Bosnian experts accuse Stoltenberg
by Kjell Arild Nilsen
'Monstrous, and completely without historical foundation,' says Professor Svein Monnesland about the claim, made by UN envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg on Wednesday, that the Bosnian Muslims are actually converted Serbs. 'Absurd.'says the British historian Noel Malcolm, who thinks Stoltenberg should go, on the grounds of his lack of knowledge about the country with which he is dealing.
Stoltenberg's pronouncements came in connection with a talk he was giving on Wednesday to the Norwegian Refugee Council about the situation in the former Yugoslavia. He was discussing the character of the war, and it was in that context that the former Norwegian Foreign Minister said that the Bosnian Muslims are actually Serbs, having first denied that the war was a religious war.
'Ethnic war? I don't think so. The whole lot of them are Serbs. The Serbs who call themselves that are obviously Serbs. So are the Muslims. They are in fact Serbs who converted to Islam. And a great number of those who have the appearance of Croats, who present themselves as Croats, are in fact also Serbs. I have never thought it was an ethnic war', says Stoltenberg.
Without going into the question of whether it is correct to call the war an ethnic war, Professor Svein Monnesland uses unusually strong words to describe Stoltenberg's historical presentation.
'It is completely meaningless to say that the Bosnian Muslims are Serbs. It's pure Serb propaganda, and it's monstrous that the UN's peace envoy should propagate something which legitimises the claims of the Serb extremists. Above all, what he says is comÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¸pletely without historical foundation,' says Monnesland.
He points out that the Serbian state never included Bosnia, that the Bosnian Christians, before their conversion to Islam, always identified themselves as Bosnians, and that the present-day Serb Orthodox population in Bosnia is, for the most part, a consequence of Serb Orthodox immigration into Bosnia under Turkish rule, in the 15th century and thereafter.
'Stoltenberg is right to say that the war is not an ethnic war, but the arguments he uses are absurd,' says the British Balkan specialist Noel Malcolm, author of Bosnia: A Short History. 'If he knows so little about the country he's been dealing with for two years, perhaps he should give up the job. Hasn't he heard that this is one of the fundamental arguments of Serb propaganda?', Malcolm says. 'Does he not know that Muslims in the Bosnian city of Bijeljina have been forced to convert to Orthodox Christianity on the basis of that argument? Does he not know that mosques have been dynamited, and place-names changed?'
Stoltenberg's thesis about the character of the war is that it has to do with social and economic conditions. 'The origin of this war, as of so many others, is socio-economic. You have Muslims, who are the former landowners in Bosnia, who are secure, self-confident and very wealthy. Not every single one of them is wealthy, but when resources are required, they have the whole of Islam behind them - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and so on. They don't have economic problems as such, and they have the security of being part of a strong, international entity, Stoltenberg says.
'The Croats are urban, European, Catholic, and have one aim: to follow Slivenia and become a European state in the Balkans. They dress and talk like a part of the rest of Europe, with an assured social manner which, on the whole, you don't find in Serbia, said Stoltenberg. He had the following to say on the condition of the Serbs before the war.
'There youhave the peasants: they are Slav, and Orthodox, and in addition they think that the whole world is gainst them - They have an incredible lack of social self-confidence - I notice these social differences every week in the former Yugoslavia, and anyone who overlooks this when trying to make settlements will not make any settlement that lasts.'
Stoltenberg's exposiion of the war's socio-economic origins finds little favour with Noel Malcolm. 'Any explanation which locates the essential responsibility for the war in Bosnia's internal conditions, instead of looking at Belgrade's policies and the use of the federal army in the first months of the onslaught on Bosnia, misrepresents the nature of the war. And even if one confines oneself to talking about the internal conditions of Bosnia, this soio-economic analysis is quite false,' says Malcolm.
'In the Ottoman period, it's true that most of the landowners were Muslim. But it's quite false to imply that most of the Muslims were landowners. They were peasants. And if Stoltenberg has seen any news films showing refugees driven out of their homes, has heby any chance noticed that they are ordinary people, some of them quite poor, from the countryside as well as from the towns?' Malcolm, who was following developments in Bosnia long bnefore the outbreak of the war, never observed any threats to the security of the Bosnian Serbs as a national group. And he has no patience for 'social insecurity' as an explanation of the war.
The original, titled 'Bosnia-ekperter anklager Stoltenberg,' first appeared in Ny Tid No. 21, Oslo, 2 June 1995.
A Postscript by Noel Malcolm
When news of Stoltenberg's speech reached the Bosnian and Croatian media (thanks partly to members of the Alliance), there were numerous calls on him to resign. Questioned on Croatian television about his remarks, he said that he had been falsely reported. His new colleague, Carl Bildt, went further. Returning to Sweden from a meeting with Stoltenberg, he made two claiÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¸ms in a press conference at Stockholm airport: first, that Stoltenberg had never made the remarks attributed to him, and secondly that all the journalists present on that original occasion had signed a declaration confirming that he never said these things.
Fortunately, Swedish television then contacted Kjell Arild Nilsen, the author of the article printed above. Kjell is not only one of the most active and well-informed writers on the Bosnian issue in Scandinavia; he is also a very professional journalist. He had been sitting in the front row, with a cassette recorder, throughout Stoltenberg;s speech, and his transcriptions from that recording were entirely accurate. Swedish television viewers were thus able to hear all the relevant passages for themselves, in Stoltenberg;s own voice.
As for the journalists' 'declaration', this seems to have been a piece of pure fantasy. None of the other people known to Kjell Arild Nilsen who were present at the speech took part in any such act of mass perjury.
Thanks to the persistence and integrity of one lone journalist, this story eventually became the dominant issue on the front pages of most newspapers in Norway and Sweden. There were several further calls for Stoltenberg's resignation. Unfortunately, he seems to treat his own public with the same arrogant disregard that he shows towards the people of Bosnia and Croatia.