Between Old Yugoslavia and New Europe

In the month prior to the most recent events to rock Serbia, the question posed to me most frequently concerned the February 15th antiwar demonstrations and why such a small number of people in Yugoslavia had protested against the planned bombing of Iraq. In Belgrade, unlike Zagreb where over 10,000 protestors were mobilized, only around 200 people assembled publicly to demonstrate against the impending military action against Iraq. The Belgrade protest was organized by the non-governmental organization "Women in Black".

The Yugoslav radical and anti-authoritarian coalition "Another World Is Possible" organized a somewhat different protest in the coalition’s tradition of direct action and creative disobedience. For the "Night of the Red Noses" monuments in Belgrade and Novi Sad "shed blood in a sign of solidarity with the Iraqi people" by way of washable paint, since it would appear that "monuments seem to have more feelings than people".

So how is it possible that after brutal and direct experience with the NATO bombing, after the many hundreds killed, after the destruction of the RTS Television station (in which 16 people died), only 200 people gathered for the protests? Is it possible that Yugoslavs do not feel solidarity with the Iraqi people, despite the fact that they themselves not so long ago underwent the military and psychological torture of bombing?

There is no doubt that Yugoslav public opinion is against the war in Iraq. Although, here I have to correct myself: in fact, it is "Serbian and Montenegrin" public opinion that is in question, since, on February 4th of this year, Yugoslavia ceased to exist and was replaced by the new state of "Serbia and Montenegro".

If Europe today is divided amongst the "old" and the "new", its newest state has once again been left somewhere in between. "Old" Europe bombed us, while "new" Europe ardently supported them. Both the old and new Europes heartily participated in something that was primarily and ultimately an American war against the Serbs and Milosevic. Public opinion in S&M is not oblivious to the current differences between Paris, Bonn and Washington, but it instinctively rejects the notion that the current rivalry between Europe and America over Iraq is a matter of moral superiority.

Post-Yugoslav public opinion cannot view these diplomatic disagreements as a great battle between a peaceful, multilateral, and refined Europe on one side, and a militant, isolationist and impudent America on the other. The opinion that prevails is that the differences between western allies today are of an essentially strategic rather than of a moral nature.

Another type of international naïveté engenders resistance in post-Yugoslav public opinion. It is not prone to accept the line of reasoning that claims that the most sophisticated international policy towards volatile regions by well-intentioned foreigners requires the accurate demarcation of the good/innocent players from the bad/evil ones, with the sorting out of evil tyrants and dictators into an all-together separate category. Nor are they inclined to believe that somewhere in the wings awaits a better, more benevolent leader whom the greatful people will sweep to power by their own hands, as soon as the West helps them to overthrow the tyrant.

They have learned through their own very difficult experiences that things tend not to work that way, and are very distrustful towards western neo-liberal politicians and intellectuals who claim that they can save the village by burning it down.

Even Belgrade neo-liberal intellectuals, that otherwise highly unsympathetic lot, are opposed to the war. Admittedly against all expectations, they have not called for the "regime change" of Saddam Hussein through bombardment. It is notable that even those neo-liberals who most vociferously advocated the ground invasion, occupation and "de-nazification" of Serbia during the NATO bombardment today shudder and refrain from publicly prescribing the same medicine against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

People in Serbia remember all too well that they were the first upon whom the theory of collective guilt was tested and exercised. According to this doctrine, "people bear moral responsibility for the ways in which they are governed." Accordingly, the people of Serbia must bear "responsibility" (and collective punishment), firstly because they voted for Milosevic, and then because they did not overthrow him by force, to the extent that they cannot be considered to be wholly "innocent under the bombs."

Albanian intellectuals in Kosovo are in a rather different mood. Thus, we find Veton Suroi, who is considered to be an enlightened liberal intellectual among the Kosovo Albanian elite, recently proclaiming in the "International Herald Tribune" that the bombing of Kosovo proved the peace slogan "Bombs cannot bring democracy" to be false.

Serbian authorities have framed this unease and non-alignment with the main ruling camps in international relations as Belgrade’s attempt to remain "neutral" in the conflict. Yet such a desired-for neutrality likely has as much to do with the current conflict between the two Europes and one America as with the war against Iraq.

On the other hand, Montenegro, with its already familiar lack of measure and style, tripped over itself to rush into the embrace of Washington and introduce itself to the "New Europe." The precise content of the letter of support for US policy on the Iraq crisis from Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to Bush remains unknown to the public. T

he purpose of this exercise also remains unclear: whether his aim was to recommend Montenegro to NATO, to distinguish its policies from that of Serbia, to obtain money, or some other reason. It raises all the contested questions of the political relations between Serbia and Montenegro, Montenegro and Europe, and particularly Montenegro’s own internal divisions.

Some analysts attribute such behaviour to internal political conflicts between independentists and unionists regarding whether or not Montenegro should develop an international approach and foreign policy that is independent from Serbia. In the current case, the Montenegrin government’s approach is not only independent, but diametrically opposed to that of Serbia, which chose not to take sides in the conflict between America and Europe.

Thus far, the greatest amount of support to the movement for Montenegrin independence has come from the United States. In his courteous reply to Djukanovic, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell did not explicitly mention the possibility of Montenegro, whether with or without Serbia, moving closer to the western military alliance (which, for most of the post-communist countries that now make up the "New Europe", has always been the most attractive bait.) On the other side, French President Jacques Chirac has warned the ex-communist countries that they are diminishing their chances of entering into the European Union by throwing their support behind the US policy towards Iraq.

The Montenegrin Minister of Foreign Affairs (since Montenegro, though belonging to a state union with Serbia, has its own Ministry for Foreign Affairs) stated that, "Montenegro has traditionally maintained good relations with Washington, and the US have thus far rendered significant financial and expert aid to Montenegro. In addition, Montenegro has always been on the side of liberating, anti-fascist movements throughout its history, and sees its future today in Europe…"

I have yet to answer the question so often asked of me, and with which I started this essay. Why did so few Yugoslavs take to the streets on February 15th? And this, one month before the assassination of the neo-liberal Prime Minister Zoran Djindic that has brought the country into a state of emergency, with a systematic clampdown on political freedoms and the criminalization of any opposition.

In the domestic neo-liberal press, the prevailing attitude holds that the poor response of citizens to the "antiwar" demonstrations is caused by their feelings of guilt. According to these journalists, Yugoslavs feel "suppressed guilt" for the crimes of their military in the wars of the former Yugoslavia. People cannot recognize themselves in the slogan "not in my name," argue these journalists, since they themselves allowed the killing of other peoples on their behalf. And so, according to this popular psychoanalytic argument, the answer lies in the psychology of guilt. Such is the way in which the doctrine of collective guilt developed during the NATO bombing continues to be mobilized to support a neo-liberal agenda in the region.

The argument is more than shaky. Serbia and Montenegro today are going through the "nightmare of transition", i.e. the economic transition to neo-liberal capitalism. Following immediately upon the nightmare of over ten years of war, the destruction of the country’s industrial infrastructure, and over $30 billion dollars US in damages from the NATO bombing, over a million people in a country of 8 million have recently lost their jobs under the new economic policies. More than 70% of the country’s citizens have declared themselves to be "poor", while 20% of the population is dying of starvation.

When, to such a picture of upheaval, dislocation, and devastation, we add the organized ideological attacks of neo-liberal commissars targeting the total demoralization and depoliticization of the people, only then can we begin to get an accurate reading of the situation – in other words, a true reply to the question posed at the outset of this essay.

* Historian and social critic from Belgrade, Post-Yugoslavia, Grubacic can be reached at [email protected]


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