Friday, 21 May 2010

Serbs, Media, Justice and Me! contd.

In this sequel to Serbs, Media, Justice and Me! published a couple of months ago, I shall go into further detail to explain my former views on the subject of Serbs in the media and the justice that followed, and further reminisce on my gradual change of thought.

As I explained in the above article, my views on the Yugoslav wars of the 90s were much like the views of many other Serbs then and today: I used to believe that Western politicians supported homegrown separatists at the expense of vast Serb populations in those seceeding republics, and most insulting of all, the Western media was falsely accusing us of starting the wars, thus leading to the break up of the former common state, even though it was NATO that bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999! I also used to believe that all the stories of Serbs committing war crimes and worse stuff on non-Serb populations to be gross lies and propaganda used to further advance the anti-Serb policies in the region. And finally, I used to look at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague as a "kangaroo court", a propaganda outfit to disseminate the same lies circulated throughout the world, so that their rulings could be used by anti-Serb politicians at home to implement their harmful and inconsiderate policies against the wishes of the Serbian people.

I no longer think in the way I've detailed above; in fact, I've changed my views by a 180º turn! I now no longer blame the West for the break-up of Yugoslavia. Instead, I acknowledge that Slobodan Milošević, along with his colleagues, were indeed responsible for creating a climate of ethnic tension and fear among the people of Yugoslavia that was conducive of war, and eventually caused wars to happen. I now appreciate how Serbian nationalism created a lot of fear among all the other former Yugoslav nations while blinding Serbs to what was really happening around them, thus, I now better understand why there is a lot of hatred between people there. I now accept that my fellow Serbs in Bosnia did indeed cause the most bloodshed of all the sides, and worse still, planned it all in advance and received lots of support et al. from Belgrade throughout the conflict. And I also now accept that the Hague Tribunal, whatever its faults may be, is a genuine court of law, that has from its establishment strived to uncover the truth of what had happened in those wars, who were to blame for it and bring them to justice.

This change in opinion didn't happen overnight and I certainly didn't accept everything I was discovering in one gulp; it took months for me to completely renounce my former views on the recent history and current affairs, and quite often, I found it easier to just accept one truth at a time, as a lot of what I was discovering was just too much even for me to take in!

However, what I'm detailing here is something that would be deemed deeply "unpatriotic" and even "treacherous" by many of my fellow Serbs even today, thus making my views certainly "contraversial" by Serbian standards! Nevertheless, I believe it can only be a cathartic process for me to explain why I used to think in the ways I thought, which is also the way in which many Serbs still think today.

(I also feel that I missed out a lot of rather important opinions in my original article, which is why I've published this article as a continuation of my previous article on the this issue!)

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Firstly and fundamentally, I found the whole idea of "Greater Serbia" as detailed by the Western media utterly repellent, and as far as I was concerned, completely un-Serbian. This tied in with the accusation that it was us Serbs who started the wars, and not the secessionists that we blamed the wars on.

What I could never believe was that Slobodan Milošević was "champion of a Greater Serbia", as claimed in the Western media. Me and my parents, like many Serbs in the Diaspora with access to satellite channels, used to watch RTS SAT (Radio Televizija Srbije Satelitski Program) during the war years and throughout the 1990s. And whenever we saw Sloba on RTS SAT, he always advocated Yugoslavia, never "Greater Serbia". Those who did advocate "Greater Serbia" always seemed to have come from the ranks of the Serbian Radical Party (Srpska Radikalna Stranka) under ultra-nationalist Vojislav Šešelj.

In all his public statements, Milosevic praised Yugoslavia and its multiethnic society, thus giving the impression that he was opposed to the inter-ethnic tensions that were brewing, and instead of secession wanted Yugoslavia to stay together. Šešelj and his Radicals, on the other hand, were openly vocal about the creation of a Greater Serbia, with its westerly border at the Croatian towns of Karlovac, Karlobag, Virovitica.

However, one of Sloba's famous sayings was, "All Serbs in one state". Many people believed he was referring to the formation of a "Greater Serbia" to contain all Serbs, while others thought he was referring merely to Yugoslavia as the state for all Serbs to live in. This is such an ambiguous statement on his part: does he mean "Greater Serbia" or just Yugoslavia? He made quite a few ambiguous statements like that one, which can be interpreted in many ways, and that's one of the reasons why many Serbs still can’t believe that Sloba was part - let alone head - of a "joint criminal enterprise".

I eventually realised that this was the impression that the Serb-nationalist media at the time, and Serb nationalists today, wanted to keep us under (Milošević = Yugoslavia, Šešelj = "Greater Serbia"), when in reality, the Serbian state under Sloba was deeply involved in the wars in the neighbouring former Yugoslav republics, providing support to the Serb nationalist leaders who fought precisely for a "Greater Serbia".

But what you must understand is that most Serbs, like myself, don't support the formation of a "Greater Serbia"; the truth is most Serbs just wanted Yugoslavia to stay together, my parents included. The fact is most sane and intelligent Serbs in the world think "Greater Serbia" is a mad and ridiculous idea; no normal Serb would ever consider "Greater Serbia" a good idea either in theory or in practice, myself included.

However, the Serbian public, at home in the Balkans and abroad in the Diaspora, were subjected to contradictory accounts coming from many media outlets, including the Serbian state media at the time, the Croatian and Bosnian state media, and the wider Western media. Understandably, this has led to a lot of confusion that can be detected even today.

Due to receiving many mixed messages about what was happening, many Serbs living outside of the warzones were particularly confused about what was really going on in Bosnia, Croatia and later in Kosovo. Other Serbs were more certain, placing their faith in their fellow Serbs and dismissing opposing views. However, because Serbs were so chronically misinformed, they did not realise who the real culprits of everything that was going wrong around them were. And because they did not know what was really going on, they could not rise against those responsible for it soon enough. Of course, that's exactly where the leaders of Serbia at the time, and their colleagues in the other republics, wanted us to be: in a state of confusion, so that we could not rebel against them.

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Secondly, and for a long time, I used to refuse to accept that Slobodan Milošević was responsible for all the bloodshed of the 1990s and for leading that "joint criminal enterprise"; such accusations I deemed unbelievable and part of a wider scheme of slur and slander at the Serbian people's expense. And I also found constant reference to Sloba and his "henchmen" so ungenuine. Instead, I remember watching his trial on satellite, and I'm ashamed to say this, but at the time, I honestly admired his performance at the dock of the ICTY; I truly believed that what he was sharing with the world from the Hague was the "truth", with which he was "destroying" the "lies" of the Western media!

Long before his trial, I remember watching RTS SAT in the 90s with my parents, as mentioned above, when it was under Sloba's control. My impression of Sloba, based on the image presented by RTS SAT under his state's control, was that of a positive and reasonable statesman, who advocated peace and humanitarianism and once held International Children's Day in Serbia! I was a child/teenager back then, and I chose to believe the Serbian state TV of that time over the "un-patriotic" bloc lead by people like the late Dr.Zoran Đinđić and Nenad Čanak, including B92 TV.

We also had access to RTCG (Radio Televizija Crne Gore) with our satelite, and that channel for us represented the "anti-Serb" Montenegrin bloc led by Premier/President Milo Đukanović, whom we despised as a traitor to the Serbian people and as someone secretly involved in the mafia! But that channel also offered the Voice of America in Serbian, which we likewise disbelieved, as it pretty much said the same things that were being told on the Western media but in Serbian.

However, my change of view regarding Milošević came about by precisely reading what ordinary people who lived in Serbia under his rule had to say on the Internet, as that is my most reliable way of finding out a variety of different opinions amongst Serbs that I cannot readily access living here in the UK.

Although I had heard of how Milošević repressed his political opponents at home in the Western media, I did not consider any of those stories to be valid; I always thought that those accusations were fundamentally "anti-Milošević propaganda" funded by the West that I and many other Serbs blamed, and I'm afraid to say that I also thought that a lot of the unrest in Serbia was the fault of the pro-democratic forces themselves causing trouble!

Nevertheless, I made the plunge and started reading many accounts of democratic activists striving against a régime they saw as the cause of their country's social, economic, political and moral turmoil, and in turn for many problems in neighbouring former Yugoslav republics due to war. What astonished and fascinated me the most while examining their literature was the high moral character of the individuals within the pro-democratic scene in Serbia, something I had previously under-estimated - or rather did not believe was possible, as I used to think that these people and their institutions were supported by Western countries. Their dedication to human rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and everything else that is conducive of an open and tolerant society was second to none.

Now, I did notice that these anti-Milošević people were obviously people who supported politicians like Đinđić and Čanak and their policies. But I slowly realised that their support for such individuals did not make what they were saying any less real; in fact, it only strengthened it! And I came to appreciate the fact that people who lived in Serbia at that time know far better about what was happening in their own country and society than someone like me who was living in the Diaspora watching a satellite channel run at the time by state that wanted to keep me in the dark.

And by examining their views word by word, it dawned on me that everything that Đinđić, Čanak et al. were saying and had said over the years was actually precisely what millions of ordinary people in Serbia regularly saw and felt going on around them. And so I finally accepted that all the anti-Milošević rhetoric from people in Serbia, people I had thought were "Western-paid traitors", was based on fact, and that the people of Serbia had every right to look upon Milošević and his régime as the cause of all their country's woes and see him as a failed president who brought nothing but trouble to everyone.

This enlightenment was crucial for me, 'cause if Milošević was that bad to his own people at home, then it's very easy to believe that he was no better - and even worse - towards his neighbours!

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And thirdly, for me and for many Serbs, the whole idea that we started the wars, and even worse, committed the highest number of war crimes and the grossest atrocities of all the sides, was completely unacceptable as it seemed so impossible on the one hand, but also very offensive on the other.

One of the reasons why it was difficult for me to believe that my fellow Serbs could do so much wrong to our neighbours, was because our parents, grandparents and more distant forebears had been victims of similar wrongdoing in the last one hundred years. In fact, throughout our history, and that of other Balkan nations, we had been at the mercy of many empires, be it the Roman Empire followed by the Byzantine Empire, between the Ottoman and the Habsurg later Austro-Hungarian Empires, and finally Nazi Germany, the Third Reich, whose criminal legacy is still painfully remembered today.

During the Bosnian war, there was a lot of very anti-Serb opinion in the media of Western countries, which influenced the general public's understanding of events in Bosnia. Both televised and radio news bulletins were full of headline stories about what was going on in Bosnia, usually implacating the Bosnian Serbs, such as the Siege of Sarajevo and the snipers who terrorised the people of that city. Now I was too young at the time to understand what exactly was going on, let alone be aware of different sides to the story. But what I did understand as a child was that I didn't want anything to do with it!

As I grew up, I learnt about what was happening in Bosnia and Croatia according to the Serbian side and subsequently based my own opinions on such interpretation of events. I started thinking in much the same way as many other Serbs were thinking, "How could the Western media accuse us of committing such terrible crimes; what about the suffering that our people have endured during those wars and in earlier periods?" It seemed to me that the Western media ignored - even dismissed - our view of history, which was especially hurtful to us Serbs who were and are living in the West. Of course, we don't expect everyone around the world to be expert historians, but most of us Serbs didn't expect the media in Western countries and all its journalists to be so dismissive of our sentiments.

As a British Serb, I remember the anti-NATO demonstrations in London by diaspora Serbs in response to the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war. They held placards with comical and/or angry messages like "National American Terrorist Organisation" (a pun on the NATO alliance's abbreviated name), while others held placards with the message "Save Our Serbia" (an alternative definition of the international distress signal SOS).

As mentioned above, we remembered the anti-Serb climate around the country during the Bosnian war just a few years earlier. Many British Serbs felt very uncomfortable with the overt anger expressed against us by our fellow Britons, and our natural, knee-jerk reaction to all of this - regardless of whether we had access to satellite channels or not - was to believe that this hatred was completely based on lies spread by the media. And when Kosovo broke out, we likewise believed that this was another anti-Serb campaign lead by the media in our host country.

In the end, these people, British Serbs, were left feeling disregarded by Blair's government, yet many of them had helped elect him only two years earlier. This feeling of not being listened to by their country's government has lead to a general sense of apathy among British Serbs as far as politics in either the UK or the Balkans is concerned, which is still felt today. No wonder many of us are disillusioned with politics in general, and worse, actually prefer to live in apathy rather than have an opinion!

I, on the other hand, did not become apathetic or lose interest in politics. Following the Kosovo war, I developed a very pro-Serb view of the wars for all the reasons described above in this article and in the previous one. I spent much of my free time as a teenager sojourning websites which promoted the opinion that the West interfered in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia, and which focused purely on Serbian victimhood without any meaningful reference to the victimhood of other former Yugoslav nations - instead, they were openly denying, minimising and/or justifying it! Needless to say, these sites left me in a lot of doubt about many atrocities committed by the Bosnian Serbs et al. during the wars, while cementing my belief that the West was pursuing and continues to pursue anti-Serb policies. Ignorance is bliss!

As I was building my identity, I learnt a lot about Serbian history, Balkan history and European history, not to mention the national histories of certain nations. Afterall, history is one of my favourite subjects, along with linguistics!

As far as history was concerned, I was developing my own opinions on history based on what I was reading on the net, from websites like the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, visited by people from all over the world, and the Serbian cultural/historical/anthropological website Projekat Rastko, which offers a wide array of literature.

At first, I preferred the comfort of the Serbian point of view, as I was often offended by the mainstream Western opinion on the recent history, and even more by the Croatian point of view, particularly when examining the discussions pages on Wikipedia's numerous articles on the former Yugoslavia, often full of accusations and defamation coming from all sides! But as my skin became thicker, I started researching other interpretations of Western Balkan history, including the Croatian opinion and that of others, with which I became more and more comfortable confronting. On the one hand, I wanted to familiarise myself with their side of the story; while on the other, I wanted to find something in their story that I could disprove and brand as a "lie".

This process of familiarising myself with the other side/sides of the story gained momentum precisely during the time that I started changing my views on Milošević, Bosnia etc. And not only was I discovering how the other former Yugoslav nations felt about what happened to them and all around them, I was also starting to read more "neutral" points of view, i.e. works by internationally-recognised scholars - genuine historians, as opposed to the pseudo-historians out there - like Marko Attila Hoare, Marcus Tanner, Tim Judah, and many more. I read their work with a true sense of inquisitiveness, and I found their work to be highly informative and even inspiring; they explained the various aspects of the recent wars and other periods by focusing on the facts, without resorting to expressing their ethnic hostilities or advocating a national agenda. What a breath of fresh air that was!

Thanks to all my research, which at times was profoundly emotional for me, I developed a more informed view on the recent history and more distant periods of history. In fact, I developed a sense of critically analysing individual interpretations, along with an ability to compare contradicting points of view in order to discover whether they have anything in common!

For instance, when comparing the Serbian and Croatian national narratives, I've found that that these narratives are indeed based on certain historic facts, but what makes both of them unique - or similar, depending on how you look at them - is that they relate specific interpretations of facts. And it is these interpretations that help forge people's national identity, something they share only with a select few.

However, the problem with both narratives is that they tend to concentrate on the favourable aspects of history, while ignoring or just minimising the less favourable bits. And when they relate wars, they always depict their nation as the innocent victims on the one hand, and justified heroes on the other. And because of that tendency, both narratives encourage the people who hold onto them to only want to see things in a way that is favourable to their nation, or as I put it, to have a "self-gratifying" view of history.

In the end, I came to understand that history can be a very complicated thing; it can seem to be full of contradictions on the one hand, and full of anomalies on the other. This is particularly the case with nations affected by constant war throught their histories. At one given moment in time, members of one nation were victimised by members of another; while at another moment of time, members of that originally victimised nation were victimising members of the nation that victimised them first!

I am not trying to in any way relativise any period or event in history, as each has its own gravity. Rather, I wish to point out that different people have experienced a variety of different things, but that's not to say that other people haven't experienced very similar things too. And that's why I believe that it's only when we compare different points of view in an objective manner with a spirit of inquisitiveness, can we finally discover what is true and what is false; what is diffrent and what is similar; and what is unique and what is shared.

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And so, it turned out that all the things I used to believe in, like that the West conspired with local separatists to destroy Yugoslavia and blame the Serbs for it with their media to justify further anti-Serb policies, are the real lies. And as I started accepting that, I also came to realise that Serb nationalist propaganda really was propaganda afterall: a combination of truths, half-truths, and outright lies. So many times I've heard Western journalists saying that the régime of Slobodan Milošević fed the Serbian people propaganda, and yet I never believed that! It turns out they were right all along.

I now accept that the two biggest practical problems with the Serb nationalist interpretation of history, constantly peddled back home in the Balkans, are one, it is unreliable when it comes to establishing historical truth, and two, when applying it in a legal setting, it is useless and fruitless.

I mean, let's forget about the Hague tribunal itself; there are loads of courts in the world and plenty of lawyers too! If we were to take anything that has been branded as "evidence" by proponents of the so-called Serbian point of view into any court of law in the world, it would be discredited and any case based on such "evidence" would be thrown out of court altogether. Now why would that happen if such claims were really true? Maybe the whole system and establishment is set up against us Serbs? Why of course, it's all done to spite us! But how can anyone live their lives thinking in such a way? I know I used to think like that myself, but I don't want to think in such an irrational and spurious way anymore. And what good would it do to maintain those same views based on discredited claims anyway? All we'd be doing is embarrassing ourselves on the one hand, and convincing Croats, Bosniaks etc. that we're no better than we were before, and as such not worth bothering with even now more than a decade after the wars.

But I also came to another very important conclusion: not only is the Serb nationalist point of view actually difficult to prove in any court of law - let alone the Hague, more importantly, it was also morally wrong to promote such interpretations of history. Indeed it is a fool's crusade to pursue such a version of the "truth", as it is full lies. But worst of all, it doesn't really help Serbs at all to continue fostering the argument that the West is "guilty" for the break-up of Yugoslavia, that Milošević was an innocent "hero" or that certain war crimes committed by Serbs were "lies", because that can only impede any honest attempt at reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, or Serbs and Bosniaks, etc.

In the end, all my research into recent and more distant history in the Balkans has convinced me once and for all that all brands of nationalism, especially the extreme, far-right variants, are both practically and morally wrong; while blind patriotism among ordinary people I realised is practically unhelpful and morally obstructive.

Minor edit: 13th July, 2010.

9 comments:

Owen said...

Alan, that's a beautifully written account (although I did get a bit worried at the point where you were "sojourning websites"!).

I really appreciate your openness and honesty - and I would even if you were a lot more critical of "the West". The truth is rarely black and white but we all start off assuming that's how it is and it's hard to accept our own mistakes, however honestly made.

I'm no better than anyone else in the way I let early impressions simplify and colour the way I look at things. It's not an easy business shifting your point of view to reflect what you've only gradually come to know.

My own lengthy experience of heated arguments with people who have turned the experiences of people I know and trust on their heads has left me sometimes at risk of closing my eyes and ears the moment I hear someone starting to defend "the Serbs", even though objectively I am aware that many Serbs endured terrible experiences and many did their honourable best in terrible circumstances.

I'm afraid much of my contact with British Serbs has involved me being on the receiving end of arrogance and scorn. How on earth could we ignorant British hope to understand what was going on in their country and be entitled to an opinion?

Worse than that, though, has been the callousness and manipulative dishonesty of so many Serbs I have come across on the internet. I've only just walked away from a "discussion" with someone about Srebrenica which made me feel really dirty, in spite of his knowing air of informed superiority, all the more so because although he didn't know it he was talking about a relative of someone I know.

When I add that to the media reports about public opinion in Serbia, sometimes I just want to turn my back and write off the lot of them as monsters.

But that would be criminally unfair. I know that - as you point out - there are many Serbs who behaved incredibly bravely in the face of the sort of hostility it's hard to imagine to imagine myself coping with. I have no right to forget what they have put up with in their efforts to defend decency and the truth.

Your own fairness and honesty is a constant reminder to me not to forget those compatriots of yours or the fact that decent people are decent people whatever their country.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeLEhaDXzSU

Alan Jakšić said...

I'm quite impressed that you've managed to read through this entire post so soon, Owen! I hope to publish shorter articles in the future, but not before I get some other stuff off my chest!

Yes I used to visit a lot of those "pro-Serb" sites on the net, believing that they were spreading the truth and helping my people. I didn't waste time on those ultra-nationalist sites, if you were worried about that; no, even back then I didn't agree with such far-right, belligerent literature and ideology. That stuff was never my cuppa tea! I used to follow those more left-wing, "moderate" sites - if you can call them that! (I'm sure you can guess which ones.)

Another thing I noticed in life is that it's easy to just stop trying, give up and live in ignorance. Lots of people prefer to live like that, and to be fair, it does work for them.

However, I'm too inquisitive a person to abandon myself to apathy; it was always important for me to at least know rather than not know, even if I would never use that information for anything practical - just in case I need it for some purpose!

And as you can tell, I felt that great injustices were perpatrated against my people - which is true, no doubt about it. However, those "pro-Serb" websites have this tendency to encourage you to feel "heroic" and to "fight for the truth", a message that sits very well with people who've suffered the injustices of war. Of course, I now know how much truth there is in their "truth", and what's more, I can now tell whether that version of the truth is actually worth fighting for.

I'm sorry that my fellow Serbs were so unhelpful to you at that time. People where I come from are very helpful and hospitable, and they always know how to treat a guest. And you of all people, Owen, are as far removed from ignorance as one can get!

You said you were left feeling in a poor state after a discussion regarding Srebrenica you had with someone. Would you care to relate it to me?

PS: Did you post that YouTube link above (posted just two minutes after your comment yesterday)? Lovely Ex-Yu song.

Owen said...

No, I'm afraid it wasn't me that made the post, and yes it's a nice song. It's got a bit of Abba in it and something else, but it's a nicer tune than the Abba song - can't remember its name.

It wasn't the "heroic" sites I had the problem with, it was the ones that were very plausibly arguing that black was white and grey was green. I knew their argument was flawed, but they tended to exploit all those windows for doubt that you have if you're trying to be open-minded.

In the end it's good to be confronted with that, because once you've done your own investigating and sorted out what you think the truth is, you've had to go into things in a lot more detail than you would otherwise, so you end up feeling rather more confident in your opinion than you might otherwise unless you'd had direct experience of your own. So in a way I'm grateful to LM and all their allies!

I won't say much more about the recent encounter because it involves someone I know, but essentially it was one of those same people trying to make that sort of specious reinterpretation of facts that he knew nothing about but which sadly I'm confident about because I know I can trust the person involved.

Anonymous said...

ha, I will test my thought, your post get me some good ideas, it's truly amazing, thanks.

- Murk

Anonymous said...

Yes, really. And I have faced it.

Chris Eblana said...

I like the alternative point of view on this blog. Exactly what I am trying to do with mine! (www.eblanademocraticmove.blogspot.com) I am fed up to read the mainstream media portraying some countries that do not fit their standards as they like, creating a stereotyped point of view. Being from Greece, and living in Ireland, I have recently witnessed the "Anglosaxon" media categorizing both countries in the "PIGS" and generally the Southern and Eastern European states are always being told what to do and how they should become like Britain Germany or France, as if they are the perfect role models. I also want to shout out loud the fowl games that have been played during the Yugoslavian civil war. Yugoslavia was in much better financial condition back then than many EU states when they first joined the block. Who helped or designed it break up and why? And why now Greece is being put through this "crisis" and why? We got to wake up..All of us..And soon!

Anonymous said...

alan,
the passage we are talking about is in the seventh paragraph of ur second letter on the p. serbs, media, justice..

according to what croat'n scholars say, serbs have not heard what croat'n and bosnian intellectuals, media and govts, were saying because veleserbs took total control of all serb media; firing all dissidents and even and even killing some of them.

i have not at that time read pieces by french, u.k. MSM columnists.

i have followed mostly canadian privately-owned hacks. most, and perhaps all, were strongly pro serb.

all or nearly all of the Left on n. american continent was always fiercely pro serb.
tnx bozh

Anonymous said...

alan,
it is incorrect to state that the West as a whole was demonizing or criticizing serbs from '90 to, say, '94.

it is of great import not to confuse reports of reporters stationed in the balkans, such as martin bell, chris hedges, which never, as far as i know, lied or engaged in any propaganda with embedded reporters of iraq in '03 or editors and columnists.

since bell, et al, rely on mostly what they see or hear from eyewitnesses, u.s. 'wisely' decided not ever to allow such reporters in any war zone. tnx bozh