In the latest issue:

In Quarantine

Erin Maglaque

Après Brexit

Ferdinand Mount

Short Cuts: Springtime for Donald

David Bromwich

Meetings with their Gods

Claire Hall

‘Generation Left’

William Davies

At the North Miami Museum: Alice Paalen Rahon

Mary Ann Caws

Buchan’s Banter

Christopher Tayler

‘American Dirt’

Christian Lorentzen

Fiction and the Age of Lies

Colin Burrow

In Lahore

Tariq Ali

GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS

James Lasdun

Rereading Bowen

Tessa Hadley

At the Corner House

Rosemary Hill

William Gibson

Thomas Jones

Poem: ‘Murph & Me’

August Kleinzahler

The Stud File

Kevin Brazil

John Boorman’s Quiet Ending

David Thomson

In Shanghai: The West Bund Museum

John-Paul Stonard

Diary: The Deborah Orr I Knew

Jenny Turner

Close
Close

Yugoslavia is tearing itself apart. Many of the country’s Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Hungarians and Gypsies realise that its continued existence is in doubt. They agree about little else. A week in Belgrade, where the ruling League of Communists decided to disembowel itself, and a week in Kosovo, where the Police shot dead 30 ethnic Albanians, convinced me that Yugoslavia is indeed on the verge of disintegration.

It’s a sad story – because once upon a time Yugoslavia seemed to have so much going for it. There was Tito, who stood up to Stalin and gave the West a Communist they could like, long before they were gulled by Ceausescu. And it was Tito again who opposed the Soviet adventures in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. He introduced self-management to the factories and was duly and generously loved by most of his people. Yugoslav friends of mine who wept when he died now care nothing for Tito’s Communism, however. He’s been gone for ten years and his dream is fading. Rampant nationalism among the country’s minorities is replacing it.

Belgrade is uglier than it ought to be. The Danube does not so much flow through it as cut it off from the outside world. There is next to nothing left of three hundred and fifty years of Turkish rule. And a weighty smog hangs over this city of lumpen Communist architecture. Belgrade doubles as the federal capital and as the capital of the largest republic, Serbia. This is the fiefdom of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic – about whom one should not joke. In a tourist shop, I found a full-face brass bas-relief of the man hanging up for sale. Waggishly, I enquired about its price and its popularity among tourists. A shop assistant, who’d previously found it very funny when I asked her to try on a woman’s cardigan I wanted as a present, turned into a humourless, aggressive ogre. It was all I could do to get out of the shop with the cardigan.

In Serbia, Milosevic is genuinely popular. Elsewhere in the country, he is feared. In Serbia, he has come to symbolise the re-emergent Serbian nation, a nation misunderstood and mistreated over the centuries by the Turks, by the European powers, by its neighbours in Yugoslavia. History lives in Serbia. Last year saw the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje when Ottoman Turks routed the knights of the Kingdom of Serbia. As many as one million Serbs travelled to the supposedly autonomous Albanian-majority province of Kosovo to mourn the passing of the Serbian Golden Age. Road-side vendors sold hand-painted portaits of Serbia’s Medieval leaders and, of course, of Milosevic.

The status of the province of Kosovo is the most sensitive issue of all for Serbian nationalists, and it is made worse by the alacrity with which foreigners and fellow Yugoslavs take up the cause of the Albanians. At the end of the Second World War there were almost as many Serbs as Albanians in Kosovo – but a low Serbian birth rate and heavy migration to Serbia proper now means that the province is nearly 90 per cent Albanian. Every Kosovo Serb has a story of the things done by Albanians to drive the Serbian community out of the province – Orthodox nuns raped, a broken bottle stuck up the anus of a Serbian nationalist. It’s easy for visitors to Kosovo to see other reasons why the Serbs might leave. It is the poorest region of Yugoslavia. Rich Albanians who’ve worked abroad, in Germany or Switzerland, are willing to buy land at inflated prices. Pristina, the provincial capital, is filthy; the streets, the pavements swimming in mud, the polluted air stinging the back of your throat. A city full of hovels and superfluous space-age prestige developments. A huge shark’s fin of a sports hall dominates the city centre. The design had originally won second prize in a competition to build a new stadium for Baghdad. The only losers were the people of Pristina, who wasted a lot of money and who use it to only a tenth of its capacity.

I arrived in Pristina the evening after a screaming crowd of thirty thousand Albanians gathered outside the headquarters of the provincial government to demand the freeing of political prisoners, multi-party elections and the resignation of the local Communist leaders – who they describe as Serbian puppets. The Albanians of Kosovo are an aggrieved people. They do not hide their anger, or their desire – anathema to a Serbian nationalist – that Kosovo should become the seventh republic of Yugoslavia. I heard little talk of secession; still less of a desire to unite with their brethren across the border in Albania. They are Muslims, but I could not detect the slightest whiff of fundamentalism. There were serious disturbances in 1968, 1981 and last year. This time round, the situation is much more dangerous. After last year’s rioting – when 24 Albanians were killed – Milosevic and the Serbian leadership overthrew the provincial government, put the former Communist Party boss on trial for sedition and began a campaign to repopulate Kosovo. The stakes had suddenly multiplied.

This January, what felt like an uprising began in the towns and villages of Kosovo. The day always started with demonstrations and stone-throwing, then the Police would respond with tear-gas, rubber bullets and, ultimately, live ammunition. On the first day of the killings, I drove with an interpreter through a pea-souper to the town of Orahovac near the Albanian border. It was eight in the evening and Orahovac was a ghost town, with just one sign of life – a mad dog yapping at the car and wrestling with its wing-mirrors. At the hospital, a doctor described how three young Albanian men with bullet wounds had been brought in. They had died before her eyes. Others are dead, she said, but their families won’t bring them in. They fear police interrogation. We went to the police station, barricaded from the rest of the town by jeeps and armoured personnel-carriers. The police were frightened, huddled in groups in one large room, talking rapidly and nervously, trying to smile at a foreign journalist. They would tell me nothing. Up the hill – on the way out of Orahovac – I found a billiard room, with four young Albanian boys. They said six, ten, fifteen people had been killed. The police had shot – for no reason, they said – at a passing bus. They stuck their heads out of the door – to check if we’d been followed – and then they added another ten to the death toll. They accused my interpreter of being a Serb, she denied it, but they didn’t believe her – quite rightly, in fact. It was time to leave.

After six days the Army was sent in. Federal leaders were sent to Kosovo on a peace mission and this particular wave of unrest began to ebb. But there will be more. Military containment alone cannot work. One result of last month’s disturbances is a strengthened non-Communist political leadership of the Albanian community. But even in the few days I was there I saw the political initiative pass from the more moderate of these leaders into the hands of those less willing to condemn violence. Meanwhile, the Serbian community in Kosovo, which demanded arms to defend themselves from attacks by Albanians that never transpired, is better-organised and no less unwilling to compromise.

In the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question. When Tito died, so did the office of President of the Republic. He bequeathed to his country a collective presidency – constructed so as to discourage careerism and unify the nationalities. The effect has been much the opposite, and has denied the country firm government in times of crisis. The post of head of state, known in Yugojargon as President of the Presidency, rotates annually among the republics and provinces. Only this year has a prime minister emerged whose name is likely to be recognised outside Yugoslavia – Ante Markovic. His greatest success – and it’s a considerable one – has been to slash the rate of inflation. As I left Heathrow airport for Belgrade I bought an inch-thick wad of 5000-dinar notes for £4.28. Each 5000-dinar note is half a new dinar. More important, though, is the fact that I could buy dinars at all. On 1 January, Yugoslavia became the first Communist country to make its currency freely convertible. Thanks to these measures, Markovic is popular throughout the country, and if Yugoslavia is to remain intact a good deal may depend on him. But the problem of unity goes far beyond the issue of the status of Kosovo.

One of the sparks for the latest disturbances in Kosovo was the decision of the League of Communists of Slovenia to walk out of an emergency Communist Party congress. The Slovenian delegation had been outvoted on a number of measures critical of the old-style Communist leadership of Serbia. The Albanians welcomed the Slovenian walk-out as a nub to Serbia. But its significance is greater than that. Slovenia is the most northerly and the richest of the republics. Slovenes do not consider themselves to be Balkan. They were never conquered by the Turks, distrust the Jerbian leadership and see their future – with or without the rest of Yugoslavia – as within in enlarged European Community. The talk of secession is serious. The republic of Croatia s more cautious, but its leaders have also come to abhor Milosevic and are likely to come down on the side of Slovenia. And so the country born in December 1918 as ‘the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ may go the way of all empires. Created from bits of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian dominions, Yugoslavia bears a marked resemblance to that other crumbling empire of modern times, the Soviet Union: but Moscow has at least one advantage over Belgrade. The Communist Party in Yugoslavia is, to all intents and purposes, dead. In the Soviet Union it is only dying. Doubtless in the largest republic in both countries it will retain some electoral strength – but more as a conservative nationalist party than as a Marxist-Leninist one. In recent years, Communism in Yugoslavia has ceased to play the one role for which it was still suited – the holding together of this fissiparous country. Communism under Tito did play a unifying role and no pan-Yugoslav ideology has emerged to replace it. The relative ethnic homogeneity of countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria permits a new sense of national identity at a time when unity is needed, an identity aided by the near-universal sense of relief at the casting off of old shackles. East Germany can and will be subsumed into its Western neighbour. But Yugoslavia has no way out.

The tragedy and irony of this sorry Balkan tale is that the seismic changes in Eastern Europe are encouraging what might be called the Balkanisation of Yugoslavia. There are two very good reasons for this. First, the imitative introduction of multi-party democracy in Yugoslavia is already nourishing some individuals whose newly-formed parties and programmes are profoundly anti-democratic. In Serbia, people are appearing on the political scene who make Slobodan Milosevic look like a mild-mannered liberal. Vuk Draskovic, a dead-ringer for Rasputin, talks of Greater Serbia – in which he includes not only Kosovo but the republics of Macedonia and Montenegro, and even a few chunks of Bosnia and Croatia. He claims that more than forty thousand people have joined his Serbian Renaissance Party in less than a month. No wonder the people are nervous about democracy in Yugoslavia. In the good old days the Communists always got in. Next time it might be Vuk Draskovic.

The second reason why events in Eastern Europe and elsewhere over the last year may prove less than beneficial to the continued existence of Yugoslavia is that the aggrieved of Yugoslavia have become captivated by the spectacle of people power. You can get what you want, they now believe, by going out on the streets. Young Albanians in Kosovo told me that they, too, were ready to die like the people in – and the place-names were recited like a revolutionary mantra – Timisoara, Tiananmen, Palestine and South Africa.

A Yugoslav friend told me the following story. She applied for and got a job in Tanzania. She was nervous. But her friends told her: ‘They’ll love you there. People in the Third World love Yugoslavs because we were founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.’ When she got there no one gave a damn; they were much more interested in the British. Such is the fate of Yugoslavia, which can now claim very little geo-strategic importance. When Communism collapses elsewhere in Eastern Europe it is a feather in the cap of the West. But we have little interest in the collapse of Communism in Yugoslavia, for Yugoslavia was the trophy of a previous battle – the one against Stalin. The West would feel embarrassed if Czechoslovakia or Poland went to the wall, since, ideologically, so much has been invested in their conversion to capitalism. The Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes and the rest will be left to fend for themselves.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990

One can understand a BBC producer’s frustration with what is happening in Yugoslavia today. Everyone who knows and likes the country, including the 23 million people who live there, feel much the same as Sam Miller: pain and bewilderment at their country’s evident malaise. Their anxiety explains some of the irrational responses that he describes in his Diary (LRB, 22 February). But the process of tumultuous change now engulfing Eastern Europe gives journalists an important role in shaping popular perceptions of the continent’s future. Superficial stereotyping must give way to serious understanding of the realities. This is why it is well worth examining the ‘facts’ and interpretations Sam Miller offers in his Diary.

We are told that the evening before Miller arrived at the door of what must have been the Hotel Grand in Prishtina, ‘a screaming crowd of thirty thousand Albanians had gathered outside the headquarters of the provincial government.’ The fact that the crowd was no bigger than twenty thousand, that it was not screaming but was largely silent and that it had gathered before the provincial Party headquarters – according to information coming from, so to speak, the horse’s mouth, in the shape of spokesmen for Kosovo’s democratic opposition groupings, who alone know what is happening on the ground – seems not to deter a journalist bent on providing his readers with a little ‘local colour’. In this colouring of local life, the fact that 35 people have died and over a hundred and fifty been wounded in unprovoked police action appears as little more than a brushstroke. Another 28 people died less than a year ago. Per Kosovo capita, this means that the casualties in the past year have been on a par with the recent carnage in Romania (latest estimates: six to seven hundred dead).

All the dead were Albanian civilians and all of them were unarmed at the moment of their death. Some of them were children. Should one trust, then, a journalist who does not speak Albanian when he says that ‘even in the few days I was there I saw [!] the political initiative pass from the more moderate of these leaders’ – of the Albanian community – ‘into the hands of those less willing to condemn violence’. Indeed? How many non-Albanians died or were wounded during those weeks? Which violence can he be speaking about, in a situation where an impressive array of modern weaponry, sufficient not just to control civilian ‘disturbances’ (armoured personnel-carriers fitted with powerful searchlights, handguns, rifles, tear gas, smoke bombs, water cannon, truncheons), but even to fight a small-scale war (tanks, supersonic planes), confronts kids throwing stones? And when the opposition was able to collect 400,000 signatures on a five-point declaration titled ‘For Democracy – Against Violence’ during the very time he was there – a fact which he omits to mention, maybe because it does not fit the picture he thinks he saw?

Yet it is precisely in these inaccuracies or omissions that we find the clues for a solution to the ‘Kosovo question’. For, contrary to Miller’s assertion that ‘in the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question,’ a solution does exist. Indeed, it is obvious. The absence of inter-ethnic violence in Kosovo is the first aspect of the ‘Kosovo question’ on which any solution must rely. This suggests that, despite severe provocations, the Albanian population would like to see a peaceful solution to their problems within Yugoslavia. The 400,000 people who signed the declaration (more are signing as I write), and who amount to a sizeable proportion of the adult population of the province, desire the lifting of martial law; the release of political prisoners; free elections; a dialogue to settle differences. In other words, they wish to be treated like other Yugoslav citizens, who today are forming new political organisations free from police intimidation. We are dealing, therefore, not with a ‘sorry Balkan tale’, but with a more mundane question of democracy. The absence of democracy lies at the root of the ‘Kosovo question’. Democratic rights are being forcibly denied to Yugoslavia’s third-largest nationality – precisely as they are increasingly being asserted in the rest of the country. During the last nine years the Kosovars have lived under considerable repression and during the last year under martial law. Peaceful demonstrations in Kosovo are denounced as ‘terrorist’ actions and met with ruthless violence. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that young Albanians in Kosovo told Miller that ‘they too were ready to die like the people in – and the place-names were recited like a revolutionary mantra – Timisoara, Tiananmen, Palestine and South Africa’. This is no ‘revolutionary mantra’. These places in Europe, Asia and Africa symbolise one and the same thing: popular democratic aspirations negated by force of arms.

The second aspect of the ‘Kosovo question’ on which any future solution will rely is the recent emergence of a democratically-oriented Albanian leadership which has the confidence of the people. Its very existence is proof of the lasting heritage of the nationality policy established in earlier decades. This means that a rational dialogue on the ‘Kosovo question’ is possible and has as good a chance of success as any other inter-Yugoslav debate. The collapsing authority of the local Party has not, in other words, created in Kosovo a political vacuum to be filled by all kinds of revanchist forces. On the contrary, the Party’s authority has been replaced by that of a new political leadership whose democratic language can be understood and supported by all Yugoslavs, irrespective of their ethnic identity.

As Yugoslavia’s own post-war history (let alone that of, say, Switzerland or Canada) proves, multiethnic composition need not be a barrier to internal stability – provided the principle of national equality is respected. National equality is the necessary condition for the survival or development of any kind of democracy in Yugoslavia. The ‘Kosovo question’ is essentially a democratic question: it is simply the inversion of the ‘Milosevic question’ – i.e. the grim determination of Serbia’s ruling party to cling to power come what may. Vuk Draskovic, a ‘dead-ringer for Rasputin’ in Miller’s apt phrase, merely reflects the morbid side of this determination. The slower the transition to democracy is in Serbia, the more this kind of morbidity will extend to the rest of the country. The parallel with the Soviet Union, useful as it often is, is in the last instance of limited value, since Yugoslavia’s nationalities are far more intermingled than is the case with the Soviet Union. Unlike Russians, Serbs cannot retire behind well-defined national borders.

In other words, a multinational state, too, can rely on a sense of national identity. Indeed, Yugoslavia has always done so, having, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, been an independent country since the war. It is a different matter, of course, when national identity degenerates into ethnic nationalism. But this, surely, must be true for other countries as well? Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are, after all, also multinational states. A sizeable proportion of the Hungarian nation lives in Romania and Yugoslavia; the position of these minorities would not be helped by the rise of nationalism in Hungary itself. The degree of ethnic homogeneity in Poland may be higher, yet no appeals to nationalism can solve internal Polish problems. Confronted with the national problem in his country, a Habsburg official, one Feldmarschalleutnant von Scheure, exclaimed: Die Hunde sollen sich zerfressen! Such attitudes helped to bring about a situation in which the monarchy’s disintegration was a natural outcome. Miller suggests that a similar attitude underlies Western approaches to Yugoslavia today. If so, this is a grave error. For one thing, Yugoslavia’s federal structure, with or without the League of Communists, provides a good framework for resolving the differences that arise from its multinational composition. Secondly, the West has far better reasons for supporting Yugoslavia’s cohesion than it ever did in the case of the Habsburg state. Anyone who does not want to see a Lebanonisation of the European South-East and Centre must reject the idea that ‘in the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question.’

Branka Magas
London W11

Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990

I am replying to Branka Magas’s letter (Letters, 22 March) about my Yugoslavian Diary. First of all, apologies to all lovers of Kosovian minutiae: it was indeed the Party and not the Government headquarters which saw the first demonstrations of the latest Kosovo unrest. As for the number of people who turned out: 30,000 was the figure widely accepted in Kosovo – indeed by the various horses’ mouths referred to by Branka Magas. Ms Magas is wrong on some other points: local Communist leader Rahman Morina was prevented from being heard at this same demonstration, which Ms Magas calls largely silent. To talk about unprovoked (her italics) police action is a bit rich from someone who denigrates a journalist’s attempt to provide a ‘little local colour’: certainly these police actions against stone-throwing kids can be called unjustified, but hardly, in view of the stone-throwing, unprovoked.

Ms Magas says a solution to the Kosovo question is obvious. It is a matter, for her, of giving democratic rights to Yugoslavia’s ‘third-largest minority’. But the problem remains one of trying to convince Yugoslavia’s largest minority, the Serbs, that they should accept such a solution. Ms Magas’s ‘solution’ may be the most desirable one, but it is politically unviable. Serbian nationalists would not accept it. I feel considerable sympathy for the rest of her arguments. Ultimately she is more optimistic about the future of Yugoslavia than I am. I hope very much that she is right.

Sam Miller
London W11

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences