bosnia report
New Series No:49-50 December - March 2006
A year of difficult decisions
by Sonja Biserko

It took two years for Vojislav Koštunica’s government to realise that Serbia has no alternative to the reforms initiated by that of Zoran Đinđić. Koštunica, in the end, had to start cooperating with The Hague, albeit according to his own formula of ‘voluntary surrender’. Though the moral component is still missing, it too is bound to come onto the agenda. The reluctance to arrest Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić is part of a resistance and of illusions that are slowly melting under the international community’s pressure. Serb nationalists view this pressure as a broad conspiracy against Serbia, and are increasingly turning towards the Radicals (SRS) as the only true guardians of Serb interests. They yearn for the Radicals to come to power, and reason: ‘We haven’t yet seen what the SRS can and will do. It’s only proper that we should see and try that too. If nothing else the Radicals will be more honest, which would be a good start.’ In the cleft stick in which it finds itself - between on the one hand the disappointment of the patriotic bloc, caused by its unrealised aims, and on the other the widening of impoverished layers of the population - the current government and indeed any other to come will find it difficult to conduct the necessary reforms with due speed.

Alone against The Hague

The arrest of Ante Gotovina has left Serbia isolated in its opposition to the Hague Tribunal and its denial of all responsibility for the events that marked the last decade of the 20st century in the Balkans. It continues to insist on the view that: ‘the Balkan area is an experimental laboratory for the production of imperialistic pretexts and campaigns justifying measures of petty revenge, occupation and seizure of territory by the alleged misconduct of the victim, its neo-fascism, racism and apartheid.’ Serb nationalists are aware that Gotovina’s departure to The Hague increases the pressure on Serbia to arrest Karadžić and Mladić. Their readiness to comply is impeded, however, by the fact that the two in the meantime have become ‘legends, like the heroes of the battle of Kosovo, honourable men who at a certain moment acted to protect their people’, so that it is now difficult to find a sufficiently convincing explanation. It is much easier to resort to conspiracy theories than to confront a brutal reality. It is thus being said that ‘Ratko Mladić is more of a code word for the country’s definite capitulation than a soldier of the army of Republika Srpska charged with war crimes’.

The expectation that Milošević with his defence would ‘blow up the Tribunal’ proved to be another illusion. His defence of the project of ‘liberating and unifying the Serbs’ has additionally compromised and exposed ‘the Serb cause’- despite the full logistic support supplied by the state apparatus (more than three thousand people are working on his defence). Prominent members of the Serbian elite who have appeared in The Hague as witnesses for the defence have displayed yet again before the whole world their lack of understanding of the modern processes and principles on which the court is based. They thus stated with great confidence that no project for a Great Serbia existed, since the creation of a unified Serb state - i.e. gathering the whole Serb people or most of it into one state - is not an expansionist idea but a legitimate right of the Serb people.

Abandoning this project remains a grave problem for Serb nationalists . Their frustration is growing as conspiracy theories multiply. Their journal Ogledalo [Mirror] bubbles with recollections of such great Serbs as General Živojin Mišić, who said: ‘The Serb officer and the Serb soldier need to know only one policy, that of liberation and unification of Serbdom. There is no idea outside this which they need to have.’ Or Jovan Cvijić, whom they quote on Bosnia, particular the part stressing that one must not surrender to others ‘this central region and the core of the Serb nation, which is what Bosnia-Herzegovina signifies for the Serb people’. In all this, no account is taken of the historical and political circumstances in which these statements were made.

Great-Serb continuity

It is no longer a matter just of Milorad Ekmečić, the main propagator of this theory in recent times, who at the second congress of Serb intellectuals held in Belgrade in 1994 said: ‘One must immediately declare that unification of the Serb nation in an independent and democratic state must remain our unchanging target.’ Nor is it just a matter of Mihailo Marković, who in 2000 wrote in Srpska politička misao [Serb Political Thought] that ‘Serb intellectuals and politicians need not wait for the process of globalisation to fail or sufficiently weaken before starting to work on the unification of Serb lands’; and who in the Hague courtroom said in response to a question by Judge Geoffrey Nice about a map of Great Serbia published in the journal Epoha on 22 October 1991: ‘This is not a plan for re-drawing the borders between Serbia and Croatia; this is Yugoslavia from which Croatia was seceding, so the question is, if Croatia is seceding, where should the border be.’ It is now a matter of a whole new generation of Serb intellectuals, who have grown up in the meantime and become committed to this project.

It is well-known that the law faculty of Belgrade University was Slobodan Milošević’s most important legal instrument, which he used to justify his manipulations. Professors like Smilja Avramov, Ratko Marković, Oliver Antić, Kosta Čavoški and many others played an important role. This faculty, however, has acquired a new and as yet publicly unknown generation which behaves in accordance with the same model, and is educating in this spirit new generations, to whom their interpretation of the war is passed on as a legacy. This interpretation says that the myth of Great Serbia has in fact been imputed by the great powers to the Serb people, and that the condemnation of Great-Serb hegemonism is being used to clear the path for the new world order and globalization in this part of Europe. Serbia is consequently seen as a victim nation or victim state, a fate that infuses its whole past. The creation of a unified Serb state, i.e. the collecting of the whole or the bulk of the Serb people into one state, thus remains the only guiding political idea. This argument, its presentation and the media interpretation of it show that it is deeply rooted in the public mind, which strengthens the conviction that Yugoslavia fell apart as a result of the will of great powers.

Sense of loss

The growing likelihood of a Montenegrin declaration of independence reinforces the sense of loss. Serbia displays the psychology of an empire that has lost its territories. This derives from its perception of Yugoslavia as an extended Serbia. The ‘softening’ of the international community in regard to Montenegro has over the past few weeks taken a concrete form, especially in the recommendations of the Venice Commission.1 Its proposal is more or less in line with what the Montenegrin government has talked about: that Montenegrins living in Serbia will not be allowed to vote, while the rest will be a matter of agreement between the government and the opposition. The opposition has rejected the first call to take part in discussions about the referendum; it is likely that over the coming months it will further compromise its position and in that way strengthen the pro-independence party. In the Serbian media, Javier Solana is again being treated as he was during the NATO intervention.


Preparations for solving the Kosovo issue in 2006 have advanced, which has added to the Serb nationalists’ frustration, because their plan to divide Kosovo, and to add Republika Srpska to Serbia as compensation for the ‘loss’ of Kosovo, now commands little support. A revision of the Dayton Agreement is in the offing, with the three sides reaching agreement in this regard on Dayton’s tenth anniversary in Washington in the presence of Condoleezza Rice. Belgrade has long ago given up Kosovo, expecting compensation elsewhere, so now its negotiating team, according to Boris Tadić, ‘is entering the negotiations with the aim of preventing the province’s independence. Neither its conditional nor unconditional independence is acceptable to Serbia.’ He repeated this position in Paris, adding that Kosovo’s independence would lead to ‘a domino effect and fragmentation of the Balkans’. He did not lose the opportunity to ask why RS should not follow this road. Serb nationalists, of course, see this as an additional pressure on Serbia and ‘the congress of Vienna’ as a new injustice against the Serb people.

The consequences of the project of ‘uniting all Serbs’ are lasting and deep, and Serbian society will take a long time to recover from them economically - but also morally. Its (at all times modest) civic potential and national identity have been destroyed. Serbian society today is characterised by destructiveness and primitivism. There exists a terror of the majority guided by the lowest instincts. Numerous incidents lacking rational explanation speak of the degenerative form of Serb nationalism.

The constant campaign against civil society, the unacceptable level of communication in the Serbian parliament, the tabloid isation of the media and their use against the liberal orientation in society, as well as the clericalisation of society - all these serve to show that the liberal potential in Serbia is very limited. Serbia today is a closed society and a blocked nation with few possibilities for transition. Society, furthermore, is not properly integrated, because there is no paradigm that can mobilise citizens irrespective of their ethnic, confessional and political background. Increased intolerance and even a degree of repression in public life seem highly likely in view of the current challenges faced by Serbia.


1. This passage was written, of course, before the EU foreign ministers decided to ignore the Venice Commission recommendations.


Translated from Helsinška povelja, November-December 2005.


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