Gyrne Turkish Cyprus
Belfast Northern Ireland
Back Home in California
For the past three weeks I have been traveling through Eastern Europe and Russia listening to comments from people who strongly oppose the NATO actions in Serbia. Like most of my friends in Santa Barbara, I have been appalled by the numerous CNN news stories of Serbian atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Until my recent talks with people in this part of the world, I could not conceive how anyone could justify support for what seemed to me to be clearly immoral Serbian actions.
But, on this side of the green line people not only support what Serbia has been doing to the Kosovo Albanians, but they strongly condemn what the Western countries under the banner of NATO have been doing to Serbia. In talking to more than a couple dozen people I consistently heard a common position. The following is my attempt to paraphrase what I have been hearing:
"You must know the history of the Balkans region before making judgments about the current stage of the century long conflict. The Muslim Albanians first arrived in lands held by the Serbian people as welcome guests. Eventually, illegal immigration swelled their numbers to the point where they threatened the traditional ways of the predominantly Christian Serbs. Attempts to limit immigration were futile and eventually the ethnic Albanians out numbered the Serbs in many parts of the Kosovo region. As Serbian hostility grew, the Albanians increasingly agitated for more control over their own affairs. The Serbians saw the significantly changing demographics as a serious threat to the stability of the region and increased police action to deport the illegal alien Albanians. Some of the more radical Albanian elements began talking about independence for the region and the KLA took increasingly bold steps to demonstrate their determination to be free of Serbian control. Attacks on both Serbian police and some of the more agitated Serbian residents increased and included acts of terrorism against the established governments of the region. The central government eventually saw signs of an incipient insurrection and sent in soldiers to control the militant Albanian elements. Violence escalated on both sides, until at one point the rest of the world decided they had a right to enter the disagreement."
How much of this thumbnail sketch of the history of the region is true, I do not know. However, I heard consistent versions of it everywhere I went in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan and now Russia.
"What would you do if one of your weekend guests decided to stay on in your home without an invitation, then slowly began inviting all of his relatives and friends to join him in your home? Finally, when he and his people far out numbered you and your family, he basically took over and forcefully suggested that you should find some other place to live, if you didn't like it. Don't you think you might get mad, maybe even fight back?"
"You Americans think your view of how things ought to be, can be applied to everyone in the world. But, your way is not our way and we have a right to solve our own problems in our own ways. What is happening in Yugoslavia in none of your business. NATO is killing more innocent people than the Serbian police ever did before the NATO intervention. The deportation of illegal alien Albanians was a tiny trickle compared to the massive flight of refugees caused by the NATO military actions."
So there you have some idea of how the Slavic people see things.
Though I am here mostly to learn, when asked I have presented my own view of the dilemma as an analogy: "What would you do if the husband in the family next door frequently beat his argumentative wife with a club, almost killing her the last time? Would you just stand by and let them work it out for themselves, or would you step in to help the defenseless victim?" Most of my Russian friends have said they would do something; call the police, beat up the husband, or even kill him in one case. When asked if nations aren't like neighbors, some of my Russian friends fall into thoughtful silence.
While in Rostov Russia during May 1999, I happened upon a computer store that had a public exhibition featuring the Internet. The storeowners were good enough to let me check my e-mail and send a few messages. As I worked at one of the stand up terminals, about a dozen high school aged boys hovered around me, watching my every move. Most of them could not understand much English, but they watched with great fascination all the same. When I’d finished, one of them spoke to me in English and thus began what is one of my most memorable encounters with the people of Russia.
Anton, a young man of perhaps only nineteen years demonstrated the remarkable capability of simultaneous language translation. As we talked in the store, our conversation ranged from computers to politics. For perhaps ten minutes or so we stood in the congested room blocking the way of others anxious to have a turn at the computer terminals. Finally, I suggested that Anton and a few of his friends join me for Cokes in a restaurant somewhere away from the computer store. It seemed like everyone in the store wanted to get in on the social hour hosted by the American computer guy. I told Anton that if too many came, it would be hard to have a meaningful conversation and suggested we try to limit the number to a half dozen or so. Outside the store on the street there ensued a lively discussion about the best place to find our refreshments and a place to sit. At last Anton said a good place would be a little outdoor restaurant in Gorky Park. As we walked the 500 meters to the place it occurred to me that I didn’t really know these seven young men in a country where everyone had urged me to be VERY careful. But, we soon reached a delightful garden restaurant and found a table to much ongoing teenage banter, which included the word “peeva” (Russian for beer) several times. I smiled and repeated Coca-Cola each time someone said beer.
At last seated and Cokes ordered, I learned that five of the young men were seniors in high school, acquainted with one another and the other two were students at Rostov’s Don State University, strangers to the others. The social dynamics among the group of boys felt familiar. Except for the language difference and their single ethnic background, they could have been ordinary kids from any one of our high schools in Santa Barbara. (Nowhere in the three Russian cities I visited did I see anything like America’s great ethnic and cultural diversity.) I quickly discovered that they were as anxious to question me about America as I was to learn the Russian perspective.
“What kind of car to you drive?” (an old Corvette)
“What are American girls like?” (Don’t worry. Your Russian girls are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere in the world.)
“What is the minimum wage in America?” ( about $5/hr. Russians are making an average of about $1/hr and often must wait months to be paid)
“What would an American do if they weren't paid for six months?” (Get another job!)
“And, if all the jobs had the same problem? (Complain to the government.)
“You mean you would change your government?” (This line of questions I found fascinating as the Russian President Boris Yeltson that very day had dismissed his government causing great distress in the Duma. A couple days later they moved to impeach him, but the motion failed.) Suddenly, these teenagers were uncharacteristically quiet and attentive, studying one another with mature thoughtfulness. It occurred to me that if these boys were anything like the rest of Russia’s youth, the country’s future is in good hands.
As an aside, my friend Matti in Helsinki Finland says Russian factory managers get government money to pay workers, but they delay paying anyone and use the stolen time to “invest” the Rubles in Dollars. When inflation increases the value of the dollars, they change them back to Rubles and keep the profit before paying their people. He thinks everyone from the highest officials down to the factory manager is in on the scheme to defraud the workers.
Fred L Bellomy
Rostov - Streets are
badly in need of major maintenance work and people complain abut all the wasted
steam being lost to leaky pipes in the city's central heating system. I saw
several situations like this during my wandering of the city.
Rostov - Typical scene
in the central fresh produce market.
Rostov - While in the
city I came upon a Communist Party political rally. As elections would be held
in the near future, the party urged voters to return the country back to the
"good old days!" The Communist Party is still very popular.