Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkan Anxieties over American Tragedy

People in former Yugoslavia, whether friends or foes of America, fear the possible fall-out from the hijack attacks on Washington and New York.
By Tanya Domi

As horror ripped through New York and Washington, people in the Balkans watched the developing drama with mixed feelings. Depending on whether ally or foe of the US, a few celebrated, many grieved openly, but all feared possible consequences of the terror in America.

"After yesterday, the world is not the same, politically, economically or psychologically," said Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic.

Djindjic warned that the US and other Western countries could now move toward "psychological isolationism". He cautioned the West against sacrificing the efforts to find political solutions to the world's problems in favour of an unachievable goal of seeking total security through military means.

The Bosnian premier, Zlatko Lagumdzija, repeated these words almost to the letter and offered assistance not only in protecting US citizens in Bosnia but also in tackling international terrorism.

"Today is a new day in history," Lagumdzija said. He warned Bosnians that they may have to adjust themselves to possible changes in US foreign policy, as other concerns take precedence over the Balkans.

These fears appear justified, since throughout the past decade Balkans has been heavily dependent on the US, and a major change in priorities in Washington could have a huge impact in the region.

While all Western military, diplomatic and aid efforts have been multinational, Washington has been far and away the dominant player, forging an essential link between the US and the Balkans. The strength of the relationship was called into question during the US presidential election when the Bush campaign raised the possibility of withdrawing US troops. As president, however, George W. Bush has reconfirmed US engagement, although troops and funding are being gradually reduced.

But many in the region fear that after the terrorist attack, US involvement may be substantially cut or even ended.

Patrik Volf, a spokesman for the international community's high representative in Bosnia, sought to deflect concerns over US involvement. "The United States has made a firm commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina," he said. "We're confident that the US will live up to this commitment."

Bosnia has a particular tie with the US, as the peace agreement and many other crucial steps in bringing its war to a close were driven by Americans.

Other Balkan countries have different relationships with Washington, and thus have particular reasons for concern.

Only a couple of years ago, Serbia was at war with America and other NATO countries, which bombed targets across Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in an attempt to stop Serb atrocities in Kosovo.

Yugoslavia has been expecting its first serious financial aid and is now anxious that US may use the persistence of anti-American sentiment among sections of the Belgrade administration to backtrack on funding.

Many Serbs are shocked and in grieving over the events in New York and Washington. But many others in Yugoslavia still obviously harbour anti-American sentiments, which will hardly ingratiate the country with a wounded and angry America.

"I am still celebrating together with Palestinians," a Serb who identified himself only as a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina, said on Wednesday in a live radio programme in Montenegro.

Ethnic Macedonians have harshly criticised the US involvement in their country, accusing Washington of supporting "Albanian terrorists". Yet while the peace agreement there remains fragile, for the moment any such awkward language was put aside and Macedonian political leaders joined with the visiting NATO chief Lord Robertson in observing the Europe-wide three minute of silence, held mid-day on September 14.

Kosovo and Bosnia share one specific cause for concern: during their own wars, some extremist Muslim elements maintained links with the prime suspect behind the US hijack attacks, Osama bin Laden.

Although there is no evidence that bin Laden himself was ever present in the Balkans, some of his followers may have used the chaos of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo to infiltrate the region. Indeed, leaders in both Bosnia and Kosovo welcomed any help they could get while fighting against Serbs and thus accepted the support of a number of radical Islamic fighters.

Some of these fighters, known as mujahidin, joined in the war in Bosnia, and some even took up Bosnian passports. The main motivation for others, however, was to establish a training ground for terrorist attacks against the West and to participate in the lucrative business of weapon and drug trafficking.

While most were forced to flee after the wars ended, some stayed, marrying Bosnian women. On September 17 1999, Turkish secret police arrested 30-year-old Algerian Mehrez Aldouni, who was on Interpol's red list of most wanted terrorist suspects and reportedly an associate of bin Laden. He was carrying a Bosnian passport.

Those Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) who do actively practice religion follow a very moderate form of Islam, and there is no question of extreme Islam in the country. Nevertheless, Bosnia, and to a degree Kosovo, are concerned that reports about terrorist connections, or more generally the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the US, on their territory could damage relations with the West.

Political concerns aside, many people throughout the region expressed simple solidarity with the victims. The day after the attack on the World Trade Centre, more than 1,000 Kosovo Albanians gathered spontaneously on the streets of Pristina in a silent commemoration. Hundreds of candles were left in silence on the doorsteps of American Liaison Centre. People in Sarajevo laid flowers in front of the closed US embassy, and most of the countries in the region observed the September 14 day of mourning for the victims.

When news of the attack first broke, streets of many towns throughout the region looked ghostly, abandoned as people ran home from work to watch the American agony broadcast live on most of the local radio and television stations. From their own experience throughout the recent Balkan wars, many of them understood too well what Americans were going through.

Tanya Domi, a former OSCE spokesperson in Bosnia, is pursuing post-graduate studies at Columbia University in New York. Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor. Gordana Igric in London, Saso Ordanoski in Skopje and Nehat Islami in Pristina also contributed to this report.