Academic journal article New Zealand International Review


Academic journal article New Zealand International Review


Article excerpt

Josiah Beeman provides an American perspective on the recent war in the Balkans.

The Balkan peninsula has historically been a very troubled area. The troubles began perhaps with the Roman Emperor Constantine's decision to bifurcate the Roman Empire along a line that ran through the middle of what would later become Yugoslavia, thereby arbitrarily separating people who later become Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian. Overlaid on top of this territorial and philosophical schism was the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire's invasion one thousand years later. This invasion motivated some to move and others to convert to Islam, and left many pockets of Islamic faith scattered throughout the region. The result was a patchwork quilt of villages, towns and cities with differing religious and ethnic origins. Yet another veneer, that provided by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, further confused an already-complicated situation.

Disregarding President Woodrow Wilson's thoughts on self-determination contained in his `Fourteen Points', the Versailles Conference in 1919 hammered Yugoslavia out of the detritus of these two collapsed, antagonistic empires, hoping improbably that a national identity would somehow emerge that would subsume ethnic and religious tensions. It did not work, of course, and Yugoslavia remained unstable until Tito came to power after the Second World War. Tito used force to institute communism as the state religion, and subjugated all other ethnic and religious movements to the state. But the cost was high, and individual liberty and economic efficiency suffered. When Tito died, as many international relations observers predicted, Yugoslavia began to unravel into disorder. And disorder, as we know from historical precedents in Tsarist Russia and Weimar Germany, creates fertile conditions for evil.

Into this highly unstable mix appeared Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic had a troubled childhood: his father, an orthodox priest, committed suicide in 1962. Eleven years later, his mother, a teacher, hanged herself in the family living room. As a student and fledgling apparatchik, Milosevic was a dedicated communist and an ardent supporter of Tito's suppression of all forms of religious and ethnic identification. But after Tito died, Milosevic discovered the popular appeal of Serbian nationalism and completely overhauled his image. Suddenly, the colourless bureaucrat who had run a state bank and a gas company became a fierce advocate of a Greater Serbia. Unfortunately for the Balkans and for the world community, it was a message the Serbian people were ready to hear.

The modern Balkan tragedy began in Kosovo, ten years ago, on 28 June 1989, perhaps fittingly on a 600-year-old battlefield that would be a cause for embarrassment, not celebration, to most nations. On that day, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic swaggered to the podium overlooking the Field of Blackbirds. On that spot, exactly 600 years earlier, Serbia lost a crucial battle to the advancing Ottoman Empire. In the eyes of Serbian nationalists, it was a glorious loss that plunged Serbia into 500 years of subjugation. On the battlefield in front of Milosevic stood one million assembled Serbs. Television coverage beamed his speech to millions more. From the podium Milosevic baldly stated that violence could not be ruled out as a tool for achieving Serbian aims and that Serbs need no longer worry because `No one will ever beat you again!' His comments were addressed to Kosovo's Serbs, but everybody inside and outside of the already-tense region knew his words were a coded declaration of war to Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians. The die was cast and the dogs of war began to rouse.

Serial war

Sure enough, over the next ten years Milosevic waged serial war on Yugoslavia's other republics, first in Slovenia, then Croatia, then Bosnia-Herzegovina and then Kosovo. In these wars, as one commentator put it, `Milosevic was both the arsonist and the fire brigade. …

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