July Books 11) The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s

11) The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, by Robert Thomas.

I found this 400-page hardback remaindered at €10 in the local English language bookshop yesterday, bought it, and managed to devour it while keeping an eye on B during the birthday party this afternoon. It’s basically a narrative of what happened politically in Serbia from just before the first multi-party elections in 1990 to the rigged referendum against foreign interference in Kosovo in April 1998, and thus misses out the juicy bits of the NATO threats of late 1998, the actual bombardment of 1999, and Milošević’s overthrow in 2000. I saw very few errors – Richard Holbrooke’s wife turns up as “Katie Morton” in the index, but is correctly spelt “Kati Marton” in the text, and there were one or two minor misspellings elsewhere – suggesting it’s been carefully proofread at least.

But there were some odd little things. For instance, Zoran Djindjić is quoted in a September 1997 interview as promising that he would attend an election rally for Biljana Plavšić’s party in Bosnia, and the sentence is left hanging, as if it were too difficult to discover whether he actually did attend the rally or not. As it happens, I attended that rally myself in the company of several Western journalists, and saw Djindjić speaking, so it seems a peculiar omission. As usual the role of the Milošević offshoot party, the SPRS, in Bosnian politics is completely truncated. Some day there will be a definitive historical account of Republika Srpska politics, but I suspect I may have to write it myself.

This book doesn’t really seem to have an organising idea or argument. In introduction and conclusion, the author states that even after Milosevic, Serbia will have a bumpy road to stability, but that was hardly a difficult prediction. The emphasis is almost entirely on the musical chairs of Serbian party politics (with reflections on the Bosnian Republika Srpska and Montenegro, and a very short section on Kosovo); the economy gets a look-in only for one chapter.

He is moderately interesting on the personalities. But at the same time the juicy bits from the backgrounds of key personalities are missing; it’s as if history began in 1990. There’s a wonderful story going the rounds at the moment about one of the key players in Thomas’ book, still prominent in Serbia today, who as a young Tanjug correspondent incorrectly reported a war breaking out between the country he was stationed in and one of its neighbours, and the story snowballed to the point where Tito was woken up to give an official statement calling for peace before it was discovered that it wasn’t true. That’s the sort of colour that this book lacks.

It’s nice to discover the positive role played in the past by one or two people who I consider friends, most particularly Vojin Dimitrijević, who radiates affable integrity. But the role of the NGO community is completely missing – even Warren Zimmerman writes about Sonja Licht, for instance. In my own dealings with all the south-eastern European countries, I’ve gained the strong impression that Serbia’s intellectual capital is second only to Bulgaria’s (far ahead of its other neighbours, including Romania). That’s not reflected in this book at all.

Also almost completely absent is the international dimension. Bob Gelbard will no doubt be annoyed to find he is mentioned only in the context of incautious remarks about the KLA in early 1998 (I have no doubt he would argue he was misquoted or taken out of context). Dick Holbrooke will be even more annoyed to find himself mentioned only twice, and on one of those occasions just as Kati Marton’s husband. There’s no fundamental harm in tweaking such people’s egos, but the two of them played a very important role in transmitting US and NATO policy to Belgrade, and leaving it out is a huge gap.

Because I live and breathe the topic and know a lot of the people involved, I found this a very quick read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone below a graduate student level of interest in Serbia though. Start with Tim Judah, and if your appetite is whetted move on to Dick Holbrooke, Warren Zimmerman and my own employers’ publications. I believe Thomas has another book out about subsequent developments in Serbia but will buy it for work, if I buy it at all.

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