THIS IS A REPOST • FIRST RUN ON 20 FEB 1999
Seeing Yugoslavia through a dark glass
By Diana Johnstone, CovertAction Quarterly, Fall 1998
Politics, Media and the Ideology of Globalization
Years of experience in and out of both mainstream and alternative media have made me aware of the power of the dominant ideology to impose certain interpretations on international news. During the cold War, most world news for American consumption had to be framed as part of the Soviet-U.S. contest. Since then, a new ideological bias frames the news. The way the violent fragmentation of Yugoslavia has been reported is the most stunning example.
I must admit that it took me some time to figure this out, even though I had a long-standing interest in and some knowledge of Yugoslavia. I spent time there as a student in 1953, living in a Belgrade dormitory and learning the language. In 1984., in a piece for “In These Times”, I warned that extreme decentralization, conflicting economic interests between the richer and poorer regions, austerity policies imposed by the IMF, and the decline of universal ideals were threatening Yugoslavia with “re-Balkanization” in the wake of Tito's death and desanctification. “Local ethnic interests are reasserting themselves”. I wrote, “The danger is that these rival local interests may become involved in the rivalries of outside powers. This is how the Balkans in the past were a powder keg of world war.” Writing this took no special clairvoyance. The danger of Yugoslavia's disintegration was quite obvious to all serious observers well before Slobodan Milosevic arrived on the scene.
As the country was torn apart in the early nineties, I was unable to keep up with all that was happening. In those years, my job as press officer for the Greens in the European Parliament left me no time to investigate the situation myself. Aware that there were serious flaws in the way media and politicians were reacting. I wrote an article warning against combating “nationalism” by taking sides for one nationalism against another, and against judging a complex situation by analogy with totally different times and places. “Every nationalism stimulates others”. I noted, “Historical analogies should be drawn with caution and never allowed to obscure the facts.” However, there was no stopping the tendency to judge the Balkans, about which most people knew virtually nothing, by analogy with Hitler Germany, about which people at least imagined they knew a lot, and which enabled analysis to be rapidly abandoned in favour of moral certitude and righteous indignation.
However, it was only later, when I was able to devote considerable time to my own research, that I realized the extent of the deception-which is in large part self-deception.
I mention all this to stress that I understand the immense difficulty of gaining a clear view of the complex situation in the Balkans. The history of the region and the interplay of internal political conflicts and external influences would be hard to grasp even without propaganda distortions. Nobody can be blamed for being confused. Moreover, by now, many people have invested so much emotion in a one-sided view of the situation that they are scarcely able to consider alternative interpretations.
It is not necessarily because particular journalists or media are “alternative” that they are free from the dominant interpretation and the dominant world view. In fact, in the case of the Yugoslav tragedy, the irony is that “alternative” or “left” activists and writers have - frequently taken the lead in likening the Serbs, the people who most wanted to continue to live in multi-cultural Yugoslavia, to Nazi racists, and in calling for military intervention on behalf of ethnically defined secessionist movements11 “Ethnically defined” because, despite the argument accepted by the international community that it was the Republics that could invoke the right to secede, all the political arguments surrounding recognition of independent Slovenia and Croatia dwelt on the right of Slovenes and Croats as such to self-determination.—all supposedly in the name of “multi-cultural Bosnia”, a country which, unlike Yugoslavia, would have to be built from scratch by outsiders.
The Serbs and Yugoslavia
Like other Christian peoples in the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs were heavily taxed and denied ownership of property of political power reserved for Muslims. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Serb farmers led a revolt that spread to Greece. The century-long struggle put an end to the Ottoman Empire.
The Habsburg monarchy found it natural that when one empire receded, another should advance, and sought to gain control over the lands lost to the Ottoman Turks. Although Serbs had rallied to the Habsburgs in earlier wars against the Turks, Serbia soon appeared to Vienna as the main obstacle to its own expansion into the Balkans. By the end of the nineteenth century, Vienna was seeking to fragment the Serb-inhabited lands to prevent what it named “Greater Serbia”, taking control of Bosnia-Herzegovina and fostering the birth of Albanian nationalism (as converts to Islam, Albanian feudal chieftains enjoyed privileges under the Ottoman Empire and combated the Christian liberation movements).
Probably because they had been deprived of full citizens rights under the Ottoman Turks, and because their own society of farmers and traders was relatively egalitarian, Serb political leaders throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were extremely receptive to the progressive ideals of the French Revolution. While all the other liberated Balkan nations imported German princelings as their new kings, the Serbs promoted their own pig farmers into a dynasty, one of whose members translated John Stuart Mill's “On Liberty” into Serbian during his student days. Nowhere in the Balkans did Western progressive ideas exercise such attraction as in Serbia, no doubt due to the historic circumstances of the country's emergence from four hundred years of subjugation.
Meanwhile, intellectuals in Croatia, a province of the Austro- Hungarian Empire increasingly rankling under subordination to the Hungarian nobility, initiated the Yugoslav movement for cultural, and eventually political, unification of the South Slav peoples, notably the Serbs and Croats, separated by history and religion (the Serbs having been converted to Christianity by the Greek Orthodox Church and the Croats by the Roman Catholic Church) but united by language. The idea of a “Southslavia” was largely inspired by the national unification of neighbouring Italy, occurring around the same time.
In 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire seized the pretext of the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand to declare war and crush Serbia once and for all. When Austria-Hungary lost the world war it had thus initiated, leaders in Slovenia and Croatia chose to unite with Serbia in a single kingdom. This decision enabled both Slovenia and Croatia to go from the losing to the winning side in World War I, thereby avoiding war reparations and enlarging their territory, notably on the Adriatic coast, and the expense of Italy. The joint Kingdom was renamed “Jugoslavia” in 1929. The conflicts between Croats and Serbs that plagued what is called “the first Yugoslavia” were described by Rebecca West in her celebrated book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, first published in 1941.
In April 1941., Serb patriots in Belgrade led a revolt against an accord reached between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Nazi Germany. This led to Nazi bombing of Belgrade, a German invasion, creation of an independent fascist state of Croatia (including Bosnia-Herzegovina), and attachment of much of the Serbian province of Kosovo to Albania, then a puppet of Mussolini's Italy. The Croatian Ustashe undertook a policy of genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies within the territory of their “Greater Croatia”, while the Germans raised 55 divisions among the Muslims of Bosnia and Albania.
In Serbia itself, the German occupants announced that one hundred Serbian hostages would be executed for each German killed by resistance fighters. The threat was carried out. As a result, the royalist Serbian resistance (the first guerrilla resistance to Nazi occupation in Europe) led by Draza Mihailovic adopted a policy of holding off attacks on the Germans in expectation of an Allied invasion. The Partisans, led by Croatian communist Josip Broz Tito, adopted a more active strategy of armed resistance, which made considerable gains in the predominantly Serb border regions of Croatia and Bosnia and won support from Churchill for its effectiveness. A civil war developed between Mihailovic's “Chetniks” and Tito's Partisans—which was also a civil war between Serbs, since Serbs were the most numerous among the Partisans. These divisions between Serbs—torn between Serbian and Yugoslav identity—have never been healed and help explain the deep confusion among Serbs during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
After World War II, the new Communist Yugoslavia tried to build “brotherhood and unity” on the myth that all the peoples had contributed equally to liberation from fascism. Mihailovic was executed, and school children in post-war Yugoslavia learned more about the “fascist” nature of his Serbian nationalist Chetniks than they did about Albanian and bosnian Muslims who had volunteered for the 55, or even about the killing of Serbs in the Jasenovac death camp run by Ustashe in Western Bosnia.
After the 1948 break with Moscow, the Yugoslav communist leadership emphasized its difference from the Soviet bloc by adopting a policy of “self-management”, supposed to lead by fairly rapid stages to the “withering away of the State”. “Tito repeatedly revised the Constitution to strengthen local authorities, while retaining final decision-making power for himself. When he died in 1980, he thus left behind a hopelessly complicated system that could not work without his arbitration”. Serbia in particular was unable to enact vitally necessary reforms because its territory had been divided up, with two “autonomous provinces,” Vojvodina and Kosovo, able to veto measures taken by Serbia, while Serbia could not intervene in their affairs.
In the 1980's, the rise in interest rates and unfavourable world trade conditions dramatically increased the foreign debt Yugoslavia (like many “third world” countries) had been encouraged to run up thanks to its standing in the West as a socialist country not belonging to the Soviet bloc. The IMF arrived with its familiar austerity measures, which could only be taken by a central government. The leaders of the richer republics -Slovenia and Croatia—did not want to pay for the poorer ones. Moreover, in all former socialist countries, the big political question is privatization of State and Social property, and local communist leaders in Slovenia and Croatia could expect to get a greater share for themselves within the context of division of Yugoslavia into separate little states.
At that stage, a gradual, negotiated dismantling of Yugoslavia into smaller States was not impossible. It would have entailed reaching agreement on division of assets and liabilities, and numerous adjustments to take into account conflicting interests. If pursued openly, however, it might have encountered popular opposition-after all, very many people, perhaps a majority, enjoyed being citizens of a large country with an enviable international reputation. What would have been the result of a national referendum on the question of preservation of Yugoslavia?
None was ever held. The first multiparty elections in postwar Yugoslavia were held in 1990, not nationwide in all of Yugoslavia, but separately by each Republic—a method which in itself reinforces separatist power elites. Sure of the active sympathy of Germany, Austria, and the Vatican, leaders in Slovenia and Croatia, prepared the fait accompli22Recognition of the internal administrative borders between the republics as “inviolable” international borders was in effect legal trick, contrary to international law, which turned the Yugoslav army into an “aggressor” within the boundaries its soldiers had sworn to defend and which transformed the Serbs within Croatia and Bosnia, who opposed secession from their country -Yugoslavia, into secessionists. This recognition flagrantly violated the principles of the 1975 Final Act (known as the Helsinki Accords) of the Conference on, now organisation for, Security and Cooperation in Europe, notably the territorial integrity of states and nonintervention in internal affairs. Truncated Yugoslavia was thereupon expelled from the OSCI in 1992. sparing its other members from having to hear Belgrade's point of view. Indeed, the sanctions against Yugoslavia covered culture and sports, thus eliminating for several crucial years any opportunity for Serbian Yugoslavs to take part in international forums and events where the one-sided view of “the Serbs” presented by their adversaries might have been challenged. of unilateral, unnegotiated secession, proclaimed in 1991. Such secession was illegal, under Yugoslav and international law, and was certain to precipitate civil war. The key role of German (and Vatican) support was to provide rapid international recognition of the new independent republics, in order to transform Yugoslavia into an “aggressor on its own territory”.
The political motives that launched the anti-Serb propaganda campaign are obvious enough. Claiming that it was impossible to stay in Yugoslavia because the Serbs were so oppressive was the pretext for the nationalist leaders in Slovenia and Croatia to set up their own little statelets which, thanks to early and strong German support, could “jump the queue” and get into the rich men's European club ahead of the rest of Yugoslavia.
The terrible paradox is that very many people, in the sincere desire to oppose racism and aggression, have in fact contributed to demonizing an entire people, the Serbs, thereby legitimizing both ethnic separatism and the new role of NATO as occupying power in the Balkans on behalf of a theoretical “international community”.
Already in the 1980's, Croatian and ethnic Albanian separatist lobbies had stepped up their efforts to win support abroad, notably in Germany and the United States33In Washington, the campaign on behalf of Albanian separatists in Kosovo was spearheaded by Representative Joe Dio Gaurdi of New York, who after loosing his congressional seat in 1988 has continued his lobbying for the cause. An early and influential convert to the cause was Senator Robert Dole. In Germany, the project for the political unification of all Croatian nationalists, but communists and Ustashe, with aim of seceding and establishing “Greater Croatia” was followed closely and sympathetically by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, West Germany's CIA, which hoped to gain its own sphere of influence on the Adriatic from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The nationalist unification which eventually brought former communist general Franjo Tudjman to power in Zagreb with the support of the Ustashe diaspora, got seriously under way after Tito's death in 1980, during the years when Bonn's current foreign minister Claus Kinkel, was heading the BND. See Erich Schmidt-Echboom, Der Schattenkrieger: Klaus Kinkel und der BND (Dusseldorf; ECON Verlag, 1995) , by claiming to be oppressed by Serbs, citing “evidence” that, insofar as it had any basis in truth, referred to the 1920-1941 Yugoslav Kingdom, not to the very different post-World War II Yugoslavia.
The current campaign to demonize the Serbs began in July 1991 with a virulent barrage of articles in the German media, led by the influential conservative newspaper, the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ). In almost daily columns, FAZ editor Johann Georg Reismuller justified the freshly, and illegally, declared “independence” of Slovenia and Croatia by describing “Yugo- Serbs” as essentially Oriental “militarist Bolsheviks” who have “no place in the European Community”. Nineteen months after German reunification, and for the first time since Hitler's defeat in 1945, German media resounded with condemnation of an entire ethnic group reminiscent of the pre-war propaganda against the Jews”.
This German propaganda binge was the signal that times had changed seriously. Only a few years earlier, a seemingly broad German peace movement had stressed the need to put an end to “enemy stereotypes” (Feindbilder). Yet the sudden ferocious emergence of the enemy stereotype of “the Serbs” did not shock liberal of left Germans, who were soon repeating it themselves. It might seem that the German peace movement had completed its historic mission once its contribution to altering the image of Germany had led Gorbachev to endorse reunification. The least one can say is that the previous efforts at reconciliation with peoples who suffered from Nazi invasion stopped short when it same to the Serbs.
In the Bundestag, German Green leader Joschka Fisher pressed for disavowal of “pacifism” in order to “combat Auschwitz”, thereby equating Serbs with Nazis. In a heady mood of self- righteous indignation, German politicians across the board joined in using Germany's past guilt as a reason, not for restraint, as had been the logic up until reunification, but on the contrary, for “bearing their share of the military burden”. In the name of human rights, the Federal Republic of Germany abolished its ban on military operations outside the NATO defensive area. Germany could once again be a “normal” military power—thanks to the “Serb threat”.
The near unanimity was all the more surprising in that the “enemy stereotype” of the Serb had been dredged up from the most belligerent German nationalism of the past. “Serbien muss sterbien” (a play on the word sterben, to die), meaning “Serbia must die” was a famous popular war cry of World War I. Serbs had been singled out for slaughter during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. One would have thought that the younger generation of Germans, seemingly so sensitive to the victims of Germany's aggressive past, would have at least urged caution. Very few did.
On the contrary, what occurred in Germany was a strange sort of mass transfer of Nazi identity, and guilt, to the Serbs. In the case of the Germans, this can be seen as a comforting psychological projection which served to give Germans a fresh and welcome sense of innocence in the face of the new “criminal” people, the Serbs, But the hate campaign against Serbs, started in Germany, did not stop there. Elsewhere, the willingness to single out one of the Yugoslav peoples as the villain calls for other explanations.
From the start, foreign reporters were better treated in Zagreb and in Ljubljana, whose secessionist leaders understood the prime importance of media images in gaining international support, than in Belgrade. The Albanian secessionists in Kosovo or “Kosovars”44 Albanians in Albania and in Yugoslavia call themselves “Shqiptare” but recently have objected to being called that by others. “Albanians” is an old and accepted term. Especially when addressing international audiences in the context of the separatist cause. Kosovo Albanians prefer to call themselves “Kosovars”, which has political implications. Logically, the term should apply to all inhabitants of the province of Kosovo, regardless of ethnic identity, but by appropriating it for themselves alone, the Albanian “Kosovars” imply that Serbs and other non-Albanians are intruders. This is similar to the Muslim parties appropriation of the term “Bosniak” which implies that the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina is more indigenous than the Serbs and Croats, which makes no sense, since the Bosnian Muslims are simply Serbs and Croats who converted to Islam after the Ottoman conquest, the Croatian secessionists and the Bosnian Muslims hired an American public relations firm, Ruder Finn, to advance their causes by demonizing the Serbs55 The role of the Washington public relations firm, Ruder Finn, is by now well-known, but seems to have raised few doubts as to the accuracy of the anti-Serb propaganda it successfully diffused.. Ruder Finn deliberately targeted certain publics, notably the American Jewish community, with a campaign likening Serbs to Nazis. Feminists were also clearly targeted by the Croatian nationalist campaign directed out of Zagreb to brand Serbs as rapists66No one denies that many rapes occurred during the civil war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, or that rape is a serious violation of human rights. So is war, for that matter. From the start, however, inquiry into rape in Bosnia-Herzegovina focused exclusively on accusations that Serbs were raping Muslim women as part of a deliberate strategy. The most inflated figures, freely extricated by multiplying the number of known cases by large factors, were readily accepted by the media and international organizations. No interest was shown in detailed and documented reports of rapes of Serbian women by Muslims or Croats.
The late Nora Beloff, former chief political correspondent of the “London Observer”, described her own search in verification of the rape charges in a letter to “The Daily Telegraph” (January 19, 1993). The British Foreign Office conceded that the rape figures being handled about were really uncorroborated and referred her to the Danish government, then chairing the European Union. Copenhagen agreed that the reports were unsubstantiated, but kept repeating them. Both said that the EU has taken up the “rape atrocity” issue at its December 1992 Edinburgh Summit exclusively on the basis of a German initiative. In turn, Fran Wild, in charge of the Bosnian Desk in the German Foreign Ministry, told Ms. Beloff that the material on Serb rapes came partly from the Izetbegovic government and partly from the Catholic charity Caritas in Croatia. No effort had been made to seek corroboration from more impartial sources..
The Yugoslav story was complicated; anti-Serb stories had the advantage of being simple and available, and they provided an easy- to-use moral compass by designating the bad guys.
As the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina got under way in mid-1992, American journalists who repeated unconfirmed stories of Serbian atrocities could count on getting published with a chance of a Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting was shared between the two authors of the most sensational “Serb atrocity stories” of the year: Roy Gutman of “Newsday” and John Burns of the “New York Times”. In both cases, the prize-winning articles were based on hearsay evidence of dubious credibility. Gutman's articles, mostly based on accounts by Muslim refugees in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, were collected in a book rather misleadingly entitled “A Witness to Genocide”, although in fact he had been a “witness” to nothing of the sort, His allegations that Serbs were running “death camps” were picked up by Ruder Finn and widely diffused, notably to Jewish organizations. Burns's story was no more than an interview with a mentally deranged prisoner in a Sarajevo jail, who confessed to crimes some of which have been since proved never to have been committed.
On the other hand, there was no market for stories by a journalist who discovered that reported Serbian “rape camps” did not exist (German TV reporter Martin Lettmayer), or who included information about Muslim or Croat crimes against Serbs (Belgian journalist Georges Berghezan for one). It became increasingly impossible to challenge the dominant interpretation in major media. Editors naturally prefer to keep the story simple: one villain, and as much blood as possible. Moreover, after the German government forced the early recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence, other Western powers lined up opportunistically with the anti-Serb position. The United States soon moved aggressively into the game by picking its own client state - Muslim Bosnia—out of the ruins.
Foreign news has always ben much easier to distort than domestic news. Television coverage simply makes the distortion more convincing. TV crews sent into strange places about which they know next to nothing, send back images of violence that give millions of viewers the impression that “everybody knows what is happening”. Such an impression is worse than plain ignorance.
Today, worldwide media such as CNN openly put pressure on governments to respond to the “public opinion” which the media themselves create. Christine Amanpour tells the U.S. and the European Union what they should be doing in Bosnia; to what extent this is coordinated with U.S. agencies is hard to tell. Indeed, the whole question of which tail wags the dog is wide open. Do media manipulate government, does government manipulate media, or are influential networks manipulating both?
Many officials of Western governments complain openly or privately of being forced into unwise policy decisions by “the pressure of public opinion”, meaning the media. A particularly interesting testimony in this regard is that of Otto von Habsburg, the extremely active and influential octogenarian heir to the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a member of the European Parliament from Bavaria, who has taken a great and one might say paternal interest in the cause of Croatian independence. “If Germany recognized Slovenia and Croatia so rapidly”, Habsburg told the Bonn correspondent of the French daily “Figaro”; “even against the will of (then German foreign minister) Hans-Dietrich Genscher who did not want to take that step, its because the Bonn government was subjected to an almost irresistible pressure of public opinion. In this regard, the German press rendered a very great service, in particular the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’ and Carl Gustav Strohm, that great German journalist who works for Die Welt”.
Still, the virtually universal acceptance of a one-sided view of Yugoslavia's collapse cannot be attributed solely to political designs or to sensationalist manipulation of the news by major media. It also owes a great deal to the ideological uniformity prevailing among educated liberals who have become the consensual moral conscience in Northwestern Euro-American society since the end of the Cold War.
Down with the State
This ideology is the expression in moralistic terms of the dominant project for reshaping the world since the United States emerged as sole superpower after the defeat of communism and collapse of the Soviet Union. United States foreign policy for over a century has been dictated by a single overriding concern: to open world markets to American capital and American enterprise. Today this project is triumphant as “economic globalization”. Throughout the world, government policies are judged, approved or condemned decisively not by their populations but by “the markets” meaning the financial markets. Foreign investors, not domestic voters, decide policy.
The International Monetary Fund and other such agencies are there to help governments adjust their policies and their societies to market imperatives.
The shift of decision-making power away from elected governments, which is an essential aspect of this particular “economic globalization”, is being accompanied by an ideological assault on the nation-state as a political community exercising sovereignty over a defined territory. For all its shortcomings, the nation-state is still the political level most apt to protect citizens' welfare and the environment from the destructive expansion of global markets. Dismissing the nation-state as an anachronism, or condemning it as a mere expression of “nationalist” exclusivism, overlooks and undermines its long-standing legitimacy as the focal point of democratic development, in which citizens can organize to define and defend their interests.
The irony is that many well-intentioned idealists are unwittingly helping to advance this project by eagerly promoting its moralistic cover a theoretical global democracy that should replace attempts to strengthen democracy at the supposedly obsolete nation-state level.
Within the United States, the link between anti-nation-state ideology and economic globalization is blurred by the double standard of U.S. leaders who do not hesitate to invoke the supremacy of U.S. “national interest” over the very international institutions they promote in order to advance economic globalization. This makes it seem that such international institutions are a serious obstacle to U.S. global power rather than its expression. However, the United States has the overall military and political power to design and control key international institutions (e.g., the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia), as well as to undermine those it dislikes (UNESCO when it was attempting to promote liberation of media from essentially American control) or to flout international law with impunity (notably in its Central American “backyard”). Given the present relationship of forces, weakening less powerful nation-states cannot strengthen international democracy, but simply tighten the grip of transnational capital and the criminal networks that flourish in an environment of lawless acquisition.
There is no real contradiction between asserting the primacy of U.S. interests and blasting the nation-state barriers that might allow some organized defense of the interests of other peoples. But impressed by the apparent contradiction, some American liberals are comforted in their belief that nationalism is the number one enemy of mankind, whereas anything that goes against it is progressive.
Indeed, an important asset of the anti-nation-state ideology is its powerful appeal to many liberals and progressives whose internationalism has been disoriented by the collapse of any discernable socialist alternative to capitalism and by the disarray of liberation struggles in the South of the planet.
In the absence of any clear analysis of the contemporary world, the nation-state is readily identified as the cause of war, oppression, and violations of human rights. In short, the only existing context for institutionalized democracy is demonized as the mere expression of a negative, exclusive ideology, “nationalism”. This contemporary libertarian view overlooks both the persistence of war in the absence of strong States and the historic function of the nation-state as framework for the social pact embodied in democratic forms of legislative decision-making.
Condemnation of the nation-state in a structuralist rather than historical perspective produces mechanical judgments. What is smaller than the nation-state, or what transcends the nation-state, must be better. On the smaller scale, “identities” of all kinds, or “regions”, generally undefined, are automatically considered more promising by much of the current generation. On the larger scale, the hope for democracy is being transferred to the European Union, or to international NGOs, or to theoretical institutions such as the proposed International Criminal Court. In the enthusiasm for an envisaged global utopia, certain crucial questions are being neglected, notably: who will pay for all this? How? Who will enforce which decisions? Until such practical matters are cleared up, brave new institutions such as the I.C.C. risk being no more than further instruments of selective intervention against weaker countries. But the illusion persists that structures of international democracy can be built over the heads of States that are not themselves genuinely supportive of such democracy.
The simplistic interpretation of the Yugoslav crisis as Serbian “aggression” against peaceful multi-cultural Europe, is virtually unassailable, because it is not only credible according to this ideology but seems to confirm it.
It was this ideology that made it possible for the Croatian, Slovenian, and Albanian secessionists and their supporters in Germany and the United States in particular to portray the Yugoslav conflict as the struggle of “oppressed little nations” to free themselves from aggressive Serbian nationalism. In fact, those “little nations” were by no means oppressed in Yugoslavia. Nowhere in the world were and are the cultural rights of national minorities so extensively developed as in Yugoslavia (including the small Yugoslavia made up of Serbia and Montenegro). Politically, not only was Tito himself a Croat and his chief associate, Edvard Kardelj, a Slovene, but a “national key” quotasystem was rigorously applied to all top posts in the Federal Administration and Armed Forces. The famous “self-management socialism” gave effective control over economic enterprises to Slovenians in Slovenia, Croatians in Croatia, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The economic gap between the parts of Yugoslavia which had previously belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that is, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, on the one hand, and the parts whose development had been retarded by Ottoman rule (central Serbia, the Serbian province of Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia) continued to widen throughout both the first and second Yugoslavia. The secession movement in Slovenia was a typical “secession of the rich from the poor” (comparable to Umberto Bossi's attempt to detach rich northern Italy form the rest of the country, in order to avoid paying taxes for the poor South). In Croatia, this motivation was combined with the comeback of Ustashe elements which had gone into exile after World War II.
The nationalist pretext of “oppression” is favoured by the economic troubles of the 1980's, which led leaders in each Republic to shun the others, and to overlook the benefits of the larger Federal market for all the Republics. The first and most virulent nationalist movements arose in Croatia and Kosovo, where separatism had been favoured by Axis occupation of the Balkans in World War II. It is only in the 1980's that a much milder Serbian nationalist reaction to economic troubles provided the opportunity for all the others to pinpoint the universal scapegoat: Serbian nationalism. Western public opinion, knowing little of Yugoslavia and thinking in terms of analogies with more familiar situations, readily sympathized with Slovenian and Croatian demands for independence. In reality, international law interprets “self- determination” as the right to secede and form an independent State only in certain (mostly colonial) circumstances, none of which applied to Slovenia and Croatia77See: Barbara Delcouri & Olivier Carten, Ex-Yougoslavie: Droit International, Politique et Ideologies (Brussels: Editions Bruylam, Editions de l’Universite de Bruxelles, 1997). The authors, specialists in international law at the Free University of Brussels, point out that there was no basis under international law for the secession of the Yugoslav Republics. The principle of “self-determination” was totally inapplicable in those cases..
All these fact were ignored by international media. Appeals to the dominant anti-State ideology led to frivolous acceptance in the West of the very grave act of accepting the unnegotiated breakup of an existing nation. Yugoslavia, by interpreting ethnic secession as a proper form of “self-determination”, which it is not. There is no parallel in recent diplomatic annals for such an irresponsible act, and as a precedent it can only promise endless bloody conflict around the world.
The New World Order
In fact, the break-up of Yugoslavia has served to discredit and further weaken the United Nations, while providing a new role for an expanding NATO. Rather than strengthening international order, it has helped shift the balance of power within the international order toward the dominant nation-states, the United States and Germany. If somebody had announced in 1989 that, well, the Berlin Wall has come down, now Germany can unite and send military forces back into Yugoslavia—and what is more in order to enforce a partition of the country along similar lines to those it imposed when it occupied the country in 1941—well, quite a number of people might have raised objections. However, that is what has happened, and many of the very people might who have been expected to object most strongly to what amounts to the most significant act of historical revisionism since World War II have provided the ideological cover and excuse.
Perhaps dazed by the end of the Cold War, much of what remains of the left in the early nineties abandoned its critical scrutiny of the geostrategic Realpolitik underlying great power policies in general and U.S. policy in particular and seemed to believe that the world henceforth was determined by purely moral considerations.
This has much to do with the privatization of “the left” in the past twenty years or so. The United States has led the way in this trend. Mass movements aimed at overall political action have declined, while single-issue movements have managed to continue. The single-issue movements in turn engender non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which, because of the requirements of fund- raising, need to adapt their causes to the mood of the times, in other words, to the dominant ideology to the media. Massive fund-raising is easiest for victims, using appeals to sentiment rather than to reason. Greenpeace has found that it can raise money more easily for baby seals than for combatting the development of nuclear weapons. This fact of life steers NGO activity in certain directions, away from political analysis toward sentiment. On another level, the NGOs offer idealistic internationalists a rare opportunity to intervene all around the world in matters of human rights and human welfare.
And herein lies a new danger. Just as the “civilizing mission” of bringing Christianity to the heathen provided a justifying pretext for imperialist conquest of Asia and Africa in the past, today the protection of “human rights” may be the cloak for a new type of imperialist military intervention worldwide.
Certainly, human rights are an essential concern of the left. Moreover, many individuals committed to worthy causes have turned to NGOs as the only available alternative to the decline of mass movements—a decline over which they have no control. Even a small NGO addressing a problem is no doubt better than nothing at all. The point is that great vigilance is needed, in this as in all other endeavours, to avoid letting good intentions be manipulated to serve quite contrary purposes.
In a world now dedicated to brutal economic rivalry, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, human rights abuses can only increase. From this vast array of mans inhumanity to man, Western media and governments are unquestionably more concerned about human rights abuses that obstruct the penetration of transnational capitalism, to which they are organically linked, than about, say, the rights of Russian miners who have not been paid for a year. Media and government selectivity not only encourages humanitarian NGOs to follow their lead in focusing on certain countries and certain types of abuses, the case-by-case approach also distracts from active criticism of global economic structures that favour the basic human rights abuse of a world split between staggering wealth and dire poverty.
Cuba is not the only country whose “human rights” may be the object of extraordinary concern by governments trying to replace local rulers with more compliant defenders of transnational interests. Such a motivation can by no means be ruled out in the case of the campaign against Serbia. In such situations, humanitarian NGOs risk being cast in the role of the missionaries of the past—sincere, devoted people who need to be “protected”, this time by NATO military forces. The Somali expedition provided a rough rehearsal (truly scandalous if examined closely) for this scenario. On a much larger scale, first Bosnia, then Kosovo, provide a vast experimental terrain for cooperation between NGOs and NATO.
There is urgent need to take care to preserve genuine and legitimate efforts on behalf of human rights from manipulation in the service of other political ends. This is indeed a delicate challenge.
NGOs and NATO, hand in hand
In former Yugoslavia, and especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Western NGOs have found a justifying role for themselves alongside NATO. They gain funding and prestige from the situation. Local employees of Western NGOs gain political and financial advantages over other local people, and “democracy” is not the people's choice but whatever meets with the approval of outside donors. This breeds arrogance among the outside benefactors, and cynicism among local people, who have the choice between opposing the outsiders or seeking to manipulate them. It is an unhealthy situation, and some of the most self-critical are aware of the dangers.
Perhaps the most effectively arrogant NGO in regard to former Yugoslavia is the Vienna office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. On September 18, 1997, that organization issued a long statement announcing in advance that the Serbian elections to be held three days later “will be neither free nor fair.” This astonishing intervention was followed by a long list of measures that Serbia and Yugoslavia must carry out or else”, and that the international community must take to discipline Serbia and Yugoslavia. These demands indicated an extremely broad interpretation of obligatory standards of “human rights” as applied to Serbia, although not, obviously, to everybody else, since they included new media laws drafted “in full consultation with the independent media in Yugoslavia” as well as permission meanwhile to all “unlicensed but currently operating radio and television stations to broadcast without interference”88Some 400 radio and television stations have been operating in Yugoslavia with temporary licenses or none at all. The vast majority are in Serbia, a country of less than ten million inhabitants on a small territory of only 54.872 square miles.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki concluded by calling on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to “deny Yugoslavia readmission to the OSCE until there are concrete improvements in the country's human rights record, including respect for freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and minority rights, as well as cooperation with the International Criminal Tribuna for the former Yugoslavia”.
As for the demand to “respect freedom of the press,” one may wonder what measures would satisfy HRW, in light of the fact that press freedom already exists in Serbia to an extent well beyond that in many other countries not being served with such an ultimatum. There exist in Serbia quite a range of media devoted to attacking the government, not only in Serbo-Croatian, but also in Albanian. As of one 1998, there were 2.319 print publications and 101 radio and television stations in Yugoslavia, over twice the number that existed in 1992. Belgrade alone has 14 daily newspapers. The state-supported national dailies have a joint circulation of 180.000 compared to around 350.000 for seven leading opposition dailies”.
Moreover, the judiciary in Serbia is certainly no less independent than in Croatia or Muslim Bosnia, and most certainly much more so. As for “minority rights,” it would be hard to find a country anywhere in the world where they are better protected in both theory and practice than in Yugoslavia99Serbia is constitutionally defined as the nation of all its citizens, and not “of the Serbs” (in contrast to constitutional provisions of Croatia and Macedonia, for instance). In addition, the 1992 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) as well as the Serbian Constitution guarantee extensive rights to national minorities, notably the right to education in their own mother tongue, the right to information media in their own language, and the right to use their own language in proceedings before a tribunal of other authority. These rights are not merely formal, but are effectively respected as is shown by, for instance, the satisfaction of the 400,000-strong Hungarian minority and the large number of newspapers published by national minorities in Albanian, Hungarian and other languages. Romani (Gypsies) are by all accounts better treated in Yugoslavia than elsewhere in the Balkans. Serbia has a large Muslim population of varied nationalities, including refugees from Bosnia and a native Serb population of converts to Islam in Southeastern Kosovo, known as Goranci, whose religious rights national level. The only democracy it reorganizes is that of the “international community”, which is summoned to act according to the recommendations of Human Rights Watch. This “international community”, the IC, is in reality no democracy. Its decisions are formally taken at NATO meetings. The IC is not even a “community”; the initials could more accurately stand for “imperialist condominium”, a joint exercise of domination by the former imperialist powers, torn apart and weakened by two World Wars, now brought together under U.S. domination with NATO as their military arm. Certainly there are frictions between the members of this condominium, but so long as their rivalries can be played out within the IC, the price will be paid by smaller and weaker countries.
Media attention to conflicts in Yugoslavia is sporadic, dictated by Great Power interests, lobbies, and the institutional ambitions of “non-governmental organizations”—often linked to powerful governments—whose competition with each other for financial support provides motivation for exaggerating the abuses they specialize in denouncing.
Yugoslavia, a country once known for its independent approach to socialism and international relations, economically and politically by far the most liberal country in Eastern Central Europe, has already been torn apart by Western support to secessionist movements: What is left is being further reduced to an ungovernable chaos by a continuation of the same process. The emerging result is not a charming bouquet of independent little ethnic democracies, but rather a new type of joint colonial rule by the IC enforced by NATO.
The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of The Greanville Post. However, we do think they are important enough to be transmitted to a wider audience.
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