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Anarchy & Madness

Balushe is back! With a quiet smile on her pleasant face, she stands under a blue UN tarpaulin in a makeshift wooden hut. They found her wandering nearby, bemused, hungry, but otherwise unharmed. Balushe is the Latifaj family cow, and her return is a small sign of what has gone right in the place we should now, realistically, call Kosova.

The Latifajs used to live in a large house next to the mosque in the village of Prilep, at the foot of the Cursed Mountains that separate Kosova from Albania. Now they live amid the rubble that was their house, next to the ruined mosque, in a village that Milosevic’s artillery and special forces have almost entirely destroyed. A year ago I found the whole family cowering in their yard. Serb forces had just beaten them up after a KLA ambush of Serb police outside the mosque.1 Six months ago, I found Granny Latifaj standing alone, weeping, in the rubble. She was trying to heat some water in a bucket by placing it in the sun.

Today, half the family have returned. They’ve built a large wooden hut in the snow-covered ruins, with materials supplied by international agencies and charities. They have a wood-burning stove and enough wood to see them through Kosova’s freezing winter. (One daughter tells me they received an extra allowance of firewood because her brother died in the war, fighting with the KLA’s legendary Commander Ramush.) Like so many Kosovars, they are helped out financially by family members working in Germany. They hope their fields will be cleared of land mines in time for the spring sowing. Meanwhile, with international aid and family help, they have just enough to eat. The children go to a rudimentary school, with the same teacher who used to teach them illegally before the war. Most people in the village have come back and, yes, they finally feel free. “We’d like to thank you,” says the hoxha, the local clergyman from the ruined mosque, whom I find repainting his own house, “you Americans and Europeans, for doing so much for our freedom.”

This is the good news, and it’s repeated all over the battered province. The main street of every town looks like a do-it-yourself exhibition. Small shops contain everything you need to rebuild a house, from bricks and timber, through electrical cables and drainpipes, to the all-important rugs and coffee cups. A family I have visited several times in Malisevo, once the capital of the KLA and “the most dangerous place in Europe,” have such a shop, newly built with money sent from Germany by their Gastarbeiter son. The father cautiously estimates his profit at DM35-40 a day. He hopes to rebuild his own house on the earnings from selling reconstruction materials to others.

In the trashed bazaar of what used to be the Serbian city of Pec and is now the Albanian city of Pejë, local children have painted the ruins with brightly colored frescoes. There’s a thriving market, and even a couple of jewelers’ shops. Young girls stand in the mud, distributing calendars for Ramadan.

In sum, most of the Kosovars who were expelled have come home; they are surviving and will eventually rebuild. Here, however, the good news ends. For Kosova today is an almighty mess. The province for which NATO fought the first war in its history is now the most ambitious project of truly international administration in the whole history of the United Nations. The experiment is not going well.

1.

Thanks to us, Kosova ends with an a—the Albanian as opposed to the Serbian spelling. A stands for Albanian. It also, at the moment, stands for Anarchy. Take A for Albanian first. It’s now entirely clear that the NATO intervention has decisively resolved, in favor of the Albanians, a Serb-Albanian struggle for control of this territory that goes back at least 120 years. This was neither the stated nor the real intention of Western policymakers.

Although most Serbs don’t believe it, the representatives of the so-called international community are genuine and even passionate in their desire to see a future for the Serbs in Kosova. Dr. Klaus Reinhardt, the impressive German general who now commands the multilateral, NATO-led military force (KFOR), thumps his right fist into his left palm as he tells me that he will bring Serbs back to live again in their homes, even though those homes have been torched and plundered by Albanians since KFOR marched in. Bernard Kouchner, the very French head of the United Nations mission (UNMIK), tells me: “History will judge us on our ability to protect a minority [i.e., the Serbs] inside another minority [i.e., the Albanians in Yugoslavia].”

These are bold terms on which to invite history’s judgment. For the reality on the ground is one of almost total ethnic separation. Many Serbs fled to Serbia proper when KFOR marched in last June. Most of the rest have subsequently been driven into Serbian enclaves by intimidation and outright terror from returning Albanians. Particularly among the younger generation of Albanians, who have known Serbs only as remote oppressors, there is a growing intolerance of all ethnic others (including Roma and Muslim Slavs). People under thirty make up more than half the population and young Kosovars manifest a thirst for revenge that sickens not just foreigners but also many among the older generation of Kosovars, who still have personal memories of peaceful coexistence with the Serbs.

Just before I arrived, an elderly Serb professor was lynched by a mob celebrating the Albanian “flag day” in Pristina. There used to be some 40,000 Serbs living in Pristina; now there are just a few hundred. The exquisite Serbian monastery of Decani has lost all the lay Serbs who used to sustain it. When the monks need to go shopping, they travel under Italian KFOR escort to Montenegro. In Podujevo, British troops mount a twenty-four-hour guard over two remaining Serb grandmothers—“and the Albanians would slot them if we didn’t,” a British officer remarks, using a slang term for “kill.” It is entirely fitting to speak, in this context, of reverse ethnic cleansing. Yet this ethnic cleansing has been carried out under the very noses and tank barrels of more than 40,000 international troops.

Momcilo Trajkovic, the leading Serb politician still in Kosova, fled Pristina after being shot at through his front door by an Albanian. He now lives in what he calls the Serb “ghetto” around the monastery of Gracanica, an area a few miles across. When he wants to travel anywhere outside the ghetto, he needs a KFOR escort. “This means,” he explains, “that I can go to Pristina to meet President Clinton but I can’t go there to buy a loaf of bread.” He’s still indomitable. When I ask him how long people can live in such a ghetto, he replies, “A thousand years!” They outlived more than five hundred years of Ottoman rule, he says, and they’ll survive this. But he is alone in his heroic optimism.

Besides these enclaves, which contain perhaps some 20,000 to 30,000 Serbs, there is an area north of a line running roughly east-west through the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. This area makes up less than 10 percent of the whole territory. It contains some (though not all) of the valuable Trepca mines, and is contiguous with Serbia proper. Here, an estimated 70,000 Serbs still rule the roost. The situation in the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica is astonishing. Passing the barbed wire barriers on the bridge over the Ibar River, my papers are checked by French soldiers as I enter the Serb-controlled northern sector. French, British, and Scandinavian troops patrol this part, too, but within a few yards of a British armored car I am accosted by several burly Serbs in plainclothes, armed with walkie-talkies.

They sharply ask my business, and my resourceful Albanian interpreter rapidly becomes “Dragan Trajkovic from Belgrade.” We walk up through a peaceful-looking Serb town—schoolgirls giggling on their way home, couples quietly going shopping—to the regional hospital, which is run by Serbs, though with a French director and French soldiers at the gate.

Here we meet a doctor who is also a member of a Belgrade-based, moderate nationalist opposition party. He explains how all the salaries of local people are paid from Belgrade, and their electricity, water, and other supplies come from the north. “The multi-ethnic concept of Kosovo is finished,” he says. Partition is the only answer. Back in the southern part of town, the KLA-appointed unofficial Albanian mayor, Dr. Bajram Rexhepi, a surgeon who tended the KLA wounded, earning the affectionate nickname “Doctor Terrorist,” retorts that this is intolerable. If nothing changes by the spring, he says, the Albanians will again resort to pressure, even force, to storm the bridge over the Ibar River. Some of the local French soldiers have been seen carousing with Serb paramilitaries, he claims, and are pro-Serb, but he thinks their commanders are not.

In truth, the refusal to force open the bridge over the Ibar is not just French policy but that of the entire international administration, both civil and military. For if the guardians of the bridge let the massed Albanians surge across, the Serbs would either fight or flee—probably first one then the other. NATO and the UN would again be parties to ethnic cleansing. So instead, KFOR and UNMIK ineffectually struggle to implement a few schemes for Albanian-Serb cooperation—in the hospital, in a factory—that do nothing to change the overall reality of partition. Indeed, Kouchner has now tacitly acknowledged this, proclaiming his medium-term goal to be no longer a “multiethnic” society but “peaceful coexistence” between largely separate communities.

Yet this hate-filled Albanian-Serb separation is only half the story—and for the future of Kosova not even the most important half. More important is the worsening state of anarchy. It’s hard to convey what a chaotic, threatening place the Albanian 90 percent of Kosova is this winter. In the dark, through freezing fog, along potholed, icy roads, race endless columns of cars, many of them probably stolen in Western Europe. Half the cars display no registration plates and have black-clad, unshaven young men at the wheel, driving like madmen. Once, our column stops because a kid has thrown a brick through the windshield of what he thinks is a Serb car. More often, it’s because a car has spun off the road. I have never in my life seen so many serious traffic accidents. At one particularly nasty one, a KFOR armored car trundles past while a car lies upside down in the snow, its warning lights flashing in the dark and its driver presumably crushed. There are still virtually no police, and there is no effective law. I kept thinking of Graham Greene’s title: The Lawless Roads.

Meanwhile, the Albanian mafia has entered with a vengeance. Young women are afraid to go out at night in Pristina for fear of being kidnapped into forced prostitution. Drug consumption among the students has soared, as the pushers get to work. In the last week of November, there were twenty-two recorded murders, several of them cold-blooded executions. The independent newspaper publisher Veton Surroi, who in the summer courageously denounced Albanian revenge killings against Serbs, sees his prophecy coming true: what began with Albanians murdering Serbs ends with Albanians murdering each other.2 Before and during the war, Kosovars kept assuring me that Kosova would not be like Albania: corrupt, anarchic, ruled by the gun and the gang. Increasingly, it is. The Albanization of Kosova is taking place in a way no ordinary Kosova Albanian wanted. The gangsters have stepped into the vacuum left by the slowness of the West.

KFOR tries to do what it can. Sometimes its efforts are simply comical. As cars speed down the main street of one small town, a Swedish soldier steps out waving a little sign saying “30 kph” (kilometers per hour). The cars ignore him. On the other side of the road I see a local man shaking with uncontrollable laughter at this ludicrous yet emblematic scene. The West meets the Balkans.

More seriously, the KFOR forces have set up detention camps, with hundreds of suspected murderers and violent criminals. “But then,” an exasperated officer tells me, “the Albanian judge comes and releases all the Albanians, the Serb judge does the same for the Serbs.” Mere looting and plundering earns just “a cuff round the ear and ‘don’t do it again.”’ The soldiers always knew they could never be a substitute for a proper police. The then KFOR commander General Sir Michael Jackson told me in May of last year, when they were still waiting in Macedonia, that the key to success would be international police. Disastrously, UNMIK has only got about 1,800 of the 6,000 international police Kouchner requested when he arrived in July. And 6,000 would still be too few.

Some of these police are from third- world countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia, and critics say they are mainly here for the money. They sit in the cafés while crime goes on all around. The more professional ones mix grim determination with despair. They include sixty officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, fresh from the streets of Belfast. “It’s just like home,” one of them remarks, after discussing last night’s particularly nasty summary executions. 3 Just a few hundred local police have graduated from the new police academy. Behind them, there is still no effective structure of law, judges, courts, and prisons. UNMIK has taken six months to secure agreement even on which body of law should be applied, let alone to start applying it.

This is the greatest failure of international administration, but not the only one. Six months after the world moved in, the province still has nothing that could be called a working government.

2.

There are, it seems to me, five main reasons for the way this unprecedented experiment in the local application of world government has thus far gone wrong. First, you could hardly think of a more difficult place to try. It’s not just the physical devastation, with more than a third of the houses destroyed or damaged. It’s also the social and psychological devastation wrought by ten years of oppression, followed by war, forced exile, and return. Further dislocation is caused by the tens of thousands of country people flooding into Pristina because they have nowhere to live for the winter.

Second, there is the disunity, corruption, and irresponsibility of the local Kosovar Albanian politicians, among whom Kouchner hopes to find partners in a joint administration. Five years ago, he would still have had one relatively well defined local structure to deal with, the underground administration of the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), headed by the unofficial president, Ibrahim Rugova—no shining light, but at least committed to peaceful change. Now there is another major movement, the KLA, which—together with its new Sinn Fein, the PPDK party—believes that it has matchless legitimacy flowing from the armed struggle for independence. Several lesser competitors swirl in the background.

The leader of the unofficial KLA government, Hashim Thaci, known here as Albright’s Darling, greets me in a smart blue suit and smoothly makes all the right noises about human rights, tolerance, and stability. “We didn’t make war to have this anarchy,” he says. But all the time a curious, slightly sinister smile plays on his lips, as if he’s really thinking, “What a huge joke that the United States and the whole Western world and this man from Oxford are all treating me, the kid from Drenica and the Zurich Bahnhof, with such respect.” Well-informed senior Western sources think it is a bad joke, since they claim to have firm evidence that Thaci has been directly involved in KLA racketeering and strong-arm tactics.

In small towns and villages, the self-appointed KLA bosses behave as if they are the masters now. Local people complain bitterly about the unjust way they distribute international aid. (The mother of my Malisevo family shows me all they have received: one cardboard box, marked, in some Sussex spinster’s hand, “Teenage Girls’ Underwear.”) In many places they intimidate the local LDK leaders who are still loyal to Rugova—so much so that in one village in the KLA heartland of Drenica, the LDK representatives did not even dare to meet Dr. Kouchner. “Thaci thinks he’s Castro,” the independent newspaper editor Baton Haxhiu says. And even Dr. Kouchner wearily comments, “Thaci wants to run the whole thing.”

Yet this insolent arrogance of power alienates many Kosovars. Wherever I go, I find evidence of strong support for the LDK, and especially for Ibrahim Rugova. Rugova himself is back, and receives me in stately style in his large suburban house, full of heavy furniture and rich carpets. He wears a suit and tie but not, for once, his trademark paisley scarf. In his passable French, he tells me how he was detained by the Serbs in this very room, with fourteen people, and forced to go to Belgrade and be shown on Serbian television shaking hands with Milosevic. Don’t people blame him for that? I ask. “No, because every Kosovar was in the same situation.” Like Thaci, he offers me smooth clichés about tolerance, stability, and democracy, but his problem is the weakness of his party, especially since the Serbs killed Professor Fehmi Agani, the éminence grise who held it together. At parting, he shows me his mineral collection, and presents me with a semiprecious lump of Kosova.

Rugova wants three sorts of election as soon as possible: local elections, what he calls “national” (i.e., all-Kosova) elections, and direct presidential ones. The KLA wants local and national ones, then for parliament to elect the president—because they fear that Rugova would win a direct election. Kouchner hopes to start with local elections, but first the citizens and voters have to be registered, and that process has barely begun. Autumn 2000 seems the earliest feasible time, and anyway, such a contest is likely to sharpen the local rivalries.

In the background, there is a second unofficial “government” headed by Bujar Bukoshi, who allegedly has hundreds of millions of deutschmarks collected from Kosovars living abroad during the 1990s. Thaci charmingly calls it “the mafia of Bukoshi.” There’s also another party headed by a leading Kosovar intellectual, Rexhep Qosja, which, like the KLAand LDK, was represented at the Rambouillet peace talks last spring.

In case you were wondering, the Islamic clergy seem quite incapable of acting as an integrating and pacifying force. “We try,” says the nice hoxha of Prilep, “but the anger is stronger, the anger is stronger.” Back in Pristina, when I ask the newspaper publisher Veton Surroi why he does not take a lead, he replies, “Me, I’m a moral authority.” But he says it with a weary, almost cynical shrug, as if to add, “whatever that means, in a place like this.”

The third reason that things are going wrong is the complexity and chaos of the international presence itself, which matches and compounds the local Kosovar confusion. Locals proudly comment, “We’re Balkanizing the international community!” But the international community does that all by itself. On paper, there’s a structure which is drawn in KFOR documents—this is not a joke—as a Greek temple. The base is KFOR, providing security. Then there are four columns: UNMIK, for civil administration; the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), for restoring people’s homes; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for elections and media; and the European Union (EU), for economic reconstruction. The pediment is marked “a stable and peaceful Kosovo.” Very neat. But the practice, that’s a different matter.

All these international organizations have their own distinctive bureaucratic styles and political constraints. All compete with one another. All are subject to innumerable national pressures. Their separate propaganda sheets make revealing reading. The European Commission Task Force, for the EU, has a Reconstruction Weekly. The lead item in the November 21-27, 1999, issue is a report of a one-day workshop on management training which apparently concluded that “top-level managers in socially-owned companies…would require training on change and organisational behaviour, quality management, public relations, international markets, as well as general management development.” The bureaucratic language takes you straight back to Brussels. One wonders what polished consultant was paid what enormous fee (a year’s living for ten large Kosovar families?) to organize this ringing statement of the blindingly obvious. The report goes on to discuss the small- and medium-size enterprise (SME) sector: “To acquire a fully comprehensive assessment of training needs, it was recommended that a survey of all existing SMEs be undertaken to define more clearly training and related requirements (such as technology, markets, clients, and partnerships).” To anyone who has seen the chaotic reality on the ground, this idea of a “survey of all [!] existing SMEs” in Kosova is utterly ludicrous. It’s stuff like this that can make even the staunchest friend of the EU despair of the Europe our fathers have built.

Turning to the KFOR Chronicle, I particularly enjoy one headline: “GREEKS ORGANIZE THE CHAOS.” Well, exactly. General Reinhardt tells me he has thirty-four different national contingents under his command, “and don’t think they do something just because I order them to.” No, they all go off and ask their national governments first. I find that people from KFOR, UNMIK, and OSCE privately spend much time blaming one another—just as the Kosovar politicians do. In fairness, one should say the UN has never before been charged with such a complex piece of international government, and at such short notice. Many dedicated, idealistic, professional people work long hours doing useful things. There is something truly touching about this Babel of Azerbaijani soldiers, French intellectuals, Swedish diplomats, and Zambian policemen, trying to make a reality of a liberal internationalist dream. I wish it could work.

Behind the conflicts of the local mortals, there are the demigods squabbling in New York, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing. It is no secret that Kouchner has spent much of his time trying to secure agreement from the UN secretary- general and Security Council to this or that minute step of local self-government. When I ask him about this, he startlingly replies: “New York does not exist!” (I think it might sound better in French.) In a conversation that I would characterize as unfocused, Dr. Kouchner gives me the impression of passion and Gallic eloquence, but not of masterly administrative skills. And to make this thing work needs a politician-administrator of genius.

The problems run from the very top to the very bottom. For example: UNMIK is trying to recruit judges, customs officials, and teachers at salaries of some DM100 to 500 a month. But the same people can earn DM1,000 to 2,000 a month working as interpreters or simply as drivers for those same international organizations. Thus the international community unwittingly defeats its own objectives. (“And,” a Kosovar friend adds, “do you think customs officials on DM500 a month are going to collect many customs dues? Of course they’ll take bribes instead.”) My own driver-interpreter is a judge, dismissed by the Serbs in 1991. He won’t go back to being a judge, for three reasons: because of the money; because he fears his own dear fellow Albanians will make trouble for him if he convicts some of their choicer brethren; and because he wants to emigrate to Canada anyway, to give his children a better life.

In mid-December, shortly after Ileft, Kouchner finally persuaded his multiple international masters and the three Kosovar Albanian parties represented at the Rambouillet peace conference to agree on a structure of “interim administration.” This is supposed to last until elections produce something more democratic and permanent. It places him at the top, as civilian governor of the province, with a mixed UNMIK and local administrative council beneath him, and some nineteen executive ministries under that. Competent persons are to be proposed by the Kosovar parties to head these ministries, but he will decide who gets the jobs. All is to be in place by the end of January. Well, we shall see.

The fourth reason for the mess is the deep ambiguity of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which, as a paper bridge between the Western and the Russian/Chinese positions, declares that the province is at once subject to the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and will enjoy substantial autonomy and self-government. Virginity and motherhood combined. This is, as one senior UNMIK official candidly puts it, “a nightmare.” The Russians and Chinese cry blue murder at every step toward self-government, such as having a budget in deutschmarks rather than Yugoslav dinars, or instituting customs controls, or issuing separate identity papers. Yet such steps are the only way out of anarchy.

Last, but by no means least, it’s a mess because the world really does not want to be here. NATO and the UN stumbled into this experiment as they stumbled into the war itself. Each individual member state counts the cost. The reason why the international police, to take the single most important failure, have been so slow in coming is that national governments have not found them and won’t pay for them—including, as Kouchner bitterly remarks, his own French government. (There are gendarmes in Kosovska Mitrovica, but the gendarmes are a military, not a civilian, force.) African countries protest: What about us! International attention has already moved on to other crises. Chechnya, not Kosova, now produces the CNN effect. UNMIK had to go around with a begging bowl to raise the $250 million needed for this year’s core administration budget. It’s often been said, but still bears repeating: for the price of a few days’ bombing, we are throwing Kosova away.

This place supposedly took its name from “the field of the blackbirds,” Kosovo Polje, and in the bleak midwinter blackbirds still gather in vast numbers to squawk and caw in the trees of Pristina. As I write up my notes in the early morning of my last day, they flock and swirl outside my window, blackening the dawn sky above the offices of the International Criminal Tribunal, as if to shriek, “We know where the bodies are buried!” Then they swarm over the main headquarters of the UN administration, as if to crow, “You’ll never bring peaceful order to this place!” It’s a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds, and it eerily heightens my sense of grim foreboding as I leave for Serbia. The West won the war. I fear we are losing the peace.

3.

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.4 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 Institute—amazing that a US public institution can commission a poll in what is still virtually enemy territory—only 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 West—and 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 labor—including 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 Ceauåüsescu. 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 and—pulling at a large cigar as he weighs how far he dares go in conversation with a Westerner—he 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 elections—local 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 out—which 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 B92—though 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 begin—and 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 opportunists—politely 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 refugees—although 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, so—they fear—he 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 far—the demonstrations of 1996-1997—came after the lifting of UN sanctions in 1996.

I don’t see how the international community can even contemplate doing the first of these things—giving Milosevic a way out—however 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 second—lift the sanctions against the people—as 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…

4.

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 it—and 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 people—especially young people—looking 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 “olé, olé, olé, olé,” 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 there—each and all of them—try to live just like Americans.

January 13, 2000

  1. 1

    See my “Cry, the Dismembered Country,” The New York Review, January 14, 1999.

  2. 2

    See Veton Surroi, “Victims of the Victims,” The New York Review, October 7, 1999.

  3. 3

    I am told by UNMIK and KFOR representatives that the security situation has improved in recent weeks. Joint UNMIK/KFOR patrols have, they claim, enhanced the popular sense of security. New Year celebrations passed off peacefully. The number of reported murders per week has declined to a level below that of an average European city. It sounds good, and I hope it is true—but that is not what Imyself saw, felt, or heard from local people.

  4. 4

    It’s an illustration of the Alice Through the Looking Glass situation here that you can’t enter Serbia legally from Kosova, because there are no Yugoslav frontier troops on the Kosova external frontier and the police certainly won’t give you an entry stamp on your Yugoslav visa at this “internal” border. I therefore had to come initially by car from Budapest to Belgrade—because of sanctions, there are still no direct flights from the West—just to get that little entry stamp on the visa. If you came in from Kosova you’d be arrested for illegally entering Yugoslavia from, well, um, Yugoslavia.

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