Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Fall of Yugoslavia" by Misha Glenny [9]

Chapter 4 [continued]

The next several pages of chapter 4 recount Glenny's adventures traversing the war zone in and around Croatia, negotiating his way through a variety of roadblocks manned on both sides of the front line by an unpredictable spectrum of military, paramilitary, and vigilante personnel in a variety of uniforms and non-uniforms. The abstract political and nationalist propaganda and policies from faraway Belgrade and Zagreb get filtered and reduced down to the ground level to a toxic level of fear, xenophobia, uncertainty, and raw hate. Villages are decimated, beautiful towns and cities like Vukovar are decimated, and atrocities against civilians mount with agonizing regularity.

This ground-level view of the Croatian war is clearly intended as a deliberate contrast between the realities of the war as it played out versus the rhetoric not only coming from Serbia and Croatia, but from Western observers. Most particularly, western advocates of intervention, or those who chose to place the blame primarily at the feet of the Serbian leadership.

Glenny's point here seems to be that the arguments of interventionists simply dissolve into irrelevancy upon contact with the ugly realities of the war. Throughout this chapter, there is a sense that Glenny almost considers the Croatian war to be a semi-discrete event following its own logic, rather than another theater in the larger breakdown of Yugoslavia. I don't think he would characterize his account that way, and I freely admit that I am possibly being unfair by doing so; but all the same I have a hard time squaring the more systematic analysis of the earlier chapters--in which his personal reporting was grounded in a broader consideration of the politics of the dying Yugoslav state--with this "bottom-up" approach.

It's not that Glenny has forgone larger considerations, but often his analysis of political and nationalist factors is almost entirely self-contained; for example, the fact that the JNA is an actor in this conflict, even including the involvement of heavy artillery firing into Croatia from the Vojvodina region, is noted frequently, but the possibility that this threat to Croatian sovereignty might be an important factor in the radicalization of Croats in outlying areas. That is not to excuse the vile racism of the right-wing of the HDZ (or even the clumsy, insensitive jingoism of Tudjman and the mainstream of the party), but rather to point out that Glenny rather abruptly puts the war in Croatia in an almost entirely Croatian context.

He also seems to be advocating for ethnic separation at points in this chapter; whether this is implicit in some of his logic or is something he is aware of, I am not sure. He seems rather dismissive when noting that Croats were adamant about retaining the republican borders of the country even as he never suggests a viable political solution to the "problem" of a Serb minority within that border.

I absolutely agree that the new Croatian state under the HDZ failed spectacularly to meet the challenge of having a sizable minority with memories of being the victims of genocide under the World War II fascists Croatian state. And perhaps Glenny felt strongly that he needed to provide a counterpoint to the standard Western narrative which crudely portrayed the conflict as a simply tale of endemic Serb aggression.

However, this disconnect between the larger geopolitical narrative and the village-by-village portrait of daily life turned into a mosaic of innumerable acts of brutality and senseless destruction does seem to lead Glenny towards a conditional consideration of the legitimacy of ethnic division. He quotes a Macedonian officer who had deserted from the JNA at length; his two-page transcription of this man's words conclude with this paragraph:

"Serbs and Croats in eastern Slavonia can never live together because too much blood has been spilt and the Serbs will never let go of any of this territory. As far as I could work out, the Croats had provoked a lot of the nastiness in the first place but searching for the one who started it is a waste of time. Once it had started the massacres were unstoppable. It will never end whether they have a ceasefire, peace-keeping troops or whatever. This is not a war, this is extermination."

This is not Glenny himself speaking, of course, but his description of this talk as a "[o]ne of the most revealing conversations I had during the war", and of course you don't quote an interviewee for two full pages for no reason.

Glenny is too humane to advocate for ethnic division; however, he seems to be moving towards a point of view in which it is the only reasonable way to end ethnic violence once it was unleashed.

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