Report from Belgrade 98/10/12
To bomb or not to bomb? The question is on every network and newsgroup
dealing with international events, and it is being anxiously discussed by
various negotiating teams, and, of course, on the streets of Belgrade.
While many Serbs fervently oppose any bombing, they usually forget
that the territory of the present (rump) Yugoslavia has been bombed already,
several hundred Kosovo villages having been reduced to rubble since February,
1998. The main problem is that, for almost all Yugoslavs, while Kosovo (the
land) is an integral part of Yugoslavia, Kosovo Albanians and their property are
not. In practical terms, for the general (Yugoslav) public more than a thousand
murdered Albanians (mostly women and children) is not perceived to be such a
terrible loss. Here, mass killings and destruction rarely make it to the local
media, so, while several brave journalists (especially in the Belgrade weekly
Vreme) have written about this, most Serbs simply refuse to believe that
'they' (the police and the army) killed any innocent Albanians. The fact that
Albanian political parties refused to openly condemn the killings and
kidnappings of several hundred Serb civilians by Albanian guerrillas did not
make things any easier.
The difference between the land and the people inhabiting it is, for
the most part, in people's minds, but it has also become an integral part of the
(official) history, tradition, and culture. The set of imaginary values deduced
from Kosovo as the territory where the first Serb medieval state was founded
(which is actually wrong: Ras, the first Serb medieval kingdom, was founded just
north of Kosovo) forms the basis and the model against which Yugoslavs evaluate
'reality.' If 'reality' does not correspond to what the public has been told
about Kosovo, well, too bad for 'reality.' In fact, both Serbs and Albanians
claim Kosovo as exclusively their own 'holy land,' each regarding it is as an
indispensable symbol in the genealogy of their history, culture, sovereignty,
and national pride. However, the problem is that only one side can possess it,
but, since it has the mythical status of 'the place of origin,' it is
emphatically non-negotiable. Hence, Kosovo Albanians' leader, Ibrahim Rugova,
has stated again and again that 'his side' wants nothing less than independence.
How many people have to die in the process, however, is something about which no
one seems particularly concerned.
The State of Emergency
In the latest move by Serbian authorities, broadcasting of foreign
radio and TV programs has been banned, foreign journalists as well as Yugoslav
citizens working for foreign media have been threatened, persons who are not
ethnic Serbs have been coerced, and some anti-war NGOs have been specially
singled out for 'speaking out' (The Women in Black, Helsinki Committee for Human
Rights in Serbia, The Belgrade Circle). Practical measures against outside
influences have also been taken: the first radio stations have been forcibly
closed (like the very popular Belgrade Radio Index), and Yugoslav state
authorities are preparing a fatwa against citizens who use satellite dishes, as
well as against those using the Internet.
This nervousness proves the importance of communication for
contemporary political regimes. Ignacio Ramonet (Le Monde Diplomatique)
has observed that "communication is the leading superstition of our world."
Accordingly, those who control communication hope to be able to control the
populace. Yugoslavia is a case in point, since the offensive by the official
media and state agencies has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of total panic
and hysteria, an atmosphere in which it is always 'others' who are to blame, and
'we' (Serbs) continue to think of ourselves as Christian Orthodox, nice, quiet
and peace-loving people (as, no doubt, many survivors from Vukovar, Dubrovnik,
and Sarajevo will gladly confirm). As for the 'world,' it is wrong, evil, and
anti-Serb. By strengthening their hold on all modes of communication combined
with selective witch-hunts, the Serb leadership (with the help of all the
relevant opposition parties) hopes to achieve an ideal Orwellian (1984)
state of bliss, where it will no longer be necessary to control people, since
people will control themselves.
Although the state of emergency (or 'the state of war') has not been
officially declared, government officials have already announced emergency
measures (which are unconstitutional, but who cares?) and have promised
swift punishment of all 'defeatists.' The siege mentality which has gripped the
country since 1987, has finally claimed total victory. Serbia has started a
hyperreal war both against the world, and against itself.
People are afraid. The accuracy of US 'Tomahawks' is widely discussed,
as well as the likelihood of possible casualties. Most people believe that the
urban centers will be 'cruised', and official propaganda does as much as
possible to support this belief. Indeed, civilian casualties would be a
tremendous boost for the Serbian government's propaganda war against the rest of
the world. Mass hysteria quickly turns into anger against all who are perceived
as 'different' (in the Balkans, Albanians have always been regarded as the
ultimate Others), as well as into a strange sense of relativism towards news and
events ("they all lie,' 'they are all the same"). This strange cynicism of
'relativism' provides very fertile psychological ground for the government
authorities to reinforce their reign of fear.
Hegel and the Serbs
Fear in the rump Yugoslavia is a direct consequence of the wars that
led to the break-up of the previous Yugoslavia. The more brute force Serbs used
in their efforts to convince others (Slovenians, Croats, Bosnian Muslims) that
they (the Serbs, led by Mr. Slobodan Milosevic) are right, the weaker they (the
Serbs) became. As in Hegel's famous allegory of the Master-Slave relationship,
the regime which relies on coercive power gradually becomes dependent on it,
finally ending up powerless. Ironically, this weakness is a direct result of its
initial overwhelming power. Thus,the more crimes committed 'in the name of
justice,' the more (some) people started asking themselves what this 'justice'
meant. Is the killing of women, children, and the elderly (even if they are
labeled as 'terrorists' by official Serb propaganda) justice?
Of course, bombing will not solve anything. It will not resolve the
Kosovo crisis: on the contrary, it will probably provide Serb police and army
units with a good excuse to kill as many Albanians as possible in a relatively
short time period. However, it will, in a strange way, complete a full circle,
since, as Stipe Mesic, the former Croatian Prime Minister, once said, "the war
has started in Belgrade, and in Belgrade it will end." This prophecy could
finally materialize. It could also perversely blur the difference between
executioners and the executed. Serbs will finally obtain 'redemption' for all
the crimes committed in their name and be in a position to portray themselves as
victims. Should any political concessions be made, they can always claim that
they were made against overwhelming force and under intense pressure from the
international community. Thus, if one believes Baudrillard when he claims that
Serbs are actually just an instrument of global Western politics, they are also
a perfect instrument: they tend to self-destruct.
Waiting for NATO to strike, Belgrade is burning with fear and panic,
secret police are adding to the pressure by 'visiting' NGOs which have been
singled out, and it is becoming very dangerous (much more so than during the
wars in Croatia and Bosnia) to say or even think something which does not fall
within the parameters of official politics, to watch or listen to the non-Serb
media, or to surf the Net. Effectively, it is as if Belgrade was already bombed:
the little self-respect that was there is disappearing, and so will, it seems,
people who once opposed nationalist madness.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1995 Le crime parfait. Paris: Gallimard.
Boskovic, Aleksandar. 1997 "Albanci kao metafora: Kosovski bozuri." Arkzin
(Zagreb) N.s., No. 6, pp. 26-27.
Ramonet, Ignacio. 1997 "La
mutation du monde." Le Monde Diplomatique, October.
Aleksandar Boskovic has degrees from the University of Belgrade,
Tulane University, and the University of St. Andrews. He has published two books
including Religion and Culture of the Maya, in Serbo- Croatian. He has
also written on current events in Serbia for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
and Fortnight Magazine (Belfast).
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