Side by side but not in step

Serbia - Unholy Alliance
January 31, 2003

Over many centuries an antipathy to, and fear of, Muslim culture has brought about some unexpected Balkan alliances, as Brendan Simms explains

As every schoolboy now knows, June 28 - Vidovdan or St Vitus' day - is a portentous entry in the Serbian calendar. On that day in 1389 the armies of the medieval kingdom of Serbia were heavily, though not conclusively, defeated by the Ottoman Turks, and it was on the same day in 1914 that Gavrilo Princip famously gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand, precipitating the first world war. St Vitus - or St Guy - was the patron saint of epileptics, sufferers of nervous disorders and victims of snake and dog bites.

The preferred patron of Stevan Pavlowitch is Jonah who, according to the old-style Orthodox Church calendar, is remembered on October 5, the day Slobodan Milosevic was ejected by the Serbian Revolution of 2000. Jonah, of course, spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale, and Pavlowitch likens the condition of the Serbian people today to the prophet emerging into daylight after a long period of bondage. Anyone interested in how this situation came about should read this compact synthesis of the development of Serbia and Serbian national identity since the Middle Ages, which does much to explain the Milosevic years.

Two underlying themes emerge for the modern period, both of which have a strong bearing on the recent past. The first is the search for ethnic purity that accompanied every stage of the expansion of the Serb state before 1914. In the course of the early 19th-century struggles, Pavlowitch writes, Serb rebels "came to feel that they could not live with 'Turks' again. The Muslim population was thus indiscriminately expelled." The question of what to do with them was posed anew each time a new chunk of the Ottoman empire was ingested, but the answer remained the same: "There were to be no Muslims in Serbia."

The creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 cut across these exclusivist paradigms, and the complicated relationship between Serb nationalism and the Yugoslav ideal constitutes the second and equally instructive theme of the book. In the first world war, two forces in the region converged - the desire of Slovenes and Croats to escape Austro-German or Italian hegemony through some form of South Slav confederation, and the desperate attempts of the embattled Serb government to harness these liberationist and unificatory currents to the war effort. The first Yugoslavia of 1918 - the "kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" - was thus not a Serb takeover but a correspondence match in which the partners did not know each other very well.

Tensions arose, as Pavlowitch shows, since the Serbs "hardly distinguished between Serbs and Yugoslavs". After 1918, the "government acted as if Yugoslavia was just an extended Serbia that took in other southern Slavs as well". There was no room in this polity for the distinct historical and cultural experiences of Croats and Slovenes, still less for the non-constituent Albanians, Macedonians, Germans, Hungarians and Bosnian Muslims. Serbs, though the largest national group, made up only about 40 per cent of all Yugoslavs. This led to widespread resentment of Serb hegemony in the army, diplomatic corps and civil service; here, Pavlowitch's minor revisions to the prevailing view do not dent the impression of an overwhelming imbalance.

After 1945 and the triumph of communism under Marshal Tito, the Serb relationship to Yugoslavia underwent a further mutation. Serbs no longer dominated the structures of the state. Apart from Serbia proper, they enjoyed a privileged position in parts of Croatia, in the Vojvodina (from which the Germans had been expelled), in Kosovo before the mid-1960s and, to a certain extent, in Bosnia. In Montenegro, some 400,000 Serbs enjoyed a republican status denied to more numerous nationalities. Macedonia, however, which Serb nationalists regarded as "southern Serbia", became a fully fledged republic within the Yugoslav Federation, while in the later constitutional arrangements Serbia suffered the indignity of having two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, carved out of its territory.

What changed after the death of Tito in 1980 was that Serb nationalists were no longer willing to accept the swings and roundabouts of the old system. They sought a constitutional revision to restore Serbia to what they saw as its rightful place. Yet at the same time Pavlowitch notes:

"Most of the population of Serbia, and indeed most Serbs, still probably favoured a Yugoslav option, seeing little difference between being a Serb and a Yugoslav."

The difficulty with Pavlowitch's book lies in the final chapters. Initially he captures the intensity, irrationality and malevolence of the Serb breach with Yugoslavia rather well. But he never really gives a sense of the fact that it was Serbia that seceded from Yugoslavia. It was Milosevic's skill at exploiting the confusion between Serbia and Yugoslavia that bamboozled the international community for so long, allowing him to pose as the defender of the federation while secretly turning the state, or its rump, into a Serboslavia.

At the same time, Pavlowitch never really grasps the magnitude and conceptual ambition of "ethnic cleansing" and the search for a Greater Serbia in the 1990s. This explains the muted and unsatisfactory account of the Bosnian war, in which he describes the Serbs as having caused the most suffering simply because they were the strongest. Nor can he believe that the "difficult aspiration of the western (that is Serbian and Bosnian) Serbs to continue to live in a common state" adequately describes a murderous and exclusivist project designed to create an ethnically pure statelet out of the ruins of the old Yugoslavia. Not that this misunderstanding is based on any covert Serbian agenda: Pavlowitch is similarly restrained in describing the various Serbian tribulations from the genocide during the second world war to the recent expulsion from Kosovo.

Takis Michas has written a very different book. Unholy Alliance is both a personal manifesto and an investigative monograph on Serbo-Greek relations during the turbulent 1990s. It is one of the most important and arresting English-language books on the Balkans to appear in recent years.

The story of Greek sympathy for the Serb cause during the wars of the Yugoslav succession has been known in outline for some time. What Unholy Alliance demonstrates is the extent and depth of that relationship. Michas, a well-known journalist and critic in Greece, bases his assessment on a range of sources including interviews, newspaper articles and his recollection as an adviser to politicians. Hundreds of volunteers served in the Bosnian Serb army, participated in attacks on UN "safe areas", including that on Srebrenica in 1995, and were lionised for this on Greek television. According to the author, there was not a single public protest in Greece against the siege of Sarajevo, still less any solidarity visit to the beleaguered city.

By contrast, visits to the ethnically cleansed Serb republic were commonplace, as were mass rallies in Greece in support of the Bosnian Serbs, some attended by Serb nationalist luminaries. Many of these were organised by the Greek Orthodox Church, whose hierarchy vociferously defended the Serb cause. Individual clerics blessed the besiegers of Sarajevo and conducted Orthodox liturgies in ethnically cleansed Bosnian towns. The Greek government tolerated illegal trade with Serbia, toyed with secret plans to partition Macedonia, gave diplomatic support to Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs and, apparently, even interfered in the domestic judicial process on behalf of Belgrade. All this was backed by virtually the entire Greek public sphere - newspapers, television and the intelligentsia.

Moreover, this affinity was not so much with the Serb cause as such as with what Michas calls its "darkest side". The Greek perspective was entirely Milosevic-centric. The Serbian opposition, most of whom were themselves nationalists, was shunned and denied visas to visit. In an unusual move, a Serbian opposition benefit concert in Salonica was banned, and Greece was one of only two countries (the other was Iraq) to certify the rigged Serbian elections of 2000 as free and fair. So obsessed were Greek politicians with Milosevic that nearly 80 members of parliament signed a bi-partisan petition calling on the new Serb government not to extradite him to the Hague. None of this, Michas stresses, was the result of elite manipulation. On the contrary, it was a "bottom-up" process.

Undoubtedly, factors such as anti-Islamic, anti-Albanian and anti-Turkish feelings played a part, as did a sense of pan-Orthodox solidarity. On the left, there was a strong residual sympathy with the old Yugoslavia, of which the Serbs were fondly believed to be the mainstay. But, according to Michas, the real roots of the phenomena are to be found in a virulent strain of Greek paranoid ethno-nationalism. One observer cited in the book speaks of the "completely paranoid character of Greek nationalism - a nationalism that sees everywhere conspiracies against the Chosen People, who are always right and who are constantly abused by the mighty of the world". Perhaps counterintuitively, many Greeks saw themselves not as cheerleaders for the murder or expulsion of Bosnian Muslims, but as supporters of a Serbian David against the Goliath of the New World Order.

Thus, Archbishop Chistodoulos claimed to see "the Vatican siding with the international forces of Evil in order to implement the New Order of things which prefigures Antichrist". On the left, Aris Mousionis, adviser to the Pasok (socialist) prime minister Papandreou, recalls: "We all believed that the Serbs were the bearers of the international struggle against the New World Order and the plans of the imperialists."

Central to this world view is anti-Americanism, an ideology that, as Michas shows, has transcended the confines of its traditional leftwing ghetto to embrace conservative, clerical and even juvenile opinion. Unlike earlier forms of anti-Americanism, Michas argues, the current Greek variant does not just take issue with specific US policies, such as the decision to support the Sarajevo government or to confront Milosevic over Kosovo. What offends, Michas writes, "is the entire narrative of American society and history and the values that constitute itI American support for Bosnia and Macedonia thus was interpreted by Greek conservatives as an attempt to export its multi-ethnic model to the Balkans".

A recent poll has shown that many Greeks believe the Americans "deserved" the attacks of September 11. Anybody wishing to understand this mindset should start with Michas' courageous, controversial and timely book.

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

Serbia: The History Behind the Name

Author - Stevan K. Pavlowitch
ISBN - 1 85065 477 8 and 476 X
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 252

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