Serbia: Rebranding Cosic

B-92 raises eyebrows by publishing a Dobrica Cosic book which apparently attempts to exonerate him for creating and supporting Milosevic.

Serbia: Rebranding Cosic

B-92 raises eyebrows by publishing a Dobrica Cosic book which apparently attempts to exonerate him for creating and supporting Milosevic.

Thursday, 27 September, 2001

After years battling against the Milosevic regime and the ingrained nationalist ideology which drove it, B-92 - the highly regarded Belgrade-based independent radio station - has just published a book of interviews with the godfather of Serbian nationalism, Dobrica Cosic.

The appearance of the collection, Chasing the Wind, under B-92's Samizdat imprint, is pretty ironic, given the nature of Cosic's extreme views. Samizdat's editor Dejan Ilic, however, has been quick to defend the decision to publish the volume, saying it was just "one of the series of books ... whose aim was to achieve better and more complete understanding as to what lead to disintegration of Yugoslavia".

Now 80, Cosic is widely considered the most prominent Serb nationalist thinker of the former Yugoslavia. While he's revered by some as the "father of the Serbian nation", many see him as the prime author of Yugoslavia's disintegration. In many ways, Cosic has played the part of Frankenstein, unleashing the monster Milosevic over whom he loses control, but ultimately destroys.

But after so many years of repression and censorship why does B-92 choose to publish a collection which would have no trouble finding some other publisher sympathetic to Cosic's views?

The book itself has provoked no serious reviews, no critical analysis. Some

right- wing media have naturally commented favourably, while the Belgrade-based Vreme and Croatian Feral Tribune have gently mocked B-92.

The muted reaction seems par for the course for today's Serbia. Compromise is the order of the day, and there's practically no debate on the excesses of nationalism, nor any questioning of the fact that many of those who committed crimes in its name are in power today. Such exploration is a little too painful.

This, despite that he's disliked by many liberals in Belgrade. A shiver ran down the spines of many of those who watched him stand side by side at the presidential inauguration of Vojislav Kostunica last October - the ceremony that finally confirmed Milosevic's fall from power.

Yes, they realised Cosic was enjoying his moment of sweet revenge on Milosevic - the protégé who carried him politically to the heights and then dumped him unceremoniously in 1993. But critics also took it as a disturbing sign that Serbia may be willing to dispense with its nationalist leaders but not the ideology behind them.

Cosic and Kostunica go back a long way. Yugoslavia's president was once a prominent member of Cosic's dissident circle in the Eighties and is seen by some as his successor as patriarch of the nationalist right.

Cosic has been out of the media spotlight for some time, dogged by rumours of ill health and the book could be his apologia, his auto-whitewashing, exonerating him for creating and supporting Milosevic.

The book tries to showcase Cosic as "the greatest Serbian intellectual" and as the only man "able to confront Milosevic", according to a phrase Slavoljub Djukic, his interviewer throughout the book, repeats time and again.

In the interviews, Cosic presents himself as an ever-curious intellectual, instinctively searching for the truth, and, at the same time, striving for the progress of his nation. He readily admits to making mistakes, though he says they were made in the spirit of enquiry and as a consequence of his pursuit of higher nationalist ideals.

His attitudes about Republika Srpska's, RS, role in the Bosnian war leaves one in no doubt that here is a man whose ideas remain ruthlessly partisan. "The gravest mistake of Republika Srpska was the war for Sarajevo. More Serbian than Muslim parts of the city were destroyed, to say nothing about how the blockade of Sarajevo was used by media against the Serbs."

And RS leader Radovan Karadzic is judged merely from the perspective of failed Serbian goals. "From my personal experience, he is a gifted, intelligent, capable man; a very good speaker, communicative, inventive." He was also, according to Cosic, "strong-headed and tragically stubborn."

As one might expect Cosic remains adamantly opposed to Karazdic's indictment by The Hague tribunal. "Only in an epoch of dishonor, of triumphant American and European hypocrisy, only in a world in which violence is the rule, injustice is law, and the lie is truth, could Radovan Karadzic have been proclaimed and pursued as a 'war criminal'."

Like so many of Serbia's hard-line nationalists, Cosic's background was firmly rooted in the Communist Party, through whose ranks he emerged as a writer after the end of the Second World War. His lengthy novels about the dilemmas of Serb villagers during the conflict became obligatory reading in schools.

By the early Sixties he was Tito's "court" writer and would accompany the former Yugoslav president on board his ship Galeb on missions to the Third World.

His descent followed later that decade, when he publicly supported the disgraced secret police chief and Yugoslav vice-president, Aleksandar Rankovic, who was a Serb. Cosic was expelled from the party in 1968 for opposing government policy on Kosovo, which gave the local Albanian majority greater control over the province.

His literary career came to a standstill, but he re-emerged in the late Seventies, with the novel Time of Death, about Serbia during World War One (an abridged version was published in English by Brace Jovanovic).

Time of Death was written with a different ideological framework to earlier works, woven around the themes of Serb national heroism and suffering. The novels that followed, Believer, and then Traitor, openly revealed an anti-communist viewpoint. These views were sharply displayed in the novel Time of Authority, which showed communism destroying the lives of Serbs who had survived both world wars.

Cosic found a home among the intellectuals and artists of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he held his salon. His circle included the painter Mica Popovic, Borislav Mihajlovic-Mihiz, an influential thinker, and Matija Beckovic, the most prominent nationalist poet.

The debates in Cosic's circle turned endlessly on the themes of the collapse of the traditional patriarchal Serbian family, torn apart by communist ideas, and on the loss of Kosovo. Cosic's central theme was that the Serbs usually lost in peacetime what they gained in war.

Behind the theory of the individual Serb as victim lies the wider idea of the nation that is selfless but abused by others. The Serbs, Cosic said, were sacrificing themselves while the "others" in Yugoslavia were waiting for an occasion to stick a knife in their backs.

In the late Eighties, Cosic sought the support of the political elite in Serbia. He and his fellow nationalists thought that the state, whatever its ideology, was indispensable in the fight against the Kosovo-Albanians and others who were perceived to be a threat to the Serbs. They were on the lookout for a crucial figure in the communist hierarchy to promote their cause.

Even while Ivan Stambolic was in power, Slobodan Milosevic was selected as their discreet champion. Some of Cosic's circle started to build a nationalist icon out of the small-time party apparatchik who had never publicly expressed any serious thoughts on nationalism at this time. Overnight, Milosevic became the "saviour of the Serbian nation".

With the break-up of Yugoslavia and the eruption of war in 1992, Cosic became president of the new, truncated federal Yugoslavia, comprising only Serbia and Montenegro. In one of the interviews in Chasing The Wind, he describes Milosevic kneeling in front of him, begging him to help Serbia.

This image may have sprung from Cosic's imagination as, after one year in office, Cosic was toppled during a parliamentary crisis initiated by Milosevic and executed by his then ally, the ultra-nationalist paramilitary leader and suspected war criminal, Vojislav Seselj. Cosic endured a humiliation he would not forget.

Cosic's place on the Serbian political map today is imprecise. There are reports of serious differences between him and Kostunica, not over their nationalist programme, but over strategy. In Belgrade, some believe Cosic was behind the decision to surrender Milosevic to The Hague. It was, perhaps, the perfect revenge for his humiliating fall from grace.

Svetlana Slapsak is a professor of humanities at Ljubljana's ISH graduate school.

Balkans, Serbia, Kosovo
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