Chickens in the Yard

Photo: Predrag Trokicic

The team behind the prime minister Ana Brnabic is weak. If it were a solid team, they wouldn’t have to review her statements after they were already made and the damage done. The right team would convincingly explain to Brnabic that she must prepare and anticipate the consequences of her words. And then, together with her, they would carefully take those words and make a meaningful whole out of them.

All this, of course, provided that Brnabic or anyone else even cares about avoiding the negative consequences. Because it is quite possible that she, together with her boss Vucic, is planning and deliberately working on harassing and raising panic in the public.

Brnabic complained to the media that she was surprised by some foreign agencies which interpreted her statement about the military as a threat of war. And then she ordered her team to review the video. After doing so, the team seemed to conclude, and Brnabic then told the journalists, that she “called for peace and reason ten times” and then “talked about schools and education ten times, and not about the army and guns”.

What the team did should be called a discourse analysis. And there are rules on how to conduct this kind of analysis. These rules do include counting, in order to accurately determine how many times something was said. But no rule of this analysis says that the true message is contained in what was repeated the most times. On the contrary, according to the rules of discourse analysis, the agencies did a better job than Brnabic’s team by interpreting her statement as a threat of war.

Here’s what Brnabic said: “I hope that we will never have to use it [the army, note D.I.]. But, unfortunately, I think that this is one of the options which are currently on the table – unfortunately. We can’t stand aside and watch a new ethnic cleansing; we can’t just watch a new Operation “Storm”, even if Edi Rama calls for it”.

How this could be understood as a call for peace is known only to Brnabic and her team. If you read it word-for-word, there is that “I hope that we will never have to,” and this is the basis for Brnabic’s complaint about the foreign agencies. Discourse analysis, however, can’t be based on one phrase, without taking into consideration the “but” which came right after it. So, we have that “but” and then two “unfortunatelys”, which both prepared the threat and raised a fence around it. Then, the threat itself came, as “one of the options on the table” and then immediately a new fence, but this time stated as an excuse that “we can’t watch a new ethnic cleansing”.

Brnabic has had so much practice in doublespeak lately that Vucic can easily rely on her to say the things he himself would have had to say earlier. Among other things, to threaten and call for peace at the same time. But, how come the agencies (Reuters and AP) decided to focus only on the militaristic part of this double discourse?

The answer is simple: it’s because, unlike Ana Brnabic’s team, they are free to implement the discourse analysis to the end, i.e. to continue after the mere counting. The key aspect of discourse analysis is placing the statement in the right context. Unlike domestic media and teams, foreign agencies aren’t obliged to forget the recent past and ignore the immediate present. And they both significantly influence the understanding of the “option on the table”.

The immediate past tells us that, during the 1990s, Serbia entered the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo under the pretext that it wanted to prevent “ethnic cleansing”. And then, its forces – let’s call them that – committed ethnic cleansing, supposedly on behalf of the Serbian people. With the change in power relations, two of these three wars then ended with the ethnic persecution of Serbs. Although Brnabic, thanks to the dominant interpretation of the events of the 1990s, can relentlessly rely on the selective memory of schools (yes, these are the schools mentioned by Brnabic, which can be understood exclusively as pre-war training sites) and local media, and to count on the fact that any reference to “ethnic cleansing” would automatically be linked to Operation “Storm”, just as she did in her statement – foreign agencies have the freedom to place her statement in a wider, more appropriate context.

As for the present, northern Kosovo is increasingly being exposed as the main center of illegal business in Serbia. Therefore, Kosovo is home to the owners of road companies and hotels who are involved in illegal activities across Serbia, together with the BIA director himself. If the foreign agencies took this context into account, and not just the recent criminal past of the people making threats of war, they would probably understand that these threats are not actually that serious, but a mere smokescreen to cover up the petty thefts from the state and the people.

But, these petty thieves are of a special sort: they are not happy with seeing themselves as mere (“successful”) thieves. They also want to feel important, as masters of life and death of the citizens of Serbia. The trouble is – and foreign agencies have a point here – that this frustration could turn out to be devastating for the citizens of Serbia and their neighbors.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 28.12.2018.

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Dejan Ilić (1965, Zemun), urednik izdavačke kuće FABRIKA KNJIGA i časopisa REČ. Diplomirao je na Filološkom fakultetu u Beogradu, magistrirao na Programu za studije roda i kulture na Centralnoevropskom univerzitetu u Budimpešti i doktorirao na istom univerzitetu na Odseku za rodne studije. Objavio je zbirke eseja „Osam i po ogleda iz razumevanja“ (2008), „Tranziciona pravda i tumačenje književnosti: srpski primer“ (2011), „Škola za 'petparačke' priče: predlozi za drugačiji kurikulum“ (2016), „Dva lica patriotizma“ (2016), „Fantastična škola. Novi prilozi za drugačiji kurikulum: SF, horror, fantastika“ (2020) i „Srbija u kontinuitetu“ (2020).

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