Essays: Unfinished Business in the Balkans |
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Unfinished Business in the Balkans

by Francis Wheen

TELEVISION SELDOM PAYS much attention to the wider world, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a ninety-minute discussion about Kosovo on Channel 4 last week – even if the programme, Jon Snow’s Weekly Planet, did go out at an hour when only drunks or insomniacs were watching. Surprise turned to astonishment, however, when I saw the two experts lined up to explain British policy in the Balkans. They were General Sir Michael Rose and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, billed respectively as ‘head of UN operations in Bosnia 1994-5’ and ‘political director of the Foreign Office, 1994-6’.

The descriptions scarcely do justice to the careers of this gruesome twosome. Though the programme never examined their credentials, someone should – if only because those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. As Neville-Jones said of Kosovo in last week’s TV programme, ‘I have that terrible sinking feeling of watching something happen again…’ General Rose presented himself as a humble soldier at the mercy of politicians. ‘In Bosnia I was working for the United Nations, and I was constrained by UN Security Council resolutions,’ he said. His tasks had been to alleviate suffering, stop the war spreading and create conditions for peace. ‘I did not have any other agenda while I was there.’

Too modest, my dear fellow. Under Security Council Resolution 836, for instance, Rose had a mandate to ‘deter attacks against the safe areas’. But when the Serb artillery launched a fierce bombardment against the safe area of Gorazde, in April 1994, he seemed remarkably unconcerned. It was, he insisted, no more than a ‘minor’ and ‘tactical’ operation by the Bosnian Serbs, who has ‘no serious intention’ – even though his HQ in Sarajevo received daily reports from UN military colleagues in Gorazde warning that the death toll was rising fast. ‘If this is “not serious”, I hope I don’t see a serious situation develop,’ one UN monitor complained to Rose. ‘Saying its is a minor attack into a limited area is a bad assessment, incorrect and shows absolutely no understanding of what is going on here.’

While Rose twiddled his thumbs, scores of people were killed and hundreds wonded. He then suggested that the Bosnian troops defending Gorazde hadn’t fought hard enough – ‘ a strange comment,’ as the historian Noel Malcolm has pointed out, ‘from someone who both supported and enforced an arms embargo against the Bosnian army, the ultimate aim of which was to prevent them from fighting at all.’ More insultingly still, a few months later he claimed that most of the damage to the buildings in Gorazde had been caused by the Bosnian forces themselves, whom he accused of driving 12,500 Serbs out of the city and destroying their houses. To quote Noel Malcolm again, ‘Since the entire administrative district if Gorazde, an area covering 383 square kilometres, had contained only 9,844 Serbs, and since half of these had lived in villages outside the city itself, it seemed reasonable to conclude that General Rose was acting here, however unwittingly, as little more than a conduit for Serb propaganda.’

Pauline Neville-Jones’s performance last week was even more shameless and disingenuous. Why, Snow wondered, had Britain done nothing sooner about Kosovo? ‘I don’t hold responsibility for that,’ she said, apparently forgetting her earlier admission that the Foreign Office had been well aware of the looming conflict throughout her term as political director. When Snow asked if the Foreign Office was now worried that the fighting in Kosovo would spread to Macedonia and elsewhere, she reminded him that she had retired from Whitehall some time ago: ‘I don’t honestly know precisely what they think today…’ Yet I have it on excellent authority that Dame Pauline was given a thorough briefing by the FO only hours before the broadcast.

Still, let’s give her credit for something: Dame Pauline has noticed, at long last, that President Milosevic is a menace. ‘Primarily I have to say I blame the authorities in Belgrade,’ she admitted. Why then, Snow inquired, do we want Milosevic to remain in power? ‘I’ve never actually put that proposition down on the table.’ Actually, that is just what she has been doing for years. Throughout the war in Bosnia, she and her colleague Douglas Hurd treated Milosevic as a moderate and necessary middleman, refusing to accept that he was in fact a genocidal thug who had instigated the violence. At the Dayton peace talks, where Neville-Jones was the chief British representative, she argued energetically – and successfully – for an end to sanctions against Serbia. What no one at Dayton knew, but Hurd has since confirmed, is that at the same time she was in touch with NatWest Markets about the possibility of a job in the private sector. Hurd himself had become deputy chairman of the bank shortly after resigning as Foreign Secretary, and Neville-Jones joined him as managing director in July 1996 – whereupon they jetted off to Serbia to cash in on the abolition of sanctions. At a ‘working breakfast’ in Belgrade, Milosevic signed a lucrative deal whereby NatWest Markets would privatize Serbia’s post and telephone system for a fee of about $10 million. For a further large fee, they agreed to manage the Serbian national debt.

Hurd and Neville-Jones claimed that this hideous partnership with the Butcher of Belgrade was ‘in the interests of the West’, since it committed Milosevic to a process of ‘liberalization’. Two years on, he is now so liberal that he uses tanks and heavy artillery against his own citizens. When Snow asked if Britain should take on some of the blame for encouraging Milosevic, Dame Pauline sounded suddenly nervous: ‘No, well, look, er, er, well, you can always beat your own breast, but…’ But indeed. Pauline Neville-Jones and General Sir Michael Rose have never beaten their own breasts, nor even rapped themselves lightly over the knuckles. Instead, Rose has just collected a  hefty advance for his self-congratulatory memoirs, while Neville-Jones is fêted and honoured by a grateful establishment. Only a few months ago she was appointed a governor of the BBC, ‘with special responsibility for the BBC World Service’. If these are the rewards of failure, who needs success?

Guardian, 24 June 1998




IS THERE a single Guardian reader who supports NATO’s action against the genocidal Serbian war machine? Apparently not, to judge by the letters to the editor, published during the last week. Some of these are from genuine pacifists, tender-hearted souls to whom the swatting of a wasp and the bombing of a munitions dump are equally obscene. Fair enough. Other opponents of the war take the Alan Clark line of self-interested isolationism, arguing that the Balkans are not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier, let alone the life of an RAF pilot. Fair enough again, if that is really what they believe. But most other critics, particularly on the Left, deserve no such indulgence.

Last week’s parliamentary debate on Kosovo has been widely praised, not least by those who participated in it. ‘Sombre, serious, passionate and crossing party lines, it has done a lot of credit to the House of Commons,’ according to the Defence Secretary. In fact it was a rancid stew of insincerity, ignorance and plain codswallop. ‘There is opposition to the war,’ Tony Benn boasted. ‘Henry Kissinger is against the war.’ Well, of course he is: mass-murdering war criminals have a tendency to stick together. Benn also complained that ‘the House suffers from its lack of knowledge of history’, and then proved the point by declaring that ‘Kosovo has been in Yugoslavia for centuries’ – no mean feat, given that the state of Yugoslavia didn’t exist until the twentieth century.

If historical amnesia now afflicts even old-timers such as Benn himself, not to mention Denis Healey, what hope is there for the next generation? The Labour MP Harry Barnes and the Tory Bowen Wells both claimed that the conflict in Yugoslavia ‘began’ with the German-inspired recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. ‘That is what started it,’ Wells added. ‘At that point the Serbs, or all those who wanted to keep Yugoslavia together, were perfectly justified in taking up arms…’ Not one Honourable Member pointed out that the true sequence of events was the other way round: by the time the EEC agreed to recognize Croatia,  in December 1991. Milosevic’s forces had already been bombarding Dubrovnik for three months, and the town of Vukovar had long since been reduced to rubble.

Benn and his chums on the Labour Left are outraged that Britain or anyone else should ‘act as the policeman of the world’. Yet these same voices have for many months been pleading with the Law Lords and Jack Straw to act as the world’s policeman in the case of General Pinochet, rightly rejecting the argument that Pinochet’s crimes are none of our business and should be dealt with by the Chileans themselves. Again and again in last week’s debate, MPs maintained that it was always wrong to ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, even if that state is massacring its own people. Did Tony Benn protest at the overthrow of the murderous Idi Amin in 1979? This was undoubtedly an infringement of Uganda’s territorial integrity, since Amin was toppled only because Tanzanian forces came in on the side of the Ugandan rebels; nevertheless, most of us thought that the breach of the sovereignty was outweighed by the urgency and rightness of the cause. The same could be said of the Vietnamese invasion that put an end to Pol Pot’s genocide. If Benn saw a woman being raped by a gang of thugs, he would (one hopes) rush to her aid. As Ken Livingstone asked last week: ‘Why should we as a nation stand back when the same thing has been happening on our doorstep for the best part of a decade? My socialism and driving moral force are not defined by lines drawn on a map, certainly not when they were drawn by imperial powers at Versailles in 1919.’

It is reassuring to know that the spirit of internationalism is not entirely dead on the British Left. Many other Labour MPs – and Guardian letter-writers – seem to think that anything happening beyond the cliffs of Dover is ultra vires. We have no right, they claim, to involve ourselves in other people’s civil wars. Very well then: can we now expect them to condemn those British socialists who enlisted to fight in the Spanish Civil War sixty years ago?

Guardian, 31 March 1999




‘HAVE YOU BEEN got at by MI6?’ a reader asks, horrified by my comments on Yugoslavia. ‘Right here, right now, in my city, on the streets of Glasgow, the Labour-controlled council is threatening to sack librarians. Meanwhile, George Robertson is stroking the fuselage of a fighter plane in Italy. Ray Bradbury could not make this up. George Orwell would be stuck for words.’ Oddly enough, shortly before this letter arrived I too had been wondering what George Orwell would make of the present imbroglio. ‘Yugoslav politics are very complicated and I make no pretence of being and expert on them,’ he admitted in Tribune on 12 January 1945. Nevertheless, I think he might have had some useful observations to offer.

First, let’s take the argument, often heard in the last fortnight, that NATO’s onslaught has united even the Serbian opposition behind Milosevic, thus scuppering any chance of a more humane and liberal regime ever emerging in Belgrade. As Orwell pointed out in 1940, dictators have often enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their citizens. ‘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 transformed their nation into a model social democracy with remarkably little grief. Is it vain to hope that history might repeat itself once Belgrade’s own little Hitler has gone?

Orwell would, I’d guess, be contemptuous of those who blame NATO for the horrific exodus from Kosovo. It has long been clear that Milosevic’s intention is to make the area uninhabitable for Muslims (or indeed, Roman Catholics); what us happening now is merely a speeded-up version of what would have happened anyway. If the mass expulsions were the fault of Messrs Blair and Clinton, one would expect the refugees to feel very bitter towards their self-styled saviours. But they don’t.  During the past week many hundreds of weary, weeping fugitives have been interviewed as they cross the borders into Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania; none has called for NATO to withdraw. In fact, they have unanimously supported the military action against Belgrade, however awful the immediate consequences for themselves. Opponents of the war who claim to have the best interests of the Kosovars at heart should shut up for a minute and listen to what these people are actually saying.

Besides, what is the alternative? Summon yet another conference at a French château, plead the pacifists; send in yet more jet-setting mediators, monitors and special envoys. This is, of course, precisely the policy that the international community has followed for the best part of a decade, and what do we have to show for it? Hundreds of broken ceasefires and promises, and thousands of corpses in Srebrenica, murdered under the very noses of blue-helmeted UN soldiers. (‘Despotic governments stand “moral force” till the cows come home,’ Orwell noted in September 1942. ‘What they fear is physical force.’) Throughout all the ‘ethnic-cleansing’ atrocities committed by Serbian troops and paramilitaries, from Vukovar in 1991 to Racak in 1999, Western politicians continued to insist that Milosevic was a man they could do business with. The essential thing, as both the Conservatives and the Socialist Workers’ Party agreed, was ‘not to take sides’.

Orwell would certainly not have fallen for the nonsense that one should remain impartial between the oppressor and the victim. ‘There is no such thing as neutrality in this war,’ he wrote in 1941, arguing that ‘if you don’t resist the Nazis you are helping them’. The same can be said of modern National Socialists in Yugoslavia. When Tony Benn and Diane Abbott set up the apparently neutral Committee for Peace in the Balkans four years ago, they claimed that their only purpose was to oppose external involvement in Bosnia and lobby for a continuation of the arms embargo. But the logic of this position was that Bosnia should become part of Milosevic’s Greater Serbia. It was therefore no surprise to learn that the founding supporters of the committee included not only Benn and Abbott but also Sir Alfred Sherman, who had spent the previous couple of years advising Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the well-known war criminals and ethnic cleansing experts.

Again and again, in the last decade, 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 by treating the Butcher of the Balkans as a reasonable statesman who should be indulged and flattered at every turn. Most have had the good sense to keep quiet since the bombing began – the notable exception being General Rose, who has used his Sunday Times column to contrast NATO’s ineffectiveness with his own triumphant record as head of the UN protection force in Bosnia, where he ‘succeeded in vastly reducing the level of slaughter and ethnic cleansing’. Oh yeah? Like so many people who ostentatiously declined to take sides, Rose failed to realize that the only beneficiaries of his inaction and spurious neutrality were Slobodan-Milosevic’s goon-squads.

Douglas 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 Milosevic 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, Malcolm Rifkind, maintained this tradition pf appeasement-by-default. And as recently as January this 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’ – thus earning himself a rare tribute from Tony Benn, who praised the Foreign Secretary for ‘the balanced way in which he presented the background’.

The ghastly pictures from the Kosovo border are evidence not of military failure but of political failure. The culprits are those shoulder-shrugging fatalists who have spent ten long years striking a ‘balance’ between murderer and murderee – and who continue to excuse or ignore Milosevic’s wickedness. I know what George Orwell would have thought of them. ‘The choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils,’ he wrote in October 1941. ‘You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.’ Perhaps some people genuinely believe that genocide is a lesser evil than bombing military installations. But, as Orwell concluded, the choice has to be made: ‘We do not have the chance, in a time like this, to say “Tomorrow, we can all start being good”. That is moonshine. We only have the chance of choosing the lesser evil and working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible.’

Guardian, 7 April 1999




AT A RATHER right-wing lunch last Friday, I expressed my pleasure at the popular uprising in Serbia which had toppled Slobodan Milosevic. ‘Popular?’ a Tory gent harrumphed, in a 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 a 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 Milosevic enjoys near-universal support in his own country?

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, Milosevic has been strengthened.’ In the House of Lords, former defence minister Lord Blaker warned that ‘the determination of the Serb people to support Mr Milosevic would be increased’. The political journalist Paul Routledge wrote in the Mirror that ‘the tyrant Milosevic is still in power, and more popular with his people than ever’, while Times readers learned from Simon Jenkins that ‘Mr Milosevic may be “degraded” but he is politically impregnable’. The Daily Mail agreed: ‘There is no doubt the country is now united behind Milosevic.’ A Panorama programme on ‘The Mind of Milosevic’ 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 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 Milosevic’s political position in Yugoslavia.’

No all observers, actually. Even during the NATO campaign, Milosevic was never as ‘politically impregnable’ as the pundits claimed. At the end of April 1999, Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic appeared on state television to denounce the President for dragging the nation into a war it couldn’t win. Other opposition leaders started demanding Milosevic’s resignation, and by early May there was evidence of widespread public discontent: the journalist 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 Milosevic’s feet was sick of him. More than 10,000 Serbs took to the streets of Cacak on 29 June to demand the immediate resignation of the dictator. In the southern city of Prokuplje, which had hitherto been regarded as a Milosevic stronghold, only five people turned up on 8 July 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-Milosevic protesters marched through the centre of Belgrade. The president’s downfall had become a question of when, not if.

Why then, did so many allegedly perceptive experts maintain that he was invincibly popular? The answer, I’d guess, is that they took Milosevic at his own estimation. It’s an all too common error: throughout the 1990’s, he convinced foreign politicians and  diplomats that he was the bringer of 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. 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 Milosevic 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 – literally so, in the case of Douglas Hurd and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones.

Where are they now, all these eminent and culpable oafs who so consistently misjudged Milosevic? Shut away in their kitchens, gorging on humble pie? Of course not: this is a breed that knows no shame. Lord Owen could be heard on the World Service last Thursday night, pontificating grandly about the future of Yugoslavia whilst 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, whi have helped Milosevic to stay in power so long and to wreak such ghastly havoc, now presume to lecture us on the inevitability of his demise?

Guardian, 11 October 2000