bad century in the Balkans
and quiet despair pervaded the Brushtail Café. Everybody had
watched the scenes from Albania and Macedonia on TV and nobody was saying
much. There was little point talking, because you could only talk in
Sevastopol, the Russians were readying another six warships for the
Mediterranean. "We are taking part in exercises ... or whatever
we are ordered to do", said an admiral in a 19th century uniform
with much gold braid. A crane was swinging cruise missiles aboard. Ah
yes, Sevastopol. Next stop, the Dardanelles.
not the Dardanelles again", somebody muttered. "Next thing,
some archduke will get shot at Sarajevo". Nobody laughed.
it rained incessantly, forcing Bettina Gozzi to abandon her usual spot
under the lamp up on the corner. She sat around in the café and
pursued her writing career instead. It was something about 'New Frontiers
of Adultery', which was destined for Quadrant, or maybe the Herald,
and her handwriting covered the backs of how-to-vote cards of the Non-Custodial
Parents Party and old Fred Nile leaflets which she spread over the table
as she scribbled away.
went back up to the office and brooded over a cider till I fell into
a shallow and troubled sleep. When I woke it was Sunday and still raining.
I walked across town and took the ferry to Manly. On a wet day, with
a low sky, it is a good way to get a long perspective on things.
felt very old and worn. We expect there will be some progress and reconciliation
in our lifetime, some ghastly past we can turn our back on, but the
news out of the Balkans has been confounding that for years and it is
not getting any better. This century it took three bitter steps forward
and now it has gone three back.
took with me a book of John Reed's 1915 articles from the Balkans. He
was said to be the highest paid reporter in America at the time he made
his reckless journey to the typhus-racked Balkan front lines with artist
Boardman Robinson. Many credit him with being the founder of modern
journalism as well as the US Communist Party ... and he was the best
role Warren Beatty ever played.
sat on the ferry and flicked through the book. It sprung open at one
of Boardman's sketches showing a Serb woman giving the breast to a baby
and it was entitled "A little avenger of Kosovo". The irony
chilled the soul. I had seen the new little avengers of Kosovo on TV,
at the breasts of Kosovo Albanian women, crowded under plastic sheets
in the rain, on a cold wet hillside. They will gather on the borders
of their homeland, like the Palestinians, for decades to come. There
are said to be half a million AK47s circulating in Albania alone, since
the collapse of the army, and two million hand grenades. Bulgaria, the
blackmarket arms bazaar of Europe, is right next door, so tools will
not be a problem.
The War in Eastern Europe -- Travels Through the Balkans in 1915
is an ominous book. He liked the Serbs for their invigorating madness,
but he saw also their overweening ambition for a Greater Serbian. The
"aspirations" of all the major players in the Balkans
the Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians were "practically boundless",
he said, and also, "the salient characteristic of Balkan peoples
is bitter hatred of the nearest aliens". And that is leaving out
of account the meddling in the region by the Germans, Italians, British,
Russians and French, which fuelled the fires still further.
will be no good or easy solution for all of this. It will take a long,
long time, and Nato missiles or even a full-scale invasion will not
do it. It will have to emerge from within.
last person who managed to get a grip on the thing was Josip Broz Tito
but that was only after the region had been mired by two Balkan
wars in 1912 and 1913, the First World War, and a bloody struggle against
the legions of Hitler and Mussolini, the Croatian fascist Ante Pavelic
and the Cetnik guerillas of the Serb Royalist Draza Mihajlovic. Millions
died in those wars and it was only when the Balkans lay exhausted and
in ruins that Tito and his multi-ethnic team emerged victorious
with the political authority to create a federated republic that brought
peace for three and a half decades. He thought himself a loyal Communist
and was a naive supporter of Stalin, but the old monster called him
a fascist and drove Yugoslavia out of the fold. The men who inherited
the shop when Tito died in 1980 were bankers and bureaucrats, cheap
nationalist demagogues and fascist ethnic cleansers.
Reed was lucky, in a way. He died of typhus in Russia in 1920. They
buried him in Red Square and he never saw the rise of Stalin, or the
purges, or the slaughter in the Balkans in the Second World War ...
Illustration after Goya's 'The Second of May'.