The three days of the librarian

RS always cared deeply about libraries.

Probably you could say that the situation began with a ceremony: the 20-year anniversary of Republika Srpska. Twenty years, you say? But didn’t Republika Srpska become a legal entity with the Dayton peace accord in 1995? Is this a mathematical error? No, it was the point of the ceremony. People gathered to listen to an argument that RS became a legal entity when the deputies who walked out the Bosnian parliament and their friends decided to say it was. The implication is that RS is not the product of an ugly genocidal war that ended in a peace agreement that guaranteed a permanent hold on power to criminals, but the product of a parliamentary act that produced a legal entity that just defended itself, didn’t it, in places like Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje and Srebrenica.

That is to say, the ceremony was an effort by the people currently holding power in RS to show that they have the ability to produce a new history free of all that pesky guilt and genocide. The current representatives of the state that sponsored the effort – Serbian president Boris Tadić, patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church – tagged along to give the effort the blessing of political authority and God. And just to be sure that Mr Tadić stayed tagged along, they gave him a medal – one that had been awarded earlier to such criminal worthies as Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.

But there were problems. One problem is that, contrary to stories about the unity of the Serbian people that come both from people who like the idea and from people who don’t, not everybody in Serbia is happy to be associated with crimes and the falsification of history. In fact there are a lot of people who do not, who criticized the ceremony and who argued that Mr Tadić was dishonouring the state and undoing the good work of the past few years by taking the medal in the process. The other problem might not be real. There may have been, and may not have been, some explosives planted in the hall where the ceremony took place. They may have been, and may not have been, planted by this fellow who works in the hall but is better known for working for State Security. The patsy may have been, and may not have been, motivated by political concerns. If you were cynical, you might say that there is an ongoing effort to make Mr Tadić fear that his life is constantly under threat from the nationalist right and try his best not to disappoint them. If you were very cynical, you might say that this explains the publicity that was given to some vague warnings of a conspiracy like the ones that were delivered by some weirdo diaspora astrologer from Chicago the following week.

We are talking about societies that pay attention to intellectuals! So in step the writers to make things worse, in the form of Andrej Nikolaidis, a reasonably well known novelist and essayist who is also, hardly incidentally, counsellor for culture to the president of the Montenegrin parliament. Mr Nikolaidis has good intentions: he wants to argue that the RS ceremony shows that there is still a group of intellectuals who have not stopped promoting the Greater Serbia project of the 1990s. He wants to argue that this kind of megalomania suits a small group of people who profit from it and not many other people. He wants to advance the idea that the difficulties people are facing in their lives derive from the fact that a small group of profiteers displaced the dear old class struggle and papered it over with their invented national one.

So let’s say that Mr Nikolaidis is an okay guy. But at the same time, he likes to be a provocateur. His long court fight over whether he slandered the agitfilm director Emir Kusturica has just ended, successfully for Mr Nikolaidis. At the same time, he seems a bit unclear on the fact that being a provocateur and being a state official are two interests that go together pretty badly. Also he seems be okay with the fact that his metaphors run away from him sometimes. So he writes an article setting forward his views, and it contains in it these provocative lines:

“It would be a step forward for civilisation if Bole [the suspected attacker] had used the dynamite and rifles he had hidden in the hall where the leaders, spiritual guides and artists celebrated the twentieth anniversary of RS. If Bole were, for example, a dissatisfied worker who understood that national religious antagonisms are just masks behind which the elite hides the basic antagonism of every society, the class struggle. If Bole had said, for example, I am a Serb but I am also a worker, so I will blow up the people who robbed me — wouldn’t that be an advance for civilisation? More than that, it would be poetic justice.

But that is the sad difference between fiction and reality: fiction, in contrast with reality, has a point.” 

 Look – the article is a badly written and badly reasoned piece. I think he is trying to say that it would be nice if some kind of genuine socially based political resistance existed in the region but that he thinks it does not, and he is phrasing it with what he thinks is witheringly effective bitter irony. But this is a conclusion I reached after rereading the piece several times and talking to a lot of people about it. The conclusion is not so obvious and it is definitely not shared by everybody. Rule #1 of writing in public: if you are advancing a theme where you know that some people might object, you had better make sure that you are clear about what you are saying and that you are not leaving room for people to accuse you of saying something else. Break Rule #1 and your provocation will leave people saying not “so clever!” but “this looks like support for murder”.

That’s exactly what happened. Especially in the tabloid media – but also in media that still retain a trace of prestige from the long-ago time when they were respectable media, like Politika—there was a sustained attack on Mr Nikolaidis, arguing not only that he was a supporter of terrorism but also that as an official of the Republic of Montenegro he was showing that Montenegro supports terrorism. It’s not just that (at least in my opinion) the attacks were wrong, it’s also that they were discredited by their sources. Here were people who really did actively support a real entity that really engaged in terrorism, large-scale murder, forced deportation, torture, rape and a full menu of other abuses. Their party was rained on by a guy who composed some bad rhetoric about an incident that did not happen. You may recall that dear old Shakespeare had an observation about people who protest too much.

Right, so a group of writers in Belgrade decides that the attacks are beyond the pale, a bit too reminiscent of the waves of attacks on public figures and writers in the 1990s that came accompanied by violence. Remember Dada Vujasinović and Slavko Ćuruvija? Journalists both. Ivan Stambolić? A fellow who had begun speaking in public. So fifteen of them sign a letter calling for an end to the media campaign against Andrej Nikoliadis. They are all fairly well known cultural figures, but only one of them is a prominent public official: Sreten Ugričić, the director of the National Library of Serbia.

Now, a word about the National Library of Serbia. For years, this was a dead, neglected institution. You know what interests nationalists less than almost anything else in the world? Real research about actual history. For years the library was closed. Next to the library millions went into completing the construction – and oh, the decoration! – of an enormous church. And the construction of floral walkways around the church. And supporting buildings for the church. Sreten Ugričić did what a competent librarian would do to revive the library. Building reconditioned and reopened? Check. Electronic catalog? Check. Catatalog available and searchable online? Check. Engaging public events? Check. Cooperative networks with local and regional libraries? Check. Pleasant coffee shop? Check. But the building is surrounded by gigantic religious objects. I was at a meeting there this week, and every hour the church bells made the conduct of the meeting impossible. Ding bong bong bing. Do you think they are tolling for us? Didn’t get it? Don’t worry, we will show you again in an hour.

The highest ranking signer of the letter being the director of the national library, the first politician to become engaged was the minister of police (Q: In what kind of country is the minister of police the person responsible for library directors? A: In a country that is uncertain about its own legitimacy, panicked about its past, and facing elections pretty soon). Ivica Dačić came forward with the suggestion that Mr Ugričić should resign. Then he came forward with the helpful suggestion that if Mr Ugričić wanted to sign letters of support, he could do it from prison but not from the national library. In fact Sreten Ugričić attended our meeting in the library, delivered his talk, sat patiently through the discussion, then presumably went upstairs to his office to check in on the fate that was being designed for him.

That afternoon Mr Ugričić received a demand for a report on his activity from the minister of culture (who is the minister responsible for the library, but he got involved in the story weakly and late). He came forward with a statement that looked pretty much like an apology: he was careless to sign the letter, he withdrew the signature, his support for free speech should not lead anybody to believe that Mr Nikolaidis had written a good article. The apology did no good. The following day at a hastily called session via telephone, the cabinet ministers voted unanimously to fire Mr Ugričić. I was told, but am not sure it is true, that this was the only unanimous vote by this cabinet. I am reasonably sure that it is the only incident in history of a government going into emergency session to join a propaganda campaign against a librarian.

One political party came forward with a statement condemning the return to the intellectual purges of the 1990s. Police minister Dačić expressed himself in many different ways until he lost control again: he responded  by accusing the head of that party of supporting terrorism. For a few days the back and forth continued over whether Mr Nikolaidis was a terrorist for writing an article, whether Mr Ugričić was a terrorist for signing a letter, or whether anyone who objected to people being called terrorists was a terrorist for feeling terrorized. While it did, nobody talked about the reason Mr Nikolaidis had written his article in the first place, which was the joining of political and religious authorities in an effort to scrub clean the history of Republika Srpska by erasing terror from it.

Even if the preceding account might not lead a person to believe it, Serbia does have laws, including laws that set out a procedure for what has to happen in the event that somebody is charged with terrorism or support for terrorism, both which are actual criminal offences. The lawyer Srdja Popović wrote a short piece explaining what the procedure is and why Mr Dačić used the cabinet of government ministers to bypass it. Formal application of the law is for people with different political associations, like Rade Bulatović and Aco Tomić. They were charged as conspirators in an incident where there really was a conspiracy and a prime minister really was murdered. But the charges were dropped after prosecutors were ordered not to investigate them. Afterward they got generous monetary compensation (669,700 dinars for Bulatović, 6 million for Tomić) for the inconvenience they had suffered before the investigation was abandoned.

By odd coincidence, I had been set to be the discussant for a paper delivered by Sreten Ugričić the day before he was fired, at an event that people were already beginning to guess might be his last appearance in his capacity as director of the national library. I received his text the night before the panel, a broad condemnation of meandering governmental amorality titled “contemporary Serbia is neither contemporary nor is it Serbia”. And I prepared notes that were fairly critical, arguing that confrontation and dismissal did not offer a promising path to dialogue. Fortunately I did not get the chance to deliver my critical response. The moderator hijacked the panel and decided to question us on why there is not a student rebellion (A1: there is. A2: maybe we could organise a conference about that, but this conference is about something else). And it turned out that Sreten Ugričić had calculated about right what the tone of his last public address ought to be.