Saturday, January 07, 2012

"The Fall of Yugoslavia" by Misha Glenny [3]

Chapter 1 [continued]

After a brief consideration of how Tudjan's heavy-handed Croatian nationalism managed to undermine the fragile unity of the nascent Croatian state by needlessly alienating and implicitly threatening the Serb minority, Glenny's meeting with Milan Babic (once Macura is finally able to get them together) finally happens.

This is before Babic has fully wrested overt control of the Croatian SDS away from Raskovic (although in practice the coup was all but over with), and before Babic defied Milosevic, but all this was easy to see coming; Glenny's initial impression that Babic is simply a stupid, crude, unimpressive figure is soon replaced by a sobering awareness that Babic is Milosevic's equal when it comes to ruthless cunning and amoral deceit. Raskovic's naive attempts to defend Serb rights and Krajina autonomy through peaceful, political means within the framework of the Croatian state were doomed when this man grasped the reins of power.

This was all during 1990, before the war broke out and before anyone could be sure just how bad things would get. The rest of the chapter covers Glenny's second visit to Knin in January of 1992, after the Croatian war was in full swing (but before the outbreak of hostilities in neighboring Bosnia). The setting is somewhat surreal--Knin was an important hub of the Serb military machine (a mixture of local militias, the forces of the breakaway Krajina Republic, Serb nationalist paramilitaries, and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army--as well as a smattering of Bosnian Muslim units; remember, this was still nominally a war for Yugoslav "unity"), and therefore saw a great deal of activity, increase in population, movement of troops, but very little actual fighting. The town was spared the worst effects of war, for the time being.

But the signs of war are everywhere, the choking pollution and omnipresent fear and hatred has wiped out whatever signs of discontent, doubts, and hopes for compromise. The people who before might have at the least betrayed some reservations about the single-minded push for ethnic war have now all fallen into line; the Croatian minority, of course, are long gone.

In his interactions with local military, Glenny again describes the menace and, what's more, the stupidity of so many of the footsoldiers of this war. And this returns me to the point touched on in the previous post--how Glenny manages to deal with what I am rather broadly (maybe even crudely) describing as the country-versus-city aspect to the Balkan wars; also, however, I think he is touching on something less demographic and more universal. Simply put, some people are attracted to violence, brutality, and bigotry, and will eagerly embrace any opportunity to identify an "other" to lash out at. Under normal circumstances, a healthy civic society seeks to--at the very least--control and contain such people, and to avoid empowering them. During the Balkan Wars, however, these people were by and large given the keys to the kingdom and set loose; everybody else was forced to decide whether to flee, resist, or fall into line. This is the "hell" that Knin had become, even though the overt violence of war is largely absent. The sociopaths are now largely in control of daily life.

This is an important distinction, because as I alluded to in the previous post, far too many observers (particularly those with an anti-interventionist agenda) have portrayed the paranoid, belligerent hostility of the armed thugs who carried out so much of the carnage in the former Yugoslavia were somehow emblematic of the people of the Balkans in general. Glenny is hinting at something less particular to the region here--that they were, instead, local variations of a universal type, unleashed from social control and empowered by unscrupulous politicians.

In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the political order was hijacked by provincial local elites who realized that virulent nationalism provided an opportunity to leverage history and latent ethnic consciousness into greater power for themselves. In order to do so, they needed to tear apart the fabric of society which existed. And who better to do that than the stupid, the hateful, and the vindictive among us? When civil society is unable to control the bullies among us, disorder and violence are bound to follow.

The degree to which Glenny sees this as a universal question rather than a specifically Balkan question is unclear--as he has already shown, the particular cultural, historical, social, and political context matters just as much as the more general questions of human nature I have sketched above. I would suggest that the answer is that what happened in Yugoslavia in the 190s was a tragic nexus between particular local conditions and human fallibility. Whether it was SA Brownshirts in Weimer Germany or hooded Klansman in the Reconstruction South--the empowerment of gleefully hateful thugs by the breakdown of civil society or the debasement of a just social order is bound to unleash the bullies among us

Therefore, the title of this chapter ("The Heart of the Matter") has a double-meaning. On the one hand, Knin is the heart of the Serb Krajina, even as the Krajina is the heart of the rebellion and ultimately the Serb war against the Croatian state. At the same time, however, the question Glenny closes his chapter with is also the "heart of the matter":

"...I am still frustrated by my own inability to determine whether Knin is the victim of the grandiose stupidity and callousness which swill around the corridors of power in Belgrade and Zagreb. Or whether this wilderness with nothing to recommend it on the surface was merely waiting for the chance to exact revenge for its social, economic and political inferiority complex."

The specifics of this question are without a doubt particular to the former Yugoslavia; the larger theme, however, is not.

Glenny ends by describing his meeting with Ratko Mladic, who was at the time still based in Knin. But not for long--shortly, he was reassigned to Bosnia. At the time, Glenny recognized this as an ominous development. Sadly, he would soon be proven correct.


Owen said...

Festering resentment is a very powerful force when unleashed, but it's political calculation that raises the sluices and channels the flow.

Kirk Johnson said...

Absolutely. Glenny seems to understand this; I'm not so sure he understands the sources of that resentment to begin with.