Nationalistic rhetoric and recrimination in the former Yugoslavia has not been this bad since the start of the war in the early 1990s. Much like the tacit alliance between Serb and Croat nationalists at Borovo Selo back then the current recriminations are functional for the elites running the kleptocratic banana republics that have emerged upon the collapse of Yugoslavia.
The kleptocracies by now have little more to offer their people than a steady diet of tribal rhetoric.
A popular left is gradually, but discernibly, stirring once more in the former Yugoslavia which includes heightened labour unrest. In Croatia, we have seen a shakeup of politics as usual with the emergence of the Most, admittedly centre-right, list of regionalist parties but also of the Zivi Zid leftist party. In Bosnia, an uprising in 2014 shook the established parties. Although this uprising took place only in territory which was controlled during the war by the Muslim dominated Bosnian army, nonetheless the grievances that animated the uprising are shared across the ethnic divide and intrigue and fear, for the most part, prevented its spread. In Montenegro, the criminal regime invents coups and rigs elections to stay in power. In Serbia, the ruling party faces a significant social protest movement in Belgrade and its grip on power is not as secure as appearance would have it. In Serbia, as in Croatia, leftist movements are stirring.
The respective nationalist and kleptocratic establishments are facing a nascent, though growing, post Yugoslav left given the continued effects of the neoliberal robbery of social property that was made possible by the war. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but in the former Yugoslavia it is the first and perpetual refuge of the scoundrel. The response of the political and economic elites to the deep social crisis enveloping the region is to stoke nationalism.
Croatia, for example, is in the grips of a wave of racist anti-Serb hysteria, so much so that Croatian children eating chocolate manufactured in Serbia is enough to provoke widespread howls of consternation. At the same time, the defacing of the Jasenovac concentration camp memorial, run by the wartime fascist Croatian state and serving mostly, but not exclusively, as a place of extermination of Serbs, with anti-Serb fascist slogans is not a source of consternation, as the mayor of Jasenovac put it.
In Serbia, this has provoked nationalistic anti-Croat hysteria which has today reached a crescendo after Croatia blocked one of the latest, out of a possible three, chapters of Serbia’s EU accession protocols. Serbia appears also to be heading toward Presidential elections, with the ruling party, in association with the country’s absurdist tabloids, launching vitriolic attacks against potential rival candidates. If Ivan Stambolic were running, or contemplating running, for President against the current party of power the only thing missing would be the bullets.
This comes at a bad time. In Serbia, there is a definite trend, even amongst the intellectual classes, toward revisionism that is to say toward a nationalistic reinterpretation of the Milosevic period. This revisionism, in part, necessarily downplays Serbia’s historic responsibilities, which are not inconsiderable, for the wars and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. The current events will have the effect of making it harder for Serbs to recognise and reconcile to the good, the bad and the ugly of Serbian history. The Serbian Prime Minister, who during the war was a rabid ultra nationalist whose then political godfather played a non-trivial role at Borovo Selo, says that he won’t be lectured to by Zagreb. The fervent rhetoric may suit him politically, but it does little to contribute to the modernisation of Serbia and antifascist lectures from a former ultra nationalist, rightly, carry no weight in Croatia.
It is important, I think, that we Serbs recognise our history objectively and ethically independent of what is said and done in Zagreb. We should do this because it is the right thing to do, and we should do this because doing so helps those of our comrades in Croatia who seek to do the same.
The situation in Bosnia is very bad, and surely it is no coincidence that the state of play in Bosnia has descended to the levels it has following the 2014 uprisings and the escalation of tension between Washington and Moscow.
It is not just that the nationalists in Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade stoke and benefit from inter-ethnic tensions. So do the great powers who increasingly use the territory of the former Yugoslavia as a pawn in what John Mearsheimer referred to as “the tragedy of great power politics,” as they always have except for that period after 1948 when we didn’t let them.