Reality Bites

Bizarre Balkans Bulletin

There is a good reason most contemporary Balkans literature tends to be surreal. It is hard to write realistic fiction when reality is far more bizarre than anything literary wizards are capable of conjuring. In a place that logic and reason seem to have abandoned a while ago, ironies and absurdities abound, as if what was once Yugoslavia had at some point entered the Twilight Zone – and it isn’t even bothering to look for a way out any more.

Here are five episodes in the ongoing drama that took place over the past week or so. Every bit of insanity is authentic, every irony deliberate.

Missing the Pope, and the Point

As did everyone else, the Balkans noted the passing of Pope John Paul II. Leaders of all ex-Yugoslav states sent their condolences, whether they were Catholic Slovenes and Croats, Muslim Bosnians and Albanians, or Orthodox Serbs and Macedonians.

Of course, statesmen and clergy had political motives for what they said, irrespective of their genuine feelings for the Pope. For example, while Kosovo "President" Ibrahim Rugova praised John Paul II as a "great pope who dedicated his life to peace, freedom, and mutual understanding," he also said Albanians "should pay credit to him for the freedom, independence, and democracy of [Kosovo]," (Radio Free Europe) a none-too-veiled reference to their desired goal.

However, only Slovenians and Croatians can truly thank the Bishop of Rome for their independence. The Vatican was a major supporter of these Catholic republics’ secession, which plunged Yugoslavia into the bloody Succession Wars. It was the first government to recognize Croatia in 1991. Bosnian Muslims can also appreciate the Pope’s advocacy of Imperial "humanitarian intervention" on their behalf – plus they get points for tolerance that in reality seems wanting. And while Albanians can’t really say that John Paul II brought them independence, he certainly never found the time or the inclination to condemn their wanton destruction of Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo.

Radio Free Europe’s Patrick Moore maliciously claims that Serbs and other Orthodox faithful in the Balkans never overcame their "mistrust" and prejudice toward the Pope. He does not mention, however, the long history of conflict between Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the region, which took place against the backdrop of Ottoman conquest. And he cavalierly brushes off a brutal genocide that the very Catholic "Independent Croatia" of WW2 inflicted upon the Serbs and Jews within its boundaries, comparing it to the "ethnic cleansing of Croats and Muslims by Serbs during the 1992-95 conflict."

Not only has the Holy See never apologized for the crimes of its clergy under the Ustasha regime, John Paul II even beatified Cardinal Stepinac, the top Croatian cleric during WW2, who had blessed the Nazis and the Ustasha as "liberators." Maybe all that had something to do with the "cool reception" the Pope received among the Balkans Orthodox.

Kosumi’s Tirana Trip

One of the first items on the agenda for the newly appointed "prime minister" of Kosovo Bajram Kosumi was a trip to Albania, where he hoped to "create a joint strategy" with Tirana for the "process of Kosovo’s status" (AP) – that is, swift independence.

"There is only one issue that cannot be negotiated with Belgrade – Kosovo’s status, the will of the Kosovo people, which has been violated for 100 years," Kosumi told the media.

A hundred years? That certainly demolishes the carefully constructed myth that it was Slobodan Milosevic who somehow caused Albanian separatism. And if "Greater Albania" is simply a Serb propaganda trick, as the International Crisis Group insists, why is Kosumi seeking a "joint strategy" with Tirana?

Perhaps fearing that even the gullible public might finally put two and two together, major media and other partisans of the Albanian Cause continue to broadcast the ICG mantra, as if to drown out any facts that might get in the way.

Whose Foreign Minister, Again?

After the Washington Post indulged in some ICG-parroting on the anniversary of NATO’s 1999 attack, its editors received a surprisingly strong response from the ambassador of Serbia-Montenegro in D.C. But even as Ivan Vujacic was administering a long-overdue tongue-lashing to the Post, his boss was doing his best to hurt Serbia in an interview with Financial Times.

One of the most outspoken enablers of Empire in Serbia, the insufferable dolt Vuk Draskovic proved once again that his appointment as foreign minister was a horrible mistake. Blindly pursuing his personal paranoid obsessions, he told the British paper on Tuesday that Serbian security services "know" the whereabouts of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic – a charge the Hague Inquisition and the Empire have been making for years, but have never been able to substantiate.

"It is only logical that the security services know where Mladic is. They know if he is in Serbia, and they know if he is not. They are paid to know. … Without that kind of protection … it would be impossible for Mladic to be invisible," Draskovic is quoted as saying.

Now, notice that he didn’t actually say the Serbian state security knows Mladic’s whereabouts, merely that they ought to know, as that was their job. Well, a proper foreign minister ought to be representing his country’s interests, which generally means not making spurious accusations (on behalf of foreign governments and institutions, no less!). Obviously, what "ought to be" and what "is" aren’t always the same in Serbia.

The Financial Times was fair enough to say that Rade Bulatovic, head of the Serbian security service (BIA), condemned Draskovic’s prattling, saying he "[spoke] irresponsibly about a matter of national security." Says Bulatovic, "This is a very serious accusation, but it is not based on any evidence. The evidence shows the contrary, absolutely." Still, Bulatovic’s denial hardly has the energy of Draskovic’s sensationalist slander, especially since the FM said precisely what the Inquisition, Brussels, and Washington wanted to hear.

Staying Alive

For Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the arguably clinically insane behavior of his coalition partner Draskovic must be even more frustrating than the horrendous economic mismanagement by his other ally, G17 Plus, or the constant sniping by the opposition Democrats. Surely, he must be wondering whether the survival of any government in power against all odds is worth having a loose cannon like Draskovic on deck.

The fact that Kostunica formed an uneasy alliance of Serbian political leftovers that lasted longer than any analyst predicted is a cause for some celebration. He resisted strong Imperial pressure to rehabilitate the Democrats, whose DOS regime had made a terrible mess of things, and he also resisted the siren’s song of the Radicals, who – though popular in the Serbian electorate – are reviled by the Empire.

But by charting the middle course, Kostunica has had to tolerate the histrionics of Draskovic, the whims of G17 Plus (its leader, Deputy PM Miroljub Labus, has threatened to resign seven times already!), and the squeamishness of Socialists – who aren’t in the coalition, but whose votes are necessary to sustain the government. As a result, his coalition has been almost as heterogeneous as DOS, and Serbia has been going nowhere, slowly.

And while the best government is that which governs least, Serbia has desperately needed some governing – specifically, reforms toward rolling back government influence over every aspect of society. The people who toppled Milosevic may speak about "democracy" and "reform," but they are hardly willing to give up any of the power accrued by the state under socialism. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to get anything done in Serbia without a lengthy and costly process of complying with myriad rules and regulations. Worst of all, instead of dismantling the stifling state apparatus, the government has made it more powerful through an American-style tax reform that improved its ability to pillage.

So, while Vojislav Kostunica can congratulate himself on political know-how, he ought to wonder whether any of it has done Serbia any good.

Conquest by Clothing

A prime example of self-destructive governmental policies is a recent trade agreement with the EU, allowing the export of Serbian textile products into the Union at low – and eventually no – tariffs. The new trade regime is scheduled to start sometime this summer. Seemingly a political and economic triumph, this deal is more ephemeral than it appears. It remains to be seen whether the Serbian clothing industry – badly hurt by a decade of on-and-off blockade and at least that much behind the times in organization, manufacturing, and advertising – actually succeeds in selling much to Europe. Surprises are possible, given Serbia’s untapped and suppressed potentials; but in a bureaucratic nightmare of laws and regulations that actively discourages entrepreneurship, they are simply unlikely.

Sure enough, a Chamber of Commerce official said that "textile workers alone will not be able to increase production and the marketing of products in Europe … a concrete strategy for the revitalization of Serbia’s textile industry was needed from the government." Instead of a clothing renaissance, with Serbian haute couture streaming into Europe and entrepreneurs raking in the profits, the whole endeavor will be another bureaucratic boondoggle.

But it gets worse. According to TOL:

"Serbian minister in charge of international economic relations, Milan Parivodic, told the Belgrade media after signing the deal in Brussels that it had ‘great political importance’ since it marked the first time that Serbia had signed an agreement with the EU on its own rather than as a member of the state union with Montenegro."

So the dolts in the Serbian trade ministry actually helped the EU drive another wedge between Serbia and Montenegro, believing all along they were being done a favor! No wonder the leading Montenegrin separatist party dissolved itself recently. Its ideas – once beyond the pale – have become mainstream, and now they even seem to have tacit EU approval.

Not Just the Balkans

Meaningless trade treaties, religious grudges, irredentists who pretend otherwise, raving lunatics as top diplomats, compromise governments that can’t do anything right but are still better than some alternatives, pots calling kettles black – all this, and much more, seems only possible in the Balkans "twilight zone."

Or does it?

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.