Why the west can't sleep easy

Gary Younge
Wednesday August 25, 1999

I wonder if President Clinton is getting his sleep, and if he is, does he ever have nightmares about Jelica Cemburovic? In June he said that if Nato had not intervened in Kosovo: "We wouldn't have been able to sleep at night." A few months earlier he had explained the rationale behind the bombing thus: "I want us to live in a world where we all get along with each other, with all of our differences."

Jelica, 87, a Serb, is under virtual house arrest in the northern Kosovan town of Podujevo, left at the mercy of ethnic Albanians eager to wreak revenge on the Serb community because of the persecutions once inflicted on them by the Serb security forces. Jelica wants to stay put so that when she dies she can be laid to rest with her late husband. She may get her wish sooner than she thinks.

If the allies' bombing was seriously aimed at creating a multi-ethnic state in Kosovo then it has clearly failed. According to a spokesman for the UNHCR 180,000 Serbs have left Kosovo, most of them since the Nato bombing started; only a tenth of the original Serb population remains. This cannot be reduced to a simple cycle of vengeance- the Kosovo Albanians are targeting the Montenegrins and Roma as well.

Naturally, the allies have expressed their concern about the behaviour of the ethnic Albanians. But the fact is they have almost finished what Slobodan Milosevic started - they have helped turn Kosovo into a mono-ethnic state, only now the ethnic Albanians are in control. The "humanist" voices that made themselves heard above the war drums and provided a liberal cover for the Nato attack are strangely silent. But their reticence speaks volumes.

Kosovo is living the logic of their metaphors. To make the war palatable they needed a clear narrative of good and bad. So they created a morality play and cast Milosevic as Hitler, the Albanians as Jews and ethnic cleansing as the Holocaust. There are many problems with this, the main one being its inaccuracy. Another is that it means the Serbs, who elected Milosevic, have to be Nazis and it is hard to find anyone who feels sorry for a Nazi - even if the "Nazi" in question is almost 90, a widow and about to be attacked by a mob.

It is difficult to see how things could have turned out any other way. Political violence can achieve many things but the one thing it has never brought about is multi-ethnicity. Governments can and should outlaw bigotry. But they cannot bomb different peoples into living in harmony together abroad, anymore than they can legislate for friendship at home.

There are few better examples of this than South Africa. The ANC embraced the armed struggle because the bullet was the only language the apartheid regime understood. But they shot their way to the negotiating table not into a multiracial democracy; to reach that stage they had to sit down and talk with the white minority, some of whom were every bit as vile as Milosevic.

Clinton and Blair know how difficult it is to forge a multi-ethnic state more than most, because both of them have tried and failed to create one. Clinton is a white Southerner and was raised during the most turbulent times in the region's racial history. Most whites in his home state of Arkansas found it hard enough to stomach the national guard escorting young black children into Little Rock High School. Imagine how far the cause of desegregation would have been put back if Eisenhower had ordered his troops to shoot the racist mobs who turned up to jeer. If anyone knows what an ethnic backlash is it is Clinton - white men nearly derailed his presidency in 1994.

Similarly, Blair is struggling to keep the Northern Ireland peace process together. His logic, and it is a good one, is to persuade both sides that there is no alternative to talking.

So long as there is the prospect of unionists and republicans returning to the table, even if only for more fudge, there is less chance of war and more hope that the communities will get so used to living in peace that they will not vote for those who think otherwise. Even if they decide that the IRA has broken the ceasefire, nobody would suggest that the SAS were the people to return peace to the six counties.

Which brings us back to Jelica. If western leaders really want a good night's sleep they need at least to start applying the same logic to Kosovo that has underpinned the finer moments of ethnic relations in their own countries. Defend the minority; cajole the majority. It might not be perfect; but it might get Jelica out of the house.