Between Balkan Primitivism and European Future

If you read the mainstream press last week, there is a probability that you have read that, in Serbia, that “pivotal Balkan State”, people went to the polls for a “crucial election”, the most important one since the fall of “deceased strongman” Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in 2000. This is an election, according to mainstream international news sources, that could return Serbia “to the nationalist instability or open up better prospects of integration with the EU and the west”.

Both Western and Eastern European leaders, “from Slovenia to Slovakia”, urged the Serbs to “reject the nationalists”. Michael Polt, the US ambassador to Serbia, advised the people to ditch an orientation and “retrograde vision of extremists who would be happy to turn Serbia into an isolated island blinded by nationalism”. These extremists are, presumably, the “ultra-nationalist” Serbian Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, “a former warlord on trial for crimes against the humanity”.

The choice, according to the free press, was simple enough: to go back to the “unhappy past”, or to “march into a bright, European future”. This “Euro-Atlantic agenda” would have to encompass removing “the immediate hurdle on Belgrade’s way to Brussels”: arrest and extradition of the remaining suspects wanted by the International Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, accepting the independence of Kosovo, “a tiny war-torn territory on the way to full independence”, and the continuation of a wholesale privatization in accordance with “European standards”.

The international community suggested, as the best choice, ” a highly regarded young former finance minister Bozidar Djelic”, who is a candidate of the “pro-European” Democratic Party, and one of the “most capable and level headed politicians in the Balkans”. The Serbian people, ungrateful as always, have awarded him, for his previous ministerial efforts, the nickname “Boza Derikoza” (“Takes the skin of your back”).

The other right choice would be Cedomir Jovanovic, the former Serbian Government’s Vice President, and the choice candidate of the American Embassy on Knjaza Milosa street, who is “a leading reformist politician” (also known, among the same ungrateful subjects, as “Ceda cocaine”).

The alternative agenda would be to simply surrender to the macabre forces of Balkan primitivism, campaigning on the platform to “end the corruption and keep Kosovo within Serbia.” Interestingly enough, and perhaps not as surprising, the voters, perhaps blinded by the effects of the “good war” in 1999, which left a few thousand dead, while heralding, at the same time, a “new era of freedom and democracy”, have chosen to disobey the advice of the international community. The “extreme nationalists romped to a comfortably victory”, taking as much as 29% of the vote, a point up from the last election in 2003, but, as BBC reports, still failed to gain an absolute majority. As the attempt to divert “xenophobic instincts of Serbian masses” have failed, Serbia now “faces weeks of political horse-trading and coalition building”.

What has really happened in the Serbian elections? Actually, nothing much. Despite the sound and fury of the recent elections, despite the apparent struggle between the “traditional” and the “transitional”, and despite whatever might be the final electoral outcome, in contemporary Serbia nothing depends on the local political parties.

As a “modern” Algerian politician proclaims, from the pages of the recent book by novelist Mohamed Moulessehoul, “ever since the world has existed, the society has obeyed a threefold dynamic of those with an upper hand: those who govern, those who crush, and those who supervise.”

Translated into the context of contemporary Serbia, those who govern are the so-called “reformers”: Democratic Party, Democratic Party of Serbia and G17 , a political party of neo-liberal experts. The Democratic Party won 65 members in parliament, the Democratic Party of Serbia 47, and G17 won 19. The most probable coalition, according to the convincing majority of Serbian political commentators, is the one made of the aforementioned parties with “Euro-Atlantic aspirations”.

Those who “crush” are two extremist political formations, the neoliberal and aggressive Liberal Democratic Party (of the “cocaine Cheda”), supported by both the American embassy and so-called “civil society”, who won a surprising 15 seats, and the Serbian Radical Party, a right wing populist organization of the familiar sort that mushrooms all over transitional Europe, with a remarkable but insufficient number of 81 seats. The Serbian Socialists have, perhaps unexpectedly, won 16 seats. Those who “supervise” are, of course, members of the “international community”.

How can we explain the success of the nationalist-populist Radical Party, a monster that excites western press so much? Is there perhaps a place, just perhaps, for the alternative explanation to the diagnosis of xenophobic instincts deeply ingrained in Balkan body politics?

According to the so-called international definition of unemployment, in Serbia in 2000 there were 475,000 unemployed. In 2005, after 5 years of democratic life and neoliberal transitional miracles, the number of unemployed went as high as 720,000. The rate of unemployment was 21.8% in October of 2005.

The conclusion of the local neoliberal experts? The best transition always assumes temporary growth of unemployment. “Transition”, according to one of my favorite local experts, always fond of poetry, “might be defined, at the same time, as a process of destruction and a process of creating good jobs”. But not all the jobs are good, admits our expert. The sector of the self-employed, created after the privatization- destruction- of public companies, employs 500,000 people, which is 20% of the national employment. We should bear in mind that Serbia has some 8 million inhabitants, and that the informal economy “employs” several hundred thousand people.

The same expert offers an obvious but still ingenious solution: Serbia has to stop being a “traumatic society” and finally join the club of “post-traumatic societies”. The only way to do it, in case you had any doubts, is to continue with the traumatic processes of privatization, transition and European integration. This sophisticated solution was less obvious to the traumatized people voting for the anti-corruption program of the Serbian Radical Party.

The fate of Kosovo, formally part of Serbia but, since the “good war” of 1999, in reality an International Community protectorate with a colonial viceroy, is in the hands of western powers, or, to be more precise, of Contact Group, an organization formed during the Bosnian wars in 1994, comprised of the states “most interested in the Balkan affairs” (pay attention to the language being used here!): United States, Russia, England, France, Germany and Italy. The very same type of international organization was established for Somalia, and, at the recent NATO summit in Riga, for Afghanistan.

The UN mediator on Kosovo, Marti Ahtisaari, has, according to the Guardian, delayed revealing his solution for Kosovo until after the election, “for fear of handing the victory to extreme nationalists who vow never to give up the province”. According to Reuters, his plan, which is still kept in secrecy, entails taking Kosovo from the sovereignty of Serbia, and setting it on the path towards independence, with “significant autonomy” for the 114,000 Serbs and Roma.

Kosovo would have the right to apply for membership in international organizations such as the World Bank, IMF and United Nations. NATO would train a civil defense force that would eventually become Kosovo national army. In all other areas Kosovo will continue to be a colonial subject to the “international community”. The EU is setting up a police force of more then 1000 officers to monitor judges (sic!) and prison guards (sic!). Nobody can tell what’s going to happen to the Serbs and the Roma, “the most sensitive part of the plan”, once they are left completely unprotected.

If this information is true, Serbia will, most probably, and quite regardless of the future local constellation of power, try to reject the plan, hoping that Russia will use it’s veto power over the proposal in the UN. The president of Kosovo’s government, a war criminal of Kosovo Liberation Army fame, Agim Ceku, has declared that the Albanian Kosovo’s will not be “entirely satisfied”.

There seems to be two perspectives at play: one that might be called “dangerous precedent”, favored by the Russians, based on the expectation that the example of Kosovo might provoke other people in the same situation to try and realize their “separatist ambitions”, and another that might be called “constructive flexibility”, favored by the US and EU, that would like to see Kosovo as a “transitional laboratory”, a “blank site” inside the system of international law, a colonial playground for practicing geo-strategic state-building and the extraction of lucrative raw materials.

What nobody talks about is, predictably enough, the nightmarish situation of Albanian, Serbian and Roma people, living in a state of perpetual transitional chaos, one of utmost poverty and despair, manipulated by local governments, being left only with the troubling solace of ethnic belonging and national antagonism.


In the Serbian province of Vojvodina, a group of rebellious workers have occupied a factory. This once famous pharmaceutical company has been stolen from the workers according to the illegal structure of local privatization (and what privatization is legal?). After a few long months of occupation, and after some of the most amazing examples of courage I have ever witnessed in my life, the workers have forced the private armies of the new owners, and transitional privatization officials, to back off.

A few days ago, after the blockade of the Business Register Agency by some 80 workers of the “Jugoremedija” factory, this respectable agency overturned the illegal recapitalization and brought the ownership structure to where it should be, with workers owning, as shareholders, 58% of the workplace.

A comrade of mine, intimately involved in this struggle, sent me an email, saying that the name of the person who signed the document is Maglov (“foggy”). The last name of the director of this surreal Agency is Okolisanov (“to beat around the bush”). The last name of the director of a related Agency is Stimac (“the fraudster”). And the last name of the director of Central Depository Agency, yet another bunuelesque institution of Serbian transitional system, is Uzelac (“robber”). If we would make a cartoon about this struggle, continues my comrade, we wouldn’t have to change the names. The problem is that the name of the cartoon is Serbian reality. And this reality is being decided in petty global rivalries between New York, Moscow, and the EU.

And what about the local politicians after the local elections? Together with local oligarchs they have made a wise choice. In the words of Mohamed Moulessehoul’s Algerian reformer, “The world transforms itself at the whim of its appetites. From now onward nationalism is only to be evaluated as a function of interests. We got off to a bad start. Our revolution proved as a fiasco. To progress from a caricature of a socialist system to the opening up of the market, we must pay a customs duty. It is a duty we have to pay as not to be excluded from the new world order. That’s what we are doing at the moment.”

* Andrej Grubacic is a post-traumatized anarchist historian from the mountains of the transitional Balkans

* To learn more about Kosovo’s present status, take a look at my commentary from last December at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers /content/2005-12/13grubacic.cfm

* To learn more about what kind of “transition” I would like to see in Kosovo, check out the June commentary: http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-06/11grubacic.cfm

* “Jugoremedija” case is a subject of my July commentary: http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2006-07/16grubacic.cfm

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