Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 July 1999
Issue No. 437
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal

From myths to missiles

Is it possible to comprehend the tragedy that is Yugoslavia? From Bosnia to Kosovo, history is everywhere: the dead bury the dead, and the living rise again on the ashes of legends. Ottomans and Byzantines, great powers and petty rulers, East and West have locked horns here, irrevocably, time and again. And the Drina runs through it all... Who can find the thread that leads back through this labyrinth, to the beginning? Was Tito on the right track? Are the embers fated to reignite time and again? And where is the bridge that leads to the other side? Mohamed Hassanein Heikal meets bards and conquerors, lords and tyrants, adventurers and diplomats -- and watches as history exacts its revenge
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"Some people say that I am the first Yugoslav in history... Others say that I might be the last"

I. The lord who lost his way

At 3.00pm, I was heading up the five steps to 20 Queen Anne's Gate, where I had arranged for a meeting of indefinite length with Lord David Owen. After serving many years as British foreign secretary, Lord Owen left the government to create Great Britain's third major political party. Emerging from the folds of Labour's mantle, the new party was to keep pace with the new times under the banner of Social Democracy. It did not achieve its purpose, however: to create "a broad assembly of the centre" and thus fill in the widening gap between Labour and the Tories. Despite the growing distance separating Great Britain's two major political parties, they are still considered products of the climate of social polarisation that followed World War II.

Three knights from the Labour Party were to champion the cause of the centre: Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle and David Owen. When their hopes were dashed, each went his or her own way: Jenkins to become an EU commissioner and Castle to retire from public life. Owen, however, could not bring himself to leave the political arena. For some time, he continued to circle in the air, a lone eagle, unable to find a tree large enough for him to nest on or a cliff commodious enough to perch on. On occasion, Margaret Thatcher considered luring him into her government, in spite of his "Labour record", as she was wont to say. The idea somehow always went astray, and Owen remained air-bound with no place to land. Many could see his skills and talents, but did not know how to handle them -- or, more accurately, use them. David Owen had managed to shape himself into a special kind of personality in British politics, combining youthfulness (relative), vitality (boundless), and an ability to fathom problems and address them with firmness (bordering on the autocratic on occasion).

Then came the day when former Prime Minister John Major agreed to the suggestion put forward by the celebrated Conservative leader (and former minister of foreign affairs) Lord Peter Carrington to nominate Lord Owen as the EU's representative in the attempts to resolve the crisis that had flared up in the Balkans. With the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, the spectre of a full-scale war floated over Europe. With every passing day, it appeared that civil wars within the various Yugoslavian republics could develop into national and ethnic wars between some of these republics and others, and that these wars in turn could escalate into regional warfare, drawing in countries bordering what had once been a single nation called Yugoslavia.

The EU approved Owen's nomination, and Owen joined his former colleague Cyrus Vance, US secretary of state under Carter, the UN representative in Yugoslavia. Owen and Vance -- two of the most capable diplomats in the western world -- set off to experiment in the Balkans. They were not alone. They had others with them, serving in various capacities: among others Robert Dole, US senator and one time presidential candidate; Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Swedish foreign minister; and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general.

When all efforts failed to contain an extremely dangerous situation (Yugoslavia) in a highly explosive area (the Balkans), the entire team of veteran politicians abandoned the field, leaving it to combatants of all types and breeds -- from Milosevic to Karadic, Madeleine Albright to Robin Cook, the NATO generals to the resistance leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Blood began to flow in torrents, mingling with the ashen residue of fire; from afar, it seemed that an enormous blot of misery stained the map of southeastern Europe.

David Owen recoiled, as did others, before this scene of horror. Owen decided to return to his office in this beautiful spot in the heart of the British capital, with St James Park stretching out before him, the idyllic walkway leading to the eastern bank of the Thames nearby, the buildings of Westminster a stone's throw from his back windows, and the chimes of Big Ben pealing faintly in the distance, a constant reminder that time goes on before and after crises, before and after people are born and die, before and after all ambitions are realised or lost.

I rang the bell. Maggie Smart, Lord Owen's secretary, opened the door for me. As I stepped into the reception room, Lord Owen came out to greet me. He showed me into his office. Near his desk, in front of the fireplace, was a small sitting area, with two comfortable chairs facing each other across a low table. This last was set with a pot of coffee, two cups and a small plate of biscuits.

As we sat down, Owen said, "Debbie [his American wife] didn't know you were in London. She's suggested that we meet for lunch or dinner, away from the troubles of Yugoslavia, before you leave."

He then asked: "Where are you going after here?"

I replied: "A quick tour around Europe and then back to Cairo."

Neither of us had prepared a way to broach the topic of our meeting, but our conversation had led there naturally.

Owen said, "I wanted to know how Cairo feels about what is happening in Yugoslavia." Then he caught himself and, perhaps in order to avoid embarrassment, he said, "Let me rephrase that. How does the Arab world feel about what is happening in Yugoslavia?"

He continued, "At one time the Arabs had a special relationship with Yugoslavia, as well as with India, is that not so? Throughout the period in which I was closely involved with the Balkan crisis, I wasn't able to gauge your reactions. But it occurred to me frequently that your relationship with Yugoslavia was strong. I know that the height of the non-aligned movement which was spearheaded by Tito, Abdel-Nasser and Nehru in the '50s and '60s has passed, but I would have thought that the proximity of the Balkans to the Middle East theatre would have compelled you to become more closely and actively involved in the crisis... It surprised me that I could find no one to support what I thought, so I cannot say anything for certain. But I would like to hear what you have to say. What is the degree of interest in the Arab world about what is happening directly above your heads in the Balkans?"

Taking my first turn in what turned out to be a three-hour conversation I said: "I, like you, am not certain. To me it does not seem that the Balkan crisis -- or crises -- attracted much concern among the Arab governments. If they do have a place for it on their agenda, I think it is at the end or somewhere towards the end. As for the Arab people, I think that there is an element of interest, but one in which there are degrees of mixed feelings, due to religious, humanitarian and perhaps, though to a lesser extent, historical considerations."

I went on to add: "To be fair to everyone in the Arab world, however, governments and peoples alike, the problem of Yugoslavia, or what is left of Yugoslavia, and the events in and around the Balkans are more like an insoluble riddle. Solving it requires a lot of effort and even greater patience: everyone has preferred to give their minds and nerves a rest. Instead, they have followed, to some extent, the flood of news, most of it coming from Western sources, American sources in particular, and they have become emotionally engrossed in the endless footage, mostly, if not entirely, directly from the cameras to the television screens. Again, the cameras were Western, and especially American."

I did not want these preludes to go on too long, so I said: "In any case, none of us were there. But you were. You saw it for yourself and were personally involved in the crisis. You stood at the mouth of the volcano and could feel the intensity of its flames."

axe alliance
GREAT POWERS, PETTY PRINCES: Mussolini and Hitler; Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill pausing during their 1943 conference in Tehran, on the porch of the Russian embassy
nehro nas-tito
A NON-ALIGNED ALLIANCE: Gamal Abdel-Nasser, with Nehru (above left) and Tito

David Owen poured the coffee and walked over to place a cup near me. The activity gave him time to collect his thoughts and choose an appropriate starting point. He returned to his seat and clasped his hands, cupping his chin. Then he started to speak in a low voice.

"I had never imagined that the crisis was quite so complicated when I accepted to become involved. That is to say, I knew it was complicated but, like any dilemma, I thought you would be able to see light at the end of the tunnel. I took part in looking for some light. I did not succeed. Nor did anyone else. At the end, or towards the end, we were no longer looking for a just settlement; we were looking for any settlement at all. We had all come to realise that that "just" was impossible, because there was no law -- or rather, if there was a law, it was written in blood."

Owen paused for a moment and then asked me: "Do you follow what I'm saying? I don't want to inundate you with obscure descriptions, but simple words cannot express the intricacies of the crisis. I had imagined that I knew Yugoslavia from an unforgettable experience there when I was younger, as well as from many other experiences, particularly when I was in the Foreign Office."

The Yugoslavian experience to which Owen referred in his youth occurred when he embarked on that "go out and see the world" trip that is virtually compulsory for students at the major British universities. David Owen plumped for Yugoslavia on bicycle. His companion on this trip was his old friend Peter Jay. It was Jay who introduced Owen to his father-in-law, former Prime Minister Jim Callahan, who was impressed by Owen and chose him as his foreign minister. At the same time, Jay, who was married to Callahan's daughter, Margaret, was appointed British ambassador to the US. Ironically, it would be Owen, as foreign minister, who advised transferring Jay from Washington because his wife had fallen in love with a reporter for the Washington Post, left the couple's home (the British Embassy in Washington at the time) and vanished for months. At the same time, because his wife had deserted him, according to his story, Ambassador Jay fell in love with his children's nanny (he had three children: two boys and a girl), producing an illegitimate daughter. Margaret, now the Baroness Jay of Paddington, is the Minister of Social Affairs in Tony Blair's government. Her husband, Peter Jay, has vanished from public life. Apparently, he has become an alcoholic and an embittered recluse, having isolated himself from all his friends and colleagues, including his teenage companion on the bicycle trip to Yugoslavia, David Owen.

David Owen was still speaking in low, confidential tones, about a subsequent experience in Yugoslavia -- a political one this time. Then he said abruptly: "You mentioned that Great Britain was drawn into World War I because of the conflicts in the Balkans. We entered the war following the assassination of the crown prince of Austria in Sarajevo in the course of the conflict between the Serbian kingdom and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the crown prince was assassinated, Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia entered to support Serbia and Germany moved in to back Austria. Meanwhile, we (Great Britain and France) entered the war on the side of Serbia and Russia. The Foreign Office has, I believe, the most complete archives on the Balkans. However, I discovered that the more I read about Yugoslavia, the less I knew; that whatever I learned was not sufficient by a long shot!"

Owen's voice began to grow louder and more impassioned as he moved toward the heart of the subject. He still used the diplomatic turns of speech that he had honed from years of practice, but the tone of his voice carried the conviction of a man having lived through a crisis that had a powerful impact on him, even if he had left no impact on the crisis.

He said, "I could see the surprise on your face when I said that we -- Cyrus Vance and myself -- finally reached the conclusion that the only possibility open to us was not to reach a just settlement, but just a settlement. The major features of the picture we found when we were assigned (by the EU and the UN) to Yugoslavia were deep and diverse.

"Yugoslavia, as you know -- though I do not want to delay you with too much detail -- had a complex demographic composition. It was a state encompassed by, or surrounded by, a semi-iron grid. Some Yugoslavians -- among whom was your friend Tito -- imagined that they could, through the experience of prolonged coexistence, grant everyone the opportunity to assimilate under the notion of a single nation, served by all to the extent that the nation served all. The breakup of Yugoslavia was always a spectre looming in the air of eastern Europe. Many sought to eliminate that possibility for fear that the disintegration of Yugoslavia would precipitate the disintegration of other nations with similarly diverse ethnic, religious and cultural elements, bound together by single political or international boundaries. For example, Gorbachev, when he was president, said that he was terrified of what might happen to Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia itself was not his nightmare. It was the effect Yugoslavia could have on the Soviet Union that kept him awake at night. It so happened that the Soviet Union broke up first, at which point the breakup of Yugoslavia was only a matter of time -- in fact, a matter of days, which is exactly what happened.

"The breakdown of Yugoslavia, as you have observed, brought on successive exchanges of fire. The Serbs fought against the Slovenians and Croats in a battle for national independence. Then there was the battle in Bosnia-Herzegovina between the central government in Belgrade and the local government in Sarajevo. That was a battle over sovereignty. After that, another battle erupted between the Serbs of Bosnia and the Muslims of Bosnia. That was a religious war, because the Bosnian Muslims are Slavs, just like the Serbs. Finally, even as we clutched our hearts in fear, the fighting spread to Kosovo. Kosovo was not only a cauldron for a combination of religious, ethnic and nationalist factors; geographically it is a major avenue into the heart of Yugoslavia.

"As this chain-reaction of wars played itself out, one aspect increasingly began to overwhelm all others. In most crises in the saga of human turmoil, the appeal to history played an important part in political claims, in sparking and setting the course of human conflict. In other words, history is one of the backdrops to any crisis. In Yugoslavia, however, we found that history was centre-stage. In this intricate situation, history was not what happened in the past. Rather, history, in its very essence, was the present we encountered. In such a case, the negotiating process towards a settlement can find no starting point.

"As you know, in negotiations every interested party, including the mediator, seeks to clarify a 'negotiating concept'. If a crisis has no beginning or end, no past followed by a present, any negotiating concept will inevitably be distorted. Here, the negotiator attempts to construct a negotiating vision on his own authority, in the hope that it is the most appropriate. However, such 'hopes' are insufficient if we are expected to negotiate, before all else, with history itself. To negotiate with history is to negotiate with the dead, with the grave, with the wars and debacles that arose and intertwined before our time. Then we discover that history itself is invoked to battle in the present. Perhaps you have had the opportunity to hear the harangues of politicians such as Karadic or Milosevic, not to mention the generals who have been suddenly transformed into legendary knights, epic bards and the bearers of symbols and tokens of every sort.

"In all of this, there was a truth which no one could refute, unless through some fatal error in calculation. This was that the Serbian army -- formerly the Yugoslavian army -- was the strongest force on the ground in the country. It was an army that suddenly lost the borders of the nation it had known and served. It woke up one morning to find that national security was inside the country, not at the borders, that the army did not know whether it was its duty to protect or to attack the elements that posed the greatest threat. As a result, in order to ensure the loyalty of the army and a certain coherence in its centre, it had to be politically mobilised as never before. That is a frightening psychological state for an army that has the greatest firing power on the ground. Add to all of this the intercession of Yugoslavia's neighbours, then the demands of the major international powers, whether directly or indirectly."

David Owen paused briefly. He reached for his coffee and discovered that it had gone cold before it reached his lips. He went to a nearby bathroom to empty out the cold coffee, and refilled his cup. Then he resumed:

"You know that every display of force is preparatory to negotiations, and that the extent of the use of force is the point at which negotiations start. In Yugoslavia, there was no clear relationship between the use of force and negotiations, because force was in a state of fluidity, transforming lines into patches, and sometimes even dots, on the map.

"You know, for example, that every negotiating process requires parties who have the legitimacy to conduct negotiations in order for them to be binding. There is a quandary, however, when you are negotiating with history itself and its weapon is the present, when you are negotiating with ancient legends now being used as the currency for contemporary politics. In these circumstances, no international mediator could find an official human party who had the legitimacy to negotiate and who would assume his responsibility at the negotiating table and afterwards.

"You know, too, that negotiations start from the facts on the ground, and not necessarily from the principles of law. But if the reality is what all of us saw in Yugoslavia, where do we begin? No one in those circumstances could pinpoint or even vaguely conceive the facts on the ground. There were no facts capable of imposing themselves. There was no reality that could make itself recognised by others."

Suddenly, though one could follow his stream of thought, Owen said: "Do you know that, as I got to know Yugoslavia better, my admiration for Tito grew? I have never met him, but you got to know him well. He must have been an imposing figure." He paused briefly and then added, "I forgot to tell you that I read your interview with him in the Sunday Times. That, as far as I know, was the last interview Tito held in his lifetime."

I said: "That is true. That interview with the legendary leader who made Yugoslavia into a notable power in his time was published only a few months before he died, and had a broad impact. Looking back on it, it seems like a prophecy of the oracle of Delphi, whose eyes could perceive the future."


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