Hyperreal Serbia

Aleksandar Boskovic

The refusal of the ruling party to recognize the results of the November 1996 municipal elections and the mass protests that arouse as a consequence of it, have propelled Serbia into the spotlight of world media attention. Until recently, the only media images that Serbs could expect to get were the ones of bloodthirsty war criminals, since an overwhelming majority of them wholeheartedly supported savage wars (by the Serbs and in the name of Serbs) that raged on the territory of the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. However, there is obviously more to Serbia than meets the eye of the media.

Serbia is today the only truly hyperreal country in the world. Actually, along with tiny Montenegro, it forms a new, rump, Yugoslavia. The problem with this Yugoslavia (officially known as "FR Yugoslavia") is that it does not really exist. This is not a view of some Serb-hating sceptic, but of the foremost Serb legal expert, Prof. Pavle Nikolic. The legal basis of the "FR Yugoslavia" is its Constitution, and the current one, from April 27, 1992, is actually unconstitutional. That is to say, it was voted for in an illegal way by the people who had no legal right to vote for it. It is almost as if I met with some of my friends in New Orleans and decided to declare it independent. We could, of course, probably write something that would resemble a Constitution, but that would not necessarily make our product a state.

Another point to be made is that the citizens of Serbia and "FR Yugoslavia" still use passports of the former country, SFR Yugoslavia, a country which does not exist any more. Its non-existence is proved empirically by the new countries that were established as a result of its dissolution - Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and FR Yugoslavia. Thus, through its claim to existence, the "FR Yugoslavia" also denies the existence of the former country (SFR Yugoslavia), but still uses its passports, with the state symbols and coat of arms of a country that simply does not exist any more. The citizens do not seem to notice or to mind.

Foreign countries still honor these strange passports. On the other hand, international institutions both recognize FR Yugoslavia (European countries have full diplomatic relations), and regard it as a strange semi-existent entity (thus, it is not a member of the UN, IMF, World Bank, etc.).

The attitude of the majority of Serbs can be described as hyperreal as well. On the one hand, the official propaganda kept claiming that Serbia and Serbs were not at war, and that they have nothing to do with wars. On the other hand, the graveyards are suddenly full of men of military age, and there is a growing feeling of concern and anxiety. As Baudrillard would say, the war never happened. However, the consequences of the war are more than obvious, with the completely ruined economy, and the country on the verge of social unrest. Serbs are also facing the image of themselves as bloodthirsty nationalists as soon as they travel abroad. The truth that the Western viewers had about the wars does not quite match the truth that the Serbs had access to through the tightly controlled media. For example, according to the Serbian media, Bosnians just kept slaughtering themselves, and blaming Serbs afterwards. Serbs were always portrayed as the people who defend themselves, creating strange situations when exalted TV journalists were claiming ("live") that "our brave defenders of that village are on the verge of taking the enemy town."

In everyday life, there is a growing feeling that the war (especially the one against Croatia) has been lost. However, how can a country lose a war in which it never participated? This creates some strange situations and a lot of anxiety regarding Croats as neighbors and Croatia as a country with which Serbia (as a part of FR Yugoslavia) has full diplomatic relations.

These frustrations and anxieties were certainly contributing factors in the mass protests on the streets of all the major cities in Serbia. The protests kept an almost carnivalesque atmosphere, with lots of colors (flags of various countries, as well as the Ferrari flag and the Japanese Imperial war flag), noise (whistles, horns, trumpets, drums, etc.), and decent rock 'n' roll music. At some moments, particularly during the protests organized by Belgrade students, it all constituted a mockery of the current Serbian regime and the police forces that have, since Dec. 26, virtually occupied Belgrade. There is an unofficial martial law going on - with police occasionally banning people from walking in the very center of Belgrade. Officially, this is done in order to enable traffic through the center of the city. However, in reality, police forces themselves are enacting the most effective traffic blockade.

Although all the protests have been peaceful, this did not prevent police from overreacting. People were savagely beaten, arrested (one young man has been sodomized in police custody), and sent to jail for offences such as having thrown an egg (with the duly noted fact that there was no damage inflicted). In the most brutal police assault so far, on the night of Feb. 2, police were beating and arresting people who had a whistle, wore a badge, or had a pair of sneakers. It does not matter what you do in Serbia, it is much more important (especially when confronted with the representatives of the law and order) what you wear. In the future, this might enable companies like Nike or Reebok to advertise their products as being especially effective in running from the Serbian police. It seems that one does not have to do anything in order to be savagely beaten or arrested in Serbia. All one should do in order to provoke the forces of law and order in Serbia (who are equipped like RoboCops) is to simply exist. As things stand now, the least that one could expect from the hyperreal country is to be governed by a hyperreal police. Unfortunately, its violence seems all too real.

Aleksandar Boskovic has degrees from the University of Belgrade, Tulane University, and the University of St. Andrews. He has published two books including Religion and Culture of the Maya, in Serbo-Croatian. He has also written on current events in Serbia for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Fortnight Magazine (Belfast).