BOOK REVIEW / Where the only truth is the lie

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'FOR Balkan politicians,' the author writes, 'it is axiomatic that the only truth is the lie.' It is an axiom that Britain's politicians and military commanders would do well to remember. Glenny makes the observation in a chapter aptly entitled 'The Twilight Zone', from July 1991 to January 1992, when the Yugoslav crisis moved from being able to be solved towards a series of atrocity- marked wars.

The author was specifically referring to a July 1991 visit to Yugoslavia by three European Community foreign ministers headed by Gianni de Michelis of Italy. They cheerily predicted their visit would end the fighting. Leaders of the warring sides had, after all, solemnly signed a peace deal. Surprise, surprise, the fighting intensified before the men in suits had even returned to Brussels. De Michelis 'realised that all his theoretical understanding was of little value in a country where deceit is the most common political currency. Throughout the Yugoslav crisis, both Presidents Tudjman (of Croatia) and Milosevic (of Serbia) . . . committed themselves solemnly to accords and agreements whose provisions they would openly flaunt (I think we can take it that Glenny means 'flout') the following day'.

The words were written before the London Conference on Yugoslavia in August where precisely the same thing happened - smiles, handshakes, prawn cocktails, solemn signatures, and worse- than-ever mayhem on the ground.

Since the world has been crying out for a layman's guide to the Yugoslav conflict, you might approach a book of this title with the obvious expectations. You would be mistaken. It is heavy-going for the casually curious. The Fall of Yugoslavia often seems like a cacophony of unpronounceable names, most of which one has never read, nor probably ever will read, in newspaper accounts. It is not an easy book. But neither is it an easy conflict.

Precisely here lies its strength. It is the best work on the causes, effects and dangers of the latest Balkan crisis that has yet appeared. It is virtually impossible to imagine a more informed, objective and far-sighted account of a conflict that will, like it or not, affect us all.

Glenny is the first to admit that he chose not to tread in some key conflict zones where eye-witness knowledge would have added to the impact of his work. He wrote on Sarajevo from the nearby suburb of Ilidja, spent only a few hours in Dubrovnik before the worst of its long siege, and readily admits turning back outside Vukovar. 'It was our duty to report the precise details about Vukovar but we were too scared,' he writes. No matter. He lived to tell this important tale.

Glenny, Central European correspondent for BBC Radio, has been described by colleagues as Misha Gloomy for past reports on the Yugoslav crisis. He has, however, invariably been proved right. Looking at historical precedent, he fears the latest Balkan conflict could lead to another world war. 'History will repeat itself,' he wrote in a recent article in New Statesman and Society.

On the origins of the present conflict, he accurately points to the hastily accepted recognition - particularly by its historic big German brother - of Slovenia as an independent state. No one, least of all Glenny, denies the merit of Slovenia's claim. Coming as it did, it quickly turned the Yugoslav break-up into a Serb-Croat conflict.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's refusal to consider the rights of minority Serbs in western and eastern Slavonia was another trigger, recorded by the author with an admirable sense of balance. Refreshingly, Glenny attacks 'liberal circles' - journalists and others, rebels without a cause since the Sandinistas - 'who had fallen under the spell of Croatian nationalism'. Inexperienced journalists who needed to see the conflict in black and white terms, and in some cases chased the 'big story' in search of newspaper glamour, compounded the problem by falling for propaganda, notably from the Croatians and later the Bosnian Muslims. Instead of objective reports, foreign intervention was urged. It was a simplistic journalistic approach that appealed to equally uninformed minds in dangerously influential places. 'In extreme situations, nationalism appears to neutralise the part of the mind which is able to fathom complex equations,' as Glenny puts it.

Though he leans towards the academic and historic, Glenny includes some dramatic personal stories. Witness this transcript of a telephone conversation between the notorious Serbian General Ratko Mladic and a senior Croatian police official, at the height of a local conflict.

'Is that you, Mladic?'

'Yes, it is, you old devil, what do you want?'

'Three of my boys went missing . . .'

'I think they're all dead.'

'I've got one of their parents on to me about it, so I can tell them for certain that they're gone?'

'Yep, certain. You have my word. By the way, how's the family?'

'Oh, not so bad, thanks. How about yours?'

'They're doing just fine, we're managing pretty well.'

'Glad to hear it. By the way, now I've got you on the line, we've got about 20 bodies of yours near the front and they've been stripped bare. We slung them into a mass grave and they're stinking to high heaven. Any chance of you coming to pick them up; they really are becoming unbearable?'

Did he say 'unbearable'?