Friday, 21 April 2017

VII  Serbia: Birder on the Orient Express

The border guards at the Serb frontier were the friendliest and most courteous I encountered anywhere, and I spent the night in a comfortable but affordable hotel in Mokra Gora.
   Wednesday 24th March 2010 was the eleventh anniversary of Primakov’s Loop.[1] I reached a tunnel with a clear “No pedestrians” sign, and so hitched a lift on a coach which set me down free of charge at a small town called Kremna. I then bumped into an English-speaking medic I’d actually met and exchanged a few words with near the monastery at Dobrun, the day before. Bringing me a tube of black ointment in case I needed it, for my feet, he explained that he’d been forced to leave Pristina, Kosovo, at the time of Nato’s bombing in 1999, but still had a close Muslim friend there. He also made reference to a fame Kremna had acquired as a result of its association with certain “prophesies”.[2] Stopping later to eat on a wall outside a business premises of some kind, I was spontaneously brought a super mug of coffee, then bread, water and different kinds of sandwich-filling by the employees.
   Užice[3] is quite a big city, nestling in a deep cavity created by mountains on all sides.  At around midnight I checked into the Hotel Zlatibor, a soaring concrete behemoth whose science fiction overtones make a stupendously bold statement about the merits of late70s/early80s communist architecture. In the morning I could not be restrained from drinking tea on board a real-life carriage of the Orient Express, with all its authentic upholstery and accoutrements, converted into a café restaurant.  Heading east I came to flatter country, and was persuaded to stay for a delicious bean soup at a petrol station where one of the attendants spoke good English. A friend of his who worked in local TV had recently interviewed the French lady with her donkey, so he got on the phone and it was arranged that I should have a similar meeting at the hotel in Požega that evening. However no one was there when I arrived; it’s possible that I may have been expected to make better time.
   Next day I donned the kilt again, and passed through the Ovčar-Kablar Gorge, known as the Serbian Mount Athos because of its numerous ancient monasteries. I visited the first of these, dedicated to the Transfiguration of Our Lord, where I was greeted by a monk who had studied in St Petersburg. He put me in the picture about the ineligibility of my kilt, but allowed me to glimpse inside the monastery chapel, with a glorious Iconostasis. However we also had a bit of discord on the question of Church unity, and the air was only cleared when I stated my opposition to Nato’s disgraceful actions in the Kosovo crisis eleven years earlier. Bloated with an arrogance venturing into the realm of farce, in part by the accession to Nato of former Warsaw Pact countries Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, in March 1999 western leaders flouted international law to carry out the bombing of a sovereign independent country, largely to divert media attention from a US President's private life.[4] Kosovo's status as part of Serbia is more or less analogous to that of Kent in England, especially since both are the ecclesiastical heartlands.

[1] On 24 March 1999, a senior Russian delegation led by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was in mid-flight over the Atlantic, heading for talks in Washington, D.C. When notified that Nato had begun its bombing of Yugoslavia, Primakov ordered the plane to turn around and return to Moscow. This is seen by many Russians as a key turning point, when the last vestige of uncritical post-Cold War goodwill towards the United States and western countries was finally exhausted.
The parallels between what historians refer to as Austria-Hungary’s ‘unacceptable ultimatum’ to Serbia of 1914, and the Rambouillet draft agreement presented by Nato to the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) 85 years later, are uncanny to the point of being surreal. On 7 July 1914, Austria-Hungary’s Council of Joint Ministers settled on the idea of making demands of Serbia which would be subtly but unmistakably impossible for a sovereign state to fulfil. The clause which met these criteria more than any other was the one compelling Belgrade to “agree to the cooperation in Serbia of the organs of the Imperial and Royal Government in the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the integrity of the Monarchy.” In the words of senior Viennese foreign ministry official Count Hoyos, this was “of such a nature that no nation that still possessed self-respect and dignity could possibly accept” it.
Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum was described at the time as “the most insolent document of its kind ever devised” by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. ‘Appendix B’ of the Rambouillet draft agreement however, tacked on at the eleventh hour by the United States, actually contrived to be worse; a crass, not to say downright puerile mockery of all the diplomatic efforts which preceded it.
“Nato personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated air space and territorial waters. This shall include but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, manoeuvre, billet and utilisation of any areas or facilities as required for support, training and operations.”
In an article for The Nation in May 1999 (i.e. while the bombardment was continuing) George Kenney, a former hand on the U.S State Department’s Yugoslavia desk, wrote the following;
“An unimpeachable press source who regularly travels with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told this reviewer that, swearing reporters to deep-background confidentiality at the Rambouillet talks, a senior State Department official had bragged that the United States “deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept.” The Serbs needed, according to the official, a little bombing to see reason. Many critics already assumed the United States was creating a pretext for bombing–it seemed abundantly evident from the sham Rambouillet plan, which in its military appendix B demanded what would have been an unconditional surrender of Yugoslavia–but it is still astonishing to find out that a senior official would crow about a premeditated US plan to justify attack.”(my emphasis) From ‘Rolling Thunder: the Rerun’ by George Kenney, The Nation, 27 May 1999.
“…certain people in NATO were spoiling for a fight at that time… terms put to Milosevic were absolutely intolerable: how could he possibly accept them? It was quite deliberate.” Lord Gilbert, Defence Minister.
“Rambouillet, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing.” Dr Henry Kissinger.
“The draft agreement offered [to Milosevic] at Rambouillet was packed with elements he could never have accepted.” BBC World Affairs correspondent John Simpson; A Mad World, My Masters.
There are few if any recorded instances of Churchill using profane language, but it surely is not outside the realm of possibility to imagine that he might have been pushed to do so by the terms of the Rambouillet draft agreement.
[2] Mitar Tarabich (1829–1899) was an illiterate local peasant and alleged recipient of a series of often minutely accurate prophetic visions which he is said to have dictated to a Serbian Orthodox priest, Zaharije Zaharich (1836–1918), who was also his godfather. The prophesies, which appear to have come to light in around 1980, mostly deal with political and cultural developments in Serbia and Yugoslavia but also concern the wider world. In light of what happened to Iraq from 2003 and Syria from 2011, the following is perhaps of at least passing interest: “There will be a few wars around the kingdom of Israel, but sooner or later peace will come even there. In these wars, brothers fight brothers; then they make peace and kiss each other, but their hatred remains... All these small wars are initiated by the great kingdoms because of their wickedness and malice.” (my emphasis)
[3] In late 1913, Užice’s listening post was the scene of one of history’s most baleful and strictly confidential fireside chats, when Bosnian Serb newspaper editor Danilo Ilić paid a clandestine visit to officer in charge and fellow Black Hander, Colonel C.A. Popović. Pressing for a more belligerent policy towards Bosnia’s Austro-Hungarian colonial masters, Ilić was forwarded to Belgrade for discussions with arch-conspirator Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, aka ‘Apis’, who combined his role as Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence with leadership of the Black Hand. While Apis was immensely powerful and well-connected however, most historians absolve the Serbian government itself, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, of responsibility for Franz Ferdinand’s death. Having got wind of the plot by the end of May, on 18 June Pašić instructed his ambassador in Vienna to warn the Austro-Hungarian authorities that there was reason to believe the Archduke ran a grave risk by visiting Bosnia at that time – a warning which was indeed passed on, albeit described as “vague” by the Austrian side. Yet the security arrangements in Sarajevo on 28 June were so inadequate as to bolster suggestions that Austria-Hungary deliberately sought to create optimum conditions for an attempt on the lives of the heir-presumptive and his wife Sophie; a Czech countess openly disapproved of by the Viennese establishment. Having said that however, it is known that anti-Habsburg feeling was widespread in Serbia at the time, and Pašić’s failure to take effective action to round up the plotters may have been based at least partly on a calculation that it would have undermined his already tenuous political position.
[4] “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” President Bill Clinton at White House press conference, 26 January 1998.
Over the course of 1998, discernible increases in the loudness and intensity of US/Nato war drums regarding Kosovo actually corresponded dispiritingly closely with developments bearing on Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. For instance on 9 June he declared the emerging Balkan crisis serious enough to warrant putting the US in a state of “national emergency”(!). This however surely had less to do with any “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”, as advertised, than with the fact that a week before, Ms Lewinsky’s legal team had been strengthened by the arrival of two particularly eminent Washington criminal defence lawyers. On 21st September Clinton’s grand jury testimony of the previous month was broadcast publicly for the first time; three days later, Nato’s North Atlantic Council issued an “activation warning”, putting its warplanes on a high level of readiness to carry out airstrikes against Serb government targets. The US House of Representatives vote to begin impeachment proceedings on 8 October was followed less than a week later by the North Atlantic Council issuing “activation orders”, putting Nato on a fully-fledged war footing. Posing as it did an immediate threat of airstrikes (a crime in itself under the terms of the UN charter), this move forced Belgrade to sign a ceasefire two days later, whose terms included the establishment of the Kosovo VerifiCIAtion Mission. All through this time, Clinton avoided business-as-usual White House press conferences; i.e. those featuring only himself and journalists. When he finally called one on 19 March 1999, the first of its kind since April of the previous year, it was mostly taken up with his justification for impending Nato airstrikes, following the pre-determined failure of the Rambouillet talks.
“You do not have to be pro-Serbian… to realize that the Kosovo crisis was a set-up. Clinton, badly damaged by the Lewinsky affair, had decided with Madeleine Albright that there would only be one outcome to this particular Balkan crisis: Milosevic would have to back down, or be bombed into submission.” John Simpson, A Mad World, My Masters.

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