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Serbia

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Balkan Ghosts

12 July 2020

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” says an old friend to Jack Nicholson as the mother is killed, the little girl is handed over to the bad guy and the police wash their hands of it at the end of the 1974 classic film ‘Chinatown’.

The movie was about the triumph of power and the futility of hoping for justice. ‘Chinatown’ was just a metaphor, and any other place where justice is denied would do as well. Which is probably why today I feel like saying “Forget it, Mehmetçik. It’s the Balkans.”

Saturday was the 25th anniversary of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims (‘Bosniaks’) in Srebrenica towards the end of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. It was the Bosnian Serbs who began the war, seeking to break up Bosnia and unite with next-door Serbia, and since Bosniaks and Serbs lived side by side in many places there was much ethnic cleansing. But this was special.

Srebrenica was then a Muslim-majority town, and when Bosnian Serb forces captured it 20,000 Muslims took refuge with the Dutch troops who were there to protect a UN-declared ‘safe area’. But the Dutch soldiers handed them over to the Bosnian Serb forces.

The Dutch had a choice, of course. They could have refused. Maybe they would have had to fight against far more numerous and better armed Serbs. Maybe they would have been killed, and the people they were supposed to protect would have been massacred anyway. But they were soldiers, and that was their duty.

When soldiers talk about having signed a contract of ‘unlimited liability’, this is what they mean: when the circumstances demand it, you must be willing to lay down your life. In fact, this is what gives dignity to the military profession – but the Dutch soldiers had apparently not read the contract.

Knowing what was coming, most of the Muslim men and boys fled into the woods, but about 2,000 who had taken refuge with the Dutch UN troops were handed over to the Serbs. The Serbs separated those men and boys from the women and girls, chased down most of the men who had fled into the woods, and murdered them all – 8,000 of them.

It took ten days, even with bulldozers to scrape out the mass graves. (Later the Serbs dug up the graves and moved them to better hidden areas, but after 25 years of searching all but a thousand have been found.)

Twenty years later a special UN war crimes tribunal sentenced the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to life in prison for genocide. (His military commander, Ratko Mladic, is still appealing his conviction.) But few of the Bosniaks driven from their homes have been able to go back – and denial reigns in both the Bosnian ‘Serb Republic’ and in Serbia proper.

For the Serbs it’s all fake news, a “fabricated myth” in the words of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s three-person presidency. The president of Serbia, Alexander Vucic, doesn’t go quite that far, but denies that there was a genocide. It’s all very ‘Balkan’.

From great tragedy and vile lies to mere churlishness: next week, in Istanbul, there will be Muslim prayer services in Hagia Sofia for the first time since 1934. The massive cathedral overlooking the Bosphorus, built almost 1,500 years ago, was the world’s largest building for almost a thousand years.

When the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453, he was much taken with the bulding and had it converted into a mosque. All the Christian symbols and relics were destroyed, four minarets were built at the four corners, and for the next half-millennium only Muslims prayed there.

Fair enough. Conquest was the business, and that’s how business was done in those days. The Ottoman empire went on to conquer almost all of the Balkans, so nobody in the Christian world seriously dreamed of getting Hagia Sophia back. But the centuries passed, and eventually the empire collapsed.

The Turkish republic that Ataturk rescued from the wreckage was a secular state, and in 1934 he declared that this ancient Christian church should no longer be used as a mosque. It became a museum, open to all – and remained so until Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided to turn it into a mosque again.

There’s no shortage of mosques in Istanbul. Indeed, there’s another one right beside Hagia Sophia, almost as big, much more beautiful, and with six minarets, not four. Erdogan is only doing this because his popularity is waning: his proxy wars aren’t going well, his party has split, and the economy is on the rocks. So do something spiteful to the neighbours. It should play well at home.

It’s 500 km from Bosnia to Istanbul, but we’re still in the Balkans.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Dutch…contract”)

Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Redemption in Kosovo

“The signs of collusion between the criminal class and the highest political and institutional office holders are too numerous and too serious to be ignored,” concluded the report submitted to the Council of Europe in December, 2010. The name of Hashim Thaci, then prime minister of Kosovo and former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was mentioned 27 times in 27 pages.

Hashim Thaci is still prime minister of Kosovo. Indeed, he has just been re-elected to the job, although the turnout was a feeble 42 percent. The European Union and NATO, the two organisations that helped the Kosovars free themselves from Serbian rule, seem quite happy about his victory – and even the Serbian government urged the Serbian minority who still live there to vote in Kosovo’s election. So redemption is possible, after all.

Thaci might have turned out to be a mild-mannered accountant if he had been born in a different era, but he came to adulthood just as the independence struggle of the Albanian-speaking majority in Kosovo was coming to the boil. He joined the KLA, and after several rivals suffered unfortunate accidents he emerged as the undisputed leader.

Revolutionary movements need money, especially if they include an armed wing, and since they have no legal sources of income, they must resort to crime. They rob banks; they blackmail people and kidnap them for ransom; they smuggle stuff, including drugs. Whether their cause is good or bad, they have almost all done it: the Taliban, the Irish Republican Army, Boko Haram, ETA, FARC and the KLA.

Hashim Thaci certainly did it all. In fact, you could argue that he overdid it. After NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 forced Slobodan Milosevic’s government to evacuate all the Serbian troops from Kosovo and a United Nations administration backed by NATO peacekeeping troops took over, the time for fighting – and illicit fund-raising methods – was over. But Thaci just kept going.

The KLA was renamed the Kosovo Protection Corps, and used intimidation and occasional assassinations to gain control of almost all the municipal governments in the country. A recent report on corruption in Kosovo by BND, the German intelligence service, noted that “The key players (including…Thaci) are intimately involved in inter-linkages between politics, business, and organised crime structures in Kosovo.”

The Council of Europe report of 2010 says bluntly: “In confidential reports spanning more than a decade, agencies dedicated to combatting drug smuggling in at least five countries have named Hashim Thaci…as having exerted violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics. Thaci and [other former KLA members] are consistently named as ‘key players’ in intelligence reports on Kosovo’s mafia-like structures of organised crime.”

That report, commissioned after the chief prosecutor for war crimes at the Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said she had been prevented from investigating senior KLA officials, also contained details about the KLA’s fund-raising methods just after the fighting ended in 2000. The most shocking was the allegation that some Serbian prisoners held by Thaci’s faction of the KLA were killed in order to harvest their organs for sale abroad.

The report found that Thaci’s people held Serb captives in six detention facilities in Albania, and that a “handful” were transferred to Tirana, where they were killed for their kidneys. “As and when the transplant surgeons were confirmed to be in position and ready to operate, the captives were brought out of the ‘safe house’ individually, summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic.”

The human rights rapporteur who wrote the Council of Europe report, the Swiss lawyer Dick Marty, subsequently admitted that he had no evidence directly linking Thaci with the organ trafficking, but if you’re the boss, you have to accept at least a share of the blame. So why is this suspected war criminal and big-time crime boss being welcomed as Kosovo’s legitimate leader by all the European countries, including even Serbia?

Two obvious reasons are that he won the election, and that he doesn’t actually face any outstanding criminal charges. But the deeper reason is that Serbia wants to join the European Union.

The European Union wants it too: it’s important to bring the Serbs into the club and not leave them feeling bruised and resentful about the Balkan wars of the 1990s, even if they were largely responsible for them. However, Serbia cannot join the EU until it accepts that the breakaway province of Kosovo is gone forever and recognises its leader as legitimate. The EU does not accept applicants with unresolved border disputes. (Ukraine please note.)

And this also means, by the way, that the EU has to accept Kosovo as a legitimate candidate for membership even under its current leader. Both the EU and Serbia would certainly prefer the prime minister of Kosovo to be somebody a bit more presentable, but the Kosovars keep electing Hashim Thaci, albeit with a small and dwindling turnout of voters. And maybe he really has changed.

Sometimes you just have to put the past behind you, and maybe even some of the present too.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The KLA…Kosovo” and “The report…clinic””)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.

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Kosovo: Sauce for the Goose…

23 July 2010

Kosovo: Sauce for the Goose…

By Gwynne Dyer

Just before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister, warned that in Africa alone “there are about fifty Kosovos waiting to happen.” The fifty African wannabes can take heart, as the International Court of Justice has just ruled that Kosovo’s action was not illegal, as international law contains no “prohibition on declarations of independence.”

The International Court of Justice is a conservative body whose judges are almost evenly split between those whose home countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence and those that have not, but ten of the fourteen judges on the panel voted for the ruling. The ruling does not oblige other countries to recognise Kosovo’s independence – but it definitely shifts the balance in favour of secession.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: minorities seeking independence anywhere will be encouraged by the court’s ruling. Five of the European Union’s 27 members refuse to recognise Kosovo precisely because they fear that their own minorities might use its independence as a precedent: Cyprus (Turkish Cypriots), Greece (Macedonian Turks), Slovakia (Hungarians), Romania (also Hungarians), and Spain (Catalans and Basques).

Further afield, China worries about Tibet and Xinjiang and Russia frets about all sorts of potential secessionist movements (20 percent of Russia’s population are minorities), so both countries sternly condemn Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. In fact, only 69 countries have recognised Kosovo. Countries with restive minorities of their own have not, and it is therefore still not a member of the United Nations.

There is an old legal adage that “hard cases make bad law,” and that is certainly at work in Kosovo. The Kosovars, who were 90 percent of the population before the 1999 war and now account for 95 percent, are Albanian-speaking Muslims who were mercilessly oppressed by the ultra-nationalist Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic abolished the autonomy that Kosovo had enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia, and by the late 1990s his troops and police were regularly beating, jailing and killing Kosovars whom they suspected of seeking its restoration. He drove some Kosovars into a guerilla war against the Serbian regime, and then killed around 10,000 people in an indiscriminate attempt to terrorise the Kosovars into submission.

The Kosovars were not saints in all this, but they obviously owe no allegiance to a state that treated them in such a vile manner. In the end, in 1999, the United States and the European members of NATO decided that Serbian behaviour was intolerable, and waged an eleven-week war of aerial bombardment to force Serbian troops to evacuate Kosovo. Then they occupied it – and started looking for a way to leave.

The only way to get out was to create a sovereign Kosovo state, with protection for the rights of the remaining Serbian minority (now just 120,000 out of two million). When Serbia steadfastly refused to accept the independence of a province it sees as the cradle of the nation – “our Jerusalem,” in Vuk Jeremic’s words – the US and the major European countries told the Kosovars that they could declare their independence unilaterally.

Kosovo could not reasonably be expected to stay in Serbia after all that has happened, but it is a hard case, and it makes bad law. Or at least, it changes the law in ways that we may regret.

The International Court of Justice is right: international law does not ban declarations of independence. But the deal that underlies the creation of the United Nations, and that has spared us from great-power wars (and probably quite a few smaller wars) over the past sixty-five years, does forbid any changes in the borders of UN members that are imposed by force.

That deal is embedded in the UN Charter: thou shalt not change a border by force. What they really intended in 1945 – quite understandably, given what they had just been through – was to stop cross-border wars of aggression. In practice, however, the Charter has also been used to delegitimise unilateral declarations of independence all over the world.

Once upon a time, a breakaway province could establish its independence simply by demonstrating that it controlled all of its territory and had established a viable government. That is no longer true. The UN has become a trade union of the existing sovereign states, operating as a closed shop and refusing to recognise secessions even after they have succeeded in fact.

It was a largely unintended side effect of the UN Charter, and although it has suppressed violence in some places, it also helped to perpetuate terrible injustices in many others. The decision of the International Court of Justice undermines this interpretation of the Charter, and probably means that more secessions actually succeed in the end.

Whether that is a good thing or not depends on which side of the fence you are on, but it probably means more violence, at least in the short term.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The International…secession”; and “Once…fact”)