The West in the Balkans

Interview with Serbianna

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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May 9, 2004

(Interviewing: Mickey Bozinovich)

Sam Vaknin is an Israeli who has been living in the Balkans, the Czech Republic and Russia since 1991. He worked in Yugoslavia as advisor to various industries and companies in the manufacturing and finance sectors (1991-1994). In 1996, he moved to Macedonia and served there as advisor to the Agency of Privatization and the Stock Exchange (1996-7) and Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia (1999-2002). During that period he wrote economic and political columns for Central Europe Review. He then joined United Press International (UPI) as a Senior Business Correspondent covering central and eastern Europe (2001-2003). Many of his articles and essays were reprinted by Serbianna.


In both Croatia and Bosnia Western response has been to stay on the sidelines to a certain escalation point of the warfare, then demand that their troops enter the conflict zone. Agreements always followed their military presence. Kosovo was no different. If Milosevic could not have foreseen this pattern, as you recently made a statement, what then does this say about his leadership of Serbia?

SV: Kosovo cannot be compared to Croatia or Bosnia. Kosovo was (and, technically, is) an integral part of Serbia, an autonomous province, not a republic-constituent of the former Federal Yugoslavia. During the initial phases of KLA activity (1993-6), Kosovars did not overtly wish to secede from (the truncated) Yugoslavia. As I said in my interview to "Balkanalysis" earlier this year:

"(Milosevic) had (no) 'plan' as far as Kosovo is concerned. He simply wanted to eradicate what he regarded as criminals in cahoots with terrorists – and many Kosovars considered as freedom fighters. A typical Balkan policing operation was labeled 'Ethnic Cleansing' by the West (mainly by the Americans) and treated as genocide by the emerging system of supranational courts. Milosevic could not have foreseen these surrealistic turns of events. He reacted as any besieged self-respecting politician would have. He fought back."

In the last decade, many have been puzzled over persistently wrong policies the West implemented in the Balkans, especially its support of separatist agendas. Do you think that the West was more interested in stationing their armies throughout the Balkans and has thus supported these separatists as an excuse to enter the region on an excuse of conflict resolution? As a result of the Kosovo conflict, for example, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania have become military stations.

SV: The war in Iraq has exposed the deep fissures in the monolithic facade so painstakingly cultivated by Western leaders during the Clinton decade. The truth is that, in the Balkans, the West spoke in (at least) two voices during the 1990s. Germany, out to reestablish its hinterland, encouraged (at first surreptitiously and then openly) the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The United States, France, and other European countries were against.

In 1989, the West was utterly uninterested in the Balkans. It is an impoverished, backward, crime-ridden, crumbling, institutionally dysfunctional corner of Europe. With the exception of Greece and Bulgaria it has little geopolitical or military merit. The West - namely, NATO and the USA - was reluctantly dragged against its will and judgment into the Balkan quagmire, coerced by the emerging doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" and by the EU's military impotence.

The USA would love to get its tortured forces out of here and hand this benighted and insignificant region over to the inapt, understaffed and under-equipped European Union. America's interests elsewhere - in the oil rich Middle East and Caucasus, for instance - are far more vital. But the EU - aware of its shortcomings and limitations - seeks to prolong America's involvement in the region.

As to separatist movements - this is a classic pattern of American global (mis)behavior.

The United States is a kind of Dr. Frankenstein, spawning mutated monsters in its wake. Its "drain and dump" policies consistently boomerang to haunt it.

Both Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega - two acknowledged monsters - were aided and abetted by the CIA and the US military. America had to invade Panama to depose the latter and plans to invade Iraq for the second time to force the removal of the former.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), an American anti-Milosevic pet, provoked a civil war in Macedonia three years ago. Osama bin-Laden, another CIA golem, restored to the USA, on September 11, 2001 some of the materiel it so generously bestowed on him in his anti-Russian days.

Normally the outcomes of expedience, the Ugly American's alliances and allegiances shift kaleidoscopically. Pakistan and Libya were transmuted from foes to allies in the fortnight prior to the Afghan campaign. Milosevic has metamorphosed from staunch ally to rabid foe in days.

This capricious inconsistency casts in grave doubt America's sincerity - and in sharp relief its unreliability and disloyalty, its short term thinking, truncated attention span, soundbite mentality, and dangerous, "black and white", simplism.

In its heartland, America is isolationist. Its denizens erroneously believe that the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is an economically self-sufficient and self-contained continent. Yet, it is not what Americans trust or wish that matters to others. It is what they do. And what they do is meddle, often unilaterally, always ignorantly, sometimes forcefully.

Elsewhere, inevitable unilateralism is mitigated by inclusive cosmopolitanism. It is exacerbated by provincialism - and American decision-makers are mostly provincials, popularly elected by provincials. As opposed to Rome, or Great Britain, America is ill-suited and ill-equipped to micromanage the world. It is puerile and ignorant, haughty and overly narcissistic.

Granting independence to Kosovo would require Belgrade's acquiescence to that. How do you see that the West could engineer the acquiescence - through another bombing of the country as advised by Holbrook, or bribes as Soros and the International Crisis Group would support for an opener?

SV: I disagree with the premise. Cosmetic and face-saving alterations to its borders aside, Kosovo, in one piece, will end up being an independent state. The Serbs and even the West have no say in this. It is entirely the Albanians’ call. The Serbs don't need to be bribed - or bombed. They no longer exist as a meaningful (let alone powerful) political piece on the Balkans chessboard. The Serbs - after much grumbling and gnashing of teeth - will do as they are told by the USA. Recent history teaches us as much.

In your earlier writing you stated that “Serbia is in an excellent position to emerge as an important, nay, indispensable regional player.” after the crisis. Is it inconsistency or a matter that Serbia has, perhaps made a wrong turn somewhere on the road of a regional game? If so, where?

SV: I repeat my words: Serbia is in an excellent position to emerge as an important, nay, indispensable regional player. It is geographically pivotal, has an unparalleled fund of human resources, rich natural endowments, and culture and history to match. Its people are entrepreneurial, generous, and forward looking.

Serbia's problem is its political class. The West’s collusion with the local mafias (as represented, for instance, by the late Zoran Djindjic and by the long-serving Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic) only exacerbates it.

In Serbia, precious time (and an inestimable amount of goodwill) were wasted on pursuing and purging minions of the ancien regime (Milosevic apart), on imposing the notorious Washington Consensus (a surefire recipe for economic decline), and on aiding and abetting an assortment of indigenous crime lords and murky power brokers.

"After the crisis". This is the key proviso. Serbia has not yet emerged from its crisis. Witness the murder of Djindjic, the stalemate in the presidential elections, the economic under-performance, the unresolved problem of Kosovo, the resurgence of the rabid sort of nationalism, the poverty, the despair.

On several occasions you invoke inevitability – independence of Kosovo and breakup of Macedonia? What makes these two events inevitable, why and who benefits?

SV: The breakup of Macedonia is not inevitable - but Kosovo's independence is. What makes it unavoidable is history. Kosovo is an ethnically homogeneous, clearly demarcated, territory whose denizens fervently aspire to be independent - and are willing to fight for it. Moreover, they have the support of large parts of the international community. Serbia is dilapidated, subjugated, weak, and divided.

If East Timor succeeded to secede and become an independent polity against much bigger odds - so will Kosovo which is practically more than half way there. In truth, Kosovo is already independent in everything but name. It has its own travel documents, currency, flag, and institutions. Kosovo as a part of Serbia is currently unimaginable.

Why do we have a resilient Western demand that democratic standards get established before status talks on Kosovo begin?

SV: It buys the West some time, on the one hand - and guarantees future stability, on the other hand. The West, as it is unwisely wont to do, procrastinates in Kosovo and tries to defer the inevitable outcome of Kosovar independence. It is a typical "not on my watch" mentality of pusillanimous Eurocrats. By demanding in Kosovo what it failed to secure elsewhere, the West hopes to drive the weary denizens of Kosovo and Serbia into a compromise.

Additionally, democracies are considered to be more peaceful than authoritarian, crime-infested regimes. A democratic Kosovo is less likely to become the kernel of a "Greater Albania" and to foment unrest among its neighbors (southern Serbia and Macedonia).

For 100 years, Hong Kong's status has been, at best, undefined. Taiwan's status is also a dispute, yet both of these countries have managed to control bigoted nationalism and reorient it towards capital formation and sustained growth. Given that the ruling Kosovo Albanians seem most vocal about the status as a defining concept of their nationalism, do you think that the dismal economic situation in Kosovo is being wrongfully blamed on the West? In other words, is the West responsible for Kosovo Albanian economic dysfunction?

SV: It is important not to get it backwards. Economic dysfunction breeds virulent nationalism which, in turn, exacerbates the economic malaise.

Additionally, we must not forget that, by itself, Kosovo is not a viable economic entity, despite the fact that it has privileged access to the markets of Albania and Western Macedonia. As an autonomous unit within the Federated Yugoslavia, Kosovo survived on massive handouts from the center. The West has now replaced Belgrade as Kosovo’s (and Macedonia’s and Serbia’s and Bosnia’s) sugar-daddy.

The Kosovar leadership is guilty for having delegated and relegated all economic decision-making to the inapt and corrupt bureaucracy of UNMIK. The results?

Vertiginous unemployment and moribund manufacturing and agricultural bases. Only the construction and criminal sectors are thriving.  

Inevitably, this translates into frustration and aggression. The specter of independence attains the mantle of a panacea and Serbs (and increasingly Westerners) are viewed as obstinate and infuriating hurdles on the way to happiness and prosperity. 

Why did Albanian violence in Macedonia occur after securing Kosovo and not the other way around especially since Macedonia's military is extremely weak and could have been defeated by Albanian guerillas any time before 1999?

SV: Violent clashes between Albanians and the Macedonian security forces occurred in 1997. This was the culmination of a historical process which commenced decades ago.

Macedonia never really succeeded to integrate its Albanian citizens. They boycotted the 1991 referendum on independence and the attendant census. In January 1992 they held a plebiscite of their own in which they opted for autonomy. They publicly and recurrently rejected the results of the 1994 internationally monitored census (according to which Albanians made up 23% of the population).
Many Albanians in western Macedonia feel closer to their kin and kith in Kosovo than to the Macedonian state. In both 1968 and 1981 they demonstrated in solidarity with the bloody outbursts in Kosovo against the former Yugoslavia. The demand to be annexed to the autonomous Kosovo were often heard between 1969 and 1989. Albanians from Macedonia attended Pristina University where they interacted with radical Maoist students from both Kosovo and Albania. In  1992 the Albanians briefly declared an "Autonomous Republic of Illirida" in a series of demonstrations in Struga.
Macedonians intermittently accused the Albanians of illegal construction, purchases of real estate at inflated prices, mass immigration from Kosovo, re-population of Macedonian villages abandoned by their inhabitants, ethnic cleansing by intimidation of urban neighborhoods, nationalist indoctrination under the guise of religious instruction, pressuring other Moslems to declare themselves as Albanians, and irredentism.
Albanians intermittently accused the Macedonians of discrimination in the labour market, in secondary, and higher education, in outlays on infrastructure (many Albanian villages still lack proper roads and are not connected to the national grids of water and electricity), and in the public administration. Albanians claim that police brutality, discriminatory legislation, and the exclusive use of the Macedonian language violate their human and civil rights. They lost faith in the Macedonian's will to accommodate their demands, however legitimate.

Macedonia's intelligence services were unequivocal in their warnings of gathering trouble in 1998. Inter-ethnic tensions reached fever pitch during the Presidential elections at the end of 1999 when the late president Trajkovski's win was attributed by the opposition - and not only by the opposition - to mass electoral fraud among Albanian voters. There were hints of a collusion at the highest levels involving a web of business interests and meddling Western diplomats.

Their experiences in Kosovo (1999) and Macedonia (2001) taught the Albanians a valuable lesson: terrorism pays. Following the recent spate of violence, Macedonians have come around to accepting many long standing Albanian demands. Terrorism also proved to be a surefire catalyst of social upward mobility: former terrorists are now ministers and high government officials in both territories.

Yet, it is not clear whether the demands made by the Albanians are in preparation for an inevitable breakup of Macedonia, or because they so deeply distrust the goodwill of the Macedonians. If the latter, international monitoring of the implementation of an eventual agreement would go a long way towards assuaging Albanian fears. If the former, no extent of NATO involvement will be able to prevent a ferocious and Balkan wide war.

In summary, the crowning achievement of the Albanians - and a repeat of the 1999 Kosovo scenario - was their success in internationalizing the conflict. In this they were aided by a panic stricken Macedonian establishment. The wise men of West - the same people who brought you Dayton and Operation Allied Force - were called in to mediate. The result is the Ohrid Framework Agreement, Macedonia's Sudeten-like settlement.

When Solana demands that Kosovo leadership gets "purged" what kind of biographies exist among Kosovo Albanians that could possibly replace the current ones that are packed with criminal and often violent records of murder and slave trade? Would the current, violent pack peacefully relinquish its power?

SV: There isn't a single country in the Balkan - Serbia included - whose political elite, past and present, is not thoroughly criminalized. Crime, business, and politics are inextricable in this part of the world. Kosovo is no different. But people's past lives are less important than their future actions. The early histories of many nations - perhaps all nations - are studded with rogues, terrorists, criminals, slave traders, eccentrics, and worse. Robber barons, gunslingers, outcasts, slavers, and criminals established both the United States and Australia, for instance.

Suppose KFOR pulls out of Kosovo and Albanian guerillas fill in the vacuum by violently cleansing the remaining Serbs out of there. Do you think that Serbian paramilitaries, vastly superior to the Albanian ones, would sit idly by and watch the military vacuum get filled in by Albanians?

SV: Yes, I do. Serbia has sold its soul to the "liberal-capitalistic" dream of Western-style prosperity and "civil society" (which is, in reality, uncivil and asocial). It is now a de facto economic protectorate of the United States and its long arms, the IMF and the World Bank. Militarily, it is completely defanged. And its corrupt politicians and businessmen are addicted to Western payouts and handouts. The population is fatigued, bombed into submission, and "pacified" by the twin drugs of American "culture" and rampant consumerism and materialism. Serbia has been atomized and suffers from malignant individualism. Patriotism is a four letter word and national solidarity is taboo.

Why is the West so interested in accepting Serbia into NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP)?

SV: Club membership is the most thorough form of control. NATO's numerous "partnerships" and "programs" go hand in hand with the EU's equally multitudinous "associations", "stabilizations", "agreements", and "candidacies". The aim is to micromanage the unruly nation-states of the wild southeast by dragging them through interminable and resource-guzzling processes of applications and reviews.

Do you see Serbia's PfP support in any related context with the recent Belgrade's plan for 'decentralization' of Kosovo?

SV: Both Belgrade and the Euro-Atlantic structures are self-delusional when they pretend to have a say in the future of Kosovo. The province is lost to Serbia (at this stage of history, at least). This deranged game of Euro inanity goes like this: Belgrade makes a "concession", suggests a "compromise", or comes up with a "plan". The Europeans reward Belgrade by luring it into yet another of their pointless plans, programs, and partnerships. The Kosovars - amused and enraged in equal measure - go on doing their thing: intimidating the remaining Serbs and preparing for independence.

Why is West so critical of Kostunica, a mild nationalist with no track record but supportive of Vuk Draskovic with a long and, at best, controversial nationalist past?

SV: After Milosevic, the West is terrified by even the slightest and most innocuous whiff of Serb nationalism. The West confuses national pride and true patriotism (essential to rebuilding a devastated Serbia) with virulent, belligerent, xenophobic, and exclusionary nationalism. Kostunica's earlier pronouncement and Arkan-like snapshots taken in Kosovo and elsewhere do not help his case either.

What are at least 3 high-impact, pro-growth economic policies that Balkan states could quickly implement but are not? And why not?

SV: The most urgent economic measure would be to lock two dozens grubby politicians behind bars and throw away the key. Actual corruption and the perception of ubiquitous venality are the biggest single obstacles to investment - both domestic and foreign - and to job creation.

Second step:

Establish a separate judiciary for foreign investors. Lethargic and crooked judges deter outsiders from plunging their money, time, knowledge, and technology into the local economies.

Third step:

Immediately and utterly disengage from the IMF's disastrous recipes for economic "revival" and "stability". What is known as "The Washington Consensus" has proved to be an unmitigated failure in dozens of countries throughout the world. Those who defied the IMF and yet implemented prudent expansionary policies - such as Malaysia - fared far better than their IMF-addicted brethren.

Why are these steps not taken? No prizes for the guessers. Vested - interlocking and colluding - interests: local politicians, local "businessmen", American interests in keeping as many countries under its thumb as possible.

Also Read

Plight of the Kosovar

The Black Birds of Kosovo

Serendipitous Macedonia

The Defrosted War

The Bones of the Grenadier

Millenarian Thoughts about Kosovo

NATO's Next War

Why did Milosevic Surrender?

The Deadly Antlers

The Price of Kosovo

 ... and the Treasure Trove of Kosovo

The Phlegm and the Anima

The Dark Clouds of NATO

Black Magic, White Magic

The Bad Blood of Kosovo

Between Omerta and Vendetta

The Sergeant and the Girl

The Fifth Horseman

The Common Enemy

The Third Balkan War

Kosovo's Iraqi Lessons

Interview with Balkanalysis

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