bosnia report
New Series No: 39-40 April - July 2004
Triumph of the Anti-European Option
by Sonja Biserko

The results of the Serbian parliamentary elections and of the presidential ones that preceded them came as no great surprise to discerning observers. They accurately reflect the true state of the Serbian political scene, caught between, on the one hand, a nominal wish to join Europe and, on the other, a militant conservatism that rejects the responsibilities and obligations consonant with a European orientation. In this context the elections have contributed, above all in the attitude adopted by the parties towards The Hague, to a better understanding of the war policy and the crimes it produced, but also of the nature of the dominant conservative and anti-European bloc. During the past decade the Serbian political scene has been obfuscated by the Yugoslav mask it has been wearing; but there can be no doubt now that Serbia remains in thrall to the spirit of the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’ which, acting non-institutionally, has annulled the achievements of the previous era and deformed or destroyed all institutions of the state and society.

The ‘normalisation’ of Serbian nationalism - both the Vojislav Koštunica and the Tomislav Nikolić variants - has prevented a proper insight into the nature of the latest radicalisation, which is being ascribed above all to the Hague Tribunal and Carla del Ponte, and more generally to the international community. The work of the Hague Tribunal undoubtedly affects the domestic situation, primarily by revealing the pervasive unwillingness and inability to come to grips with the past. It is precisely the dismissive attitude of the media and the cultural and political elite towards the crimes brought daily to light in The Hague that creates this general state of mind. The nationalism that the elites induced and channelled in the 1980s is now being generated from below, primarily in the form of social radicalism. Unable and unwilling to accept change, the majority of politicians pay court to this radicalism, especially in regard to the issue of privatisation. The fact that Hague Tribunal indictees Vojislav Š ešelj and Slobodan Milošević, who headed their respective parties’ electoral lists, were able to participate in the election campaign speaks of an absolute indifference towards - and indeed acceptance of - crime. The international community too bears a responsibility, in that by failing to provide a moral context for the work of the Tribunal it has facilitated their political comeback.

Culture of political violence

The key to understanding Serbian political culture lies in its endorsement of political violence. Over the past decade murders have involved not just criminality but also political goals, as witnessed by the fates of Ivan Stambolić and Zoran Đinđić. The intention behind the farcical trial of those charged with Đinđić’s murder is to ‘take control of both the victim and his death’, chiefly in order to obscure the late premier’s reformist role. The international community has proved heedless in accepting the fall of a reasonably reformist government, just as it missed the opportunity in the past to send a clear message to the bearers and supporters of Milošević’s war policy - many of whom have since become ‘democrats’ - based on the experience and principles associated with the Holocaust and World War II. By making a distinction between the ‘evil dictator’ and the ‘good people’, it helped to create conditions for the political legitimation of the Radicals and their ilk, who through skilful rhetoric succeeded in attributing Milošević’s entire legacy (i.e. the disintegration of Serbian society and its institutions) to DOS, thus winning the elections. The electorate’s unrealistic expectations, its deep-seated aversion to change, the recourse to sensationalism on the part of G17+ and the media’s dirty war against DS all conspired to ensure the triumph of the right-wing parties: SRS, DSS, SPS and SPO.

The overthrow of authoritarian regimes need not automatically lead to a smooth and easy democratisation of countries like Serbia or Iraq. Apart from the unavoidable problems of transition, Serbia is additionally burdened by Yugoslavia’s break-up and the lost wars. The wars fought in the last decade of the twentieth century have made Serbia the area’s epicentre, as the entire region is kept hostage to its resistance to change. Serbia’s current political radicalisation is just a logical outcome of the policy of war and a refusal to acknowledge the past. This has led to Serbia’s return to the past in a manner that threatens such basic achievements as the secular state, through a growing role for the church and the army. It is fundamentally wrong, therefore, to view the Balkans as a homogenous whole. Each of its nations should be studied separately, in order to determine its constants, its attitude to Europe, and its readiness to join the European Union. The ‘deepening’ of the European Union is increasing its distance from the Balkans, with the latter unable to keep pace with the former’s ever-rising standards. Some have argued that the Balkan region lacks the kind of enlightenment that permits the adoption of European standards; but, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has put it, its fundamental transformation needs ‘historical patience’.

Fostering irredentism

The international community itself has encouraged the illusion that Serbia was ready for Europe. However, the country will not be able to chart a rational course for itself without having learned the lessons of the first and second Yugoslavias, as well as of its more recent past. Without radical reforms taking place - which does not appear likely - the Serbs will again try to offset the failure by seeking to regain allegedly lost territories. Thus Academician Veselin Đuretić stated in a recent interview that ‘the Albanians and the Croats should not believe that the Serbs will readily give up what belongs to them’.

Serbia’s continued latent conflict with Europe has sharpened with the Radicals’ electoral victory. Its resistance takes two forms: aversion to privatisation, as the precondition for a market economy; and refusal to accept responsibility for past actions. The Serbian elite, moreover, continues to build its position on the hope of a conflict between Europe and the United States, and on the country’s geo-strategic importance. Serbia’s inability to come to terms with its past creates a sense of apathy, but also leads to rationalisations. One can thus hear in certain circles, especially those of the Academy, that it was wrong to destroy Yugoslavia. Academician Đuretić, for example, believes that ‘the Yugoslav option is the only rational choice for the nations of the former Yugoslavia’.

At this moment Europe can help Serbia in the first instance by making a serious assessment of its true state, and by giving up wishful thinking as the basis of its policy. The USA and the EU have, it is true, brought peace to the Balkans, but that achievement will not of itself bring the Balkans closer to Europe. The problems associated with the current attempts to form a new coalition government show that Serbia is entering a period of considerable instability and social tension, which is bound to favour the Radicals. This state of affairs demands a more robust presence of the international community, above all in the institutions. In this situation early local elections should be ruled out, since they could push Serbia towards chaos.

The media and cultural circles could play an important role at this time by promoting a new cultural model for Serbia, advancing intellectual freedom and encouraging a public debate on all key issues. The local democratic forces may be weak, but they are indispensable for the promotion of values which otherwise appear imposed from outside. The role of the Hague Tribunal will naturally remain vital in projecting a future not based on a forged history.


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