Tue, 10 Oct 2000

Hope for peace in Balkans reborn

By Neil Ascherson

LONDON: Every time, they say: "Well, that was the last of the popular revolutions." They say: "Such a 19th century anachronism, from days when politicians dealt in crowds and masses! Such a hangover from the age of the People, that collective unicorn which doesn't exist!"

And every time, they are wrong. There, outside the Serbian parliament, appeared this terrifying, fabulous beast whose name is Legion, rushing, recoiling, twisting this way and that like a mounting flock of wild geese and then all in a moment hurling itself upwards through the buckling doors of power.

No leaders, no savvy controllers, not even any heroes except those grotesque figures, famous only to their families, who appear for an instant with a flag on a parapet or with blazing papers at a window and then vanish back into namelessness.

Revolution, the real thing, is always like what the world saw in Belgrade. That is why it helps to understand what people hoped for as the Bastille fell, or as the German empire was flung down in Berlin in 1919, or as Hungarians raised barricades in 1956, or as Czechs jingled their keys and sang and wept in November 1989.

The collapse of the Serbian dictatorship is a chance to renew Europe -- and not just the south-eastern lands we call the Balkans. How will the Serbian people and their new leaders look at their country, their region and their continent on the morning after the revolution?

In almost all national revolutions (and Belgrade was one), the idea of freedom is many-sided. It means no more censorship and no more secret police. It hopes for a better and more abundant life. But it also means the smashing-open of the gates to the outside world. The prisoners in Fidelio mount singing into the light; they can travel, they can trade, they can listen to the entrancing conversations of all humanity and proudly contribute a Serbian word to them.

The most common and poignant complaint of young Serbs has been: "Why have we been denied our 1989?" They envied that year not so much as a revolt against the Soviet imperium but as a breaking out of prison into a brilliantly lit, innovative world where individual joy and curiosity were supreme values. Now they, too, are blinking in the glare of daylight.

In that light of liberation, Serbia, the Balkans, Europe itself, may all now change their shape as they are seen from Belgrade. Miraculously, the Serbian revolution caused only one accidental death. There is not likely to be a murderous witch- hunt for collaborators with the Milosevic regime, even though so many angry people promised themselves just that until the great breakthrough.

Corruption trials for pillaging the state will probably happen. Purges and denunciations may come later, if at all, when it suits some politician to dish his rivals by raiding the secret police files.

It may be that feelings about the ex-Yugoslav neighbors will change shape, too. Nobody expects President Kostunica to give up on the Kosovo Serbs or forgive the expulsion of the Krajina Serbs from their homes.

But xenophobia and ultranationalism have always been fomented by dictatorships which run out of ideology. The day before the revolution, the patriot longs to slay the oppressors of his kith and kin across the borders. The day after, he puts all that on the backburner and rushes out to read free newspapers and book the kids to EuroDisney.

After the 1989 revolutions, all the forgotten minority disputes in east-central Europe lit up again with horrible clarity. But then it turned out that people no longer cared about them in the old way. The Poles couldn't be bothered to weep for their Polish-speaking cousins in Lithuania; the Hungarians put their oppressed kith and kin in Transylvania on hold; the ethnic Rumanians of Moldova decided they could wait indefinitely for reunion with the fatherland.

With a little tact from the "international community", this Free Yugoslavia may reduce the need to help Serbs in Bosnia or Kosovo from a passionate blood-oath to a practical, long-term commitment. The Serbs will not fall in love with the Croats, but a good, confident partnership between democratic Belgrade and democratic Zagreb is now achievable.

If this happens, then some coherence may return to the Balkans. The hole that was Serbia will be filled by a state ready to co-operate with its neighbors in repairing war damage, re- opening Danube navigation, coordinating approaches to the European Union and negotiating the return of refugees.

The Balkan Stability Pact, so far little more than a clumsy anti-Milosevic propaganda exercise, might just possibly be filled with meaning and channel significant infrastructure and social investment into the region.

Nothing sensible can be done in the Balkans without Serbia, which means that nothing sensible has been done for 10 years. Now plans can be made.

The first commandment is to keep international interference out of the Balkans. The worst problem here is the existence of two international "protectorates", Bosnia and Kosovo. Everyone knows why they are there.

But they now form a bridgehead from which the West -- above all, the United States, Britain and France -- can meddle powerfully in Balkan affairs. Only a democratic Yugoslavia, patient about its stake in both territories, can lead a rescue mission to tow these two floating wrecks back into a regional security system.

The second commandment is to acquire a healthy skepticism about the European Union. Brussels just loves the idea of smaller, poorer nations forming "regional blocs", in which small, poor aspirants to full European status could be conveniently forgotten. The new Yugoslavia, emerging from pariah status, can also take up the utterly scandalous neglect of Rumania and Bulgaria by the EU after bombing closed the Danube and ruined their economies.

But the Belgrade revolution has changed Europe itself, not only its south-eastern corner. One enormous consequence is the extinction of the last outpost of Russian influence west of the Black Sea. The gamble on Milosevic has failed. The transfer of the bet to the possibility of a democratic Serbia was left until it was too late.

The Serbs will always like the Russians, for reasons rooted in history and religion. But the spectacle of Russia acting as the protecting power to a Balkan client is now over for good. So much for the better -- for European stability and for the unity of the Balkan states.

But the Belgrade Thursday, with its pride and hope, asked the biggest of all questions about Europe. Are you serious about one Europe? Or do you still secretly mean to have two: a rich Europe in the West which uses the East and the Balkans -- stripped of their industries -- as a colonial backyard to provide cheap labor and raw materials? That is what the old German vision of Mitteleuropa meant before 1914, and what Hitler's plan for European empire entailed.

After the revolutions of 1989, some post-communist countries, such as Poland and Hungary, seemed to survive the trauma of transition to capitalism. But others, especially in the Balkans, sank into hopeless poverty. All the states of the lower Danube were innocent victims of the Milosevic wars, but the EU has done nothing to rescue them.

Now the Belgrade tyranny, the excuse for EU paralysis, is over. Action to bring south-eastern Europe into the mainstream of prosperity can no longer be put off. Neither is it possible, any more, to insinuate that "Balkan violence and ancestral hatreds" make these countries unfit to be treated as responsible states with European standards.

Do we want one continent or two? The revolutionaries in Belgrade on Thursday were breaking open the door to a single Europe, in which all democratic peoples share liberty, equality and fraternity.

-- Observer News Service