Comment: Shifting people is no answer

Some 2.5 million Balkan people were uprooted in the period 1912- 23 by war and population exchange
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ACCORDING TO the report from Kosovo "whole villages are reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse" and "incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality" have been committed. Yesterday's Nato briefing? It could have been, but in fact these words were written just after the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913.

In the spirit of contemporary "peace studies" the American Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sent various luminaries to the Balkans at the time to report on the situation there. The idea was, that by making people aware of the horrors of war men could be persuaded to avoid repeating their mistakes.

In the wake of the expulsion or flight of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo over the last two weeks it is quite chilling to re-read the Carnegie Endowment report and its conclusions. The "Serbo- Montenegrin" soldiery it said were employing brutal methods "with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians".

During the first Balkan war of 1912, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria united to drive out the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. During the second Balkan war, in 1913, they fought amongst themselves over the spoils. The two wars provoked massive population upheavals. Rather like today, the armies found that people often did not wait to be expelled or as we say now, ethnically cleansed. According to the Carnegie report people just knew from "tradition, instinct and experience" what to do.

It added that, generally speaking, an enemy army only had to set one village on fire for others to flee. "The population, warned by the glow from these fires, fled all in haste".

The Carnegie Endowment's phrase "instinct and experience" was apt. Serbs, Albanians and Muslims had all fled in one direction or another during various spasms of conflict during the 19th century. Some two million fled in the wake of the Serbian-Turkish wars of 1876-8, including Albanians from Serbia and Serbs from Ottoman-controlled Kosovo. Turks and Muslims were also emigrating from Greece.

In the wake of the Balkan Wars and the post-war conflict between Greece and Turkey came the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Today we would be outraged by it, calling it legalised ethnic cleansing. What the agreements did was to uproot ancient settlements of Greeks in Anatolia and exchange them for Turks and Muslims from Greece. Bulgaria too made formal arrangements with Greece and Turkey to exchange their minority populations.

By one estimation, some two and half million people in the Balkans were shifted from their homes during the period 1912-23 thanks to wars and population exchanges. Between 1924 and 1933 100,000 people, mostly ethnic Turks, also emigrated to Turkey, mainly from Yugoslav Macedonia.

In February 1938, at a conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Romania and Yugoslavia met to discuss ways of encouraging emigration to Turkey. The Turkish Government wanted Muslim settlers for its empty regions and to repopulate those areas which Greeks had left. The Balkan states were happy to encourage the emigration of their non-Christian populations.

Of course these forced migrations followed an impeccable logic. As Dimitrije Djordjevic of the University of California wrote only 10 years ago for "Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey the population exchanges of the earlier part of the century, "although a curse for contemporary generations" have proved to be "a blessing in the long run of history."

Djordjevic argues that this was because it had transformed these states into "predominantly nationally homogenous states. It stabilised their frontiers along which refugees were mainly settled."

In an era in which human rights are, rightly, supposed to outweigh those of "my country right or wrong" it is important to understand that the main protagonists in the wars of former Yugoslavia have never wavered in their belief that population exchanges or ethnic cleansing are the only way to ensure the long term stability of their countries.

In July 1991 just as the war in Croatia was beginning Mario Nobilo, then an advisor to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, drew me a map of how Serbs, Muslims and Croats would be "exchanged" across the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia. After all, he said, there was a perfect precedent for this, which was the Treaty of Lausanne. He suggested that this model should be followed in Yugoslavia, although the exchanges should be "voluntary".

As we know the "exchanges" that subsequently did take place were far from voluntary, but Croatia has indeed solved its Serbian Question. It used to have a 12 per cent Serb minority - now it has none. In August 1995 Croatia, with western connivance, steam-rollered the former Serb- held areas of Croatia. Today Serbia is home to up to 600,000 Serbian refugees from both Croatia and Bosnia.

Having seemingly decided to risk all in confrontation with the West, Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, appears to have duly opted to "finish the job" that his predecessors failed to do during the Balkan wars. That is to say that his aim appears to be to cleanse Kosovo and repopulate it with his Bosnian and Croatian refugees.

To a certain extent the West is complicit in letting Milosevic think he can get away this. The first reason for this is that we gave no tangible support to the Kosovo Albanians, who for so long, while other ex-Yugoslavs readily took up the gun, eschewed violence and opted for passive resistance. The second reason is that we did nothing either when the Krajina Serbs were cleansed.

Indeed by not taking up the case of the Krajina Serbs we fell into the logic of ethnic cleansing in that, without saying so, we tacitly agreed that since Croatia had solved her Serbian problem then, ergo, that was the end of the matter, and what a relief that was too.

The problem was, and is, that the danger of applying the logic of the 1920s today leads us to a clear but flawed moral choice. Either we must accept that ethnic cleansing can lead to stability for future generations or we can try and make a stand against it if we believe in human rights and, besides, want to halt a destructive process now, before it spreads.

That ethnic cleansing today can no longer lead to stability is amply demonstrated by the fact that our failure to act over the Krajina refugees means that many Serbs today believe that because of this they should, a la Tudjman, solve their own ethnic problem by battening down the hatches. That means enduring Nato's bombing now only to re-emerge from the shelters to find that they have rid Kosovo of its Albanians - and their problem.

The argument then runs that all Balkan states, or at least the former Yugoslav states and Albania, should meet to redraw their borders - a part of Kosovo could be hived off to a Greater Albania while Serbia could compensate itself with the Serb half of Bosnia.

It may come to this, but it will not lead to peace. Not only would it more than likely lead to a return to war in Bosnia - as the Muslims would again be asked pay the price - but those Albanians who had been driven from their homes in what was now Serbian Kosovo would doubtless fight on.

Another example of the way that unreversed ethnic cleansing or population exchanges can lead to tension and possible conflict is the Turkish Cypriot offer to take in 5,000 ethnic Albanian refugees. A generous offer? Yes, until you realise that the ulterior motive of the Turkish Cypriot offer is to bolster its own population and house these people in areas from which Greeks have fled. It is hardly surprising then that the Greek Cypriots have reacted with fury to such a suggestion.

In the long run, the evil of partition and ethnic cleansing may triumph, and therefore spread elsewhere, but I suspect that if Nato grits its teeth and faces the inevitable - ground troops and a protectorate for Kosovo - then this may yet be avoided.

If Nato does nothing then Milosevic's solution may triumph. If Nato establishes a protectorate - and a genuine one which would avoid revenge and the persecution of the Kosovo Serbs - then maybe the West will show that it has found the courage of its convictions and is also prepared to act in the spirit of enlightened self-interest too.

Tim Judah is the author of `The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia'