Quo vadis, Serbia?

Despite Europe’s general loss of interest in further expansion, Serbia’s state of aporia keeps it riveted to the European Union; leaving the country without a road, much less a roadmap.

By David B. Kanin

In various ways, the philosophical term “aporia” and Emile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie” represent a sense of disorientation, perplexity, lack of purpose, or a sense of meaning in life.  An individual or a community can find itself without direction or belief in a constructive future.

This is where Serbia finds itself, no matter its Chinese water torture-like relationship with the European Union.  Serbia has been buffeted by serial defeats, at least since the Nazi invasion of 1941, that have negated not only the internal sense of identity forged during the nationalist era before 1914, but also the rather prideful place Serbian publicists advertized their nation had gained through the sacrifices of World War I – especially the iconic retreat of 1915-16 – and the reward given the Karadjordjevic dynasty at Versailles.  Tito’s anything but Serbian Yugoslavia, the failed federal interregnum of the 1980s, the self-serving and self-defeating tactics of a Milošević as devoid of strategic vision as he was of concern about anyone but his family, and wars in the 1990s ripped apart what at best had been a country insufficiently prepared to deal with Balkan developments in the first place.

Even Serbia’s one post-Yugoslav success, Milošević’s deal with Holbrooke at Dayton (they were the central actors in that drama – Tudjman had won what he needed on the battlefield and Izetbegović had little choice but to accept that his community was getting screwed) came at the price of accepting the intra-Serbian border drawn at the Drina.  Along with Belgrade’s acquiescence in the decisive Croatian victories of “Flash” and “Storm,” that acquiescence put to death nationalist dreams to revive the projects composed in 1844 and 1986.

Milosevic’s narrow personal agenda destroyed Serbia’s communal sense of meaning.  His successors have done little to lead the society toward a new one.  Two incidents of the previous decade illustrate Serbian aporia.  The assassination of Zoran Đinđić in 2003 provoked a huge turnout at a funeral marked as much by genuine anguish over Serbia’s self-inflicted suffering as by grief over the politician’s death.  In each year since, the anniversary of that murder has led to new commentaries by public intellectuals not only bemoaning what might have been, but also pointing to the country’s lack of leadership and direction.

In 2005, Serbia’s decision not to join the general celebration of the 65th anniversary of V-E Day underscored that – for too many Serbs – the decision of 1945 marked a defeat, not a victory.  The record of the 1990s is not the only reference point reminding Serbs they are out of step with their own memories, not just with the memories of others.

This state of aporia is what keeps Serbia riveted to the European Union, even though membership in that club has become less than universally popular.  No matter Brussels’ congenital self-righteousness, never mind the moving targets of conditions for accession that mask Europe’s general loss of interest in further expansion (and forget the assertive, insecure Russians) – Serbia’s insular sullenness and lack of leadership has left it with nowhere else to go.

Vuk Drašković, an erstwhile royalist, has teamed up with the Milo Đukanović wannabe Cedomir Jovanović to wave a tattered EU banner in Boris Tadić’s face.  The so-called Progressives have claimed they too want to join “Europe.”  Ivica Dačić, one of those honest enough to acknowledge that further partitions in Kosovo (and, in my view, elsewhere) are possible, expressed in his recent “threat of war” speech the general sense of self-pity and aporia.

  • “We have let the Serbs, who were the greatest victims of the wars, become a synonym for war criminals, those who conquer somebody else’s territories ad jeopardize peace all over the world just because we think that the truth (my italics) is enough and that it does not need to be advertized.”

The EU’s latest non-decision on whether to bestow on Serbia a date for its candidacy was unimportant.  What was more instructive was how desperate Belgrade was for Serbs in northern Kosovo to dismantle barricades for the sake of Serbia’s EU candidacy.

  • Despite head fakes after December 5, at this writing that brouhaha remains unsettled.  It still is not clear why – judging from his public comments beginning November 26 or 27 – Zubin Potok’s Slaviša Ristić broke ranks with his colleagues and cut a perishable deal with KFOR.  Ristić and Mitrovica’s Krstimir Pantić continue to have different public lines as to how their constituents should behave.  (KFOR’s willingness not to insist on free movement by EULEX and to engage in discussions that conceded to Ristić the appearance of sovereignty also are issues worth discussing).

In its current anomic state, Serbia’s political establishment will hold to the chimera of EU membership as tightly as the West Europeans themselves cling to their damaged project for European unity.  As long as Serbian spokespeople claim pride of place as victims and imply they represent some special “truth”, Serbia cannot help itself and will not contribute constructively either to possible Balkan futures or to whatever becomes of “Europe.”  Meanwhile, concerns over chronic economic problems, such possible blows as the threat to close US Steel’s plant in Smederevo, and the local impact of transatlantic financial mismanagement link material concerns to the poor public mood.

In this vein, now that the EU once again has spoken (sort of), Serbia’s politicians and public intellectuals are using their usual noises to avoid the necessary work of finding a future.  Whether expressing desire to join the EU or urging their people to stop acting like terminal supplicants, the conversation in Serbia obscures the country’s baseline aporia – as usual, the country finds itself without a road, much less a roadmap.

This does not have to be the case.  The same Serbia that lost so much in the last three quarters of a century can stop blaming everyone but itself for its problems and – finally – take the lead in fashioning a strategy for regional development.  Of course, this would require Serbian government and society putting its EU aspirations on the back burner (which is where the Europeans have placed them).  They should acknowledge there is no alternative to a down-to-earth decision to embrace the problems and potential common to all Balkan communities, and disgorge the self-destructive mythology connecting spiritual sacrifice to national character.

There is no substitute for Serbia taking part – as one Balkan community among others, not as special hero or victim – in regional strategies and policies designed to overcome the geographic and economic obstacles in the way of peace and the general prosperity.  Neither the declining transatlantic powers nor the self-serving Russians can offer more than inertia as they enable Serbia and its neighbors to slough off on outsiders the responsibility they have been avoiding for their own problems.  Looking to the EU is pointless – it is inept in handling Balkan problems and perhaps facing its own flavor of anomie if it continues to dither in the face of financial problems.

The key to a constructive direction for the region is for Serbs, Albanians, Greeks, Macedonians, the communities loosely connected by the failing entity called “Bosnia,” and minority people living among them to ignore the outsiders, confront their own biases, hatreds, and frustrations, and finally engage with each other as passengers irrevocably condemned to travel in the same small boat.  To jumpstart this process, there is no substitute for building a transportation network and other infrastructural skeleton intended to – finally – create an integrated regional market.

Questions of border and population patterns (which, no matter great power rhetoric, remain very much in play) should take a back seat to problems of physical engineering and financial flows.  Build “corridors” with off-ramps that channel commerce to local destinations, not just Western Europe.  Develop resource plans and economic strategies that harness the capabilities of all Balkan communities and establish a regional approach to broader international trade designed to enable everyone who lives there, not to privilege parochial interests or tired notions of Serbian (or other) national uniqueness.  Make sure gas pipelines and other energy projects serve the needs of Balkan communities, not only the plans of West European planners or Russian oligarchs.  Seek outside investments as a strategic group rather than individual supplicants.

This strategy could enable an emerging network of commerce and trade perhaps leading eventually to further border changes – or, in the best case, softening of the significance of borders – and limited population movements.  The changed context would mean such developments could become constructive instead of destabilizing because they would be determined more by constructive material logic than destructive communal ideologies.  There are no “final statuses” in the Balkans; the question is what developments and relationships will drive the next set of changes produced by Serbs and the other communities with which they currently contest physical and spiritual pride of place.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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