Understanding The Inferno In The Balkans


By Robert D. Kaplan

St. Martin's x 352pp x $22.95


By Slavenka Drakulic

Norton x 208pp x $19.95

Whenever I found myself in the grim and confusing Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade in the late 1980s, I used to visit Milovan Djilas. Once a member of Tito's inner circle, he was, and is, one of this century's most prominent East European dissidents, a Marxist who negotiated with Stalin but turned against the corrupt Communist system years before it was fashionable to do so. Djilas, then nearly 80, would receive me at home. Over homemade schnapps, he would help me make sense of a disintegrating order. Long before the first real bloodshed in Yugoslavia, he warned that his country would become Europe's Lebanon.

Another U.S. magazine writer, Robert D. Kaplan, also sought Djilas' wisdom in those days. In Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, Kaplan describes the old man's prescience: "Djilas' technique was a simple one for an East European, but a difficult one for an American: He seemed to ignore the daily newspapers and think purely historically." Indeed, to understand today's Yugoslavian inferno, a little history is essential. For many Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians, ancient battles have as much or even more significance than such cataclysmic recent events as the Soviet Union's collapse. That's how it is throughout the Balkans, that mountainous stretch of southern Europe where Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and Asians and Europeans have struggled for over 1,000 years.

Historical perspective makes Kaplan, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, a superb observer of Europe's troubled underbelly. Describing a grand tour that begins in Croatia and extends to Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, he artfully blends his reporter's notes with rich historical reflection. One minute he's breaking bread with a tough-talking Serbian nun in Kossovo, where the ethnic Albanian Moslem majority is ruled by Serbia's iron hand. The next, he explains that Kossovo was the heart of Old Serbia until it was crushed by the Ottoman Turks in 1389--a defeat that still haunts Serbian national consciousness.

Kaplan keeps good company. In his rucksack--with one change of clothes and an American Express card, he redefines traveling light--are dog-eared accounts of the Balkans by earlier travelers, including John Reed, Rebecca West, and C.L. Sulzberger. After all, Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia, and Athens were "once the datelines of choice for ambitious journalists--the Saigon, Beirut and Managua of a younger world."

Ghosts relentlessly reappear here. Ethnic cleansing, for example, is not a novel concept. When Catholic Croatia was a Nazi puppet state, some Croatian priests are said to have conducted mass forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs minutes before their executions. Rape, so prominent in news from the Balkans, has been a seemingly constant facet of the region's warfare. Joyless prostitutes throng the lobby of Bucharest's creaking Athenee Palace Hotel today, as they did during two World Wars. Writes Kaplan: "Prostitution, black marketeering, and informing on one's neighbors and friends all had such a deep-rooted tradition in Romania that there was a charming naturalness and innocence about it."

Yet there was nothing charming about the communist grip, which poisoned relations between already suspicious communities the way soot poisons Eastern Europe's air. The human dimension of this reality is poignantly sketched by a Croatian, Slavenka Drakulic , in The Balkan Express: Fragments From the Other Side of War (recently published in Europe by Hutchinson and due in the U.S. in May from Norton).

Drakulic's essays, about the madness engulfing the former Yugoslavia, might be set anywhere in the Balkans. Instead of communism, she writes, nationalism now binds people. Something "people cherished as a part of their cultural identity--an alternative to the all-embracing communism, a means to survive--has become their political identity and turned into something like an ill-fitting shirt. You may feel the sleeves are too short, the collar too tight. You may not like the color, and the cloth might itch. But...there is nothing else to wear."

Drakulic's heart-rending vignettes evoke the horror of the conflict better than any dispatch from the front. In one, her lonely, chain-smoking mother worries that her husband's grave may be vandalized because the Yugoslav Federal Army's star--now a hated symbol in Croatia--is carved on his tombstone. In another, a Croatian actress friend is hounded from a job because her antiwar statement appeared in the bulletin of Belgrade's international theater festival, which was boycotted by Croatian troupes. Death threats cause the actress to flee to New York, where, unemployed, she waits for the "situation" to improve.

Neither Drakulic nor Kaplan suggests a way out for the Balkans. In the short term, Yugoslavia's violent disintegration is more than likely to spread. The former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia, for one, is a powder keg. "Conflicting ethnic histories, inflamed by the living death of Communism, had made the Balkan sky so foul that now, sadly, a storm was required to clear it," writes Kaplan. Unfortunately, the calm that follows the storm seems still far off.