A Debate with Mr. Dusan Djordjevic in Central Europe Review
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Written: October 17, 2000
"After Tito, Tito" - this was the battle cry of the Communist leadership in the republics of former Yugoslavia following the death of the great helmsman. To learn from history, one must transcend (though not ignore) details. There are undercurrents and overriding themes in Serb history that perseverate and appear immutable. There is no reason to believe that the election of the hitherto non-corrupt and fiercely nationalistic law professor, Vojislav Kostunica, will miraculously transform the apparently ineluctable essence of Serb history and its salient proclivities. They are:
I. Personality Cults
The peoples of the Balkan are prey to the "Strong Man" syndrome. In Yugoslavia, the hedonistic and narcissistic Tito is one example. The turncoat communist Milosevic in Serbia is another. Idealization is followed by devaluation and dispossession. In quasi-tribal societies rocked by historical tidal waves and subject to traumatic ruptures, the superstitious belief in leaders is common
Balkan societies are organized in (often regional) networks of political patronage, business and crime in equal measures. Politicians, criminals and businessmen are indistinguishable and interchangeable. The disintegration of former Yugoslavia - a Serb empire founded on the self-interested collusion of such networks - only exposed them to the scrutinizing glare of the media and competing emerging elites.
III. Exclusionary National Narratives
The Serbs - and every other nation and "nation" in the Balkan - rely, for their cohesion and functioning - on a national narrative. Part myth, part facts hastily assembled into a coherent - though often desultory - "history" - these narratives are always exclusionary and xenophobic. They revolve around a common enemy and the struggle against it. In other words, these are not nation-building (constructive) narratives - but nation-freeing (liberation) ones. Kostunica is to the right of Milosevic, whose nationalistic epiphany had more to do with political expedience than with patriotic zeal. Milosevic was deposed because he failed - not because he tried. He may have been discarded - but not so his way.
IV. The Paranoid Streak
How often one hears these sentences in the Balkan in general and in Serbia, in particular: "The whole world is against us", "No one can understand us", "It is all so complicated that it cannot be comprehended nor explained". Theories of conspiracy share venue with superstitions and plangent grievances. A siege mentality prevails and the "Massada Complex" is an ingredient of decision making.
V. Violent Conflict Resolution
Perhaps as an inescapable consequence of all the above, the Balkan (and Serbia) lack institutions (though it fanatically maintains the verisimilitude of having ones). The ultimate arbiters have always been raw force or the threat of using it. The disempowered are passive-aggressive. Recondite sabotage and pertinacious stonewalling are their modes of self-defense and self-expression. The unregenerate power elites react with contemptuous suppression and raging punishment. It is a war from within to mirror the war from without. The result is a moral quagmire of depravity and perfidy.
One cannot distil the spirit of a nation in five points. One can predict with certainty only the past. But if learning history and from history has any meaning - the past should reliably foretell the future. And Serbia's past is clear. May it diverge from it this time. The Serbs deserve it.
Rebuttal to Dusan's Commentary
That the events of the last few weeks "undeniably portend fundamental changes" is where we differ. It is somewhat hubristic to pronounce such a sentence with the benefit of only a few weeks' perspective. Moreover, a millennium of Balkan history teaches us one irrefragable lesson with sad certainty: the more the slough changes, the more it remains the same.
The second point of disagreement is that Serbia has a civil society. The latter does not miraculously spring in a decade or two, fully precocial. It is the outcome of drawn out historical processes and continuous interactions between narratives and power foci. The callow "intelligentsia" of the Balkan is a circumambiently corrupt, venal, malicious, xenophobic, conniving, narrow-minded and short-sighted lot. They have proven it time and again in each phase of the Yugoslav cessation wars. Seselji and Karadzic are Ph.D.s - as was Tudjman. There was - and is - no meaningful soul-searching in Serbia, no accounting, no transparency, no adjudication and no dialogue. No one assumed responsibility, allocated blame, atoned for guilt, proscribed behaviours, or offered a substantially different agenda - least of all the sudden argosy of "intellectuals". In the most important respect - the animus of flagrant and barbarous and exclusionary and xenophobic nationalism - Kostunica is the continuation of Milosevic by other means. There are courageous though etiolated exceptions of course - but, in their state of purdah, they only serve to show the rule.
Whether Kostunica is an ultra-nationalist is NOT a "narrow" or "less important" issue. Whether Milosevic will face justice is NOT irrelevant. This is the crux of our debate and the very fulcrum of Serbia's continuing conflict with the world. Serbia's nationalism (as well as Croatia's) was not a solecism. It led to a hellish bloodbath. Its past leader was involved in a diapason of mass murders. It is very telling that Mr. Djordjevic seems to think these are minor issues. It just goes to show how faux this "revolution" is - constructed, as always, on denial of responsibility, suppression of the truth, protection of the criminal and collaboration with a bloody, disastrous past.
Kostunica is not a banausic "liberal nationalist" (whatever this oxymoron signifies). He is more likely to be a nostrum or someone's puppet. Granted, he has always supported the rule of law and democracy. But, he is a nationalist. He lost his job vilifying the 1974 constitution. He started the Democratic Party of Serbia in 1992 - because the Democratic Party was too Milosevic-friendly to his taste. And then there is the infamous Kalashnikov toting Kostunica in Kosovo. He pledges to uphold the Dayton accords - but so did Milosevic. And he is much closer to the effluvium of Republika Srpska than Milosevic ever was. The clash between lofty ideals and baser ones has always been at the core of the romantic political scene in Serbia. The outcome, alas, was always the same to the detriment of Serbia and its neighbours.
The alternative to intractable nationalism is not tractable cosmopolitanism. This is Milosevic (rather his wife) speaking from within the text. This charming couple used to accuse dissenters and dissidents of being cosmopolitan. The alternative, rather, is sanity and co-existence. And, yes, normalcy.
Kostunica should be given the benefit of the doubt by all means. But the West should learn from its mistakes hitherto. This time around, it should be clear, firm, decisive, immediate and forceful. Serbia and Croatia are on probation as they embark upon the emprise of joining the community of nations. Let this not be forgotten in the paroxysms of enthusiasm that engulfed us all at the epiphany of this Serb epigone of a quasi-normal politician.
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