ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A COUNTRY CALLED YUGOSLAVIA. It was a medium-sized country in the southeast of Europe, and more than twenty-three million people lived there. It was not democratic, but it had a fair name in the world. Its king was called Tito. Being both largely rural and socialist, this country was not rich. But it was getting a little richer. Most of its children grew up thinking they were Yugoslavs. They had other identities, too, and strong ones. Slovenes already talked of the “narrower homeland,” meaning Slovenia, and the “wider homeland,” meaning Yugoslavia. Its Albanians were always Albanians. Still, it was a country.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, this European country has been torn apart. At least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 250,000 men, women, and children have died in the process. And how they have died: with their eyes gouged out or their throats cut with rusty knives, women after deliberate ethnic rape, men with their own severed genitalia stuffed into their mouths. More than two million former Yugoslavs have been driven out of their homes by other former Yugoslavs, and many deprived of everything but what they could carry in precipitous flight.
In this former country, the grotesque spectacle of a whole village burned, looted, and trashed has become an entirely normal sight. “Yeah, the usual story,” says the journalist, and drives on. A few have grown rich: mainly war profiteers, gangsters, and politicians—the three being sometimes hard to distinguish. The rest, save in Slovenia, have been impoverished, degraded, and corrupted too. Real wages in Serbia are estimated to be at the level of 1959—in the rare event of you actually being paid a wage. In Kosovo, the killing, burning, plundering, and expelling went on throughout the summer of 1998, even as West Europeans took their holidays just a few miles away. It went on though the leaders of the West had all repeatedly declared it would never, ever be allowed to happen again. Not after Bosnia.
If you look at a current political map of Europe, you may conclude that the former country is now five states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (known to diplomats as the FRY, pronounced as in “French fries”). But the reality on the ground is at least nine parts. Bosnia is still divided between a “Serb Republic” (Republika Srpska) and a Croat-Bosniak Federation, which itself is effectively divided between Croat-controlled and Bosniak- (or “Muslim”- ) controlled areas. The FRY is divided between what may loosely be called “Serbia proper,” Kosovo, and the increasingly independent-minded republic of Montenegro. But even “Serbia proper” should be disaggregated to notice the northern province of the Vojvodina, with its large Hungarian minority, and—Oh, delight to the diplomatic historian!—the still partly muslim-settled Sandjak of Novi Pazar. Perhaps one should also distinguish the Albanian-settled areas from the rest of Macedonia. That makes twelve ethnically defined parts to be going on with.
It’s not just we in the West who are largely indifferent. Most inhabitants of most of these dismembered parts themselves live in growing indifference or active antipathy to each other. In Ljubljana, a cultured Slovene woman tells me sadly that her children cannot enjoy the wonderful work of Serbian writers because they no longer read the Cyrillic alphabet. Why, she exclaims, they don’t even understand Croatian! In Sarajevo, a local veteran of the siege says, “You know, if I’m honest, we watched the television pictures from Kosovo this summer much as I suppose Westerners watched the pictures from Sarajevo.” But the feeling is reciprocated. In Priština, the capital of Kosovo, a leading representative of the mainly muslim Albanians tells me, “We don’t feel any fellowship with muslims in Bosnia, because they are Slavs.” In fact, the two groups have diametrically opposed goals: Bosnian “muslims” want to keep together a multiethnic state, Kosovar Albanian “muslims” want ethnic separation.
Across this landscape of extraordinary ethno-linguistic-religious-historical-political complexity crawl the white-and-orange vehicles of an international presence that, in its different, political-bureaucratic way, is just as complicated. SFOR, OHR, UNHCR, MSF, CARE, OSCE, USKDOM, EUKDOM, RUSKDOM: international alphabet soup poured over Balkan goulash. Americans may be the new Habsburg governors here, but French deputies tussle with British ones for priority at court, while earnest Scandinavians get on with laying the phone lines. At Sarajevo Airport, I sit next to a man whose shoulder badge proclaims “Icelandic Police.” Perhaps that Icelandic policeman will now be sent to Kosovo, to keep peace among the dervishes of Orahovac.
Faced with such complexity, it’s no wonder newspaper and television reports have largely stuck to a few simple, well-tried stories: bang-bang-bang, mutilated corpse, old woman weeps into dirty handkerchief, ruined mosque/church/town, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke meets Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, NATO bombers at Italian airbase, preparing not to bomb. Yawn. In truth, it needs a whole book to do justice to each single part….
What have we learned from this terrible decade in former Yugoslavia? And what is to be done? We have learned that human nature has not changed. That Europe at the end of the twentieth century is quite as capable of barbarism as it was in the Holocaust of mid-century. That, during the last decades of the cold war, many in Europe succumbed to fairy-tale illusions about the obsolescence of the nation-state and war being banished forever from our continent. That Western Europe has gone on living quite happily while war returned almost every summer to the Balkans. And we have learned that, even after the end of the cold war, we can’t manage the affairs of our own continent without calling in the United States. Wherever you go in former Yugoslavia, people say, “the international community—I mean, the Americans …”
UPDATE: In today’s Washington Post, Anne Applebaum reminds us that the destruction of autonomy in Kosovo is where the dismemberment of Yugoslavia got underway.