End of Delusions

Soccer Disaster Causes Political Epiphany

It may seem incongruous that the disaster that befell the Serbia-Montenegro soccer squad at the 2006 FIFA World Cup has caused more irritation than an ongoing string of political humiliations Serbia has suffered, but one has to keep in mind that football (U.S.: soccer) is a game taken very seriously in that part of the world.

For example, Croatia’s tie with Australia, which knocked them out of the cup, was met with bitterness at "traitors" – Croats playing on Australia’s team, some of whom even played for Croatia once. Some small measure of consolation for posters on some Internet forums was that "at least we didn’t get beat by the Serbs" or that "it was their Croats beat our Croats."

So when the EU’s enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn decided to dismiss Serbian Prime Minister’s criticism of the EU with a bit of football sarcasm, it was more than an off-color joke – it was a diplomatic faux pas of the highest order. Rehn’s spokeswoman said that he was "grateful that Prime Minister Kostunica stopped short of putting responsibility on the EU for Serbia-Montenegro’s 6-0 defeat against Argentina in the World Cup." The Serbian government spokesman shot back, furiously: "Unlike the Finnish selection, our team actually qualified for the World Cup." (Rehn is Finnish.)

For years, Serbia has suffered the slings and arrows of international diplomacy, propaganda, and policy, its occasional complaints drowned by derision, until it seemed as if most Serbs had accepted their designated role and begun believing their own worthlessness. And while some still do, the Rehn incident appears to have raised enough ire in Belgrade to reassess Serbia’s groveling relationship with the Empire.

Bullies Without Borders

Last week’s proclamations of the EU’s "concern" over Serbia’s weakness obviously discounted any responsibility of Brussels and Washington. Washington’s envoy in Belgrade, Michael Polt, even said that Serbia wasn’t under pressure – it was simply choosing to interpret its obligations and conditions, rightfully imposed, in the wrong way, thus making things more difficult for itself. This was echoing Rehn’s statement that Serbia could not blame others for its own failures.

The startling hypocrisy in all of this is obvious even to a casual observer. Washington and Brussels keep demanding more and more, setting conditions no sovereign nation would ever accept (they themselves least of all), then moving the goalposts with every obeisance from Belgrade, declaring it insufficient. On this day, five years ago, the Djindjic regime violated half a dozen laws – including the Constitution – to extradite Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague Inquisition. Back then, it was the paramount demand of the so-called "international community." Yet since then, there have only been more demands, more conditions, more threats… and why not? So long as Belgrade was willing to be shoved around, there was no compelling reason to stop the bullying.

Rather than resisting, Serbia’s sycophantic leaders chose to rationalize this to their people as a necessity, a fact of "partnership" with the West, a necessary path to the EU and NATO, for which there was "no alternative."


In the qualifying tournament for the World Cup, the Serbia-Montenegro team had one of the best defenses in the world, and entered the Cup with hope, despite being in a difficult group. Once in Germany, however, it quickly became obvious that even though the players and the coach were the same, the team itself was not. It still represented "Serbia and Montenegro," a state just retired ignominiously, playing under a flag and national anthem that no longer meant anything to anybody.

One gets the impression that Serbia could have stomached the humiliation of the government welcoming U.S. fighters at the Belgrade airport, had Rehn not added insult to the soccer injury. Thus raw, the Serbs have begun paying attention to the fact that American visitors came from the same air base, and the same squadron, that had bombed Serbia savagely seven years ago; remnants of one of their kind are on exhibit at the Belgrade museum of military history. They may have noted that Ambassador Polt had the nerve to mention that "Serbs and Americans fought Nazism in Europe and many American servicemen owe their lives to their rescuers from Serbia," even as Washington had demonstrated exactly how much it cared for that fact in the spring of 1999.

It doesn’t end there, however. Serbian papers have recently claimed that American and British secret services already have agents in Serbia hunting for Gen. Ratko Mladic with the full support of the Serbian authorities. Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic has even asked German intelligence to send agents to Serbia and help with the manhunt.

How things have changed! In 1914, the government in Belgrade was facing an outrageous ultimatum by Austria-Hungary, deliberately worded to make war inevitable, in the aftermath of the June 28 assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by Bosnians protesting Austrian occupation. Even though no nation could accept the ultimatum and retain its dignity, Serbia accepted every Austrian demand save one – the presence of Austrian agents in Serbia, with free rein to conduct investigations, interrogations, and arrests. It was Vienna’s refusal of anything but total Serbian submission that led to the war that destroyed Europe.

The Firm and the Fickle

Right now, the governing structures in Serbia stand on a set of values and principles (if that’s what they can be called) entirely opposite to that nation’s history and tradition, and their people are beginning to take notice. Elections are not scheduled until next year, but the supposedly nonexistent Imperial pressure may bring the current government down. The campaign by potential successors has already begun. Even as Prime Minister Kostunica is visiting Moscow and London with Belgrade’s official plan for Kosovo, president Tadic is running around Montenegro and Croatia, proclaiming he will "beat" his enemies and create a "new face" of Serbia.

Analysts and commentators suggest that the Empire is planning to create a new governing coalition, composed of Tadic’s Democrats, Draskovic’s SPO, and the G17-Plus party run by current economy czar Mladjan Dinkic. All of these leaders have a history of serving the Empire first, themselves second, and their people never. On the other side are the Radicals, condemned in Imperial media as "ultranationalists" and accused of everything from bigotry to genocide. They are currently benefiting the most from the Empire’s policy of bullying, with their support growing as dissatisfaction mounts. Yet even the Radicals favor joining the EU, harboring delusions that the annexation could take place under less onerous conditions.

War as Peace

It’s not just the Serbs who are prone to delusions of all sorts. For example, Imperial policymakers insist on staying in the Balkans (or Iraq, for that matter) "until the job is finished," even though, if their mission was really to bring peace, it’s been finished – in failure – for years. From sabotaging Bosnia peace talks and using Croatia as a military proxy, to arming and supporting the KLA, Washington has been an agent of war in the Balkans, not peace. Yet to the present day, American policymakers almost universally believe it was American bombs that brought peace to the region, and that American bombs must preserve it.

Unlike Serbians, however, there is little to suggest that Americans are abandoning their delusions.

A Good Start

The World Cup debacle may not have been a disaster after all. Truth liberates. The sooner the people of Serbia realize that their belief in Imperial good intentions is misplaced, and their government’s commitment to freedom nonexistent, the better off they will be. Once they stop lying to themselves, they can do something about the obviously harsh circumstances of their existence. Whatever they decide to do next, they will know the groveling before the Empire and slavishly following orders are not values to live by. That alone will not solve their problems – but it will be a good start.

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 Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.