Balkans Nations' Progress as a Legacy of NATO Intervention

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 16, 2009

KORCULA, Croatia -- The enterprising folk of this Adriatic island town now use the past to propel themselves into the future. As they do, they offer a glimpse of a certain idea of promise for all the Balkans.

Disregarding many histories that put Marco Polo's birthplace elsewhere, or record it as unknown, Korculans claim the Venetian Republic explorer as a native son, industriously dedicating souvenir shops, cafes and a bare-bones nativity site to him without so much as an asterisk.

"This is brilliant," a successful Latin American businessman and friend said admiringly as we trudged up the rickety staircase of "Marco Polo's House" to discover it led only to a viewing platform looking down on other houses. "They charge a couple of dollars to see absolutely nothing we couldn't see from outside." For an area once home to the Dalmatian Coast's fiercest pirates, such good-natured, gentle fleecing has to count as progress.

Come to Korcula -- and to other spots along what is now justifiably called the Croatian Riveria -- this summer, and you discover a country on the move, working hard to break the grip of its violent, faction-ridden past.

This is change. Balkan nations have long preferred to dwell in their problems as if they were cherished residences rather than leave their woes behind. Adept at nurturing grievances and feuds, skilled in the creation of identities built on a sense of victimization and little more, they have been accustomed to looking at the future only from the rearview mirror.

That self-perpetuating cycle is now being challenged in Balkan nations that look ahead more than they look back. Greece has already walked far down this path, becoming the region's banking center and content to pursue commercial deals with neighboring Turkey rather than encourage confrontation.

Turkey balances on the edge of change, taking two steps forward and perhaps only one back as its politicians and soldiers grapple for power and legacy. Tiny Albania, once Mao Zedong's sole revolutionary ally, joined NATO this year and is opening to the world for business.

Down the coast from Korcula, in neighboring Montenegro, money speaks in many languages. For $1.2 million, you can buy a luxury condo, a rent-free berth for your yacht for a year and a Montenegrin passport that can bring huge tax breaks on your global earnings, should you have some.

Even Serbia, which devotes a national holiday to marking its greatest military defeat in the Middle Ages and shed much blood in the 1990s in a vain effort to preserve the crumbling Yugoslav status quo, has a government that is struggling to point its people in the right direction -- West instead of East, forward instead of back, with mixed results.

"We are part of the European family. We want to work closely with the United States," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told me in Washington when he visited to promote a trip to Belgrade by Vice President Biden in May. Jeremic and President Boris Tadic have opted to buy time for Serb tempers to cool over Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, by asking the United Nations for an advisory legal opinion on that contentious issue.

"We have decided to use the law, not the threat of force, to try to resolve" a territorial dispute, Jeremic said. "This may be an absolute first for the Balkans."

This is not to declare the Balkans a tension-free zone. Kosovo remains a festering crisis a decade after NATO troops expelled Serbian forces from that territory. Bosnia still wrestles with serious problems of reconciliation 14 years after the Dayton peace agreement, which was made possible by a NATO bombing campaign and the Croatian army smashing through Serb towns in the Kryena area. And, as I suggest above, the newly exuberant enterprise of the Balkans will quickly turn into nation-corroding corruption if not restrained.

But everything is relative. And the relative stability of the region that has followed the two U.S.-led humanitarian interventions of the 1990s should be noted and welcomed -- whether you supported those campaigns (as I did) or still oppose them, as does David N. Gibbs in his recent provocative book "First Do No Harm," described as a study of "humanitarian intervention and the destruction of Yugoslavia."

I think Gibbs gets the answer wrong. But give him credit for raising the right question: Was U.S. intervention worth it? The movement forward in Croatia and its Balkan neighbors -- including the promising steps by Tadic and Jeremic in Serbia -- strongly suggests it was.

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