bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
How our politicians helped keep the Butcher of the Balkans in power
by Francis Wheen

How our politicians helped keep the Butcher of the Balkans in power

Francis Wheen

At a rather rightwing lunch last Friday, I expressed my pleasure at the popular uprising in Serbia which had toppled Slobodan Miloševic. ‘Popular?’ a Tory gent harrumphed, in the way that only old Tory gents can. ‘I think there's something deeply suspicious about it. Look at those cars and buses driving into Belgrade, led by a bulldozer to deal with police roadblocks. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that the drivers had all been paid by the CIA.’

Those who uphold the existing order can never accept that ordinary citizens might be able or willing to challenge it, and so any manifestation of ‘people power’ is always followed by a search for the hidden hand that has been pulling the strings. I was, therefore, unsurprised by my lunch companion's conspiracy theory; what surprises me is that it isn't more widely believed. How can there be genuine rejoicing in the streets of Belgrade? Haven't countless British politicians and pundits, from both left and right, assured us that President Miloševic enjoys near-universal support in his own country?

Getting it wrong

In May last year, only a few days before the Serb withdrawal from Kosovo, Martin Bell MP told the House of Commons why the Nato intervention had nevertheless failed: ‘My feeling is that, as far as his domestic political situation is concerned, Miloševic has been strengthened.’ In the House of Lords, former defence minister Lord Blaker warned that ‘the determination of the Serb people to support Mr Miloševic would be increased.’ The political journalist Paul Routledge wrote in the Mirror that ‘the tyrant Miloševic is still in power, and more popular with his people than ever’, while Times readers learned from Simon Jenkins that ‘Mr Miloševic may be "degraded" but he is politically impregnable.’ The Daily Mail agreed: ‘There is no doubt the country is now united behind Miloševic.’

A Panorama programme on ‘The Mind of Miloševic’ interviewed Dr Jerrold Post, who was director of the CIA's political psychology centre from 1989 to 1998. ‘I believe,’ he intoned gravely, ‘that the Nato strike designed to weaken him will strengthen him and will very much add not only to his support but to his mystique.’ Tony Benn, Henry Kissinger and a large battalion of historians and retired ambassadors claimed that Nato's onslaught had scuppered any chance of a more democratic regime emerging in Belgrade for many years to come. In the words of Denis Healey, ‘All observers agree that the bombing has strengthened Miloševic's political position in Yugoslavia.’

Not all observers, actually. On this page last April, I quoted what George Orwell had written in 1940: ‘Whereas socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people, "I offer you a good time", Hitler has said to them, "I offer you struggle, danger and death", and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war.’ And so they did; though Hitler's hegemony over his people seemed unchallengeable at the time, as soon as he and his gang were defeated the Germans exorcised the demon and democratised their nation. Was it vain to hope, I wondered, that history might repeat itself?

Even during the Nato campaign, Miloševic was never as ‘politically impregnable’ as the pundits claimed. At the end of April 1999, deputy prime minister Vuk Draškovic appeared on state television to denounce the president for dragging the nation into a war it couldn't win. Other opposition leaders started demanding Miloševic's resignation, and by early May there was evidence of widespread public discontent: our own Maggie O'Kane reported on it at length, which may be why she was promptly expelled from Belgrade.

After the ceasefire of June 1999, it became clearer still that the population which had supposedly flung itself at Miloševic's feet was indeed ‘sick of it’. More than 10,000 Serbs took to the streets of Cacak on June 29 to demand the immediate resignation of the dictator. In the southern city of Prokuplje, which had hitherto been regarded as a Miloševic stronghold, only five people turned up on July 8 for the first pro-government demonstration since the end of the Kosovo war - while 4,000 staged a rival rally in the main square, chanting ‘Slobo like Saddam’ and ‘Slobo out’. A month later, 150,000 anti-Miloševic protesters marched through the centre of Belgrade. The president's downfall had become a question of when, not if.

Dupes and accomplices

Why, then, did so many allegedly perceptive observers maintain that he was invincibly popular? The answer, I'd guess, is that they took Miloševic at his own estimation. It's an all too common error: throughout the 1990s, he convinced foreign politicians and diplomats that he was the man who could deliver peace in the Balkans, rather than the father of strife. Hence the willingness of successive British foreign secretaries to peddle the fiction that the Bosnian conflict was a ‘civil war’, even though they knew perfectly well that it had been instigated and directed from Belgrade.

By treating the Butcher of the Balkans as a reasonable statesman who must be accommodated, those grandees who proclaimed their even-handedness - Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen, Sir Michael Rose - proved in effect to be accomplices of Serb aggression, since the beneficiaries of this neutrality were Miloševic and his goon squads. Hurd accidentally gave the game away in April 1993, when explaining why the arms embargo against Bosnia shouldn't be lifted. Although ‘at first sight it seems an act of justice’, he said, in practice it would merely create a ‘level killing field’.

The only possible inference to be drawn was that he preferred an uneven killing field, on which Miloševic provided the Bosnian Serbs with troops and weapons while the Bosnian government had to make do with whatever equipment it could buy on the black market or grab from captured enemy soldiers. Confirming this interpretation, Hurd said that allowing the Bosnians to defend themselves would ‘only prolong the fighting’.

Hurd's successor, Rifkind, continued the tradition of appeasement by default. After the 1997 general election, incoming Labour ministers discovered that he had deliberately prevented the war crimes tribunal in The Hague from obtaining evidence that could prove Miloševic's complicity in genocide - while insisting in public that ‘we want to see cooperation with the war crimes tribunal’.

Even Labour took some time to abandon the Tories' spurious moral equivalence. As late as January last year, Robin Cook told the House of Commons that although the massacre of Kosovar civilians in Racak was ‘a war crime’, the blame ‘lies with both sides’.

Despite all the atrocities committed by Serb troops and paramilitaries, from Vukovar in 1991 via

Srebrenica in 1995 right up to Racak in 1999, international negotiators insisted that Miloševic was ‘a man we can do business with’, in the words of the US envoy Richard Holbrooke. (Did Holbrooke know that Neville Chamberlain had used the same phrase after his first meeting with Adolf Hitler?) Although his promises were continually shown to be as flimsy and worthless as a devalued dinar, still the old mantra was recited: Slobo's the chap with whom we can make deals.

Without shame

Literally so, in the case of Hurd and his old Foreign Office colleague, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who led the British delegation at the Dayton peace talks. Within months of leaving Whitehall, Hurd and Neville-Jones were breakfasting with Slobo in Belgrade to celebrate a business partnership between his regime and their new employer, NatWest Markets.

Where are they now, all these eminent and culpable oafs who so consistently misjudged Miloševic? Shut away in their kitchens, gorging on humble pie? Of course not: this is a breed that knows no shame. Owen could be heard on the World Service recently, pontificating grandly about the future of Yugoslavia while modestly omitting to mention his own inglorious role in its past. The following morning, Neville-Jones gave Radio 4's Today programme the benefit of her own expertise.

Since she is a governor of the BBC, it was probably wise of the interviewer not to ask the obvious question: how dare these ministers and mandarins, who helped Miloševic to stay in power for so long and to wreak such ghastly havoc, now presume to lecture us on the inevitability of his demise?

This article appeared in The Guardian, 11 October 2000


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