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Vol 2, No 35
16 October 2000
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UK Press ReviewRedrafting History
Oliver Craske

The morning after the wonderful night before, Serbia and its foreign reporters woke up in a slivovic haze and had to pinch themselves. Did all that really happen? Did it happen the way they thought it had?

Certainly, it had been a momentous day. Then over the following long weekend of 6-8 October, Slobodan Miloševic publicly accepted defeat and Vojislav Koštunica settled into power. But the signs were confusing. What was real? How much was merely smoke screen and sleight of hand? Was Miloševic coming back already? What now for Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo? "The revolution was the easy part," advised Misha Glenny across the pond in The New York Times (7 October).

Three days later, The Guardian's leader nodded approvingly as "Vojislav Koštunica, the people's power president, took a chainsaw to the dead wood of Slobodan Miloševic's regime." In The Times the same day Glenny credited Koštunica with "a series of rapid political moves that consolidated his power, accompanied by the resignation or sidelining of key politicians and officials" associated with Miloševic. He singled out one public sign: "Just by mentioning Srebrenica... Mr Koštunica has broken a significant taboo of the Miloševic era." He noted that Koštunica had enjoyed "two big boosts": the announcement to the Serbian parliament of new elections on 19 December, and the agreement (soon withdrawn) by Miloševic loyalists that Serbia be run by an interim government in the meantime.

The Financial Times on 13 October recorded that Koštunica had not only secured the lifting of sanctions by the EU and the USA, but had also been given backing by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic.

But not much was yet being taken for granted. The Daily Telegraph (11 October) reported that "concerns remain about the activities of the security service", citing the claim by Zoran Đjinđić, the Democratic Party leader considered the chief strategist of Koštunica's victory, that "the Serbian secret police had resumed monitoring Miloševic's opponents." The Miloševic-aligned Serbian government's assertion that it still controlled the police and security forces represented, according to the Financial Times (12 October), "the biggest setback to Mr Koštunica's efforts to consolidate power." Reformists were threatening to call for more popular demonstrations unless the agreements were fulfilled for early Serbian parliamentary elections and an interim government.

Taking the credit

After initially showing restraint and sensitivity, some in the Western press eventually got around to congratulating the NATO powers for bringing about the revolution. There's a fine line between celebration and rudeness, and surely Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post (9 October) was going too far by praising "America's activism." He proposed that "Bosnia, Kosovo and now Serbia... show what can be accomplished when hope and hard work overcome pessimism and passivity." So Bosnia was a US success, and because of its interventionism? Were American lives ever seriously put at risk in any of those three territories? One could sympathise with Hoagland's attempt to get isolationist America to look upon the outside world as more than merely a market for its goods, but with this article, he was stretching credibility.

Hugo Young was on slightly firmer ground with his article in The Guardian (10 October), lauding Tony Blair for his role in the revolution. "The deposing of Miloševic is the vindication of a strategy for which he [Blair] risked more than anyone else in the west. He was the moral, if not the military, leader of what saved Kosovo, and has now led to the despatch of the tyrant."

Such praise for NATO's strategy would be likely to gain short shrift from Belgrade residents, but from the admittedly more comfortable vantage point of London there does seem to be some truth in it. The main problems with NATO's war over Kosovo regarded the nature rather than the principle of the interventionism: underestimating the task, choosing to bomb from 15,000 feet, not risking ground troops and selecting many non-military targets. This smacked of a strange blend of over-confidence and cowardice. This policy killed civilians rather than risk a single American soldier.

But it's hard to disagree with Young when he writes: "If Miloševic had carried ethnic slaughter through Kosovo without Nato's intervention, he would almost certainly still be in power in Belgrade." And he correctly identifies a trend by observing that Blair's interventionism abroad in the name of humanitarianism (Young includes the example of Sierra Leone too) contrasts with his "indifferent" attitude at home towards the "hopeless and deprived."

Blair's predecessor, John Major, had earlier accused Labour of "exaggerating the impact of NATO's bombing of Serbia last year," and overestimating "the severity of the war crimes by the Serbians in Kosovo." Foreign Secretary Robin Cook accused Major of rewriting history in order to justify his reluctance to intervene in the Bosnian war (The Guardian, 9 October).

A new perspective

Serbs now have a much better opportunity of assessing the Kosovo and other conflicts for themselves. Rory Carroll in The Guardian (10 October) reported on the impact of "a documentary showing shooting, shelling and heaps of executed civilians" in Bosnia, which was broadcast this week by the Belgrade television station Studio B: "In Serbia, never before have such images been seen... the blanket of denial has been ripped away."

Further evidence has been famously supplied by Miroslav Filipovic, the award-winning journalist whose articles were published by the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting. Filipovic's accounts of Serb soldiers' atrocities in Kosovo landed him a 7-year jail sentence under Miloševic's regime this summer. Happily, he was released this week, a move described by The Independent (which also published his best-known IWPR report) as "an indication of the changes that have begun to sweep through the country." The British press were uniform in sharing the joy of his release, though noting a retrial is still possible.

With a new government tentatively established, democracy taking root, sanctions disappearing, reconstruction work required and aid promised, it was of course time for the Financial Times (12 October) to latch onto the first priority in such a situation: getting one's head into the trough. "The government is to set up a Yugoslavia taskforce to help British companies win a share of the reconstruction contracts awarded in war-damaged Serbia." I just hope that wasn't why we went to war last year.

Big days for Poland and Lithuania

There is barely space to cover two other significant Central and Eastern European events covered in the UK press. The Polish presidential elections were comfortably won by incumbent Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose stated first priority of EU accession echoed Tony Blair's call in Warsaw last week for Polish entry by 2004, which had gone down well with his hosts. Unfortunately this did not chime well with Germany, where the government is apparently starting to favour delaying Polish entry until a second wave around 2006. "If true," ventured Roger Boyes in The Times (10 October), "the relationship between Poland and the EU is likely to deteriorate very quickly, throwing up difficult questions about the future of eastward enlargement."

Any enlargement including Poland will, due to its 39m population and oversize (by EU standards) farming sector, accentuate the need for major EU reform of its key structures, including the distribution of votes in Council of Ministers and seats in the European Commission and Parliament, and its agricultural policy. As I write, EU heads of government are meeting in Biarritz to discuss how they might deal with these issues at the upcoming Nice summit in December, but their electorates seem either unconcerned or suspicious. "Where are the debates on enlargement?" despaired David Walker in The Guardian (13 October).

Walker noted also that if Poles are be denied early entry, it will probably be on the basis that Poland does not meet all the necessary EU rules and standards. "It is considered bad form," he remarked, "to note that several existing members would not qualify for entry on that basis." He also observed that the new arrivals will tip the balance of the budget such that Ireland and Spain will become net contributors: "Which explains why their politicians have begun to talk Eurosceptic."

It was notable once again that the UK coverage of the Polish presidential election was weighted towards the humiliation of Solidarity hero and ex-President Lech Walesa, who took just 1% of the national vote. Mr Kwasniewski's stunning first-round victory with 54% received some attention but, though long expected, deserved more.

Then again, coverage of the Lithuanian parliamentary election can be reported very quickly indeed since it hardly received any mention in the UK press. Thanks be to The Economist (14 October), then, for noting that the election marked "an important generational shift", particularly through the sidelining of independence leader Vytautis Landsbergis and the emergence of younger politicians. Liberals' leader Rolandas Paksas, "44, an amateur stunt pilot" is The Economist's tip for Prime Minister, noting with approval that "now there is a chance that Lithuania's 3.7m people will have their cleanest as well as youngest bunch of rulers since regaining independence... Lithuanian politics seems, as last, to be maturing."

Oliver Craske, 14 October 2000

Moving on:


Daily Express
The Daily Telegraph
Financial Times
The Guardian
The Independent
The New York Times
The Times
The Washington Post


Pat FitzPatrick
Reappraising Relations

Tom Gallagher
Return of the Poet

Magali Perrault
Nuking the Neighbours

Sam Vaknin
Parasitic Economics

Martin D Brown
Duplicity Revisited

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Roads to Roma

Wojtek Kość
Here He
Comes Again

Mel Huang
Lithuanians Vote

Andrea Mrozek
Visiting Auschwitz

Peter Hames
The Best Czech
Film Ever

Oliver Craske
The Uninvited

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Andrea Mrozek
Re-emerging Debates

Oliver Craske
Redrafting History

The Arts:
Židas Daskalovski
Strange Folk


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