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From the May 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 5)

The New Europe

Not in Our Name

Ljiljana Smajlovic, NIN (political weekly), Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, March 5, 2003

On his return from Washington last Sunday, the Bulgarian minister of defense [Nikolay Svinarov] proudly declared that Americans might open four or five military bases in Bulgaria in the near future as a token of appreciation for Sofia’s support. The following day in Stuttgart, Gen. James Jones confirmed that this possibility wasn’t a mere dream by announcing the goal to relocate the majority of 78,000 American troops currently stationed in Germany to the continent’s eastern regions (to Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania). According to Jones, NATO’s future in Europe is in the bases resembling that of Kosovo’s Camp Bondsteel, where the barracks are made out of wood and the hangars for helicopters are collapsible.

Gen. Jones denied speculation that his plans have anything to do with current tensions surrounding transatlantic relations between members of NATO, despite the fact that during his congressional testimony just last month, certain representatives insisted on relocating U.S. troops stationed in Germany to “punish” Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for his unwillingness to support U.S. military plans.

If today’s Europe must be divided into two parts, the “old” and “new,” Serbia, as its newest country, is again left somewhere in the middle. And, as their country stands in line to join Europe’s coalitions and unions, Serbs are discovering that they are equally uncomfortable in either of the two encampments. Old Europe bombarded Serbia while new Europe cordially supported the bombardments. Both old and new Europe fervently participated in what can only be referred to as the U.S. war between the Serbs and Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbs are well aware of the existing differences between Washington, on the one hand, and Paris and Bonn, on the other, but when it comes to Iraq, they have an instinctive mistrust of the idea that Europe and America are waging a war of moral superiority. There are many all across the globe who believe that there are two sides here: the peace-loving, multilateral, and refined Europe, on the one hand, and the combative, isolationist, and rude America, on the other. But we are not among those who make such distinctions. We find it easier and more convincing to believe that the differences between the Western allies are strategic rather than moral in nature. This past decade has poisoned us with political cynicism.

There is also another kind of international gullibility that is not part of Serbian consciousness. Serbs are not so naive as to think that the proper way to handle unrest in troubled regions is first to let the well-intentioned outsiders identify the good guys and the bad guys while separating the tyrants into another category. Nor do Serbs believe that the next potential leader waiting in the crowds will help the country get out of the ruins just as soon as the West helps eliminate its dictator. They have seen firsthand on their own soil that things usually don’t work out quite that way, and they have become quite skeptical when it comes to Western liberal intellectuals, who think the best way to save a village is to burn it to the ground. Since the idea of humanitarian intervention proved fruitless in Serbia, the Bush administration has chosen a different phrase to convey to the world what it wants to accomplish in Iraq; it has chosen a more intellectually adequate term: “regime change.”

Such Serbian authorities as [Foreign Minister] Goran Svilanovic and [recently assassinated Prime Minister] Zoran Djindjic have made it clear from the onset of the existing international tensions that Belgrade wishes to remain “neutral.” This inclination was, of course, related not only to the possible war with Iraq but also to the current battle between the two Europes and one America. (Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, already notorious for its lack of tact, was quick to rush to Washington’s side, but that is a different issue entirely. In fact, it is so beside the point that it wasn’t even acknowledged by the liberal American press, which is busy these days making nasty jokes about Bulgarian ass-kissing.)

Fearful [former Yugoslav President] Vojislav Kostunica decided to do the following: He was too “busy” to attend the annual congressional prayer breakfast in Washington. The same fear (that after serving prayer for breakfast, war would be served for lunch) was felt by 10 other leaders who also decided not to attend the traditional gathering; consequently, the attendance by prime ministers and presidents was down by 50 percent as compared with previous years.

This, of course, does not mean that Sofia is any more politically educated or literate or capable or meaner than Belgrade, nor does it mean that Serbian politicians are unaware of the possible advantages of siding with the United States when President Bush keeps emphasizing that such support is of crucial importance. As NIN reports, there are some indications that Washington is willing to compromise, for a little while anyway, on the arrest of [indicted war criminal Gen.] Ratko Mladic if Belgrade allows the U.S. military to fly over Serbia during the bombardment of Iraq.

And although it’s true that younger crows have shouted “Slobo Saddam” for years (alluding to the similarities between the two dictators), and although the Serbian population is on average less sophisticated and more racially motivated than the population of the older European states, Serbs are generally unconcerned and unsympathetic toward people who, by their own fault, cannot rid themselves of their own dictator.

No one in Belgrade, not even the biggest pragmatists among the politicians, is really rallying against Saddam Hussein, nor do they want to see his regime destroyed by bombardment. It is hard not to notice that those same people in Washington, who, during the bombing of Serbia, supported the country’s invasion, occupation, and denazification, do not support the same treatment for Iraq.

The Serbian people remember all too well that it was in this way that a Western theory was tested: that it is up to a people to decide who governs their country. This meant that they were “responsible,” first, because they voted for Slobodan Milosevic and, second, because they didn’t get rid of him by force. Consequently, the same people who vote for a dictator are not re-garded as innocent when the time comes to bomb their country.

The turnout during the demonstrations in Belgrade against the U. S. invasion of Iraq was low, despite the fact that the whole world was demonstrating. The rally by “Women in Black” at-tracted only 200 people; meanwhile tens of thousands were parading in the streets of Zagreb. Perhaps it’s too simplistic to blame this on poor organization, the organizers’ lack of popularity, the lack of solidarity among Serbs, or their lack of faith in influencing the decisions of the world’s only super-power. Perhaps it also has to do with a bad conscience. This time, the demonstrations in Western countries supporting the United States, whose armies will be sending their men to war, held signs with the slogan: “Not in Our Name.” Citizens of these countries sent messages to their men in power to reconsider their actions and to resist getting involved.

Serbs, on the other hand, cannot really say that during the past decade they did all they could to let Milosevic know that they didn’t always agree with him, even if, for the most part, they agreed with his stand on Kosovo. Milosevic’s armed men were notorious for getting rid of entire villages to extricate a few terrorists.

During the bombardment of Serbia and the war in Kosovo, one leading American journalist went around asking his Serb acquaintances, politicians, artists, as well as passersby, the following question: Are Serbian forces doing something in Kosovo in your name that you are ashamed of? It’s been four years since the bombardment and the war took place, and Serbs have yet to answer this question fully and objectively. Not only to The New York Times but to themselves.

Recent peace demonstrations across the globe are justified by mass fears that America will exercise its powers in a condescending way, neglecting the fact that its enemy is a less competent fighter and [the Iraqi] people are powerless and, most of all, innocent. Serbs made similar military decisions; that’s why many of their commanders ended up at the [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] at The Hague.

But there isn’t a jury in the world that would find [U.S. Army] Gen. Michael Short guilty for wanting to turn off Belgrade’s lights during the bombardment because he was annoyed by the people’s concerts and their willingness to defend their bridges. This is where, for Serbs, the line gets a bit crooked: The line that divides the people also divides the individual, whether Serb or American. These dilemmas are not easy from a moral or strategic viewpoint, nor are they easy to convey through slogans of a few words.

During the past decade—the decade of lost political innocence—Serbs have also lost their ability to believe even the most transparent objectives. They now face a new problem of identity: They have thus far thought of themselves as victims or even heroic victims. Meanwhile, they have learned to relate to the soldiers who have been ordered to capture a city and who do not want to die heroically but instead to make the other side die heroically for them.

Hence, the government in Serbia is simply, carefully ignoring the Iraq question (they even skip meals if necessary), so young people of Serbia really have no one to complain about, because no one is really showing support for the invasion of Iraq “in their name.” The examples set by our neighbors are actually not as inspiring as one might at first think. Veton Surroi, who is considered a leading liberal intellectual among the Kosovo-Albanian elite, proclaimed recently that the bombardment of Kosovo proved that the claim that bombs can’t bring democracy isn’t true after all.

Sarajevo, on the other hand, is not showing support: “If anyone, we know what aggression and war really mean,” said an article in this Tuesday’s edition of Oslobodjenje. The article also stated that after what had happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past decade, the country simply could not “cheer for just any war,” certainly not the one that claimed to be able to bring democracy to Iraq. In Belgrade, however, we still remember the writing featured in a Sarajevan magazine in March 1999, which told a story of a cab driver from Sarajevo, who, when the bombs started falling on Belgrade, exclaimed: “Oh, if my second son were to be born tonight, I would name him Tomahawk.”

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