of the quagmire, and it should start with the European Union.

By Xena Begovic
(Published on April 9, 1999)

"It should have been done in 1991," many people comment, on the NATO action in what is left of Yugoslavia. "Now it's too late and it may even do more harm than good."

Such comments take me back to the beginning of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It was a time when human- and civil-rights activists could not imagine that force would one day be the only way to destroy the Yugoslav Army and its media machine -- the two pillars of Slobodan Milosevic's regime.

How could we dream that Belgrade would be able to generate humanitarian catastrophes year after year? How could we believe that so many small warlords could ever emerge from the vipers' nest of the Belgrade regime?

We felt that the rising red-brown class had absorbed the worst of both nationalism and communism. But we couldn't imagine the consequences: millions expelled from their homes, millions losing their jobs, their families, their friends, their moral identity and human dignity. We no longer count those killed by the thousands, but by the hundreds of thousands.

Now the familiar pictures have returned, created by the same regime that sticks to the same, by now familiar scenario. While hundreds of thousands of Albanians are killed and displaced from their homes in Kosovo, people in Belgrade sing and dance on the Trg Republike, the Serbian capital's main square. Why?

They want to show NATO and the American imperialists what a proud and brave people they are. Not even the world's most formidable power can threaten them. They don't care about the on-going massacres in Kosovo. They know it's NATO which is committing atrocities and, anyway, the alleged victims are Albanian terrorists who want to take over the cradle of their homeland.

Three weeks ago, many Serbs wanted their leader dead. Now they seem to want to kiss him. Milosevic, the demonic dictator, plays on their fears to feed his hunger for power. His principle weapon is Serbian radio and television, a sophisticated propaganda machine through which he masterly designs a virtual reality for his citizens. Every hour he shows them how NATO's shelling kills and destroys factories and the effluents poison the environment.

"If I watch television, I see that the Galenica Pharmaceutics factory is in flames, but if I look out my window, I see the same factory standing intact," said my friend in Belgrade. For the majority, however, there is no difference between what is broadcast on state television and the real world. People trust the television more than their own eyes. Fearing the truth, they prefer to believe in lies.

Everybody in Serbia is scared today. They fear the bombs; they fear the poisoned air; they fear that they are losing their state and identity; they fear they will be occupied and tortured by Albanians. The democratic and human rights opposition fear they will be killed or summarily executed for opposing ethnic cleansing. But most of all, there are some people in Serbia whose greatest fear is to say out loud that they welcome NATO's bombs as a way of finally ridding them of Milosevic.

NATO badly miscalculated the effect of their bombings. They didn't predict that Milosevic's best defence against their smart bombs was an ever more sophisticated machinery, that of his propaganda. Milosevic has wisely chosen to show the US-dominated NATO as an ally of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Albanians.

It's a simple formula, but a poisonous potion, and to those who take it in, it seems evident that without Milosevic Serbia will be occupied by Americans, ergo ruled by Albanians. What seems like a demon to the outside world, thus becomes a saviour to those living in the virtual reality of Milosevic's making. The Serbs now have nothing left but Milosevic's promised land. Almost all symbols of nation and statehood are in ruins, and he stands on the rubble as the sole remaining symbol of Serb identity and unity.

Milosevic carries the blame for the disaster in the Balkans. But the lack of a coherent Western strategy for the region, and a clear plan for the use of NATO force, contributed to the tragedy in Kosovo. It seems that Washington and Brussels did not plan for the eventuality that Milosevic would use NATO's raid to ethnically cleanse the western and northern part of Kosovo. Or even worse, maybe that was their plan, a possible scenario they considered advantageous, albeit unfortunate.

"It seems the deal is partition," said a trustworthy friend, a human rights activist. Milosevic gets whatever land he can ethnically cleanse (the way it worked out for him in Bosnia, or for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman with the Serbs from Krajina), as long as he accepts some NATO shelling into the bargain.

And why not? It's better than losing power, being killed, or ending up in The Hague Tribunal. The deal would create a new Serbia, a bit smaller to be sure, but free of Albanians, without any NATO implementation forces and devoid of anyone who can challenge the demon's insatiable lust for power.

Indeed, the whole nation would praise the all-powerful father for saving Serbia once more--keeping Kosovo, as he always promised, while getting rid of the Albanians and defeating NATO and America along the way. Milosevic would sit back and watch as deputy prime minister Vojislav Seselj and the paramilitaries under the command of Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznjatovic finished off the remaining non-patriotic, pro-Western traitors, the human rights activists, and opposition journalists. They may be better off emigrating, if they ever get the chance.

For NATO, this cynical deal would weaken Yugoslavia's military force and end its trouble-making track record. It's a comfortable way to get rid of the villainous Serbs by constructing a cordon sanitaire to contain these misfits in the black hole they all deserve. Let them shout in the squares, as long as no one else must listen.

Such a deal would do as much harm to Western values as Milosevic has done to Serbia. But the major flaw in this Realpolitik approach is that it will not work. Milosevic is not the only troublemaker, in Yugoslavia or in the Balkans. Just because Hitler committed suicide, Germany was not free from Nazism. It required an overwhelming effort by both the United States and Europe to lead the process of de-Nazification and reconstruction. And Germany has still not quite come to terms with its horrible past.

Similarly, if the nationalist-communist ideology in the Balkans is not broken, it will keep producing new father-figure national leaders, re-mapping territories, reshaping ethnic demography, creating a string of violent conflicts. There are still Muslims in Serbia, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, Hungarians in Vojvodina, Albanians in Macedonia and so on. If every people was to forge its own ethnically pure state, none of them would have the political and social stamina to build viable societies. Their only option would be to extend their dominion via further land grabs, with no end to the violence and suffering.

There is a brighter vision for the Balkans. It requires a comprehensive strategy to change the political tide towards a democratic -- and in the Balkans that necessarily means a regional -- agenda.

A key step would be to shift responsibility for the Balkans to Europe. International ground forces must be deployed in Kosovo, and these should be predominantly European. They would administer a protectorate under a temporary administrator along the lines of the Rambouillet agreement. That would mean both stopping ethnic cleansing and the humanitarian catastrophe and securing all existing borders. And they must spur the self-administration of Albanians in Kosovo and the return of refugees.

The Hague Tribunal must investigate all those suspected of participating in the crimes committed in Kosovo -- and block their bank accounts. The European Union must build an independent radio and television network in Serbia. It must support the reform-minded government in Montenegro.

The EU must also build a regional strategy linking the positive forces in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania and Turkey. As part of this, it should urgently convene a permanent international conference on the Balkans. The conference should make use of local people and institutions committed to democracy and assist them in building their own model for developing peace, cooperation and democracy in the region. A powerful president of the conference should be appointed by the EU, an experienced politician with knowledge of the region--ideally from a neutral country such as Sweden.

These plans may seem unrealistic and too expensive. But they will come to be seen as inevitable. And the sooner the better, since the cost of stumbling along without a strategy in the Balkans is rising by the day.

Xena Begovic is a pseudonym. The writer is a long-time human rights activist from Yugoslavia, who no longer lives in the country. The name is withheld to protect relatives in Serbia from reprisals.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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