Bishop Velimirovic’s modern Serbia
by Ivan Torov
People used to say of Vojislav Koštunica - at the time when our only thought was how to resist Milošević - that he was highly principled, consistent, incorruptible. Later came stories about his absolute respect for legitimacy, his attachment to constitutionalism and legalism. When consideration was being given to the question of who should run against Milošević, and somewhat later who should ‘correct’ the forward-moving policies of assassinated premier Zoran Đinđić, certain circles transmitted the message that Koštunica was Serbia’s natural leader: unprepossessing, modest, learned, God-fearing, a peacemaker, good at reconciling opposites. What is left today of this skilfully crafted portrait of virtues? And did it ever have any connection with reality?
If mocking The Hague tribunal may be set aside as an episode showing Koštunica as an adaptable and pragmatic politician (which in his dead predecessor was considered a mortal sin), the rest may be reduced to two successful attempts to confirm his ideological and nationalist orthodoxy: by establishing full continuity with Milošević’s period in its mannerisms, instruments, institutions and style of government; and by establishing an ideological matrix according to which Milošević failed because he preferred personal power to making nationalism into a dominant system of values. This is what Koštunica has managed to do - without meeting any significant resistance.
Serbia is slowly but surely returning to its ‘historical roots’. As was true for so many periods in its past, modernity for Serbia is a waste of time. As advocates of the values of the French Revolution are marginalized, elements of a theocratic state emerge. The church (SPC) has become not simply a partner, but in a sense also a controller, so that it is not quite clear today who really governs Serbia: the government or the SPC synod. Or maybe they are the same thing. The minister for religion defends the interests of the church better than those of the state, while the prime minister appears in public only in the company of priests, at requiems and saint’s-day celebrations. The absence of an active political alternative or resistance on the part of the seemingly strong Democratic Party has enabled the assorted populists around Koštunica to turn nationalism once again into the dominant, official state ideology.
This ideology is embedded in the church oligarchy and most of the political elite, whether in government or in opposition. Attempts at defiance on the part of remnants of the civic parties, NGOs and sections of the media make little difference. Serbia under Koštunica is coming under the sway of a ‘civilized’ and - as is frequently asserted - ‘good’ nationalism, by contrast with Milošević’s ‘arrogant’ and ‘unreliable’ kind. Its main bastion is Koštunica himself and his party, and its main instrument the agile and aggressive Nova Srpska Politička Misao [New Serb Political Thought], articulated by battle-tested advisors, collaborators and ‘unbiased’ analysts such as Đorđe Vukanović, Slobodan Antonić, Ljiljana Smajlović, Miša Đukrović or Zoran Ćirjaković. This is an elite which, through its ceaseless engagement in the increasingly controlled or government-inclined media, argues that although Milošević’s nationalist and war policy was damaging, his intentions in the last instance were not dishonourable. The public is encouraged to believe that it is possible to establish a close connection between, on the one hand, Serbia’s ‘natural propensity’ to nationalism (of the ‘good’ kind, of course), myths, glorification of the past and strengthening of the nation state and, on the other hand, European values as demanded by the modern world.
The implication of this is that Europe, fearful that Serbia might once again become a trouble spot, will tolerate Koštunica’s policy of creating a semi-theocratic (some would say clerical) state, asking in return only that Belgrade should fulfil a modicum of its international obligations. When Serbia ‘betrayed’ such minimal European expectations by failing to fulfil its promise to hand over Ratko Mladić, the EU suspended negotiations concerning its adhesion, but with such benevolent ‘understanding’ that no perturbations were caused (other than within the leadership of G17 Plus, which was predictable given Mlađan Dinkić growing ambitions). The government, and DSS and Koštunica in particular, were not greatly disturbed by Olli Rehn’s decision, and were brazen enough to blame Mladić himself, accusing him of refusing to sacrifice himself for the good of the nation,1 and the EU for inadequate understanding of the government’s difficulties.
What then has been happening in Serbia’s political and social life? There is rehabilitation of the Chetniks, and a Chetnik-Partisan reconciliation accompanied by the falsification and re-writing of history. Ljotić, Nedić, Mihailović, and other wartime collaborators are being celebrated and turned into national heroes, while Partisans and true anti-fascists are being portrayed as war criminals. General Mladić has become a mythical and fully positive figure, whom we might surrender to The Hague in the national interest - but without thereby diminishing his ‘heroism and sacrifice for the nation’. There are laws on religion and on the return of church property. The SPC has once again become a key actor in political life. Anti-Communism has acquired a hysterical tone, which is to be expected given the ideology of the governmental parties. One explanation for revival of the pro-Nazi past perhaps lies in the EU’s inability to persuade Serbia that it really has lost the recent wars.
This atmosphere reflects a feeling on the part of the ruling elite that nationalism based on St Sava is not enough. The saint is gradually being pushed to the margins in favour of another, more obscure and destructive, personality: that of Nikolaj Velimirović, whose life and deeds are proclaimed as the source of ‘new’ values and morality, as a new cultural model. Every attempt to criticize this ‘saint’ is not just met with vociferous resistance on the part of the church and certain political circles, but also stimulates action by groups which until recently the police itself had identified as racist and pro-fascist. The recent stoning of Mirko Đorđević’s house is a reminder of their determination to act against Velimirović’s critics.
And then there is Koštunica’s next alleged virtue: legalism. This formula has allowed the prime minister to re-affirm the values of Milošević’s period, and opened space for legal acrobatics designed to keep the government in power. Legalism is in fact a cover for all manner of frauds and shady dealings, which have turned the parliament into a primitive market place, allowing members of the governmental parties to become very rich and tycoons to determine the country’s economic policy.
Translated from a longer article in Republika (Belgrade), 1 June.- 31 July 2006