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Sold on Serbia

Anatomy of a Strange British Attraction

Johnathan Sunley

News that the Conservative Party had accepted donations from Serbian businessmen with links to the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic came as little surprise to those who have paid close attention to British policy in the Balkans over the past few years. Indeed, given the combined performance over this period of Sir David Hannay in New York, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind in London, General Sir Michael Rose in Sarajevo, and Lords Carrington and Owen in continuous transit between all these places, the main mystery about this blood money is the amount. Why only &100,000? That, at least, would be a more than reasonable question from the millions of citizens of former Yugoslavia who have been the victims of this policy. How was it, then, that a country with limited previous involvement in, or experience of, this region came to embrace the interests of one people over all the others, to the extent of forgetting its own?

'Plucky little Serbia'

he story starts in 1914. Prior to the First World War, realpolitik had determined that Britain would be no more supportive of Serbia than of other fledgling states and nascent nations in that part of Europe. But then Austria-Hungary went to war against Serbia, Moscow stood by its Belgrade protege, and Russia became part of a British-backed anti-German coalition. Serbia remained on the Entente side throughout the resulting 1914-18 conflict, and dozens of books soon appeared about this 'plucky little nation'. The classic in this genre remains the Reverend R.G.D.Laffan's series of lectures delivered in Salonica and published after the war as Guardians of the Gate. For Laffan, it is not simply that the Serbs are so obviously superior physically to all their neighbours: 'the thoroughbreds of the Balkans', as he calls them. It is also their idealism, lyricism and sensitive spirituality that sets them apart and demands our solidarity in their hour of need. Even the contributor of the foreword to Laffan's lectures, a no-nonsense naval officer, finds himself swept away on a tide of awestruck admiration, writing: 'Serbia has indeed well and bravely answered the great question He asked: "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?".'

From the sound of it, he had been reading the lectures delivered meanwhile in England and published in 1916 by the Faith Press under the title The Soul of Serbia. Their author, Father Nicholas Velimirovic (a professor of theology at Belgrade who later became Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church), portrays his people as managing to remain innocent through the almost incomprehensible sadness and tragedy of their history: 'Some people speak about a greater Serbia. Never was Serbia so great as she now is, in her suffering, in her heroism, and in her enthusiastic and optimistic belief in the Victory of Good over Evil.' At the same time, he answers his own question - 'How, it may be asked, did the whole civilized world come to adopt the Serbian point of view?' - through flattering comparisons ('Serbian democracy is very similar to American democracy') and by crafty invocation of common threats ('Our Serbian enemies - Turks, Bulgars, Austro-Germans and Magyars - are now British enemies too'). In the last paragraph of the last lecture, he makes one final effort to put his country on the Allies' conscience: 'When I speak here, Death is at work in Serbia [...] I don't believe that Serbia will entirely die. But if that should happen, even for a short time, I would write on the sacred tomb of my martyred country the most suitable epitaph: "Here rests a loyal friend of England".'

The extent to which he succeeded can be gauged from what happened after 1918. The map of Europe that then came into existence was based on a compromise between the universal principle of national self-determination and the particular practice of some nations advancing their territorial claims more effectively than others. In this scramble for power, it was not always what would now be called 'the facts on the ground' which proved decisive. Equally important was the impression - as mediated by publicists like Wickham Steed or R.W.Seton-Watson - that the various committees or individuals who now stepped forward to represent their peoples made upon public and official opinion in the Great Power countries. Serbia, which had already almost doubled in size as a result of the two Balkan wars, found itself uniquely well placed in this contest, thanks to the 'dual track' diplomacy it was able to pursue through both the Yugoslav Committee and its own government. The former also included prominent Croats and Slovenes, and supported the idea of a Yugoslav union based on relations of genuine equality between its peoples. Neither the Serbian royal family nor Prime Minister Pasic, however, had any intention of allowing the 'strong wine of Serbia to be dissolved in the weak water of Yugoslavia' (as Seton-Watson once put it). In their ultimately successful attempt to forge from the theory of a properly balanced South Slav state the reality of Greater Serbia, they were aided by the intentional conflation of one with the other by members of the Serbian diplomatic corps who - unlike the Croats or Slovenes - had direct access to Western policy-makers. A prime example of this is the book Serbia: Her People, History and Aspirations, published in London in 1915. The author, W.M.Petrovitch (described as 'Attache to the Royal Serbian Legation to the Court of St James'), ends his introduction hoping that 'the English-speaking peoples will realize that Serbia is pre-destined, geographically and ethnically, to link together and amalgamate the northern and eastern lands inhabited by the Serbs and other Jugoslavs, and thus to oppose to the common foe an insurmountable barrier.'

Whether or not pre-destined, that was what Serbia came away with from the war. At least Seton-Watson, who acted as midwife to several of the successor states, had the integrity to recognize the unlovely creature he had helped bring into the world and to disown its new order. Indeed, for its description and denunciation of Belgrade's heavy-handed centralism, corruption and opportunistic disregard for the country's constitution, his memorandum of 1925 addressed (but not sent) to King Alexander can still be usefully studied today for its insight into the problems that were to plague Yugoslavia throughout its 73-year existence. Between the two wars, these grew worse as time went on, and in 1932 a letter was published in the Manchester Guardian signed by Seton-Watson, Steed and many other politicians and public figures with a record of sympathy for Serbia, but highly concerned by 'the bitter feelings of resentment provoked by the existing Dictatorship [which] are shared by all elements of the population'. This situation, they wrote, 'cannot but afford a constant temptation to neighbouring Governments hostile to the unity of the Southern Slavs and is a standing danger to the peace of Europe'.

Though their pessimism was to be borne out by Yugoslavia's rapid disintegration in World War II, their arguments for greater pressure to be put on Belgrade to tackle especially the Croatian and Macedonian questions made little headway at the time. In any case, where Western perceptions of Yugoslavia are concerned, the 1930s will always belong to Rebecca West. Her immense travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1940) begins and ends paying tribute to the memory of 'martyred' King Alexander. In between, Slovenes do not even rate a mention, while Croats are portrayed as dull, legalistic sub-Austrians. Dubrovnik has to be sidestepped for being insufficiently Orthodox (it voted habitually for the Croatian Peasant Party) and reminding West of 'the worst of England'. Slating the city for having 'maintained for centuries the most rigid system of aristocracy and the most narrowly bourgeois ethos imaginable', she notes there a 'certain coldness shown towards the Yugoslavian ideal...ironical when it is considered that after Dubrovnik was destroyed by the great powers no force on earth could have come to its rescue except the peasant state of Serbia.' As for Sarajevo, though appealingly exotic, it too is seen essentially through pro-Serbian and anti-Austrian spectacles. Serbia, on the other hand, is different. The people there are pure and dignified. Their stories and actions all have an epic aura to them, and their landscapes are thickened by tragedy (though West does permit herself the heretical thought that the defeat at Kosovo might not have been the supreme national disaster made out). As a hymn to the semi-barbarous Other, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon can hardly be surpassed. And yet, as Chips Channon reminds us in the numerous fawning references to Prince Paul in his diaries from the same period, the Serbs could also be admirably cosmopolitan, their aristocrats and intellectuals fully at ease in Western Europe's smartest salons.

New Myths

World War II resulted in a very different kind of pro-Serbian sympathizing. Initially, this found religious-royalist expression, based on the heroic resistance to German aggression allegedly put up by the entourage of King Peter II and, after his disappearance into exile, by the Chetnik forces commanded by General Mihailovic. A classic in this idiom is The Struggle of the Serbs (1943) by Pavlowitch pere, which again has an awestruck foreword from a military man (Field-Marshal Lord Milne of Salonica, no less), ending in approving citation of Churchill's famous comment on the fateful decisions in Belgrade in the spring of 1941 which precipitated Hitler's 'Operation Punishment': 'Yugoslavia found her soul.' (To which, in his epilogue, Pavlowitch cannot resist adding the rider 'which the Serbs never lost'.)

A couple of years later, nonetheless, Churchill concluded that, if the war was to be prosecuted successfully against Germany in the Balkans, support should henceforth be given only to the Partisans. This inaugurated a new wave of Western misunderstandings and mythmaking the force of which could still be felt fifty years later. The difference this time, of course, was that the communist ideology of the Partisans rejected - in theory, at least - a recurrence of Serbian (or any other national) supremacy. The utopian goal of a new Yugoslavia, built upon consent willed freely and equally by all its peoples, made a great impression on the various Allied officers parachuted in to supply and advise the Partisans. But most portraits of the movement still depicted it as a kind of crusade headed by Serbs seeking to redeem their fallen brothers, the Croats and Slovenes. What characterizes the three best- known memoirs written by British soldiers who served with the Partisans - Eastern Approaches (1949) by Fitzroy Maclean, Partisan Picture (1946) by Basil Davidson, and The Embattled Mountain (1971) by Bill Deakin - is precisely the absence of any recognition of just how much the Partisan movement relied on diverse national efforts, it being the rule of all guerrilla movements that they can survive only where the population supports them with recruits, supplies and intelligence. In late 1943, the Partisan forces numbered some 300,000 fighters, arranged in twenty-six divisions: of these, two were located in Serbia, one in Montenegro, seven in Bosnia-Herzegovina, eleven in Croatia and five in Slovenia. To be sure, the Partisan forces were nationally mixed. Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia- Herzegovina - given their persecution under the Ustasha state - participated in proportions that surpassed their ethnic weight; but they were a minority in absolute terms, and alone certainly could never have created a successful Partisan movement in these future Yugoslav republics. It is indicative that none of the three memoirs cited so much as mentions Andrija Hebrang, leader of the Croatian Communist Party: an organization that before the war had been by far the strongest component of the all-Yugoslav Party, that when war came supplied the core of the Partisan cadres in Croatia, and that by late 1943 was again the most powerful branch of Yugoslav Communism.

Serb nationalism resurgent

Old habits die hard, however, and this image of the Serbs as the driving force behind the second Yugoslavia survived into the Communist period. It is not surprising, however, that as Tito grew old the first to dispute this image of Serbs as the bedrock of Yugoslav 'Brotherhood and Unity' should have been Serbian writers such as Dobrica Cosic and Vuk Draskovic, who in their different ways began the work of historical revisionism by glorifying Serbia's past, and the Chetnik tradition in particular. These efforts found ready support in Britain in works like Nora Beloff's Tito's Flawed Legacy (1985) and Michael Lees's The Rape of Serbia (1990), with Tito's death and Communism's decay and collapse providing the backdrop for a repudiation of the entire World War II compact, in which Britain had helped the Communist side, but had subsequently closed its eyes to the forced repatriation and massacre (now also being exposed) of thousands of collaborationist and anti-Communist Slovenes, Croats and Serbs.

Catalysed by the unrest in Kosovo, these two Serbian complexes - of Serbian superiority and Serbian inferiority - had by the mid 1980s coalesced into a single vision of unfettered Serbdom that united almost all shades of Serbia's political and intellectual spectrum: Communists, their radical critics (e.g. the Praxis group), old-fashioned nationalists, the Church. Initially anti-Albanian, always luridly anti-Muslim, this force was channelled in stages by Milosevic against whomsoever appeared to stand most in the way of realization of the 1986 Memorandum's stated goal of 'the territorial unity of the Serb people'. By the time this drew Serbia and Montenegro into military confrontation in 1991 first with Slovenia and then with Croatia, moreover, a similar all-encompassing alliance had come into existence in Britain whicb deyermined that the conflict be interpreted - and handled - in the precise way in which Belgrade itself wished: as an intractable civil war with ancient roots, in which all sides were equally right and wrong, rather than as a premeditated lunge for land planned in Belgrade.

Belgrade's British allies

In time the cry of 'No intervention!' would bring together such emblematic ideologues of the far-left and far-right as Tony Benn and Alfred Sherman, and such one-time House of Commons opponents as Denis Healey and Edward Heath. To begin with, though, it was left to the Yugo-experts to explain the sight on our television screens of renewed warfare in the middle of Europe. This meant the late Fitzroy Maclean appearing on Newsnight to inform viewers that, through all the years he had lived in Yugoslavia, he had never been able to tell a Serb from a Croat: the message being that the irrational 'warring factions' themselves probably could not do so either. This clashed with the explanation of a novel authority on the subject (based on a few holidays in Dubrovnik), Guardian coumnist Edward Pearce, who wrote in that paper as early as 3 July 1993 a piece titled 'A land riven by ancient hatred' which claimed that Milan Martic's insurgent Serbs should be seen as Scots, i.e. 'bloody-minded highlanders with a puritan streak', while the Croats 'remain the exact equivalent of the IRA ... terrorists busy with bombs for the Serbs'. Pearce would later excuse John Major's ignorant pronunciation of 'Croat' to rhyme with 'throat' on the grounds that slitting throats was a Croatian national pastime.

Such irresnponsible imbecilities (examples of which from the British media could be multiplied ad nauseam) might not have mattered so much had they not embodied and helped to shape the attitude of an international community caught clearly off guard by the eruption of an all-out war practically under its nose. First into the fray to bring peace to the region was Lord Carrington, whose efforts at negotiating a peace settlement were predicated on treating all sides equally. This meant, of course, a built-in advantage for the aggressor, and by the end of 1991 there was nothing left but to acknowledge Serbian territorial gains in Croatia. At the time cloaking his impartiality behind the dogma that this was a civil war in which it would be folly to help one side against the other, Carrignton would later not even bother to prevent the mask over his instinctive bias slipping. In an interview with the Financial Times at the end of 1993, he openly admitted: 'We've really always known whose side we're on', adding: 'People tried to make it black and white - the Americans certainly - and to say that the Serbs are wholly wrong. But the Serbs have got a case.'

Confronted with so much evidence of bias and prejudice, it is difficult to resist the explanation that - like so many of their professional predecessors this century - British journalists (though not all!), diplomats and soldiers drawn into this conflict in the Balkans tended simply to identify themselves more easily and completely with the Serbs than with any of the other peoples involved. In the case of the British troops taking part in the UNPROFOR (now IFOR) mission, there can be no excuse this time of being allied to Serbia since, as they have repeatedly stressed, Britain has no interests at stake in the Balkans. Perhaps it was more a question of higher respect for the spit-and-polish performance put on for their benefit by the Yugoslav People's Army, than for the raggle-taggle Croatian and Bosnian territorials. Certainly one senior British officer, who has since moved onto the lecture-circuit, made clear that he would rather find Serbs under his command, as they could be counted on to fight to the last man - quite untrue, as it turned out! Croats, he offered, were no more dependable or courageous than hyenas. Another peacekeeping veteran opines in White Dragon (the story of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Bosnia): 'Most Serb officers are patriots and men of honour, very much aware of the military tradition of the two world wars fought in alliance with us.'

As for the commentators, it is Misha Glenny who stands out in terns of both influence and pro-Serbian bias. He spends the first thirty pages of The Fall of Yugoslavia (1992) driving round the so-called Krajina, trying to convey a sense of the Serbian minority's legitimate fears and grievances in the face of Croatia's independence. Summing up, Glenny writes: 'The conflict between Zagreb and Knin was not only the dispute which provoked the war, it remains the most powerful engine of fratricidal strife.' A little later, he accepts an early-morning rakija from General Mladic, whose 'big eyes twinkle with mischief' and hears out the predictable tales of Ustasha atrocities. Not a word about Kosovo or the Memorandum or Milosevic.

But for Glenny all nationalisms are damnable and equally so. In his earlier book The Rebirth of History (1990), he described how the strongest image branded on his consciousness from ten years of reporting on the region was of a crowd of Serbs in Kosovo chanting furiously 'Srbija je ustala!' (Serbia has arisen!). Two years later, he says, he saw exactly the same frenzied look on the faces of a mob of Croats being addressed by Franjo Tudjman: 'Only one thing was different - the chant: 'Hrvatska je ustala!' (Croatia has arisen!).' Having first equated Croat and Serb nationalism so lightly - without hinting at any possible distinction between cause and effect, or identifying the actual likely source of future aggression - Glenny then moved on to depict nationalism itself as evil, likening it to a kind of contagious virus apt to spread uncontrollably. Early on in the conflict in Bosnia, for example, he wrote a lengthy piece for The New York Review of Books (July 1992) in which he raised the spectre of Kosovo and Macedonia also being engulfed in fighting. Western governments, he argued, had to learn how to manage the problem of minorities: 'If they do not, the disease which has ravaged Yugoslavia will spread elsewhere, starting with the countries in the south.' This stance echoed the view of Western foreign ministers seeking excuses for inaction. Douglas Hurd, writing in The Daily Telegraph a few months later swept aside all possible arguments for air-strikes with the homespun wisdom: 'We must damp the tinder before the fire spreads.' The relatives of tens of thousands of Bosnians who had by that stage already lost their lives in Zvornik, Visegrad, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Banja Luka or any other of the towns and villages that had been subjected to ruthless Serb bombardment and ethnic cleansing, could be forgiven for thinking that the fire had already spread and was burning out of control.

For their part, the firefighters appointed by the international community seem to have been spellbound by the Serbians' contemptuous demonstration of power. Though Zagreb had to endure many reproaches (many of them well-earned) for muzzling the Croatian press or abetting the carve-up of Bosnia- Herzegovina, most of the mediators shuttling from one Balkan capital to another found President Tudjman's hectoring history lessons and frequent changes of uniform simply embarrassing. It was hard to take such a master of self-parody seriously. Belgrade, by contrast, was the real thing. There, President Milosevic would seat you on his modest green-velvet banquette, offer round some civilized cigarilloes, and then proceed to let you do the talking. From time to time in this polite ceremony, however, you would feel the agreeable frisson that comes from negotiating with a real hood. David Owen, certainly, seems to have been captivated by this combination of smooth banker and mass murderer, to the extent of taking his wife away on a weekend to get to know the Milosevices better. But then we also learn from his Balkan Odyssey (1995) how Owen even found the words to commiserate with General Mladic on the suicide of his daughter ('I do believe the story that he is devoted to his wife and son.'). If this kind of human touch is just part of the job of trying to negotiate a peace settlement, it was preserved for one side only. For nowhere in this vainglorious account of his endeavours does he devote the same degree of imaginative effort to compassion for the Bosnian Muslims as he did to understanding the Bosnian Serbs. Indeed, so exasperated did Owen become at one point by the Bosnian government's refusal to lie down and shut up, that in the wake of the first wave of concern over reports of widespread rape by Serb soldiers, he explained to an American audience: 'It is a basic fear that they will be forced to live under Muslim domination and that they will be deprived of their basic nationalism, if you like. I mean the Serbs are a great nation, despite all these horrible things that have been done. This is not typical of these people.'

The US and German bogeys

There are, finally, two entrenched attitudes which generally go together with such sympathizing. One is disdain for the United States. A good deal of Balkan Odyssey reads like a Soviet-era tract attacking the swagggering Western superpower for becoming involved in a problem beyond its comprehension. To be sure, the policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations with respect to former Yugoslavia were marred by vacillation and excessive caution. But the central charge on which Owen and Glenny join forces - that Washington scuppered the Vance-Owen Peace Plan - does not hold up in view of the fact that it was precisely the Bosnian Serb leaders who rejected the deal on offer.

If there is one sure sign that a commentator has bought the Serbian myth whole, however, it is when sympathy for the country and the people projects itself in a vehement hostility towards the state whose 'premature recognition' of Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991 is alleged to have started a war which had by then been going on for at least six months already (depending on when you date the precise preparations made by Belgrade). Faced with such antipathy, the decades fall away and one is back in the world of Laffan's Swabos or Maclean's Strafexpeditionen. At least during the first and second world wars the Serbs and their sympathizers had good reason to distrust and dislike the Germans. But even Rebecca West, whose abhorrence of them knew almost no limits, had the modesty to declare: 'I realized again that I would never understand the German people.' In their obsession with the malevolent role of Germany in this conflict, Owen, Glenny and others have overlooked the reamarkable resemblance between the fate which has overtaken the Serbs and that which the Germans suffered fifty years ago. Just as there were many innocents among the Volksdeutsche from the Sudetenland, Transylvania or the Banat swept back to German state territory after the tide of war had turned, so too may sympathy be extended to Serb civilian victims of the war who have now lost their homes in Croatia or Bosnia. In the case of Germany, however, the process of rehabilitation started with military defeat and the overthrow of the dictator who had taken Germany into the war. By obfuscating the reasons for their losses and implicitly championing Milosevic and his henchmen in Bosnia, British politicians and commentators may bring some Serbs some comfort. What they will not do is help the Serb people to come to terms with all the harm that has been done, to others and to themselves, in pursuit of the 'Fatherland of their Desire' - the chimera of a Greater Serbia.

Jonathan Sunley writes about Central and Eastern Europe from Budapest. His article: 'Post-Communism: An Infantile Disorder' has been recently published in The National Interest, Washington.