NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
To return to Serbia proper from occupied Kosova is a surreal experience. In the freezing fog, I say farewell to my Albanian judge-driver. Cheerful Canadian soldiers at the sandbagged checkpoint take my passport details"just in case something happens to you." My Serbian driver waits on the other side, to take me past the Serbian police checkpoint.* Then we drive through what still looks, by comparison with Kosova, a civilized and orderly landscape, to Belgrade. There I tell friends and acquaintances about life in the chunk of their country we've just occupied, and what a German general proposes to do with it.
These are not easy conversations. Surprisingly, Kosovo/a is not itself a major subject of contention, although the state press and television make propaganda out of the suffering of Serbs at the hands of vengeful Kosovars, and the general chaos in the province. In a public opinion poll conducted in October for the National Democratic Instituteamazing that a US public institution can commission a poll in what is still virtually enemy territoryonly 5 percent of respondents said that the loss of Kosovo was the most important problem facing Serbia, compared with 26 percent who singled out poverty and social problems, and 14 percent who mentioned the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. A year ago, Vuk Draskovic, leader of the half-oppositional Serbian Renewal Movement, spent most of our conversation ranting about Kosovo. This time, in a long talk at his large, comfortable family house, he only mentions it once, almost in passing: "Of course Kosovo is lost." Among other opposition politicians, who for years have been struck dumb by the Kosovo issue, I sense something like relief: "At least it's not our problem anymore."
The war, however, and especially the bombing of their own cities and towns, is a major subject for conversation with an Englishman. Aleksa Djilas, son of the famous dissident Milovan Djilas, and, I like to think, a friend, greets me warmly in his apartment and then says, "Do you realize, if Britain had conscription, and the war had gone on, we might have been fighting each other?" Quite a thought. Everyone has a story of the bombing. A woman who works for one of the most genuinely liberal (and therefore small) opposition parties recalls that when her six-year-old daughter asked, "Why are they bombing us?" she tried to explain along the lines of "there are bad people in Serbia doing bad things, and they are bombing those bad people, but unfortunately that means they're also hitting us." The little girl didn't understand. (I'm not quite sure I do, either.) Instead, she now goes around singing a popular rude song against "Clinton Bill." The double-edged bitterness felt during the bombing was perfectly summed up in a graffito that read simply "Slobo Klintone!" "Slobo, you Clinton!"
Generally, the bombing has reinforced the Serbs' already highly developed sense of national victimhood. I talk to the angry former mayor of a village in Serbia's wooded rural heartland, the Sumadija. As I take my leave, he says, generously, "We Serbs can forgive, but we cannot forget." No notion that Serbs might themselves need to ask anyone else for forgiveness! At the same time, there's an overwhelming awareness that Serbia has to start rejoining the civilized, developed world. Even this man, who is from Milosevic's Socialist Party, thinks there is no alternative.
Of course, the Milosevic regime accuses the opposition of being NATO lackeys. But, an opposition leader wryly observes, ordinary Serbs also respect power, and the bombing was nothing if not a crude lesson in power. Psychologically, even more than economically, the country is in a horrible condition, stewing in a witches' broth of resentment, cynicism, conspiracy theories, and humiliated pride. The same Belgrade intellectuals who one minute berate me for the sins of Western policy are, the next minute, privately asking me for a letter of recommendation or other assistance in getting to the West. So many of the brightest young people have left already. Those who remain are often reduced to semilegal small business or plain black-marketeering to make ends meet.
"To understand this country now," says a political scientist whose judgment I respect, "you don't need a political scientist. You need a clinical psychologist. We're all crazy somehow." And he mentions a black-humor diagnosis: Political Serbicide Syndrome. They feel that they belong to a society being led into collective political suicide by Slobodan Milosevic, himself the son of parents who both committed suicide.
In such a society, in such a moment, serious political analysis is very difficult, and prognosis near-impossible. Nonetheless, almost everyone I talk to agrees on three things. First, and self-evidently, Milosevic has survived the immediate consequences of defeat. There has not yet been the "Galtieri effect" hoped for by the opposition and the Westand perhaps especially by the Clinton administration. (The Argentine dictator was, of course, deposed as a result of losing the Falklands War.) True, there are shortages. People get up at five in the morning to stand in lines for milk. They are very hard up. But there are far more power cuts in NATO-occupied Pristina than in Belgrade. Somehow, Milosevic is getting through the winter. He has a favorable barter arrangement for Russian gas, supplied via Hungary. He has received a claimed $300 million of aid from China. He has probably cut some backdoor deals for fuel through Bulgaria. His policy of systematically selling off state property (including those Trepca mines in Kosova) to cronies and foreign investors has apparently still left some minimal hard currency reserves. And he does a cash-flow juggling act which consists in not paying each group of public service workers for a month or two in turn.
A slick advertising campaign on state television shows his regime heroically rebuilding the bridges and buildings NATO destroyed. Serbia defies the world! These public works are paid for partly by not paying the workers at all, partly by printing money, and partly by using the country's ample reserves of very cheap laborincluding the approximately 800,000 impoverished Serbian refugees from other parts of former Yugoslavia. (Thus Milosevic's own destructive policies have created a pool of cheap labor for him to exploit.) Politically, the street demonstrations called by the Alliance for Change, a coalition of opposition parties, started with a bang in the summer but have ended with a whimper. They have failed in their stated objective of securing early elections.
The 1980s ended with the fall of Honecker, Husak, and Ceau?sescu. It would have been wonderful to end the 1990s with the fall of Milosevic. But no. This does not mean, however, that Milosevic will be Europe's Saddam Hussein. For there is also widespread agreement that we have entered the last act of the Serbian tragedy, with Slobo and his powerful wife, Mira Markovic, still playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Two major opinion polls, the NDI one and another commissioned by the local Centre for Policy Studies, show a large majority of respondents blaming him for the country's woes and wanting him to go before the end of his term. There is much anecdotal evidence of the regime crumbling: border guards congratulating opposition figures on their television appearances, and so on. Quite big rats seem to be preparing to leave the sinking ship, in order to save their own skins and the wealth Milosevic has enabled them to accumulate in return for their support. I talk to a banker formerly close to the leading couple andpulling at a large cigar as he weighs how far he dares go in conversation with a Westernerhe describes Serbia as being in a "pre-transition period."
Unfortunately, the third thing on which all local observers agree is that this transition is most unlikely to be peaceful. One must distinguish between the rational and the real. Rational projections suggest, for example, that the Alliance for Change, a fragile coalition of some of the more liberal opposition parties, might win popular support by joining in a "Trilateral Commission" with the United States and the European Union to distribute Western aid. "See, we can deliver!" they would say. "Oil to opposition-run cities (the so-called "Energy for Democracy" plan), supplies for a hospital here, a school there..." Rational projections envisage electionslocal and federal ones have to be held during 2000, the crucial republican ones next year at the latest. On January 10, the opposition parties finally did what the West has long been urging them to do and made a common front. They signed a joint declaration calling for republican elections by the end of April this year, as well as for the lifting of US and EU sanctions against Serbia and full respect for the UN resolution on Kosovo.
It remains to be seen how long this common front will last, particularly given the deep personal animosity between the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic, both of whom are, in different ways, widely discredited. Even so, whenever and however elections come, Milosevic's Socialists, his wife's United Yugoslav Left (JUL) party, and their extreme nationalist coalition partner, the Radicals, would be most unlikely to win enough votes to form another government. But there the rational ends and the real begins. For how would Milosevic peacefully concede power, even assuming he was prepared to? And where would he then go? The Hague?
Milosevic is now more dangerous than ever. Draskovic suggests to me that until this year Milosevic was still restrained by fear of the West's reaction. Now the West has done its worst, it has bombed him, and he has little more to fear. On the other hand, because of the public indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ("The Hague Tribunal"), he has no safe exit. He has his back to the wall. Wounded, cornered tigers are likely to strike outwhich he has. The universities, sources of the great student protests of 1996-1997, have been brought firmly back under the regime's control. He used the pretext of the war to seize the assets of some of the most important independent journals and broadcasters, such as Radio B92though the indomitable Veran Matic now runs a Radio B292. The remaining independent media are being punished with huge fines, under a Draconian public information law. Opposition activists are regularly arrested and roughed up.
What is more, Serbian politics are becoming a matter of life and death. During the war, the newspaper editor Slavko Curuvija, once close to Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, but then an outspoken critic, was gunned down outside his home. In early October, the brother-in-law of Vuk Draskovic was killed, together with three of Draskovic's bodyguards, in a highly suspicious "traffic accident." Some speculate that this was a factional security service or even a gangland killing, since Draskovic's brother-in-law was in charge of the lucrative and corrupt Belgrade city construction office. Draskovic, however, has denounced the Radicals and Mira Markovic's JUL party (but not Milosevic's Socialist Party) for organizing "state terrorism." His Serbian Renewal Movement has formed armed self-defense units from among its own members.
He clearly fears for his life, as does Ognjen Pribicevic, a friend and former member of my Oxford college who threw in his lot with Draskovic during the war. I sit with Ognjen in a restaurant in central Belgrade and he says, "I don't think they'll shoot me here, in this restaurant, but perhaps something will happen on the road, another 'traffic accident.'..." He is meant to chair a talk I propose to give, in the hope of engaging Belgrade intellectuals in a dialogue. He arrives five minutes late and says breathlessly to Aleksa Djilas: "I can't do this now, the armed struggle has begun!" This is one of the more interesting excuses I have heard for being unable to chair a talk. It turns out there's a tense stand-off with police who have come to interrogate three party leaders about their statement denouncing state terrorism.
The armed struggle does not actually beginand old Belgrade hands say they have heard it all before, a hundred times. Pre-revolutionary hysteria as a way of life. But that does not mean that violent change will not one day, finally, happen. There are widely differing speculations about what the spark for revolution might be. Draskovic suggests it might be an attempt by Milosevic to reassert control over the last remaining constituent part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Montenegro, which is carefully carving out its own de facto autonomy. Next day, there is a confrontation between Serbian soldiers and Montenegrin police at Montenegro's main airport. Yet the shrewd and cautious Montenegrin president, Milo Djukanovic, has again and again managed to avoid a showdown in which many of his people, identifying themselves as Serbs, might actually side with Serbia.
Dragoslav Avramovic, the wily old economist who once worked for Milosevic and now leads the Alliance for Change, speculates that the spark might be another bout of hyperinflation. He says the current rate of 40 to 50 percent a month, though desperately difficult for anyone without a hard currency income, is just about sustainable. But if it passes 100 percent a month, then the balloon goes up. Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party thinks that no one can predict what the spark would be. After all, he says, one of the Serbian risings against Ottoman rule in the nineteenth century began when an Ottoman shot a Serbian boy while he was queuing for water at a well...
What one can identify are the many groups waiting to act, when the moment comes. Students are organized outside the universities, in a movement called "Resistance." One of their leaders tells me they are conserving their energies for the right occasion and deliberately focusing on a single demand: "Slobo must go." There are the opposition parties, of course. Then there are several opposition-controlled cities. I visit one, Cacak, and talk to its popular mayor, Velimir Ilic, a private entrepreneur, built like an ox, who survived the war hiding in the woods to escape Milosevic's security men. He tells me, "We're waiting for Belgrade." There are the independent press and broadcasters, including an impressive network of regional television stations. Then there are the opportunistspolitely called "pragmatists"who are held to be especially numerous in Milosevic's own Socialist Party. There is the mass discontent evidenced in the opinion polls, and the miserable refugeesalthough their revolutionary potential may be doubted. Western observers always speculate about a possible army coup, but there is scant external evidence of that possibility. On the other hand, the incidents involving Curuvija and Draskovic do suggest a real fragmentation of the security apparatus. Who knows if one day their guns could not be turned against Milosevic himself?
Asked what the West can do to increase the rather small chances of a change that is both swift and peaceful, people from all points of the political spectrum join in making two firm statements. First, Milosevic must be given a way out. They hate him. They wish him dead or in prison. Morally, they think the Hague indictment is right (though some of them say the recently deceased Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, and the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, should have been indicted too). But politically, it is proving disastrous. Milosevic has nowhere to go, sothey fearhe will fight "to the last Serb." Even the radical young student leader says Milosevic must, instead, be offered some safe exit. With the fantasies of limitless American Machiavellianism that are rife here, those I talk to conjure images of some new Ollie North covertly spiriting Slobo off to a Caribbean hideaway in an unmarked Stealth fighter.
Second, everyone says that sanctions are counterproductive. Sanctions against the regime, yes. Barring some six hundred people associated with the regime from getting visas to Western countries has been an excellent move. And they strongly approve of the steps taken to block the foreign bank accounts of Milosevic and his associates. But sanctions against the people only increase the possibilities for illegal earnings by Milosevic's cronies. They impoverish ordinary Serbs. Above all, they reinforce the very image that his propaganda has so successfully exploited for so long: innocent, heroic, suffering Serbia, a Christ among nations, persecuted by the whole world.
So let fresh air in. Let people travel again. Then they can see for themselves how Milosevic has ruined their country, while all their neighbors have moved on. ("The most painful thing for me," says one Serb who does travel, "is visiting the other former Yugoslav republics. Why, even Skopje looks better than Belgrade.") Wouldn't lifting sanctions enable Milosevic to say, "Look, you can have me and the West"? No, they unanimously insist, quite the reverse. After all, the biggest challenge to his regime so farthe demonstrations of 1996-1997came after the lifting of UN sanctions in 1996.
I don't see how the international community can even contemplate doing the first of these thingsgiving Milosevic a way outhowever strong the political logic. This would undermine one of the pillars of the international liberal order we are trying to build for the twenty-first century. But I think we can and should do the secondlift the sanctions against the peopleas many West European governments are inclined to do. This is not a replay of old cold war arguments, with West Europeans being soft on the Soviet Union out of cravenness and material self-interest. I have always felt that we should be guided by domestic oppositions in the application of sanctions. That's why sanctions were right against Poland in the 1980s, where Solidarity wanted them, and against South Africa, where the ANC wanted them, and are right against Burma today, where Aung San Suu Kyi emphatically supports them. By the same token, they should be lifted here. But that would mean the Clinton administration admitting, in an election year, that it had got something wrong...
I make the long drive back north to Budapest, through the rich, dark fields of the Vojvodina plain. After waiting hours at the frontier for that little exit stamp, I face another shock: Hungary's neat, modern highways; toll booths with the prices already shown in euros; American-style out-of-town shopping centers; a gleaming modern airport. The West.
This is no Huntingtonian frontier between clashing "civilizations." Eighty years ago the Vojvodina was part of pre-Trianon Hungary. It belongs to exactly the same historical civilization. Nor is this a cold war divide. For much of the cold war, the people living on the Yugoslav side of this frontier were in many ways better placed than those on the Hungarian side. In fact the shocking contrast is a product of the politics of one decade: the broadly positive politics of Central Europe and the terrible politics of former Yugoslavia.
The consequences of those terrible politics are nearly played out. Slovenia is already sailing west. Croatia, after the death of Tudjman, has a chance to follow itand the opposition victory in parliamentary elections in early January suggests that the Croatians may seize that chance. The domestic tragedy of Serbia has still to reach its bitter end. We also have yet to see whether tiny Montenegro is pushed to independence or can make a future in a loose federation with a reformed Serbia. Equally, we shall see whether the greater autonomy promised to the Albanians in western Macedonia by Boris Trajkovski, the successful candidate in Macedonia's recent presidential elections, spells stabilization or further disintegration for that still-imperiled country. Bosnia remains an ethnically divided international protectorate.
I have argued for several years now that this separating out into small states or sub-state units with clear ethnic majorities, driven though it has been by manipulative and often cynical post-communist nationalism, nonetheless has powerful precedents and counterparts in the rest of Europe. Elsewhere in Europe, too, people generally prefer to be ruled by those they consider somehow "of their own kind." Only once thus constituted, in some version of a nation-state, are they prepared (up to a point) to come together in larger regional and all-European units. A realistic liberal internationalism for the twenty-first century needs to take on board the insights of liberal nationalists from the nineteenth.
So there is, alas, a logic in the madness. Yet I come away from this journey feeling, more than ever, the futile folly of it. It's not as if these nations want to live in quite different ways in their different houses. What you find in each individual, small, battered, impoverished part of the Balkans are peopleespecially young peoplelooking at exactly the same Western advertisements, worshiping the same Western pop stars and fashion models, watching the same Western films and television shows, yearning for the same Western way of life. This is true in Serbia, despite the anti-Western sentiments, just as much as in Kosova, where the West is liberator-king.
My judge-driver-interpreter in Kosova happens
also to be the president of the leading Pristina basketball club, and
on my first evening there he invited me to a match. Players wore smart
Adidas outfits. Young fans had baseball caps, T-shirts, scarves, and
flags. They jumped up and down, clapped rhythmically, chanted "ole,
ole, ole, ole," and did all the other things they had obviously
seen Western fan clubs do on television (although I think they may have
got slightly confused between basketball and soccer fans). I sat there,
in the freezing stadium, and mused on the madness of these nations,
which have spent years fighting and murdering one another so that, in
the end, they can all go off to their separate little patches of land,
and thereeach and all of themtry to live just like Americans.
January 13, 2000