More full text: a short Q and A on elections in Serbia



A piece where I made a few comments in Foreign Policy has got a little attention since being picked up by a few regional media outlets (here it is in N1, Danas, Slobodna Evropathere may be a few more spots). As always, when I make statements for media they do not run the whole thing (this is normal, just editing, and besides I talk a lot), so I like to make the whole thing available. So here are the questions and answers, as they were exchanged through the magic of e-mail.

  1.    Many have interpreted Vučić’s electoral victory as a victory for the European Union. Were the results really indicative of popular support for Serbia’s EU accession?

The EU was not an issue that was discussed in the election. With the exception of some parties on the far right that have a limited constituency, all of the parties in Serbia are pro-EU. If we were to take the composition of the new parliament as a measure, in contrast with the previous parliament it has some anti-EU parties in it. The fact that most international media have come out with headlines describing Vučić as a “pro-EU reformer” is probably just a product of successful international publicity by Vučić on the one hand, and the fact that most of the people producing the coverage are ignorant of the region on the other.

  1.     To what do you attribute Vučić’s success?

One thing he has done effectively is to neutralize any potential sources of opposition: there are no credible opposition parties, and control over media and information is almost complete. Another thing he has done is to secure the unquestioning support of internationals, who are more interested in stability and cooperativeness than in any concrete political question. And a third thing he has done is to bind together more strongly than before the levers of political and economic power, so that the channels of employment and patronage go through his party. This is at bottom the same thing that all of his predecessors have tried to since 1990, but eventually all of them failed. He appears to have succeeded for now, but all of these apparently monolithic systems have the same source of weakness, which is that their supporters are not sincere and are always looking for a better deal.

  1.    Would you agree with the assertion that certain segments of Serbian society have been disappointed by the EU’s lack of response to Vučić’s authoritarian streak?

It is hard to avoid the impression that Vučić’s bargain with the EU was that if he appeared to be cooperative on Kosovo, then they would turn a blind eye to everything he did internally. This is an especially large disappointment for the people who made the EU a kind of lifetime project, saw the identity of Europe as fundamentally democratic, and looked to the EU as a guarantee of human rights and the rule of law.

  1.    Why do you believe that support for Serbia’s EU membership has dropped since 2009? Is it because of the financial and refugee crisis in Europe, or is support for Serbia’s ties with Russia increasing? If the latter, why?

There are basically two reasons why anybody in the region is pro-EU. The first is economic instrumentality, they see it as a way to get access to markets, funds, and benefits. The second is political, they see the EU as a guarantee that democratic structures and practices will be permanent.

The economic crisis in Europe has weakened its economic appeal a great deal. What remains is the sense that Europe is the only available alternative, but this is a fairly weak argument. On the political side, the credibility of the EU as a guarantor of democracy has been seriously weakened by its tolerance of authoritarianism in places like Hungary, Poland and Croatia. There are also some factors that are especially strong in the region: the EU’s wretched mismanagement of the refugee crisis, and its catastrophic diplomacy in Macedonia, have made it look incompetent and a little bit dangerous. Basically, the EU has not made a very good case for itself recently.

As for Russia, there is some level of popular sympathy, but concretely there is not much sign of a strengthening of ties. It is possible to see images of Putin all over the place, but this is most likely a sign that Putin functions as a kind of symbol of resistance to the West. I don’t think that most people have much attachment to Putin or to Russia, or even that they know very much about them.

  1. Now that the Radical Party is back in parliament and other pro-Russian groups, like the Serbo-Russian movement and the Patriotic bloc, are emerging on the political scene, is there a chance that SNS could be pressured away from the EU or pushed to the right?

The reappearance of the Radicals is temporary and limited. Šešelj stumbled into a series of favourable circumstances, not least the positive publicity he got from the Tribunal. For the overwhelming majority of people in Serbia he is a crass buffoon and an embarrassment. This result is probably the best result his party is ever likely to get. And I wouldn’t expect the presence of SRS in the parliament to influence policy. They will throw things, bloviate, and make scenes for TV, and be extremely useful for Vučić in making him appear to be moderate.

Until the official count is complete it is not entirely clear that DSS and Dveri will be in the parliament at all. They are probably closer than SRS is to expressing the authentic sentiment of the political right in Serbia, but they have some basic problems with reputation and perception. They will only have a voice in policy if one of them succeeds in refashioning itself into a credible party.



Q and A on the Karadžić verdict

corax-rašaYou can read the Karadžić verdict too! It’s right here. It’s 2615 pages, so make yourself comfortable and set aside some time. If you haven’t got the time, here are a few questions and answers.


There was no genocide before 1995, really?

The most discussed fact about the Karadžić case is that he was convicted at all. The second-most discussed fact is that he was acquitted on the first genocide count, for systematic killings in 1991 and 1992 in “the municipalities.” Some commentators are interpreting this acquittal as a denial of facts. This is untrue. The judges accepted the facts and described them in hundreds of pages of horrific detail. What they concluded is that the facts amount not to genocide, but to multiple crimes against humanity.

How did they do this? Let’s begin with the crimes against humanity. Karadžić was found guilty of six crimes against humanity in “the municipalities”: persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, forcible transfer, and “other inhumane acts” including rape and sexual violence. These crimes resulted from “intentional actions” (paragraph 2449) of the forces he controlled, and represented a clear pattern of widespread intimidation, violence, killings, and expulsions targeted at the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats (paragraph 2623). The crimes had major and lasting effects to the degree that the scale and extent of the expulsions and movement of the civilians from the Municipalities, including the Count 1 Municipalities, resulted in the displacement of a vast number of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats and in drastic changes to the ethnic composition of towns with almost no Bosnian Muslim remaining there” (paragraph 2624). They were not incidental but, “Having regard to the clear systematic and organised pattern of crimes which were committed in each of the Municipalities by members of the Serb Forces, over a short time period, the Chamber finds that these crimes were not committed in a random manner, but were committed in a co-ordinated fashion” (paragraph 3445). Consequently, “the Chamber finds beyond reasonable doubt that between October 1991 and 30 November 1995 there existed a common plan to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb claimed territory through the crimes” (paragraph 3447).

Sounds a lot like genocide, doesn’t it? Well, the judges gave two reasons for saying no. The first was that although some elements of crimes for genocide were demonstrated, including killing and causing serious bodily harm, one other was not. Despite affirming extensive evidence that showed levels of abuse, mistreatment, starvation, neglect and deliberate creation of high risk, the judges determined that the conditions in detention facilities did not reach the level that they could conclude that they were “calculated to bring about the physical destruction” of the group (paragraph 2587).

The second reason is probably the more important one. This involves the question of whether Karadžić had “specific intent” to commit genocide. Intent is the element that makes genocide most difficult to prove. For example, regarding the genocide in Srebrenica – on which there already exists a judicial record, and for which Karadžić was convicted in Count 2, the judges established his intent by following the timeline of events and his activities very closely, and determining that he only began to share the “specific intent” once the killing was already under way, based on a conversation with an operational commander that took place on 13 July 1995. Here is the text of the conversation:

  • : I’m waiting for a call to President Karadžić. Is he there?
  • B: Yes.
  • : Hello! Just a minute, the duty officer will answer now, Mr. President.
  • B: Hello! I have Deronjić on line.
  • : Deronjić, speak up.
  • D: Hello! Yes. I can hear you.
  • : Deronjić, the President is asking how many thousands?
  • D: About two for the time being.
  • : Two, Mr. President. (heard in the background)
  • D: But there’ll be more during the night.
  • […]
  • D: Can you hear me, President?
  • : The President can’t hear you, Deronjić, this is the intermediary.
  • D: I have about two thousand here now by […]
  • : Deronjić, the President says: “All the goods must be placed inside the warehouses before twelve tomorrow.”
  • D: Right.
  • : Deronjić, not in the warehouses over there, but somewhere else.
  • D: Understood.
  • : Goodbye.1

Ham-fisted coding aside, what Karadžić is asking Deronjić to do in this exchange is to take civilian prisoners from Bratunac, where they were being held, to Zvornik, where they would be murdered. In the judges’ opinion this exchange marks the emergence of agreement between Karadžić and the military commanders that the theme had changed to “where — not whether — the detainees were to be killed” (paragraph 5805), and consequently the beginning of his personal engagement in the action to commit genocide.

The marked specificity of the conversation derives from the high standard for conviction. To find genocidal intent the judges did not ask “does it make sense?” but rather “is it the only reasonable inference that can be made?” This is an indication of how very high the threshold for a conviction on charges of genocide is.

So what did they find on intent on Count 1? Paragraphs 2596 and 2597 affirm the character of the nationalist ideology that sought to create an ethnically homogeneous state. But they determine that the inference remains open that this goal could be achieved by methods other than killing. Similarly with inflammatory statements and threats to “exterminate,” “annihilate” and so forth: in paragraph 2599 the verdict determines that these threats might be hyperbolic figures of speech and that the judges are “not convinced that the only reasonable inference to draw from these statements is that the respective speakers intended to physically destroy” the groups.

Probably the key passage explaining the judges’ decisions that the crimes in “the municipalities” did not constitute genocide is in paragraph 3466, “The Chamber is of the view that another reasonable inference available on the evidence is that while the Accused did not intend for these other crimes to be committed, he did not care enough to stop pursuing the common plan to forcibly remove the non-Serb population from the Municipalities. While the Chamber considers that these other crimes resulted from the campaign to forcibly remove the non-Serb population from the Municipalities, the Chamber does not find them to be an intended part of the common plan.”

That was the argument in legal context. Outside of the legal context, what the judges found was yes, the goal of RS was to create an ethnically homogeneous state by forcibly changing the population, but they thought that they could do it without killing. The fact that they did killing does not mean that they thought they had to do killing. Take the argument for what it is worth. It is probably worth most as an example of the difference between legal reasoning and every other kind of reasoning. It is most likely also an indication that, at least at this early stage, judges are very reluctant to make findings of genocide.


Is the acquittal on Count 1 a victory for Karadžić?

To a degree, yes, in the sense that he was acquitted. But the factual findings are extensive and point to a large scale series of crimes, planned and coordinated at the highest political level.

There are two groups of people who are likely to be interested in the distinction between a finding of crimes against humanity and a finding of genocide: 1) lawyers, and 2) politically active people seeking to build political capital out of the presence or absence of the latter label. Their motivations and interests are not the same, are probably not commensurable with one another, and are generally not helpful to people outside of the communities that bicker about them.

Crimes against humanity are not minor crimes, and not necessarily lesser crimes than genocide. It is meaningful that on the basis of facts established at trial that Karadžić was convicted of major crimes, even if the conviction was not for every count that was sought. Beyond this, though, in the end what will matter most about the verdicts of the Tribunal (the well reasoned and documented ones, that is) will not be the decisions that are described in them. Those decisions are artefacts of what a particular set of judges were prepared to do at a particular moment in social and political history, at a particular stage of the development of their profession. What will matter about the verdicts will be the documentary record that they establish and their contribution to affirming the existence of facts.


Why did he not get a life sentence?

The sentence given to Karadžić is the product of the judges trying to balance the “gravity of crimes” for which he was convicted against the “mitigating circumstances” they are obligated to consider.

Nothing was considered as an aggravating circumstance. This may be because some of the potential aggravating circumstances in this case are attributable not to Karadžić but to someone called Dr Dabić. Factors interpreted as mitigating circumstances included Karadžić’s resignation from public office under political pressure in 1996 (the judges remained agnostic as to whether this was a consequence of the so-called “Holbrooke Agreement,” and the much-loved actor Hal Holbrook appears to have been unwilling to testify), and the fact that “in a few instances, the Accused expressed his regret” (paragraph 6059). His age was also taken as a mitigating circumstance.

ICTY sentencing is also bound by the sentencing practices that prevailed in Yugoslavia, which for these crimes were vague – the judges note that Article 141 of the SFRY Criminal Code prohibited genocide, Article 142 prohibited war crimes against the civilian population, Article 143 prohibited war crimes against the wounded and sick, and Article 144 prohibited war crimes against prisoners of war. The offences under Articles 141, 142, 143 and 144 of the SFRY Criminal Code were punishable by imprisonment for not less than five years or by the death penalty” (paragraph 6042). So “something between five years and death” gives a lot of leeway, particularly in the absence of previous experience.

We might add here that a 40-year sentence (minus credit for 8 years time served makes 32 years, minus the “Meron bonus” of automatic release after serving two thirds of the sentence makes 19 years) does not necessarily mean less prison time than a “life sentence.” A life sentence does not actually mean that the prisoner will be held until death. This is because unless you are a soldier in one of the units commanded by Karadžić, you do not know when other people will die. So the life sentence is generally interpreted as carrying an arbitrary maximum determined by such factors as life expectancy and, in the case of ICTY, the notoriously lenient sentencing procedures of SFRJ. So these factors could in fact make a “life sentence” considerably shorter than the 19 years anticipated for Karadžić.

In that sense it could be said that the fact that Karadžić did not receive a life sentence has mostly symbolic meaning. This is compounded by the fact that the likelihood that he will live another 19 years is statistically low. But – to say that something has a symbolic meaning is not the same as to say that it has no meaning. In the first place, there is an obvious disjunction between the extreme gravity of the offences and the limited sentence. In the second place, symbolic issues are the issues on which people (everywhere, but particularly in the region) are least willing to give ground.


Will there be appeals?

Will there be appeals? Is my dog comical? Where there is a right to appeal there will be an appeal.


Should people be satisfied?

So is the Tribunal, pro-Serbian, anti-Serbian, moderate on Klingons, or what? It is none of those things, and any of the – many – people who are saying that the verdict is a verdict on some abstractly conceived ethnonational group simply do not know what they are talking about. Ignore them with the contempt they deserve.

And permit me an observation about claims of bias, particularly ones based on identity: they might have a little bit of value in terms of anticipating something that could happen in the future (“Mary is coming for dinner on Friday, and she is Catholic, so maybe she will want fish”) but they have no value at all in explaining facts that have already happened (“Mary overcooked the fish because she is Catholic”). This applies to whatever extraneous nonsense people might use to explain away the verdict (“the presiding judge is Korean, and they are jealous of Serbs because their pickled cabbage is more tender”), and also to deliberately unrepresentative nonsense people might invoke to flatten out the complexity of responses (“I talked to somebody who has been closely associated with this kind of extremist politics for years, and therefore I know what everyone from this person’s ethnonational group thinks”). To explain actual occurrences you need to engage with the actual substance.

As to the concrete question of whether people should be satisfied, who am I to tell people what should satisfy them? Some people will be pleased or displeased with verdicts on particular counts or with the length or shortness of the sentence. Some people will be delighted that the Tribunal has finally brought a genuinely major trial to conclusion. Some people will see convictions on 10 of 11 counts as a partial victory, some will see a symbolic loss on the genocide question as a crushing defeat. Most people, sadly, at least in the short term, will see this or any other event as confirmation of what they have believed all along.

What I might be able to suggest to people who are not certain whether to be satisfied is this: the measure of success or failure of this verdict will not be in where Radovan Karadžić makes his residence between now and his death, or in what a gaggle of self-seeking politicians will do in the next week or month. It will be in whether, over the long term, facts that have been established by a combination of investigation and argument enter into understanding and begin to provide a ground for discussion and mutual recognition among people who are aggressively taught by a phalanx of institutions that they need always to think of themselves as victims and of the people around them as their enemies. Whether this happens depends a lot less on anything the Tribunal does, and a lot more on the social and political environments in which people live.

Maybe it is worth adding another point: it is probably not a good idea to look for satisfaction in law.


What does this do for history and reconciliation?

Let’s start with history, because that is the easy part.

First, the verdict brings together documentary evidence regarding a very broad scale of crimes – although limited to Bosnia-Hercegovina, it effectively does what the verdict in the trial of Slobodan Milošević should have done if the trial had not outlasted the defendant. In the end this substantive degree of detail is going to matter a lot more than decisions on whether or not to convict or whether a crime is of one type or another. The really valuable job here was done not by the lawyers who sat on the bench but by the researchers who gathered material for their use.

The verdict continues the narrative that has developed at the Tribunal that the conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina was a civil war, finding that despite the extensive evidence of coordination, political representation, arming, training, financing and repeated instances of direct of exercise of political influence, that neither Slobodan Milošević (paragraph 3460) nor his lieutenants Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović (paragraph 3461) were part of the joint criminal enterprise (their employees Šešelj and Arkan were, though, according to paragraph 3459).

As for reconciliation, we have seen two types of public statements. The first kind are platitudes from global politicians expressing a vague hope that the verdict will somehow contribute to reconciliation. These statements are worthless. The second kind are from politicians in the region who do nothing to promote reconciliation saying that the verdict will not promote reconciliation. These statements are less than worthless.

These sorts of statements indicate something that ought to be obvious: no verdict on any matter by any court is going to substitute for what a whole complex of institutions is failing to do about reconciliation. They could have begun in earnest before Karadžić was tried. They could still do it if the outcome of the trial were different. They could have done it if Karadžić were never tried. They can do it now.


This week’s predictions: Ko te Karadžić nek ti piše pjesme

dabarOn Thursday the verdict will be delivered in one of ICTY’s last major cases, the one against Radovan Karadžić. You all know who he is and what he did, so no need to go into the details here: if you want to refresh your memory, here is the final amended version of the indictment. It is fairly easy to make a prediction that has been made by everybody else as well, and that is that Karadžić will be convicted. No surprise there – the evidence is overwhelming and his defence was weak (a fact that is not the fault of Karadžić’s legal counsellor Peter Robinson, who has to be recognised for doing a monumental job in assuring a fair trial despite an unreliable indictee who insisted on representing himself and a series of witnesses who were largely unhelpful).

But of course the question that remains open is what Karadžić will be convicted of. The most intense attention will be directed to the most serious charges, where Karadžić is accused of genocide. Count 2 of the indictment accuses him of responsibility for the genocide in Srebrenica, and here it is reasonable to expect a conviction, for three reasons:

  • 1) There already exists a judicial record establishing that genocide was committed by VRS in Srebrenica, so judges are not being asked to break new ground;
  • 2) Karadžić occupied a position of political authority that gave him ultimate responsibility for the conduct of armed forces under his command (in his defence Karadžić argued that he did not exercise effective control over the military, which was dominated by his political rival Mladić, but to my eye the evidence does not look strong enough to demonstrate, like it did in the acquittal of former Serbian president-manque Milan Milutinović, that he did not in fact exercise political power);
  • 3) A wide variety of RS institutions, from the “state” assembly to the interior ministry and local police forces, left a documentary record that viewed in its entirety probably provides sufficient evidence of genocidal intent at the political level. The fact that much of this evidence has become publicly available may end up being one of the greatest legacies of the prosecution researchers at ICTY (to the degree that transcripts of political debates indicate that genocidal intent was not universally shared by all “state” officials, they clearly show Karadžić sharing the intent).

So on these grounds it looks probable that the Tribunal will find that Karadžić’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide has been demonstrated, and that he will be convicted on Count 2. But it is harder to make a confident prediction about Count 1, where Karadžić is accused of committing genocide between March and December 1992 in seven localities: Bratunac, Foča, Ključ, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Vlasenica and Zvornik (in an earlier version of the indictment the charges also included genocide in Kotor Varoš, Brčko, and Višegrad, but these were dropped in response to a trial chamber order to reduce the scope of the indictment). Whatever the trial chamber does find on Count 1, the decision will be read carefully because it both offers a guide to what will eventually be decided in the case of Ratko Mladić, and because either way, the judges’ decision on Count 1 will be interpreted as going a long way to establishing the ICTY’s stance on the character of the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict. The eventual verdict will most likely also be interpreted not as a conclusion of what the evidence demonstrated, but as an indication of what the judges were willing to do politically at a given moment.

Let’s make this a bit clearer: if the trial chamber finds Karadžić guilty on Count 1, this will be interpreted as indicating that the aims and purposes themselves of RS involved genocide. It will be understood as affirmation by people who have been arguing for years that the violence in Bosnia-Hercegovina was not a confrontation between a set of armed forces but a campaign deliberately designed to create nationally homogeneous territories by changing the structure of the population through violence. Many people in RS and Serbia will interpret a conviction on Count 1 as a condemnation of the war aims of Serbia and its clients in RS, and as a major challenge to the legitimacy of RS, where the current leadership lives in fear of being labelled an entity created through genocide. Either way, a guilty verdict on Count 1 will be taken as a major intervention by the judges into the historical understanding of the violence in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

A not guilty verdict on Count 1 would also constitute a major intervention into history, but one more in line with the overall direction of the tribunal in its recent very controversial cases involving Bosnia-Hercegovina. In that version of events one incident of genocide occurred toward the end of a conflict that lasted for three and a half years. And for the rest, there was a confrontation between two legitimate armed forces with legitimate aims. Crimes were committed but were not the result of policy or command. This is the general narrative constructed by the appeals chamber in the Perišić case,  which determined that “the VRS was not an organisation whose actions were criminal per se; instead, it was an army fighting a war” (Perišić appeal verdict, para 53), and that “VRS was participating in lawful combat activities and was not a purely criminal organisation” (Perišić appeal verdict, para 57). The fact that crimes were committed along the way, in this telling of the story, involves freestanding individual facts rather than goals, policies or institutions. The narrative is further elaborated in the Stanišić-Simatović trial chamber verdict (Part 1 here, Part 2 here),  where it is found that the role of outside actors who trained, financed and armed the forces that committed crimes merely provided “general assistance which could be used for both lawful and unlawful activities” (Stanišić-Simatović trial chamber verdict, para 1264, 2360), the purpose of which “was limited to establishing and maintaining Serb control over large areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina” (Stanišić-Simatović verdict, para 2326; reformulated in various ways in paras 2330, 2332, 2333, 2334, 2345, 2360). In this context, if somebody says something like “we’ll exterminate them completely,” this is “too vague to be construed as support for the allegation that [the person] shared the intent to further the alleged common criminal purpose” (Stanišić-Simatović trial chamber verdict, para 2309).

It might seem more probable that ICTY would continue down the path it has taken and deliver a not guilty verdict on Count 1. But let me go out on a limb here and suggest why they might not: the „legitimate war with some nasty events along the way“ narrative is reconstructed from the verdicts in two 2013 cases that radically narrowed the standards for establishing criminal responsibility. These might be thought of as precedents, but a decision is only a precedent if another court uses it. This standard has been rejected by every court that has reviewed it, including three times by ICTY itself (in the Šainović et al and Popović et al cases, and then again in December in the Stanišić-Simatović appeal). If these rulings can be thought of as a judgment not just on the ill-conceived and short-lived „specific direction“ standard, but as a sign of a broader approach to crime (at least when the perpetrator is a domestic one whose activity does not cross borders), then it is not impossible that the Tribunal’s standards could be returning to their pre-2013 levels. The limiting factor on this prediction is a big one, though: one thing we know is that in general, judges are pretty loath to label something as genocide if it has not already been labelled that way by another judge.

Will any of this matter? In the short term, probably not much – people in different ethnopolitical camps will interpret any favourable verdict as a score for justice, and any unfavourable verdict as a sign that ICTY is biased. Down RS way, Milorad Dodik made the preemptive gesture of naming a new student dormitory after Karadžić (what student would want to sleep in such a dormitory?). But in the long term – a finding that a court makes is bound to have more influence than a finding it does not make. Eventually both the supporters and critics are going to be compelled quit the roundabout strategy of talking about bias and engage with the content of the verdicts themsleves.


Then next week there will be a verdict in another case, the one against state security agent, paramilitary mascot and TV performer Vojislav Šešelj. No major legal or empirical issues are at stake in this case, and it is principally notable for the grotesque theatrics that have accompanied it, in which an insane man plays a swearier and more bloated Jeanne D’Arc and an incompetent man plays a judge. By deciding last week that the accused did not need to be required to show up to hear the verdict, the Tribunal fairly invited everyone to make a prediction that the verdict would not result in a prison sentence. Hold your breaths for the answer to the uninteresting question of whether this means an acquittal or sentencing to time served.


So these are my predictions. Like any predictions, they will turn out to be either right or wrong, and we will all know by the end of next week. Then, of course, remember that these are cases in the trial phase, which means that whoever loses will have the opportunity to appeal, which they can be expected to use. So the story is going to go on.

Note: Here’s Marko Milanović making the opposite prediction. The reason we are making different predictions is that we are making different assumptions. He is assuming that judges will do what they have done before (usually a pretty safe assumption in any legal environment). I am assuming that the 2013 verdicts are reflective of a larger experiment in restricting legal oversight, which has since been rejected. I don’t know which one of us is right.


Miki and Kiki: an epistolary novel

Heloise-Abelard.jpgIf you read this blog, then you already know about the interesting post-election political developments in Croatia. Following on a result that saw the two largest parties more or less tied, with a surprisingly large vote going to a protest party composed of dilettantes and small-scale egomaniacs, a presidential attempt to stage a coup and impose a “non-party” government under her control was avoided, and the protest party eventually decided, after several feints left and right, to form a coalition with the right-wing HDZ, a party that has spent the last several years systematically undoing the small steps to respectability that it took after the death of its founder, Franjo Tudjman. HDZ proceeded to form a government of the type that an extremist party that won an overwhelming majority would form, with its leader, “deputy” prime minister Tomislav Karamarko, taking every opportunity to promise a large-scale revolution that encompasses policing of political orientation, private thoughts, culture, and the tendency of people to be critical toward his party.

The illusion of coalition was maintained by naming as prime minister a pharmaceuticals marketer who carries no political weight whatsoever and lacks as much in political support and experience as he does in political skills. Tim “Tihomir” Orešković lost no time in demonstrating that the members of his government ask him about nothing and that his level of proficiency in his native language would not allow him to understand them if they did. He may or may not have known that he appointed a minister of veterans’ affairs who promised to maintain a “registry of traitors” and a minister of culture with the most interesting ideas about fascist martyrdom. But has there ever been a reaction against the people who did know and had no fear of saying so. To get a taste of how the supporters of Croatian Kulturkampf respond to being criticised, have a look at the messages of support they get at sites like the Facebook page dedicated to loyalty to Zlatko Hasanbegović, the very minor historian with fascinating sympathies who has become minister of culture.

Aware that they are surrounded by critics, the politicians on the right have decided to behave as though they were surrounded by enemies. As a result, over the course of a few weeks it has been easy to observe an escalation of tension and intolerance not seen since the war period, when a multicultural cartel of ex-Communists discovered that hatred and far-right populism could be a very profitable career indeed.

Among the people who noticed this was Milorad Pupovac, the mild-mannered linguist who is president of the minority party the Serbian National Council (SNV). Pupovac has been as “loyal” a minority as it is possible to be, representing the interests of Serbs to the government in a non-militant way during the conflict years, and lending his party’s support to form governments both left and right in the period of free elections after 2000. His party and the party’s magazine Novosti  maintain a consistently critical stance toward the behaviour of the state, balanced by a commitment to its institutions and to their democratic character. As a reward for this he is regularly the object of attacks like this one, where he is labelled “a fifth columnist of philochetnik provenance.” People in public life become accustomed to this kind of marginalising rhetoric, but it is another matter when the target is expanded well beyond them. So Pupovac expressed his concerns in a letter to the president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (it was intended to be a private letter, but when news of it leaked then Novosti published the full text).

In his letter Pupovac notes that “in the past few weeks I have followed the growing atmosphere of intolerance and messages of hatred directed at political, ethnic and other minorities in our country.” He goes on to say that “the tolerance and recognition of differences in politics and identity that has taken years, even decades to build, is being destroyed before our eyes and threatens to endanger the basic achievements of democracy, political stability and social security in our country.”

He then details a series of attacks in which several people, himself included, have been recently threatened, verbally abused, subject to acts of vandalism, and targeted by racist language, observing that “the objects of this language are not the people who lied continually and still lie, nor the people who stole continually and still steal, or the people who actually did kill or encourage people to kill, but rather people who in a variety of ways have dedicated their activity and a good part of their lives to a struggle against all that.”

And he goes on to develop his political argument: “I am writing to ask – what political or party-based reason is there that can justify the renewed production of enmity, intolerance, hatred and possibly violence in the places that we live and in the country in general? […] What good can this bring to any individual or to the country?” Perhaps not expecting a reply, he adds, “Nobody’s failure to respond to the need to answer these questions and to address them openly will be respected, now or in the future, as corresponding to the obligations of people like us who have pledged fealty to the constitution and have the duty to preserve the best of what we have inherited and also to protect our society from the worst things that come from the same inheritance.”

Following a series of negative responses to news reports about Pupovac’s letter, the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND) sent its own letter asking, “Dear President of the Republic, what has HND done to deserve to be attacked with fascist methods?”

As it turns out, the president responded very quickly – and publicly, with the text made available, letterhead and all, at the presidency web site. The letter is detailed and fascinating for a number of reasons, but not least because of the psychological portrait it offers of the group of people exercising political power. Let me try to break down the main themes for you, although for reasons that will become apparent I will have to do so without using any ‘journalistic’ or ‘artistic’ freedom, or ‘satire.’

  1. Your social frustrations are like my personal frustrations. In responding to Pupovac’s description of people attacked for their ethnic identity or political stance, Grabar-Kitarović notes that she has been opposed by her political opponents. Or as she puts it in her letter, “I largely agree with your contention that intolerance has grown in Croatian society. I felt this especially strongly immediately after my return to Croatia in September 2014 [in order to be a candidate for the presidency — EDG] … returning to Zagreb, I felt a great disappointment and concern because Croatia had obviously gone backward with respect to mutual recognition and respect. I was very unpleasantly surprised by the overall pessimism and low level of political communication, as by the inappropriate and irresponsible ways in which people were labelled. I felt the need to say so openly even then. Unfortunately, I experienced that atmosphere of intolerance right on the night of the first round of elections when the former prime minister uttered the sentence, ‘It’s us or them’.” The former prime minister, now (still) head of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) makes another appearance in the letter, raising a question whether the president is certain about who she is writing to.
  2. Whatever happens to you is your fault, or your former coalition partner’s, whatever. The letter continues with an effort to kick the ball down the court, tracing intolerance in the present to the intensity of political opposition in the past, and once more, apparently, telling Pupovac that the (original) source of his misery is the former prime minister Zoran Milanović. Or as the president puts it, “So, if we want to talk about the causes that have led to the ‘the growth of intolerance and the strengthening of hate speech,’ we cannot avoid radicalizing messages and we have to ask how much they have lent courage to people who think alike, and to people who do not, to act similarly. Because of that, my dear Mr Pupovac, while agreeing with you that intolerance has grown in Croatia, I nonetheless have to say that this process did not begin ‘after the formation and confirmation of the new government,’ but much earlier. Unfortunately that rhetoric has a long history, so the president of what is now the largest opposition party displays arrogance and insolence as, he says, the only language that ‘some people’ understand, and promises that he will ‘give us hell.’ In that regard it is necessary to ask whether your personal negative experiences might not be, after all, at least in part a consequence of the production of ideological and orientational tension that has been going on, intentionally or not, for years?”
  3. The victims of intolerance are more intolerant than we are. The president moves on to the cases that Pupovac has offered as instances of intolerant attacks, and finds them to be unworthy victims. An objective analysis would reveal that they have been asking to be attacked for a long time. Or in the president’s words, “In your letter you mention as victims of ‘threats and outbreaks of hate speech’ several public figures and organisations. I condemn these acts along with you. But I am nonetheless obligated to point out that among the people you have mentioned there are several who have for years, through their public activity, provoked, irritated, and insulted the greater part of Croatian public opinion, who have inaccurately portrayed and even ridiculed the Homeland War and, fundamentally, deny reality, and implicitly the very idea of the Croatian state, creating around themselves an atmosphere of tension, exclusivity, and intolerance. I do not say this in order to justify insults and threats toward those people, which I consider unacceptable. But nonetheless I believe that in judging undesirable phenomena, taking into account in particular that in the past years the bodies of state authority have not once reacted to their ridicule and provocation, it is necessary to be objective.”
  4. There are victims that have not been mentioned, such as fascists and women. The president continues by bringing forward examples in which she and the members of her family have been victims of intolerance. To wit: “How would you categorise, for example, what happened to a member of my immediate family recently in the middle of Rijeka, when a passerby spat at him and called him an ‘ustaša’? I am certain that you will agree with me that this act is not an expression of tolerance. Somebody negatively radicalised the person who did that. Is it possible that that person is hiding behind the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘coexistence’? But that is not the only form of intolerance. Personally, I have the unfortunate everyday experience that people discriminate against me in their statements and comments simply because I am a woman.” Here it becomes difficult to follow the president’s reasoning. There is one statement that is undoubtedly true – that she is frequently the object of demeaning rhetoric because of her gender – and one statement that is nebulous, involving somebody else being attacked for something they are most likely not, and attributing a set of motives to another person who is unknown. Let’s split the difference and figure that she is arguing that not all hatred is ethnic.
  5. What is with you minorities, why do you keep threatening us? There follows a set of arguments indicating that minorities of all types need to exercise greater self-control, and to be sensitive to the fact that members of the majority feel threatened by them. In this section the president argues for balance, declaring that “in the same way we have to condemn acts that are directed against the equality, security, and dignity of political, ethnic, and other minorities in Croatia, we also have to condemn all acts that insult the Croatian people or any other majority community.” In a stranger turn, she goes on to dismiss in advance a number of the cultural covers under which provocation may travel, arguing that “obvious provocation and abuse of the national feelings of the Croatian people and the large majority of Croatian citizens who love their country cannot be called ‘performance,’ defended as expressions of ‘journalistic’ or ‘artistic’ freedom, or labeled as ‘satire’.” It is not clear what brought this on, though it could be a response to Pupovac raising in his letter attacks against Oliver Frljić, the politically engaged theatre director who is quite taken with Brecht’s alienation effect. But she groups him together with more traditional political activists as she continues, condemning “organisations and individuals who consider themselves to be the protectors of democracy and tolerance.”

The president’s letter concludes with a strange polemical point, a tendentious demand, and a concession. First she poses a rhetorical question: “I am obligated ask whether ‘totalitarian methods’ are exclusively Fascist? Why do we always avoid condemning Communism?” Then she declares that she expects “from everybody, but especially the people mentioned here, to oppose provocation and irritation of all kinds.” Finally she offers to engage in a discussion on intolerance if the representatives of minority political parties will organise it.

The exchange is currently high on the list of tabloid headlines in Croatia, but it is especially interesting for what it reveals about the thinking processes of people who are exercising political power based on a conception of national representativeness and are consumed by the view that majorities are threatened. Meanwhile, it seems that Pupovac is now intending to send another letter to the president. In it we presume that he will be neither provocative nor irritating, and will keep in mind that she is not fond of overly ambitious satire.



Leaders’ Statement on Western Balkan Route

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at an European leader's meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans route at the European Commission in Brussels on October 25, 2015. European Union and Balkan leaders faced a make-or-break summit today on the deepening refugee crisis after three frontline states threatened to close their borders if their EU peers stopped accepting migrants. AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at an European leader’s meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans route at the European Commission in Brussels on October 25, 2015. European Union and Balkan leaders faced a make-or-break summit today on the deepening refugee crisis after three frontline states threatened to close their borders if their EU peers stopped accepting migrants. AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND

Leaders’ Meeting on the Western Balkans Route                                   

Draft Leaders’ Statement


A parody version of this statement can be found here:

We all have very nice countries. All of them have rivers, and some of them also have coastlines. One of the difficulties we have is that people come in and out of our countries, but not at equal rates.

The numbers would not bother us so much, but some of the people going in and out have languages and religions of which we are not fond. Also they occasionally suffer in ways that are picturesque, which causes difficulties for us in international media.

There are wealthier countries that like the people who come in and out of our countries even less than we do. These are the countries the people want to go to, but they have other business that must be more important.

Permanent exchange of information

1./ We pledge to talk about each other to tabloid media. Those Leaders who do not have theatrical vocal training will mostly refrain from imitating cartoon voices. We will also pretend to talk at each other, while facing nearby walls.

Supporting refugees and providing shelter

2./ We pledge to continually take credit for what civil society organizations are doing to help people, particularly in those instances where we are not doing it.

3./ Did we say austerity? Austerity.

Managing the migration flows together

4./ Leaders pledge to comply with the EU Civil Protection Mechanism at moments when it is convenient or opportune to do so.

5./ Leaders confirm that once people are on a field somewhere near a border, it’s Mad Max time.

Secondary Movements

6./ Waving people through borders is not acceptable. Leaders pledge to form an opinion on forced aimless wandering and barbed wire gymnastics.

Border Management

7./ Slovenia came up with something they are calling the Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) mechanism. That’s an animal acronym. Aren’t Slovenians cute?

8./ You think only Slovenians can come up with animal acronyms? How about this? Dual Opportunistic Refugee Manipulation in the Interest of Confusion Enhancement (DORMICE). Or maybe you prefer Thinking Refugees are Outside of Universal Treaties (TROUT). Anyone can do this, it’s easy.

Tackling smuggling

9./ What? Take profit-bearing business away from our taxis and railways?


10./ When things get really tense, Leaders will announce their intention in principle to hold another meeting two weeks later.

Leaders call attention to having heard of the shared European values of human rights, protection of the vulnerable, legal and social care, and the freedom of movement. They expect to get around to these one day.


Notes on a hogiography: the teachable moment of #piggate

animalBy now everyone will have certainly heard about the deliciously amusing claims regarding prime minister David Cameron and the things he got up to as an undistinguished university student. If you haven’t, feel free to look it up – I won’t repeat the details here (the newspapers will inevitably call the details “salacious,” but heaven help me if I can think of anybody who would find this salacious). Suffice it to say that it involves a useless animal doing a horrid thing to a useful one.

The whole business derives from a desire to settle some intramural scores among a community of lavish beneficiaries through public humiliation, and that desire has certainly been fulfilled. And it has paid off – every possible variation of jokes and puns, ranging from the guffaw-inducing vulgar to the actually sort of clever, has made a rapid journey through social networks. Peppa, Piglet, Miss Piggy and the rest have experienced media revivals. We found out about another group of ill-behaved heirballs hanging around institutions where other people receive education, the Piers Gaveston Society (apparently it was named after the 1st Earl of Cornwall, 1284-1312, and not the excellent old Jimmy Webb song). And we affirmed again that elitist “traditions” are pretty modern – the Piers Gaveston Society, for example, was founded in 1977, indicating that this phenomenon has more to do with the assertion of class dominance in the Thatcher era than with its maintenance or curation.

Since the story involves a prominent person and that person’s genitals, there has been a strong impulse to euphemise the activity involved as a “sex act.” It is a sex act only peripherally, though; at bottom it is a class act. That is to say it involves a ritual in which people are invited to perform, and together with this affirm, a class identity. It fits into a complex of “secret societies” characteristic of unequal social environments. Into these “secret societies” enter beneficiaries of privilege who generate instances in which they will have the opportunity to perform for one another their exemption from compliance with laws (especially narcotics laws, which tend to be enforced against the lightly resourced), their unconcern with problems like scarcity of food and basic life requirements, and their sense of themselves as a small group inherently superior to other people.

This kind of clique formation is hardly unknown to sociology. Pierre Bourdieu would put it all under the rubric of the “ideology of charisma,” in which beneficiaries of a market system that produces inequality ascribe their privilege to innate qualities of the self rather than to material factors. The added element of humiliation in a restricted social context is meant to contribute to future class solidarity, creating an environment where people will refrain from exposing one another because everybody has the capacity to discredit everybody else. This becomes important when the issue is not who made a fool of themselves sexually or who stole the MDMA from the cookie jar, but who has access to the cartel that controls interest rates and insider privatisations. A parallel can be drawn another mechanism designed to assure mutual trust in closed and secretive business environments, the Mafia practice of omertà. As Diego Gambetta explains:

  • “While secrecy is the most elementary means of practicing self-protection, vis-à-vis both rivals and the state, it is primarily a requirement for selling protection to others, for if our customers know anything that can be used against us, our position as a guarantor is weakened since it is difficult to control someone who can fight back. Leading a discreet life, allowing only creditable information to filter out – these are essential prerequisites for selling our product. Omertà is not, as many have suggested, merely a traditional code which has matured over long periods of foreign domination and is now inertially retained, nor is it simply a means of keeping the state out of our business. It is a crucial part of our ability to serve as an entrepreneur of protection” (The Sicilian Mafia: The business of private protection. Harvard UP 1993, pp. 38-39).

Less crucial than omertà itself may be the mystique it produces: it is intended to contribute to bonds of class solidarity that will, in the future, prove stronger than tensions created by competing interests. Like any mystical bond, it functions as long as the material conditions that place the unity of the ruling class over its internal rivalries continue to obtain (as they do most of the time). The bond created by rituals of mutual humiliation were strong enough to constrain David Cameron, a nonentity who has never wanted or accomplished anything, but not Michael Ashcroft, a backroom bounder righteous in his belief that he had purchased more influence than he received.

That the scandal has produced a lot of sardonic joking and very little surprise suggests that this week’s Porkotopia has a Dolphin Square root. Laurie Penny has helpfully pointed out that “weird sex stuff is as British as weak tea and racism,” and the fact that a lot of it is abusive will already be well known (but not much spoken about) to anyone who has followed the decades-long coverups of serial highly-placed abusers from prominent politicians to pop music hangers-on. Lawrence Richards has made clear that much of the popularity of this sordid little item derives from people’s happiness to take an opportunity to stop pretending that they don’t know the “ideology of charisma” when they see it.

There is another element, of course. Part of the reason that the incident has been met with pretty much no disbelief is that the image of our ruling class as distasteful, abusive schoolboys is entirely consistent with their conduct during their adult lives. The same week that this “revelation” came out, the government announced that they would eliminate the budget for providing free school lunches to poor children, but that got nothing like the reaction. But at least we got lots of funny pig jokes, those were nice.


Why I decided to stop publishing comments

Communicating with the public is a part of the academic job (increasingly, a formal part, which our managers describe with the delightfully vulgar word “impact”). And from time to time I flatter myself that I might have something original to contribute or say — although if you look at my rate of posting, months go by at a time without that happening.

Probably most people would agree that a part of communication is dialogue. But what do we mean by dialogue? I tend to think it involves some way of taking a topic that is introduced and moving it forward, by raising questions, offering a different perspective, adding information to what has already been presented. That was at least the sort of thing I imagined might be promoted when I decided that this web site would be open to comments, but that the comments would be moderated and the moderation subject to explicit guidelines, which I wrote up as a “comments policy” (it is still around here on the site if you look). And why moderation? Well, mostly because the comments that you find on most free-for-all sites (I think YouTube is a popularly used example) are genuinely not worth reading, and also because in a previous incarnation of the blog I had a lot of unwanted experience with stalkers and the like.

You might say that it was foolish to imagine that idealised type of dialogue could appear anywhere in the online world. For the most part it did not appear here. And it was probably not reasonable to expect that it would, given that the topics covered at this site are frequent objects of controversy, close to the hearts of people who are poorly informed and righteously certain.

I am leaving up the comments that were received and approved when the site was taking comments. If you look through, you will find some sincere and interesting contributions and questions, and some moments of dialogue. But you will also find a lot of not especially interesting statements saying basically “I agree,” “I disagree” or “here is my pet theme that I will introduce into discussions on every topic from kittens to the proper rising temperature for yeast bread.” There’s some good reading in there, but mostly not reading worth putting time into.

Now, the comments you see are the ones that were approved because I looked at them and decided that they did not violate any of the standards that I put into the comments policy. But there are a lot more that you have not seen, because I deleted them. Here is what happens when you write something public about a controversial question: a whole lot of people who have previously standing passionate convictions on the question decide that they need to contribute something. But what they contribute is more often than not of a declarative character; the most frequent declaration is “fuck you.” What do you do when you get fifty “fuck yous”? Well, one approach might be simply to publish them on the ground that they are blessed with a certain representative quality. This is a fine option if you want the comments section to look like the Rosie Perez / Giancarlo Esposito scene in the film Night on Earth. It might also be possible to reply to them, but there is not really any variant of that sort of writing that appeals to me much. Or it is possible to delete them, which is what I generally did, figuring that they do not offer a meaningful and substantive contribution to dialogue and they are not material that many people care to read.

But here’s the thing: even deleting takes time, and I have a lot of other uses for my time. And there’s more: the low standard embodied by the “fuck yous” tends to lower the standard for everything surrounding them, so that some really pointless bits of text get through simply because I said, “Is it more eloquent than the person everyone avoids at bars? Check. Is it relatively of free of stomach turning racism/sexism/whatever? Check.” So some quantity of effort goes in, with a rate of return not even the IMF would envy.

There is probably also some reason to think a little bit about context. If the comments do not provide a wonderful reading experience, what happens if they are not there? In truth, probably nothing. The internet is enormous, and brimming with spots where people can agree, disagree, indulge their ideological or pottymouth instincts, you name it. So go for it. And as for dialogue, the people who have something to say generally know where to find me.  


A note to commenters and noncommenters…

…and to people who are in the second group but would like to be in the first.

Most of the time this is a blog that I maintain for the entertainment of myself and my friends. But then every once in a while a post goes up that lots of people see, and then it is time to remind people of the blog’s comments policy.

Comments on this site are moderated. If you would like to know why, just have a peek at a site where comments are not moderated or are “lightly” moderated, and the reason will be glaringly obvious.

The comments policy lists three types of comments that are welcome, and six types that are likely to be deleted. Usually when a topic that attracts political contention is involved, deleted comments are deleted for negative reasons #3 and #4. There are a few people who might want to take a look at the final sentence of the comments policy.

Update: Eh, I’ve just decided to turn comments off for future posts. The quality of the material is generally low, and dealing with it takes time.


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:

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 17.32.02

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.


More full text: There are few who dare to commemorate

mjesto-zlocinaThese interviews by e-mail produce archival treasures, n’est-ce pas? I answered some questions this week for Le Monde (you can only read the article if you are a subscriber, lo siento), but the source can offer you more: all of the text, including the parts the editors decided not to use. And as Sam Elliott says, “in English too.”

How did the discourses over guilt (of some) and (broader) responsibility for the massacre of Srebrenica evolve in Serbia this 20 last years? Which political events or social conditions were particularly decisive in this process? (Numerous testimonies and evidences have been produced. In this context, is denial still present,and to what extent? Which are the alternative positions?)

In July 1995, when the mass killings happened, they were not covered in media. In regional media the story was about control of the city changing hands. International media started publishing items about it later in the year on the basis of reports of large numbers of missing people. Jean Rene Ruez began investigating primary and secondary burial sites and execution sites in March 1996. So in the earliest period denial was fairly easy to do because so little was known. But this was no longer the case by the end of 1996. Still, before the first court verdicts, the main effort was to deny the facts.

You could see basic factual denial in the first RS report on Srebrenica in 2002. There you saw the basic strategies of factual denial: presenting civilian victims as combat fatalities (later, as prisoners of war), reducing their number, inflating the number of victims from surrounding villages. But the response to that report was to form a real commission, that produced its report in 2004. Their results were pretty close to what other investigations confirmed as the facts.

After that the pure denial position became more marginal, and it definitely became more marginal after the publicity that followed the broadcast of the “Scorpions” film in 2005. But what you could see developing was a changed set of strategies. One was to affirm the facts as much as possible, but to try to deny that they had any connection with military forces or the state, or to try to deny that they had the character of genocide. The other was to develop the tactic of competitive commemoration, like you can see with the constantly expanding memorial in Bratunac, where there is an effort to bring in victims from other places and other wars to try to bring the number close to parity with the number of Srebrenica victims.

These newer strategies have effects of that are similar to denial, but they are not simple denial of facts. What is disputed in them is contexts and interpretations. I have looked at them in my research as signs that the discourse of denial has some creative and responsive elements. It may not look like it at the moment it happens, but for officials to say “it’s a big crime but not a genocide” is after all meaningfully different from saying “it’s all untrue.”

The question may be whether the change represents progress. From a certain point of view it can, if you conceive of recognition as a process that takes time and think of changes in denial discourse as steps along the way. But there is another shift that still has to be made, and you could see it in the events around the Security Council resolution on Srebrenica. When the Serbian government calls an urgent session to generate a response to the resolution, and when president Nikolić calls the Russian veto “a great day for Serbia,” this means that people (at least the people in power) are still identifying themselves with the perpetrators. I think that the public is way ahead of the politicians on this, but this does not mean that the politicians will necessarily catch up any time soon.

Some civil society movements opposing the war were already present during the wars. I met several people from NGOs who were quite pessimistic about the future and about the future generation as well. Would you say that facing the past is a growing trend or remain the activity of a fringe minority in Serbia? What about eventual changes brought about by a generational change?

There are a couple of problems with the way that discourses about the past have been developing. One of main ones is that it is perceived by a lot of people as a project imposed from outside and carried by a small, relatively closed group of elites. Another is that there is a lot of fear of potential consequences – this is what you can see in the constant invocation of the nonsense formulation that one or another group “will be declared to be a genocidal nation.” A lot of these difficulties are compounded by the fact that political, cultural, religious and educational institutions have not been constructive participants. Basically the politicians were happy to hand the difficult work over to the Tribunal, and the other institutions were mostly happy to continue occupying the populist positions that had been profitable for them during the Milošević regime.

This means that everything that has been happening has been happening without leadership, or in spite of the obstructions imposed by leadership. But even under these conditions, you can see that activity is possible. People want to know the facts, and they want to be able to understand and recognise each other – politics cannot stop this from happening, it can only make the process slower. We tend to concentrate on irresponsible politicians, but if we look at events like the 7000 protests, the voluntary schools and seminars that are organised, the independent fact-finding activities, the artists exploring the taboos of memory, you begin to get a picture of a society that is pretty engaged. I think that over time people who are now young are going to want to know what has been withheld from them and get rid of the guilt that the older generation has imposed on them. But this a process that takes place slowly, with more failures than successes along the way.

When we listen to actual speeches of political leaders, it seems that almost everyone is supporting reconciliation. Yet diplomatic “incidents” happen regularly (I’m thinking for instance of the recent disputes over Naser Oric’s arrest and the resolutions’ dispute). Is the reconciliation seen by political leaders only as a conditionality element or are they genuinely concerned about it? In the same logic, is the refusal of these political leaders to call the massacre of Srebrenica a genocide, yet having strong words to condemn the killings (Tomislav Nikolic being “on his knees, asking for forgiveness for Serbia” in 2013 for instance) the translation of contradictory feelings/strategies?

There is no image that encapsulates the attitude of most of the political elite more effectively than the moment Nikolić said he was “on his knees.” The video is instantly available; you can see that he was sitting comfortably in a big armchair.

Reconciliation is a difficult problem even for people who are serious about it. It is a category that is not defined, and while we might be able to recognise when it has not happened there is no good way of determining that it has happened or how far it has gone. But maybe it is possible to suggest that reconciliation becomes possible at the moment when people are able to recognise one another as fellow humans, and to understand that the problems that different people face are similar and require approaches that are taken together. This may be one of the reasons why one of the first groups to concretely reconcile – to form joint groups and campaigns, and provide assistance to one another – have been associations of war veterans from opposing sides. They know that they all have similar needs, and they know that those needs are being neglected by different political leaderships in the same way. But even for them, to be prepared to do that, they had to be prepared to hear one another’s experiences, and to think of themselves as part of a group that was not just defined by ethnicity and opposition to one another.

As for the politicians, they are not serious about it. Part of the recent dispute over commemoration of Srebrenica has involved a lot of politicians claiming that mentioning or defining facts was a “threat to reconciliation.” The only possible conclusion is that they think that “reconciliation” is a synonym for “amnesia.” And going back to Nikolić, that it can be achieved by claiming to make gestures that they are not making. The politicians are going to be left behind by people who care.