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Feature Article





I am not a politician and I am not a journalist. But I think today we face the most serious international crisis in Europe since the outbreak of the Second World War.

Over the last fifteen years, I have watched events in Yugoslavia very closely. In 1987, I was lucky enough to spend three years living and working in what was then a beautiful and friendly country. Since my return to Cambridge in 1991, I have watched Yugoslavia progressively fall apart. In that time, I have been more or less stunned into keeping quiet rather than try to confront in public the views and interpretations put forward by the majority of Western politicians and journalists, of nearly all persuasions. Knowing Yugoslavia, I am perhaps not an entirely typical Western TV viewer. I have been outraged and sickened like everyone else by pictures of refugees, battles and atrocities, but I have always tried to get underneath the broadcast images - because I know that images of suffering can be angled and spliced to serve political ends. And I have felt constantly bitter and angry about the daily biases and distortions in our media. What stunned me, I think, was a typical feeling, that so many people have in this country: "Whatever I say won’t make any difference anyway." But now that Yugoslavia is likely to be bombed, I finally feel obliged to speak out. I should have spoken out earlier.

My view is this. In attempting to deal with the Kosovo crisis, NATO’s policy has become increasingly unreliable, irrational and dangerous. This policy now poses a danger not just to the Balkans but to the whole world.

Surely, the duty of any outsider mediating in an inter-ethnic conflict should not be to take sides with one party but to gain the confidence of both by behaving as fair referee and arbiter. But NATO has never been an honest broker in the Balkans. Far from it. The Paris talks last week were so heavily weighted against the Serbs that their delegation could not possibly have agreed with a scrap of dignity or honour. The NATO group’s explicit aim was to get the Kosovo Albanians to agree to its proposals and so isolate the Serbs and either shame them into an almost impossible climb-down or deliberately provoke them to refusal. Accordingly, the ethnic Albanians at least for the time being sorted - or pretended to sort out - their internal squabbles, and for good tactical reasons lapped up NATO’s ‘peace-plan’ - as the best way of eventually wresting the territory of Kosovo from Serbia.

With their explicit territorial ambitions for a Greater Albania, it would suit the KLA very well to get Serbia bombed. Every inch of ground they mine and every gunshot their snipers fire is intended to do its bit towards locking NATO’s missiles onto Serbian positions. Yet the KLA is not a national government but the rebel army of a militant and violent separatist movement. And if NATO’s intention is to drop bombs on Yugoslav military installations, one might ask, why not equally on the KLA, which is also an organised force which is killing innocent people? In fact it is highly unlikely that NATO will bomb the KLA because, over the last ten years, both individually and collectively, Western countries have done everything in their power first to destabilise and then to aid and abet the disintegration of Yugoslavia

I suggest that the arguments against bombing Yugoslavia so strongly outweigh those in favour that to embark upon a bombing campaign is at best misguided and at worst lunatic. Firstly, Yugoslavia is a sovereign country. Its government and leaders have every right under international law to defend themselves from attack. By becoming an international aggressor and siding openly with a rebel force, NATO would contravene precisely the international laws which it is pledged to support. No European sovereign state has been attacked from outside since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and before that, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 - and before that, Hitler. These are the dangerous precedents that NATO is now blithely following.

Secondly, NATO possesses no mandate from the United Nations to act as an international police force. Many countries outside NATO are strongly opposed to bombing, including Russia and China, and those countries should be listened to carefully, not ignored. Even countries inside NATO seem unhappy, especially Italy and Greece.

Thirdly, the recent bombing of Iraq by NATO has shown that bombs have hardly damaged the barbarous regime in that country but have simply enabled the Americans and British to show off and try out their new toys. And bombs have certainly not been effective. In this connection, as far as Iraq is concerned, the BBC Panorama programme on 22nd March has proved beyond any doubt that NATO not only used the UNSCOM weapons inspection mission as a cover for its own spying activities - so making a mockery of the United Nations’ dwindling claims to be any sort of genuinely representative and effective international organisation - but by following its own power-crazed interests ruined a genuine opportunity for the UN weapons inspectors’ mission for peace in the Middle East.

Fourthly, the Serbs’ argument that NATO’s policy, first at the negotiating table and secondly through its bombing campaign, ultimately aims at support for an Albanian Republic of Kosovo and a ‘Greater Albania’, is hardly possible to refute. It is a moot point whether such a policy is wise in the long-term. A Greater Albania which included Kosovo would inevitably threaten Macedonia. It could also threaten Greece.

But, surely, the most convincing argument of all is that in Kosovo, where armed conflict has already exploded, bombing by superpowers will not solve anything, but on the contrary, will exacerbate all existing problems and concatenate more of them. In this part of the Balkans, by forcing the local opponents into even more extreme positions, bombing will distance the chances of meaningful peace and liberalisation for decades to come. Neighbouring countries are likely get sucked in - in the first instance Macedonia, which already has its own long-standing problem of rapidly increasing numbers of ethnic Albanian citizens (already one third of the population), and is desperately trying to maintain balance and moderation. Further ripples of destabilisation are capable of involving Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and even Turkey and Italy. And destabilisation will not necessarily remain confined to this immediate zone. Russia is Serbia’s traditional ally. The Russians could not experience bombs on Serbia as anything less than a snub, a taunt, a stab, a provocation. Russia has already been made to feel vulnerable enough, and a weakened Russia could all too easily look to an external war to unite its population. That really could be dangerous.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has turned itself progressively into a club of short-sighted and ignorant technocratic bullies smugly masquerading as defenders of human rights. At least during the Cold War there was a balance of power. Now that Russia is in economic and political confusion, there is nothing in the world to oppose the might of NATO, and power has gone to its leaders’ heads. Surely it is now time to question Britain’s role in this spurious organisation. We have increasingly become compliant lackeys to the USA, and what is worse, we take our pro-American attitude so much for granted that we have forgotten why we adopt it. As a result, we have become little more than agents for American global imperialism.

Connected with all this, is the apparently incidental fact that the British government has not allowed Parliament itself to debate either the bombing of Iraq or the projected bombing of Serbia. At first sight this may appear to be a merely British domestic matter, a relatively minor side-issue. But it is certainly one that has not gone unnoticed, is not regarded as merely coincidental, and is not likely to be forgotten by those of us in Britain who are interested in upholding our democracy. Calls for unity in order to combat threats and dangers posed outside are well worn techniques deployed by those in power to avert internal dissent and to centralise power and decision-making processes. We ought to treat such tactics by our own rulers with the greatest degree of suspicion, and look carefully to the defence of our own hard won ‘freedoms’.

Apart from the fact that in the present precarious world order, NATO simply cannot be allowed to go dropping bombs with impunity wherever it likes, there is yet another convincing argument against bombing, and one that is strictly strategic. To be effective militarily, bombing would need to be followed up by the presence of an army on the ground, and this could in turn suck in forces which had originally been intended as peace keepers. Such a scenario could easily include our own British troops. Frankly, the image of our British or for that matter French professional soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand fighting against their Serbian counterparts must be abhorrent to anyone who remembers the history of the last two world wars, when the Serbs were our loyal allies and were popularly regarded as brave, even heroic fighters. Of course it goes without saying that no one would expect American ground troops to do that kind of job any more. Washington remembers its own Vietnam fiasco all too well. The American answer to its allies these days appears to be a hyped up version of: "OK you guys, you just use our technology, and we’ll co-ordinate the bombs and missiles. You Europeans can do the dirty work on the ground."

As it is, even experienced British and American generals have publicly questioned the use of bombs by NATO in Kosovo. Their argument is that military and political outcomes have not been thought through or prepared for. What would happen, for example, if President Milo{evi} ordered his forces to attack NATO ground forces which are now stationed on the Macedonian border? Nobody seems to have any answer to that question.

The notion that air bombardment should be used to force the Serbs back to the conference table has also been aired. "The door is still open," say NATO spokesmen. "All that would be needed would be a single phone call." For all its plausibility to western TV viewers, this idea shows a rather poor reading or understanding of the patterns of pride and defiance in the face of aggressors which have marked Serbian history and culture for seven centuries - unless of course NATO intends to flatten the whole of Serbia. Yet Madelaine Allbright and Robin Cook keep arguing that to do something is better than to do nothing. (‘Muddily-Not-At-All-Bright’ and ‘Cock Robin’ would be more accurate names for these all-but comic figures, so sadly lacking in all basic skills of diplomacy other than the peremptory issuing of ultimatums. They certainly appear as ridiculous in Serbian eyes as they do in our own. As an irreverent aside, I can’t help wondering how long Cook would last in Mo Molan’s position in Northern Ireland. Five minutes?) The spurious NATO claim is that intervention now will prevent worse scenarios later and that "there will be a humanitarian disaster unless something is done and it is our responsibility to do what we can about it". My argument is that the NATO spokespersons are either lying through their teeth or - perhaps worse - fooling themselves, and that the intervention itself will radically worsen and complicate the situation.

First and most important, arithmetically, NATO bombing will directly increase the numbers of refugees, displaced persons, separated families, dead, crippled and orphans, not to mention the amount of destruction to property, facilities and infrastructure, and sickness and suffering. That it could do otherwise is impossible. It will also create a knock-on effect of further disasters, whose outcomes cannot be reckoned in advance, whatever the NATO leaders say to the contrary in order to justify their foolhardiness and recklessness.

Secondly, the moral issue is not a simple one of right against wrong, good against evil, as the NATO leaders claim. The Kosovo conflict is a complex inter-ethnic, inter-tribal civil war with a long background and build-up in a region where a tradition of revenge, vendettas and blood-killings has been endemic at village level, and less than a century ago was the only law. The NATO leaders have not read, experienced or understood that history and have no interest whatsoever in doing so. The Balkan conflict - like all others - is being fought by fallible and ignorant human beings, each side with its own deeply entrenched set of ideologies and value systems, and its belief that its own cause is just. It is obvious to all except the imperialistic masters and mistresses of NATO that such a conflict cannot possibly be "solved" by the simplistic exterior imposition of the moral values of western liberal ideology (in this case, literally "from above", i.e. bombs dropped from the skies). A degree of patience, modesty and understanding are called for, which people of the calibre of Allbright and Clinton are clearly totally incapable of. The same, unfortunately, seems true of Clinton and Blair.

Thirdly, the self-righteousness of the NATO claim is highly contradictory, for the simple reason that the list of injustices, outrages and atrocities countenanced, tolerated, sponsored or even directly perpetrated by the countries of NATO even just in the last 20 or 30 years is very long indeed. Here are just a few examples. The West did nothing whatever to protect the Northern Cypriots from Turkish invasion, Turkey being a NATO member. Of course no international army has never gone in to sort out the continuing messes in Northern Ireland - even though various Americans have secretly sponsored the IRA. (For Serb read Loyalist? For Provo/IRA read KLA?) Israel’s persecution of Palestinians, expansion onto the Left Bank and occupations of Gaza and Southern Lebanon have raised not a blink from NATO. And while NATO goes on bombing Iraq, ostensibly for its persecution of Kurds and Marsh Arabs, of course it has done nothing at all to help the Kurds in Turkey. Closer to Kosovo - and uncomfortably so - there has been no outcry whatsoever against the mass removals of Serbs from the Krajina in Croatia, and many of those Serbian refugees are now in Kosovo itself. The overweeningly smug hypocrisy of the western alliance as a whole is phenomenal, and its illogicality is past comprehension except to a hardened cynic for whom the term "Vested Interest" is the key to everything. In the light of even of these few examples, reasons why NATO’s motives for intervening in Kosovo should be regarded as deeply suspect are more than apparent.

Of course no catalogue of wrongs makes a single moral right and none of this is to say that refugees should not go on being helped by the relief agencies. Of course they should. But in Kosovo let it not be forgotten that it was bomb threats that pushed the relief agencies out, so opening the way for the two warring local parties to really have a go at each other. What else did anybody realistically expect them to do? Simply stand back and say politely, "After you, old chap. And please do help yourself to that nice little strategic hilltop over there. Actually, our dear American and British brethren want you to have it, but I’d rather present it to you on a plate myself." ? Arguably it is the mere threat of bombs that has already placed the situation beyond repair. And as for the actual dropping of bombs, this will kill unknown numbers of utterly defenceless and innocent civilians, quite apart from hapless troops ‘doing their duty’. And for the whole of this miserable scenario, NATO has already conveniently positioned itself to blame the Serbs, and its propaganda machine has already been oiled and greased to pump out more lies, extremely effectively and plausibly.

I have watched the Western media very carefully throughout the Yugoslav conflict. From the moment that Yugoslavia looked as though it might disintegrate, both our politicians and our newspaper and TV commentators have had a strong tendency to portray the Serbs as villains and everybody else in a comparatively rosier light. Whenever charges which have been consistently levelled against the Serbs could be ascribed to Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and now ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, these have somehow been minimised or passed over. Pretty well everyone else’s inhumanities, crimes and atrocities have been whitewashed or exonerated or glossed. But the Serbs have been demonised. And so it has gone on and is likely to go on, in a manner that is as grossly unjust as it is manifestly irrational and illogical. This is no less than a very unsubtle although very clever form of racism.

Among leading British politicians alone, it is perhaps worth mentioning that most of those who have been outspoken about Yugoslavia have tended to demonise the Serbs. The list of these plausible sounders-off and defenders of public morality includes Margaret Thatcher, David Owen, Paddy Ashdown, Tony Blair, Robin Cook and George Robertson. The only leading British politicians I have heard talking modestly, intelligently and sensibly about Yugoslavia have been Lord Carrington, Dennis Healey, Tony Benn and George Galloway, all of whom have had enough integrity not to exploit their knowledge to grab TV popularity or spout platitudes to win votes. It is a pity that the first two are not on the scene any more, and that Tony Benn’s solid good sense and humanity are marginalised from the fanatically centrist Labour Party. Interestingly, these four men cover as wide a spectrum in British party political terms as the Serb-baiters. Clearly, the extent of a person’s willingness to look at the "otherness" of the situation in a sensible, open manner, and to try to understand it without simply imposing one’s own prejudices on it, is not based on ideology. I would suggest that it is based on intelligence.

By now, surely it is only just and fair to try to set the record a little straighter, even without digging excessively deeply into complex historical questions of the internal and external forces which have fostered the current Balkan mess. Under Tito, population imbalances in Kosovo developed from his gradual Albanisation and encouragement of Serbs to leave the province - a policy which was started in the 1940’s. This was a slow, consistent and gradual ethnic cleansing of Serbs, programmatically conceived and developed, organised by the government, and aided and abetted by many well-documented examples of anti-Serbian behaviour on the part of the local ethnic Albanians.

To jump from that process to the last decade - since the disintegration of Yugoslavia Serbs have also suffered from rapes, murders, atrocities, massacres and ethnic cleansing. It is a blatant lie, currently perpetrated by NATO, to blame the dismemberment of Bosnia or the sufferings of its population only on the Serbs. In that war, Croats and Moslems committed plenty of atrocities, against one another - and, in the case of the Moslems, even against their own people - as in the well-known Sarajevo marketplace massacre, which was perpetrated deliberately as a propaganda exercise, to get international blame and vilification planted on the Serbs. Let it not be forgotten that Croatia ethnically cleansed itself very successfully by expelling the Krajina Serbs, and moreover stoning them along the roads in their carts towards Serbia. There were no international relief agencies on hand to help them on their way, and NATO did not give a hoot. The Serbs have been accused of wanting a Greater Serbia, ever since the arrival of Milo{evi} on the scene, but if that was ever the case - which I frankly doubt - they have failed miserably, and in any case the West is now implicitly supporting a Greater Albania.

Incidentally, a related question that western politicians and journalists have not been particularly curious about is how the KLA’s weapons have been smuggled into Kosovo, and where they have come from. In Yugoslavia itself, the answer is common knowledge. Many of the arms have come through Europe and have been financed from Western sources, as well as from Bosnia and Croatia and their allies. So - even if unofficially, and quite possibly with a little help from friends in their own secret services - Western countries have progressively aided and abetted the Kosovo Albanians’ nationalist movement, and so have helped the destabilisation of Yugoslavia and isolation of the Serbs.

Among the most prominent western powers to have adopted the approach of actively destabilising Yugoslavia is Germany. Through its foreign minister Genscher, when the Berlin Wall came down, the political leaders of the newly united Germany were the first to recognise the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, which suited their policy of economic ‘Divide and Rule’ in central and eastern Europe. Whether this was a disastrous mistake or a deliberately clever and provocative move still remains to be seen. But certainly the speed at which German embassies were set up in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Sarajevo was mind-boggling (and immediately brought to mind the kind of crass and petty relish in a neighbour’s misfortune that has been depicted so brilliantly in the great French film Jean de Florette. Genscher regarded his contribution towards the destruction of Yugoslavia as his own crowning professional achievement.) The rest of the EU eventually followed suit, including a then rather reluctant Britain. This was the time of the Maastricht Treaty and other Euro deals were being negotiated by the then Foreign Minister Hurd, including agreement by Germany to certain let-outs for Britain from EU regulations.

Of course the Serbs have been traditionally suspected by German speaking peoples at least since 1914, when the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand by Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo sparked the First World War. Conversely, from the viewpoint of the Serbs remembering the atrocities of the Nazi occupation in Yugoslavia, the active involvement of highly sophisticated German military equipment, know-how and personnel in the current line-up against the Serbs can hardly be an inducement for them to hearken quietly and obediently to NATO’s bidding. For Hitler, they now read NATO - and who can blame them?

The fact that we hear a great deal about Serbian propaganda, but very little about our own all goes to emphasise the point that these days it is the image that counts, not truth. One of the reasons recently put forward by Western politicians and TV commentators in all seriousness in favour of bombing is that "too many threats have been made already and it’s too late for NATO to back down." This is blatant, pernicious, inflated, irresponsible schoolboy bully rubbish. It is language on the level of gangs and mafiosi. And if this analysis does bear even the slightest semblance to reality, NATO is clearly far more dangerous a threat to world peace than any Balkan dictator.

NATO seems to be driven by a bunch of power-crazed maniacs - generals gasping to try out their latest phallic toys, industrialists with vested interests in the arms trade, governments grabbing territorial power and influence, and individual politicians wantonly itching to be seen by their TV audiences as "doing something" - no matter how stupid.

Along with this, the policy of "Knock the Serbs" has become all the rage and all the West can think of, and it is surely time to challenge and change this meaningless, unjust and highly selective persecution. But if one sits down and coolly asks, why it is happening, it is rather hard to think of a single logical or clear answer. What is its motivation, and what is the psychology behind it? Is it comparable to anti-Semitism? This complex question cannot be answered here, although is it certainly worth considering. Is it to get rid of Milo{evi}? If so, he is certainly no worse a dictator than the leaders of Slovakia, Belorus, Croatia, Bosnia or Albania itself - or for that matter, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia. Economic sanctions have not been in place against any of these other countries, none of which possess particularly good human rights records or especially well established traditions of democracy, yet sanctions have been solidly in place against Serbia since the war in Bosnia. The long students’ protest in Belgrade over the Christmas and New Year period in 1996 is evidence of a powerful freedom-loving and anti-authoritarian tradition, yet that movement was never fostered or encouraged by anybody in the West.

Then, is the knocking of the Serbs to do with control of territory? Here, I think, is the simplest key. NATO wants to control the whole of the Balkans, to turn the whole region into a series of puppet states, and to run the Mediterranean from the Black Sea to Gibraltar. The simple Serbs are simply in the way. So, say the leaders of NATO - simply - knock ‘em!

To return to images, watching American and British TV coverage of the actual NATO bombing of Iraq earlier this year, as well as the threatened bombing of Yugoslavia last October, were semi-pornographic experiences. The strongest pornographic element was the combination of emotional relish and professional detachment (or was it professional relish and emotional detachment?) with which military experts and interviewers alike discussed and analysed military capabilities for destruction, and results. This pattern is being repeated as I write these words, and we (viewers) will need to go through it all over again if we want to find out anything of what is going on in Kosovo. Unfortunately, however, voyeurism of (and involvement in?) this particular kind of kinkiness has strong competition from another even more powerful source of fascination: the tough but ostensibly charitable smirk on the lips of all the American and British decision-makers who have been interviewed or seen to speak so far - from Madelaine Allbright to George Robertson, from Clinton to Blair. While the smirk is obviously the smirk of the power drug, the lie of charitable intention is exposed by their coolly voracious, glinting eyes. They all simply love the prospect of dropping bombs from behind their safe technological distances of buttons and screens, reinforced by their adoption of dehumanised jargon, like "to degrade military capabilities" and other current politically correct, acceptable and fashionable clinical euphemisms for murder and destruction.

One cannot help being reminded of the famous experiments conducted by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram among student-volunteers at Yale university in 1974, to investigate thresholds of willingness among subjects who had been invited to inflict pain. According to a later commentator, Zygmunt Bauman: "Perhaps the most striking among Milgram’s findings is the inverse ratio of readiness to cruelty and proximity to its victim. It is difficult to harm a person we touch. It is somehow easier to inflict pain upon a person we only see at a distance. It is still easier in the case of a person we only hear. It is quite easy to be cruel towards a person we neither see nor hear." Bauman adds two more conclusions: "The more rational is the organisation of action, the easier it is to cause suffering - and remain at peace with oneself," and, "The effect of physical and purely psychical distance is, therefore, farther enhanced by the collective nature of damaging action."(*)

Furthermore, while lies are being fed to us by our own leaders, how convenient it is for them to project all possible forms of evil elsewhere - in this case, onto Serbs - just so that these selfsame leaders can avail themselves of glamorous images of knights in shining armour. (Clinton has already had the temerity to compare himself to Churchill and Milo{evi} to Hitler. With this sort of stupidity so strongly in evidence, what trust can we possibly have in NATO’s leaders?) And in order to achieve the most appetising consistency in this disgusting purée of psychological and economic motives, how convenient it is to stir all of it up in a single mixer - and label the whole compôte "Serbian aggression", especially for the benefit of the majority of American citizens (and British ‘subjects’ too?) who don’t even know where Serbia, let alone Kosovo, is. No doubt in future other similar moulds will be located and exploited by the USA, Britain and the other developed countries of NATO - just as the need arises, and especially when it comes to the finding a desirable arena not too close to home to try out more and more sophisticated ("smart") weapons.

The truth, unfortunately, is sicker and slicker than the image. For its own spurious purposes, NATO is deliberately stirring a complex but nonetheless localised conflict into a huge and even more poisonous international concoction whose capacity for creating cyclic knock-on effects its leaders cannot possibly foresee. This is not just irresponsible. It is evil.

If I were a Serb - and I don’t mean a supporter of Milo{evi} - I would quite possibly be so incensed by the injustice to my personal and cultural dignity that I would feel no choice but to defend my country against NATO aggression. If I were a Kosovo Albanian I would quite possibly be campaigning for an end to Serbian domination and support or join the KLA. We are being told that the Serbs are the biggest bullies in the region but this is very far from the truth. The KLA glimpse the hand of destiny turning their way, long term, and are prepared to niggle and provoke in any way they can to promote their cause - and they believe their cause is just. The Serbs are beleaguered and on the defensive, but that will not stop them fighting, regardless of who is leading them, because they are far from being cowards and Kosovo is their homeland - and they too believe their cause is just.

The Serbs and Albanians must be kept talking at all costs. There is no other way. If bombs are dropped - as it now seems inevitable that they will be - the biggest and most barbaric bully of all will be NATO.

* * * *

(*) Quoted from Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, pp. 155-156, Polity Press, 1989.

5000 words 22nd - 24th March, Cambridge.

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