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The Star of Anxiety

THE BALKANS; Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999 By Misha Glenny; Viking: 726 pp., $34.95

May 07, 2000|DAVID RIEFF | David Rieff is a contributing writer to Book Review. He is the author of several books, including "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West" and is co-editor of "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."

All interesting writers work at least as much out of temperament as out of what they have seen or imagined. This is true of journalists as much as of novelists. Think of V.S. Naipaul's dyspepsia when confronted by Islam or the way Larry McMurtry's admirable nonfiction slips almost automatically into the elegiac mode. Misha Glenny writes under the star of anxiety. In the preface to his first book, "The Rebirth of History," which chronicled the emergence of Eastern and Central Europe from Soviet domination, Glenny wrote "[M]y motivation for writing this book was quite simple--I was worried about Eastern Europe." And in the afterword to the revised edition of his searing second book, "The Fall of Yugoslavia," such was his despair that he declared, "I hate Europe, but there is nowhere else to go."

These books were written while Glenny was principally occupied first as the BBC's Vienna correspondent and then its reporter in the early years of the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. And Glenny's occasional journalism, above all in The New York Review of Books, was even more alarmist. He consistently warned that NATO strikes against the Serbs in Bosnia would lead to a wider war in the Balkans. He also expressed the fear that Macedonia was on the verge of collapse.

In this, as in other dire predictions, he was proved wrong again and again. But his tropism toward the most pessimistic possible interpretation both of what outsiders could do and to what extent the Serbs could be resisted without unleashing consequences that for Glenny were far greater than the status quo, be it the siege of Sarajevo in 1993 or the self-proclaimed Serb "republic" in the Serb areas of Croatia in 1995, has unjustly blinded his critics to his many virtues as a writer and as a feeling intellect.

He was wrongly accused of being an apologist for the Serbs, a blinkered "Yugonostalgic." But it was his despair that increasingly got the better of him. He began to haunt the corridors of power, above all in Washington and in the United Nations operation in the Balkans, hoping to influence the course of events. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the British commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1994, credits Glenny with guiding him through the intricacies of Yugoslav politics and Balkan history. And Glenny was close to Robert Frasure, the American diplomat who served as Richard Holbrooke's deputy, and died when his armored car went off a cliff on the way into Sarajevo in early 1995.

Since then, Glenny has left the BBC, largely withdrawing both from covering and joining in the polemics over post-Dayton former Yugoslavia and the Kosovo crisis. He did this because he was engaged in the ambitious enterprise of trying to write an encompassing history of the Balkans from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. With entire books devoted to each of the countries of the region--recent examples include Noel Malcolm's brilliant history of Bosnia and Miranda Vickers' history of Albania--Glenny's enterprise seemed unpromising. But while it is not likely to be considered the authoritative work on the subject, and some of its assertions and perspectives are, depending on your point of view, either controversial or tendentious, it is still a very considerable achievement.

Glenny's subtitle--"Nationalism, War and the Great Powers"--telegraphs his thesis. For him, the reason things have gone so wrong in the Balkans over the last two centuries has little to do with ethnic nationalism, let alone some genetic or cultural barbarousness--the "ancient ethnic hatreds" argument we heard so much of from Western pundits and politicians during the Bosnian War. Rather, Glenny tends to blame the great European powers and the United States for either provoking or aggravating conflicts that otherwise might have remained more limited.

"Before 1999," he writes, "the great powers had intervened three times in the Balkans. The first was at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when European diplomats agreed to replace Ottoman power by building a competing system of alliances. . . . The second began with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in the summer of 1914 and culminated in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne and the Great Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey. . . . The third started with Italy's unprovoked attack on Greece in 1940 and ended with the consolidation of unrepresentative pro-Soviet regimes in Bulgaria and Romania and a pro-Western administration in Greece."

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