The page-one headlines on 6 October, the day after Yugoslavia's revolution, ran as follows:
"Good evening, liberated Serbia" (The Times)
"The storming of Belgrade" (The Independent)
"A hated regime crumbles" (The Guardian)
"Miloševic the Balkans Butcher overthrown by his own people" (Daily Telegraph)
"The People's Revolution" (Daily Mail)
"Flames of Freedom" (Daily Express)
"Get Out Slob" (The Mirror)
"Cry Freedom" (Daily Record).
What instant interpretations did the press have for this extraordinary event? Many were quick to see this as the last of the series of revolutions that swept Communist Europe at the end of the Cold War: "As Eastern Europe in 1989 threw off the shackles of tyranny, Yugoslavia was moving the other way," wrote Alec Russell in the Daily Telegraph.
A pointless tragedy
Yugoslav history since the late 1980s has been a pointless tragedy. Koštunica "vows to put Serbia back on the 1989 road which it ought never to have left in the first place," affirmed Martin Woollacott's analysis in The Guardian. "Serbia keeps its Date with Revolution, a Decade Late" was the headline of his piece.
The awful fate of all of former Yugoslavia over the past dozen years, in comparison with Europe's other Communist states, was explained by Woollacott as a product of both design and circumstance. He explains that things could have worked our differently "had there been a different leadership and less of a heritage of nationalist preoccupations"; had there been also a Russian occupier (as in the eastern bloc states) upon which nationalism could have been focused in a positive and democratic manner, rather than against one's neighbour. "It was Tito's diplomatic break with the Russians that helped Miloševic to avoid the fate of the other Soviet satellite regimes," noted Daniel Johnson in The Telegraph.
Yugoslavia's patchwork pattern of intermingled ethnic communities was an environment very different from any parallel case in the eastern bloc. It was very different even from Czechoslovakia, which separated peacefully in 1993's Velvet Divorce. Yugoslavia never experienced the awful pains of population movement in 1945 on the scale that ethnically homogenised other states.
The sad conclusion may be that because of this, Poland, for instance, has proved far less vulnerable to extreme nationalism than it might have been otherwise. Had it attained democracy in 1989 with the old minorities intact that were wiped out or expelled in 1939 to 1945, there would surely have been more complications once the Russians allowed the lid to come off the pressure cooler. For how many stable, truly multi-ethnic states are left in Europe today?
Some parts of the press exhibited an undercurrent of mistrust and blame towards Serbs as a whole. "It should not be forgotten that many of those baying for Miloševic's blood in Belgrade yesterday eagerly fought his wars," reckoned Alec Russell in The Telegraph. His newspaper's leader concurred: "The disintegration of Tito's Yugoslavia has in many respects been a shameful chapter in Western diplomacy. It has also disgraced the Serbs. Yesterday's nemesis was long overdue."
But for the most part the UK press has taken genuine delight in the joy apparent on the streets of Belgrade (we have not seen or read much from other parts of the country). "Moments like this, of hope and triumph, and justice served and democracy vindicated, are rare in human history. They are greatly to be treasured," ran The Guardian's leader. "It is a wonderful moment," agreed The Times.
Journalists also offered a sympathetic ear to the frustration pouring out of those whose lives have been needlessly ruined. "The 1989 revolutions were about embracing the future but also about the past," considered Woollacott; "about lost time, about lives not lived, possibilities lost, cruelties and idiocies that could have been avoided."
Better late than never
On the other hand eleven years' difference allows some extra perspective: "one of the few advantages of having your revolution 10 years later than everybody else is that at least some of the pitfalls are more apparent to all, including those within the regime," wrote Woollacott.
Looking for a dictator
Where was Miloševic and what will happen to him now? The media was obsessed with this particular aspect. Misha Glenny's judgement on BBC2's (TV) Newsnight on the evening of 5 October was that if he were found to be in his hideaway in Dor, eastern Serbia, he would within 24 hours be either in jail or dead. Other commentators agreed he was in personal danger. "Serbs have a bloody history of butchering their leaders... Miloševic will be lucky to avoid his predecessors' fate," wrote Alec Russell in the Daily Telegraph. (It transpired, of course he was alive and in Belgrade all along.)
Jonathan Eyal, writing in The Times, saw different patterns in events. He credited British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook with being one of the architects of Koštunica's strategy, whereby Western governments quickly recognised Koštunica's election victory before Miloševic could call a second round.
More controversially, Eyal suggested: "The sight of crowds storming parliament or burning the television station may be exhilarating, but they are almost certainly a deception. The real battle in Belgrade is now taking place over the loyalty of the Yugoslav security services and the military." By the time Eyal's piece went to press, those two forces had recognised Koštunica as President, as had Miloševic following a one-hour face-to-face meeting between the two rivals. Which might suggest that Eyal is not quite so far off as may be surmised...
In the light of the sudden collapse of the Miloševic regime, it is all the more interesting that The Guardian, unlike its rival newspapers, called last week for Koštunica to contest the second round of the presidential election, warning that his decision to boycott it "may prove to be a mistake of historic proportions." Of course someone had to get it wrong, and The Guardian's coverage has otherwise been excellent.
An aside to Serbian elections
Sometimes timing is everything. At the same time as the revolutionary uprising in Belgrade, Britain's opposition leader William Hague delivered his keynote speech to the annual Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth.
Have another pint, William
The very next day, Hague, who has moved the party in a right-wing, anti-euro, populist direction, was depicted by The Times' cartoonist Peter Brookes as a nationalistic skinhead, dressed in Union Jack T-shirt, boots and braces, stamping on a newspaper which features the headline: "BELGRADE UPRISING" with the footnote "HAGUE SPEECH p. 48." Hague is shouting "Bloody Foreigners!" as beer spills from his pint glass (to widespread ridicule, he recently boasted of drinking 14 pints per day when he was a teenager).
And indeed, as the list of the day's headlines should make clear, Yugoslavia relegated Hague to the inside pages of all the papers, with one exception. The headline on page one of the nation's best-selling paper, The Sun, was "NOW YOU'RE SQUAWKING" next to a picture of a parrot with Hague's face superimposed.
This was an attempt at an obscure private joke relating to a two-year-old Sun cover: not funny, and totally missing the point. The Sun managed to squeeze "SLOBBA IN HIDING See Pages 4 & 5" in a panel measuring 5cm by 2.5cm on the bottom left corner of the cover. Who ever said Britain has the best press in the world?
William Hague was harshly criticised by some commentators for failing to refer to events in Yugoslavia during his speech, but in truth the situation on the ground was changing all the time. Prime Minister Tony Blair was far luckier.
Tony Blair in Warsaw
With prescient foresight he was scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on the evening of 5 October (see this column last week) for meetings with the Polish, Czech and Slovak Prime Ministers and Hungary's Foreign Minister, and to deliver a speech at the Polish stock exchange the next day. "Tony Blair's speech in Warsaw today, setting out Britain's vision of how the European Union should develop, could not be better timed," judged The Independent on the morning of 6 October.
Indeed, Blair's championing of EU enlargement, together with his calls for widespread institutional reform, were a timely contribution to the debate on the EU's future, what with France and German pressing for a pioneering core of countries and Denmark having recently voted not to join the euro. Blair pleased his hosts by calling for the entry of first-wave applicant countries, including Poland, in time for them to contest the 2004 European Parliament elections.
Praising unsung heroes
In a nice touch, he even paid tribute to the role played in cracking the World War Two Enigma code by Polish experts, the "unsung heroes" whom Poles have recently accused Britain of removing from their rightful place in official histories.
But Blair also pulled off the coup of being able rapidly to rewrite his speech to include reference to the Yugoslav uprising, connecting it with the Polish revolution of 1980-81: "What the people of Poland began, the people of Serbia will finish—opening up for the first time in our history the prospect of a continent united in freedom."
Admittedly the Yugoslav events will take some of the attention away from the enlargement and EU reform issues Blair discussed; and he is guilty of always making his big speeches on Europe abroad, away from the critical gazes of UK journalists. ("Who knows, Mr Blair may make his next big European speech in Britain itself," muttered The Independent.) But you can't ask for everything in one week.
Oliver Craske, 9 October 2000
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