Maria Todorova

In 1989 a funny joke was being recycled in some East European countries. Frustrated with the failure of communism (as a shortcut to modernity), two politicians were discussing strategies of how to bring their country into capitalism (as a shortcut to modernity). I think the best way is to become the 51st state of the US. Excellent. But how do we do that? We declare war on the US. And then? Then, they take us seriously; they invade us; they occupy us; they set us straight. Brilliant. And what if we win? Ten years later, this is not funny, and it doesn't seem to be a joke.

As a specialist in Balkan history, I have refrained from making brief pronouncements about the present affairs in the Balkans (2 or 10 minutes long depending on the news program; 600-800 words depending on the paper or journal). After all, my profession is about arguing complex issues and avoiding simplified recipes, and I happen to believe in this professional ethos. However, what is happening now, is not merely, and definitely not primarily a Balkan problem: it is a global international problem. And since I am not a specialist in international relations and the new world order, I think I can summarize my views in a comparatively short statement. Let me begin with a brief survey concerning the history and character of the conflict.

The situation of the Albanians in Kosovo represents a grave case of human rights abuses. An autonomous region of Serbia since 1946, Kosovo was elevated to the status of autonomous province like the Vojvodina in 1963, and both were given extensive rights in 1974 which de facto gave them privileges close to a republican status short of the name. A considerable number among the Kosovar Albanian elite since the late 1960s lobbied for republican status within the Yugoslav federation, culminating in the riots in 1981, a year after Tito's death. Repressed but not suppressed, in the subsequent years the Kosovar leaders operated within a particularly unfavorable climate. The demographic boom of the Albanian population resulted in a tremendous increase of their absolute numbers, and a shift of the population ratio: from circa 65 % in 1948 the Albanian majority had reached close to 90 % by the end of the 1990s. In the general economic crisis which swept Yugoslavia in the 1980s, this was coupled with an increase in the unemployment rate from an endemic 20 % to over 70 % in the last decade. While the two enlightened republics of Slovenia and Croatia were openly and justly sympathetic to the aspirations of the Kosovo Albanians and bemoaned the heavy-handed and intransigent treatment they suffered at the hands of the Serbs, they also consistently boycotted the traditional Yugoslavist policy of Belgrade to redistribute funds from the wealthier republics to the poor regions of Yugoslavia. Bosnia, Macedonia, and especially Kosovo, were referred to as the "dirty southerners", the Timbuktoo in the civilized space of Ljubljana and Zagreb.

By the second half of the 1980s, the situation became particularly tense with the consistent flow of Serb population leaving Kosovo. Most of this outflow was due to the dire economic situation exacerbated by group claims along ethnic lines for control over limited resources. While there were undoubtedly cases of harassment on the part of the Albanians against the Serbian minority, they did not correspond to the horrendous stories circulated among Serbs of a systematic ethnic cleansing, rapes, etc. Nonetheless, this was a strong and growing perception among the Serbs which was not allowed any official verbal outlet in the dominant Yugoslav policy of trying to harmonize, downplay, and control ethnic conflict. It was on the wave of this perception that Milosevic made his career after 1987. One thing should be clear: Milosevic did not create Serbian nationalism. What he did do was to legitimize its most extreme articulation, and use it as a means to curb the Titoist (or Yugoslavist) faction in the Serbian/Yugoslav leadership which was trying against all odds to work against the growing centrifugal momentum in Croatia and Slovenia. On March 8, 1989 the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina was revoked; on July 5, 1990, Kosovo's regional parliament was dismissed and a state of emergency was introduced. In September of the same year, Albanian deputies proclaimed the constitution of the Kosovo phantom republic at a clandestine meeting at Kacanik; a year late, in September of 1991, they organized a secrete plebiscite in Kosovo which gave a return of over 90 % in favor of independence. This intifada like, extremely precarious situation continued for nearly a decade and may have continued further had it not been for an unpredictable event: the collapse of the pyramid scheme in Albania, presided over by the great democrat and friend of the United States, Sali Berisha. The subsequent complete disintegration of the state institutions and the brief civil war with the disappearance of the army and the opening of the arms depots, created a free cheap market for Kalashnikovs ($ 10 a piece) and hand grenades. With funds from the diasporic Kosovo community in Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Belgium, the United States and elsewhere, the increasingly radicalized youth in Kosovo was armed to form what was claimed last year to be a 40.000 strong, and turned out to be a 15.000 weak armed force of the UCK (KLA -- Kosovo Liberation Army). These are the facts that I think would generate a more or less broad consensus.

What follows is a series of statements, summarizing my views on the present conflict. I have arranged and balanced them so that by the end I will have offended most everyone.

Statement 1.

Serb nationalism at the end of the 20th century is a particularly unsavory type of nationalism in the Balkans, rivaled and at times surpassed only by its twin brother, Croatian nationalism. What makes Serb nationalism unique in the Balkan space is that since its inception at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, this has been the only Balkan nationalism which has never been humiliated. It has paid very heavy prices, as have all the others, but, psychologically, it has always been victorious. Had it not been for the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922, Greek nationalism would have vied for the dubious honor to be the first in displaying its superiority complex. But, as it is, defeat is always instructive, and sobering, and in the long run often beneficial. Serb nationalism was particularly ugly in the mirror of the Albanian question. Until 1998, Serbian bravado was still precariously balanced on the side of the bearable as far as actions went but was increasingly speaking with hysterical and racist overtones. With a few extremely honorable individual exceptions (some of them friends over whose heads NATO bombs are raining), the Serb opposition never seriously dealt with the Albanian question as a national question in the past decade. In this light, the accusations of the Serbian opposition that, by boycotting the parliamentary elections in Yugoslavia, the Albanians did not give it a hand in overthrowing the Milosevic regime, ring hollow.

Statement 2.

Serbian nationalism is an unsavory nationalism but it is not a genocidal nationalism. Milosevic is no Hitler. This has been so apparent to me that I would not have even addressed it as a separate statement were it not for the fact that I encounter lots of respected intellectuals, even friends, who have genuinely bought into the Holocaust analogy. No case can be made about Milosevic as a threat to world peace, to European peace, even to Balkan peace. The expansionism argument is quite lame even considering the previous cases framing him as an aggressor against "sovereign independent states" which were hastily and precipitously recognized by the EU and the US after the fait accompli German initiative. In the case of Kosovo this clearly doesn't wash.

The more serious accusation and the one which needs to be addressed is that in the past decade there has been a Serb pattern of ethnic cleansing; there is the lesson of Bosnia, and behind it looming the shadow of the Holocaust. On Bosnia: the Serb record is dismal. But I would go only thus far. I despise the exercise of comparing and measuring evil but I am forced to resort to it because it has been imposed by the Hitler and Holocaust analogy. (Some intellectuals who, judiciously and, I think, correctly, did not endorse Goldhagen's thesis about Hitler's willing executioners, now are willing to accept the thesis of Milosevic 's willing executioners). Ethnic cleansing, i.e. the forceful displacement of populations from a given territory, although not under this name, has been the historical accompaniment of most wars, and reached astronomic figures during World War II, at the end of which the ethnically cleansed Germans alone reached 13 million. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia pales in comparison to that and to later world events of a similar nature. In Bosnia, there was a severe case of ethnic cleansing whose main perpetrators at the beginning were the Serbs. But let us also not forget that the Serbs, ironically, ended up being the greatest casualty of this policy, with 650.000 or 700.000 Serb refugees in today's Yugoslavia, and the single biggest ethnic cleansing during the war: the expulsion of the Krajina Serbs from Croatia, with the tacit approval of the West.

I don't think that the allegation about genocide is sustainable. Aside from the Holocaust which stands as the indisputable metagenocide, the international community has not come to an agreement about genocidal events. It has not recognized even the 1915 Armenian massacres as a genocide, and is splitting hairs over numbers and intentions. The extermination of millions of Poles, Belorussians and Russians during World War II has not been officially termed genocide, nor has the extermination of the Serbs at the hands of the Ustasha. It is perfectly fine by me if Arkan or Karadzic or whoever are tried individually as war criminals but when analyzing phenomena which have (or ought to have) legal repercussions, we ought to be careful. If Milosevic is Hitler, the reverse must also be true: then Hitler is Milosevic. If the plight of the Bosnian Muslims is comparable to the Holocaust, then the Holocaust can be reduced to it. For the ones who don't care about the dangers of rhetorical excesses to whip up public opinion, maybe the dangers of normalizing and trivializing the Holocaust would sound more menacing.

As far as Kosovo goes, the case is even flimsier. We hear about the satanic genocidal plan of Milosevic but the record is that in the course of the last 10 years there was a state within a state in Yugoslavia which was practicing internal exile, and there was no existential crackdown. The crackdown began last summer when the secessionist guerrilla force came to control 40 % of the territory of Kosovo. Belgrade responded in the way any central government (authoritarian or democratic) does: with an attempt to suppress it. Since then, in the course of a year, 2000 casualties on all sides have been reported by the Western press, among them many civilians. In a guerrilla war, where the fighters operate within a very tight familial network, these casualties were to be expected.

I will return to the response of the West, as well as the Holocaust card, but let me here introduce

Statement 3.

What is the UCK? There have been accusations mostly hurled by the Serbs but interestingly corroborated in the NATO rhetoric) that this is a terrorist organization, funded by drug money, resorting to murder not only against the Serb police force, but also assassinations against moderate Albanians, practicing extortion, forced recruitment, and espousing a dubious mix of ideologies: from hard-nosed right-wing nationalism to Maoist tactics. All of this may be true (it is, in fact, true). But which national liberation movement has not resorted to dubious tactics from the point of view of the status quo powers, and has not been branded as terrorist at the beginning?

Let me make here two other analogies which, I think, are much more pertinent to the Kosovo case. In doing so, I am adding to the list of offended sensitivities that I am consciously challenging today.

a) The first one is Palestine. This is how the Kosovo problem was increasingly referred to in Belgrade. Self perception and historical emulation is important. As is well known, Hitler was inspired, and accordingly instructed, the governor of Poland to act towards the Slavs as the Americans had toward the "red-footed Indians." The Serbs have not been inspired by Hitler. But they see themselves in their relations to Kosovo and the Albanians, as Israel in its relations to Jerusalem and the Palestinian problem. There is no need to go further into details and compare the number of casualties in each case. What would be more instructive is to compare the reactions of the outside world which has been incredibly patient and, because of that, constructive in this several decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict while displaying none of these attitudes to the junior Albanian-Serb conflict. The sheer comparison with Serbia, I know, alienates many Jewish intellectuals who don't even acknowledge accusations of Hitlerite behavior hurled by Palestinian activists.

b) The second analogy is the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Despite attempts to argue the incomparability of the two cases based on a legalistic argument (and, to my disappointment, launched even by liberal Turkish intellectuals), there are, to my mind, only two basic differences: a) Turkey is a NATO member, and has not lost its geo-strategic significance for the United States; and b) while the PKK has failed to sell its separatism to the West (conversely, the West, i.e. the CIA, sold Ocalan to the Turkish security forces), the KLA succeeded in doing so. Again, I am not going into a detailed comparison about casualties (37.000 in the Kurdish case), or military operations on the territory of a sovereign state (Iraq), or a civil war in ones own territory. The analogy again has incensed many Turks who focus on the differences between the two cases. But, of course, all cases are different. As Tolstoy pointed out long ago, only happy families look alike. The point I wish to make is a more general one. Historical analogies are rarely appropriate if their purpose is to facilitate the analytical understanding of an event or phenomenon. Most often the purpose of historical analogies is to evoke and manipulate predictable emotional responses.

Statement 4.

What do we do in the circumstances of a situation which, according to me, before March 24, could be described as a severe case of human rights abuses but not a humanitarian crisis, and certainly not a genocide. The humanitarian disaster was provoked as a response and, at the same time, is the side effect of the actions of NATO.

There were three possible responses to the crisis in Kosovo. Two are based on the legitimate but incompatible principles of sovereignty and self-determination. Much can be said in favor of both but I shall be extremely brief.

a) If staying with the principle of sovereignty, one would have had to stand aside and not act for fear of upsetting an extremely precarious balance and producing a destabilizing, and possibly, a domino effect. How can the sovereignty of Bosnia be upheld if the one of Yugoslavia is abused? If the principle of sovereignty is abused, this is a dangerous message for all secessionist movements who can hold governments hostage. On the other hand, this is a distinctly uncomfortable morally option, one that makes one feel helpless and guilty, one that makes the appeasement argument easy to accept. It is offset only by the feeling that often inaction creates the lesser of two evils. The defense of this principle of sovereignty, as defined by the hitherto existing international system, has been the basis of the argumentation coming from critics of the NATO action, notably from Moscow and Beijing.

b) However, one could argue equally convincingly that the principle of self-determination be embraced. After all, haven't most countries in the region, and in Europe as a whole in the past century and a half, been created first by this principle? But then, if one were to choose this principle, one has to see it through, and prepare for the foreseeable repercussions.

c) The third option was to persist with diplomatic means, to exert pressure through coordinated international channels, to insist on negotiations, and above all, accord this case the same patience and tact that has been accorded for decades to far more serious cases all over the world: Tibet, Palestine, Kurdistan, to mention the obvious. This last option was not taken, Rambouillet was a non-starter, not acceptable to either side. Its second version, signed by the Albanians, and the one which then served as the ultimatum against Serbia, actually provided for a referendum for independence within 3 years, was creating a NATO protectorate on Yugoslav territory and provided for privileges for NATO which effectively abrogated any semblance of Yugoslav sovereignty. Should one make the inappropriate historical analogy to the 1914 ultimatum?

Statement 5.

The West effectively embraced the second of the three options (i.e. the principle of self-determination) despite protestations to the contrary. I personally have no problems with this, but the West: a) did not see it through, and b) did not provide a safety net for the repercussions. Not only that, but at the time of the NATO summit Clinton was constantly repeating that there will be no change of international borders. In fact, despite de facto choosing version b), the pitfalls were so obvious that the bombing was formulated as an intervention on behalf of human rights. Let me add quickly that I do not question for a moment the sincerity of the disgust of Western leaders (Clinton, Blair, Solana, Chirac, Schroeder, etc.) over the reprehensible behavior of Milosevic and the murderers on the ground, a disgust which was, of course, coupled with the hypocrisy over double standards. I will go even further and disappoint some analysts in the Balkans who are now devising and recycling the most intricate of conspiracy theories. (The wildest one circulating is that Kosovo is one of the richest uranium and gold sites of the world, that there is an ongoing conflict between British and German firms over control of the region, and there is the macabre plan to depopulate the territory on order to exploit it more efficiently). If I believed in conspiracy theories I would have launched one of my own, and certainly a more plausible one: that the present war is the result of a kabbal between Milosevic and the American military industrial complex. Unfortunately, I don't believe in conspiracy theories and I don't think the West has immediate, let alone territorial, geo-strategic interests in the Balkans. I could even buy the argument that at moments the normal human outrage that "something should be done" might have been the main motive in the behavior of the more ideological (or messianic, or crusading) leaders of the alliance, like Albright, for example, but hardly of the less romantic ones for whom "the credibility" of NATO and the West was the primary argument. Finally, within this rubrique I would add that I understand the logic behind and I would support a vision that reconsiders the philosophical basis of international relations, and seeks to create a new international system in which human rights figure prominently. But before this has been well thought through and has received international support, I refuse to agree that the populations of the Balkans be guinea pigs in an aborted experiment.

Statement 6.

Lest it would seem that the West in this scheme of reasoning looks less of a villain but simply an ignoramus sucked into an impossible situation against its good will and despite its good intentions, I wish to be explicit: my biggest, unreserved and unconditional wrath is directed against its leaders.

a) They severely and consistently mishandled the situation in Yugoslavia in the past decade, and instead of contributing to an accommodating and compromising spirit, in fact exacerbated (but, of course, did not create) the process of the ugly disintegration of Yugoslavia.

b) In the concrete recent crisis they came in unprepared to handle a humanitarian disaster which, according to their own protestations, they knew was going on or was inevitably coming. In fact, they actually created it. When the refugees began pouring in, Emma Bonino, EU Commissioner on Humanitarian Aid, suggested that Romania and Bulgaria should take the bulk of the refugees as this was a regional, i.e. their problem. This is a division of labor in good faith: the rich bomb, the poor feed. Most have followed the undignified preliminary plans to herd in 20.000 refugees in Guantanamo bay. Even with the change of strategy it took a month and a half to fly in the first 400 people to the U.S. In the meantime, dozens and dozens of American journalists were flown in the opposite direction to photograph the plight of the Albanian refugees and explain to the American public the intricacies of Balkan history (Charlie Gibbson and Peter Jennings, for example, enlightened American viewers that Macedonians hated and feared Albanians because they were, in fact, Serbs). Even with the 40.000 promised to be taken care by Germany, 20.000 by Turkey, and 5.000 each by Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and some other small countries, this is still 1/6 or 1/7 of this tragic human wave. The West also came in unprepared (not physically but psychologically) to see through its mission. It actually firmly stated its conviction up front that they are not jeopardizing the life of a single one of their civilized citizens for any Balkanite (implicitly in the line of Bismarck's 19th century pronouncement about the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier but not explicitly articulated true to late 20th century politically correct discourse.) Let me remind in parenthesis that, for all its ulterior motives, Russia fought a war with the Ottoman empire for Bulgaria's independence in which 220.000 Russian officers and soldiers died. Are there 220 Americans or West Europeans who are ready to die for the cause of the Kosovar Albanians? But there are surely more than 220, ready to play "Arcade games" with B2 bombers and other billion dollar worth toys.

c) As a result, the West has severely destabilized the Balkans achieving what it professed it wanted to avoid: Albania is on the verge of a civil war between north and south; Macedonia is in an extremely explosive situation; and I am not even mentioning the long-term destabilizing effects on the immediate neighbors Bulgaria and Romania, the severe economic crisis into which they are being plunged deeper and deeper. Greece and Hungary are also casualties but, as members of the club, with much less severe repercussions. All throughout, after 1989, the West consistently refused to pay any attention to the Balkans as a region, and has been consistent only in its policy to lock the region out into a ghetto by erecting prohibitive economic and administrative barriers, not to speak of the cultural abuse which was heaped on the area in line with the Huntingtonian division (region of ancient hatreds, organic anti-democratic and authoritarian spirit, primitivism, tribalism, barbarity, ceasaropapism, Orthodoxy, and so on and so forth, and, of course, the Cyrillic script).

Statement 7.

In the meantime, there was never a Balkan war in the 1990s. Neither Greece, nor Bulgaria, Albania, Romania or Turkey have been at war despite the constant insinuations in the Western press. All of them have been careful to avoid any temptation to get involved. The war in the 1990s was a war for the Yugoslav succession. But now let us be very clear. It is no longer a Yugoslav war. There is now an undeclared European, no, a world war, of 19 nations against one Balkan country, and this has enormous and frightening implications not only for the region but for the world.

During the past decade, The United States has consistently and consciously undermined and effectively compromised international organizations like the United Nations, OSCE, etc. and, instead, has promoted NATO as the only global arbiter and policeman. The latest Kosovo blunder is only the last in a chain of such policies. It is, of course, morally unacceptable, as Clinton pointed out, to enter the new millennium with the terrible 20th century legacy of ethnic cleansing. It is also frightening to enter the new millennium with a legacy of unchecked erratic arbitrary behavior on the part of a power that claims to be the arbiter. It can be a short millennium.

Back to my opening joke: the ongoing war has created a situation in which whoever wins, everyone will lose. But isn't this the case with all wars?

(This text was delivered as a speech at Columbia University on May 11.)