Serbia and its Pathologies
by Srda Popovic
Srđa Popović - interviewed by Svetlana Lukić for the ‘Peščanik’ [hourglass] programme on Belgrade’s Radio B92
What do you think about Tadić visiting Srebrenica?.
If Tadić feels the need to go to Srebrenica then he should do so, regardless of what is happening here [in Serbia]. But what will he say there? I think that after everything that has gone on here, he will find it difficult to say anything meaningful, since he would otherwise have to polemicise with the totality of the parliament, with all his ministers, and with his prime minister - and Srebrenica is not the right place for that. What happened here was really awful. It was awful first of all that they [the Serbian parliament] were unable to adopt a simple declaration saying they were sorry that eight thousand people had been killed there. This was a problem for them, and one can see here that silence about the crime was a way of denying it. They were placed in a difficult position by the proposal from the NGOs [to adopt a suitable declaration], which forced them to take a position: either to accept or to reject it. They realised they could do neither, said they would draft one of their own, but it turned out that they could not.
What happened next was even more terrible, I mean the explanations about why this could not be done. These clarifications were shameful, miserable, immoral, infantile, hypocritical - call them what you will. It transpired that the basic reason why they could not adopt a resolution was what minister Stojković said: that it would be dangerous to do so, because of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s lawsuit against Serbia. He said, in other words: don’t admit anything, since the truth could harm us in court. To state publicly something like this is quite unbelievable, especially from a man who calls himself the minister of justice. Then came the reply from Dušan Petrović of the Democratic Party, who wanted some declaration to be adopted: he said that Stojković should not worry, since their draft did not mention the word genocide. How can I put it: this is not a matter of lying or concealment, there is no attempt here to conceal anything. But the implicit logic goes something like this. All of us would have to pay, innocent and guilty alike, so we guilty ones tell the innocent: it’s better for you to hide us and collaborate with us, since otherwise you’ll be punished along with us. They threaten them! No one thinks of saying, in connection with this issue of paying, that just as the state is responsible for damage it causes to its citizens, it is similarly responsible for damage it causes to others.
Vuk Drašković then intervened to say that the Bosnian lawsuit was illegitimate, and that Slobodan Milošević and those who made war alone should be held responsible. But Slobodan Milošević was Serbia’s president, head of its defence council - he is not just the individual Slobodan Milošević, but Serbia’s former president. The crimes were committed by the state and the state will have to account for them. The fact that we shall all have to pay because we had a state like that is something that may indeed appear unfair to some, but in the last instance we are all responsible for the kind of state we have.
People sometimes argue against me saying that they cannot be held responsible simply because they voted for Milošević. But why not? Are people not responsible for casting their vote? It is not possible to say: OK, we vote, but what may come out of it is no concern of ours. No one bothers to mention either that when the illegal acts of a state body cause damage for which the state is responsible - as so many have done here, from Milošević’s all the way down - then the state has the right to file a so-called compensation suit against that body. The state can ask it, i.e. the individual responsible for it, to pay penalties until the damage has been rectified. We, however, instead pay these people to go to The Hague. Rather than, for example, impounding their property, which could ultimately be used to remedy the damage that we will be condemned to pay. On the contrary, they are given cars, million of euros for their families, paid air fares so that their wives can visit them, and everyone is told: well, you know, we’ll all have to pay, so it’s better for us to defend them. This is an expression of such ignorance and stupidity that one is discouraged even from arguing against it. I think that what happened with the declaration, and even more with the subsequent explanations, represents one of the worst moments in this country’s history.
Every government which conducts such a policy will find itself in the following cleft stick: it will have to say one thing (something more meaningful) to its international partners and quite another to its own public, of which it is scared, and which it assumes - I can’t even tell whether rightly or wrongly - is in a deep state of denial and could become irritated if touched, when of course votes could be lost. This is indeed being openly said: that it would be very unpopular, very painful, so they have to address us in this double-speak, in case some people get angry and stop voting for them. If you compare what they say to Carla del Ponte, or Chirac, or Bush, with what they tell us, you can see a total contradiction. They behave as if they are obliged to carry this heavy burden, and talk nonsense because they have to. For my part, I believe that they greatly underestimate their own public and nation. Everyone can see through this, and as a result everyone feels uncomfortable, even guilty to some extent, because the world sees us lying all over the place. It would be better for the government to say instead: look, we cannot hide this much longer, we must tell the truth, and then we’ll see what happens, we’ll pay what has to be paid.
They tell us that it’s a matter of billions of dollars, which will impoverish us all. But that’s not true. The extent of damages is decided not in order to recoup the whole harm done to someone, because that would be economically unsustainable, but in accordance with the guilty party’s ability to pay. The damages that will be imposed - I don’t say if but when - will be set at a bearable level. Is this so terrible that we must sink ever further into such dreadful and unworkable lies? These lies are crazy even from a purely pragmatic point of view, since the whole world knows the truth. Srebrenica is a world event from the end of the 20th century, and the whole world knows about it. What is the point of our pretending, of trying to sweep it somehow under the carpet? We appear not only in bad light but also as truly stupid, weird, cynical and quite indifferent, a people unable to grasp the meaning of that event.
When you carry such a big lie in your head, you are unable to think about anything else: the lie torments you and you become obsessed by it. You must continuously work on the lie, as a result of which you naturally cannot pay attention to anything else. You are lost, you appear autistic, or more accurately exist in a state of paranoia - and we have been in that state for the last fifteen years This makes us dysfunctional as a society, this being constantly bedevilled by the lie. Maybe we could live with it, were it not for Carla del Ponte, who constantly prods us to remember. She constantly demands something of us, and we always begin to do something only to drop it as quickly, unable to understand the sadism with which she does her work, determined as she is to bring it to a conclusion. And we constantly hope that someone in that world constituted differently from ours will forget the whole thing, let it somehow slip from their mind, get tired of the whole thing and say - oh, heck, let them be! This will never happen, though. If they surrender Mladić tomorrow, she’ll ask for every last one of the remaining five or six, because she wants to finish her job - her mandate is that all those people must end up in The Hague. We are quite unable to grasp this.
As a people, on the other hand, we are very ready to forgive ourselves all manner of things. Since we pose no demands on ourselves, we don’t feel so bad when we do not fulfil them. We do not expect anything of ourselves. This feeling infects all of society, keeps it back and maintains it in the frozen state of denial, in that spasm in which it thinks monomaniacally only about this one issue. We should have stopped thinking about it long ago. Had we sent those people to The Hague and admitted what happened, we would not have to think so much about it now. Just look at our papers, full of loony stories aimed at burying what cannot be buried, because it keeps popping up.
What happened in regard to the video film [of the Scorpions killing civilians at Srebrenica] is very interesting. Even when they admitted that the so-called Serb side committed a crime, people here managed to speak about it as a historical event that happened 800 years ago. Yes, sure, it happened - but at the same time there’s a pathological attempt to avoid any kind of emotional evolvement. How can one say coldly: yes, eight thousand were killed, but we should look ahead. This separation of the rational content of admission from the normal human emotional reaction is a kind of pathology. I think that this has a cost, that we are paying for it in all kinds of invisible ways. I once wrote that we pay for this, in fact, by not knowing who we are. We lie so much that we’re no longer able to know who we are. We’re not the same people as before Srebrenica, that’s for sure; but since we refuse to admit anything, we don’t know how to understand our new selves. This is a subject for social psychology, which could supply answers for many strange things you notice happening around you.
Speaking of reactions, I wonder whether you know what Đorđe Mamula said about the video tapes. I’ve written down what he said. He said that the tapes show that only two individuals fired at the prisoners, not the whole unit, and that only those two should be held accountable.
You have six armed men leading them with the obvious intention, realised in the end, to kill them. They divided the roles but, speaking from the point of view of criminal law, their intention is common to them: we will take these people to some place and kill them. Who actually was to do it was decided within the group. Some would shoot and others would help in taking them to the place. If one of the prisoners had tried to flee, one of the other four would have fired at them. In any case, this story of only some individuals committing a crime, I don’t understand what was meant by that. Criminal law, of course, speaks of individuals responsible for crimes committed, but what did Mamula mean by reiterating this? And why?
The fact is that genocide is something which is not done as a cottage industry. Genocide is done by states, because it is a big undertaking. There is the necessary logistics, organisation, time, personnel, means. This cannot be done by individuals, it requires the resources of a state. You need tanks, mechanised diggers, burials and re-burials, you need to torch villages, fire two million shells at Sarajevo. This could not be done by individuals. Especially given that we know it was part of a plan. It was part of a policy aimed at separating, in Bosnia for example, the Serb population from the rest, and cleansing the territory so that Serbia could expand and all Serbs live in the same state.
Those who doubt the existence of this policy need only read Borisav Jović’s book, where he celebrates it. Why then the talk of individuals? When they speak of individuals they paradoxically think in their heads, without telling us, that they are defending the state, and that in defending the state they protect us from collective responsibility. Which takes us back to the start of our conversation: we are not criminally responsible because our state was criminal - the state, the whole state, was criminal. It was not individuals within the state who were criminals, no; the state was the criminal in conducting the criminal policy of ethnic cleansing, and this has nothing to do with a few individuals. It is true, of course, that not everyone is equally responsible - some made key strategic decisions while others made tactical decisions - but at the basis of the very idea of ethnically cleansing a certain area there lies at least complicity with the crime, since it could not have been committed otherwise. It was committed in the only possible way: the way it was done. And now someone tries to tell me that the main person responsible is one Cvjetan, a good-for-nothing who was given a gun and told: shoot at any one you like provided they are not Serbs, and who did precisely that. Now, however, we are supposed to concern ourselves with Cvjetan and no one else.
Why is the whole [Serbian] political leadership in The Hague? Are they there as individuals? The whole government is there, the presidents of Serbia and of FRY, the whole of the state leadership which conducted this criminal policy, is there. They were the state, the state which committed the crimes. It does not follow from this, of course, that you and I are responsible in the eyes of the criminal law for what they have done. As citizens of this country, however, we are in a certain way responsible, morally responsible, responsible also to ourselves, because we were so stupid to vote for such a government. And we were such cowards that we tolerated for so long that government, up to 2000 when Milošević got two million votes. But we are not criminally responsible. We bear a historical guilt and pay for it by, for example, not having visas, because no one wants to give us a visa - they wish to have nothing to do with criminals, and can’t tell who is a criminal and who is not, since we ourselves have not separated them out or admitted that they exist, but continue to collaborate with them. It is natural then that no one wants us.
I recall when after World War II Germans started to come to Dalmatia and we were astonished that they dared to come and swim there, to laugh and drink wine. Germans, just imagine, Germans came and, to our horror, wished to holiday there. And we are surprised that no one wants to give us visa! Of course not, we disgust them. Why? Because we behave in the way we do. They in fact treat us better than in my view we deserve, with their constant sending of positive signals: Come, we want you in Europe, we’ll give you this, we’ll give you that. But we do not wish to surrender, we carry on with our stupid story to the very end, to our perdition.
If they are punishing us because we refuse to admit the crimes, then either we admit to the crimes or they decide to live with them, to say: O.K., never mind; yes, you have committed crimes, but it does not matter really. It is clear which side will have to give in, and the deeper we dig ourselves in with our denial the worse it will be for us. We should give in before we collapse, since this would involve another humiliation, something which I think in any case is bound to come. Is anyone asking why these people are not on trial, why we refuse to send them there? Courts exist so that criminals are punished, so that they can no longer continue like that, so that they will eventually be reformed, if possible.
The main purpose, however, is not to punish the person, but for society as a whole to see that a crime has been committed, who committed the crime, and that the crime is punished. Judicial procedure, in other words, leads to creation of a moral balance disturbed by the crime, and which the whole society experiences as a disturbance in their lives. I myself would not go as far as that, but I think it is true nevertheless that the criminal himself has the right to punishment, since once punished that also re-establishes the balance with him. He will serve his term, leave the prison and be able to say: Leave me in peace now, I have paid for what I have done, and no one should any longer charge me with it. Our government has done everything to deliver these people who it implies are innocent, i.e. it has sent innocent people to be punished, while all the time they tell us that the punishment required to establish a moral balance is not necessary, because they have done nothing wrong. The government is consciously undermining the basic purpose of justice - it has done everything for society not to understand or support the fact that crimes need to be punished. On the contrary. But the purpose of punishment is not for some individual to go to gaol, its purpose is to show that society is capable of healing itself by way of punishing criminals. They, however, are delivering these people on the one hand, while on the other they are doing everything ro prevent the moral regeneration contained in the idea of justice.
It is often being said that this society of ours is broken. The moment when the society was transformed into people, when we all became potatoes in a sack called the people, there were no longer social roles, or social groups, or awareness of who belonged to which group, or common interests, or clash of interests - none of that. And now this chaos, which in fact is anomie, that exists in the absence of society, this is something which I think has additionally harmed people, because it has led to the loss of what is called public order. This is why the time of socialism now appears as a promised land, a golden age. This has no ideological connotation - people simply recall a life in which some background existed, a basis on which individual lives carried on and where you had a map on which you could find yourself, where you related to that background and to each other. Those lives had a meaning. The people, I think, miss this: the fact that their lives, for better or for worse, had a meaning. In the present state of anomie we move chaotically like atoms, change direction and clash, but our movement has no meaning. People who live in a state of chaos cannot be happy, because they are scared. If something happens to you, you do not know why, whether you could have done something to prevent it or not. Nothing depends on you, no one asks you anything, no one cares for you, your life is a biological fact which you don’t know what to do with. This is not good for people - they must be able to give some meaning to their lives, they must have a feeling that life has a direction and purpose.
Translated from Svetlana Lukić (ed.), Peščanik, vol.2, pp 355-62, Belgrade 2005