Tales of the unexpected: Moving the goalposts with Ivica-love

A child's watch. A child's jumper. A bullet.
A child’s watch. A child’s jumper. A bullet.

People should know, and so other people are there to help them, and so they will. On 28 March 1999, members of the “Scorpions,” a reserve police unit, paid an uninvited visit to the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo. By the time the visit ended a few minutes later, fourteen members of the Bogujevci family, the Lugaliju family and the Duriqi family were murdered by gunshots. The visit by the “Scorpions” was not part of a battle or a fight against terrorism. At the ages of two and four respectively, Albion Duriqi and Mimoza Duriqi had not had the chance to join any organisations, paramilitary or otherwise.  Shehide Bogujevci, at the age of 67, and Hamdi Duriqi, at the age of 72, were past the age for active military service.

Some of the five children who survived the massacre participated in collecting and giving evidence. Fatos, Saranda and Jehona Bogujevci gave evidence at the trials of Vlastimir Djordjević (convicted and awaiting appeal) at ICTY and of Saša Cvjetan (convicted and sentenced in a domestic court in Serbia) and Dejan Demirović (turned protected witness). There were a few more trials of members of the “Scorpions” unit, and the surviving children gave testimony at all of them. Other than Vlastimir Djordjević, none of the people who supplied, financed and commanded the “Scorpions” have been charged.

This is probably about as far as courts and prosecutions are likely to go. The limits on criminal justice are, in a word, overdetermined. But resolved that the people who ought to know about the crime should know, the surviving family members put together an exhibition, “Bogujevci – visual history,” (the PDF catalog) which made its way this week to the Belgrade Cultural Centre. The exhibit is disarmingly simple. A visitor enters and sees first the living room of the family home, looking very much like typical family living rooms across the region. The next room gives details of the killings through photos and lists of the victims and recollections of the survivors. Visitors then move on to the hospital room where the survivors were mistreated, and finally to a room showing documentation of the trials. The surviving family members explain the exhibition in terms of the need of people to know the truth. The director of the Cultural Centre explains that she was willing to (fight to) host it so that “as a society we can show that we are ready for dialogue.”

Is it necessary to say that not everybody in Belgrade was enthusiastic about the prospect? The responses ahead of the exhibition ranged from the loopy papers like the extreme-right Pravda (“Albanian provocation in the centre of Belgrade”)  and Kurir (“Albanian propaganda: Artists from Kosovo make an exhibition in the middle of Belgrade!”), to the finger-yellowing tabloid Telegraf (“Scandal: An Albanian exhibition right in Knez Mihailova”) and the whatever-the-fuck-they-are Novosti (“Albanian propaganda right on Knez Mihailova”).  So if you peek at the range from subconscious-official to hyper-official media, you could get the feeling either that there is a broadly shared consensus in opposition to information out there or that under conditions of austerity they are all sharing the same headline writer. The fact that on the evening of the opening only a few dozen members of the Horst Wessel community choir showed up to shout insults at the attendees might be taken to suggest that the latter is the case.

But there was a surprise attendee. Prime minister Ivica Dačić came to the opening, let the members of the Bogujevci family take him on a tour, gave a statement affirming the importance of the exhibition, and expressed his sympathy with the victims of violence. That would be the same Ivica Dačić who was the principal spokesman for the Milošević regime at the time that the massacre took place. Throughout the evening and into the morning, there were expressions of Ivica-love from the most unexpected quarters. He was praised for courage, for showing his readiness for reconciliation, and for placing officialdom on the side of open exchange.

And it’s a bit hard to disagree, all that is great, especially in comparison to what could have happened, and may very well have happened not much earlier. Maybe the gesture was transformative and meaningful enough, and we can agree with Woody Allen (did I just say that?) that 80% of life is showing up.

Or maybe not. Let’s have a look at what Ivica Dačić actually said.  First he gave a statement minimizing the number of perpetrators and their sponsors, saying:

“They asked me when I came here about an apology, my answer is that everyone who is guilty has been convicted and that I would like all of the guilty people for all of the crimes from all sides to be convicted. That is much more meaningful than an apology. I offer my sympathies to the families of the victims of crimes; for the sake of reconciliation and the continuation of our shared life that is the way it should be in all of the major parts of the former Yugoslavia.”

So, he makes it a little bit interesting. In a few sentences he tell us 1) that anybody who has not already been convicted is not guilty, 2) that guilt for crimes depends on reciprocal guilt for crimes from other formerly warring parties, and 3) that states not involved in the conflict of which the massacre that is described in the exhibition was a part have some obligation to the ones that were involved. The narrowing of responsibility brings with it a broadening, and gle čudo both of them are transparently self-interested.

But that’s not all that Ivica Dačić said. He continued:

“It would be a shame if an exhibition like this were taken to imply that we are talking about our crimes or their crimes, because victims are victims. The guilty people did not do what they did in the name of Serbia, nor did anyone authorise them to do it.”

This is a bit interesting because Dačić knows better. He knows, for example, that the trial chamber judgment in the Djordjević case explicitly addresses the authority given by the Interior Ministry to the “Scorpions.” He knows that Interior Ministry personnel involved with similar crimes are still employed in the Interior Ministry.  He knows that the “Scorpions” were a reserve police unit under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.

But yes, I can anticipate you saying, sure, Interior Ministry this, Interior Ministry that. Dačić was there not as a technical official of government, but in his symbolic role as Prime Minister. Perhaps if the Prime Minister wants answers, he could share some of his thoughts with the Minister of the Interior. I think they might know one another.

Apologies for being a little contrarian here, it’s not really in my nature. It’s great that Ivica was thoughtful enough to roll himself into the gallery. He took one small step for humankind. And along the way placed one little kick in the butt of justice.


When politicians are narrow but not very deep: why the Kosovo negotiations repeatedly fail

pregovarački timOne more round of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo ended without agreement last week. The remaining point of disagreement is the degree of autonomy that would be afforded to the municipalities in the north where a large minority of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population is concentrated. On this point the difference in official positions is small enough that compromise between legitimate governments that have an interest in reaching an agreement is entirely possible: it comes down to who is involved in the operation of local police forces and courts. It is the side and symbolic issues that present a dilemma for the Serbian government, in particular the question of whether they can step back from lucrative parallel structures that have been built up over the years, and whether making an agreement with a state they have declared an intention never to recognise carries an unbearable political cost.

So what happened after the failed negotiations? The members of the Serbian government went back home to consult with their political parties and something that describes itself as the “state leadership.” A bunch of people made a bunch of statements to the press, and a little far-right group had a listless rally after which they played Boy Scouts by camping in a central square of Belgrade. Government spokespeople have promised to come out today with a final resolution in which they will say “yes” or “no” to the agreement.

The government is more likely to come out with a “no” than a “yes,” but it makes no difference what they say. The result will be the same: negotiations will continue, and a compromise will be signed that acknowledges the sovereignty of Kosovo over its territory while providing some degree of self-government to the disputed municipalities. The frenetic activity going on now is not about whether this will happen, but when.

So why is it so difficult for Serbia to agree to a foregone conclusion that recognises the reality on the ground? And why despite the difficulty will they agree to it anyway? Step by step.

Why is it so hard to agree?

  1. This government lacks authority and legitimacy. It was assembled in a hurry after a close and surprising election result that followed a campaign in which the status of Kosovo and the northern municipalities was not an issue. The obligation to make an agreement was made without public involvement in private meetings between the prime minister and EU and US diplomats. The prime minister leads a minority party poorly placed to make commitments, which is why a last-ditch effort to rescue the negotiations involved flying his more powerful deputy over to Bruxelles. A government that never said what it would do, does not know what it wants, and can’t figure out who speaks for it is not likely to be able to do much.
  2. For years the ground was prepared for the opposite outcome. A series of post-2000 governments engaged in rhetorical escalation and immobility. The constitution was altered to include a hardline negotiating position the preamble. When he was prime minister, Vojislav Koštunica created institutions in the northern municipalities designed to compensate for his party’s lack of an electoral base. The teaching of history and culture was handed over to the farthest-right elements in educational and religious institutions. And nobody was told what was in the proposals on the table – the Ahtisaari plan, which provided everything that Belgrade is demanding now, was presented to the public as an imperial ultimatum, just like this one. Propaganda has defined the discourse for the past twenty years, and it is only an informed public that can back away from propaganda.
  3. The parties in power are trapped by their legacies. Who is the president? The former leader of a party that organised paramilitaries. Who is the prime minister? Milošević’s former spokesman. Who is the foreign minister? A fellow lots of people say is a very nice man but who has no involvement in the making of policy. Who is the grey eminence? Milošević’s former minister of information. Who is the largest opposition party? A party whose foreign minister built a bridge from the democratic centre to the nationalist far right. Every party that is in a position to influence the debate has a record of supporting the Milošević regime’s policy toward Kosovo before 2000 and of trying to pick up Milošević’s voters by continuing his policies afterward. They have no room to maneuver and no credibility.

What happens when no agreement is reached?

If we follow the pattern that can be observed in every previous instance, when a little bit of time passes the government agrees to terms that were angrily rejected shortly before, and go on to do quietly what they earlier refused to do loudly. Since all of this happens without authority from the public and behind closed doors, it is undertaken insincerely. Then the main political energy goes into undermining agreements that have already been made.

It’s an ugly situation. It produces unevenly implemented agreements designed by outsiders who lack knowledge and engagement, and who look to satisfy the interests of political parties and profiteers at the cost of the interests of the local residents. This is not the product of imperialism or strongarm politics, but is entirely the product of the irresponsibility of political actors who had every opportunity and motivation to make agreements themselves, and only cynical reasons not to.

Why will the result be not much of a result?

The fundamental reason that the agreement will be signed sooner or later is that the Serbian government cares more for the benefits it can receive from the EU than it does for a long-cultivated public opinion that is increasingly hostile but only occasionally relevant. This result should be satisfying to absolutely nobody. It demonstrates the power of the EU to eventually compel resolutions, but also the fundamental weaknesses of EU policy. They imagine that they are more powerful than inertia. They imagine that they are more attractive than they are. And they imagine that there is a limit to the irresponsibility of politicians.


Wolves at the door, if there were a door

Hooray for manipulation of terrible stories of the suffering of children! Have you heard of young Anđela (8), Miljan (9) and Marko (10)? Well, according to the long-ago respected former B92, twice a day to attend school they have to go “alone with no protection” for “two or three hours” through surrounding forests “full of bloodthirsty animals like wolves”. And there is no question of failing to arrive on time, since “they are the only students there”.

Eh, they have luckier neighbours, Danijel and Stefan. Those lads only have to go along 15km of goat paths to an unlighted mud school, but “when the weather is nice their father takes them by motorcycle”. What is there to be expected of the father when the weather is unpleasant?

The nature of the problem? They are in villages near the “administrative line” (this is a very special type of line) with Kosovo. Unnamed sources appear to have counted the number of wolves in the area (about 200), but otherwise the line, although it is administrative, seems to remain quite unadministered. Unless you calculate the predictable reaction to stories like this, which would seem to be very elaborately administered.


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.