Pogroms Evoke Indifference

Pogroms have once more rocked the Balkans. This time, rioting Kosovar Albanians destroyed Serbian homes and burned Orthodox churches. The enlightened West looked on with a mixture of bewilderment and indifference. People have become so accustomed to humanitarian catastrophes in the Balkans over the past decade that they now regard them as par for the course.


This latest crisis in Kosovo is not unfolding in the midst of a civil war, however, nor as the result of the nationalist policies of Slobodan Milosevic or some other local dictator. The pogrom occurred in a province that has been run by the UN and controlled by NATO troops since 1999. It occurred after the creation of transitional structures in accordance with Western guidelines, after elections were held for a new parliament, after countless conferences devoted to rebuilding the region, and so on. It is now obvious that none of this has worked. Western intervention has not solved the problem, it has merely modified it.


Despite this, the West remains unwilling to accept any blame for turning the Balkans into a permanent disaster zone. Throughout the 1990s it was common practice to blame everything on the Serbs. Not on the Milosevic regime, mind you, but the Serbian people. The portrayal of Serbs as rapists and aggressors became as much of a cliché in Western liberal propaganda as the suffering Orthodox Slavic brother had been in Russian nationalist mythology. Serbs were the stock villains in Hollywood action movies and television shows until 2001, when they were quickly displaced by Muslim terrorists.


As soon as events in Iraq began to heat up, the Balkans receded into the background — but the tragedy there continued as before.


It is indicative that even Russian public opinion has not been roused to any great extent by the latest news from Kosovo. Five years ago, Russians worried themselves sick over the fate of their Serbian brothers. When the United States began bombing Belgrade, protesters hurled rocks at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and many Russians dreamed of enlisting in the Serbian army. Moscow officially reacted with strongly worded statements that were all the more remarkable for their departure from the pro-Western liberal rhetoric that then prevailed in the Kremlin.


Nothing comparable has occurred this time around. The government has limited its response to a series of restrained, toothless and utterly incomprehensible statements. Even opposition politicians don’t seem terribly upset. Consumed in their own squabbles, most seem not to have noticed that the latest crisis has happened at all. Even the most die-hard nationalists no longer have time to stick up for their Slavic brethren.


In the 1990s, Russians put the Serbian theme to good use in domestic politics. The myth of a small heroic people was contrasted to the glaring impotence of official Russia and its complaisance toward the West. Slobodan Milosevic was cast as the positive hero, the defender of the rights of all Slavs and the antithesis of the “Westernizer” and “traitor” Boris Yeltsin. The Russian elite, divided into “Westernizers” and “patriots,” was in the grip of an identity crisis, and the Serbs were seen as a means of helping to resolve it.


Vladimir Putin’s first term solved the crisis by very different means: Russia‘s elite has consolidated around the Kremlin. Although the government and the armed forces are no more effective after four years of Putin’s stewardship, Kremlin propagandists discovered new ways to reconcile the public with the status quo: Putin’s mesmerism, combined with the pain-relieving effect of high oil prices, created a sense of rejuvenation. The Serbs had become unnecessary.


In Western Europe, a significant portion of the liberal and even left-wing politicians who applauded the bombing of Belgrade and the occupation of Kosovo five years ago now find themselves in the antiwar camp. President George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq has alienated many Europeans who until recently had supported the idea of humanitarian intervention. But even now, few of these newly minted pacifists are willing to admit that their stance in the late ’90s was tragically and criminally wrong.


It wouldn’t take much. The point is not that the West backed the wrong side in the conflict. Serbian nationalists are no more decent and honorable than the Albanians who incite riots and murder. In feuds like this there are no good guys, just the bad and the very bad. And determining who is who with any certainty is impossible.


Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.





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