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.


On protests in BH, quickly and darkly

tuzla-smoke-bosniaTwo vignettes

Conversation 1 was with the waiter in a large Sarajevo hotel, where we were generally a bit sheepish to be attending our conference (the deciding factor was that it was big enough for all of the participants, the down side was its odd business history and the fact that the main conference room was also where Radovan Karadžić liked to hold his soirees with the media). A colleague and I had heard that the employees of the hotel had not been paid for several months, so we asked. It was true, he told us. Most of the employees had remained at the hotel through a series of ownerships and bankruptcies, and had often faced periods of reduced pay, no pay, or something in lieu of pay. So what were they working for? They wanted to keep the hotel going in the hope that one day it might become profitable again, and they wanted the employer to keep making contributions to the pension and medical care funds.

Conversation 2 was with a group of postgraduate students in Tuzla. Most of them had or were seeking work as schoolteachers. And they were only able to get short-term jobs. Why no permanent jobs in schools? Because available workplaces are distributed among the local political parties, who fill them with their members and put them on one-year contracts. The effect of this is that no young person can get a job except through the services of a political party, and no young person can keep a job except by repeatedly demonstrating loyalty to the political party. You can probably imagine the wonderful effect this has on the development and teaching of independent, critical thinking in schools.

I could go on with vignettes. I have lots of them. But these sorts of scenes might be thought of as the background of the protests that began earlier this week in Tuzla, developed into police violence by Thursday afternoon, and spread across Bosnia’s larger entity partly in the form of mob vandalism by Friday.

By Saturday morning it looks a bit of a part-triumph (some useless politicians resigned, and some police officers withdrew their loyalty) and a bit of a horrid mess (among the things that were burned in the protests were valuable documents, both ones related to the dubious activity of the targets of the protests and possibly a hugely valuable portion of the BH archive). So what brought this about, and what does it suggest for the near future?

A permanent, parasitic political class made in Dayton

At the root of every political problem in BH is the way that the state was established through an agreement that was brokered between large-scale killers and international powerwielders in Dayton in 1995. The killers were offered a great deal: take a break from killing folks, and we will finance you, guarantee that you occupy political office forever, and design a system that absolves you of all accountability. The citizens weren’t at the talks, and were not offered much of a deal, just the killers’ fantasy that every one one of them was a manifestation of one of three never-coinciding groups that somehow exhaust all of the possibilities that are around with regard to identity and interest. Think of the Dayton constitution as an outline for the plot of a Star Trek episode. They even named one of their entities “the Federation.”

Over the two decades since Dayton, the immovable political class that it established has taken every opportunity to demonstrate its irresponsibility and utter uselessness. Last year’s JMBG protests were catalysed because of the inability of parties in the parliament to reach an agreement that would allow state agencies to issue identity documents to newborns, resulting in the death of a young child who was prevented from crossing the border to get urgent medical attention. The response of high- (and long-) ranking government officials was to accuse citizens of endangering their security.

These feats of concern are carried out by politicians who are the highest paid in the region.  In addition to the generous salaries they award themselves, officeholders are able to further supplement their earnings by claiming pay for membership in boards, commissions, consultative bodies and so on. This in an environment in which unemployment among young people exceeds 60%. The Daytonian political class has established an enduring model of officials who believe that citizens exist to serve them, and act on that belief.

A narrow-reach economy of patronage

One of the mantras of the political class, encouraged by its international overseers, has been privatisation. In the broad context of an environment where most of the companies where most people used to work took the form of “social property,” that meant taking goods that had been built through public investment and transferring them into private hands. And since private owners do not have the obligations that social owners have, this means a lot of publicly subsidised asset-stripping, budget-skimming and credit-bouncing. Many of the institutions that used to employ people have not done so for years.

To take a specific example, let’s look at Tuzla, where the protests began. The local chemical factory SODASO used to produce 80% of the table salt consumed in Yugoslavia, 208,000 tonnes of it in 1991. By 1999 it was producing 21,000 tonnes. Privatised in 2002, by 2013 the company employed only 422 people, down from 2500 in 1998.  That local government building that was at first defended by police with batons and tear gas, then overrun by citizens and then set ablaze? That’s the former SODASO headquarters, being used by the local government as the company languishes in receivership. It is probably not too difficult to imagine the anger attracted by a building that has come to symbolise how once a big functioning industry provided a livelihood for people, and now a bigger functionless bureaucracy lives off them.

A willfully blind international “over”sight

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Dayton-made institutions were designed not to represent citizens and designed not to function. There was some sort of earlyfukuyamesque idea that eventually they may develop a responsive democratic state, but in the meantime the “international community” provided some institutions to oversee them. There is a High Representative who can (but generally does not) nullify government decisions and replace officials. There is a Constitutional Court whose membership is made up of one-third foreigners which can reverse decisions by other courts and the parliament. And of course there is the whole set of conditions related to conditionality, through which the European Union is supposed to be able to offer a range of incentives and sanctions based on the promise of eventual membership in the EU.

There have been some periods in which the international overseers of BH’s government took an active role. But not lately: the tendency has been for institutions like OHR to think of the dominant politicians as potential clients who can be turned into protégés and eventually gain the capacity to carry processes forward. So the internationals were silent about the JMBG protests, silent about these ones (though they regretted that angry crowds used a little force – what did we pay for all that police equipment for?), and will be silent about the next ones and about any effort on the part of citizens to be treated as citizens.

When OHR and related institutions were seen as overly active, this was a problem since there was a sense that they were impeding the development of institutions. At the other extreme they are also satisfying nobody, as they have become the guarantors of the unimpeded power of the useless elite. As long as they wait for that tapeworm to transform itself into a cuddly little puppy, they aren’t helping.

You want a taste? Here’s a nice essay by a former OSCE official who rearranges the words “bold,” “customized,” “imagination and determination,” “dual integration,” “buy-in” and goes on to say zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………..

What do people want?

This is not, at least in its gentler daytime incarnations, one of those protest movements that shouts a lot and has no orientation. Well, the part of it that has been setting stuff on fire may be, but there are meaningful parts of it that have been engaged in a different kind of articulation.

The six demands from the Tuzla workers,  include investigation of illegitimately obtained public property, elimination of special privileges for the political class, and formation of a new government that excludes participants in the existing one (which has since resigned).

The eleven original demands of the Tuzla protesters, published by the group “Jer mi se tiče,”  include social welfare and the right to work.

There are a few other documents with lists of demands out there, and there will a be few more over the next few days, but they have some themes in common. They want an end to the self-serving of the political class, they want to be able to work, and they want social rights improved across the board. None of them are basing any claims on nationality, religion, or any of the other divisions that characterise BH in the stubborn international stereotype of it.

What will people get?

They say that it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But here are a few. What does the near future have in store for people who participated in and had sympathy for the protests?

  • First of all, they will be called hooligans and media will repeatedly point to objects, especially ones of cultural value, that have been destroyed.
  • Second, regardless of the roots of the protests in social rather than national conflict, the fact that local powerswingers in BH’s smaller entity were not targeted will be used for intensified nationalist prepucavanje. This will be rhetorically successful unless people start protesting in RS as well.
  • Third, this is an opportunity for political actors in the country and in the region more generally to begin to ask themselves about the balance between how luxuriously they serve themselves and how shabbily they treat citizens. Although a few more people are likely to resign, if past history is a guide then the opportunity will for the most part not be taken.
  • Fourth, this is an opportunity for the internationals who have oversight on the activity of political institutions and the people in them to ask whether they have chosen the right clients, and also to ask whether the internationals themselves are contributing to deepening problems rather than solving them. This is an opportunity they have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not capable of taking.
  • Fifth, for the second time in a year (the last time was during the summer’s JMBG protests, when the government revelled in its incapacity to issue basic documents), citizens of BH have shown that they are willing and able to act as citizens rather than illustrations of some freaks’ national fantasy. They are going to get better at it and it is going to spread, because the problems that infuriate them are present everywhere, and are being addressed nowhere.

A few things it isn’t

This is probably not the workers’ revolution we have been promised since those nice manuscripts began to be criticised by rodents in 1844. Sorry.

And it is also not any kind of Spring. It is February.

Above all it is not a savage attack by hooligans on legitimate institutions and order. The existing institutions have not bothered to try justifying themselves for some time now. And yes, while burning things is on the nasty and stupid side, there has probably an excess of crocodile tears shed about the fact that angry people are likely to act like angry people. The way this is prevented is by meeting people’s needs, not by stocking up on tear gas.

But it may be a sign that patience with predatory government and enforced decline is coming to an end. Impatience itself, though, does not tell us very much about the future. The future depends on what happens, but a promising sign is that now this may depend on what a larger rather than a tiny group of people may do.

Update: Jasmin Mujanović is maintaining a page with translations of protest demands as they come in (and as he puts in the work)

Update 2 (14 February): The hotel workers mentioned at the beginning of this essay are now on strike.


Something big comes this way

184480_10151695994523524_1233554755_nRemember the Nineties? It was an awesome time for essentialists. National chauvinists briefly got the upper hand in politics in the region, told knowledge-free internationals that their extreme politics were a product of nature (which functions differently in countries you know nothing about, dontcha know), and got away with it.
As a result we had years of apparently serious discussions about what was being done by “the” (insert nationality here) to “the” (insert slightly less despised but disparagingly pitied nationality here). One guy even had something close to a bestseller with it. Remember Robert Kaplan? He was a guy who talked to a bunch of taxi drivers who managed to persuade him that everything was caused by ghosts. Then he wrote this bizarre book that projected his fantasies about geography onto the faces of people he described. In between play sessions with his cigar, even the president of the United States read that book. Dependably, big news creates a good scene for charlatans.
That story about how everyone on a particular territory was always unified by the same bad ideas looked pretty saleworthy for a while. It certainly provided a useful lesson to predatory politicians: whatever you want to get away with, pitch it as a response to the nation being threatened. That way everybody will believe everything and nobody will demand anything from you, least of all that you respond to the public’s needs.
The nationalists’ claim to a monopoly on public sentiment was always bogus, but for a period it was a successful political strategy. If anyone was looking for a sign showing that it no longer is, look no farther than some key protests of the past month.

First in Belgrade, a group of right-wing parties joined up with a politicised faction of the Serbian Orthodox Church to organise a protest against the agreement that had been signed between Serbia and Kosovo. Not too many people turned up, but the ones who did were in for a surprise. One defrocked bishop offered a thinly veiled death threat to the prime minister, and a serving bishop acted as though the death threat had already been carried out, performing a funeral oratory for the government.
The response was not delight. The prime minister garnered a good load of sympathy by asking what God had done to deserve such earthly representatives. The head of the Church rushed to declare that neither he nor the Church had anything to do with the bishops’ shameful performance. In one analysis Sonja Pavlović characterized the overreaching of the bishops, following on a series of scandals involving shenanigans of all kinds in the Church, as a “death blow for the extreme right.” Meanwhile the satirists at had “hooligans abandoning the meeting in terror” following the bishops’ addresses.
There was a time in Serbia when hatred and fear provided a pretty reliable recipe for political success. It’s not working anymore, once people have been offered a chance for peaceful settlement and a bit of hope. The politicians who decline to learn the new rules can look forward to a long and well deserved sojourn in the wilderness.

Then this week in Bosnia citizens began making their point again. The catalyst was the health of Belmina Ibrišević, a three-month old girl urgently requiring medical treatment that is only available abroad. But she could not get it, why? Because she could not get a passport or an official medical record, why? Because the representatives of the two entities that make up the state have been unable to agree over control of the issuance of identity documents to new citizens, and have not issued these documents since February. First citizens in Sarajevo came to protest at the parliament, eventually surrounding the building with a human chain and telling the parliamentarians inside that they would be let out of the building until they resolve the problem. The parliament responded with a “temporary solution” that would allow an ID number to be issued to the baby girl in question. The protestors rejected the move and demanded that the parliament agree on a way for the state to accomplish the simplest and most essential job it has.
With dramatic exceptions, among them the chair of the Council of Ministers Vjekoslav Bevanda who surrounded himself with bodyguards and muscled himself out of the building to a waiting car, smacking concerned citizens out of the way, a good number of the parliamentarians were willing to comply with the protestors’ demands, particularly as groups of celebrities, artists, athletes and Sarajevo’s mayor came by to support the protest. A more dramatic exception was provided by a group of RS deputies, loudest among them Aleksandra Pandurević, who claimed (falsely) that the protest was aggressive and directed against Serbs, and who sought guarantees of security and armed escorts to get them away from their workplace. A group of special forces police made their way over from RS but thankfully any potentially awful incident that could involve them was avoided. Pandurević herself, together with her colleagues who claimed to be threatened, were ridiculed universally, by people of all nationalities in both entities.
Again, real interests were at stake. Nobody was prepared to believe that an expression of disgust at an entitled political class unprepared to protect (or even officially acknowledge) the state’s youngest citizens was anything other than what it was. The effort to turn it into a national incident failed.

If the old days ever were what they appeared to be, they are over now. The national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.


The owl of Minerva screeches too much

People make comments, things happen, then things don’t happen.

This time the comment was made by Čedomir Jovanović, at the congress of the political party he heads. He wanted to make clear some unpopular facts about Serbia’s foreign policy in the region, and especially its failure to build a constructive relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jovanović and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) see the country’s closeness to Republika Srpska and confrontation with the central government as a losing game, built on denial of a difficult reality. So Jovanović decided to give it to them straight: don’t pretend their history is better than it is, don’t take their medals, don’t bless them, don’t pretend that the interest of the people is what folks were told it was in 1992. “Republika Srpska was built on genocide committed in Srebrenica, the largest committed since the Second World War,” he told his party members.

Recognition where it is due: the comment was courageous and truthful, and in the context of the whole speech offered a vision of how much better life could be in the region if politicians in the country would take an honest look at the recent past and what the national interest genuinely involves. But reality check 1: the politicians will never do that. And reality check 2: a bunch of people got angry. One group of people announced their intention to a file a lawsuit, saying that Jovanović had “offended all the Serbian victims” of something they got the neat idea (Freud much?) of calling the “Defensive-Fatherland war.” Not to be outdone by some verbally creative extremists, RS president Milorad Dodik said that Jovanović was “attributing collective responsibility to a whole people” and accepted a challenge to a public debate that was organised by the Tanjug news agency today.

Dodik’s main purpose was to repeat points that he had tried to establish ceremonially at the “twentieth anniversary” of RS (which was recognized as one of the two legal entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina shy of seventeen years ago, not twenty – that is, after the war and not before it): that RS was not founded on crime, that it was the victim of aggression, that there was no genocide in Srebrenica. He played a bit with numbers too, escalating the number of victims from the Serb villages around Srebrenica. There are 119 victims documented by IDC, at one point RS began claiming there were 600, then the late Milivoje Ivanišević doubled it to 1200, and in his TV appearance Dodik raised it to 3500. On the question of genocide, he spun an unusual historical web, in which he said that he “recognised” (konstatovao) that ICTY and ICJ had found that genocide occurred, but that he had never “recognised” (priznao) that the finding of fact was factual. As they say, ko razume shvatiće.

The moderator tried to give Jovanović the opportunity to find a common ground with Dodik, suggesting that his comment had been “taken out of context,” that it was “not directed against Republika Srpska as a collective but against the relation between Belgrade and Republika Srpska.” No dice, Jovanović said: “That sentence has a certain weight, and I do not intend to try to reduce that weight.” That made for a promising beginning. He gave himself a big job to do, to explicate the weight of history and what it has to do with political conflicts today. It would be hard to say that they got far past that beginning, though.

So why did the discussion not get so far? A lot of people will say that it because of the limitations of the participants. They would not be wrong, but there is more at stake here than a couple of public personalities who some people like and some people do not like.

How to describe the exchange? You don’t need to trust my description.  There is a video of it here and there is a partial transcript at LDP’s site, but they sadly seem to have decided to post the remarks of only one participant. So check it out and judge for yourselves. My impression is that once the two participants set out their initial positions the discussion deteriorated.

Partly this was the fault of Dodik. Although he is very wealthy and quite powerful, his populist inclination leads him to adopt speech and behaviour patterns that are just barely this side of rustic and abrupt, a style more suited to the birtija than the conference table. Considering that a good part of the viewing public was probably inclined to agree with him, it’s a great style for TV: walk away from content, offend people, and justify it with the standard line about not being “politically correct.” The broadcast went on for about 80 minutes, and as it went on Dodik resorted more to personal insults and repeating slogans. He snorted and smirked and interrupted. Did he leave Jovanović’s mother out of it? Silly question, what kind of Dodik would do that?

So does this mean that Jovanović emerged a hero? My impression is that he did not help himself a lot. He has a tendency to wander from topic to topic in the space between the beginning and ending of his sentences. He has a tendency to shout. He falls into unfortunate rhetorical constructions that result in unintentionally insulting exaggerations (“Bosnia is not a state, it is a cooking pot!” Uh huh, great.). He waves his arms when he gets excited. He confuses his own stature and reputation with the issue under discussion. All these things amount to mortal televisual sins in a context where at least half of the audience dislikes him to begin with and the point he needs to make is more important than he is.

So what did we find out? We found a lot about Dodik, as if we wanted to know: he makes claims and comparisons he knows are false, he dislikes both Belgrade and Sarajevo, he strangely has a thing about people who enjoy good ćevapi. He thinks that “Karadžić has his mistakes,” and that this is a meaningful admission. We also found out, as if we did not already know, that an effective answer to the kind of rhetoric Dodik uses is not more rhetoric of the same type. Jovanović got in a good one when he asked “Where has your politics led? To a war against Angelina Jolie!,” but the answer to misrepresentations is still facts rather than one liners. It seemed like the good guy’s shouting did less for the audience than the bad guy’s muttering.

It would be possible to take this analysis in a personal direction, to trace the problem to Čedomir Jovanović and the imbalance between his good impulses and courage on the one hand as his deficiencies as a spokesman for the position he advocates on the other. But that is a little bit pointless; however well or badly he is doing it, and whether he is the right person to be doing it, he is doing the good work. There is just not a lot of choice here.

The problem is more in the background fact that made it so painful to watch the shouty gesticulating guy take on the lying lummoxy guy. The issue is not about two personalities, or two political parties, or any kind of boxing match or duel. Any discussion of who won or lost – and there are lots of them on both sides, all of them claiming that one of them “smashed” or “tore apart” the other – misses the point that what is happening is not a fight or sports match. It is a misfired response to the need for people to know and understand what happened in the recent past, which still exerts a very strong influence on their life in the present. The shouting and insulting that political leaders do only show that political institutions do not have the capacity to meet that need.

Weak institutions are one thing, but when you see this kind of failed exchange at the top of institutional structures it has effects further down the structures. Because the people defending and hiding and relativising and trivialising crimes have a standard answer to the people who want them brought into the open – that the other folks are traitors, self-haters and mercenaries. And the people who want to bring out the facts have a standard answer to the people who are determined not to listen to them – that the other folks are criminals, immoral, deficient in education and civilisation. It can all be sort of fun up to a point, because you get all kinds of inventive names for people to use against one another. Missionary intelligentsia! The Forest Reich! There’s more. Hey, I come in as an outside observer and the diagnoses just write themselves, you know? But on the public level what it does is scare people off. Keep away from this side if you are afraid of being thought of as immoral! Keep away from this side if you are afraid of being thought of as a traitor! In fact, keep away from public life and the effort to understand your situation altogether. Have a nice glass of tennis matches and reality shows.

Milorad Dodik never wanted to free people from that burden. Čedomir Jovanović quite possibly would, but for a whole complex of reasons is not able. Together, they just make it heavier.