Drinka Gojkovic

A view from outside

In the New York Times magazine of May 3, 1999, under the title Why Are We in Kosovo, Susan Sontag writes: "The Milosevic Government has finally brought on Serbia a small portion of the suffering it has inflicted on neighbouring peoples. [ ... ] War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history's eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it take for the Serbs to realise that the Milosevic years have been an unmitigated disaster for [ ... ] the entire region, including Serbia. Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will not happen soon".

In The New Yorker of May 10, 1999, in a text entitled Balkan Physics, essayist Michael Ignatieff writes: "A friend of mine replied," - after he had told her all about the horror of the refugee camps in Macedonia - "that her four-year-old girl paced their Belgrade flat with headphones to avoid the sound of fire engines and air raid alarms. I felt the courageous Serbian mother of a little girl had also turned a deaf ear and couldn't hear what I was saying. We both found it hard to listen to each other." In the New York Times of May 11, 1999, Thomas L. Frieman, in an editorial headed Steady As She Goes, quotes Mark Mazover, a Princeton University professor: "The prevailing mood among the people is intense, if short-sighted, Serb nationalism, hate-imbued and narcissistic, all to ready to embrace victimhood while uninterested in the suffering of the real victims of the recent months and years." Friedman continues: "We are at war with the Serbian nation. [ ... ] The idea that we are at war with one bad guy, Slobodan Milosevic (three times elected by his people) is entirely foolish..." Along the same lines Friedman suggests the solution: "I cannot imagine a greater punishment for the Serbs for everything they have done and tacitly approved of than making them live with him for ever."

I don't know whether it's the ignorance or the arrogance of these opinions that irritates me more. How can Susan Sontag assume she knows what Serbs would be able to realise or when it was going to happen? Where did Mark Mazover check his "prevailing mood of the people"? What makes Friedman believe he holds the spectre of morality, where did he acquire the self-righteousness to mete out punishment, life imprisonment and worse? And how well does Michael Ignatieff really know this "courageous Serbian mother" of a little girl (her papers, her public appearances, her views on any issue raised by this war or previous ones)? Well enough to take the liberty of investing this courage of hers with so ironic an overtone?

When the strikes began a Czech journalist replied to the letter of a horrified colleague from Belgrade to say that he was unable to share her anger and pain. The Serbs, he wrote, had committed so much evil throughout the former Yugoslavia. And they still do, now, on Kosovo. They should finally realise it was no good and seek confession and catharsis. Sure he would be delighted to have a coffee with her one day in a democratic Belgrade, but it could only be after the process of purging he was talking about had taken place. He sympathised, but could not identify, with her feelings. The Nato campaign, on the other hand, he deemed entirely desirable and justified.

Understanding and consequences

A resounding majority of the world public didn't fret too much about the Nato strikes, at least in the first couple of weeks, exactly because it seemed to many (and notably the most strident Western European and American intellectuals) as a well deserved, long overdue punishment. Between the lines it could be read that Serbs were the culprits, the sinners, that they had either perpetrated evil or stood idly by; there were no apologies. If they had wanted to know, they knew. If they didn't know it's because they didn't want to. Ignorance and silence are both unpardonable. The Serbs are partners in crime. And the partners deserve to be stigmatised with a fiery sceptre. Perhaps, by bearing this stigma, the most radical intellectual peddlers of these convictions suggest, they might even become human themselves one day.

The intellectual tenuousness of this kind of allegation is easy to condemn, but the allegation itself is scarcely dropped or forgotten quite as easily. Why? Because it's far too serious. You've done nothing by flouting the confrontation. it's not the type of thing which will disappear if comfortably disdained or stubbornly ignored. The rampant bombing of Serbia and Yugoslavia will not wipe it off the list of current issues. The bombing is a moral question per se, waiting to be tackled by those who have paradoxically seen it as a heaven-sent solution to all the moral questions. However the question of whether the Serbia have been partners in the crimes which preceded the bombing, and the ones taking place under the bombs, remains and demands an answer, not because of the zealous Western moralisers so aptly embodied in Susan Sontag, but because of ourselves. To answer it is not to resort to a half-hearted profession of guilt in your own eyes and in the eyes of the world; especially not to offer excuses for the Nato military campaign which flies in the face of any sense or humane feeling. It's not about making a case for our own moral probity (are we Serbs the "moral desert" Sonja Biserka, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, dubbed us in the New York Times because, in her view, "People in Serbia are in mass denial, which is itself commensurate to the crime taking place in the eyes of the whole world.") What this is all about is something completely different: are we clear-headed enough to be able to discuss the facts of our own life and the direction of our own world soberly, unencumbered by affectionate and lengthily defensive inferior aggressiveness. It's about discussing the issue like mature people who do not totter between ready made formulas of the "culprits versus victims" and "victims versus culprits" types but who rather are able and willing to realise the scale of the human tragedy in which we are involved and to which we bear witness. And about drawing all the pressing and naturally political consequences resulting from it.

Imagining the Serbs

First, however, we must address the question of who we mean when we talk about Serbs. Probably no other national marker in the last ten years has been used with more a priori evidence than "the Serbs". This use has been in two modes. Outside, in the Western world, which certainly has the power to set a standard, the Serbs have chiefly been perceived and portrayed either as primitive mythomaniacs bent on crime (comfortable only with the gusle and the knife) or self-enamoured crime-blind provincials, as the rather typical quotes above largely testify. On the other hand, within Serbia itself, on its own territory, the Serbs have been portrayed as innocent victims. This portraiture also aspired to set a standard, primarily within the country. Every portrait has a certain base in reality, in other words it can be reinforced by a certain chain of facts. Thus none of them are pure fiction. On the other hand, each could be confronted with another set of facts which would disrupt the ostensible cohesiveness of interpretation. Each could hold its own only by laying claim to universality, in other words by securing an overwhelming domination of this homogeneous, coherent interpretation. Nothing falling outside this interpretation could have been taken into account, for fear of jeopardising its dominance. Each interpretation is a construct based on promoting one element and the expense of the others. Each has its own function and its own practical impact. On the outside it provided a clear moral divide between "us" (the Western opponents of crime) and "them" (the Serbian criminals). On the inside it strengthened the political power which feeds of the image of victimhood and the ensuing need for homogenisation.

Each interpretation presents a kind of imagining of its subject. Thus in both cases the Serbs became less and less the Serbs and more and more "the Serbs", a signet of this or that, depending on the particular need. Of course the imagining in both cases produced certain effects which were necessarily counterproductive. The "we are not like that" reaction, whichever version is concerned, pushed people to the opposite extreme and further from the ability to realise what was actually going on. The defensive "we are not killers" was bound to slide into "we are victims" and conversely "we are victims" was bound to end up as a justification for crime and even the erasing of the awareness it had been committed. Thus the world's steadily diminishing comprehension of the Serbs was matched by the Serbs' equally diminishing comprehension of themselves.

In Front of the Looking Glass

There was and still is something quite comprehensible. From the onset of this most recent Balkans conflagration, a process of deconstruction of reality began to take place in Serbia. There is probably no country whose recent history has been reflected on so persistently and seriously as Serbia. Thousands of pages have been written and published on issues related to the Yugoslav wars of secession and the role played in them by the Serbian political and military elite. These issues included the mythologisation and nationalisation of everyday reality; media abuse; the development of "hate speech"; war crimes; the tragic experiences of war and interethnic conflict; the possibilities for a turnaround and reconciliation and so on and so on. Theoretical and empirical sociological, legal, anthropological, politico-philosophical, linguistic and feminist research, literary and political essay writing, publicity analyses, war novels, poetry, drama - all of these make a rich literature devoted to issues of recent Serbian history in the period following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the succeeding wars. In other words, the issue of what, in the language of stereotypes, is known as the Serbian quilt. From The Serbian Side of War (Srpske strane rata) and Srebrenica to Under the Microscope (Pod lupom); from A Scrap of Common Sense (Tri ciste obicne pameti) and Against Nazism (Protiv nacizma) to The Rupture of the Soul (Pucanje duse); from Democracy or Despotism (Demokratije ili despotije) and The Warriors' Whorehouse (Bordela ratnika) to Conflict or Dialogue (Sukoba ili dijaloga); from Below Decks (U potpaljublju) and Eclipse (Pomracenja) to Bait (Mamca), to mention just a few. A complete bibliography of writing on the 1991 - 1999 wars in the former Yugoslavia would provide an insight into a range of interests and the depth of analysis of what is probably the most complex period of recent Serbian history. The texts already to hand are at odds with the results of both the domestic and foreign imagining of the Serbs. On the one hand they question the validity of the image of Serbs as callous in regard to crime and blind to the suffering of others, because it is precisely the Serbs who conduct research, write papers, edit and publish books on the political responsibility of the Serbs, organise and participate in public discussions, protests and related educational programs. The Serbs cannot be deemed all blind if it is precisely they who deal with the issue of Serb responsibility. On the other hand, by pointing to a Serbian violation of the laws of humanity, all this research demonstrates how entirely unwarranted is the image of the Serbs as innocent victims. Research, documents, records all contradict it. The Serbs themselves point this out. Thus imagining proves to be only one possible approach to the Serbian question: the reality is somewhere else.

What value?

It is of course easy to say that the intellectual handling of issues past or present does not represent the entire nation. If not, what does represent it and how is one to acquire a sample which would be fully valid? Is it possible to present this or that example: whose values are more valid and on what basis? Does the numerical value define representation? And, finally, what numerical value? In order to speak of "the people" without inevitably slipping into imagining, we have to take into account the fact that this people has, for the last fifteen years, been systematically driven towards utter mental confusion by those of its political and intellectual elites which wield the greatest political, and therefore public, power. The propaganda, misinformation and anxiety about life they have been systematically exposed to for more than a decade have either exacerbated this confusion or turned it into resignation - and most often both. It would be foolish to downplay the effects of this combined pressure. Where the Kosovo question is concerned things are even worse. Have ordinary Serbs had the opportunity to gain an insight into the developments in Kosovo, particularly in the past ten years? And could anyone say with a clear conscience that anyone who had wanted to know would have been able to discover what the game was in Kosovo? To keep all this in mind is not to absolve the people of any responsibility but, speaking of responsibility, we must be clearly aware of the conditions under which it is or is not being exercised. It is well known that public opinion is susceptible to the message sent and is formed largely in accordance with the message itself. The impact of this message depends primarily on the political pressure with which it is transmitted. Even the most recent examples in the world attest to this. Harold Pinter, for example, in his now famous article We Are Bandits Guilty of Murder, notes that British public opinion which, in the beginning, was opposed to Nato bombing began approving of it after a few weeks of strong political and media pressure from the government: "Now Blair and his war party have a war which people would support."

One thing is certain: the views of the Serbian population on this war or the wars of the past are diverse. In other words, not everybody thinks the same. There is no Serb national consensus, no Serb unity, in assessing what has happened or what is happening. In the words of Steven Erlanger, the New York Times Belgrade correspondent, Serbian society is "like any other society", meaning that various people hold various views on various matters. How many of them think like sober, unideologised analysts of Serbian affairs, usually referred to as critical intellectuals (and their number is not so insignificant)? Speaking of these, one should perhaps recall the people on the streets off Belgrade in winter 1996 - 97, the free cities of Serbia, the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) and so on. Only the stubbornly blind will fail to see the potential for change borne by all this.

What could have been done, what can still be done

In a text published in The New Yorker (January 1999), describing Holbrooke's visit to Milosevic to discuss the Kosovo crisis, Michael Ignatieff notes that Holbrooke had met representatives of the Serbian opposition. At one moment, writes Ignatieff, Veran Matic, the editor-in-chief of Radio B92, took Holbrooke aside and asked him "Why do you always speak with a single negotiator?" Holbrooke retorted by asking "And with whom are we supposed to talk?" Then, according to Ignatieff, Matic shrugged eloquently. From the reader's point of view the picture is effective: eloquent shrugging, nothing to say, utter devastation, but from the point of view of somebody interested in local (and not merely Serbian) affairs it incites an angry cry. Could Matic not have replied? In fact Matic did reply: "I enumerated... " and goes on to list a range of names of people who would have a lot to say about Kosovo and everything else. Ignatieff counterfeited the reply with an effective image. The story would be a trifle if it didn't point to a system. The West has always systematically bypassed serious conversation with the Serbian alternative, forever treating it as a sort of peculiar handy decor in an otherwise perfectly monochrome space. There's no point in asking ourselves what might have been if Western politicians had then, or at any other point in our permanent crisis, called a serious meeting with those who make up the present-day Serbian politico-intellectual think tank, a meeting which would be convened on an equal footing. Or if they had broached a dialogue with a series of other negotiators, even without dropping their favourite. If they had at least strayed a few inches from formal politics, which has in any case failed to yield a serious result. If they had grasped the old folk wisdom that two heads are better than one. One thing is certain: we would have stood on firmer ground than we do now. Even now all is not lost. It's just that if you want to see, you first have to open your eyes.