March 1, 2001

Surreal Realm

When studying a region in such a degree of flux as the Balkans, one must be careful not to make claims and generalizations that bear a likelihood of coming back to haunt their author in but a short time. Nevertheless, there seem to be two axioms about the Balkans that prove themselves wrong much less often than others; the first is that no one there is exactly what they appear to be. The second, somewhat more general, is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Though seemingly tautologies without any practical use, these two axioms have repeatedly shown how in the Balkans, the most impossible things can happen on a routine basis, and – conversely – how the most logical thoughts and actions can be presented as the most irrational. Stories even Hollywood producers would junk within seconds, should someone try to pitch them as movie ideas, have no problem becoming unquestioned reality in the Balkans.


Thus the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities can vow to uphold the rule of law, then pass an amnesty law that grants pardons to members of the KLA, convicted of terrorism by the previous government, as well as some 30,000 young men who refused to serve in their country’s military.

Much like the notorious "Hague Tribunal," which convicts, arrests and then holds a trial, the new authorities have jailed the former head of Serbian state security, Rade Markovic. He is allegedly behind the failed assassination of Vuk Draskovic – a washed-up politician who quit his government position in the middle of the 1999 NATO attack – and Slavko Curuvija, a newspaper publisher gunned down during the war on a Belgrade street. Another jailed official of the Milosevic era is the CEO of Serbian state television, RTS. During her ignominious visit to Belgrade, Carla Del Ponte’s accused former President Milosevic of knowing that the RTS would be targeted by NATO and sacrificing the people who were working inside. Though she promised evidence to back that up, none have appeared so far. But the new government quickly jailed the former RTS CEO, Dragoljub Milanovic, and charged him of neglecting to evacuate employees despite the credible threat of NATO strikes.

The case against both men is founded on circumstantial evidence at best; both have been jailed for thirty days without charges, while their prosecutors gather evidence. Not to mention that prosecuting Milanovic for not evacuating his employees renders meaningless the argument that RTS was a civilian establishment and hence not a legitimate target of NATO bombers to begin with – in the process trying to shift the blame from those bombers, which Serbian justice cannot reach, to someone close to the previous government and thus much more accessible and vulnerable.

Another example of this fascinating psychological phenomenon – self-destructive transference/projection of frustration – is the statement of Serbia’s PM Zoran Djindjic. This unabashed champion of everything Western termed "something we can talk about" the "suggestion" of NATO’s secretary-general that Serbia should "rotate out" the Third Army units from their positions facing the Albanian militants, since those units were involved in "ethnic cleansing in Kosovo." Not only are the bombers of yesteryear and occupiers of today not the enemy any more, they actually get to decide which units the Yugoslav Army can deploy and where! And Djindjic doesn’t even command the Yugoslav Army…


The remarkable properties of Balkan logic also mean that the leaders of Serbia and Yugoslavia – not really sure themselves about who runs what these days – can say that they are determined to defend their country’s integrity, but still accept NATO’s occupation of Kosovo, refrain from crushing the armed rebellion in the supposedly demilitarized border zone, and agree to negotiate with people they consider terrorists, all the while asking NATO to help them solve the problem its occupation helped create!

With that in mind, it seems perfectly normal to proceed with the plans to negotiate a settlement with people who have no interest in negotiations.


Albanian militants, namely, continue insisting on independence. Cheered on by friendly reporters, such as those of the Toronto Star, they have escalated their attacks. They are very interested in negotiating with the Serbs, so much that they actually ambushed the head negotiator. There is no sign here that they are paying any attention to the supposed lack of support and stern condemnations from NATO capitals.

To make matters even more complicated, their brethren from Kosovo and Macedonia actually clashed with Macedonian police this weekend, amidst reports of another militant "liberation army" budding in the mountains of Western Macedonia. As Yugoslavia and Greece make deals with the Macedonian government about that country’s borders and name, Albanians may be making an attempt to grab half of Macedonia for themselves!

Nonsense, comments Arben Xhaferi, the most influential leader of Macedonian Albanians and a partner in that country’s coalition government, "Albanians are not interested in destabilizing the situation." Either Mr. Xhaferi considers current events to be the very paragon of stability, or he is flat-out lying.


Belgrade is not the only actor in the region acting completely irrationally, though. NATO has been sending mixed signals and contradicting messages for a week since the brutal murder of a busload of Serbs in Kosovo. Despite all the communiqués and statements from Brussels, and Lord Robertson’s unusual eloquence, no one really knows whether NATO plans to narrow the width or the length of the "ground safety zone" (the latter would effectively change nothing). While the normally hawkish British muse about fighting the Albanian militants and accuse them of fighting a war of race hatred, the top US political officer in KFOR laid out a scenario under which NATO would be provoked to attack – the Serbs!

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Surreal Realm

Santayana’s Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


Calling it a "definite danger," the official – Shawn Sullivan – said:

"If a stray shell hit Outpost Sapper [near the militants’ base in Dobrosin] it would be the worst thing the (Yugoslav) government could experience," the US advisor said.

Asked if KFOR would retaliate against Serb forces, he said: "I would think so. I don’t think we would accept an ‘Oops, we’re sorry.’" [AFP]

Wouldn’t it be most intriguing if the ground safety zone is "conditionally" reduced, the Yugoslav army pushes the militants back, and then a shell hits Outpost Sapper, possibly killing a US soldier or two? No investigation would be necessary – as Sullivan said, only Serbs would be the suspects and the target of reprisals. NATO would be obligated to "liberate" the Albanian population of territories the militants claim, much as it did in Kosovo. Its "credibility" would be at stake…

It begins to sound eerily like 1998, when the US government moved with lightning speed to save the KLA when it was facing total defeat at the hands of Yugoslav Army and police units, despite having labeled it a "terrorist organization" hardly six months before.

Sounds unlikely? Impossible? Perhaps. But in the Balkans, anything goes.


After the bombing of Iraq last week, British papers insinuated that Yugoslav authorities provided US and Britain with intelligence about Iraqi air defenses, thus supporting the same people who bombed them in bombing another country. President Kostunica denied these slanderous accusations – predictably, with little effect. The first impression – Yugoslavia’s new government endorsed the bombing of Iraq, thus agreeing with NATO’s actions in 1999 – was what counted. Besides, the Serbian authorities are already bowing to demands from DelPonte’s "Tribunal," and have since amicably greeted the visit of NATO’s former Secretary-General, the man who ordered their bombing. If Zoran Djindjic doesn’t mind…


Some would say that another Balkans war is not likely because Bush the Younger is not Bill Clinton. This may be true in regard to their behavior, looks and speaking skills, but there is little or no difference in their foreign policies. If anyone had any illusions about George W. Bush’s foreign policy goals, his commitment Tuesday night to a "distinctly American internationalism" ought to be enough to prove them wrong.

"A strong America is the world’s best hope for peace and freedom," said Bush, adding that "Freedom is exported every day as we [the US] ship goods and products that improve the lives of millions of people." Probably in the name of that peace and freedom Bush supported Clinton’s war in Kosovo, with its stark violations of international and humanitarian law, an aggression against and partial occupation of a foreign, non-hostile country. On the list of products the United States "exported" to Yugoslavia that year, depleted uranium was right below cruise missiles and cluster bombs.


There are signs of sanity in Belgrade, however few and far between. Commenting on the statements by Nenad Canak (leading MP in the parliament of Vojvodina, Serbia’s northern province) and Milo Djukanovic (separatist president of Serbia’s federal partner Montenegro) mentioning "Greater Serbia," the spokesman of President Kostunica’s party asked rhetorically, "And how small does Serbia have to be so you would not call it Greater any more?" [Belgrade magazine NIN, 22 February 2001] The answer he probably knew, and the answer the actions of Serbia’s numerous enemies seem to be hinting at, would be: "Never small enough."

By the time some of the dilettantes playing Ministers in Belgrade realize this, they could need visas to step outside their living rooms.

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