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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000

Serbian Orientalism
by Sonja Biserko

The arrival of Year 2000 has provided much of the world with a motive to reflect on the twentieth century and to anticipate the next one. But in Serbia the turn of the century has brought to the fore an antiüWestern orientation and the impression that `Serbia's uniqueness' lies precisely in its being at war with the West. This position is refracted, in particular, via its understanding of the processes of globalization and transition, which are perceived as a plot hatched by `mondialists' defined as `bastards belonging to the most odious antiüEuropean and antiücultural West'. The country is obsessed with the `new world order' allegedly used by Washington strategists to transform first Yugoslavia and then Europe into a `Damned Yard'. [Andric] The `harsh world war against Serbia' at the end of the twentieth century was waged, it is claimed, precisely because of Serbia's specificity ý with the difference that this time round `it is not caravans or armies, but conceptions' that traverse our country.

In this way the misfortunes which have befallen Serbia over the past decade are presented as the result of a carefully crafted strategy of globalization, which according to Mira Markovic has for its purposes invented also `the Tribunal in The Hague as an instrument with which to legalize and institutionalize retaliation against those resisting colonialism and individual humiliation at the end of the twentieth century'. As she puts it, `globalization is a substitute for a compromised world order and an unrealized world state, even for cosmopolitanism.'

Serbia's specific position is reflected also in its anachronistic foreignüpolicy priorities, best formulated by President of the Republic Slobodan Milosevic in the New Year interview he gave to the Belgrade daily Politika. He stated on that occasion that `the unification of Russia and Belorus demonstrates the potential of cooperation and association between Eurasian peoples and states, and marks a first step towards reestablishment of the world balance broken at the start of the 1990s. Serbia will be part of this alliance.' He also said that `our country and people have been defending themselves for a decade: if we had not defended our country before, we would not have been able to defend it when the bombs started to fall either.'

The process of transition in the states of eastern Europe is experienced as `a counterrevolution, although without bloodletting and the use of gunpowder'. As a result of this process, `the essence of democracy has been forfeited, the material basis of socialist democracy lost, and a return made to formal democracy of the Western type.' That the transition has not succeeded in, for example, Bulgaria is illustrated with reference to the fact that its `agricultural production has declined, while in Serbia it has significantly increased.' It is nevertheless admitted that `in our society order, discipline and cleanliness as postulates of civilized life have for some time not functioned well.'

The prominent personalities of the Serbian intellectual elite, who in the past fully supported Slobodan Milosevic's rise to power, state modestly today that `the wisest thing one can do today is to turn in and shut up', and that `we're not choosing poverty, it's choosing us.' By glorifying `freedom in poverty', hard work and (self)responsibility are negated in advance. Generalizing misfortune and balancing guilt is one way of avoiding facing up to personal responsibility. Milovan Danojlic says: `We Serbs stand a good chance of pulling out of it somehow, provided that we sober up and admit our sins and stupidities.'

Dobrica Cosic too lost no time in gracing the end of the century with his judgement that `our historical reason has seized up'. This time round he avoided referring to Yugoslavia as `a prisonühouse of nations', stressing instead how `they have destroyed our state, for which we fought for a decade with the loss of countless lives, but which in the end we were not able to keep.'

His old thesis that `we lose in peace what we gain in war' was now given a new interpretation: `the Serbs at the end of the century must take the Germans as an example of how a lost war can be won in peace.' The comparison between the Serbs and the Germans as they were at the end of World War II was nevertheless set in the context of the antiüSerb conspiracy: `The Germans were guilty for what they did to others, whereas we are guilty more for what we have done to ourselves; yet like them we are being charged with collective guilt and punished because of the current regime and its policy.'

By shifting the responsibility for Serb failures at the end of the twentieth century to `the neoüimperialist and hegemonistic policy of the United States of America and its European satellites', countries which do not favour the Serb people and are, therefore, `brutally punishing it for their own delusions, errors and guilt', the Serbian elite has clearly defined itself as antiüWestern. The main reason for this lies in its essential incomprehension and misunderstanding of Western values. The breakup of Yugoslavia has fully revealed Serbia's conflict with the West ý a fact that has escaped Western analysts and to some extent also the Serbian elite itself, given that it publicly declares itself in favour of cooperation with the West. The disappointed expectation that Russia would automatically cover for all Serbian blunders, and the realization that `the Russians have contributed to Serbian isolation rather than to a peaceful resolution of the Yugoslav crisis, especially in Kosovo', has made the Serbs feel that the Russians too have betrayed them.

Serbia and Russia share a similar ý indeed essentially the same ý attitude towards the West. But Serbia's identity contains another component, which is not so very transparent and therefore remains undetected by analysts. I have in mind its Orientalism. This is visible in the `folk craze' (folk music, kiosks, flea markets) which has come increasingly to dominate our life. This element of the national psyche, however, is being consciously suppressed, due to deep animosity towards the Muslims who for centuries used to provide the ruling class in Serbia and the region. These two aspects of Serbian identity ý the illusion of Orthodoxy and the reality of an anachronistic Orientalism ý are by their nature both antiüWestern. During the twentieth century the Serbs, by living in Yugoslavia, lived in a virtual history. This is why it is important to establish continuity between presentüday Serbia and Serbia as it was before it entered Yugoslavia, in order to create a space for understanding Serbia as it is today. Without a proper understanding of the Oriental side of Serbia, the West will never be able to formulate an effective longüterm strategy for the region.

Serbia Resists the Modern World

Globalization forms an integral part of the technological revolution which over the past decade has been shaping new international relations. Before it succeeds in establishing new social and political models and integrating the interests and values of various groups, this technological and economic revolution, like those that came before it, will and does produce also negative consequences ý which in time, however, will translate into universal gain. Globalization in its deeper sense means universality of democratic values, advocacy of dialogue, under standing and cooperation between cultures, religions and civilizations.

Since the collapse of the realüsocialist economies and the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization has come to symbolize also the victory of capitalism, since it represents the particular form in which capitalism is gradually embracing the whole planet. This process was set in train in Europe in 1997 with the adoption of the Single European Act, whose ultimate aim was monetary unification. This opened a process of revision of the concept of state sovereignty, as a precondition for greater political coordination and concentration of decisionümaking powers. From the economic point of view, this means the focus has shifted from national to transnational interests, hence to greater economic interdependence of the world as a whole.

In this new political reality, the state is losing its central significance in favour of civil society. Given the key role of corporations in the process of globalization, civil society has become more important, especially groups concerned with human rights and ecology, which together with trade unions have become the promoters and protectors of human rights. We saw this happen in Seattle during the conference of the World Trade Organization. There was recently also the Thailand Declaration formulated in reaction to UNCTAD (UN Conference for Trade and Development), which among other things considered the effects of globalization on poor countries.

If one considers the place of Serbia in this international context, one cannot but conclude that it finds itself today at total variance with the new world in the making. In Serbia we are told that `the bearers of this modern ideology', which dominates the planet and which excludes `freedom, independence and sovereignty', are the `local nonentities' who act as allies of the new world order. Such rhetoric at the Fourth Congress of the Socialist Party of Serbia, and especially from the party's president who is also the president of FRY, together with the fanning of crisis in Kosovo (by way of Kosovska Mitrovica), Republika Srpska and Montenegro, are the best current illustrations of Serbia's misconception of what is happening in the world outside.

Apart from the promotion of crisis in its neighbourhood, the other great problem associated with Serbia is the nature of its historical consciousness. This involves a belief in the specific and unusually valorous character of its people, and is the `uniqueness' of a land seen as a permanent target of those wishing to conquer the world. The constant references to such `conquerors' from the West (Napoleon, Hitler) ignore, however, similar attempts coming from the East (Stalin). This mental attitude is a good indicator of the great resistance to change in Serbia, which prefers to bind itself to Russia and its world view. It unfortunately escapes notice that Russia is itself trying to join the West, in order to conduct its own reforms with a minimum of pain. In other words, there is no understanding of the fact that Russian support for Serbia in its suicidal adventures represents nothing but a bargaining chip in Russia's own constant efforts to gain new credits on more favourable terms.

By rejecting the agreement offered at The Hague conference in 1991, and then again at Rambouillet and Paris in 1999, and by sabotaging de facto the Dayton Agreement, Serbia has refused to acknowledge or accept the existence of definite values and standards, in particular a peaceful dissolution of FRY. The pursuit of conflict by an essentially Stalinist ideology against global modernization is, from the historical point of view, only the latest expression of a problem of modernization that has dogged Serbia over the past two centuries. It should be remembered that the mediaeval Serbian state, whose glory is constantly evoked, was itself a modern state in the context of the dominant historical trends of its day.

Unless Serbia manages to execute a decisive turn, it will become a great loser in the process of modernization, because its society is based on avoidance of conflict and oriented to `social harmony', while any facing up to issues essential for social change is continually postponed. Preoccupation with territory, sovereignty and an anachronistic left ideology, rather than with development, social wealth and equal rights and opportunities for all, has led Serbia into an active `resistance to global violence' that characterizes her today as a symbol of resistance to the contemporary world.

This text has been translated from editorials in Helsinska Povelja (Belgrade), No. 24, January 2000 (the first issue of the new millennium) and No. 25, February 2000.
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