Who’s on second?

PFJWas there ever really a “Druga Srbija”? The term spread in the 1990s as a catchall for the anti-war, antinationalist intellectuals who did their best to argue that the murderous (or in terms of the ICTY, simultaneously murderous and nonmurderous, and consequently not specifically directed to murderosity) regime of the 1990s did not represent the values, traditions and orientations of people in Serbia, particularly (this is where a lot of the critique of “Druga Srbija” comes in) its highly cultured and altogether very fine urban intellectuals.

The term “Druga Srbija” (it can be translated as “the second Serbia” or as “the other Serbia” – the people who coined the name preferred the translation as “other,” but “second” seems to be a more widespread usage) comes into circulation as the title of a book edited in 1992 by Ivan Čolović and the late Aljoša Mimica, a collection of the texts of addresses presented at meetings of the Belgrade Circle of Independent Intellectuals. The tone of the dialogue is probably pretty well suggested in the titles of the two essays that open the collection: Radomir Konstantinović contributed “Living with the beast” and Latinka Perović offered “The patriarchal response to the challenge of modernisation.” Add in the following contribution, Filip David’s “To be a traitor,” and you get the main idea: here was a group of people prepared to make a claim on moral leadership that drew its force from horror and a principled rejection of the atmosphere in which they were compelled to live.

But was it a unified and cohesive group? Already at the fourth meeting, Nataša Kandić offered a contribution titled “There is no other Serbia” (Nema druge Srbije). There is no very compelling reason to impose an imaginary collective identity on a group of people who came together in 1992 to reject the imaginary collective identity of nationalism. It’s a little bit useful to think of a “civic” or “other” or some alternate type of Serbia, but it is probably more helpful to consider that a society that is divided might be divided into more than two parts.

This could explain why “Druga Srbija” survives more in the way that it is attacked than through anything it does. An initial sustained attempt came in 2003 from the sociologist Slobodan Antonić, whose curiously baroque ressentiment would transform him into a lightning rod for the loony national right. He launched a salvo at what he called the “missionary intelligentsia,” accusing them of everything from ineffectuality and snobbery to self-hatred and treason. He hasn’t stepped away from the attack in the ten years since, but has developed it in a couple of directions: 1) he has offered a theory that political and social life in the country is subject to competition between two rival elites, one (his!) that is patriotic and essentially representative and another (theirs!) that is effete and foreign-oriented, and 2) he has turned “Druga Srbija” into an epithet, lavishing his opponents with the adjective “drugosrbijanski.”

In the meantime there has also appeared, here and there, an effort to transcend the divisions between a “Prva” and “Druga” Srbija in an abstractly conceived and broader “Treća Srbija” (see this analysis by Ivana Spasić and Tamara Petrović). This could continue. There are lots of numbers in the world.

To the degree that it survives, what is “Druga Srbija” really? It is something not entirely unimportant: a small and not very cohesive group of intellectuals who sustain independent media and produce critical works of art and analysis. Some of them are political activists and some are not. But the members of this group are not really members of a group, they do not all do the same thing, and they would do the stuff they do whether you want to call them “Druga Srbija” or not.

Not cohesive, you say? No surprise. It’s been thirteen years since there appeared to be a change of regime, and ten years since the murder of the figure who personified the possibility that there could actually be a change. There has been erosion, there have been defections, not everybody has survived. But the term, in both its affirmative and derogatory usages, has survived. This is partly because a long-lasting refusal to address legacies of the past has meant that a declared orientation toward to the Milošević regime and its satellites still functions as a pretty dependable dividing line in Serbian society. And it is partly because it offers a convenient shorthand for the fact that there is strong fundamental disagreement, breaking down along fairly predictable social lines, on just about every question of major (and minor) public importance.

Some of the defections have been deeply felt, though – in particular the transformation of B92, once the iconic alternative electronic media source, into a hulking foreign-owned conglomerate that produces news material entirely indistinguishable (and frequently copied) from the information sources to which it once offered bold competition. The cult political talkshow Peščanik bolted the station and went internetto after B92 offered an hourlong discussion programme to genocide apologists Kosta Čavoški and Ljiljana Bulatović in 2010, and since then independent media outlets have engaged in occasional outbursts of recrimination over who is going the sorry direction of B92.

If all of this sounds like inside baseball or People’s Front of Judea material, that’s because it is. Much of it has to do with who can still claim the authority to represent a heroic intellectual moment in 1992. People in Serbia can often be excused for feeling as though it is always 1992, but the calendar says it is no longer 1992.

So what has happened in the meantime? Let’s not start counting from 1992 but from 2000. The period since then has seen the demise of (part of) the 1990s regime, a few orderly transfers of power, and at least one restoration of the 1990s regime, depending on how you count. A lot of the poison in the environment derives from two basic facts.

The first is that the good guys are, disappointingly, not all that good. Especially after Zoran Djindjić was killed and Boris Tadić consolidated his position in the Democratic Party (DS), that party assiduously sought to rid itself of the remains of anything that was progressive and position itself as a single unifying party of permanent power. Nobody can forget that it was DS that brought Milošević’s party back into government in 2008, and that the egregious Vuk Jeremić was (nominally) a DS cadre. The Democratic Party is not likely to recover from its surprise defeat in 2012 principally because it is not a democratic party. The party that was formed to represent the option that Tadić excluded from DS, Čedomir Jovanović’s LDP, has turned out to be an even bigger disappointment, not allowing its consistent failure to get enough support to influence policy prevent it from behaving like an uncontested party of power.

The second, even more distressing, fact is that the bad guys are not nearly bad enough. At worst they are guilty of having the qualities and motivations that their opponents always accused them of having but also had themselves. And at best, if you are really charitable, they have been succeeding in delivering some big goals – peaceful agreement with neighbouring states, EU candidacy – that their opponents, in their desire to be all things to all people, could always be counted on to wimp out over.

It might be the case that while a lot of people have no difficulty accepting the fact that the politicians they supported are pretty useless, it is really shocking that the ones that they opposed for years are turning out to be less evil than they hoped.

What is left is (as far as anybody can tell) a conflict over who is or is not sufficiently pure. Although there were signs of people going different directions and criticizing one another for the directions before then, the big turning point appears to have been the 2012 elections, where the by now traditional “hold your nose” strategy was challenged by a picturesque election boycott and an even more picturesque set of gestures of “strategic” support for SNS from a few very prominent individuals (and publications) who were longtime opponents.

This is in some way most of the conflict, involving some people who used to agree with one another on most questions, and who are now divided over how they accept what will turn out to have been the short-lived personality cult of politician Aleksandar Vučić. Some people insist that he should be appreciated for pulling an unwilling Serbia in the general direction of Europe. And some prefer to always remember him as the liver-lipped ingénue who imposed a drastically restrictive law on public information and tried to create a “Ratko Mladić boulevard.”  It’s ordinary political prepucavanje, and is the sort of disagreement that most diffuse discursive communities can handle.

This community is not handling it. Once-interesting independent publications are filled with recrimination about who has sold out, flown over, or whatever. And do they use some salty language? Oh yes they do. And do they get some passionate expressions of support or rejection? Why certainly. And does anyone feel obligated to explain what is at stake? No they do not. And does it matter? Probably in the end not overmuch. If you are not a member of one of the small groups involved in the fight, then you do not care and nobody can tell you why you should.

We academics enjoy watching this sort of thing because it is like a soap opera about our professional lives, where the tensions are inordinately high because the stakes are inordinately low. Do you want some insight into our sense of prosaic dramatic beauty? Imagine matte lighting and a fuzzy filter on the scene when Lucien Goldmann fires his backhanded appreciation at the relentless obscurantism of Jacques Derrida:

I feel that Derrida, whose conclusions I do not share, is playing the role of a catalyst in French cultural life, and I pay homage to him for this reason. He reminds me of when I first arrived in France in 1934. At that time there was a strong royalist movement among the students; and all of a sudden there appeared a group that was also defending royalism, but by demanding a Merovingian king!

The worst thing about a war between e-Novine and Peščanik, or any other of the region’s small number of surviving independent media sources, is that to the extent that folks in these camps are concerned with one another they are not concerned with producing interesting and useful texts that can inform debate about genuine issues. Otherwise, yeah. Ko voli neka izvoli, and ko razume shavtiće.

4 thoughts on “Who’s on second?

  1. The stakes inordinately low? Does EU candidacy mean that restoration of the rule of law in Serbia/the Western Balkans is essentially done and dusted and respect for national frontiers established indefinitely? Too much self deprecation gets in the way of your ability to remind us of the dangers of “Nema druge Srbije”.

  2. “Other Serbia” are those who are called, the occurrence of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, with real name: National-socialism. Their life was in danger and most of them had to emigrate.

    Bogdan Bogdanović, Mirko Kovač, Bora Ćosić, Vidosav Stevanovic, Radomir Konstantinović…..

    Those who remained in Serbia, or were forced to withdraw from public life , or had to work for Milosevic. Slobodan Milosevic’s regime since 1989, and until he was replaced by his supporters of 2000, had full control of political life

    Do you remember the first witness at Milosevic trial?
    His name is Ratomir Tanić The founder of the Civic Alliance who admitted to associate state security service,

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