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:
- The region is consumed by ancient hatreds.
- The Serbs are engaged in genocide.
- The Albanians are vicious terrorists.
- The US and NATO are imperialists.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I accept the notion, however unpalatable to some, that the US and Western Europe have legitimate interests in the stability of the region and that they should pursue these by the application of diplomacy, even clandestine intervention, even force.
- I am reluctant to accept the notion that unilateral humanitarian intervention is acceptable. My reluctance stems from the long history of Western evangelism and cultural imperialism. It is not clear to me at what point in the scale of our own values the US is justified in imposing them on others who do not share them, without thorough international discussion and agreement on such imposition. The confusion common to the media and political spokesmen between "genocide", "ethnic cleansing" and "population relocation" is a case in point.
- The region has other actors, some of which are large and dangerous, others small and dangerous. Croatian forces are substantial, and their current political leader has no more to recommend him to humanity than does Milosevic. Croatian forces were successful in regaining eastern Slavonia from Serbian occupation and in ethnically cleansing the Krajina. Some nationalist interests in Croatia would not be averse to reclaiming the Bosnian territories they often claim and indeed all that they held under the quisling Croatian state in World War II. The Kosovo Liberation Army, supplied through Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania and funded by Islamist sources and laundered drug money, is perfectly capable of setting Macedonia and northern Epirus on fire. Serbia (with Greece) is the logical deterrent. Thus, just as Hussein is both a threat and a key to regional stability in the Persian Gulf, so also is Milosevic, or at least a strong Serbia, both a threat and a key to regional stability in the Balkans. Milosevic, of course, is like Hussein a genius at creating problems to which he is the answer.
- How would it be possible to constrain and perhaps eliminate Milosevic and constrain but not overly weaken Serbia?
- Potential replacements for Milosevic are few and seem unsatisfactory (at this distance). Milosevic has apparently purged his credible opposition. Thus it is unlikely that the alternatives of assassination or of engineered coup would lead to a stable solution. The former was tried at least once and failed. The latter possibility was rejected by the US at least once.
- Supporting opposition movements might lead to the emergence of credible leadership. As courageous as some of the opposition to Milosevic has been, it is seriously and sometimes fundamentally divided. Only the ultra-nationalist opposition (e.g. under Seselj) seems to have had the potential to mobilize workers and peasants. Intellectuals are not enough. Further, either overt or covert support to opposition forces would severely weaken them, displaying them as tools of foreign intervention.
- Propaganda campaigns aimed at the Serbian populace might overcome the hold that Milosevic has had on the media. At least the flow of information would not be so one-sided; at least the Serbs would have the opportunity to listen, in the privacy of their homes, to alternative points of view. Such transmissions would be jammed, but jamming is a two-way street, and the electronic capabilities of the NATO countries are superior to those of Serbia.
- A more rapid, although not permanent solution, would be bribery. The armed intervention over Kosovo is reportedly costing the US alone about a billion dollars per month. As it escalates, it will cost more. In the long run, since as I have expressed elsewhere, Milosovic can only emerge as the political victor no matter what the military outcome, NATO is throwing good money after bad. The US could have bought Kosovo outright for the kind of money spent on NATO, if it had wanted to own it in the first place. The effects of economic sanctions on Serbia have been very great. A kind of Marshall Plan, not the least at the conclusion of these hostilities, might have the desired effect. One could only hope that in the fullness of time, such benign intervention would achieve the diminution of Milosevic's influence that hostile intervention has not and cannot. It would have been better to have tried such economic aid to begin with. It could come with long strings.
- The alternative (but not mutually exclusive) payoff is of course to Russia through the IMF, strengthening its mediation efforts by propping up Yeltsin.
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.