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The World : The Wages of Western Indifference to Genocide : Bosnia: The West's cowardice in the face of Serbian warlords has fed nationalistic ambitions and religious intolerance around the world.

July 25, 1993|Alex Alexiev | Alex Alexiev, an international consultant, writes frequently on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Last year he as an adviser to the president of Bulgaria.

PALO ALTO — Secretary of State Warren Christopher's statement that the United States will not get actively involved in Bosnia is perhaps the clearest admission to date of what has been obvious for some time--the West has abandoned the Bosnian Muslims to the murderous onslaught of the Serbs. What's more, it is not psychotic to argue that by refusing to intervene directly, or even to allow the victims to arm themselves effectively, the West has become a tacit accomplice in the genocide by implicitly giving the Serbs carte blanche to finish their undertaking undisturbed.

A cynic may contend that anything that brings an end to the war, even if Bosnia's largest ethnic group, or what's left of it, would have to live in ghettos, is preferable to its continuation. Yet, ending the war on anything close to Serbian terms will only conclude the first act of a greater and more violent drama. Western cowardice has allowed malignant nationalism and religious intolerance to run amok on a scale not seen in Europe since the Nazi menace.

Within former Yugoslavia, it is almost certain that violence will spread and intensify. Emboldened by their success, the nationalists currently running Belgrade are likely to turn to other ethnic groups on their "cleansing" list. To the north in Vojvodina, between 300,000 and 400,000 Hungarians are likely targets. One of the most notorious Serbian nationalists, Vojislav Seselj, is openly advocating their physical expulsion. His is no idle threat. The Milosevic government has started settling large numbers of Serbian refugees in traditional Hungarian territories, while thugs throw grenades into the homes of Hungarians and other minorities to force them to leave.

Ethnic cleansing and armed conflict have also begun in the Sandzak, a predominantly Muslim area on both sides of Serbia's border with Montenegro. Serbian paramilitary gangs already terrorize the Muslim population there, which has called for autonomy and has begun to arm itself.

The situation is similar, albeit with a much larger potential for cataclysmic violence, in Kosovo, a Serbian region where the Albanian Muslim majority is denied even the most elementary rights and lives in conditions that would do the most zealous practitioners of apartheid proud. Given the avowed aim of Serbian nationalists to rid this historic cradle of the orthodox Serbian state of its Muslim population and their growing belief that the West would again do nothing, violence in Kosovo would seem unavoidable.

This time, however, the communities targeted for cleansing have millions of ethnic brethren just across the border. Any large-scale abuse of the Kosovo Albanians or the Hungarians is likely to force Tirana or Budapest into the conflict.

All this will be taking place against the background of a Serbia that is rapidly sliding toward a state of nature. Industry is at a standstill, and agriculture is little more than subsistence. Barter is the chief mode of economic intercourse. Such dire conditions have tempted some Western pundits to speculate that the Serb leaders have had enough and will back away from their larger ambitions. What this school of punditry forgets is that Slobodan Milosevic and the warlords running Serbia know that any let up in the war hysteria would promptly result in their political, and perhaps physical, demise.

Nationalism, religious hatred and ethnic violence seem to have become the key defining factors in much of the former communist world. Nationalist zealots, often in cahoots with former communists, stoke the flames of hatred from Russia to the Caucasus, from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. For example, in Azerbaijan the legitimately elected government has been overthrown by a warlord. Neighboring Georgia balances precariously on the edge of chaos and anarchy. The Armenians have gone far beyond their legitimate struggle in Nagorno-Karabakh in their conquest of Azeri land.

A second troubling outcome of the Bosnian nightmare is the galvanizing effect it will have on Islamic zealotry. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the only true beneficiaries of the carnage are the militant Islamic fundamentalists, who passionately hate the West and its liberal values. It is ironic that the Bosnians, a secular and well-educated European people, may become a rallying cry for the Islamic hatemongers.

No wonder fundamentalist propaganda of a Western war on Islam in Bosnia is falling on receptive ears throughout the Muslim world. And one does not have to be an anti-Western zealot to see at least a modicum of truth in the argument that the genocide in Bosnia would not have happened if those on the receiving end of gunfire had been Christians.

Growing numbers of Bosnian Muslims now see the world in the fundamentalist terms of "them vs. us." And "them" includes not only Serbs and Croats, but hypocritical Western "peacemakers" and do-nothing "peacekeepers."

With hundreds of thousands of bitter, dispossessed Bosnian refugees in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe, and with a "Gaza Strip" territorial arrangement for those remaining in Bosnia, it is not difficult to predict the Lebanonization of this part of Europe and job security for experts on international terrorism for years to come.

And so it is that at the end of the 20th Century. Western indifference and cowardice seem to have set the stage for a relapse into the violent politics of tribalism, religious intolerance and militant nationalism that many thought had come to an end with the demise of communism and the triumph of democracy. History will not judge us lightly.

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