The statue of Stefan Nemanja on Savski trg, photo: Pescanik
The statue of Stefan Nemanja on Savski trg, photo: Pescanik

September 15, the newly proclaimed Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom and the National Flag, has come and gone. They paraded, flaunted military clothes from various epochs, played music. Grand speeches were given. President Vucic explained why this date and this holiday are dedicated to unity, freedom, and the flag, and not, say, equality, justice, and progress. In a short speech, he mentioned identity three times, and plebiscite twice. The former leader of the Seselj-Jugend used the opportunity to wrap himself in the cloak of “the people” which covers the dirty past, saying that “being a Serb does not mean being guilty”. Therefore, (self)pardoning should be added to the list of old Serbian words, such as identity and plebiscite. The largest laundering of conscience and reputation in the central Balkans got a prominent place at the “central celebration”. Continuing where he left off this summer in Jagodina, the Patriarch blessed the holiday, saying that “you cannot be worldly when you are not your own” (this does not refer to the ownership of local authorities, such as Palma, Zeljko Mitrovic and others, over individuals). However, the real star of this program was Milorad Dodik, who could not be clearer: “I have to let you in on a secret. We don’t like it when you call us Bosnians. We are not Bosnians, I am a Serb, I am Orthodox, I write in Cyrillic, my family celebrates St. George’s Day, and I have nothing in common with the word Bosnian.” The wording is important here, because it is about “letting us in on a secret”. What kind of secret is this?

In August, the idea of a “Serbian world” was floated from the top of the government, through the channel known as Aleksandar Vulin, which was soon interpreted as a renewal of the Greater Serbia project. During the few weeks that preceded the new holiday, a low-intensity debate about the true meaning of this term developed in the public. In his speech at the foot of the statue of Stefan Nemanja on Savski trg, President Vucic put an end to these speculations, emphasizing that this is “not about any kind of Serbian world”. Indeed, the “central celebration of the Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom, and the National Flag,” as many in the media called the ceremony, cannot be described as a celebration of a particular historical event or person, nor was it a ceremony to enthrone a national goal, program, or project. It was about something bigger, in fact epochal: for the first time since May 25, 1987, a mass celebration was held in Belgrade which was based on a public and ceremonial celebration of a specific mechanism of power. Despite all its external vulgarity, the celebration of Youth Day in socialist Yugoslavia was not just a mere ideological spectacle. Behind the curtains made of synchronized exercises, styrofoam giants, bodies that form hearts and write messages of love, diluted rock standards, children’s hits, folk motifs and military marches, behind Tito himself, his name and work, and, later, the memory of him, a whole web of economic transactions, power transmissions, and symbolic exchanges took place. In other words, beyond the representative level, the celebration of Youth Day carried the nucleus of social, economic and political relations and forces in Yugoslavia. It showed, on the largest stage possible, which coincided with the territory of the state through the mechanism of the Youth Relay, not only that the SFRY was a functional state, but it also presented the mechanism of that functioning in an allegorical form.

The escalation of political kitsch at the JNA stadium in 1985 and 1986 was a clear indication of the state and its apparatus breaking down. Three years later, the same team will be in charge of designing the central celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje – an event which doubled as the crowning manifestation of a new type of mass gatherings that had been going on for several years and which culminated in the enthronement of Slobodan Milosevic as the undisputed ruler of Serbia. As it turned out during the “anti-bureaucratic revolution”, Milosevic’s rallies were not allegorical representations of political mechanisms, but a political weapon in conflicts with various enemies. As Milosevic himself announced on Kosovo Polje on Vidovdan 1989, the rallies were only a step away from open war. The celebration of the Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom, and the National Flag is not a continuation of the rally tradition, but its culmination. It definitively introduced into the allegorical sphere the technique of power that Slobodan Milosevic established during his time, not to serve anybody else, least of all “the people”, but above all himself. He made a mistake in this calculation, but even that miscalculation speaks eloquently about this mechanism of political power.

On the eve of the central celebration, the loudest announcements of the new holiday in the media came from Belgrade and Banja Luka; on the Day of Serbian Unity, etc., it was reported that the largest flag was hoisted in North Mitrovica. This should not be surprising, because, like the Youth Day before it, the basic principle of this holiday is consists of projecting ideological symbols into geographical space: the flags are there to indicate the contours of the Serbian world. Unlike the SFRY, these outlines do not coincide with the borders of the state, but extend beyond it, to the territories of other sovereign states and to the territories over which Serbia has lost its formal sovereignty. As Milosevic discovered in the late 1980s, these territories are key levers in the new mechanism of government.

First of all, it is about Kosovo, but not as a historical or geostrategic concept. Kosovo has been many things throughout its long history: a Roman granary, the center of medieval Serbian statehood, an Ottoman vilayet, a mythical place, Old Serbia, an area of colonization, the poorest and most undeveloped part of resurrected Serbia, newly formed SCS, and both Yugoslavias, an autonomous province with a majority Albanian population… This layered historical, economic, ethnic and social picture culminated in the 1980s with the “Kosovo crisis”. Milosevic was the first to, quite unscrupulously, think of putting this crisis to his own use instead of resolving it. Conflicts with Albanian politicians from Kosovo, which soon antagonized an entire population and lead to the establishment of parallel institutions among Kosovo Albanians, were not aimed at resolving any crisis, but at controlling it, manipulating it and using it, as needed. That is, at turning political ruin into profit. Milosevic knew that when he decided to keep going to the bitter end – open war, its internationalization, and ultimately the surrender of state, but not symbolic, sovereignty over Kosovo. With this series of moves, he placed Kosovo at the very center of the new mechanism of power. Kosovo is no longer the medieval cradle of Serbs, nor a mythological place, nor an Ottoman vilayet, nor an Albanian province. The essence of Kosovo for the mechanisms of power in Serbia from the end of the 80s until today and into the indefinite future, is that it simultaneously represents the very core of national identity, and a permanent generator of crisis.

Republika Srpska, which the ideologue of Serbian turbo-nationalism, Dobrica Cosic, celebrated as the first modern Serbian state on the other side of the Drina, is equally important. This state formation completes the political mechanism invented and forged in blood by Slobodan Milosevic. With it, a defeated and impoverished Serbia retains influence over the policies of world powers in the Western Balkans. It’s no secret: Dodik will never get tired of repeating that the moment Serbia is forced to recognize the state independence of Kosovo, B&H will have to do the same with Republika Srpska. As has evident from Dayton all the way to the latest visit of Angela Merkel, when it comes to this part of Europe, the main goal of western forces is to prevent open warfare. Everything else is left to the local barons. Serbia, with blurred borders, unclear sovereignty, a clouded consciousness and a tarnished conscience, is ruled by this mechanism, which is based on balancing uncertainty and threats of war. It is a political perpetuum mobile. Like any mechanism, it has its own logic and the persons taking up individual places are completely irrelevant: it could be Radovan Karadzic or Dodik, Milosevic or Kostunica, Tadic or Vucic, it doesn’t matter. What’s in this for that last one, though? No matter what sweet words he says when sitting on Chancellor Merkel’s lap, there are two frozen conflicts in the very foundations of the modern Serbian state. As we remember from the wars of the 1990s, wartime losses are always to the detriment of entire nations, and the gains always go to individuals. The same goes for frozen wars. And that’s what they’re fighting for, and what they’re celebrating.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 22.09.2021.