Balkan | -s - Part 36

posted by PP on 2005/11/11 11:53

[ Balkan | -s ]

Ian Oliver: War & Peace in the Balkans. The Diplomacy of Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia. London: I.B. Tauris 2005. 279 pp.
[£ 25, ISBN 185043 889 7 (hardcover)]
Reviewed by Dave Carter (MilenijuM - Nis, Serbia & Montenegro) for Balkan Academic News
This book is unlike any I have read about the troubled 1990s in what was Yugoslavia, for two main reasons: it is many things, and none of them; and, because one of those things is a ground-level view of some key events in 1995-1998 from the perspective of a sympathetic 'westerner' with some relevant insight. The former reason makes it, at times, a frustrating and confusing read. The latter makes it (mostly) worth the effort.

The author is an ex-Major of the British army, who gave up his so-called "terribly mundane and pointless job" [271] and worked for over three years in the former Yugoslavia . During that time he worked for three different international 'entities', and it is his account of each of these that form the three substantive sections of the book. Within each section there is a mix of personal reportage and travelogue, day-to-day operational detail, insights into the context of the respective agencies' work, and the author's own rather unimaginative reflections on the wider historical and political context. His timing is often good - he was able to witness many significant events from eye-level, perhaps most interestingly the power-struggle within Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina during 1997 between Momcilo Krajisnik and Biljana Plavsic, initially for control of the SDS, and ultimately for political control of their 'part' of the state (elements of chapters 17-21). It is in such accounts that the book offers most value to the reader who is prepared to pursue them, and for the insight offered into the often mundane details of how international entities operate and behave when 'in the field'.

The first section covers the period June 1995-February 1996, when the author was based in Niksic, Montenegro working as a border monitor for the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. This first section suffers most from the travelogue elements of the book, which could so profitably have been omitted. It also sets the tone for the wild veering between subjects - this reviewer's favourite example being the switch from satellite imagery to detect illegal border crossings to fourteenth century Bosnian history without breaking paragraph [46]! The body of this section does however provide some very clear insight into the nature of the work done by this relatively little reported element of the international presence in the then FRY. The detail offered is enlightening, but is all too often concerned with what might be termed office politics, and the author's own immense contributions in overcoming them. This is a shame, because he offers much of value, not least a powerful opinion, from an ex-military officer, regarding the moral responsibility of the international community for its inaction in preventing the commission of war crimes. Yet this piece is almost lost since it is a typically tangential comment within an unrelated section [87-88].

The second section covers the period February 1996-December 1996, when the author worked for the Office of the High Representative, based in Sarajevo. His role in this process was crucial - as the person essentially responsible for the initial establishing of the office and infrastructure. Operationally it is the most interesting section, since there are rich veins of insight into the workings of this entity, and its interrelations with other international entities, and the society within which it was placed, and to which the author is unfailingly sympathetic. Nevertheless, the usual issues of personal pride in the author's contribution, office politics, and not-so-insightful contemporary analysis often cloud the picture. But even amongst these, there are some relevant accounts of the sheer scale of the disjunctions that impacted on normal life for anyone trying to operate normally in Bosnia and Herzegovina in this period.

The third and final section covers the January 1997-July 1998, when the author was a monitor with the European Community Monitor Mission variously in Sanski Most, Prijedor and finally Banja Luka. This section is the most powerful, and perhaps the most concerning. For the reader, the centre of the section, and perhaps of the book, is the account from the ground of the events of 10 July 1997 when SFOR, in the form of the British military, made its first attempt to arrest suspects for the ICTY at a politically disastrous time. Given that the author was essentially in the front line of the local backlash, whereas in his previous career he was more likely to be part of the military action, he is uniquely placed to analyse the events. His conclusion is very much that the evidence overwhelming points to ignorance of political realties, if not incompetence, by most sections of the international community (chapter 18). However, beyond this account, the section is largely based on descriptions of the author's increasing actions in spite of his superiors, where he tends to take an increasingly proactive role as he becomes simultaneously further alienated from and frustrated by the entity he is working for. The inevitable conclusion, of this reviewer at least, was that the book served the author as a form of catharsis - of the 'I told them so, but they wouldn't listen' and score-settling kind - and as a consequence, he became an increasingly unauthorised international actor, albeit a very well-intentioned and intelligent one. The net result is to induce a deep concern, not only about these events, but about the whole of the international presence in the Balkans, and indeed elsewhere. Whether intended or not, this is probably the most significant contribution of the book.

One other valuable element of the book is what might be described as the nearest it comes to having an underlying thesis. This is the frequent reference to the need to understand and acknowledge the reality of all displaced populations, most especially the "Krajina Serbs" (from what is now Croatia). Although mentioned throughout, it is in the third section, regarding the political landscape in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, that these insights are most telling. They are also influenced by some direct experience of watching Serbs fleeing Sarajevo in the weeks after Dayton [113-114], which leads to valuable practitioner-perspective reflection on the value of Dayton on the ground [121-122].

On a final minor note, there may be something to read into the fact that the book includes a four-page list of acronyms used, but lacks an index. The former is well used by the author, who evidences both his military and 'eurocratic' backgrounds in his love for the acronym. The latter confirms that this is not a book of research or scholarship, but it is nevertheless a great shame since there is much of value locked away within the text, often haphazardly placed making such a signposting-tool all the more needed.

Book Review Editors: Jelena Obradović and Cristina Bradatan
© 2005 Balkan Academic News

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