Everything is just great: on Serbian Statehood Day, Politika published an interview with the president of the state, as befits. The president of the state, for his part, chooses to give an interview on February 15th, 2015, to the state-building Politika, as befits. A day earlier, on February 14th, the nationally conscious journalist team of Politika (which started a hunt on spies and traitors all over Serbia), headed by the pastoral minded editor-in-chief, decided to advertise the president’s interview by publishing passages which are in every way characteristic of an ephemeral new Serbian state. These passages are about war crimes and persistent denial. So, everything is in its place: the state’s newsletter and the president are celebrating the national day by talking about the crimes which literally define their state.
Make no mistake, they are not denying that people were killed on a large scale, they are merely denying the criminal nature of those killings. They are not denying the crime, but claiming that the crime was, in fact, an honorable act performed in accordance with the “old Serbian spirit”. When the president, in his holiday interview, says that he knows for a fact that the commander-in-chief is an “honorable man, that he was raised and educated in the old Serbian spirit” and that, as such “he can’t be a war criminal” – he doesn’t deny that civilians were killed in Rezala, Staro Cikatovo and Gladno Selo in Kosovo. He is “merely” saying that it wasn’t a crime. Because, even if soldiers under the command of the current commander-in-chief killed civilians in those villages, our president is sure that someone who was “raised in the old Serbian spirit” can’t commit a crime or be responsible for it.
This argument is complicated only at first glance. Those who weren’t raised in the “old Serbian spirit” think that the norms established by, for example, international criminal law and various international conventions are crucial for labeling some part of an armed conflict as a crime. Our president, however, sees things differently. To him, only the “old Serbian spirit” and the corresponding standard of honesty are important. Those who were raised in the old Serbian spirit must be honorable, and honorable people don’t commit crimes and can’t be responsible for them. And hence, anything that the commander-in-chief has ever done or been responsible of, cannot be a crime and he can’t be criminally prosecuted for it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the president applied the same logic to himself and his role in the criminal behavior of Serbs in armed conflicts during the nineties.
So, the president’s statements shouldn’t surprise us. When he says that there is no reason to dig up the mass graves all over Serbia today, sixteen years later, he is simply saying that the bodies that lay there are not important to us. If those bodies were the bodies of murdered Serbs, it would have been a different story. But, since those bodies belong to murdered Kosovo Albanians, why should we bother? The president already knows that they were murdered and that their bodies were taken somewhere to be buried (or burnt) and never found. Because why would anyone want to look for them anyway, the president must be wondering. If they were killed by the Serbs, then it must have been an honorable act and nothing else can be said about it. The fact that the bodies of murdered people were hidden in mass graves and burnt in high furnaces doesn’t need any explanation or investigation. Once faith in the “old Serbian spirit” is established, there can be no doubt about Serbian honor.
The Hague tribunal is something else for our president. You can’t expect that court to be familiar with the “old Serbian spirit”. That’s why that court relies on international criminal law and international conventions, investigating and checking. But a “Serbian” war crimes prosecutor mustn’t be a “pawn” of the Hague tribunal. For “our” prosecutor the “old Serbian spirit” and its consequent honor is the only relevant standard. The president said: “He is a prosecutor in Serbia, in his own country, and needs to be convinced of something? A man from Serbia, who is the attorney general on this matter, is telling me now, sixteen years after the bombing, that he wants to investigate something. And his mandate is over. He should think about what exactly he’s digging up all over Serbia”. The president doesn’t understand what the prosecutor should need to be convinced of, when he, the president, understood everything perfectly, both sixteen years ago and today.
What the president actually understands is still not easy to grasp, however. Because the answer to the question what is being dug up all over Serbia is painfully simple. For example, 52 bodies of Kosovo Albanians were exhumed in the Rudnica quarry near Raska. When you think about it, like the president advised the prosecutor to think about it, the first thing that should come to mind is – what are those bodies doing there, who brought them, and from where? It seems that the prosecutor thought this way and decided to investigate it. But then the president told him – think about it once more, “Serb”. Is the president threatening the prosecutor on Statehood Day, reminding him that he, the prosecutor, is a “Serb” in Serbia? If anyone still wonders why it was necessary to establish the Hague tribunal for war crimes in Yugoslavia, and why, to this day, investigation of war crimes is mainly the responsibility of non-government organizations, they should read the president’s holiday threat to the war crimes prosecutor once again.
Politika and the president couldn’t have thought of a more appropriate way to celebrate this year’s February 15th if they’d been thinking about it since last year’s Statehood Day. Serbia is celebrating its statehood in the shadow of the exhumation of a mass grave and the cancelation of the last shreds of the rule of law in the name of the “old Serbian spirit”. That “old Serbian spirit” has been haunting Serbia for the last 25 years and the country can’t get rid of it and distance itself from the crimes of the nineties. Unfortunately, the nineties have not yet become the evil past Serbia should face. Serbia is still living the nineties and the crime marks its (collapsed) statehood.
Translated by Marijana Simic
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) i „Dva lica patriotizma“ (2016).