How We Made the Balkans
When the Pulitzer prizes were announced in April, surprisingly none of the hundreds of journalists covering the war in the Balkans last year were among the winners. This is quite a statement, given the fact that the air war against Serbia consumed more newsprint than any other event in 1999. A photojournalist team of three was honored for Kosovo coverage, but I honestly doubt that one manipulable digital picture may be worth thousands of words when it comes to complicated ethnic conflicts.
The Kosovo war may have produced a richer crop of misinformation and outright lies than anything since Vietnam, but what probably guided the Pulitzer jury was a general sense of unease about the moral ambiguity of the whole business. By bombing Serbian cities, the United States initially seemed to be committing evil to achieve a higher good. In Tony Blair's Orwellian image, this was "bombardment with compassion" and a selfless moral act driven by a commitment to humanitarian values. The problem arose after the war's end, when the newly liberated Albanian Kosovars began murdering the defeated Serbs under the noses of US and other NATO peacekeepers. Was this the higher good? If the greatest military machine in history is unable to impose law and order in a small province, what does the future hold for the larger international protectorate of Bosnia?
Other questions followed. Can one have a purely humanitarian foreign policy? Does the United States have the power to do good around the world, and more specifically, who in Washington or London can say with certitude what good is? Why Kosovo and not Rwanda?
None of these questions were properly addressed during a wartime public relations campaign that spewed commingled facts, fact-based fiction and semi-nonfiction over the twenty-four-hour infotainment channels. By the time the Clinton Administration was celebrating a moral victory, the country was sick and tired of the Balkans. A tabloid headline, "Serbs Them Right," summed up the popular attitude to the bombardment of Serbia. So it was easy for the Administration to move on, but not before disclaiming any responsibility for the consequences of its half-baked, ill-conceived intervention in the "places of which no one ever heard before this war," to use Bismarck's description of the Balkans more than a century ago. After all, the Balkans were Europe's powder keg, or a toxin threatening the health of Europe. Aren't Balkan tribes prone to savagery and irrational hatreds so powerful and longstanding that they have lodged themselves in the genetic makeup of the region's inhabitants, who are, consequently, the sole source of their own misfortunes? Even the pseudoliberals, with their subtler methods of distortion, have found explanations in the rather dubious notion that the Albanian revenge killings are less reprehensible than Serbia's murderous oppression that preceded them; here, we were told, there is no moral equivalence.
Finally and mercifully, we can always blame Slobodan Milosevic, indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague and one of the originators of the Yugoslav wars.
Misha Glenny, a British journalist who covered the disintegration of Yugoslavia for the BBC, is regarded as one of the most astute observers of the Balkan scene. His dispatches during the Balkan wars were crisp and penetrating, a notch above the average level of reporting from the region. Apart from his intellectual gifts, he possessed clear advantages over most other foreign correspondents: He spoke the local languages and had access to Yugoslav society (he was married to a Serb at the time). His 1993 book, The Fall of Yugoslavia, received critical acclaim, and his analytical articles appeared on the editorial pages of major US and British newspapers.
Glenny's The Balkans, however, is a book different in kind from nearly all that have appeared on either side of the Atlantic, including his first book. As soon as one opens it one is aware that here is a grown-up man who possesses a kind of intellectual decency that is rarer than cleverness. He is not a historian, nor does he pretend to be one. But he has thought deeply about the subject matter, and he decided to write this book "prompted by the realization that I was, along with many other observers of the wars in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, obliged to make judgments about Yugoslav and Balkan history when I had only the vaguest acquaintance with the subject."
The result is an imaginative and at times provocative chronicle of nationalism, wars and the role of great powers in modern Balkan history from 1804 to 1999. The Balkans focuses on key processes and underlying causes--in Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Montenegro--and puts together a synthetic study of events that have shaped the region and our perception of it. The canvas is vast, populated by colorful leaders ranging from the "Red Sultan," Abdulhamid II, and Eleutherios Venizelos to King Zog and Marshal Tito. It is a relatively easy and interesting read. Minor factual errors and occasional lack of deeper understanding of various Balkan peoples--the nature of Albanian society and the role of besa (word of honor) in their moral system--do not impinge on the logic and cogency of his arguments. But such few errors, including the fact that Glenny relied only on secondary sources, will be eagerly seized on by critics as evidence of the book's grave flaws. And critics are bound to be numerous, because Glenny's approach is new and his interpretations are original.