American TV, unique pacifier

September 18, 2000|By Hal Piper

PARIS -- I met a man the other day who has an interesting idea about pacifying the Balkans. Why not, he says, let them watch American television?

No, not sitcoms -- CNN. The trouble with the fractured tribes of the former Yugoslavia, Esad Bucuk says, is insularity. He wants to show them life as other people see it and live it, free of the obsessions of history and hatred.

Dr. Bucuk, a radiologist by training, is vice ambassador to France from Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is tall, dark and serious, and he thinks that Bosnia, unhappy as its past has been, faces an unhappy future.

One hopes the future will not be as murderous as the past. In Bosnia occurred many of the most inhumane atrocities and ethnic cleansings of Yugoslavia's break-up. The bloodshed was the more disheartening because Bosnia's was a functioning, multiethnic society where Serbs, Croats, Muslims and others lived and worked together.("Muslim" in Yugoslavia was an ethnic as well as a religious designation. It referred to Serbs who adopted Turkish customs and culture during Turkey's 500-year imperial rule in the South Slav regions. Dr. Bucuk is an ethnic Muslim, but not necessarily a religious believer.)

The Bosnian phase of the Yugoslav wars ended with an agreement hammered out at a U.S. Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, in December 1995. The Serb-dominated eastern part of Bosnia was detached and reconstituted as a rump statelet called the Republic of Serbia.

Since then Bosnians of various ethnicities have been trying to agree on getting their homes back, clearing landmines and mundane symbols of identity such as flags, currency and auto license plates -- while U.N. soldiers hang around hoping to keep the shooting from starting again.

Nobody, says Dr. Bucuk, is happy with what happened or with the outcome. And little or no progress has been made toward building a free and stable postwar society. People remain stuck in their obsessions and resentments, he says. Elections this fall will probably return old-thinking Communists to replace the pro-Western, but ineffective government.

Worst of all, Dr. Bucuk says, Bosnians and their neighbors are still caught in the identity trap. Next, he says, will be little Montenegro. It has fewer than a million people and no viability as an independent state. But Montenegrins watch everybody else splitting off into statelets and wonder why they alone should remain with Serbia. There is even, Dr. Bucuk says, a pretender king in Paris -- a third-generation Frenchman but grandson of the last king of Montenegro -- ready to heed the patriotic call to take power.

The trouble, he says, is that people in the region have no independent idea of democracy or modern society; they have only their identities, increasingly narrowly drawn.

Hence Dr. Bucuk's plan to break the identity trap -- American television.

In the prewar days Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, broadcast television on three state-run channels. Now it can afford to transmit on only one channel, though every television set in Bosnia is equipped to receive all three. Dr. Bucuk would like to use the other two channels to show American and European television news.

He has written to President Clinton and to Ted Turner, founder of CNN, but so far with no reply beyond a standard White House brush-off thanking him for his interest and promising to explore all avenues to peace.

Of course, there are practical difficulties. CNN legitimately might resist donating its signal for use as pro-Western propaganda in a foreign country. Nor should the United States government use a private media company as an instrument of its foreign policy.

But what about organizations like the Soros Foundation, which has a number of media projects to try to open up the formerly Communist countries? What about the privately funded National Endowment for Democracy? Could either of them lease Bosnia's transmission equipment and pull in the CNN signal?

But so what if they did? How many Bosnians could understand English-language broadcasts?

The point isn't that they would understand everything, Dr. Bucuk says. They will see the pictures. They will see how people in other countries look, how they dress, what their lives are like. Bosnians will be able to imagine something other for themselves than what they have.

And not only Bosnians, Dr. Bucuk points out. The signals would be received in neighboring Croatia, in the Republic of Serbia, in Kosovo, in Serbia itself. He is convinced that scenes from the wider world could lure all these peoples out of the identity trap.

If only someone can make it happen. As Dr. Bucuk pointed out in his letter to Mr. Clinton, television is cheaper than bombs.

Hal Piper was a foreign correspondent for The Sun and is a writer and editor for the paper.

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