Belgrade’s inability to confront unpalatable reality
by Teofil Pancic
The wave of unrestrained populist violence against the Serb and other minority populations in Kosovo has forced Serbia - its political class, intelligentsia, media and all those who pretend to any social influence or standing - to confront a question which until now it has failed to consider seriously and responsibly: Is Kosovo truly in Serbia, and if so in which way? If Kosovo is in Serbia, how come that there is no Serbia in Kosovo?
One can pose this question somewhat differently. The Serbian state has no practical authority in Kosovo whatsoever, and only professional sellers of illusion repeat the tired old refrain that this is only a temporary state of affairs. To be sure in public the majority remains tempted by such sweet words, but most people privately no longer believe them. However, Kosovo is much present in Serbia at another, purely symbolic level: as an endless trauma and agony without any obvious resolution; a prolonged pain from which the patient cannot be delivered either by cure or by death. Kosovo remains an ideal and inexhaustible source of permanent contamination of Serbian political and media life; of erosion and degradation of Serbian society, which with each new outbreak of significant violence [in Kosovo] shows an alarming tendency to regress to the insufferable state of brainless national euphoria characteristic of the early 1990s. This is what is happening today too.
The current government did not create the Kosovo problem and cannot do much to solve it. Even if it could, though, it would not, since this demands a political courage that the Serbian political class in its totality is determined not to have. This is why we see no difference, however faint, between the reactions of the government and those of the opposition. The differences in public stance between Koštunica, Čović and Boris Tadić are rather a matter of style. They compete in voicing strong words, but keep reminding us that their hands are tied - as if things would be quite different were that not the case. This is not an ideal situation for politicians in government and opposition keen to enjoy a comfortable life. There is this great, traumatic problem, you see, which preoccupies the whole society - but also helps to divert its attention, temporarily at least, from the practical problems of everyday life and the demands of the transition - while they have inherited a situation that supplies no instruments for solving it. Everyone knows this, so does not expect anything more from them than a show of paternal concern - which does nothing but also costs nothing. Not to speak of the collateral gain, in that the government can in the meantime do things almost unnoticed which would otherwise cause an outcry - as shown by some of its recent legally dubious moves.
In this rebirth of the ‘national question’, prime minister Koštunica comes into his own. He swims in it like a fish in water, strengthening his popularity by delivering poetic speeches, promenading with the clergy, and generally engaging in the rhetoric of the innocent victim. These are spiritual spheres that suit him much better than those invested with such trivial problems as the economy and European integration. The Kosovo situation is unbearable, but only for those who actually live there. For those who do not, there is always a way of turning the bad news to their own profit. The tactic of the current government - as can be seen from the passivity of the police before mobs setting fire to mosques - is to encourage such mass revanchism; to climb aboard and ride another round on the wave of mass euphoria, in order to buy itself some more time. Whether this is worthwhile in the long run, and what consequences this refusal to deal with an unpalatable reality has for the country, is a question that the interested parties should be putting to the man now sitting in a Sheveningen prison, who for the last few years has been trying to defend the indefensible.
This comment has been translated from a text broadcast on Radio Free Europe, 22 March 2004.