bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
Replacing War with Parade - Nationalism's New Clothes*
by Stipe Sikavica

Apart from a handful of cases of demobilized or retired colonels and generals who changed practically overnight from nationalist fighters into born-again democrats, nationalism in the Serbian army is refusing to change into democratic garb. To be sure, nationalism has reluctantly taken off its war uniform and replaced it with parade dress, but not without indicating that at the first sign of trouble it is ready to put back on its boots and military kit. Nationalism thus continues to be the dominant ideology in the army, even though - especially in regard to practical action - it no longer constitutes the main fare of the army's propaganda department, as used to be the case when it was necessary to wage 'the second battle of Kosovo'.

In fact, if it were possible to take a collective photograph of the current state of mind of the officer corps, one would register a sense of surprise and consternation induced by the recent near- revolutionary changes in the army. I refer to the decision of the Supreme Defence Council that the general staff be integrated with the ministry of the defence, and that military intelligence services should come under the command of the respective ministries, which would expose them to democratic control; also to the decision of the defence minister to dissolve a shadowy commission established by the general staff, allegedly with the aim of cooperation with the ICTY - which most probably spent its time collecting material for Slobodan Milošević's defence and dispatching it to The Hague. Finally, there was also the arrest of the third member of the notorious 'Vukovar Three', hero of the so-called patriotic forces, Colonel Veselin Š ljivančanin. Although the above-mentioned reforms in the organization and command of the army remain to be implemented, which will not be easy in view of the barriers that will be erected against them by overt and camouflaged forms of nationalism, the Supreme Defence Council and the ministry of defence have in principle removed at least one of the main obstacles to the army's eventual integration into NATO.

Historic crossroads

As a result of these decisions the elephantine army, burdened by its war record and poor organization, finds itself at a historic crossroads, uncertain whether it should march in the direction of the Partnership for Peace and collective security, or remain faithful to its tradition of individual defence: what patriots call 'reliance on one's own resources'. The moves by the current defence minister and chief of the general staff have been met with silence on the part of the officer corps, and it would appear that the majority among them is ready to follow Minister Tadić and General Krga. But there is plenty of evidence to show that this is not the case, and that the Partnership for Peace is at best treated as something dictated by necessity.

The situation is additionally complicated by the fact that fire is being directed from civilian strongholds at the advocates of the above reforms, on the grounds that they are disastrous for the army and the state, at the same time as voices are coming from the highly influential retired officers's camp, insisting that we should join the Partnership only under certain conditions: 1. that NATO pays us war reparations; 2. that our army be allowed back to Kosovo; 3. that the Union and its army should enjoy a special and privileged status within the Partnership, for two reasons: a) Serbia-Montenegro is the strongest military power in the Balkans, which makes it the natural leader; b) its army performed well in the war against 'Albanian terrorism', which should give it a privileged position in the international anti-terrorist coalition.

This frequently voiced argument is propagated with the aid of powerful electronic media. The most hardened proponent of this theory, and probably also its originator, is the long-retired yet hyperactive General Radovan Radinović, clearly a strategist of all the lost battles fought by the Serbian army and para-militaries during the recent inglorious war. This school of thought is influenced by the myth of the 'second battle of Kosovo' - which is what the well-known TV journalist Milovan Drecun - known also as a 'people's tribune', 'patriot' and self-declared nationalist, who 'loves his people' without 'hating others' - calls the Kosovo killing fields of 1999, which are now being grafted onto the original ones of 600 years ago. Thus, for example, Milan Simić, the retired general who until recently headed the Moral Department of the general staff, believes that the demand for a radical army reform devalues the army's 'human factor', and especially its commanding cadre. According to him: 'It is paradoxical that people are questioning the quality of the human potential of an army which has successfully resisted the most powerful military force in the world... Very few countries in the world have such potential' (Vojska, 13 February 2003).

‘A special people’

The recently retired Colonel Vidimir Veljković, who used to teach in military academies, wrote in Vojska (20.02.2003): 'Our domestic critics often leave out of the picture our psycho-ethnic context - that the Serbs are a special people, who have defied stronger powers, acting self-confidently, proudly and at times in open challenge, defending their house built "in the middle of the road". A numerically small nation, but of great heart and skill, the Serbs - "an unhappy orphan deserted by all" - were forced again, at the end of the second millennium, to defend themselves against the far superior NATO. In fact, the Serbs are the only people in the world which, as was shown during the aggression, does not kill in anger but with a smile [refers probably to Milošević's comedy with the bridges, S.S.]; the only people which has adopted Njegoš's dictum: "Don't fear, since you are facing evil" as historical inevitability. After all, during the last war when a Lilliput (the Serbs) was attacked by 19 Gullivers (NATO), our army defended with high morale, knowledge and skill the dignity, honour and pride of its people.' Thus does the military academy professor sing the nationalist melody we have all come to know so well.

This illustrates an ideological position according to which (to paraphrase Nenad Dimitrijević in Republika, 30 June 2003) the national identity was created by 'the fathers of the nation' in Milošević's time out of a perceived tradition whose core has two poles: on the one hand, the glory, uniqueness and invincibility of the 'celestial people'; on the other, the myth of its equally glorious defeats, its historical continuity of suffering, the hatred of 'us' by 'the others' which leads to perpetual anti-Serb conspiracies, 'our' innumerable human sacrifices. Regarding this latter pole, Vojska on 26 June this year published a text titled 'The Vertical of Serbian History' dedicated to Vidovdan, which among other things said that: 'Many of those who believe that too many Serbs have died in vain, fighting absurd wars against a far superior enemy, prefer diplomacy to great ambitions and Miloš to Karađorđević. There are also many, however, who believe that national honour, dignity and state sovereignty are priceless, and that every sacrifice in pursuit of these ideals is but small and inadequate.' This mode of thought perhaps explains why so many unfortunate parents whose sons were forcefully mobilized and made into targets for NATO bombs and missiles in Kosovo in 1999 have failed publicly to demand what the meaning was of their children's sacrifice. In its search for its own identity, therefore, the army, especially after Vojislav Koštunica became its supreme commander, has reached into the depths of the Serb Orthodox-military tradition, which supplies fertile ground for the growth of all kinds of nationalist ideology.

As for the 'supreme commanders' of our political community, I am convinced that Slobodan Milošević was much liked by the officer corps, although he badly misused the army. I believe that they took to him rationally and emotionally: first because he knew how to assume the pose of a commander, although he himself did not wear a marshal's uniform; and secondly because the officers were grateful to him, since in fighting the 'second battle of Kosovo' he gave them a chance to show their skill and to remove at least some of the burden of having been losers in the wars in which 'Serbia took no part'. Koštunica relied on the same model of commanding the army, i.e. by involving it deeply into politics, and also by a certain abuse of the army, as indicated by a string of military scandals, including the 'Pavković affair'. The most important difference between the two 'supreme commanders' lies in the fact that, by contrast with Milošević, Koštunica opened wide the army's gates to the Orthodox Church, thus providing nationalism with additional possibilities for open or feigned agitation. Here are some examples.

Orthodoxy and the military

Immediately after the October changes, the Moral Department organized a round table on the theme: 'Regulating military questions in the Yugoslav Army'; its main ideas were formulated as follows: Since 'after the changes of 5 October' one 'can certainly expect ever greater attacks on the spiritual being of the Serb people... it is absolutely necessary to create a strong barrier against the spiritual colonization perpetrated by various religious sects, cults and occultism of every kind, which is also the only safe way to preserve our spiritual and national identity.' This was the message of General Simić, who then headed the Moral Department, pretending that Serbia is inhabited only by Orthodox population and discriminating against other religious communities. The intimate relationship between the Army and the Church is best seen, however, in the former's publishing activities, which are concerned mainly with cementing this relationship.

Zoran Đinđić's death was registered, of course, also in the Army press. However, the sum total devoted to it by the weekly Vojska, the main mouthpiece of the general staff, was a single page, one third of which dealt with the speech given by the Montenegrin-Maritime metropolitan Amfilohije Radović during the memorial service for Đinđić held in the cathedral of St Sava. The Vojska publishing house in 2002 issued a book by Colonel Borislav Grozdić, Orthodoxy and War, which was then serialized in the weekly. One of those who reviewed the book, Miodrag Petrović, an advisor to the Historical Institute of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, offered the readers his advice on how they should approach this book: 'The Orthodox faith is deeply embedded in the Serb national consciousness, and it is impossible to imagine their national identity without it. The books should be read with a feeling of loyalty to Serb patriotism inspired by the love of God and man. It stresses that one should also love one's enemies, but only if they do not hurt our nearest and dearest...' (Vojska, 14 February 2002). This 'humanism', in other words, is concerned solely with 'our nearest and dearest' - others do not interest us. The notion that one should 'love one's enemies' no doubt inspired Ratko Mladić and others to wreak havoc all over the late Yugoslavia.

This year the military publishing house has produced another book by the same author, Warring for Faith and Fatherland - a title that reveals its content and basic orientation. There have been other publications too, which will be omitted here. The greatest enterprise of this publishing house, however, was the production, in cooperation with the ‘Orthodox Word’ publishing house from Novi Sad, of a luxury volume titled: The Monasteries of Serbia. Despite the fact that this can indeed be seen as an important contribution to Serb national culture, one must ask oneself why the Army in particular was involved in its publication, at a moment too when its budget makes it difficult for it to feed its young recruits properly. During the past three years the Army has taken part in all important manifestations organized by the Serb Orthodox Church (SPC), such as, for example, the transfer of Prince Lazar’s remains from Ravanica to Lazarica. Groups of officers have also undertaken the pilgrimage to Hilander [monastery on Mt Athos]; St Sava's day has been made the slava day of the special 72nd brigade; and so on. One would not concern oneself with these events organized by the SPC, were it not for the fact that as a rule they are invested with a strong political tone and carry a strongly nationalistic message.

*Paper presented at the first meeting, held in Belgrade, of the project: ‘The Struggle against Nationalism in post-October Serbia’, carried out with the aid of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and translated here from Helsinška Povelja, October 2003.


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