This is a return to old haunts. I went to Kosovo in 1987, before the trouble in Yugoslavia started in earnest, and wrote a diary about it for the New Statesman. At the time, very few people in England had heard of the place and fewer cared; today, Kosovo has entered our vocabulary as a byword for the horrors of ethnic cleansing. In the aftermath of the war, and the growing horros of ethnic cleansing (now Albanian against Serb, as well as Serb against Albanian) I find myself revisiting my memories.
In 1987 Yugoslavia’s system of devolved one-party rule was under challenge. A few months before my visit the now-infamous memorandum issued by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences had been published, which set the ensuing tone of complaint: Serbs had fared badly under Tito, they said, and faced oppression in Kosovo, then an autonomous republic with a largely ethnic Albanian leadership. Among the six Yugoslav republics only Serbia had been divided in this way, they complained.
I wrote in the NS: “The Serbs . . . accuse the local [Kosovo Communist] party of colluding in their harassment by the Albanian majority. It is explosive stuff, prompting the party leader to warn once again . . . that ethnic tensions in the area ‘threatened the security of the nation’.”
At first it was easy to slip into the western habit of rooting for the underdog. When I tried to set up a meeting in Kosovo Polje with Costa Bulatovic, a local Serb who had spent three years in prison for spreading “anti-Yugoslav propaganda”, I got tailed by the local (ethnic Albanian) police. I had to leave town and return incognito to shake them off. After layers of screenings I was finally allowed to interview Bulatovic and his followers. They all described their efforts in heroic terms of defying the communists. By the end of the afternoon, he was strumming folk songs and lining up local boys for me to marry.
“Workers in the Hotel Grand were always terribly interested in where I had been and who I was calling. They shared this interest with men in overcoats and berets,” I recorded in the NS diary. “Many people are frightened to take part in unofficial interviews – frightened, they said, of being arrested.” My own experience of being followed made it easier for me to identify with such claims.
During a visit to the Pec Orthodox monastery, a nun wanted to know my religion. When I replied, “Jewish”, she hugged me, accompanying this effusion with words not heard often in eastern Europe: “Oh, I love the Jews! We are like the Jews: we are persecuted and Kosovo is our Israel!”
I considered pointing out that in the modern Middle East, Israel was now the party accused of doing the persecution, so perhaps this was not the best role model. But it would have fallen on deaf ears.
As my stay wore on, I began to have my doubts about the Serbs as “victims”. Why did intelligent people in Belgrade turn from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde the minute Kosovo was mentioned, accusing the Albanians of murdering Serb men and raping Serb nuns? Why did many nice, sensible people talk of getting their old army guns ready to fight? Why was there little or no recognition of the Albanians’ wish to have a say in their affairs?
During that visit I interviewed Dobrica Cosic, a Serbian writer and, briefly, a senior official of rump Yugoslavia under Milosevic’s rule. “We established a confederation [in 1974] but the party didn’t change its political nature,” he said. “The Communist Party decentralised its Stalinist being; it created eight Stalinist beings!” But while he used the language of civil rights, somehow it applied only to Serbs. The universal principles never followed. What had he done, I asked, to work with reformers from other parts of Yugoslavia to avoid the charge of nationalism? Not very much. Apparently Slovenian dissidents were “not as developed”, and it was too difficult to work with the Croats.
That wasn’t how it looked to the Slovenians, who saw Serbia as the main force for conservatism in a communist Yugoslav federation. Other countries in communist eastern Europe had similar divisions between reformers and hardliners, but here they were enshrined in ethnic blocs.
On my return home I tried to convey the sense of threat. There was little interest, partly because at that time everything was still seen through a cold war lens and Yugoslavia was non-aligned; and partly because my picture of the threat was still very cloudy.
Looking back, I think that much of the division that emerged in the European left over the recent Nato action was linked to the kind of exposure people had to eastern Europe. The argument is not over “Nato right or wrong”. The dividing line is the perception of “peace”. Those who became engaged with eastern Europe before and during the 1989 revolutions developed a different perception from the mainstream anti-Nato peace movements.
The split is demonstrated perfectly by the recent row within the German Greens. The party reared on anti-war protest rallied to its leader, the foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who was backing the Nato campaign. But resignations and noisy protests made it a near thing. “You call me a warmonger, and next you’ll want to nominate Milosevic for the Nobel peace prize,” he replied to hecklers at a meeting in May. “Peace requires that people are not murdered, that people are not deported and that women are not raped.”
The same argument had been painstakingly honed, years before 1989, in a series of “east-west dialogues” across central Europe, a three-way discussion between progressive dissidents in the different satellite states and people from the west, broadly on the left, who supported change there. The argument then was that you cannot have peace without rule by consent – the western left should support civil liberties in eastern Europe, rather than take the view, common at the time, that since Thatcher supported the dissidents they must be suspect. It was only after the collapse of the old regimes in 1989 that this view became mainstream.
Differences over eastern Europe – and Yugoslavia in particular – were important on the British left. For years Yugoslavia gave many people a warm feeling: there was a third way (in the old, pre-Blair sense). You could be socialist and independent of Moscow. You didn’t have to lock your people within the country’s borders. You could allow some market activity within a socialist economic framework.
But there was a huge gap between hope and reality. From close up, federal, one-party Yugoslavia seemed to present the worst of both worlds, both economically and politically. Decentralised “self-management” had all the disadvantages of collective ownership without the one advantage of socialist planning – centralisation.
Politically the effort to gain “rights” was channelled into national aspirations. In any one-party system, spontaneous civic action is a threat, not because of its inherent qualities, but because it cannot be controlled from the top. In Yugoslavia the danger lay in this civic action taking place across the ethnically defined administrative boundaries – from Serbia to Croatia, from Slovenia to Kosovo. You couldn’t fight nationalism because you could never throw the bastards out.
The problem is that in all the former communist countries, not just in still- communist Serbia, the public’s grasp of independent civic action and rights that transcend ethnic identity is still very tenuous. The nasty red-brown nationalism that has filled the post-communist vacuum in some places is relatively rare. There is nothing to be complacent about, though, in either east or west. Eastern Europe still has more defining moments in store for us.