Bare-chested on a hot afternoon, a young man tiptoes along the edge of the Mostar bridge. Tourists are asked to give him cash; once he has collected 25 euros, he will leap into the Neretva river beneath. By taking this frightening plunge, he will – according to local custom – prove his masculinity.
Not patient enough to wait until the magic sum has been amassed, I toddle towards a shop selling books and DVDs. A flat screen reminds us of how the milky limestone bridge – an architectural gem dating from the sixteenth century – was blown up on 9 November 1993. Croat forces were almost certainly to blame.
I haven’t been in Bosnia (strictly speaking, this is Herzegovina) since 1997. Younger and more idealistic then, I acted as an election monitor for the UN. I came away hypnotised by Bosnia’s beauty and by the myths of recent history. The salient myth went like this: Europe dithered pathetically as Yugoslavia disintegrated but good old Bill Clinton eventually came to the rescue.
Having learnt a little about international politics in the meantime, I now realise that saving lives in the Balkans was not high on America’s list of priorities. Rather, the US was determined to bring this region into its ambit. Under Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia made plain its distrust of NATO by setting up the Non-Aligned Movement. By bombing Bosnia’s Serbs and – in 1999 – Serbia, Clinton set in train a process whereby most, if not all, of the former Yugoslav federation would be integrated into a US-directed military alliance.
The praise often heaped on Clinton for his conduct of the war over Kosovo ignores how the worst acts of violence committed by Serbian forces happened after – not before - NATO intervened. Wesley Clark, NATO’s commander at the time, conceded that the Serbians were acting in response to the bombing and that their atrocities were “fully anticipated”. NATO, incidentally, perpetrated war crimes of its own – especially by spraying parts of Serbia with cluster bombs and by acting without a UN mandate – yet we are seldom reminded of these facts.
Despite the painstaking restoration of its bridge, the legacy of the 1990s war remains visible in Mostar. Buildings shelled elsewhere in the city have often gone unrepaired; many are empty and abandoned.
Across the border with Croatia, Dubrovnik was also the sight of much cultural vandalism. An exhibition of photographs opposite one of those Irish pubs I have grown to loathe depicts a fourteenth century Dominican church, its roof riddled with holes. It was one of 563 buildings within the old city’s walls hit by Serb and Montenegrin forces 20 years ago. Yet the million people who have visited Dubrovnik so far this year did not notice any destruction; everything has been fixed.
There are unsavoury sides to the tourist boom in Dubrovnik – which has just 45,000 all-year-round inhabitants. A boat trip around its port features a skipper pointing out the prices charged by hotels. Rooms in the favourite hotel of Russian billionaires cost 7,000 euro a night. “Mafia,” the captain says, lest we haven’t understood.
Marcus Tanner’s book Croatia: A Nation Forged in War kicks off by emphasising that Croatians usually see themselves as part of the West and object when their country is described as Balkan. In 2009, Croatia entered that Western – though expanding eastwards – club called NATO. When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, visited Dubrovnik in July this year he lauded Croatia for its commitment to “smart defence”. The main illustration of this commitment was how Croatians were leading a training exercise for police in Afghanistan.
In Rasmussen’s view, helping the US-led occupation of Afghanistan is the “smart” thing to do. If sucking up to the Pentagon is “smart”, he might be right. Yet Rasmussen should not be allowed think that he reflects public opinion; polls in America indicate that only 30% of its citizens now regard the war in Afghanistan as one that was worth fighting.
Once again, we have WikiLeaks to thank for shedding light on America’s meddling in Europe’s affairs. A 2009 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Zagreb – published by Julian Assange’s crew – showed that America was adamant that Croatia be admitted into the European Union without delay. The American officials voiced frustration with Britain and The Netherlands over their insistence that Croatia cooperate fully with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Having been led by Tony Blair for a decade, Britain is not in a strong position to lecture others on war crimes. Yet is it America’s business to dictate who should and shouldn’t be in the EU? Clearly it is. This cable refers to worries that the British and Dutch stance could “undermine the US stake” both in Croatia’s reforms and “the region’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions”.
Note that wording: Euro-Atlantic institutions. This is a definite indication that Washington sees the EU as its vassal.
As things stand, Croatia expects to enter the Union next year. I was curious to see if ordinary Croatians were enthusiastic about joining, so I consulted that universally recognised barometer of the prevailing mood: a taxi-driver. Membership would be a good thing, my cabbie said, as it would make it easier for his daughter to emigrate.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the policies pursued by Washington and Brussels but it’s realistic. The Balkans’ problems won’t disappear by replacing one federation with another.
●First published by New Europe, 9-15 September 2012.