The Balkans (6/99)

The moment people in Central Europe have been waiting for has finally arrived. NATO jets are bombing the former Yugoslavia. Although it comes as no surprise, on all sides of the conflict people still shake their heads: Kosovo Albanians wonder why took so long for NATO to act; Serbs are reaffirmed in the belief that they have no friends and are victims of US neo-imperialism; meanwhile, neighboring countries nervously watch and pray that they won’t get sucked into the conflict.

Unlike previous bombing assignments undertaken by NATO to enforce the "peace" (e.g., Bosnia and Iraq), support for this one within the region is minimal. Many Bosnians are actually opposed to the bombing, fearing that if Kosovo gets autonomy, Republika Srpska will get it, too. In other words, old wounds are being reopened before they have had a chance to heal.

While NATO points to its bombing mission in Bosnia as proof that iron-fisted diplomacy works, what they overlook is that their previous action in the Balkans came toward the end of the conflict. The Serbs were already in retreat, and all sides had already grown weary of the civil war. Moreover, in the end nothing really changed: the rival groups still live apart, and the hatred and animosity they hold for each other continues to run deep.

Many feel that NATO involvement at this stage is merely a way for the west to somehow save face. For a decade the economic embargo that was to bring Belgrade to its knees hasn’t worked, and over the past year Milosevic has been calling NATO’s bluff. And now that it is finally involved, it will have to find a way to disentangle.

This won’t be easy. Unlike the US forays into Iraq, the terrain and objectives are much more difficult. Added to this is the fact that the US still hasn’t achieve its true objective: Saddam Hussein is still in power, remaining a thorn in the side of the US.

Moreover, the Yugoslavian army is formidable. The Serbs have already mined all roads, bridges and tunnels that NATO forces could use to cross into Kosovo. Meanwhile, the downing of an American stealth fighter is but one indication that NATO has a more serious opponent this time, compared to the Bosnian conflict or the Gulf War. Indeed, there is the very real threat of NATO becoming bogged down in a protracted conflict.

This has already become apparent on the diplomatic front in the way the US administration is handling the affair. At a session on US policy in Balkans at the House Armed Services Committee, Walter Slocombe, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, used the magic words: "the situation in Kosovo is a threat to the national security interest of the US." This has some observers a little perplexed. Unlike the Gulf War, where the flow of oil was the primary objective, in Serbia the "national security interests of the US" aren’t so obvious.

In many ways, Serbia has already dealt a tremendous blow to NATO-one that will be hard for the organization to overcome, even if the mission is successful. Neighboring countries that aspire to be members are beginning to wonder whether a NATO-imposed security arrangement will entail peace for the region after all. In Hungary, which has recently become an official member, popular support for the military alliance has dramatically dropped as fears surface about the country’s possible involvement. In the meantime, preparations have been made for a flood of refugees, fueling resentment from a populace that sees the country more and more as a dumping ground and buffer zone for fortress Europe.

Not only has Milosevic succeeded somewhat in dampening NATO support within the region, but he has also strengthened his power base at home. Over the winter, while the Yugoslav army had time to prepare for a spring offensive (most astute observers knew it was coming last fall), the Serbian leadership took the opportunity to purge independent media and anti-government criticism.

The slight hope that somehow a democratic opposition would rise to topple the present government in Belgrade is clearly not being realized. The energy that had once brought the students to the streets has been nearly spent. There are several reasons for this. One is disillusionment. For some, what was to be the start of Serbia’s belated transition to democracy has evaporated, in much the same way the pro-democracy movement in China faded to the background.

The student protests were based on internal political issues. In many ways, the present situation has a reverse, unifying effect, as people rally against a common enemy-the KLA and NATO. Most Serbs believe the Kosovo crisis to be an internal affair. What’s more, they find the Rambouillet agreement humiliating, and refuse to be forced to surrender a piece of territory, which they believe is rightfully theirs, to foreign military forces. On top of this, they feel the west is hypocritical; the British in Northern Ireland are often cited as a prime example.

This doesn’t mean that Serbia is a nation of blood-thirsty tyrants and that no independent opposition exists. However, those who would like to see a peaceful solution to the crisis-one that would even entail a certain amount of autonomy for Kosovo-don’t believe that NATO dictates will help. Hence, these people are caught between a rock and a hard place: they are unable to effectively voice opposition to Milosevic when they aren’t supportive of the western policy toward Kosovo either.

With the battle lines drawn and most western observers at a safe distance, it’s very difficult to ascertain what exactly is happening in the area. Unfortunately, the promise of new media technology to provide the outside world with unadulterated information from Kosovo and vica-versa borders close to virtual reality. Because of the tight security, much of the news that comes out is not much different than what can be found in the mainstream media or government propaganda.

Nevertheless, some reports do make their way through. Balkansnet ( provides substantial background information which far too often is generalized or overlooked by the mainstream media. On the other hand, this is mainly for western consumption since the economic resources to go online are unavailable for many Serbs — not to mention most Kosovars. Part of this can be attributed to heavy handed tactics of Belgrade; the rest, to the ongoing economic blockade by the outside world.

Although online discourse is severely restricted, a certain amount of the Balkan conflict makes its way to the Internet. The politics behind the blood that flows in the former Yugoslavia often appears as digital polemics on various mailing lists. These are mainly conducted by ex-patriots living outside the region. Meanwhile, Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian hackers often trash the web sites of each other.

While attention is now focused on NATO action, what most don’t realize is that the present crisis in Kosovo is not actually an end-game in itself, but sets the stage for the next real conflict in the Balkans. Kosovo has so far been a precursor to a much wider conflict looming in the horizon. After all, the whole breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian civil war started with the suspension of Kosovo’s status of autonomy within the federation.

Thus, the next area of potential conflict looks to be Montenegro, the only other republic to have remained within the rump Yugoslavia federation. Like the Bosnians, most Montenegrins oppose NATO military action. They also aren’t supportive of the Kosovo Albanians. With a large Albanian minority of their own, they fear the emergence of Greater Albanian nationalism. This fear is shared by their neighbor to the south, Greece.

Montenegrans feel caught in a vice between Albanians and Serbs. Presently, the leadership in Montenegro and the Yugoslav Army are at war against each other. The Montenegrin government doesn’t want to send its own people to fight and die in Kosovo for Serbian nationalism. Subsequently, the Montenegrin media treats the Yugoslav Army in the same way the Slovenian media treated them ten years ago.

It’s a chilling reminder that history may be repeating itself. As one observer pointed out, it may only be a matter of time before the tanks roll out on the streets of Podgorica.

John Horvath writes regularly for TF from Eastern Europe.