When you say “newspaper,” you think “cloak and dagger”: Politika’s baffling palace coup(s)

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 17.05.03Everyone will tell you, Politika is the oldest newspaper in the Balkans. They say it is influential too, but this is probably an exaggeration. Of the remaining people who actually read newspapers, more seem to prefer the lurid tabloids chock full of conspiracy theories (Politika does okay on that count) and assorted body parts of people who are recognisable from television. So what is the grey mass good for? Well, like “newspapers of record” in other countries, it is a place where editors perform the boundaries of what officials think people ought to know about, where respectable-seeming people give a pretty gloss to whatever line of thinking is dominant at the moment, and where folks who want to cement their wobbly positions in some future elite display their fetishes. It also has a surprisingly good –literate, diverse and comprehensive – arts and culture section on the weekends. Ah yes, and its weather predictions and death notices are impressively accurate.

Politika’s editor, Ljiljana Smajlović, has developed a habit of entering and leaving that job in strict covariance with the strength of her political connections. Last week she caused a minor subset of exquisitely tweezed eyebrows to raise when she announced her resignation. Her obliquely worded letter informed readers that:

My resignation is a protest against a management that prevents the editor in chief to independently direct the journalists

and suggestively notes that:

…real editorial freedom does not exist in those places where the editors have been completely disempowered and the management acts without control.

There is nothing in the text, or in the ones that followed, that specified how she was prevented from independently editing the paper or where those places are where the management acts without control (or, more importantly, who this “management” is). So nobody will be surprised that the decision was followed by a lot of speculation. A bit about the speculation below, but there is something more fascinating.

As soon as the editor announced her resignation – as a part of the same article, in fact – the paper, which she continues to edit, began a campaign with the goal of persuading her to change her mind or for the resignation not to be accepted. Early on in the campaign, it was joined by the Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS). This wholly independent organisation offering its support to Ljiljana Smajlović is headed by Ljiljana Smajlović. It competes for authority with the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS).

Today is, as those of you follow calendars will already know, Sunday. This is the day when newspapers put out larger editions that stress their chosen themes for the week, and Politika is of course no exception. The lead story is about high school students choosing to go into trades rather than continuing their education, but the columns on the side tell you all you need to know about the paper’s priorities: two essays of praise for the editor and her stellar character, and sandwiched in between them an interview with the leader of the main ethnic Serb party in Croatia, mostly about EU accession. So who is praising Smajlović now, and what are they saying?

The leading item comes from sometime film director Emir Kusturica, who made exactly two good films (one in 1981 and one in 1985) and then spent the next thirty years marketing predigested stereotypes about the Balkans to an inexplicably delighted French public. Recently he made news by claiming that he is the victim of an endless witch hunt  (fun fact: in the Balkans they hunt witches by hurling massive quantities of public money at them). Today he says in a text that is mostly hyperbolic praise for the editor that Politika is:

Simultaneously in the service of freedom and of the state

adding that:

In difficult moments it is apparent who is a hero and who is an eccentric poltroon and how much a wise editor can in turbulent moments be helpful to our cause. And our cause is founded on the state and on principles, but also on freedom!

So, there you have it. Freedom.

Kusturica’s effort got reinforcement from the curious Željko Cvijanović, a journalist with an interesting/uninteresting past whose main activity has involved trying to make the shift from being Radovan Karadžić’s in-house mouthpiece to securing a similar position in a recognised state. Cvijanović makes an appeal for the state to resume ownership of the paper, which would presumably guarantee that regardless of the character of any government, it would continually maintain its subservient ideological role.

A few other people got into the act. There’s Matija Bećković, a fellow who always wanted to the national poet in the spirit of Constantine Cavafy or Vaso Pashë Shkodrani, but who is notable principally for wearing a funny hat. For good measure and completeness, here are a couple more – one guy who prescribes Politika for the maintenance of psychological health, and one who compares its quality to the other things you can buy at a kiosk (chewing gum?).

What is fascinating about the whole publicity campaign, in which the editor who resigned has for days dedicated large chunks of the front page to people “spontaneously” begging her not to resign, is that no ordinary reader will be able to discern what it is about.

Is it about politics? Who knows, but I will say probably not. Politika has traditionally been a place for people close to state structures and the political right to market their opinions, and is not in the habit of straying from that position much. When it does it is in the direction of more pronounced extremism, and the role of Politika in the 1990s in promoting the rise of Slobodan Milošević and his quasilegal elite, together with ethnic hatred and violence in general, has been thoroughly documented. In that regard Ljiljana Smajlović has continued, with a slightly larger dose of respectability, in the footsteps of her predecessor Dragan (“Electricity”) Antić.

One of the characteristic features of Politika under Smajlović has been a series of feature columns by a rotating cast of writers (none of them are very good, and none of them lasted very long) attacking writers for independent media and a whole set of personalities associated with the long-dormant “Other Serbia,” a loose association of anti-war and anti-regime intellectuals from the 1990s (I wrote about them here a while ago) . The most recent assemblage of texts involved a series trying two present two live historians and one dead philosopher as “autochauvinistic.” In short, there is nothing in the political direction of the paper under its editor that sets it apart from the dominant tone of media in the country, which has nothing that sets it apart from the dominant tone in the 1990s, except that then the offerings were more diverse. Emir Kusturica may think Politika is “critical,” but you could fit the things that Emir Kusturica thinks into a couple of heavily subsidised fake historical sites.

So to the degree that politics is involved, it is not anything that anyone would recognise as substantive politics. This is partly because in an environment where everything is about politics it is equally true that nothing is about politics, and partly because due to the successful work of Politika and similar outlets over the last few decades, there is no substantive political disagreement about anything in the media mainstream.

There may well be another kind of politics involved, however, if we keep in mind that the politics of media is business and that the business of politics is media. As the state council against corruption in Serbia warned several times (twice in 2011, here and here, and once in 2015 here), major media in the country are owned by unknown actors, shell companies, and networks with no mechanisms of accountability. Since the German publisher WAZ decided it wanted out of the domestic marketplace in 2010, it looks as though an assemblage of political entrepreneurs and economic operators have been trading back and forth. This happens in an environment in which the government shows evident favour to a few media outlets whose editors have personal connections in positions of power, and where there is an occasional effort to bring discipline to the rest.

The whole vague business with an editor resigning, engaging a campaign to prevent her own resignation, and assembling a gaggle of dubious figures to intervene is probably best understood outside of the context of substantive politics and inside the context of “deep” politics where lucrative favours are traded. But the promise of understanding does not amount to much after years of assiduous effort to keep the facts unknown.


Notes on the afterlife of Sloba: from anathema to eczema

caligari01Necrophilia is nothing new in politics or commemorative practices, of course. It is enough to follow discussions on the names of public places, look at the monuments to “our fallen heroes,” see who gets funerals and anniversaries observed, and you can see that the zombie invasion has been with us for so long that we might even call it a cohabitation. In postsocialist politics especially, attention to the “cosmic” dimension of dead bodies, which “serve as sites of political conflict related to the process of reordering the meaningful universe,” has marked an ongoing current of discussion since Katherine Verdery published her by now iconic work, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies in 1999.

Dead bodies have a special valence in the states of former Yugoslavia, where historical figures are flown around, removed and reburied (a recent instance involved Petar Karadjordjević, the hapless teenager who was King of Yugoslavia for eleven days in 1941), war victims are shifted around and hidden and their photographs used in an alarming variety of contexts, and speculation about where they might be located continues to (de)mobilise whole sets of institutions.

The body of Slobodan Milošević has been no exception, even before he was dead. When he was in power he dressed it up in informal gear to show that he was a little bit unlike the men without qualities who marked the old nomenklatura. When he was on trial he deployed its frailty to influence the timing of proceedings. And when he died halfway through presenting his legal defence, necromance flowered into necropassion.

First came speculation that the indictee had been murdered by the Tribunal, which remained popular in some rarefied political circles for a while. Then came the question of how his life would be represented – with one answer offered by the popular daily paper Blic, which offered a front-page photomontage summarizing his life and times: the wreckage on the Ibar highway from the attempted murder of opposition politician Vuk Drašković, the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija, the pyramid-scheme “banker” Dafina Milanović, the protests at electoral fraud in 1996 and 2000, and the antiregime demonstrations of 9 March 1991. Then came the war of newspaper necrologues, which pitted praise from his political associates and Scheveningen neighbours against condemnation from cultural elites, and a cameo by Mile s Čubure.

The contention intensified once the body made its way back to Serbia. The Mayor of Belgrade refused to provide a spot for him in the “alley of worthy citizens” in the city’s New Cemetery, on the ground that “the Alley of Worthy Citizens should be used for the burial of people who have, by their character and engagement, left a positive, noble and human trace in this city and in our country. The traces that the Milošević regime left behind it are the reason that I believe that he in no way deserves the mantle of a worthy citizen, neither in the Alley nor in Serbian history.” The military declined to provide a burial with ceremonial honours. As the question of his burial began more and more to resemble the plot of The Trouble With Harry, the decision was eventually made that rather than packing the corpse off to Moscow where it was likely to be welcomed, it could be planted in the garden of the Milošević family house in Požarevac.

With no public funeral, competing public rallies were held instead. A few retired generals compensated for the military’s refusal to provide a ceremonial guard by showing up in other people’s uniforms that they had borrowed. There were addresses by some interesting folk: paraphilosophers Milorad Vučelić and Mihailo Marković turned up, and so did the Austrian politician-manque Peter Handke. A high point was the public reading of a letter from Vojislav Šešelj by his deputy Aleksandar Vučić (whatever happened to him? Somebody should include him in one of those “Where are they now?” features).

Meanwhile his old opponents organised their counterdemonstrations. One politician made a round of visits to the graves of several of Milošević’s prominent victims. In Belgrade an “antiburial” was held to coincide with the supporters’ rally, with colourful balloons released into the air under the slogan “Overi” (Make certain [that he is dead]).

If the fascination with the good or bad (depending on your political tastes) qualities of the deceased looks a little bit like one of the most enduring contributions of Balkan folk culture to global commercial culture, the vampire legend, this resemblance was not lost on people in Serbia (nor was it lost on two of my friends who wrote very different books bringing together political conflicts and the vampire legend). One year after Milošević died, one person made the symbolic point very dramatically, breaking into the garden in Požarevac and driving a stake into the grave.

In the years since, a small and shrinking group of diehards has come to do their version of Yahrzeit every March. Milošević’s party stopped participating when Boris Tadić rehabilitated them by bringing them into government in 2008, but the stalwart something or other Milutin Mrkonjić has held firm. But this year even Mrkonjić has been skipping out on rituals held over the body of Milošević.

The risk was emerging that the most polarising set of remains in all Braničevo could fall into forgetfulness and neglect.

Leave it to the tabloid press to borrow a page from the interlife of Radovan Karadžić, who spent the time between committing his crimes and being arraigned for them as a pseudonymous faith healer. The always delightful and by no means evocatively named daily Pravda has emerged with a new story.  According to, um, somebody’s neighbour in Požarevac, a plant has grown out of the grave that magically cures difficult skin disorders!

The theme of healing with sacred plants carrying the spirit of a person is of course far from unknown in folklore – it might be thought of as a variant on entheogen. It is also hardly unique to a particular region, as one recent case attests. It is probably fairly new to contemporary politics. But this is a brave new world, and gardening is a challenging old skill.


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.


Celebrate, inflame, soothe? Reading reactions to the Gotovina verdict

By now there will not be many people who do not know that the decision of the ICTY appeals chamber to release Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač inspired a lot of passionate responses. We have not heard about those responses in too much detail because pretty much everybody who responded did so in exactly the way that could have been predicted before the event. There was no statement from a public figure that would have caused you to raise an eyebrow and say, “this person associated with promoting the regimes of the 1990s has really shocked me with extraordinary intelligence, depth and sensitivity!” or “this person representing a political party heavily engaged with paramilitary activity and propagating ethnic hatred has emerged as a paragon of understanding and caring.” But then you didn’t expect that.

What we did get was fairly telling, though, to the degree that responses to events allow us to generate a picture of public opinion and sentiment, and mark a moment in the development of ways in which people understand the recent past and perceive one another. It might be possible to say that this moment is an important one because it includes a generation of folks who do not have direct experience or memory of the period in question, but who were largely educated with some fascinating and self-serving versions of it.

The typology of responses presented below can hardly be taken as exhaustive. More categories could certainly be added, but I have tried to keep it short for the sake of readability, and I think what is down here accounts for most of what is out there. You could think of it as a way of using public readings of the past to get an overview of what people expect and think in the present. I’ve divided the responses into three general types with three subtypes of each.

Celebratory displays

Triumphalism and ethnoeroticism: There was so much of this and it was so dominant that it is hardly worth describing in detail. So let’s do it with a picture, from the moment when the released defendants’ plane landed and the traffic controllers told them over the radio, “Our dear generals! The Croatian Air Traffic Control Authority is proud to greet you and wish you welcome into the Croatian airspace, for which you fought and sacrificed yourselves. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for that.” Not to be outdone by sacrifices for air, the airport firetrucks assumed a pose that would have done a pornographic film director proud (naturally we needed the salacious backstory as well).

New institutionalism: The ICTY, dismissed as a political institution directed against [insert nationality here] until about 9:30 AM on Friday, was magically transformed into the cleanser of historical legacies. Hindsighted over-shoulder backslapping aside, this was not the expected outcome. While many domestic politicians and parapoliticians leapt at the chance to make the point that all responsibility had been erased, it got a surprisingly strong endorsement from Ian Traynor in the Guardian (of all papers!), who found that the Tudjman regime “is exonerated.” Predictably the discussions quickly shifted from an assertion of wounded innocence in 1995 to an assertion of wounded innocence across the boundaries of time and space. A look at the dispiriting comments on Traynor’s article shows enthused readers opining on whose crimes were the worst in the whole 1990s war period, how many people were killed at Jasenovac (stop the presses! not as many as some people wanted!), the ethnic coordinates of Communism, and the injustices of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The discussion offers a reminder about instrumental interpretation and the very popular refusal to take history seriously, as if this was needed. And it reminds us that views of whether institutions are good or bad all too frequently put a cui in front of the bono.

Finding the most opportune posture: Released defendant Mladen Markač found his moment, he returned to Croatia and the next day was at the head of a parade commemorating the destruction of Vukovar. Ivan Čermak, acquitted by the Tribunal in the first instance because it could not be proved that his military rank brought him a job to go with his uniform, was out and about to seek an advantage too. There were some other people who also saw their chance to make hay while the national euphoria shined – most impressive of all of them was the coach of the national football team, Igor Štimac, who invited Gotovina to give the opening kick the next time Croatia plays Serbia, because we all know that what makes Balkan football matches so dull is the complete absence of nationalist provocation. Surprisingly, the person who participated least of all in the mass invitation to escalate was Gotovina himself, who declined to glorify the war in his arrival speech, told reporters he was going on holiday rather than to veterans’ rallies, and gave a surprisingly conciliatory interview to an outré Serbian tabloid. One possible explanation: the highly reticent philosopher Žarko Puhosvki thinks that Gotovina is preparing himself for a political career, and in that case it is best to move the Etch-a-Sketch to the centre.

Inflammatory displays

Refueling 1991: The year 1991 was bad one for the Bordeaux harvest and for people, but if you were an aspiring paramilitarian or a national demagogue in the Balkans, it was great. That year saw the emergence of most of the extremists who would be accused of crimes in the years to come, and in Croatia, the incidents that would lead to most of the bitter resentments that mark nationalist politics today – among them the destruction of Vukovar, which was commemorated over the weekend following the appeal verdict. If the heroes of 1991 had their day in the sun in Croatia on Friday, in Serbia they have been out of fashion for years (the fact that one of their successors is currently president and another is prime minister owes a lot to some humiliating but ineffective ceremonies of public repudiation of their political history). But always ready to celebrate crime, and sometimes commit it, the Serbian Radical Party – their president is waiting for an ICTY verdict himself – saw its moment. They organized a poorly attended public protest (their last one had almost as many participants as police, and ended with 179 arrests) of the appeals verdict, and for good measure they burned a Croatian flag. No doubt they were grateful for the opportunity to be burning things again.

Tuquoquism: Oluja was okay because Vukovar and Srebrenica were really bad. The people charged in this case (and especially the people whose orders they carried out) were innocent because their war opponents were a lot more guilty. Every crime is justified by another crime. Heard these arguments before? Courts reject them and give them a label: tu quoque (in Latin this means “so’s your mother”). The reason courts reject them is that their job is only to weigh the facts that are under consideration, not some real or potential other case. That is a decent principle in everyday morality too, enshrined in too many proverbs and folk sayings to name. In politics, though, and especially in the amateur discussions that spring up around politics, people do love themselves some tu quoque. Why didn’t the trial chamber mention Vukovar? Hint: it wasn’t in the indictment. But never mind, the lack of a conviction for one crime means there should be no convictions for any others. Sounds so right, and yet so wrong.

Reductio ab nacošem: Fitting the news into national categories was easy! For SETimes, “Croatia celebrates” and “Serbia [is] stunned.” Over in the world of France24, “Croats rejoice while Serbs fume.”  So in the eyes of the headline writers, the (only) people who responded to the event were (all, undifferentiated) Croats and (all, undifferentiated) Serbs. How is it possible to account for the fact that there are Croats and Serbs who did not share in the euphoria/outrage and who think for themselves? Once the headline collectivization has been performed, the only possible explanation has to be that they are in some unexplainable respect not Croats or Serbs (the fact that there are people in the world who take an interest in events but are yet neither Croats nor Serbs may prove more resistant to popular-media explanation). That this perception should appear plausible at all is a consequence of the success of nationalist politicians in making it appear that the least tolerant people in the population speak for the entire nation – or to paraphrase my colleague Chip Gagnon, to make the consequences of violence appear as though they are the causes. The people who do the dirty work know that they are not representative, of course, which explains the enthusiasm of Gotovina’s and Markač’s brother against the unarmed, Veselin Šljivančanin.

Soothing displays

Maintaining a disrespectful silence: Some of the people you might expect to chart a course of understanding avoiding the extremes have said – nothing. This derives largely from a sense that the thrilled and the outraged will have their day and take up all the space that is available for communication. What is soothing about this? It contains an implicit promise that the fireworks will fizzle out and the reasonable folk will be back. It would be more soothing to be certain that they really will be, of course.

Silvering the lining: Opposing the “new institutionalism” position which contends that all historical responsibility has been abolished is the official line taken by a number of high-ranking officials of the Republic of Croatia. President Ivo Josipović affirmed an ongoing obligation of the state to try and punish crimes. Prime minister Zoran Milanović promised that Croatia would “fulfill its debt to people who were wronged.” Foreign minister Vesna Pusić promised “no amnesty” for war crimes. This was the moderate official line, according to which there were crimes that domestic prosecution is obligated to address, and will, but that the two people charged were not the people responsible for them. This was not, however, the line endorsed by the majority of the ICTY appeals chamber, which dismissed evidence related to the planning and organisation of crimes. As Drago Hedl points out, whatever intentions about domestic law enforcement are expressed on high, the record is thin, the will is weak, and the probability is low.

Rara avis – a concern for the victims: The Youth Initiative for Human Rights pointed to the number of victims of unpunished crimes and the systematic character of the crimes and insisted that the Tribunal’s verdict did not eliminate the need to address unmet demands. The Humanitarian Law Centre predicted that as a result of the verdict “nobody will hold it against Croatia anymore” if crimes are never prosecuted. Women in Black promised autonomous answers to the problem that “the suffering of victims and survivors is clearly unimportant to institutions, just like ordinary people are unimportant to them, and because of that they replace justice with political games.”  And Documenta warned of the deep social consequences of a “tragedy with no epilogue.” To the degree that there will be people effectively working to demand responses, and not depending on ICTY to deliver them, there is some chance that last Friday’s verdict will not be the last that is heard of the story.

 What to make of the array of responses? Still they indicate a problem raised but not addressed. But it should not be surprising that the story does not end with a flag-waving whimper. No court has ever done for a society what people in the society were not prepared to do for themselves. As much as politicians have shown that they are happy to make use of contested memories of the wars of the 1990s, the responses mostly tend to indicate that public memory is not a political issue but still a prepolitical one, in which identities remain heavily invested in a small number of prefabricated articulations.

The most vaspitani of the responses have taken the form of vague invitations to turn toward the future. The people making this invitation cannot predict the future of course, just like nobody else can. But the probability is always very high that if nobody does anything, the future will be a lot like the past.


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.

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.


You know what they said? Well, some of it was true.

Amazing scientific finding of the day: the periphery of Europe does not have a monopoly on communal violence! Secret: we already knew that. So getting over the urge to pretend to be shocked that there is a fairly long and diverse history of riots west of the Danube as well, how is it being perceived in The Region? Well, let’s have a look at everybody’s favourite source of the vox kafanskus, remarks that people with funny pseudonyms make on news articles. How about a small sample of two? This one from Pink92, and this one from Index. Some themes that jump out of a quick perusal:

The “false democracy” key. The first set of themes is probably the most obvious and least interesting: the people who have observed that democracy does not appear to function perfectly well, from the ones saying “well, what’s with that democracy?” or dismissing democracy as “just a phrase that is pulled over people’s eyes”, on down the line to the point that “something like this could never happen in Russia or China”. There might be something to say about this approach, but all that comes to me is, okay, if that makes you happy … it makes me happy to move on.

The „ja tebi, ti meni” (JTTM) key. There is always pleasure to be had in the suffering of others, right? But what kind of pleasure? I think I have identified three kinds.

JTTM-1: Intervention for me, intervention for you. This one is usually expressed through sarcastic remarks.

“Send EULEX over, until the opposing sides reach a compromise”.

“What is NATO waiting for? They have bombarded Tripoli enough, now it is London’s turn. First the hospitals, then the bridges, then the headquarters of the television stations BBC, SKY and CNN. Civilians must be protected! Human rights before all!”

“Gaddafi has recognised the London hooligans as the legitimate government of theUK. NATO has begun to hit Cameron’s residence. The EU has given him a 48-hour ultimatum to leave the country with one suitcase”.

JTTM-2: How nice that you are as bad as we are. Bad conditions somewhere else make conditions at home seem a little bit better.

“It makes things a little bit easier for me to hear about this, not that I am pleased, but it is easier for me because Serbia is not the only country that has thugs and hooligans”.

“The English government should offer its citizens a solution for their unemployment and ever increasing poverty, especially among the minority communities. They should eliminate racial discrimination in all parts of the society. And finally, they should refrain from excessive use of force against the legitimate demands of their citizens. If they do not do that, then NOTHING WILL HAPPEN. After all, it’s not Serbia”.

“I think that Croatia should delay its entry into the European Union until those savages in Britain are set right. Either they should be sorted out or Croatia will not enter the EU until Britain is expelled!”

JTTM-3: Svidja mi se da vam ne bude prijatno. The bad stuff is not a reflection on us, just on you.

“Really, in the European Union, and in Great Britain, it is not all milk and honey?”

“Peckham is burning! I hope that Del Boy is all right. He is one of the few good qualities of the former empire that still fantasises about medieval princes and princesses”.

“England is getting it back for the negative policy they have carried out toward Croatia”.

The “svi smo mi pomalo Oswald Spengler” key. Street violence is just another sign that Europe is declining, and no hope should be placed in it.

“Without any bad intentions, the way things are going we will be glad that we do not live in the West in the coming days”.

“The whole EU is slowly sinking into chaos and crisis. The way of life imposed by Western civilisation, which can be described by the words ‘spolja gladac a iznutra jadac’ is breaking down, and all of the artificially suppressed frustrations, nationalism and existential crises are coming to the surface”.

“This all happened already between 1929 and 1932. Greedy capitalists reduced wages so that they could enrich themselves more and more quickly, but they forgot that then poor people would not have the money to buy their nice expensive products. Eighty years has passed since that crisis and now everybody who survived it has passed on, and again there has appeared a caste of ‘managers’ who think that they are the smartest people in the world, but they have forgotten that history repeats itself”.

“What kinds of revolutionaries and avengers for 400 years of oppression are these? These guys smash the window of the Bang & Olufsen shop and steal high-tech products. What kind of just revolutionaries are these? They are ordinary chicken thieves. This kind of generation brings this kind of revolution”.

The „svi smo mi pomalo Breivik” key. Like Spengler, only more racist and anti-immigrant.

“Criminals and hooligans are the same everywhere. Some domestic media describe them as ‘young demonstrators’. In fact we are talking about people who do not want to work, who live off benefits. Britain and all the other EU countries are getting the boomerang from the policy of liberal entry into the country”.

“The English once claimed they were the “Empire on which the sun never sets”. Well, now they have got coming to them from all sides the people they colonised by force and fire, and they are destroying Britain from the inside. Well, let them”.

“Name me one other time when Western civilisation was a) so far in debts that it was sinking, 2) so full of corruption, 3) so full of immigrants, 4) without an external enemy that would unite people in those societies”.

“What is happening is controlled violence that will be used as a pretext for a battle against immigrants and the multicultural society. The English people are not so foolish like us that they do all these things as improvisation and without calculating”.

There are hundreds of comments, of course, and many more articles and sources than I have used for this very brief discussion. So think of these as a few themes that became clearly visible after one reading.

Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this very small sample? I can suggest a couple. One is that the experience of international tutelage produces a situation in which the patronised folks enjoy seeing the patronisers suffer. Another is that there is an obvious sensitivity to the fact that some states are seen as appropriate intervenors and others as appropriate objects of intervention. And maybe the last two would be that 1) those obligatory courses in cod-Marxism were not ignored by everyone, regardless of what they tell you, and 2) one thing the West still exports very successfully is its dumbass racist ideas.