With Milosevic gone, what shall the West do?

PressInfo # 102

 October 23, 2000



By Jan Oberg, TFF director


The Milosevic-West symbiosis

In handling the Balkan crisis the last ten years, the United States and European countries could have chosen a pro-active policy based on conflict analysis and a fair, principled implementation. They could have avoided today's intellectual, political and moral cul-de-sac and avoided the bombing last year. They would not be de facto protectors of Bosnia and occupiers of Kosovo/a.

Most Western actors grossly underestimated the complexities of the Balkans, they were occupied with the end of the Cold War, they chose to perceive it all in simplified black-and-white terms. They never acted to only help the parties solve their problems, but were guided by their own more or less nationalist, competing interests in the Balkans. And then, above all, there was the "Milosevic factor."

The West is cosmologically burdened with a tendency to write simplifying, fail-safe recipes for the solution of extremely complex economic, constitutional, historical and structural conflicts: one issue, two parties, decide who is good and who is bad, elevate yourself to judge and solve the conflict by punishing the culprit rather than attack the root cause of the problems that stands between the opponents and the structure around them that made them quarrel.

The name of the game was Milosevic. More than any other single factor the love/hate relationship between him and the West has determined the course of Western conflict-(mis)management this last decade. He was the bad guy par excellence; he was also a man who could - and did - deliver when he had put his signature on a deal; he was the actor who could be blamed for anything that went wrong whether in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo or Serbia itself.

When the West recognized that it had lost a decade of perfectly possible violence-prevention in the case of Kosovo and the man also continued to stand up against pressure - and not, in that situation, without support from the citizens of Yugoslavia - it began calling him, for the first time, "cruel dictator." They compared him to Saddam Hussein and mobilized a propaganda and misinformation machinery to make people believe that he was a new Hitler with an extermination plan. Then emerged the weird indictment (see PressInfo 100) and the stepped-up efforts to destabilize Yugoslavia.

Strange as it was and is, this petty power politician leading a small country - dictator no, authoritarian yes - had the Western leaders spellbound and blinded - vacillating between blind love and blind hate. But blind. Say what you want, he was a formidable chess-player, a remarkable personality who, for those many years kept a series of games going with various actors in the West while also playing double and triple games with other leaders in the other republics and with his shifting allies and opponents in Serbia and Yugoslavia. Whether an ally with whom you could do business and more or less dirty deals or the beloved hate object needed to fuel Western self-righteousness and cover-up our own mistakes, he was a treasure to the West. He was the single most important factor in interaction with whom the West shaped its policies.



The end game for Milosevic - and the West

Well - that is, until the West cornered itself and he began to look insecure and lose his   strategy. The West's great mistake was the bombing and the indictment. It meant that it became virtually impossible to deal with Belgrade and that the people made him look stronger (for a while). But every sensible person knows that no solutions can be found for Kosovo and Montenegro - not to mention overall Balkan stability - without Serbia or the Serbs.

The Clinton administration's ill-conceived, hotheaded policies shipped all of the West into the mentioned cul-de-sac. The end game started when then "super" diplomat Richard Holbrooke brokered the deal with Milosevic about the OSCE Verifiers' Mission in autumn 1998 while the United States encouraged KLA/UCK - the Kosovo Liberation Army - to take over where the Yugoslav forces withdrew and set up an "extraction" force for them in neighbouring Macedonia which was destabilized and turned into a combined military base and refugee camp. And then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began threatening bombing.

Then came the negotiation and peace agreement fraud called Rambouillet, then the bombings, the incredibly quick building of the American Bondsteel base in Kosovo - the largest US base since Vietnam. None of it created peace, of course. It wasn't meant to. The UN and NATO/KFOR let the hardline, non-elected Albanians with no legitimate political mandate carry through the largest ethnic cleansing in the Balkans saying it had an understandable revenge and could not be stopped.

The West had thereby managed to politically kill three -  nonviolent and democracy-minded - birds with one stone: Macedonia's very decent gentleman president Kiro Gligorov, the moderate, elected leader of Kosovo/a, Dr. Rugova, as well as the civil society and political opposition in Serbia. Obsessed with the real Milosevic and no less with a phantom Milosevic seen to lurk in every bush, the West trapped itself - and so did, in reality, Milosevic. Neither he nor the West cared about real problems or real people; they cared about themselves, their image-making, propaganda, about power and about humiliating the other. Even as Milosevic violated laws and refused to start real negotiations with the Albanians, the West violated international laws, its own democratic and human rights principles - and refused to set up decent negotiations and honest mediation (as is known now, Rambouillet had none of that). And just as Milosevic could always fall back on his superior violence apparatus, the West could always threaten him with its: NATO will come, if...

Like in so many other tit-for-tat games, conflicting parties sooner or later end up looking like mirror images of each other.

With Milosevic gone, the love/hate symbiosis between him and the West is lost. How will the EU and the US navigate without their beloved enemy in Belgrade? How will Western governments sell the policies of theWest in this new situation? What will they do with the accumulated effects of the last decade's conflict-mismanagement caused, to a large extent - but of course not only - by that symbiosis.

What will the West do when conflicting - which it is bound to do - with president Vojeslav Kostunica? During my conversations with him, I have perceived him to be honest, moderate, patriotic and humble, to believe in law, democracy and civil society, to have no blood on his hands, and to be morally, intellectually and economically uncorrupted - all in contrast to Milosevic. BUT he has come to power on promises and policies which are, in essence, quite similar to those of Milosevic.


To be continued in PressInfo 103.


 © TFF 2000


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