In tatters and rags: The destructive force of nationalism in the Balkans

Serb nationalism
Graffiti in the Serb capital, Belgrade (Wikimedia Commons)

“Slovenians can go to hell and Macedonians as well, but if Bosnia or Croatia try to secede from Yugoslavia, we the Serbs will make of their republics the most ridiculous-looking countries in the world. They will be all in tatters and rags.” That statement was made by former Yugoslav president Dobrosav Ćosić (1921-2014) in 1985. It was part of a memorandum published by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which President Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006), would use as his political blueprint when he came to power. It provided the platform for the ethnic hatred, rabid nationalism and war that swept across the Balkans in the early 1990’s.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: September 15, 1993


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “In Tatters and Rags – the destructive force of nationalism”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Well, Slovenians can go to hell and Macedonians as well, but if Bosnia or Croatia try to secede from Yugoslavia, we the Serbs will make of their republics the most ridiculous-looking countries in the world. They will be all in tatters and rags.

That statement was made way back in 1985 by the former Yugoslav president Dobrosav Ćosić, one of Serbia’s foremost novelists. It was part of a memorandum published by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1986, which President Slobodan Milošević, when he came to power a year later, turned into his political blueprint. It provided the platform for the ethnic hatred, rabid nationalism and war that have swept across the Balkans for the past two years. Serbia began to head down the path of self-destruction with the death of the country’s first and only post-war president Josef Tito in 1980. After the Second World War, Tito and his Communist partisans had managed to bring together the various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, despite the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Serbs by the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia. But the Yugoslav patchwork – for half a century an apparent model of ethnic harmony and prosperity – started to fray after Tito’s death. What many feared happened: the Yugoslav federation began to crack. But how could it have led to the barbarity that we’re now seeing in Bosnia and Croatia? Dr. Stefan Lilić is a professor at the University of Belgrade.

Destroyed church in Croatia
Destroyed church in Croatia

You could also pose the question: what happened to Germany in the ‘30s? What happened to Spain? What happened to Italy? What happened to Portugal? What happened to Russia? All of these countries were big empires. Referring to this general question – how come it happened? – I think one should just start from a statement saying these things can happen. So there must be a set of events, complex social processes that made the events as they are today.

To understand the present in the Balkans, perhaps more than any other region in the world, one must understand the past. During the Middle Ages, the Serbs had several powerful kingdoms which expanded through the Balkans. But in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo, the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Empire. This marked the beginning of centuries of Ottoman occupation, and according to Dr. Pedrag Simić, the director of the Institute for International Politics in Belgrade, it forever altered the Serbs’ perception of themselves.

Serbs are probably the rare nation that are celebrating their major historical defeat in the Battle of Kosovo, where the Ottoman invaders destroyed Serbian medieval state. But national poetry, epic poetry through the centuries, the difficult centuries of Ottoman occupation preserved national spirit and national identity, mostly with the support of the church, through the idea that Serbs opted for having a kingdom (?), and each generation of Serbs have be ready to accept whatever hardships and to stick together, to be together, to preserve the faith of their ancestors, Orthodox faith, to preserve their alphabet, cultural values, no matter whether they have a state and society where they can put all those values, or they are exposed to some external pressure, occupation, invasion, etc., etc. And one day there will come a Messiah that will finally help them to justify their cause and to build their own nation.

But nation building was not easy on the fault line between the East and West, between Christianity and Islam, between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Among almost all the peoples of the Balkans, it has created a siege mentality. The Serbs, like the Croats, Albanians and all the other peoples, are always on their guard to ensure that the others do not try to take away what they believe is rightfully theirs. In this ongoing ideological, religious and cultural battle, the Serbs, says Dr. Lilić, believe they have on their side the Orthodox Church and its symbol the double-headed eagle.

This double-headed eagle, which you will find in Russia, you will find in Serbia, this double-headed eagle practically means Dominus Deus. It means both the earthly master and the heavenly lord. So the Serbian Orthodox Church has a tradition actually of being very close to government. In some cases, it is used by the government to promote Orthodox religious fundamentalism. Serbs are the heavenly people that have always lost in peace but won in wars. Now this is a platform for mobilising for war.

Even tombstones were destroyed
Even tombstones were destroyed (© Eric Beauchemin)

But this wasn’t enough to spark off the madness that is now taking place in the Balkans. According to Pedrag Simic, the legacy of the First and the Second World Wars contributed a great deal to the savagery of today’s war.

Serbia lost half of its male population in the First World War and more than 10% of the Yugoslav population was killed in the Second World War. But after all these terrible ordeals, somehow Serbian nation left as a moral winner, first to create Yugoslavia after First World War and to recreate Yugoslavia after Second World War. This is the idea underlying the militant nationalist position for example of Serbs right now in this conflict, saying the Serbs are wrongly accused by everybody and that in the coming years would prove the Serbs are right. They are unjustly accused of the aggression, of all the evils of this war and finally the truth would come out. So the main idea right now of the public, of the regime, of the leading political parties is that the West has to understand Serbian truth.

Serbs argue that they did their utmost to preserve the Yugoslav federation, a country which they themselves created after the First World War and recreated after World War II despite the fact that the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia had massacred hundreds of thousands of Serbs. This trauma, explains Dr. Simić, explains why many of the Serb minorities in Bosnia and Croatia are far more radical than the people in Serbia proper.

It’s like Alice in Wonderland. Once you go to the mirror, everything appears completely opposite from what you expect it to be. For example, the head of the Yugoslav general staff at the beginning of the Slovenian campaign was General Blagoje Adzic, simple and in fact a good person, but person who lost 40 members of his family slaughtered by Ustashes in Second World War. So could you imagine what kind of perception of Croats such a person would have? Could you imagine that anybody who lost 40 persons slaughtered by another ethnic group would ever trust this ethnic group? For those people, to fight and to die, it’s the supreme value. Values of individualism, democratic society does not have the same value in Knin or Banja Luka, in Bihać or in Sarajevo as they have in Zagreb and in Belgrade, not to mention Paris or Amsterdam, where people could survive without fighting. Ustaše is the Croat Nazis during the Second World War didn’t manage to put their control in Knin, so even though they killed hundreds of thousands of people. But right now the sons and daughters of those people slaughtered by Ustašes, they are simply avenging their fathers and grandfathers. So it’s logical for them to fight Ustašes. So when they saw Franjo Tudman coming with all the Croat political emigrants, mostly strongly rightest, sometimes fascists, they say look, here they come again. This is fascism coming back. So as our fathers fought it, it’s our task to fight it.

Many of the atrocities which have caused such revulsion throughout the world have been carried out by chetniks, extreme Serb nationalists. But how could anyone sink so low, we ask ourselves. Easily, says Sonia Licht, the president of the Belgrade office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a human rights watchdog group.

It was used very often in the history. People are just ready to forget things very quickly. History is full of examples of ethnic cleansing. Even the most civilised countries today were unfortunately brought up on the principle of ethnic cleansing. Please think about the United States, and it was not so long ago. All the Indians were cleaned. And then think about World War II and think about what was happening in the Soviet Union in Stalin’s times. Even after World War II, there were very many examples of ethnic cleansing there as well. Think about Latin America and ethnic cleansing there. In the background of this were two basic things: one were economic interests and the other one was nationalism. As long as I believe that my group is better than the other one, and my group is endangered from the other ones, ethnic cleansing is on the doorstep.

Refugee camp in Croatia
Refugee camp in Croatia (© Eric Beauchemin)

The hideous acts being committed today are also linked to the Serbs’ feeling of having been wronged. As Serbia’s deputy foreign minister Dobrosav Vejzović, who lost both his parents during the war, told me, the Serbs did their best to make the Yugoslav Federation work and now the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia are again trampling over the Serbs.

Ustache emblem
Ustache emblem

During the First World War, they were fighting against us, but even so, we thought they are Slavic people. If they so decided to join us, why not to accept them and we have forgotten everything. Whatever happens, OK, they are Slavic people. Let us live together and so on. During the Second World War, you had Ustašes as the Nazi allies again fighting against Serbs. We again, after the war finished, we again said OK, they were on the other side, but we have to live together. We are neighbours. Probably we could forgive them for that. We did and we were living all together. And again after 50 years, again, they did the same. So then you could believe that you can’t because they don’t want to live with you. We don’t ask more than other Yugoslav nations of former Yugoslavia asking for themselves. If Slovenia wants to be independent, fine with us. We haven’t got anything against that. If Croats want to be independent, fine with us, but don’t take us with you. We don’t want with you. You have proved that you don’t want to live with us, so let us finally in peace. And go away wherever you think you could go. We again would be good neighbours.

The process that led to the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation and ultimately to war began with the death of the country’s president Josef Tito. Tito, who was half Croat, half Slovene, was an autocratic figure who succeeded in patching together again the multitude of ethnic groups in Yugoslavia based on the premise that Serbia, the strongest and most populous state in the federation, had to be kept relatively weak. But Tito’s bandages did not heal the deep scars left by the Second World War, and Tito’s Yugoslavia could not survive without him. All of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups, including the Serbs, felt that they had gotten a raw deal under Tito. And his death in 1980, says Mirko Gaspari of the opposition intellectual group the Belgrade Circle, produced a power vacuum.

There had been some resentment, a feeling of sour grapes and perhaps a feeling of revanchism for some time, let’s say from the end of the ‘60s, which is the time when Dobrica Ćosić, perhaps the foremost Serbian novelist, spoke out against the deal that Serbia had sort of received in Tito’s Yugoslavia. This is the time that the first problems with the Albanians in Kosovo became apparent. The birth rate of Albanians in Kosovo was on the increase, and the first Serbs started moving away from Kosovo.

90% of Kosovo’s population is Albanian, and they favour greater autonomy or even independence. But Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their civilisation and culture. Kosovo was to become the Trojan Horse of an ambitious and cunning politician who was rapidly making his way through the ranks of the Communist Party, Slobodan Milošević.

He managed to achieve what he wanted to do, that is to say: unite the Communist Party of Serbia, and he was finally going to enable socialism as the most just social system and so on and so on, and all of a sudden communism falls apart. So what he does is he switches on to nationalism, and this was something that he knew how to do very well because he used nationalism as an ideology. He used it as a so-called mobilising force which they talked about so much in the previous communist system and never really got to it. With the fall of the communist ideology, you had a vacuum to fill it up with another ideology, and the only ideology that was not used and abused in the last 50, 40 years was nationalism. Once this started going, he saw that he couldn’t use phrases like the workers’ class, new future and so on and so on. But he could turn to the past: both communist and nationalist ideologies refer to something that is not the reality at the moment. It’s either the future or the past, and now he turned to the past because it was not exploited.

On June 28th 1989, Slobodan Milošević staged a huge nationalist demonstration to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in which the Ottomans defeated Serbia’s medieval kingdom. He revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status, and by turning nationalism into the state ideology, he indirectly challenged the other republics in the Yugoslav Federation. They would have to recognise Serbia’s dominance or else play the nationalist card themselves. And heading down the nationalist path, says Sonia Licht of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, Milošević was simply doing the same thing as politicians across the former East Bloc.

I know eastern Europe pretty well, and I am not able to talk about one single post-Communist country where nationalism was not a very, very important factor of the political change or is not becoming a very important factor. Even in the countries where at the moment you have the feeling that there is none or that it is a marginal factor like in Bulgaria, the factual situation is different. There is a lot of nationalism. The Serbian nationalism, of course, became an issue, first because of the Kosovo problem and then because of everything what was happening in the former Yugoslavia. But I must tell you, I simply do not believe that the Croatian/Slovenian nationalism is more benign, is more progressive and more democratic. By definition, nationalisms in all of these countries are very exclusive, very militant, very chauvinist.

Milošević and his cronies took advantage of people’s legitimate concerns about the growing political tensions in Yugoslavia and the repercussions of the collapse of communism to create fear. Dr. Stefan Lilić of the University of Belgrade again.

It is not true that people cannot live together. I mean, if you have lived together for so long, why couldn’t you live together in the future. Or if you don’t want to live together, why don’t you just separate? What’s the problem? Actually, there’s no problem, but rather the problem is is that someone needs a conflict going on. Without a conflict, then nothing. It’s not Serbs that hate Croats. It’s Milošević and Tudjman that you have to get. They’re the ones who you should grab by the ears and have them be responsible for what’s going on. They’re the ones that brought that on. They’re just ambitious politicians, and they don’t give a damn about what happens.

Indeed, both Milošević and Tudjman have used nationalism to the hilt to keep their absolute hold on power. The state media in both Serbia and Croatia have been blitzing the people for the past four years, with a rabid, nationalist message and playing on the Balkan people’s fears of being overrun by the other ethnic groups. And, says Nenad Stefanović, a journalist who works for the independent weekly Vreme, the propaganda has been extremely successful since most people outside Belgrade do not have access to other media sources.

The majority of people are really convinced that we have to pay this price to protect Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. At the same time, if these people can see every evening, for example, Croatian regular army is also involved in this war and that Croatia is not under the sanctions, for propaganda here in Belgrade, it’s not so hard to convince them that we are the only punished side in this war and that we are not only the responsible side in this war. With this kind of propaganda, you can justify everything.

Even without the state propaganda, Alexandra Posarać, a social policy expert at the Institute of Economic Sciences in Belgrade, feels that an uprising against President Milošević’s regime is unlikely. With inflation steamrolling along at over 60 billion percent per year and almost everybody living under the poverty line, few people have the time or the energy to think about politics.

Hungry people are not people inclined to be rebellious because they are so involved struggling to survive, and hungry people are desperate people. They are not full of energy to change things. They are just struggling to adjust themselves, somehow to protect themselves and their families and that’s all. Also people here are frightened of what has been happening in Bosnia. So they say, we will do everything just not to have war here. We are trapped. People are confused because there is that story about so-called Serbian national interest, that Serbs as a nation are in danger, that someone wants to destroy them. And if you look into that from the economic point of view and from sanctions and from everything, the picture that this is true could be constructed.

Which is what Serb politicians have been doing. Because of their almost total control of the information flow, with the exception of the greater Belgrade area, they’ve convinced Serbs that they are alone and that the world is against them. Dubrosav Veisović, the Serb deputy foreign minister, again.

Greater Serbia was an invention of Serbian enemies. Austria and Austro-Hungary was the inventors of such expression. Germany was unified. Nobody was talking about Greater Germany, even though it is ten times greater than Serbia in population and territorial wideness. Nobody is talking about Greater Germany but is talking about Greater Serbia which is only ten millions.

While the Serbs have come to expect as much of the Germans and the Austrians, says Pedrag Simić, the attitude of other countries is taking them aback.

They can hardly understand how such countries like the United Kingdom or France or especially the United States can be against the Serbs because they consider them to be natural allies, and they think it is only a matter of some kind of conspiracy that made those countries hostile to the interests of Serbia. EB: Who is behind this conspiracy? The most popular theory is of a German-Vatican conspiracy, conspiracy of Vatican Church against Orthodox Serbs and conspiracy of traditional geopolitical enemies: Vienna and Berlin, Austria and Germany. So they think that it is logical to have this kind of conflict, but it was a great psychological shock to see anti-Serbian attitude of French, British and especially American press here in Serbia. It produced a heavy psychological blow to everybody here. So that produced the sense of desperation, strengthened by that historical myth of Kosovo, of eternal values of Serbian identity, that they have simply to fight everybody at this point. Only probably Greeks and Orthodox nations, Russians, are considered to be allies, understanding Serbian truths, but everybody else are simply manipulated by this strange German-Vatican conspiracy.

Faced with such confusion on every front, people might be expected to turn to the church in search of solace. But Dr. Stefan Lilić says the Serbian Orthodox Church too is struggling to adapt to the collapse of communism.

Within the Serbian Orthodox Church, you have a lot of different lines. You have radical lines. You have very moderate lines and so on. And the Church itself, it has made a few blunders, political blunders n the past two or three years. At one point, it went too much into the nationalistic thing. And another point, it didn’t support the opposition enough. At other points, it supported the opposition very much. So it’s still looking around for its identity because the Church forgot quote-unquote how to be a religious institution in an open society.

So Serbs, left to fend for themselves, are simply trying to stay alive in a society where logic no longer seems to exist.

Everything is so mixed up. In Bosnia, you have Serbs fighting against the Muslims, and the Croats fighting with the Muslims against the Serbs. And then you have the Croats fighting against the Muslims. Then you have the Serbs and the Muslims fighting against the Croats, and then the Croats and the Serbs against the Muslims, then the Serbs helping the Croats that are running away from the Muslims. And then the Muslims helping the Serbs and running away from the Croats. It’s the vicious circle that this greed for power so cherished by the communists turned nationalist has brought us to.

On the political front, there has been no credible alternative to the ruling Socialist Party of President Milošević. The opposition remains hopelessly divided and, says Sonia Licht, initially at least most parties allowed themselves to get sucked up in the spiral of nationalism.

Most of our opposition parties emerged as national or nationalist parties, and as you know, this is exactly the same situation in Croatia, a little bit less in Slovenia and Macedonia and very much so in Bosnia. This is one of the reasons of the Bosnian tragedy. More than 50% of the Bosnian population voted for their own nationalist parties. People supported these parties not only in the former Yugoslavia but in Hungary, in Romania, if you want also in Slovakia and, of course, in many countries of the former Soviet Union because they were left without a clear idea what is going to happen after communism fall. It happened too suddenly. They simply had to change their mind from today to tomorrow. Now, where I see a positive phenomenon that some of these parties, as for example the Serbian Renewal Party of Mr. Drasković from the one can say the quite far right moved to the centre. So you have a whole group of parties who are somewhere in the centre. They are very keen on national identity, but they are more and more moving toward a position which is against militant nationalism. The second thing is I believe that people in Serbia, citizens of Serbia, are also more quite away from that first wave of strong nationalism, which looked like a romantic one, but which turned out to be very militant and dangerous.

It’s difficult to gauge whether a majority of Serbs are prepared to turn their backs on nationalism. In the last elections, a group which is even more radical than President Milošević’s socialists, the Serbian Radical Party, obtained one third of the seats in parliament. The Serbian Radicals, who demand $500 from journalists for an interview, are led by Vojislav Seselj, the self-proclaimed leader of the chetniks in Serbia, a man described to me by a Belgrade psychologist as a psychopath, comparable to the men who ran Nazi Germany’s Third Reich. Whether Serbs opt for Seselj, more Milosevic or greater democracy, will become clear in the upcoming elections in rump Yugoslavia scheduled for November.

The war in Bosnia and Croatia, as well as the rise in nationalism in the Balkans, have, says Pedrag Simić, posed very basic questions about the future of Europe and how we intend to deal with the plethora of minorities spread across the continent.

The disappearance of Yugoslavia, the Pandora’s Box of interethnic disputes that was contained through that state and we have to remind that Yugoslavia was created back in 1918, not only because it was the only way how to all the Yugoslav nation to consume their right to self-determination but also to stabilise the Balkans. For 70 years – except for the period of the Second World War – Yugoslavia was a stabilising factor in the Balkans. So there has to be a recognition of the disappearance of Yugoslavia, the secession of Yugoslav republics simply overlooked that problem. Yugoslavia was a very complex settlement and system of checks and balances between various ethnic groups and the question was not to dissolve Yugoslavia but to democratise it, to help it get through market and democratic reforms and thus to address the basic – first of all – individual human rights and this way to address also the collective human rights or minority rights in Yugoslavia.

Indeed, Sonia Licht, the president of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly feels that until Europe addresses the fundamental issue of minority rights – not only in the Balkans, but throughout eastern and central Europe – there’s a real danger that we will experience more ethnic upheavals.

A huge amount of the Serbian people will live outside of Serbia. That’s obvious. Now, how to find a democratic answer on the future relation between these people and the people who are citizens of Serbia? How to avoid a situation in which these people will be a permanent source of tension, fear, frustration? Just compare it with Hungary. You see, every time the Hungarian nationalists in Hungary itself use the fact that one third of the Hungarian people are living outside of the country to create a nationalist fever, and it’s a very dangerous one because Hungarians are living in five European countries. If there is something very bad going to happen, then it wouldn’t be a Balkan war but a European war. The international community has to help the democratically-minded people here to work out an alternative for this situation. These are very serious issues. Should I remind you of 25 million Russians living outside of Russia?

Dr. Pedrag Simić, the director of the Belgrade Institute for International Politics, feels that stimulating economic growth in the Balkans could also help end the spiral of violence. But Dr. Zoran Korać of the University of Belgrade and an opposition member feels that the solution is far more simple.

Show me a country where the minority feels safe and I show you a democratic country. Everything else does not work. Well here in the Balkans, traditionally to be a minority, an ethnic minority in a country, any Balkan country, was a bad thing. And that gives some rational ground for chauvinism and extreme nationalism you have in the Balkans. I don’t think anybody would like to be a Turk in Bulgaria or an Albanian in Greece or a Greek or Serb in Albania. Traditionally in the Balkans, it was a bad thing to be a minority. They were used, misused. They were slaughtered in wars. They were negated the basic principles. So this is the principles of a united Europe historically never applied in the Balkans. And for that reason, a lot of wars were fought here. The irony is that this is one of the few places of the world – I’m speaking of the Balkans as a whole – where it is impossible to make a national state. So this is like trying to solve something through war and ethnic cleansing that is unsolvable. The only way it can be solved is exactly the way Europe is trying now: to give equal rights to everybody.

In Tatters and Rags was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Paul Power. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.