bosnia report
New Series No. 8 January - March 1999
Our Man in Belgrade

The West's political bogeymen- a Saddam, a Noriega, a Ceausescu- have notoriously often had previous incarnations as protege or pet. The transition between the old status and the new, moreover, has often been neither an abrupt rebirth, nor a total and unambiguous rupture, nor a change willed by the West at all: more of a gradual, tentative renegotiation of relations until some Rubicon, perhaps, is eventually crossed. So for all who live in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, or care about their fate, it is a matter of vital concern- in some cases literally a matter of life or death- to work out just where Slobodan Milosevic really stands on the scale leading from Our Man in Belgrade to Butcher of the Balkans.

good Slobodan bad Slobodan
Good Slobodan and bad Slobodan
International Herald and Tribune
Well, I'm off in the never-ending search for peace. . .

I'll be here when you get back. . .

In retrospect, it is now pretty generally accepted that Milosevic's rise to power in Serbia was the essential catalyst for Yugoslavia's bloody disintegration. Western governments and opinion-makers at the time, however, were far from ill-disposed to the new Belgrade strongman, many choosing to hail him as a 'new Tito', deliberately neglecting his sponsorship of an aggressive and paranoid Serb nationalism. With the honourable exception of a handful of US congressmen (like Bob Dole), there was no negative reaction to his forcible abrogation of the autonomy of three federal units: Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosova (in this case amid bloodshed). JNA generals visiting Paris and London to seek approval for a coup were not discouraged. Secretary of State James Baker, passing through Belgrade on the eve of Slovenia's declaration of independence, reaffirmed US support for Yugoslavia's integrity in a way inevitably seen as a green light for the subsequent JNA intervention. During the war in Croatia, Western media gave generous space to Belgrade-inspired arguments for redrawn borders and population transfers, and pretended that the ethnic cleansing practised by the JNA and Serbian irregulars was an ancient Balkan ritual, rather than part of Serbia's unconcealed war aims. The Badinter Commission's 7 December 1991 ruling that Yugoslavia was in a state of dissolution was not accompanied by any wholehearted acceptance of the sovereignty and integrity of its successor states; nor, fatally, was Kosova accorded its rightful status as one of these. In the namÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ e of a spurious neutrality deemed necessary for diplomacy, Serbian aggression was not named and condemned, while an arms embargo was imposed that favoured the aggressor and penalized the victims. This was especially the case since it was not applied to movements of arms across republican borders, which meant that the JNA was entirely free, indeed actually helped, to move its armour from Croatia for use in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Vance Plan that halted the war in Croatia not only saved Belgrade's conquests in that country, it left Serbia free to wage war in B-H, its military effort being actively seconded by successive Western peace plans ratifying the aggressor's doctrine of ethnic separation and his military conquests on the ground. Western acceptance of ethnic cleansing also encouraged Zagreb to emulate Belgrade in a partitionist war of its own on B-H territory. Both capitals were to become co-signatories of the Dayton Accords, which legitimated an ethnically pure 'Serb Republic' carved out of Bosnia-Herzegovina's multi-ethnic body by genocide.

The record of the past decade thus clearly demonstrates the extent to which Western policies have harmonized with those of Milosevic. So it is scarcely surprising that Western leaders have never sought to isolate, let alone stop, the Serbian boss- who in a certain sense has indeed been their own creation- preferring instead to treat him as the most favoured negotiating partner. Each time the Butcher of the Balkans faced defeat on the battlefield- in Croatia in the autumn of 1991, or in Bosnia four years later- Western governments stepped in to protect and resurrect him as the essential peacemaker. Rather than indict him as a war criminal (as the British prime minister has recently confirmed is possible), the West has chosen to tolerate his continuous interference in the running of the Serb entity, where his manipulation of 'hardline' and 'moderate' politicians has kept a million people from returning to their homes. Bosnia today remains hostage to Western appeasement of Milosevic.

But is a change now under way? We have certainly heard a few statements in the past weeks, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the effect that Milosevic is the problem rather than the solution. And the recent decisions to make Brcko a unified autonomous district, on the overlapping territory of both entities but outside the jurisdiction of either (see p. 15 below), and to remove Poplasen from his post as RS president, may perhaps signal a new approach. Far more will have to be done, however, before we can be sure. The B-H constitutional court, on which outside appointees effectively hold the power of decision, is soon to rule on whether the country's citizens are to enjoy equal rights irrespective of their ethnicity (see Serb Civic Council amendments in BR 19, original series, June-August 1997 and article on p. 8 below): its decision will be a crucial indicator of the West's true intentions.

But the clearest evidence as to whether or not Milosevic is still Our Man in Belgrade will be provided, of course, by Western willingness to confront him over Kosova firmly and without further delay. At least one fifth of Kosova's citizens have been driven from their homes as a result of his military actions. Hundreds of villages have been blitzed. Over two thousand people have been killed, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, while perhaps another thousand have 'disappeared': figures which compare with those for Pinochet's victims in absolute, let alone relative, terms. As has been widely reported in the Western press, Belgrade's current campaign aims to 'cleanse' the border areas with Macedonia, as has already been done for the border with Albania. Such destruction of whole communities with their habitat amounts to genocide, according to the international convention of which Britain, for one, is a signatory.

We have repeatedly been told that the West will not allow another Bosnia, but another Bosnia has been happening for a year noÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ w, in full view of the tens of thousands of heavily armed NATO troops stationed in Bosnia and Macedonia (quite apart from the redundant 'verifiers' who register beatings, arbitrary mass arrests, shelling and torching on a daily basis). Prime minister Blair and foreign minister Cook have both stated categorically that such actions as have been taking place in Kosova for a year now will not be tolerated, but tolerating is exactly what NATO, with its large contingent of British troops- is doing and has been doing ever since Milosevic was allowed to break the agreement brokered by Holbrooke last October that there would be no further use of disproportionate force against civilians. To remain passive in this way before genocide amounts to complicity in it.

Mme. Secy. of State Albright
Of course it all depends on what definition of 'deadline' is

The basic problem for Western politicians has been self-created: their short-sighted a priori alignment with Belgrade on the issue of sovereignty (compounded, in the Europeans' case, by the recognition they so eagerly and unconditionally bestowed on the FRY after Dayton). As in Bosnia, their indifference to either principle or the interests of local populations, their dedication to an often misconceived short-term expediency, and their total misreading of the conditions for regional stability, have left them with no recourse other than military threats- inappropriate in their own eyes- that they are reluctant to implement. Using force in defence of a Kosova whose right to independence was recognized would be simpler, to say the least, than doing so in order to keep Kosova under Belgrade's illegitimate yoke, and in order to maintain Serbia in the colonial oppressor's role that constitutes the greatest barrier to its own democratization. But that said, whatever the rights and wrongs of the different negotiating positions, whatever the arguments over history or regional security or legitimacy or justice, nothing excuses closing one's eyes to genocide being committed in the here and now. No political goal, however expedient, justifies crimes against humanity.

Western governments have argued in the past that it was hard to indict Milosevic for crimes against humanity in Croatia and Bosnia, because it was hard to prove that he was in control of the forces responsible for them. Whatever we may think of the merits of such an argument, it is manifestly invalid where Kosova is concerned. So why is Milosevic not being indicted? Why does Blair speak of the possibility only in the future conditional? What is the purpose of the War Crimes Tribunal if grave crimes against humanity are tolerated and the executor-in-chief treated as a negotiating partner? In the circumstances, the suspicion is inescapable that Milosevic has been deliberately given a free hand, in order to 'soften up' Kosova and induce its representatives to accept the unjust and unworkable deal that the West has offered it.

The war in Kosova is not one between Albanians and Serbs. It is a war between tyranny and democracy. The Serbs of Serbia do not want to live under tyranny either- if they were only given a chance and encouraged by the articulation, even at this late date, of a democratic perspective for the region. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs have died or become refugees since the start of Milosevic's wars, while Serbia has become an international pariah- an impoverished land run by institutionalized mafias. The Serbian opposition has inexcusably failed to give proper voice to their people's democratic aspirations, but this does not prevent it from blaming the West for keeping Milosevic in power and thus contributing to the country's growing social and economic distress. The sooner Western goveÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ rnments recognize that Our Man in Belgrade in fact belongs in The Hague, the better for Kosova and for Serbia too.


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