Thursday, January 05, 2012

"The Fall of Yugoslavia" by Misha Glenny [2]

Chapter 1: Knin, August/October 1990-January 1992: The Heart of the Matter

Glenny begins with a visit to the breakaway statelet of the "Republic of Serbian Krajina" in the Fall of 1990. This was the period just prior to the war, when separatist tensions were high. He describes a tense drive from the warm, scenic Adriatic coast up into the dry, harsh Krajina interior around Knin. Negotiations through multiple roadblocks manned by suspicious locals armed with anything from old shotguns to automatic weapons are the first interaction Glenny has with the ethnic Serb locals. We get the first glimpse of an "us-against-them" seige mentality, of which we will learn much more.

After briefly describing the unimpressive but strategically important town of Knin itself, Glenny goes on to briefly sketch the historic origins of the Krajina and its population of gun-loving, proudly independent Serbs.*Then he finally makes his way to his contact, Knin Town Council Deputy President-turned-Information Minister in the afore-mentioned rebel statelet Lazar Macura, who had agreed to take Glenny to meet Milan Babic, the President of the Knin Town Council and the rabble-rousing Serb politician who did so much to create the rebellion and would ultimately take control of the Serbian Republic of the Krajina. They have to go through a couple more roadblocks--although this is much more perfunctory now that Glenny is with Macura--before this meeting happens; but before I go on there is something worth commenting on in these first few pages.

Glenny does an effective job of conveying the paranoid belligerence the rural Krajina Serbs, and he does so in terms which suggest a dimension to the coming war which many Western observers failed to realize--how the war was, in addition to an ethnic war and even a religious war, was also to some degree a war of the countryside against the city; of the provincial peasant against the cosmopolitan urbanite. This is a difficult subject to examine, partly because the descriptions of suspicious, hostile locals can so easily drift into a more general portrait of a stereotypical Balkan "type" or even just plain racism. Some of Glenny's descriptions of the appearance of the some of the gunmen he encountered, as well as their gun-loving machismo, could be said to skirt the margins of such overkill, but he never crosses the line.

He is not merely describing these people for the sake of "color" nor is he doing what so many glib observers did--dismissing the war as simply an expression of intrinsic Balkan primivitism or propensity for violence. As we will see in the next post (covering the rest of the chapter), Glenny is making a larger, and more subtle, point.

*As always, my reviews assume some degree of knowledge on the part of the reader; I presume I don't need to explain the history of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans; that "Krajina" means a military frontier; and so forth.


Anonymous said...

I think hearing Glenny's broadcast from Knin - probably on "From Our Own Correspondent" on Radio 4 - was the moment I had the first real inkling that I had that very serious trouble was brewing in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately the way that he heaped on the drama made me reluctant to trust his objectivity and the clarity of his vision. Looking back I felt rather resentful that he had allowed his own credibility to become the issue.

Kirk Johnson said...

Interesting--I've never listened to any of that. I should look to see if there's anything on YouTube.