Passed away last month (5 December 2013).
I really liked his work – not the hocus-pocus stuff – but books like “A Criminal History of Mankind” (1984) and “The Outsider” (1956).
Passed away last month (5 December 2013).
I really liked his work – not the hocus-pocus stuff – but books like “A Criminal History of Mankind” (1984) and “The Outsider” (1956).
In June this year author & Balkanologist Misha Glenny was interviewed by B92 about his new book on organized crime “McMafia”.
The interview gives a fascinating insight into the role of organized crime in the Balkans, in particular their central role in the recent Balkan wars.
I have quoted the interview extensively here in a few sample questions:
B92: Can you define the moment when organized crime started to develop, or to proliferate in Serbia, or in the former Yugoslavia?
Glenny: I think that as a process it happened between 1988,1989 and 1991, by the time the war broke out in Croatia and the federal structures had completely collapsed. Then, all sides, particularly Serbia and particularly Croatia, very quickly Macedonia and Slovenia as well had created their paramilitary armies which were indistinguishable from the gangsters on the streets. And it’s no coincidence that all of the major criminal figures, in Serbia or in Croatia, for example, had a role to play in the war as well.
B92: In what way did their cooperation develop during the war?
Glenny: Well, here in Serbia, and in Croatia, and in Bosnia, one of the things that was going on was that the war was used as an excuse for, what one would call in Marxist terms, Primitive Capital Accumulation, i.e. in the battlefields, if the Croat unit or the Serb unit took an area, than, there would be a paramilitary team that would clear it of all its goods.
Television, fridges, whatever they could get their hands on. Sometimes, in the case of Eastern Slavonia, entire vineyards, oilfields and so on, and they would use this to start building up a criminal empire. Now what I felt when I was researching this about the 1990s, is because in the key instances there was a cooperation between gangsters and paramilitaries of all sides, i.e. Croats and Serbs cooperating together, Serbs and Albanians cooperating together in the heroin trade for example, that actually I came to review my belief about what happened in 1990s.
The real engine behind the wars was very little to do with nationalist conflict, and all to do with organized crime. Finding the way of seizing as much economic power in the various areas of the former Yugoslavia as possible, and establishing themselves as the key economic players in these countries.
B92: What was the role of the state? What was the role of the security services in Eastern Europe when it came to the development of organized crime?
Glenny: It was different in the former Yugoslavia from everywhere else. And that is because the slide to war meant that the state remained more powerful in Yugoslavia than it did, say, in neighboring Bulgaria. So, in neighboring Bulgaria, what tended to happen was that large number of security forces in 1989, 1990, were sacked from their jobs, and they were unemployed. They then used their skills of surveillance, creating criminal, or creating underground networks, killing people, smuggling – in Bulgaria, smuggling was very important – they became the new organized crime.
Here in Serbia or in Croatia, it was different because UDBA [former Yugoslav secret service] basically remained intact. It split along national lines obviously, but essentially the networks remained consistent with the state, and what they did was to develop a relationship with the paramilitaries, with the organized crime gangs, and so when you come on to something like cigarette smuggling from 1994 onwards, all of the states were getting their percentage, their cut from allowing the cigarette trade to go on through. They became mutually dependent.
B92: You say in your book that the Russians love their Slavic brothers, but that in the world of organized crime and weapons trade, one could hardly notice that.
Glenny: This is really important for me. The realization. When looking at the arms flows coming out of Ukraine and Russia, once the arms embargo was imposed on all republics of the former Yugoslavia, the amount of weaponry that went into Croatia from Ukraine and Russia is really quite astonishing. It was their primary source, the largest percentage of weapons coming into Croatia came from Russia and Ukraine and so, you know, it’s an example of how the mythology of strong political bond between, say, Moscow and Belgrade, is just that. When it comes to money, nationalism plays really insignificant role.
B92: Can you describe the role our criminals had in the development of organized crime? What was the role of the criminals from the former Yugoslavia?
Glenny: It was the very important role. And the reason why it was the important role is partly because of the specific function of the transit zone. For drugs, for women, for cigarettes, all going to the European Union, and it’s important to remember that this trade in Europe was driven by the huge demand of the EU citizens for drugs, illegal migrant labor, women, and so on… and it had a very important role there.
But, the other thing was the issue of the war, as a smoke screen for this activity, the so called fog of war), and also after the imposition of sanctions on the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e. Serbia and Montenegro. Those sanctions were a disaster. Because Serbia and Montenegro were self sufficient in food, all they needed to get was oil, and all the surrounding countries were very, very weak, going through tough transitions. So over night in 1992, you’ve created the Pan-Balkan Mafia.
This was where the Bulgarians the Serbs, the Croats, the Romanians, the Hungarians, the Greeks, the Albanians, everyone became involved in supply of oil to Serbia, and then in order to finance the wars, the transit of goods and services out through the Balkans and into the EU. And that was an absolutely massive increase. Now, this all drew the attention of secret services in the European Union and the United States. They knew that there was a hell of a lot going on in the Balkans, they didn’t exactly know what to do about it, but its role in the 1990s, and in the first few years of the post millennium period, the “naughties” as we called them, was really important.
B92: You have dedicated the last chapter of your book to the future of organized crime. How is it different from what it is today?
Glenny: ….It is interesting for me to observe Bulgaria, where criminal elements are at this time more powerful than in Serbia, but Bulgaria is now an EU members. I think that organized crime and its power in Serbia are directly connected to Serbia’s links with the EU. If Serbia becomes an EU member, it will receive all sorts of incentives that are perhaps not visible now, but that are necessary, above all financial injections into the economically devastated areas. These areas are southern Serbia for example, near the borders. These are the generators of organized crime.
There’s Belgrade, too, of course, where most of the money is. If Serbia becomes an EU members, the organized crime problem will slowly diminish in the 10 to 15-year period. That has happed in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, to a lesser degree in Poland, although that’s a specific problem. I’m sure it will happen in Bulgaria too. EU membership will destroy organized crime or bring it to an acceptable level. If, however Serbia remains outside the EU, then possibilities for organized crime to consolidate and increase its influence in the country will open up. [From B92 – Insight – Off the air – “Criminals, key business players”]
This post is a about Michael Totten’s report “A Dark Corner of Europe” Part 1. You need to read this article for this post to make sense. Michael Totten’s article is mostly very good article, and I, perhaps unfairly, am focussing only on the negatives here.
Michael Totten is a great independent journalist who I have followed avidly over the last few years, especially as he reported from Lebanon.
He is supposedly the master of independent journalism and canny travelogues but my respect for him has been slightly tarnished after he visited Belgrade – my adopted home town – and filed a hatchet job about it that completely contradicts what every other visitor is reports. He suggests, in essence, that Belgrade is a “dark corner of Europe”, a squalid xenophobic and anti-Semitic hell hole full of “Communist architecture”.
Well OK, that may be a bit of a stretch, but the article is negative, at times snide (especially the photo captions), misleading about Belgrade (and Serbia) and very one sided in that is only presents an ultra-Liberal view of the situation here from the perspective of a local film-maker (Filip David).
The Belgrade of Michael’s report is nearly unrecognisable to me, a resident of three years. It says nothing about the real Belgrade that I have lived and worked in for three years, the booming vibrant cosmopolitan party town that rapidly growing numbers of appreciative visitors are flocking to in greater and greater numbers. Unfortunately I think it tells us plenty about Michael’s lack of research, poor planning, paucity of diverse contacts on the ground and his previously revealed touch of Serbophobia .
Perhaps an analysis of his post is in order to help illuminate some of the unfair points?
Michael and the Taxi Driver
The post starts off with Michael and Sean being berated by a taxi driver, who rips them off.
Even cursory research about Belgrade would have revealed the many warnings about the Taxi Mafia who operate from Belgrade airport.They have pretty much cleared out of the airport now, but for many years they have been a pest that both rip off visitors and ruin people’s first impressions of the city.
Well informed visitors simply call one of the many legitimate taxi companies or go to the taxi desk at arrivals and order a legal taxi. A ride into to any part of the city would normally not cost more than 1000 dinars (or on a Sunday, maximum 1500).
The Taxi Mafia are criminal scum, and as you would expect they represent the worst of the country. It comes as no surprise that the cab driver took his opportunity to berate Michael and Sean.
Michael writes that he was afraid to reveal he was a journalist, some 9 years after the bombing, and was worried for his safety because of then recent embassy attacks. It was an unfounded fear, because even in 1999 – at the hight of the bombing – foreign journalists and citizens were treated (as they are now) with kindness, respect and hospitality. Take for example Marko Hoare, a British journalist and Balkan expert:
During the Kosovo War of 1999, I lived for more than a month in an ordinary Belgrade suburb, solely in the company of the native people of Belgrade and without any contact with other foreigners. Several times, during and immediately after this war, I crossed the Serbian international border. During this period, on not one single occasion did I, as a Briton, experience so much as a curse or a rude word from any Serbian citizen or border guard, despite the fact that my country’s airforce was bombing their country. One border guard even said to his colleague, in front of me, that what NATO was doing had nothing to do with me, but was the fault of higher powers. The Serbian people, for the most part, are not hooligans and do not engage in random acts of mob violence and destruction. Why should yesterday’s demonstrators have attacked McDonald’s restaurants, when during the Kosovo War the local management of these restaurants patriotically (as they saw it) supported the Serbian defence against NATO ? McDonald’s posters in 1999 Belgrade displayed the colours of the Serbian flag and promised a share of their profits to a fund for military invalids. Those who view themselves as engaged in a righteous act of national self-defence (as most Serbian people, however misguidedly, genuinely did in 1999), do not degrade themselves with acts of rioting and looting. One rioter was burned to death in the attack on the US embassy; this wave of violence, which has already produced dozens of injuries in recent days, is already violent in comparison with the revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. [Emphasis mine Source]
Michael and the Hotels
Michael complains about the horrible Hotel Royal and denounces Belgrade’s hotels. He writes:
Most of the city’s hotels are in so-called New Belgrade. They are overpriced, far from the city center, and surrounded by communist-era monstrosity architecture.
No, they are not Michael. The two biggest ones are (Hyatt and Intercontinental), but most hotels are in the Old Town (Stari Grad). Many ARE overpriced, but that was because until now most visitors were businessmen – a captured market – and there was no competition.
Things have changed radically. A whole new generation of excellent and affordable hotels have opened in and around the Old Town. Had you done your research you would have found out that the Hotel Royal is one of the worst hotels in the city. Why did you not try Le Petit Piaf or Hotel City Code or any one of the brilliant hotels nearby?
Michael Looks for A Party
Michael and Sean set off in search of some fun, but only found a Ethno-Karaoke bar and a Turkish themed dive.
Michael you walked UP Kralja Petra, you should have walked DOWN to Strahinjica Bana (aka Silicone Valley) one of Belgrade’s famous “strips” where you would have found hundreds of glitterati partying on the many bars and restaurants. I have no idea what Karaoke Bar you found, but you were 100m away from Bar Central, a world class cocktail bar with brilliant music and crowd (it is out of shot to the left in the photo captioned “Belgrade after midnight”).
Had you asked anyone, they would have directed you to one of the clubbing areas (like the river party boats).
If only you had made contact with any of the expatriates in Belgrade we could have guided you away from the crap bars and shown you Belgrade’s incredible nightlife.
Belgrade is deservedly famous for being a fantastic party town. It is a real pity you did not have someone to show you around. Even people like Tom Merchant, founder of award winning travel company Black Tomato, have praised Belgrade lavishly , as have The Times of London , the New York Times and dozens more.
Michael and the Writer
Michael interviews a local writer who speaks for the ultra-liberals of Serbia.
I support the Liberal Democratic Party so the early part of Mr Filip David’s interview with Michael Totten pretty much sums up what I think about much of the politics here.
That said, I am a foreigner and I have my own biases. But Mr David is unrepresentative of Serbs in general, and presents a deeply negative view of Serbia that even I would dispute.
Imagine I went to America and interviewed Michael Moore then reported back that his was the authentic voice of the USA? Well that is kind of how many Serbs will feel about Michael’s encounter with Filip David.
At times Michael and Mr David veer into speculation, generalization and stereotypes. They try and pass off Serbian anti-Americanism as the product mere propaganda and conspiracy theories.
It is true that the lunatic fringe and the Radical Party peddle absurd anti-Semitic and anti-American conspiracy theories but do not let that obscure the fact that Serbian anti-Americanism is firmly rooted in rightful outrage over the Clinton administration’s illegal and murderous bombing of the country in 1999. That bombing campaign is now widely seen to have been the result of being duped by the KLA, an attack on a sovreign state in supported Muslim separatist ethnic nationalists who went on to Ethnically Cleanse Serbs, Gorani and Roma from Kosovo and then turn the province into a corrupt and violent mafia state.
Had you Michael diversified his interview subjects, he may very well have come to understand that even those who support Kosovo independence here are outraged at the bombing and the general bullying manner in which post-Milosevic democratic Serbia has been treated by the US, EU and UN.
At one point Michael shocked me with this throw-away comment, writing:
Kosovo’s current prime minister Hashim Thaci, who really is a bit sketchy, was recently and absurdly accused of harvesting and selling Serb body parts. When you throw The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into the mix, it’s a good idea to fact-check what you hear – which is frankly good advice in the Balkans in general, not just in Serbia.
Well Michael here is what you do not know: Those allegations came from noted UN prosecutor Carla Del Ponte in her book “The Hunt”. The do sound like rubbish, but as Human Rights Watch have noted, the underlying fact is that hundreds of Serbs have been “disappeared” since 1999 and the KLA are directly implicated. HRW have called for an investigation:
NEW YORK — A senior Human Rights Watch (HRW) official has called on Priština to investigate the fate of more than 400 missing non-Albanians in Kosovo.
In this way, Fred Abrahams argues in a commentary carried by BIRN, “it would prove it cared for all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity”.
Carla Del Ponte’s book, Abrahams says, with allegations concerning the possible trafficking of prisoners’ organs from a mysterious yellow house near the Albanian town of Burrel, “has led to Serbian officials exaggerating the claims, while officials in Priština and Tirana called them a slanderous lie”.
So he is not “a bit sketchy”, he oversees a government that allows the ongoing sectarian violence against Serbs, a government which is the inheritor of power from the KLA – a state department listed terrorist organisation and mafia enterprise that is directly implicated in the mass murder of both non-Albanians and Albanians in Kosovo.
For more on the Albanian organ harvesting case and Albanian mass murderers being freed by the Hague after killing all witnesses, see:
You might notice that the point is not about whether the Organ Harvesting is true or not, but the blanket refusal of UN and other bodies to investigate alleged crimes against Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo.
It is the double standard that irks Serbs. Every ridiculous claim but its enemies are reprinted as gospel truth whilst acknowledged war crimes like the abduction of 400 Serbian civilians remains investigated (and unreported) to this today.
Michaels photo captions are very snide at times. For example in one photo he captions a picture of Belgrade’s military museum and writes:
Well no, Michael, it is a museum. Do American’s like to show off their military hardware in public too? I mean what the hell is the Intrepid doing moored at New York?
Serbia had not been bombed
During a walking tour Michael “saw virtually no evidence that Belgrade had ever been bombed.” A walk down Kralja Milena would have provided you with all the evidence required. There are multiple shattered building right across the road from the US Embassy.
Later he sees,
“[The] bombed-out Belgrade TV station building…[which]…stood out as one of the few remaining demolished buildings from the air campaign. It seems to be left as a show-piece. It’s hard to say, though, if this building was left in its condition to wave the bloody shirt against Americans or against the Milosevic regime.”
This is an interesting point because I have wondered why so many ruins have been left in place. Serb opinion is split. Some say it is, as Michael says “to wave a bloody shirt”. Other people have told me there are unexploded bombs, that it is massively expensive to clear the sites and that there are fears of Depleted Uranium. I am not sure if any of that is true.
Michael reveals his ignorance about what really happened in Kosovo
Michael writes that
“[Milosevic’s] ethnic-cleansing campaign turned 90 percent of Kosovar Albanians into refugees”.
This is a half-truth, and as such is one of the enduring anti-Serb myths of the war.
The typical story starts with genocidal Serbs picking on poor defenceless Albanians and ends with trains of Albanian civilians pouring out of Kosovo terrified for their lives, the survivors of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
That is the KLA/Western Media version and has no bearing on reality. It was all media warfare. The story should have started back in 1981 with the Pristina riots. It should have charted the KLA insurgency and, murderous campaign against Albanian rivals. It should include the ethnic warfare against Serbs that culminated in the Serbian Army being deployed to fight the KLA insurgency.
And of course the the story did not end with the Kosovar civilians leaving in droves. We later discovered that the massacres and ethnic cleansing claimed by NATO and the KLA did not happen. The civilians fled because they were warned to by the KLA and because they were terrified by the news reports from the duped Western media. They all returned home within a few months. And then they set about hounding, persecuting and ethnically slaughtering non-Albanians so that 90% of non-Albanians have been permanently Ethnically Cleansed from Kosovo since the NATO bombing.
So please shut up about the temporary, propaganda-driven KLA-orchestrated media stunt and pay some attention to the real outrage of Kosovo: The hundreds of thousands of deracinated Serbs, Gorani and Roma (not to mention the hundreds of missing, probably dead abductees), the illegal bombing of Serbian civilians, the human slave trafficking, the drug smuggling, the ongoing oppression of minorities in Kosovo. That is the real outrage in this story. You may very well see it first hand.
Since you are going to Kosovo. Make sure you visit the embattled Serb communities living in razor wire surrounded ghettos, guarded by foreign soldiers and under daily attack from Albanian sectarian violence.
Head to the south of the province, try and visit the village of Velika Hoca and the town of Orahovac. What you find will shock you.
Safe in Belgrade
Towards the end of the first instalment Michael asked Filip David “I feel like we’re safe here, is that true?”. Mr David replies “Yes, generally. But sometimes you will have somebody say they don’t like you if they hear you speak English.”
Michael notes that no-one had been rude to he or Sean. I think it is worth noting that Belgrade is one of the safest cities in the world. There is virtually no street crime and xenophobia is so are as to be almost unheard of. An American is in more danger in London than Belgrade where the overwhelming majority of encounters will be hospitable and helpful – more so than any Western European capital.
I will introduce you to ideas that you have not explored, for example how it was the KLA who mastered Hizbollah-style media warfare and used it to dupe the West into unnecessary and illegal aggression against Serbia. I will give you Western conservative’s account of what happened here. I guarantee that there is a vast and nuanced complexity to the situation here that you are missing right now, a complexity that I can help explain.
And I will take you out and show you a proper Belgrade good time, I will make sure you are put up somewhere decent and I will get you to the airport for free.
Do we have a deal?
South African journalist and pundit Ivo Vegter has rapidly become one of my favourite daily reads (his is one of the 30 surviving feeds in my “daily” list that once numbered 300 feeds).
One contemporary cultural phenomenon that he was dead right about is Facebook. In 2007, when Facebook was peaking, Ivo started warning that Facebook was way more sinister than it appeared. When it was rumoured that Microsoft was going to buy it, Ivo publicly committed to leaving Facebook in the event Microsoft bought in to Facebook
Ivo, true to his word, deactivated his account and decamped for Google’s Orkut.
Since then Facebook has been the subject of increasingly hostile user and press attacks, mainly related to its dreadful privacy policies and practices.
Now the arty-farty types and designers seem to have turned on ole’ Facebook too. Phenomenally successful new image aggregation site FFFFound has these two images below showing strong popularity. Hats off Ivo, you told us so.
Please watch this powerful and beautiful short speech by Jill Bolte Taylor about how she came to observer her own stoke as it happened, and how it transformed her life.
In March 2003, social psychologist Richard Nisbett published his groundbreaking book “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why“, which challenged the received wisdom that all human groups perceive and reason in the same way. He came to the conclusion, based mostly on observation and social psychology studies, that Asians and Westerners
“Have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years….The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context and with Westerners’ belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects’ behavior.”
5 years later, neuroscience research is confirming Nisbett’s observations. From the Boston Globe:
East is East and West is West, and the difference between them is starting to turn up even on brain scanners.
New brain research is adding high-tech evidence to what lower-tech psychology experiments have found for years: Culture can affect not just language and custom, but how people experience the world at stunningly basic levels – what they see when they look at a city street, for example, or even how they perceive a simple line in a square.
Western culture, they have found, conditions people to think of themselves as highly independent entities. And when looking at scenes, Westerners tend to focus on central objects more than on their surroundings.
In contrast, East Asian cultures stress interdependence. When Easterners take in a scene, they tend to focus more on the context as well as the object: the whole block, say, rather than the BMW parked in the foreground.
To use a camera analogy, “the Americans are more zoom and the East Asians are more panoramic,” said Dr. Denise Park of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas in Dallas. “The Easterner probably sees more, and the Westerner probably sees less, but in more detail.”
From Wikipedia: “William Heath Robinson (May 31, 1872 – September 13, 1944) was an English cartoonist and illustrator, who signed himself W. Heath Robinson. He is best known for drawings of eccentric machines and “Heath Robinson” has entered the language as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contraption.
Loved a cartoon he drew during WW1, look out for “Cracking Nuts for the Officers Mess”.
INSTANT EVOLUTION: The Influence of the City on Human Genes by Howard Bloom, Visiting Scholar, New York University.
Howard Bloom is a genius. I rate him as one of the most interesting living intellectuals. He is an intellectual idol of mine, king of the The Omnologists, polymath, gentleman and scholar.
Just look at any of his many articles on http://www.howardbloom.net and you will see what I mean.
Remove the sponge cell from the sponge, prevent it from finding its way back to its brethren, and it dies. Scrape a liver cell from the liver and in its isolation it too will shrivel and give up life. But what happens if you remove a human from his social bonds, wrenching him from the superorganism of which he or she is a part?
What do Mother Nature, Osama bin Laden, Michael Jackson and the bungle in Iraq have in common?
They are all exercises for the animals in the brain- Nature evolved those animals and built our brains around an animal core.
Osama, Christian militia movements, and other militant belief systems tap those animals.
Finally an exerpt from his forthcoming book: Reinventing Capitalism – putting soul in the machine: A radical reperception of Western Civilisation
You will thank me for this introduction. Bloom deserves widespread recognition.
“Last Friday, The New Criterion and Britain’s Social Affairs Unit hosted a conference at the Union League Club called “Threats to Democracy.” The papers and discussion from this conference will be edited for publication in an upcoming issue of the magazine.
It may seem like just another day at TNC, but it’s hard not to get star-struck by the gentlemen pictured at the conference above. They are, from left to right: Max Boot, Kenneth Minogue, Roger Scruton, Robert Bork, Mark Steyn, Keith Windschuttle, Michael Mosbacher, Roger Kimball, Douglas Murray, James Piereson, Anthony Glees, Herbert London & Michael Gleba. The photographer … is Daniel Pipes.”
Jason Bates is one of the smartest people I know and now he has a blog!
Get over to the Autonomics Weblog for an intellectual feast!
[This is a placeholder notification. Autonomics and Jason deserve a detailed post but I am unable to write it now.]