Theater of the Absurd

The Bizarre Balkans Stage

It is arguably the Bard’s most famous play; there is hardly a civilized soul on Earth who has not heard of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It has been modernized, localized, deconstructed, filmed countless times, and even translated into Klingon. Now, however, courtesy of Sarajevo director Haris Pasovic, Hamlet has become a prince of – Turkey?!

"To be or not to be is still the question, but in a new Bosnian staging of Hamlet things have changed for Shakespeare’s prince. His uncle Claudius is a sultan, his god is Allah, the churches are mosques and Elsinore is part of the Ottoman empire," writes Paul Arendt in The Guardian.

Pasovic claims his Hamlet attempts to contemplate the universal issues from a Muslim perspective. But he did not re-imagine Hamlet, or even truly adapt it: he merely coated the original with Islamic veneer. Though their garb is Ottoman and their speech "Bosnian" – a politically motivated product of Muslim leaders’ desire for linguistic distinction – characters keep their original names. If anything, the play resembles the way modern Bosnian Muslim ("Bosniak") identity has been constructed by politicians: steeped in the Ottoman history, but claiming the symbols of the medieval Christian heritage that the Ottomans had destroyed.

Absurdities of this kind abound in the ruins of Yugoslavia, where dysfunctional is the norm, force is the law, and everything is about power.

Democratic Defiance

The officially declared goal of the Empire is to promote "democracy" throughout the world. But, even assuming democracy was a positive good (and that is bitterly contested), how does one define it? Last Thursday’s vote by the Bosnian Serb parliament to reject the EU proposal for police "reform" with an overwhelming majority would certainly qualify as democratic. But of course, in Bosnia, the only definitions that really count are those of the Imperial viceroy – and he was not at all pleased.

Crafted by the EU as a prerequisite for membership, the "reform" envisioned central government control of the police, which would operate in jurisdictions deliberately ignoring the boundaries of Bosnia’s two constituent entities. Its ultimate purpose had nothing to do with policing, or even Bosnia joining the EU, but everything to do with the agenda of creating a centralized Bosnian state.

A long string of "reforms" under international viceroys has repeatedly violated the Dayton Constitution since 1996, each and every one resulting in a stronger central government at the expense of the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. Contrary to what champions of centralization such as the ICG claim, only the Muslim community favors centralization. Both Croats and Serbs have been repeatedly browbeaten into accepting the creeping usurpation of their rights, and they continue to express their resentment.

Always given to melodrama, viceroy Ashdown said that the Serb Assembly "was given the keys to the gates to Europe, but threw them away." That is pure horse-hockey. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the EU itself is deeply conflicted about its own existence, why the focus on the Serb vote and no mention whatsoever of the vote in the Muslim-Croat parliament? Has such a vote even happened? If so, what was its outcome? While the Muslim leadership’s position is known, as is their agenda to dominate the central government with their relative majority, it is hard to imagine the Croats – already feeling marginalized in the Federation – accepting such a proposal without reservations. Yet all the fingers of blame point at the Serbs – who had a debate, held a vote, and said "no." And they had every right to do so.

Or did they? In the twilight zone that is Bosnia today, rights are whatever the viceroy decides they should be. Elected officials can be dismissed and banned from all public life at his whim. Elections are subject to ethnic and gender quotas. The constitution has been amended to the point where most of its body opposes the original document. All this is a result of constant bullying by a string of viceroys, backed by the iron fist of NATO and now EU "peacekeepers." Obedience to their diktat is the only thing considered legitimate by Bosnia’s Imperial overlords. Resisting their will – whether by force, or through the democratic process, it does not matter – invites harsh punishment.

Will the Bosnian Serbs find the strength and courage to defend what is left of their autonomy, or will they yet again knuckle under and accept Imperial impositions? Whatever happens, one thing is clear: the Empire cares not a whit about "democracy."

A Most Peculiar Bombing

In neighboring Croatia, the question of joining the EU got a bizarre twist on Monday, when a letter-bomb exploded at the UK embassy in Zagreb, injuring one local staffer. The government quickly condemned the "act of terrorism" and promised a quick investigation.

With London heading the EU at the moment, and British intelligence operating in Croatia in search of General Ante Gotovina – charged with war crimes by the Hague Inquisition – as well as "fighting organized crime" (Reuters), the bomb unnerved the government, firmly committed to becoming a subject of Brussels.

Reuters quoted Prime Minister Sanader as saying, "I cannot help but think this act is directed against Croatia’s efforts to join the EU." AP quoted him as pointing a finger at "people home and abroad who wish to slow down Croatia’s integration."

By Tuesday afternoon, however, the Croatian police had arrested the sole victim, who reportedly confessed to the bombing. He appears to be an ethnic Croat with a criminal record, and his motives were unknown. Far from resolving the case, the arrest leaves open a host of questions. Why did the staffer detonate a bomb, injuring himself in the process? Why did the government immediately point a finger at "enemies at home and abroad," and who might these enemies be? Those who know aren’t telling.

Accusing the Vatican

Whatever the motives behind the Zagreb embassy bombing (such as it was), everything comes back to the indictment of Ante Gotovina by the Hague Inquisition. Gotovina is accused of command responsibility for the murder and expulsion of Serbs who refused to recognize Croatian rule during a lighting offensive in 1995, which is celebrated in Croatia as the definitive victory in the "Homeland War."

The chief prosecutor of the Inquisition, Carla Del Ponte, has mercilessly hounded the Zagreb authorities to find and extradite Gotovina. Croatia’s EU bid has been largely dependent on whether Del Ponte "felt" that Zagreb was doing enough on the issue. Somehow, it never did.

But Del Ponte’s delusions of grandeur – which at moments appeared to be outright madness – may have finally pushed her past the edge of sanity. Bullying Balkans leaders eager to serve the Empire is one thing; taking aim at the Catholic Church is something else altogether.

On Tuesday, Del Ponte told the Daily Telegraph that she "had information" Gotovina was sheltered by Franciscan monks, and that the Vatican authorities rebuffed her requests for help.

"They said they have no intelligence, and I don’t believe that," Del Ponte said. "The Vatican refuses totally to cooperate with us."

From the interview, however, it becomes obvious that the High Inquisitor did not so much ask as demand that Vatican "cooperate," something that surely irritated the papal authorities to no end. Del Ponte complained that she even wrote to the Pope directly, but that "several weeks later, she has received no reply."

Del Ponte’s spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, told the BBC that "the law applies to everyone, including the Vatican." Pointing out that Del Ponte has repeatedly accused the Orthodox Church of sheltering Serb suspects (though not mentioning that such accusations were never substantiated), she quipped: "We’re fully ecumenical."

Somehow it is hard to believe that Benedict XVI, once nicknamed "Der Panzerkardinal," will find Hartmann’s wit particularly funny.

Accepting the Absurd

Between the local obsession with the political and the Imperial obsession with power, the Balkans is center stage for tragedy, comedy, and farce all intermingled in one colossal cacophony, devoid of sense and purpose. What once was Yugoslavia is now a place where what is considered outlandish, bizarre, and outrageous today may turn out to be commonly accepted tomorrow. Its inhabitants, eking out a living between the constant pilfering and promises by those in power, have long since been indoctrinated to accept this absurd state of affairs as the norm. As long as that acceptance continues, so will the torment that, for all its apparent folly, is anything but theatrical.

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.