Agonies of the Balkan Heart


E. A. Hammel

Departments of Anthrpology and Demography

University of California, Berkeley


In a recent presentation to a colloquium of the Center for Slavic and East European Studies at Berkeley, in which I severely criticized US and NATO policy and actions, I prefaced my remarks with these words.


"This conflict is particularly difficult for an anthropologist who has lived and worked in the republics of the former Yugoslavia, mostly in Serbia. I drank their wine. I ate their food. I slept in their houses. I walked their fields and their shop floors. They worked hard, they saved their money, they loved their children. About a month ago they awoke one morning to discover that they were monsters. Do you believe that?"


I do not believe that. I particularly rebel at the idea of the condemnation of an entire nation, and the punishment of a nation (however surgically intended).


We see in the media various claims, from all sides, that:



I have stressed that the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans are largely the result of imperialist machinations over several centuries, in a history that is so complex as to make it virtually impossible to explain to anyone, least of all the officials of the US government and NATO.


While we cannot shun complication in order to understand, we must also simplify with the same intent. Here I try to understand these events, with some simple principles and some questions.


  1. Slobodan Milosevic is a megalomanic thug. He cares nothing for Serbia, only for Milosevic. Seen from the assumption that he was pursuing the larger Serbian nationalist interest, he shamefully abandoned both the Krajina Serbs and the Bosnian Serbs. Nevertheless he supported them initially in the conduct of ethnic violence against their own neighbors.
  2. Milosevic currently controls the largest military force in the region (except Turkey's) and has the potential to conduct aggressive action against neighbors or to foment discord between them. Not the least of the dangers is that of renewing the ancient competition between Russia and Western Europe in the Balkans. Similarly, one can be concerned with existing or potential links to Iraq, with some unsavory Russian actors as intermediaries.
  3. From these points, I freely subscribe to the notion that Milosevic must be constrained and that Serbia must be constrained. That does not mean that either of them, especially the latter, should be destroyed. Let me touch on some of the assumptions underlying these remarks.



Thoughtful observers are led to conclude that the decision to attack Serbia was taken abruptly. None of the more gradual approaches were pursued. Instead, the US, believing that the Dayton arrangements had been a success for Bosnia and that its chief emissary there could "handle Milosevic", continued its strongarm diplomacy. Military planning was insufficient to undertake the precipitous political decision. Political judgement may have been that, given the usual jingoist sentiments on the US Republican side, no Congressional support for a cleverer approach would have been forthcoming. If, and it is not unreasonable to assume that this judgement is correct, the US had one last chance to bring Milosevic to heel before Macedonia erupted and threatened NATO in the Greek-Turkish zone, it was again domestic politics that drove foreign policy.


No one knows where this will lead, but we can guess. Both Milosevic and NATO will settle for less. Especially if the Russians are successful in mediation, Milosevic will divide Kosovo into a (northern) Serbian and a (southern) Albanian part. He will resettle in the Serbian part refugees from Krajina, Bosnia, and eastern Slavonia, and indeed from Kosovo itself. He will leave the Albanian part adjacent to Macedonia, as a continual irritant to the Macedonian Slavs, and some day may move, with Greek eyes averted, to occupy what was once Serbian territory. He will not engage in pitched battles with NATO but will conduct the guerilla warfare in the woods at which the Serbs have proved expert for centuries. He will inflict enough casualties on NATO forces to increase political opposition in the home countries, thus allowing Western domestic politics to solve the problem it previously created. Milosevic and his military will have been weakened but not destroyed, and some credible but unstable balance will have been maintained (as in Iraq). He will remain, and as a hero. The civilian populations, Serb, Albanian, and others, will have suffered enormously through displacement, sickness, violence, and destruction of homes and infrastructure. The West, if it is truly interested in humanitarianism as more than a figleaf for geopolitical designs, will then be obliged to pay for the war twice.