The guerrilla conflict in the Preševo valley region is potentially the Balkans' most catastrophic flashpoint, and events are forcing NATO powers to reconsider their policy towards the Serbs in a way that would have seemed incomprehensible just a year ago.
But thinking the unthinkable can happen very easily if you just let it. This week The Times demonstrated this with a look at the model multi-ethnic society established behind bars in The Hague by war criminals from the Bosnian civil war.
NATO powers feel pressure to act
The bomb attack near Gracanica in Kosovo, which killed seven Serbs on 16 February, was but the most violent instance in a campaign being waged by Kosovo Albanian guerrillas which has focused mostly on Serbia's Preševo valley region bordering Kosovo. The guerrillas call themselves the Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac, after the three Albanian-populated towns for which they are demanding autonomy in the three-mile wide, 60-mile long Serbian buffer zone that is off limits to most Serb forces under the terms of the June 1999 ceasefire.
As this tension increases, Serb leaders are increasingly losing patience with the attacks; Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanović asserted this week that unless NATO forces intervene, then Serbs would be forced to do so themselves.
Belgrade has banked some goodwill in NATO capitals through its forbearance to date. The Independent (19 February) noted: "The West, desperate to bolster the new democratic government of Yugoslavia, has leant heavily on the Belgrade authorities to be restrained—so far successfully."
The "Čović plan" for the region, named after Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojša Čović, has proposed ethnic Albanian representation in the police force, local government and judiciary and was described by "a Western diplomat" in The Independent on 23 February as "one of the most significant steps taken by Belgrade in years."
Alignment of powers changing
Some writers have picked up on signs of change in the regional balance. According to reports in The Guardian on 22 February and The Independent the day after, unnamed British defence officials have suggested the buffer zone might be abolished and EU troops and police officers might join forces with Serb soldiers to assert control in the region.
It all seems pretty far-fetched. Yet, writing in The Sunday Telegraph on 18 February, John Simpson (World Affairs Editor at the BBC) claimed that long-term relations between the West and Yugoslavia are set to normalise following what he characterises as the aberration brought about by former president Slobodan Milošević's "viciously nationalistic" regime:
Yugoslavia is a natural ally of the Western powers and has been for most of the past century… The West's interests and those of Belgrade are now increasingly in alignment again.
A reminder of what made relations between Belgrade and the West sink so low in the 1990s was provided this week at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague, where three Bosnian Serbs were convicted on 22 February of a systematic campaign of detention, mass rape and torture of women and girls as young as 12. The verdict, covered widely in all British newspapers, set legal history in that, for the first time, rape without murder was the basis of a charge of crimes against humanity.
Nearby in The Hague stands Scheveningen penitentiary, inside which is a special United Nations Detention Unit, "home to what is probably the greatest concentration of evil since the Nuremberg or Tokyo Trials that followed the Second World War," in the words of a remarkable article by Martin Fletcher in The Times ("An armistice behind bars," 23 February).
A model multi-ethnic society
The unit holds 35 Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats, all either convicted or accused of heinous crimes committed in the name of extreme nationalism. These prisoners are not segregated by ethnicity, and in a pathetic counterpoint to the horrific history being related in the courtrooms, Fletcher discovered that they have found a kind of unity and harmony:
These characters were utterly incapable of sharing a country, but they manage to live quite happily together in a tiny prison… Now from necessity, they have gone to the other extreme and constructed, albeit in miniature, a model multi-ethnic society with its own disciplines and conventions of the sort they destroyed in Bosnia.
General Radislav Krštić, the alleged "butcher of Srebrenica," is reinvented as the unit's table-tennis champion, and Dario Kordić, the leading Bosnian Croat politician implicated in the 1993 Ahmici massacre, as the best chef. For their mutual benefit, they have learnt a little tolerance and cooperation.
The inmate to come
Oddly, Fletcher suggests that the unit will face "its ultimate test" if and when Milošević himself arrives: "even the most forgiving Muslim would find it impossible to throw darts, drink coffee or play six-a-side soccer with the ultimate author of so much wickedness and suffering."
Perhaps. But this ignores two points: firstly, the current inmates themselves have comparably monstrous reputations and have apparently managed to coexist (why would one mass murderer necessarily react to another in the same way that, for example, you or I would?).
And, secondly, in the past no end of "respectable" Western politicians have been seduced by Milošević's famous charm into cosily discussing the Yugoslav wars on his Belgrade sofa—consulting with the chief arsonist about putting out the fires, as it has been put. Why should this not happen again, especially in such an unusually harmonious environment?
Oliver Craske, 26 February 2001
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