Remember the Balkans?

“The Balkans” – this notion that signifies more a state of mind than geographic location, usually derisively associated with powder kegs, ancient hatreds and “Asiatic” primitivism “in the heart of Europe” – has long ceased to occupy the headline pole position of the Clinton era. Used since the 1990s mostly as code for the violent dissolution of former Yugoslavia and the various spillover effects regionally and beyond – the term and its theme have been since displaced by waves of other real (and some imaginary) news, only occasionally to briefly flash back through mainstream Western media. The recent flare with the final verdicts of the Hague tribunal (ICTY) – replete with the almost ritual hara-kiri of a convicted Croatian general in open court – is no different, as it will quickly fade back into apparent oblivion. However, this is a good opportunity to bring up some of the many lessons and occasional pointers still relevant today.

To clarify – this is not a requiem for the Hague kangaroo court, as many measured reviews of the subject have been done to date. Let’s simply summarize that this caricature of the Nurenberg war tribunal has failed miserably in its purported main goals of bringing truth, justice and reconciliation to an area in dire need of it, along with a greater accountability in world affairs. Quite the contrary: its glaring political dependence, selective local justice and, above all, complete blindness to any outside culpability – all have considerably set back these necessary processes. They will simply have to wait for some more dispassionate – and more autochtonous – vehicle for the dispensation of real justice. Likewise, a critical analysis of the South Slav national project – and specifically, of the post-WW II socialist, nonaligned Yugoslavia – is beyond the scope of this short note. Suffice it to say that this was a country of some relevance, warranting careful study that eschews glib and summary pronouncements. So, the main focus here is to briefly explore a couple of key issues going forward.

At first it is hard to see much hope in the post-Yugoslav wasteland: a familiar picture of dysfuntional banana-republics with corrupt quasi-democratically elected governments (fiercely nationalist locally, pliably globalist beyond), botched privatizations, plundered public assets, brain-drain exodus, rampant unemployment, torn safety nets…  Although Serbia fits well this general mold, there are important differences. Specifically, there is resistance to joining the EU – certainly on the demeaning terms of territorial dismemberment currently proposed, but increasingly in general as well – along with almost universal aversion to entering NATO, a declared military neutrality with refusal to participate in the anti-Russian sanctions regime, and an increasing openness to economic partnerships and investments from China, Russia, Gulf states etc. These are not policies that the Serbian power structure can abandon easily, regardless of outside pressure or its neighborhood with virtually universal membership (or aspiration) to both the EU and NATO, with Western-sponsored propaganda ceaselessly implying that resistance is futile: “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. Many suspect that they would if they could – numerous WikiLeaks dispatches show regular promises made to US/EU interlocutors to that effect — except for the amorphous but ominous pressure of the Serbian body politic.

In many ways, this might appear paradoxical. In the aftermath of the wars, sanctions and international ostracism — followed by a disappointing “transition” and copiously aided in all that by Western propaganda outlets — the Serbian body politic at large has become mostly dispirited and apathetic. The collapse of the larger country at the dawn of the New World Order was never properly fathomed, the response mostly reactive and ambivalent, the disappointment of apparently lost (both shooting and information) wars quite thorough. An objectively most honorable collective history for much of the 19th-20th centuries gave way to bitter feelings of resentment, self-doubt and insularity.

Nonetheless, the Washington-Brussels-Berlin axis somehow failed to secure the needed coup de grace, with the requirement of Serbia formally abandoning its occupied Kosovo province in exchange for further EU accession steps never materializing – despite the fact that every Serbian government since 2000 has been anointed (if not effectively appointed) by Washington.  However, these politicians — and, in particular, the currently well-entrenched government of the (grossly misnomered) SNS Progressive Party — are generally well aware of the local “red lines” whose crossing could easily lead to loss of  the driving seat and associated privileges (not to mention some more vital values). Relatively calcified over the years, this state of affairs is unlikely to change without major shifts.

There have certainly been many objective outside factors from our century that may have contributed to this: from the 9/11/01 attacks, to the ensuing US-led military misadventures in Asia, the Great Recession, the irrevocable demise of the EU project (in its current form), refugee crises, the rebound of Russia and rise of China – to name but a few. Nevertheless, this is not an accident — there is a deeper historical logic to it all, in some ways related to the genesis of Yugoslavia itself — that might help explain it better (with possible elaboration to be left for another time).

The movement behind this process is admittedly messy — mostly intuitive, heterogenous and spontaneous. It lacks a real “vanguard”, claiming only token representation in the national parliament, with any attempts at better articulation and organization facing forceful discreditation methods by the government and its captive media. It frequently seems flirting dangerously close to the fringes of retrogressive movements that are no different than various chauvinistic counterparts regionally and in much of Europe. It often appears unaware of its natural allies in a broader struggle. Nonetheless — and this is important to understand — there is a real and progressive element here that must not be discounted. The reality is that the pulse of this broadly understood Serbian public opinion has, willy-nilly, informed key elements of its government’s policy for some time now, and remains the bulwark precluding this last East European domino to fall in line with basic imperial precepts. And while their exploits hardly make Western media headlines, the constant stream of sundry Eurocrat commissars and ministers, along with plenipotentiary DC apparatchiks — visiting Belgrade with various carrot and stick combinations — is pretty conspicuous and just as clearly indicates their staunch interest in addressing the issue on their terms.

The Serbian body politic was the backbone of a functional and prosperous Balkan federation once before, and it has the potential to be a catalyst for positive and unifying processes again. Of course, for this resistance to yield any broader anti-imperial fruit, a few more dots need be connected.  Likewise, there should be no illusions of this being an easy or straightforward process. For starters, some of the painful but required regional truth and justice issues from the opening paragraph are still ahead, and the many salutary lessons from Yugoslavia’s collapse will have to be understood better. Furthermore, a currently missing realization of the real common goals with other regional forces — for example, the Greek Left, most certainly including its KKE Communist Party — will have to emerge. However, the stakes are simply too high for this not to be attempted in earnest, loudly barking populist ruling regimes notwithstanding. The disillusionment among the masses in the rest of the Balkans is too high not to be harnessed. And history has repeatedly shown that once the globalist neoliberal “prosperity lifting all boats” narrative runs its local course, the choices become rather stark: either a nationally-aware but internationally-oriented progressive coalition, or the scourge of xenophobic reactionary demagoguery. Let’s hope for the former, with the metaphor of the Balkan Sprachbund prevailing over its derogatory tinderbox alternatives.

Dr. Radmilo Bozinovic is a computer professional who has worked in the Silicon Valley since 1988. During that time, he has also been involved in numerous public interest projects, ranging from serving on two non-profit boards, to improving language access in state courts and public education. A native of ex-Yugoslavia, he has actively worked to uncover the truth about its civil war and the foreign role played in its breakup, and other conflicts. Read other articles by Radmilo.