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What To Do About Ahtisaari?

September 10, 2006


By David Binder

It is now a month since Martti Ahtisaari made a remark to Belgrade’s negotiating team in Vienna about the Serbian people. According to them, he said Serbs were “guilty as a nation” for the actions of the Milosevic government during the Balkan wars.

The accusation swiftly stirred comparisons to the “collective guilt” concept which Hitler used against Jews and Slavs, and the “collective guilt” thesis rejected at the Nuremberg tribunal in 1946 as applying to the entire German people.

Three members of that team have since confirmed his statement. One, Dusan Batakovic declared, “Ahtisaari literally told me, “you are guilty as a nation.'”

Prime Minister Kostunica, President Tadic and Foreign Minister Draskovic have criticized the remarks of the U.N.’s Special Envoy for Future Status Process for Kosovo, the post he was appointed to in 2005.

Ahtisaari and his spokeswoman have issued partial denials. There have been demands for his removal, plus a “diplomatic offensive that will try to prove his subjectivity” promised by Belgrade, and an international petition against him. Secretary General Kofi Annan has registered his support of his U.N. envoy through a spokesman.

Ahtisaari has been sporadically involved in the Balkans by way of the U.N. since autumn 1992, when he was named chairman of the Bosnia-Hercegovina Working Group of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. There, working under Cyrus Vance, he presided over drafting of a constitution for that ill-fated land that was to accompany its cantonization under the so-called Vance-Owen plan. In January 1993 Vance also asked Ahtisaari to take a look at the Kosovo issue to see what role it might play in a wider settlement for the former Yugoslavia.

After a pause during which he served as the tenth President of Finland (1994-2000) he went to Belgrade at the beginning of June 1999 as a European Union envoy, alongside Russia’s Viktor Chernomyrdin. Their mission: to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Serbian troops from Kosovo as part of a ceasefire deal with NATO.

According to an eyewitness, Ahtisaari’s diplomatic technique peaked with a violent gesture. He grabbed the table cloth on which coffee and tea cups rested for the negotiators and ripped it from the table, sending cups, saucers, pots and spoons crashing to the floor. “That is what will happen to Serbia if you do not accept!” he shouted at Milosevic and the other Serbs. This, after some 70 days of NATO bombs and rockets.

On June 3, 1999 Milosevic accepted the envoys’ terms. NATO air strikes ceased six days later. Ahtisaari never mentioned his coffee table outburst, but he did remark that Milosevic may have agreed because Chernomyrdin had made some vague suggestions about a Russian military presence in a post-conflict Kosovo.

Although he has never mentioned it directly, the Finnish politician-diplomat has a curious connection to the Kosovo conundrum in his personal biography.

Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari was born June 23, 1937 in Viipuri, then the second-biggest city in Finland with 80,000 citizens. It is now Vyborg, Russia, having been seized by Stalin in the 1939 Winter War and incorporated in the Soviet Union following World War II. Little Martti was evacuated at the age of 2 along with some 407,000 other Finnish inhabitants of this land, called Karelia. In 1939, it constituted 7 percent of Finland’s territory. In short, Karelia is as much a part of Finnish culture and history as Kosovo is
to the Serbs.

When Ahtisaari was Finnish president, Karelia came up several times in his exchanges with Russian leaders, including Boris Yeltsin. In Moscow in 1994, he said that if Russia were really interested, Finland would be amenable to discuss Karelia. He repeated this in 1997, adding, “There is no escaping the fact that the occupation of the Karelian isthmus was and is a major injustice to the Finns… I’ll be the last Finn to forbid a discussion of Karelia.”

In May 2000, in a speech in Geneva, Ahtisaari again mentioned sentiments about Karelia that a Serb could share about Kosovo:

“I was born in Viipuri and during the war with the Soviet Union I became a displaced person in my own country. And after the war, I with over 400,000 fellow countrymen had to find a new home in Finland. Although I was very young at that time, this process had a very profound impact on my character, leaving particular sensitivity towards the plight of refugees and displaced persons and at least partly explaining why I got involved with different mediation efforts.”

All very well. Yet now Martti Ahtisaari apparently fails to see the “plight of refugees and displaced persons” when it comes to Serbs. Instead, he regards them only as a nation with “a burden it has to pay for.”

It is not my job to tell Serbs how they should react to Ahtisaari. But I do know one example from the 19th century of a harmless technique that is very effective in countering a powerful adversary:

In the summer of 1880, there was an English overseer working for an absentee landlord in (occupied) Ireland. When impoverished tenant farmers demanded lower rents, he refused. On the advice of the Irish Land League, the tenants eschewed violence, but ceased work in the fields, stables and his house. They turned their backs on him. The harvest failed.

In December 1880, the colonial overseer returned to England. His name was Captain Charles Boycott. Within a few months “boycott” became the verb it is today, meaning “to shun.”


David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was originally published in Belgrade‘s Politika on Sept. 6, 2006.

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