Yugoslav Family Values Part III: On disobedient children

Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 at The Hague. At the time, he was defending himself before a war-crimes tribunal for his role in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars of the 1990s. The official story from The Hague is that Milosevic, long afflicted with heart problems and high blood pressure, refused to take his prescribed medications and preferred instead to medicate himself (one has to at least concede that he was a “do-it-yourself” kind of guy). His death put an end to the first international indictment of a sitting head of state and one of the most high-profile trials in recent memory. It also prevented a verdict.

I originally considered sub-titling this piece, Father knows best, thinking it would be interesting to explore Milosevic’s nationalist concept of “Greater Serbia” and the remnants of this fascistic idea in the present day. I changed my mind for a couple of reasons. First, the evidence against Milosevic seems to be pretty much in. Apart from a few detractors who would claim, as his lawyers – meaning mostly him – did, that there is no proof of his involvement in the infamous massacres of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica and Zepa, it seems likely that Milosevic was indeed the bad guy he was alleged to be. And even though there are certainly nuances in the history of the Balkan wars, complexities into which I have tried to delve in recent columns, fascism itself is rarely a nuanced subject. Either Milosevic’s Serbia was a totalitarian and aggressive actor, with deranged ambitions of a Serbian fatherland, or it was not. Most of the evidence seems to point to the affirmative.

Secondly, it is difficult for a travel writer to draw conclusions about amorphous concepts like fascism or nationalism at the population level. Suppose I were to meet thirty different Serbians on the streets of Belgrade and ask each and every one of them for their thoughts on the idea of Greater Serbia. And suppose, somehow, they all answered something to the effect of, “yes, I wholeheartedly believe in this idea and think Serbia should be annexing and cleansing all territory where Serbs dwell.” What conclusions could I draw? The answer is, very few. It could be that I just happened to come across the thirty craziest people in the city and the only ones who truly think Serbs should rule the world. I have so often winced when reading the overgeneralized accounts of some very celebrated journalists (such as the dishonest and melodramatic Chris Hedges) who seem comfortable with extrapolating anecdotal evidence to larger populations. This, I don’t think I need to tell you, is the mother of all intellectual fallacies. The point is that public opinion is better – though I admit not perfectly – gauged by the numbers (polls, census data, etc).


The party boats of Belgrade

Anyway, I would prefer instead to direct your attention to those Serbians who knew what Milosevic was before NATO seemed to (or before they were prepared to admit it) and who were prepared to resist him. When a state is as “outwardly” aggressive as Serbia was, it is easy to start thinking that the whole of the population is a megalomaniacal as its leader. The Serbian resistance to Milosevic, like countless movements before it, reminds us that monsters are never as secure as they claim to be.

Elements of a non-violent resistance to Milosevic began before 1998, but it was in this year that draconian laws imposed on university campuses (such as the appointment of government-approved deans who could alter curricula and discharge uncooperative professors at will) and restrictions on independent media brought many Serbian youth to their feet. Otpor!, literally meaning “Resistance!”, began spontaneously and, if one were inclined to phrase it as such, organically. The group was young and leaderless (by design), but organized. Its platform included demands for the peaceful removal of Milosevic, unadulterated education and press, free and fair elections, and a general commitment to human and civil rights.

One of the group’s more interesting and symbolic actions was holding a birthday party for Milosevic in the city of Nis that drew 2000 people. This story is cited often, but I think it is worth mentioning if only because it exemplifies the subversive power of humour. A giant birthday card was made for the leader and attendees of the party were encouraged to sign it “sincerely.” The following “wish” gives you a sense of the kind of ironic criticism that the Otpor! movement produced:

Thank you for the childhood you have taken from us, for the unforgettable war scenes you have given us…Happy birthday, Mr. President, may you celebrate the next one…in the Hague.

And so it was to be. I have no desire to make light of a very serious and very brave political struggle, so one more “fun” example should suffice. My favourite account of an Otpor! stunt came from one of its former members who wrote of a day when members brought an effigy of Milosevic into the street and began accepting donations of one Serbian dinar to punch it in the face (this is fitting, given that the group’s symbol was a clenched fist). I don’t believe in Voodoo hocus pocus, but part of me likes to think that he felt a few of them.


Scadar Lake National Park, Montenegro

Travelling through Montenegro and Serbia (formerly Serbia and Montenegro) we met people who exemplified the best and worst attitudes of the Milosevic years, as well as those who had managed to assimilate both in the same brain. The regime’s propaganda – about itself, about nationalism, about Kosovo, about bullying from the United States and the International Community – was not lost on its people, and many of those quick to condemn Milosevic and his crimes are even quicker to point out the unfair way in which the country was treated (and, understandably, quick to point out the horrific NATO bombing of Belgrade, which achieved its goal of stopping the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars but appeared to convince many Serbians that the persecution rhetoric was true). It is interesting to note that, even after Milosevic was defeated (in an election!) many Serbians were disinclined to cooperate with the International Criminal Court and send their alleged war criminals to stand trial. Otgor! therefore deserves additional credit for following its principles beyond the nationalistic and advocating for Milosevic’s extradition (which eventually did occur).

In spite of some unresolved grievances, the democratic and intellectual and youthful spirit that spawned Otgor! is easily seen in Serbia, and particularly in Belgrade. The country’s non-violent resistance allegedly originated, at least in part, with members of the city’s music and nightclub scenes – given its reputation as a party mecca, this seems about right. Belgrade is an incredibly social place and its residents appear more than willing to have a drink (or many) and talk openly with visitors. The cobblestone streets of Skadarska, the city’s legendary Bohemian quarter – a place famous for literature and poetry and politics – are a little worse for wear, having succumbed to tourist restaurants and pub-crawls (if you’re looking for something a little more underground, literally and figuratively, ask around for the buzz-in basement bar of the Federal Association of Globetrotters). But there remains a palpable pride in the city’s intellectualism – one that produced the likes of Mirjana Karanovic and Vasko Popa. One gets a feeling that a place with such traditions could only be held silent for so long.


Streets of Belgrade

Kat and I came into Belgrade by train from the coastal Montenegrin city of Bar. We shared a cramped and smoke-soaked berth with a middle-aged gentleman on his way home after a week of court proceedings in what sounded like a very frustrating property dispute. Like most of the Serbs we met, the man was friendly and open. We chatted for hours about politics, about the United States (he had spent ten years working in Arizona), about women (his thoughts on American women were interesting), and about the present state of Serbia (he also made it his personal mission to prevent me from getting robbed when I fell asleep with my iPhone resting on my chest). And like most of our acquaintences in Montenegro and Serbia, he seemed very certain that I would not want to live in either place, despite the ease with which tourists can “have a nice stay.” The reasons for this are simple: Serbia is riddled with corruption and bureaucratic impasse; its government is elected but nepotistic and, it is widely asserted, kleptocratic; and the prospect of a dim future has many young Serbians heading abroad.

This is a familiar Balkan story. A region once plagued by war and perpetual unrest now seems crippled by one kind of stagnation or another. Otpor!, whose membership grew to between seventy and eighty thousand people by the year 2000, is now defunct. Its attempts at political longevity were not to be and its membership was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party. But there may be need for another youthful resistance in Serbia soon enough; one of a new generation and with a new purpose: mounting a resistance to fatalism.


A view from the Fort, Belgrade

Author: ZachKuehner

Zach Kuehner is a researcher and writer based in Toronto, Canada. After earning a Bachelor of Science from the University of Waterloo, Zach sought to integrate his studies in the health sciences with politics and international relations. He completed a collaborative master of science in health science and international relations at the University of Toronto and has since worked in health systems research, cancer research, and contributed to various magazines as a political commentator. Zach has travelled throughout South America, the United States, and Europe and is currently on a one-year trip with his partner that will take him from Lisbon to Auckland and everywhere in between.

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Yugoslav Family Values Part III: On disobedient children