Dispatch

Fortress Britain No Longer?

Fleet Street is in a tizzy about David Cameron's deep defense cuts. But it could have been much worse.

The British government's Strategic Defense Review published Tuesday has been a gift to headline writers -- "HMS Inglorious: 5 billion carrier Fiasco" thundered the Times, while the Telegraph's take was "New Navy Lark: new carrier will be sold after 3 years."

These headlines, based as they were on partly accurate leaks, hit the newspaper stands before Prime Minister David Cameron even announced the full details of his new military plans -- foisted upon him by the need to cut the general budget deficit of more than £150 billion and a £38 billion overspend at the Ministry of Defense -- to the House of Commons.

Perhaps the hostile reception was inevitable given that the review involves substantial cuts of 8 percent in the defense budget by 2015. On the other hand, it could have been worse: Far more dramatic cuts of up to 25 percent were being discussed in the summer.

But if the government was hoping for understanding or even support from the media, there has been little on offer, even from Cameron's supporters in the right-wing press.

The reaction from defense experts has been a bit warmer. Paul Cornish of the leading think tank Chatham House had feared the review would be a traditional bit of British "muddling through," but he told the BBC he's pleasantly surprised. "They're saying: Let's have a risk-based approach to national security and defense. They're delivering it, and I think they ought to be, in a sense, complimented for it." And Jane's Strategic Advisory Services argues the government has retained its core military capability in spite of the cuts.

Despite these warm words, three main criticisms have been leveled at Tuesday's announcements.

The government has been accused of not being strategic because the changes are not matched to the country's security requirements (announced earlier this week in the National Security Assessment). The critics also charge the review has been driven by the Treasury's need to cut the deficit, not the Ministry of Defense's requirements for personnel and equipment (which were announced only a day before the government revealed its program of spending cuts). The other main complaint is that the review is a rush job -- it has taken only five months compared with the 18 months taken by the previous government when it came to power in 1997.

So when Cameron stood up in the House of Commons to tell MPs about the plans, he sought to rebut these criticisms directly. He said his government had looked at all elements of security, not just defense, and that other departments -- the Foreign Office, the Home Office (responsible for counterterrorism, for instance), and the Department for International Development -- had been involved in the process. He argued that the review would create modern, flexible armed forces equipped for future threats. He also said that, from now on, Britain will follow the U.S. example and hold a strategic defense review at regular intervals.

Cameron said there would be no impact on the funding for forces fighting in Afghanistan, but he did go on to announce significant cuts in military capability. There will be manpower cuts in the Army, Navy, and Air Force totaling 17,000 personnel. The 20,000 British troops still based in Germany 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union will be brought home and the Army will have fewer heavy tanks and artillery. The Navy will retire its remaining aircraft carrier and naval strike aircraft early, leaving Britain without a carrier until the ones now under construction enter service at the end of the decade. The Air Force has lost its replacement for the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "worried" that Britain and other NATO allies would make cuts that undermined the alliance's military capability. So is Washington reassured now? Ahead of his announcement, the White House said that Cameron had briefed President Barack Obama, telling him Britain would remain a first-rate military power, committed to NATO.

In practice, this means Britain will still have the capability to field up to 30,000 troops anywhere in the world, fewer than joined the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but more than are in Afghanistan today. The prime minister also said British special operations forces would be strengthened and ready for immediate action around the globe.

The new government in London has already identified the United States and France as Britain's future strategic allies -- a decision underlined by Cameron's announcement that the new aircraft carriers will be modified so they will be interoperable with U.S. and French aircraft. He also said Britain would buy the more powerful version of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is being developed in the United States with some British funding.

Party politics clearly intruded Tuesday, though, when disagreement within the new coalition meant one very big decision was put off. Cameron's Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat partners are split on how to replace Britain's aging Trident nuclear weapons system, and for now they have agreed to disagree: The main decision has been postponed until after the next election, when they might no longer be in government together.

Nuclear weapons or not, it seems clear Britain intends to remain a useful ally to the United States and its NATO partners, with a renewed attempt to work more closely with the French.

What remains open to question is how that power will be used in the future. Cameron also signaled that Britain would be less interested in large-scale military interventions along Iraqi or Afghan lines, and instead would focus more on using diplomacy and aid to prevent conflicts from breaking out in the first place. It's just as well: That might be all a cash-strapped Britain may be capable of doing anymore.

STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Battle in Belgrade

Is Serbia Really Ready to Join the European Union?

BELGRADE, Serbia — To the 500 or so Serbian gays and their allies who marched here last weekend, the riots engulfing the rest of the city were a world away.

Sunday, Oct. 10, marked the first time that a gay rights demonstration has been held successfully in Serbia, a deeply conservative, Orthodox Christian country that is slowly moving beyond a history marred by war and ethnic conflict. Its pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, is keen on bringing Serbia into the European Union, but must first transform the popular perception of his country as one that is xenophobic and intolerant, out of step with the European Union's reigning liberal ethos.

A crucial part of that effort is to improve the status of Serbian minorities, gays among them -- an agenda that has gone over badly with the country's still-powerful right wing. In 2001, ultranationalist hooligans violently disrupted a gay civil rights march, and one planned for last year was canceled at the last minute when government authorities told organizers that they could not guarantee the safety of participants. Tadic's critics, both left and right, accuse him of pandering to the European Union, and to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to visit Belgrade Tuesday, Oct. 12, to discuss Serbia's EU accession process, the whereabouts of fugitive Serbian general and accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, and the status of Kosovo.

Regardless of the government's motives in supplying 5,000 police officers to protect the parade -- and sealing off a major section of the city to let it happen -- Sunday's event was entirely peaceful, at least for parade goers. Indeed, Belgrade was two cities: a ghost town and a war zone. Riot police set up successive cordons on major thoroughfares and side streets to monitor attendance in the march, which started with a rally in a downtown park, creating a wide radius through which one had to seek permission to pass. At some point I lost count of the number of checkpoints I crossed, showing my press credentials and undergoing a pat down at each one.

About an hour before the rally began, small disturbances began between anti-gay protesters and police just a half-mile or so from the rally. Running toward the noise (which alternated between chants of "Kill, kill, kill the gays" and other crude slogans), I was passed by two police officers, one visibly injured. Moments later, as I tried to take a picture of the ensuing chaos, a screaming hooligan ran up to me, smashing my camera hard into my face. I ran from the scene before I could see what, if anything, the police did to him in response.

The march itself was largely uneventful. It lasted all of about 15 minutes, traveled the length of a few blocks, and competed against a background of sirens and the whirring of a police helicopter. By the time marchers had made their way to a downtown event hall for a party, reports of the violence engulfing Belgrade had begun to penetrate the bubble. "There is fighting all over the city," Jasna Cicmil, a 33-year-old Serbian woman, told me between frequent checks of her cell phone for text messages. "They tried to get into the hospital where injured policemen were put."

The gay Serbians relishing in a temporary victory over their more reactionary compatriots got a reality check immediately upon stepping outside the event hall, where a line of armored paddy wagons had lined up to drive them home. Police gently escorted parade-goers into the back of the trucks, shut a metal gate to lock them in, and sent them on their way.

Hearing reports of the riots dispersed across the city, I turned down a well-intentioned Serbian friend who had invited me into one of the trucks and ventured out on my own. I soon realized it would be impossible to get back to my hotel; there was a small-scale war going on between police officers and hooligans on one of the major streets leading up to it. The pleasant boulevard of Knez Mihailova, lined with clothing shops, cafes, and fancy stores, was being used by the anti-gay protesters as a fall-back point in their war against the security forces. Bricks and Molotov cocktails crashed near my feet, and the sting of tear gas hit my eyes. Behind me, I heard an elderly woman cry, "Fight brothers! This is traditional Serbia!"

Several hours later the violence came to an end and the costly toll had come in: some $1.4 million in estimated damages, nearly 150 (mostly police officers) wounded, the headquarters of Tadic's Democratic Party burned. As for the message that Sunday's event will send to Europe and the world, it's unclear. No matter how much effort the Serbian government made to ensure the safety of the parade, the very fact that it required 10 police officers for every marcher demonstrates just how far Serbian society is from reaching the point where it could become a full-fledged member of the European community.

"This is a test case for Serbia," Marije Cornelissen, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament told me Sunday in Belgrade. "Tadic has decided that this is one of the things he's going to show the EU that we are a mature democracy, and that has worked wonders." She was joined at the event by several international figures, including the Dutch and U.S. ambassadors, both of whom commended the Serbian government's support for the parade as a positive example of its embrace of Western, liberal values. Earlier this year, Tadic met with gay activists in his office, and he publicly expressed his support for the event on numerous occasions.

Some activists, however, see a more cynical motivation in the government's newfound embrace of public expression for gay rights. "Tadic said that there haven't been any meetings with the EU in which [gay] pride wasn't mentioned," Milica Djordjevic, the head of an NGO that works with Roma street children, told me. When I asked her whether she thought his support for the parade was genuine, she said it was a concession to economic reality: Serbia has a nearly 20 percent unemployment rate, something that closer links with Europe would certainly alleviate. "If it was really a change, Tadic would come to pride," she said.

It's clear that Tadic faces enormous resistance to his support even for gays' right to associate, opposition often couched in religious language that will be familiar to veterans of gay-marriage debates in more mature democracies. The day before Sunday's march, I happened upon a small vigil organized by Orthodox clerics, at which a few dozen people bearing giant crosses chanted prayers and voiced their opposition to the march. Over the past several days, individuals I interviewed who opposed the march repeatedly invoked arguments about how homosexuality "destroys" the family and is forbidden by the Bible.

But in Serbia, a place where nationalism still runs strong, opposition to homosexuality often takes on a distinctly chauvinist tone as well. Sunday's march inevitably became wound up in the broader question of whether Serbia should join the European Union and other Western institutions, which many here still resent due to the NATO bombing campaign in the 1990s and the subsequent international war-crimes prosecutions of former Serbian leaders.

On Saturday, Oct. 9, a group called Serbiaki Dveri held its own rally and march to protest the next day's gay pride event. Many Serbian flags were on display, and patriotic music was sung. One woman, Lozanka Radojcic, standing at the front of the crowd, held a photo of her son in military uniform. When I asked why she was holding it, she informed me that he died in the Kosovo War. "We can't have a family because he was killed," she told me. The name of one of the ultranationalist organizations opposing the march -- 1389, named after the year in which Serbia lost to the Ottoman Empire in a battle for the then-province of Kosovo -- underscores how history (even ancient history) is still a potent force.

What the battle over Kosovo had to do with civil rights for gays was beyond me, but it was the sort of sentiment to which numerous speakers at the event appealed. "We are here because we want to defend family values and the territorial integrity of Serbia," Nikola Marinkovic, the organizer, said to loud cheers. "The government's project needs to be a family project and not support for a pride parade." He went onto to denounce Tadic's decision to spend money on extra policing for the gay rights march and proclaimed that his government had "destroyed everything and now they want to destroy the only thing we have left: our family values."

Though Sunday's parade has been overshadowed by the violence, that the event took place was enough for gay activists. "This is important because nobody, after this, can forbid the next one," Djordjevic, the NGO leader, says. "This is the first step." Some Serbians are already declaring victory. "I'm sick of sitting at home and being afraid," Danilo Milic, a 32-year-old lawyer told me. "We had enough people against these idiots and we won."

AFP/Getty Images