Truths and Misconceptions

In the August 2007 issue of Chronicles magazine, historian Srdja Trifkovic argues persuasively that the U.S. has painted itself into a corner with its Kosovo policy; a small patch of land in the Balkans, insignificant to American interests in Europe or the Middle East, has been made into a test of the American Empire and its ability to impose its will on the world – a test that the Empire cannot pass.

For years, U.S. policymakers have based their actions on the premise that Serbian leaders will yield to pressure and surrender Kosovo to ethnic Albanian separatists. Now it is becoming obvious that this assumption was wrong all along. The harder Washington presses for the separation of Kosovo, the more adamant Serbia is to defend it. Furthermore, the issue of Kosovo is eroding the already precarious public support in Serbia for joining the EU, while the support for NATO is nearly nonexistent.

The first U.S. ambassador in the post-Milosevic Serbia, William Montgomery, did something unusual at the end of his mandate in 2004. Instead of moving on to another assignment, Montgomery bought a villa near Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia, and became a columnist for the Belgrade daily Danas (Today). His columns, a strange mix of personal insight and official propaganda, have become quite popular with the readers of Danas – primarily "liberal-democrats" and the "human rights" crowd.

The August 19 column, titled "Ten Inconvenient Truths about Serbia," received a lot of media attention in Belgrade. It could well be the perfect example of America’s twisted thinking about this central Balkans country: a mixture of projection, false premises, ignorance, arrogance, and an inkling of truth.

False Premises

Montgomery opens his commentary by asserting that the "overwhelming majority" of Serbs suffers from a "disease" of nationalism. They have a different perception of the past two decades than "the rest of the world," and this "emotion" is preventing any sort of reform or a more "realistic" look at the past. Instead, he argues, there is "a vision of Serbia as an innocent victim of malevolent outside forces and bearing no responsibility for the ills which have befallen it."

While it is true that the Serbs don’t subscribe to the CNN version of their history, thanks to incessant propaganda and brainwashing, the dominant public opinion actually blames Milosevic for the calamities of the past 20 years – including the NATO aggression and the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia and Kosovo under U.S. and NATO auspices. Serbs do regard themselves as victims, but of Milosevic, not outside forces. They still regard the Empire as essentially benevolent – which, given the American and European support of neo-Nazis, Islamic militants and terrorists so long as they opposed the Serbs, can only be classified as Stockholm syndrome.

Montgomery was one of the key players in organizing the Serbian opposition in the months preceding the 2000 coup, funneling "suitcases of cash" to various anti-Milosevic groups. Now, however, he acts surprised that the Serbs wanted to live better, rather than accept the blame for all the Balkans ills. Policies and demands of the West since 2000 "were based on the false premise that the Serbian people had repudiated nationalism," he complains.

False premises? There’s a lot of that going around.

Pipe Dream

The fourth "truth" according to Montgomery is a favorite fantasy of Serbia’s "modern urban intellectuals." He claims that, "if Serbia would have played its cards correctly, it could have remained the most dominant country in the region… If a peaceful transition had taken place, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia would all now be in the European Union."

Never mind that Albanian separatism in Kosovo existed since 1912, or that Alija Izetbegovic wrote a manifesto for Islamic revolution in the 1970s, or that Franjo Tudjman triumphed in Croatia on a nationalist, separatist, anti-Serb platform generously funded by émigrés tied to the WW2 Ustasha movement. Let’s also ignore the role of Germany in forcing its European partners to recognize Slovenia and Croatia in exchange for the Treaty of Maastricht, establishing the EU – or, while we’re at it, the decision of the EU-appointed Badinter commission that defined Yugoslavia out of existence. How could any Serbian government have "played" any of this to its benefit?

Problem With Perceptions

Montgomery’s fifth point – that Serbia’s current political leaders spend more time fighting among themselves than against the Radicals and Socialists – is essentially correct, but the "threat" these two parties represent is hard to define. Both have demonstrated willingness and ability to abide by democratic rules of conduct – unlike the Liberal Democrats, for example. Televised shouting matches in the Serbian parliament show that Radicals certainly don’t have the monopoly on invective in political speech. And as for their influence, while the Radicals are certainly polling strong, the Socialists are on the margin.

Claim number six gets at least something right:

"Most Serbs are focused on their severe economic problems and are just trying to keep their heads above water. It is a trap, however, to believe (as too many American officials seem to do), that this means Kosovo is not really important to them."

But once again, Montgomery tries to shift responsibility from his own government – which insists on an independent, Albanian state in Kosovo – and onto Serbia. Kosovo, he says, is "seen as a concrete example of how the International Community ignores international law to suit its own purposes and demonstrates its prejudice against Serbia and overall hypocrisy." He continues, "It is precisely this ongoing drama which is preventing Serbia from coming to terms with its past. In fact, it is helping to ratify all the outstanding prejudices and extremist views of the nationalists."

Notice the wording here. It’s not American actions concerning Kosovo that ratify nationalist "prejudices" (how can something be prejudice if it’s borne out by reality?), but Serbian perceptions! Montgomery’s solution here is not for America to stop championing the cause of Albanian separatists, but for the Serbs to change their mind and start believing such a violation is moral, valid, and for their own good.

It’s the State, Stupid

Making his seventh point, Montgomery compliments Belgrade as "the most dynamic city in the entire region," calls the Serbian privatization "the most successful perhaps in all of the countries undergoing democratic transition," and the economic growth "impressive."

Then he decries the gap between Belgrade and the rest of the country, and the contrast between those who benefited from transition and those who were left behind (pensioners, the unemployed). Given the experiences of other countries that transitioned from Communism into managerial statism, all of this is quite typical. Since all the power and capital are concentrated in Belgrade, the city prospers while the rest of the country languishes. Corruption is widespread because nothing can be done without the state. The problem is not endemic, but systematic.

He is quite right, however, to point out that Serbia’s transition is different because of the decade-long U.S. (and UN) blockade of Serbia. While he is careful not to judge whether the sanctions brought down Milosevic (as his bosses at the State Department think) or helped him stay in power (as many in Serbia believe), Montgomery argues that the blockade did "catastrophic damage" to Serbia’s social fabric, healthcare and education. He is not wrong.

A Paradox That Isn’t

The ninth claim Montgomery makes begins with an oft-overlooked fact that "Serbia itself is extremely multi-ethnic and multi-religious." And yet, he contends, "Serbs have demonstrated time and time again a fierce resistance to becoming minorities anywhere (Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo all being good examples)." How can this be? Argues Montgomery:

"The only explanation I have is that the minorities in Serbia have accepted that they have very limited political power or influence and the Serbs, as a people, find that extremely difficult to do."

This is just appallingly stupid. As a former ambassador to Croatia, Montgomery surely knew about the "Independent State of Croatia" and its systematic slaughter, expulsion and forced conversion of Serbs during WW2, on the territories of present-day Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Surely he has heard of the 13th Waffen-SS Division, better known as "Handschar" (scimitar), which was composed of Bosnian Muslims. Or the 21st Waffen-SS Division "Skanderbeg," composed of Kosovo Albanians? How could a senior American diplomat sent to Croatia not know that until 1991, the constitutions in Croatia and Bosnia explicitly recognized Serbs as a constituent people? What people, anywhere in the world, would be eager to become a minority in their own country?

Things That Won’t Change

The last point Montgomery makes is that recent offerings by the West to Serbia may be too little, too late, and won’t change Belgrade’s position on Kosovo. He is quite correct there as well.

The Empire acted on false premises throughout the 1990s, culminating with the one Montgomery mentions – that after October 2000, there was no need for good will and diplomacy towards Serbia, as demands and threats were thought to be enough. That policy has been a failure since at least mid-2006, if not earlier.

In 2004, Montgomery turned over the post of ambassador to Austrian-born Michael Polt, who went on to become reviled for constantly preaching the independence of Kosovo and abandoning all pretense of diplomatic tact. Even the scandalous behavior of Germany’s Andreas Zobel in April this year paled in comparison with Polt’s everyday arrogance. Polt’s replacement, Cameron Munter, arrived in Belgrade last week. He has worked closely in the past with Daniel Fried (another senior U.S. official who champions independent Kosovo) and Madeleine Albright, and helped organize NATO enlargement. It won’t be too hard for Munter to appear more polite than Polt. The policy he’s been sent to advocate, however, looks set to remain as rotten as it’s ever been.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.