bosnia report
New Series No: 35 August - September 2003
Culture, nation and territory - I
by Ivan Colovic







Three days before 5 October 2000, when his regime ended, Slobodan Milošević delivered a lengthy 'address' to the people. It was his last attempt to restore the faltering confidence of his supporters on the eve of the second round of the presidential elections envisaged for 8 October ‑ which in the end never took place. In this Address he presented himself and his regime as the last refuge of the Serb national identity - of Serb culture, Serb literature and the Serb language. He warned the electorate that the opposition was in the service of foreign interests, and that if it were to come to power it would concentrate chiefly on destroying Serb culture, i.e. all that constituted what was special about the Serb national being. 'The destruction of our national identity', he forewarned, would be 'an essential task of the puppet government'. Serbia was facing, therefore, an imminent threat of 'loss of its history, its past, its tradition, its national symbols, its literary language.'


Milošević even made an effort to picture the catastrophe awaiting the Serb national identity in the event of his departure from power. That identity, he alleged, would be reduced to 'a few national dishes, to the occasional folk song or dance, to the naming of foodstuffs or  cosmetics after national heroes.' The president knew this, for he was acquainted with the experience of other countries. 'The experience of other countries', he explained, 'tells us that the people would hardly be aware of the speed with which it would start to accept a foreign language, identify with foreign historical personalities, glorify foreign history while often deriding its own, come to resemble another rather than itself.'[i]


Have events since 5 October confirmed at least some of Milošević's pessimistic anticipations? Considerations on the future of the Serb nation and its culture have appeared since then that largely agree with his views. For example, historian Srđa Trifković from Chicago, who regularly contributes political comments to Politika, Književne novine and Zbilja, is also convinced that Milošević's departure will be followed by a 'de‑Serbianization' as a result of which Serbia will lose its national symbols and its greatest writers, and acquire instead a monument to a homosexual ‑ which, for Trifković, is the greatest possible insult to a decent, martial Balkan people. 'The cliché that Milošević is responsible for everything', he writes, 'cannot and will not be accepted unless accompanied by so‑called de‑Nazification, which means de‑Serbianization.' Trifković, like Milošević, takes pleasure in tormenting us by describing in great detail the operations by means of which their national soul will be extracted from the Serbs: 'Seeking our good, they will cure us of our mythomania and our complex of victimhood.   For our own sakes they will ban our epic poems and Victor Novak's Magnum Crimen, not to speak of Njegoš's genocidal Gorski Vijenac [Mountain Wreath] (Alexandra Stiglmayer's ban on Ivo Andrić in Bosnia is a sign of things to come). Concerned with our health, they will reduce the cholesterol in our food, replace alcohol and tobacco with Prozac and Viagra, and make jogging obligatory for all.' [ii]


Milošević's analysis of the danger threatening Serbia and its culture, of which his opponents were unaware, is shared also by Aleksandar Milenković, author of the feuilleton 'An oblique view of the Yugoslav experiment'.[iii] He argues that Serbia became a victim of the New World Order and NATO because of its national identity ‑ because 'supranational power ... strives to annihilate every value that contains a national meaning of any kind anywhere in the world.' 'Destruction of the cultural code', Milenković writes, 'leads to loss of roots and the social group's identity'. This aids the efforts of international hegemons to shape the human plasma of labourers and consumers. It is not the victim country's social system or ruling oligarchy (personified by the leader) that are targeted, but rather its resources and territory.' His articles in Politika could equally well have been given the title used for Milošević's Address to the Nation of 2 October 2000: 'They are not attacking Serbia because of Milošević ‑ they are attacking Milošević because of Serbia'. The quotation from Milenković's text, however, is interesting primarily because it displays very clearly the understanding of culture as the element that fixes the nation more strongly than any other to its territory ('roots'), which is why it becomes the chief target of attack by the new supra‑national world order,  striving to eradicate implanted national cultures in order the more easily to seize the territories of nations thus enfeebled.


Vojislav Koštunica, with the thoughts on culture, 'spiritual renewal' and 'spiritual heritage and tradition' that he presented at the start of his term, agreed with his predecessor, in that he too placed concern with symbols of national identity at the centre of his political programme, and warned of the danger incurred by a nation that neglects them. 'This is why we need a spiritual renewal', he said on the occasion of his visit to Hilandar [the Serb Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos] in early November 2000, since 'nations which fail to carry one out, and which accept indiscriminately what comes to them from without and from within, may disappear.'[iv]  He was not drawn to explicate, but his warning is if anything more dramatic than those of Milošević and Trifković, because it ends with a scary picture of the possibility of the Serb nation's actual disappearance. The picture delimits the nation as a community whose survival demands the suppression of dangerous diversity within the national 'spiritual' space, and reinforced control of the borders.


The new president, however, did negate his predecessor's pessimistic prognosis in the sense that he did his best to show that Milošević's departure did not signal the end of state protection of the national tradition, its holy objects and cults. On the contrary, Koštunica from the very start worked hard to outdo his predecessor in this regard. He not only harvested the fruits of Milošević's close cooperation with the most influential bishops of the Serb Orthodox Church (SPC),with the  members of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science (SANU), and in particular with writers, but he also took that cooperation to a new level. He has surpassed Milošević above all in his readiness to join in politically motivated religious and cultural rituals. Thus he marked the start of his term by participating in the ritual surrounding the reburial in Trebinje of Jovan Dučić's mortal remains, and by making the pilgrimage to Hilandar.


The nationalist Kulturkampf


By presenting himself and his regime as the ultimate defenders of Serb culture, this fortress of national identity which must never be surrendered to the enemy, Milošević took over one of the key elements of the political strategy endorsed by the Serb national elite after the wars in Croatia and Bosnia‑Herzegovina (1991‑5) and pursued even more doggedly after the war in Kosovo in 1999. These wars, fought to extend Serbian territory at the expense of Croatia, Bosnia‑Herzegovina and Kosovo, ended with the defeat of the Serb side. Faced with this defeat the Serb nationalist elite, which had more or less actively supported Milošević's war policy, did not give up on its aims - which it continues to treat as just and legitimate - but it concluded that their realization through the use of force was no longer realistic.


This does not mean that the experience of failure to win through war Serb 'ethnic territories' in Croatia, Bosnia‑Herzegovina and Kosovo has made the Serb nationalist elite less willing to wage war ‑ more precisely, to seek and stimulate wars ‑ over these territories. The fighting morale of its leading lights appears to be untouched and unwavering. But the strategy for realizing the territorial and political unity of the Serb nation on all its 'ethnic territory' has undergone a transformation. The main change is that the struggle for territory, which continues to be treated as the highest national and state interest, has for the time being been shifted from the military to the cultural front.   'National workers' are no longer engaged in drawing maps of the future Serb lands, which used to be their main preoccupation before and during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia‑Herzegovina, but are instead concentrating on the preservation of the allegedly endangered Serb 'spiritual space', i.e. of Serb national identity. They rely for this on a model of national culture in which cultural activity is seen as an integral component of preparing the nation for war, as support for the war effort, or as a continuation of war by other means.


The notion of culture as a phase in preparation for war - or indeed its key dimension - was expounded by some of the participants at the Second Congress of Serb Intellectuals held in Belgrade on 22‑23 April 1994. The historian Milorad Ekmečić told the gathering that 'cultural unification is a condition of political unification'[v]. This was repeated almost verbatim by his colleague Vasilije Krestić, who stated that 'without a true spiritual unity of our nation it will be difficult to realize its political and territorial unification'. In Krestić's judgement, however, it is not necessary to wait for one to be realized before proceeding to the other, since 'these are processes that have to advance together'. In this version of the strategy of Kulturkampf , the cultural front must be established at the same time as the political and the military[vi]. Ekmečić's and Krestić's idea of the need for a cultural, i.e. 'spiritual', preparation for war in support of military operations aimed at unifying Serb territories was accepted and formulated in a stark and brutal form by the writer Radomir Smiljanić. 'Science and intellect', he said, 'must clear the path and in that way aid the business of politics and, if you wish, of guns.'[vii]   The outcome of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia‑Herzegovina showed, however, that scientists and intellectuals had not done their job properly, so Serb guns got stuck in the mud. This is the view of the poet Ranko Janković, who ascribed the non-existence of a unified Serb state to the absence of a unified Serb cultural sphere: if the 'Serb nation, Serb church, Serb language, Serb poetry ... existed in each of us, then the Serb state comprising Serb territories would also exist.' [viii]


Now that the war has been lost, the struggle for its unrealized aims is once again being reduced to the field of culture which had served earlier as the initial, preparatory front line in the war for territories. Culture has now assumed the role of a reserve position to which the national forces have withdrawn, where they can re‑group while waiting for more favourable conditions to begin a new military offensive. Since the autumn of 1995, and especially since the war in Kosovo in 1999, the struggle for Serb ethnic space is being waged exclusively as a Kulturkampf ‑ a struggle for the protection and consolidation of a Serb 'spiritual space'. This reduction of war to the cultural domain and 'spirituality' is treated in the main as a temporary substitute for a real war for territories, but in some cases also as something which in the long run could even replace actual war.


The image of Serb national culture as the arena to which the struggle for national interests - after having failed on the battlefield - has been transferred inspires, for example, the contributions published in Geopolitička stvarnost Srba [Geopolitical Reality of the Serbs], based on the proceedings of the round table 'The Serb people in the new geopolitical reality' held in Novi Sad on 29‑31 January 1997.[ix]  A paper by Nikola Kusovac: 'The importance of culture and education for the preservation of the Serb people's historical consciousness' displays an open ambition to serve as a new programmatic guide to national policy in the wake of its recent failures. The author begins by noting the 'significance which education and culture have for the future of every nation, for the defence of its integrity and preservation of its historical consciousness'. He is keen to stress the significant role which education and culture play in defending the Serb nation. 'One can, indeed, assert', he writes, 'without exaggeration or pathos that their importance equals that of the army and the police.'  He advises the Serbs, therefore, to unite 'spiritually' in order to 'preserve the spirit in their badly wounded body from faltering and collapse'. By doing so they will preserve the basis for a renewal of Serb national culture in better times to come and (more importantly for Kusovac and other 'nationally conscious forces') also the seed of the Greater Serbia project. 'Only in this way, through organized work', he writes, ' will it be possible to preserve in this evil time of great suffering and even greater pitfalls the creative spark which ‑ under better conditions and in a more favourable international situation ‑ will be able to set off a conflagration through which the state of all Serbs may be resurrected.'[x]    The metaphor, involving creative spark, fire and resurrection, is a good example of the morbid evocation of Serb national hardship common to Serb nationalists, of a Serb national Passion in which the nation must perish in order to be reborn. For in Kusovac's metaphor the 'creative spark' preserved in the culture of his nation does not wait for moments of peace to flare up, but seeks instead the opportunity to start a new conflagration, so that the macabre play of Serb national death and resurrection can be repeated again and again


'Unrealized hopes and aspirations'


The Serbs, however, can find no peace in their fall‑back positions either - i.e. in the cultural and educational trenches - since the enemy stalks them there too, aware that the preserved fighting strength of the national forces in the field of culture represents the greatest obstacle to his never‑ending pursuit of their subjugation and enslavement. 'We can be certain, moreover', writes Kusovac, 'that the main battle will ensue precisely in the sphere of the cultural and educational identity of the Serb people.'[xi]   This battle has already begun and Serb culture is fighting heroically for its survival; but, Kusovac adds, it has unfortunately already suffered considerable losses. 'Confronted with the savage motto that culture does not know or recognize borders, which is essentially true, defence fails and imports of all kind of international and globalist rubbish and poison begin...' It is not surprising, therefore, that 'the Serb cultural being has become sick'. In this situation the only medicine is a rigorous cadre policy in the cultural sphere. 'It is vital', he writes, 'that active patriotic experts be placed at the head of all cultural institutions that are of prime importance for the preservation and nurture of national consciousness. ... We can expect in that event a renewal of Serb arts as a mechanism on whose functioning the quality of national consciousness, our stated national aims and their fulfilment greatly depends.'[xii]


At the celebration marking the restoration of the Vuk [Karadžić] Foundation Hall, held in February 1998, its president Dejan Medaković explained the importance of the event and, more generally, of literature in conserving and keeping alive the Serb national programme, i.e the programme of territorial and political unification of the Serb people, which thanks to such nurture will quickly revive as soon as the right conditions are in place. 'This', he said of the celebration, 'is an all‑national festival that brings us together and alerts us to many unfinished tasks in Serb culture, particularly those that will stimulate our people's spiritual mobilization and unification. This is the only possible way and path through which we can also preserve for a happier future our unfulfilled hopes and aspirations .'[xiii]    Medaković, it is true, did not use the term 'national programme' or speak of territories, but I trust I shall not distort his message by interpreting the reference to 'our unfulfilled hopes and aspirations' as an allusion to the unrealized programme of state‑territorial expansion.


More than a year later, but now in his role as president of SANU, Medaković spoke more concretely and decisively of the defensive - indeed 'front‑like' - function of Serb culture, including the Serb cultural inheritance. In his talk given to the 'Dijaspora 99' assembly held on 4‑5 August 1999 in Belgrade under the patronage of Slobodan Milošević, Medaković began by describing the new condition of the Serb people, whose 'national being', he felt, 'has been cut up and indeed fragmented as a result of a foreign political will'. He then proposed a 'fighting' and 'bold' answer to the sorry state of the nation: i.e. 'defensive, mobilizational measures to protect the totality of our endangered national being'.  For the Serbs, according to the recommendation of the SANU president, should now pit against the 'foreign political will' something that is stronger than weapons: the  Serb cultural heritage. 'In this combative and audacious enterprise', said Medaković, 'our cultural heritage, the spiritual testimony that has survived for centuries, will play a huge role.'


The chief attestation guarded by Serb culture, and which can be used in the struggle against the enemy, is that of national 'spiritual unity'. This unity is not an aim in itself but rather an instrument, a 'cohesive power' needed for the nation to realize another, more tangible, sort of  unity: e.g. territorial and political - state - unity. Spiritual unity had played a effective role on an earlier occasion. 'Thanks to this powerful cohesive power', Medaković reminded his audience, 'the Serb people witnessed in 1804 the resurrection of their lost state.' With a little patience but also much greater spiritual unity, they can hope to see the realization of other - as yet unrealized - 'hopes and aspirations'. 'Today too our spiritual unity', the president of SANU felt convinced, ' can and must replace the political kind, whose realization must evidently wait for other, more favourable times'.[xiv]


The idea of culture as a space preserving the national unity and energy needed for the realization of political and state interests has been endorsed also by Čedomir Mirković, literary critic and Milošević's minister for international cultural cooperation. He, however, placed a greater stress on contemporary culture, and particularly on modern Serb literature. Mirković believes that contemporary Serbian literature 'is the most vital part not just of our national culture but of the nation itself', and that 'literature is our people's greatest possession'. His explanation of why Serb literature has acquired this high status deserves to be quoted in full. 'I believe', Mirković writes, 'that a nation, with its culture as perhaps a moving part, behaves like any other living organism: i.e. its most vital and most resistant organs can take over the role of other organs, or replace them by taking over their functions. Given the lack of opportunity for creative energy to pulsate in all areas, many of them - from industry, banking, trade or property ownership to politics -  have atrophied and become deformed. Since, however, the energy of a historical nation, a nation with a rich history, is indestructible, its accumulated form has manifested itself in the domain of the arts, especially in literature.'[xv]


The shift from an armed war to a Kulturkampf could be discerned also in the declarations of other luminaries of Milošević's regime, especially after the war in Kosovo. Expanding in a clumsy and almost caricatural fashion on the idea of reverting to cultural heritage and national spiritual unity in preparation for a subsequent, more successful realization of another sort of unity, former Serbian minister of culture Željko Simić pressed Serb cultural workers - writers, performers and artists - to visit the Serbs of Kosovo and compensate with their cultural activity for what had been lost in war. He even argued that this cultural engagement by poets and actors marked the true beginning of the war in Kosovo: 'The struggle which the envoys of culture wage in Kosovo with their activities shows that the war for this southern provinces has only now begun, and that an offensive of cultural events is about to take place that will show the international community in its own way that Kosovo remains part of Serbia.'[xvi]


At the time when former minister Simić was making these absurd declarations, even the most committed among Serb nationalists knew that the Serbs had lost Kosovo for good. This fact forms the point of departure for the 'national workers' who, after the fall of Milošević's regime, have pondered on the results of his war policy. Slobodan Rakitić, president of the Serbian Writers' Association, for example, has written with great bitterness about Serb losses in the recent wars. In keeping with other 'patriotic' declarations that we have had the opportunity to hear during the past fifteen years, he is concerned exclusively with territorial losses, while lost lives, and the misery and shame that these wars have brought to the Serbs, are treated as topics that do not deserve a mention. 'They have lost', Rakitić laments, 'their historic territories in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo. Other nations of the former Yugoslavia have erected on its ruins independent states that they never had in the past, while the Serbs have lost territories that had belonged to them for centuries.' The Serbs, therefore, ' have every reason to think of themselves as the most disinherited nation in Europe'. Rakitić, too, sees the way out of this situation in shifting the focus of the war for Serb interests to the cultural front; for, in his view, 'cultural unification of the Serb lands - Serbia, Montenegro and Republika Srpska - as well as of Serbs living abroad is essential in maintaining national consciousness, and if not territorial then at least spiritual unity', in which 'literature as art based on language plays a particularly important integrative role'.


Like Milošević, Trifković, Koštunica, Kusovac, Medaković and others before him, who warned what was at stake and conjured up the drama of the Serbs' fateful struggle for their cultural or spiritual identity, Rakitić too uncovers the dastardly intention of their globalist enemies to strip them of their culture and thus destroy them as a distinct nation. 'The new cosmopolitans', Rakitić warns, 'concentrate their attacks on the Serbs' tradition and past in order to change them. Their de‑personification of culture, repudiation of traditional values and destruction of fundamental myths leads to the creation of a culture without an identity.'[xvii]


[i]. Politika (Belgrade), 3 October 2000

[ii]. Politika, 9 June 2001

[iii]. Politika, 3 January 2001

[iv]. Politika, 5 December 2000

[v]. Milorad Ekmečić, 'On the state of unity of the Serb nation' in Srpsko pitanje danas [The Serb question today], Belgrade 1995, p. 36.

[vi]. Vasilije Krestić, 'On the integration and disintegration of the Serb nation', Srpsko pitanje danas, p. 49.

[vii]. Radomir Smiljanić, 'They cannot deny to us what others have', Srpsko pitanje danas, p. 206

[viii]. Cited in Jovan Janjić, 'Tanke niti [Slender threads]', NIN (Belgrade), 27 August 1998.

[ix]. Geopolitička stvarnost Srba, Institut za geopolitičke studije, Belgrade 1997.

[x]. Geopolitička stvarnost Srba, p. 467.

[xi]. Geopolitička stvarnost Srba, p. 465.

[xii]. Geopolitička stvarnost Srba, p. 467.

[xiii]. Politika, 25 February 1998.

[xiv]. Politika, 5 August 1999.

[xv]. Politika, 18 January 1998.   Reduction of literature to the role of a national organ which serves to express a national energy that properly belongs to other national organs, but that for historical reasons has atrophied, is based on the idea that culture does not exist beyond national horizons.   This notion is not limited to Serbia.   See Igor Marković's comments on Mirković's Croat equivalents in Božidar Jakšić, ed., Interkulturalnost versus rasizam i ksenofobija, Belgrade 1998, p. 73.

[xvi]. Politika, 14 November 1999.

[xvii]. Slobodan Rakitić, Književne novine (Belgrade), 1-15 November 2001.


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