Comment: Serbia Seeks An Exit from History

Now the epoch of Milosevic is over – and it surely is – Serbs must learn to free themselves from the burden of history and the destructive desire to make and remake it, over and over again.

Comment: Serbia Seeks An Exit from History

Now the epoch of Milosevic is over – and it surely is – Serbs must learn to free themselves from the burden of history and the destructive desire to make and remake it, over and over again.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Slobodan Milosevic's epoch came to a close after the NATO intervention and the loss of Kosovo. This can be more clearly discerned at a distance from Belgrade; from a closer vantage point, it looks as if he still lasts, but only in a technical sense, as a form of authority, as a police routine or a transparent television lie.

All remnants of sense have vanished from his regime's discourse, there is no hope in a miracle. All have seen through the magic tricks, but the circus star and continues to repeat the performance, simply because there is no one to stop him or remove him. The alternatives to Milosevic cannot think of anything different, or better, to offer.

This could go on for a long time yet, even if the dream of so many decent citizens of Serbia comes true and Milosevic departs. Let's just recall that the late Marshall Tito continued to rule the former Yugoslavia for years after he died. History has an inertial force of its own. Comparisons between Milosevic and Tito may be easily disputed, bar one: it is not possible to turn back the clock on their acts. Nothing can be as it was before their deeds. Indeed this was the ambition of Tito’s epoch; it will certainly be the aim of Milosevic’s.

Thus it will be appropriate to remember that, whatever people think of it now, Milosevic’s epoch represented the supreme expression of old, deep, dominant Serbian statehood, its political, social and even cultural ambitions.

I know that many good Serbs will contest this view and try their hardest to prove that he was obviously wrong from the start. I could readily agree with that, but Serbia did not think that way in the beginning. It took a very long time, desperately long, to understand what was happening, and it is easy to be wise now.

At the beginning, when Milosevic was destroying everything in front of him, looking invincible, one needed a lot of energy and courage to grasp where everything was leading and to oppose it. Nobody minded that he did not renounce Communism, and as Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, very few spotted his reliance on naked force, or how it was destroying everything to which the Serbs could aspire.

Serbs became deaf and alone in the world. At home the merest mention of somebody else's rights became a kind of treason. Over time it became impossible for Serbs to put a case for the right to anything. And in the meantime a complex dispute over territorial, historical and ethnic rights and claims turned into an orgy of violence and crime.

At the end of the day, Milosevic's deeds remain largely undoable. But as Serbia’s horror at what has been done in its name takes shape, it has no option but to be horrified at itself a little.

To acknowledge that Milosevic did not appoint himself, but was a legitimate, if extremely naughty, child of the Serbian national idea, is the act that requires new courage from the Serbian people. His own motives are not important. Maybe he always wanted to start a war with the United States, or claim total power for his own. The fact remains that the Serbian people chose him and not some other candidate at the critical moment.

The exaltation was so great at the time that the act could not have been accidental.

This is the hardest truth that Serbia will take into the next century. It is not about Milosevic, who one way or another must leave the stage soon. This is about the kind of genuine national defeat, that nations encounter only once in their history.

Of course it might have been that Serbian nationalism rather than the nation itself might have suffered the defeat, if Serbian nationalism is taken to mean the nation’s irrational surplus of messianic and, as a rule, aggressive national aspiration. For while faith in the greatness, the uniqueness of Serbia and its special historical and cultural role in the Balkans, if not in Europe, has deep roots, such self-belief need not automatically lead to ugly and damaging consequences.

With a little luck Serbs might have found a way of resolving this faith peacefully, allowing them to turn quietly to small unhistorical tasks. But there was no luck. The people chose and the years began. Milosevic could be deadly for many different peoples but for his own Serbs he was the progenitor of a long nightmare that painfully tormented them, drove them to blackmail and quarrel, desperation and poverty and a resting place at the bottom of Europe’s cesspit.

I am not a supporter of the NATO intervention, but am so for reasons that have nothing to do with Serbia. Serbia almost forced the action upon itself and paid an enormous price for its choice. It may have been an unjustly high one, but Serbia lost the right to question the justice of the punishment after its guilt became clear. Serbia can only deal with its epochal downfall as best as it can.

How to do this? Not by asking how Serbia may exist, as some do, without Kosovo. The biggest and deepest change would be that which might well be dubbed The Exit From History. It may sound tragic to the defenders of Serbian historical mythology, but other peoples have found such an exit beneficial to both their lives and welfare.

For when Serbia no longer has anything big to tell the world, there will be no reason for big sacrifices to match and Serbs may turn their attention to matters of lesser import, like their tax returns.

The Serbs may suffer withdrawal symptoms as they give up history to others. Everything will look trivial and senseless at first, but in time they will get used to it. Soon the making of history will appear boring in comparison with the making of children. And the delights of cvarci and wine, of fishing and travelling, meeting, greeting and grumbling, will remain. For isn’t it time to show the world what else Serbs can do other than fight?

Other neighbouring European states, many larger and more powerful, have passed through the same exit from history ahead of Serbia. Some came to terms with the change later rather than sooner, but are nevertheless through its portal.

For one could plainly see during the NATO intervention just how far Europe had given up the will to make its own history itself. Even the Russians, a people who once had the greatest of all messianic ambitions for world history, came to terms with the expense and stupidity, well before the Serbs ever did, and has probably given up the idea of meddling with history for good.

I believe that this experience of the defeat is so strong and obvious to everyone, that nothing more need be said, not even in refutation of the demagogues who will try to resist. They will be wasting their time. No one will ever again entice Serbia with tales of national greatness and historical rights. A defeat such as that just endured will act as a kind of inoculation against nationalist infection.

None of this will make Serbs inevitably different, let alone better or smarter. It is certain that they will learn how to resist the call of stronger and bigger forces and to reject political projects based on bullying. But while the experience will be protection against another Milosevic epoch, it will not see Serbia shed the dead wood of self-deception, prejudice, bizarre theorising, ignorance and exaggeration bundled up in the last few years.

That intellectual garbage is picturesque and in a way entertaining, but something, nonetheless, has got to be done with it, if the Serbs do not wish to see their land reduced to an anthropological display.

Hence, the question is to find out what the Serbs want, and what they don't want, what they can do and what they can't, and especially, the means to pick between the two. Then find out how find who and how a new national leadership may be authorised to speak and act for Serbia. And to clear the garbage, not continue to pile it up.

Stojan Cerovic is a senior columnist and journalist at the Belgrade magazine Vreme, in which a version of this comment first appeared.

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