bosnia report
No. 17 November 1996 - January 1997
Handmaiden to Milosevic

The main target of Morton Abramowitz's late November Washington Post article (reproduced overleaf) was the US administration's misguided policies in the former Yugoslavia. These had culminated in a reliance on authoritarian leaders in Zagreb and Belgrade the fragility of whose power was suddenly visible.

In Croatia, the serious illnesses of first Susak and then Tudjman, in combination with the huge spontaneous rally that forced the government to retreat from its closure of the popular radio station 101, necessarily focused attention on an imminent post-Tudjman future.

In Serbia, meanwhile, the sustained mass demonstrations that filled the country's cities day after day, in response to the cancellation by Milosevic's tame courts of opposition victories in local elections, threw an unmistakable light on the true extent of popular dissatisfaction with the regime. The moment was indeed right for Abramowitz to ask whether the United States would not be better advised, if it wanted stability, to rely on a democratic future rather than an undemocratic present to provide this.

All friends of Bosnia will hope Abramowitz's basic message has been heard in the White House. Bosnian political leaders have repeatedly stressed that a democratic B-H is impossible without democratic neighbours. Moreover, a change of US policy towards Croatia and Serbia would certainly entail a shift in Bosnia too, away from the partitionist elements of Dayton and towards those of potential reintegration.

At a more superficial level, however, the impact of Abramowitz's article was more immediate in London, where foreign secretary Rifkind reacted furiously to the passing remark that Britain's envoy in Belgrade was widely perceived as Milosevic's 'handmaiden'. Rifkind's response, in which he defended Ivor Roberts as doing no more in his posting than what every good ambassador should, was disingenuous. For the context, of course, in which Roberts had established such comfortable relations with the man most responsible for war and genocide in Bosnia, was London's own longstanding policies in the former Yugoslavia: policies more consistently favourable to Belgrade than those of any other major player apart from Russia.

The reasons for London's stance have been much debated. They are probably a matter more of ignorance, incoherent prejudice, inertia, false analogies, extraneous considerations and misconceived self-interest than of any deeplaid conspiracy. But what is certain is that this stance has been adopted and maintained without the kind of serious challenge that was mounted against administration policies in the United States - by a Congress that overwhelmingly supported Bosnia's right to self-defence; by a press and informed opinion that was by and large not ready to equivocate about genocide; by State Department officials with sufficient integrity to resign over Bosnia.

In Britain, despite the brave contributions of many press or television reporters on the ground and the efforts ofÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ` a tiny number of MPs, Major, Hurd and Rifkind have never been put under any real pressure for their anti-Bosnian policies. It was perhaps emblematic that the one-time authentic voice of domestic liberalism The Observer should have run a prominent feature article (in the same month as Abramowitz's) asking whether the work of the war crimes tribunal at The Hague was not in fact an impediment to peace in Bosnia.

On the contrary, no one who has the cause of peace in Bosnia at heart should be in any doubt that this can be durably built only upon justice and democracy. The world is full of situations where quick-fix partitions have produced generations of misery and violence. Bosnia is no different. The argument for arresting those indicted for crimes against humanity is overwhelming in moral terms. It also indicates the essential first step towards creating a Bosnia-Herzegovina in which the population can move freely, refugees can return home, serious economic reconstruction can begin, and a peaceful democratic order can be built.


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