Belgrade Burning?

Report from Belgrade 98/10/12

Aleksandar Boskovic

To bomb or not to bomb? The question is on every network and newsgroup dealing with international events, and it is being anxiously discussed by various negotiating teams, and, of course, on the streets of Belgrade.

While many Serbs fervently oppose any bombing, they usually forget that the territory of the present (rump) Yugoslavia has been bombed already, several hundred Kosovo villages having been reduced to rubble since February, 1998. The main problem is that, for almost all Yugoslavs, while Kosovo (the land) is an integral part of Yugoslavia, Kosovo Albanians and their property are not. In practical terms, for the general (Yugoslav) public more than a thousand murdered Albanians (mostly women and children) is not perceived to be such a terrible loss. Here, mass killings and destruction rarely make it to the local media, so, while several brave journalists (especially in the Belgrade weekly Vreme) have written about this, most Serbs simply refuse to believe that 'they' (the police and the army) killed any innocent Albanians. The fact that Albanian political parties refused to openly condemn the killings and kidnappings of several hundred Serb civilians by Albanian guerrillas did not make things any easier.

The difference between the land and the people inhabiting it is, for the most part, in people's minds, but it has also become an integral part of the (official) history, tradition, and culture. The set of imaginary values deduced from Kosovo as the territory where the first Serb medieval state was founded (which is actually wrong: Ras, the first Serb medieval kingdom, was founded just north of Kosovo) forms the basis and the model against which Yugoslavs evaluate 'reality.' If 'reality' does not correspond to what the public has been told about Kosovo, well, too bad for 'reality.' In fact, both Serbs and Albanians claim Kosovo as exclusively their own 'holy land,' each regarding it is as an indispensable symbol in the genealogy of their history, culture, sovereignty, and national pride. However, the problem is that only one side can possess it, but, since it has the mythical status of 'the place of origin,' it is emphatically non-negotiable. Hence, Kosovo Albanians' leader, Ibrahim Rugova, has stated again and again that 'his side' wants nothing less than independence. How many people have to die in the process, however, is something about which no one seems particularly concerned.

The State of Emergency

In the latest move by Serbian authorities, broadcasting of foreign radio and TV programs has been banned, foreign journalists as well as Yugoslav citizens working for foreign media have been threatened, persons who are not ethnic Serbs have been coerced, and some anti-war NGOs have been specially singled out for 'speaking out' (The Women in Black, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, The Belgrade Circle). Practical measures against outside influences have also been taken: the first radio stations have been forcibly closed (like the very popular Belgrade Radio Index), and Yugoslav state authorities are preparing a fatwa against citizens who use satellite dishes, as well as against those using the Internet.

This nervousness proves the importance of communication for contemporary political regimes. Ignacio Ramonet (Le Monde Diplomatique) has observed that "communication is the leading superstition of our world." Accordingly, those who control communication hope to be able to control the populace. Yugoslavia is a case in point, since the offensive by the official media and state agencies has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of total panic and hysteria, an atmosphere in which it is always 'others' who are to blame, and 'we' (Serbs) continue to think of ourselves as Christian Orthodox, nice, quiet and peace-loving people (as, no doubt, many survivors from Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo will gladly confirm). As for the 'world,' it is wrong, evil, and anti-Serb. By strengthening their hold on all modes of communication combined with selective witch-hunts, the Serb leadership (with the help of all the relevant opposition parties) hopes to achieve an ideal Orwellian (1984) state of bliss, where it will no longer be necessary to control people, since people will control themselves.

Although the state of emergency (or 'the state of war') has not been officially declared, government officials have already announced emergency measures (which are unconstitutional, but who cares?) and have promised swift punishment of all 'defeatists.' The siege mentality which has gripped the country since 1987, has finally claimed total victory. Serbia has started a hyperreal war both against the world, and against itself.

People are afraid. The accuracy of US 'Tomahawks' is widely discussed, as well as the likelihood of possible casualties. Most people believe that the urban centers will be 'cruised', and official propaganda does as much as possible to support this belief. Indeed, civilian casualties would be a tremendous boost for the Serbian government's propaganda war against the rest of the world. Mass hysteria quickly turns into anger against all who are perceived as 'different' (in the Balkans, Albanians have always been regarded as the ultimate Others), as well as into a strange sense of relativism towards news and events ("they all lie,' 'they are all the same"). This strange cynicism of 'relativism' provides very fertile psychological ground for the government authorities to reinforce their reign of fear.

Hegel and the Serbs

Fear in the rump Yugoslavia is a direct consequence of the wars that led to the break-up of the previous Yugoslavia. The more brute force Serbs used in their efforts to convince others (Slovenians, Croats, Bosnian Muslims) that they (the Serbs, led by Mr. Slobodan Milosevic) are right, the weaker they (the Serbs) became. As in Hegel's famous allegory of the Master-Slave relationship, the regime which relies on coercive power gradually becomes dependent on it, finally ending up powerless. Ironically, this weakness is a direct result of its initial overwhelming power. Thus,the more crimes committed 'in the name of justice,' the more (some) people started asking themselves what this 'justice' meant. Is the killing of women, children, and the elderly (even if they are labeled as 'terrorists' by official Serb propaganda) justice?

Of course, bombing will not solve anything. It will not resolve the Kosovo crisis: on the contrary, it will probably provide Serb police and army units with a good excuse to kill as many Albanians as possible in a relatively short time period. However, it will, in a strange way, complete a full circle, since, as Stipe Mesic, the former Croatian Prime Minister, once said, "the war has started in Belgrade, and in Belgrade it will end." This prophecy could finally materialize. It could also perversely blur the difference between executioners and the executed. Serbs will finally obtain 'redemption' for all the crimes committed in their name and be in a position to portray themselves as victims. Should any political concessions be made, they can always claim that they were made against overwhelming force and under intense pressure from the international community. Thus, if one believes Baudrillard when he claims that Serbs are actually just an instrument of global Western politics, they are also a perfect instrument: they tend to self-destruct.

Waiting for NATO to strike, Belgrade is burning with fear and panic, secret police are adding to the pressure by 'visiting' NGOs which have been singled out, and it is becoming very dangerous (much more so than during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia) to say or even think something which does not fall within the parameters of official politics, to watch or listen to the non-Serb media, or to surf the Net. Effectively, it is as if Belgrade was already bombed: the little self-respect that was there is disappearing, and so will, it seems, people who once opposed nationalist madness.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1995 Le crime parfait. Paris: Gallimard.

Boskovic, Aleksandar. 1997 "Albanci kao metafora: Kosovski bozuri." Arkzin (Zagreb) N.s., No. 6, pp. 26-27.

Ramonet, Ignacio. 1997 "La mutation du monde." Le Monde Diplomatique, October.

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).