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March 26, 1999

The Times (London)
Friday, March 26, 1999

Two cheers for Colonel Tony Benn

Nato was set up to fight a war in Europe. The Red Army invades, Nato
fights back; Turks fight for Norway, French fight for Greece. What an
extraordinary irony it is that Nato should not, in the event, have had to
fight any war in Europe, but then chose, after the Cold War, to take on
Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia and Nato owe a great deal to each other. In June 1948, as
Soviet forces were starting their blockade of West Berlin, Stalin also
expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and tried hard to get rid of Tito.
The real reason for this, we now know, was that the Yugoslavs had been
trying to persuade Moscow to support their ideas for a Balkan federation,
run from Belgrade; Stalin feared any such expansion, and overreacted.

The Yugoslav Communists then found support from the British in
particular, by virtue of old links that went back to Gladstone.

We are now playing a very dangerous game. Yes, President Milosevic
behaved extremely badly when Croatia moved towards secession and the
Bosnian business was horrible. Serbians were taken over by fantasy, and
you can cure fantasy only with force. Nato refused to use it until the last
moment, when the Bosnians and Croats were already winning. Now the
bombs fly, whereas Mr Milosevic has offered autonomy to Kosovo.

True, he refuses to let America station its "peacekeepers" in the province,
and he was rather rude to US proconsuls. We seem to be in for the War
of Holbrooke's Ego.

This time, there may well be real trouble. International involvement in the
Balkans has been both the making and the breaking of the peninsula. It is
extraordinary how the themes of Eurasian history since Rome are
concentrated there. That history is now alive again, and the bombing of
Yugoslavia by the Americans is a huge mistake, with horrible implications
for us all. To sum them up: Ukrainian peacekeepers in Dumfries?

Balkan history was, for quite a long time, a backwater, and its
practitioners were neglected. But the Balkans always represented far more
than they were: their shadow was vastly greater than their substance.
Western Christianity developed liberalism and democracy. Eastern
Christianity produced communism. A collection of Christian schisms
complicated by the presence of Islam has been the hallmark of the region.
As a result the Balkans are very mixed. For much of the time, the various
peoples had a modus vivendi. The picture was confused, but it turned into
an insoluble problem because foreigners became involved. Now,
foreigners are involved again: this time, Americans, dropping bombs in
the name of "human rights".

Russia has always had interests in the Balkans. Now it may very well
make troubles for the West. Greece, with memories of Byzantium
ever-present, had a useful relationship with Russia. But there was a
healthy mercantile side to Greece, and it preferred co-operation with the
West, particularly the British.

Nowadays there is a Russian interest in Greece and Yugoslavia, and it
does not have much to do with the alleged solidarity of Orthodoxy. It has
to do with oil. The oil and gas fields of Central Asia will need pipelines,
and there are various schemes. We think of Russia, nowadays, as too
poor and divided to produce much strategy for anything. But poor
countries are often good with weaponry, and the history of Europe is all
about the overthrow of rich, self-satisfied places by poor but warlike
outsiders.

Turkey provides one or two possible oil routes. But the Balkans offer
another, and a pipeline through Yugoslavia is manageable, if expensive.
Russia is simply not going to let Yugoslavia be occupied by the
Americans - at least, not without some stiff resistance.

And what of Turkey? The Ottoman Empire decayed, and that gave us the
problems of the present-day Balkans. But the last nation-state to develop
out of the decaying empire was Turkey, and it has been, oddly enough,
the most successful one. So far, the Turks' foreign policy has consisted
of two expressions: "me, too" and "oh, dear". They will say "me, too"
now to the Americans, with whom relations are very good. But they will
be well aware that Kosovo poses dangers for them. If Kosovo, why not
"Kurdistan"? Turkey must go along with the Americans over Kosovo, the
more so as there are a great many Turks of Albanian origin. But Turkey
should be seriously worried about the prospect of international
intervention over allegedly oppressed minorities. Does it really want to
see Slovenian and Filipino "peacekeepers" running the sort of drugs and
prostitution rackets in Diyarbakir that are notoriously prevalent in
"peace-kept" Bosnia? If Nato is into "rights", then, "oh dear", Turkey
will be next to suffer.

The American bombing of Yugoslavia is the most surreal piece of
international affairs nonsense the modern world has seen. The surrealism
is enhanced when you consider that the people writing in its favour -
Mary Kaldor, Vanessa Redgrave, Bianca Jagger and Kate Adie - are all
the sort of people who, in 1982, took to the streets in droves to protest
against cruise missiles. They now back what the Americans have been
doing.

President Clinton's action is an extraordinary piece of irresponsibility,
and it is the duty of all governments facing minority problems - that
includes us - to stop the nonsense. Do you want Slovakian peacekeepers
in Northern Ireland, backed by threats of car park bombings in
Letchworth? That is the logical outcome of this nonsense. I never thought
I should write this: but two cheers for Colonel Benn.


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