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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0 Response

  1. Paul

    Much of what you say makes sense. Your former employer also played their part in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. There have been no utterances of remorse from the western capitals that irresponsibly encouraged the breakup, and frankly none are expected. Many were responsible, not just the Serbs.
    You also seem to not know, or purposely ignore, the terrible price Serbia has paid over the past century. You bracket those immense sacrifices as if they are some victim complex. If anyone has the right to feel a victim in the Balkans, it is Serbia. Not that it does the Serbs any good however and I wish we could move on. We have tried to get along, only to get pushed back by those professing to be our “friend” but stab us in the back.
    Perhaps it is true, there is too much history for us to progress.

  2. Paul

    Much of what you say makes sense. Your former employer also played their part in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. There have been no utterances of remorse from the western capitals that irresponsibly encouraged the breakup, and frankly none are expected. Many were responsible, not just the Serbs.
    You also seem to not know, or purposely ignore, the terrible price Serbia has paid over the past century. You bracket those immense sacrifices as if they are some victim complex. If anyone has the right to feel a victim in the Balkans, it is Serbia. Not that it does the Serbs any good however and I wish we could move on. We have tried to get along, only to get pushed back by those professing to be our “friend” but stab us in the back.
    Perhaps it is true, there is too much history for us to progress.

  3. Joe A

    Chruchill once said that the Balkans is a place that creates more history than it can handle. The rosy picture that this author paints on how the Balkans should put its past behind, ignore the outsiders and build their own glorious future is maybe pretty and desirable but wishful thinking considering that the Balkans has always been the playing ground of the big powers, so the outsiders cannot simply be ignored. The outsiders -recently mainly the author’s ex-employer and Germany (the country that destroyed the Balkans twice last century and had a lot to do with the third destruction of the 90s)- are currently meddling in Kosovo so they cannot simply be ignored.
    By implying that Serbia is playing the victim is just an insult to all those people that suffered during the last century. Look at how long Western European countries ‘played the victim’ of Nazi occupation (still lingering on in a distrust of Germany leading role in the EU). The Balkans -and Serbia in particular- had suffered more in history than any of the Western European countries (and often at the hands of these Western European countries) can possibly handle (as to keep up with as how Curchill described it).
    There is in the West a complete underappreciation or understanding (willingly or not) of the immense suffering of the Balkans in history. Contrary, Serbia is being kept in the doghouse being blamed for all the misery of the 90s as soley their fault. Not even Germany after WWII was kept in the doghouse for as long as Serbia is still in it currently.
    Perhaps the Balkans should litigate for compensation for damages done to them. The kind of money that would come out of that would perhaps help to rebuild the Balkans that was destroyed as a result of centuries of outsider meddling.
    I hope the Balkans’ future will be less painfull and more prosperous than it was in the past.

  4. Joe A

    Chruchill once said that the Balkans is a place that creates more history than it can handle. The rosy picture that this author paints on how the Balkans should put its past behind, ignore the outsiders and build their own glorious future is maybe pretty and desirable but wishful thinking considering that the Balkans has always been the playing ground of the big powers, so the outsiders cannot simply be ignored. The outsiders -recently mainly the author’s ex-employer and Germany (the country that destroyed the Balkans twice last century and had a lot to do with the third destruction of the 90s)- are currently meddling in Kosovo so they cannot simply be ignored.
    By implying that Serbia is playing the victim is just an insult to all those people that suffered during the last century. Look at how long Western European countries ‘played the victim’ of Nazi occupation (still lingering on in a distrust of Germany leading role in the EU). The Balkans -and Serbia in particular- had suffered more in history than any of the Western European countries (and often at the hands of these Western European countries) can possibly handle (as to keep up with as how Curchill described it).
    There is in the West a complete underappreciation or understanding (willingly or not) of the immense suffering of the Balkans in history. Contrary, Serbia is being kept in the doghouse being blamed for all the misery of the 90s as soley their fault. Not even Germany after WWII was kept in the doghouse for as long as Serbia is still in it currently.
    Perhaps the Balkans should litigate for compensation for damages done to them. The kind of money that would come out of that would perhaps help to rebuild the Balkans that was destroyed as a result of centuries of outsider meddling.
    I hope the Balkans’ future will be less painfull and more prosperous than it was in the past.

  5. It seems actually that the Balkans produces too much history for the rest of Europe to consume. It was the frontline for centuries in Europe’s defensive war with the Caliphate. The Ottomans were still there just 100 years ago. The “Holy Romans” and “Habsburgs” of today are now standing at the Gates keeping the Serbs out of Vienna. Western Europe’s inability to help the Balkans back into Europe after its seven hundred year kidnapping is appalling and typically feckless.

    And BTW, the EU needs the Balkans inside even more then the Balkans needs to get inside. Without, the best it might get in return would be a “Yugoslav” free trade area.

  6. It seems actually that the Balkans produces too much history for the rest of Europe to consume. It was the frontline for centuries in Europe’s defensive war with the Caliphate. The Ottomans were still there just 100 years ago. The “Holy Romans” and “Habsburgs” of today are now standing at the Gates keeping the Serbs out of Vienna. Western Europe’s inability to help the Balkans back into Europe after its seven hundred year kidnapping is appalling and typically feckless.

    And BTW, the EU needs the Balkans inside even more then the Balkans needs to get inside. Without, the best it might get in return would be a “Yugoslav” free trade area.

  7. Ruben

    Serbia is sponsoring criminal gangs in northern Kosovo which attack the EU police and European soldiers. It is obvious that Serbia cannot join the European Union without clarifying their priorities.

  8. PEN

    Whether Serbia is sponsoring criminal gangs in northern Kosovo or not is a moot point Ruben. The United States is sponsoring a far more dangerous criminal gang in Pristina, but that is conveniently ignored by the so-called West.
    The author has raised some valid points. Serbia does suffer from self pity and is stubborn and insular in many ways. But the Serbs do have a reputation for standing alone and fighting against the odds for what they believe in, and not for the sake of expediency or to side with a dominant power. Certainly you could argue that this is insane and means you will invariably suffer. But pride and self sacrifice are worthy virtues. And the Serbs have sacrificed much. Serbia lost almost half her population in the first world war, and suffered terribly in the second. I think it dissingenuous to infer that the peoples of the Balkans should just get on with it and move on, when outside powers were hugely responsible for the disaster that befell Yugoslavia. As someone who once worked for the CIA you above all will be aware of the results of American actions in the Balkans. The Serbs have been typecast as the villains of the piece thanks largely to relentless Western demonising. How can a small nation move on without genuine understanding and help.

  9. Bill Romine

    I’m going to keep posting and reposting from different accounts until you let my comment be read by the public. IT IS NOT OK TO CENSOR IN THE FREE WORLD – what don’t you get about that? You only censor when it is hate or causes harm to others..

    Here is my comment and I will continue to repost it and if you don’t post it it shows that you have lost, you are the oppressor and you have an agenda.. and for that we will sue you so bad, you won’t even know what hit you. We will sue you, be prepared.

    Your writing is a joke. Why don’t you write about how Sarajevo used to have over 300,000 Christian Serbs and now has less than 5,000.. or about how 500 teenage Serbs got their hearts and kidneys cut out by the poor helpless Muslims? What if that was your daughter or child they did that too? And the 400 churches that were urinated on and erased from existence in democratic muslim Kosovo why haven’t you wrote about that?

    Croatia’s victory? They pushed out half a million poor farmers – that is a military victory?

    I think you need medication, your false accusatory attacks and blatant deception leads me to believe you are a jihadist or you need medication? which is it?

    Your stories are old and boring, the lies have repeated millions of times, don’t you know how tired your writing sounds.

    Boring and tired.

  10. Bill Romine

    no that is not hate speech that is actual history…over 1 million Serbian Christians died because of ANTE PAVELIC’s fascist nazi rule – that is HISTORICAL FACT that is not an assumption or accusation.

    Hah now we are not allowed to call a nazi a nazi? AND if Croatia had changed why do they use the same symbols of their nazi government in the 40’s – the same currency and the same checkered ugly fascist symbol on their flag. FACTS.

    All FACTS.. yes we know you who hate Serbian Christians are so used to believing your own lies and false accusatory attacks that when you are confronted with the truth that 500 teenage Serbs got their hearts and kidneys ripped out and that hundreds of churches have been destroyed by those poor victim Muslims in Kosovo, and how Sarajevo is a purely Muslim city now – where are the Serbs? Oh they left on their own free will right like the Serbs who left their land in today’s Croatia – yah yah right.

    The world is tired of your lies and deception.. you are boring and tired.

  11. George Peters

    Much of this article is psychobabble serving as a smokescreen for the intertwined Austro-Germanic, Anglo-American, and Islamic/Islamist imperial projects that blew up the Balkans into smithereens after the death of Tito opened up opportunities for new imperial “adventures” and the settling of old scores, particularly against the Serbs, the historic bulwark against the Austro-Germans’ “Drang nach Sued-Osten” (and, not surprisingly, the leading victims of the Holocaust in the Balkans, at the hands of the Austro-Germans and their Croat, Albanian, and Bosnian Muslim allies, all of which supplied SS units) and the Muslims’ Grand March into the heart of Europe. Ironically, the next major conflict over Europe may well be between Germans and Muslims, with Britain having succumbed to Sharia without much of a fight, and France–if itself not under Sharia–waiting on the sidelines to ally with whomever comes out on top. It is a tribute to the debasement of the Western “intellectual” tradition that anyone reading self-important “intellectual” publications containing the word “New” in their names would have no idea that, following the death of Tito, Germany began fanning the nationalist aspirations of all the groups in the former Yugoslavia except the Serbs: a filthy, racist, policy that continues to this day. On the other hand, someone reading “The Philadelphia Trumpet,” a publication reflecting Bible prophecy, would have a much clearer idea of Germany’s wretched role in the destruction of Yugoslavia! But then, we live in a time in which “The National Enquirer” has broken genuine political scandals that the pitiful American mainstream press, always tending to its “best interests,” would not touch.

  12. Pingback : Quo vadis, Serbia? – TransConflict | Durkheim Chat

  13. Michael Djordjevich

    Tired of spins

    In this very eloquently written analysis, David Kanin offers a number of thought-provoking assertions and a lot of historical facts and hard conclusions. Undoubtedly, he is a scholar of a high rank. My basic problem with his text relates to his failing to bring focus to a few rather fundamental facts regarding the Balkans and its last tragedy resulting from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. There is a lot of history in his analysis. Good and needed; yet, it seems there is “a lot of spin” as well, suggesting to my mind possibly a subterranean agenda.

    The first historical fact born once again in past December with Croatian accessing to the EU is that the historical divide between “Europe” – West and East has not changed. It goes back to the final beginning break-up of the Roman Empire along religious lines between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, known as the Great Schism. As this dividing line has essentially not changed so have not the attitudes of the Western powers. Witness Croatia. Here we have a country which showed/declared itself as a Nazi puppet state during WWII, involved in the genocide of Serbs, Jews and others, yet ultimately was rewarded. While, on the other hand, Serbia, the trusted ally in both world wars, has been thrown under the train and ruined.

    The second historical fact is the breakup of Yugoslavia was planned in Berlin and the Vatican long before the event. Under left-over communist rulers, Serbia had no chance to adjust to the New World Order aspiration of the United States and the ambitious machinations of Germany.

    The third historical fact now is also that the United States has used the dissolution of Yugoslavia to show the Germans and the French who was the boss, and then to remodel and activate NATO and finally to score some brownie points with Islam by supporting the Moslems of Bosnia.

    Kanin’s recommendation that the poorest part of the Balkans – Serbia, Bosnia, Albania Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece –get together is in itself not bad idea, but it cannot happen for two overwhelming reasons: the elite of these countries and their leaders have no vision and honest dedication to better the lives of their people and the great powers once again would do their evil best to prevent it. Thus, the wishful thinking of George Papandreou (AFP December 14, 2000) will just remain so.

    “We need…to draw a creative, far-reaching and lasting strategy for the Balkans. We need to empower the region, which has historically been handicapped, dependent and divided by a world community of competing interest and a babble of confusing signals.”

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