Who’s on second?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Novosti rediscovers the joy of pendrekmetaphysics

Na majcinom grobu

“The paper that openly says what SPS secretly thinks” must have had a boring time of it when SPS was out of power. The periodic essays where Večernje novosti set out the boundaries of approved thinking were deliciously baroque (and always a bit more SRS than SPS anyway) in the days of Milošević – remember the Uroš Predić painting they passed off in 1994 as a photo documenting an imaginary victim? Classic, in order to be taken in the reader had to be ignorant of a wide variety of topics, from painting and history to real-world events. Later they were reduced to whining about how the bad old days are perceived as bad. Beyond the brief flurry of articles in 2003 advancing theories about how Zoran Djindjić was killed, if not by himself, then at least by anybody other than the people who did it, they really only produced one supershiny fake gem in the post-2000 period. It was a rich one, though: after the release of the Scorpions film in 2005 Željko Vuković’s Srebrenizacija Srba i Srbije” set out the road map for the shift from denial to metadenial. The long gestation period did wonders, that’s one you can go back to a hundred times and always find something new. But basically they had a long, boring decade, no really programmatic DB-bespoke pieces for long stretches of time.

No more, though! These are the days of the restoration of the old regime and all its tricks. The old criminals, far-right “thinkers”, sponsored thugs and SRS-youthcell politicians are out in force! That dull decade of pretending to a newspaper left a mass of pent-up hatred and resentment just aching for release. Dear Novostarians, your typing hands have been kissed anew by the gods of conspiracy theory, freaky days are here again!

There ain’t no screed like a Novosti screed cause a Novosti screed don’t stop at ordinary distortions of reality. That kind of lying is for amateurs, and it has a short shelf life, too vulnerable to somebody pointing out what conditions in the actually existing world are. Professional quality agitprop – the kind that can claim access to long-term institutional sponsorship – does much more. It postulates an alternate universe where the dimensions are not of time and space but of minders, where relations of cause and effect are suspended by apologetics, where sponsored experts in nonexistent fields parade their advocacy as authority. Come with me for a little journey through the synapses of Novosti, where disputes between human rights groups and neo-fascists appear in ways they appear nowhere else, because they are refracted through the lens of kavurmametaphysics. We have more than a polemic calling human rights advocates foreign agents here; we have an alternate account of a physical and moral universe. A brief overview of its main propositions:

On categories of things: There are two types of groups, “patriots” and “mercenaries”. Of the first type, they identify two, the clerical-fascist groups “1389” and “Naši.” No indication is given of what makes them patriots, though, it’s enough for Novosti to say so. The other kind are “non-governmental organisations with a neoliberal profile,” although the groups that are actually named have nothing to do with liberalism or neoliberalism, but are mainly human rights groups. But they’re already defined in the article’s title as “mercenaries” – and offered as emblematic of the entire nongovernmental sector (most of which is, like the nongovernmental sector everywhere else, nonpolitical). They are also “anti-Serbian traitors,” the article tells us, but this time not on their own authority but on the authority of “Naši.” The only person in the article who is actually associated with a neoliberal NGO (that would be Slobodan Samardžić, director of political studies at the Centre for Liberal-Democratic Studies) is kind enough to let us know that NGOs “are financed by other countries, take initiatives opposed to the interest of the people and the state, act in a totalitarian way and promote mediocrity.”

It is worth offering the whole delightful lesson in linguistic attribution and logic offered by Samardžić together with Slobodan Antonić, co-editor of a far-right online magazine. Antonić begins by telling us that “’organisations should be labeled the way they label themselves – so patriotic, and not right wing. When we call them right-wing, they are automatically disqualified. Then we have to call the other ones mercenaries.’ Slobodan Samardžić says that NGOs use the language of the extreme left, and so when the right wing is mentioned it is like somebody brought up the devil himself. ‘For them the whole right is right-wing.’” This will be on the gymnastics quiz.

On origins and first causes: Which came first, the chicken or the chicken droppings? Here’s how the clerical-fascists – sorry, “patriots” – tell the story. “After 5 October NGOs supported from outside began to dictate a new system of values in many spheres – law, culture ,media […] Everyone who was opposed to their activity was pressured by the state, they were arrested, media labelled them as hooligans and fascists.” As a result there was spontaneous movement in which well known financiers and ideologues played no role at all but rather “young people organised themselves independently and began to form patriotic organisations.” Another clerical-fascist – I meant “patriotic” – group leader attributes the origin of his group to “the great pressure from the Hague Tribunal to arrest and extradite indictees.” So clearly this was spontaneous as well, as no criminals represented institutions or had any engagement with them.

On the authority to offer judgments: Who is telling this fabulous story? Aside from the author of the article, four people. Two of them are heads of the groups who are presented as one of the sides in the confrontation being described, so certainly objective observers. One is a professor of sociology and editor of a far-right online magazine who achieved prominence in 2003 with an essay decrying the “missionary intelligentsia” and advancing exactly the thesis that is advanced by Novosti’s writer. The fourth is an enemy of neoliberal NGOs who is a senior official in a neoliberal NGO and was an advisor to the former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica, whose party he represents as a parliamentary deputy. In addition to these four a few weak words of defence are attributed to the head of one of the NGOs being attacked. It’s hard to say why she wanted to talk to Novosti.

On recursive responsibility: There are clerical-fascists – excuse me, “patriots” – because there are antifascists. Think how peaceful and happy we would all be if there were no antifascists! But never mind, NGOs “had a great influence on the rise of the right in Serbian society,” which developed “as a reaction” to them. Without getting into detail on what the “patriots” and “mercenaries” accuse one another of, the account of origins tells us all we need to know in order to understand violence and threats coming from far-right organisations: these are the fault of the people being attacked, because the attackers are a response. But there is another implicit conclusion hiding behind the binary of a “mercenary” producing its opposite. It is that each of these represent extremes, and that reasonable people will seek out a solution somewhere in between the truth of a thug and the truth of a victim. It’s a thin line between moderation and nihilism, but count on Novosti to walk it for you.

On channelling the current of alternate reality: Such an ugly scene, who is there to support? Well, clearly, the clerical-fascist – I meant “patriotic,” natch –  groups, because they are defending us against “aggressive” and “unconstitutional” behaviour. Also, clearly, the political party DSS, which has gone consistently downhill since the time it formed a government with 16% of the popular vote. Why them? Ask their parliamentary deputy/vice president/autonomous intellectual, who explains to us that “DSS when it was in power introduced law and order in many fields, which is not in the interest of the NGOs and therefore our party is the target of their criticism.” But there are others deserving of uncritical praise, of course. There is the minister of justice, who has set out to defend the world against people drinking the wrong brand of mineral water, but who tells the writer in a side interview that “nobody can expect that I will process any case.”

Is there anything surprising here? Not really, it’s from Novosti. This is not just what we expect from Novosti, this is what we secretly want from Novosti. Kurir, Tabloid, Press, Dan, the press services of SPC and SANU, you try, but there is nothing like the real thing. A genuine connoisseur of ultraright agitprop is not going to be satisfied with a plate of reheated supermarket Lasagnski. But does something come close? Kind of, because the text was reproduced and run in full as a news item by the once-independent B92. Isn’t it comfy on the dark side? Keep it up and maybe you can learn to do it well. And then they might really start to like you.


Instructions: How to write a Vedrana Rudan column

  1. Identify an issue that many people are discussing.
  2. Tie it to an anecdote that will make clear that the issue is really about yourself.
  3. Develop an ordinary, reasonable proposition related to the issue.
  4. Follow the proposition to the the point of absurdity.
  5. Wallow in the absurdity for several paragraphs.
  6. Revision phase 1: go back and replace half of the adjectives with obscenities.
  7. Revision phase 2: replace the other half of the adjectives with random phrases lifted from folk expressions.
  8. Mašala! You have written it.

The three days of the librarian

RS always cared deeply about libraries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Great deceivers

The winner of the Nobel prize for literature was to be announced at 1PM today, and as people probably know by now it went to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.

But around noontime this fine hoax page went up:

nije lošica, a?

The wags registered it to a site called “”, and made it look fairly persuasive. The links to other parts of the Nobel machinery all led to the (genuine) official site at According to the hoax, the Nobel prize for literature was to be awarded to political dinosaur and lugubrious father-obsessed memoirist/novelist Dobrica Ćosić. In language meant to echo the self-congratulation of the „Serbian Tolstoy“, the page invited viewers to think of him as „the last dissident of the 20th century“ (the fellow loves to call himself a dissident, and was promoted as one in every single regime he loyally served).

Good fun! But it doesn’t stop there. The state television network RTS picked up the story and reported it as true. But no surprise there, they have a longstanding reputation for credulity. So did the tabloid Večernje novosti, but it’s the same story there. But Radio B92? The story was up on their site, where it caused a brief panic on social networks, for all of fifteen minutes. After which a long tajac fell, followed by a weak and belated apology.

Now this was big, not so much because of the devious cleverness of the hoax – after all, Ćosić is as likely to get a Nobel as Jackie Collins is – as because of what it shows about journalistic reflexes and how they change. Every news outlet has put out unverified stories at some point, and when people think it is big news but are not entirely certain the decision about whether to go ahead or not depends partly on critical professional judgement built through years of experience, partly on a realistic assessment of probability, and partly on what folks just plain wish was true. When B92 was an independent station operating under the slogan „Don’t trust anybody, not even us“, the first two factors would have prevailed and the third would not have entered into the equation. You know what made the mighty fall? Their might.

The satirists at got it about right when they found out that somebody else was publishing the fake and improbable news that they were supposed to be making up. Their story had an editor of the satirical site explaining, „We understand the desire of the B92 portal to amuse people with absurd and invented news stories, but at the same time we insist on basic journalistic ethics which should be respected“. It’s a pretty good summary of the role of satire at a time when „serious“ outlets are parodies of themselves.

Credit for the hoax was taken after the fact by an anonymous group who above a poem by Danilo Kiš posted the explanation that their goal was „to bring to the attention of the Serbian public dangerous influence of the writer Dobrica Ćosić”. On the one hand you could say that this offers a little bit of a mixed bag: they teased him, but then while they were doing so they drew more attention to him and continued the long tradition of inflating his importance. On the other hand, if the joke was to work as a political intervention, it had to rely on the assumption that as long as people are talking about Ćosić they are saying bad things. This might be a good assumption.

Update: A frequent ironic comment on the news has been “what does Basara say about this?” No problem, here is what Basara says.


Keep on Trifkin’

One of the curiosities that emerged from the terrorist attacks in two places in Norway on 22 July comes out of the odd manifesto (document is an enormous PDF full of nonsense) that the killer produced and distributed shortly before the crime. In fact it might be hard to call it a manifesto: it has some original text, some cribbed and slightly altered text, and then whole articles and essays lifted from the work of an assemblage of wackos who would be familiar to people who follow the extreme right press and blog world out of commitment or a perverse desire for entertainment, but to nobody else.

I am not sure that I recommend reading the document; it’s less well crafted and reasoned than a below-average undergraduate essay. The fellow talks quite a lot about things he does not know about. He has a long passage on cultural conflicts in American universities (although he never even attended a Norwegian one). He has an extended discussion of the works of Teodor Adorno (which he clearly has not read). He has an overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire (which does not even reach the level of Miroljub Jevtić, who is at least funny). But most disconcerting to the več-nam-je-bilo-sranja-preko-glave crowd, he has the revelation that his path to violent idiocy began with his shock at the Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999. So to the other sets of concerns he understands badly, he added the history of the Balkans, and his main, heavily quoted and cribbed source on that (as well as on some theological topics!) is one Srđa Trifković. I have not done word counts, but this Trifković may be the single most heavily cited author in the manifesto, if your count excludes whole articles that are reproduced and works by people who write under pseudonyms they got from their local Fjord dealership.

Now, if you are familiar with the scholarly literature on the topics that Srđa Trifković writes about then you have quite possibly never heard of Trifković. He got a doctorate in 1990 but published his last peer-reviewed work in 1993. His work is not read by students, cited by scholars or reviewed in academic journals. His connection with universities is tenuous: he had a brief period as an adjunct at a private Catholic institution in Texas, and had been on the faculty of Rose Hill College, an abortive effort at Orthodox fundamentalist higher education that admitted 26 students in 1997 and 1998 and closed never having awarded a degree. He identifies himself as a visiting professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Banja Luka, which means that he comes for three-day visits to give lectures on the “theory of foreign policy” that fourth-year students are obligated to listen to (he is not listed as a member of the faculty, but then neither is anybody else as the page is nonexistent).

But if you followed diaspora politics in the 1990s you knew about him. He was the representative of Radovan Karadžić to the international press and the representative of Republika Srpska in London (he preferred to call himself a “Balkan affairs analyst with close links to the Bosnian Serbs”). He hung on in the Region for a bit, doing a stint as an advisor to the convicted war criminal Biljana Plavšić and another for the unindicted co-conspirator Vojislav Koštunica. He offered his interpretations of things like prophets and swords as a defence witness to ICTY in 2003 and 2008.

Mostly, though, he got involved in larger propaganda campaigns. He hung out at an institute that was named for an old James Garner television vehicle that declared as its mission “to preserve the institutions of the Christian West”. He hung out at another institute named after a poet who, they say, “gave his life in the fight to free Balkan Christians from Islamic rule” (actually he died of fever, but whatever). He put out a couple of books seeking to persuade people that civilisation is fundamentally threatened by Islam (let him summarise his own argument, no?). He found the time to praise dear Mr Griffin and the charming folk at the BNP.

If you don’t follow the weirdness on the far right then all of this will have been under your radar (or of no interest to you, like the recipes for nostalgia-tinged home cooking that may very well be at the back of the weekly KKK newsletter). It is all a way of participating in the activity of the fringe folks who say Europe is turning into “Eurabia” and that all those seemingly nice immigrants who are doing all your work for you and serving you delicious kebab have a secret plan to reduce you to “dhimmitude“, which may sound like a charming term from the lexicon of Donovan but is actually meant to make you feel certain that living around people with a different nationality and religion is sinister. There are some well known outlets for this sort of thing, which I will not bother naming or linking.

So there is the connection: these are the waters into which Mr Trifković jumped, which Mr Breivik guzzled, and which people outside of that pond probably notice fairly rarely, maybe only on those occasions when unpopular political parties like BNP manage to make their ideas part of the programme of parties with supporters, like the Tories and Labour. It contributes to building an environment of hostility in which it was reasonable to expect that somebody, sooner or later, would feel inspired to commit the kind of crime that was eventually committed in Norway.

Does his personal history and prominence in the “thinking” of a mass killer make Trifković an accessory to a crime? Probably not in any way that a court would understand it. It would also be difficult to say that it damages his reputation, because his reputation is what it is.

For his part Trifković excuses himself with an analogy, claiming “by the same logic, it was the Beatles who inspired Charles Manson to kill Sharon Tate, because he found in their texts a coded invitation to that crime”. The difference, of course, is that the members of the Beatles had an artistic, literary and even a political profile distinguishable from the criminal act — not a whole history in its cloud of associations. As he told the court (p. 13903) in the Stakić case, “sweeping generalisations have a certain quality to them of reflecting an overall reality”.


In Mr Putin’s mailbox

Everyone could do with a little help from outside, even if they are making arguments about sovereignty. So the intellectuals in Serbia who want support in the ongoing border conflict with Kosovo are seeking it from Russia, and asked for it in a letter to the Russian PM Vladimir Putin. What they want, concretely, is for Russia to propose a resolution in the Security Council on the condition of Serbs of Kosovo.

But the way they argue their case — such a colourful alternative to the measured language of diplomacy! Kosovo is “the occupied portion of the Serbian state”. KFOR is “the camouflaged mission of the NATO phalanx”. Kosovo’s declaration of independence is “the jubilee of the Munich agreement”. Their opponents are “modern usurers, advocates of the new-old Euro-Atlantic order”. Faced with challenges like that, they place their hopes in “Russia, which, in conquering itself found its soul. And the meaning of the traditional philosophy of the Everyman”. Well, how could Mr Putin resist?

Srećom, the letter is not a document coming from Serbia’s foreign ministry or government. As Miloš Vasić explains, those officials appear to be letting the provocateurs do their publicity work while actually moving toward an agreement. So who are the signers, then? Unfortunately they are listed in alphabetical order, so the traditional way of identifying the first signatory as the author will not work here. But we can put it this way: of 21 people who signed, nine identify themselves as coming from the literary world — writers, philologists, literary critics and theorists. Five identify themselves as lawyers. There are three medical doctors, and one each from history, journalism, economics, and mathematics. Five of the 21 sign with the title “akademik”, indicating that they are members of SANU. So basically we are talking about a generation of intellectuals who found their moment of glory in the national hysteria of the 1990s. A few of the names are well known: Smilja Avramov, Vojislav Koštunica, Vasilije Krestić, Kosta Čavoški.

Now, let’s make a wild guess and say that the Russian government is not extremely likely to set its UN delegation into action on receipt of a letter from some novelists who have political connections in a different country and their friends. Nor are governments from the US and EU too likely to jump up and take notice at the fact that they have been described with some intemperate but fascinating phrases. Probably the letter is directed to somebody else. In the first place it is directed to the Serbian government to caution them against negotiating too seriously, and in the second place to the people they call “usurers” (I’m a foreigner, but I had to go to the dictionary for “lihvari” and still have not guessed why it matters whether they are “moderni” — are these terms anybody uses?) to remind them that they have opposition. But it could be that it is directed primarily to the public, to tell them hey, we figures from the past are still around, and hey, somebody takes the idea of a spiritual alliance with Russia seriously.

This sort of thing is easy enough to ridicule, just by pointing out that the signers appear to have found themselves in the wrong century or that they should have at their age learned to distinguish florid phrases from argument. That could be a mistake, though. Do we understand letters like this as being about content or context? If you see the role of the country in the world as forging grand historic alliances and embodying traditional philosophical concepts, there is rhetoric here that could appeal to you. If you see the role of the state as making arrangements to assure a peaceful life for its citizens and a chance to live by human activities like work and exchange, not so much.