Where words are weapons

Western nations, the World Bank, and the UN are busy planning to revive Kosovo and to lay a new foundation of stability, democracy, and prosperity in the Balkans. This calls not only for new political and economic architecture but also for a change of mentality.

Today, understandably, the focus is on physical rebuilding and modernizing in what is mistakenly called a new Marshall Plan. Western Europe in 1945 had a highly skilled labor force yearning to clear the wreckage and get back to work while the Balkans, largely agricultural, wasted half a lifetime in the straitjacket of communist economics. More than that, the region is cramped with centuries-old historical and religious tensions that surface in what scholars call "hate speech."

The Germans have been especially active in ridding their school textbooks of myths and stereotypes denigrating France and Poland. The Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Brunswick, Germany, has joined Balkan experts in reviewing their texts. At the same time, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) has published an extensive examination of "hate speech" in the Balkan information media.

The core of the problem is the establishment of identity in a region where nation states were not formed until late in the 19th century. It is marked by a sharp, usually hostile, distinction between "self" and "others." Even where national politics are democratic, the language of discrimination comes naturally. In the Greek press, Turkey and Turks are standard villains seeking not just to humiliate Greece but to destroy it. Plots, agents, and conspiracies abound. Since the arrival of significant numbers of Albanian immigrants, the Greek media have denounced the "bestiality of Albanian thugs" and warned that "Greece is obliged to uproot them and cut their legs off."

Macedonia is also a target.

To this day, Greece refuses to recognize Macedonia, insisting that the UN call it FYRIM - Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is not a matter of ribald abuse such as the French and British have exchanged for centuries, but a denial of the "other's" right to exist as a political entity. Bulgaria as a nation was challenged by Croats, Serbs, and Greeks. Macedonians are "southern Serbs" to the Serbs, "western Bulgarians" to the Bulgars and "slavophone Greeks" in Greece. The Macedonian press replies in kind. Greeks, Albanians, and Bulgarians are "liars," "dishonest merchants," and potential enemies. Macedonia is better than all.

While the present, democratic Romanian government has worked hard for good relations with the large Hungarian minority, the media dish out the old propaganda of the Hungarian menace. Together with all the rest of the Balkan media, it also vilifies Gypsies - Roma - as dirty, thieving, and shiftless.

Slobodan Milosevic has shown how hate can become genocide. His picture of Serbia as the eternal victim, envied by its enemies for its superior qualities, noble in fighting for its rights against the "others," is the pathological projection of the we/they syndrome. He gave it an explosive force that will not soon be repeated.

But the region remains volcanic. Today no country has friendly relations with its neighbors. It will be a long day before the people of Kosovo think of the Serbs as anything but butchers. Throughout the Balkans, says IHF, the media are producing such "hate speech" that the publics are being conditioned to support any new conflict that may arise. Denying "others" rights claimed for oneself, dismissing them as nonpersons if not subhuman, makes a climate in which atrocities can seem normal.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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