Notes on a really lousy memorial service

kišobranSo by now you all know the story of young Aleksandar Vučić’s first visit to Potočari. He made a few silent gestures, got kissed by a couple of mothers, and pinned a symbolic flower on his jacket. Then some people yelled at him and threw some stuff and he ran away, taking the dignity of the 136 murder victims whose remains were to be interred that day, and the grace of the people who tolerated his presence, with him.

I already told you I thought it was bad idea for him to go there without a legitimate purpose and with nothing to say. It was easy to predict that his visit would be a fiasco, but it took a unique combination of forces to turn it into an utter disaster. What were some of those forces?

  • He came to a place where he knew there was good reason he would not be welcome. His visit came right after an unseemly fight with the majority of the members of the UN Security Council that ended with a veto  (also the only vote against) by Russia. Pravda celebrated the veto with the headline “Russia saves Serbia from execution,” and stalwart Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić revealed the extent to which he continued to identify the perpetrators by calling the veto “a great day for Serbia.” So for the guy who claimed the strategic evasion of responsibility a victory (Vučić thought the resolution was an effort to “trample” Serbia), and whose threat (check the date)  to murder one hundred Muslims for every dead Serb has been forgotten by nobody, to come by as a compromise and emptyhanded was at the least an empty gesture, and at most a provocation. The Mothers of Srebrenica (NB: this is a well organized, influential and very vocal group) welcomed him with grace nonetheless, sharing comforting words and a boutonniere. Listen, take it from an experienced person: Balkan mothers are tough, and one does not mess with them.
  • He thought his presence would be enough. Vučić was offered, but did not take, the opportunity to speak. The statements that he made were vague and empty – his reflexive verb form in his comment for the book of remembrance that he signed retreated to the image of “a terrible crime […] that happened” – a nameless crime committed, apparently, by nobody. To make the visit more meaningful than platitudes about “the hand of reconciliation,” he needed to say something substantive and meaningful. Since he did not, angry members of the public were free to hold a banner quoting back to him his 1995 threats about “a hundred Muslims.”  Lesson: to do reconciliation, you need to show up, but actual reconciliation requires actual listening, actual recognition, actual engagement. This way, he appeared to believe his government’s line that the best path to reconciliation is sustained silence.
  • Security fell down on the job. This point is so obvious it is not worth dwelling on.
  • The organizers made the event not just into a political event, but a bad one. You might ask why Vučić was there (lots of people did). Let’s ask some more questions. This was a funeral and memorial service. Why were any politicians there? Did Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright need to be there, a week after the published account of them blocking efforts to protect the victims? Did Theodor Meron need to be there scanning the landscape for people to acquit? Did Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović need to come to be bizarrely described as “the Queen of the Balkans”? Did Borut Pahor need to be there to remind people of the continued existence of the least interesting country in the Balkans? These are instrumentalising appearances by public figures who see an opportunity for self-promotion in the suffering of others. Their presence puts the victims in the backstage, and makes the point that they cannot both be commemorated and have their integrity respected at the same time. If this is the case, it is hard to see in what way Vučić’s presence does not sadly fit.
  • The families of the 136 victims who were interred were treated disgracefully. The people who were getting a burial after 20 years (here is a list of their names – we are talking about human beings) were identified after years of investigation, during all of which time their families knew nothing. The families did not come, as Florian Bieber pointed out, to be retrospectively ethnified or religified. They did not come to be pushed into obscurity by a cartel of politicians and hooligans. And they certainly did not come to watch a gaggle of idiots throw rocks and bottles at a cipher. Munira Subašić offered the best summary: “this was not an attack on Vučić, it was an attack on our dignity.”

As for the attack itself, there have been commenters who have tried to interpret it as a sign of failed reconciliation, or as an expression of outrage directed at Vučić. These kinds of observations require assuming that the bottle-throwing rulja were in some way spontaneous or representative. Eyewitness accounts (no links, sorry, I’m getting them by mail) suggest something else, that it was a small group of people organized and strategically placed with the purpose of creating a disruption. As for their representativeness and sincerity, you tell me who shouts “God is great” while throwing things and chasing a person away at a funeral. There is really no dilemma here: if you are opposed to violence, that includes violence against Vučić. But I’ll leave the summary of it to my colleague Srđan Puhalo:

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Vučić himself responded in a statement after the incident with characteristic measured cluelessness, observing (correctly!) that “there are idiots everywhere.” Not so the other high ranking officials, who accurately noticed the opportunity to relive their abandoned Chetnicity. Duke Tomislav Nikolić took the opportunity to wave around a carefully coddled 1992-vintage grievance and to claims that the incident “clearly shows what some Bošnjak political and religious leaders think of Serbs as a people.” Foreign minister Ivica Dačić called the incident “an attack on the whole Serbian people.” Defence minister Bratislav Teleprompter called it “an assassination attempt.” And Vulin, well, never mind, Vulin is special. Meanwhile Politika was partying like it was 1999, or 1993, like Vojko and Savle had risen from their graves and electricity was on the hajj. The following day they ran two columns by Lazanski. Good times for the undead.

The followup was also dominated by the question of who carried out the attack? Of course the question has an obvious answer: an assemblage of violent fuckwits. But two theories got some media publicity. The first, and most widely dispersed, theory was first advanced by Vučić himself, that it was “a group of football fans from Serbia.” This was later elaborated a bit by labour minister Rasim Ljajić, who suggested that they may have been Novi Pazar fans. Not to be outdone in anything (except, perhaps, by Informer), Kurir set in motion a rumour that it was members of an elite Bosnian military unit specially trained in the deployment of shoes and water bottles. Like all media blame theories these ones represent, of course, attempts to draw out and control the narrative, while feeding fear of imaginary ethnic opponents. The contradiction here is that the more well organised the attack, and the more specific the identification of the organisers, the weaker the effort of people like Nikolić and Dačić (did I mention Milorad Dodik and Željka Cvijanović? What would be the point?) to blame an entire national group.

So what follows from this ugly and lamentable series of events? As Lily Lynch has kindly pointed out, Vučić has shown many times before how semitalented he is at stealing the show, transforming stories that matter to humans into travesties of egomaniacal publicity. Remember that time he jetted off to Feketić to interfere with the work of actual rescue crews so that he could pose for photos in which he would appear to be saving a child?

Well, now he has what he wanted: the attention of the media. How about using it for something worthwhile? His “hand of reconciliation” is not going to impress anybody as long as it is empty. And he has some things that he can put into it. Here are three:

  • He can tell the truth, which he knows. It is time for a responsible public official to make the necessary public address that lays out the facts, gives an account of the crime, and details the way that it crosses borders. The party in power likes Russia? Kruschev offers a model to follow. Jasmin Mujanović rightly observed that this Security Council veto was going to come at a high price. Part of that price is going to be ending official denial. No interest of Serbia is served by lying to its citizens.
  • He can come clean on command, intelligence and supply. The genocide in Srebrenica was committed with transportation that came from Serbia, arms that came from Serbia, officers who whose salaries were paid by Serbia, and so on, from intelligence to political cover. Many of the documents that demonstrate this were withheld from ICTY and ICJ, as Serbia claimed the right to protect “state secrets.” If the interest of the state now is not the same as the interest of the state in 1995, it is time to publish those documents.
  • He can clear up the coverup. One of the main reasons that there are still missing persons is that victims of mass killings were moved and reburied in order to hide the evidence. The people who moved the bodies know where they moved them from and where they moved them to – and so do the intelligence services that Vučić controls. If politicians are serious about reconciliation, then they know that it cannot be achieved without resolution of facts. Some of the facts that investigators are looking for are known, but not by them.

Let’s put it this way: getting a rock in his head got Vučić a lot of good will. We can have different opinions about whether he deserved this good will or not. But we could have consensus on whether he used it for anything helpful.

15 thoughts on “Notes on a really lousy memorial service

  1. Eric, I don’t think you are being fair to Vučić in your article. I was watching the entire press conference he gave after the attack, and I have a completely opposite impression of his statements. In the RTS article Вучић: Рука Бошњацима остаје пружена, or Our hand towards Bosniaks remains open in English, he emphases that the most important for him was to regret what happened and to show respect for the victims. He was very dignified and respectful of the victims of the Srebenica massacre, and this is much more important than a fruitless discussion whether you call it genocide or not.

  2. Pingback: Mr. Vucic goes to Srebrenica OR (I tried to go to a memorial service to score crass political points, and all I got was a bottle to the head) | The Eclectic Kafana

  3. Mr Gordy, Vi pricate srpski. Impresionirana sam.

    Veoma zanimljiv blog, mnoge moje kolege su ga podijelile na drustvenim mrezama.

    Mogla bih se sloziti sa svim sto ste napisali, uz nekoliko napomena.

    Uz napomenu da Vucic zaista od svega sto se desilo pravi medijski sou, moram da postavim pitanje da li je zaista za ovaj incident on kriv. Izetbegovic ga je pozvao da dodje, jer od kako je Naser Oric isporucen Sarajevu i oslobodjen, nije vise bilo razloga da bosnjacki politicari otkazuju gostoprimstvo srpskim.

    Mislim da bi analiza bila potpunija da ste pomenuli zlocine u selima oko Srebrenice koji su pocinili vojnici BiH izlazeci iz demilitarizovane zone, te pokusaj uticaja na pravosudni sistem Odbora za komemoraciju. Mozda da pojasnite zasto to Srbi jos uvijek ne prihvataju cinjenicu da je u Srebrenici pocinjen genocid, jer to je veliko pitanje.

    Odlicno ste ukazali na los nacin organizovanja komemoracije, ali mislim da je realno pokazati na veliku politizaciju ovakvih dogadjaja na Balkanu.

    Takodje, hajde da samo pomislimo sta bi se desilo da se ovakav napad desio prilikom posjete Merkelove Ausvicu ili bilo kojeg drugog politicara u Evropi.

      • Ne za napad, vec za incident. Pisete kako :”Nije trebao da ide tamo. Dosao je na mjesto za koje je znao da postoji veoma dobar razlog da ne bude tamo. Mislio je da je samo njegovo prisustvo dovoljno, jer mu je bilo ponudjeno da govori sto je on odbio”. Vucic tvrdi da nije drzao govor, jer su ga Izetbegovic i clanovi organizacionog odbora zamolili da ne govori. Citava poruka teksta je da ne treba vjerovati njegovim pozivima za pomirenje, a argumenti za to su nekakvi detalji iz njegove proslosti. Morate priznati da se srpski politicari ipak trude, iskreno ili neiskreno, da prihvate strasne stvari koje su pripadnici njihovog naroda pocinili, sto se ne bi moglo reci za hrvatske i bosnjacke. Bosnjacki politicari otvoreno vrse pritisak na pravosudni sistem sabotirajuci procese koji se vode clanovima njihovog naroda za zlocine nad Srbima. Znate li da je Oric slobodan covjek i niko ne zna da li ce biti izvedena istraga o zlocinima u srpskim selima u Podrinju za koje se sumnjici? Pisete da Vucic zna gdje su grobovi nestalih Bosnjaka. Zanima me odakle Vam ta informacija. Spominjete povezanost Srbije za masakr u Srebrenici. I Nijemci su svojim avionima bombardovali Guernicu u Spaniji, sa Italijanima otvoreno pomagali nacionalistima, pa je to ipak bio gradjanski rat. Kao i u Bosni i Hercegovini devedesetih.

        Eh, kada bi se svi na Balkanu izvinjavali za pocinjene zlocine i pruzali ruku pomirenja, makar neiskrenu, Balkan bi bio mnogo ljepse mjesto za zivot i djeca koja rastu ovdje bi imala svjetliju buducnost.

      • I nije trebao da ide, ne zbog njegove prošlosti nego zbog toga što mu je gest bio prazan. Mogao je s tom pošlošću da pravi ozbiljan gest, mada priznajem da verovatno ni to bi udovoljilo ljudi koji su došli s namerom da prave incident.
        Što se tiče Orića i ranijih incidenta, naravno da je tu potrebna istraga, a iskrenu volju za to nema ni Srbija ni BiH. No i da su sve optužbe tačne u vezi s Orićem, ne mogu razumeti ljude koji te stvari koriste za argument, kao da to nešto opravdava.

    • Татјана, хвала за одличне коментаре. Наставићу на енглеском.

      Of course, if Serbs and Bosniaks are going to have any success in speaking to each other, all parties need to recognize the war crimes committed. The court processes need to continue to make sure that those responsible for the Srebrenica atrocities will be punished.

      For those who do not understand Serbian, Tatjana also raises the question of the political games from the Bosniak side. On the Prva TV channel, they showed two documentaries made by my friend Ola Flyum. I have been working on research for a follow-up on these documentaries, but it wasn’t possible to complete them because of political complications. The Helsinki Committee and other NGOs are so fervently opposed to hearing stories from the other side that reconciliation becomes much harder.

      Flyum has been accused by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee of not recognizing the massacres in Srebrenica, but this is a twisted reality. However, his movies add useful dimensions for understanding the political games from the other side. The most discussed movie has been Srebrenica: A Town Betrayed, and this gives important insight in the political games from Sarajevo where they considered a land swap with the Serbians. The documentary also questions how Ratko Mladić was able to take Srebrenica with 450 soldiers against 5,000 Bosniak soldiers.

      The second movie is Sarajevo Ricochet. When they showed this movie on Prva, they had English comments, but in the linked version I found, the comments are Norwegian with Serbian and Norwegian subtitles. However, much of the film is in English, featuring the journalist and researcher J M Berger, an expert on Islam. More about Berger’s research on his website. Sarajevo Ricocheт is a movie about the connection between Alija Izetbegović, Al Qaeda and other islamists. For those who are not aware of the Islamic ideology of Izetbegović, this would give useful perspectives to understand the other side as well.

      • Kristian bre, I approved your comment, but come on. If you’re going to advance your conspiracy theories here, then try to keep them to 50 words or less.

      • Eric, I am with you against conspiracy theories, and I’d like to stick to facts. But what of what I have written are conspiracy theories? Are you rejecting that Al Qaeda was very active in Bosnia? Do you reject that Izetbegović nurtured close contact with islamists? Please note that I am not one of those who believe 9/11 was an inside job imploding from the inside….

  4. Did Borut Pahor need to be there to remind people of the continued existence of the least interesting country in the Balkans?

    As opposed to being someone trying to align with those seeking justice, since his own country also wrested itself from rump Yugoslavia—after carrying the country financially (along with Croatia)—for a decade or more before dissolution?

    The least interesting country is also the best governed and most affluent. Which they’ve achieved through industriousness, rather than cheap shots. Give it a go sometimes—you’ll find you might not lose the audience for your otherwise strong argument.

  5. Pingback: Remembering Srebrenica in Different Contexts | Politics Reconsidered

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