March 6, 2001

Serbia's Self-Abasement

It is an unshakable axiom of modern politics that any news emanating from a NATO source is almost certainly a tissue of lies. Thus there was no particular reason to believe the story that appeared in the Independent last week suggesting that "vital information supplied by the pro-Western Yugoslav government of Vojislav Kostunica" had "helped the United States and Britain…plan" last week’s bombing of the outskirts of Baghdad. Belgrade had allegedly "passed on details of the hi-tech fiber-optic radar system supplied to Iraq under the Milosevic regime, which enabled Saddam Hussein significantly to upgrade his air defenses and pose a serious threat to allied planes." Furthermore, the story, continued, "as well as being appreciative of the Serbs for alerting them about Iraqi defense capabilities, British officials acknowledged the ‘restraint and responsibility’ being shown by Serbs in the face of mounting provocation by the Albanian Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB)."

No particular reason then to believe this story. But no particular reason to disbelieve it either. It sounds like the sort of thing the Kostunica/Djindjic regime would do. Day after day, the Belgrade authorities go out of their way to demonstrate their solicitude for NATO’s concerns. They resolutely refused to embarrass NATO during the "depleted uranium" scandal of a few weeks back. They parrot NATO accusations of war crimes against former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was allowed to set up office in Belgrade. Government officials from Kostunica down dutifully trotted along to meet Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte during her recent visit. Former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana was also wined and dined in royal style. In fact, it is hard to think of any NATO leader who has not been fawned on and heaped with praise. And this week, at NATO’s behest, the Yugoslav parliament passed a bill giving amnesty to around 100 Kosovo Albanians being held in Serbia, as well as to 30,000 Serbs and Montenegrins who refused to serve in the Yugoslav armed forces during NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign.

Most shocking of all, the regime arrested the former director of Serbian Radio-Television (RTS), Dragolyub Milanovic, claiming that he was under suspicion of not having done enough to prevent the deaths of sixteen RTS employees killed by NATO bombs. This arrest came immediately after Carla del Ponte’s January visit. It was then that she had first made the ludicrous charge that Milosevic, of all people, was responsible for the deaths of the RTS employees because, allegedly, he had been notified in advance of NATO’s decision to bomb the TV network and did not evacuate the building. According to her, "Milosevic had been warned of the airstrike on the television station, but…he had chosen to disregard the information so that the employees would be killed and NATO potentially smeared." For the Belgrade regime to accept the characterization that not NATO but NATO’s victims were responsible for the deaths of unarmed civilians was an act of stunning self-abasement. Even the Soviet Union had never considered putting the Hungarian freedom fighters on trial for the crime of provoking the Russians into pulverizing Budapest.

Yet despite this shameful record of groveling, the Belgrade regime rushed to deny the Independent story. Having accepted uncomplainingly every indignity inflicted by NATO, the regime now claimed that it would never stoop so low as to betray Saddam Hussein’s confidence. According to a UPI story, "President Vojislav Kostunica strongly denied British news reports that said Yugoslavia had provided information to the United States and Great Britain about Iraq’s radar defense systems. In a statement released from his office…Kostunica rejected reports that said the information was then used in recent air raids on Iraq. The statement said Kostunica made the denial during talks in Belgrade with the Iraqi ambassador to Yugoslavia, Samir Sadun, when Kostunica condemned air raids on Iraq and stressed that Yugoslavia’s view on principle was that policing of sanctions and military reprisals could solve no problems in the world." It is hard to know what to make of Kostunica’s statement. What is most striking about the UPI story is that he does not appear to be denying that Belgrade had passed on information about Iraqi air defenses to London or Washington. He is merely denying that "the information was then used in recent air raids on Iraq." This is certainly very peculiar. How does Kostunica know what information the United States or Great Britain made use of in the bombing attacks? The rest of Kostunica’s statement is full of his usual windy sanctimony that "sanctions and military reprisals could solve no problems in the world." Such platitudes become the Pope but not the leader of a small country scrambling to survive by sucking up to the powerful. Moreover, the more compliant Yugoslavia becomes to NATO’s commands, the less likely will anyone be persuaded by Kostunica’s moral strictures.

There is no more reason to believe Kostunica’s denials than the British Government’s assertions. Both have every incentive to lie. The British and the Americans wanted to quell the widespread public outrage at their attack on Iraq by pointing to the triumphant vindication of the 1999 bombing. See, they seemed to be saying, Yugoslavia was complaining bitterly two years ago, along with all the European pinkos, weirdos, wimps, and lefties who are again yelping away. Yet today democratic Yugoslavia is batting on our team. It just proves: Bombing is the best policy. As for Kostunica, he obviously wants to continue to burnish his reputation as Mr. Clean – the man they couldn’t buy. The reputation is, of course, absurd, since just about every other member of the so-called "Democratic Opposition" has at one point or another on the US payroll. While members of the Government trip over one another in eagerness to satisfy NATO’s demands, Kostunica issues lugubrious statements about NATO’s "depleted conscience." One would have thought people by now will have got tired of this good cop/bad cop routine he and Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic continue to play. Djindjic promises to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal. Kostunica says he has other priorities. The upshot: Belgrade cooperates with the Tribunal.

Kostunica, moreover, had another incentive to lie. The depth of European hostility towards the Iraqi bombing may have caught Belgrade by surprise. It may not have grasped that on Iraq, unlike Yugoslavia, Britain and the United States do not speak for the rest of NATO. The Belgrade regime may suddenly have found itself in the awkward situation of being the only country in the world, other than Kuwait and Israel, to support the Anglo-Saxons. Yugoslavia would now be more NATO than NATO. Hence Kostunica’s desperate scramble.

To be sure, Kostunica may be telling the truth. And the British are lying. Alternatively, the British may be telling the truth. And Kostunica may be lying. It really does not matter one bit. The point is, Yugoslavia has been reduced to a NATO supplicant seeking favors, economic largesse and international acceptance. Take the issue of "what to do about" Slobodan Milosevic. Every day the media in Belgrade and elsewhere are full of frenzied speculation about the imminent arrest of Milosevic. Serbian prosecutors are said to be ready to charge him with corruption. A story, emanating from Switzerland, suggests that Milosevic smuggled more than $1m of gold abroad last year. According to a Swiss newsmagazine, Facts, Yugoslav officials sent about 380 pounds of gold to Switzerland between September 21 and November 2 last year to be sold. The proceeds were then transferred to bank accounts of companies in Cyprus and Greece. As soon as the story appeared, the Belgrade authorities ordered a police probe into the matter. In Berne the Economics Ministry announced that it would investigate whether this gold can be linked to Milosevic.

An interesting aspect of the New World Order is the emergence of Switzerland as the United States’ errand boy of choice. Carla del Ponte is Swiss. The charges of corruption against Russian leader Pavel Borodin, now awaiting extradition in a Federal Detention Center in Brooklyn, were leveled by the Swiss, following an investigation of the refurbishment of the Kremlin – by, yes, Carla del Ponte. It seems peculiar, to say the least, why Switzerland would investigate kickbacks in Moscow, particularly as no criminal charges had ever been brought against the Swiss companies involved. The Swiss, who took such a pounding from American Jewish organizations a few years ago over Holocaust-era assets, appear to be yet another people seeking international acceptance by doing someone else’s dirty work.

Meanwhile, Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic says he is investigating allegations of corruption surrounding Milosevic’s acquisition of property. He is also looking into political assassinations and abductions. Although there was as yet no evidence tying Milosevic to any of this, "investigators were working hard to find it." Mihajlovic also told the BBC that he had hoped that the recently arrested former head of the secret service, Rade Markovic, would provide such "evidence." Apparently, however, the fellow "was so far not cooperating." This is del Ponte-style justice in action. First you declare someone guilty of heinous crimes, then you shout it from every rooftop, promise immediate arrest and speedy trial, and then and only then do you start to look for the evidence. When you find no evidence, you arrest someone else in order to pressure him into giving false testimony. The saga of the inevitable trial and imprisonment of Slobodan Milosevic is at one level obviously about putting the Serbian people on trial for daring to defy the will of NATO – effectively the United States. At the more mundane level, however, it is a way of getting embarrassing news off the front page. As the failures and incompetence of the Belgrade regime – power blackouts, soaring food prices, lawlessness – become ever more apparent, Kostunica and Djindjic have settled for a tried and true strategy: Blame everything on your predecessor. Distract the public’s attention with endless and tedious tales of Milosevic’s alleged dastardly deeds.

Kostunica’s recent announcement that he does not, after all, have the power to prevent Milosevic from being extradited to The Hague should have surprised no one. The superannuated Hamlet of the Balkans now believes that it is exclusively up to the courts to decide the fate of Milosevic. This is odd, to say the least. For months, Kostunica had been saying – correctly – that the Hague Tribunal was a "political," not a legal institution. One would have thought a "political" institution demands a political response. Kostunica seized power last October on the basis of his claim to have won the Yugoslav Presidential election. Apparently the vote of the people was a mandate to burn and trash the Yugoslav Parliament, but not to defend of the sovereignty of the nation.

NATO also has every incentive to keep the Milosevic pot bubbling. The NATO-imposed "peace" has, as was to be expected, turned out to be no peace at all. An ethnic Albanian insurrection is now taking place on the border of Macedonia and Serbia. In the Presevo Valley, inside Serbia itself, ethnic Albanians are conducting a war against Serb forces. In both wars, the objective is the same: the reconstituted KLA is carving out ethnically pure Albanian territories that will then be attached to the no doubt soon-to-be independent Kosovo. In both conflicts Albanian arms and personnel are coming across the border from NATO-occupied Kosovo. There is every reason to suspect that this Albanian push to establish the boundaries of the coming Greater Albania had been instigated by the United States. A recent BBC report pulled no punches:

"The BBC’s Nik Gowing in Davos has been shown evidence by foreign diplomatic sources that the guerrillas now have several hundred fighters in the 5km-deep military exclusion zone on the boundary between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. The sources said that: Certain NATO-led KFOR forces were not preventing the guerrillas taking mortars and other weapons into the exclusion zone. The guerrilla units had been able to hold exercises there, including live-firing of weapons, despite the fact that KFOR patrols the zone. Western special forces were still training the guerrillas, as a result of decisions taken before the change of government in Yugoslavia."

Thus NATO’s pretence to be alarmed by the deteriorating security situation in Southern Serbia is a fraud – an excuse to expand the scope of NATO’s colonization of the Balkans.

In recent days NATO has suggested that it is ready to narrow the 3-mile wide buffer zone around Kosovo and thus let in the Yugoslav armed forces to sort out the Albanian terrorists. The Belgrade regime was exultant. It seemed like a vindication of their policy of going out of their way to placate NATO. However, it quickly turned out that there was less to this NATO tilt to Serbia than met the eye. The commander of KFOR would retain authority over the territory, even though it is Serb land. The Serbs would have to pull back some of their forces from Presevo Valley before NATO would even be prepared to reduce the buffer zone. Meanwhile, Shawn Sullivan, political adviser to the commander of the KFOR declared that there he foresaw NATO troops and Yugoslav army coming into conflict if the Serbs went after the Albanian guerrillas. "If a stray shell hit Outpost Sapper [a US checkpoint on the Kosovo border] it would be the worst thing the [Yugoslav] government could experience," he said somewhat menacingly. According to an AFP story, "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’." So the Albanian wage a terrorist war of ethnic separatism and NATO threatens the Serbs! Meanwhile, the French are proposing to send KFOR into the Presevo Valley instead of the Serbs.

So much then Kostunica’s boast earlier this week that the Yugoslav army would be permitted to reoccupy three-quarters of the buffer zone. NATO still refuses to give Belgrade anything. And this is unlikely to change any time soon. Yet the Belgrade regime continues to live a fantasy life believing vast amounts of money from the US are forthcoming. Yugoslavia will not receive a penny from Washington. Human Rights Watch has already urged the US Government not to give Belgrade a thing until it starts cooperating with the ICTY. A kangaroo court in Belgrade will not do. "Now that the arrest of Milosevic seems imminent, the US Government must be firmer than ever about the need to cooperate with the international tribunal" said Holly Carter, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s branch dealing with the Balkans. Denying money to Belgrade will be a bipartisan effort. The Right will cry: "No foreign handouts!"; the Left will cry: "Milosevic to The Hague!." And Belgrade will get nothing. But then self-abasement is rarely rewarded.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for appears every Friday.

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