By Paul Hockenos
Sadly, the epic work of the Nobel Prize-winning Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina, has overshadowed most of this great writer's other works, at least for international audiences confined to
translations. The novel, a masterful tale of a Bosnian village that spans four centuries, undoubtedly deserves its place as a classic of European literature.
Yet Andric's lesser known Bosnian Chronicle is every bit its equal, and perhaps even more insightful when it comes to making sense out of the stuttering efforts of the Great Powers, now blandly dubbed "the international community," to engage in the Balkans.
Set in the central Bosnian town of Travnik at the beginning of the 19th century, the novel tells the story of the emissaries of the three foreign powers in Bosnia at the time: the Ottoman Empire's vizier, the Napoleonic consul and the Austro-Hungarian attache. From their residencies in the damp, inhospitable Lasva Valley, the three rivals ruthlessly vie with one another for diplomatic advantage, devising intrigues and plots to outmaneuver the other in the name of their empires. But as fierce as their competition is, the men are ultimately united in their shared plight, having been assigned to undesirable posts on the western fringe of the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, their attitude toward Bosnia and its peoples is saturated with scorn and contempt, a disrespect that the local populations return at every opportunity.
In one choice passage, the French consul's open-minded young assistant returns to Travnik after a meeting with the local Franciscan friar, Brother Ivo. He tells of his conversation with the friar who, in response to a remark about the miserable condition of the roads, explained that Bosnian Catholics purposely fail to maintain and even intentionally destroy the roads to deter unwanted visitors, principally the Turkish authorities. The Ottomans, on the other hand, keep the roads in disrepair to limit the contact of meddlesome Christian countries with the Catholic and Orthodox peasantries. The senior French consul explodes at his subordinate
assorted missions scattered across the former Yugoslavia today instill much confidence or respect.
In Bosnia, 30,000 NATO-led troops and perhaps as many civilian internationals are entering a fifth year, laboriously implementing the Dayton peace agreement, often against the will of most of the countries' elected nationalist leaders. In Kosovo, 42,500 troops crisis-manage a seething ethnic conflict, while more soldiers keep an uneasy peace in neighboring Macedonia. The narrow streets of Podgorica, Montenegro's capital, are backed up with jeeps and Land Rovers freshly spray-painted with the by now familiar alphabet soup of international acronyms. And in Croatia, the newly elected democratic government will give the OSCE monitoring mission there a convenient excuse, like the Napoleonic and Habsburg consuls, to soon throw in the towel and get out.
This dog's breakfast of missions and mandates has sprung up ad hoc for the most part in reaction to conflicts, or ex post facto to reverse their consequences. They certainly were not preceded by an informed debate over the universality of human rights, criteria for humanitarian intervention, or the raison d'etre of post-Cold War peacekeeping missions. However, albeit belatedly, they have sparked such a conversation.
Unlike in the United States, the European debate starts from the assumption that supranational bodies (like the United Nations, OSCE, etc.), peacekeeping missions and conflict-prevention measures are necessary for the kinds of conflicts likely to be faced in the next decades. U.S.-perceived threats, such as long-range missile attacks from North Korea and Iran, seem less pressing, to say the least. In Europe, the question is more how to make these organizations work effectively, rather than whether they serve any purpose at all.
Still, the criteria for "humanitarian interventions," their goals and permissible costs remain largely undefined. What quantity (or quality) of human rights violations justifies - or compels - military intervention? Where do humanitarian priorities overlap or, as the case may be, give way to economic and security interests? How can Western governments employ moral arguments to justify intervention in Kosovo and then not in Chechnya or Africa? And what lessons have been learned from a decade of misguided policy in the Balkans?
Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian historian who teaches in the United States, is convinced that Western academics, journalists and policy-makers don't understand the Balkans, and probably never will. In her clever little book Imagining the Balkans, Todorova argues that the geographical designation "Balkan" has become a pejorative classification that demonizes the region's peoples and cultures. Over the course of two centuries, "Balkan" has become a signifier for the tribal, the backward and the primitive, as well as a synonym for nationalistic fragmentation and chronic political instability.
As Todorova points out, even the geographical name itself, which refers to the entire peninsula that stretches from Romania to Greece, is a misnomer. In fact "Balkan" was the Ottoman Turkish name for what ancient and medieval geographers called Haemus, the mountain chain that cuts across Bulgaria parallel to the River Danube. For centuries, the ancient Greek belief that Haemus extended all the way from the Adriatic to the Black Sea was accepted as fact. Even into the late 19th century, the peninsula was referred to by its classical names, like "Hellenic," "Illyrian," "Dardanian" or designations inherited from the centuries of Ottoman presence: "European Turkey" or "Oriental Peninsula." Other labels like "Slavo-Greek Peninsula" reflected ethnic criteria.
By the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, the name "Balkan" had become established despite controversy over the exact expanse of territory it covered. Some geographers lumped in Hungary, all of Turkey, Moldova and even Cyprus. Today, though still ambiguous, there seems to be a general agreement, at least among Western experts, that the Balkans include Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, all countries of the former Yugoslavia, part of Romania and western Turkey. It is a classification that rankles the Slovenes and Croats but that most of the other constituent nations employ without shame.
Todorova shows how the Balkans and the concept of "balkanization" became loaded with pejorative political connotations that have unfairly - and unfavorably - produced stereotypes that influence Western thinking, and therefore Western policy, on the Balkans today. In its crassest form, there are the "ancient hatreds" and "Balkan ghosts" theories that purport to explain the hopeless plight of congenitally xenophobic peoples who cannot be kept from one another's throats. The conclusion usually drawn is that the past decade of conflicts in Southeastern Europe were somehow inevitable, the product of "innate ill-will," and thus not worthy of the West's time nor money, much less soldiers' lives. It is an argument that President Clinton has employed at times, and that has resonated through Western policy from the early 1990s to the present.
As thorough as Todorova's argument is, it stops short of telling us what is Balkan, if anything at all. Also, even she seems to admit at times that there is more than a grain of truth to some of the stereotypes she so deftly deconstructs. For example, the propensity to believe the most far-fetched conspiracy theories, to blame everyone but oneself for problems, and the irrational stubborn pride that even has its own word in Serbo-Croatian - inat - are characteristics (though certainly not innate) that are essential to understanding the Balkans and engaging with its people. In the end, the explanations of the sort the young French consul and Brother Ivo offer bring us further than Todorova. They don't deny that the roads in Bosnia are poor, but explain why they are that way.
No less acerbic about foreign misconceptions of the Balkans, Misha Glenny shows how two centuries of Great Power misadventures made the Balkans what they are today. But Glenny, in his 772-page The Balkans, unfortunately offers us little new substance for the debate. His study takes readers from the Serbian rebellions of the early 19th century to the present with colorful, engaging portraits of the Balkan dramatis personae and artful descriptions of some of the pivotal events - from the 1804 slaughter of the knezes to the Cazin rebellion and beyond. His main thesis, not particularly unique, is that over the centuries the Great Powers have had a tremendous, overwhelmingly negative impact on Southeastern Europe.
His departure from turgid academic prose helps, though it is a deviation sure to rankle traditional historians. And yet, in the end, one wonders where this book brings us. Glenny, a first-rate Balkans correspondent in the early '90s, states that he felt compelled to step back from journalism and turn to history to grasp the roots and causes of the recent Balkan wars. But his final chapter sheds little if any new light on the tragic events of the past decade. In fact, the book says less than did his on-the-ground dispatches, thoughtful essays and "journalist" books of past years, despite their controversial, often Serb-sympathetic angles and, as he himself claims, historical naivete. One has to wonder whether Glenny would have contributed more had he spent the war years in Bosnia as a correspondent and commentator.
If misunderstanding the Balkans is part of the problem, the nature and scope of the plethora of peacekeeping missions in the Balkans is another. In Deliver Us from Evil, veteran journalist William Shawcross provides eyewitness accounts of conflicts in Bosnia, Cambodia and Iraq and international efforts to address them. Unfortunately, at least in the case of Bosnia, his account covers little new ground and lets the United Nations off the hook much too easily for its dismal performance during the war years. He weakly concludes that a contradiction exists between the moral imperative to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes and the resolve of Western powers to sacrifice their blood and treasure.
It was exactly this lack of resolve that culminated in the Dayton peace accords in November 1995, a pact between the three warring parties in Bosnia, which on paper kept the country together while simultaneously accepting its effective partition along ethnic lines. The unenviable job of making this monstrosity come to life was handed to an inexperienced, quickly assembled peacekeeping mission.
Four years later, according to the watchdog agency International Crisis Group (ICG), the multibillion-dollar effort is foundering. Its report, Is Dayton Failing?, delivers a bleak picture indeed of the situation on the ground in Bosnia. The country, it concludes, has "three de facto model-ethnic entities, three separate armies, three separate police forces, and national government exists mostly on paper and operates at the mercy of the entities."
War criminals, the report rightly maintains, remain at large and power remains concentrated in the hands of nationalist leaders intent on blocking the peace process. "The effect has been to cement wartime ethnic cleansing and maintain ethnic cleansers in power," the report concludes.
Is Dayton Failing? properly gives the international community low marks on its efforts to facilitate refugee return and establish multiethnic governing institutions, economic reform and fair elections. Although the international community's powers, and will to use them, have steadily increased since 1995, obstruction-minded politicians have managed to outwit the international authorities in a manner that would have made the old Travnik beys proud.
And yet, as tends to be the case with some ICG reports, this one often goes overboard, solid analysis petering out into off-the-cuff judgments. In Bosnia, one can see the glass half-full as well. There has been hard-won progress in every aspect of the peace process, even in the most difficult categories like police reform and refugee return. Importantly, there is still forward momentum in Bosnia, strengthened recently by the successful launch of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe - an umbrella body to coordinate policy and raise funds for the region - and robust new guidelines to create a self-sustaining Bosnian state from the international body that oversees the peace process.
But this progress is laborious and costly, and it is no secret that donor countries are losing patience with Bosnia. The ICG authors wouldn't disagree that the Dayton process must be accelerated if it is to become self-sustainable before aid dries up. And yet their devastating analysis could lead to the opposite conclusion: that Dayton is a flop and the international community should stop wasting its time and money. Instead, perseverance is required, including, as the ICG report concludes, the robust involvement of the NATO-led SFOR contingent to assist civilian peacemakers in breaking the nationalists' hold on power.
The harshest critics of the current Great Powers involvement in the Balkans belong to a small group of thinkers whose numbers include In These Times contributing editor Diana Johnstone. In Masters of the Universe? this group, profoundly suspicious of Western, above all U.S., intentions in the Balkans, contributes a number of like-minded, often repetitive arguments against "NATO's Balkan crusade."
According to this narrative, the U.S.-driven war in Kosovo is part of an "imperial project" to secure U.S. global hegemony in the New World Order, both economically, through the control of markets, and strategically - through the long arm of NATO. The ostensible humanitarian concerns that triggered the military action in Kosovo were nothing but a guise to save NATO, undermine European security initiatives and ultimately construct colonial outposts in southeastern Europe. In Kosovo, the human rights violations, refugee exodus and massacres were either trumped-up lies or tragedies intentionally sparked by Western policy. "NATO was prepared to trigger a humanitarian disaster in order to achieve humanitarian goals, i.e. NATO occupation of Kosovo," writes the volume's editor, Tariq Ali.
Johnstone's is one of the crassest of the edition's many heavy-handed tracts. She tells the tale of an elaborate plot in which the United States is "striving to replace the system that outlaws war by a system that uses war to punish outlaws. Who the outlaws are is decided by the U.S. ... This vigilante system corresponds to a dominant American worldview of a capitalist system inherently capable of meeting all human needs, marred only by the wrong-doings of evil outcasts." To Johnstone, the "obvious, short three-letter explanation" for the Kosovo intervention is oil: "All roads lead to the Caspian, and through Kosovo."
It's hard to even begin to refute an argument that treats Slobodan Milosevic as a social democratic "evil outcast" of capitalism or refers to Western policy as "pure Hitlerism," whatever that is. Most of the counter-arguments have already been made in these pages, and if they didn't convince those inclined to such conspiracy theories then, they won't now. It is sad indeed that such once-sharp social critics have been unable to develop and refine their critique as historical events have altered its context. In the end, the crudeness of their arguments undermines some of the provocative and occasionally valid points they try to make.
In another class entirely is Tim Judah's superb Kosovo: War and Revenge. Judah, who has covered the conflicts in Yugoslavia for over a decade, has produced much more than a journalist's account of the war in Kosovo. Kosovo, which complements his fine book The Serbs, provides the most thorough and even-handed treatment to date of the 1989-1999 period in Kosovo, a complex and woefully under-researched decade critical to understanding the crisis that led to the NATO bombing.
Kosovo fills valuable gaps in the historical record where it examines the Kosovar Albanians ultimately unsuccessful strategy of passive resistance and the underground phantom state funded by Kosovar diaspora groups abroad. It is also the best treatment available of the internal politics and strategies of Kosovar leadership, including the political and ideological battles that eventually spawned the KLA.
One of this book's most important contributions is the blow-by-blow account of the February and March 1999 Rambouillet negotiations. Judah was there, and in addition to his own observations he relies on highly placed sources to recount the diplomatic brinksmanship that finally, when it collapsed, triggered the bombing of Yugoslavia. He argues, in contrast to Johnstone and others, that Rambouillet was meant to succeed - and could have, if the Serb delegation had negotiated seriously and in good faith. But the Serbs, convinced the Kosovar Albanians would never sign and that NATO would never bomb, abstained from real negotiations. The bombing, which everyone for different reasons seemed to think would last a few days, went on for 10 weeks. The war took 10,000 lives.
Judah also refutes the curious charge that at Rambouillet the Serbs were delivered an ultimatum to sign on to an occupation of all of Yugoslavia, a condition that the Serb negotiating team never could have accepted. This controversy revolves around the allegedly mysterious Appendix B, an annex that stated that NATO troops should be given "unrestricted passage" throughout Yugoslavia. According to Judah, Appendix B was a starting point for negotiations, a wish list for NATO officers. It may well have been negotiable - most probably formulated as a bargaining chip - but at no point did the Serbs budge from their refusal to consider the principle of an international military force in Kosovo, be it NATO, the United Nations or any other. In fact, Appendix B was never even discussed at Rambouillet.
While Western involvement in the Balkans isn't a grand imperialist plot, it is equally na´ve to see it solely as an altruistic matter of human rights. Western Europe and the United States have concrete economic and geo-strategic interests in a stable Southeastern European region. Bloody wars on the European periphery create hundreds of thousands of costly refugees, disrupt trade routes, paralyze the economies of weak neighboring states and throw a wrench into the ongoing processes of European integration. There is also little doubt that NATO was eager to prove itself indispensable in the post-Cold war context.
Yet it is equally indisputable that the humanitarian tragedy of the past decade of Balkan conflicts was a central factor in the decision-making processes that led to the Kosovo war. In Virtual War, astute journalist and commentator Michael Ignatieff examines the way Western governments have used military power to protect human rights and the emerging morality governing the use of force for humanitarian purposes.
Although an outspoken proponent of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, Ignatieff warns that democratic societies must come to grips with the new exigencies of "virtual war" if its application is not ultimately to be counterproductive. With Kosovo at his test case, he argues that virtual war is a phenomenon qualitatively different from classic military models of battlefield war inherited from the 20th century. The Kosovo campaign was unprecedented in that it was risk-free and blood-free - for those who waged it. It achieved its objective without a single NATO combat fatality and marks the advent of a new kind of high-technology, precision warfare that entails little or no sacrifice from the countries able to fight it.
Of the many questions virtual war raises, one is that if military action is cost-free, what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to force? Ignatieff worries that democratic institutions and procedures designed to check the executive use of military force have themselves become virtual. The public is consulted, but only through opinion polls, while the formal institutions of democracy are bypassed. He argues passionately for a renewal of both national and international institutions with the power to refute the decision to go to war.
The new Great Powers also must realize that military intervention in the name of human rights is a fallacy unless it is followed up with credible, professional peacekeeping missions that will help indigenous democratic forces create self-sustaining democratic institutions and political cultures. While war is now waged with multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art technology, conflict prevention and crisis management capabilities lag far behind, woefully underfunded and employed half-heartedly as symbolic afterthoughts. If the rhetoric of human rights is to be taken seriously at all, in the end it will be on the ground - and not at 15,000 feet.
Paul Hockenos frequently reports from the Balkans for In These Times.