British Prime Minister Tony Blair had a busy European week. He began by announcing the formation of the EU's long-mooted Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), spent the middle of the week defending himself against some rapid reaction from the more hysterical part of the media, and ended on Friday in Zagreb acting the statesman at the Balkan summit. In between, he somehow squeezed in a 24-hour visit to Moscow to hang out with Vladimir Putin, drink vodka in a beer cellar and listen to his new friend's jokes about women.
Who loves the EU—Britain or Blair?
Blair and his foreign secretary spent last week softening up the public with unprovoked praise for the EU, while they worked on their negotiating strategy for the crucial Nice summit, at which structural changes necessary to enable enlargement of the Union are to be decided upon. Blair's Labour government backs enlargement enthusiastically at present, though it will pay a political price in terms of tabloid opinion for every national veto that is chipped away. Nice may not offer such a happy Promenade des Anglais.
The right-wing press went crazy over the RRF, seeing it as the start of an EU standing army with a federal EU superstate not too far behind.
"It is hardly surprising that most of the Continental nations should wish to move towards a united Europe," wrote the ever-so-slightly-EU-hostile Bruce Anderson in the Daily Mail (20 November). "During the 20th century, almost all of them either invaded other countries, were invaded by them or had a revolutionary coup which overthrew their governments—or all three... Our history is totally different. We fought off the threat of invasion and only invaded other countries in order to liberate them." Yes, and we helped all their little old ladies across the road too, because that's the kind of selfless people we are.
The tabloid paper The Sun claimed: "We know, as the Squaddies' paper, that the vast majority of our forces are against this move. So are the defence chiefs of staff." (21 November) The Times considered it "an unwarranted risk with European security." The big fear seemed to be that it would mean the withdrawal of America from Europe and the end of NATO.
Did America mind? This question concerns not just the British and other traditional NATO members but also the most recent recruits in Central Europe and those hoping to join soon, such as the Baltic states. But the answer received depended very much upon which American was asked, and right now, nobody knows which American will be in charge of the US from January onwards.
It took another day or two for articles to appear in defence of the new proposals: "Europe must learn to fight its battles without the US," wrote Max Hastings in the Evening Standard on 23 November.
If the press was livid over the RRF, it was bemused over the Prime Minister's Moscow trip: just why, with nothing apparently urgent on the bilateral agenda, was Blair meeting Putin for the fifth time in ten months? Was Blair acting as a channel to Washington over National Missile Defense? Was he trying to outflank Paris and Berlin? Was he drawn to bullies? (It was probably all three and more.) Instead, Ian Traynor (The Guardian, 22 November) concluded, "the simplest answer seemed to be—they just like each other."
Others were more wary. One thing that Blair and Putin did discuss was the RRF. A leading article in The Guardian (22 November) considered this naive on Blair's part: "Given that it has been Russia's historic aim to 'decouple' the US and Europe, Mr Putin was hardly going to object to a project that could ultimately split NATO asunder." Putin is "a man with whom it can be very dangerous to do business," concluded the paper.
Was the Yugoslav overthrow of Slobodan Milošević on 5 October a combination of Europe's last anti-Communist revolution, the culmination of Solidarity and 1989's people power? This is the theory put forward recently by many, including Tony Blair on the day after the uprising. (Admittedly, in his case, it was the perfect message for the Polish audience to which he was delivering his speech).
This view has been challenged by some who dispute that much has changed in Yugoslavia. How different is Koštunica's Serbia from Milošević's? Has peace broken out for good? At the EU-Balkan summit in Zagreb on 24 November, the EU was dangling the carrots of regional aid worth EUR 4.65 billion and potential EU membership. But at the same time, assassinations in Priština and Kosovar-Serb skirmishes in the Presevo valley in southern Serbia suggest Yugoslavia is not out the woods just yet. In The Guardian (24 November), Nicholas Wood recounted Zoran Đinđić's claim that tensions are such that war could erupt again.
Revolutions of a different kind
A different challenge to the argument came this week from Jonathan Steele, also writing in The Guardian (20 November). He emphasised how different the Serbian case was from those of 1989, how Milošević was actually voted out in a multi-party, "free but unfair" election and how opposition parties already ran local governments under Milošević. Steele identified the system as "a typical example of a post-Communist state," one characterised by economic collapse, "corruption, crony capitalism and flawed democracy," and, as such, having more in common with the authoritarian regimes in several former Soviet states such as Belarus and Russia.
Steele went on to draw the conclusion that "what happened this autumn was not the last anti-Communist revolution in Europe. It was Europe's first post-Communist revolution. We may see the next ones in Belarus or more probably in Azerbaijan, where there is a similar mixture of disappointed nationalism, thousands of refugees, catastrophically declining living standards and rising anger over corruption amongst the elite."
Judging too soon
Such theories are good polemical standpoints and may help us to interpret events, but tailoring theories to individual instances is always dangerous. No pattern has been set yet. Despite EU aid and UN recognition, Yugoslavia's future still hangs in a precarious balance.
One could argue that the major common feature of the 1989/91 revolutions was the retreat of a Russia no longer willing and able to defend its strategic and ideological interest in Central and Eastern Europe. After 1948, Yugoslavia never did fit into this pattern; thus, Belgrade 2000 was different from Prague 1989. By contrast, Belarus is increasingly back in the Russian sphere, with currency union planned for 2005. What pattern, then, is emerging there?
To be fair, Steele did acknowledge that Serbia might be "a unique exception which will not be repeated elsewhere," before he decided there is a higher likelihood that more post-Communist dominoes will fall after the Yugoslav fashion.
However, history is not neat. This is the problem with attempting to carve out clear historical patterns, especially when we are in the thick of messy events which are very much unfinished. Though Mr Steele's informed prediction may yet prove inspired, he really is on rather too insecure ground at present.
Oliver Craske, 27 November 2000
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