"The Lifeblood of the Serbian Government Is War."

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:21

    Pop quiztime. Who said this about whom, and when did he say it? "He has never understoodthat the man who set Yugoslavia on fire will never put the fire out, that thelifeblood of the Serbian government is war." If yourguess was Tony Blair, or Bill Clinton, talking about Boris Yeltsin or Pat Buchananin the last month or so, try again. It was Serbian Renewal Movement politicianMihajlo Markovic. He was talking about European Community Balkan peace negotiatorLord David Owen. Markovic said this back in 1993, in the middle of one of acontinuing series of crackdowns by Serbian (and later Yugoslav) President SlobodanMilosevic against opposition political forces. In fact,that particular 1993 crackdown came first on Mihajlo Markovic's head on June1, 1993, when he was assaulted by a fellow member of parliament who belongedto Vojislav Seselj's ultranationalist (and aptly named) Serbian Radical Party.After a protest of the beating, police raided the headquarters of the SerbianRenewal Movement and beat its leader Vuk Draskovic and his wife, who were thenarrested. Draskovic was released more than a month later, when he was "pardoned"by Milosevic.

    Six yearsbeyond these brown-shirt politics in Belgrade, the international community isbillions of dollars, thousands of troops and yet another Balkan war along fromMarkovic's very clear formulation of the problem. We are also no closer to graspingbasic lessons about the Balkans or its Serbs, even after unleashing our bestmilitary hardware against them.

    Since 1993,the West has bungled a mass street movement to remove Milosevic and criminallyneglected the only homegrown nonviolent resistance movement in the Balkans.Under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova and Veton Surroi, among many, KosovoAlbanians created parallel governmental structures to oppose Serbian oppressionin the province. Lack of potent help for the Albanians' nonviolent campaignled directly to frustrations that fueled the formation of the Kosovo LiberationArmy, proving once again that the squeakiest (i.e., most violent) Balkan wheelgets the oil. In time and money and lives, our learning curve is off the chart.

    This isn'ta simple case of repeating history ungrasped and unlearned, however. It's acomplex and intractable problem, more so even than solving the true aim of ourlatest Balkan adventure: removing Milosevic from power. We still don't understandwho the Serbs that we've bombed for the past three months are. We didn't invade.We didn't remove Milosevic. The Serbs, alas, are still there. There's just alot fewer of them in Kosovo.

    Not thatthe Serbs aren't difficult to understand. They are. The tremendous Serb mediasophistication in the war's first weeks (which lowered Western public supportfor the bombing campaign dramatically) is hard to square with the brute savagerythat journalists are busily digging up in Kosovo's fields and basements. Thosemass graves, burnt bodies and torture instruments will continue the corrosionof the Serbian reputation, and make them seem even less deserving of any financialaid or a role in any new regional structure than they already appear to be afterthe leveling of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991, the massacres at Srebrenicain 1995 and the three years of terror that gutless Bosnian Serbs in the hillsover Sarajevo inflicted on a civilian population with sniper fire and shells.

    Even thosemost sympathetic to the Serb cause can't help but agree that there is no defensefor the role of Serbian politicians of all stripes in the violent disintegrationof Yugoslavia. Indicted war criminals like Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leadersRadovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and incompetent and inanely squabbling oppositionleaders are all a part of the political and military structure that manufactureddiscontent in its own streets and exported conflict. Mihajlo Markovic was right:War has been the lifeblood of Serbian power.

    Understandingthose Serbian politics is crucial to finding regional solutions. What makesit so difficult is that if you pull at any thread of Serbian politics, you haveno idea where it will end, or how long it may take. Robert Thomas' new book,Serbia Under Milosevic, tricks out many of these threads, and the layersof deceit, betrayal, thuggery and opportunism he unravels damn almost anyonewho's ever played the Serbian political game. Vuk Draskovic has paraded as apotential opposing force in the post-Kosovo Serb politics for years, but Thomaspoints out his deep roots in the nationalist intellectual life and politics that set the stage for war. Hard-line nationalist Vojislav Seselj, Thomas drylynotes, was best man at Draskovic's wedding, and Seselj and Draskovic have alsoshared the experience of being jailed by Milosevic and included in his governments.Many other potential opposition leaders have similar track records of such muddledquality that they can scarcely be discerned clearly even by seasoned journalists.

    The un-muddledand frightening Seselj, in fact, may be the politician best poised to pounceon any weakness in Milosevic's hold on power. Allowed to keep his "promise"to leave Milosevic's government if NATO troops entered Kosovo last week, Seselj'sparty has also been "ordered" to stay as well. The odd balancing acthas simultaneously forestalled new elections that might threaten Milosevic andgiven Seselj new credibility with his supporters.

    How thebody politic will vote in any Serbian election is another fascinating and potentiallydangerous question. Whatever mood it is in, it will have a great number of refugeesand former refugees in it. That can't be considered a positive. The largestsingle ethnic cleansing of all the wars since Yugoslavia's breakup-more than150,000 ethnic Serbs cleansed from the Krajina section of Croatia in 1995-hasresulted in few indictments by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. That cleansing and its refugees (absorbed by a Yugoslavia almost continuously under economicsanctions) are barely mentioned in Western media, but they are at the forefrontof Serbian consciousness, as are the new influx from Kosovo.

    I e-mailedSrdja Trifkovic, a Balkan analyst and former adviser to Bosnian Serb PresidentBiljana Plavsic, to ask him about his thoughts on the deal that ended the war.Trifkovic is stridently pro-Serb and against Western intervention in the Balkans, and while much of his e-mail took that tack, his very first words were aboutthe columns of refugees pouring out of Kosovo and headed north. "The Serbianminority in Kosovo are already leaving their homeland," writes Trifkovic."Even before NATO troops went in, civilians were leaving. They have enduredeighteen months' battle with the KLA and seventy days' NATO bombardment. Theirright to stay in Kosovo is as good as anybody else's. Neither in history norin law is Kosovo simply Albanian territory."

    Trifkovicnotes that the lip service being paid to the desire of the West for Kosovo Serbsto stay is not enough. "Where the Serbs of Bosnia remained in their homesin 1995, it was because they had their policemen to reassure them. It is extremely unlikely that soldiers alone-strangers speaking neither Albanian nor Serbian-cangive security to Serbian civilians when the KLA return. Unless NATO createsfrom the very first a mixed civil police force, however temporary, the remainingKosovo Serbs will be put on the road by their enemies."

    That's notall that's arriving in Belgrade from Kosovo. One Belgrade friend talked withme on the phone recently, and he sounded fine. He promised to send his "notes"from the bombing campaign. When they arrived, I saw how much terror and painand tumult he was hiding from me in our phone conversation. One brief entrygives a pretty good dose of all three:

    "Afriend of my friend lost his job," he writes. "At the moment he isdealing in cigarettes, petrol and gold. He says the price of gold has droppedin Belgrade. The illegal market is flooded with gold things. There are evengold teeth. A friend of my friend claims that he spent the whole morning separatinggold from the teeth. Lots of gold allegedly came from Kosovo. The ethnic originof gold is unknown."

    Anotherfriend said it bluntly. "You must come see it," she wrote. "Thisis not peace, it is hell."

    The aggrievedand damned Serbs, swelled by an influx of refugees from the shattered projectof greater Serbia, seem anything but pacified by the end of the bombing campaign.They are confused, perhaps, or in shock. But there is a bubbling cauldron ofdiscontent brewing in its streets and its towns, and it may not be inclinedto the democratic side. With no credible opposition, no independent media, adestroyed economy infrastructure and Milosevic still in power, Serbia will remaina regional time bomb for the foreseeable future. It's enough to ask just whatthis war has accomplished, aside from swapping Kosovo's minority populationfor its majority population, particularly if the lofty principles of "resistingethnic cleansing" are unevenly applied.

    But moreimportantly, it makes finding what will secure that regional peace at once moreproblematic and absolutely indispensable.