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Monday, November 28, 2022

Genie from Slobodan’s bottle

By: Gašper Blažič

More than thirty years ago, just before the breakup of Yugoslavia, an infamous graffiti appeared somewhere in Slovenian Istria – supposedly in Piran or the surrounding area – which, in Serbian, promised a not so very bright future for Slovenians. It read – I am quoting from memory, as I was told at home – something like this: “When the third war comes, we will slaughter the Slovenes.” So, during the third war (probably world war), genocide against our nation is supposed to follow, and the language of the graffiti betrayed, that it might have been some kind of officer’s kids, or it might have been a simple provocation, of which there were many at that time.

The message, however, was eerie, and I was reminded of it several times, especially during the war for Slovenia, especially when there was tension in the air before a possible mass air attack by the “people’s” army of that time. And to be honest, for a few months after the end of the military service, we were trembling before the possible return of the sirens. The beginning of the school year in September 1991 was spiced up with a lesson in our elementary school: how to retreat to shelters in the event of an air attack. Some relief was brought by the final (?) withdrawal of the YPA from Slovenia four months after independence, when the then commander of the Territorial Defence headquarters, the newly minted general Janez Slapar, submitted a report to the president of the RS Presidency, Milan Kučan, that there were no more occupying soldiers on our territory. At that time, we took his word for it, but today we can easily look at that report with a considerable amount of irony.

Why am I actually mentioning these events? Many people will remember that the lifespan of Yugoslavia was a little over seventy years. Already at the end of the 19th century, Great Britain and France cultivated the idea of a kind of Balkan Piedmont, which would, on the one hand, replace the influence of Turkey, and on the other hand, prevent the direct access of (then imperial) Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and even to the Adriatic. Thus, the Kingdom of Serbia was supposed to assume the role of the bearer of the united Slavic people in the southeast of Europe. It actually happened at the end of the summer of 1918 with the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which was later renamed Yugoslavia. This was after the first world war, when the cards in Europe were dealt anew, and Habsburg Austria experienced a collapse under the leadership of the secular Emperor Charles I of Habsburg-Lorraine. The never-realised plan of the third unit of the Habsburg Empire, which would include the south-eastern part of the empire (of course with an autonomous status in relation to the Vienna and Budapest), actually turned into a kind of new tragedy, because the Kingdom of Serbia as one of the victorious states of the first world war, received former Austrian state in the south as loot (of course, the other part was “taken” by Italy at the expense of its conversion). Regardless of the hope that the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, which was created as a derivative of the disintegrating Habsburg Empire, would be united with Serbia on the basis of a federal principle, it did not come true: The SHS Kingdom actually meant only an expanded Serbia, and Slovenian problems with identity verification continued, several of which the rather pragmatic Dr Anton Korošec helped to alleviate. Interestingly, the later communist revolutionary project did not foresee the new Yugoslavia at all, as the takeover of the area was in the foreground (even with the possibility of an independent Slovenian state or with the annexation of some of the neighbouring countries, so that communism would win there). Regardless of that, Yugoslavia (with the return of Primorje, and unfortunately without Koroška, Trieste, and Gorica) continued to be preserved, especially because Josip Broz Tito, then with the strong support of Stalin, finally convinced the West that the entire fugitive king’s Yugoslav government in London recognised him as a liberator.

For Serbia, this meant a step backwards, as the communist project was based more on internationalism and, for its own needs, also on the national emancipation of small nations (among others the Slovenes, who were supposed to be represented in the resistance against the forces of powers by the Liberation Front, before that the Anti-Imperialist Front). Later Yugoslav constitutions – the last one, in which Kardelian federalism reached its peak after Tito’s showdown with Aleksandar Ranković, was adopted in the summer of 1974 – thus loosened Serbian hegemony, which remained a strong presence in the YPA. As if to say, Serbia is not only the Balkan Piedmont, but also the Balkan Prussia, that is why, regardless of the equality of all Yugoslav official languages, Serbian completely prevailed there. Serbia also retained the political status of an average Yugoslav republic (only Slovenia did not border it!), because its capital was also the capital of Yugoslavia, which de facto meant that it could not make arbitrary decisions about possible independence from the rest of the country. After Tito somehow “took away” Vojvodina and Kosovo, the dissatisfaction with the solution of the Serbian national question reached its peak. Shortly after Tito’s death, Ranković also died, so despite his previous unpopularity, the Serbs confirmed their dissatisfaction with (post)Titoism with a massive attendance at the funeral. Only three years later, an extract from the unconfirmed memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts then became public. Officially, the Serbian politics of the time condemned the memorandum for nationalism, but at the same time it helped to spread the message of the memorandum among the masses of people, who were increasingly upset about Kosovo, because the local areas were terrorizing the Kosovo Serbs with repression. When Serbian party leader Slobodan Milošević uttered the famous words “Niko ne sme, da vas bije” (Eng. “No one can beat you”) a few months after the publication of the SANU memorandum, the Bolshevik-nationalist leviathan was finally started. The continuation is known and resulted in attempts to revise the Yugoslav constitution (and in the summer of 1988, all the delegates of the Assembly of the SR of Slovenia succumbed to this attempt), in the battle of two concepts of repression, and finally in the uprising of Greater Serbia, supported by frenzied demonstrations. Well, at first it was about the return of Yugoslavia to a centralist framework (Milan Kučan happily called it Serbislavia), but later it became clear that Slovenia did not want to be part of that story. At the same time, the cunning Serbian “vozhd” calculated that he would achieve Slovenian self-exclusion from Yugoslavia through pressure, just as the bearers of the Serbian idea wanted to amputate the so-called “small” Croatia shortly before World War II (the plan was never realised). This would, of course, mean that Slovenia, as a product of secessionism and separatism, would remain isolated on international soil, and Milošević would pocket the entire legal succession of Yugoslavia and at the same time keep the Serbs in one country. And he could also afford collateral damage, i.e., the Serbs living in Slovenia (who, by the way, have indigenous status only in two smaller regions around Kolpa, namely in Bojanci and Marindol, although in 1991 the Bojanci were mentioned above all).

The “vozhd” did not succeed in this plan, as the Slovenian side primarily demanded the disintegration of Yugoslavia within its existing borders. This was otherwise unacceptable for the Serbian side, after the local attackers, with the silent support of the YPA, first in Knin, and then in some other Croatian municipalities, established a parallel area, the “revolution boulder” project, which then grew into an open aggression against Croatia, which peaked in the fall of 1991, which was followed by a new, even bloodier crisis focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Milošević was convinced that the right to self-determination also applies to Serbs in Croatia and BiH and that they will want to stay in Yugoslavia. As if to say, Croatia can easily leave, but without Serbian territories (SAO Krajina). Croatia did indeed leave the disintegrated SFRY and achieved international recognition, and a few years later also de facto annexed the occupied territories with the Nevihta and Blisk actions. Unfortunately, Bosnia was a much more difficult case due to the three nationalities, and the Dayton Agreement allowed the Serbs to control 49 percent of the territory (which is a percentage less than halfof the territory), and even after several years of bloody murders, the international community, albeit unilaterally, also took military action, regardless of the fact that, for example, Russia and China represented pro-Serbian positions in the UN Security Council. There was a fear that a unilateral intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina would trigger a global conflict with Russia, but Yeltsin’s Russia was then in a deep enough internal political crisis to afford another military adventure with the West. At that time, Russian tanks did not fire outside Russian territory, but only in Moscow itself and then in Chechnya. The later fall of Yeltsin brought the KGB agent “Vladimir Grozny” to the area, who, especially after Yeltsin’s death, established an authoritarian state with very obvious media monopoly, censorship, and repression. And only such Russia was capable of using weapons elsewhere (Georgia, Ukraine). And if the West had already dealt with Putin’s Russia in the 1990s, the slaughter in Bosnia and Herzegovina would continue to this day, because any attempt to cross the (military) Rubicon would mean a third world war.

And perhaps it was the Russian occupation of Ukraine that began with the forced annexation of Crimea (following the recipe from Knin in 1990) that triggered a new leak of the spirit escaping from Slobodan’s bottle. The fairly recent statement of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić about the alleged stretching of Slovenian fingers on Serbian territories is at first glance ridiculous and might deserve at least a diplomatic note of protest (but we will not see that film under the current foreign minister). Slovenian President Borut Pahor, whose second mandate is coming to an end, has thus received a Serbian lesson about allegedly tainted Slovenian imperialist politics for the second time in less than a week. The first time was a few days ago in Bled, when the Serbian Minister of the Interior, Aleksandar Vulin, publicly growled, saying that “not a single person died because of the idea of a Serbian world, but because of the idea of the right of Slovenes to self-determination for secession, a civil war was started in the SFRY, in which tens of thousands of people died”. Let’s be honest, this was a harsh accusation against Slovenia. When the Serbian president said something similar, it became clear that it was not a coincidence or the result of his “malignant” incident, which happened just before Pahor’s visit to Serbia. Namely, Serbia still has an open (fortunately only political) front with Pristina, there is uncertainty in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the relationship of the Republika Srpska to the Dayton Agreement, and Vučić also caused a lot of stir with his statements against Croatia. It is somewhat strange, because not so long ago he appeared as a guest at meetings of the European People’s Party, and in recent years, he has shown a pro-European orientation, which was never popular in Serbia before. But in his younger years, Vučić was a member of the Serbian Radical Party, which emerged from Šešlje’s Serbian Chetnik movement in the early 1990s and became more extreme nationalist than the then popular Drašković’s movement. As Minister of Information, A. V. introduced censorship and an information blockade during the war in Kosovo, which means that Putin would probably be proud of him.

It is difficult to say if Vučić really succumbed to the charm of the Russian “big brother” and began to revive his political roots from his youth. While the Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia is warning Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov not to abuse Serbian reluctance to impose sanctions against Russia as a sign that Serbia supports the infamous Russian project, it seems that old imperialist reflexes are reawakening “East of Paradise” apparently out of great disappointment, because in 1991 the “healthy forces” in the SFRY and the Soviet Union, despite the strong urging of General Veljko Kadijević, did not act against the disintegration of both states and socialism. In the eyes of such imperialists, Slovenia, which fought for independence, found itself on the wrong side of history as the trigger for a bloody war in the Balkans. This is, of course, a completely reversed interpretation of history, saying that “vozhd” was (unsuccessfully) saving the country that others had already torn to pieces. Well, not only the Slovenian and Croatian separatists, but also the Vatican, the USA and Germany (in the summer of 1991, YPA generals spoke quite openly about the “Fourth Reich”!). Morally justifying this dirty role of Milošević after so many years is clearly a tactic that pays off, considering that the disintegrated Yugoslavia was a kind of banana peel that caused it to suffer a terrible fall because, in the otherwise conflicting interests of the superpowers, it ignored the fact that it has to do with the straight Byzantine mentality, where a said word counts less than rubbish. And as already mentioned: It was clearly worthwhile for the Serbs to start a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because in the final phase they got half of its territory.

Otherwise, Vučić should also have to ask himself a few questions about the history or about the role of the Red Army at the end of the Second World War – although it is true that Yugoslavia narrowly avoided the fate that befell, for example, the eastern part of Germany. Although the official Russian propaganda denies the “foreign effects” of this army’s operation on Yugoslav territory, perhaps it is time for the leadership of Serbia to ask whether the narrow interests of one country really count, and whether the Serbian government is serious in condemning the attack on Ukraine. However, Serbia also has a historical experience behind it, because after the fall of Milošević, it began to free itself from international sanctions. And it is very aware of what international sanctions mean. But historical lessons are easily forgotten, and Putin is living proof of that. Irredentism with the liberation of “historical Russian territories” is indeed reminiscent of that well-known sentence in Styria in 1941 “Make the land German again” (although the statement has not been historically proven whether it was indeed uttered by Adolf Hitler during his visit to Maribor). One more proof that the thesis about the end of history and the global victory of liberal democracy is a completely false illusion, which brought with it not only many disappointments, but also a lot of spilled blood. In addition, the Balkan tavern (according to Miroslav Krleža) remains a ticking time bomb – when the lights are broken in it, only knives will continue to shine…

The only question is what role Slovenia can play in this latent breeding ground for conflicts. During the time of the previous government, it had a very strong initiative in international politics (let’s remember Janša’s historic visit to Ukraine) and proved that even a small country can achieve great influence. But those times are obviously over. Will we be so passive when our vital interests are directly threatened (in the spirit of graffiti I mentioned in the introduction)?

Gašper Blažič is a journalist for Demokracija, editor of its daily desk, and editor of the Blagovest.si portal.


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