Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 10:51:28 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Subject: Don’t Demonize the Serbs
Article: 58867
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Don't Demonize the Serbs

By Stephen S. Rosenfeld, The Washington Post, Friday 26 March 1999; Page A33

Once, and not so long ago, the Albanians in Kosovo were repressing Kosovo's Serbs and conducting a vile “ethnic cleansing.” This is what gave an otherwise unremarkable provincial politician, Slobodan Milosevic, the opportunity to become a champion of Serb nationalism, a position he parlayed into national Yugoslav leadership and international notoriety.

It is helpful to keep this rarely mentioned phase of Serbia's story in mind at a moment when, in defense of Kosovan interests, NATO has just begun bombing Serb targets in Serbia and in its province of Kosovo. As recently as the ‘80s, the Albanians were the heavies and the Serbs were the victims. Now it has all turned around, with the Serbs becoming the heavies while the Albanians take their turn as victims.

Why dredge up a bit of history at a moment when the missiles are flying? Because if our policy is to have the best chance possible of producing a fair result, then we must deal with things as they have been and are, not simply as we fancy them to be. Specifically, the Serbs cannot be removed from a position of eventual respect and favor in the West just because for the moment they are being led into disaster by a power-hungry dictator masquerading as a Serb patriot.

It is always easier to choose up sides in an obscure foreign quarrel on the basis of immediate violent or political events. I figure the American press, which relies heavily on the body of knowledge and insight collected by the American government, requires five or 10 years to make the passage from early glibness and fumbling to mature understanding of a complex international tangle. Only now are we getting a prime learning experience in the post-Cold War Balkans.

The point of it cannot be merely to learn more sympathy for the other international actors. That way lies bias and paralysis. The real point must be to make an informed and realistic decision on just how American foreign policy interests can best be served.

In the current instance, the United States needs to be careful not to demonize the Serbs but not to exalt the Albanians either. Serbia was considered worthy of our comradeship in the century's two world wars; Serb rescues of downed American bomber pilots became legendary. More recently, Serbia has fallen into international disgrace under the leadership of Milosevic, a master manipulator of his people's insecurities. But he will be gone someday. Americans will then have the occasion to rediscover another Serbia.

We may discover another Albania as well. Kosovo's Albanians have not always taken the part they play these days as David to Serbia's Goliath. Yugoslav Communist President Tito, veteran Vanderbilt University historian Alex Dragnich reminds us, found the Albanians in Kosovo too prickly, too nationalistic to handle in a Yugoslav context, and dumped them off on Serbia. Albanians created a popular movement that beat Kosovo Serb civilians (whence Milosevic's famous pledge: “nobody can beat you anymore”) and that finally came to the assassination of Serb officials. Harnessing Serb nationalism to his political ambition, Milosevic took up arms against Kosovar guerrillas and civilians alike. That's what we have been seeing in the past year.

There are, we note again, two Milosevics. One is the anti-democrat, the ethnic cleanser, the Yugoslav aggressor, the regional imbalancer: This is the Milosevic NATO hopes to defang, if not also to depose.

The other Milosevic is the Serb nationalist: He has not only personal ambition but also a popular following. That following is not necessarily his on an automatic or continuing basis. But it represents a segment of opinion in Serbia that has the legitimacy and the clout ultimately to be served. This is the segment that NATO must draw into its circle of respect. It is not an easy thing to do in the middle of a bombing campaign, but it can be done—by a sensible choice of bombing targets and by repeated explanations of the difference in Western eyes between the Serb leadership and the Serb people.

That difference is simply put. Serb nationalism in the hands of Serbs who demand dignity and protection for themselves, but who do not deny these qualities to the Kosovars, is a legitimate force that others must take into fair account if and when Serb-Albanian relations turn from the military to the political. But Serb nationalism as defined and practiced by Slobodan Milosevic throughout the former Yugoslavia in the ‘90s is an instrument of aggression and terror and cannot be accommodated in the slightest degree.