Although the new Serbian president insists on being the target of criticism because of his statements given in the present and not “twenty years ago”, he did not manage to gag his critics. Since May 31 when he took office, Tomislav Nikolic succeeded in just a few interviews to reduce the number of guests at his inauguration by at least four. Those who announced that they would not be coming to Belgrade on June 11 include the Croatian president Ivo Josipovic, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidential Council chairman Bakir Izetbegovic, the Slovenian president Danilo Turk and the Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov. If there was a dilemma on the part of the Croatian and Bosnian officials of whether they should book their official vehicles (or aircrafts), the Serbian president’s neo-radical statements on Vukovar and Srebrenica managed to elegantly resolve it. This could be read as a first sign of neighborly cooperation (understanding the political unconscious in neighbors), but also as a first instance austerity policy in cutting the cost of inaugural catering.
“Vukovar, Vukovar, come young, go old” (Milos Živanovic)
As for Vukovar being a “mainly Serbian-populated” town, Tomislav Nikolic denied the audio recording of the German daily FAZ, claiming this part of his statement was taken out of context. In an interview for Tanjug on June 8, Nikolic explained the contentious fragment reminding us how in his campaign he mentioned that Vukovar and Knin were “Serbian towns by population structure,” but he added how six years ago or more he said that “we recognize Croatia in its UN determined borders.”
After evoking the previous ethnic structure of the two Croatian towns, marked by mass crimes and expulsion of Croats during the war, Nikolic concluded that “we are directed toward each other” and that the region “in the interest of better cooperation and development must not look back on the past.” This is an example of a history lesson, with a call to leave our past behind. Nikolic’s selective memory ignores the Serbian wartime assault, which in the end had caused the ethnic shift to the detriment of Serbs and to which he himself contributed as a volunteer, although even today he can’t see anything wrong with that. His impression of the cooperation between neighboring countries is a cheerful one, but his neck is somewhat strained from this constrained looking forward or the historical philosophy of never looking back. Indeed, the Bible teaches us a valuable lesson of what happened to Lot’s wife because she turned back for one last look at her native town, which God in his wrath began to raze to the ground. Having just moved in to the presidential residence, Nikolic wouldn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, even if Oliver Antic i Aleksandar Vucic were to carve in the ethnic structure of eternal Serbian towns, from Karlobag to Virovitica, along with an epitaph to the time when you were “either a patriot or you didn’t exist”.
Genocide, a blind spot of the Resolution
The statement that the army under Radoslav Krstic’s and Ratko Mladic’s command did not commit genocide was condemned by every major actor of western politics, the USA and EU officials, the officials of some embassies in Serbia, as well as by the chief prosecutor in the Hague, Serge Brammertz. In their reactions, they evoke the Hague tribunal’s ruling and legal qualification of the mass crime in Srebrenica, and they express doubt whether Nikolic’s statement is just another gaffe which could yet again have been taken out of context and taken the wrong way. However, the cold camera lens was less partial than the voice recorder, so Nikolic explained to Tanjug that Srebrenica was “a place where my countrymen committed a horrible crime and I will never justify that,” adding, “but I will neither go further than what the National Assembly of Serbia concluded on this matter.” And the National Assembly’s Resolution, to which Nikolic refers, really did not explicitly mention the word genocide, but it did not deny it either, as he has done, reducing it to a “horrible crime”. It was Zlatko Lagumdzija, the foreign minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who was astonished that the Serbian president was referring to the National Assembly’s Resolution on Srebrenica, which on its part refers to the Hague tribunal’s ruling legally qualifying the crime in Srebrenica as genocide (“The National Assembly of Serbia most strongly condemns the crimes against Bosniaks in Srebrenica committed in July 1995, in the way determined by the ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.”) Once again, the feeble career of the Serbian president, who is looking solely to the future, was invaded by history. This time he did not remind us of the pre-war ethnic structure of Srebrenica, which today is part of Republika Srpska, of the decimated population (6000 inhabitants as opposed to the pre-war 36,000) and the radically changed ethnic structure in favor of Serbs. This time Nikolic was only promoting his school of thought that genocide is difficult to prove, that there was no genocide, but that he condemns the crime anyway.
Waltz with Milorad
Therefore, of the highest post-Yugoslav officials, the newly elected president will be greeted only by Montenegro’s president Filip Vujanovic and, if this is at all surprising, the separationist president of an entity Milorad Dodik, along with the representatives of the Serbian parties from Republika Srpska. It is hard to believe that Vujanovic was not bothered by Nikolic’s oral tractate on contemporary political ethno-anthropology, when he said in an interview for RTCG that he considers Serbs and Montenegrins parts of the same nation. Furthermore, he touched on the Serbian-Montenegrin genesis: many Serbs, including his own ancestors, were Montenegrin by origin, but the contemporary post-referendum Montenegrins come from Serbs, having extracted themselves into a separate national group, although they were Serbs all throughout history. However you view it, Nikolic’s inauguration will be attended exclusively by Serbs, at least according to him. Maybe this is the catch of Slovenian-Macedonian non-participation: maybe presidents Turk and Ivanov do not want to be treated by the new president’s aides as Serbs with a speech impediment.
Of the foreign guests we should naturally expect the Russian delegation, headed by the Russian ambassador Konuzin, in whose company Nikolic readily changes his macabre facial expression. Nikolic’s interview with the Russian radio station Echo Moskvy reminded us of several unrelenting characteristics of the Serbian political establishment: unprovoked and unwarranted provincial servility toward the Kremlin, acting more Russian than the Russians (“If you obey international law, it is clear that Abkhazia and South Ossetia may be independent, but Kosovo and Metohija cannot”), groundless faith in the correctional facilities of our eastern brothers (regarding Julia Timoshenko’s condition in prison) and the fairytales of Russian money that is apparently just waiting for us to take it.
As for EU officials, the main “showdown” will take place in Bruxelles on June 14, when both sides will exchange cordialities: the EU officials will ask Nikolic about the nature of his legal expertise on the Srebrenica non-genocide, trying to feel the pulse of his dedication to EU integrations, while Nikolic will retort with a question whether recognizing Kosovo is really a precondition for Serbia’s integration. If this really turns out to be EU’s official position, the new Serbian president knows the drill, which he inherited from Boris Tadic: Kosovo first, then Europe, if there is no Kosovo, there will be no Europe. What he will actually if that happens – that is a mystery to both Tomislav Nikolic and to those who are struggling to form a new Serbian government.
Forcing the dead end
When you add it all up, the president’s first days were not marked by gaffes but rather by continuity with the politics which he practiced while he was in the opposition and which could hardly be distinguished from that of Boris Tadic and the Democratic Party. Now we see that he indeed is different in his diplomatic ineptitude and sincerity which is revealing. Nikolic is Tadic without make-up, an overt nationalist who believes that the rhetoric of genocide denial, laying claim to Montenegrins or lamenting over Serbian ethnic domination in parts of neighboring countries is acceptable if it is softly spoken and coated in European sugar. Although his triumph may look like a step back for Serbia, Nikolic could be a protagonist of a special historical role, the role of a successor of hardline nationalism which will perish once it crashes with reality. Without burning embassies and returning to self-isolation. True, this process could last, and it’s not exactly that there are no wild cards that would try to prolong it or prevent it from happening, from the Socialists to Kostunica and the non-parliamentary right-wing. The ball is in the Democrats’ court. If they surrender to the blackmail of Ivica Dacic and his quasi-statecraft and anti-market demagoguery, the mutated nationalism from the 1990’s would not only survive – it would also be marching in two cohabitant lines.
Translated by Ivica Pavlović