Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

2011: The year the worms turned

I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.

1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.

Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.

2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.

For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.

3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.

For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.

4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.

The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.

5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.

All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World – that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !

6. Independence for South Sudan.

What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.

7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO. 

Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.

8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.

At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.

9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.

Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.

10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.

Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.

Happy New Year !

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Sunday, 1 January 2012 Posted by | Arabs, Britain, Egypt, Greece, Islam, Israel, Italy, Libya, Macedonia, Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East, Misogyny, NATO, Russia, Sudan | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why David Cameron is right to break ranks with Sarkozy and Merkel

CameronDavid Cameron, the British Conservative leader and probable next British Prime Minister, has been coming under harsh criticism for his decision to take the British Conservatives out of the conservative Euro-federalist bloc in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, and to form a new anti-federalist group: the European Conservatives and Reformists, whose most prominent other members are Poland’s Law and Justice Party and the Czech Republic’s Civic Democratic Party. Critics have pointed out that the new group includes racists, homophobes, climate-change-deniers and politicians with far-right backgrounds. The European Conservatives and Reformists is chaired by Michal Kaminski, an admirer of Augusto Pinochet and opponent of Polish moves to apologise for the Polish massacre of Jews at Jedwabne during World War II. They have argued that Cameron is marginalising Britain within the EU.

So far as Cameron’s critics from the ranks of the Euro-federalist wing of the Conservative Party and of Britain’s Labour Party are concerned, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The European People’s Party, supposedly the voice of moderate, centre-right conservatism, includes the ruling Italian party, Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘People of Freedom’. The latter, formally founded this spring, includes the heirs to Italy’s Fascist movement, including Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance and Alessandra Mussolini’s Social Action. Poland’s homophobic Civic Platform is also a member of the European People’s Party. Stefan Niesiolowski, deupty speaker of the Polish Sejm and a member of Civic Platform, has described lesbians as ‘sickening‘ and as a ‘pathology‘. The European People’s Party includes also as observers or associates Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which denies the Armenian Genocide and flirts with anti-Semitism, and Serbia’s Democratic Party of Serbia, whose leader Vojislav Kostunica presided over the burning down of the US embassy in Belgrade last year.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s members in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe sit in the Socialist Group, which includes Russia’s fascist Liberal Democratic Party, headed by the overtly racist and anti-Semitic Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who called publicly for the ‘preservation of the white race’ and warned that ‘it’s all over for you once you’re Americanised and Zionised’. The Socialist Group also includes ‘Just Russia’, which incorporates the racist, far-right Rodina party – several of whose members in the Russian Duma have called for all Jewish organisations in Russia to be closed. Another member of the Socialist Group is Turkey’s anti-Kurdish Republican People’s Party, which not only denies the Armenian Genocide but opposed even the Turkish government’s own measures to lift restrictions on the Kurdish language.

This sort of point-scoring is very easy. Geopolitical alliances are not equivalent to domestic political alliances, in which there can be no excuse for allying with bigots or fascists. The reality of geopolitics is that the majority of the world’s states have not achieved Western-democratic standards of democracy, tolerance and human rights. Consequently, even democratic states are frequently forced to have unsavoury allies. We had to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler; with Saudi Arabia and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991; with the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban in 2001. NATO has long included the highly chauvinistic states of Turkey and Greece, which discriminate against their national minorities in a manner that is wholly at odds with the standards of democratic Europe. The UK shares membership of the EU with states, such as Italy and Poland, that tolerate fascism or bigotry to an extent that would be unacceptable to the UK’s politically conscious public. We share membership of the Council of Europe with states whose democratic credentials are still more flawed, such as Turkey and Russia. A British party sitting in the European Parliament or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that does not wish wholly to isolate itself, has little choice but to join blocs that include some highly unsavoury members.

Of course, one could take the principled position that international isolation would be preferable to any alliance that includes bigots or extremists. Yet this is the opposite of what Cameron’s critics, such as Denis MacShane and Nick Cohen are saying, which is that he should have kept the British Conservatives in the European People’s Party in order to preserve British influence through membership of the dominant mainstream centre-right bloc, as represented by Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democrats and Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement. 

I have great respect for both Denis MacShane and Nick Cohen, but I must beg to differ. The biggest internal threat to the EU is not the homophobia or anti-environmentalism of Polish and Czech rightists – disgusting though these are. A rather bigger threat comes from the Euro-federalist project that, with only slight oversimplification, can be defined as follows: forge a strategic partnership with Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe; undermine the Western alliance in the interests of ‘independence’ from the US; keep Turkey out of the EU, at whatever cost to Western strategic interests; keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO, consigning them to the status of buffer zone vis-a-vis an appeased Russia; and build a narrow, inward-looking ‘Fortress Europe’ that would certainly not pull its weight in the global struggle with the enemies of freedom and human rights. Such is the policy of the dominant Franco-German bloc in the EU, currently led by Merkel and Sarkozy.

Sarkozy hardly scores higher in terms of political correctness than does Kaminski. He is on record for opposing Turkey’s entry into the EU on the grounds that ‘Turkey is in Asia Minor’ and that ‘I won’t be able to explain to French school kids that Europe’s border neighbors are Iraq and Syria.’ (This from the head of a state that, via its overseas department of French Guiana, shares a land border with Brazil). Treating Turkey, which was part of the Ancient Greek world and the Roman Empire and whose largest city was for a time the Roman capital, as an Asian ‘other’ with no right to be part of Europe, scarcely marks Sarkozy out as a respectable centre-right statesman free of bigoted views. Nor does his vocal support for the Greek-nationalist campaign to force the Republic of Macedonia to change its name, motivated as this is by the racist belief that a Slavic-speaking people has no right to use the Macedonian name of the ‘Greek’ Alexander the Great, and that the Macedonian nation has no right even to exist.

Sarkozy and Merkel were responsible in April 2008 for the failure to grant a NATO Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine, effectively announcing to Moscow that the Western alliance was not standing by these countries – a message that Vladimir Putin took to heart when he attacked Georgia soon after. Sarkozy and Merkel were then in the forefront of the appeasers who pushed to ensure that Moscow’s aggression would not be allowed to stand in the way of EU-Russian collaboration. At the height of Russia’s aggression against Georgia, while France held the EU Presidency, Sarkozy travelled to Moscow to reassure the Russians that ‘It’s perfectly normal that Russia would want to defend the interests both of Russians in Russia and Russophones outside Russia.’ Sarkozy’s negotiations, in Toby Vogel’s words, ‘yielded a badly drafted ceasefire agreement and provided space for numerous Russian violations that the EU was in no position to counter’. Merkel, meanwhile, is in coalition with the German Social Democratic Party – the champion of collaboration with Russia, whose former leader Gerhard Schroeder described Putin as an ‘impeccable democrat’.

The Franco-German policy of excluding Turkey permanently from the EU – an integral element in the Euro-federalist strategy – has borne bitter fruit. The once reformist government of the AKP in Turkey, persistently disappointed in its ambition to join the EU, is turning away from the West and toward an increasing alignment with Russia, Iran and other tyrannical states of the Islamic world. For the current leaderships of France and Germany, cementing strategically crucial Turkey’s membership of the Western alliance is simply less important than their goal of an introverted federalist Fortress Europe that they would dominate. Meanwhile, Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members from the former Communist bloc are increasingly apprehensive at the possibility of a Western rapprochement with Russia that would see their security interests sacrificed – as the recent open letter to the Obama Administration from a stellar panel of Eastern and Central European statesmen makes clear. We can be certain that it will not be Sarkozy and Merkel who will be reassuring our Eastern and Central European allies.

In sum, Sarkozy and Merkel are taking the EU down the wrong path – a path, moreover, with which British public opinion is deeply uncomfortable. The policy of Gordon Brown’s government so far has been to keep rank with the French and Germans. This policy has not achieved results.

It would be wrong to read too much into Cameron’s move, which is apparently the result principally of internal Conservative Party politics rather than geostrategic considerations. Despite promises to the contrary made at the time of the Georgian war last summer, the Conservatives are continuing to sit with Putin’s United Russia party in the European Democrat Group in the Council of Europe. But in principle, Cameron’s formation of the European Conservatives and Reformists shows a welcome readiness to shake up EU politics and power structures and break ranks with elements that are taking Europe down the wrong path. The European Parliament is not where power lies in the EU, but in principle, the new group – small as it currently is, and containing as it does some undeniably unsavoury elements – could grow to provide a powerful voice for Europeans, particularly East and Central Europeans, who are uncomfortable with the federalist project and with the Franco-German preponderance in the EU, and who staunchly support the US alliance. It is to be hoped that this new group will serve as a building block for a new, alternative European project in keeping with Cameron’s professed vision of ‘progressive conservatism’, and not as a haven for European reactionaries.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Update: Stephen Pollard has written a convincing defence of Kaminski from the charge of anti-Semitism.

Hat tip: Dave Weeden, Aaronovitch Watch.

Hat tip:

Friday, 31 July 2009 Posted by | European Union | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The false god of national unification

Garibaldi

Review of Srdja Pavlovic, Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slav State, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana, 2008

Garibaldi has a lot to answer for. This is a conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from a survey of the train-wreck of contemporary Italian politics. Spectacular endemic corruption, rampant xenophobia, exceptionally brutal police, fascists at the centre of mainstream political life, moves to rehabilitate wartime fascists, state fingerprinting of gypsies, laws against ‘un-Italian’ food, an exceptionally vulgar populist prime minister with a burgeoning personality cult, boring football – all are characteristic of the country that was the model for ‘successful’ national unification in the nineteenth century. Nor is this an ephemeral phenomenon – Italy, the principal incubator of the fascist virus in the interwar period, simply has never worked very well as a country. Vast repression and bloodshed, claiming tens of thousands of lives, were required to impose Piedmontese rule on southern Italy in the 1860s. The unnatural imposition, in the 1860s and 70s, of a unitary national state on a peninsula that had experienced centuries of regional diversity in its forms of government, has produced a polity whose dysfunctionality appears incurable.

Italy merely exemplifies the dubious benefits brought to us by the nineteenth-century fad for joining smaller pieces of territory up to produce bigger states. After two world wars and one Holocaust, nobody should try to claim that the unification of Germany has been an unmixed blessing for humanity. After Italy and Germany, it was Romania that produced probably the most powerful indigenous fascist movement in interwar Europe, in the form of the Legion of Archangel Michael or Iron Guard- a Romania that was formed from the merger of diverse lands during the second half of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries: Wallachia, Moldavia, Northern Dobrudja, Southern Dobrudja, Transylvania, Bessarabia, Bukovina. Indeed, the rise of dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar period was not unrelated to the fact that many of the states of the region had been formed from mergers of diverse territories. Polities that had developed along organically distinct paths for centuries were suddenly ‘unified’ and forced to function as seamless wholes, despite having had no tradition of doing so. The resulting internal political fragmentation and instability provided fertile ground for dictators to impose ‘order’, while the need to create and staff new state bureaucracies meant the churning out of large numbers of impoverished university graduates who could be, as in the case of Romania, natural recruits for fascist movements.

The more closely one examines the record of ‘national unification’, the worse it appears. The union of Scotland with England to form a united kingdom of Great Britain worked fine, if one believed in the common Anglo-Scottish project of trampling the Irish, fighting the French, fighting Papists generally and conquering the lands of darker-skinned people. But many Scottish people understandably feel today that their country is marginalised in the union with England. As for the union of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom – the less said about that the better. The imposition of a centralised, uniform administrative system on France during the French Revolution, binding together a formerly diverse medley of traditional territorial entities, grew inexorably into the most aggressive programme of territorial expansionism that post-medieval Europe had ever seen, in which the French armies reached as far as Moscow.

More recently, the attempt by Croat fascists to incorporate the whole of overwhelmingly non-Croat Bosnia within a Great Croatia in World War II involved genocide against the Serb population of Bosnia, and has cast a shadow over the subsequent history of inter-ethnic relations in the country. Cyprus’s contemporary misfortunes stem from the suicidal efforts of extreme Greek nationalists, after Cypriot independence in 1960, to pursue union with Greece, which eventually provoked the Turkish invasion of the country. The history of Serbia in the 1990s needs no comment.

Conversely, countries that have escaped incorporation in greater nation-building projects have generally not suffered for it. The people of Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Austria are hardly suffering today from the fact that they are not part of Germany. Cyprus certainly benefits from being an independent state with its own UN seat, rather than a provincial backwater of a Greater Greece. Indeed, the most successful, stable democracies in Europe have generally been those with relatively small populations that have retained the same borders and continuity of administration for long periods: Switzerland, the Nordic and the Benelux countries.

Yet of all experiments at national unification in modern European history, few, if any, have been such an unmitigated disaster as the attempt to unify diverse South Slavic lands within a single, Yugoslav state. Whereas the territorial unifications of Italy and Germany have been successfully achieved at enormous bloodshed and dubious long-term benefit for the populations in question, in the case of Yugoslavia, the price in blood was paid, but territorial unification was merely transient, and at least one of the lands involved – Bosnia – appears to have been irredeemably ruined by the experience. This is partly, of course, because Yugoslavia was not merely an experiment in national unification, but in unifying different nations to form a supranational whole. It may nevertheless be fruitful to situate the Yugoslav case in a wider European context.

The story of Serbia and Croatia and their unhappy experience of shared statehood is a familiar one. Although there was more of an overlap in nationhood between the Serbs and the Croats than some Croat nationalists in particular like to admit – as exemplified by individuals such as the Bosnian Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, who belonged to both nations – the Serbs and Croats were already two distinct nations when Serbia and Croatia united with each other, and with other countries, to form the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ in 1918 – subsequently renamed ‘Yugoslavia’.

A less familiar story, but one that follows more closely the European pattern of national unification as outlined above, is the story of the unification of Montenegro with Serbia in 1918, which immediately preceded the establishment of the Yugoslav state. For the first time, we now have an excellent introduction to the topic for the English-language reader, in Srdja Pavlovic’s ‘Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slavic State’. Although Pavlovic does not discuss his use of the term ‘Anschluss’ to describe Serbia’s annexation of Montenegro in 1918, the reason becomes apparent as his account progresses; he is not comparing Serbia’s rulers with the Nazis, but rather drawing an informed analogy as to what ‘unification’ meant for Montenegro. For if at one level the annexation represented the fulfilment of the goal of Serb national unification as understood by one section of the Montenegrin political nation, yet it was also an act of usurpation carried out by radical nationalists, in violation of Montenegro’s constitutional system and state traditions; one that necessitated bloody repression against those Montenegrins who, though accepting union with Serbia, wanted it on terms more respectful of Montenegro’s individuality.

Montenegro before 1918 was in many ways to Serbia what Austria before 1938 was to Germany. Pavlovic presents the Serb national identification as being wholly dominant among Montenegro’s political and intellectual classes by 1918, yet as he explains, it did not follow from this that Serbia’s absorption of Montenegro on the Piedmontese model was universally desired. Contrary to what nationalists believe, a nation is not a seamless garment. As Pavlovic describes, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Montenegro’s own rulers – who bore the title of ‘vladika’ or ‘prince-bishop’ – themselves held different views of Montenegro’s national destiny, viewing it either as the attainment of Montenegro’s independence within enlarged borders, on the basis of Montenegrin state-right, or as submersion in a larger empire – either Christian, Slavic or Serbian. Montenegrin national discourse therefore possessed two traditions.

Montenegrins were bitterly divided over the question of union with Serbia in 1918. As Pavlovic explains, the tendency of existing historiography to present this division as being between unionists (‘Whites’) and separatists or reactionaries (‘Greens’) does not do justice to the latter’s case. For those Montenegrins who opposed unification as it was carried out by the Whites themselves accepted the need for Montenegro’s unification with Serbia in principle. However, they believed that this unification should be on the basis of Montenegro’s constitution and laws, with Montenegro becoming a constituent part of the new South Slavic union in its own right. They objected to the unconstitutional, arbitrary way in which the unification was carried out, and to the simple absorption of the country by Serbia, without any respect for its state tradition or individuality. They were, in sum, the more enlightened and far-seeing as well as moderate of the two camps.

Serbia, which controlled the Montenegrin army during World War I, pursued a strategy that ensured that neither this army, nor the Montenegrin state, would survive the war, so that they would prove no obstacle to the eventual annexation, or to the deposition of Montenegro’s King Nikola and his Petrovic-Njegos dynasty. The act of union was carried out while Montenegro was under Serbian military control; the elections to the ‘Great People’s Assembly’ that was to proclaim the union, and the proceedings of the assembly itself, were manipulated by the Serbian-backed unionists to ensure that the Greens would lose. In the run-up to the elections, possible opponents of union were prevented by the Serbian army from returning to the country, as was King Nikola himself. A prominent supporter of union, Janko Spasojevic, himself admitted before the Assembly that its declaration of union represented ‘a coup d’etat by peaceful means’.

The manner in which unification was engineered represented a violation of the rights of that section of the Montenegrin people that opposed it, and provoked a civil war that continued well into the 1920s, which the regime in Belgrade won only with much bloodshed and repression. The fissure that was created between Montenegrins was enormously damaging to the country, and ensured that when civil war erupted again, under Axis occupation during World War II, the loss of life would be enormous.

The brutal act of unification also represented a blow against the possibility that the new Yugoslav state itself might be established on a healthy basis. The Assembly’s resolution on unification made no mention of Yugoslavia or the wider South Slavic context. By annexing Montenegro outright, Serbia’s preponderance in relation to the other Yugoslav lands was made still greater, helping to ensure the domination of the Serbian political classes over the new state. The imposition of a centralist constitution, in violation of the national aspirations of most non-Serbs, was thereby facilitated – an act from which all Yugoslavia’s subsequent woes followed. Had Montenegro entered Yugoslavia as a distinct entity, the internal Yugoslav imbalance between Serbia and the western South Slav lands would have been that much less. Montenegro’s annexation was, therefore, a tragedy for the whole Yugoslav experiment.

Pavlovic’s book is a balanced work on a neglected topic that avoids polemical excesses and presents both the ‘White’ and the ‘Green’ points of view. He reminds us that nationhood is not black and white, and what it means to belong to a particular nation is frequently unclear or disputed among members of the nation themselves. His study is testimony to the damaging effect of attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all model of nationhood on diverse territories with their own particular traditions and nuanced identities. Damaging, among other things, for the goal of national unification itself – the attempt to unite Montenegro with Serbia, like the attempt to unite Austria with Germany, was ultimately unsuccessful, despite the enormous cost in blood.

Today, Montenegro and Serbia exist as independent states, wholly separate from one another, the unionist dream having ended in nothing. Both countries are likely to be happier for that.

Thursday, 21 May 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Montenegro, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment