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Kostunica's "Nationalism"

Word Games and US Foreign Policy

by Aleksandar Jokic
September 26, 1999

What is wrong with Serbian nationalism? No one will tell you exactly, but that there is something seriously wrong is taken for granted. It is such an affront to human decency that just mentioning it suffices to justify the most savage bombing since Dresden or a decade of severe economic sanctions by the "international community." Yugoslav President Milosevic, we are told, must not be allowed to play yet again the card of "Serbian nationalist sentiments."

All the way up to yesterday's elections Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition's presidential candidate, has consistently been labeled in the Western media "a moderate Serbian nationalist." What is a moderate Serbian nationalist? At best all this phrase could mean is that the man is not as bad as Milosevic, the hard-line Serbian nationalist.

Things only got worse, and very quickly, just one day after Kostunica's impressive show in the first round of presidential elections. (He indeed might have scored an outright victory over Milosevic.) Just one day after the elections, Kostunica has been up-graded to "another hard-line Serbian nationalist" by the influential, supposedly independent, intelligence outlet Stratfor.com in their Weekly Analysis titled "Checkmate in Yugoslavia?" What is more, in this very short piece Kostunica was called a Serbian hard-line nationalist no less than three times. So, how does one go from moderate to hard-line Serbian nationalist so quickly? The transformation occurs as one gets closer to power in Yugoslavia. By definition, therefore, a bad guy must always be in power in Yugoslavia. It's easy. All one has to do is evoke the evil of "nationalism", and that is enough to absolve the US of its once and future crimes against the people of Yugoslavia.

But, what about that awesome phrase "Serbian nationalist sentiments"? One has to be extra careful here. For its meaning, in the context of the Yugoslav tragedy, implies a kind of collective guilt on the part of Serbian people collectively. It appears that any other nation in the world is allowed to have "nationalist sentiments" except them.

I define "nationalist sentiments" as signifying concern for the well-being of one's own group in a way that gives preference to the well-being of the members of one's own group, rather than another. In the case of people in Yugoslavia, these sentiments are directed against two sources of evil: the current regime and the international community (i.e., the US). In fact, the "nationalist sentiments" are not support for any party, but rather against these two evils. That is, there is no such thing as nationalist sentiment in favor of the government in Yugoslavia. Rather, it is an anti-attitude, since the misfortune and misery of people in Yugoslavia consists precisely in the fact that they must chose between two evils, one having to be judged as a lesser evil.

Nationalist sentiments in Serbia dictate an anti-regime and an anti-international community attitude. People know that these are their two oppressors, but when considering which is the greater source of misery, those who drop bombs (all the while threatening to do it again) and keep austere economic sanctions endlessly in place (by far a bigger killer over the longer run than cruise missiles) are clear winners. By choosing them as a greater source of evil, an illusion of support for the regime is created, when in fact it is essentially a negative attitude. This is then plied out as "nationalist sentiments" that can justify whatever punishment the international community cares to mete out to Serbs, and the other 26 nationalities living in Yugoslavia.

Finally, why is Kostunica a nationalist, in the bad sense of the word of course? Check out, for instance, Stratfor.com reasoning. Two reasons are offered. First, Kostunica "condemned last year's war and labeled NATO's prosecution of the air campaign as a series of 'criminal acts.'" And second, he does not recognize the legitimacy of the ad hoc criminal tribunal in The Hague. But who in Serbia, indeed in the world, other than NATO countries' elites, does not recognize that NATO committed war crimes and that the Hague tribunal is a political ploy serving the very same purpose as sanctions and bombing campaigns. I guess, this makes all those who think so, whether they are in India, Russia, China or the antiwar.com readers from the US and elsewhere, what else but hard-line Serbian nationalists?

The prohibition of Serbian nationalism – an ugly game that the US never plays inside Serbia, but only for the benefit of the international community – must come to an end. The notion that even small nations are entitled to their own national interest, rather than being forced to equate it with the US interest, must be reintroduced into realm of foreign policy making.

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