The Problem of Serbia
Paris, February 5,2008 – The poet-Lauriat of the United States, Charles Simic, who is an expatriated Serb (at the age of 15), quotes his father as saying "It's exhausting to be a Serb."
It has been even more exhausting for those who have to deal with the Serbs and with the consequences of their national illusions. Simic quotes family visitors in Belgrade, obsessed with a national history, as they recounted it, of "honor, heroic sacrifice, and endless suffering in defense of Europe against the Ottoman Empire, for which we never got any thanks."
The Serbian nation allegedly was victim of the conspiracies of those with whom it had to deal. Traitors were responsible for all that went wrong – "Serbs stabbing each other in the back. A nation of double-crossers, turncoats, Judases, snakes in the grass. Even worse were our big allies, England, America and France."
I had a Serb neighbor and friend in Paris who, when I first wrote a newspaper article criticizing Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia in 1991 for invading Slovenia and Croatia, accosted me in the courtyard of our building to say: "I know why you wrote that! The American Embassy told you to write that. The Neo-Nazis in Germany are forcing America to back Croatia and crush Serbia!"
When I said it was not my practice to take my article subjects from the American ambassador (nor his to offer them), he said: "It's the Pope then. He's forcing you to write these things; you're a Catholic and the Pope is allied with the Nazis and Americans to destroy Serbia and Orthodox Christianity!"
This was an educated, even erudite man of aristocratic origins whom I had known for years, a connoisseur of art, an artist himself, a former official of an international cultural organization, thoroughly cosmopolitan, who had not even lived in Serbia since he was a child. I was dumbfounded. He never spoke to me again.
What would he have made of the Serbs' narrow vote last Sunday to move closer to the Germans and French, and the Americans, by reelecting Boris Tadic, a "moderate" and "pro-western" president, against a challenger who had been a supporter of Milosevic's mad wars to create a "Greater Serbia" through crushing the autonomy of the Albanians in Kosovo, seizing those areas in the other states of the former Yugoslavia where Serbs still lived, beginning with Krajina in Croatia, and killing whomever resisted.
This was a program for forcibly reuniting all of the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia which had initially been proposed six years earlier by (of all groups) the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences.
National grievance and thwarted nationalism has been the curse of the Balkans since before the 19th century, beginning when the Turkish and Hapsburg empires began to break up because of their obsolete institutions and political decrepitude, making them incapable of a constructive response to the new national consciousness of former peasant societies, awakened by the French Revolution, the spread of literacy, the arrival of schools and other elements of social modernization. These "new" nations were recovering, embellishing, or more often inventing, glorious tales of their past importance, robbed from them by imperial oppressors.
Serbia, the major western Balkan nation, originally came together under Byzantine and Bulgarian influences and by the 14th century was the most advanced of the region, distinguished from its western neighbors by its Orthodox religion and use of the Cyrillic rather than Roman alphabet.
It battled the advancing Ottoman Turks but was defeated in 1389 on Kosovo Field, the Serbian nobility massacred and Serbian independence ended. The Turks' subsequent rule was harsher than in the other Balkan states, favoring the Bosnian neighbors of the Serbs who converted to Islam and served the Turks – all of this establishing the nationalist obsessions and paranoia which have been so conspicuous in Serbia ever since.
It is the last of the major states of Europe proper which is still outside the European Union (save for Norway and Switzerland, which have chosen separation). The EU has been using the pressure and promise of rewards of membership to cajole the Serbs to vote as they have done, for Tadic, a moderate "westernizer."
However the Yugoslav presidency is not a post wielding enough power for him to conclusively dominate the continuing opposition of the nationalist prime minister Tomisalav Nikolic, whose intransigence on the linked issues of preventing Kosovo independence and affirming Serbian confidence in Orthodox Russia's support (and oil) remains popular. The Kosovo independence issue is yet to be settled, even if a declaration of independence seems inevitable. The consequences of that for the narrow balance of forces that now exists in Belgrade is unforeseeable.
The UN, EU and U.S. all are now set on an independent Kosovo, despite Russia's threat to reopen the separatist issues still important on several of its borders with western-sponsored states formerly part of the Soviet Union. Nationalist and ethnic tension is still a potent force.
That is why Serbian turn away from a past distinguished by destructive nationalism – not the least destructive for Serbia itself – would be so important a step. It seems possible, if still uncertain. Sunday's presidential vote encourages optimism.
It could make it much less exhausting to be a Serb. It could make it less disquieting to live in Serbia's neighborhood.
(My quotations from Charles Simic are taken from his recent autobiographical article in The New York Review of Books, December 20, 2007.)
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