Vol 1, No 4, 19 July 1999

A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Phlegm and the Anima
An impressionistic canvas

Dr Sam Vaknin

It often rains in Skopje nowadays. Sudden, thunderous outpourings of acidulous and gluey fluid. People say it is the pollution from the 12,000 tonnes of bombs dropped just 20 kilometres from here. The unions warn of a hot autumn. The signs are ominous: it looks like an economic crash rather than a soft landing.

The calamity

Tony Blair was here in Macedonia a while ago. He secured photo opportunities with photogenic refugees and promised the soft-spoken, dreamy-eyed prime minister of Macedonia 20 million British pounds. The money never arrived. Blair's promise went the way of thousands of other promises made by the good and mighty throughout the history of this melancholy part of the globe.

Emir Kusturice has compared the Balkans to an island, drifting listlessly, receding wedding music in the background. It is heart-rending and often provokes in me a tsunamic pity, an earthquake of goodwill.

The locals are adept at using this resonance, at taking advantage of foreigners who are vulnerable to their music, to their costumes, to their rustic shrewdness. In 1963, upon the occasion of a particularly malicious earthquake which levelled Skopje - the town was rebuilt from generous foreign donations.

The message sank in: foreigners love disasters, and they are willing to shell out hard currency for this indulgence. The harder the catastrophe, the harder the currency.

Thus, calamities became an export industry, a major earner of foreign exchange and the opportunity of a lifetime for a few in exchange for the misery of the many.

The aftermath

Music drifts in with the fragrances of decaying blossoms - and with corpulent mosquitoes. The fragmented echoes of animated discussions.

People here talk with their whole bodies. They lean forward and touch their colleagues. When they meet or depart, they kiss each other on the cheeks and hug passionately.

It was, therefore strange to see the body language of the octogenarian President of Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov, with his much younger Albanian counterpart, Rexhep Mejdani. They stood apart and made diametrically opposed declarations about the future of Kosovo. Watching the old Communist apparatchik Gligorov, I was reminded of Milosevic, when he announced the Serb victory in Operation Allied Force. He stood so rigid - as though he was about to break, and he leaned towards the camera, creating an eerie fish-lens effect.

People of the Balkans are not proud; they are adaptable. But, in an effort to compensate for a deep-seated inferiority complex, they react with vanity and narcissism. Co-existence here has never been an easy proposition, and the Americans forced strange bedfellows upon each other. Accustomed to the imposing ways of superpowers, the citizen of the Balkans bowed its head. But it is a contemptuous gesture: they aim to win through their surrender.

Their propensity to harbour hidden agendas drives them to paranoia but, as distinct from the classic pathology, they really do have enemies. The Balkan man waits for America to join Rome and Turkey. The only commodity he has aplenty is time.

So, now, Gligorov and Mejdani shake hands, but they both know the long knives are drawn. They both will wait for the intruders to depart, and then they will continue in that traditional pastime of Balkan rulers: slaughtering each other.

The war chests

The Kosovo Liberation Army's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, found himself with plenty of returning refugees, meddlesome peacekeepers and houses burned to their basements. He also found himself with very little money. Moderate Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and shadow-state Prime Minister Bujar Bukoshi, on the other hand, have access to funds but very few adherents.

Rugova's decline did not start in March 1999. It started long ago when he objected to peaceful student demonstrations (which even the Serbs found tolerable). It was then clear that if there was ever any distinction between his pacifism and traitorous, collaborationist cowardice - it had long vanished. People deserted him in droves and at Rambouillet it was Thaci who headed the Kosovar delegation, not his elder rival.

Now, Thaci needs money. He could have decided to collect taxes as Rugova did; instead, he seems to be seeking to monopolise the business interests of Kosovo - and with the same ferocity he showed against the Serbs. In collaboration with Albanian politicians (government supporters) and with Macedonian politicians of Albanian descent, he began to take over lucrative trades and economic activities both in Kosovo and in its neighbours.

The crowd around Albanian opposition Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha regard him as an imminent danger. They believe his aim is to become the President of a Greater Albania comprising Albania and Kosovo (though not Macedonia, a new-found and perhaps short-lived ally). This is a recipe for a civil war, the second one within two years for Albania. The first one erupted after the life savings of one third of the population were squandered by a cronyist group of investment houses in pyramid schemes.

The spoils

The Greeks are grabbing Macedonian property: real estate, banks, factories, a refinery, perhaps the Macedonian Telecom. They pay outlandishly cheap prices. The Macedonians are on their knees, reduced by the war to a loosely connected network of bartering businesses.

In all this the Greeks do not refrain from political arm-twisting. They vetoed Macedonia's application to become the centre of the reconstruction of Kosovo and then proceeded to propose Thessalonika (Saloniki) - a proposal adopted by the EU. They also continue to refuse to call Macedonia by its constitutional name, forcing the impossible acronym FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) on the international community.

The next logical target is Serbia. To the Greek businessmen, Kosovo is lost due to the brutal treatment of Albanian refugees in Greece and the expressed pro-Serb sympathies in Athens.

Greece and fellow NATO member Italy, as well as Russia are likely to defy America and enthusiastically embark upon the lucrative reconstruction of devastated Serbia. Financed by German money through the inefficient and corrupt money transfer mechanism known as the EU, German businesses are not likely to tolerate this monopoly. They will join the fray, to America's increasing dismay and chagrin.

American firms, on the other hand, will probably not be allowed to undo the damage their government wrought. Left out of the game, America will try to spoil it. It might well succeed, for it controls the strings of the American purses: the IMF and the World Bank. Americans never hesitate to bully and blackmail where money is involved.

In the meantime, the secret services, the crime organisations, the terrorist groups, the liberation movements, the weapons dealers and the drug runners are flocking to the Balkans, eager not to miss the unfolding action.

Such shenanigans will surely depress investors' appetites. They will not increase the pledges in bow-tied donor conferences either. Good money (investments and international aid) rarely follows bad (crime and arms trading, for example). The Balkan countries stand to get only a small fraction of the magnificent and magnanimous promises made to them in the heat of the battle. The Balkans will be forgotten because it refuses to reform, because it is obstreperous.

The number of visiting officials will decline. The journalists will head elsewhere. The local politicians, pampered by the likes of Clinton and CNN will revert unwillingly to their petty squabbles and ragged local papers.

In a few months, it is will all seem like a mirage. It will all sink into the soil of this luscious region, fertilised by countless bodies. The great togetherness will evaporate, leaving behind the putrid fumes of re-emerging, centuries-old, grudges and suspicions.

The people will complain. The leaders will thieve and collaborate with organised crime. The criminals will prosper. The farmers will till their land, and intellectuals will conspire. Nothing changes here.

And nothing ever will.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 11 July 1999

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He has recently been appointed Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.









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