Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 30
19 April 1999

Andrew Stroehlein E U R O P E   A T   W A R :
Worst-case Scenario?

Andrew Stroehlein

For ten years, we in the West were told to pay attention to what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, because the war could spread across the Balkans and eventually engulf all of Europe. And it did spread: from Slovenia, to Croatia, to Bosnia and now in Kosova - the horrors of Belgrade's aggression became worse and worse with each step. Now Serb forces are raiding villages in Albania. How much further will the war spread? The world has waited too long already: the longer we wait, the more damaging it will be - for West, for the Kosovars and for the Serbs. The worst-case scenario is not to invade now but to be forced to invade later. Better to end it as soon as possible with a march on Belgrade.


The Western press has been full of talk about "the propaganda war" between Brussels and Belgrade, and, certainly, both sides are using many of the old wartime tricks to spin public opinion in their direction. But this does not mean that both sides are equally repugnant.

One shouldn't take the intellectually easy way out by simply saying both sides are spouting half-truths at best, and neither should be believed. Both sides have, indeed, been resorting to various tricks of wartime information control to protect their image in the battle for public opinion. However, Belgrade resorts to several "tricks" that NATO does not, and the difference is marked.

For the first time in weeks, Belgrade allowed pictures from Kosova to be shown to the outside world. Not to show the results of Belgrade's widespread terror campaign against the Kosovar Albanians, of course. No, the first video from the region was - surprise, surprise - a well-controlled outing for herded journalists just to blame NATO for some pilot's tragically unfortunate blunder.

One must, though, keep things in perspective. On the same day as that headline tragedy, the UNHCR reported that 3600 Kosovar refugees had fled into Albania and 3000 into Macedonia, all those forced onto trains and busses by the Serb authorities. They were the largest one-day totals in a week. (daily refugee updates from the UNHCR HERE) Because Western journalists are only allowed to see what Belgrade allows them to see, no one can tell how many Kosovars were murdered, raped and tortured by Serb forces on that same day. If the tens of thousands of consistent, eye-witness accounts by the refugees are anything to go by, however, a number in the thousands would not be improbable.

Does this relativism help the (perhaps) 64 dead in that village where NATO caused a senseless slaughter? Does the ratio of 64 to tens of thousands mean much to the corpse? Will these numbers dry tears? No.

But keeping things in perspective does help the wider public get a grip on seriousness of the Balkan tragedy and its true cause. When people start throwing missiles around, someone is going to get hurt, and that someone is not always wearing a uniform. If a person really wants to stop suffering in Kosova, the ultimate source of that suffering - Milosevic and his henchmen - has got to be rooted out.

Compared to Belgrade's level of information control, NATO appears to be almost an amateur in the "propaganda war" business, showing pictures and video that are distinctly not good for its own image. Fine, the NATO press office is under heavy media and political pressure to do so, and it doesn't release things without a fight. But release compromising photos they do - recall those from the train incident. It may even be slowly dawning on the NATO spin team that being truthful about its mistakes is the best policy, as it quickly disarms the counter-propaganda.

Are Western journalists allowed to see what demand to see in Kosova? Afraid not - no matter what kind of fight the journalists put up. Take your pictures of the stage set, and get back on Belgrade's bus: you've seen all Milosevic wants you to see.

Still think there's no difference between NATO and Belgrade in the propaganda war? A man by the name of Slavko Curuvija would be able to explain it to you. Slavko Curuvija, the editor of the banned newspaper Dnevni Telegraf, would tell you how Serbia's repressive new press laws of October 1998 effectively eliminated four of the capital's eleven newspapers. He would tell you how the regime first jammed and then took over the B92 radio station. He would describe how the police searched the flats and houses of editors and managers and stole computers and just about anything else of value. Curuvija would tell you how, after he could no longer publish Dnevni Telegraf in Belgrade and moved operations to Montenegro, the Serb police would search trains and trucks travelling to Belgrade in order to confiscate his newspapers before they reached the capital.

Curuvija would probably tell you all these things. If he hadn't been murdered, that is. You see, on Orthodox Easter, two men in ski masks broke into Curuvija's flat, smashed his wife's head in and shot Curuvija eleven times in the back of the head.

NATO may not like some of the things it's been reading in the Western press lately, but it hard to imagine it assassinating newspaper editors in London, Paris or Washington.

Culture of war

One of the major problems in the current Balkan crisis is the disturbing fact that an entire culture of war has developed in Serbia. This is not to say that some "traditional Balkan mentality" has brought about this extended tragedy, nor does it implying that Serbs are instinctively warlike. Such arguments, though sometimes hinted at even in the better quality media, are utter nonsense.

Still, after almost ten years of war, sanctions and now bombardment, Serb society finds a wartime footing more normal than could possibly be healthy. The general population has become more used to deprivation, and somewhat numbed to death and horror. More importantly, the country's youth have lived in a wartime regime, if not in conditions of actual combat, for their entire adult lives: a generation is growing up that knows nothing else but war.

The young men in the regular and irregular military forces are the most affected by this socially destructive attitude, as they consider it normal to rape, murder, plunder and obliterate anything they see. They have never created anything, never built anything, never added anything positive to their community. They know only how to destroy.

Milosevic has sent this band of travelling marauders from one conflict to the next, and together they have left a 1000-kilometre scar of destruction across the belly of Europe. With an unsteady peace in Bosnia, this group was left with nothing to do but go to Kosova and complete the job that Milosevic started there more than ten years ago. Montenegro or Albania - perhaps Vojvodina - would be next. The don could ill afford to have his dangerous thugs sitting around with idle hands.

The entire society suffers from a war mentality and from the tumour of those roaming thugs. Locked into a spiral of war and want, with a meglomaniacal leader still insanely dreaming of Greater Serbia despite loss after loss in every war he's started, Serb society seems to be almost dependent on devastation.

Such a Serbia will never be a healthy member of the international community. Europe is too small for such social neuroses.

The cure will hurt

The good news is that other societies have slipped into this necrophilic condition and have been able, with time, to rid themselves of the blackness. Today's Germany serves as a model example of how an incredibly destructive social force can be overcome.

The bad news is the cure was painless neither for the patient nor for the doctor. But the necessary cure it is: invasion, overthrow and occupation.

It is too late to nip the Milosevic problem in the bud. Too many lives have already been lost. It is possible, however, to nip it before it bears more terrible fruit. A ground war in 1999 will cost lives, of that there can be no doubt. But, in a year or two, when Milosevic begins terrorising Montenegro, Vojvodina, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania or Hungary, it will cost more lives.

It is time to get to the root of the Balkan problem and force Milosevic out of power. NATO cannot leave a Saddam situation that keeps coming back year after year. We must get to the heart of the trouble and solve it as fast as possible with the fewest casualties. Any other "solution" that leaves Milosevic in place is just a delay and an acknowledgement that a greater war will follow. The outside world must chase Milosevic to his bunker. Anything less will just be temporary appeasement and lead to a wider, more destructive war in the future.

In doubt

Those who say that the West can make a deal with Milosevic are playing a familiar tune: the melody of appeasement. You all know the tune: we give up the Rhineland, we give up Austria, we give up Czechoslovakia...

Then, by the time we put our foot down for Poland, we were so behind in militarily preparations (as if no one saw it coming) that it took years to catch up. We have given the enemy so long to get ready, to breed a culture of war, to inculcate those young men so they know nothing but death and to form a society much more used to war than our own.

So, if the democratic world does not make a stand now, when will it? If we give up on Kosova, will we also give up on Montenegro in the event of a coup there? Will we ignore the incursions into Albania as some now call for?

The comparison of today's Serbia to 1930s' Germany is not perfect, of course. The most notable difference is that Hitler was successfully expanding his empire in the 1930s, while Milosevic has lost every piece of territory he has ever tried to get. However, the point remains the same, an expansionist on the Continent is a menace to every European's security.

A quiet life in the West

Some people who seem to have been locked in a closet for the last ten years try to say that a Balkan bully doesn't affect the West. This is folly. It is not just that the world has been too integrated for too long for this to be true. The war is, in fact, all around us, every day.

First of all, although the worst horrors of war are confined to the Balkans for the moment, the wars of Yugoslav succession have affected all of Europe for years. That war mentality is seeping into our own societies and our own "quiet Western lives" little by little every day. I am not just talking about the depressing Newspeak of some Western politicians and NATO spokesmen in the mass media. Even if I never turned on a TV or opened a newspaper, I would know that this war affects me. I have watched friends and relatives leave to serve tours of duty in Bosnia and Macedonia as part of NATO peacekeeping forces. Others have just been put on alert and expect to leave for the region at any moment.

Kosovar exiles and refugees are everywhere in Europe. Long before 24 March 1999, hundreds of thousands had left their homeland to escape Milosevic's terror (UNHCR figures). They are not hard to find. Classmates at the University of London a few years ago described to me how Belgrade had closed their university in Pristina and how they were therefore studying abroad - their only other option being unofficial underground classes at professors' flats. My wife teaches here in London, and her students constantly reflect the changing patterns of the Balkan wars: Bosnian refugee kids a few years ago; now, kids from Kosova.

Don't tell me the war is far away. It is all around us.

Bear necessities

And so what about Russia? Isn't Russia's potential reaction to a ground war a cause for concern?

It is unfortunately true that many Russians now have "nothing to lose," and some fall prey to the rhetoric of "traditional ties." The Yugoslav Parliament's recent vote for Slavic union was an absurd gesture, and pan-Slavism will prove extremely weak when it comes to putting lives on the line. Moscow has shown that it is willing to slaughter tens of thousands of its own citizens senselessly to keep Russia intact (in Chechnya), but it seems unlikely to commit such errors abroad. Russia does not want to add to its current problems for the sake of some pan-Slavic ideal: it has consistently downplayed its half-union with Belorus for the same reason.

Most importantly, the current leaders in Moscow are really only worried about their next tranche from the IMF. That will keep them from building up arms, as they want this money to keep rolling in and building up their Swiss bank accounts. Russia can loudly renounce its membership in Partnerships for Peace, recall some ambassadors temporarily and get itself involved in the eventual peace deal so that the Moscow elites can save face in front of a few wavering voters. However, with a serious dependence on IMF money, today's Russian leaders are not so anti-Western as they may sometimes talk.

Today's Russian leaders, that is. Who can say what the next group will be like? Thus, far from being a cause for delay, Russia is actually another reason for the West to act quickly.

End game

A country should only ever enter a war in extreme circumstances. But once it enters a war, its commitment should be total and absolute. Hesitation and prevarication when the bullets are flying does you no good.

The goals of a march on Belgrade are clear:

  1. Arrest Milosevic and his leading thugs and put them on trial for war crimes. If NATO troops mistakenly kill him while in pursuit, that, at least, would be NATO's last "mistake" of the conflict, and it would be a mistake that Europe could live with.
  2. Occupy Serbia for as short a period as is necessary to establish peace and order. Local administration should be handed to the Serbs as soon as elections results are declared final.
  3. After the mass terror the Kosovar Albanians have experienced at the hands of Belgrade, the international community must accept that the Rambouillet deal is impossible. NATO must establish a separate protectorate in Kosova as a preliminary step toward Kosova's full independence. The rights of the Serb minority in Kosova should be specifically guaranteed in the new Kosovar constitution and monitored by international observers.
  4. Participate in the rebuilding of both independent states and the region as a whole.

To some, this course of action may seem a bit excessive, but it should be clear after years of Belgrade's terrorising the Balkans that these four steps will have to be taken eventually. Better sooner than later.

The worst-case scenario would not be a ground war now. The worst-case scenario would be a war in two years.

Andrew Stroehlein, 19 April 1999


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