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The Real Balkan Lessons In Georgia Conflict

Russian nationalists in April: "Kosovo is Serbia"
This was supposed to be a dull August with the Olympics in Beijing dominating news around the world, Iraq on autopilot, and most Europeans away on vacation. Then the Russians surprised everyone by moving tanks and armored personnel carriers across the Georgian border.

War is not like an earthquake or other natural disaster. It never just "breaks out," as the expression goes. Spontaneity is usually only apparent. It is invariably a premeditated operation planned well in advance. Modern war demands a lot of logistical preparation.

The Russians, it would seem, also spent time preparing for the intellectual and informational side of the current conflict. Russian officials repeatedly cited the example of Kosovo as a "precedent" for their action, arguing that if Kosovo can become an independent state, then why not South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Even Russia's longtime ally Serbia must have been thrown for a loop by the comparison. Moscow argued for years against Kosovar independence. Moscow's threat to use its veto in the UN Security Council has the fledgling Kosovar state struggling for recognition. And now it is suddenly siding with separatists in Georgia. The Kremlin wants to have its cake in the Balkans, and eat it in the Caucasus.

If the government in Belgrade wanted to draw analogies from the current crisis, surely they would want to be identified with Georgia, whose territorial integrity is taking a severe beating. But any support for Tbilisi from Belgrade wouldn't go down well in Moscow, and Serbia no doubt prefers hypocritical support to no support at all.

This confusion is illustrated by two stories that have come out of Serbia in the last few days. First, dozens of Serbs lined up at the Russian Embassy to sign a condolence book for the victims of the fighting in South Ossetia and to show solidarity with Mother Russia. On the next day, however, the Russian Defense Ministry named Serbia as one of the countries that had supplied arms to Georgia before the fighting erupted.

Clearly, Serbia is having trouble deciding with whom to identify.

But there are similarities between the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the Caucasus today. Both conflicts were primarily about a state asserting itself as a regional power and trying to preserve control over parts of their former communist empires. Seen this way, Serbia is not like Georgia or South Ossetia, but rather a mini-Russia, sharing Moscow's belief that it is the main regional power and the surrounding states -- all fragments of a previous glory -- must accept this fact and act accordingly. Big Brother will take care of everyone's security and no one is to reach out to NATO or the EU.

Actions, Not Words

The Yugoslav Army tried to impose its own version of law and order when it sent tanks into Slovenia (briefly), and then on a larger scale into Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moscow made a similar move when it sent its columns into Georgia on August 7-8. In both the Serbian and the Russian cases, military action was justified as a "humanitarian intervention" to protect one's citizens and co-ethnics. I remember watching the day-by-day destruction of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991 and thinking that destroying homes and reducing a city to rubble was a strange way of protecting people.

Now, having handed out passports freely to residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Russians too are protecting their citizens -- by destroying whatever chance they had of living side-by-side with their Georgian neighbors in peace.

I learned an important lesson about war reporting in 1992, when I was covering the conflict in Sarajevo: pay attention to actions, not words. In August 1992, I reported from a London peace conference on Bosnia. The Europeans and Americans took turns lecturing the Balkan warlords. "Europe will not tolerate ethnic cleansing or terror against civilians," I heard more times than I could count. I didn't miss a single press conference; I reported every detail of the statement of principles that was adopted. And then I returned home, taking a commercial flight to Zagreb, Croatia, and then catching a UN cargo plane to Sarajevo.

And when I got home, I realized I had missed the real story. While I'd been away, half my city had been destroyed. Most of the building where my newspaper's offices were located was gone. The National Library was burned out. Communications had been destroyed, and the Serbian military had tightened its grip on the city more than ever. And all that had happened while Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and the rest had been listening to rants, giving promises to EU leaders, and signing the latest peace plan.

It took the European community years just to figure out who lived in Bosnia and who was fighting whom in which part of the country. But that wasn't the real point -- we were all just people who happened to live in a postcommunist country that neighbored a "regional power," Serbia, that decided it had enough might to impose its will on the region. Nationalism was not the cause of the wars in the Balkans -- it was just a tool of Serbian aggression.

Milosevic spent years signing peace agreements with one hand while running bloody wars with the other. The Dayton peace accords ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, but it wasn't until NATO finally intervened in 1999 that Milosevic's horrific war games in that country came to an end. Milosevic cheated justice one last time when he died in custody at The Hague in 2006 before the tribunal was able to render a verdict in his case.

Now there is a six-point plan for Georgia. European envoys are rushing around Moscow and the Caucasus. But I am skeptical and worried about the people on the ground. Europe couldn't handle Milosevic. How are they going to deal with Vladimir Putin?

Gordana Knezevic is the director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.