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Serbian exegesis

A state funeral (lite version) was scheduled at Belgrade’s New Cemetery for the day after the most recent and, indeed, historical session of the European Council in Brussels. For months Serbia had excitedly looked forward to this 9th of December, had wishfully hoped for it and finally, after Angela Merkel’s visit in August, had expected it with uneasiness. It was anticipated that this day would definitely yield Serbia the status of EU-accession candidate. Neither the repeated attempts to salvage the Euro nor Great Britain’s sheering out of the common crisis strategy would, from the Serbian point of view, make this day an historical one; rather it would be the country’s decisive step forward toward her future membership of the club that made it historic.

Yet, while the European Council endlessly tried to negotiate a final exit strategy from the crisis facing the Euro inBrussels, a Serbian JAT airliner flew over their heads from London bound for Belgrade, carrying home a coffin with the unearthed mortal remains of Slobodan Jovanović, who in 1958 died in exile in Britain. His repatriation was initiated by the Faculty of Law at BelgradeUniversity and accomplished through joined efforts with the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Jovanović, born in 1869 in Novi Sad (then under Habsburg rule), represented that kind of savant as came out of the late 19th century: a jurist, historian, sociologist, diplomat, journalist, academic teacher, passionate literary critic and finally a politician. He was prime-minister of the last government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia which, in 1941, arose from the military revolt against the Yugoslav agreement with the Axis Powers. Later he held office as chief of the exile government in London until 1943. Under victorious Tito he was, as an “enemy of the people”, sentenced to 20 years in prison and deprived of his civic rights and his property. The convicted preferred to spend the rest of his life in freedom in the United Kingdom; the repatriation of his mortal remains toSerbia was done against the explicit instruction of his last will and testament.

But Jovanović’s will obviously must come second to the decisions of those who are alive today to add a new tomb to the “Alley of the Greats” at Belgrade’s “Novo Groblje” and celebrate the internment of his remains in the presence of the President of the Republic. Beside Boris Tadić at the solemn inhumation was the Minister for Culture, Predrag Marković, his colleague with the portfolio of Diaspora and Religious Affairs, Srdjan Srečković, and the former president, Vojislav Koštunica, , joined by representatives of the church, the Faculty of Law and the Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Serbia’s ambassador in London had earlier described to journalists how much effort was needed in order to gain the compliance of the British authorities for this exhumation and the final transfer toBelgrade, given that Jovanović had already been dignified by an extraordinary and honorable grave inLondon. Only the intervention of Serbian Bishop Irenäus, through intensive correspondence with his brother in office, the Bishop of London, could finally make it possible.

Jovanović, according to the ambassador, should be considered “the greatest Serbian intellectual of the 20th century” and, at the same time, “he personifies the strongest link between Serbia and the rest of Europe”. In this respect the selection of 10th of December, one day after the expected confirmation of EU candidate-status for Serbia, was a perfect timing for the funeral. In 1958 “none less than Charles de Gaulle, after all, had sent the draft constitution for the French Fifth Republic to the old Serbian savant in London and asked him for his expertise”. Reading such excellent references one might imagine another Serbia (or even Yugoslavia) – a state which, after 1945, would rather have veered towards the political ideas of Slobodan Jovanović than to Tito’s concepts of a small multi-ethnic empire of brotherhood and unity. Who knows whether such a country would have become member of the European Union even earlier than Greece or Portugal? Was it, perhaps, questions like this that came into the president’s mind while he stood beside the open grave and contemplated the European frustration of the previous day?

Yet, those who had organized this entire necrophiliac ritual had definitely something completely different in mind; something that is revealed only if we consider the ceremonial commemorative addresses that were delivered at the Faculty of Law earlier the morning. The Serbian ambassador in London had already used the keyword of “Catharsis”: in order to achieve a kind of spiritual self-purification Serbia would “need again to refer to her great son from the period of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia”. The diplomat didn’t make clear what, in fact, he considers to be today’s spiritual pollution of Serbia, but he mentioned “imminent divisions of the society” and indicated that a person such as Jovanović reminds us of the need for “national unity”.

The “imminent division”, as everybody in the audience could understand, is the conflict over the independence of Kosovo, which the day before, had prevented Serbia becoming an EU candidate. By imminent social divide we should understand the conflict between those who advocate the bargain sale of Serbia’s national interests in favor of European Union membership, verses those who staunchly resist pressure from Brussels, Berlin or London, even at the expense of Serbia losing any perspective for future economic and social recovery.

The president of the Academy, Nikola Hajdin, declared in his speech that Jovanović is “one of those great sons of Serbia who, for four decades until the 1990s, suffered humiliation”. Only in the last decade of the past century a “slow process of rehabilitation started” and his collected works were finally published in Serbia. Those “four decades” of humiliation, which ended only in the 1990s, means the 40 years of communism under Tito. The fact that Jovanović’s rehabilitation coincides with the most evil period of the Milošević regime does not necessarily indicate a correlation, because the realm of academic work and the realm of politics are poles apart as we all know. This, again, is something we should learn from Jovanović, who, as Prof. Hajdin said, was a “great theorist of law and politics, but never in his life turned into a pragmatic politician.” Since the 1990s this has been the attitude of the Academy, to assume for itself the position of purveyors of great theory developed in the ivory tower and to simply declare that any kind of evil political action invoking these great academic theories are a result of misinterpretation, thus washing the academics hands of any responsibility.

The Principal of the university used the opportunity to speak about Jovanović as an “advocate of equal opportunities and right to education for everybody”. He mentioned the children of underprivileged social strata of Serbian society; he described the lack of halls of residence for students and indicated insufficient scholarships. Yet when, only a few weeks before, the students of the very same university went on strike exactly because of the same shortcomings today, it could only be the same Principal that called on the executive power to “milom ili silom” (amicably or by means of force) put an end to the strike.

Finally the Dean of the Faculty of law took to the speaker’s podium in order to provide a remarkable diagnosis of a Serbian disease: the “educated public of Serbia”, he said, “doesn’t really require historical references” to personalities such as Slobodan Jovanović, but, since the Serbian nation (read: the uneducated masses) “through genetic endowments tends toward forgetfulness and to the decline of values”, such guiding examples from the nation’s history are in fact essential. Reminding us again of the post WW II humiliation of Jovanović, he accordingly drew from it the lessons to be learned by politicians today, saying “a small state with limited intellectual resources can never afford to send his poets into prison as traitors and war criminals, regardless in which period and regardless under whose rule.”

 „…regardless in which period“ – ergo: in our period also; a period in which Radovan Karadžić and others are sentenced in the Hague, all these great minds who, beside the art of war, claim as well to be perceived and acknowledged as poets?

All of this happened at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Law one day after the European Council had decided to postpone the decision regarding Serbia’s candidate-status until February or March next year. Among the speakers quoted above, two had excelled in spring 2011 at the announcement of a doctor honoris causa being awarded by the faculty to Vladimir Putin. Among those in the audience many had signed a passionate protest against their colleagues at the faculty for political sciences in summer 2010, because the political scientists intended to contribute the same honor to the American intellectual Michael Walzer. But hadn’t it been Walzer, after all, who, in 1999 and in the context of his reflections on the theory of just war, had given thought to the NATO intervention in Kosovo? It goes without saying that Walzer’s conclusions were somehow different to Putin’s findings.

These events took place some three weeks after the Serbian Academy for Arts and Sciences, in the midst of November, had celebrated its 170th anniversary. It’s president, Nikola Hajdin, on this occasion, had proclaimed that “each problem that afflicts the Serbian society is, simultaneously, a problem for the Academy of Sciences as well.” Taking into account the social and economic problems currently afflicting Serbian society this sounds like cynical and paternalistic mockery, because….

… on the very same day of the decision in Brussels, the state-owned Serbian electricity provider EPS once again published the overall amount of receivables: the total of all unpaid electricity bills in Serbia currently adds-up to 820 Million Euro, half of it being debts of private households, the other half being owed by institutions and companies (including the state-owned ones).

A few days earlier the fiscal authorities had promulgated the records of social-insurance contributions unpaid by some 10.000 Serbian companies, which in the meantime had gone  bankrupt and been cancelled from the commercial registry. The total amount of those receivables, which in fact will remain un-receivable forever, adds-up to 3 bln. Euro.

What kind of problems are afflicting a society, if only 35 % of all enterprises privatized between 2002 and 2011 are still operating today, if 75% of all employees in privatized companies lost their jobs, if the average net monthly salary is about 380 €, but the enrollment fee at the state universities has been raised to 1.000 € per year and is even more at private universities?

Since the 19th century, members of „educated Serbia“, from the heights of their feudal arrogance, have looked down to their supposedly genetically deficient and uneducated co-citizens. Whenever these citizens suffer, no matter whether it is from a shortage of butter in the shops, a lack of physicians providing serious medical treatment without being bribed or just a lack of money to pay the electricity bill, the Serbian elite of savants, through a wry and pseudo-romantic rhetoric, constantly converts such suffering into an unavoidable sacrifice for the “National Cause”.

Every significant act of privatization of state-owned companies in Serbia has been accompanied by the crowing of this elite painting a horrifying picture of foreign investors until the shares of small stockholders were reduced to nearly zero, in order that one of the national tycoons could monopolize the entire asset and, in doing so, even claim the role of a national knight in shining armor.

So, what do the teachers of law at Belgrade University want to teach us through the repatriation of the mortal remains and commemoration of Slobodan Jovanović one day after the Brussels disappointment? It is the plain lesson, first of all, that for this part of the Serbian political and academic stratum the Council’s decision was no disappointment at all; rather it has been of satisfaction. This social milieu of people who, without any democratic legitimacy, consider themselves the social elite by nature or at least by some numinous vocation, they feel re-confirmed by the bad news from Brussels. It is their feudalist attitude which, as nothing comparable, represents “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous” that obstructs any systematic and sustainable modernization of the society. They claim to be the spiritual vanguard of their nation, yet, in fact, they are its past of the 19th century, which refuses to come to an end.

Sometimes the “non-simultaneous” is not represented by two different actors; sometimes, according to Goethe, “two souls (alas!) reside within one breast”. Why, two days before the session of the European Council, President Tadić had sent such an ardent appeal to a renowned German daily newspaper illustrating Serbia as an historical child of the European family; a family that will “remain incomplete, until it has finally integrated the Western Balkans and Serbia in its midst”? And why, some days later, we find him at the ritual ceremony at Belgrade’s cemetery, a scene that rather resembles picking over Jovanović’s bones? And why, the very same afternoon, does he deliver a long speech to the steering board of his Democratic Party in which he steadfastly insists on the European course of his policy as the one and only possibility for Serbia’s future. Why does he even dare to say to this closed circle of competing political alpha dogs that the solution of the economic crisis must be given priority over the solution of the Kosovo conflict? Already in early summer he had scheduled this weekend in December as the date for a big party congress, where he – with the wind fromBrussels in his sails – wanted to herald the next election campaign. Now the party congress had turned into a session of the steering board and the minister for European integration had handed in his resignation, because he had, in August, linked his political destiny to success or failure inBrussels.

But the election campaign had already started. And the dead sometimes play a more significant role there than those still alive.

Since the Kosovo conflict heated-up again during summer this year, Tadić’s predecessor Vojislav Koštunica has been advocating for the way he deals with the question of Europe: to him, membership in this union is never worth the price Europe demands for it (abandoning Kosovo); furthermore, that crisis-ridden European Union of different speeds would be, in any event, neither able nor ready to offer Serbia more than some form of third-class membership; and Serbia, in general, would do better looking for future happiness outside this union. Imagine Serbia having submissively complied with all these pressures and humiliations, having silently accepted the sticks and humbly, smiling, enjoyed the carrots – would she, after all, still deserve any reputable place in the ranks of the nations?

The Radical Party is also going to cover the country with posters announcing “No to European Union”. It happens quite often that these posters are, subsequently, over-sprayed with a swastika, but for the foreign observer it remains a mystery as to whether the sprayers reclaim this symbol as their own or attribute it to the European Union. Those “Radicals”, after the last elections, lost half of their MPs to the seceding faction of the “Progress Party”, and the remaining group of radical deputies gathered on the 10th of December in front of the presidential palace in order to ritually burn the European flag. This party might be best described as the militant, or more precisely, as the “nationalist prolo-arm” of Koštunica’s feudal and educated national-conservative elitists. Yet, because two and a half centuries lie between the different manners of these two groups, they cannot join their political forces. Those who learned to eat with knife and fork will never share one table with the messy eaters from the mountains and forests. Yet the filet on the plates of Koštunica’s cohort, nevertheless, comes from the same calf as the goulash in the pots of the Radicals.

Last but not least, the “Serbian Progressive Party” – a split-off from the Radicals, as mentioned above – is the real incorporation of the two souls residing in one breast: they split-off three years ago in order to become “compatible with Europe”, but His Excellence Konuzin, the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, is definitely their greatest fan. They send delegations to congresses of the Chinese Communist Party, and when they return from Bejing, still thinking in Chinese dimensions, they promise, once in power, to gain 100 bln. Euro of foreign investment in Serbian economy within the next 10 years. They pay visits to the Commission in Brussels and to the US administration in Washington, and everything they plan for the economy is plain utopia or just the result of ignorance. From the governing Democratic Party they took over the slogan of “Both Europe and Kosovo” – something not even the government has a concept how to realize it. They envy the government for its tartly speaking Minister for Foreign Affairs , a man who behaves as if it would not be amiss to play the object of jealousy.

The “Progressive Party”, in all recent public opinion polls, is 4 to 6 point ahead of the ruling Democratic Party – yet there is no conceivable coalition that could bring them to power. And the frustration in Brussels, after all, provides at least one significant advantage for the ruling coalition: if finally, in March or April, Brussels will deliver a new decision in favor of Serbia, it will remain in everybody’s mind until the election-day in early May and affect the voters in favor of the government.

It remains an open question whether the coming elections will be decided by the addressees of electricity and gas bills or by those who – being hungry – listen to the “elite” telling them that “true Serbs shall not live from bread alone”. As long as the government cannot deliver any serious arguments in the form of tangible economic development, the President must be afraid that the “patriots” might benefit from a very high level of voting abstention by the “pragmatists” among the electorate. Therefore, Tadić cannot afford, albeit in a light version, not to play the patriotic card as well. This tells us why the president tries to dance at various weddings (and funerals). But the dance won’t become more beautiful.

Westbalcon blog, 19.12.2011.

Pescanik.net, 21.12.2011.