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Ratko Mladić in Serbia has no alternative

The ongoing policy of lies continues to suppress and erase the legacy of Yugoslav anti-fascism in Serbia at an ever-increasing pace.

June 7, 2023 - Boris Varga - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Boris Varga as a child in Ruski Krstur in 1982.

All patriarchal and backward societies have a problem with violence. In Yugoslavia, violence was somehow built into the generally accepted ideology of victory in the Second World War, from which the state’s one-party system drew its legitimacy. As a child, I couldn’t wait for my father to buy me a helmet and a rifle so I could defend my homeland against the enemy. I also defended it when, as a six-year-old, I brought my Volksdeutscher neighbour, who had fled Vojvodina as a child, to tears, asking him upon his return why he was killing our partisans. Because all Germans were – as we all know – fascists.

The most dangerous is the violence that comes from tradition. Unnoticed, quiet and absorbed with mother’s milk. I remember that among the first things I learned from my grandmother about other nations was that “Jews are bad because they crucified Christ” and that I should “not leave the house, because the Gypsies will steal me”. Chauvinism and racism in its purest form, although the grandmothers were not, after all, consciously spreading it.

A physical part of preparing for the interpersonal conflicts of the coming wars in the 1990s was the fundamental arming of children. Among other things, it was through toys that the cult of weapons and war was reintroduced in what was, after all, the most peaceful of times.

Killing in these areas is also part of coming of age and growing up. Most learned it from domestic animals, pigs, sheep, chickens. It depended on what region you came from and what gender you were as a child. I loved rabbits and we had a mini farm, which also helped my dad mitigate the effects of a heart attack. When I turned ten, he took me behind the house, took a rabbit by the ears in his left hand and an axe in his right hand. “We eat rabbit meat several times a week,” he said in a serious tone, “it doesn’t come to us from a store or restaurant, but from our shed.” I obediently did everything according to my father’s instructions and hit the rabbit in the back of the head with the axe. Apparently, I’m not tough enough, because its whimpering – just like a human’s – still echoes in my ears. I tried a second time, but father’s third blow ended the matter. I know that father, with this lesson of his, did not have bad intentions, but it also did not make me a better person. On the contrary.

Serbia’s dirty conscience

Peer violence exists in schools all over the world, and unfortunately, almost without exception, everyone has their own experience with it. In some places it is only verbal, while in others it comes in micro-aggressions in the form of various practices. However, in some societies children actively oppress and abuse each other, which sometimes ends in bloodshed. This was the case in a recent incident at a school in Belgrade’s Vračar district.

I remember how angry I was when, on May 25th, I was the only one who did not carry the baton in the local stage of our municipality’s youth relay. I was the son of the school principal and had to give way to other children, give them a chance. All the children in the class went to the Greek Catholic Church in Ruski Krstur, where we lived at the time, only I did not – due to the fact that my parents worked in education. So, I felt safe at school, protected by my status, but because of this I was also completely rejected by the class and by the collective. I had to sit on a bench with the worst, the weakest, and pupils with special needs. I had to answer first, and in the case of unresolved problems in class, I had to be the first in each group to have disciplinary talks. I was expected to shine as an example of building humanistic socialism, disregarding my young years.

Dan Mladosti – Youth Day was celebrated in Yugoslavia on May 25th, officially to commemorate the birthday of Josip Broz Tito (actually born on May 7th). The main symbol of the holiday was the Youth Relay or Tito Relay. The baton set off from a different city each year, was carried for about a month and a half through all the Yugoslav republics and ended its journey on May 25th in Belgrade. The passing of the baton was an event attended by thousands of young people from all over Yugoslavia. At the end of the relay, one of them passed the baton to Tito and wished him a happy birthday. The passing of the baton was also broadcast live on Yugoslavian television – NS.

Once, at a rally for schools, I was so frustrated by all this that I deliberately hit my visiting peer from another school in the face with a ball, causing him to lose consciousness from the hard blow. In the coming weeks, the school system showed its full capacity. When the wave of school violence that recently culminated in a massacre began to spread throughout Serbia, I had no problem imagining the juvenile perpetrator of this crime. His frustration, his complexes, his problems, his youthful aggression for reasons unknown. Young people are full of imaginary problems and frustrations because of grades, sympathy or acne. And most important is the pattern imposed by their environment, from parental ambitions to an eternally autocratic society. But a crime has been committed, and these yet-to-be-formed people, along with their parents, must be held accountable in the harshest way.

And they will be punished, perhaps also the government will fall, in a staged manner. But even if the Vučić regime falls in a “Serbian Maidan”, the country’s ruined social value system will not change so easily overnight. In the preceding days, all the possible causes of juvenile and other forms of violence in Serbian society have been discussed. Despite this, we already know that the past three decades have simply been sick and a cure is needed.

What is not made clear enough, however, is society’s remorse for our bloody hands in the immediate neighbourhood. The denial of the most serious war crimes in the neighbouring republics and provinces, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and the public’s inability to face the truth and accountability, mean that the basic assumption remains that every new step leads to bad solutions and further violence.

But why didn’t we, frustrated teenagers at the time, because of everything that was happening to us at the time, pick up knives and baseball bats in the mid-1980s and hit those students from “foreign” schools or weaker children who were so annoying to us? After all, we also felt alienated. We watched violent movies, numerous thrillers and horror films. We played computer games and “combat games”, perhaps only in slightly worse resolution.

However, we didn’t stab or bruise anyone, because the social framework and value system didn’t allow us to do so. They may have indoctrinated us with a lot of unnecessary communist ceremonies, but our moral role models were not the criminals who committed the worst war crimes, who were charged with genocide and the ethnic cleansing of innocent civilians, especially women and children. The role models imposed in Yugoslavia may not have always been close to us, but after all, they defeated fascism and thus found themselves on the right side of history.

Dead souls are just looking for a single word

In the early 1990s, I was probably lucky because I was not mobilised to go to the battlefield in Vukovar, as the proverbial “Buryat” from Vojvodina in the new “Serb/Russian world”. It is difficult to comprehend how Yugoslavs, so numerous until recently, who were highly respected in the world at the time, turned overnight into the butchers of “Greater Serbia”. Socialist ideology was overthrown, the well-kept tradition of hatred broke the rotten shackles that had hitherto held the demons of a primitive society’s past in check.

Young people are impressionable, susceptible to influence, and it is easy to impose hatred on them. Who knows how I personally would have reacted to all these complexes and frustrations in the new circumstances of the 1990s, when a grenade or a gun could easily be used instead of a ball. I know many people in Serbia who would not have stepped on an ant before. Yet they returned from the surrounding countries’ battlefields with bloody hands and loot.

Serbia knows very well that it was the aggressor state and consciously suppresses this feeling. The skeletons are waking up, the ground is shaking, and every Serbian regime hears this, but remains silent and does not dare to admit it. The longer the cover-up continues and the more lies appear in public, the less human lives are worth, and the more crimes are socially acceptable. Dead souls are circling over Serbia, and they won’t rest until they get what they need most – simple words. The naming of things by name. Confession and repentance.

At the same time, the crimes of the recent wars are slowly turning into a culture of remembrance, which will soon conquer school textbooks, alongside the names of these schools and their streets. Future generations of Serbs will face an uncomfortable conflict with western and democratic values and, above all, with themselves.

Thus, in this “Serb/Russian world”, Ratko Mladić has no alternative. The continued policy of lies continues to suppress and erase the legacy of Yugoslav anti-fascism in Serbia at an ever-increasing pace. There is no indication of any change in this paradigm, even if the Serbian opposition comes to power, because the only ideology that prevails in Serbia is nationalism. This is why Serbia chose the wrong side of history twice – in 1991, when it set out on its crusades, and in 2022, when the idea of a “Greater Serbia” was revived in Ukraine.

Mladic and Karadžić are celebrated as heroes by the current value system of lies, supported by a patriarchal, backward and poor society, armed with fear because of an impure conscience, and aggressive because of hatred and ignorance. Another alternative value system simply does not exist in Serbia today.

Translated from Serbian by Nikodem Szczygłowski

Boris Varga is a journalist, columnist and independent analyst. He holds a master’s degree in international journalism from Lviv (Ukraine) and a doctorate in contemporary political systems from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade. His area of interest involves the transformation processes taking place in the former socialist republics of the Eurasian region. He lives in Novi Sad.

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