Friday, March 21, 2008

Crocodile Tears in the North of Kosovo

Guardian Comment is Free 20 March 2008

History teaches that there is nothing so sanctimonious as a heavily armed victim - and that lots of gulls will be prepared to accept a bully's spurious claims to victimhood if the latter shouts loud enough. Bullies do tend to have big mouths.

It was difficult to keep a straight face upon hearing Moscow and Belgrade's pious invocations to Nato and the UN not to be provocative. Serbia's foreign minister Vuk Jeremic protested to UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon over what he described as "unacceptable and excessive violence". So it was of course the Balkan equivalent of poltergeists who bulldozed and burnt the border posts, threw stones, Molotov cocktails and grenades and fired automatic weapons at UN police and KFOR troops. They killed a Ukrainian police officer.

Of course, one could put this in the context of a robust tradition of public demonstration, but I rather suspect that if this were a mob of Kosovars surrounding the Serbian government offices in Pristina, Belgrade and Moscow would be condemning the supine response of the peacekeepers!

Then we see repeated over and over again the line that those occupying the court house in Mitrovica simply wanted their jobs back. That invokes sympathy anywhere in the world. But there are the technical details - they have actually been on Belgrade's payroll since 1999 and refused to apply for, let alone take, jobs with the court system run by the UN under Security Council Resolution 1244.

Belgrade's sudden attachment to every jot and tittle of 1244 overlooks its exhortations to Kosovar Serbs not to cooperate with UNMIK for the last decade.

In fact, let us peel back the onion another tear-jerking layer. The Serbs in the Mitrovica court almost certainly took up their jobs a decade earlier, when Slobodan Milosevic dissolved Kosovo's local government and instituted effective apartheid there by firing the Albanian Kosovars and replacing them with ethnic Serbs. Since then, they and others are actually paid much higher salaries than they would get in Belgrade in order to persuade them to stay.

One cannot help but suspect that many of the rioters are in fact on the payroll, and some of their belligerence derives from wanting to stay that way.

However, shooting at Nato is not clever. In my experience, the French peacekeepers, for example, tended to sympathise with the Serbs, and certainly made no attempt to stop Serb mobs' ethnic cleansing of Albanians from the north of Kosovo in the early days, even if they did escort the expellees to safety. Certainly when I crossed the bridge across the Ibar, they made it plain that I was on my own if the Serb "bridgewatchers" took umbrage.

But grenades and gunshots tend to solidify issues. KFOR is likely to be a lot less patient in the event of future attacks. The sad thing is that the Serbs in Mitrovica are being used, indeed abused, by the nationalists in Belgrade who almost certainly hope to provoke Kosovar riots against the remaining Serbs in Kosovo. It would allow politicians to posture as perpetual victims, quite reckless of the cost already paid by Serbs in Krajna and Bosnia for their gesture politics.

Disappointingly for the nationalists, the Kosovars have, surprisingly, been a model of restraint, with the Serbs in the south seemingly safe and secure, albeit unhappy about the change of regime. There is an opportunity for reconciliation and a strong Serb presence in a future Kosovo that some Serbs realise is worth grasping.

But not in Belgrade. At least in South Africa significant sections of the white community took an important part in dismantling apartheid and apologising for it. Few of the Serb nationalist politicians and their dupes demonstrating in Mitrovica think there was anything wrong with disenfranchising the majority population of Kosovo for a decade and then driving them out at bayonet point with massacres to gee them along.

Indeed, one of the braver Serbs in Belgrade recently took note of what passes for regret in nationalist circles - a lament that Belgrade had not implemented a final solution, involving getting rid of all the Albanians from Kosovo after it had first occupied it.

Victims need not be saints, but bullies' victimhood is more likely to be comeuppance. People who throw hand grenades in glasshouses should not be surprised if the roof falls in on them. Sadly the glass will not fall on the real instigators in Belgrade.

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