[This opinion piece in The Times in October 2000 by journalist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris was remarkable for taking a slightly more searching look than the western media in general at what had happened during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Like almost all journalists, he failed to notice – though it wasn’t hard to find – that Milosevic was an ardent multi-culturalist and, as a former merchant banker, a committed believer in the market economy. He also failed to spot that, alone among the leaders of the various Yugoslav republics, he was not a nationalist and fought hard to preserve the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Some of his points reveal surprising ignorance. But even so his article makes many pertinent points and reveals even more of the extreme ignorance that underpinned western intervention in the affairs of a region that was quite capable of sorting out its own problems.]
The Times (London) October 7 2000 OPINION
A Cook’s tour of Balkan history written as farce
The last of the dandelion seed blows in the autumn wind. We love them/We love them not. If I was a brave Serb/beastly Serb, I’d be feeling confused this morning. Will the Ordinary Serb please step forward, and introduce himself to Robin Cook? If we had not bombed their car factory into splinters, I suppose you would call him Yugo-Man.
During the Second World War the Serb people, all of them, were our friends, and widely regarded as an heroic and noble-spirited nation.
Then, through the Ice Age of the Cold War, the Yugoslavia they dominated was seen as a civilising exception to the more brutal versions of communism all around them. Here was a multi-ethnic confederation prising from Moscow what freedoms and independence it could, and guarding them with a wily stubbornness.
Then came the Balkan troubles. Over the turn of the last century the Serbs moved to occupy a new role in that pantomime we call world affairs. Serb beasts, heartless monsters, mass-murderers, ethnic cleansers, the world’s number one hate figures after Iraq.
Their leader, Slobodan Milosevic, lost his surname. A few sentimentalists made a half-hearted attempt to persuade themselves that the story was mad Milosevic versus downtrodden Serbs, but as Milosevic’s brand of aggressive nationalism so plainly struck a chord with the nation he led, this was hard to maintain.
Nor was it maintained. Foreign Office drafts may have preserved some distinction between the leader and the led, and the official line remained that Milosevic spoke only for himself and a small, ruthless clique; but nobody really believed this, and you could tell. Off the cuff, Robin Cook, Clare Short and George Robertson (Secretaries of State respectively for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, International Development and Defence) rarely bothered narrow to the focus of their intemperance. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Tony Blair spoke as though the whole Serb nation had lost its collective head and deserved a bloody nose.
And this week, oh Lord, here we go again. All at once we see, or think we see, a brave and freedom-loving nation throwing off a cruel yoke. All at once we realise that the Serbs were never really into all this bloodshed business: it was just that horrid Milosevic. All at once Robin Cook struts the world stage – in so far as so wizened a spirit can ever strut – as some kind of liberator.
All at once our Prime Minister was able in his Warsaw speech yesterday to discern through the Balkan smoke a new hero: the Ordinary Serb. “What the people of Poland began,” he declared, “the people of Serbia will finish.”
Too bad about Milosevic: “Three wars. Tens of thousands dead. Millions displaced. Acts of barbarism not seen in Europe since the Second World War.” Milosevic, he concludes, “has done enough damage for one man”.
Wow! One man! So it was all Slobba’s doing, then? The chap goes up in my estimation in this respect, at least: it’s quite an achievement to accomplish such slaughter, to organise (in Mr Blair’s view) acts of barbarism not seen in Europe since the Second World War, with the help of just a few wicked cronies and in the face of the collective will of an entire appalled nation, helpless, ground beneath his heel.
But soon (and with Mr Cook’s help) Slobba will be gone. Then, said Blair: “We must stand ready, when the will of the people is finally done, to hold out the hand of partnership to a democratic Serbia, and welcome her into the European family of nations.”
Oh spare me this. The whole Serb nation has apparently been civilised in about five minutes. This must be some kind of a record even for a Blairite waving of the Third Way wand. Just weeks ago, between a third and a half of this suddenly-loveable people stubbornly voted for Milosevic in the face of the near-disaster his Government had wreaked upon his country. Now they are to be airbrushed out of history.
Just as, when Nato led the assault and the bombs rained down, all the heroism, all the ancient pride, all the understandable fears of the Serb people were airbrushed out of history. Just as the gangsterism and brutality of the Kosovan Albanians was airbrushed out of history.
And just as the heroism, the ancient pride and the understandable fears of those same Kosovan Albanians will sooner or later be airbrushed out of history when it is they who are laying the ambushes, detonating the bombs and murdering the policemen in Kosovo again. By the way, where are we on Macedonia, or Montenegro, at present? Who are the goodies and baddies there?
Is it worth pointing out what anyone with eyes to see must surely have seen all along: that the Serb people were never villains en masse, and are not heroes en masse now? For good or ill (and they seem eminently capable of both) they are plainly an unusually gutsy lot. Neither they nor even their cruel and stupid leaders ever seriously meant (or tried) to solve Serbia’s problems in Kosovo by killing all the Albanians; what they did end up trying to do (not ungoaded by Nato bombs) was to push the Albanians out.
It was a callous, mindless act but Serbs were not the first nation in the world to try to deal with an unwanted minority by pushing it out, and they will not be the last. There are plenty on both sides of the divide in Ireland who want to do something similar, and when people in America imagine they can resolve that particular mess into heroes and villains, we British think them ignorant meddlers. Why don’t we apply the same lesson to ourselves?
Instead, when it becomes clear that initial castings cannot fit a developing drama, all we ever seem to do is reallocate the roles.The Serb choir, kitted out in khaki, freshy bloodied and chanting war-songs, is led off. Wardrobe managers work overtime – and in come the Serbs again, recostumed in white, to chorus songs of liberation. A new hero is found, someone most of us had never heard of until this week: Vojislav Kostunica.
Mr Kostunica had better watch out. The plinth on which Mr Cook is for the moment placing him is of the same plywood as the plinth the Croats were accorded for that mayfly summer of our approbation some years ago, while we were so foolishly smashing up Yugoslavia. Valiant Voj is but one tabloid headline away from turning into Dodgy Voji, should it become clear, as Cook and Blair know it must, that Serb nationalism remains a fierce and angry force.
I suspect that, far from their former leader’s Serb chauvinism being what his people have rebelled against, chauvinism remained until the very end Milosevic’s strongest – and at the end his only – card. They haven’t chucked him out because he’s a bloody nationalist; they’ve chucked him out because he’s a failed bloody nationalist, and he’s wrecked their economy too. Vojislav Kostunica doubtless knows that the tide of popular anger which swept him in will expect of him not that he abandon the defence of Serb patrimony, but that he pursue it with better result.
But I am no expert on the Balkan tangle. Of this alone I am sure: that many, agonising and convoluted are the twists and turns ahead, and that crowing, sermonising, demonising and beatifying are as stupid now as they always were and that the danger of oversimplifying what you are trying to do in order to justify it to your public is that you begin to believe your own propaganda, and, once successful in getting the press and public onside, you are then trapped in a grotesque and unreal landscape.
Britain is now trapped. Many voices more eloquent than mine were raised against the Nato bombing last year; but mine was among the smaller number who said early on that this bombing stood a good chance of what is called success, but that it was still unwise because victory in a short and theatrical war would draw us into an expensive, sterile, unending, draining, low-level, neo-colonial scrap.
That scrap is now well and truly engaged and we are stuck in the middle. Turning the Serbs from scoundrels into heroes overnight will at first bring Robin Cook and Tony Blair a few days’ good headlines.
Then it will bring headaches of a new and different kind.
We are stuck in Bosnia and stuck in Kosovo. We are still bombing Iraq where we have daubed Saddam so thick in the primary colours of villainy as to have painted a great, strategic, oil-producing nation right out of international diplomacy. In Sierra Leone we have drawn for ourselves a crass cartoon of “Patriots” and “Rebels” which apes Evelyn Waugh’s comic black novel Scoop so spookily that I cannot believe Robin Cook could have read it, or he would have laughed himself out of his job.
I wanted John Major to call his autobiography Shades of Grey. I still look for a painter in politics who recognises these as the true colours of so much that matters deeply but does not matter simply. I look for leaders mature enough to know that this is how the world often is – and brave enough to say so. As William Hague yapped his interminable way towards his inevitable standing ovation in Bournemouth on Thursday I felt, however fleetingly, a yearning to take his place, and take that podium, and take just 20 minutes to try to explain to that audience of good, civic-minded women and men, something about the importance of grey. I honestly believe they would understand.