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The Politics of the Flood

Drowning in the Balkans

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Behind every calamity of nature lies a political response. Human communities eventually need to find the cause, the hand that made things worse, what might have been done better. The Bosnian and Serbian floods have made the opponents of the government hungry. The animal is wounded, and as the Balkans drowns, a dividend is being reaped. Whether the Prime Minister accompanies a rescue effort or not, there are criticisms; when he is not there, the opposition complain that he is invisible and indifferent.

In Serbia and Bosnia, crops have been destroyed by broken banks and failed barriers. Power infrastructure is being threatened. Mining has been disrupted, and the functioning of two hydro-power plants of the Serbian power utility company EPS halted. Unexploded land mines from the civil war of 1992-5 are also being disturbed. Sports stadia are being filled; tents and shelters erected. If governments can fold because of the price of foodstuffs, there is every reason to assume the same in the event of environmental calamity. Fragile states are often at the mercy, not merely of their governors, but the elements.

Then there is the sense of battle over how humanitarian, and effective, an effort can be. Help has been forthcoming from neighbours. Macedonia has been providing assistance. Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia have also added their presence, along with such EU states as Germany, Austria and Britain. Donations are streaming in, as are foot stuffs and water.

But it is Russian rescue efforts which have proven to be formidable, credited with saving thousands of lives. In one operation at Obrenovac, site of Serbia’s biggest power plant, 393 people, including 79 children were rescued. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry (EMERCOM) despatched members of the Tsentropas airmobile team with a degree of immediacy last week, after a request from Belgrade for help was received.

There was even the suggestion that Russians did more than the Serb forces combined, giving a sense of woe as to where Serbia’s own prowess in civil protection had gone. The skills of the 76 or so divers with updated “equipment and techniques” on the part of the Russian rescue team, equipped with K-32 helicopters and Illyushin IL-76 aircraft, were praised.

In this effort, a political note has emerged. The Russians have been effective and enthusiastic, salutary to a long fraternal association with the Serbian state. The European Union has been half-hearted, even cold, asserting its bullying posture over admitting Serbia to the club, but indifferent to its times of need. In the words of Svetlana Maksovic, writing for the Serbian monthly Geopolitika, “many Serbian people are upset by the reaction, or lack of reaction thereof, of the European Union, especially after EU Foreign Policy Head Catherine Ashton did nothing more than send her condolences” (Voice of Russia, May 17).

A the Voice of Russia noted, almost with a degree of smug satisfaction, “The Russian Federation has been the first country to respond during the dire time of need of the Serbian people with many Serbians dismayed by the almost complete lack of response from the European Union and other countries.” Milica Djurdjevic, head of public relations with the patriotic organisation Srpski sabor Zavetnici, was adamant in praise about how Serbia “immediately received material help from our historical friends and allies from the Russian Federation.” Such a sentiment suggests that EU officials would be wise to front up to the way natural disasters figure in political narratives. Russia, as it has done in its interventions in Europe, is gaining plaudits.

The questions are gathering in number. Did the warning to evacuate come too late? In a sense, the lethargic, even complacent response to the floods could not be faulted – its scale took most by surprise. Many simply did not want to believe it. Rescuers who came up to some residents, urging them to leave, were rebuffed. According to Sinisa Mali, describing the early stage of the floods, “A man was refused to leave his home as suggested by rescuers and drowned overnight in Umcari.” Some residents of Obrenovac have shown similar stubbornness in terms of being evacuated, so much so that the Minister for Labor, Employment, Social Affairs and Veterans, Aleksander Vulin, has become desperate. Everything, he assures, is there for the evacuees. Don’t tempt fate.

In all of this, the meteorologists have become the new apostles of gloom, though on this occasion, their warnings of total submerging were treated as minor murmurings. The subtext in the response was that it could surely not happen. Stay in the homes and weather the storm.

The suggestion coming from weather watchers was not merely that the floods were the worst in 120 years, but in centuries. This is not the freak show of a malevolent divinity, the ‘act of God’ insurance companies like citing. This may well be standard fare, a recurring feature of a malevolent, angry climate that makes rescue and response efforts miniature in scale. In such cases, it is not merely the dams that burst, put the political will to maintain stability.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com