This Time (and Not in a Moral Sense), the Serbs Are Right

May 01, 1994|By PETER MILLAR

LONDON — London. -- One very unpalatable fact has been little mentioned in the great ballyhoo over NATO's long-awaited strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. It is quite simply that in this instance the Bosnian Serbs are right. I add quickly that being right is a wholly different matter to being in the right in any moral sense. One of the few certainties in this bloody mess is that the debate about "war guilt" in the Balkans will rage for generations and fire many future vendettas.

But in their analysis of the Gorazde situation, the Serbs got it spot on: The idea that Gorazde could -- or indeed should -- ever become some autonomous, and anomalous, Muslim enclave surrounded by hostile Serbian territory is an utter nonsense.

The fact that the Bosnian Serb army decided to make it "unviable," if not untenable, by seizing surrounding villages was a brutal but predictable, and, in both political and military terms, a pragmatic step. Call it callous if you will, call it cynical if you can be bothered; you would be better advised just to call it war.

It was also, of course, in the eyes of Serbian public opinion, brave; we might see it as a Serbian hammer crushing a Bosnian Muslim flea, but in Pale and even in Belgrade it can seem more likely a plucky Serbian David challenging the Goliath of NATO.

The present military map of Bosnia -- and many of those purporting to show future solutions -- looks not so much like a patchwork quilt as a shroud with holes in it. To believe in a future for Gorazde as a Muslim island in a Serbian sea is as smart as arguing the case for the free city of Danzig in 1919. Have we not enough experience in this gore-soaked century to know that enclaves and corridors and the like do not work? Their creation is equivalent to setting fuses on time bombs.

It is all very worthy for politicians of the West to pontificate preposterously -- as the German Bundestag Speaker Rita Sussmuth did the other day -- about borders no longer being decided by force of arms. It is also extremely unrealistic. Just because Germans learned that lesson the hard way half a century ago does not mean anyone else has profited by their experience, least of all in the Balkans.

To seek to establish the current supposedly "safe areas" as the basis of a future Bosnian solution is simply to bank today's troubles to earn interest for the generations of tomorrow.

I can see no workable solution which will provide any semblance of peace other than a good dose of "ethnic cleansing." No, not genocide (let us not allow our thinking to become completely woolied by American media cliches); the only way to ensure that the Balkan powder keg is defused is to separate the combustible elements.

Population transfers are going to happen. They may take place at the point of bayonets, or they may take place peacefully under United Nations control, but they are going to happen, and there are going to be a lot of people who will not like it. In the future they will be called the losers.

No matter how we might try to disguise or alter the facts, Gorazde and the other enclaves are little more than bargaining chips, parcels of territory to be set against other parcels of territory in a grotesque but inevitable trade-off of human homes.

This is the sad but only sensible outcome of the current negotiations. What amazes me, therefore, is the apparent idea, supposedly NATO's but actually, I believe, that of President Clinton and his gang of inept advisers, that it is possible to bomb belligerents back to the negotiating table.

Do not misunderstand me. It is probably possible to bomb an enemy to surrender, but to intervene militarily as a third party and then assume one will be able to bow out again or adopt an air of impartiality is a triumph of wishful thinking over historical experience. The immediate result of the air strikes against the Bosnian Serb positions has been to set the Bosnian Muslims rejoicing and at the same time carping about it all being too little too late.

"I do not see what is so great about NATO planes knocking out a couple of tanks. We have soldiers who on their own have killed more than 10 Serbian tanks," the Muslims' prime minister, Haris Silajdzic, told German N-TV in a live interview from Sarajevo in the aftermath of the first strikes.

This does not sound like a man who is ready to make -- or listen to -- concessions. This sounds like a man who believes the tide is at long last turning his way and will before long put him on course to swamp the enemy.

"We have been denied the right to defend ourselves," he insisted, repeating demands for the lifting of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations.

This is not quite true. We spectators have simply imposed a strange set of rules to govern our own interventions in this conflict: as a deus ex machina or not at all. It makes little sense to me.

So NATO has finally gone into action after all these years. So, big deal! It has not done so in any meaningful way -- not, indeed, in the defensive role for which it was ostensibly intended.

In one respect Mr. Silajdzic is right: This intervention is too small to have any real purpose. We have not ended the siege of Gorazde; that can only be done by surrendering it (the Serbs' idea) or by pushing an armored division through on the ground and reuniting it on a permanent basis with other Muslim-held territory (the Muslims' idea).

This is Mr. Silazdzic's understandable dream. I do not think NATO is going to do either. In which case, what on earth are we playing at?

Peter Millar is a columnist for The European, from which this is reprinted.

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