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Norway’s Bomber Should Leave The Balkans Alone – OpEd

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By Marcus Tanner

It’s not surprising that Anders Behrin Breivik claimed NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 was one the factors behind his decision to carry out last Friday’s atrocities in and near Oslo.

For years, Serbia’s heroic resistance to Islam in Bosnia and Kosovo – their words – has been a cause célèbre with the extreme right in Europe, an oft-quoted example of Europe’s ignominious surrender to world Muslim domination.

Far-right websites in Britain – some of whom the bomber was in contact with – regularly hum with professions of admiration for the actions of their “Serbian brothers” in the 1990s – those feelings of admiration coupled with fury about NATO’s action in allegedly advancing the cause of Al-Qaeda in the Balkans.

The other great poster boy of the far right these days is Israel, which is deeply ironic given the right’s traditional anti-Semitism. The Norwegian bomber’s manifesto is full of the usual contradictions in that regard. He admires Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians at the same time as maintaining that the pre-Second World War Jews were a treacherous element in Germany. Square that, if you can.

One thing that stands out in analysis of the Balkans by right-wing extremists like Breivik is the blurred focus and shaky grasp of facts. Accurate knowledge of the past and present conditions in the Balkan region is in short supply, when compared to the amount of words they expend on the subject.

Looking back at the Bosnian war in his self-styled manifesto, the Oslo bomber says the Muslims started the whole thing off by rejecting a generous Serbian offer of a couple of “enclaves”. Well there you have it. The ungrateful Muslims.

Of course, were anyone to look at a demographic map of Bosnia circa 1991 and examine the relative demographic strengths and distribution of the three main communities, one would not conclude that this offer was generous.

Breivik’s words recall those of the former Bosnian Serb leader, Biljana Plavsic. In the middle of the Bosnian war, she told me and Tim Judah of the Times in an interview that the Serbs were doing the Muslims a favour by herding them into enclaves. “Why’s that?”, we asked. “Oh, they like living on top of each other,” she said in an airy fashion, as if that ought to have been obvious.

As for Kosovo, whoever talked there of the war with Serbia as a great religious struggle or as a milestone in an international Islamic crusade? Certainly not the Islamic countries, most of whom did not side with Kosovo in 1999 and most of whom do not recognize its independence now. Certainly not the people who run things in Pristina now either. Deeply corrupt they may be – but Islamic zealots?

It is true that many Serbs attributed a religious quality to the Kosovo war, claiming that the Albanians’ “real” motive was their hatred of Christianity. But what is important to note is that this motive was attributed to Albanians; it wasn’t claimed or accepted.

This is one of the old curses of the Balkans; people insistently projecting grand overarching international ideologies, causes and theories onto conflicts that have little to do with them.

The war in Croatia was not about Catholicism versus Orthodoxy, it was about Croatian independence. Nor was the war in Bosnia, as many British liberals claimed in the early 1990s, about democracy versus fascism – a rerun of the Spanish Civil War. It was a struggle, a very militarily lopsided one, between Muslims and Serbs over who ruled Bosnia. Too bad if that sounds boring.

It may titillate the palates of armchair world theories to see the Balkan countries as pawns on a chessboard, all being moved around in purely passive fashion by vast unseen international forces. Reality is more humdrum. The sooner these grand strategists leave the Balkans out of their complex calculations, the better.


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Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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