Great-Serb myths block Serbia’s European future
Author: Sonja Biserko - interviewed by Bojan Toncic
Uploaded: Monday, 05 January, 2009
Following her participation in a European parliament debate, the president of Serbia's Helsinki Committee discusses divisions within the Serbian political elite over European integration, Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia, international justice and human rights
Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, has found herself once again at the centre of Serbian public attention, following a debate in the European parliament on inter-cultural and regional dialogue in the western Balkans, during which she stated that the Serbian political elite ‘remains a prisoner to Great Serb ethnocentric myths, and to the theory that Serbia is the victim of an international conspiracy’, and that ‘some of its ministers are inclined to blame Serbia’s slow integration into the European Union on the latter’s indecision’. In this interview with E-novine, she stresses that the Serbian political elite is not united on the issue of European integration, as a result of which the process has come to a halt. This, she argues, is due to the political elite’s continuing belief that its state project, especially in regard to the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, will succeed.
What do you mean by their ‘state project’?
It is an idea that ignores the new realities. For they believe that international conditions will be created which will permit the annexation by Serbia of Republika Srpska (RS). They consequently do all they can to prove that the state created by the [Dayton] international agreement cannot work. And they are using Kosovo as a means of getting RS. They do not want all of Kosovo, in fact, but only twelve per cent of its territory. The Serbian government has created parallel institutions in this part of Kosovo, as President Tadić inadvertently admitted recently. This is the whole idea behind the Serb project that has been in operation for the past thirty years: to seize part of Kosovo and parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as a result of which Serbia would undergo a shift to the west. This is the truth that should be constantly repeated. This is why the history of the recent war is being brushed under the carpet, while at the same time the history of the Second World War - and even the First World War - is being pushed to the fore. All this in order to argue that Serbia lost a great deal by entering Yugoslavia - as illustrated by the recent interview given by Dobrica Ćosić, in which he presented Nikola Pašić as the greatest of criminals. Yet it was not long ago that Ćosić was glorifying both Pašić and Slobodan Milošević!
Does this mean the parties are wrong to put Kosovo at the top of their agenda?
It is a form of manipulation. The whole approach is full of contradictions. We have had demonstrations against the recognition of Kosovo, strong diplomatic reactions, threats to those of our neighbours who have recognised Kosovo. Yet 130,000 Serbians spent their holidays in Dalmatia this year. No one will be able to stop them. The fixation with the great state idea no longer interests ordinary people. The [nationalist] fervour present in the 1980s and 1990s has evaporated. Society has in the meantime become criminalised, however; state institutions and public servants pursue only their own private interests.
It is an anti-Dayton project, in your view?
Very much so. It is a policy directed against all agreements regarding established borders and relations in the region: those of Kumanovo, Ohrid, Resolution 1244.
Do you see any solution, any logical political idea in the present situation?
It is entry into the European Union. The states of the Union hardest hit by the crisis have won support from the International Monetary Fund and from European institutions to consolidate their banking systems. There is thus a solidarity in the Union. Serbia with its position, which the government calls neutral, cannot get any help, not even visas. Because of Kosovo, Serbia has been merely an instrument against the West for Russia, but all that has become irrelevant. The resolution concerning EULEX was presented temporarily as a presidential report rather than a resolution, which is not so binding, and it is evident that the Serbs and the Albanians will have to negotiate on every point. It is an ongoing process, and the deployment of EULEX has not been met with much obstruction. That card too is spent.
Does insistence on the six points help the position of Serbs in Kosovo, or is it a matter of sheer bloody-mindedness?
The six points are nothing but a game. Belgrade has shown that it is not interested in the Serbs living in the enclaves, but still keeps the question open for some reason. They wish to reach an agreement, but we don’t know what about. The European Union has been offering Serbia candidate membership, with the prospect of being taken in faster than anyone else after delivering Ratko Mladić. But they don’t want it.
You keep referring to ‘them’. One gets the impression that this refers not just to high state officials. Who are ‘they’?
I am referring to a bloc that includes also parts of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, and of the retired military establishment - the circles who created the atmosphere of war and initiated the hostilities, and who would like to pursue the same policy today as well. It is clear that they don’t wish to join Europe, for several reasons. For example, there would be competition, and certain standards and rules of the game would come into being, ones that no one here now respects, since everything is conducted behind closed doors. The delay in getting into the European Union is destroying the remaining potential in Serbia that is genuinely pro-European. This was my message to the European parliament: that they should talk not just with the government, but also with the people who really do want to join the EU. I have in mind the trade unions, small- and medium-size firms, civil society in some of its segments. There are points in society that could be mobilised for such an option.
Do you see some differences - some opposing positions - within governmental circles, or does what you said in Brussels apply equally to all parties?
Some, like G17 Plus, see Serbia within the EU for purely economic reasons. This is true also of part of the Democratic Party. It is evident, however, that those against are stronger, and that they are using Ratko Mladić to hamper the process of Serbia’s integration.
This much is clear, but why? As you have said, a substantial part of the Democratic Party remains a prisoner to ‘ethnocentric myths’.
Yes. [Foreign minister] Vuk Jeremić advocates Serbian neutrality. He is more of a Koštunica than a Tadić man .
Jeremić personifies the policy based on the incantation that Kosovo is Serbia. What does this waste of time and money mean for Serbia?
They are not bothered by it. They believe that the international context is such that it will permit them to realise their aspirations in Bosnia, and return Montenegro to the ‘maternal womb’. According to their analyses, the EU will break up or they will enter it on their own terms. They think that they can continue to take funds from the EU, funds that have been indispensable to Serbia’s survival. Roads, schools and hospitals have all been rebuilt since 2000 with EU funds. The government is barely surviving, and that is all it cares for.
Their state concept is centralist and as such is blocking Serbia’s development. This is highlighted by the situation linked to the Vojvodina statute, which gives the province a degree of autonomy that is minimal even in relation to the constitution of 2006. Yet the academicians are signing petitions against it. They resist any innovation that leads to democracy, and have brought the whole country to a standstill. Belgrade has become a problem for all of Serbia - a generator of anomie.
Is Doris Pack right then to speak about you being ‘negative’?
I insisted on the fact that the wars in the former Yugoslavia were prepared by way of culture, the essence of which remains the same as in Milošević’s time, in that culture and politics continue to be linked at the symbolic level. The model based on the ethnos remains dominant, which works against minorities and the region as a whole. EU’s help in creating an alternative cultural infrastructure is needed in order to re-activate a different culture elite.
Alternative communications do exist in the region, especially among young people, creating the potential for a normalisation of relations across the region as a whole. Confrontation with the past should be shifted to the cultural sphere, because this is the only way that young people find acceptable. But our problems are essentially far deeper in nature, since a structure exists that is not ready to open up. They know they are in trouble. The government knows where Ratko Mladić is, but is discouraging anyone from seeking him there. The genocide in Srebrenica is now being denied, with the government saying that history alone will tell what actually happened there. And they place the recent war events in Croatia and Bosnia in the context of 1945-95. They are far more ready to deny the genocide in Srebrenica today than a few years ago. They keep saying history, but what history? Others too, surely, have something to do with the past.
This explains why Jasenovac is constantly evoked in the context of Croatian-Serbian relations?
This is a reference used to mobilise Croatian and Bosnian Serbs: the number of victims, the digging up of graves. Instead of moving on, we return to the past. Vučić’s recent visit [to Croatia] proved, however, that the Croatian Serbs displayed political maturity, in that they resisted this manipulation.
Are Croatian-Serbian relations as bad as the politicians are saying?
They have moved on at the cultural and economic levels, but not at the political. Thus, for example, no one met with the Croatian ambassador on his departure from Serbia. There is a refusal to accept the new reality, including the new borders, combined with a desire to redraw the map of the Balkans.
What about the people in Kosovo? The latest events there confirm us in the view that Serbia is paying corrupt state security officials and sleepers of various sorts there, while stories about ordinary folk are presented against a background of dilapidated houses and children walking to school under military protection. The Helsinki Committee itself researched the situation. Has anything changed since?
They are not interested in the Serbs or anyone else, but only and above all in territory. This is particularly discouraging. Despite all the defeats, Dobrica Ćosić argues that we have not been defeated, because we have won Republika Srpska, thanks mainly to Radovan Karadžić. Eighty per cent of Kosovo Serbs live in the enclaves and are against Kosovo’s partition. Their average age is over fifty, and they have been left completely exposed. The Serbian government expects that they will either leave or die out in due course. They no longer complain about ethnic violence, but - in the conversations we had with them - about Kosovska Mitrovica and Belgrade. They insist that they have got practically nothing from the manipulation with Serbian state funds, other then some humanitarian aid.
You are talking about Kosovo south of the river Ibar. What did your Committee learn from talking with the Serbs who live there?
Ten years have passed since the departure of the Serbian state administration, since the Kumanovo Agreement, and it is obvious that they will not leave. But there are also some who might do so, provided they can sell their land more or less well, depending on its location. It is evident, however, that they have found a way of living with Albanians: they have economic and at times even family ties with them. But no one talks about that or concentrates on it, in order to make it appear that Serbs and Albanians cannot live together, just as Serbs cannot live with Bosniaks or Croats. A stereotype is being maintained that does not correspond to the truth.
But there have been many incidents that have made the Serbs feel insecure.
Not all that many in the last few years, since the March 2004 violence. And it is by no means certain who were the true instigators of some of those incidents. There has never in fact been any proper investigation of such events. This only encourages fear. We heard in our conversations with Kosovo Serbs that the fear did not last, long, especially in the towns, where they communicate with Albanians. They all know that they must live together. Both the Albanians and the Serbs are keen to do something. There is a lot of work to be done, of course, in creating a society based on stable institutions, and it would be good if Belgrade were to participate in this. So that the Serbs can remain in Kosovo and be a link to the Albanian community there.
How justified was your insistence in Brussels that Serbia rejects the concept of human rights? On the other hand, there is Ćosić’s assertion that ‘human rights will destroy the Serb identity’.
Campaigns against the advocates of human rights are an attack on the very concept itself, as being neo-liberal and Anglo-Saxon, hence by definition injurious to Serbdom. The financial crisis is now taken as a mighty proof that the advocates of this thesis are right: that the West will fall apart, that America, capitalism and the European Union will disappear. With such views and analyses, they see a chance to wait for Bosnia to be partitioned, when they will be able to take what they see as their part.
Maybe you yourself are now falling into the trap of stereotyping? Some of those close to the government have a different view.
We are talking about actual practice. Thus for example, in the case of minorities - ethnic, religious and politically vulnerable groups - who are everywhere seen as a test of democracy, we see that they are constantly under attack. This shows the government’s attitude to the other, the different. Over the past two decades, Serbia with its radical nationalism has excluded the minorities from politics.
But this government has for a long time had a law on national minorities that conforms to the highest European standards.
Yes, but is it implemented? What has happened to the minorities in Vojvodina, the Sandžak, southern Serbia? They have divided the Muslim community, invented Wahabites, kept them in the centre of media attention. Not being able to prove anything against those people, they have talked about what they were intending to do. This is used as proof that the Serbs were fighting in Bosnia against terrorists, in line with 9/11.
You think that the secret police is behind that notion?
Yes. In the case of Vojvodina, the stress continues to be placed upon its becoming ethnically Serb. Since the Hungarians alone have the capacity of being a partner, Vojvodina has been reduced to Serb-Hungarian relations. Here too one can see the attitude towards a minority that has segregated itself under the pressure of nationalism, as the other minorities have done. The Croats have fallen silent, having disappeared from some areas (Hrtkovci, Srijem, the border with Croatia). Such small minorities are under pressure to assimilate, and do not have the strength to resist. There is much talk about the Roma Decade, despite the racism directed against them.
With regard to minorities, the most important question is that of atmosphere. The state is the one to create an atmosphere in which citizens can feel free and secure. But there exist various right-wing groups which have links with political parties and the media, and which are greatly tolerated. They are linked also to certain state structures. It is said that they are few in number. We too are few in number, yet we do not have such a presence in the media. Except when they attack us.
In Serbia it is widely believed that Serbs cannot be racists, antisemitic, genocidal.
Most important is the treatment. Thus, for example, the tourist map of Serbia shows not a single location with a Catholic church. The street lamps do not work in the part of Zemun where the Catholic church is located. You may say that your house too lies in darkness, but the minority feels this differently. A cultural model that is strongly ethnocentric was promoted under Koštunica. We do not have any representation of minorities in the schools - it is as if they did not exist. They are not included in Serbia’s identity, which under Košrunica was reduced to Serbdom and Orthodoxy.
What other forms of human-rights violation have ben detected by the Helsinki Committee?
This whole anomie affects citizens. It is difficult to reach the courts, and trials are not fair. Then there is the behaviour of the police and of officials. All citizens of Serbia are under threat, especially in regard to social rights, about which they complain most when they come to our office. Political and civic freedoms are less important to them.
Do you see any change for the better in the future?
Yes, in the cultural sphere, where young people are showing interest in one another, in travel, in cinematography, the theatre, literature. This should be utilised. But the great problem is how to break through the blockade, because the ethno-elite controls all the institutions. How to deal with this? I think the whole of the Western Balkans should already have been taken into the European Union, and been treated in a special way. This is because the blockade is further destroying society’s liberal potential. One cannot compare an old EU state with one that is now entering the EU with all its patriarchal and authoritarian baggage. There should be differentiation - but the Balkans should promptly go into the European Union.
On the other hand, you criticise the European Union for its leniency?
The EU has proved unable to deal with this area. I am talking about the decomposition of a state. What it needs is a management that would bring it out of anomie. I am not sure that Serbia is capable of doing this on its own, despite the fact of EU involvement over the past nine years. What is worrying here is that Serbia is purposefully keeping itself back - it does not want to surrender Mladić, it does not want to proceed with integration.
In other words, the old great-state project is still active, albeit in increasingly comical forms?
It sounds strange, but that is true. Why is Serbia refusing to surrender Mladić and Goran Hadžić? Are they so important that the whole country must be blocked? We have seen that people did not react when other national heroes were arrested. Nationalism has not disappeared, but public opinion has changed, because what matters to people is what to eat, not whether Radovan Karadžić is in The Hague.
Croatia and Serbia are suing each other before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Years have passed since the end of the Balkans wars, yet there is no accepted truth about them.
The aggression against Croatia is never discussed. It is unlikely that Croatia will be able to prove genocide, but it should be possible to say what happened. Serbia’s behaviour over the past few years has aroused additional suspicion in the region, which is why the cases are being filed. So that the evidence can once again be aired, so that one can say what happened. The fact that in 1991 an international conference took place in The Hague, under the auspices of the European Community, at which maximal guarantees were offered to the Serb people throughout the former Yugoslavia, is not often mentioned in Serbia. Nor the fact that a formula was offered for a modus vivendi among the Yugoslav nations, with the aim of preserving a Yugoslav framework. This was a maximal solution that everyone accepted except for Slobodan Milošević, who believed he had the JNA on his side. While the conference was taking place, he was waging war in Vukovar, Dubrovnik, at all key points in Croatia. After he had occupied thirty per cent of that country, he brought in the UN.
The Serbian government behaves as if it has not read the verdict of the International Court of Justice, which found it guilty for not preventing genocide. Though shameful for that international body, and a warning for the country to which it referred, the verdict was met here with celebrations.
Indeed, from the moment they got the verdict, everything has been moving in the opposite direction. They celebrate, while repeating that ‘history will show’ what really happened. And the framework is 1945-95, because if they were to win Republika Srpska, then it would turn out that they had waged a war for re-composition of the Balkans, as Dobrica Ćosić insists.
Translated from the Belgrade-based E-novine.com website, 15 December 2008